I didn’t know that I wasn’t that Jewish until a boy named Eli got to stand before our parochial school’s second grade class and tell us about Hanukkah. Here we were in a room of however many Catholic-raised kids — 29? 30?; two Jews under four feet tall, one discussing the holiday’s symbolic use of candles, setting himself apart from all of the other students as special and unique, the other (me) having a small epiphany.
Without giving you the whole spiel, I am what is called “Jewish on the wrong side.” My dad is Jewish and my mom is not. Neither are religious and I grew up celebrating both team’s major holidays. When my parents divorced and my mom and I moved to San Francisco, I was put into a Catholic school because of its proximity to our home and good educational program. I was baptized that same year because I wanted to copy my two best friends, thus returning Eli to his place as the sole Jewish Kid. Later, in seventh grade, I’d opt to get confirmed in the Catholic church, again for the sake of adolescent conformity and also because of post-church doughnuts.
Until I graduated from eighth grade, Sunday mass was part of the weekly family routine for my mom, stepdad and me. We celebrated Christmas and Easter, and whenever I went back to the East Coast to visit my dad and his side of the family, we did Hanukkah, Passover and the occasional Shabbat dinner.
In high school, another Catholic set-up, I revealed that I was “half Jewish” and instantly became the Jewish One among my new friends. To them, I was full Barbra Streisand, if Barbra Streisand had former alter-girl experience and also took Communion. It wasn’t until college, at a Franciscan University, that I told someone I was “half and half” and he responded that I couldn’t be.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “It’s totally contradictory.”
From the technical standpoint of either belief system, it has to be one or the other. Black or white. These are faiths that steady the worlds of so many. But as an individual, growing up half Jewish, half Catholic didn’t mean I believed in both religions, it meant I shared identities. It was about the things I did with my family.
At Christmas, that meant a trip to Ghirardelli Square followed by midnight mass where my old grade school acted out the Nativity scene. It meant decorating every surface with tinsel, holding search parties for ever-missing stockings, eating pancakes, opening presents, the smell of fire and being allowed chocolate in the morning. It meant Joni Mitchell’s “River” alternating with Bing Crosby. Mom would always read “Yes, Virginia” out loud. She still does.
It meant flights from San Francisco to New Jersey where, when I was younger, my dad always had a tree waiting for me. He’d put red and green M&Ms on a tea tray in the dining room, light candles in the windows, buy me a Breyer horse ornament and hang a wreath. He still does.
Hanukkah meant driving down to Philadelphia the next day to see my aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents. It meant brisket, latkes, matzoh brei and matzo with margarine. (We’re year-round matzo fans, regardless of occasion.) It meant exciting boxes to unwrap and envelopes of money. Because Hannukkah doesn’t fall on the same date each year and stretches out for eight, it sometimes meant celebrating the holiday later and in a more compact manner (i.e. all at once) than most. It meant saying the prayer and lighting the candles that Eli told my second-grade class about.
All of it — the Christmas and the Hannukkah stuff — has always been about our own sometimes unorthodox customs. It’s about the getting together, the long-distance calls with passed around phones when someone can’t make it, the food, the smells, the banter. I don’t consider myself of any religion now, but I’m very much a part of the people who I came from.
The best way I can think to explain the wobbly logic of being raised “half Catholic, half Jewish,” especially on separate coasts by divorced parents, is to think about a pair of pinking shears: scissors that cut fabric in such a way that its raw edges are less likely to fray. The blades are serrated and leave behind a repetitive triangle pattern instead of a straight line. To me, it looks like a row of tidy mountains.
I picture my life as one long ribbon that was clipped in two by a pair of pinking sheers. On the left is one holiday, one family, one set of traditions. On the right, another family, another holiday, another side of the country. It’s not clean across, it’s jagged. Threads still pop regardless of the mountain peaks that were put in place to hold things steady. But now I have two ribbons, both of which are perfect for tying bows over all sorts of presents.