‘So, how Jewish are you?”
That’s what he asked, leaning in provocatively while I sipped my gin and tonic. It was our second non-date. He had asked what my background was. I had proudly told him my mix.
I said, “well… I’m like Jew-lite.”
He nodded, pursed his lips and ordered another drink. He was intrigued, which made me all the more put off and embarrassed for having just called myself that.
I have both the blessing and curse of being from an interracial/interfaith household. My mother is Mexican/Catholic, and my father is an Italian Jew. My dad calls us “Jew-lite” or “convenient Jews,” the kind that celebrate major holidays and their status as an excuse to cut off the Jehovah’s Witnesses mid-speech when they come knocking.
When I was a little girl, it occurred to me that not everyone was so lucky to celebrate two facets of religious opinions or cultures. It also occurred to me that while everyone else knew exactly what they “were,” I was torn between which “side” best represented me.
I often wear both my crucifix and Star of David together on a delicate white gold chain my mom gave me. It draws attention and questions like “Are you confused? Because you’re wearing conflicting religious symbols…” or “How can you be both?” I know that religion is passed down through the mother, but I refuse to consider myself a shiksa. I grew up acknowledging both sides equally and I claim them both — to not do so would be disrespectful to my parents and denying a piece of myself.
Neither of my parents is particularly staunchly religious but they did name me in the synagogue — Peninah Shoshana. When I was growing up, the general consensus in our household was that my sister and I would be educated about both religions, and we could either choose which one suited us best or find a mutual blending point.
My sister (aka: Super Jew) from an early age firmly identified herself as Jewish. She has a beautiful traditional name (Sarah), big curly hair, and a prominent nose — she fits every stereotype. She also has excellent Jew-dar, as we call it, and can spot a fellow Tribe-member from a mile away. She has never doubted or waivered in her conviction that she is Jewish. The Catholic side never once fazed her.
I don’t quite look the same. I have a classic, nondescript name. (“Audrey” doesn’t immediately ring bells of Italian or Jewish or Mexican). I have straight hair, a round nose, and the classic curvy Latina look. I look enough like either side to blend in but not enough to be immediately distinguishable. Unlike my sister, growing up, I had a deep fascination with attending Catholic Mass in Spanish with my grandmother. I thought it was majestic and beautiful. I felt like I fit in, and looked like everyone else. I wear my mantilla (a Spanish chapel veil) with pride and humility.
But this particular night, the date night, I felt a bit defensive. I felt like I was being judged for being “too Jewish” merely due to the fact that “Jewish” was a word I had used to describe myself. Mr. Catholic wanted to be with another Catholic. How ironic: Having grown up thinking I wasn’t “Jewish enough,” here I was being made to feel “too Jewish.” So I kept drinking. The Tanqueray took the edge off, the sexual tension sucked me in.
The week of that date was Rosh Hashanah. I celebrated with my girl-friend at The Edison in downtown LA. We raised a toast being Jewish, to being young and beautiful, and to my budding new relationship — the one I said “was The One.”
Fast forward four months: We’re engaged and planning our late summer wedding. After sitting with his priest and discussing how we intend to raise our future children in the faith, I made an offhand comment about how much I was looking forward to our future children getting to enjoy dual sets of holidays, the way I had growing up. I was gushing over how we might decorate our Hanukkah bush (aka Christmas tree), when he stopped me in my tracks:
Our children will be Catholic! There will be NO Jewish décor or Jewish holidays in our home!
I was stunned.
“But I’m Jewish,” I said.
“No,” he said. “Your father is Jewish, you are Catholic, and we will not have this in our home.”
I recall my heart breaking a little bit. Here I had lived in this fantasy world that I was embarking — like my parents — on a blended marriage of understanding and acceptance, when suddenly I felt judged and “less than.” What broke my heart more was that I didn’t argue. I didn’t fight back. I thought this is what couples do — they compromise — and I thought my compromise was to give up a piece of me, my Peninah Shoshana.
As you might guess, that relationship fizzled. In ended up compromising too much about myself — and it still was never enough.
This year, with Rosh Hashanah once again upon us, my promise for the new year is to remind myself, that my Jewish is Jewish enough. The honor I show myself, my parents, and my heritage by keeping a fusion household is just right. This year, I raise a toast to being older and wiser, and to knowing myself better than I did three years ago when I thought I deserved less. This year I raise a toast to being true to myself (and maybe to the prospect of a nice Jewish boy, just like the one my mother always wanted me to bring home).