I’ve always been ashamed of my extended family. My Jewish identity is so strong; I have two Jewish parents, two Jewish siblings, and was always the most religious of my Jewish friends growing up. So I never understood why I had to come from a family where none of my aunts, uncles, or cousins were Jewish.
When my father was growing up, both his parents were Jewish, but not practicing. He was raised with the notion of being a Jew, yet lacked the knowledge of what that meant. When it came time to date, neither he nor his two brothers really cared about the religion of their partner. His two older brothers married Christian women, and, by some arbitrary chance, my dad married a devout Jewish woman. My mom was raised strictly Conservative, eating only kosher food and celebrating all the holidays. My parents’ union made my mom a little less religious and my dad a little more, and they decided to raise their three children moderately Conservative.
My siblings and I went to Hebrew school for 11 years, never ate meat and dairy together, and had four-hour long bar and bat mitzvah services. Yet every time a holiday would roll around and there were no extra seats at our table, I felt like a fraud. My cousins never considered themselves Jewish. It’s not like they went to church or made much of an effort to be Christian, but they always knew when Easter was and barely knew that Rosh Hashanah existed. It wasn’t fair; everyone else got to have blowout holiday celebrations with all their cousins named David or Noah or Rebecca, yet Kimberly and Shelby were nowhere to be found when my tiny family would break the fast.
When I was 14, my uncle died. A few days later, he had a Jewish funeral. It was something my father insisted on, even though no one argued against it. It was only during the funeral, complete with a rabbi giving the eulogy, the mourners saying Hebrew prayers, and a three-day shiva afterward, that I realized it did not matter that my uncle had not traditionally practiced his religion during his life. It did not matter that his wife was not Jewish. It did not matter that his children celebrated Christmas instead of Hanukkah. It did not matter that he and his family had been absent at every Passover seder I can remember. Just as he was born, he died: Jewish.
His passing was painful and upsetting; it was my first real experience with death. It taught me that the strict observance of Jewish customs I had prided myself on did not bear as much weight as I was making it carry. It taught me that Judaism is about the way you hold yourself throughout life, the kindness you exude, and the family history you carry on, not how many prayers you say or how many holidays you celebrate. The subtle, holistic Judaism my uncle practiced was true to him, even if I could not see that. The way my cousin Kim grieved for her father was just as valid as the way I said mourner’s kaddish for my uncle. Looking back on it now, I don’t think anything other than a Jewish funeral would have been appropriate.
Today, my Jewish identity is still so strong; I have two Jewish parents, two Jewish siblings, and remain one of the more religious of my Jewish friends. I also have two Jewish uncles, and three half-Jewish cousins. And that is nothing to be ashamed of.