Embracing What It Means to Be Jewish and…: Patrilineal identity

I was a meticulous rule-follower as a child. My parents still tease me about how I was so terrified of the consequences of wrongdoing that I even refused to let them read me bedtime stories where the characters misbehaved.

So I was understandably horrified when I found out that I wasn’t “technically” Jewish. I don’t remember exactly when or how I learned this—just that I was deeply upset to realize that because my mother was Irish Catholic, under traditional Jewish law, I had no claim to membership in the community I loved so much. Someone did eventually tell me that in my Reform temple’s view, my Jewish father made me just as Jewish as all the other kids in my religious-school class. Even then, I continued to feel that my status as a Jew was on shaky ground. I became determined to prove that I was a good Jew, though whether I was proving it to myself or to others I’m still not sure. I was active in my temple’s educational programs, tore through the temple library, told everyone I met about how I was learning Hebrew and, once I reached high school, even founded a Jewish Student Union at my high school.

Unbeknown to me at the time, I was echoing the logic contained within the Reconstructionist and Reform movements’ resolutions on the status of Jews by patrilineal descent. Passed in 1968 and 1983, respectively, these resolutions and the work that accompanied them to welcome interfaith families have allowed generations of Jews like me to participate more fully and securely in Jewish life. Without them, my parents would have had no options to turn to after realizing they wouldn’t find acceptance within the Conservative movement in which my dad had been raised.

However, a close reading reveals that neither of these resolutions actually technically give Jews by patrilineal descent the same status as other Jews. Both qualify their declaration that those with a Jewish father, but no Jewish mother can claim Jewish status without conversion with the statement that the parents must raise their child in a Jewish religious community. The 1983 resolution of the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), for example, states that the “presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people.” The document also specifies that the child should develop not just a “positive” Jewish identity, but an “exclusive” one. I don’t know of any cases of this stipulation being actually used to question someone’s status as a Jew, but that doesn’t make it any easier to get out of my mind. The resolutions simultaneously invite Jews like me into Jewish communities and stipulate that our membership is contingent on fitting into our community’s definition of a Jew.   

While I doubt my parents pored over either statement prior to their marriage, they received similar messaging about how to raise their children even from those corners of the Jewish community specifically for interfaith families. On a bookshelf in our living room sits The Guide to Interfaith Jewish Life, published in 2001 by InterfaithFamily, an organization I deeply admire for its advocacy for families like mine. Its introduction informs the reader that the group’s intent is to “gently encourage [families] to make Jewish choices” and notes that from their “perspective it is best if parents choose one religion for their children.” My parents certainly worked hard to follow these instructions. While we did celebrate Christmas and Easter, my parents were always careful to remind us that we were simply “helping Mom celebrate her holiday” and to distinguish our celebrations from the cultural mainstream. Our Christmas lights were never visible from outside our home, and while we had a tree, it was a fake ficus instead of an evergreen. The message my parents were trying to send was clear: Despite my mother’s Catholicism, I and my younger sister were Jews, and we were only, purely Jews.

As I finished high school, I finally began to feel secure in my status as a Jew. Now, however, the “only” part was beginning to make me uneasy. My maternal grandfather died during the end of my senior year of high school, and as the family gathered to mourn I was struck by how foreign so much of what was happening—from the wake to the funeral mass—felt to me: how the very rituals that brought so much solace to my grandmother and mother meant so very little to me.

I began to realize, perhaps for the first time, how much my mother had given up in choosing to raise her children as Jews. Particularly if they’re women, non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages are so often demonized as threats to the very existence of American Jewry, shiksas luring Jewish men away from the fold. But far from stealing my father from his community, my mother actually led him back to it by impressing upon him the importance of raising their children as Jews. When I’ve asked her about this, she always offers the same explanation: that she wanted her kids to be raised in a religion, and since my father’s never felt comfortable with Christianity, Judaism was the obvious choice. She tells the story breezily, as if describing a compromise about what color to paint my nursery rather than what identity to give me. In the last few years, I’ve often wondered whether it was truly as easy as she makes it out to be. It must be a natural impulse to want to give all of ourselves to our children, but my mother purposely held herself back. Instead of trying to replicate herself in me, she intentionally made me different, less like her.

The more I have thought about this, the more I have realized the immensity of my mother’s sacrifice. And the more I have realized what an immensely unfair sacrifice it was to be asked to make—to erase your culture, your religion, to throw your energy into giving your children a heritage you don’t share. Every inch of me wishes I could reverse this trade. It makes my heart ache that I cannot fully understand how my mother sees the world. When she thinks of Jesus, even now as a “cultural Catholic,” she associates him with feelings of comfort, protection and holiness. When I see a crucifix, I feel only a slight discomfort. I asked her once how this gulf between us makes her feel. She didn’t know what to say.

I was taught in religious school that one of the most important responsibilities we have as Jews is the obligation to honor our parents. Honoring reaches deeper and demands more of us than simply respecting. To honor someone requires first understanding who they are, what matters to them and defines them, and then seeking to preserve and make the core of those qualities and beliefs one’s own. How can I truly honor my mother if I am also striving to make myself so different from her? I can say I respect her, but if so many of the practices that shape her are strange to me—if she sometimes is a stranger to me—my claim to follow the commandment seems hollow.

Rejecting my mother’s heritage feels incongruous not just with Judaism’s moral code, but with the very reasons that have made me so committed to being Jewish. As a child, I fell in love with being a Jew so fiercely because it gave me a way to understand my place in millennia of human history. When I light Shabbat candles or recite a prayer over a meal, I feel like I am re-enacting the actions and words of countless generations before me. The importance Judaism places on understanding our history, our memory, makes it difficult for me to accept that I should reject half of my own past. I cannot believe that doing so would make me the kind of Jew or person who I want to and have been taught to be.

I have also increasingly realized that acknowledging that my mother’s heritage affects who I am isn’t really even a decision; it’s just an acceptance of the truth. I am certainly not Irish Catholic, but it feels wrong now to say that I’m just Jewish. Even besides our family’s versions of celebrating Christmas and Easter, my mother’s identity has affected me in innumerable ways, big and small—from how I approach discussions of chosenness to how I have learned to explain Jewish practice in a way my Catholic grandmother can understand. My experience as a Jew has been undeniably different from that of my peers with two Jewish parents, but being different isn’t the same as being lesser. I am fully Jewish, but I am Jewish and my Irish Catholic mother’s child. I am—I want to be—of both my father and my mother.

However, I haven’t figured out yet what exactly it would look like to belong fully to both my parents’ cultures. While I desperately want to be “Jewish and,” I’m not sure what exactly to put after the “and.” This uncertainty exhausts and scares me. I have to fight the urge to present my identity as all wrapped up in a neat little bow. Jews like me—Jews who want to be both—we’re supposed to be the downfall of the Jewish community, the end of Judaism. I’ve been told that I am mistaken, misguided. Admitting that I am not sure who I am feels like proving their point.

Still, there is also something beautiful in this uncertainty, this continual cycle of re-examination. Neither of my parents had a model for how to raise the particular kind of Jewish family they had chosen. My childhood was one long improvisation; my mother searched Google for Jewish recipes, and my father learned how to explain the experiences he had grown up with but had never been forced to make sense of before. Existing in an in-between space forced my parents to be creative and intentional. I, too, have the ability to choose what being both means to me, to discover and define it for myself. When you mix two things together, they can combine in unexpected ways, creating something new, something all its own. Uncertainty, unsettledness isn’t something that I have to try to escape. Perhaps I will never know how to finish the phrase “Jewish and,” but I can give myself permission to revel in the possibilities the “and” brings.

At my parents’ wedding, they stood under a chuppah sewed by my maternal grandmother. While she had originally been apprehensive about the marriage, my grandma is a retired nurse obsessed with detail: If she was going to make the chuppah, she was going to make sure everything was just right. Calling her local rabbi, she took copious notes to make sure that everything about it would be in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. She also embroidered onto the chuppah a pattern from one of her only family heirlooms: a tablecloth her own grandparents had sent her from Germany. When I became a bat mitzvah, she gave me a challah cover embroidered in the same pattern. When I place the cover over my challah on Friday evenings, I’m reminded of the generations before me who also prepared their tables to look their best for the Sabbath bride. I also see my grandmother’s love and the love her grandparents had for her. These ties to all my traditions are woven together into the cover’s fabric so tightly they couldn’t be picked apart if I tried.

2 Responses

  1. A fascinating read. Thank you for your honesty. My father was Jewish and my mother was Irish/English Roman Catholic. I am 70 years old now so you can imagine how long I have been living within this conundrum. My question is can you recommend any on line support groups that support patrilineal adults in a respectful, meaningful and even humorous way?

  2. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this piece. I see so much of my own lived experience reflected, all the way down to the story of your Irish Catholic grandmother’s attention to detail – mine was also a retired nurse who consulted a Rabbi about appropriate gifts and crafted heirloom tablecloths for the family. The only major difference is that my parents raised me and my brother pre-Google.

    I shared this article with my mom, and she responded that it “shows you are not alone in your heritage.” I just wanted to reach out as a confirmation that you’re not alone in your heritage either, or your approach to understanding it. Sending so many good wishes!

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