Who is a Jew? Controversial question among Jewish people. Answers differ depending upon who you ask.
According to Judaism 101 (http://www.jewfaq.org/whoisjew.htm), for example, Jewish religious law and traditional Orthodox groups make the determination through the maternal line. If one's mother is Jewish, he is Jewish. Even if he doesn’t practice Judaism or identify as a Jew, religious authorities will consider him to be a Jew. Even atheists born to Jewish mothers are considered to be Jews. Formal conversion to Judaism is also a legitimate path to Jewish identity. However, liberal Jewish groups, such as Reform Judaism, consider a person to be Jewish if either of his parents is Jewish and the child was raised Jewish. To muddy the waters further, some Orthodox groups do not recognize the conversions of those affiliated with the Conservative or Reform groups. And what about the people who consider themselves to be Jews who are the children or grandchildren of any of the above scenarios?
Oy Vey! It’s all so complicated.
In my case, my father was an Ashkenazic Jew and my mother was a Polish Catholic. They met and married while they were both serving in the military in 1947. My father was the first member of his family to marry outside of Judaism.
My father’s family tried hard to accept my mother. My great-grandmother, Fanny, taught my mom how to separate dishes in order to maintain a kosher kitchen. My grandmother, Lillian, taught my mom how to cook Jewish cuisine. They grew to love my mother and until her death, my mom affectionately called my grandparents “mother” and “dad”.
We became a blended family. When I arrived, my birth was a joyous occasion with me being the first Jewish grandchild. My grandfather went to the synagogue and gave me the Yiddish name of Heshke (sometimes spelled "Hashka") Ella bat Shimon. For my brother, four years later, there was the bris (circumcision ceremony).
One of the other things my parents did to try to make their interfaith marriage work was to celebrate the holidays of both traditions. My mom hosted the Christian and secular holidays at our house, and the Jewish ones were hosted in the home of my paternal grandmother. Although my brother and I were raised with smatterings of Christianity in our lives, we identified as being Jewish. We never attended church, but we did go to the synagogue. We perceived Christmas and Easter as extensions of the secular holidays, having no religious significance, just another day off from school.
It wasn't until my parents divorced and my mother moved out-of-state to live with her family that we were enrolled in a Catholic school and forced to practice Catholicism. Can you imagine? Two little Jewish children yanked away from a large, loving Jewish family and enrolled in a Catholic school? I was barely 12 years old. Within the timeframe of one year, the nuns prepared me for baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation. I was caught up in the whirlwind, too young to fully understand what was going on. I remember one time when a nun slapped my face because I told her that Jews did not kneel to pray.
At home, I was a grieving child in extreme emotional agony. My mother’s alcoholism was progressing, and I was also being molested by one of her brothers. My father had gotten remarried to a Jewish woman and they had a child, a little girl. How jealous I was that my sister had taken my daddy and had him all to herself! I felt abandoned and alone. Life as I had known before my parents’ divorce was stolen from me and replaced with a wretched nightmare from which I could not awaken.
It was during this time that I found comfort and solace in the Catholic Church. The image of the suffering, crucified Christ on the altar spoke to my own pain. The inviting, outstretched arms of the Virgin Mary statue from her niche nurtured and soothed my aching heart. Stories of martyred saints reinforced my sense of victim hood. I no longer felt alone.
At the same time, my identity as a Jew was strong. Summer vacations and regular phone contact maintained the ties of kinship with my father and the rest of my Jewish family. But they were so far away, and my Jewishness seemed out of immediate reach. Despite the psychological peace I felt when I attended mass, I knew in my heart that Jesus was not the son of God. Around the age of 16, I returned to Judaism. My grandfather wrote a letter of introduction to the rabbi at a local synagogue and asked him to accept me as a student. After almost a year of studying, the rabbi called me into his office one day after class and told me that he wanted me to join a class that was preparing for formal conversion to Judaism. Shocked, I replied, “But why? I’m already Jewish!” He calmly explained that I was not really Jewish because my mother was a Christian. Oh how I cried later that night in a telephone call to my grandfather. He gently encouraged me to participate in the conversion ceremony. I still remember his words: “This way, no one can ever say that you’re not a Jew.”
How could anyone say that I was not a Jew? Me, Heshke Ella bat Shimon, whose formative childhood years were spent immersed in Jewish culture and ethnicity. Did I need to convert because the wrong parent was Jewish?
To be continued, Insha Allah ...