Monday, January 24, 2011

Big, Bad, Blonde Shiksa - Part 1

There's a great conversation going on over at Lucky Fatima's blog, inspired by another one at the Big, Bad, Blonde Bahu Blog, having to do with mixed religious, cultural, and racial marriages, and the phenomenon of the wife (usually, not the husband) taking on aspects of her husband's religion, culture, and race.  In many cases, the wife ends up being a wanna-be fill in the blank (Arab, Pakistani, etc.)

She often starts to dress like the people of her husband's culture, learns his language, cooks the food of his country, and may even convert to his religion.  The people of her husband's culture may find this a curious thing.  Often, despite all her efforts, the wife never becomes fully accepted by her husband's side.  And worse yet for some women, she may lose herself and her own culture completely. 

Unfortunately, many wives experience this transition with identity issues.  If you read through the two posts mentioned above, you'll get a better idea of what I'm talking about.

Since I was born into a mixed religious and cultural family, I thought I'd throw one of my hijabs into the ring and write about the "shiksa."  (Thanks Fatima!)

The word "shiksa" has Yiddish and Polish origins.  It is derived from the Hebrew word, "sheketz," which loosely translated is the flesh of an animal deemed taboo by the Torah.  Most Jewish people in America understand the "shiksa" to be a non Jewish woman.  It can also refer to a non Jewish woman who has attracted the attention of a Jewish man.  Sometimes, Jewish women refer to their non Jewish household help as "shiksa."  The Urban Dictionary has a great description of the "shiksa" here.  (Warning: some readers may find the language offensive.)

Most of the time, "shiksa" is used in the derogatory sense.  It is an insulting and offensive word.  The "shiksa" is not a woman of valor.  She is despised, especially by other Jewish women, because somehow she has managed to snare an otherwise-good-Jewish boy.  Especially nowadays.  Many unmarried Jewish women claim it is difficult to find a nice Jewish husband.  So it adds insult to injury when Jewish men marry "shiksas."  Even if the "shiksa" converts to Judaism, it is still a sore spot for many Jewish people.

My mother was a "shiksa."  She was a tall, big-boned, blue-eyed, Polish, Catholic, blond woman.  A "big, bad, blonde shiksa."  My father in turn was an olive-skinned, black hair, dark brown eyed, Russian/Austrian Jew.  Looking at pictures of him when he was a young man, I can see how my mom would have found him tall, dark, handsome, and exotic.

They met after the end of World War II in New York City where they had both been serving in the US Military.

The story goes that my mom and some of her Army girlfriends were partying in a bar when they saw a bunch of handsome Navy guys.  The two groups got together and my parents were immediately attracted to each other.  After a bunch of drinks, issues like religion and culture were the last things on their minds. 

My parents were madly in love.  At the time, my father's people, Eastern European immigrants, were also living in New York City.  Since my dad loved my mom so much, his family worked real hard at accepting the new "shiksa" addition to the family.  They tried real hard to teach my mom about Jewish traditions.  For example, my great-grandmother Fanny explained to my mom all the ins and outs of the kosher kitchen. But my mom had problems getting it straight, and often mixed up the dishes and pots. Grandma Fanny finally gave up and solved the problem by finding excuses to keep my mom out of her kitchen.

My mom had no intention of giving up her religion.  And my father didn't expect her to, nor did he ask her to convert to Judaism.  As most newlyweds do, my parents thought that their love could see them through anything.  They mutually decided to celebrate the religious holidays of both of their faiths.  So.  They had Christmas and Hanukkah.  Easter and Passover.  You get the idea.  However, once my brother and I came along, it was decided that we were to be raised as Jewish children.  I'm not sure who did the deciding.  Was it my father?  Did my mom agree in order to keep family peace?  Was it okay to have a "shiksa" in the family as long as her children were Jewish?  And how did that work since religion passes through the mother in Judaism?  Did my mother secretly convert?  Anyhow, we always identified ourselves as Jewish.  I remember going to the synagogue with my father and grandfather, but my mom never went.  My brother and I knew our mother was not Jewish.  Somehow, it was no big deal.

My maternal grandmother, my mom's mother, on the other hand HATED my father.  She used to spit on the floor every time his name was mentioned.  We used to travel to Pennsylvania from New York City once a year to see my mother's family (also immigrants).  No one else in the family had a problem with my dad except my grandmother.  For that reason, she tolerated him while they visited, but she made it real clear that she did not like him or accept him.  My father tolerated it all with his classic humor.  After all, Grandma hated her son Tony's wife, too, because she was an Italian.  In those days, Poles and Italians did not intermarry either.  So Uncle Tony and my dad became great pals until the day I told my dad that my Uncle Tony had been sexually molesting me.

In my dad's family, he was the first one to marry outside of Judaism.  He wouldn't be the last though.

Looking back, I can now understand how difficult it was for my parents.  We're talking about the early 1950s.  At that time, Jews were not accepted in America like they are today.

In the end, the differences played a role in destroying their marriage.  What really devastated my mother was the discovery that my father was cheating on her.  With a Jewish woman.  After the divorce from his "shiksa," my father married his Jewish girlfriend.  He then had a 100% Jewish family.  He might have been able to chalk off the whole memory of his "shiksa," except for two small details:  my brother and me.

My mother never forgave me for not telling her that my dad had a girlfriend.  WTF!  I was about 11 years old.  My dad used to take us on weekends to visit our grandparents, and a lot of times, she was there.  I thought she was an aunt or cousin or someone like that.  What did I know?  Well, for sure, I knew she was nice and loving to me.  By this time, my mother's alcoholism was in full swing and you can imagine everything that went along with that.

My stepmother and father also eventually divorced.  But to this day, and I am almost 62 years old, my stepmother and I are very close.  I call her "mom" (my mother is deceased; used to call her "ma") and cannot imagine my life without her.  She has always been there for me, and she introduces me to everyone as "my daughter." 

As soon as my mother returned to her family in Pennsylvania, she stuck my brother and me in a Catholic school.  I was about 12 years old at the time and my brother was about 8.  We had no choice in it.  Anyone who is familiar with my blogging knows how I suffered until I was old enough to make my own decision to return to Judaism.  On one hand, I found comfort in the physical presence of the Catholic church:  the candlelight, stained glass windows, smell of incense, Latin chanting, etc.  But I had a solid Jewish education:  I could not reconcile Isa (Jesus), peace on him, with being the Almighty G-d.  Nor could the church convince me that G-d was part of a Trinity or that He had a son.

(I'm writing this in two parts because I hit "Publish Post" before I was done with it.  Oi vey.  Part 2 to come tonight or tomorrow Insha Allaah.)


||Roshan|A|| said...

this was a very insightful and interesting post sis.

* said...

OMG sis, you pretty much just told my story, seriously.

We have to talk...

Safiyyah said...

@ Dedra. Thanks dear. I wanted to include pics but I hit the publish button too fast. In part 2 Insha Allaah.

@ Visual Notes. really? Wow. We DO have to talk. Email me!

MoOn said...

This is very interesting to learn, intermarriage relationship is tough now so I am sure it was tougher and less accepted in the 1950s, thanks for sharing

* said...

sis yep, it's Salma from "A Room of One's Own".
I couldn't figure out how we connected at first, then I went back to that blog, ha ha.

Will email you.

mezba said...

very interesting, looking forward to Part 2 ...

luckyfatima said...

My mom is a shikse, too. Her parents pretty much cut her off for marrying a Jew 40 years ago. (I never knew them, met them 3 times) His parents accepted her but only to a certain extent. In their eyes it was clear that it would have been better for everyone if she were Jewish. She never converted, though. She liked Jewish men, I think. Intermarriage was very uncommon in her day, but her couple of boyfriends before my dad were Jewish. Also olive skin, curly black hair, dark eyes, the whole deal. But she never tried to adopt Jewish (Ashkenazi) culture. Actually, both of my parents subtly put down each others' faiths/cultures at times (my dad, not so subtly). It was not always the best experience being the fruit of their interfaith relationship as a kid. But I know that it led me to be being very introspective, to always have an interest in my surrounding as a unique Other and observer (there were no Jewish or half Jewish kids in my environment as a child besides my siblings), and also to explore faith deeply and eventually settle on Islam.

And now I am in an intermarriage myself, just like you. Even after seeing the battle wounds of my parents. But it wasn't all bad as a child, and we are just mixing up things even further. It makes life richer, for sure.

Big, Bad, Blonde Bahu said...

Mr. Big Bad Blonde Bahu (Mr. 4B) and I read this out loud to each other over breakfast. We loved hearing your story and seeing the photos in part two. While we were reading this, Mr. 4B mentioned that "shiksa" means "punishment" in Marathi. There is probably no etymological connection between the two words, but it's worth nothing, considering what your parents had to go through.

Thanks so much for writing this up. As a fellow insider/outsider, I can't help but feel terribly sorry for your mother and went she went through, but I can see how her inability to cope later in life must have hurt you when you were young.

Safiyyah said...

Greetings BBB Bahu! Thanks for stopping by. Your original post was so thought-provoking. Look how much conversation it started. Wow, I'm flabbergasted that "shiksa" means "punishment" in Marathi! Wow, just wow! Yes, I also feel terribly sorry for my mom, too. Like I mentioned, she became a real bad alcoholic. She was genetically pre-loaded for it because there's a lot of it on her side of the family. Things started to get out of hand when I was about 11 or so. I guess my dad used her drinking for an excuse to not work on all the difficulties in the marriage. So sad.