A Father's Journal / Irish-Catholic Jews
Published 1:03 am, Wednesday, April 21, 2010
My wife is Jewish. I grew up very Catholic. My family always said we were IrishCatholic, as if it was one word. I never knew you could say one without the other. I guess we said it that way to set us apart from either other Irish people or other Catholic people. It didn't matter; in our family, you said them together.
Our daughters, Caroline and Julia, became religious and ethnic hyphens. I was immeasurably proud of my daughter Caroline the first time I heard her tell someone that she was an Irish-Catholic Jew.
My wife was not as outwardly proud as Caroline was when she was growing up. Anti-Semitism was, and still is, real. My mother-in-law tells the story of when, as young couple, she and her husband were looking for a house. The Realtor asked, "What church do you go to?" When they explained that they went to a synagogue, the Realtor said, "Maybe you would be more comfortable looking in Scarsdale than here." That was not the worst thing my mother-in-law heard growing up.
There was certainly anti-Irish sentiment in years past and my mother had to walk by as kids taunted her on the way to Catholic school. She still remembers the calls of "Cat-licker, Cat-licker." I was lucky. I didn't feel any discrimination growing up because I lived in areas where people who either looked like me, or prayed like me, were a large minority or the majority.
My oldest daughter Caroline is 13 and has been to many confirmations (Catholic) and bar/bat mitzvahs (Jewish). After attending a confirmation, a friend asked her why she was there. Caroline thought it was an odd question. She felt that if she was invited, she could go wherever she wanted to go, to celebrate with whomever she wanted to. The friend said she can't be both. She was either Catholic or Jewish. This 13-year-old budding theologian felt she should clarify Caroline's beliefs for her. She told Caroline she could not be hyphenated.
I explained to Caroline that 2,000 years ago, most of Jesus' followers were Jewish. And they did not hyphenate their beliefs. One of the reasons they didn't is the hyphen wasn't invented until the Middle Ages. (We looked it up. Johannes Gutenberg was credited with creating the hyphen so his movable type could split words when he was typesetting his Bible. His Bible contained both the Old and New Testaments. I'm not sure what that means, but we found it fascinating.)
Caroline was still troubled. Why did she have to defend who she was to people? Maybe this hyphenate identity did not work. Maybe she should just pick something generic to gain acceptability in eighth grade.
Unfortunately kids will make fun of anything. I knew a girl of average height, average weight, average hair color, average hair length, no distinguishing marks or tattoos named Janet Morgan. A generic name. Kids called her Morgan Horse after a type of horse. She was teased unmercifully. I went to junior high with a guy name John Smith. He was teased for his name. How do you tease John Smith about his name? They did it. If John Smith couldn't fit in without being teased, what are the chances for a couple of large Irish-Catholic Jews?
We tried to find both a church and a synagogue where we could feel at home. St. Anthony's Church on South Pine Creek Road in Fairfield was very open. Father John wrote to us early on, "How blessed are your daughters: with a Jewish mother and Christian dad, they get the richness of the whole story."
On last week's school break, we went to a synagogue in southern Georgia. My wife's great-great-grandfather founded it. That would be my daughters' great-great-great-grandfather, Abraham Borchardt. As I sat in the pew with my mother-in-law, wife and children, I took exception to Caroline's friend's comment. "We do fit in," I thought, gazing at the same stained glass windows that Abraham Borchardt looked at. Maybe we don't fit in 100 percent, but even John Smith doesn't fit in 100 percent. We are okay with that.