I called my parents from my boyfriend's house in New York, eager to spill the details of my first Christmas. I described how the Christmas tree's fragrant pine reminded me of family ski trips to Colorado and how Sunday morning Mass was, dare I say, fun. I raved about the presents I had received: the Broadway tickets, the new wallet, and the silver rings. I thought my parents would be impressed. But, when I started talking about the communion ceremony I witnessed, I suddenly heard the phone click. I stopped midsentence and paused. "Who hung up?" I asked. "That was your father," my mother answered in a soft, hesitant voice. "I think you made him uncomfortable."
I felt hurt and upset, but I wasn't surprised. I had clearly gone against the family rules by dating a gentile. We met the last day of my sophomore year in college, his senior year. We had an immediate connection - I loved his looks, his humor, his maturity, and his ambition. I just assumed he was Jewish, but a phone conversation two weeks into our relationship proved me wrong.
I asked him about his family's background. I toyed with the possibility of our grandparents knowing each other from days past. But, when he told me his entire family came from Sicily, my fantasy was shattered. Needless to say, he was Catholic. I was disappointed upon hearing the news, but still enamored.
However, I knew my parents wouldn't be as forgiving. Every time I mentioned a new crush, my mother's first question was "Is he Jewish?" Only when I answered "yes" would she ask about his background and interests. I once asked my father if he preferred that I date an educated, upper-middle class, Catholic professional or a Jewish janitor? He chose the latter.
Although I find their responses unfair, I understand why my parents feel so adamantly about my dating someone Jewish. They don't want me to forget my heritage, especially since most of my father's family was killed in the Holocaust. I feel guilty for betraying their wishes and rebelling against their values.
As a child, I loved participating in every Jewish tradition. Saturday morning services were my favorite. When I wasn't strutting down the aisle flirting with the Hebrew school boys, I was sitting up front belting out "Ein Keiloheinu," not missing a beat. I knew the words to every prayer.
As a family, we extended these religious traditions into our home. Friday night Shabbat dinners represented sacred family time. My mother would set the dining room table with her floral-patterned china and good silverware, placing the two beautifully braided poppy-seed challah loaves in the table's center. The comforting smell of freshly baked brisket would fill the air as we chanted the brachot and lit the candles. We ate until it hurt. Once we finished, we would move into the family room to play Scrabble and watch "Star Search." Friday nights were stay-at-home nights.
However, everything changed when I entered college. I became so enthralled with my newfound independence that I forgot about religion. Although my mom signed me up for Hillel, I never went to any of its events. I stopped attending temple and celebrating holidays. I even started to question my belief in God. While other students flew home for Rosh Hashanah and Passover, I went to fraternity parties. I wanted to feel weightless and free. I didn't need religion anymore; I thought I had outgrown it.
Furthermore, I didn't want religion to define me. I didn't want anyone to judge me based upon religious beliefs I had not chosen. I began to look disdainfully at students who wore big gold Star of David necklaces across their chests. I couldn't understand why they would advertise this private information to the world. While they flaunted their Jewishness, I wanted to disguise mine.
I even felt a thrill that my blonde hair and green eyes enabled me to pass as a non-Jew. When studying abroad for a semester in South America, I quickly learned that being Jewish was not an asset. I relied on my looks to ward off religious discrimination. Although I was ashamed of myself, I never thought I was rejecting my Jewish identity. I had simply put Judaism on hold.
Then, during the last six months of college, I began to feel a disire to reconnect with my Jewish roots and become spiritual again. I decided to celebrate Passover by attending a traditional seder. I realized how much I missed feeling connected to other Jews.
Ironically, I owe my new interest in Judaism to being in an interfaith relationship. It has forced me to evaluate what Judaism means to me. I want to be proud of my heritage, even though it may not condone my relationship. I am unsure of what the future holds. If I do marry my boyfriend, my life will be complicated by religious issues such as how to raise our children. But before I decide what I want Judaism to mean to my marriage and my children, I first must figure out what it means to me.
Alana Klein is a recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, MO.
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