The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: email@example.com
I’m Ecuadorian, Catholic … and Jewish?
I grew up in two separate households and in two different countries. My family is originally from Ecuador but we have Spanish ancestry and Jewish roots. For the first eight years of my life I lived with my maternal grandparents in Ecuador. My grandfather was originally Christian but converted to Judaism and my grandmother was Jewish though not particularly observant. Our Judaism consisted of occasional visits to the synagogue and the observance of a few holidays.
When I moved to the U.S. at age 8 I completely abandoned my Jewish customs. My father is a practicing Catholic and my mother also converted to Catholicism. They are very religious and throughout the years I have come to embrace Catholicism as my principal religion. However whenever Passover, Yom Kippur, or Tish B’Av arrives I always celebrate them with my grandparents, who also moved to the States. Although I do not practice Judaism, I still cherish it because it was part of my childhood. So, Seesaw, can I still call myself a Jew? Whenever I say I grew up Jewish no one believes me because of the way I look — my father’s family is indigenous. I am tired of hearing this and it is starting to make me feel insecure. I have a Hebrew name but I was also baptized as baby. I am Catholic, but can I also be Jewish?—Just a little Jewish?
You Are Jewish if You Want to Be
SCOTT PERLO: Because of your remarkable family history, I have a rather uncharacteristic answer to your question (for me at least), which is: you are Jewish if you want to be.
By Jewish law, you are Jewish. Once Jewish, always Jewish. It’s a bit like the Mafia, I suppose, except that we substitute criminality with a love for smoked fish and an obsessive concern as to whether you’re dressed warmly enough. You are clearly still connected to Judaism by celebrating with your grandparents (though I’m dying to ask: of the ridiculous number of holidays and commemorations you could choose, why Tisha b’Av?).
But I also want to recognize that you have, of your own accord, left the Jewish religion and embraced Catholicism. Your Catholic practice is clearly important and meaningful to you, and it sounds like it will be the basis of your life going forward, as well as of any family you create.
If you stay on the Catholic spiritual path, as you intend to do, I would suggest saying that you have Jewish heritage, rather than that you are Jewish. I don’t think the practice of Judaism is compatible with believing in Jesus (I’m not alone in this), and to describe yourself as “a Jew who is a practicing Catholic,” might cause some people to confusedly identify you with Jews for Jesus, or their ilk. “Jewish heritage” could express the nuance of who you are, as well as invite the right kind of curiosity.
But if you ever choose to return to Judaism itself, it will always be waiting for you. You are forever a member of the family, and will always be welcomed in.
Rabbi Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.
It’s No Fun Being the Ambassador for Something Different
What an amazing and complex family you have. Such a richness of experience and traditions!
You are bringing up a few big issues. One is about how you are treated because of how you look and the other is about how you identify.
“But you don’t LOOK Jewish.” Let’s start with the fact that you look like your father, an indigenous Ecuadoran man. When people say you don’t look Jewish or are in disbelief, this is on them, not on you. Being judgmental about this is something the Jewish community is wrestling with and will continue to wrestle with for years to come. As I’ve said in the Seesaw before, I believe that in the Jewish community, as in any community, there is a large spectrum of understanding and openness. It can be exhausting to be the ambassador for something that is “different”. Sometimes you might be open to educating people, and sometimes you might not, but I recommend coming up with an answer that you would be comfortable saying quickly. In this piece on NPR a few weeks ago, the author says that many people in this position say, “I am legitimately Jewish, and you’re wrong in your assumptions about me —and Jews.” I also recommend Lacey Schwartz’ wonderful film about identity, race and family “Little White Lie”.
So, can you be Jewish and Catholic? You clearly feel very connected to your Jewish roots and childhood. You grew up Jewish. You continue to celebrate holidays with your grandparents. Frankly, this is a lot more than many Jews who don’t have other traditions! I’m not going to tell you how you can identify, but you sound pretty Jewish to me. Get some rest, because between Passover and Easter, the first weekend in April is going to be exhausting.
Rebecca Lehrer is the Co-Founder and CEO of The Mash-Up Americans, a website and consultancy representing the hybrid culture and new face of America. The Mash-Up Americans is exploring Spanglish, kimchi + more, just not on Shabbos.
Not Everyone Will Understand Your Claim to More than One Religion
SUSAN KATZ MILLER: As the product of an interfaith family, here’s how I see it. Religious denominations and movements each get to decide on their own membership rules. If you want to be accepted as a member in a specific Roman Catholic, or Methodist, or Conservative Jewish community, you may have to fulfill the stated requirements of those specific communities. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to join them.
At the same time, you get to decide you own identity, and create the label that best describes your religious and spiritual affinities, based on your own heritage, experiences, beliefs and practices. As with race or gender identity, other people do not get to tell you what you are, or are not. You might be interested in reading this “Bill of Rights for Interfaith People,” adapted from a Bill of Rights for Mixed Race People. And if you want to participate in both Catholic and Jewish communities, there are communities out there that will welcome you. Pew Research found in 2009 that almost a quarter of all Americans attend services of more than one religion or denomination, with five percent of Catholics attending synagogues. So you are not alone.
Not everyone is going to understand your claim to more than one religion, or like it. But clearly, Judaism has been formative in your life. There is disagreement in Judaism over who is a Jew. So if people try to tell you what you can or cannot be, based on who converted when, or which grandparent was Jewish, or your personal understanding of Jesus, you can gently explain that above and beyond these disagreements, you choose to claim Judaism as part of your identity. In countering racism (“You don’t look Jewish!”), remaining connected to all of your roots, and speaking out on your enriching experience in what sounds like a loving interfaith family, you act as an interfaith ambassador in the world. This task may be difficult. But because of your background and experience, you probably will not be able to desist from the important work of building interfaith bridges.
Susan Katz Miller is both an adult interfaith child, and an interfaith parent. She is a former Newsweek reporter, and the author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family” (Beacon Press).
Can I Be a Jew-ish Catholic?