My father’s an Irish-Catholic with deep New York State roots, and my mom is a second-generation Ashkenazi Conservative Jew from Brooklyn. They are from two different worlds, which came together when they got married and had children (OK, maybe not quite in that order, but who’s counting?).
My upbringing began at a Jewish preschool at my synagogue after my parents moved from my dad’s hometown of Oswego, New York to eastern Long Island, where I was raised. Though I went to a large public school with more than 2,000 kids, I could name the Jewish kids that went there on my fingers and toes. (Sure, there were more Jews in Long Island than in Oswego, but not after exit 60 on the LIE.)
Preschool became Hebrew school, which I continued long after my bat mitzvah. I went to Jewish camp and I was involved in Jewish youth group. In college, I served as a youth director, worked as a camp counselor, held my first internship at a Jewish non-profit, studied abroad in Tel Aviv — and the list goes on and on.
Until I hit middle school, I was never ever confused about who I was, until others pointed it out. While I did have the opportunity to hide my Jewishness in my dad’s last name, “LaRock,” my first and middle name wasn’t familiar to non-Jews. Yet, it was my last name that would constantly turn heads in the Jewish communities I was so active in. (Mind you, I had no interest in hiding the fact I was Jewish or my last name which people tended to find “cool”.)
Soon, I was never Jewish enough for the observant boys that I exclusively chose to date, subconsciously wanting to avoid creating a future that would be as unpleasant to my children as my present was becoming to me. Maybe I did this because my mom had been laid off by administration from her Hebrew school teaching job due to her marital choices.
Meanwhile, in my non-Jewish world, I faced slurs, prejudice and blatant antisemitism. I even had a cousin on my dad’s side who went through a phase of telling me Holocaust “jokes.” There was also the time my mom was at a cousin’s wedding and someone cursed when they found out there were Jews there.
I was Jewish — ethnically, culturally and religiously — with a non-Jewish father, and I understood that for as long as I can remember. So, if I could understand it as a 3-year old, then why was it so hard for others to just accept me for who I said I was?
It’s only getting more difficult today. In a world where Jewish people are constantly being told what they are and what they aren’t (ahem, Whoopi Goldberg), dealing with my own personal identity crisis on top of having to explain what it means to be a Jew in today’s America is just down-right exhausting.
Yet, despite any identity struggles I might face or Jews might face in general, Black and brown people — including Jews of color — have much more to navigate on a daily basis.
I mention this because as I anticipate the birth of my first child with my Ecuadorian-American husband who consistently faces his own set of identity struggles in addition to racism due to his skin color, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry for my daughter. Being a product of interfaith marriage — which has increasingly become more normal in the Jewish world — likely won’t be her biggest struggle as a Jewish-American Latina (or any combination of these).
When we have babies, we want to know that they will be happy and healthy. But, in today’s world, we have to think about so much more.
Will she be accepted? As I think of all the obstacles she’ll have to navigate in her life, I know there are some things I can’t control: how others will see her, and whether or not they want to accept her for who she says she is.
After all, that’s the thing with identity struggles. You only start to have them when others make you feel less than who you are.
I can’t stop others from harming her, as much as I will try to protect her. I can’t stop people from looking at her and questioning her Judaism.
But, there is something I can do: I can make sure that she knows who she is, at least when it comes to her Judaism, with my husband’s full support (and this goes both ways — having both parents on board for each other makes a huge difference. My dad often came to synagogue with us when he could, but I could always feel that separation; I even had to ask my dad what type of Catholic he was in order to write this, and my mom often teases my dad for how he pronounces “baruch”).
Maybe it will start with habits I can build on the surface level. First and foremost, I can educate her on what being Jewish means to us.
She’ll have a Jewish name (and one that can be easily pronounced in Spanish). I will make sure she knows her name and what it means and where it comes from. I can make sure we keep traditions that were important to me growing up. We will celebrate holidays — as a family. We will light Shabbat candles, bake challah, practice kashrut at home and learn Jewish and Yiddish songs. I will teach her Hebrew and Yiddish phrases. We will sing the Shema before she goes to bed, kiss the mezuzah on doors, and she’ll have her bat mitzvah when she comes of age.
I will also teach her what I consider to be the very Jewish trait of speaking up. I will teach her to speak out against antisemitism and racism, as well as microaggressions and inherit biases that come from the many spaces she will occupy. I will encourage her to find spaces where she doesn’t feel unwelcome whatsoever, as sometimes these microaggressions come from those who are supposed to accept us the most.
And, most importantly, I will make sure to tell her every day that she’s not “half” of anything — she’s the whole of everything that’s important to her. Speaking Spanish, being Ecuadorian and celebrating Christmas with her grandfather’s family will not make her any less Jewish, nor will being Jewish take away from other parts of her identity she holds dear to her. You shouldn’t need to cut out any part of yourself to fit in with another.
But, alas, we have a long way to go as a society. There aren’t many books out there that feature characters like my daughter (though we are starting to see them). But I can at least make sure she’s the protagonist in her own story — that she calls the shots and decides for herself who she is, no matter how much the world around her tries to put her in a box that makes sense for them.