My older brother Mathew posted this on Twitter a few months back: “I’m the kind of Jew that has to Wiki Jewish holidays.” It was that tweet that got me thinking: How does he feel about our interfaith family? I realized I knew absolutely nothing of his ideology. Looking back at our lives, it’s clear our views have varied, particularly on our interest in Judaism, but in nearly every other aspect as well. He’s a meat-and-fancy-whiskey geographer; I’m a tofu-and-cheap-whiskey writer. I suppose we do share a few traits.
With our increasingly busy lives, I didn’t have the chance to discuss it with him until last week, on the eve of his 30th birthday.
When I decided to grill him on the subject of Judaism, I was both
pleasantly surprised and, to be completely honest, a bit saddened. It’s really something we should have discussed years ago.
I was shocked to learn that he barely remembered our childhood, and says he only became cognizant of his Jewishness around age 10.
He said, “I told mom how cool I thought it was that our cousin’s birthday was so close to Christmas and she said ‘actually, he’s Jewish.’ I guess it
didn’t occur to me until then that I was both Catholic and Jewish.”
The moment that most affected me in our conversation was a story he recalled from a time when I was just beginning my ascent into Jewish adulthood. Our family had joined a nearby Recon-structionist synagogue and active chavurah group. I was in the midst of studying for my bat mitzvah, which at the time felt all-encompassing. Perhaps I was extremely self-absorbed at the time, but I didn’t think then and I haven’t thought about until now: I wonder what my brother thinks of this new Jewish focus in the family?
This week he told me he felt like an outsider. “There was a time when we were in synagogue and I just plain forgot to wear a yarmulke and someone admonished me for it,” he told me.
Mathew said my knee-jerk response was to say, “He’s Catholic.” Unearthing this memory more than a decade later, my eyes burned with tears. I can’t recall the incident but I can’t even begin to imagine how it must have made him feel. He believes I was just trying to defend him but still, the words stung him then and sting me now.
After that heady discussion, we moved on to more recent situations and my mood softened. I asked if he ever felt the desire to practice his Judaism now as an adult, and to my surprise he said yes. When our beloved Nana was ill, he looked for a synagogue in Arcata, where he was living at the time, but couldn’t find one.
Now living in Denver, he has made friends with a fellow Jewish co-worker and looks forward to their conversations about religious customs. His co-worker is raising his family Jewish and they talk on a regular basis about what that means. Through these discussions he learned about Sukkot earlier this year — the co-worker was building a sukkah in his background.
“He’s not surprised anymore when I tell him I have no idea what he’s talking about,” Mathew says. “He just tells me.”
If he doesn’t learn it from the co-worker, he looks it up on the Web. Mathew says he regularly checks Wikipedia for information on Jewish traditions.
One holiday he definitely knows about is Chanukah. It’s one of the big three (along with Passover and lumped-together High Holy Days) the family has always celebrated, and usually with much fanfare. Our mother has gifted us each with a menorah so we can light candles in our respective cities.
This coming holidayseason will be a particularly momentous one for us — Mathew, now 30 years old, is flying to Orange County for the big family party with his girlfriend in tow. I’ll be coming down from San Francisco with my boyfriend. We’ll be able to share the traditions with our significant others and, finally, have a conversation all our own.
Emily Savage lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected]