I love autumn. It’s my favorite time of year. I love the change in weather. I love fall fashion. I love rain. I love the changing leaves. I love pumpkin beer, and I love all the holidays. Rosh Hashanah happened last week, which for me, typically marks the start of fall and the holiday season. While my extent in celebrating the Jewish New Year tends to be limited to baking apple cake and picking up some babka, it does seem to spark a sudden spike in people asking about my religious beliefs—”Oh are you Jewish?” For me that is kind of a complicated question: “Jewish and Catholic actually,” I’ll answer and then let the conversation die there. I generally assume that no one asking this question is actually looking for a detailed answer about identity and religion. While the combo of Catholic and Jewish isn’t as uncommon as it initially sounds (I’ve met others), I am the only person in my (immediate) family who identifies this way.
I don’t consider myself to be a particularly religious person nor do I feel any desire to get into religious-based debates (I believe what I believe and am totally cool with other people believing differently). I don’t regularly attend mass nor do I regularly go to temple. I am not confirmed in either religion. My interest lives more on the cultural than spiritual side. I like tradition. I also just happen to be fascinated with the history of organized religion (I once created a detailed metaphor using pharmaceuticals to demonstrate how certain religions are connected). But I’ve digressed…
How did I end up Jewish-Catholic? My dad’s family is very Catholic. My mom’s side is a religious mix, but my mother converted to Catholicism sometime around the time I was born; like all good Catholic converts, she was swayed to the dark side by a charismatic (drunk) Irish priest. I grew up going to Catholic mass, church school (not bible study), and even attended a private Catholic pre-school when I was like, 4-years-old. My parents had me baptized, I went through First Communion, and I was an “altar boy” for a few years. I’ve even attended mass at the Vatican (which happens to be the last place, and my preferred place, to go to confession). So where did the Jewish part come in? Well I do have a (non-biological) aunt on my mother’s side who is Jewish, that isn’t really a strong enough connection to account for it. However, I do credit my mother for my pension towards Judaism. My mom, like me, has an interest in theology and religious history and believed that it was important for us to both respect and be knowledgeable on Jewish history, customs, and beliefs. Maybe there was something about Judaism being in our family history somehow as well, but I don’t really remember what sparked the start of my family’s observation of Hanukkah. (Around the same time, my Catholic church school instructor told me that the “Jews are wrong.” My mom was so outraged when I told her, she decided I would no longer be attending church school… I never went back.) I was young when we started celebrating Hanukkah so I’ve been celebrating it to some degree for most my life now — though growing up, we often used the translation of the prayers since my family is especially bad at pronouncing Hebrew correctly. By the time I graduated high school, Judaism just felt more me than Christianity.
As an adult, I observe all the Jewish holidays, including fasting from sundown to sundown for Yom Kippur. I’ve done this every year since I was 18—I’ve been improving on my Hebrew as well, but it’s still not my best skill. I also still observe Christmas (I love holidays and consider Christmas to be non-denominational thanks to its non-Christian roots and mass commercialization) but at this point I’ve dropped out of all the Easter brouhaha. I became actively part of the Jewish community in Chengdu when I lived in China but was never able to attend as many functions as I wanted due to my work schedule. (I still receive their newsletters.) Despite all these things, I sometimes feel a bit like a fraud knowing that my linage is more directly connected to Catholicism. This might leave you wondering, “Why not officially convert to Judaism?” There are a few reasons that hasn’t happened: Number one, my work schedule. In China, my work schedule directly conflicted with my ability to attend events and I ended up moving back stateside shortly after I started a conversion course. I planned on signing up for a conversion course once I was back in Portland, but it ended up, once again, conflicting with my work schedule at the time. Number two, a part of me kind of likes not being officially anything. As someone who strongly believes in science and identifies as two culturally different religions, it has just seemed easier to be … nothing.
So will I ever follow through and convert or will I walk the earth a wee religion-less mongrel? After years of consideration, I’ve decided it is something I want to do. For some inexplicable reason, it’s becoming more important to me each passing year (I no longer have a timing conflict and I will probably try to officially convert before Rosh Hashanah 2018, I’ll let you guys know if it happens). I say “inexplicable” simply because, as I said earlier, I’m not a super religious person, so I’m not sure where the drive is coming from. Maybe, deep down, I believe conversion will balance out the being baptized in the Catholic church thing and I’ll finally feel totally free to be my natural self: a klutzy girl who automatically does the sign of the cross (forehead, lips, heart) when her latke slips off her plate and onto the floor. Oy vey!
GRETCHEN IS A WRITER-BASED IN PORTLAND, ORE. SHE GOT HER START AS A JOURNALIST WORKING ON THE SUSTAINABLE FASHION AND RESTAURANT BEAT BEFORE MOVING INTO COPYWRITING AND ADVERTISING WORK. SHE CURRENTLY BLOGS AND WORKS AS A FREELANCE WRITER.