An Italian Jew

My Jewish Identity

Jon Stewart once joked, “I was raised by one Jewish parent and one gentile, and I grew up…Confused!” It received a strong laugh because so many in the audience could relate. He’s around my age and I identified with being brought up in a Jewish household in the 1960’s with one parent who was Jewish and one who was not.

I thought of myself early on as an Italian Jew.  My dad was Italian, raised Catholic in Brooklyn, dropped religion when he left home at age 18. He’d once mentioned that he had Jewish roots, and there is some reason to believe there's some truth to it. His parents were raised in Catanzaro, Calabria, Italy and emigrated to the United states in the late 19th Century.  

My mom was raised on the Northside of Minneapolis in a strict Orthodox Jewish community with a large extended family all around her. She can still recall hiding inside her father’s tallis, after sneaking into the men’s section of the Shul on Shabbat. He was a Romanian Jew, who had fled economic hardship and forced assimilation under Austro-Hungarian rule. My grandmother, his second wife and my mother’s mother, emigrated from Lithuania as a child in the early 1900s. I may share her story another time.

A dashing Italian with deep set eyes and curly black hair, my dad swept into the Twin Cities to work a home show at the old Minneapolis Auditorium. He was a pitchman selling ironing board covers and playing-cards on the floor of the show. He had a close Jewish friend here in town who knew my mom and thought they should meet. She was a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota, who was working as a stenographer in downtown Minneapolis when she met my dad. He was smitten by her seriousness and beauty; she was immediately taken by his charisma and charm.

After a brief courtship, my parents married and settled in South Minneapolis; a move that added to her family’s pain. I can hear my Auntie Dinah saying, “It’s not bad enough she marries a sheigetz, she also has to move a hundred miles away?”  They were an  intermarried couple in 1954, with three children to be born in the next four years, and another in 1965.

Intermarriage was becoming more prevalent as children of European Jews married outside the community, starting a trend that continues to this day. (In 2019, nearly 60 percent of Jewish adults living in the Twin Cities had a spouse or partner who was not Jewish.) 

I was quite influenced by my aunt and uncle, who made a kosher home for their four kids and themselves. They observed Shabbat and other holidays with a fervor that didn’t exist in my own home and seemed a bit foreign to my siblings and me. It was not as clear in my family, so they always made sure we were included at their house for the high points on the Jewish calendar. 

At the same time, we grew up with the customs of a typical gentile American family.  We had a Christmas tree, an occasional wreath, and other nonreligious decorations. After lighting the Chanukah candles and receiving a gift, perhaps before there was even snow,  we would move on to prepare for the big night, Christmas Eve. 

It was not hard for us to see that we were different; aware that our Jewish cousins and Christian friends were living very different lives from each other, and that my siblings and I lived somewhere in the middle. We weren’t like anybody else. Trying to make sense of the differences, I embraced my unique Italian and Jewish identity.

After my Dad’s early passing, I was drawn closer to my Jewish roots. Although our home didn’t really become any more or less Jewish than when my Dad was there, I  actively participated at the synagogue and still went to my aunt and uncles for the holidays.  As a young adult, I  became more assimilated myself and now have a rich family life with people who are Jewish and people who are not, all of whom love and support each other in our diverse customs and rituals.

I don’t know if Jon Stewart is still confused, but I am not. I see more people like me than ever before, raising their children with  a clear moral compass set in Jewish values, while honoring and celebrating the legacies of both sides of their families.

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