Topsy-turvy family life gave me sense of who I am

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When my Jewish parents split up, I was at an age when I would have sooner shoved tinsel in my mouth than throw it on a tree. It was before I could scream, "Merry Christmas!" With the arrival of my Protestant stepfather, I learned how.

I was no dummy. Even at 5, I knew Hanukkah didn't hold a candle, let alone eight of them, to Christmas. I reveled in the holiday cheer, tried not to break too many ornaments and carefully hung my stocking. One look at the loot under our tree and I knew I'd hit the jackpot.

Our household was an interfaith smorgasbord - not in the sense of religious teachings, because I never went to church and we bypassed God altogether. Yes, there were sporadic visits to synagogue during the Jewish High Holy Days, but all I took away was the feeling of being an outsider.

That feeling resurfaced when I went to middle school in Grosse Pointe, Mich., a place that only a generation earlier had banned Jews and blacks from owning homes there. Suddenly, at least in one teacher's eyes, I'd ironically become the representative Jew, called to the front of the classroom to explain our holidays and what we believed. Shy and too scared to refuse, I stood, squirmed and pretended I had answers.

I found comfort in what I could count on - our routines and rituals. There was the New York City family Passover Seder, where I'd join the other kids in stealing sips of Manishewitz wine. Around the same time came the overflowing Easter basket. So what if my mom bit the ears off my chocolate bunnies; I had bunnies. On Christmas morning, my brother, sister and I would conspire to wake the parents. We'd gather in our flannel pajamas, sip cocoa and listen to holiday music. Later, we'd brave the snow and head to my step-grandparents' home for that sweet HoneyBaked Ham. I can still taste it now.

At 19, however, I found myself in a holiday lurch. My mom and stepdad broke up, and I suddenly had to face the truth: Santa had given me the heave-ho-ho-ho.

I know Christmas and Easter were never really mine to have, but what's a Jewish woman to do when the traditions of her childhood are signed away with divorce papers? This was a question I posed years later to Helena McMahon, who heads up the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's Interfaith Connection.

"Inevitably it involves a feeling of loss," and stirs up questions about identity, she said. "Who am I now? Where do I fit in?"

In my early 20s, living in New York, the answer certainly wasn't synagogue. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, one that is marked by fasting, I opted for a run in Central Park before going out for brunch.

My search began when, at 24, I went on a fourth date to Israel. Really. The guy I had started seeing invited me to join him, and off I went. We could have been going to Thailand for all I cared, but he'd chosen Israel. What followed for me, eight months later, was a nearly two-year stint of living there. The move changed my course.

Notwithstanding the crazy-making politics and tensions that made my head throb and heart ache, the sense of Jewish peoplehood, the sense of belonging to something larger, proved the warmest of welcomes. It didn't matter if I attended synagogue, ate bacon, donated to Jewish organizations, could read from the Torah or believed in anything - I counted. For the first time, rabbis noticed and spoke to me. Among the firsts to make an impression were a former Deadhead and a man who'd written for "Saturday Night Live," back when it was brilliant. And, for the first time in my life, I accepted myself as a Jew, felt comfortable asking questions and owned up to all I didn't know.

The questions haven't stopped, which might be why I landed where I am professionally. I still can't define what I believe and refuse to say I have answers, but at least I have a sense of who I am and have staked a claim to what's rightfully mine. And perhaps forcing me to go there was the best gift Santa, and my various parents, ever gave me.