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Growing up with divorced parents—one Jewish, one not—seemed to offer an abundance of holiday riches. Instead, it caused grade-school trouble.

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My mother was a hillbilly from Tennessee by way of Indiana, my father was and is a Jew from Schenectady, N.Y. I’m not sure I’d have known I’d be forever split between gentile and Jew had they not divorced when I was 2 years old. Thereafter I was a Jew on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and every other weekend, and my mother’s the rest of the week. Jew days in my father’s apartment, across the river from my mother’s house in Scotia, near Schenectady, meant Spaghettios, kosher salami on Triscuits, and, on holidays, chopped liver at my Aunt Roslyn’s. It seems to me now that the rest of the time we went to the movies, although I can only remember two, Excalibur and Hair.

My goyishe mother also took us to the movies. She found a job baking cookies and brownies for a concession stand at our town’s movie theater, rehabilitated by a band of hippies who didn’t want to peddle corporate candy. My fourth summer, while my mother baked, I played in the theater. On the sunniest of days I sat in the dark eating warm cookies and watching reverently as the hippies threaded the two movies they owned through the projector, over and over: Woody Allen’s Sleeper and Harold and Maude. This constitutes my early Jewish education.

I was a pale child. Nobody cut my hair, so I went off to kindergarten like a little chubby Ramone, hidden behind a thick brown curtain that hung down to my eyes in front and my shoulders in back. The other kids asked me if I was a boy or a girl. I refused to answer. Around December I tried to explain my complicated yet-clearly-superior holiday situation. While the other kids would receive presents only on Christmas, I’d be getting gifts for nine days (Hannukah plus December 25), although, given the Tuesday/Thursday schedule, several of those days would have to be crammed into a few evenings, between Spaghettios and R-rated movies.

This was a lot for my classmates to absorb. My hair was unkempt and my clothes were dirty (I insisted on sleeping in them), and my mother sometimes dropped me off at school in a belching rusty blue Plymouth that looked like a rotten blueberry. So obviously I was poor, maybe even poorer they were. But nine days of presents? Was I a liar? Were my parents thieves?

My parents provided another conceptual dilemma. There were a few kids whose fathers had simply left, but at the time not a single one of my 25 classmates had parents who split them, mothers on Monday with whom they watched Little House on the Prairie and fathers on Tuesday with whom they watched The Paper Chase.

Plus, I was “Jewish.”

Or so I claimed. For the fall of my first year of schooling this ancestry provided me with minor celebrity, until it came time for Christmas vacation. On one of the last days of school that December, Mrs. Augusta asked a student to volunteer to explain Christmas. A girl named Heather shot her hand up and told us about the baby Jesus and Santa Claus while the rest of us stewed, since this was an answer we all knew, and we wanted Mrs. Augusta to love us. When she asked if anyone could explain the Jewish holiday of Hannukah, I raised my hand and she smiled, since the question, of course, had been meant for me alone. I stood. “On Hanukkah,” I declared, “I get extra presents.”

Mrs. Augusta kept smiling. “Why?” she asked.

“I’m Jewish.”

“Yes,” she said, “and what does that mean?”

“What does what mean?”


I had never heard of “Judaism.”

My classmates, until that day free of that ancient sentiment that, I’d later learn, had prompted whispers and unhappiness when my Jew-father had moved onto Washington Road, began to giggle.

Mrs. Augusta tried to help. “What else do you do on Hannukah?”she asked.

I beamed. I knew this one: “I eat gelt and chopped liver!”

Giggles grew into guffaws, as kids parrotted me, special emphasis on gelt. It was a stupid word they had never heard before. “Gelt.” “Gult.” “Ga!”

Oh, Mrs. Augusta! She tried.

“Now, now. Doesn’t anyone have a question for Jeffrey?” Silence. “About being Jewish?”

Bob Hunt raised his hand. This would not be good. The rumor was that he had actually flunked kindergarten, so this was his second time through, and he was older, dangerous. For Halloween he’d been Gene Simmons, of KISS. If only I had known then what I know now about the American-Jewish tradition of “Who’s a Jew?,” a campy little game that is, in truth, a self-defense training maneuver intended to prepare you for encounters with goyish hostiles such as Bob Hunt. Who’s a Jew? Gene Simmons, for one. Han Solo, Fonzie, yer mother.

Bob’s question: “Yo. Sharlet. What’s gelt?”

“Gold coins?” I tried.

“Jewish people eat gold?” (And thus the endless cycle of anti-Semitism keeps on turning.)

“I mean, chocolate?”

Mrs. Augusta frowned. She had expected Maccabees and dreidels. Instead she was getting gelt, which she had never heard of. I was making a mockery of “Judaism.” “Which is it?” she asked. “Chocolate or gold? It has to be one or the other, Jeffrey. It can’t be both, can it?”

How to say that it can?

Like this: “It—it comes in a golden net,” I said.

“I think he means candy,” Mrs. Augusta fake-whispered to the class, winning their laughter.

I sat down. Mrs. Augusta decided to smooth things over with a song, “Jingle Bells.”

Bob Hunt leaned toward me, fake-whispering just like our teacher: “Candy-ass.”

I didn’t know what this meant, but it was clearly two things at once, and not good at all. Thereafter I resolved to be halfsies. I could not be fully both Jeffrey and Jew, chocolate and gold. If anyone asked, I decided, I was half-Jewish, on my father’s side, and he didn’t live with us anymore.

Reprinted from Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between by Jeff Sharlet. Copyright 2011 by Jeff Sharlet. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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Jeff, I love you!!!!

What a wonderful job you did of helping us feel the complexity, confusion, and sadness you lived. Your story gives the term “December dilemma” new poignancy.

Suzy Lenkowsky says:

How sad. Neither of your parents did you any favors.

Calling your own mother ‘goyishe’.
Racism against your own mother simply because she happened to have the ‘wrong’ blood is a true test of moral character.

As Jeff says, he is not Jewish, but half-Jewish since his mother is a Goy. Its not racist, its a fact. Ethiopian Jews are Jews, Sephardi Jews are Jews, and Ashkenazi Jews are Jews. They’re all different “races” and all Jews. So get it out of your heads, people, that “Goy” is racist.

I’m a Baalei Teshuva with a Jewish mother and a Goy Father and I love them both very much. This article is the perfect antidote for anyone who doubts that intermarriage has serious consequences. Reading what Jeff wrote was excruciating as the ridicule he faced as a child was as fresh as if it had happened that morning.

I can sympathize with Jeff, its not easy. Being Jewish is not about going through the motions of the rituals or other cosmetic things — its about having a connection with HaShem and living your life according to the Torah. The Torah is what separates the Jews from the Goyim.

Contrary to all the stereotypes, once you open your heart to it, its depth and beauty become apparent, although this can take time. Ignore the Torah and your kids and grand kids will assimilate and marry out, leading to many Jeffs. Every Jewish Neshama (soul) is precious and should be cherished, not thrown away so easily.

If the religious terms or the starkness of what I wrote has made you uncomfortable, thats unfortunate, but I urge you to take a closer look at Torah Judaism (Orthodox Judaism) and move beyond the stereotypes. ( is a good place to start)

Such a great story of the confusion that can come from the holidays and dealing with two religions. We wrote about it on our blog here:

Hope you’ll check it out.

Kag1989 says:

I grew up in an interfaith family. My mother could never make a firm commitment to Judaism. We had a very secular Christmas (growing up with a mother who had a serious chronic illness, Christmas was the one day of the year when I knew she would be home, even if she could not get out of bed.), and usually celebrated Passover with relatives. It was not easy trying to understand what faith was.

As an older teenager, my step mom, who was also Jewish, gave me my first pair of Shabbas candlesticks. I started learning about my faith. In college, I started to attend Temple during the High Holy Days.

When my husband and I had been married for ten years and we wanted to start a family, we decided that we would have one religion in our family: we would have a Jewish home. That said, we would also spend Christmas with my husband’s family. The way we separated these two holidays, was that Chanukah was our religious holiday. We did not give gifts to our children. We lit our Menorah’s and made latkes and listened to to fun Chanukah music and read books about the holiday. Our children got toys from Santa at Christmas.

A year ago, after 22 years of marriage, my husband decided to convert. When he realized that he no longer wanted to celebrate Christmas, he “asked” me if we could give our kids presents at Chanukah. I assured him that if that was what we wanted to do, we could.

We have a happy Jewish home. I continue to read, study and learn about my faith. We belong to a loving reform Temple and our faith not only sustains us, but fills us with joy and meaning. It has been a long journey, but a journey worth taking.

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Growing up with divorced parents—one Jewish, one not—seemed to offer an abundance of holiday riches. Instead, it caused grade-school trouble.

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