Genesis 1 – In the beginning I was Jewish

menorah and christmas tree

This is what I remember.

We only ever had a Christmas tree when my brother was living with us. He was half and half. That’s what we called it.

I don’t know at what age you actually understand what having a half-sibling means. To me it meant my brother hated my Mother and that he tolerated my sister and I. My first real memories of him are when I was 4 and he was 12. Being a 12-year-old boy with my mom as a step-mother must have sucked. And I saw how much it sucked, and took it in as much as a 4-year-old could. I heard the screaming fights, I knew my mom put newspaper in the hallway by my bedroom door so if he decided to harm us in the middle of the night she would hear. That must have sucked the most. Knowing your step-mother thought those things about you and your father didn’t stop it. If I think about it long enough my heart starts to break.

It must have really sucked for this other reason too. This is what else I remember. His mother only visited once. Maybe I’m wrong and it was a few more times than that, but it couldn’t have been too many, or I would have remembered.

So of course when it came to the holidays my father would be very careful to make sure my brother, who was half-jewish and half-catholic, got to celebrate his holiday.

What? Wasn’t it ours too? After all there was a tree, and presents under it. No, I learned once my brother moved out many years later, that it was not our holiday at all. We were Jews.

I do not remember being a Jew before we left New York for Chicago. I remember Hanukkah and I remember Christmas. I do not ever remember the “why.”

For as long as my brother lived with us there was Christmas and Hanukkah, we were the luckiest family ever – as most of my friends reminded me.

We never had a Christmas dinner, or Christmas Eve, but we had Christmas morning. We never had a Hanukkah dinner, but we had presents for 8 nights.

We were as Secular as Jews can be, and my brother was being raised as a Secular half and half.

In our new home our neighbors were Catholic. This was very clear to me. They were not secular, or at least not in the same way we were.

Their middle child, Anne, became my best friend. We were the same age, but she went to Holy Cross, I went to public school. I found this attachment her family had to the ritual of church every Sunday fascinating. So fascinating that after weeks of begging my father, I was allowed to go. I knew better than to cross myself (for that is the only way I knew to describe it) I also did not say “Amen” at the end of the prayers. Although I did say “Peace be with you.” Because that seemed nice.

My parents did not socialize with Anne’s parents, although they were our next door neighbors. Our parents quickly found the other upper middle-class Jewish families, our tribe so to speak, and assimilated. From that moment forward I would always be aware of a feeling of “us and them.”


This is the first post in a series. I have always been very guarded about my faith, for as you will find in the coming months, the specific combination of beliefs that make me me, make me part of one of the most discriminated against groups in our current society. This has kept me from writing about my beliefs, but why write if I cannot write about me. 

32 thoughts on “Genesis 1 – In the beginning I was Jewish

  1. Oh Jen, I am so glad that you are writing about this.
    I have so many thoughts on my own faith as a Catholic (and sending the boys to a Catholic school) and my heartfelt confusion about “how I should feel” versus “how I really feel”.

    when i was little, in Catholic school I always wanted to be Jewish. I would come home and ask if I could be “both?” meaning Jewish and Catholic. My parents never said no, they just said that it would be hard to be since the Jews didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah, instead they thought Him an extraordinary prophet. Which I thought, “well he is? isn’t he?”

    I look forward to reading your series and thank you (very much) for being willing to share it with us. The good, the bad, the ugly with the purpose in mind to tell your story and to help us understand each other as human beings more.

  2. Thank you for opening up about this aspect about your life! When I was young, I was jealous of the Jewish kids I knew – their holidays were different, and seemed to have so much more depth than ours (we grew up kind of secular-Christians, with mangers and Santa Claus). It’s interesting to hear about others’ experience with childhood religion. Looking forward to the next installment!

  3. I grew up Jewish. My boys are being raised Jewish, but not in the Temple. They’re being raised with the stories and the traditions and the things that make a religion a comfort when times are really dark and difficult.

    My boys live in a part of the country where you’re Christian or you’re wrong. I insisted on going into their classrooms every year, nonetheless, never talking about religion but teaching the kids how to play Dreidel on Chanukah and passing out Honey Bread on Rosh Hashanah. We always had a Chanukah party at our house and invited all of their Christian friends. We went to their houses to decorate Christmas trees.

    When religion divides people it serves no one. Every single time a Christian plays Dreidel with a Jew and a Jew helps decorate a Christmas tree, it’s a small step in making the world a better place.

    • I think you will be surprised and maybe irked a little by what is to come Karen. We will see. Our town is almost 50/50 I’d say. The neighboring town to the East is primarily Jewish, while to the North is almost exclusively Christian. We live in a very interesting area…more to come.

  4. I am glad you’re sharing, Jen! I am indeed looking forward to your series.

    As Atheists, we do celebrate the holidays, as a celebration of love, of family, of a new year about to start. A dark time to quiet down and reflect.

    My view of religion? It’s ok to have it, and ok not to. I never worried about anyone’s religion. I am good friends with Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, Protestants, etc. It’s all about people, not the god or gods they may or may not worship.

  5. Jen ~ I am so eager to see where this series goes. I love reading about spiritual journeys. I also remember feeling jealous of my Jewish friends who had such a sense of ritual, and rites of passage. Even my daughter has remarked that she wished we celebrated “Harmonica.” We celebrate Christmas and Easter, but as totally secular holidays. I can understand the hesitation to write about faith, but I think this type of dialogue is very needed in today’s world!

  6. I love that you are doing this, Jen. I was “half and half” growing up with a (non-practicing) Catholic father and a Jewish mother. I married a Catholic and we are raising our children Jewish with formal Jewish educations. If you told me this is where I would be when I was a kid, I would have never believed you. I understand about being guarded – I feel that way too. Looking forward to reading more!

  7. Jen, by far the best post you have ever written. I cannot wait to learn more about you and your faith. And am now feeling a tad guilty about tomorrow’s post. But I’m Catholic and we have that guilt down!

    Adore you!!!

    • Thanks Kerri!! No worries about the post (whatever it is I haven’t gotten to reading yet 🙂 ) But I get the Jewish guilt, so we’re cool!

  8. I love the title! But I must confess…what with Phil on my mind, I was so confused at first! (My feed reader only showed me up to the word “beginning”, LOL!)

    I also love that you’re writing about yourself like this…that you’re pushing yourself a bit beyond your boundaries. I’m inspired, and eager to read more. But first, I’m going to duct tape my kids into bed, and then I’m going to listen to some mixes from earlier today!

  9. Discrimination? If that’s the case, I can see how writing about your faith would be even more difficult but important. There are lots of us who feel we know you and adore you online and that should help us understand more easily and thus curb some of the discrimination. I hope. I’m rambling. Looking forward to more of this series.

  10. Pingback: Genesis 2 – And Then There Was The Word » JenKehl

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