My Jewish Grandfather
Growing up, I’ve always been aware that my grandpa was Jewish and that my grandma was Catholic, and I never thought of any of it. Just like the sky is blue and the grass is green, Grandpa celebrated Hanukkah and Grandma celebrated Christmas (which at the time was all I thought religion boiled down to.) I never questioned it, and no one around me did either. However, now that I am learning more about interfaith, I’ve become curious about my grandparents’ religious perspectives. I decided to start with my maternal grandpa, to find out more about what it was like being Jewish in America, what it was like marrying my Catholic grandma, and how 90 years of living have shaped his beliefs.
My grandpa was born on December 14th, 1930. He is the youngest of four older sisters: Sandra, Lillian, Elsie, and Rose. His parents, my great-grandparents, came to America from Russia in the early 1900s. Growing up they lived in Bloomfield, New Jersey. He played baseball, served in the Korean War as a Marine, has a way of making people laugh no matter what, and practices Judaism.
Below are my grandpa's responses to my questions.
"What was it like growing up Jewish in America?”
“No different than growing up anywhere else. I lived in a very mixed community of religions and nobody paid any attention to who you were, what color you were, what religion you practiced. I was in a boy scout troop that was all Catholics, they didn’t care that I was Jewish. That was back in the 1930s and 1940s. I never saw any prejudice against me ever. I never knew the difference between other people and me. I was always with guys of all different types. It was always are they a nice person or are they not a nice person. I hung out with nice people, I didn’t bother to be with people who weren’t nice.”
“Was your family very religious?”
“My mother was and my father wasn’t. My father knew he was Jewish but didn’t follow any of the traditions. My mother was fiercely religious. On Yom Kippur, she wouldn’t even brush her teeth because she didn’t want to accidentally swallow any water. Everyone worried about her, she wouldn’t leave her bed. On Passover when you couldn’t eat bread, she made me and my father eat our sandwiches outside. My mother was a typical little old Jewish housewife. She took care of the kids, pampered them a little bit. My dad was more strict. He was harder on my sisters than me. I was the only boy and the youngest.
Growing up I didn’t know if my sisters were religious or not, my twin sisters were 9 years older than me so I didn’t spend too much time with them. As adults, Sandra was not very religious because her husband wasn’t. Lillian, Elsie, and Rose were religious. They followed the traditional stuff for the holidays. I think Elsie and Rose kept a Kosher house for a while. They mostly hung out with Jewish friends. I didn’t, I hung out with anyone that was a friend. Most of my friends weren’t Jewish, there were some, but most weren’t. In the neighborhood I grew up in, I could go house to house and tell you each one was a different nationality. It was like the United Nations. We used to just all go across the street and play baseball, climb trees, write our initials on trees and get in trouble for that. We had fun.”
“Was there any reason that you didn’t practice the traditions like some of your family members did?”
“Being Jewish doesn’t bother me. I just don’t believe in all of the traditions that they keep. Things have changed from way way way back then. I don’t think you need to go to a church to pray. I think you can be wherever you are to pray. I also got kicked out of Hebrew school so that might make a difference. I had a disagreement with a teacher. She told me to leave and I left and never went back. I just went out and played baseball. My mom was upset but was not going to force me to go.”
“What was it like marrying Grandma?”
“It was whether I liked the girl or didn’t. Your grandma swept me right off my feet. My parents, my mother especially, was not happy with that. My mom liked Carol [my grandma], but didn’t want me to marry her because she wasn’t Jewish. My sisters had a meeting with Carol. It was an inquisition. They were afraid that by marrying her, I would get pulled away from the family. My mother was more concerned about religion and she made it difficult for us. After we got married, she accepted it. I think her being hard on me was her way of testing to see if I really liked her. They said it wouldn’t last five years. 62 years later we are still together. In those days, what we did didn't work. It was frowned upon to marry outside of religion or race. But we just went ahead and did it. It really proved it's the person, and not the background. Two things to have a good marriage: laugh with each other a lot and have complete trust in each other. That's what made us stick together so long.
The day before we got married we broke up because my parents were against it. The next day I got up and decided I'm going to get married. Carol’s brother accidentally told the priest that we had three marriage licenses: one for the priest, one for the rabbi, one for the mayor. The priest got mad and said you will get married under the Catholic church or you aren’t getting married. He wanted us to get rid of the other two licenses. So we got married by the priest and that was it.”
“What do you believe in now? Are there any parts of Judaism that you hold onto more tightly than others?”
I believe in God. And that I think is the most important. I still pray on Yom Kippur, even though I have nothing to atone for because I'm perfect [at this point I could hear my grandma dying of laughter in the background]. Just joking. I always ask for forgiveness and pray for everyone who has passed away. I light a candle in March, around the anniversary of both of my parents’ deaths, and I pray for them and all other lost family members. These traditions I hold on to.
I go to the synagogue when there is a celebration or funeral, but I don’t attend it regularly. I pray a lot. Not formal prayers. I pray for a lot of things at different times. If someone is sick, I pray for them. Stuff like that. It’s not anything formal.”
“What is something that you live by? Any mantras or quotes?”
“I try to live by the ten commandments and the golden rule. I think that all that needs to happen is you need to believe in God and be a good person. Make other people glad to be around you. What more is there?”
Before interviewing my grandpa I was pretty confident that I would know most of his answers. However, reflecting back there were a lot of things I actually never knew. My grandpa has lived a life of interfaith without even realizing it. He has interacted with and respected other religions his entire life. I would even argue that because of his early exposure to diversity, paired with his general open-mindedness, he had no issue marrying my grandma. And maybe he passed down that open-mindedness to my mom, who maybe passed it down to me.
That's what I would like to believe anyway.
Within our ancestry, there is so much that we tend to overlook. I’ve always known that my grandpa is Jewish, but I never really understood what that meant to him. I have always been aware that my grandparents practice two different religions, but I never grasped all the challenges that come with being in an interreligious marriage. This interview was eye-opening and deeply connecting. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to ask my grandpa these questions, to know him better, and therefore know myself better. I hope to continue to learn about my family and how their life experiences have brought them wisdom that has further shaped my own beliefs and understandings.