Religion & Beliefs

Quandaries of a New Jew, or How I Got My Shiksa Flair

My life has never fit ‘inside the box.’ One-word answers have almost never sufficed for any aspect thereof. So it’s no surprise that my religious beliefs don’t lend themselves to a succinct definition. My religious affiliation can perhaps best be … Read More

By / February 2, 2009

My life has never fit ‘inside the box.’ One-word answers have almost never sufficed for any aspect thereof. So it’s no surprise that my religious beliefs don’t lend themselves to a succinct definition. My religious affiliation can perhaps best be summed up by a remark uttered to me at the last Shabbat dinner I attended: "Tedesco? Where did you get a name like that?"

If you ask me my religion, I’ll say, "Jewish." Any further questions require a miniature version of my life story. So here it goes.

I’m Italian. My whole family is Roman Catholic. My mother, however, living up to her reputation as the black sheep in the family, decided to convert to Judaism and had a Conservative conversion. And then she had me.

As a single mother, she knew there would be plenty of obstacles ahead. She didn’t want religion to be one of them. So, knowing our entire extended family (and we’re Italian, so of course it’s massive) was Catholic, she decided it would be best to raise me in the Church. I would have loved to be there for the conversation she had with the parish priest when she tried to enroll me in Sunday school. I was all but unaware of the fact that she was Jewish, and it took me a long time to understand why she forced me to the front of the church for communion but never followed suit. For Christmas, she decorated our home to rival the North Pole, but I never saw her light a menorah.

Once she and I began talking about Judaism, I became increasingly curious. By the tenth grade, when I started studying the history of Christianity in my AP European History class, I had sworn off Catholicism forever. Not that I’d been to church more than a half-dozen times in my life, save for weddings. That was when I transported my mother’s coffee table book The Jewish World from her office to my bedroom. I never actually read it, but I took comfort in knowing it was there.

Regardless of my perceived mini-rebellion against the Church, I was still in high school, bogged down with homework and, soon, college applications. I really didn’t have the time or motivation to begin studying anything other than what was required for the next day’s exam. I would talk now and then about converting, and the only real response I got from my mother was, "wait and see who you marry first." Of course, in her mind, I was to marry nobody but a "nice Jewish boy."

It didn’t occur to me until about December of 2007 that there was no need for me to convert-I had been born into Judaism through my mother. At the time, I was working on a term paper for my English class called "The Argument for the Shiksa: Intermarriage and Conversion in Modern Jewish America." I don’t think I can ever thank my English professor enough for giving us a completely open-ended assignment for this paper. She truly sparked my renewed interest in Judaism (and turned me on to Jewcy!). I started doing research for what was to be an eight-page paper and, fourteen months later, I haven’t stopped the research. I turned in a fifteen-page paper at the end of the term and went book shopping.

The bookshelf in my dorm room is two-deep with books on Judaism. Still, each time I sit down to read my 700-page Telushkin book, I feel guilty that I should really be doing homework, and so it goes back on the bookshelf. I recently decided, however, that the best way to cure that guilt was to make it my homework. And so I declared myself a Jewish Studies minor.

Granted, no matter how many books I read by prominent rabbis, there’s still a lot to be dumbfounded by. Luckily, I’ve had a lot of help. I started attending the occasional Shabbat service last spring; it was the first time I’d ventured into a synagogue barring the handful of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs I attended in my childhood. I began going with a wonderful friend who gave me a running commentary on what was going on and what to do each step of the way. My first Shabbat experience was at the renowned B’nai Jeshurun ("BJ," a popular Upper West Side synagogue), which definitely made me feel as though I’d made the right decision in choosing Judaism-the members of the Catholic church I once attended certainly never stood up mid-hymn and danced around the sanctuary.

Still, I stared hopelessly at the Hebrew in the Siddur, with no transliteration that I could even pretend to follow along with. So I decided to start taking Hebrew, a process that began at the Manhattan Jewish Experience in October. I enjoyed the first class, so I decided to stay for the next one, Conversations on Basic Judaism. And I liked that class so much I went back two days later for a Next Level: Judaism class. Before I knew it, I’d become a sort of regular at MJE and was comfortable enough with the rabbis to ask if they would assist me in preparing for a later-in-life bat mitzvah.

I still have a lot to learn when it comes to custom (and Hebrew, for that matter) untilI can reach a point where I can say, "I’m Jewish," without a disclaimer. (Though with a last name like Tedesco, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get away with less than "my mother converted.") After a year of library-building and a semester of classes, I’ve reached a level of comfort that allows me to go MJE services -Hebrew, mechitza, and all- without feeling completely foolish and awkward.

I’m endlessly thankful to have people around me who will help me, answer my stupid questions, and never judge me for not understanding. I’m at a weird place in the realization of my religion right now-I’m not a convert, I’m just a new Jew trying to figure out what the hell she’s doing. But as Rabbi Ezra Cohen said to us at last week’s Shabbat dinner, "this is your home." And it’s a wonderful feeling to find home after 20 years.