The Outsider

My daughter stared at her reflection as she brushed her teeth. Our eyes met in the mirror as she said, “Mama, I’m sad that you’re different from us.”

My heart sank. “We all have brown eyes and yours are blue. Don’t you wish you had brown eyes too?” My heart lightened. I had thought Claire was going to ask me about my being the only Catholic in our interfaith household.

Before my wedding, mother worried about how I would feel if I married a Jewish man and raised Jewish children, and asked if I’d considered converting. I assured my mother that having a different religion or a different last name (I was keeping my maiden name, another source of concern for her) did not mean I had to feel like an outsider in my own family. At 31 I had a strong sense of who I was and what I wanted. My fiancé and I had attended an interfaith couples group and discussed likely scenarios for birth rituals, raising children, celebrating holidays, and we agreed that the interfaith aspects of our household would be open to reinterpretation as our lives changed. I had tried to think through all the challenges.

It was my idea to raise any future children Jewish. Even though I was no longer attending Mass regularly, I knew I wanted to raise a family that participated together in a religious community. In addition, I was comfortable in synagogues, while Barry was decidedly uncomfortable in churches. So, if I wanted Barry to participate in our children’s religious upbringing, the only thing that made sense was to raise them Jewish. If I felt like an outsider at services, I could handle that. I would experience what it feels like to be the minority. Wasn’t that what Jews experience all too often?

And so we married. We had children. We joined a Reform temple. And…I felt like an outsider. But. my mother was only half right. I didn’t feel like an outsider in my family; I felt like an outsider in my foster religious congregation.

Language was one factor that created distance for me. Even though most prayers are translated into English in our Reform services, some sections are recited in Hebrew. I stand silent at those times. I also tend to keep quiet when salutations are exchanged. But I am learning. Rosh Hashanah does not elicit a hearty “Happy New Year!” but instead “L’Shana Tova.” However, neither this phrase nor “Shabbat Shalom”—a standard Friday night greeting—roll off my tongue easily quite yet. And with a name like “McMahon,” I’m pretty sure none of my ancestors were brought out of bondage from Egypt.

Ah, my name; perhaps mom was right about that, too. There is nothing Jewish about “Teresa” or “McMahon.” Whenever I call the temple to sign up for a class or inquire about High Holiday tickets, I always feel the need to add that I’m the wife of Barry and mother to Claire and Emily Fishman. I feel like I’m a member only as their guest. Which in some ways is true, since I haven’t converted.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel welcome at my temple, which has a number of interfaith families. I even like how aware of praying I am, since so much of what we do in a service is new enough to require my full attention. Still, I feel like an in-law rather than one of the family. After several years, I wasn’t sure that even conversion, if I were to choose it, would make me feel more like an “insider.” I didn’t share a cultural history, personal or ancestral, with members.

Then I shared, with the rest of the world, the tragic events of September 11, 2001. For the first time in my life, I turned to religion not for a joyous occasion, but for comfort in grief. I considered going to Mass, but I hadn’t attended a Catholic church in the area since we’d joined the temple. I wanted to be with my family, and, as we attended services, I did find great comfort in our being together. But I also found comfort in Hebrew that had become more familiar than I’d realized, in the rabbi’s sermon, in realizing that my connection with the congregation had strengthened over the years without my even realizing it…in finally feeling like a member of the community.

But what was my tie to the bigger Jewish community? After the birth of each of my daughters my imagination had run wild. Not only did table edges seem sharper and stairs more dangerous, but I would look at the congregation during services and wonder what would have happened to us if we had existed during a Russian pogrom or in Nazi Germany. Would I have “protected” my daughters with my Christianity? Would I have denounced Judaism? I used to wonder how I would have responded, naively thinking that this hatred was a thing of the past. Sadly it is not.

A year has passed. A year of media reports on terrorism and the Israeli/Palestinian situation and on increased anti-Semitism the world over. Is the anti-Semitic cycle starting up again? I no longer have the luxury of looking in on the situation from the outside. I choose to stand with my daughters and my husband on the inside.

Teresa A. McMahon PH.D., is an educational researcher and freelance writer in Ann Arbor Michigan.