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Hometown Story: Montclair, New Jersey

A Hybrid Identity

by Maggie Goldberger

It was one of the last days before the Montclair public schools closed for winter break in my second-grade year, and my friends and I were all buzzing in excitement over “the most wonderful time of the year.” In class that morning we had played dreidel thinly disguised as a “math game,” gorging ourselves on our hard-won piles of gelt—chocolate coins wrapped up in gold foil. At recess my friends and I talked excitedly about what we had asked for from Santa Claus. “My mom is picking me up from Hebrew school early today” my friend gloated, to the moans of classmates who were dreading this weekly torture— “we’re going to pick up our Christmas tree.”

The holidays were the time that my community’s dual Catholic-Jewish heritage came into the most obvious relief. The joy of celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah, with all their trappings became the most clear and uncomplicated display of an easy interfaith reality, glossing over the more contradictory and painful moments with holiday cheer.

Our friends in the neighborhood hosted a massive holiday party each year.  We built gingerbread houses, played dreidel— and sang Christmas carols and Hanukkah songs. Of course some kids were “just Catholic” or “just Jewish” but most of us were some combination of both.

My most magical memories of the holidays were of the night when we would get the season’s first real snowfall. The manicured streets of Montclair, New Jersey seemed to glitter in a picture-perfect image of a suburban winter wonderland—tree lined streets dotted with painted Victorian homes and split-level Levitt-houses, mezuzahs affixed to doorposts, Christmas lights strung along the doorway—menorahs in the window gaze across the street to front window shrines of Fatima or Lourdes. Instead of stars, the lights of Manhattan glittered in the distance. Even in the morning, when the inevitable New Jersey grime would settle on the streets a bit of the magic of the season seemed to linger.

This glitzy holiday scene, in retrospect, could make it seem that the interfaith nature of life in my hometown was comprised mostly of meaningless clashing symbols, or symbolic trappings for parties and holidays. However, beneath this tableau of symbols were richly interwoven religious worlds that were less visible.

For my family, that primarily meant going to mass every Sunday, and on other assorted Holy Days of Obligation throughout the year. The rhythm of the mass, the graphic depictions of Jesus on the cross, or Saint Bernadette praying before the Virgin dominated my childhood imagination: it was the non-negotiable centerpiece of the weekly schedule around which everything else was organized. After mass, we trudged across the street to the Church’s parochial school to learn the requisite catechism our Catholic school peers get during the school week. At CCD that week I would get asked by my teacher in front of the class. “Maggie—its Hanukkah, isn’t it?” “Yes” I would confirm. “Is your family doing anything to celebrate?” “We’re going to celebrate with my grandparents,” I would usually lie. Because, while we almost always did end up visiting my grandparents during the Hanukkah season, marked in their household only by a cheap white plastic menorah alit with nine candle flame shaped lightbulbs—they did very little to mark the holiday.

I felt self-conscious about that. Because of our unambiguously Jewish last name, Goldberger, my sisters and I, despite our first and middle names perfectly in accordance with Catholic teaching that children must share the names of saints, were curiosities at church, and often, spokespeople for the Jewish faith. We were the blonde haired, blue eyed, Irish Catholic Goldberger Sisters.  And while there were many mixed Catholic and Jewish families in our community, almost all of them had chosen to raise their children as Jews, Unitarians, or simply as secular. While my friends spent their afternoons with O’Briens and Espositos at Hebrew school (unless they were out buying Christmas trees of course) I was preparing for the trifecta of Catholic second grade: my first reconciliation where I would confess my sins and gain absolution from the priest for the first time, May Crowning, the crowning of the virgin with flowers at the start of May, and ultimately my first communion, where I would receive the Eucharist, the miraculously transubstantiated body and blood of Christ for the first time. With each rite of passage I stepped further into the institutional church, and received its spiritual gifts, but also fretted over where that big “Goldberger” piece of me.

Most of my Catholic-Jewish friends had one Catholic and one Jewish parent. They went to Hebrew school, had Bar or Bat Mitzvahs. They were Jews who celebrated Christmas. Meanwhile, we were Catholics who watched Seinfeld and ate deli. My dad’s yarmulkes spent far more time in our dress up bin than they ever did atop his head in Shul. 

We were also different from most of our friends because my parents, nominally, are both Catholic. My grandparents were the interfaith marriage. 

My grandmother was an old school devout Catholic—she attended mass daily, and got up at 4AM each day to pray the rosary. My grandfather was Jewish, raised by Orthodox immigrant parents from Eastern Europe. His father and his brothers built the first synagogue in Babylon, New York: a small, then very Christian Long Island town where his parents ran a Railside newsstand. As a kid, my grandfather often told me stories of running from Catholic school children throwing glass bottles at him saying that “the Jews killed our Lord.”

My grandparents got married in secret and through 71 years of marriage neither ever converted to the other’s faith or abandoned their own religious tradition. They had a civil ceremony, and then were married in the basement of a Catholic Church. Marrying outside the faith, for my Jewish grandfather, marked an end of the line in Jewish law, children needed a Jewish mother to be Jews. Meanwhile, for my grandmother, canon law saw interfaith marriages, particularly with an unbaptized non-Christian as invalid unless they were granted special permission by church Ordinary. A major requirement for approval was an attestation that all children would be raised and educated Catholic. This was the only concession my grandfather refused to make, his children would not attend the Catholic schools where children chased him with broken bottles. Otherwise, their four children with Jewish names were raised in the Catholic church.

The religious validity of my grandparents’ marriage was a constant gray area, shifting with Vatican councils and papal declarations throughout the 60s and 70s. When they married in 1945 the status was even more undefined. Papal documents are clear on the spiritual danger posed by an interfaith marriage. Meanwhile many Jewish denominational bodies have long identified interfaith relationships as the greatest threat to American Judaism.

If this lack of institutional approval bothered my grandparents, I never knew. What I do remember is the way that they would pray together every night when the sun went down—my  grandfather reading from the tattered Hebrew prayer book he received as a bar mitzvah boy in 1938, my grandmother from her St. Joseph’s daily missal, Saint Jude, Saint Dymphna, and the Virgin of Lourdes looking down from their perches on side-table altars on this evening prayer made even more beautiful in its discord.

My grandparents built a life together, and a family that defied the expectations of both of their faith communities. Communities that they staked much of their identity upon, and which they loved for the entirety of their lives.  The balance they struck was unique and at times contradictory. There were moments that I was resentful of it, and it caused me pain, embarrassment, or regret. But, Most of the time it brought me pride, joy, and a life that was filled with holidays, traditions, prayers and rituals for every occasion. It challenged and empowered me to continue to do the creative work of carving out a life between the prescribed lines of both of my faith traditions—one that made room for the fullness of who I was, and that honored the creative and adaptive interfaith work that my sisters, and cousins, friends, and classmates were doing in their own homes.

More than anything, it made me question how I wanted to pass on all the contradictory, complicated, and beautiful pieces of this hybrid identity on to my own children one day. As a queer woman, I know that my children will grow up in a new kind of family, one that, like my grandparents’ family, will occupy a liminal and contested place in both our Catholic and Jewish lineage. And, like my grandparents, I have no intention of letting someone else dictate what my family, or its faith life should look like. I hope that my children will feel just as connected to all the parts of their identity, even the ones that refuse to fit neatly together, and feel empowered to do creative work of their own in de-contextualizing and re-contextualizing a rich and authentic Catholic-and-Jewish life that brings them joy, connects them to the generations that came before them, and feeds off the rich traditions of their communities, friends and neighbors.

Maggie Goldberger

Maggie Goldberger

Maggie is a second-year Master of Theological Studies student, focusing on Religions in the Americas. She is particularly interested in investigating intersecting (and often conflicting) indigenous, immigrant and nationalistic narratives of the United States as a sacred landscape. She earned her BA in Religion at Carleton College, where she conducted research on the religious landscape of the New Jersey suburbs, focusing on legal disputes between Hindu temples and municipal zoning boards. As an undergraduate she additionally worked as a research assistant for the Global Religions in Minnesota project, where she had the opportunity to visit and document local religious sites and rituals, as well as editing student projects and updating site content.