Mixed families, mixed messages

No, “Bagels, Lox and Easter Ham” is not a religiously confused Dr. Seuss book.

Rather, it’s an essay penned by San Franciscan Dana Turney exploring the myriad realities of interfaith life, starting, naturally, with holiday dinner and moving on to everything else.

The cleverly titled essay is one of six by local authors to be honored in a contest sponsored by Interfaithfamily.com.

The essays recall incidents such as ferrying between church and synagogue during holidays or the angry confrontation between a Jewish husband and his Christian wife over whether to circumcise their first-born son (they did).

Anna Mills, the only Bay Area writer to place first in one of the contest’s categories, wrote of her struggles to be accepted by fellow Jews because of her mixed heritage (her mother is Jewish while her father is Quaker). During her college years, for example, she was once offered the post-Shabbat meal cleaning duties usually reserved for a so-called Shabbos goy.

“At a lecture on ‘The Intermarriage Crisis,'” wrote the 28-year-old San Francisco writer and educator, “I had to raise my hand to protest, ‘I am not a crisis!'” — a phrase that became its title.

While in college, “I returned week after week for four years, lingering in the sanctuary with the candles after dinner. I learned to lead services, singing out the first haunting lines of the Kaddish and waiting for the group’s response.”

Mills took first place in the “Claiming Jewish Roots” category. Her essay and all other top-three finishers can be read online at www.interfaithfamily.com.

Other Bay Area writers featured of

the 130 entrants include Charlotte Honigman-Smith of San Francisco, who received an honorable mention in the “Claiming Jewish Roots Category”; Turney and Pam Chernoff of Pinole, who received honorable mentions in the “Engaging in Jewish Life” category; and Joanne Catz Hartman of Canyon and Christina Pertus-Hendelman of Mountain View, who received honorable mentions in the “Raising Jewish Children” category.

Many of the essays reflected on small or everyday events that, in context, loomed much larger in the writers’ lives.

Honigman-Smith, for one, wondered how she should be called to the Torah considering her Catholic father has no Hebrew name. To ignore him and only use her mother’s name would feel wrong, and to give him a Hebrew “alias” would come off as phony.

“The next time I was asked for my Hebrew name in a context that required more than my given name, I told the rabbi, ‘Sharon bat Tsviah v’Gregory,’ and knew that was right,” she wrote.

“This is a small detail of my Jewish life, but it represents for me the challenges and the rewards of a Jewish identity derived from an interfaith family.”

Several non-Jewish spouses of Jews wrote of their gradual acceptance within the Jewish community and growing knowledge of Judaism.

“I got the first Passover of our marriage wrong. I simply don’t have the erev part down yet. Since I’d messed it up for the previous two years, my husband, Joel, figured I had learned my lesson, and thus believed me when I said authoritatively that Thursday was the first night,” wrote Chernoff.

“We planned to shop for seder preparations after work Wednesday. I arranged to leave the bookstore where I work two hours early Thursday. Then he looked closely at his calendar and that shopping day went out the window. Oy. Or as the Norwegian Lutherans I grew up around would say, Uff-da.”

Yet, by the conclusion of her essay, Chernoff notes that she’s “come a long way since the day I sincerely but ignorantly wished Joel a Happy Yom Kippur.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.