Outside the Protected Zone
By Vered Zaikovski | 29/10/2009
Vered Zaikovski pursues the identity of the children of Jewish-Christian intermarriages in Italy. Three stories about individuals who live in an environment with a limited Jewish influence.
I'm the product of a double combination, the genetic common denominator of two people. Why did my mother choose my father of all people, and why did he choose her? How many considerations feed into such a choice? Or perhaps there are transparent threads, a resonating rhythm that calls out to a similar rhythm, in another heart. We call it love. In our Israel, in the age in which we are living, most of us enjoy a relatively large degree of freedom to choose our partner. We are free to fall in love. In the Diaspora, we are not. It may be that these are clear considerations, rational explanations; and perhaps they are these same invisible threads pulled without words, winding between the raindrops, penetrating the walls, pulling us to the defined realms of the "permitted," and to there only.
But one thread pulled me in a different direction, outside the realm of the protected reserve, against the neural pathways and the behavior encoded in me. One thread, invisible yet particularly strong and flexible, caused me to deviate from the path marked on the surface. We ask: Is love blind? I can tell the story of a connection between two utterly different melodies, whose internal rhythms are identical.
And then what happens? One is swallowed by the other? A new world is created, different than the two parts? Or does each preserve his world, and respect that of his spouse? Absolute identification with the degree of difference might create a ticking bomb; but danger also lurks in total surrender. Into this complex reality a baby is born. A beloved child. What for us was a choice, for him is a starting point. What kind of probability map have we created for him? Will he be able to enjoy getting to know several worlds, and as a result develop a broader perspective? Or have we created an opening for problems, for crises of identity and belonging?
My son is only eleven. I set out to find other children from mixed marriages who were old enough to relate how they saw things from their viewpoint. Of particular interest to me was the experience of their youth, factors and influences that in retrospect shaped their identity. What follows is not a scientific analysis or statistical data, but three life stories presented from a personal viewpoint.
"My grandfather was born in Syria, but after getting married he moved to Lebanon. From there he fled together with my grandmother and they reached Milan in 1948. My father, therefore, was born in Milan, to a traditional Jewish family. My mother immigrated to Europe from Canada. As a Protestant Christian, her education was based more on the relationship of the individual to God, and less on the ritualistic aspect. In contrast to Italian Catholics, she didn't have to attend church on Sundays."
Giorgia and her sister, who is two years her junior, grew up two stops from the duomo – the cathedral church. The corner house where she was born 17 years ago and which continues to be her home, is warm and spacious. Like the patchwork quilts that her mother sews, childhood photographs of her and her sister color the walls of the house like a collage. In the winters of her childhood, together with their mother, the girls would decorate the tree that they had placed near the window facing the main street; but mother never emphasized that it was the holiday of Jesus' birthday. During that exact time, they would also light Hanukkah candles: father's brother – their uncle – would arrive from America, and grandmother, father's mother, would cook. Seder night was also celebrated at grandmother's, while Giorgia would decorate Easter eggs with her mother and sister… tidbits of memories from that pleasant time when everything could be swallowed up into a single, undivided entity, even though there were 'mom's holidays' and 'dad's holidays.'
"On Yom Kippur, my father would take us to synagogue. That was his 'special thing.' I knew that eating pork was forbidden. That was also dad's 'special thing.' One could say that in my childhood, the influence of Judaism was more present, mainly thanks to my father of blessed memory. The families of my friends, Italian Jews, were already assimilated; they didn't know much about Judaism. My grandparents came from a place where the tradition was fastidiously observed; they didn't assimilate. But outside the house, my lifestyle was identical to that of an ordinary Italian girl living in Milan. In my class in the neighborhood school I attended, I fit in with the others, but I was not like them. During religious lessons I would leave the classroom. According to Italian law, participation in (Christian) religious education is not mandatory. For the duration of an hour, once a week, I was required to sit alone with the teacher, in a separate room. That hour seemed like an eternity… the teacher would try to talk to me about my problems, and I just wanted it to be over so that I could go back to the classroom. But it didn't make me want to be like everyone else.
"In junior high, there was one boy in my class who said that he was a Nazi fascist. Every time I passed by Carlo, he would make vomiting noises and say: 'To be an inferior creature!' For two years he harassed me incessantly. My girlfriends would say to me: 'Enough, don't pay attention to him, he's just an idiot.'
"I don't remember what I felt… I never succeeded in understanding feelings, and also, how does one translate feelings into words? I wrote in my diary: 'I feel happy to not belong to the Catholics. I saw rabbis in the street…"
"I don't remember what I felt… I never succeeded in understanding feelings, and also, how does one translate feelings into words? I wrote in my diary: 'I feel happy to not belong to the Catholics. I saw rabbis in the street…"
Giorgia's pretty almond eyes widen. I think that I'm seeing in them now her look five years ago, an innocent look of curiosity, and perhaps a cautious hope placed in those same figures wrapped in black, focused on their world, crossing the street without casting a glance, as if they represented a direction, a possible choice.
"Once, in the middle of class, the teacher said: 'Let's take advantage of the fact that Carlo isn't here.' She turned to me and asked me to speak to the class about 'what it's like to be a Jew.' The feeling was horrendous, because I didn't know what to say. I didn't even know the meaning of 'Shabbat.' At that time, I didn't know anything about Judaism. It began to bother me more and more. That same year, I read a breathtaking book by Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev, about a Hasidic boy drawn to art, about his internal struggles, and how ultimately he became a great artist. When summer vacation arrived, I went for two weeks to visit my aunts and uncles who live in New York. During those two weeks I was exposed to Jewish culture as never before: libraries, the Jewish museum, a visit to Eli Wiesel, a friend of my uncle, and the Friday evening 'kabbalat shabbat' service. When I returned to Milan, I knew I wanted to study Judaism. That's how I met Clara, the wife of the chief rabbi in our community, Rabbi Korchowski of blessed memory. She became my teacher, and she was also like a grandmother. During the course of the year, I went with my sister to the weekly lessons. Clara didn't teach us Jewish law (halakha), or the commandments, but rather the ideas underlying the commandments. This is how I became convinced to the depths of my soul that I wanted to swim further into the waters of Judaism, to connect to my Jewish roots – that I wanted to be Jewish. The rabbi gave me a list of books to read. I knew that I was taking on myself a great responsibility. I met many times with the rabbi, who wanted to assess the extent of my determination. Had it been a matter of mere curiosity, I wouldn't have had the strength for it. The idea of conversion contradicts the essence of the Jewish outlook; therefore the convert's path is strewn with difficulties and tests. The rabbi would send the candidate home four times until he accepted him. There were many moments of doubt and uncertainty. At a certain moment when I lost confidence, close to the appointed date, I told Carla that I didn't feel ready. Clara said: 'My husband, the rabbi of blessed memory, would also say that he wasn't ready. No one is ever ready.' Judaism is a process of never-ending growth."
With great intensity, Giorgia recounts the declaration of the rabbinic court and the triple immersion in the ritual bath (mikveh). She pronounces the Hebrew date on which she be came recognized as a Jew with the fear of Heaven in her voice.
Giorgia observes the commandments. Her family respects her choice. Therefore, despite the inconvenience sometimes involved, the food at home is kosher to the highest standard (mehadrin), milk dishes are separated from meat, and on Fridays, there is a Sabbath meal and kiddush is recited. On Sabbath morning, she goes to services at the synagogue. Giorgia is a member of the Bnei-Akiva youth movement and volunteers at a Jewish nursing home. She is not considering moving to Israel, because Milan is her home, but beyond a doubt, when the day arrives, she will marry an observant Jew, and no other.
Her sister underwent the conversion process with her, but she divides her time between her musical studies at the conservatory, social life and other matters, and does not invest in observing Jewish law, except at family gatherings. This does not prevent her from rejoicing in her conversion. As far as she is concerned, the conversion process confirmed and affirmed her Jewish identity. For Giorgia, this is difficult to accept: "It's not enough to 'feel Jewish.'! Every Jew has a tremendous responsibility to continue the tradition. The commandments were intended to preserve unity of Jews around the world. It is precisely from observing the commandments that I have managed to understand who I am and where I belong!"
Giorgia begins her day with the blessing: "Praised be Thou, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a Gentile." I asked her if this grates at her. I think that she said no, but I didn't get a clear explanation. Only later, during our three meetings, did I notice a recurring pattern: Her steadfast refusal to speak much about her childhood and her life before she got to know Clara, in contrast to the sparkle in her eyes every time she touches on the nexus between her story and Judaism.
Indeed, it is a story of re-birth.
Sixteen-year-old Gabriele was born in Milan to a Jewish-Israeli father and an Italian-Catholic mother. Together with his younger brother, they live in the northern neighborhood, not far from Milan's Central Station. Every morning, with the exception of the Sabbath and holidays, for eleven years, Gabriela would cross over to the other side of the city, ten kilometers up and ten kilometers back, in order to learn in a Jewish school. He was placed in the kindergarten at age five, and from that time until the end of this year, he was educated between the same protective walls, among the same children and in the same schoolyard. "My father is not religious, but we celebrate the Jewish New Year, on Yom Kippur we fast, and my brother and I go with father to synagogue… ah, yes, the distance requires that we use motorized transportation. We have our Passover Seder together with my friend Michiel. My mother is also not religious, and we celebrate Christmas with her family, but in a way that has no religious meaning. When I was born, my parents made me a brit ceremony, and at age 13, I was called up to the Torah. We don't separate our dishes or otherwise observe the rules of kashrut, but it was always important to me to learn Jewish history and the Hebrew language. I feel Jewish, for sure."
It was in school, among Jews, that he actually felt different. Every morning when his father would give him a ride to school, Gabriele would say goodbye, cross the sidewalk, pass under the security cameras and through the double door, ascend the steps, enter the classroom and… be struck with a wall of stony faces. "I don't remember when it began, the ban. I think it was always that way. There was a closed group of kids in the class, mainly boys who were the children of Persian immigrants, the core of the Jewish community here in Milan, who felt that they could do anything. The never greeted me. I was considered 'Italian.' There were five 'Italians' in our class, the kind who had one Italian (non-Jewish) parent. I passed my time in school alone, or with the other four. Always the same four. They didn't include us in their games. I'm not a bad soccer player at all, but they never accepted me on the team. They laughed at my brother and I couldn't get back at them because they were many, everyone against one.
"I didn't understand why they were behaving in this way…" he said, but I don't believe him. It seems to me that more than not understanding, he didn't want to believe it. He speaks about how they shunned him for years, and his gaze wanders, resting / not-resting on the back of the chair, explaining to me and to himself that it's important to tell because it's important that it be known, because maybe there's a chance for change…
"Michiel's grandmother said that when we were in kindergarten, she once heard one of the mothers from the community say that she didn't want there to be a risk of her daughter marrying one of them, when she grew older.
"I don't understand…" he reiterates, "how is it that with all of our problems coming at us from every angle, instead of uniting, people hate one another, closing themselves off into groups… us, of all people!?"
"In the early years the situation was still somehow tolerable. The teachers devoted attention to solving social problems. It was important for them to prevent the isolation of children or the creation of cliques. When a young person was caught speaking coarsely, he was sent to the principal. Later, there was turnover on the staff and the hatred burst forth. The high school teachers focused on academics, and didn't relate to behavioral problems. Two of my few friends left. Mother said that one day there would only be Persian Jews left in the school. For our annual class trip we went to France. I anticipated that leaving the framework would bring about a change and that finally we would unite, but nothing changed. When I would approach someone, he wouldn't answer. When I asked girls from the class to pose with me for souvenir photographs, they refused. Only one girl in the class would say hello to me from time to time. She seemed to me a bit different. But even she didn't agree.
"On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we gathered in the large auditorium, lit candles and listened to tales of the horror told by the survivors who were invited to participate in the ceremony every year. Afterwards, we viewed a documentary film about the extermination camps. The guy in front of me laughed. I commented to him, and then he called to his friends, 'Look at Gabriele. He says no laughing,' and the whole group laughed."
Gabriele was broken: "When we celebrated the recent Jewish New Year at Michiel's house – his mother is Jewish and his father is Italian – we brought up the problem. My father didn't believe that it was a real problem, but mother suggested that I switch schools. Michiel's grandmother suggested speaking with the principal. In the end, she didn't go, because Michiel was afraid that the problem would get worse. Michiel stayed there. It's a shame. I switched to an Italian school where I began a new life. There's no more hierarchy – now I'm an equal, I have a lot of friends, twice weekly after school I have practice, on Sundays there's a game. I'm center defender.
"Some time ago, I told my girlfriend about my experiences in my previous school. She had a hard time believing it: 'Who are they, that they allowed themselves to abuse you in such a way?' The more I think about it, the more shocking it is… if I pass by there again and someone says something to me, today I know how to talk back. But in any case I'll never go there again in my life.
"It's just too bad that I was forced to give up the Hebrew classes."
Simone was born in Rome in 1965 to a Jewish mother and a Christian father. Recently, he moved to Israel and was married in an Orthodox ceremony. His two siblings remained in Rome. The middle brother is an atheist, while his younger sister will be marrying a Catholic woman next month in a Church wedding officiated by a bishop.
Since his daily schedule is incredibly full, we set a telephone appointment for a late-night hour. And so, over the phone, Simone tells me about a mosaic of identities, and about a single thread that passes through time, curving and collecting tiny pieces, bringing them together and then pulling them taut into a straight line.
"In Israel there's no place for a mixed identity," he says. "In Italy, there is. In Rome, in my socio-economic status, I didn't feel any problem. I was born into an affluent family on the intellectual left. My mother grew up in a secular Jewish family on Park Avenue in New York. Her decision to leave and move to Rome was accompanied by a significant change in her identity. In Rome she met my father, an Italian Catholic from Florence, and they got married. My father is also secular; only his mother was Catholic. On Christmas, grandmother would take us to church. Everyone was there, except my mother; therefore, we believed over the years that our mother was Santa Claus.
"Apart from that, we didn't celebrate holidays, I wasn't involved in the Jewish community, but I was a Jew. I told myself that I was a Jew and I felt Jewish, because my mother always told me that I was Jewish. I would see her wearing a Star-of-David around her neck, or a small pendant that said "Hai.' At night she would read to us from the Torah in Italian. The second bedtime story that I remember is Pinocchio. My first airplane model was an Israeli Phantom. The first project I did at age 12 was about the Six-Day-War.
"At age 14 we started becoming active in the left-wing student movements. When we would come out of school, the neo-Nazis of Rome would be waiting for us, members of extreme movements [such as*?] 'Ordine Nuovo.' During the riots, two policemen were killed outside of my school. In the late 1970s and early 80s, the Julius Caesar High School was one of the hotbeds of Rome. I began calling the high school, 'La Susina,' the plum, in Italian: red inside, and black outside.
"My involvement in politics at such a young age related to my mother, who had been active in the extra-parliamentary left and in feminist movements. My parents separated when I was seven, and I connected with mother, and through her, to the family in America. My maternal grandfather was a prominent architect in New York. He was a difficult man, anti-religious, and against every organization. His wife came from a Jewish Orthodox family. They disowned her for marrying him, and he didn't allow her to attend synagogue. He was born in Poland to a poor family, came to Brooklyn, and wanted to be American. What did he do? He joined the Navy Academy. There he suffered very much on account of his being a Jew. Later, my grandfather changed his name and became a boxing champion. I inherited his stubbornness: the Jew who is an underdog but succeeds despite everything. He died of cancer before I was born. My grandmother's second husband was a genius, but a cold man. At age 19 he graduated from Harvard and with a group of other people, he opened the First Union Bank in the United States. He was a Zionist and struggled to transfer money to Israel. I saw pictures of him from 1949, with Ben Gurion and Moshe Sharet. To me, a Jew is a person who has an opinion, who is capable of standing up to people who oppose him and swimming against the current. One by one, I laid down the fragments of identity that people didn't want, but they flowed within me, and I made something whole from them. Judaism will ultimately emerge, no matter how much you try to erase it; it came out with me, ultimately.
"I wanted to get married in Israel even before I met my wife. I wanted my children to have an Israeli education. I chose to take that part of my identity, so that my children would have less of a problem in understanding the identity which was for me so difficult to understand. To counter a mixed identity, a single line is necessary. With religion it's exclusive. You can't be a Jew and a Christian at the same time; or you can cross it out and then you're secular, but that can only happen in Italy or in Western Europe – not in the United States and certainly not in Israel.
"In 1989 I arrived in Israel for the first time, for a visit to the Weizmann Institute. Prof. Michael Feldman invited to me after reading my resume. I was a science student. I became very excited as my first visit to Israel approached. It must be a nice place, I thought, like a dream. When I landed at Ben Gurion, and the whole way to Rechovot, I looked around me in disgust, and asked myself: Who designed this place? Construction contractors? Only afterwards did I feel like a ray of light had found me: this was my home and this was where I wanted to live. At the Weizmann Institute I met Prof. Ada Yonah, recipient of the Israel Prize for Science, Prof. Yoel Sussman, from the Department of Structural Biology, and Prof. Israel Silman, from the Neurobiology Department, who, in retrospect, became my family in Israel. At the end of 1994, I met Ada Yonah at a conference at the University of Rome. Not only did she remember me, but she even asked me when I was coming. And so, in 1995, I arrived in Israel as part of my doctoral studies. A month before I concluded my studies I met Rikki, my wife, and I also registered a patent, two reasons that tied me even more to this place. An especially exciting moment for me was receiving a prize for my doctoral work in a ceremony held in the Knesset: the entire community was thanking me.
"We received an offer to establish a company here based on a grant in the propriety to the chief scientist. I established the company, but there were too many bureaucratic problems and I thought that I would have to leave. Then two upstanding people – tzadiks – entered the picture who helped me very much. Each time that I thought that I would have to leave, something extraordinary occurred. If I were paranoid, I would think that I had been programmed to live in Israel by age two, and that the universe was collaborating with the plan.
"I thought that if my mother was Jewish I could move to Israel with no problem, but it wasn't so. In recent years, Israel's doors have been closing. I'm Jewish and my family has been Jewish for generations, but the work required to prove this has been dragging on for over a year. I made contact with an individual who helps people with these kinds of problems, and he has taken upon himself to scour the United States for documents relating to my family. It took him as far as Russia. I submitted the forms to the Rabbinate. After long discussions they reached the conclusion that I am a Jew. The battle I waged ended, from my point of view, in the following way: no one can tell me who I am. I am 100% Italian, 100% American, 100% Israeli, and 100% Jewish. Every part of my identity is a complete part, in my eyes. I cannot stand that everywhere I go the focus is on the foreign part of me. In Italy I was American, in America - an Italian, in Israel, a new immigrant. I know that it will always be that way. It is that way because the foreign aspect is the one that sticks out. But beyond what sticks out, there is the complete truth. You have to accept me whether you want to or not: I am part of you as a nation, by virtue of my birthright, and I am part of Israel, by virtue of having immigrated by aliyah."
I also requested to speak with Simone's brother and sister, to hear about what lines grow out of the same point, split, and head for or are pulled to completely different directions. I was unable to reach the middle brother, but I was warned from the outset that he is averse to speaking. I caught the younger sister at the height of her preparations for her wedding. We set a phone date for the following evening, but when I called again, she told me that she wasn't prepared to speak about this topic: "I never dealt with it. For me, it's normal to be who I am." And that's it.
Simone recalls an argument they once had: "My sister said that she wasn't Jewish, so I said to her: 'Go backwards – according to the rules in place in Europe that was enough to put you on a train.'"
He adds: "Once, when I was serving in the (Italian) army, someone said to me: 'Why are you last in the line to the showers? What, are you Jewish?' I replied: 'Actually, I am, and what you said is in contravention of the law.' I told the commander: 'Either he leaves, or I'm going to the press.' He left.
"My values are tolerance and liberalism, and it is precisely due to them that I came to Israel. Here one can see all kinds of people living together. There are horrific phenomena here. The most difficult 'landing' for me was seeing the racist attitude of the Ashkenazi community towards the Ethiopians or the Yemenites – hearing racist jokes. But values of justice and equality are part of Judaism; I believe that this dream can still come to pass. I registered for the "Movement for Quality Government in Israel" and SHVIL (Transparently International – TI) Israel, the movement against corruption in business and government. The work of these movements is based in ethical education. That part of our identity must continue to exist."
Layers of Feeling and Meaning
How do children perceive religion? Just as they perceive any other abstract idea: The quantity is perceived by counting the fingers of the hand; the colors are learned through objects: a tomato is red, the teddy bear is yellow. The holidays often comprise the richest childhood memories, because they are intensive and saturated with feeling, bound together by symbolism, moments of family unity and deviation from the routine. The more that one's perspective grows and broadens, the greater the layers of feeling and meaning added. I can only assume that the intensity of experience and the extent of the magic that infuse such moments have an effect on the tendencies of the heart that develop in the future.
There is no doubt that every individual story is unique, every choice emanates from an infinite combination of parameters that are related, among other things, to one's structure of one's character to and genetic influences; but among all these one must emphasize the experience. As our Sages said in Ethics of the Fathers: 'All is forseen, yet freedom of choice is granted.' Distant memories infused with magic and love can act for us as road signs, while difficult experience full of pain and hatred can obscure the signs, like footprints in the sand after a storm. Suffering can cause the flame to flicker out, or it can instigate change. Friction will cause us to move. Shock will deter us from the path. To where? Will we be there to choose the direction?
During my search for children of mixed marriages who wanted to tell their stories, I encountered a difficulty. The difficulty was not in finding mixed Jewish-Christian families – there is no lack at all, as it turns out. The difficulty was in finding people who wanted to speak about it. Some had nothing to say on the topic. They didn't trouble themselves with questions of identity and did not feel a need to choose. Since these people live in an environment with a limited Jewish influence, I feel that their Jewish identity can be compared to a candle flame in a room where the oxygen is running out. In the course of preparing this article, I came to understand that the children of mixed marriages are unable to be plain Jews, in a passive manner. In order to be Jewish, they must make a conscious choice. They must recognize their Jewish identity and cultivate it, since if they do not do so, it will wither away.
Vered Zaikovski is an artist.