Most people in the South don’t know I’m Jewish. The people who know me as Jewish know it because either I’ve told them, or they’ve figured it out on their own. Figuring it out isn’t too difficult if you’re familiar with Jews. “Feingold” is the Jewish equivalent of “Smith.”
If you haven’t guessed it from the title of this blog, I’m Italian too. In addition, my mother is a lapsed Catholic. I don’t usually tell people this because it’s easier not to have to explain my dual heritage. Believe it or not, there are a lot of people like me, and I think most of them live on Long Island. Marrying outside one’s ethnic group was popular with the Baby Boomers. A lot of ethnicities had been thrown together in the great New York City exodus of people to the suburbs, fueled by the GI Bill after World War II. I am one of the first of my tribe, born only three years after the 1965 cut-off for belonging to the Baby Boomer generation. That puts me on the older end of the Generation X continuum.
I grew up in two close suburbs of Pittsburgh. The first was a place called Swissvale. Swissvale was predominately Catholic. The second was Edgewood. Edgewood was more affluent and Protestant, and I took less crap there, but that’s irrelevant to this narrative.
From the first day of kindergarten, I was the only Jew in the room. In fact, I am the only Jew in the room everywhere I’ve ever lived with the exception of the few times I’ve gone to temple. No, that’s not true. Even there, I am still the only one in the room — the only person who’s half Italian Catholic. I’m “passing” myself off as Jewish to other Jews and people in general.
Swissvale was not a good place to be Jewish. All the other kids were mostly Catholics, and they bullied me mercilessly because I have a Jewish name. Clearly, their parents had told them I was Jewish, and that I was fair game. My parents didn’t believe me when I told them what I was going through because they had grown up on Long Island, a place where Jews are more common and therefore less picked on, although they are picked on to some degree. If you’re my parents and you’re reading this, screw you for putting me through that. There is a predominately Jewish section of Pittsburgh. We could have lived there.
What does this have to do with my Italian Catholic heritage? The answer is everything.
Almost all of my extended family lives on Long Island. Once or twice a year my immediate family would make an excruciating car trip there to see my grandparents and my aunts and uncles. Aside from my Jewish-side grandparents and aunt, my aunts and my cousins were overwhelming Italian and/or other types of gentiles, and all of them were Catholic. The thing is, though, my sisters and I were still the only ones in every room we visited because of our dual heritage. We didn’t play with our cousins like most people do. We were strangers. Outsiders. We lived in Pittsburgh. We were half Jewish. We had a Jewish name.
Family is supposed to be a safe space, but it isn’t. Not for me. I’m half Italian, but not Italian enough. Not only am I a stranger because I live so far away, but I’m also strange.
It’s more insidious that that, though. Conservative and Orthodox Jews do not acknowledge me as a Jew because my mother is not a Jew. Catholics do not consider me a Catholic because my father is Jewish. I am not welcome in either tradition. There’s no Jewish/Italian Anti-Defamation League. Italian Jews don’t have a grand temple/cathedral on Long Island, our ancestral homeland.
And that’s why I don’t tell people I’m Italian too.