Poem: But I Am (Half) Jewish

A companion to my earlier poem, “I’m Not Irish.”                                                                    

Israel and Rachel Birnbaum arrived from Galicia, Poland, in 1870.

Fred and Magdalena Schelker in 1866

From the Alpine peaks of Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.

And that’s how my American story begins.

Half Ashkenazi Jew, half Swiss Reformed.

They settled, first in New York and then in Illinois

Israel, in Chicago, was a glazier and Fred, in Elgin, a farmer 

Who later worked for the watch company.

Neither was rich or exceptional to my knowledge.

Both had children and grandchildren.

And then one day in 1924, the two branches came together.

Fred’s grandson, Ernest, a stationery salesman,

Made a call at a downtown office.

An attractive brunette secretary named Muriel caught his eye.

After a few more sales calls, there was a dinner date.

And then more dates and perhaps a movie now and then.

And an engagement.


Muriel took Ernest, son of Methodist parents,

Home to meet her Jewish family.

This did not go well.

I only know the story as told by my Uncle Mort

He was a teenager

He and his younger brother hid in a bedroom

When the screaming and yelling started.

It seemed the Jewish family didn’t welcome

The earnest young man who wanted to marry their daughter.

Ernest and Muriel married anyway in September 1924.

They both worked and saved

So they could invest

In a small commercial printing business in the West Loop

Named Colonial Process Printing Company.

My dad owned and operated that business

And went to “the shop” five or six days a week for forty years.

They wanted a family but it was eleven years

Before I was born in October 1935

And almost seven years more

When my sister Lynda was born in March 1942.

My parents’ greatest joys were golf and bowling.

Reading and culture not so much.

My dad was an enthusiastic hunter

With a rack of rifles and shotguns

Mounted in our knotty pine basement

On Rutherford Avenue

In the Italian urban suburbia named Montclare.


Every year he hunted big game with friends

In Canada or the Dakotas

And came home with his share of the large animals

They shot and had butchered and packaged

As roasts, steaks and stews.

Deer, elk, moose.

My mother learned to cook game

And sometimes canned it.

I remember canned moose stew

On the basement fruit cellar shelves.

Brown chunks of meat and gravy packed

Into Mason jars

Next to the peaches and tomatoes.

The peaches were luscious bits of summer.

I can’t remember if we ever ate the canned moose stew.


Religion was not important to my dad.

He insisted he didn’t need it

To be a good man.

And he always resented Judaism (and his in-laws)

From that day in 1924.

He was a man who knew

How to hold a grudge.

Mom left Judaism behind

When she married my dad.

She loved two Protestant churches

She sang in their choirs.

Mom was the only one of the four of us

Who could sing.

She had a beautiful alto voice.

First, she sang at a Lutheran Church—

The Church of the Good Shepherd.

She liked the pastor and sent me

To Sunday school there

(After her Jewish mother died).

Then the Montclare Congregational Church

Where both my sister and I were married.

To two religiously nondescript men

Of earnest and hard-working heritage.


My husband and I had two sons.

Religion was a debating point.

Should we send them to some neutral non-Catholic, non-Jewish

(We never even considered Jewish, to be honest)

House of religion

On Sundays?

Do they need to know about religion

To decide if they want to practice it later?

Most important.

Can we just send them off or do we have to go too?

The house was divided.

We both wanted to send them.

I didn’t want to go.

The boys had an occasional taste of religion.

A Methodist one here

Because the pastor was an ACLU friend.

A Congregational bit there

For a similar reason.

Really not much.


Years later, older son mentioned

Going to temple.

Really? I thought.

Probably to meet women.

He was newly divorced.

But he was serious about the Jewish part.

Learned Hebrew, made his adult bar mitzvah.

Taught bar mitzvah kids.

Became a temple officer.

Married a woman of partial Jewish heritage

Sort of like his own.

Younger son seems more indifferent.

Occasionally goes to a neutral church.

Unitarian Universalist.

Where he admires the Prairie architecture and structure.


I remain militantly non-religious.

Not an atheist.

That demands too much commitment.

Just indifferent.

Older son says,

“Mom, they all think you’re Jewish anyway.”

I roll my eyes.

And remember my one drop of Irish blood.


Photo caption : Nancy, Muriel, Lynda. Summer 1957. Family photo.


2 Comments on “Poem: But I Am (Half) Jewish”

  1. Pam Smith-Purgason says:

    Hi Nancy, it’s Pam Smith-Purgason. Love receiving your blog posts and so enjoyed your book, Chicago Girl! ‘Hoping to visit sometime before the end of the year. All the best.


    • nancysbishop says:

      Hi Pam — forgive my late reply. Thanks so much for checking out my online journal. It would be great to see you. Let me know if you are coming and we’ll plan a reunion! // Nancy


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