Poem: But I Am (Half) JewishPosted: October 23, 2022
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
Do they need to know about religion
To decide if they want to practice it later?
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.
Where he admires the Prairie architecture and structure.
I remain militantly non-religious.
Not an atheist.
That demands too much commitment.
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.