Sunday, October 4, 2009

Growing Up Italian & Jewish American..A Personal Story....

I find it rather amusing that when asking someone a question about their perception of America that most still refer to it as a “melting pot:” this place where people from all different places and all walks of life coexist. That’s all well and good, but for those of us who have recent and living immigrants in our families will tell you a different story about being here in the States. I am the product of a mixed marriage—immigrant Italian-Catholic on one side and conservative Slavic-Jewish on the other—and let me just tell you, my childhood was both loud and confusing.

My parents were rebels of their time by marrying outside their cultures and faiths having each been raised in very traditional environments, respectively. My Mother’s very Italian family welcomed my Dad with open arms, whereas my Father’s Jewish side wanted nothing to do with the union. (To put it into perspective, I didn’t meet my Jewish extended family until I was 10 years-old.) Still my parents made a life for themselves and when I came along, they agreed they were going to raise me in both faiths, and therefore both cultures.

To this day people like to point out how great the month of December must be for me since there’s Christmas and Chanukah, but imagine being a child of about five years old and utterly lost because Christmas Day fell during Chanukah and my Jewish Father’s birthday is on 25 December! Don’t get me wrong—anyone would love an excuse to get lots of presents and find three different cakes on the table—but every year around the holidays I just feel overwhelmed. On the other hand, I feel more strongly about many tenants of the Jewish faith despite spending most of my life surrounded by reverent Catholics. When it comes to the Italian side of my family I feel much, much closer to them and to Italians as a people in general since that’s not only whom I most look and act like, but also I don’t think most people peg me for someone with Jewish DNA by appearance: I’m dark, have tattoos, and eat pork like it’s going out of style. Good thing I don’t want to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, right?

On a more humorous note, I feel like I live the Italian version of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” on a constant basis. I have fond memories growing up of stories about Italy and why everything Italian is just superior in any way imaginable. As a little kid my grandmother only bought me dresses from Italy and my Mom tells me a lot of my toys were made in Italy, too. I grew up with the best homemade food ever and when I say “homemade,” I mean the only thing my gorgeous grandmother doesn’t do is grind her own flour. As a means of reinforcing language and culture, since the time I could speak my grandfather would always make me (and eventually my brother) ask for whatever we wanted solo in Italiano. The first memory I have of music and dancing is the tarantella with my grandmother, and the thought of eating anything but Italian food ever when we go out as a family is something that isn’t even up for discussion. I think one of the funniest memories ever was getting to my Italian grandparents’ house late at night after spending the day with my Jewish grandparents. My Nonna immediately inquired as to what my other grandmother made for us to eat and determined before I could get a word in edgewise that I must have hated her food and hardly ate all day, when in fact I wasn’t even hungry, but you can’t tell an Italian Grandma you’re never hungry since in their mind that’s just not possible. She quickly sat me down at 10:00pm and made what looked like an endless buffet of all my favorites and wasn’t satisfied until I nearly felt ill from eating two very large dinners back-to-back, all the while knowing her food was the last to touch my lips and not that of my Jewish Grandma!

While my Father’s parents are now both deceased, I am very fortunate to still have my Italian grandparents with me. I know they appreciate the fact that I speak Italian, inherited the cooking gene, love Italian music, and talk of hopefully moving there one day. I can’t say that whenever I get married and start a family I wouldn’t be the same way with my kids: reinforcing one’s culture through love, language, food, and music, but let’s just hope that my kids don’t walk around in a culture daze like I do at times. Sometimes I just don’t know what I am since I feel like two different people exist inside me and they only come out when I’m around a specific group of people. I have a nasty espresso habit and think a good coffee is an art that’s lost on America. I’ve been given red wine since I was a child and have been known to travel long distances for good cheese and exceptional sopressata, yet I fast on Yom Kippur, have read the Talmud and sometimes curse in Yiddish. What am I?? Let’s just say happy, well-rounded, and often overfed.

-Lindsay

You can follow Lindsay on Twitter-- @thecigarchick
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