Most people assume Ephraim Rosenbaum is Jewish. The New York writer, 37, has the classic Ashkenazi look and there’s his name.
That’s the irony for people like Rosenbaum who have Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers: Their last names allow them to “pass,” while the Gambinis and the MacDonalds with Jewish mothers, who are Jewish according to Jewish law, get the sideways glances in shul.
“People are always asking me, ‘When’s Rosh HaShanah this year?’ and I’ll say, ‘I’m not sure, I don’t really celebrate,’ ” he says.
Rosenbaum’s parents are leaders in the Dovetail Institute, a national support group for intermarried families. Like many Dovetail parents, they raised Ephraim and his siblings with both Judaism, his dad’s religion, and Catholicism, his mom’s faith.
The family celebrated all the holidays, attended Christmas Eve Mass in church and Yom Kippur services in synagogue. The children chose which religious school to attend.
This was serious stuff, their parents reminded them.
“It only works if both partners are actively involved in their own religion,” says Ephraim s mother, Mary.
In fact, Mary admits, she and her husband were so scrupulous about insisting that their children decide on their own religious identities, “at one point we almost turned them off to religion altogether.”
Ephraim Rosenbaum says he’s half-Jewish.
“I consider myself spiritually tied to both sides,” he says. “I refer to myself more often as Jewish, but given my liberal, intellectual social set, I often find myself defending Christianity, sometimes to people with Christian backgrounds who wouldn’t dream of setting foot in a church.”
He considers his background a mixed blessing.
Sometimes “it has a paralyzing effect,” he says. “You learn a lot and have to make up your mind for yourself; nothing’s handed to you. On the other hand, you don’t have a culture that will immediately accept you. Because my mother’s not Jewish, I’m not accepted in many Jewish circles.”
When it comes to raising his own children, Rosenbaum has said it will depend on whom he marries. Now in a serious relationship with a woman whose parents are intermarried and, he says, “has no strong religious feelings,” he’s not sure what they’ll decide.
“She says she wants the child to be vegetarian that’s our only serious point of contention,” says Rosenbaum, a committed meat-eater.