On Religion…

…with a very Jewish mother and an Italian Catholic father, one might think life would be confusing for a kid, but not so for me. I knew from early childhood, that our family was ‘different’ and at some point this mixed nationality, religious and cultural issue was going to loom large in shaping my identity. I was right and resolved that question very early in life. I came home from elementary school and asked my dad, “Am I Jewish or Italian?” Not knowing there is a difference between religion and nationality, it all seemed like one and the same to me as an eight year old. In his own style, Pop said, “ya know what youse are” referring to my brother Jimmy and me? You’re half your mother and half me.” I looked at him, paused for a moment, and said, “ok, what’s for dinner.” Question answered; conflict resolved; end of story!

I am…Jewish! That should be no surprise in that Jewish law says ‘when your mother is Jewish, you’re Jewish.’ Remember, we always know your mother. However, I am not the kind of ‘Jewish’ that most people think of when considering what it means to live as a Jew. I am a secular, cultural, ‘lox and bagels’ Jew who does not attend shul unless there is a wedding or Bar/Bat Mitzvah even though I had my Bar Mitzvah at age 20. I do not subscribe to the theology or dogma of any religion, political party or label. That said, I’ll be the first to take offense at even a hint of an anti-Semitic remark or act.

I am…Italian, not Catholic. Somehow, I am able to separate the theology from the culture although our Italian side of the family is very much a practicing Catholic one. Jimmy and I were not only exposed to our two cultures but were steeped into them and my best takeaway from that exposure lies in the notion that only difference between Italian Americans and Jewish Americans is six months of high school. Bada Bing! I credit my very close friend, Paul Weiner with that line. He would know having grown up on the lower eastside of Manhattan in the 20s. The two cultures are very similar. We are raised in our kitchens where food trumps all; family is the most important priority; we are proud of our rich history as a people; we value education and achievement; we are mired in guilt; we have a great sense of humor and we value friendship and loyalty to a fault. However, of all these characteristics none is more evident than the warmth and personal connection we extend to each other as well as those who are not part of the tribes.

So…What are You?

At our engagement party hosted by my brother Jimmy and sister-in-law Frankie in NJ, one of my Italian cousins, Alec Bonavitacola asked Nancy that great question which is part of Marino family lore, “so, like, what are ya.?” To wit, Nancy looked at me with a quizzical expression as if to say, “What?” Cousin Alec asked again and Nancy replied with, “I’m a (and with a pause said)… secretary?” And, she delivered that response as a question rather than a declaration. Everyone at the party found this hilarious, but of course they would. All in the room were either Jewish or Italian with Nancy being as ‘white bread’ as they come. Cousin Alec continued by attempting to extract an answer to his inquiry and said, “no, no… I mean like, what are you?” …as if that clarified the question. I had to translate the language of South Philly into that of Blue Blood Pasadena. Nancy politely said, “oh, I’m a combination of various nationalities: Dutch, English, German and French.” Cousin Alec then looked at me and jokingly said, “yo Albie, you’re marryin’ a mongrel.” All laughed heartily. Nancy didn’t quite get it. Welcome to the Marinos!

My First Exposure to “Catholic”

Mom and dad never traveled without Jimmy and me. Never! Neither babysitters nor drop offs were options. I can remember one, and only one exception to this policy which proved so meaningful to me at age six or seven. Mom and Dad were going to Hot Springs, Arkansas for a week’s vacation without my brother and me. This was a place where the Philly, Jersey and NY mob guys went for hot mineral baths and casino style gambling. Pop was in his element. Mom thought that Jimmy and I should be separated for the week while they were gone so as not to burden any one family and household by looking after two more kids. Very thoughtful! Jimmy went two doors down from our house to Aunt Molly’s and Uncle Sam’s where they lived with their two boys, our cousins Fred and Alvin. Aunt Molly was not only my mother’s sister but her best friend. I, however, went to my Aunt Kitty’s house (one of dad’s sisters) where she lived with her husband (Uncle Doc), my grandparents and one of my Italian cousins, Rocco. As you have probably guessed, this was a very Italian catholic home in the same general area of South Philly as where all the Marinos (the Italians) and Rayfields (the Jews) lived. Let the games begin!

My first day at Aunt Kitty’s was great. I had been to that house many times and was very comfortable with all who lived there as well as all who visited. I loved the family and was quite at home, even without mom and dad. The house was always fun with lots of noise, characters, laughter, arguments and wonderful food. Oh the food! This was a real slice of Calabria (grand pop) and Naples (grand mom). As the day turned to evening, bed time approached. I had never been away from my parents at bedtime. I didn’t think it was a big deal and Aunt Kitty marched me up the stairs to get ready. As often as I visited that house, I never went upstairs…until then.

After Aunt Kitty bathed me and after brushing my teeth, she walked me into one of the bedrooms. At that moment, I knew something wasn’t quite right. The room was dimly lit by candles and the blizzard of ’49 was upon us. Small flames were casting giant shadows on the walls as wisps of frosty air blew in through small window breaches over the sills. Religious iconic statues were all over the room and not one of them wore a smile. Then it happened…the ah ha moment! I saw “the guy!” There was this man with a beard who was only partially clothed in shmatas. He was attached to what appeared to be an elongated plus sign. He wore some sort of ringed hat with an open top and he was bleeding from his forehead and face. His expression was something I couldn’t quite get…something noble as if to say, “I really don’t deserve this and I’m making it not hurt.” I just didn’t get it. Jimmy and I had no religious training…not Judaism, Catholicism or any other kind of ‘ism.’ All I knew is that my mother was Jewish and we celebrated all of the Jewish holidays (food only) and my father was Italian and we celebrated two Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter (food only). Further to the “guy”, his heart was outside of his chest. OUTSIDE OF HIS CHEST…and was dripping blood. This is pretty scary to a little kid who doesn’t know from this stuff.

My ‘ah ha’ Moment

I didn’t say a word but I am sure I had eyes as big as two pizza pies…12 inchers. Aunt Kitty then pulls back the bed covers and asks me to say prayers with her before getting into bed. I told my aunt I didn’t know any prayers and had never prayed. She very gently and kindly asked me to follow her. She kneeled at the bedside, folded her hands at the bed’s edge and looked and nodded to me as if to say go ahead. She then said, “repeat after me…now I lay me down to sleep”; I said, “now I lay me down to sleep”; she said, “I pray the lord my soul to keep”; I said, “I pray the lord my soul to keep”; she said, “if I should die before I wake”; I said, “just a second”…then asked something like, “what do you know about this room that I don’t know?” Aunt Kitty did not find my comment amusing. She was a bit shocked that a six or seven year old would dare question such convention although she did recognize my fear and discomfort and assured me that all be fine. It wasn’t!

Once I realized that I was not going to be able to sleep in that house without being killed and then eaten by the statues, I carried on and insisted that I go to my Aunt Ida’s house… another of my mother’s sisters who lived in the same general vicinity. My Uncle Doc agreed to take me to Aunt Ida’s but his car was “snowed in.” I continued behaving badly until Uncle Doc yielded and put on his heavy winter clothes, boots, etc, and dressed me in full winter regalia looking like the Michelin tire man and off we went on foot to Aunt Ida’s. Uncle Doc carried me on his back the entire way which was about a mile away. I knew Aunt Ida would make ‘cowboy soup’ for me as she always did, and I would feel much better since I wouldn’t be devoured by those ferocious statues. Until their deaths in the 70’s, both Uncle Doc and Aunt Kitty kidded me about that incident for the rest of their lives. They were wonderful, caring, compassionate, long suffering, devout Catholics.

The Takeaway

I learned several things from that experience: Aunt Kitty was a warm and gracious woman who loved me and was sincerely offering spiritual guidance so that I wouldn’t be “damned.” Uncle Doc was a great ol’ career Navy guy who drank lots o’ beer, was a prolific letter writer, a quasi-intellectual and would do most anything for anybody. Mom and dad never left either of us with anyone ever again. And most of all, the personal defining moment for me was: I didn’t know if I could or shoud be Jewish, but I was never more certain about anything than I was about not being Catholic. There is irony to this little story:  I am a Trustee and Vice Chair of the BOT at a girls’ Catholic high school where our granddaughter is now a senior. Sister Francine who is Head of School and native Philadelphian is a wonderful administrator as well as a die hard Phillies fan who invited me to sit on her Board of Trustees. She also has a gift…she is impossible to say NO to!

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