When your family roots are deep and varied, figuring out what makes you you is tricky and wonderful all at once.
A few autumns ago, I was attempting to bake my first challah with my then 7-year-old daughter, Abby, when she asked me a question. “What am I?” she said, as the two of us tried to braid together the three strands of dough. “What do you mean?” I replied, knowing full well what she meant. “Well, we’re making this challah because it’s Rosh Hashanah, right? So am I Jewish? Or am I Italian? You always say I’m more Italian than anything, but isn’t someone in our family Cuban too? Is Cuban a religion?”
This conversation was going to be a lot harder than baking the bread. And that’s saying something because I’m not a baker. I’m a cook. I was born with a recessive gene in the patience department, which means it can sometimes be difficult for me to follow a recipe whose result hinges on, you know, following the recipe. Unlike cooking, where instructions read more like suggestions than mandates to me, baking, with its hyper-specific techniques and ingredient lists, seems made for the kind of people who revel in detail work, like violin makers or stop-motion animators. Compared to Abby’s question, though, I loved the scientific, if-this then-that promise of the recipe. At least it was straightforward. The answer to her question was not. If I were to give her the most accurate answer to “What am I?” it would go something like this:
“Well, your Papa Ivan, my father, is Jewish. His parents were Russian and Romanian. My mother is 100 percent Italian; she’s Presbyterian, but her mother was Catholic. Papa, Daddy’s father, was raised Catholic; he was German, English, and Mexican with a little Cuban mixed in too. Daddy’s mom, Grandma Hubba, is half Italian and half a lot of other things—Dutch, German, Scottish—and was raised with no religion. Neither was your dad. Even though I was raised both Presbyterian and Jewish, I was bat mitzvahed in 1983. Your dad and I were married by a Unitarian minister who had once been a rabbi. Your cousins on Dad’s side have spent a good number of years in Catholic schools, while on my side, your cousins are in Hebrew school twice a week. When I was growing up, every Friday night your grandpa would walk in the door with a fresh challah just like this one—and at some point over the weekend, it wouldn’t be unusual for me to take two slices of it and put together a bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich with mayo, a sandwich that would’ve had my kosher grandparents rolling in their graves.”
I don’t go through all this with Abby, though. Instead, I gave her my cop-out line. “You’re everything.” I could tell that she was confused by this answer. I was too. In fact, I had been working through that confusion for most of my life. My Jewish father and my Presbyterian mother took a diplomatic approach to raising their three kids with respect to religion: We’d go to Hebrew school and to select services on the High Holy Days, but we’d also go to church on Easter and Christmas Eve or occasionally when my mom was performing in the choir. This dual citizenship didn’t bother me at all—especially when the holidays came around and we were allowed to celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, eat latkes and gingerbread cookies. My friends, impressed by my mad dreidel skills and my familiarity with all the lyrics in “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” would ask: “So what are you? Jewish or Christian?”
“Both,” I would say
Just like “both” can sometimes register as “neither,” I worry that telling Abby and her sister, Phoebe, that we are “everything” might register as “nothing.” So on this particular day with Abby, I did what I usually do: I focused on the food. For metaphorical purposes, I wished we were making fondue, or something else that required a melting pot, but instead I turned to the challah. “Well, our family is sort of like this bread we’re baking for Aunt Lynn’s Rosh Hashanah dinner. It’s many ingredients combined and all these strands of dough interwoven, but if you do everything right, it transforms into something whole and meaningful.”
“Yes, that too.”
When the challah came out of the oven, it was beautiful. Well, sort of. It was perfectly curvy and golden, but it had a bulge in the middle and seemed about 20 percent larger than most of the ones my dad used to bring home. Still, we were extremely proud of it. Phoebe, then 9, walked in and decided she couldn’t wait until dinner at my sister’s. She ripped off a piece, let some butter melt into the sweet, eggy dough, then savored it. I did the same thing, but I studded the top with a few golden raisins, the way I used to as a kid.
I told the girls how a single bite of it beamed me back to my own childhood. Not only that, I told them, but the recipe we were using had been used by relatives for generations: Legend has it that the bread was first baked by my second cousin’s grandmother and that someone once paid her $100 for it during the Depression! Lastly, and perhaps most important, the braided bread that sat before us (mauled as it was) would be in the center of a table that my entire family would later share. Maybe we’d make it again next year. Maybe someday they’d make the same recipe with their children, and tell them the same story.
“Amazing, right?” I said. “See how this is not just a loaf of bread? How it connects us to so many other things?” “Sure, Mom,” said Phoebe. “Can I have the butter?”
Excerpted from How to Celebrate Everything by Jenny Rosenstrach. Copyright © 2016 by Jenny Rosenstrach. Reprinted by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.