Excerpt from The Half-Jewish Book: Page 2
I’m really thinking hard God. But so far I haven’t come up with any answers.
Toward the end, Margaret is so buffeted by the pressures all around her—from her parents and grandparents and from the looming dilemma of having to choose between the Y and the Jewish Community Center that she is on the brink of forsaking her personal God altogether:
Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. I’ve been looking for you, God. I looked in temple. I looked in church. And today I looked for you when I wanted to confess. But you weren’t there. I didn’t feel you at all. Not the way I do when I talk to you at night. Why, God? Why do I only feel you when I’m alone?
And therein lies the ironic moral of this engaging and sensitive children’s novel: Forced to choose between religions, the earnest half-Jewish child can lose her one true connection to God. And for some children, that could be a real tragedy.
Judy Blume Looks Back on Margaret:
JB: I grew up Jewish in suburban New Jersey in the fifties. My own religious education was minimal. I went to Sunday school when I was young. Though my Judaism was a part of me, like having brown eyes, my relationship with God had almost nothing to do with organized religion. Like Margaret, God was my confidante, my everyday friend.
In our community, social life was dependent on religion. Were you a member of the YMCA or the YMHA? Did you go to church or synagogue? We dated and went to parties with those of the same religion. Yet at school our friendships had nothing to do with religion. And from seventh grade on, my best friend, in and out of school, was Mary Sullivan. When I was in ninth grade I fell for a non-Jewish boy, Fred. My parents weren’t thrilled, but our understanding was: This is okay for now so long as when it comes to marriage you choose a Jewish boy.
No problem, since in ninth grade marriage wasn’t exactly on my mind. Fred took me to a dance at his Y. I was ashamed to tell my grandmother, who was ill and living with us, that I was going out with a Christian boy. And as much as I liked Fred, I was apprehensive. He was an other. I wasn’t sure what I’d find at the YMCA. To my surprise, I found it was very much like my Y. No one talked about Jesus, which, I think, is what I feared. They were too busy dancing. And later, when Fred and I kissed, religion had nothing to do with it. My romance with Fred lasted for less than a month, but it was important.
I think the decision to make Margaret half-Jewish grew out of my own early experiences (you had to be either Jewish or Christian) and my curiosity about my brother’s life (he had married a Gentile). He had two young sons by then, who, as far as I knew, didn’t even think about religion.”
Q: Do you think the social and parental pressures for today’s half-Jewish kids are different now from what they were for Margaret?
JB: It depends on your family and community, but overall, I’d say there’s probably less pressure today, though I’ve recently heard about half a dozen young women marrying into Jewish families who have converted to Judaism. And a few who haven’t converted but who have promised to raise their children Jewish.
My grandson is half-Jewish. He attends a school and lives in a community where religion doesn’t play as important a role as it played in my early years. He doesn’t feel the pressures that Margaret did (at least not yet) nor do his parents, who are now divorced. (His stepmother is Jewish, and his stepsister attends Sunday school at a synagogue.) They know many families with half-Jewish children. When my grandson is a few years older, I’ll share Are You there God? It’s Me Margaret with him and Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself too. Maybe that will help us talk about religion.
In the meantime, he celebrates .Jewish holidays with my daughter and our family, and with his father he celebrates Christmas, but I don’t think he has a clue about why Christmas is a holiday. I don’t think he knows anything about Jesus. But I don’t think he knows anything about Judaism, either. It’s a tricky subject for a grandparent to get into without the blessing of the child’s parents. Last spring, my grandson and I were out for a walk when we came upon a crowd outside a Catholic church. The girls were in white dresses. My grandson seemed very interested as I explained briefly that the girls were celebrating their communions. He looked up at me and said, `You know, I’m half-Christian and half-Jewish and when I’m older I can decide which religion I want to be.’ All I could think of was Margaret’s line in the book—twelve is very late to learn. But before I had the chance to say anything, my grandson took off, on to his next adventure of the day. I’m sure there will be many more questions as he grows older. I hope both of his families will be open and generous in their replies.