Saint Patrick, Snakes, and Interfaith Green Bagels

Both my kids have a special affinity for Saint Patrick’s Day, because they have red hair. When they were little, with bright copper ringlets, people would stop and stare and sometimes even ask where they came from, as if they might not be my kids at all. (I have rather dull brown hair). Occasionally, I am sorry to admit, I would shoot back with a snarky, “I adopted them from Ireland.”

My children have Jewish, Presbyterian, Methodist, Quaker, Mennonite, and Roman Catholic ancestors, from England, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland and Germany. Their red hair comes from my red-headed Jewish father, and from my English-Dutch-Swiss husband. So although they are redheads, and part Irish, the Irish part is not the red-headed part. Nevertheless, living life as a redhead, or “ginger” as the Brits call it, does seem to increase their identification with their Irish background. My thirteen-year-old son, who is small and lively, with a mischievous freckled face to go with his red curls, delights in dressing up each year as a leprechaun. Today, he wore green madras shorts, a lime green slicker, and a green felt hat with a feather to school. His words:  “Mom, I OWN this holiday.”

Meanwhile, my sixteen-year-old daughter read a book about Saint Patrick to her interfaith Sunday School kindergarten class this week. I asked if it explained about the snakes, and she said, “What snakes?” I guess it was some kind of seriously historically-correct picture book, because it did not explain why every lithograph of Saint Patrick depicts him with snakes. According to folklore, Saint Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland. Sadly, according to scientists, there have been no snakes in Ireland since at least the last ice age, since it is an island cut off by frozen seas from the mainland snakes.

So the Irish snakes are apocryphal, or metaphorical. Some historians believe they represent the pagan and druid spirits, driven out by Saint Patrick’s missionary fervor. After all, the snake represents evil in the Biblical context. For this reason, some modern pagans are torn about whether or not to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. Meanwhile, snakes play a huge role in the Yoruba-based religions of Haiti (Vodou) and Brazil (Candomble), where Saint Patrick is revered for his power over snakes. The snake spirit in the African Yoruba religion is linked with Saint Patrick in these syncretic religions of the Americas, and the lithograph of Saint Patrick banishing the snakes is common in Vodou and Candomble altars and houses of worship.

“Well, if he didn’t drive out the snakes, what was the book about?” I asked my daughter. This is the downside of growing up Jewish without any Christian education I guess. I am dangerously ignorant at times about Western Christian culture. It pleases me that my own interfaith children, schooled in both religions, now teach me about such things.

My daughter explained to me that Saint Patrick, who was actually a Briton, possibly from Wales, was shipped off to be a slave in Ireland, escaped, and later returned as a priest to convert the pagan and druid Celts to Christianity. Perhaps ambivalence over Patrick’s background, not to mention ambivalence about mass conversions, explains why the Irish themselves did not originally make a big deal out of Saint Patrick’s Day. It was Irish-American immigrants, seeking a way to restore some national pride in the face of terrible discrimination in the New World, who ramped up the holiday with parades, green beer, green dogs, and ultimately, green bagels. Now that I think about it, a green bagel is oddly reminiscent of a green snake holding its own tale, in a symbol of the endless cycle of life.

Both Irish corned beef and cabbage, and green bagels, arose from the culinary cross-fertilization of Irish and Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. Sadly, green bagels are hard to come by outside of New York City—a city with adequate Jewish and Irish culture to support such whimsical commercial collisions. On this Saint Patrick’s Day, I feel a certain wistfulness that we, an all-American Irish-Jewish family, do not live in that great city, supporting the green bagel market. Corned beef and green bagels: it could be the start of a beautiful interfaith cookbook.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Interfaith Corned Beef: Irish and Jewish for Saint Patrick’s Day

I called my mother yesterday and told her I was making corned beef for Saint Patrick’s Day. I thought she would be pleased, because she often points out that I put more emphasis on my father’s Judaism than on her English-Scottish-Irish heritage. And she is right. Whenever my siblings and I were asked in school to write a report on family history, we always seemed to choose the Jewish side. Our Judaism felt more exotic, more compelling–frankly, like a better story–especially since we were just about the only Jews in our little New England town.

I made the mistake of bragging to my mother that I was planning to write about Saint Patrick’s Day, and she took the opportunity to grouse at me that this blog tends to focus on Judaism most of the time. And again, and as usual, she is right. I usually see interfaith issues through my Jewish lens because I was raised as a Jew (her agreement with my father), but also because Jews are frantically concerned about the growing number of interfaith families, whereas most Christian denominations do not feel demographically threatened by intermarriage (exceptions might include Catholics, other Orthodox Christians, and Mormons). Even while I find myself writing from a Jewish perspective, I resent the way that this perspective dominates the discourse on interfaith families–one of the reasons that I insist on referring to myself as interfaith, rather than half-Jewish.

“So are you making Jewish corned beef, or Irish corned beef?” asked Mom. I was momentarily silent, stunned by the idea that even corned beef must fit into a religion box.

“I don’t know Mom, what’s the difference? The package has a leprechaun on it, so I guess it’s Irish,” I replied.

In my childhood, we celebrated a secular Saint Patrick’s Day with great gusto. My Jewish dad would play jigs and reels on the piano and we would march around the living room in green foil hats and wave a flag that said “Erin go bragh.” And my mother made corned beef and cabbage.  But if I thought she would be pleased by the idea that I was making Irish corned beef, I had underestimated the complexity of my own mother. Her response: “Well, I know I’m the one who’s one-eighth Irish, but I kind of prefer Jewish corned beef, because I love garlic.”

“Well Mom, I guess that’s because you’re a common-law Jew now,” I replied. My mother, though she never converted, refers to herself as having a Jewish heart.

Being one-sixteenth Irish was important to me, growing up in Boston. Being Irish is a big deal in the land of the Kennedys, and everyone wore green to school on Saint Patrick’s Day. By wearing green, by surprising my friends (who thought of me as Jewish) with my display of pride in my Irish roots, I was able to cross over for at least a day and experience life in the majority.

Then came the terrible moment when my mother informed me, sotto voce, that to be historically accurate, I should probably be wearing orange, not green, since my Irish family had married into Protestantism in the New World. I was horrified. This was the late 1960s or early 1970s, and I knew that Irish-Americans from Southie were throwing rocks at buses as Boston schools desegregated. In Boston, orange was the color of the colonial oppressors, of the English. If I were to wear orange to school on Saint Patrick’s Day, I  thought I might possibly risk getting beaten up.

I was steeped in the traumas of Jewish history at Sunday School, but now I began to contemplate how strife between Christians can be as powerful and violent and persistent as strife between Jews and Christians, or Jews and Muslims. And I began to think about how interfaith families sometimes hide their roots beneath yarmulkes, or tam o’shanters.

My Irish Catholic great-great-great grandfather, Michael Gorman, immigrated to America from Clonmel, a town noted for its resistance to Oliver Cromwell and the British. The Gormans are an ancient Celtic tribe, probably converted from their pagan or druid religion by Saint Patrick or his ilk.  The word “Gorman” is thought to come from Celtic for “little blue ones” and the family crest features a blue shield. This may have something to do with Celts painting themselves blue to intimidate their enemies in battle (as in the movie Braveheart). So before they were green or orange, I guess the Gormans were blue: a pagan stripe in our interfaith family rainbow. Maybe on Saint Patrick’s Day, I’ll wear blue.

But, returning to the corned beef I made last night, it was a big hit. I avoided pledging culinary allegiance this time to either the Jews or the Irish. Instead, I found a Joy of Cooking recipe that calls for slathering the meat in brown sugar, mustard and soy sauce, to create a vaguely Asian corned beef. I called my mom to urge her to try the recipe: her big Jewish heart often craves Chinese food.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

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