Growing up, my religious identity was None of the Above, a designation that made me feel as though I was aimlessly wandering around a non-denominational desert, searching for water but not finding any.
My German father was Jewish—a non-practicing, agnostic Jew, but Jewish nonetheless. He shared his story about leaving Nazi Germany as a small boy after his father was arrested, put in Buchenwald, and then released. But beyond that, he didn’t like discussing his religion, or much else about his Jewish experience.
My mother was raised Southern Baptist, having been a regular churchgoer growing up in Selma, Alabama. She was exposed at a young age to those who worshipped on Sunday, professing to be children of God, while on other days of the week they discriminated against their darker skinned brothers and sisters in Christ. As an adult, she stopped attending church.
Sometimes, I went to a Black church in New Orleans with our maid, Deborah, but neither of my nonpracticing parents brought me to a house of worship, leaving me without a religious community to call my own. I was not part of the vibrant and multigenerational Jewish community in New Orleans, nor of the WASPy Garden District crowd who were members of the country club and the Mardi Gras krewes. My religious identity remained unclear to me, even as I was regularly called a “kike” by opposing players on the high school basketball court. Was I called this because of my Jewish-sounding name or my looks? I don’t know, but just because I was “Jewish by assumption” didn’t mean that I identified as a Jew.
As I became older, the subject of my religious identity made me immediately uncomfortable, whether as a topic of conversation at a dinner party or as a question on a form. At times it elicited a visceral response—flushing, a bit of nausea—not just because I didn’t have a ready answer, but because it made me feel out of line with the rest of society. I would have rather been asked anything else—who did you vote for, how much money do you make, what is your sexual orientation.
What religion are you? felt like an interrogation, with a bright light shone in my face. While most people could respond with a one-word answer, that was never going to be an option for me. And that made me feel like an outsider that neither I nor others could neatly fit into a religious box, akin to the children in military families who stumble when asked Where did you grow up? Everywhere, nowhere.
As I hit my mid-40s, with a successful medical career in Northern California, this religious fence-straddling no longer felt right. I was married to a devoutly Catholic wife, our two daughters had been baptized in the Catholic Church, and the three of them were regular attendees of Sunday Mass. And while my family was at church, I went to my own places of “worship,” either the Stanford hospital to round on my patients or to the Santa Cruz mountains where I gloriously pedaled my bike uphill for hours among the redwoods, California sunshine, and Pacific Ocean mist. In these places, I began to feel closer to God.
When I experienced the most challenging time of my life—the death of my father, the disintegration of my carefully crafted medical career, and the depression that followed these events—I did what so many before me had done: I turned to religion. I went through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process at my family’s Catholic church—one in which I would later be baptized, my family and friends at my side, a day that will go down as one of my life’s most profound, right up there with my wedding day and when my daughters were born. And the day my father died.
I finally had a simple answer to the question What religion are you? One word, unambiguous, a settled matter. But more important than being able to quickly dispose of the question, I felt in sync with my family and the community around me—those who were Catholic and those who weren’t. I had a team that I was part of—a team that I joined late in life, but a team nonetheless. While not a conformist in most aspects of my life, I desperately wanted the conformity of having a religion I could call my own. I had finally found it.
After I published a memoir this spring called Exhale about my life as a transplant doctor, my friend Moshe helped me publicize it. One morning last fall, before the book came out, Moshe and I were discussing our marketing strategy when he suggested that we should submit the book to the Jewish Book Council. We talked then for a few minutes about my mother’s religious background when he asked, “Did she convert to Judaism before she married your father?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. I thought I would have known if she did, but as I sat there on the phone, I was suddenly unsure. “Does it matter?”
Moshe laughed. “Well, if she did. You’re Jewish.”
Was this some sort of rule I was unaware of?
I stood my ground, insisting, “I am Catholic,” imagining myself at church with the priest and the whole flock behind me. But then I started to wonder.
“Can I call you back?” I asked Moshe. “I need to call my mother.”
“Did you convert to Judaism before you and Dad got married?” I asked with some degree of urgency.
“Yes,” she said.
Yes. I started pacing with the phone attached to the side of my head.
When? “Right before your father and I were married. I finished the process on March 25, 1958.” Six years to the day prior to my birth. Of course.
Where? “In Selma, at the only synagogue in town.” There’s a synagogue in Selma? I had spent time there in the summers when I was a boy and, looking back, thought the likelihood of having a synagogue in Selma, and therefore, I suppose, Jews, was about as likely as both being present on Mars.
What did your parents think of your converting? “They weren’t happy about it.” My mother’s parents, always exceptionally kind to me, were white folks from the poor section of town. My grandfather was a railroad conductor and away from home a lot, prone to take a drink. I could imagine my grandparents’ reaction when she came home with a German Jew. My father didn’t make the summer trips to Selma with us. Work, he told us.
I always thought of my mother as a good Southern girl who went to the Baptist church in town, as she said, “anytime the doors were open.” I had no reason to think differently. But now, this. I asked, finally, “So why did you convert?”
“The Jewish religion seemed like a sensible one,” she said. “And the Jewish authors were always so interesting to me. It just seemed like the right thing to do. We were getting married.”
But despite my mother’s conversion, and the vagueness of the reason for it, Judaism was never practiced by our family. Why? “Your father wasn’t interested in religion,” she answered, which of course begged the question: Why bother with converting, then? In my family, there are these questions, and many others, about religion that have gone unanswered, part of a blurry family history that likely will never become clear, at least not to me.
Learning about my “technical” Jewishness, it was once again time for more reexamination of my religious identity. I thought to myself, “Well, that would have been good to know.” I imagined a childhood that involved synagogue on Saturdays, a bar mitzvah, and an easy answer to the question What religion are you? In essence, religion would be something that was “taken care of,” a box that had been checked, a certain clarity achieved with regard to which team I was on.
But that was not the hand I was dealt—religious confusion was my destiny, just as my doctorhood was, having been the only son of a renowned physician who saw his profession, his intellectualism, as his religion. Those things were enough for him to bring order to his world. But to the extent that I possessed any of these same attributes, they were not enough for me.
I wanted more, but never felt any sense of betrayal on my parents’ part for not providing the clarity that I sought. Finding out that I was technically Jewish, years after I had become Catholic, felt like par for the course. A religious identity that was unambiguous would have been dyssynchronous with my parents’ own attitude toward religion, which could only be described as disappointed (my mother) and disillusioned (my father). Both had the personal experiences to make these feelings justified.
No, even though religious simplicity would have been easier for me if it was something that was made clear at birth, it was never destined to be that straightforward. It was never something about which I would be able to give very little thought, like we do with things about ourselves that are just true—the color of our hair or eyes, the sound of our own voice, or our favorite ice cream.
My religious resume is a varied one, dotted with experiences that, like my professional resume, paint a picture of who I am and what I have done. The Jewish father, the Southern Baptist mother, the menorah on a bookshelf too high for me to reach as a boy, the frequent trips to church with Deborah, where I learned faith was joyful, musical, and inclusive.
When I later became Catholic, it had more to do with my experiences at Deborah’s church than it did with any other church or synagogue I had ever been in: It was about family—my family now—and wanting to be closer to them. The teachings of Catholicism have a great deal that resonates with me—God’s love is universal, justice for all, help the less fortunate—but if I am being honest, I would have become Muslim if my family was.
With the new information that I have, the question of my religious identity requires another reevaluation—an unwelcome reevaluation in certain ways, but in other ways, an opportunity to delve more deeply into my own background. The fact that I am technically Jewish? That feels fine. The fact that I “converted” to Catholicism (without even knowing that I was converting from anything)? Still makes me feel good. To be perfectly clear, knowing what I know now makes me feel neither more or less strongly about either faith. I have a high regard for both, and I think I always have.
Perhaps I’ve moved from my None of the Above position as a child to a Check All That Apply stance as an adult when it comes to religion, which doesn’t feel like fence-straddling to me. It is instead an accurate reflection of all the religious influences that I have had in my life, for which I feel fortunate.
And right now, it looks like this:
I am a Catholic with a Jewish heritage who was influenced by a Black Southern Baptist church. Religion, for me, will always be complicated. I have found solace in the Catholic Church, but as much as finding Catholicism as a middle-age man has brought my own family closer together, I cannot—and will not—forget the little boy who sailed to the United States on the Queen Mary in 1939, run out of his country, thrown into an American school unable to speak English, a man who would grow to be successful in every measurable way in life, a man who was my father. That he did not—could not, I suspect—provide a clear road map for my own faith is perfectly understandable. But what he and my mother did provide was the freedom to explore my own religious being, to carefully consider and even incorporate the teachings of Judaism, Catholicism, and the sermons emanating from the Black churches of my youth. That I feel connected to all of these influences, in different ways and at different times, is something I cherish and something I would not change.
Dr. David Weill is principal of the Weill Consulting Group and the author of the memoir Exhale: Hope, Healing and a Life in Transplant.