My Welfare Mom, Our Food Stamps and My Jewish Identity

Having grown up living on welfare with an alcoholic mother in a nonreligious household, Andrea Kott struggles with her Jewish identity.

| November/December 2012

  • Menorah
    By blood I was Jewish. In my mind, however, I was an imposter: a low-class, white-trash welfare kid who had never learned enough about Judaism to claim it as a birthright.
    Photo By Aaron Parecki

  • Menorah

“Do you think you could leave some more toilet paper next time?” The girl hollered from across the crowded school cafeteria. I didn’t know her or the other girls at her table, but I knew the request was meant for me: I cleaned the bathrooms in their dorm five mornings a week. I was on line for the salad bar, trying to duck the growing attention by examining the scuff marks on my shoes. But she fired the question again and, like a torpedo, it found me. “Heyyy,” she yelled. “Tomorrow: Could you leave a couple extra rolls?”

It was the first week of my freshman year at Brandeis University. I had applied to the elite, predominately Jewish, East Coast school because it was a fine university and I figured I had a good shot at financial aid, being a low-income Jew with a 4.0. In fact, Brandeis practically paid me to come; except for the chunk of aid I had to earn through work-study. I chose the highest-paid job that took the least amount of time. From six to nine every morning, I scrubbed, mopped, polished and wiped away graffiti and the remains of recent bulimic purges. It felt awkward cleaning up after my classmates as they tweezed their eyebrows and curled their hair. It certainly didn’t help me feel welcomed or accepted the way I’d thought I would, among other freshmen, most of us Jewish and away from home for the first time. I felt like an outsider.

I should have anticipated as much. Months earlier, when my letter of acceptance and registration materials had arrived on Brandeis letterhead—blue-and-white with Hebrew writing—I began doubting whether I belonged at a school with such a strong Jewish legacy. I had always connected being Jewish with material wealth and privilege, attending Hebrew school and becoming bat mitzvah. As the daughter of a single, alcoholic mother who lived on welfare, I hadn’t grown up with any of these things. In fact, I grew up knowing more Christmas carols than Friday night prayers in a home that defied every stereotypical notion of what being Jewish was about.

My Jewish experience began and ended with a few unexplained rituals. Even though my mother had grown up in a traditional Jewish home, by the time I was born, whatever meaning the tradition had once held for her was gone. Ten years earlier, at age 29, she had been widowed with two young sons; in her subsequent marriage to my father, she had been battered. When she fled him—with the three of us in tow—survival was her sole preoccupation. Terror and depression nearly paralyzed her. Her way of coping: two Scotches at dinnertime, earlier on weekends. A psychiatrist had prescribed tranquilizers to replace the Scotch. My mother found they worked better together.


Until I was six, we lived in my late grandmother’s two-family house, in Queens, New York. When my half-brothers left for college, my mother sold the house, because it was expensive to maintain. She drank more, she worked less, and we moved from one apartment to the next, always in search of cheaper rent. We managed to live in Jewish neighborhoods, but my mother’s drinking and our relative poverty made me different from other Jewish kids. We couldn’t afford synagogue membership, so I didn’t attend Hebrew school or even think about becoming bat mitzvah. There were no mezuzot inside our doorframes, or kosher dishes in our kitchen. We served milk with meat, ate scallops when they went on sale and fried bacon on Sunday mornings. We made no distinction between the sacred and the ordinary. Friday night dinner welcomed Shabbat in my friends’ homes but was like any other in mine, with the clink of ice in my mother’s cocktail breaking the silence.

Rosanne Morrison
11/21/2012 9:54:31 PM

I have read many blog articles over the years and yours is one of the most beautiful and heartfelt of any I've ever read. Although I am not Jewish (although there is some question of that because people with my rare last name have been buried in Jewish cemeteries in Argentina) I do relate to that feeling of not belonging. I too grew up in an alcoholic home with an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother. We too received welfare, church baskets for the needy, etc. I also know the shame of bringing my more affluent friends home to our tenement apartment, the one of many we lived in. When I married I did everything in my power to give my 4 children the life I never had. But having friends in higher income circles always made me feel "different" like an imposter. Even though I m almost 58 years old that still persists. People from "normal" families just don;t get me. Abandonment brings shame and our parents abandoned us. Maybe they were still there physically but they long ago abandoned us emotionally through their drinking. I was raised Catholic, became a born again Christian at age 27 and returned to the Catholic faith at 52. My faith is rooted in Judaism. Jesus, Mary Joseph the Apostles, Paul and everyone in the New Testament were Jewish so I hold the Jewish people most dear especially in Israel now as they try to return to the homeland that is rightfully theirs. My prayers for you on this life journey. Your pain brought much beauty into your children's lives as you made sure they knew your history & your people. Your mother denied you that due to her own pain of living with alcoholism. Presently my sons are rejecting their Christianity due to what they are being taught @ university, the media, etc. It is heartbreaking that the God who carried me from the pain of my childhood through my adulthood, the God I love and revere is being rejected by my own blood.. But although they are walking away from he is is still near them. Even when you were away from your faith he was always there waiting for you to return. Peace

11/21/2012 6:29:30 PM

I'm so sorry you don't feel you are good enough just being a child of God.

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