Although she died when I was very small, I have always felt a strong sense of kinship to my Jewish grandmother, to whom I bear a strong physical resemblance. She was born at the turn of the century to immigrants from Eastern Europe, and grew up in poverty. After her father died, she and her mother and siblings moved in with her aunt and uncle. During this time, my grandmother became best friends with another little girl who was her first cousin.
In early adolescence, before even World War I, my grandmother and her cousin (whom I called "aunt") made a feminist pact. They wanted to pursue ambitious careers and they decided that they would therefore never marry or have children. They duly graduated from women's colleges during the early '20s. My grandmother pursued advanced studies in the sciences and became a lab assistant at a well-known women's college. My aunt went to law school.
In the blunt parlance of the era, my grandmother was "the pretty one" and my aunt was "the homely one." When my grandmother was nearly 30, she was pursued by my grandfather and married him. By that time, she was an avid advocate of birth control. My grandparents intentionally remained childless while they taught high school, pursued graduate studies, and hobnobbed with a wide circle of friends all of whom had an artistic or intellectual bent. At age 40, right at the time the U.S. became involved in World War II, my grandmother became pregnant with her only child (my father). My grandfather went off to war (in a non-combatant role as he was already middle aged, although the fact that he was in a desk job didn't stop him from posing triumphantly in uniform next to a downed German airplane). My grandmother worked during my father's early years to support the war effort, but as soon as the war ended, she gave up her professional ambitions to become a full time mother. There was no notion of women having it all in those days.
Nonetheless, my grandmother passed her feminist beliefs along to my father, who absorbed them in theory (although not necessarily in practice!) As a scientist, my grandmother was particularly opposed to any efforts to hide the facts about sex from children and young adults. My father, as a child, was forever getting in trouble for explaining "the facts of life" to the other children in school. I myself was taught the mechanics of sex and the proper names for body parts as a toddler (although I didn't quite absorb or understand it all at that age).
Meanwhile, my aunt never married and was thus able to pursue her beloved career full force. She was unable to find a job in private practice (natch) so like many women attorneys of the era, she worked for the government. She became a very well known appellate attorney who frequently argued before the United States Supreme Court from the 1950s through the early 70s. She was the darling of conservative (!) circles for many years, and according to family lore (which tends to exaggerate the accomplishments of its members), she was on President Nixon's short list for a Supreme Court nomination herself.
I only met my aunt (now deceased) a couple of times during my childhood. My memory is of a very petite woman with a pinched face and a thick New York accent. She patted me on the head and said I was really cute. (Aaargh, if only I could sit down and talk to her now!) But the story of her accomplishments was an anchor for me when I was an ambitious little girl in a community with no professional women.
The prevalent feminism of this side of my family had a huge influence on me growing up. As far as religion, my grandmother was brought up Jewish. By the time, she reached her 20s, however, she was no longer practicing. She apparently had no qualms about marrying my non-Jewish grandfather, who was also from a religious minority, a Protestant from a predominantly Catholic ethnic group. My father was brought up without belonging to any organized religion. My grandmother, however, often talked to him about God wanting him to do what's right. She used words like "covenant" and "atonement" and never referred to Jesus. She talked a lot about how racial segregation in the South was upsetting to God. She contributed large sums to animal humane societies, which she also said was pleasing to God.
When I was growing up, I learned a lot of Jewish history from my father and from books he gave me to read on the topic. I always tended to perhaps overly romanticize Jewish history and culture and religion. I know that the Jews do not have a monopoly on rationalism, progressive politics, or love of books, but I have always felt that somehow those things came into my life through my personal, albeit attenuated, connection to Judaism (although my mother certainly contributed to my love of reading as well). No one who meets me would ever think that I have any Jewish heritage because my name is clearly not Jewish; I am quite saddened by this fact and often wish that my Jewish heritage was more apparent to others, because it is, rationally or not, an important part of my sense of self.