Pamela Cohen "feels Jewish," but according to a 2,000-year-old Jewish law, called matrilineal descent ruling, she isn't because her mother wasn't Jewish, only her father.

Even though Cohen attends services every Saturday at a synagogue in suburban Maryland, she can't officially participate in the public ceremonies until she goes through conversion -- a time-consuming, arduous discipline that Cohen is not looking forward to.

"It makes me angry that I don't have the respect that I deserve, but I plan on converting before I marry and have children so they are accepted into the Jewish faith. I don't want them to have to go through the hassle I've gone through," says the 26-year-old Cohen, who started going to a Conservative synagogue in her early twenties, but has yet to "feel befriended" by a rabbi.

Feeling "separate" from the congregation and "frustrated" with learning the rituals and language, Cohen nonetheless chose her faith carefully even though it's been tough to stand by. "I'm resentful that we didn't practice {the Jewish faith} more when I was growing up," she says. "It's now harder for me to learn. My mother is unhappy that I didn't choose her religion, and my father thinks I chose to be Jewish for him. I didn't, I chose it for myself."

Cohen's struggles with her family, the congregation and rabbis are not that unusual among more than half a million adults who were raised in Jewish-gentile homes from the 1930s through the 1970s, a time when interfaith marriages were less prevalent and acceptable than they are today. The effect of matrilineal descent issue on these adult-children ranges from enriching to devastating, depending on whether they were able to meet the challenge of balancing two cultures, seemingly a world apart.

"In our generation and the one's before, we children from interfaith parents were raised with a feeling of not belonging," says Leslie Goodman-Malamuth, 35, who "cherishes" both her gentile and Jewish upbringing, but converted to Judaism after her second marriage five years ago. "As children we were freaks that the rabbis didn't know what to do with," she says. "There was always that sense of rejection, or the sense that you just didn't belong in either world, or both worlds."

Unfortunately, says Goodman-Malamuth, such confusion and alienation "hangs on" in adult years when these people find they have to go "shopping around for a synagogue," until they find one where they are accepted or their differences are at least alleviated. The search, however, is often in vain.

It is ironic, but not too surprising, that complaints such as Goodman-Malamuth's come at a time when the rate of interfaith marriages is rising. In 1950, 6 percent of all American Jews married Christians; by 1985, the figure rose to 40 percent and in major cities, such as Washington and Denver 60 percent.

With the majority of these marriages being between Jewish men and gentile women, it's little wonder interfaith marriage is often seen as a threat to the growth of Judaism.

"Many of the Reform synagogues now have programs for the younger generation who are entering interfaith marriages, but no one has anything for our generation that has been through it," says Robin Margolis, 39, a close friend of Goodman-Malamuth and a fellow crusader for the rights of what they call their "lost generation."

Determined to gain an identity, several years ago the two women formed a Washington-based group called Pareveh, a nationwide alliance for two generations of adult children raised by parents and/or grandparents from interfaith homes.

Pareveh (pronounced paar-eh-vah) is derived from a Hebrew word that describes foods under Jewish law that are neither dairy nor meat -- a humorous reference to the ambivalence the child feels growing up in an interfaith home. It is a far more respectful word than the familiar terms -- half-Jew, half-breeds, mamzerim (Hebrew for "bastards") and mischlings, the Nazis' condemning word for children and grandchildren of Jewish-gentile intermarriage.

The organization now has more than 1,000 members sharing their experiences through a national newsletter and network run by Margolis and Goodman-Malamuth. The two also have written "Two Worlds: A Guide for the Children of Jewish-Gentile Intermarriage" (scheduled for publication next year), based on the anonymous stories of more than 850 parevehs from two generations.

Among the neither/nor experiences the authors gathered from common memories of parevehs' childhoods: embarrassment at the stares when their Christian parents came to synagogue; the hurt when Jewish grandparents were denied permission to take them to temple; the anger when told that services were not for them since their parents were secular "citizens of the world," for whom religion held no meaning; the quarrels and resentment between the relatives, especially during the holidays; the offense of antisemitic jokes in school; the confusion over the refusal of a parent to talk about his or her past.

That confusion may continue in adulthood when the pareveh who spent his childhood as a Christian chooses Judaism and finds certain Jewish customs foreign and off-putting. "The high price of synagogue membership is a shock," explains Margolis, "so is the necessity of purchasing tickets to attend High Holiday services, which may seem to limit fellowship with other Jews."

She adds that while many "born Jews" easily accept their illiteracy in Hebrew, a pareveh who gets lost in the prayer service may feel embarrassed to ask a neighbor for help.

Many parevehs wrongly believe that conversion is the "magic bullet" for bringing them into the Jewish community. But Goodman-Malamuth, who proudly wears around her neck a gold medallion with the Star of David on one side and Saint Christopher on the other, believes that conversion should be "a step along the way" to entering Judaism, without ever turning your back on your bicultural heritage.

The two authors contend that the number of parevehs may be as high as 1 million -- and that more than half have had negative experiences.

Margolis also estimates that 10 percent of parevehs had a parent who was a "runaway, from one culture to another," a parent who hid his or her Jewish roots usually for fear of job discrimination or damaging conflict within the family.

Several years ago, after her mother's death, Margolis was "thunderstruck" to discover from family letters and papers that her mother was Jewish and had changed her family name, even though it was not distinctly Jewish-sounding. "Even my father didn't know," says Margolis.

"My mother kept it a secret by threatening her parents not to tell or they would not be allowed to see me, their only granddaughter," says Margolis.

Since then, she has felt that her reception into the Jewish faith and her subsequent offer to give instruction on the pluses and minuses of interfaith marriage has been less than rewarding.

Even at Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Northwest Washington where Goodman-Malamuth was invited to speak to a discussion and support group on interfaith marriages, the outcome was only moderately encouraging.

"In general, these adult children are part of a generation in which the issue of interfaith marriage was not dealt with," explains Associate Rabbi Mindy Portnoy from Temple Sinai. "At that time, they were considered a net loss, not seen as a group loss. Their numbers were smaller and more isolated, their parents didn't know how to handle it. But that situation is different today, certainly in the Reform and Reconstruction wings and in some degree in the Conservative."

Portnoy notes that five years ago the Reform movement passed a patrilineal descent ruling that grants that the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is considered Jewish if raised Jewish. "In some way, the adult children are indeed a 'lost generation,' " she says, "but I don't think they will have another generation following them, and they are not a monolithic group, not all their experiences are bad."

Though sounding practical, Portnoy still sympathizes with the parevehs' frustrations. After all, she concludes, "We need to keep as many Jews as we can and not be excluding people who feel they want to be part of the community."

Parevehs don't all choose to be Jewish. Margolis and Goodman-Malamuth have heard from adult-children who became secular Jews, Hindus and Christians, and many who prefer no religion at all. Though they advertised in 30 major Christian publications for Christian parevehs to participate in their study, the response was nearly nil.

"It may be that Christians aren't concerned about termination like Jews are," says Margolis, "but it is puzzling because from those we have heard from, they too have problems."

One such 55-year-old woman from New Jersey, who asked not to be named because she "has already caused so much pain" for her daughters with her decision to be baptized a Roman Catholic, has just begun to comfortably recognize her two cultural halves.

Raised without a faith by a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, she married a Jewish man and raised her daughters and son in a "good Reform Jewish household" as her husband wished. After 14 years of marriage they divorced and her three children continued to practice Judaism. But she recently converted, a bone of contention for her now grown children, their friends and even some members of her faith.

People don't deal with being bicultural. They want you to be what they are. They deny what you feel," says this woman, who "tries to ease the hurt" in the family by not wearing a cross around her neck and by sending cards to her Jewish in-laws during the High Holy Days. "My relatives see me as someone who converted to Christianity. I see myself as part Jewish, part Christian. But even the Catholic church doesn't receive you well if you come from somewhere else full of problems. It doesn't know how to help you with your Jewishness."

Dick Conoboy of Northwest Washington was raised a Catholic by a father who was "strict, devout and had the final word on everything." His mother, "basically a nonpracticing Jew," was a principled woman who would march up to the grade school and argue with the nuns whenever they taught her children something too out of line from her thinking.

After 16 years of Catholic schooling, Conoboy, 47, didn't practice any religion at all until eight years ago when his work in community projects with Jewish friends "inspired" him to become a member of a Reform Jewish congregation in Columbia.

Considering himself "lucky," Conoboy is still amazed that just because his mother was Jewish, he didn't have to convert to Judaism even though he had been raised in a strict Catholic home.

"I was automatically accepted and I never got the slightest feeling that I'm an oddball," he says. "I knew a lot of the trappings, the customs and the cultural aspects, but I had a lot to learn, especially the Hebrew, the tenets. I'm not a real religious person, but the sense of history and the belonging is important to me."

Is it possible to raise a child in two faiths, as is claimed in some of the latest flux of interfaith marriages? Conoboy, who is divorced with no children, can only draw from his own childhood experience, which he considers a positive one. But he is cautious.

"I believe that it depends on the intensity and the commitment of each parent to their faith," he says. "I certainly think the child needs to be introduced to both cultures, so there is no mystery. I can't remember any mystery in my upbringing. If I asked questions they were answered."

Margolis and Goodman-Malamuth fully support interfaith parents who are open with their children about their religious beliefs. But they also think that there is a disturbing naivete about how difficult it is, physically and emotionally, to keep up with all the holidays on both sides of the Jewish/gentile calendar and give children a "grounding" in both faiths.

"We keep hearing that interfaith marriage is 'no problem,' but there are a lot of young couples who don't know what they will face in the future, especially when they have children and they reach a questioning and independent stage in the teenage and college years," says Goodman-Malamuth.

"It goes far beyond giving them a little bit of Jesus, the Christmas tree and the menorah," she says. "Parents have to be ready to have their child choose one of their faiths, or none. No matter which way, one parent invariably ends up feeling hurt and rejected.

"A lot of what we parevehs have to say is negative, discouraging, but we hope instructive. We are a valuable teaching resource for the many interfaith groups that are springing up for today's generation, but the rabbis and synagogues ... don't know what to do with us. But the Jewish population is catching on."

For more information on Pareveh: Write to Alliance for Adult Children of Jewish-gentile Intermarriage, 3628 Windom Pl. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008.