‘Half,’ Whole Or Neither?

A few weeks ago my 5-year-old daughter Ellie’s school had its biggest event of the year: Multicultural Day.

Inside the classrooms the usual chorus of navy and white uniforms was replaced with brightly colored, intricately beaded saris; green Irish soccer shirts; embroidered Mexican dresses and sequined mariachi outfits.

As we parents watched from child-sized chairs, the kindergarteners belted out “It’s A Small World” and “Wave, Wave, Wave The [American] Flag,” and took turns announcing their countries of origin.

That day, Ellie — who has been teaching the class about Purim and Passover and relentlessly sharing Bible stories with whomever will listen all year — was French Canadian.

In the weeks leading up to Multicultural Day, as the children were assigned to create a paper doll illustrating their national heritage, make a collage and prepare to teach their classmates about their country of origin, the instructions always said: “If you have more than one heritage, choose one.”
Since my Jewish ancestors were ambivalent about the European countries from which they fled/emigrated, I decided this was the perfect chance to explore my husband Joe’s Quebecois heritage.
Save for the French surname, Moreau, which half the family pronounces in Anglicized fashion, it’s a heritage that has been largely forgotten in his clan. So rather than interview relatives or leaf through family photo albums, as I imagine many of her first-generation classmates did, Ellie and I turned to Wikipedia and Google Images.

In some ways having my daughter join this group for a day made me uneasy, as if she might suddenly decide to abandon the Jews. And I wondered whether, given their mixed heritage, Ellie and her younger sister Sophie can ever feel as fully Jewish as do I, for whom being Jewish has always been as much about belonging to a family with a common history as it’s been about religion.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mixed Jewish identities since attending “Jews in All Hues,” a gathering in Philadelphia for adult children of interfaith families.

Rebecca Ennen, one of the organizers, told me her goal was to give participants “a strong experience of getting to feel whole, to feel like they’re in a place totally for them.”

Children of interfaith families are fast becoming the majority of young Americans who identify as Jewish, yet in Jewish circles they often feel they must downplay their background in order to be accepted.
Indeed, listening to anti-intermarriage pronouncements at Jewish functions can be even more painful and off-putting for children of such families than it is for people who are themselves intermarried.
But Jews of mixed parentage often feel more ignored than ostracized by the organized Jewish community.

“I personally see that so much work is being done these days about interfaith families,” notes 27-year-old Ennen, the daughter of a Catholic father and Jewish mother. “I’m glad that’s all happening, but often when I look at what people are saying and the programs they’re running, it seems like they have amnesia, like they’re not paying attention to the fact that there are [already] many adults who grew up in interfaith families” whose opinions and involvement should be solicited.

The problem of course is that many “full” Jews are deeply ambivalent about the half-ies. On the one hand, we’re desperately worried about our shrinking numbers and eager for warm bodies. On the other hand, we can’t even agree if half-Jews really exist. While many people proudly self-identify as half-Jewish (indeed, there are numerous Web sites and Facebook groups for self-described half-Jews and a 2000 book called “The Half-Jewish Book: A Celebration”), traditional Jews insist being Jewish is, like being pregnant, all or nothing.

If your mother is a Jew, the traditional thinking goes, then you’re in the club, no matter how many Christmas carols you sing or Easter eggs you decorate. And if she isn’t Jewish, you can keep kosher, observe every holiday and become a Talmud scholar, but you’ll still be a gentile unless you convert.
Liberal Jews are less rigid about definitions, but even they can be uncomfortable with people who have not renounced their other halves.

There is something offensive about asking people to choose between Judaism and another heritage — like asking one to choose between a mother and father. But not choosing at all can make for an unsatisfying, or at least lonely, identity.

While many at “Jews In All Hues” noted the positive aspects of their mixed heritage — understanding multiple cultures, being able to serve as a bridge between groups — one 20-something participant detailed her difficult journey of soul-searching, one that ultimately led her to undergo an Orthodox conversion.

I find it significant that President Barack Obama, while never disavowing his white heritage, has essentially chosen to identify as black: marrying a black woman, praying in a black church, assuming the mantle of first black president rather than first biracial president. In the same way, I can see why Ellie’s school instructed her to choose one heritage.

At “Jews in all Hues,” I wondered whether half-Jewishness can be an identity in itself. To have been raised Jewish is so radically different than to have been raised nothing, or in another religion entirely. Half-WASP is dramatically different from half-Catholic, half-Hindu. Half-Jews who “look” Jewish have different experiences than those who are half-black or half-Asian or blond and blue-eyed. Not to mention formative experiences like which set of grandparents was nicer, were the Jewish kids at your school friendly or cliquish, did your parents get along, did you grow up eating matzah ball soup?

Perhaps, as Laurel Snyder writes in the introduction to her 2006 anthology, “Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes,” the common denominator is simply that experience of “half” and that “somewhere along the line, you had to figure things out for yourself.
(Tags: Interfaith, Diversity, Multiracial, Mixed Race Jews)


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