The Whole Story on Being Half-Jewish
Much has been written about intermarriage in America, from informal polls and academic research to vituperative op-eds and book-length explorations. And yet, a surprisingly small portion of this literature actually documents the stories and voices of people growing up in mixed families. So it is with a certain expectancy that one welcomes “Half/Life: Jewish Tales From Interfaith Homes,” an anthology of essays, edited by Laurel Snyder, that examine the experience of growing up “half” in a religion where there is no in-between status.
One of the book’s open objectives, as stated by Snyder in her introduction, is to encourage the Jewish community to open its arms to people who are Jews in an ethnic and cultural sense but not so in accordance with Jewish law, which relies on matrilineal descent. “More Jews are now intermarrying than marrying within the faith, which means that the so-called Dilemma of Intermarriage will represent, in a generation, a giant population among Jews,” Snyder writes. “How will the Jewish community turn its ship around to welcome these half-Jews when for generations many of the half-Jews have been silently tolerated or excluded outright?” There is no agenda for theological change here; the book, she writes, seeks to provide no answers but rather varied perspectives of people trying to explore their Jewish and non-Jewish roots, and attempting to answer questions about the legitimacy of their own identities.
Most of the essayists are children of the 1970s, that culturally utopian moment in American history in which the idealism of the counterculture brought about a tapering off of religious traditionalism and more assimilation. In many of these stories, it is the Jewish parent’s attitude that is the more indifferent or critical toward Judaism, suggesting it wasn’t simply intermarriage in itself that led to more secular attitudes in the kids, but an upbringing by a parent who already felt at odds with Judaism. For these parents, the break from religion was often entangled with a more personal break from family and ideology, or a part of a search for independence. For their children, however, the experience of secularism was quite different. “What was for [my parents] a moderately countercultural movement away from the organized religions of their eras, if not their immediate families, was for us more of a whitewash,” Rebecca Wolff writes. “It seemed quite clear, quite obvious, quite self-evident to us, my brother and me walking down Seventh Avenue dragging our backpacks over subway gratings, that religious beliefs were, simply, idiotic….”
And yet, for others, growing up “without religion” (or with only its cultural elements) did not mean that frameworks of meaning and faith were out of reach. “I think I was raised to see that untrodden path as the most righteous,” Thisbe Nissen writes while discussing the modern-day tendency to invent one’s own religion – a sort of me-ism of personal philosophy and ritual. “Sometimes I’m not sure what the difference is between my reliance on the tasks of my life — writing, teaching, growing vegetables, making art — and my grandmother’s reliance on the tasks of hers, the prayer, the kosher kitchen, the observance. I feel like I’m doing right in the world by growing organic vegetables. My grandmother felt she was doing right by keeping kosher. I know one seems a lot more rational to me than the other, but that’s because I believe what I believe. Which may be to say this: it’s not that I don’t get religion. It’s just that mine’s the only one that makes any sense to me, and I’m its only congregant.”
In a number of cases, the Jewish parent’s identification with Judaism becomes stronger over time, or after a marriage with the non-Jewish spouse breaks up. In their middle-age and older years, the parents “return” in some sense to their roots, while their children remain adrift between religions and identities, never having had something from which to rebel in the first place. Or, as Emma Snyder describes her feeling after her parents’ divorce, “Suddenly I wasn’t Jewish in the absence of religion, I was Jewish in the middle of two religions.”
Terry Barr, the son of a Jewish man and a Christian woman, felt similarly caught between the two, though he ultimately positioned himself more squarely on the Christian side. Growing up somewhat estranged from his Jewish relatives, Barr persists that he nevertheless “felt different from everybody else that I knew.” In an essay that is by turns self-reproachful and self-justifying, Barr writes about coming to the decision not to bury his father in a Jewish cemetery – a choice that went against his grandmother’s wishes. “This might be wrong,” he writes, “but I don’t think so. What I couldn’t say was this: Life had been too confusing already, too torn. When both of you are gone how could I face going from one cemetery to another? Despite all your problems together and with each other, in the end you remained married, and that comforts me even now. And if the gentile side of us claims him in death, so what? We know who he was.”
One can sympathize with the personal reasons behind such a decision. But in the absence of the even basic Jewish practices, like burying one’s dead in a Jewish cemetery – those practices that essentially separate Jews from non-Jews – one has to ask exactly what it means to “feel different,” to “feel Jewish”? For many, “feeling Jewish” means little more than a certain self-approval of personal idiosyncrasies like bargain hunting, hypochondria or a craving for latkes. Or alternatively, feeling an affinity for a Jewishness that defines itself only in opposition to persecutors. As Daphne Gottlieb notes, her friends have told her that she is only Jewish when an anti-Semitic joke is told. It is to the book’s credit that the majority of the essays deal frankly with the choices and compromises involved in merging Judaism with secular and Christian culture. And though many individual essays are liable to touch some raw nerves, collectively they give an honest picture of the complexity of family life.
There are occasionally some very funny moments: a mother begging her already pregnant daughter to have her marriage officiated by a rabbi, only to have the daughter snap back that her mother should be grateful she’s even having a wedding; an aunt dubbing every personal enemy, including a member of her own Jewish family, as “a real Hitler”; a hip city teenager infuriating her father by trying to sport a yarmulke as a fashion statement. On the whole, however, the book is not a lighthearted or kitschy celebration of diversity. The more common feelings are those of confusion and embitterment, especially at efforts to explore one’s Jewish identity, and at finding that one’s claims to it are treated with skepticism by practicing Jews. For others, even the early knowledge of their parents’ union not being recognized by a family rabbi is a sore memory of rejection. But the deeper frustration is not simply one of being rejected by “real” Jews, but of being forced to choose at all.
Maya Gottfried, one essayist who wasn’t uncomfortable choosing, writes, “I very badly wanted to have a religious identity.” Attempting an investigation of her roots, she learns that, despite having three Jewish grandparents, she is not considered Jewish according to Jewish law. “The next logical move,” Gottfried explains, “was to investigate the other side of my spiritual family tree.” Eventually she underwent baptism and became a practicing Christian. But choice comes at an emotional cost. In the final scene of the essay, Gottfried is eating dinner with her father in a bright restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side. Her father quietly asks her to cover up the cross she is wearing around her neck. Though she wishes for him to understand her decision, she allows him his feelings. “And oddly,” she writes, “it feels good on some level that he wants me to stay within his faith.”
Maybe one way to answer the question of what it is to be “half” is that it means to have been passed down both the heritage and the doubts. As Snyder aptly puts it in her introduction, “Half doesn’t necessarily mean you were always wounded or always unhappy. It doesn’t mean you have terrible issues to face. It only means that somewhere along the line, you had to figure things out for yourself.”