Halves: Is less more?
Here are some snapshot images of the holiday season from my childhood: my dad retreats to his study while my mother, brother and I decorate the Christmas tree, which my mother has “reclaimed” as a pagan symbol. We light the menorah for the first night of Hanukkah (to be forgotten for the seven subsequent evenings), while Dad excavates the prayers from the depths of his memories and Mom hums along gamely. On Christmas Day, we tear open presents, make our annual expedition to an other-wise empty movie theater, and then attend the klezmer concert at the local synagogue.
This is my family: a hodgepodge of semi-secularized, haphazard traditions drawn from each heritage. My dad, though an atheist, identifies with his Jewish roots, while my mother, who once aspired to be a nun, now calls herself a recovering Catholic.
But being half-Jewish is about much more than religion, my mixed identity is manifest in many ways: in my hard-to-place appearance; the comfort I feel with different kinds of people; the greater freedom I feel to construct my own identity; and the privileged stereoscopic vision of a simultaneous insider/outsider. When I watch Woody Allen playing the neurotic New York Jew, I can laugh simultaneously at him and with him.
Growing up in a mixed household, a certain amount of confusion comes with the territory, a sense of not quite belonging anywhere. My identity, if not simple, is very clear: I identify strongly, however paradoxical it sounds, with being a half-Jew. For me, and for an increasing number of half-Jews, any limitations this status conveys are outweighed by the advantage of belonging to two worlds. Being mixed isn’t half an identity, or no identity; that mixture is a synergetic whole. And of the people I met, especially the ones my age—I’m 24—there seemed to be at least as many half-Jews as whole Jews. A new army of half-breeds is emerging in my generation—and, not surprisingly, the numbers are growing.
I was vaguely aware of the argument that intermarriage was a threat to Judaism—a sentiment that reaches apocalyptic tones among some Orthodox Jews, who call intermarriage the “silent holocaust.” But those same zealots insist there’s no such thing as a half-Jew. Their equation is simple: if your mother is Jewish, you are a full-fledged Jew; if your mother is not Jewish, you are goyish too, regardless of other familial blood, religious practices, or personal identification, unless you undergo the official conversion process. At the other end of the spectrum. Reform Jews consider someone Jewish who has one Jewish parent (either one) and who considers herself Jewish.
Of all of the mixed breeds out there, half-Jewish is the only blend I know of whose existence is in dispute. Being half- Jewish is more complicated, because being Jewish is more complicated. “Jewishness” can mean a religion, a culture, and an ethnicity, and for most people it entails some combination of all three.
The prevailing sentiments about religion in some mixed households seem to range from ambivalence to indifference to downright hostility. This makes sense, since in many cases religious apathy was probably a prerequisite for the match in the first place. Wendy Marston, the founder of the website halfjew.com, came from a vehemently irreligious family. Her mother. Christian by upbringing, refused to say “under God” in the pledge of allegiance. Wendy herself doesn’t believe in God, she says, and describes herself as “not good at religion.” She is engaged to a fellow half-Jew, and their self-consciously half-Jewish wedding will incorporate a Protestant minister, a huppa, and, as Wendy calls it, “the glass thing.” Her attitude is, “If there is a God, it’s good to have Him on our side.”
For many half-Jews, their religious experience consists of nods to both sides. In my case, that means lighting the menorah at least once during Hanukah, and attending the occasional Friday night service. For others, it can be a more thoughtful, serious, organic syncretism. These days, there seems to be a trend, regardless of background and blood, to choose elements from various religions and mix them into a personalized spiritual cocktail. It’s arguably consumerist, and typically American, to feel unrestricted by the arbitrary accident of background.
Twenty-four-year-old Dania Rejandra, for example, has a Jewish mother and a Hindu Indian father Although she grew up with little religious education, she is now embracing her double heritage—especially her Jewish half “I never felt like they competed,” she says of her different lineages. “I have more of a choice, more to learn about. I have more agency.” Dania celebrates Passover, fasts for Yom Kippur, and goes to temple on High Holidays. The comfort she feels in embracing both heritages might reflect the lack of tension between Hinduism and Judaism in general, which, unfortunately, doesn’t always apply to the relationship of Judaism to Christianity or Islam.
Wendy Marston first started pondering the half-Jewish question when she was hanging out with a fellow half-Jewish friend. She noticed that her identity would “flip” to reflect her company, be it Jewish or goyish, in a Zelig-like way. I have chosen to associate more—or less—with my Jewish identity over the years, and not always for particularly honorable reasons.
I remember one encounter with anti-Semitism as a child. I was sitting in music class in seventh grade, an awkward 12-year old with braces and Brillo-pad hair. It somehow came up that I was Jewish, and Ken Cavallaro, a popular boy in my group, threw a coin across the room for me to fetch. It was a joke, and I didn’t even get it. It had to be explained to me that Jews were money-hungry. I felt the launch of a blush, a mild shame. For a while after that experience, when people asked if I was Jewish, I always specified “half.” Now I feel that if I’m talking to a non-Jew about a Jewish issue, my double identity grants me some of the authority of a Jew (whether deserved or not!) without putting too much distance between us. In other words, I can serve as something of a bridge.
At certain junctures of history, those identifying labels acquire much greater weight. Half-Jews in Nazi Germany were subject to complicated laws that discriminated among various levels of mischling, as they were called. The idea was always to balance the desire to purify the race—there was never any question that Hitler wanted eventually to destroy people with any drop of Jewish blood—with the need to maintain social order. After all, half-Jews all had gentile relatives, who might protest if their family members were slaughtered. So some half-Jews passed as gentiles, while others cast in their lot with Jews. It’s an unbearable choice to imagine.
To identify wholeheartedly with a certain group, to ally every particle of yourself with that group, entails many of the contradictions of being human. You have to put yourself on the line, and sacrifice a bit of your individuality, though at the same time, this identification defines you. It’s a tradeoff between different kinds of risks: you get the security of the group’s protection, but the risk of being attacked in the name of the group.
David Berreby writes on halfJew.com, “I flattered myself that half-Jews are closer to Nature; we’re what happens when men and women are free to let their human feelings guide them, as opposed to following a lot of arbitrary rules. Let Nature take its course, and you get us.”
It seems that under any circumstances, there will be the Romeos and Juliets who violate all restrictions in pursuit of their union. In highly restrictive societies, you could say that the offspring of these couples are the result of nature, or exceptional passion or bravery. In times when social constraints are much looser, such as our own, the mutts reflect the openness of society. And, of course, there are many more mutts in such times—hence the somewhat recent, and accelerating, growth of the half-Jewish population.
Inevitably, as my generation arrives at marrying and childbearing age, half-Jews will come up against another question. In the past, people have often stuck to their own kind in choosing a mate, but what does that mean when it comes to half-Jews? Dania wants her children to have some connection to both of her traditions. Wendy Marston, though she is marrying a fellow half- Jew, says she’s always been an “equal opportunity dater.” Me, too; but I’ve always been particularly drawn to Jewish men. I flatter myself that I could offer the forbidden thrill of the shiksa, combined with the comfort and security of the nice Jewish girl.
And the next generation will hold even more half-Jews, but also many quarter-Jews and three-quarters-Jews. Rabbi Herb Brockman, a Reform rabbi with a congregation in New Haven, Connecticut, estimates that about 15 percent of the kids who go through his Mishkan Israel Hebrew School have one non- Jewish parent. He asks “What’s the opportunity?” The Jewish community can either welcome us or exclude us; and if it chooses to exclude us, that would not only reflect, I think, an ossified mindset, but also would sacrifice a huge potential membership. So part of it is simple math. And since half-Jews are extraordinarily diverse—racially, ideologically, culturally —part of it is a matter of exhibiting the flexibility and eclecticism that have always been key to Judaism’s strength.
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn
The rate of intermarriage has increased dramatically over the last few decades, from less than 10 percent in 1960 to about 50 percent in 1990, according to the National Jewish Population Study, and has continued to rise since then, increasing the number of half-Jewish children exponentially. In the words of the 1990 study’s report, “The pattern of Jewish identity for children whose parents are intermarried (currently of different religions) is crucial for the future composition and size of the Jewish population given the current high rate of intermarriage.” And by the time of the next survey of Jews in North America—2001, “there are about 2,900,000 households in North America in which there is a person who is either Jewish, of Jewish descent or is married to a Jewish person or someone of Jewish descent. Of that 2,900,000, about 1,400,000 are what we might call “mixed” households where only one of the current or former marriage partners is Jewish or of Jewish ancestry,” according to demographer and sociologist Dr. Egon Mayer, chair of the department of Sociology at Queens College, New York.