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A Conversation with Susan Jacoby, Author of Half Jew: A Daughter's Search for Her Family's Buried Past

"You can't write yourself out of Jewish history," said a Russian Jew who had survived the Holocaust and married her non-Jewish rescuer, to Susan Jacoby. It was the 1970s and Jacoby was reporting from a Russia that was openly hostile to Jews. It was an auspicious and strange place for Jacoby who, less than a decade before had finally confirmed that her father was born a Jew. In retrospect there was an abundance of clues; clues that are common to what has recently emerged in Jewish letters as the beginning of the "suddenly Jewish genre;" that is, a growing number of books, in particular memoirs, in which the protagonist discovers that she or he is actually a Jew.

While Jacoby's new book shares some of the themes and sensibilities of suddenly Jewish literature, her memoir, provocatively and purposefully titled Half Jew: A Daughter's Search for Her Family's Buried Past also addresses the thorny question of who exactly is a Jew from an interfaith perspective. In a recent interview with Interfaith Family.com, Jacoby who is 55, said that she invests heavily in her half-Jewishness by insinuating herself into cultural Jewish life. "Alfred Kazin first suggested the term [half-Jew] to me [as a title]. It resonates with 'New York Jew' [the title of Kazin's book] and like Kazin I wanted to confront an epithet and turn it into something positive."

While Jacoby has not yet successfully brought the phrase "half-Jew" into the mainstream, she says that attempting to do so has caused her to "wrestle with the question of innate identity versus a sense of Jewishness. Lying about one's parents' origins was common in my generation in an interfaith family. I always felt like an outsider in Catholic school." For years, Jacoby, who was raised as a Catholic and attended parochial schools, thought that her father had been an Episcopalian before converting to Catholicism. And it was her father's outsider status as a convert that initially caused Jacoby discomfort in school and at church.

That discomfort evolved into resentment and confusion when she found out that although she was Jewish from her father's side of the family, she was not acknowledged as such by certain segments of the Jewish community. According to traditional Jewish law--the law which Orthodox and Conservative Judaism honors--Jacoby, whose mother was Irish Catholic, is not considered Jewish. But over the years Jacoby has refused to float in a spiritual limbo not of her own making and has educated herself in Judaism by studying Talmud and other texts.

Despite her extensive exposure to both religions--Catholicism as a child and Judaism as an adult--Jacoby remains skeptical about religion and consequently is an atheist. "Religious education in Pre-Vatican II made me think critically (in the book sense) about religion. I simply don't believe in God and not necessarily because I'm a child of an interfaith marriage." She has, however, persevered to understand what she writes is "the specialness and ambiguity of the half Jewish condition."

To do that Jacoby begins at the beginning. The German Jewish Jacobys settled in New York City in the mid 1800s and within two generations virtually eradicated any trace of their Jewishness through conversion. But as Jacoby digs deep into her family history, that history turns decidedly darker, more tragic. Her grandfather, once a successful trial lawyer, died penniless and addicted to cocaine. Her grandmother, a spiteful, pretentious woman, was an obstacle to learning anything meaningful about the family's past. Her bitterness stifled her children, and all of them eventually converted to Catholicism.

Jacoby's father, the youngest in his family, never knew his own father. His Brooklyn boyhood was punctuated by violent episodes of anti-Semitism acted out on the playground. His two years at Dartmouth were laced with anti-Semitism manifested in Jewish quotas and subtle ostracizing. The Depression finally forced the elder Jacoby to leave school. At this point in the story the journalist in Jacoby overtakes the memoirist to report extensively on Dartmouth's anti-Jewish admission practices and the institution's overall attitude towards Jews. As it stands, it is an extended diversion from the core and soul of the book.

However, when Jacoby stays focused on her father and her memories, she renders finely etched scenes of her mid-western girlhood, her workaday Catholic upbringing and the subtleties between faith and religious practice. She writes:  It is hard to think of conversion as a blinding light on the road to Damascus, or as a highly spiritual or intellectual     process, when the light comes from a flickering television; the voice of the deity is Bishop Sheen and you have drilled your father on his catechism answers...I was troubled at a young age by the idea that pouring water over someone's head could change both his relationship to God...

Jacoby first examined the "half-Jewish" predicament in a 1986 article that she published in Present Tense, a now defunct publication of the American Jewish Committee. "[The article] was a starting point for the book. I got a lot of mail after that article was published. Some of it was from half-Jews and some was from people hostile to the idea of intermarriage."

Much has changed in the last decade for children of interfaith marriages. Many Jews in such marriages are raising their children as Jews. Others are undertaking deliberate and more formal efforts to raise their children in both faiths, something that Jacoby, who does not have children, sees as detrimental to honoring both traditions. "That kind of religious education," she asserts, "can be so diluted if the child is exposed to that portion of the religion that doesn't offend the other religious tradition. Religious education is only valuable intellectually, if the child is educated in a religion versus [just] about a religion. I don't believe you can have both."

The burgeoning interfaith movement wrestles with that and other difficult issues related to identity. Jacoby predicts that in the next decade these matters will take literary root and yield their own genre. Until then interfaith families will continue to write themselves into Jewish history, perhaps even revise some of it.

"Half-Jews do have a place in Jewish life whether the ultra-Orthodox like it or not," says Susan Jacoby. And she is among those at the forefront staking out that place for future generations.

Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah.
Judith Bolton-Fasman

Judith Bolton-Fasman is a freelance book reviewer and writer in the Boston area.

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