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Isn't Half-Jewish Better Than Not Jewish at All?

Reprinted by permission of The Cleveland Jewish News.

Half/Life. Jewish Tales from Interfaith Homes. Edited by Laurel Snyder. Brooklyn, N.Y. Soft Skull Press, 2006. 185 pp.

A funny thing happened to Laurel Snyder at the Hillel New Professionals Institute a few years ago.

When it was her turn to introduce herself and talk about her background, Snyder naturally mentioned her parents--her Jewish father and non-Jewish mother.

After the session, six of the 30 participants privately confessed to her that they, too, had a non-Jewish parent. The Hillel experience was incontrovertible proof that her comfort with her Jewish identity was the exception, not the norm, for children of intermarriage. Like her Hillel colleagues, most of the half-Jews Snyder has met were "in the closet" about their half-Jewishness, even when they worked in Jewish education or for an agency dedicated to outreach.

With one of every two American Jews marrying non-Jews and the half-Jewish population fast becoming the largest subgroup of American Jews, Snyder wondered whether the issue of half-Jewish identity should be on the table, rather than in the closet.

Snyder doesn't see any benefit to alienating--intentionally or unintentionally-- the half-Jewish population, not only because there will soon be so many of them, but because their craving for spiritual experience presents a golden opportunity.

Validating the unaffiliated

Researchers say the desire for spiritual meaning is a defining feature of young Jews. This holds true for apathetic Generation Xers and the current crop of college-age "Millennials" recently identified and targeted by Hillel. Also seeking informal expression of spirituality are the young adults profiled in the Reboot study "Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam: Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices." These groups remain primarily unaffiliated with--if not turned off by--traditional Jewish institutions, which in turn are dedicating time and money to reinvent themselves for new generations.

In her work at Hillel at the University of Iowa in Ames, Snyder encountered half-Jewish students who, like many of their fully-Jewish cohorts, were unaffiliated but interested. The half-Jewish students had an extra burden: They didn't know whom or even what to ask about Judaism. Their status as outsiders and their fear of rejection or ridicule kept them from approaching rabbis or joining congregations. They feared that "real Jews" would see them as "pretending to be Jewish."

The 'half-life' of the half-Jew

The solution, Snyder thought, would be to "brand 'half-Jewish' as a (recognizable) identity" and bring it out of the closet, she explains by phone from Baltimore, where she and her five-month-old-son Mose are pausing during a whirlwind book tour before returning to their home in Atlanta.

Half/Life is the result of Snyder's efforts, an anthology of 19 complex, well-written personal narratives offering a glimpse of the breadth and width of the "half-Jewish" experience. Its clever cover--an illustration of floating Groucho Marx glasses, with big nose and bushy eyebrows--acknowledges the extent to which half-Jews fear they won't be perceived as real Jews.

With the essays in Half/Life, Snyder hopes to "start a public conversation." The essays intentionally span a wide range of religious practices and attitudes. Katherine Weber remembers her father bargaining in Yiddish for a good price on their Christmas tree ("A Child's Christmas in New York"). For Georgiana Cohen, five years at a Jewish day school "legitimizes a last name I carried around like a fake ID" ("The Awful Rowing").

"I believe that an anthology should have as diverse a spread as you can get," Snyder says. That diversity increases the likelihood that the reader will find something that speaks to him, she believes. By the same token, there will be stories that will antagonize people: For example, readers have questioned Snyder's inclusion of Maya Gottfried's story, which ends with her baptism and conversion to Christianity.

While the quality of the writing is consistently high, the conclusions are sometimes not as profound as one would like. The exception to this is Dena Siedel's "My Father's Jewish Name," a spare but extremely powerful account of a childhood divided among her drug-addicted Jewish father, her bizarrely abusive (and patently crazy) Christian Scientist mother, and an irresponsible hippie foster mother.

Even the in-crowd needs outreach

Ultimately, Half/Life's message is much more than a "I'm half-Jewish; hear me roar." It offers a different way to get at the problems all Jewish institutions are struggling with: How to engage future generations in Jewish life.

To ask what it means to be half-Jewish is to simultaneously ask what it means to be Jewish, only from the outside in. The issues explored by these writers are also prevalent in the lives of many "full-Jews." Every individual, except perhaps the ultra-Orthodox, has moments when he wonders if he's Jewish enough. And what does that mean, anyway?

Snyder, who documents her own half-life on her blog www.jewishirishy.com is married to a non-Jew. She's thinks that outreach to the unaffiliated should offer lots of Jewish content ("they crave it"). She praises the approaches of Interfaithfamily .com and the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.joi.org): They welcome all without judging them and give easy access to information and education. These organizations try to be as inclusive as possible, with the end goal connection, not conversion.

In her introduction, Snyder says she received "a surprising number of essays from Jews, born from two Jewish parents, who considered themselves to be living Half/Lives." One wrote, "I'm Jewish but gay, does that count?" Another said, "Both my parents are Jewish, but I live in Texas, so it's not the same."

When we're planning for the Jews of the future--be they half or whole Jews, Jews by choice, or reluctant Jews--we need to ask ourselves why so many people who should feel like they're Members of the Tribe somehow feel they're outside the magic circle. Half/Life is the perfect place to begin to answer that question.

A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino.
Lila Hanft

Lila Hanft as a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News, she often draws upon the skills she acquired while working as an English professor, a content producer for MomsOnline.com, the senior web writer for AmericanGreetings.com, a clinical social work in a sex clinic, and a stay-at-home mom. Not necessarily in that order.

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