Three Stories

I’ve got three interesting stories today about the quirks of interdating and growing up in an interfaith family. I tried to come up with a clever way to link the three, but I’m at a loss. Here they are:

  • On Jewcy, Jordie Gerson complains that Jewish men have a hard time seeing her as a sexual being after they find out she’s a rabbinical student. She finds she can only have flings with non-Jewish men:

    …the non-Jews, they knew better. They knew that in my world they were not welcome, at least not for long. Well, by me, maybe, they’d be welcome. But not by the places I was going, and in the communities I would someday lead. Non-Jewish men assumed our relationship couldn’t become serious—and after the Jewish men who put me in the serious category automatically, this was an enormous relief.

  • Chris Schwarz, a photographer who opened a museum to honor the heritage of the thriving Polish Jewish community destroyed by the Holocaust, died a few weeks ago. Despite his devotion to Jewish history and remembrance, he was buried in a municipal cemetery in Krakow because his mother was not Jewish. He once said, “I am Jewish enough for the camps, but not for the rabbis.”
  • Also on Jewcy, the daughter of a Korean woman adopted by a Jewish family tells her story: how her mother rebelled against religion and didn’t raise her Jewish, how her grandmother “was always pushing” Judaism, how she went on a birthright israel trip because it was free, how she dated an Israeli soldier who was killed by terrorists. Now, she’s a firefighter in Israel.

The Bratz Pack


BRATZ’s movie debut last week was no match for the Transformers–it made $4.2 million in its opening weekend vs. $155.4 million for Transformers–but when it comes to toy sales, it’s no contest. BRATZ has generated more than $2 billion in revenue, and its sales are closing the gap on the most successful girl’s toy in history, Barbie.

So what–or who–are Bratz? They’re the anti-Barbie, large-headed, wide-eyed, multiethnic dolls who wear skimpy clothes and are supposed to be teenagers, unlike the mature, demure 20-something Barbie. Like Barbie, they were created by a Jewish entrepreneur and like Barbie, they reflect the ethos of the time. When Barbie debuted in 1959, the ideal of feminine happiness was white, blonde, rich and monogamous; in 2007, the ideal is younger, more racially diverse, sassier and independent.
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Making a Half- Whole

A good counterpoint to Sue Fishkoff’s article on half-Jews is Deborah Sussman Susser’s op-ed in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix on her Jewish identity. It begins: “I didn’t think of myself as half Jewish until I’d been told I wasn’t [Jewish] at all.”

This is the other side of the coin of those who define themselves as half-Jews while the Jewish community insists on defining them as Jews or non-Jews. Susser considers herself Jewish, while society in general considers her half-Jewish and the traditional parts of the Jewish community consider her not Jewish at all.

I knew I was Jewish enough that the other kids at school made jokes about picking up pennies and told me I was going to hell, Jewish enough that my first “boyfriend” at summer camp had broken up with me when I told him my religion. “I hate Jews,” he’d said simply.

This sense of being both on the inside and outside of the Jewish community made affiliation difficult for her. In college, she worried that she would be “outed” at Hillel events. At synagogue, she cried. When she got engaged to a Jewish man, her Reform rabbi told them theirs was a mixed marriage. The amazing thing is, despite her bad experiences, she still identifies strongly as a Jew, lighting Shabbat candles and sending her daughter to Hebrew school.



Our current poll question for our Web Magazine issue on Growing Up in an Interfaith Family is “Can a person be half-Jewish?” Appropriately, a day before the issue went online, jacqueline-of-all-trades JTA reporter Sue Fishkoff wrote a story titled “‘Half-Jews’ fight for acceptance.”

For years, people have been saying they were half-Jewish, but the Jewish establishment never gave the moniker any credence. The different denominations are divided on what makes someone Jewish–the Orthodox and Conservative say only a Jewish mother can have a Jewish child, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements say a Jewish father can have a Jewish child provided the child is raised Jewish–but they are united in their opposition to the notion of divided identity. You can’t be half-Jewish. You either are Jewish, or you’re not.

But a growing number of grass-roots efforts are looking to gain acceptance for those who identify themselves as half-Jewish:
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Half-Jewish SF Seeks Ortho Jewish SM

A. Pinsker of the New York Press has written a moving, funny story about her relationship with a self-described “post-modern Orthodox Jew” and the way his spirituality ignited her–and his dogma made him reject her.

Pinsker’s father is Jewish and her mother is not, but both share a distrust of religion. She’d never dated Jewish before–”it’d just be too close to home,” she says–instead opting for a rainbow of races, religions and nationalities. Meanwhile, she says, “my mother married my New York Jewish dad most likely to spite her very old-school, anti-Semitic parents.”

Despite of–or perhaps because of–the lack of religion in her home, she says, “secretly, there was nothing I liked more than celebrating the Sabbath at my Orthodox neighbor’s home.”

Dating this hip-hop-loving guy who lived in rabbinical students’ quarters helped re-awaken that fondness for Orthodox practice, but eventually she runs into the brick wall facing all Jews with non-Jewish mothers: the traditional community’s denial of their Jewishness.

I’d say more, but it’s worth reading. The title alone should be enough to grab you: “A semi-shiksa lusts for her ultimate fetish: A cute Jew-boy.”

Who is a Jew? Who Cares?

Julie Wiener, in typically brilliant fashion, has written a great piece on the “Who is a Jew?” debate as seen through the eyes of her 3 1/2-year-old daughter:

At 3 ½ years old, she knows nothing about matrilineal or patrilineal descent, nor has she any clue about what is recognized by the State of Israel — or for that matter, what exactly Israel is.

But newly cognizant of the fact that she is Jewish, and that Jewishness is not universal, she has become fascinated with categorizing everyone she knows, sorting them into “Jewish” and “Christian.”

She is Jewish. Her friends Owen and Stephanie are Christian. The other kids at Tot Shabbat are Jewish. Her babysitter Maria is Christian.

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Jewish Identity in Anti-Semitic Lands

Russia and England provide interesting contrasts when it comes to anti-Semitism. Both have rather shameful histories of Jewish persecution–anti-Jewish pogroms were a common feature of 19th century Russian life, Jews were banned from England for more than 350 years from 1290-1656–and both retain legacies of anti-Semitism. In Russia, Jews are openly discriminated against and blamed for the ills of society, while in Britain, anti-Semitic statements are surprisingly commonplace.

Two recent stories illustrate how the particular cultures of these countries can affect people’s sense of religious and cultural identity. The JTA tells the fascinating story of Bella Leidentel, the 73-year-old matriarch of a a small Jewish community in Russia’s Far East. As a child she doesn’t remember much anti-Semitism, but after World War II, she noticed that people began blaming Jews for the war. As a young woman, she found anti-Semitism so overt that she made a decision to turn her back on Judaism. She told people her Jewish-looking features were actually Armenian.

“I promised myself that there wouldn’t be a single Jew in my family,” she said… without even a whisper of regret. “So I married a Russian.”

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A Politician Who Chose Judaism; A Seattle Outreach Program Shutters

Some links of note:

  • The Arizona Daily Star has a story about Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), a Jewish woman who was born to an interfaith home. What makes it particularly interesting is that her parents–her dad is Jewish and her mother is Christian Scientist–didn’t push her to adopt any particular religion.

    “We were kind of neutral,” Spencer Gifford said. “We let them decide for themselves. That’s what Gabby did.”

    But as a state senator in 2001, she went on a trip to Israel with the American Jewish Committee that the article says was “life-changing.”

    “It just cemented the fact that I wanted to spend more time with my own personal, spiritual growth. I felt very committed to Judaism,” she said. “Religion means different things to different people. It provides me with grounding, a better understanding of who I came from.”

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The Good and the Bad

Some good news and bad news today.

First, the bad: Our favorite quasi-famous child of an interfaith home with an unsightly tendency to pick his nose, Mr. Boston, has been booted off “I Love New York.” He was one of the final six contestants for the love of New York, ne Tiffany Patterson, formerly the runner-up for the love of deranged rapper Flavor Flav in “Flavor of Love.” But don’t worry, Mr. Boston fans, apparently your favorite uncoordinated CPA may be in line for his own show.

(And if you didn’t understand any of the last paragraph, you probably live a fulfilling, meaningful life.)

As for the good news: the folks at the JTNews, Seattle’s Jewish newspaper, have launched a new site, Designed in the vein of other hip Jewish sites like Jewsweek and Jewlicious, it’s intended to provide a forum for Jewish content for 20- and 30-something Jewish Seattle-ites. While there are numerous sites like it on a national level, it’s the first example of an attempt at creating a hip Jewish communal website on a community level that I know of outside New York.

One of the first posts on the site is from Neal Schindler, who explains how his interest in Jewish culture came from his non-Jewish girlfriend:

The culture you were raised in comes and finds you, as it turns out, in the oddest of ways. For over a year I’ve been dating a woman raised Protestant — the daughter of a minister, in fact — and her passion for Jewish politics and culture, more than that of anyone else I’ve met here, has compelled me to go to Shabbat services, celebrate Tu B’Shevat with Jewish friends, and, yes, become a writer for

A Center for Afro-Jewish Studies; 100 Years of Intermarriage

File under: The Rising Consciousness of Black Jews.

An African-American Jewish professor of religion has started a center on Afro-Jewish studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. Dr. Lewis Gordon, the son of a Jamaican Jewish mother and a non-Jewish afro-Chinese father, has already presented research at a Jewish studies conference and created an undergraduate course on Afro-Judaism, but in the future he’d like to create a Torah commentary for Africana Jews, do a demographic study of Philadelphia’s black Jewish community and eventually do archaeological digs into African-Jewish history in Africa.

While many of us think of intermarriage as a phenomenon of the last few decades, according to an excerpt from The Forward from 1907 reprinted in a recent issue, mixed marriages are “nothing new.”:

Mixed marriages are all the rage nowadays. We’ve recently received numerous letters from Jewish men and women who have married non-Jews and live their lives quite happily. There’s no point in getting agitated either for or against the phenomenon; the masses always do what they want. They can scream about it all they want in the synagogues and study houses that the Jews will disappear. But is this true? Absolutely not. Throughout their history, Jews have married non-Jews. Even if you go back to the beginning, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all had gentile wives. So there’s nothing new here.

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