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:
Yet the “half” term is gaining currency, particularly among those with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. The phenomenon is encouraged by Web sites, books and groups that celebrate or support these self-proclaimed half-Jews, from www.halfjew.com launched to establish “an identity for HalfJews,” to the short-lived student group at Brown University called “The Half-Jew Crew.”
Many children of intermarriage say they simply cannot turn their backs on the non-Jewish half of their identity. Their rabbis may say they are Jewish, but in their hearts they are also whatever grandma and grandpa are.
This openness to multiple identities is particularly true among college students, according to Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst, who interviewed hundreds of students for “The Half-Jewish Book” published in 2000.
Klein says those who call themselves half-Jewish “feel they are a combination, they are an amalgam, they are bicultural.”
Half-Jews were raised in a variety of different environments: many were raised Jewish, but still celebrated some aspects of their non-Jewish heritage; others were raised in two religions; some were raised in none. They don’t want to abandon the non-Jewish aspects of their family and childhood. But, as Robin Margolis, founder of the Half-Jewish Network, notes in Fishkoff’s story, “A lot of these people have been greeted by [Jewish] organizations where the first demand is ‘make a choice,’ and if they don’t, they’re not welcome.”
The traditional Jewish community rejects the notion of half-Jewish because it doesn’t jibe with their defense of matrilineal descent and rejection of patrilineal descent. Both positions require a zero-sum approach to Jewish identity.
The progressive Jewish movements define Judaism a little differently. For the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, Jewish identity is more a function of belief and practice than lineage. But for them, the concept of half-Jewish smacks of syncretism. It suggests that those who identify themselves as half-Jewish partially believe in Judaism and partially believe in something else. But that’s impossible, they say: you can’t believe Jesus was the messiah and believe that the messiah hasn’t yet come. Since the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have been fighting rearguard resistance to their positions on patrilineal descent for more than two decades, they’re especially sensitive to the suggestion that their positions lead to the dilution of Jewish identity. Whatever your feelings on the notion of half-Jewish, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t dilute Jewish identity to some extent.
While many in the established community may have trouble wrapping their heads around the whole concept, they better get a lot more comfortable soon, because an increasing number of people are defining themselves as half-Jewish. If the Jewish community doesn’t find a space for them, you can be rest assured that other faith communities will be happy to have them.
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