Who Are the “Half-Jewish”?

This is a guest post by Rabbi Adam Chalom.

Who are the “half Jewish?” Or is “half Jewish” like “half pregnant” – either you are, or you are not? For more than two decades, half of marriages involving Jews have been intermarriages. Today on college campuses, there are likely more students with one Jewish parent than with two. Hillels, Judaic Studies programs, and Holocaust memorial observances could be full to overflowing if the Jewish community could learn who these “heirs of intermarriage” really are and how to encourage them to explore the Jewish side of their family heritage.

The problem is that the organized Jewish community has been too slow to face this reality. This goes deeper than a welcoming approach to intermarriage ceremonies, which could start off these intercultural families on a note of welcoming rather than a feeling of rejection. Telling young adults, “I wouldn’t have married your parents” implies there is something wrong about what made them who they are. Too many still see the question of “who is Jewish” as either/or: either your mother is Jewish and thus you are, or you are not (without conversion). What if you want to be, what if you feel, what if you simply are “Jewish and…”?

We all live in many identities. I am Jewish, and a Humanistic Jew, and a rabbi, but I am also male, and a parent, and I grew up in Michigan, and I now live in the Chicago area. All of these identities exist in me simultaneously, and I cannot choose whether I am male or Jewish or Midwestern. An individual with a Jewish parent and an Irish/Italian/Latino/African American/etc. parent is unlikely to choose one or the other identity if it means they must deny, reject, or forget the other “half” of their family. These questions are not simply issues of individual identity; there are real live (and deceased) parents and grandparents and family traditions and heirlooms and memories at stake. There are almost as many varieties of “half Jewish” experiences as there are individuals. Some embrace the term while others reject it, but we all know what it means, even without Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song.

This April 20-22, 2012, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism will be exploring this crucial issue at its Colloquium 2012: “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage. Held on the Northwestern University campus in partnership with Fiedler Hillel of Northwestern University and Newberger Hillel of the University of Chicago, speakers and panelists will explore the “half Jewish” experience through qualitative and quantitative research, personal stories, and passionate debate. Voices from academia, Jewish outreach (including Rabbi Ari Moffic of InterfaithFamily/Chicago), the arts, Hillel, Birthright Next, and Israel will discover who this population is, in all of its diversity, and how we can speak to them as they are rather than as we imagine or wish them to be.

The truth is that the question of “half Jewish” is really a question of “what does it mean to be Jewish?” I vividly remember a conversation with a Reform rabbi friend who was strongly opposed to the concept of “half Jewish.” He asked, “How can you be two religions at once that believe different things?” I responded, “Can you be half Jewish and half Korean?” And that changed the discussion. While there are some who are raising children as “both religions” (and that experience will be part of the Colloquium discussion), for many heirs of intermarriage, their connection to both sides of their family, Jewish and other, is as culture and heritage more than religious belief and practice.

In this, they are not very different from most other Jews, who do not believe everything they are supposed to believe, do not avoid the foods they are supposed to shun, or do not perform the rituals tradition commands. Large numbers of American Jews connect to Jewish culture, history, and ethnic identity more strongly than to traditional Jewish religion and religious law; they may go to synagogue twice a year, but they feel Jewish all year round because it is who they are. Why should the heirs of intermarriage be any different?

Our hope is that Colloquium 2012 – “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage is the beginning of a wider conversation that will help determine the future of the Jewish community. Will we have the courage to be open and welcoming, the courage to change our expectations for the chance of success, or will we continue the self-inflicted losses of recent Jewish demographics? Will the heirs of intermarriage find Jewish homes, and create Jewish homes with their own families, even if their homes are “Jewish and…”? The choice will be theirs, and ours.

More information on the Colloquium, including registration forms, can be found on the IISHJ website.

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5 thoughts on “Who Are the “Half-Jewish”?

  1. Thank you for this. I wish I could attend the conference, and hope to hear what comes out of it. In my experience, the acceptance, support, and teaching of other Jews has allowed me to move from a “half-Jewish” identity to a “whole-Jewish” identity, without forgetting, denying, or denigrating the “not Jewish” part of my heritage.

    And again, I would like to point out that even if one has a Jewish mother, as I do, some folks in Jewish communities will still consider one to be “not really Jewish” if not raised as a religious Jew. The “who is a Jew?” question is very complex, and ultimately one we have to first answer for ourselves.

    l’shalom

  2. I applaud the efforts of the organizers in putting on this colloquium – this is definitely a conversation that ought to be put out there and discussed.  

    I’d like to push back a bit on one of the points Rabbi Chalom made, however – that those who identify as half-Jews culturally and via heritage rather than via religion are no different than those Jews who identify as not because of “what they do” but because of “who they are”.  While I completely agree that this is a valid comparison, I’m not sure that I agree that it serves the purpose of validating half-Jews (in the way it seems Rabbi Chalom meant this comparison to validate them).  

    Is identity based on such an internal gut feeling as good as an identity based on external action?  For the longest time – until I met and then married my non-Jewish husband, in fact – I fit precisely in this category, a Jew who completely identified as Jewish but for whom this “state of being” didn’t make any sort of impact on my actions.  And then I got engaged and started asking myself whether this was really enough – sure, *I* feel Jewish because that’s my heritage, but will my kids feel Jewish?  What does it mean to be Jewish if it doesn’t have any sort of impact on my life (beyond high holidays and passover?)  I’m still struggling with this, but ultimately I think that this kind of identification is not enough – it may be enough for one generation, or two, but what happens when you get people identifying as an eighth-Jewish?  one-sixteenth-Jewish?  What does it mean to be Jewish at that point?  

    Ultimately, being Jewish has to translate into doing Jewish – and by that I don’t mean religious action necessarily, but also positive cultural association and activity in the Jewish community too.  

    But I’ve come to believe that identities that don’t have an impact outside the self are not identities that will survive to future generations.  

    I don’t mean this post to denigrate half-Jewish identity.  I understand that there are those who identify as such, and one can’t very well dictate a person’s identity to them (nor would I want to try).  I’m just not sure that I see this kind of identity based purely on heritage as a positive thing in terms of the continuity of the Jewish people.      

  3. this is a really interesting topic. I am Jewish, both my parents are Jews. I didn’t grow up in a religious home, but as others have posted, have always felt Jewish. My husband is not Jewish, he is agnostic. My 2 daughters we call Jewish. But their cousins are Christian (whether they declare it or not) and we celebrate holidays from both backgrounds. We have Chanuka at home, and Christmas at my in-laws. I struggle with how much and how to give my daughters my heritage. I don’t think of them as “half Jewish” though… I think of them as Jewish. But when I say Jewish, I think Culturally.
    I do not participate in any Jewish Community in my area. I am afraid of being judged, of being “encouraged” to be “more Jewish” in my daily life. Perhaps when my kids are a bit older (currently 2 and 4) I will enroll them in a Sunday School through one of the local shuls that I’ve visited.
    I feel like I’m rambling. I just want to share that I am happy this topic is on the docket and it sounds like this conference will be a good one.
    I will continue to explore ways to gift my kids the values that I cherish from my heritage. And stories like this encourage me.
    Hag Sameach
    Lee

  4. “But I’ve come to believe that identities that don’t have an impact outside the self are not identities that will survive to future generations.”

    The idea that being half-Jewish has no impact outside the self is a fiction.  One does not choose an identity independent of upbringing and social standing.  Nor is an identity independent of character, and it is obvious that character influences action.  Your character is encouraging current engagement with observance.  It did not arrive out of a vacuum.  

    The concept of Jewish identity is famously ambiguous and complicated, and I have no desire to reinvent the wheel (to be really analogous: the mechanical watch).

    The concern for future generations can be addressed in a variety of ways.  But here are a couple of points that seem obvious to me:

    (i) The sex of one’s Jewish parent really makes no difference.  I’m the same as anyone who has a Jewish father instead of a Jewish mother.  This gives the Progressive traditions an enormous leg up on encouraging Jewish observance among us.  It also obviously assuages the legitimate worries of non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children.

    (ii) Anybody who approaches me to address the fate of my children without first engaging me, and perhaps encouraging Jewish observance and acceptance for my own sake first (and primarily) will be ignored.  After all, if I don’t know a person from a can of paint, I’m not going to listen as they tell me how to raise my kids.

    (iii) My half-Jewish identity is not to be treated as an obstacle to be overcome, especially not in the purpose of the propagation of the Jewish people.  I wouldn’t be who I am without my history and experience.  And so, I am not interested in self-negation.  

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