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As the new year approaches, Iâve been thinking back over the past yearâparticularly about certain terms Iâve heard used in 2014 that bother me. Following are three terms I hope to hear less of in 2015.
NON-JEW: While ânon-Jewâ is an easy short-hand term and itâs clear what it means, this term can be offensive. Most people prefer to be described in the positive as what they ARE, rather than in the negative as what theyâre NOT. For example, I identify as a âfemale,â not a ânon-male;â and in my family Iâm a âwife and mother,â not a ânon-husband and non-father.â At InterfaithFamily, weâre concerned that when people in the Jewish community talk about ânon-Jewsâ in interfaith relationships, it sends the messageâeven if itâs interpreted subconsciouslyâthat the person who isnât Jewish is somehow âless thanâ by defining that person with an emphasis on his or her âoutsiderâ status.
Granted, not using the term ânon-Jewâ can sometimes cause us to have to do some linguistic gymnastics, but I think itâs better to sound a little wordy and awkward than to potentially offend someone. So far, I donât know of an ideal term to describe someone who isnât Jewish. One suggestion Iâve heard is PDF (âperson of a different faithâ), but that term has its own limitations in that the partner who isnât Jewish may not identify as part of another religious group, or may be an atheist of agnostic who doesnât have a âfaith.â Do you have any suggestions?
And for the record, Iâd love to never again hear terms like shiksa and goy. These terms, which simply mean, respectively, âa woman who is not Jewishâ and âpeople who are not Jewish,â are too often used by Jews in a pejorative manner.
HALF-JEW: I used to really dislike this term no matter what the context in which it was used. But now Iâve come to see a difference between using it to define oneself and using it to define someone else. Before I worked for InterfaithFamily, if I were teaching a religious school class at a synagogue and a boy with one Jewish parent told me that he was âhalf-Jewishâ I would probably have said something like:Â âYouâre fully Jewish. Just because one of your parents isnât Jewish doesnât make you âhalf-Jewish.ââ (If the boy were older, I may even have joked: âwhich half, left or right?â) But as my colleague Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, pointed out to me when I came to work here, people have the right to self-identify, and if someone identifies as âhalf-Jewishâ itâs not my place to tell him otherwise.
While I may have a tendency to want the boy in my religious school class to feel âwholeâ and to know that he is âauthenticallyâ Jewish even if one of his parents isnât Jewish, identity is complex. There are many things that a child (or, for that matter, an adult) could mean when he says that heâs âhalf-Jewish.â Perhaps thatâs his way of saying that he loves and identifies strongly with his parent who is not Jewish and that parentâs family. Itâs not my place to tell him that the way he self-identifies is wrong.
Yet while I now wouldnât âcorrectâ someone who identifies herself as âhalf-Jewishâ because of her right to identify as she chooses, I do find it offensive when people label others as âhalf-Jewish.âÂ In myâadmittedly liberalâunderstanding of Judaism, a person with a Jewish parent is Jewish, regardless of the gender of her Jewish parent. (I recognize that this view, which is consistent with the views of the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements, is inconsistent with traditional Halacha (Jewish law), and is not accepted by the Conservative Movement and Orthodox Jews, who require that a childâs mother must be Jewish in order for the child to be Jewish without being converted.) And such a person is as âfully Jewishâ as any person with two Jewish parents. Labelling someone a âhalf-Jewâ can be very hurtful to them (see, for example, Zach Cohenâs blog âDonât Call Me a Half-Jewâ) and risks alienating children in interfaith families from their Jewish roots.
Which brings me to the third term I donât likeâŚ
PATRILINEAL JEW: Traditional Jewish law requires that a personâs mother be Jewish in order for him to be Jewish without converting. But for years now the Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanist Movements have recognized âpatrilineal descentâ (i.e. a child with one Jewish parent, regardless of the parentâs gender, is Jewish so long as certain other criteria are met). CLICK HERE for an explanation of âWho is a Jew?â
Nobody ever refers to someone whose mother is Jewish and whose father isnât Jewish as a âmatrilineal Jewââsuch a person is simply a âJew.â Similarly, those of us who accept patrilineal descent shouldnât refer to someone whose father is Jewish (or who is being raised by two fathers, for that matter) as a âpatrilineal Jew.â The modifier âpatrilinealâ is unnecessary, and implies that having a Jewish father, as opposed to a Jewish mother, somehow puts one into a different, less authentic, category of Jewishness.
My hope for 2015 is that we can all spend more time focusing on our own religious and spiritual livesâŚand a LOT less time worrying about defining everyone elseâs.
Are there terms that youâd like to leave behind in 2014? Iâd love to hear what they are.
I spent last week at Californiaâs Camp Tawonga as the rabbi on staff for their âTaste of Campâ (a six-day introduction to the camp experience for kids who arenât ready for a longer session yet). I overheard two 8- or 9-year-olds getting to know each otherâs backgrounds on the way back to the cabin.
Excitedly, one girl told the other, âMy Mom is Jewish and my Dad is Christian. But we are mostly Jewish.â
The other smiled and piped in, âIn our house, we are also mixed! We eat some Hebrew food, and some Mexican food.â
This comment cracked me up and reminded me of being a little kid and having other kids ask me, âAre you Hanukkah or Christmas?â The conversation went on, comparing which holidays they each celebrate that are âHebrewâ and delighting in finding much commonality between their families.
What impressed me most about the conversation was their comfort and ease with the subject. Tawonga is a camp unaffiliated with any particular Jewish denomination, and many kids come from interfaith households. It seemed the perfect place for two kids to explore how they view their backgrounds and make sense of who they are becoming.
I donât know the full picture of these kidsâ family lives, but I would venture to say that they have been given a great gift: clarity. There is much worry that children with parents from different backgrounds will be confused, especially if the parent who is not Jewish continues to be connected to her or his religious heritage. From my experience working with interfaith families, some children are confused, and othersânot in the least bit. And a lot of that is dependent on how intentional, clear and forthcoming parents are about what their âreligious planâ is for the family. When they know how they are planning on affiliating with religions, communicate that effectively to their children and follow through on it, the kids are more likely to feel secure in who they are religiously as wellâregardless of what the plan actually is.
What is the âreligious planâ for the little girl who says she is âmostly Jewishâ? I donât know. But I imagine that she is comfortable saying her family is âmostly Jewishâ and talking freely about it because they have an idea of how they are living spiritually and have communicated that to her. Perhaps she is being raised Jewishly and being sent to a Jewish camp. But she is also keenly aware that there is more to the story and honors her parent who is not Jewish as a contributor to her emerging identity.
Weâve all heard about âhalf Jews.â And people who say they are âpart Jewish,â or âa quarter Jewish.â I think these kids just came up with a new category. Mostly Jewish. And proud of it.