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Don't Call Me Half-Jewish

January 9, 2014

Toward the end of my trip to Israel, we toured parts of the Old City of Jerusalem. At one point, we came across a synagogue and briefly poked our heads inside.

One Orthodox Jew came up to me and invited me to pray with them.

“I can’t, I’m in a rush,” I politely responded.

“Well, are you Jewish?”

“Yes.”

“What’s your name?”

“Zach.”

“What’s your mother’s name?”

I know this line of questioning all too well.

“Sandy.”

“I’ll pray for you.”

I don’t know what he’s praying, but I know why.

He prays for me for the same reason that an Orthodox Jew in the old Jewish ghetto of Venice told me my first time doing tefillin was my “real bar mitzvah.”

It’s the same reason I constantly have to explain to people why I’m not “half-Jewish.” My mother isn’t Jewish and, by extension, neither am I.

At least, according to the Torah: “You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for he will cause your child to turn away from Me, and they will worship the gods of others.” (Deuteronomy 7:3–4)

In summary, a Jewish child’s religion is determined by the religion of the mother. On a spiritual level, such a restriction ensures a Jew’s “essence” is pure. On a practical level, a child’s religion is obvious if determined by the mother. We always know who the mother is, but we only sometimes know the identity of the father.

Either way, it is meant to ensure the continuation of the Jewish people. But nowadays, this old rule works against the goal it initially purported. It alienates the next generation and furthers distasteful sentiments that “diluting the bloodline” is something to be avoided. This from a religion that purports that every life is sacred. (The Talmud says “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”)

Why does anybody else get to tell me how spiritual I am, whether I believe in God or not or whether I am more or less a Jew than the one sitting next to me in synagogue?

Why do my mother’s life and experiences negate my life as a Jew?

I’m Jewish, not half-Jewish. I didn’t have half a bar mitzvah ceremony, half a confirmation ceremony. I don’t go to church, I don’t know the hymns and I don’t believe Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior. Though I celebrate Christmas and Easter, they are a matter of tradition and joining with celebration with my mother’s side of the family. It has never had religious connotation for me, and my family, especially my mother, would not expect it to.

I’d have no problem praying in a Conservative synagogue since I underwent a mikvah in my childhood. But the fact that that was necessary in the first place did not give me a healthy frame of mind with which to enter the Jewish community.

Western Wall
Zach at the Western Wall in Jerusalem
I have no plans to leave the Jewish community. I believe in God, I believe in our collective responsibility to repair the world and my second trip to Israel last month solidified my complex love for the Holy Land.

But by alienating me and other patrilineal Jews, the Jewish community risks our departure from a community that is shrinking every day. Jews my age are leaving the synagogue and never coming back. And more of them are marrying outside the Tribe.

There are both halachic and logical reasons for requiring a minyan to pray: Without community, what are Jews but strangers in a strange land?

This became all the more clear to me during my visit to Israel on Birthright. For the first time in thousands of years, Jews have a place of their own where being Jewish is not only easy, it is practically effortless. It can be easy to forget that elsewhere—even in America—one’s validity as a Jew is challenged.

We do ourselves a disservice by immediately branding Jews like me as “non-Jews.”

Why exclude young men and women who could become your child’s rabbi someday? Why exclude the children who will further Jewish thought, a responsibility to God and tikkun olam?

To reform Jewish law does not mean negating the beliefs of our forefathers. It means perpetuating them in a world that does not easily welcome its teachings, as the Talmudic rabbis did after the expulsion from Eretz Yisrael.

Today, we don’t need exclusive Jewish law to aid our own exile.

Hebrew for "Land of Israel," a biblical name for Israel. A ceremony created by the Reform movement as a way for young adults to show their decision to embrace Jewish study and reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is typically held at the end of the tenth grade. Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "repairing the world," a goal of the Jewish covenant with God. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew term derived from the word "to pray," and translated into English as the unhelpful word "phylacteries." A set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls on which the Torah verses are written, one goes on the upper arm (with the black leather straps wrapping down the arm and around the hand and fingers) and the other goes around the head (with the straps dropping down the back of the head). Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Zach Cohen

Zach Cohen is an award-winning journalist and senior at American University in Washington, D.C. He grew up in New Jersey and is a congregant at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J.

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