“When I told the rabbi I was half-Jewish, he was not very friendly.”
The young man who said that to me had recently discovered that his father was a Holocaust survivor. His dad had felt it was not safe to be a Jew, so after the war he hid his Jewish identity, and only revealed it on his deathbed. Joe (not his real name) had been raised without religion, had become a Christian in college, and now was trying to deal with this new information about his family. He was also still grieving for his father, and exploring Judaism was one way to feel connected to his dad. He went to a synagogue (I do not know what synagogue, or which movement it was) and when he approached the rabbi after services and introduced himself with, “I’m half Jewish” the rabbi said, “That’s not possible.”
Joe was baffled and hurt. “What did I do?” he said.
Sometimes I hear people say, “I’m half-Jewish” or “I’m one-quarter Jewish.” That reflects their self understanding. What they need to know, though, is that in the rabbinic Jewish universe, there are categories labeled “Jewish” and “not-Jewish,” but that there is no “part Jewish.” An analogy: it’s like sitting in a poker game and suddenly yelling “GIN!” You know that the hand you hold looks like “gin” (and it does!) but that’s not a hand in the game of poker. “Part Jewish” may be accurate genealogy but Judaism isn’t genealogy.
Why is this? Go back in time, not even very far. Jews were despised by Christians, and not very well-thought-of by most Muslims. Being “half-Jewish” meant having the worst of both worlds: membership in a despised group, and outsider status within that group. Jews decided, sometime about two thousand years ago, to define any person who had a Jewish mother as a Jew, no matter who the father was. That way a child would not be labeled “half-Gentile” and suffer for it. Children with Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers would not be living in the Jewish community. They would be in the Gentile community with their mothers, so they were beyond the boundaries of the Jewish world, hence, not Jewish.
So if you have described yourself to someone as “half-Jewish” or “part Jewish” and gotten a strange reaction or a lecture about Jewish law, that’s what was going on. If you want to bypass the semantics, try saying that you have a “Jewish heritage.” That may make for an easier conversation.
And Joe? We talked at length. It turned out that he was a devout Christian. Ultimately he decided to say he was a believing Christian with a Jewish heritage. I was able to put him in touch with a program for children of Holocaust survivors, because he certainly qualified as a member there.
To my Jewish readers: we need to be careful in speaking to people who identify as part-Jewish, remembering that unkindness is never OK. And if you are a person who has Jews in the family tree, I hope that you will find friendly people with whom to explore as much as you wish.
We are in a time of changes for the Jewish community in the United States. I have a feeling that while traditional categories are not going to change, the number of people who identify as “part Jewish” will grow. It’s going to be an interesting millennium.
- The Jewish Heritage (codeandlanguage.wordpress.com)
- Who’s a Jew? Few American Jews say it’s a matter of belief (usatoday.com)
- What Makes a Jew? It’s What You Do. (blogs.forward.com)
28 thoughts on “Part Jewish?”
Thanks for this post! Having just been to my first High Holy Day services as a “returning Jew”, I appreciate what Joe experienced. I had a woman who knew me in a different context come up to me, get right in my face and say “YOU’RE not Jewish, now are you?” My Jewish friends had explained to me that I was considered a returning Jew because my heritage came through my mother’s mother. I had also participated in every aspect of reflection and services before and during the High Holy Days, so I was able to answer rather assuredly that “yes, I am.” It’s a tricky thing for newbies though. Not growing up in the faith makes you feel that you shouldn’t say you are fully Jewish (of course) but being descended from Jews makes you feel like you really are “part Jewish” and you want to claim that. I think it’s a good time in our society when people are able to speak up and claim their Jewish heritage with pride. But as you so aptly put it we have to be a little careful in religious circles sometimes. I always appreciate your blog! 🙂
“Not growing up in the faith makes you feel that you shouldn’t say you are fully Jewish (of course) but being descended from Jews makes you feel like you really are “part Jewish” and you want to claim that.”
I think you are expressing the experience of a lot of people, Kaeli. Legitimacy is a hot-button issue on many levels in the Jewish world. There’s a level on which some long to belong in Jewish community – a gut longing to be accepted and treated as one of the family.
Then there’s another level on which it’s about privileges in the local Jewish community: who gets called to the Torah to make blessings? Who counts for a minyan? (Of course, in some communities, these two are also complicated by gender.) At whose home will I eat? Who is an acceptable marriage partner? Who can be buried in the cemetery?
I think there’s also a level at which a community that has often felt the sting of rejection – or worse, outright violence – wants to be exclusive on its own terms. Some of the traditional Jewish law sets those boundaries, but there is also a balancing element in the Torah that mandates kind treatment of strangers, and commands us to accept outsiders who go through the long process of legitimation by conversion.
And ever since 1948 there is also the question of who qualifies for an Israeli passport – another way of measuring Jewish legitimacy.
And now here we are, very much a minority (only 2% of the US population is Jewish in even the most liberal terms) and at the same time a high-profile group in America. No wonder it’s all so complicated.
I agree with what you are saying and as usual I am learning a lot from you. Even in my Judaism class there seems to be a jockeying for position, in that people seem to want to know which “camp” you are coming from Jewish descent or Jew by choice. I guess it is human nature to feel nervous about being accepted. I feel that I am both but try hard to declare neither vehemently. However, being sensitive to those who spent their whole lives studying and attending services…I usually just don’t say anything and try to sit out of sight. Sometimes being out of sight in a small community is hard to do though!
It’s confusing b/c the US is such a patriarchal society, and since children usually have their father’s last name, they’re going to be perceived as Jewish even if their mother is completely Christian or Buddhist for centuries. That factors in to the thinking, I’m sure.
But what do I know? Despite having an uber-Gentile surname, I’m often presumed to be one of The Tribe. I know from Yiddish pretty good, I have dark hair and eyes, pale skin, and a schnoz. I don’t claim it, of course, but it does make for laughs sometimes.
We’re pretty sure my mother’s grandfather was Jewish and just hid it. A few customs and dishes in our family tradition also point to that. He married a Scottish woman, and yes, that combination meant pennies were pinched as much as the stereotypes would have it!
I thank great-grandpa for making the choice that allowed me the glories of bacon and shrimp, however.
“It’s confusing b/c the US is such a patriarchal society, and since children usually have their father’s last name, they’re going to be perceived as Jewish” – Well put!
One of the things that intrigues me about Jewish culture is how many things are set up to run counter to Western cultural expectations or logic. Matrilineal descent is one, the point at which the day turns is another. Having the day begin at sundown is counterintuitive. I look at these things and wonder “why” but it may be more interesting to look and say, “so what?” — what is the effect of this particular bit of opposition to majority culture?
So if you are not officially a member of the tribe, how did you get handy with Yiddish?
I always had Jewish friends growing up, then I spent a lot of time in theater and TV, and of course Yiddish is the second language of showbiz regardless of religion.
The Celtic traditions are strangely similar — the day begins at sunset, the holidays sort of remind me of each other in timing, and the Picts were matrilineal. (Which, before DNA, only makes sense.)
Wow, I need to do some reading about Celtic traditions. Day begins at sunset? Wow. Embarrassing, given that my background is Irish American. Clearly I need to fix this ignorance.
I find that there are things I can say in Yiddish for which no other language suffices.
There is no finer language than Yiddish for expressing disgust or disappointment. Feh.
Thanks for this thoughtful post, Rabbi Adar. It is often difficult for Jew and non-Jew to grasp a Jewish point of view when surrounded by a very Christian & American culture.
This week I have spoken with two different people who asked me for the bottom line – how is this aspect of my life be measured by Jewish law? I believe it is important to be honest. It is quite possible to be kind and honest. My goal is for a person to:
1. Feel they have the information they want & need
2. Feel cared about
3. Be comfortable coming back to me with another question or issue.
For adults who grew up with one Jewish parent or grandparent but no formal Jewish education it can be an awful shock to enter their first Jewish environment and discover they know little of Judaism and certainly none the secret handshakes & passwords!
Of late, having diversity in your family tree has become cool. But to be accepted into a people that considers itself on big family, you need more. Helping those individuals who want that ‘more’ is a mitzvah.
Thanks, Dawn – you’ve been one of my teachers on this subject.
There’s another element that confuses things: there are a lot of people running around pontificating about Judaism without sufficient knowledge. (Pun intended.) I have heard self-appointed experts give all kinds of misinformation and bad advice. It’s really important for newcomers to have sources they can trust, and up to us Jewish pros to make sure that those trusted sources are accessible.
Thank you for your tireless work in making Judaism accessible!
Thanks for addressing this important but not commonly discussed topic. I think it is worth adding this key point, though: Judaism is a religion, a system of beliefs. While many Jews identify with it more culturally or communally, it is still a religion primarily. How can you be “part” when you’re talking about religion? Can you be part Christian and part Jewish? While certainly you can come from both heritages, there is a key conflict in their core beliefs. As someone who comes from an interfaith family, I was told by the occasional Hebrew school classmate that I was part Jewish. Early on, my mom taught me to respond that I am all Jewish, that it’s not like being part Italian. I would guess that this is a big part of what makes people uncomfortable, perhaps more than the history of matrilineal descent.
You make a great point Julie. How fortunate you were to have your mother’s guidance.
Good point, Juliet: there are differences between Judaism and Christianity that shouldn’t be glossed over. It’s fashionable to talk about how “there’s really no difference” but when we do that, we lose the richness of either one. We also set up some serious cognitive dissonance. Your parents did a good thing in raising you with a strong identity firmly in one place.
Only one point where I disagree slightly: for some Jews, religion is largely a side trip, and they are still very legitimately Jewish as long as they don’t affirm opposing beliefs like Christianity or Islam. For them, it’s cultural, it’s ethnic, it’s about a worldview. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan titled his great book, “Judaism as a Civilization” which is how I like to think of it.
I agree, and I would add that in the western world “Jewish” is an ethnicity or a culture. “Judaism” is the name of a religion historically associated with rheJewish people, although many Jews do not practice Judaism. If we just use the words with recision, we would be clearer.
I understand this as a historical and rabbinic response, but it does not fit the condition of many Jewish communities today, who are not led by Rabbis and whose tenets are not necessarily the same as those of the Rabbinic Judaism of elder days.
I don’t feel someone should have to change how they identify in the world in order to receive welcome from a tribe to which they claim membership. If one is ‘part Jewish’ a Jew -any Jew- should melt with open-heartedness and say, ‘Welcome, Sibling.’ Why make entry harder? How Jews have been in the past toward this situation of liminal identity should not define how Jews are NOW in response to it.
Hi, Noach! I think there’s going to be a lot of interesting conversation around exactly this point in the years ahead, if I’m reading the new study from Pew Research accurately. (http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/)
I’m looking forward to watching, probably for the rest of my life, as the various approaches to Judaism, and individual Jews figure out this new historical situation.
Being “half” Jewish isn’t something to be ashamed of, nor should any clergy person look down upon you for expressing (in your own way) that you have multiple/dual-heritages. It is wonderful to know more than just one community intrinsically. People like you, and I, are an asset to the Jewish community and any community in which we share heritage etc..
Working for the acceptance of dual-heritage Jews and educating the Jewish community about honest welcoming is my life’s passion. It’s led me to start my own organization, and fly around the country giving workshops, consultations, creating inspirational initiatives; creating a community that is supportive of our differences. We’re focusing on the hard truth of heritage and racial discrimination, but celebrating our complexities, heritages and Jewishness at the same time. (I love my life! I get to meet amazing people almost every day!)
This particular subject is extremely sensitive, so I am grateful that Dawn Kepler has joined the conversation. She’s a great colleague and friend.
Thanks to the rabbi, and everyone else, for making this a constructive conversation.
I absolutely agree, Jared, having one Jewish parent or grandparent is not anything to be ashamed of! Here in the U.S. it’s something that offers the individual a choice. In some other places and times, it has identified a person as Jewish even if they didn’t want to be seen that way.
I agree that it is a very sensitive topic, and I’m glad Dawn is involved, too. I think it needs much more discussion, and as I said in the post, I think that demographics are going to make Jewish communities engage with the topic whether they want to or not.
Thanks so much for your contribution!
Dear Rabbi Adar:
As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, an organization for adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage, I would respectfully suggest that it is OK for those of us who are partly-Jewish to use labels that make us feel comfortable, and that we should not be asked to call ourselves “of Jewish heritage.”
I have outlined the complicated reasons for this on the “Reform Judaism” website where your essay was republished — my comment is number 17:
Robin, I absolutely agree that people have the right to call themselves whatever feels right to them. What I was trying to address in this post is the reason why sometimes communication breaks down around the topic.
I hear that you feel I was demanding a particular label from people who have one Jewish parent or grandparent. That was not the message I intended.
My intent was to offer a set of information that might be helpful with communication, that’s all.
Dear Rabbi Adar:
Just a quick follow-up — I posted two comments about your work on the Reform Judaism website — one expressing strong support of your outreach site and one with objections to the “Jewish heritage” term prevailing over “half-Jewish” — I hope you see both of them, as the one expressing support of your work may still be “in moderation.”
Thanks, Robin, I do appreciate the kind words!
Dear Rabbi Adar:
Thank you for your patience with me!
Robin, you and I are both doing our best to serve the Jewish People. I’m delighted that you are reading, and I hope you will not hesitate to speak up when you see things differently. Jews have always been multi-opinioned folks, and it’s by sharing our best that we will make it through this interesting patch of history.