“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)