[25 April 2006]
My Jewish mother used to tell me an anecdote about a boy from the old neighborhood who was half Jewish. The tale was of the sort all ethnic mothers tell that are meant to entertain on the surface yet subversively instruct children on the dangers of outsiders. The story’s punch line, or it’s moral—depending on one’s point of view—was that when people would ask the kid what part of him was Jewish and what part was gentile, he would bend over and point to his butt cheeks and say: “This one’s kosher and this one’s not, and you can kiss whichever one you don’t like.” Okay, it’s not that funny, but the point was that one could never be a whole anything if the product of intermarriage. A person would always be two halves.
My mother’s latent message though was one of respect. The boy did not try to hide his identity by claiming to be either a Christian or a Jew, but admitted he was part of both. For my mother, denying this duality would be a worse crime. Unfortunately this included condemning people who had converted, whether they were Jews who became gentiles or vice versa. People that married Jews and converted out of love for their mates and their families were always referred to as “that convert” with a sneer. It didn’t matter that these individuals were frequently more committed to the faith than their born Jewish spouses.
That’s one of the truths several of the contributors to Laurel Snyder’s edifying anthology Half Jews painfully learn while growing up both Jewish and gentile in America. Snyder has collected 19 creative essays by those that share her mixed background. These products of intermarriage are never quite accepted by Jews because of their dual heritages. In this nation of self-definition, where one can be considered almost anything one wants through work or achievement or even calling oneself something (jock, brain, Cubs fan), the one great exception is religious identity by members of that particular faith. In fact, the sad thing is that many Jews see these sires of different creeds and convictions as damaged goods.
Author Lee Klein discusses this negative stereotype in his essay, “Another Quaquavesarlist Puppycat”. Klein, a fiction writer, (almost all the contributors are professional writers or academics) begins with a discussion of Philip Roth’s magnum opus, American Pastoral. Like Roth, Klein is from New Jersey and Klein’s father went to the same high school as Roth’s fictional protagonist from the novel. Merry Levov, the half-Jewish daughter of the golden Jewish athlete, “The Swede”, and his hot Irish catholic shiksa wife, is an emotionally and intellectually crippled person who resorts to bomb making as a result of her mixed upbringing. Being neither fully Jewish nor gentile, she is less than either and cannot even express herself without stammering. Klein acknowledges he found many people in his real life who shared this low opinion about half Jews like himself.
For many of the essays, the most heartbreaking moments occur after the child has declared his or herself a Jew, only to be rejected by members of the tribe. This mostly happens to the kids who have Jewish fathers. They attend a Holocaust memorial, are discovered by a Lubavitch Rabbi, attend a Passover Seder, as a Jew and are welcomed by the community until they reveal the secret: they have Christian mothers. According to Jewish matrilineal lines of descent, one can only be a true Jew if one’s mother is Jewish. Therefore, they are forsaken by the Jews who initially accepted them. Maya Gottfried’s “Untitled” serves as an exceptionally good example of this type of memoir/essay.
Dena Seidel’s “My Father’s Hebrew Name” is the most complex and enriching exploration of one’s mixed heritage in the volume. Seidel comes from a broken home, then a highly dysfunctional foster family, and is eventually raised by her drug addicted real father. Her mother remarries and becomes a devout Christian Scientist. Seidel seeks love and acceptance but is always intellectually and emotionally aware of the dangers that surround her. She uses her religious connections as a way of finding community and establishing her personal identity so that in the end, her lack of faith in any particular dogma gives her confidence and comfort.
Editor Snyder begins the volume with a perceptive introduction that bears re-reading after finishing the anthology. She notes that more Jews are now intermarrying with gentiles than wedding those of the same faith. Snyder openly wonders, “How will the Jewish community turn its ship around to welcome these half-Jews when for generations half-Jews have been silently tolerated or excluded outright?” The editor knows the essays here have provided a guide for those perplexed by the situation. These half-Jews are the pioneers whose struggles help define and mark the territory for future generations
As the majority of Jews in America become half-Jews, they will have the power to decide their own identity. Let’s face it, most Jews living today already bear little in common with their ancestors, regardless of their genetic purity. They have blended into the national population and have few, if any, distinct characteristics that differentiate them from their gentile neighbors. In a sense, most Jews who are descended from two genetically Jewish parents are already half Jewish and half American, if not more American than Jewish. Religion does not play a central role in their lives as much as their ethnic and cultural tastes, and as one can find bagels around every corner in the 21st century, who’s to say everyone won’t soon be part Hebrew?