Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Half-Jews I - Children of intermarriage who want to be bicultural

The Jewish world has a problem with the way Renee Kaplan defines herself: half-Jewish.

Kaplan, a television producer in her mid-30s, is the daughter of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother who was raised Jewish.

"I've had endlessly to defend my half-Jewishness
- resist rabbis who wanted to convert me, resent Jewish men who didn't want to date me," she writes in "Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes" (Soft Skull Press, 2006).

Kaplan says she rejects anyone who deems her dual identity inauthentic.

She is among the increasing number of adult children of intermarriage who consider themselves half-Jewish. While the Jewish religious denominations have varying views of what makes someone Jewish - the Conservative and Orthodox streams count as Jews only those with Jewish mothers, whereas the Reform Related Resources:
Overlooked by outreach and Reconstructionist movements sanction Jewish lineage from either side - the denominations are united in their opposition to the notion of one being half-Jewish.

You either are or you aren't Jewish, they hold.

Yet the "half" term is gaining currency, particularly among those with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. The phenomenon is encouraged by Web sites, books and groups that celebrate or support these self-proclaimed half-Jews, from www.halfjew.com launched to establish "an identity for HalfJews," to the short-lived student group at Brown University called "The Half-Jew Crew."

Many children of intermarriage say they simply cannot turn their backs on the non-Jewish half of their identity. Their rabbis may say they are Jewish, but in their hearts they are also whatever grandma and grandpa are.

This openness to multiple identities is particularly true among college students, according to Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst, who interviewed hundreds of students for "The Half-Jewish Book" published in 2000.

Klein says those who call themselves half-Jewish "feel they are a combination, they are an amalgam, they are bicultural."

A 2005 survey by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life found that 48 percent of college students who consider themselves Jewish come from intermarried homes. It's from this population that a new subculture is emerging of "people who draw from both sides of their heritage and synthesize their cultural halves into a remarkable new identity," the authors write.

It's something to celebrate, not hide, they argue.[...]

Some self-proclaimed half-Jews feel anger as they struggle for a sense of belonging in Jewish denominations that reject their dual identity.

In 2006, outreach activist Robin Margolis launched the Half-Jewish Network (www.half-jewish.net), an online community where those with some family connection to Judaism can express themselves openly whether they identify as Jewish, half-Jewish, Christian or nothing.

"A lot of these people have been greeted by organizations where the first demand is 'make a choice,' and if they don't, they're not welcome," says Margolis, who attends a Jewish Renewal congregation.

The Reform movement, which accepts Jewish patrilineal descent, does not allow children in its religious schools to receive education in a second religion.

Some half-Jewish activists believe demography will prove a stronger force than tradition. [...]

"We'll be the majority of Jews in this country by 2030," Margolis says. "Then the playing field changes. If we're the majority, we'll decide who's a Jew."


  1. Americans define their own personal religious beliefs:


    "Seventy-eight percent of Americans say they believe in absolute moral standards, but a majority (52 percent) say they rely primarily on practical experience for their moral norms. Personal experience seems to trump any external source for moral guidance."......

    "A large majority think "there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion."

    ".....- eighty-two percent of mainline Protestant respondents and 77 percent of Catholics - are comfortable with multiple and even contradictory understandings of their religious traditions."

    "The portrait that emerges is that of a tolerant, open society of believers..... they appear to make up their own minds, or at least say they do - which may distress religious leaders who'd like their flocks to to embrace historic orthodoxy. Whatever one's religious or political views, this important study offers much to ponder."

  2. "Religion has traditionally not been very friendly towards skepticism, critical thinking, and individualism. Religion in America, however, has had to incorporate a significant amount of individualism because this is an important aspect of American culture."

    "The idea that members of the community must all submit to the scriptural interpretations and religious authority of the elders, or that individual interpretation is anathema, will come across as very foreign to most Americans whatever their religion and certainly to most American Christians. The truth, however, is that this attitude used to be the norm not just for religions generally but also for Christianity"

    This is why the Amish seem so foreign: they have preserved many of the attitudes and perspectives of those early Protestant communities, including the rejection of individualism and individual interpretation of the scriptures.

    By opposing individualism they prevent change and by preventing change they preserve a religious culture in which individualism is effectively sidelined. "

    from Protestantism & Personal Religion: Bowing to Religious Authorities (Book Notes: Born Amish)By Austin Cline,

  3. Topping the 20 religions with the highest growth rates from 1990 to 2001 is a pagan religion, Wiccan, with the highest growth rate (1,575%!). The top 20 growing religions present mostly a mix of New Age, Evangelical Christian, and Eastern religions.

    The growth of the nonreligious/secular group is also in the top 20 (110% growth between 1990 and 2001).

    The New Age movement became popular in the 1960s and continues strong 40 years later. A backlash against traditionally God-centered, organized religion spurred this movement which seeks more of a personal spirituality: a oneness with nature, the universe, and society. The modern Wiccan movement essentially grew out of this tradition also. Wiccan religion also emphasizes personal freedom within the community as evidenced by its central creed: "If it harms none, do what you will".


  4. Annoying but true story - I'm working this walk-in clinic in a part of town where Jews just don't live, at least not Jews that associate with the main community. And I'm treating this family which clearly has "trailer park" written all over them (in between the tattoos). And as I examine one of the kids, the mom leans over to another one and says "Look Katie, he's wearing a beanie! He's Jewish, just like your bubbie!"
    And inside I groaned.

  5. No, I didn't ask which bubby.

  6. i'm a "patrilineal jew" which according to you is no jew at all. i don't identify as anything other than that - i'm not "half" something or other, i am that i am - ibri, israeli.

    according to your hashkafa someone whose great great great maternal grandmother was jewish, and has no knowledge or concern for yahdut and masorot is a jew. this is hard to understand. i am coming to israel (sorry!), and i think rather than doing conversion i will join the karaite movement. it is a hard decision because i grew up to know and respect rabbinic judaism but of course was always rejected by it - i don't blame anyone for this - zeh pashut kacha.

    the reason i do not want to do giyyur is because it has a degrading and insulting aspect - the halacha states that my father is not my father and i cannot call myself "ben ----". i do not object at all to tevilah and hatafat dam but only this grave disrespect to my father's, mother's and my honour. someone from two non-jewish parents who wants to convert is lucky in this regard because they will not have to worry about this issue.

    all the best, i hope that you will consider these thoughts i have shared with you. please have some rahamim and keep in mind that of course there are people whose identity is confused (both those children of intermarriage from jewish mothers but of course, probably more from jewish fathers) and rather than belittling, judging or laughing about it maybe consider the pain that such people may feel, and the desire for some true refuat nefesh.


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