In Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, nineteen half-Jewish writers share the stories of their families and their personal journeys through faith and identity. Those of patrilineal descent describe encounters with Jews who tell them bluntly, “You’re not Jewish.” While only a few of the writers in this collection are of matrilineal descent, they struggle with similar questions, issues, and experiences. Some were raised as Jews, others as Christian, some as both, and some as neither. None of them is indifferent to being the child of a Jew. As the editor, Laurel Snyder, writes:
“….no matter how different your experience has been from every other half-Jew, you experienced half. Even if your parents chose to deal with their interfaith marriage by avoiding the topic of religion altogether. Even if you grew up in a kosher home. Even if one of your parents died when you were very young. Maybe you felt half empty, and maybe you felt half full. Maybe you felt an equal pull and tug from each half and so, like me, you sometimes felt full but split. Maybe, sadly, you got lost somewhere in the divides between your halves. Or inside cold stares from the Rachels. Maybe you embraced it all. Maybe all of these things were true at some moment, because half doesn’t necessarily mean you were always wounded or always unhappy. It doesn’t mean you have terrible issues to face. It only means that somewhere along the line, you had to figure things out for yourself. Even if you never focused on matters of faith in any conscious way….
The history of the Jews is, whether we like it or not, a history of intermarriage and assimilation, a tradition of blending cultures and asking questions. The great strength of Judaism is that it does not fear, with any dogma or text, difficult conversations. The Jewish world has been built on a foundation of argumentation, dialogue, paradox. And so I trust the Jewish community to take the many voices in this book – even when those voices are hard to hear or understand – and to listen, search for a point of entry.”
These essays are lush, moving, nuanced, and tell stories that seem remarkably familiar from my perspective. As others have noted, we halfies tend to feel isolated – from other Jews, from Christians, or the faith or culture of the “other” parent – and, worst of all, because we theoretically don’t exist – from each other.
When halfies who are established in a Jewish community hide, deny, or downplay their “other” half, that suggests to me a problem with the level of acceptance offered to us by the Jewish community. Why are we so threatening? What do we bring into the mix that can’t be allowed? I’ve asked this question of a number of people; it’s one of my favorite survey questions. Many halfies are baffled by the way we are received, questioned, evaluated, assessed, scrutinized, pigeonholed, and directed.
In my dream world, I envision a Judaism that welcomes everyone, shares with everyone, and opens its doors to anyone who chooses to identify with the Jewish people, regardless of history, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, line of descent, or conversion status. What I’m looking for is a spiritual way of life. The ethical practices are what’s important – the ritual stuff can be helpful in cultivating a state of mind, but I believe God cares more about how we treat each other. We all belong.