Half Jewess with a Whole Attitude

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When I was a little girl looking suspiciously at a new kind of food (a matzoh ball, for instance, or a slice of Jewish honey cake.) My dad would say, “Well, maybe you’ll half like it. After all, you’re half Jewish!”

I’m the daughter of a Methodist mother and a Jewish father, and I was brought up occasionally going to a Unitarian church. I don’t consider myself religious in any tradition, and the only synagogue service I’ve ever attended was a classmate’s Bat Mitzvah in seventh grade, but being “half Jewish” has always been very important to me. I recently had a conversation about my background with the daughter of an Irish Catholic father and a Jewish mother, and told her that my Jewish heritage came from my dad’s side of the family. “Oh,” she said, “your mom isn’t a Jew. So you’re not really Jewish." Somewhat to my surprise, this remark made me pretty mad.

As I said, I’m not religious, and beyond a few things like saying “Oy gavult” after a long day and having a passionate fondness for making and eating latkes, I’m not culturally Jewish either. And yet, having Jewish ancestors is one of the parts of my heritage that I value and identify with most. If someone asks whether I’m Jewish, I never just say “no,” but “yes” doesn’t seem right either. I usually answer, “I’m half Jewish” or “my dad’s family is Jewish.” I know that in some circles, being half Jewish isn’t considered a possible identity. Writing on the issue of intermarriage, English Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov says, “Technically, there is no such thing [as a half Jew] – one is either 100% Jewish or not.

I know that according to religious laws I’m not a Jew, but I still resent someone else telling me that I’m “not really Jewish” because my mom isn’t, or saying that being half-Jewish is impossible. Another time I had the opposite experience, when I told an acquaintance that I was going to be working at the Jewish Women’s Archive this summer. She assumed that because I was going to work at an organization that celebrates Jewish history, I must be a Jew. “You look Jewish,” she said. “I’m not,” I told her. “I’m half Jewish."

Remarks like that have made me realize that, ultimately, I want to be able to define the meaning of my Jewish heritage for myself, without someone else telling me what that should mean, to what degree it exists, or what having one Jewish parent makes me.

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