Half Jewess with a Whole Attitude

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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Love your piece. That is the problem many people who are of mix race have, even when your mother is Jewish and your dad is of African decent people will say your not really Jewish because your not that active in the communtiy. Is being Jewish a religion or a race because I know many Jews who do not attend temple, can't speak or read any Hebrew or anything else considered Jewish but people say the are Jewish just because their mom is Jewish. So I should change my surname forget all the traditions and culture I have learned all my life just because my dad chose to marry outside the culture and my mom refuse to convert?

WOO HOO!! me too. my mom was jewish and even though i went to a bible college (and later shifted gears) i was proud to say that i was half jewish. most of the time i'd say i was jewish, not needing to provide an explanation.

like you, i resent someone telling me what i can and cannot be based on archaic (or even new) rules. i used to tell friends that if there was another search and seizure of jews, i'd walk proudly with "real" jews.

thanks for your post!

Great piece, Gwen. Jews by choice wrestle with the same questions of identity and belonging -- as well as with others' pronouncements about whether or not we're "really" Jewish. I'm not sure I've yet figured out where I belong within the community, but I have figured out that I have a deep-seated connection to Judaism and a very personal, very strong sense of Jewish identity. That's the part that noone can question or take away from you, and I hope you continue to "value and identify with" the part of you that is Jewish -- however YOU define it.

How to cite this page

Gwen. "Half Jewess with a Whole Attitude." 5 August 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 1, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/half-jewess-with-a-whole-attitude>.

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