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Half Life: Jewish Tales from Interfaith Homes
Edited by Laurel Snyder
Soft Skull Press
Much ink has been spilled in the Jewish press about the impending disappearance of American Jewry due to assimilation by intermarriage, which according to most recent surveys runs higher than 50 percent. For observant Jews or those strongly committed to Jewish heritage, this is a shocking statistic, and the offspring of these marriages are often written off as casualties in the ongoing struggle for Jewish survival.
Those considered Jewish according to Halacha are usually treated as wayward lambs who must be brought back into the fold; without intervention, they will in all likelihood marry non-Jewish spouses as well and their children will end up outside the tribe.
Being Jewish seems cut and dried - you are either in or out. Yet for the offspring of interfaith marriages, Jewish identity is often a nuanced thing, changeable and multi-layered, depending more on one's perception of oneself and life than on Halacha or the opinion of Orthodox Jewry.
Half Life: Jewish Tales from Interfaith Homes is a timely collection of essays about growing up - as it is called in this anthology - half-Jewish. The editor, Laurel Snyder, chose 19 young writers who divulge their life stories eloquently, allowing for a revealing glimpse into the heart of interfaith child-rearing, and in many ways into what it means to be a Jewish-American.
One of the early essays is also one of the strongest: "My Father's Hebrew Name," by Dena Seidel. Here, the author recounts her harrowing upbringing by a drug-addled Jewish father, a schizophrenic Bible-thumping mother and several foster homes. As a young adult, Seidel becomes interested in Judaism, and during a visit to Israel is informed by a helpful stranger that she is not Jewish because her mother isn't - which comes as a surprise.
Seidel isn't prepared to leave Judaism so easily, though, and the story closes with her as a married adult and mother celebrating Pessah and refusing to be the "Shabbos Goy" for a neighboring Hassid.
"We consider ourselves Jewish. This is going to be confusing for our children. Can't you ask another neighbor?" she declares.
Since the vast majority of this book's contributors come from the same Jewish-father, non-Jewish-mother situation, the fact that they are not Jewish according to Halacha becomes a pivotal factor in their identities, and is one of the major recurring themes. Whether the news is delivered blithely on the street by a Chabad emissary or the author is casually dismissed by a band of Israeli backpackers in South America, the writers must confront the realization that even though they may think of themselves as Jewish, many Jews do not.
Some become practicing Christians in the end, like Maya Gottfried in "Untitled," who after realizing at a Pessah Seder that she wasn't accepted by the Jewish community, found she could reconcile her two halves because, according to her, "Christ offered Judaism, refined."
Jennifer Traig in "Glass Houses" converts to Judaism at age 13, yet confesses that most of her contemporaries are half-Jewish and perhaps there should indeed be a separate category for her and her friends. Even while accepting Halacha, she rails against "the maddening matrilineal formula that renders bacon-loving Gospel-singing Elvis completely Jewish and me, not at all."
One of the most touching tales is also the shortest: "A Child's Christmas in New York," in which Katharine Weber recalls her memory as a five-year-old shopping for a Christmas tree in New York with her father. After the perfect tree is finally discovered, her dad conducts a furious bargaining session in Yiddish with the tree seller, who seems to be a Hassid. The piece ends with a visit to a local deli and the happy recollection: "We eat the knishes on the way home. A hot knish - that is the taste of Christmas."
Half Life is a strange title for a book that deals with such a touchy subject. It doesn't imply that those with only one Jewish parent are living half a life, though. In fact, the writers sometimes seem to be larger than life. Perhaps it is a scientific reference: the half-life is the time a radioactive substance requires to decay to half its previous amount. As implied by these stories, that time is one generation. But a half-life also means something else; after each span of time, the substance is only reduced by half, which means it never really disappears. This seems true for the authors of Half Life, who despite their circumstances never really reject Judaism and seem determined to pass at least some awareness of it on to their children.
Half Life's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: by presenting authors who mostly come from fairly similar backgrounds (Jewish fathers, writers/academics, East Coast), the book plumbs the depths of their particular circumstances, but leaves many questions unanswered. What about all the people who have Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers? Is it because traditional Jewish society accepts them as full Jews that they do not feel the need to define themselves? What about Jews who marry non-Christians or non-Europeans? Surely there are more than a few half African-American, half-Jewish folks out there with compelling stories.
The book, despite just being published, is also slightly outdated for those seeking a firm picture of Jewish intermarried life in the 21st century. The authors were by and large born in the 1970s, when marriage outside one's ethnic or religious group was just becoming a fact of life and was still considered taboo. Today, it is seemingly the norm, and the half-Jewish youth grow up in a world filled with contemporaries of mixed descent, multi-cultural awareness in public school and many Jewish organizations ready to accept them.
Hopefully Half Life will be well received and a sequel can be published that will present a more diverse and contemporary range of experiences.
For those contemplating the decline of American Jewry because of intermarriage, Half Life will do nothing to allay those fears, and in fact will probably reinforce them. But the collection does make the strong case that Jewish identity is not dependent on Halacha, and reveals that many so-called half-Jews view being culturally, religiously or biologically Jewish as an important part of their life. As history has proved, Judaism, in all its forms, isn't so easy to eradicate.