In the Diaspora: The fractional Jew

By the best estimates, there are about 1 million children of Jewish-gentile marriages in America.

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit: )
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
Exactly 60 years ago, my mother marched into her family's Bronx tenement, accompanied by the Italian Catholic named Charlie whom she had been dating for several years. She was there to announce their intention to marry and to seek my grandmother's acceptance, knowing a blessing would be impossible. My grandmother's counteroffer consisted of a promise to jump off the roof of the building. Traumatized by the death of her parents and siblings in the Holocaust, she could well have been serious. In any case, the threat was enough to force my mother to back down, and ultimately she married, in sequence, not one but two Jews. As peculiar as any family's history necessarily is, I also see the confrontation between my mother and grandmother as emblematic of a certain era, a time when Jewish identification appeared a fiercely binary matter of either/or. If you married in, you were Jewish. If you married out, you were not. For decades, it was common for the parent of an intermarried child to sit shiva. These memories and reflections come to mind as I survey the controversy inspired by Noah Feldman's essay last month in The New York Times magazine. The imbroglio suggests just how much Feldman and his critics remain tethered to an anachronistic view of Jewishness. The most important theme in Feldman's article is one he probably didn't even intend - its testament to the emergence of a fractional Jew, an American whose Jewish identity is halved or quartered like other forms of white ethnicity. For those who haven't been following the dispute, a brief recapitulation may help. A law professor and author with expertise in Islamic jurisprudence, Feldman wrote an article decrying his exclusion from the modern Orthodox community of his upbringing. He particularly singled out his alma mater, the Maimonides School in suburban Boston, for having ignored his accomplishments in its alumni bulletin and edited him out of a reunion photograph, all because Feldman had married and had children with a Korean-American woman who did not convert to Judaism. These personal experiences served as the launching pad for Feldman's broader argument that modern Orthodoxy, name notwithstanding, cannot coexist with modernity. Rather, in his view, it views gentiles as second-class humans and even informed the political murders committed by Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir. The article soared toward the top of the Times's "most-e-mailed" list and the replies arrived in profusion. Besides the full page of letters the Times magazine printed, Jewish publications and Web sites almost all weighed in. Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The New York Jewish Week, told me he received more reader reaction to his editorial, which respectfully but critically wrested with Feldman's essay, than to almost any other item in the newspaper over recent months. One representative answer to Feldman came from another Maimonides alumnus, Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee. In a posting on the AJC blog, he wrote, "Feldman acknowledges that minority faith communities require boundaries to sustain themselves. For individuals, the price of those boundaries may be tragic. Yet failure to create boundaries, including encouraging endogamy, which all the major Jewish religious movements support, imperils cultural distinctiveness. As Feldman well understands, historically those who have married out rarely produce Jewish grandchildren. Moreover, the richness of Judaic heritage is best transmitted when both marital partners share a commitment to it." With all the regard I have for both Feldman and Bayme, though, I cannot help believing they are both using a paradigm that's gone out of date. Feldman made such a stink in his essay about his absence from the photo because that snub provided the ideal metaphor for what he understood as his expulsion from the community. Yet in an interview on the Web site Jewcy, Feldman said that "the reunion was lots of fun and we were all warm towards one another." Jonathan Mark of The New York Jewish Week discovered that Feldman and his gentile wife were not deliberately excised from of the photo; more than a dozen other attendees were excised when the print was cropped. And while I agree with Bayme's point about the importance of in-marriage to Jewish continuity, there is a third way under way in America, and Feldman's children, among many others, will embody it. The very phrase "half Jew" has made its way into usage over the last decade or so, and it has been claimed without shame by the children of intermarriage. Susan Jacoby's fine memoir Half Jew is one of a growing number of books that seek (generally with less literary élan than hers) to define an identity in which Jewishness is part. The Web site Jewcy, in its typically edgy way, celebrates those partial Jews it calls "mongrels." The reality on the ground, as Feldman admitted to Jewcy, is that he hasn't been excommunicated. In marrying out, he hasn't been cast out. He just seems to wish he had been, so he could wear the mantle of the martyr. But it isn't 1947 in a Bronx tenement anymore, and there is both gain and loss in willingly accepting a hyphenated identity, or at least endowing that hyphen to one's children. America, alone among the nations of the Diaspora, has made genuine hyphenation possible. As those academics who specialize in "white studies" have noted, Jews have joined Irish, Italians and other once-hated immigrant groups in moving from a kind of racial otherness to being acceptably white. Which, among other things, means suitable for intermarriage. By the best estimates I know, America now contains about 1 million children of Jewish-gentile marriages. Of those, only about a third are being deliberately raised to embrace two faiths. But given that interfaith marriage is more like interfaithless marriage, as has been puckishly observed, fractional Jewishness surely thrives among the 400,000 children being reared without any dominant religion. By its nature, fractional Jewishness is more an ethnic or cultural construct than a religious one. The price of admission isn't so much banishment from the Jewish world as banishment from one's illusions that choices don't have consequences. "It is quintessentially American for people to want to have things both ways - in this case, to make the personal choice of intermarriage without feeling severed from your religious roots," Susan Jacoby, the author, put it when we recently exchanged e-mails on this subject. "Just like Rudy Giuliani wants to be married a third time without having his second marriage annulled - a violation that places you in a state of mortal sin and beyond the sacraments in traditional Catholicism - and still be considered a Catholic for purposes of getting elected."