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The JC Comment Blog

The JC Comment Blog No.5 - Can you be half a Jew?

JC reporter Rosa Doherty on the the blessings and anxieties of a multicultural upbringing

    I grew up saying “I’m half Irish, half Jewish.” I was mindful from an early age that I should not prioritise either side of my heritage.

    For me, the benefits of having dual heritage are endless, although admittedly not without their  contradictions. Especially if your mum is a north-west London Jew and your dad is from an Irish Catholic family. 

    Suspend “the rules” for a minute and consider a world like this; chicken soup and seafood chowder, Chanukah and Christmas, and a Pesach where the prize for finding the afikoman is an Easter egg.

    If you’re still reading this I might hazard a guess that you don’t offend easily, so stay with me.

    It is true that it is a description of Jewish life that might horrify some, but I loved that my childhood weekends were spent with visits to Temple Fortune and my summers spent with trips to Ireland.

    It is other people, usually Jews, who always had the problem with the way I explained my identity.

    “Is your mother Jewish?” they would ask when they were met with my “half Jewish” explanation.

    I learned quickly that the concept of being 'half' would not do.

    “You can’t be half Jewish. If your mum is then you are,” they would tell me, as if at no point in my life had the halachic concept been explained to me. Of course it had.

    JC columnist Jennifer Lipman made the point that as a feminist, she has a fundamental problem with religion assuming the offspring of Jewish fathers are somehow worth less than those of Jewish mothers.

    She wrote: “We’re told Judaism is inherited, that it’s something you are born into rather than something you choose. But that’s only half the story; you’re born into it only if the right parent is of the faith, with no account taken of engagement or commitment. It’s hard to argue that’s anything but sexist.”

    And I agree. But I’d go one step further and say it is harmful to people’s sense of identity.

    I’ve often thought it completely strange that total strangers would express their relief, similar to the relief expressed when you’ve not crashed the car, that my children will be considered Jewish.

    But admittedly it felt nice to be told by people that wanted me that I was not 'half' anything.

    And yet this way of thinking has even become ingrained in my own psyche.  I’d be lying if I didn’t think it would be easier for my children to feel confident in their identity if I have girls.

    Because if I have boys and they marry non-Jews, which they would be entirely free to do, the community suddenly shuts down around them.

    I can’t help notice the hypocrisy, my own and the community’s.

    It doesn’t matter how much I go shul, (basically never) or the rules I observe, (pretty much none) I have acquired a status that someone whose father is Jewish has not.

    I wonder about the impact this has on people who are rejected by a community they want to belong to.

    Karen Glaser wrote in February about her friend’s daughter being bullied by a Jewish peer because she was “not really that Jewish,” because  it was her father, not her mother who was.

    When I meet people whose mum is not Jewish, but father is, they are always quick to let me know they understand that means they are not 'one of us.'

    It also does not surprise me that these people often end up being the “Jews” that veer off into what the wider community describe as “self-hating territory.”

    And perhaps we, as a community, pushed them there?

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