The Half-Jewish Book: A Celebrationby Daniel M. Klein, Freke Vuijst
It's happening fast: The population of half-Jews in America is well on its way to surpassing the population of full Jews. And with this population shift has come a revolutionary transformation of what it means to be half-Jewish. Sure, some people say that you are either Jewish or not, that there's nothing in betweenbut the authors emphatically disagree. They say half-Jews are a unique subculture of people who draw from both sides of their heritage and synthesize their cultural halves into a remarkable new identity.
The Half-Jewish Book celebrates this unique identity that until now has been ignored, maligned, and misunderstood. There's half-Jewish humor. Half-Jewish/half-Catholic Bill Maher: "I come from a mixed religious backgroundwhen I went to confession, I brought a lawyer with me." And there's half-Jewish beautyGwyneth Paltrow, Joan Collins, and Jane Seymour, just for starters. There are half-Jewish writers (Proust, Salinger), and half-Jewish characters in fiction by authors ranging from Philip Roth to Salman Rushdie. There's even that half-Jewish cartoon phenomenon Tommy Pickles, in Rugrats. There are half-Jewish politiciansFiorello La Guar-dia, Barry Goldwater, Dianne Feinstein. And there are the extraordinary number of people, like General Wesley Clark, who discovered as adults that they were half-Jewish and then embraced their newfound double heritage.
This book includes an eye-opening essay on half-Jewish identity and looks into the often misunderstood history of half-Jews in the Holocaust. There are original interviews with half-Jews, aswell as holiday cards and menus, poetry and song lyrics, and paintings and photographs. Intelligent, exuberant, entertaining, and thought-provoking, The Half-Jewish Book is a fascinating celebration of a cultural mix that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
The premise of The Half-Jewish Book is simple if somewhat controversial: Being half-Jewish is a quality unto itself, sui generis. Half-Jewishness is a cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic mix that is, in a variety of ways, greater than the sum of its parts.
To take this positionand to revel in the celebration that follows from itwe stand in clear opposition to those who insist: "You are either Jewish or you are not; there's nothing in between." And we compound this blasphemy by suggesting that there is something unique, remarkable, and downright dazzling about the half-Jewish mind and the half-Jewish face, about the art and wit created by half-Jewish sensibilities, and in the ethical, literary, and political ideas produced from the half-Jewish perspective.
Enough already about the "half-Jewish problem" as the tragic product of intermarriage. It is time to explore the unique and fascinating world of the half-Jew.
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From Chapter 1:
One of the most fascinating discoveries of our broad-it unscientific-survey is that in many cases, half-Jewish children are getting more Jewish education than their full-Jewish friends are. In the latter case, the children come from the increasing number of decidedly secular Jewish households, while in these mixed-parent households, the legitimately greater fear of Judaism dying out with their children prompts parents to give their half-Jewish progeny a foundation of Jewish education. (Indeed, a recent study done by the University of Miami found that up two thirds of half-Jewish children in major American cities were currently being raised with some Jewish education.) "It probably comes from some kind of deep-seated guilt for my 'marrying out,' " said one Jewish mother who is married to a Gentile. "But whatever it is, it feels okay for all of us." This raises the mind-boggling possibility that despite the frequently heard admonitions against intermarriage (and the implicit argument that half-Jewish children mark the beginning of the end for Judaism), half-Jews may be in the vanguard of carrying Jewish traditions into the future!
But even when a half-Jewish child is getting only one type of formal religious education, both religious traditions are usually observed in the home and family. For example, a number of half-Jews tell of lighting Yahrzeit candles for their deceased Jewish relatives and lighting memorial candles in a church for their deceased Christian relatives. And then, of course, there are the holidays.
Just about every American half-Jew we encountered celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas-which is to say, they light the menorah for eight nights and they have a Christmas tree, exchanging presents on both holidays (in the case of children, much to the envy of their non-half-Jewish friends). And a great many celebrate Passover with a seder and have an Easter dinner. In both cases, traditional stories are told, games are played, and often, some appropriate prayers are said. Are half-Jews conflicted and confused about this double set of holidays? On the contrary. From what they tell us, most feel "doubly blessed." (Their grandparents' feelings are another story.)
Something unique indeed. Any Jew will tell you that there is much more to being Jewish than just the religion-there are the Jewish outlook, humor, mentality, and concerns (just for starters.) Well, a half-Jew will tell you that there is much more to being half-Jewish than just two sets of religions. A whole lot more.
Above all, being half-Jewish means combining two cultures in one unique individual. It means balancing and blending two very different outlooks, humors, mentalities, and concerns (again, just for starters). Obviously, every person does this to some degree: We all have two parents; we are all the product of two bloodlines, whether they are Jewish and Gentile or both Jewish or both Gentile. And most of us spend a good portion of our lives attempting to integrate these two bloodlines whatever their ethnicities and cultures-into one coherent self. But for the half-Jew/half-Gentile, this business of combining is on a grand scale.
Basically, that is because Jews have maintained a distinct identity for thousands of years, marrying each other and raising their children in Jewish homes for generation after generation, even when they were relatively assimilated into other cultures. Most half-Jews have this kind of unbroken, deeply defined, and complexly idiosyncratic bloodline flowing into them from one half of their ancestry. The half-Jew does not simply have a Jewish father or mother; she has a genealogical line of a singular culture and tradition that goes back as far as the eye can see and the heart can feel. And on top of that, she has a Gentile genealogical line of culture and tradition behind her, too, which, although it may not always be as deeply defined and complexly idiosyncratic as the Jewish side, is nonetheless radically different from it. Yet combine, balance, and blend the new half-Jew does. And as we see over and over again, she usually does it with terrific style.
And now comes the kicker. The half-Jew is not only an astonishing combination of her cultural halves; she is something altogether new-a synthesis. Being half-Jewish provides her with a perspective and sensibilities and social interactions that neither a full Jew nor a full Gentile can have. She is the consummate outsider/insider, a person who can view everything from society and politics to love and literature from a double perspective. It is a lonely and thrilling, fragmented and fascinating, troubling and transcendental perspective. But there is no doubt about it: It is one-of-a-kind.
Meet the Author
Daniel Klein, a graduate of Harvard, has written five novels and two humor books and cowritten or ghost-written twelve nonfiction books. Freke Vuijst is an American correspondent for Dutch television; her documentaries on American youth culture are seen on PBS. They live in Great Barrington, Massachu-setts, where they raised their half-Jewish daughter.
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