Identity, Religion

Half Holy, Wholly Half

By Anthony Hecht
An excerpt from Half/Life : Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes
Edited by Laurel Snyder

Half. I never really considered what it meant to be half, although now that I am considering it, I’m all halves. I’m half-Jewish, half-Catholic, half-American, half-French. I’m often half-asleep. I’m half computer geek, half artist. I tend to do a half-assed job at both. Half the time, I have half a mind to be doing something else.
Is it possible that my halfness comes from being born all halves? Did growing up half-Jewish in a halfway real city with half Jewish and half Gentile friends set me up for a lifetime of halves?
Probably not.
In the first place, although I’m technically half-Jewish and half-Catholic, I’d have to say the real breakdown is more like 85% Jewish, 15% Catholic. And that’s being somewhat generous to my Catholic/French side. Sorry, Mom.
While I would conservatively estimate my Jewish percentage to be around 85, it must be understood that this Jewish-ness is not really very Jewish at all. The Jewish we’re talking about here is ultra-reform Judaism, which amounts to basically, “Enh, sure, we’re Jewish, but let’s not get all CRAZY about it.”
Sure, we said the prayers on Friday night, but the lighting of the candles was as likely to be followed by a nice pork roast as anything else. (If you were a certain type of person, you might say this branch of Judaism put the ‘–ish’ in ‘Jewish.’ I’m not the type to say it, but you might be.) We drove to the country club on Saturday, marveling at the orthodox Jews wearing black wool coats and hats in Baltimore’s oppressive July. We threw up our hands along with the gentiles at the habit the orthodox have of walking in the middle of the street with their many children, blocking traffic in both directions. (It’s not just that they don’t drive on Saturdays, it’s as if for one day a week the automobile had never been invented.)
The Catholicism I was exposed to, on the other hand, was all dark, musty, stone churches in little villages in France, where we’d sit through weddings that lasted for five hours. Nothing was air-conditioned. And, of course, the whole thing was in French. My brother and sister and I would nearly go mad from the heat and boredom. When I see pictures from those weddings, my eyes are invariably drawn away from the beautiful bride to the miserable little polyester-clad American children, who quite clearly would like nothing more than to be at the pool in Baltimore, with the Jews, eating BLTs.
My grandparents’ house in France had particularly gruesome crucifixes above every bed, and as a child this was profoundly creepy to me. I didn’t know anything about Jesus, but it sure seemed scary and weird to have images of a guy who had been tortured to death hanging around my head when I was trying to sleep. The Jewish side of the family didn’t have that. Synagogue was almost as boring as church, but at least nobody ever talked to me about sins or death or going to hell. They just told stories about how rough Jews had had it for ever and ever and how we’d been treated like shit by just about everybody, always, and then we’d go swimming and eat ice cream.
I never felt the religion of the Judaism of my childhood, I never believed in any of it or took it very seriously and I didn’t think anyone else did either. Being Jewish was more like belonging to a social club than it was like a religion, and besides, none of it made any sense anyway, how could they believe it? What about all the contradictions? I don’t just mean, “Why do bad things happen to good people” but what about the dinosaurs? Fossils? A flood that covered the entire earth? 40 days and 40 nights in the desert with nothing but flat bread? If this god did exist, he seemed like kind of a jerk.
What about all the people we knew who followed different religions or who were more observant than we were? Were they evil, or just stupid? Had they been damned by an accident of birth, or had we?
If the orthodox Jews are following god’s commands more strictly than the other Jews, what are we to conclude from that? Does god like them more? Do they just get first dibs on the buffet in heaven, or are they the only ones who get to go? And what about Mom? She’s not even Jewish at all. What’s the status of her immortal soul? And from her perspective, we’re all doomed as doomed can be, too. If anyone really believed this stuff, how could they get married and start a family together? I’ve never heard a reasonable answer to these kinds of questions, and more to the point, nobody seems to want to talk about it, as if it’s really not all that important. If they really believe this stuff, what could be more important?
The typical pluralist answer is that religious belief is personal and the whole thing is not to be taken so literally. I find this line of reasoning terribly problematic. Not to be taken literally? Isn’t it supposed to be the “Word of God”? What’s to be taken more literally than that? The belief systems of most major religions specifically describe what is good and what is bad and they’re generally incompatible with each other. I’ve always felt that if one wants to be religious, fundamentalism is the only logical choice, and we all know where that leads.
It’s not that I’ve never felt something “bigger than myself” or had an experience that I couldn’t explain; it’s just that I’ve never been tempted to place these experiences inside any kind of structure. I find each explanation for the unexplained to be as arbitrary and unconvincing as the next. I don’t understand string theory, but that doesn’t mean it’s supernatural, it just means I’m an idiot.
For thousands of years, people believed that the stars were gods or tiny pinholes in the fabric of our night umbrella. Those were good explanations at the time and are still good explanations for some very isolated people today, but we don’t tend to consider those people to be more holy than us, just less informed. As our reason sorted out explanations, these phenomena went from the godly to the mundane.
So I’ve come to suspect that in my family, religion isn’t about god. I don’t even think that anyone I’m related to really believes in god. Not the god in the stories, not the literal, conscious, thoughtful, human-like god. In my family, religion is all about and only about culture. We’re Jewish or Catholic, most of us, not because of our faith but because of our parents, and their parents before them, and their parents before them. It’s tradition. This doesn’t explain the family’s Scientology offshoot, which is about a certain kind of faith — namely, the faith in tiny aliens from beyond the moon living in our blood controlling our thoughts — but there are exceptions to every rule.
I know that my religious heritage is important to some people. My father, for example, tends to call me on the Jewish high holidays and ask me if I’m observing. “Did you go to temple today?” he’ll ask. “Are you fasting for Yom Kippur?”
The answer is always the same. “No, why would I do that?” He doesn’t usually have an answer for this, but we both know there is no real answer. From his perspective, I would go to temple to honor my family, my father, and my heritage. I would go to stay connected with my past and to do my part to continue the traditions that his people have passed down for like millions of years.
This is an example of religion’s most important contribution to our lives: guilt.
From my perspective, I don’t have to participate in the rituals of this collective (or the other one) in order to be connected to my family or to be respectful of my heritage. I understand the history, I just don’t buy the myths. There are valuable lessons to be learned from religious teachings, but I strongly believe these lessons can be learned by simply being alive and trusting in our reason and humanity.
Though they’re equally known for the application of guilt, if often guilt of a different sort, I never felt any pressure from the Catholic side of my family. This may be because the only member of that family that I have any regular interaction with is my mother, and she was having enough trouble reminding us that we were half French to try to take on the Catholicism too. It may also be because she is even less strictly Catholic than my father’s side is strictly Jewish. Midnight mass on Christmas Eve was the only time I ever heard mention of attending church, and we were never even really encouraged to come along. Christmas Day was an opportunity to throw a party for all of our Jewish friends and for my mother to practice her true religion, cooking. You could be excused for thinking my mother was Jewish, actually, when she offered to make you something to eat. If you accepted, you’d be sure to get a full meal. If you refused, you’d get a full meal, too. If you insisted you really weren’t hungry, you’d probably get a sandwich. If you didn’t want to eat anything at all, you’d probably have to shoot her.
Growing up half Jewish and half Catholic is not something I’ve ever considered to be a crucial part of who I am. Culturally, I was raised almost entirely Jewish and religiously I was raised almost entirely Jew-ish, but I came out entirely nothing. I was allowed to quit all forms of religious instruction after I had my Bar Mitzvah, and I did exactly that the very next day. When I have children, I have no plans to raise them as Jews particularly, or as anything else. I will certainly teach them about the history of our family, both sides, and that will probably include the religious history, but I have no plans to teach it as faith or as an obligation. It’s more a curiosity.
If both my parents had the same religion, would I be more likely to have followed along? Did seeing that not everyone was one religion or another teach me that I didn’t have to be any religion at all? Surely if both my parents had been strictly and equally religious, I would be less likely to have left the fold, but that would have had more to do with the strictness than the similarity of their religion. I was raised without absolutes or strict dogma. I was raised to believe in myself and my intellect, and that is what is truly responsible for my heathenism.
Many may say that having no faith makes me less than whole, half a person. They may condemn my parents for failing to instill a strong religious belief in their children, thus damning us to some wretched, brimstone-filled fate. The opposite is true. My parents taught me flexibility and openness. They taught me that no one explanation is the correct one and that there is always more to learn. They taught me that morality cannot be reduced to a simple set of black and white rules. They gave me the confidence to seek out my own truth and to find my own path. They showed me that I am whole, and can only, always be whole.
And I thank them.
Reprinted with permission. ©2006 Laurel Snyder. All rights reserved. Published by Softskull Press.

18 thoughts on “Half Holy, Wholly Half

  1. “Enh, sure, we’re Jewish, but let’s not get all CRAZY about it.”
    Heehee awesome.
    Best kind of writing–brutally honest and thought-provoking. Wonder if at some point in the book he addresses the issue of his not being Jewish according to Orthodox halacha. I was once a madricha on a birthright trip and there must have been at least six people whose mothers weren’t Jewish, but they totally, 100% identified as Jews and were interested in becoming more observant. What kind of a headtrip is that to to be told you’re not *technically* Jewish? My best friend grew up Jewish his whole life and then had to convert later b/c his mom had a woman on her beit din when she converted. He hated it, but felt he didn’t really have a choice.

  2. Sorry, it isn’t possible to be “half-Jewish.” Judaism is a religion that people on a daily basis choose to be a part of (both Jews by birth as well as Jews by choice). If we buy into the concept of Judaism as being inherently genetic, we thrust ourselves down a really slippery slope of eugenic thinking that does nothing but cause splits within our community (getting into debates about who is Jewish). Every single day that we wake up and embrace our religion we confirm our Judaism. That has little or nothing to do with our genetic lineage. Simply put, if you choose to live a Jewish life (in thought, practice, etc…) you are Jewish. Is someone with no Jewish identity who just happens to have Jewish parents “more” Jewish than someone in Uganda who has practiced Jewish rituals and thoughts for millenia, but just didn’t have a name to label it?

  3. Wow, I could’ve written this. Well, no, I don’t write that well. I too have a (formerly) Catholic mom and a Jew-“ish” dad (he goes twice a year and eats challah every weekend). But as for the country club stuff, spot on. And yes, it *is* a headtrip to be told one is technically not Jewish. I have after many years begun to reconnect to my Reform roots after marrying (an atheist UU) and having kids, and have luckily found several progressive shuls in my area. I’m also finding more approachable rabbis and books that are much more open about connecting Torah and Darwin – see The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and Telushkin’s Book of Jewish Values. And certainly I appreciate sites like Jewschool and Jewlicious. Yasher koach, guys.

  4. it must be understood that this Jewish-ness is not really very Jewish at all. The Jewish we’re talking about here is ultra-reform Judaism
    That’s NOT what “ultra-Reform” means. “Reform Judaism” means (in its ideal form) informed autonomy, so an “ultra-Reform” Jew would be someone who lives this ideal by becoming really really informed about the sources (even more so than the ideal Orthodox Jew, who only needs to know the halachic conclusions) so that s/he can make his/her own decisions about Jewish practice. Someone who is Jewishly uneducated and apathetic (like, of course, the majority of Reform Jews in reality, or Conservative Jews for that matter) isn’t “ultra-Reform”; s/he’s just (as described above) “half-assed”.
    Consider two people, Person A and Person B. Person A is sure to vote Republican in every election, and contributes time and money to get Republican candidates elected. Person B never votes, and doesn’t even know who the candidates are. One might say that Person A is “ultra-Republican”. Could you say that Person B (who seems like the opposite of Person A) is, in contrast, “ultra-Democratic”? Of course not! Person B is politically apathetic.

  5. seems like handling it halachically would make things much less complicated, and less likley to the slippery slope of racism. You either is or you isn’t Jewish, and there are set ways of becoming one. In theory: but that begs the question of who calls the shots on what conversion standard to follow.

  6. So glad to see all these responses here… Thank you to all commenters and to Jewschool!!!!!
    I edited Half/Life primarily as a dialogue-starter, and I know that nobody will agree with all the essays, but I hope everyone would agree with at least one of them in some way…
    It should be said that the book does NOT have any kind of agenda, other than “conversation starter” and Anthony’s essay is only one voice. Some folks address halacha, some address aesthetics, some convert out of Judaism, some convert into Judaism, and some address sexual identity. But for the sake of honesty, they all needed to be in there.
    In editing, whether I agreed with someone’s persepctive or not, I included them if the writing was strong and the essay compelling. I wanted to get a bunch of varying perspectives in. Becasue after a few years working in “THE Jewish Community” I felt like folks were in denial about what “half-Jews” feel…
    And yeah, this is just the tip of the iceberg. And yeah, “Half-Jew” mis a crappy term. It gets people all het up, but maybe that’s good…
    Seriously, thanks everyone! Jewschool is the best! A daily read on my blogroll!!!!
    xoL

  7. Right, absolutely, and all of the “political” motivations that would come with those definitions. I guess my point is that to say that you are “half-Jewish” is just an entirely erroneous presupposition no less foolish than saying that one is half-Muslim or half-Hindu (think of it…have you ever heard someone refer to themselves as half-Muslim and half-Catholic? Of course not, because Islam pre-supposes that one has to submit to Allah as the one true G-d and Mohammed as the Prophet. So can someone ever be half-Jewish and half-Catholic? Heck no! How can someone be Jewish and accept the authority of the Pope and the infalliability of the Church? Oh, right..and umm how could someone be Jewish and accept Jesus as the Messiah?).
    Sure, someone can be half-French and half-Tunisian. But it is impossible for someone to be half of two different, opposing religions (this isn’t to say that one can’t incorporate, say, yoga into his/her Judaism. But it becaomes problematic if that person views Buddha as a deity).

  8. And it seems way interesting Laurel, so thanks for the great work that I really look forward to reading. Dialogue on anything is always a good thing. I guess maybe I am just over-sensitive (umm hyper-sensitive sounds better?) to the “half” issue which seems like such a loaded term to me (falling for a Jew by Choice–another kind of crappy term, because aren’t we all Jews by choice and free will?–has made me really hyper-aware of these issues of identity and labelling). Because in many ways it does get to the essence of how we define ourselves as a people; if we go the strict ethnic route it seems like inevitably non-Ashkenazi, as well as converts get left out in the cold as perceived lineage (how often have we heard someone referred to as “looking Jewish?” Inevitably that is always an Eastern European Ashkenaz) is emphasized over dedication, thought and spirituality.

  9. Adam,
    I’ve been talking about this part of the “issue” so much. And I agree with you myself, but you should try telling that to the Hillels I’m visiting. My solution is to say that you need two distinct numbers. Cultural/racial and religious. Many Jews are SO AFRAID of talking about faith.
    I myself identify as 100% Jewish (religiously), but 50% Jewish (semitic/racial/cultural). My son, since I legally converted but then married a non-Jew, will be raised much more “Jewish” than me… and he’s legally Jewish (which I wasn’t) but he’s only 25% in a biological way.
    And this matters to me becasue of things like tay sachs (which is on the rise becasue intermarried Jews DON’T get tested!!!!), and the law of return, and becasue I think Mose’s father’s Italian culture will be present in our home.
    Really, the numbers game is ridiculous. But when, on a radio show or at a reading, I’m asked, I say that I’m nervous to talk about bloodlines, but that I think it IS legitimate to identify your “religious Judaism” differently from your ethnic heritage.
    It seems silly to me, but my position has cost me friendships, with “Just Jews” who resented that I thought belief/faith was a part of the equation….
    Eh?

  10. if there’s one thing i’ve learned about jewish identity in the last couple of years, and especially in the course of my dorot fellowship, it’s that it is highly personal, subjective, malleable, transposable, and uninhibitable. there is no one jewish identity, but rather many jewish identities. to make the claim you do, adam, is a disservice to judaism which encompasses far more than religious observance alone.
    i hate to break it to you, but judaism is an ethnicity. it’s a genetic group (tay sachs anyone?). it’s a religious culture. it’s a secular culture. it’s multiple languages (hebrew, aramaic, yiddish, ladino, and more). it’s an activist creed. it’s two political traditions pulling in different directions. it’s queer. it’s homophobic. it’s feminist. it’s patriarchal. it’s all different sorts of contradictory things happening all at once. and it can not be boxed into any single narrow definition. hakadosh baruchu cannot be limited and defined, and neither can his goy kadosh.

  11. Mobius,
    Apologies if I was being unclear, I really did not mean to suggest that there ever could (or should for that matter) be A definition of what constitutes someone’s Jewishness. If anything I was arguing for the exact opposite that each person can and should be allowed to define that identity (whether European, Arabic, South American, etc…) in the way that most resonates with that individual. My point was that the moment we definie Judaism strictly through genetic terms is the precise moment that we place limitations on who is and who isn’t a Jew. My most recent ancestors were from the Pale, but to myself, my Jewishness feels far more “authentic” (a crap term, but I can’t think of anything else right now?) when honoring its tribal roots. So yes, to your point Judaism is all of the things that you listed. But is it something inherent within each of us? Or rather is it a concious choice that we each decide to struggle with on a daily basis? Is someone Jewish just because his/her parents were? Or are they Jewish because they choose to embrace their Jewishness, however they choose to define it?

  12. Laurel,
    I tend to agree with you, that perhaps there should be two parrallel definitions of the religious and the cultural, which certainly can often (though not always) exist within one person.
    I certainly understand many, especially young Jews (ugh, I just realized I excluded myself from that category…depressing) feeling uneasy about the religious side of religion given both the wacko state of religious dialogue in this country right now as well as the perception of irrational religiosity within the ultra-orthodox of our own community. I think in many ways, however, many of those who feel so uneasy have taken an often condescending, narrow and irrational view of religiosity, the precise views that they claim to despise. They define religiosity as being incompatible with being modern and free-thinking.
    In a way, it is as if many have bought into a lot of the bullshit that has been fed to us for generations, of Judaism being an irrational, archaic religion. Whereas for those like you and I, struggling (and embracing) with concepts of spirituality fit in precisely because of our modernity. And rather than just go through the motions as many seem to, I am a much more content person to struggle through these issues rather than sell them off as meaningless.

  13. I’d like to critique the whole article, which I found simplistic and ignorant about not only Judaism but even about secularism, but to keep this manageable, I’ll cut to the heart of it:
    “There are valuable lessons to be learned from religious teachings, but I strongly believe these lessons can be learned by simply being alive and trusting in our reason and humanity.”
    There are also valuable lessons to be learned from studying history, especially twentieth century history. By now, we ought to realize that reason is a powerful tool and is indispensable in any endeavor (even, or especially, in religion), but it doesn’t dictate morality. Reason alone doesn’t tell you whether to risk your life in the service of others or to beat up and rob everyone who gets in your way (though it can make you more efficient at not getting caught). Is morality more reasonable than pure amoral self-interest? Reason can’t tell you. It can only tell you how to be moral, or how to best pursue pure self-interest.
    As to trusting in our humanity, I think that position was untenable at any point in time, but was certainly destroyed beyond repair in the twentieth century.
    Frankly, if there was any acceptable basis for morality in secular thinking, I would seriously consider abandoning religion. But there isn’t, and after all these years, I don’t think there ever will be. While secular thinking has had many triumphs and successes (not least, the establishment of a pluralistic country in which people of various beliefs can not only get along but flourish, for which I will always be grateful), the lack of a basis for morality is the empty hole at its very heart. Not all of us religious people are drones in thrall to our upbringing or superstitious primitives (though some are, sadly). Some of us are well aware of the problems involved in believing in an invisible deity and of the physical evidence that contradicts the (grade school version) of our beliefs.
    In the end, those of us who want to understand are forced to choose between a secular, materialist view of reality ultimately lacking in meaning and purpose and a problematic belief in G-d and morality. Not a comfortable dilemma, but I choose the latter.
    BZ says “an “ultra-Reform” Jew would be someone who lives this ideal by becoming really really informed about the sources (even more so than the ideal Orthodox Jew, who only needs to know the halachic conclusions)”.
    Say what? How would you explain the Orthodox curriculum from fifth grade on of gemara, gemara and gemara all day (slight exaggeration)? If halachic conclusions were all that neede to be known, wouldn’t the primary study be Shulchan Aruch and other halschic works? (In fact, there are always complaints that Orthodox men are ignorant of halachic conclusions relative to the amount of time they spend studying.)
    But by all means, if you can get “ultra reform” Jews to study the sources, kol hakavod.

  14. A person is who they choose to be once they have a mind of their own. Being born into something does not make you part of anything. People never talk about your great intentions but rather your actions and actions alone that makes a person. Great job by the writer Anthony, even if he claims he was half asleep while writing this. Most of us are only half awake while reading this.

  15. It’s a confusing topic, and people can’t fully understand unless they were born into a half-Jewish/half-something else family. It’s hard to have to label ourselves but society dictates that we have to. If I meet a potential new friend, I would just say I was a Jew, meaning religious or cultural or whatever they think it means. But, if I meet a potential date, I make darn sure I mention I’m half-Jewish, half-Sicilian. I look Jewish and have a Jewish sounding last name, but I have to make sure they understand I’m also Sicilian (with a Catholic mom) because there’s nothing worse than them finding out at a later date and then being rejected and being told I’m not a Jew. Or just being told I’m not a Jew by friends, coworkers, etc. It happens quite often when you meet someone and talk about your cultures.
    I don’t know if people understand how horrible it is to grow up with a Jewish identity (Reform, observed all the major holidays but no formal Jewish education) and then be told as a teenager by a Rabbi that I’m not a Jew because my mother isn’t. My parents and grandparents never told me. They told me I was a Jew. I lost my faith for many years because of that Rabbi.
    I think I’m a Jew. My current Rabbi accepts me as a Jew (I have flat-out asked various Rabbis if they consider me a Jew or not).
    I don’t care as much about what other people think about my Jewish label. It’s who I am and no person can take my identity away from me.
    Lastly, I certainly don’t think of myself as half-Catholic, but if that’s what the writer of the post thinks, well, that’s his opinion.

  16. These are the issues my family and I are wrestling with now… I’m Jewish, my wife is a non-observant Catholic and we are raising our kids as Jewish (Hebrew school, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, etc).
    I understand the ‘law’ that can clarify who is Jewish or not (mother being Jewish), but if you raise your children Jewish, they are educated and Bar Mitzvah’ed, THEY identify as Jewish, doesn’t that MAKE them Jewish? Shouldn’t we be inclusive of differences as long as there is effort? Of course the Ultra-Orthodox wouldn’t consider them Jewish, but as was commented, they probably wouldn’t consider my kids Jewish for being educated in a Reform schul anyway.
    We as a community need to address this stigma, agree on some ‘rules’ and move on!

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