Growing Up Half-Jewish
A new collection of essays examines how intermarriage affects children.
By Eva Geertz
I grew up the second child and first daughter of two Jewish parents in a small city where there were lots of other Jews around. No one ever made any fuss about the religious backgrounds of the people I dated, and I never heard my parents complain about Jews who married Gentiles.
Nonetheless, intermarriage became a big issue in my life when, in my early 30s, I actually went and married a practicing Episcopalian. Now, my brother had been married for years to a Jewish woman who brought non-observance to new levels; when my mother asked if she was observant, my brother replied, “Well, she knows what matzo is.”
The irony was that my husband, who came from a family of exceedingly liberal Protestant clergy and had a strong background in religion and philosophy, knew way more about Judaism than my Jewish sister-in-law.
In general, I don’t feel bad about intermarrying and I believe my husband and I make a good team. So, when I came upon Laurel Snyder’s collection of essays, Half/Life (Soft Skull Press), I was intrigued. “Half/Life” deals with a subject that my husband and I have discussed and argued about more heatedly than almost anything else: the rearing of half-Jewish, half-Christian children. For us, intermarriage itself isn’t the problem. The real dilemma is, what about the kids?
Snyder’s collection contains essays by a number of people who grew up half-Jewish, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, and mostly in the cities of the Northeast U.S., where, let’s face it, there are usually Jews around somewhere and it wouldn’t have been too difficult to find a way to identify with your Jewishness as you were growing up. Some of the essays discuss this finding of community outside of the family unit. Some discuss how the family unit was strengthened by the decision to raise Jewish children in spite of one parent being Christian. (I find it interesting that several of the essays in this book indicate that there was no question of raising the kids as Christians. They would be Jews, period, end of story. Hmmm.)
And more than one essay examines how the children of intermarriage may suffer because of their parents’ miserable marriage, the misery being caused not by religion, which was, oddly, one of the few things on which the parents agreed, but by other factors.
The ones who seemed to have the biggest problem with intermarriage were the grandparents. Some of this is clearly about social status—marrying outside the clan or tribe, as it were—and some of it is actually about faith. Worrying about whether or not a grandchild is baptized or circumcised is heavy stuff to an older generation steeped in strict tradition; there are no takesies-backsies when it comes to such sacred rituals.
Or, a grandparent might have deeper concerns about the “level” of the “intruder’s” observance. In my own experience, my grandmother wasn’t as worried about my fiancé being Christian as she was about what kind of Christian he was—an Evangelical fundamentalist, God forbid? When I assured her that he was not, she was cool with it.
I do think my husband and I have one significant advantage over the parents discussed in “Half/Life,” which is that we are not adults in the Age of Aquarius. A number of the essays in this book struck me as being not so much about the impact of religiously mismatched parents on children but rather more about the impact of the screwier aspects of the 1960s and 1970s on children.
Dena Katzen Seidel’s touching and infuriating memories of growing up under the sway of her Jewish father and his muddled associates, and her Christian mother and her even more muddled associates, is one of the stronger pieces in the book. Seidel’s sketches of her jumpy life, going from one household to another because of random domestic chaos, brings out the fact that while she was a victim of religious turmoil, the real problem in her upbringing was not religion. Instead, it was the fact that the adults in her life were not able to face responsibilities, for whatever reason. Religion essentially takes a back seat to a Christian mother who was freaking nuts and a Jewish father who did drugs and was incapable of taking responsibility for his own life, let alone anyone else’s.
Not all of the essays in “Half/Life” are successful. Some—Katharine Weber’s “A Child’s Christmas in New York” for example—are barely there, and left little for me to think about. Others are executed a bit too artily for my taste. But a number were so well written that they made me want to read more by the author in question. One contributor, Jennifer Traig, recently published “Devil In the Details,” an odd and interesting memoir that discusses, among a lot of other things, her religious drive. Thisbe Nissen’s excellent piece led me to her novel, “The Good People of New York,” and her stories in “Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night.”
After reading “Half/Life,” I ordered several copies of the book for the small Connecticut bookstore where I work. I put it prominently on display when it arrived. Within about 36 hours, two copies had sold—which is fast response, take my word for it—and I had the opportunity to speak with the buyers. I had expected them to be either adult children of intermarried couples, or adults who had intermarried themselves, but this was not the case. They were both adult Jews who’d married Jews.
Two things particularly struck me: one, the fact that the subject was of immediate interest in our store—I predict that it will become a bestseller for us within a few weeks—and two, that the people who bought this book were not in their 20s or 30s, but were significantly older, and the parents of young children themselves. I suspect that “Half/Life” will go beyond its intended audience, into a demographic that’s slightly older and looking now at their teenage children, knowing that the odds of them marrying within their tribe are, statistically, slim.
I laud “Half/Life” for providing a worthwhile look at a tremendously multifaceted subject. It isn’t the final word on the issue by any means, but it’s a good start for anyone dealing with intermarriage in all its complexity.
Comment on this review here.
Eva Geertz has been in the book business her entire adult life, having done everything from running a rare bookstore to acquiring books and manuscripts for the Beinecke library at Yale. For the past two years, she’s been the buyer for Atticus Bookstore in New Haven, Conn.
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