To Be or Not to Be…a Half-Jew

I appreciate the in-your-face “we can call ourselves whatever we want” quality of the half-Jew movement. Many of us have issues with the fact that Jews can’t even agree on who is a Jew, and yet they try to tell us we can’t call ourselves half-Jews.

Traditional Jewish law known as halacha specifies that either you’re a Jew (because your mother was a Jew) or you’re not. Your Jewish father? He’s, uh, chopped liver. But since 1983, Reform Jews have officially accepted either matrilineal or patrineal half-Jews as Jews, as long as they have been “raised Jewish.” The seemingly endless arguments over “Who is a Jew” continue to alienate interfaith families.

Meanwhile, many of us insist that being half-Jewish is a unique and even positive state, despite widespread disapproval. A spunky website called halfJew.org died an untimely death after vicious flaming shut down the comments section. But in the 21st century, it will be hard to ignore half-Jews as we come into our own. By the year 2030, there will be more half-Jewish children than there will be “full-blooded” Jewish children in America. As Robin Margolis, founder of the Half-Jewish Network points out, “If we’re the majority, we’ll decide who’s a Jew.” You can read great blog posts just this month about being half-Jewish at jezebel.com and thefbomb.com.

Personally, while I’m cheering on the half-Jew movement, I usually identify myself as an interfaith child rather than a half-Jew. I like the positive associations of interfaith—of cooperation, of interweaving, and even the possibility that we are talking about faith or spirituality, as well as culture. I don’t like the way “half-Jew” ignores and diminishes my other half. I identify myself as a whole, not as a fractional Jew. And I have common ground with interfaith children who aren’t Jewish at all—whether they’re Muslim/Hindu, or Christian/Buddhist. Finally, I think about my own children, who are only one-quarter Jewish, and the “wrong” patrilineal quarter at that. Our family shares a label, a community, a history now. We’re not a half-Jewish family. We’re an interfaith family.

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6 Comments on “To Be or Not to Be…a Half-Jew”

  1. deena Says:

    “By the year 2030, there will be more half-Jewish children than there will be “full-blooded” Jewish children in America.”

    By the year 2030? According to everything I’ve read, there are already more “half Jewish” children than full-Jews. See the link, below, which was dated 2001!

    The intermarriage rate is apparently over 50%. Since that’s an individual rate and not a group rate, it means that the over 50% are marrying non-Jews, while the remaining fraction is marrying each other – so the number of children produced who are fully Jewish is by definition much smaller (since it takes two Jewish parents to make a “fully Jewish” child, and so on…). If you also consider that a Jew marrying a Jewish convert isn’t considered intermarriage, and that a Jew marrying a half-Jew probably isn’t either, the number of fully Jewish children shrinks down to under 25% out of all the children who are born Jewish/or part Jewish.

    http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Books/2000/09/Half-Jews.aspx


  2. Deena–

    Interesting comment! The answer to the question, “When will there be more “half-Jewish” children than “full-blooded” Jewish children in America?” depends on how you define children, among other factors. The source you cite (The Half-Jewish Book), speculated that the balance had already tipped for children under age 11. On the other hand, your analysis based on a 50% intermarriage rate is estimating the number being born each year (not number of children). The 2030 estimate is presumably not for children being born, or children under 11, but for all children (i.e. under 18). Nonetheless, all of these estimates are very rough, since the census does not track religious data. For instance, in my experience, many interfaith couples wait to get married, wait to have children, and have fewer children as a result, because of their concerns about acceptance by the community, and finding a good religious path for the family. On the other hand, the childbirth rate among Orthodox Jews is very high. Meanwhile, all of the estimates come from the deeply concerned and therefore not terribly objective Jewish institutions panicked about Jewish continuity. I understand and empathize with that perspective, but it does not lead to objective statistics. What we really need are independent academic and research institutions (not funded by religious groups) studying these questions.

  3. deena Says:

    True, it is hard to figure out the exact number because of so many factors. For example, interfaith couples are probably less likely to get married at all than fully Jewish couples but might still have children – and I’ve read that over 80% of those Jewish/part Jewish children (born to unmarried parents) are interfaith rather than “fully Jewish”. So that adds something not counted in the 50% or 51% intermarriage statistic.

    I’ve also read that (I believe) 34% of “fully Jewish” children under 18 are Orthodox.


    • Deena–It is tremendously important in discussing such a charged topic to cite actual research, and be able to scrutinize the bias of the research. A lot of inaccurate information is circulating with no more citation than “I heard my mother-in-law say it.” I am interested in your source for the 80% figure: it sounds like a high percentage of what must be a very small sample of unmarried couples. In our interfaith community, the only couples who aren’t married are those who could not legally marry (gay and lesbian couples), and most of them are actually married now, after recent changes in state laws. Anyway, another confounding variable there.

  4. deena Says:

    This source mentions 27% of Jews under 18 are Orthodox, although I’m sure I saw something like 34% in another study.

    http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/WillYourGrandchildrenBeJews/

    I can’t find the source for the first statistic (unmarried couples) but I swear I saw it somewhere (a reliable source). Of course, many unmarried couples who have children end up getting married, and so then they get counted as part of the regular intermarriage rate anyway. Like I said, this is all nearly impossible to calculate exactly.

    The statistic for out-of-marriage births in the U.S. is 40% in general (or higher), but of course that’s for all Americans, not specifically Jewish-related.

  5. Sherry Says:

    the vast majority of ‘half-jews’ don’t even regard themselves as Jewish at all for whatever reason so it’s not like they’ll have any kind of interest at all in ‘deciding who’s a Jew’


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