I have Half-Jewdar—a radar detector for half-Jews. I exult with an “I knew it!” whenever I find out someone has mixed religious background, especially when it’s someone intriguing. Why do I do this? My family gets tired of my interjecting “interfaith child!” whenever someone mentions Marcel Proust, John Kerry, J.D. Salinger, Frida Kahlo, Arlo Guthrie, Fiorello LaGuardia, Harrison Ford…

I daydream about comparing notes with these celebrities to find out how they integrated their Jewish and Christian ancestry. Recently, I found myself mourning the loss of Paul Newman, not only as a great actor but as a fellow interfaith child. He has to be the ultimate argument for the controversial “mixed children are more beautiful” theory. Bill Maher talked about his interfaith background this year in his documentary “Religulous.” He’s a witty, bitter half-Jew who now disdains all organized religion. I have also been pondering the religious education of Michael Jackson’s interfaith children. According to what I’ve read, the Jackson family now includes Christians and Muslims. But because their biological mother is Jewish, Orthodox and Conservative Jews continue to insist on claiming the two older children as Jews. If they grow up without contact with Judaism, I wonder whether either of them will ever explore this “forbidden half.” Many interfaith children seem to feel strongly compelled to investigate their suppressed familial religion (see authors Robin Margolis and Susan Jacoby).

Why does it matter who shares my interfaith background? Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, when marriage between Christians and Jews was less common, I felt marginalized. Nowadays, interfaith children are the norm rather than unusual in many Jewish congregations. And my family belongs to a thriving independent community made up entirely of interfaith families. Nevertheless, I cannot stop myself from tallying interfaith children—I feel comfort in our growing numbers and prominence. When we are successful, or simply happy, we prove a point. We are here, in growing numbers. And our parents were not mistaken or misguided when they created us.


Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

7 Replies to “Half-Jewdar”

  1. “Jewdar”? It never would have occurred to me…

    One interesting question: is there something about religious “half-sies” that gives them an extra “edge”? Does mixing religions in someone’s DNA have a more intense impact than mixing ethnicities (understanding that sometimes, when you mix religions you DO mix ethnicities)? I’m two halfs: Polish (mom), and Scottish (dad) – though both Catholic. Is there anything about mixing religions that creates a unique concoction?

  2. Religion is only “in your DNA” at all if it is linked with ethnicity. Otherwise, it’s not in your DNA. Of course Jews tend to be very tribal and have created an identifiable gene pool.

    The “interfaith state” in my mind exists whether or not DNA is involved. Your parents could both be from the same tribe but if one is Catholic and the other converts to Islam, you will have many of the interfaith issues I’m talking about. In other words, the traits come more from the knowledge of the interfaith state and the experiences you have as an interfaith person, than they do from genetics.

    Ethnic mixing (separate from the religion issue) presumably has a more “intense impact” as you put it, especially when the two ethnicities are visually distinct. But it totally depends on the parents, the place the child grows up, etc. For one perspective on intertwined biracial and bireligious issues read Rebecca Walker’s “Black White and Jewish” (she’s Alice Walker’s daughter).

    Finally, yes, something as subtle as a Scottish Catholic parent and a Polish Catholic parent creates two notes, whether harmonious or cacophonous, that will influence the child, and allow them to understand a bit about the experience of an interfaith or biracial child. If you grow up with two parents, you by definition grow up with two sets of genes and beliefs and influences, even if both parents check off the same boxes for race and religion.

  3. That is truly a heart-stopping photo, in no small part because of the Magen David on that exquisite chest. But if you’re going to use Paul Newman to argue the issue of “mixed beauty” than you have to include Bill Maher in the debate also. I think it’s best to leave physical attractiveness out of the discussion altogether!

  4. I love Paul Newman the actor, but the idea of his chest in the photo being “exquisite” escapes me. Attractive? I can see that, but in a slightly defined, normal kind of way. Eye of the beholder, indeed.

    Fyi, for other takes on being black, white and Jewish like Rebecca Walker one could also check out:

    Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss with Richard Pryor by Rain Pryor;

    The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride, the journalist/musician/writer;

    or interviews with the musicians Slash and Ben Harper, each in the same boat I believe.

  5. Dude, some of us prefer the old-school “slightly defined.” Anyway…

    Exellent additional references. Both Pryor and Walker had to deal with “celebrity parent” issues on top of color and religion. So they should certainly not be read as typical of either interracial or interfaith parenting.

    Also, many mixed race and mixed religion children are having a very different experience in the 21st century from those raised in the 20th century. So many of the stories that we have now in print, while each one is valuable, are more negative than the experiences occurring now. Not to imply that we’re anywhere near post-racial, and of course it depends on where you are raising those children, but there are a lot of positive stories that are just now beginning to be told.

    Let’s hear ’em!

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