“Half Jewish” Conference: Rare Focus on Heirs of Intermarriage

Interfaith marriage receives a fair amount of attention from researchers, foundations and religious institutions. The children of intermarriage, not so much. This, in spite of the fact that the children of intermarriage are now the majority of children with Jewish ancestry.

Thus, I celebrate the upcoming colloquium entitled  “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage, in Chicago from April 20-22, organized by The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in cooperation with the Hillels at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. The term “heir” sounds positive to me, like an acknowledgement that I am enriched by my interfaith ancestry.

It is particularly encouraging that the organizers have invited a graduate of Chicago’s Interfaith Family School, a program that teaches Judaism and Catholicism to families raising their children in both traditions, to sit on a panel entitled One, Both or Neither: ‘Half Jewish’ Experiences.” I appreciate the recognition that a growing number of families choose both religions, and the opportunity for a graduate of one of these programs to explain the benefits of interfaith education for interfaith children. And I appreciate the distinction between “Both” and “Neither.” All too often in the past, these pathways have been conflated. As a parent who has worked hard to give my children a deep experience of both, I do not appreciate being told that my children are nothing.

The colloquium will also feature Maya Escobar, an edgy Latina-Jewish performance artist who explores hybridity and the social and cultural construction of identity. If you live anywhere near Chicago, it would be worth registering to go see Escobar.

Secular Humanistic Judaism, as well as Ethical Culture (founded in part by Felix Adler, son of a prominent rabbi), have long provided shelter and community for families formed through Jewish and Christian intermarriage. Secular groups accepted intermarried families in an era when they would not have felt welcome in many synagogues or churches. Because secular communities emphasize moral social action, rather than theology, they refer to intermarried families as intercultural, rather than interfaith. The term “intercultural” acknowledges that even if a couple agrees in their atheism or humanism, they still bring different cultural experiences, their Jewish and Christian ancestry, to the marriage.

The term “half Jewish” elicits strong reactions. From a Jewish institutional perspective, either you are a Jew, or you’re not. From my perspective, I resent being fractionated. I am a whole Jew, by my own definition. But equally important, to me, is that I contain an interfaith multitude.  As a child of intermarriage, I avoid identifying myself as “half Jewish” because I resent the idea that this identity label makes reference only to my Jewish parent, as if my Christian parent did not count or exist. For me, the “half-Jew” label signals a discourse dominated by the panic over Jewish continuity and authenticity. Defining me solely by the extent of my Jewishness ignores my lived and deeply felt experience as the child of two parents, two cultures, two extended families.

The line-up of speakers and panelists at the conference clearly reflects a Jewish perspective. Rabbis and Jewish outreach officials will speak–not, for instance, the Catholic priests who have been working with rabbis to support interfaith families for decades in Chicago. I await the day when we will have a conference led by the voices of the heirs of intermarriage, with supportive clergy representing all of our many halves. Nevertheless, including the “both” viewpoint at this conference represents a very welcome, and I believe inevitable, shift towards accepting the vibrant complexity of the interfaith world in formation.

5 Replies to ““Half Jewish” Conference: Rare Focus on Heirs of Intermarriage”

  1. Amen to that wish: for the children of inter faith marriage themselves to tell the story and lead the debate on their identity without fear and without being made to feel apologetic. We’re a different combination family (Muslim Christian) , but I’m inspired by your values. Many thanks

  2. I greatly appreciate the work that Susan Katz Miller does, both on this blog and in her community, and I also appreciate her promotion of our Colloquium. A couple of comments on her comments:

    Our use of the term “half Jewish?” (in quotes and with a question mark) is NOT an endorsement of the label. If we had called it “Jewish and…” (the title of a recent issue of our journal Humanistic Judaism), I doubt it would have been as clear and effective. As we will explore, a multi-heritage individual is actually not either/or or half – they are both/all simultaneously. I am not male OR Midwestern OR college-educated OR Jewish – I am all of these, and all of these aspects of my background, experience and choices make me who I am. The same is true for someone with multiple heritages – they are BOTH Latino AND Jewish, etc. even if they choose one identity or another as primary at different points or moments in their life. That will be one of the messages of the conference and the ultimate publication to emerge.

    Another way to think about it: the Jewish world tends to think of being Jewish as “either/or” – yes or no. Part of the point of the title “Half Jewish?” is that being Jewish is not an exclusive religious identity; it is for many an ethnic and cultural identity that is thus compatible with coming from multiple heritages.

    One other note about the conference orientation. It is Jewish-focused because it is Jewish-organized, just as a conference on Asian-Hispanic pairings organized by an Hispanic organization might focus on that side of the question. As Susan suggests, the “world of both” organizing its own conference, with its own speakers exploring the issues it chooses, would be welcome. Given the typical Jewish community response to this population and to these issues, I still think that this conference is a very important step forward towards a more accepting, or at least more understanding, future.

    Rabbi Adam Chalom
    International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism

    1. Rabbi Adam,

      All good points, well taken!

      And this conference is, definitely, an important step forward, and I thank you for taking it.

      As for the conference focus, I was simply writing from my point of view as an interfaith person (a “half-Jewish” one), about the cumulative effect it has on us when almost all of the research and discussion about interfaith families comes from a Jewish perspective, with very little mention of or participation from the “other side.” I agree that the answer is more research, representing more viewpoints.


  3. The term Half-Jewish is used in America because America is largely a “Gentile” Christian culture and Jews are viewed in this culture as “minorities” whether or not they consider themselves that despite their status as 2 percent of the population! In America it is social convention that one of your parents is a “minority” you recognize that in one’s self designation while the majority culture parents’ heritage doesn’t really count! While yes the term has been handed down to America from Nazi Germany in a gentile culture for many us Half Jews recognition of our Jewish heritage by the majority culture can have the same consequences for Half-Jews and Jews in terms of discrimination, hate crimes, etc…As such revelation of one’s Jewsih heritage for the Half-Jew can be consequential in the American cultural Zeitgeist. In Israel that may be different but we’re in America not Israel!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: