“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.