Being Both: Biracial, Bireligious, Multiracial, Multireligious

Today’s front-page story in the New York Times under the headline “Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above” describes how mixed-race youth are claiming their right to what I call “the joy of being both.” I often write about the parallels between biracial and interfaith children. A lot of the quotes in the article from students at the University of Maryland will resonate with those of us who are “mixed-religion” children. The President of the university’s Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, when asked how she marks her race on a form, replies, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.” This is exactly my response to forms that ask for my religion.

The reporter does an excellent job of explaining that these youth are not necessarily trying to transcend the categories, they are simply “asserting their freedom to identify as they choose.” And an interfaith child should have the right to choose to be a Jew or a Christian (or whatever religion they want), or to keep the interfaith label. “All society is trying to tear you apart and make you pick a side,” says another biracial Maryland student. “I want us to have a say.” And that’s what interfaith children want.

On the other hand, the realities of African-American history, of Jewish history, of the minority experience, mean that the two sides are weighted and freighted unequally. One mother of biracial black/white children told me, “I have always been crystal clear with my kids: you are black.” Many interfaith families choose Judaism for their children, for similar reasons. Be proud and stand with your people, others are going to identify you as black (Jewish) anyway, do not try to “pass.”

Nevertheless, the US census began allowing mixed-race children to check more than one box for race in 2000. A somewhat snarky line in the New York Times article attributes this change to “years of complaints and lobbying, mostly by the white mothers of biracial children.” This ignores the contributions of adult mixed-race people such as psychology researcher Maria Root, whose work was considered by the government in their decision to change the census format.

With her permission, I adapted Root’s powerful “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage” into a parallel “Bill of Rights for Interfaith People.” Less well known is her equally compelling “50 Experiences of Mixed Race People.” The first experience on this list: “You have to choose; you can’t be both.” Familiar, indeed.

President Barack Obama, born as both a biracial and an interfaith child, writes in his first memoir of choosing to be black, and choosing to be Christian. Part of the point that mixed-race students make in today’s article is the right to this self-identification. On the other hand, some of us claiming and exploring the positive aspects of mixedness, or bothness, can be zealous in our newfound enthusiasm. We cannot help spotting and pridefully claiming fellow interfaith (or multiracial) children. The reporter describes tension between students who claim Obama as a mixed-race President, and an African-American student who pleads, “Stop taking away our black president.”

As an interfaith child, I recognize the right of any mixed child to self-identify. I respect Obama’s self-identification, just as I recognize Gabrielle Giffords as Jewish, a choice she made after being raised with a bit of “both.” I’m not trying to take away anyone’s first Jewish congressperson from Arizona. Or anyone’s black President. But as intermarriage continues, and as the population of “both” children grows, how we label ourselves, and the labels we give each other, will inevitably continue to change.

Gabrielle Giffords: Jewish Congresswoman, Interfaith Child, Interfaith Spouse

At first, it seemed somehow inappropriate to write about Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her interfaith family. We have all been in shock, hoping or praying for her survival and recovery, mourning for those lost in Tucson. As a Washingtonian, I have many friends who work on Capitol Hill, and some of them know Giffords and knew her aide Gabe Zimmerman. To write about Giffords’s parentage and interfaith connections seemed frivolous, off-topic.

And yet, the moment I saw her photo, heard the name of the first Jewish congresswoman from Arizona, my half-Jewdar went off. The confirmation came immediately. Gabby Giffords, like me, is a patrilineal interfaith child married to a Christian spouse. Her mother was a Christian Scientist. Giffords chose Judaism in adulthood after an epiphany in Israel, and has been accepted into a Reform Jewish congregation.

Within hours of the shooting, the religion blogosphere lit up with the eternal debate. She’s Jewish, how dare you say otherwise at a time like this? She’s not Jewish, her mother’s not Jewish, she didn’t convert, sorry for what happened but nonetheless she’s not Jewish.

As always, those of us who are interfaith children must relive the sting of rejection from those who adhere rigidly to a tribal law written thousands of years after the Biblical era, an era when the great intermarried patriarchs and matriarchs of Judaism often seemed to enjoy a more inclusive and expansive and fluid definition of belonging.

And as always, we struggle with the hypocrisy of those who claim beautiful interfaith celebrities (such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who is actually a cousin to Giffords), top athletes,  and political heroes as Jewish, and then turn around and refuse to marry interfaith couples, or refuse to accept their children into religious schools, or refuse to bury them together in cemeteries. Although an editorial this week in the Jerusalem Post advocates for accepting Giffords as Jewish inspite of her halachic status, an inevitable and promising shift from a major Israeli newspaper.

Giffords represents proof that interfaith couples, even when they allow their children to choose a religious path, even when their children face rejection from Jewish institutions, can give the world children who wind up as outspoken and committed Jewish leaders, rather than confused or alienated non-participants.

But I was not going to weigh in, partly because it has seemed fairly clear that mental illness is the main culprit in this tragedy, not anti-Semitism, so why view this tragedy through a religious lens at all? But then Sarah Palin pushed me over the edge with her bizarre reference to a “blood libel.” For a deep and nuanced analysis of the way the “blood libel” has been used against Jews, read history professor Susannah Heschel’s piece from yesterday. We can only hope that Palin actually did not understand the meaning of the term “blood libel” when she used those words to describe how she feels journalists have blamed her for violent rhetoric. As we head into Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday weekend, it seems particulary appropriate that Heschel, the daughter of Dr. King’s dear friend and colleague Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is weighing in.

Tomorrow in Washington, at an annual interfaith Shabbat, Jews and Christians will join to celebrate the non-violent activism of Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King. The timing could not be better to reaffirm our ardent communal dream for a time of peace.

For me, it remains clear that interfaith children can play a special role in bringing us closer to that dreamtime. In Giffords, a Democrat elected in a Republican district, a congresswoman known for reaching out at public events, reaching across boundaries of race, class, religion and politics, I see the hallmarks of someone raised outside the box. I acknowledge the Jewish label she chose for herself, I acknowledge the danger of applying labels to others. Nonetheless, I cannot help noting our shared experiences as interfaith children who insist on staying connected to Judaism.