Religion & Beliefs

Half-Jewish: Starting a Wholesome Conversation

It is easy enough to use the term "half-Jewish" as a mechanism for claiming celebrities as members of the Tribe. However, what does it actually means when someone identifies or is labeled as "half-Jewish"? From pride, to insult, to an … Read More

By / February 24, 2010

It is easy enough to use the term "half-Jewish" as a mechanism for claiming celebrities as members of the Tribe.

However, what does it actually means when someone identifies or is labeled as "half-Jewish"? From pride, to insult, to an outright denial, there currently exists a vast range of understandings and tensions regarding the term "half-Jew."

It is no wonder then, as Robin Margolis noted in her recent post, that many organizations have been unsuccessful in their capacity to properly engage an emerging population of people that identify as half-Jewish. While there may be several root causes of this issue, the Jewish community could certainly benefit from a close examination of what it might mean to identify as half-Jewish, and how this fits into the structures and understandings of contemporary Jewish life.

As part of this endeavor, for the first time, I am now publicly releasing a research project, on half-Jewish identity, that was conducted as part of my work as the Program Associate for The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. Around two years ago, I utilized Facebook, to survey hundreds of members of "half-Jewish" Facebook groups, such as "Half-Jew," "Jewish? Only half? It’s ok," "Asian and Jewish" and "I’m Half Jewish and I’m Proud Bitch!" as well as over a hundred members of other Jewish groups, like "Jew Crew" or "I Bet I Can Find 50,000 Jews" for use as a comparison. The results of the survey, which I will not claim to be overtly scientific, were fascinating on several levels, and a full write up and analysis can be found here.

So what did I learn?

From the survey, half-Jewish respondents appeared to construct their half-Jewish identity among a spectrum of religious, ethnic and familial formations. When asked to define their "other half" answers ranged from: Christian, to their father’s side, to Swedish to Hispanic, to "the top half."

These respondents viewed their half-Jewish identity in a positive light, viewing it as "fun" and a "privilege", particularly in regards to their exposure to and/or experience of multiple world/ideas. As one respondent noted:

  • Being half-Jewish is mostly a positive thing, and people should try to understand it more. I definitely do not feel like it is a burden or that it alienates me at all. Instead I feel like it broadens my opportunity to learn more about religion and culture. It’s a blessing, really.

Conversely, those from surveyed from "Jewish" Facebook groups, generally only understood the term as referring to one’s family structure, and not having to do with one’s religion, ethnicity, culture or heritage. Further many respondents from this group expressed a clear negativity about the term. As one noted:

  • I think they [half-Jews] feel like being Jewish is some sort of feeling a person gets or like a nationality. I feel that people who say they are half-Jewish really don’t know what they mean and are like little children using words they don’t understand

Half-Jewish respondents seemed to be acutely aware of, and frustrated by these perspectives, with more than 50% stating that other Jews would probably not view them as half-Jewish, (even though a strong majority of half-Jewish respondents thought that their family, friends and peers probably would view them as half-Jewish). As one respondent expressed:

  • "I don’t understand why the Jewish community feels such a strong need to prevent the half-Jew from having some identification – at least culturally – with Judaism."

Further, while half-Jewish respondents had a low level of connection to their Jewish communities and Jewish organizations, they still had a significant sense of Jewish peoplehood and ethnicity, and nearly the same level of interest in Israeli related activities as the comparison group. Rather than struggling or being confused about their half-Jewish identity, one of their greatest challenges appeared to be finding acceptance and a place of belonging in the two communities that they identified with, and in particular the Jewish community.

The fact that there is a significant, and seemingly well justified, sentiment of frustration among half-Jews that their identities are either misunderstood or rejected by other Jews or the Jewish community, as well as the fact that they appear highly disconnected from Jewish organizations and institutions, signals that much must be questioned and evaluated in terms of how the Jewish community is responding to as well as seeking to engage people that identify as such.

I hope that this post (and study) can both shed some light on this complex and challenging issue, as well as launch a meaningful discussion around it.