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Foundations of Jewish Identity

In her essay titled “There Is No Such Thing as Half,” written for the website KillingtheBuddah.com, Joanna Brooks describes her experience at her daughter’s Jewish preschool orientation breakfast. In attendance are her “green-eyed Jewish-Mormon daughter Ella” and her friend’s “brown-eyed Jewish-Hindu son Ari.” Their presence spurs Brooks’ reflection on a rabbi’s comments about identity after a mother in the group asks for advice:

“My husband says he’s just not interested,” she tells the group. “But my son asked, ‘Why doesn’t Daddy come to temple with us?’ What do I say?”
“You know what your son is really asking?” asks the rabbi… “Your son is really asking, ‘What am I?’” According to the rabbi, sociologists say children form their religious identities before age five. He tells us that we must avoid confusion at all costs. “Your children need clear and unequivocal messages about their Jewish identity,” the rabbi says.

Tara raises her hand: “My son has a rich Hindu heritage which goes back thousands of years. Are you asking me to create a sense of division between my husband and our son?”
The rabbi wears a blank but resolute expression, then repeats himself as if we did not hear the first time: “Your children need clear and unequivocal messages about their Jewish identity.”

The rabbi believes he is fighting for the very survival of his people. Identity is the name of the trench he will not surrender. But all around him on the plains of history, new tribes are gathering. We vow not to be jackasses. We vow to love what our husbands and wives love. We embrace the mysterious unities forged in the bodies of our clear-eyed children. We give them long and composite names remembering all of their ancestors. Either we are living a new version of religious identity, or we are outliving identity altogether.

What Brooks is describing is the process that many intermarried/interpartnered couples face: The experience of exploring and asserting a multifaceted family identity in the context of a community that often can only imagine single-identity upbringings. While the rabbi argues for the virtue of clarity, Brooks advocates for the virtue of allowing complexity to remain complex. This is an argument many who engage with the Jewish community have heard before and even taken part in, as it captures a central concern of intercultural childrearing. What conception of the intercultural self is most ethical? Which is most compassionate for the future or respectful of the past? Which is most “effective” for raising kind children and fostering stable families?

Although they reach opposite conclusions, both Brooks’ and the rabbi’s arguments are rooted, in part, in respect for ancestors and a concern for the emotional life of children. Both imagine a child with self-respect and gratitude for their parents, but for opposite reasons: For allowing identity to be singular or allowing it to be plural.

Proponents of single-identity childrearing argue that a child with multiple identities will grow up feeling split between their parents, but Brooks reverses the prognosis: “You are a whole soul living in a divided world.” It is the community that will be confused, but not the child.

What both arguments fail to prioritize is that particularity, in this case the parents’ relationship and their family culture, significantly skews the outcome of either approach. Feeling “split” is not tied to being raised with dual identities. In a family where the parents pressure their child for validation, a child might feel that they need to “choose” between their parents regardless of religious affiliation. Equally, a “sense of division” is not tied to a single-identity upbringing. In a family where children feel that there is inequality between their parents or that there is a heritage of repression, a child might feel that they have been denied a part of themselves, regardless of religious identity.

In the last paragraph, Brooks directs a blessing to her children:

“Sanctify yourself with righteous words and deeds, and you will have nothing to worry about.”

That may be the beginning of unpacking identity, but as Brooks’ essay shows, the conversation in the Jewish community is just beginning. A foundation of self-respect, respect for children, and respect for others needs to be at the core of these arguments about child-rearing, but there are still many complexities to discuss before our community reaches an “answer.”



3 Comments

  1. Thank you for that, Ms. Kessler. I wonder if the issue of identity itself is the problem. Why does it matter? Shouldn’t we be focused on creating a more ethical world? Don’t most religions promote similar values: the “golden rule,” kindness, compassion, generosity, love, fairness, altruism, service, humility, etc.? Isn’t that why people choose a spiritual path - to better themselves, to contribute positively to society? Can’t we learn from all faith traditions? Wouldn’t it be possible to value both parents’ heritages, honor all of one’s ancestors, and practice a faith (as in practice makes perfect - something you do, not just label yourself with) in a way that maintains its integrity? Or even (gasp!) blend traditions - are we not always influenced by other cultures, anyway? Is any faith a means to an end (a better world) or an end in itself (a technology or art form)? Are these two characteristics of a faith necessarily at odds with each other? These are the questions I hope to see answered.

    Comment by Sara — October 22, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

  2. Dear Friends:

    At the time Professor Brooks’ article appeared, I sent a reply, entitled, “Of Course There Are Half-Jewish People.”

    OF COURSE THERE ARE HALF-JEWISH PEOPLE

    I should know, as the leader of their largest international organization. Here is what I wrote:
    —————————————————————–

    “KtBlog letters
    Of Course There Are Half-Jewish People
    by Nathan Schneider
    In response to Joanna Brooks’ piece today, “There Is No Such Thing as Half,” we heard from Robin Margolis of The Half-Jewish Network. Robin writes:

    I gather that you are the parent of a child of intermarriage. But you don’t think there are half-Jewish people and are worried that your daughter might think of herself as one.

    Of course half-Jewish people exist. As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, the largest international organization for adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage, that’s the preferred term that my group members use to define themselves.

    We have a website at www.half-jewish.net

    Before I started the group, I did internet research to determine what term adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage apply to themselves most frequently.

    Answer: half-Jewish.

    We need your help in fighting the discrimination against us in the American Jewish community, where the adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage are treated like second-class citizens.

    We’d also like to solicit your help for the half-Jewish citizens of Israel, who face a complex web of social and legal discrimination. They’re treated like third-class citizens.

    There are three Israeli Jewish organizations working on this issue, filing lawsuits in the court system, lobbying in the Knesset, but they would welcome more help.

    We would welcome practical help from you. I know your essay was well-meant, but too many interfaith parents write essays on what we children of intermarriage should call ourselves and how we half-Jewish people should think of ourselves, when we need our interfaith parents to write letters to the editor, protesting the latest attack on us.

    Imagine if parents of gays and lesbians wrote essays on how their adult children should really go back to calling themselves “homosexuals” because their parents preferred that term—when gays need their parents to lobby their congresspeople for legislation to give them full citizenship.

    We need our interfaith parents to lobby for us with the Jewish establishment to set up specific outreach for us. Programs targeting interfaith couples don’t reach us.

    Many shuls that accept interfaith couples and have programs for them treat us very coldly and turn us away.

    [I also responded to Brooks’ suggestion to “Ask American Indians”:]

    With regard to the Native Americans, I am uncertain as to why you invoked them as an example for us—they have been treating their descendants of intermarriage quite badly recently—if you don’t have the right blood “quantum,” a descendant of intermarriage can be pushed out of the tribe and can lose other benefits.

    I’ve seen a lot of Native American websites attacking their descendants of intermarriage. They sound like Jewish websites that disparage us half-Jewish folks.”

    http://killingthebuddha.com/ktblog/of-course-there-are-half-jewish-people/
    ——————————–
    I subsequently received a very gracious letter from Professor Brooks in reply, saying that she had not known of the difficult conditions half-Jewish people face within the Jewish community and expressing appreciation of the Half-Jewish Network’s efforts on behalf of her child.

    I strongly commend her, as some interfaith parents are unwilling to listen to us.

    In conclusion, I would suggest that one of our biggest problems is that Jewish outreach and our intermarried parents seldom — like almost never — ask grown children of intermarriage about our actual experiences, how we actually perceive ourselves, and what we actually need from the Jewish community.

    I would suggest that it is time for them to listen to our experiences and reach out to create the same programming and welcome that are automatically given to interfaith couples at many shuls and Jewish institutions — a welcome that should also be extended to us, and currently is not.

    Sincerely,
    Robin Margolis
    www.half-jewish.net
    www.inclusivistjudaism.wordpress.com

    Comment by Robin Margolis — October 24, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

  3. The point Brooks seemed to be making is one we might make ourselves: When it comes to Jewish identity, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Whether you identify as a Jew or not, the non-Jewish world will always and forever label you a Jew. Which is one of a number of reasons why it is so deeply offensive to be dismissed by the Jewish community. Which is why the patrilineals are as Jewish as the matrilineals. Which is why we are Jewish no matter how we were raised. We don’t get to choose. That being said, it is typical of those in any dominant community to remain blissfully ignorant - and/or willfully ignorant - of the experiences of those in the minority. They don’t have to care, because it doesn’t affect them personally. Except for when it does, no matter how dedicated they are to denying it.

    Comment by Sara — October 26, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

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