When I lived in Seoul, the rabbi at Chabad Korea invited me to dinner with some visiting rabbis. Jews being thin on the ground in the neighbourhood, I accepted, but warned him ahead of time: I may not be the Jew you’re looking for.
“Are you a Jew?” the rabbi asked.
“Yes,” I said. “But I’m not religious. And only my father is Jewish.”
“Come to dinner.”
I did. It was a delightful evening, filled with stories of ultra-Orthodox rabbis touring a country that rarely sees foreigners. At the end, though, one of the rabbis, an otherwise very kind Frenchman, took me aside.
“You must not call yourself a Jew,” he said. “You must only call yourself a half-Jew.”
I’d heard this a million times in my life. Though it has always irked me, I understand when it comes from a rabbi – he has holy books to follow.
What drove me up the wall was when, a couple days later, I interviewed a lay French-Jewish businessman about anti-Semitism in Korea. He informed me that I was not a Jew, would never be a Jew and should never call myself a Jew.
“Don’t worry,” he added. “I tell the same thing to my children.”
Pity the man’s children. The rabbis can do as they like within the shul – religion, I believe, is not meant to be fair, just or reasonable. (Which is why I avoid it.)
But it’s a well-trod tenet, at least since the 19th century, that Jewishness is more than religion. It is an ethnicity, a culture, a way of looking at the world. In this sense, I am as Jewish as any secular Jew out there, no matter which parent it comes from.
That’s why the case for matrilineal Jewishness makes no sense outside the shul. In an age of increasing fear over Jewish assimilation, to alienate an entire population of half-Jews, to tell them they are not as Jewish as someone born to a Jewish mother – or matrilineal grandmother, or matrilineal great-grandmother– is absurd. It’s for this exact reason Israel recognizes patrilineal Jews like me as able to immigrate, despite the wails of the rabbinate.
Besides, anti-Semites don’t care whether it’s your father or your mother who is Jewish – they believe in equal-opportunity hate. The Nazis argued over how many Jewish grandparents a mischling had to have to be worthy of extermination, but one thing they didn’t argue about was which side of the family these grandparents were on. As a result, hundreds of thousands of half-Jews like me were sent to the camps.
In fact, it’s easier for anti-Semites to go after patrilineal Jews, because we carry the last name. David Smith may not raise eyebrows, but David Cohen, David Berg or David Hazzan does, even though David Smith might be the only “real” Jew in the room.
At school, when arguments erupted between the Arab and Jewish kids, or between me and anti-Semites (including teachers, one of whom warned us of the evils of “Jewish Marxism”), nobody asked what my mother’s lineage was. Years later, I remember running into a schoolmate at a bar, where he slurred, “You were one of those Yiddish kids, weren’t you?” (As a Mizrachi, I’m not “Yiddish,” but that’s another issue.)
Why don’t I just call myself a “half-Jew” and be done with it? The idea has crossed my mind, but I’m also 43 years old and have spent my whole life and career calling myself a Jew. To drop it now would seem like surrender, or worse, an indication I’ve rejected Jewish culture, values and half my lineage.
Most black people in the western hemisphere are part-white. But very few of them go around declaring themselves “half-black,” because when they go out in the world, they aren’t viewed as half-anything. They are simply viewed as black, the white part of them invisible to strangers.
Jews, at least non-observant Jews, are obviously less marked by appearance than black people. But when the question comes up – “What kind of name is Hazzan?” – the answer is “Jewish,” not half-Jewish, quarter-Jewish, part-Jewish or anything else.
The issue of what makes a Jew is complicated. When we were segregated and abused in ghettos, there was little intermarriage, and Judaism and Jewishness were the same. But today, it’s harder to define. Circumcision? More gentiles than Jews are circumcised. Participation in Jewish rituals and high holidays? We sure did that. Loyalty to Israel? In the tradition of Jewish argument, I hope not.
Is it history? My grandfather was imprisoned and later died from the mistreatment of an Egyptian regime that held all of the country’s Jews personally responsible for their loss to Israel in its 1948 War of Independence. The remaining family was expelled, and made do in what was then a very anti-Semitic Quebec, where their native French was secondary to their native Jewishness. My mother’s family are Spanish Catholic Creoles. They have a fascinating history from which I am completely alienated. I could, conceivably, call myself Latino based on my ethnicity. But I don’t, because I don’t feel connected to Latino culture.
A few months ago, I had a kinder experience with a colleague who wears a kippah. He asked if I was Jewish, and I said yes, but then hedged again, saying, “Well, half-Jewish, I guess. My father…”
“Forget it,” he said. “A Jew is a Jew is a Jew.”