Debates are raging in Israel over whether to let people claim Jewish identity based on either parent. More conservative factions want to stick to matrilineality. Us half-Jews are confused.
Of course, as many a Jew will tell you, "there is no such thing as a half-Jew." When halfjew.com tried to get off the ground - and, only half-jokingly, wanted to take over Governor's Island, which just made the whole thing weird - debate became heated: you were either a Jew with a Jewish mother, wrote furious commenters, or a goy. (A few helpful anti-Semites chipped in vaguely for good measure. ) "Half-Jew," said the more religious, was not a identity.
But, as any of us can tell you, it most certainly is. Certainly growing up in New York, where many of my classmates, like me, had a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, this was a standard form of identification. While a few of my friends' families "compromised" on Unitarianism or Quaker meeting, many, obviously not terribly religious, raised their kids without a single religion, lighting a menorah in front of a Christmas tree and maybe eating chocolate eggs at Easter before going to a grandparent's passover Seder. We knew which celebrities were half-Jewish: Gwyneth Paltrow, Lenny Kravitz, Carrie Fischer, Paul Newman. Many of us had distinctly Jewish names that would lead the world to make assumptions, yet understood that to the religious Jewish community, we'd not be considered Chosen unless we converted.
In truth, I'd never thought much about it until arriving at college where, in the way of such things, various religious groups made overtures to incoming freshmen. I remember one guy coming up to me and asking if I wanted to join Hillel House; when I explained that my mother wasn't Jewish, his face darkened. "It's people like your father who are ruining the Jewish religion," he said angrily. And in the years since, I've heard that a lot, which seems to me rather unfair, if only because it's shooting the messenger if ever I've heard it. (Also, such a distinctly Jewish name is enough to earn one quite a few ungenerous sallies along the way, most recently, in response to my mild critique of Alex Jones, which several irate gentlemen ascribed to some sort of vague Zionist conspiracy.) "Well, it's true," said my father, when I brought up his role in the destruction of his faith. Perhaps the result of growing up amidst Communists, he didn't seem very concerned by his treachery.
Matrilineality, so the Jerusalem Post tells us, was not always the Way, and Biblical precedents bear out both schools of thought, but has been codified for so many centuries that to many such a change would be unthinkable. As the article explains it, "the certainty of maternity must be set against the possible doubt of paternity. Even in nature the mother's bond with the child is firmer than the father's. And the mother has the superior influence on the child's religious development. So matrilineality is here to stay." Well, that settles that, I guess; so much for dads. And frankly it's hard to know how we'd suddenly feel if the rabbinate suddenly let us second-classers in; the truth is, when one is raised without a single creed, committing to it is a far more serious business - and, counterintuitive though it may seem, a tacit rejection of one of my parents' non-religions. In effect, this more inclusive policy might well precipitate a low-level identity crisis for many of us - which, at least, is one credo most of us are well versed-in.