Half Jewish

"She must have known."This was a frequent reaction to the news of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's discovery that her parents were Jewish. But for many of us who struggle with what it means to be Jewish, the important point is not what she knew or when she knew it, but why she decided to say nothing.For me, this question came home hard two years ago. I was traveling in India, with someone I regarded as a friend. One night, I was startled from sleep by a voice close to my ear."You should have burned in the ovens with the rest of the Jews."He was leaning over my bed. "You're a dirty, filthy, stinking Jew," he continued in a drunken slur, "and you can't hide among your fancy friends."Images flashed through my mind, images I didn't know I harbored. I was in Germany in the 1930s, safe and accepted, then suddenly --"I should kill you now," he said -- finding that only one thing mattered. "You're just a Jew."And then I said something I must have thought would save me, yet even as I spoke I knew the words would not have kept me from the camps."Only half," I muttered, as I turned my faced to the wall.It was stupid. Cowardly. A betrayal of anyone who ever stood up for themselves. I was ashamed from the moment it left my lips. But in that instant, instinct suffocated reason."It doesn't matter," he said derisively. "You're still a Jew."It is the deepest fear of the most assimilated Jew -- to be identified, no matter what you are, what you believe, as a Jew. In a world profoundly ambivalent about Jews, you don't always know when it will matter, who will care.It is certainly not a situation that Albright would willingly bring forward as Ambassador to the United Nations or as Secretary of State, where perceptions matter as much as policy, sometimes even more.My father did not make an issue of his own Jewish heritage, my mother once said, because as a foreign policy analyst he did not want to be pushed into positions he would be expected to hold as a Jew, to have his actions and opinions viewed through that prism. Besides, he had embraced the Anglican Church and later turned to agnosticism. These had been his choices, not imposed by anyone.One of my mother's parents had been born into Judaism but never practiced it. An artist herself, my mother has always disliked being viewed as a member of a group. She sent her children to Unitarian Sunday School and encouraged us to see ourselves as citizens of the world.In elementary school, a friend said to me, "I wish you were Jewish." "But I'M not," I said. Several years later I learned that, according to Jewish tradition, I am.As a rebellious teenager attending an elite Washington DC girls' school infused with the ethos and trappings of high Episcopalianism, I embraced a Jewish identity -- mostly because it threw people off. My parents were perplexed. "Why do you want people to label you?" my mother asked.In my 20s, I used my Jewishness to establish kinship with Jews, yet I felt like a fraud. I didn't observe the Sabbath, didn't go to synagogue on high holy days. With non-Jews, I played my Jewish identity down but, strangely, did not feel like a fraud. I knew the Christian hymns, the rituals and the holidays. When a friend said I was "the WASPiest Jew" she knew, I felt proud. I could "pass."Recently, an old friend of my parents said "Jews run the media" in an offhand way. It occurred to me he had never asked my parents about their background -- and I wondered if he would have made this comment if he had known.Last summer, my father brought up his background over family dinner and a bottle of wine. My sister was stunned. "I think that's the first time I've ever heard you talk about it," she said. It's no wonder we don't define ourselves as Jewish, and don't quite know how to take it when other people do.I think of my parents' discomfort as they read this, of how they will feel exposed. They cherish the freedom to define themselves not as others would like to see them, but as individuals. It is a freedom that should be guaranteed for everyone, especially in the United States. Yet for Jews not raised in Jewish traditions or those who have left them, it is not so simple. This choice gets to the question of what Judaism means: is it a religion? a culture? an ethnic group? a neat set of moral responsibilities? or a messy battery of assumptions one cannot control?I have settled on being "half." Half, because it acknowledges those parts of myself that have not been influenced by Judaism as a culture or a faith. Half, because there is so much about being Jewish that I do not understand. And half, I now realize, for self-preservation. I cling to the belief that being half will somehow give me a hiding place, safe passage out. There is a persistent suspicion that nowhere am I ultimately safe from assumptions or projections or, as I found out in the most unexpected of places, from attack.Usually I am proud to be part of a community that is so dynamic, resilient, complex, that has given -- and lost -- so much to history. But there are times when people come right out and ask me if I'm Jewish. For a moment, I don't know what to say.Then, usually, I answer, "Yes. But only half."


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Happy Holidays!