When “Half-Jews” Marry Jews

By Alexandra J. Wall


The first time Paul Bosky heard “Shalom Aleichem”–the song that greets the Sabbath angels–around the Sabbath table, tears came to his eyes.

“When I heard the Hebrew, it was as if it harkened to something in me on a cellular level,” he said.

Paul, whose mother is Jewish but who was raised Unitarian Universalist, did not set out to meet a Jewish woman.

Neither did David Zonana, who despite having an Egyptian Jewish father and a Protestant mother, was raised with a little bit of both, but more of neither. Yet he met and married Joanne Miller, a strongly identified Jewish woman.

“My parents didn’t look to religion to govern their lives or teach their children,” he said.

Before he met his wife, Zonana considered Judaism an interesting part of his cultural background. Even though Joanne isn’t very religious, he realized that Judaism is important to her.

“I was comfortable with it because I had a family background,” he said. “And once I met Joanne’s parents and the rabbi, I got a sense of why it was important to them. It was an easy decision.”

David and Joanne were in the same Introduction to Judaism class as Paul and I, one of two couples who consist of one full Jew and one “half-Jew.”

What’s interesting about these two couples is that both Joanne and I–who met on an Israel trip when we were 15–definitely preferred to marry Jewish men. And we did, it’s just that they are partially Jewish in background, but did not identify as Jews prior to meeting us.

Like me, Joanne also became a bat mitzvah, attended summer camp and spent time in Israel.

“I couldn’t see raising children not Jewish,” she said.

As Rabbi Jane Litman pointed out in the Intro class we took, David and Paul are among the first generation of “half-Jews” to come of age, since their parents were among the first generation of Jews to intermarry in significant numbers.

“I’ve had my eye on the so-called ‘half-Jew’ phenomenon for about 10 years now,” said the rabbi, recognizing that that phrase is inherently problematic.

“And what’s interesting about our class was that we had two people in that situation who chose to marry full Jews. This is happening a lot, and it’s a little under the radar of demographers. They tend to indicate there’s so much marrying out, and they tend to miss that point, that someone with mixed heritage is marrying someone fully Jewish, and their kids will be extremely Jewish-identified yet have a bit of mixed heritage. This is worth looking at for the Jewish community.”

Rabbi Jane has a reputation as being open-minded, and she performs many interfaith marriages. But in so doing, she said she sees more couples like us than one would think.

Noting that studies in the ’70s said that children of intermarriage would most likely not be Jewish, she said this is simply not true.

While her experience is purely anecdotal, she said she sees many such “half-Jews” making Jewish choices.

“A lot of them make an identity for themselves as partially Jewish, or they fall in love with Jews or other half-Jews, and then end up as totally part of a Jewish community and being nothing other than Jewish,” she said. “They’re either with someone both of whose parents are Jewish or who is another half-Jew, and they end up with a rabbi marrying them. That’s a choice toward Judaism.”

Rabbi Jane also noted that even though it is the mother who, according to Jewish law, is the one who determines whether the child is Jewish or not, many with Jewish fathers end up identifying strongly as Jews because if they have a Jewish last name, other people make that assumption about them.

“In many ways, that’s even more of a powerful experience, if all their lives they have been externally identified as Jews,” she said. “That’s really a shaping experience, and I think it pushes them in that direction. It becomes part of their reality even if they’re raised in another faith. It’s an attachment that eventually begs for a question, and then the question begs for an answer.”

The rabbi takes a different approach to intermarriage than most of her colleagues.

“I think intermarriage isn’t as big a problem as other rabbis [think]. If we can’t support mixed couples then we’re going to have a hard time making it.”

Speaking of her own congregation, Temple Beth El in Berkeley, Calif., she said, “We’re filled with mixed families, and I think a Jewish community can thrive and grow with members who are born Jewish and those who choose it and allies and beloveds of Jews. This is the challenge and joy of living in a diverse and free society.”

Additionally, she said, an infusion of non-Jewish blood mixing with the insular Jewish community is a good thing. “I’ve buried two babies who died of Jewish genetic diseases,” she said. “I think marriage to people who aren’t born Jewish is a good opportunity to broaden the gene pool.”


About Alexandra J. Wall

Alexandra J. Wall has written for the Jewish press for 15 years. She recently left j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California to do a natural foods chef program.