Jewish National Fund

Meet the Half-Jews

By Gad Nahshon

Did you know that Paul Newman and Goldie Hawn are half-Jews? Did you know that Sara Jessica Parker is half Jewish? And what about Joan Collins, Amy Irving, Paulette Goddard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lisa Bonet, Barbara Hershey, and Kevin Kline? This story is surprising: Sean Penn is also half-Jewish. Is it possible that even Harrison Ford entertains Jewish blood in his veins?

Many celebrities in America are half-Jewish. One can find them everywhere in music, Hollywood, Broadway, sports, media and of course, in the universities. They are among the most prominent intellectuals in America. And what about the world of sex? Did you know that Xaviera Hollander was also half-Jewish? And what about the famous stars of the record industry? Carly Simon, Lenny Kravitz, Courtney Love, Laura Nyro and, hold your breath, Paula Abdul. Yes!!

Geraldo Rivera is half-Jewish, a star of David is still tattooed on his hand. He had a Bar-Mitzvah. His mother was Jewish.

The following story is a real revelation: William Cohen was reared by his Jewish father, Reuven Cohen, as a good Jewish child. But when the Orthodox Rabbi informed him that as a son of a gentile mother, he must pass a conversion process before the Bar-Mitzvah. When the father learned about it he decided that his son will say 'goodbye' to the Jewish religion. And William Cohen became Christian. His son changed his name from Cohen to Irish. Cohen himself married a second wife, Janet Langhart, an African American talk show host. No more Cohens in the next generation.

Two authors, a Jewish husband and his gentile wife who established one more half-Jewish family themselves, decided to look into the fast growing new tribe in America, a tribe of half-Jewish people. In their research and documentation, they argue that 'half-Jews' is a new unique dimension of Jewish life in America. Indeed it is the outcome of the rising of mixed marriages in America. In the 18th century in America, each one knew that to marry a gentile means breaking a taboo. It was like saying goodbye to the community. But today the reality is much more complicated since we live in an open society. We face half-Jews, quarter-Jews, and inside the Al Gore family, for example, future half-Jews.

Certainly the timing is a factor. Half-Jews today tend to show pride in their Jewishness but do they have commitments to the Jewish nationality? Do they care about the biological future of the American Jewry? It's survival? Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst, the two authors, challenged this topic in a book which is not a sociological research but rather a journalistic journey. Their book is peppered with stories, facts, anecdotes, revelations, gossip, and pictures. Often they present some illuminated insight, often they demonstrate how this issue of 'half-Jews' manifested itself in the literature.

It's happening fast: The population of half-Jews in America is well on its way to surpassing the population of full Jews. And with this population shift has come a revolutionary transformation of what it means to be half-Jewish. Sure, some people say that you are either Jewish or not, that there's nothing in between - but Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst emphatically disagree. In their provocative new book, The Half-Jewish Book: A Celebration (Villard Books/September 22, 2000/$22.95), this husband and wife team (who are parents of a half-Jewish and half-Dutch Protestant daughter) say half-Jews are a unique subculture of people who draw from both sides of their heritage and synthesize their cultural halves into a remarkable new identity.

In studying the half-Jewish phenomenon, Klein and Vuijst conducted hundreds of interviews with half-Jews. In addition, they looked carefully at the remarkably rich body of literature about half-Jewishness, including works by writers such as Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Adrienne Rich, Marcel Proust, and even Judy Blume - who contributed an original essay to this book on how half-Jewish children have dealt with their dual heritage over the past 20 years. Daniel Klein, a graduate of Harvard University, has written five novels, including Kill Me Tender and Beauty Sleep, two humor books and has co-written or ghostwritten twelve nonfiction books. Freke Vuijst is an American correspondent for Dutch television; her documentaries on American youth are seen on PBS. They live in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where they raised their half-Jewish daughter. "Yet undeniably we are living in the era of the half-Jew as a majority of American Jews marry non-Jews. The number of American half-Jews under the age of eleven now exceeds the number of American full Jews under eleven," wrote the authors in their 'introduction.'

In The Half Jewish Book they discuss issues such as 'The New Half-Jew,' 'Half-Jewish Qualities: Greater Than the Sum of Your Parts,' 'The Half-Jewish Perspective: The Consummate Outsider-Insider,' 'Half, Whole, Double or Nothing: The Halves and the Half-Not,' 'The Half-Jew through the eyes of others' and 'Half-Jewish and the Holocaust.'

Klein and Vuijst discuss all of the aspects of this half-Jew syndrome. Of course if your mother is Jewish you can always join your brothers and sisters here or in Israel. But only the Reform movement will treat you the same if only your father is Jewish. Reform Jews are outreaching to half-Jews. The authors discuss this issue introducing case studies from Israel. Indeed the Orthodox are not willing to compromise. The authors also discuss the identity of the half-Jews. According to them, these half-Jews have developed some unique traits typical to them. When compared to gentiles, they are 'funny,' 'self-mocking,' 'sexual-sensual,' 'guilty,' 'bookish,' 'skeptical,' fond of classical culture,' 'enjoy Jewish food,' 'physically awkward,' 'talkative-expressive,' and 'melancholy.' Klein even argued that there is a new genre of half-Jewish jokes. Bill Maher used to say: "My father is very funny although my mother is the Jewish one. You'd think it was the reverse." Maher, today the famous talk show star (ABC) tends to joke about his Jewish mind and his Catholic experience.

Klein also discusses the various mixtures of Jews with Irish, WASP, or Spanish spouses. Each mixture has its own half-Jew style or flavor. For example, Tanya 'Cha Cha' Sandoval. She is a daughter of Jewish-Mexican parents, or according to her, 'Jewcana.' She wrote a Jewish Hispanic song which she performs on stage.

In order to be 'in' Klein even discusses the issue of the half-Jews in Nazi Germany. The Nazis did not know how to swallow this reality. Some Nazi leaders even had Jewish relatives and even a Jewish grandmother. These half-Jews were defined in Nazi German as 'Mischlinge' and many of them survived. To sum it up: the authors discuss the reality as to the future of the American Jewry (full Jews) from a demographic point of view. They stressed the celebrity aspect of this issue or threat to Judaism in America. We need more research and more knowledge of the scope of this issue. What can be done in order to bring these half-Jews back to the Jewish nation? Of course, many just want to be good Americans. Judaism in America is Judaism by choice, choice in an open society. Jews are not considered here as an ethnic minority anymore. Anti-Semitism does exist but as a marginal shrinking aspect of the American life. And a Jewish vice-president in the White House means the climax of American Jewish self-confidence. The following is a unique remark by the famous Dutch writer Harry Mulisch: "I consider my life's story as a source of insight, a fons vitae, and that's how everybody should regard his past. When the events have become history, they are no longer accidental but are indestructible - if God lives anywhere, it is in history."

Although being half-Jewish in occupied Holland was perilous, Mulisch says that it was also a bizarrely privileged position. He says that Dutch Mischlinge were neither sent to Westerbork - the concentration camp where Dutch Jews (including Anne Frank) made their first stop on their journey to the death camps - nor sent off to Germany as "replacement" workers, as able-bodied Dutch-Gentile men were. If you had two Jewish grandparents, they left you alone. You were not Jewish enough to be gassed and too Jewish to work in Aryan Germany."

Mulisch describes his "privileged" status in grimly candid language: "To me 'half-Jewish' means Hitler, the Nuremberg Laws. That's where Jews were divided into full, half and quarter Jews. Personally I am glad Hitler drew a distinction between full and half-Jews, otherwise I would have been gassed. And that Hitler did not make the distinction in the manner in which the rabbis made it. If that had been the case I would have been killed, because my mother was Jewish."


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