I Am, It Seems, But Half a Jew

23 06 2008

I was having lunch yesterday with Ghil’ad Zuckermann and discussing the extent to which one’s political motivations might inform one’s scholarship. He assures me that his arguments concerning the hybridity of modern Hebrew have nothing to do with politics, although I freely admitted that I would not have been troubled if they did. He asked me what I thought of Zionism and, while I was tempted to tell him that I didn’t, I instead told him that I am both reasonably pro-Israel in my politics, although rather anti-Zionist in my philosophy. This led into a discussion regarding Zionism in general and, ultimately, ancestry.

My mother’s family are Hungarians and my father’s, evidently, are thieves. Having been arrested for petty larceny in England, one of my patrilineal ancestors was shipped off to Australia for life. He was not Jewish but, somewhere down the line, he married a Jewish lady and, while he bequeathed his name, she bequeathed her religion. So much for them. What surprised me was what Ghil’ad said when I told him this: “Oh, so you’re half-Jewish”. Clearly he must have misunderstood me, although I did not correct him. This is not because his statement did not bother me; rather, the very opposite. I did not correct him, simply because I was humoured by the extent to which it did bother me.

Can somebody be half-Jewish? Does this statement even make sense? If the definition of “Jew” is fraught with difficulty, how much moreso the definition of demi-Jew? For my part, I do not believe that such a thing exists, except insofar as there may be individuals who identify as such. And why would one do so? Is this not akin to the negative self-identity of he who names himself “gentile”?

There are those who would argue that as many different religions and ethnicities exist as there are people to identify with them. On one level, I agree, but on another I declare this to be Subjectivism taken to an illogical (and possibly solipsistic) extreme. If we suggest that a “Jew” is merely an individual who identifies with Judaism, then we not only include people who are not included by the halakha (something with which I do not necessarily have a problem) but we exclude many of those who are! The luke-warm Jew who argues that they are half-Jewish is, by this rationale… half-Jewish. Well, for my part, I shall henceforth declare myself to be 0.5 Jew, 0.25 Buddhist, 0.2 Karaite, 0.03 Jedi, 0.015 Catholic and 0.005 Istari. It’s a bit of a mouthful but, because I just said it, it must be true.

Oh yes, and I am also 100% Athiest, but in my new religion that has nothing to do with it.



6 responses

24 06 2008

This is common in Russia, and probably other parts of Europe as well where Jews are not seen as a religion but as an ethnicity.

Neither Russians nor Russian Jews would call a Jew born in Russia a Russian. It’s just a different worldview, I guess. When Russian Jews (myself included) came to the US in the late ’70s, that was quite an adjustment since everyone called us ‘Russians’.

24 06 2008
Simon Holloway

Who was it that said, “In Russia I was a Jew but in Israel I am a Russian”?

You raise an interesting point, as ethnicity is also often measured in fractions. For my part, I see myself as 100% Australian, despite the provenance of my mother’s family, although I suppose that I can see how people might choose to identify with more than one. Surely, however, that would make them (for example) 100% Australian/Hungarian? Rather than 50% each way? Self-identity is a funny old thing.

24 06 2008

>Who was it that said, “In Russia I was a Jew but in Israel I am a Russian”?

I don’t know, but every single one of my parent’s friends and relatives said that when they came to the US.

This labeling often led to some confusing conversations with my grandmother. To her anyone who is not Jewish was of course “Russian”, so whenever I would introduce her to my American friends she would ask if they were Russians (meaning gentiles) whereas I would think she meant “Are they Russian” (as in Russian Jewish immigrants)

It took a while for me to explain this to my (American) wife.

24 06 2008

Two linguists walk into a restaurant. One looks at the other, and says: “What is this? Some kind of a joke?”

26 06 2008

Is being half a Jew like being half a bee?

26 06 2008
Simon Holloway

Indeed! Putting the “semi” back into Semitic…

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