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Sunday, August 27th, 2006
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Half/Life: Jew-Ish Tales from Almost, Not Quite, and In-Between

by Laurel Snyder

Double Identity

A review by Wendy Somerson

What's it like to celebrate both Easter and Passover at the same time? This smart, funny anthology of essays narrates the experiences of growing up with one Jewish parent or being half-Jewish, emphasis on ish. While these engaging essays deal explicitly with negotiating between Ashkenazi Jewish and Christian parents, they will surely resonate with other Jews, as well as anyone who has pondered the importance of her family history in relation to her identity, or felt like an outsider in a community to which she is supposed to belong.

Each author tells a unique story, but all struggle with identifying as Jewish when being told "you're not really Jewish"; you are or are not Jewish based on whether your mother is or is not Jewish (the matrilineal tradition in Halachic-Jewish-law), or you are recognized as Jewish only after confronting anti-Jewish comments. Many of these writers grapple not just with their half identity, but with what it means to be a Jew at all. For some, their Jewish identity arises from a loving relationship to a Jewish parent or grandparent, family stories, a favorite holiday tradition, the Jewish compulsion to question familiar truths, and-often most important-food. In "Bury the Knife in Yonkers or Bibbety Bobbety Jew," Thisbe Nissen recalls receiving a college care package of hamentaschen-a date-filled pastry treat-from her beloved Nana Bell, and having to explain what it was to her non-Jewish roommate, whose grandma sent her chocolate-chip cookies.

Many also point to and employ a Jewish tradition of dark, paradoxical humor. In "Language & Vein," Dan Beachy Quick recounts the fantastic stories of a grandfather who survived the Depression and liberated a concentration camp as a soldier at the end of World War II. To him, these stories demonstrated a particularly Jewish "ability to laugh in the face of a world that denies laughter." My favorite essay, just over two pages long, embodies both the humor and the sense of doubleness that the best work in this collection conveys: Katharine Weber's "A Child's Christmas in New York" tells of going to buy a Christmas tree in Brooklyn with her father. From the perspective of her 5-year-old self, Weber describes her fear that they won't take home the perfect tree after her father and the "tree man" haggle over the price-in Yiddish. As her father walks away from the deal, the tree man follows them to their car, arguing all the way. They finally reach an agreement, and Katharine and her father are released, tree in tow, to pick up knishes at the deli where her father's cousin Morry used to work. She concludes: "a hot knish-that is the taste of Christmas."

Growing up between two religions can offer an ability to see many points of view, to question dogma, to embrace contradiction, and to refuse the binary construction of being either Jewish or Christian. After describing how his grandfather greeted the news of his birth with "that's all we need, another Jew bastard," Lee Klein argues that "maybe airing all sides of any argument helps you see in-betweenness everywhere, an understanding of ambiguity that hopefully leads to empathy for everyone involved, that then hopefully makes it more difficult to simply call your new-born grandson 'another Jew bastard'..."

While every essay is well written, a few of the writers are a bit too smug in their rejection of religion, as though they are too clever or too rational to be taken in by the ruse of organized faith. (See Anthony Hecht, whose essay claims that "religion's most important contribution to our lives" is guilt.) Furthermore, some of the authors fail to acknowledge that as a minority religion in a Christian-dominated culture that has often been hostile to Jews, Judaism is about more than a blind acceptance of faith, and is in fact a tradition that embodies resistance and survival.

And claiming a Jewish identity, whether cultural or religious, can be seen as part of this refusal to disappear. As many essayists demonstrate, going to temple, celebrating holidays, or recounting family legends can be about connecting with one's ancestors and insisting on an identity that would be much easier to forget in a predominantly Christian society. In fact, the essays I enjoyed the most combined intellect with feeling and the willingness to reside in ambiguity-the ambiguity of not knowing but somehow feeling that one is, after all, Jewish.

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