My father is Jewish and my mother is not

I want to address a question I hear regularly: “My father is Jewish and my mother is not. Where will I be accepted? Where can I go that they won’t quiz me?”

Ever since the Reform movement refined its views on so-called patrilineal Jews three decades ago, this has been a pervasive issue, in the liberal movements in particular — how do Jews with one Jewish parent fit into the community? Because Judaism traditionally is passed through the mother, the issue is particularly sharp for those with a Jewish father.

Not so, say many Reform Jews, who rush to tell me what patrilineal Jews should think or do. They say that people with a Jewish father shouldn’t care what others think; they should join a Reform or other non-halachic congregation. These individuals state adamantly and angrily that Jews who don’t accept patrilineal descent must change, must see the future and accept it or die out. They loudly support a person’s right to self-define and to choose how to be Jewish, except, of course, those Jews who choose to self-define and practice differently than they do. In other words: traditionally observant Jews. This derails the entire conversation, while ignoring the feelings of the patrilineals.

What have patrilineal Jews experienced? What do they want? Do they have a sense of what would reassure them? No one has asked about their feelings at all. How sad. We liberal Jews, and I include myself as a Reform affiliated Jew, need to stop lecturing and start listening, really listening — without judgment.

A number of patrilineal Jews have told me they chose to convert. Others told me, “I wish someone had offered to teach me, to guide me, to just tell me about conversion, just say it was an option.” Others have said that they went through a period of worry and reflection before deciding not to convert.

Yet, others have said that they have been hurt even in synagogues that purport to accept patrilineal Jews. “When I say I have one Jewish parent, people immediately ask me which one, and that makes it clear that it matters or they wouldn’t ask.” Several others said that Jews, affiliated and not, upon learning that the Jewish parent is their father, have said, “So you’re not really Jewish.” One individual who had chosen a Reform conversion because she’d been raised Christian had a fellow congregant say, “Wow, you’re so active, even though you’re not really Jewish.”

This Sunday I am moderating a conference in Oakland called “Growing Up Interfaith.” When I asked individuals who had shared their life stories with me to participate, one replied, “I don’t want to speak publicly, because members of my synagogue won’t think I’m really Jewish.”

On the other hand, one might think that at least the matrilineal Jews are fine; having a Jewish mother has given them clear passage into their Jewish identity. Sadly, that is not always the case. For some it’s been relatively easy. But for others, having a last name like Christianson or O’Malley has meant constant questioning.

And then there are ethnic and racial intermarriage issues. Between 15 and 20 percent of Bay Area Jewish families are multiracial. Many of them don’t “look Ashkenazi.” They too face constant questioning.

I’ve interviewed more than 50 adult children of intermarriage over the past four years. Many don’t know where to start the conversation. They talk about the barriers they face and try to sort out just where they want to engage. What would make them feel authentic? There is not one size fits all. Each person has to find his or her community. I encourage them to speak up and tell their rabbi the kinds of messages they are getting.

We can help. We can listen. We can show compassion and sympathy. We can ask how they want to handle their identity and how they want to engage. Then we need to speak up when fellow Jews are insulting — intentionally or unintentionally. Not with words of bitterness, but with calm, firm words that hold a mirror to the speaker. Let’s all become allies, no matter what Jewish movement we claim.

“Growing Up Interfaith,” sponsored by Building Jewish Bridges and Lehrhaus Judaica, takes place at Temple Sinai in Oakland on Sunday, May 22 (www.lehrhaus.org).

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Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org.