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    Honoring your mixed heritage


    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000

    I'm half-Jewish.

    Stop shaking your head: Yes, there is such a thing. I am half Hungarian-Jew (from Dad's side) and half-WASP (Mom's). So when I saw The Half-Jewish Book, I picked it up faster than a hot latke.

    Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst wrote The Half-Jewish Book in celebration of their daughter, Samara Klein (who is half-Jewish). And that's exactly what it is: a celebration. They tell you that from the get-go; don't look for an objective point of view here. And while such a focus on the positive attributes of being half-Jewish made me feel wonderful about myself, the authors' obvious bias made their claims only half-true.

    The Half-Jewish Book falls back on a lot of stereotypes, though they're found mostly in quotes and excerpts not penned by the authors. It may be liberating to poke fun at one's own ethnic and religious background, but stereotyping is something of which we ought to be aware (and wary).

    Klein and Vuijst have included a "Table of Traits" to assist us half-Jews in pinpointing our Jewish and Gentile sides. For example, according to the authors, the Jewish half is physically awkward while the Gentile half is sportive. The Jewish half is sensual while the Gentile half is sexually reserved. (Well, at least now I know which parent to blame for what.)

    I told you my ethnicity in half-and-half because that's how Klein and Vuijst suggest it should be done. Both sides are to be represented; everyone in their book is addressed as half-this/half-that. For example, Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are both half-Jewish/half WASP. (Is that why I relate to her character of Carrie on Sex and the City so well? Nah, that probably has more to do with being a whole-woman). Dorothy Parker: Half-Jewish/half-Scots-Presbyterian. Daniel Day-Lewis: Half-Jewish/half-Irish Protestant. Sen. Dianne Feinstein: half-Polish Jewish/half-Russian Orthodox. The list goes on and on.

    According to Klein and Vuijst, today there are more half-Jews under the age of 11 than full-Jews. "Undeniably we are living in the era of the half-Jew," they say.

    Jewishness is a matter of ethnicity, not faith, The Half-Jewish Book reports. "A person is half-Jewish if one of his parents is ethnically Jewish and one is not . . . . And it doesn't matter if the Jewish parent is observant or not . . . . It also doesn't matter in which -- if any -- religion the person was brought up or what religion he has chosen to follow."

    Half-Jews are often dismissed, accused of being self-loathers, ashamed of their Jewishness. In Israel, there are no half-Jews: There, if the mother is Jewish, the child is a Jew; if the father is Jewish and the mother is not, the child is not Jewish at all. Paternal half-Jews are denied Jewish weddings and burials in Israel.

    Some say being half-Jewish is like being half-pregnant. To that, Klein and Vuijst respond: "We think there is a fine argument to be made for being half-pregnant with Jewishness (not to mention pregnant with half-Jewishness -- just ask the mothers of half-Jewish children)."

    Klein and Vuijst also make a strong argument for embracing both bloodlines. They urge parents of half-Jewish children to teach them both sides. Many parents, to avoid confusion, bring their half-Jewish kids up as "neither-nors or as one-thing-or-the-others," they complain. Such a child is brought up as " "nothing,' supposedly free to invent himself as whatever he choses to be."

    But, insist Klein and Vuijst, "Children do not really thrive on being a "nothing'; they thrive on traditions and celebrations and family stories." And "above all, what recommended this approach was that it was the truth. These children really do come from two separate and very different backgrounds: That is who they are," they conclude.

    So, what, then? Christmas and Hanukkah both? Spin the dreidel and trim the tree? You bet, they say.

    Not everyone, of course, agrees. Talk-show therapist Laura Schlessinger, for example, is adamantly opposed to interfaith marriages. "Love is not enough," she says. "Religion is not superfluous; it is a road map for your journey together, and without it you get lost or drive around in circles." But oddly enough, Schlessinger, whose "personal conviction [is] that she is Jewish" -- is married to an Episcopalian.

    And another funny thing about Dr. Laura: She isn't Jewish. She's half-Jewish.

    -- Samantha Puckett is on the Times staff.

    The Half-Jewish Book

    By Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst

    Villard, $22.95

    A guidebook for Jewish parenting

    Do you need guidance in bringing up Jewish or half-Jewish children? You will be well-served by How to Be a Jewish Parent: A Practical Handbook for Family Life by Anita Diamant with Karen Kushner (Schocken, $25). Diamant, best known for her novel The Red Tent, is also the author of several books on Jewish subjects, including Living a Jewish Life and Saying Kaddish. Kushner, an author of children's books, is also a family therapist. Together they combine a concise overview of Jewish customs and a parenting manual neatly into one book.

    Some of the advice the authors give could be found in any parenting book: Be honest with your kids about death and don't use euphemisms. Tell them you don't know all the answers. Tell them it's all right to cry, and cry in front of them.

    But much of what they have to offer tries to help parents raise healthy, happy children with an eye on Judaism's rich, varied and life-affirming traditions and values. The authors emphasize not only teaching children to understand their religion, but to embrace it and become charitable adults as a result.

    When your child, for example, complains, "Why can't we have Christmas?" the authors discourage the they-only-have-one-day-but-we-have-eight route. That approach, they say, tends to encourage indulgence and greed.

    Diamant and Kushner stress the importance of bringing Jewishness into every aspect of family life: keeping Jewish books in the library and Jewish cook books in the kitchen, hanging Jewish art on the living room walls, familiarizing the children with Jewish musicians and instilling a sense of pride in them by making your Jewishness visible.

    The book guides parents on keeping a kosher kitchen, enjoying the Shabbat and celebrating every Jewish holy day (complete with information on the origin of each one).

    Most chapters provide an Ages and Stages section to help the reader guide their children from infancy to adolescence, as well as a list of books for further reading. They also have dedicated chapters to both adoptive and special-needs families.

    -- Samantha Puckett

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