If the Jew Is Forever Alienated from America, What Is the Half-Jew Alienated From?

24 January 2021 ☼ CommentaryInteresting Things I ReadReligion

I was going to say you should read Liel Leibovitz’s tribute to Phil Spector for Tablet, Death of a Ladies’ Man.” God knows it’s written well enough. And even if you don’t particularly care for Leibovitz’s own writing, there’s an entire section in the middle that consists mostly of Leonard Cohen wryly telling stories about working with Spector in the mid-1970s, several of those stories involving Spector pulling guns on people. Leibovitz has great material—it’s the direction he forces his material to go in that leaves me feeling queasy at the end.

This is personal, mind you. I am simultaneously Jewish and half-Jewish, a statement that probably makes no sense whatsoever to most Jewish people living outside the United States and most people living within the United States. The half comes from my father, who joined a Lutheran church after my mother died. I spoke to his pastor on the phone; she was warm and inviting. You and your family are welcome to the church any time, she said. Thank you, I replied, but I’m Jewish. (My husband is an atheist; his mother is a practicing Protestant.)

But I’m Jewish,” I had to say, because it’s not obvious. I have a childhood friend who keeps a strict Sabbath, and started wearing wigs after she married, and taught at the religiously-focused day schools her five children attended. Her Jewishness isn’t something she has to point out to strangers. My Jewishness is buttressed by no synagogue membership, no photo album full of embarrassing bat-mitzvah photos, no trips to Israel (no, not even Birthright), no rest on the Sabbath (I spent most of yesterday cleaning), and almost no knowledge of Hebrew besides the most well-worn prayers. I do bake challah on Fridays, and we light candles, but generally I’m absolutely lousy at Jewish practice.

You can blame the half, but you wouldn’t be quite right. If my mother had had her heart set on my brother and me attending Hebrew school and completing the tasks that would make us adults capable of taking on the tasks of Jewish worship, my easy-going father, who adored her, would have gone along with it. But she spent her life simultaneously part of, proud of, and inarticulately angry at the Jewish communities we knew. She’d grown up part of an upwardly mobile, fairly lucky Jewish family prone to in-fighting in the New York City suburbs. The only Orthodox member was my grandfather’s mother, and that was the result of a bargain, family lore went, that she struck with God: if He brought back all three of her sons from the war, she would start following His rules. My grandparents, meanwhile, stopped attending synagogue as soon as my uncle had his bar mitzvah. They didn’t give my mother a chance; that wasn’t done in Conservative synagogues in the 1960s.

She could have made me and my brother practice instead; she didn’t. It’s a long story (and not mine to tell) but my mother felt alienated from her family, and from Jewish practice as a whole. It wasn’t a refuge for her. (She solved the dilemma somewhat by being fiercely pro-Israel.) We inherited both her Jewish identity and her ambivalence; those two things probably explain why I keep telling people that I’d never be able to make aliyah, more so than my lacking paperwork or being married to a man of Irish-German descent.

So there are times when I read pieces about what Jews think, or feel, or should think, or feel, and my dander gets up, a defensiveness spawned from worrying that the writer’s definition of Jew” doesn’t include me. Leibovitz’s piece was one of those times, once it gets to its theme of …no matter how hard you try, you can’t, as a Jew, ever feel truly at home in America.” Which raises the question of where the Jew is supposed to feel at home. Israel? Nowhere? Is the desire to feel at home” in a particular place itself suspect? (And given that Leibovitz has also written movingly of his love for America as an immigrant from Israel, does he actually believe this?)

It seems to me, not being able to cast my defensiveness aside, that even if Leibovitz is right that the Jew can never be fully at home in America, the half-Jew may not be able to be fully at home anywhere else. I don’t think any other country has seen rates of intermarriage as high as ours, or had as many people pulling their hair out about intermarriage as we have. (Once I was in conversation with a rabbi who sighed over his synagogue’s traditional, and hard-to-lower, high annual dues. That’s probably the biggest threat we face in keeping Judaism alive,” he said. Really?” I said. I always thought the biggest threat was people like me.”) The casting off and trying back on of traditions, claiming the identity but refusing the Sabbath, eating bacon but trying out the Yiddish track on Duolingo and signing the kids up for PJ Library, dancing with and against history—that’s the kind of chaotic-neutral approach that seems to flourish more here than anywhere else.

You should still read the piece, though. Although Leibovitz’s argument that Spector was undone by Jewish alienation doesn’t hold up even within the confines of the piece: for example, he pictures a teenage Spector deeply uneasy about being Jewish in a sea of gentiles,” then a few paragraphs later notes that most of Fairfax High School was Jewish. And the shade-throwing at Philip Roth, though nicely done, risks giving the impression that Leibovitz is more offended by writing books that the goyische will read than by, oh, beating and murdering women. But I can’t but be grateful to Leibovitz. If I’m bad at walking the walk with Judaism and Jewish-ness, at least I can show that I care enough to get a little cranky from time to time.