Julie Wiener enters the “Who is a Jew?” Debate

In this month’s installment of Julie Wiener’s In the Mix column in the (New York) Jewish Week, she reviews yet another challenge in interfaith families: the difficult questions often posed by curious young children too young to understand all of the identity intricacies resplendent in intermarriage.

To a child being raised Jewishly, it might be difficult to understand why a loving parent who happens to come from another religious background is classified as an “other.” When that parent is fully supportive of their child’s Jewish upbringing, it can be confusing to a young person when that parent is nevertheless portrayed as a stranger by the Jewish community. If Judaism is defined by the way people live, then surely this parent would be considered Jewish. It is unrealistic, of course, to expect children to be able to comprehend such thorny issues at such an early age. It is hard enough for those of us who are adults to understand. As Julie says about her daughter Ellie:

At 3 ½ years old, she knows nothing about matrilineal or patrilineal descent, nor has she any clue about what is recognized by the State of Israel—or for that matter, what exactly Israel is.

Later, Julie laments that, armed with her newfound knowledge that she is Jewish and some of her friends are not, young Ellie has taken to classifying everyone in her life as either “Jewish” or “Christian.” Julie worries about how much further complicated matters would become “by elaborating on Islam, Buddhism and the myriad of other religions represented just within our ZIP code.”

That point underscores the fact that the issue many families face is really about what to tell the children, especially when they are young and not yet able to grasp the nuances of daily life and certainly not the complications of Jewish communal life.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to reframe the conversation, and move from “Who is a Jew?” to “Who is a member of the Jewish community?” That will allow us to move toward a situation where children are not inclined to look upon parents from other religious backgrounds as being “outsiders” nor will the rest of the Jewish community. By welcoming the stranger, we will help both parent and child and ensure that everyone assisting in the valuable endeavor of raising Jewish children finds their rightful place in the Jewish community.


  1. The problem is less with how the child of an intermarried couple perceives the non-Jewish parent; the bigger issue is what happens when the child realizes that many in the Jewish community still consider the child tainted or not a real Jew. How many children would have been happy to explore the Jewish community but were hurt by their non-halakhic status? I realize that Julie’s children are halakhically Jewish, but for many patrilineals, their encounter with the Jewish community is often a negative one.

    Comment by Eric — May 21, 2007 @ 1:01 pm

  2. You are indeed correct. And it is what we are working with in the community–if even to help people who dont accept patrilineal descent to recognize that these kids arent not Jewish they are simply halakhically not Jewish. And we are making progress-slowly.
    Rabbi Kerry Olitzky

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — May 21, 2007 @ 1:10 pm

  3. Q: Can food be kosher, just not halachically kosher?

    Please clarify what you mean by “these kids aren’t not Jewish they are simlply halakhically not Jewish.”

    Comment by marc — May 25, 2007 @ 11:38 am

  4. Sure, kids that are raised in the Jewish community, leading Jewish lives and are considered Jewish by segments of the community, are just not halakhically Jewish. All that may separate them is the formal conversion process.

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — May 25, 2007 @ 11:42 am

  5. Is there a difference between being “considered Jewish” and actually “being Jewish” ?

    Comment by marc — May 25, 2007 @ 11:45 am

  6. Only a halakhic distinction.

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — May 25, 2007 @ 11:49 am

  7. What does that mean to you?

    Comment by marc — May 25, 2007 @ 12:34 pm

  8. It means that for those who consider halakhah to have binding authority, formal conversion is necessary but it involves only a relatively simple process. But I think that perhaps we should continue the conversation off-line.

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — May 25, 2007 @ 12:46 pm

  9. Agreed…You have my email.

    Comment by marc — May 25, 2007 @ 1:01 pm

  10. I was interviewed by Julie for the above mentioned article. As the nonJewish mother of four girls who has provided a Jewish education which has resulted in a Jewish identity, I think what is being overlooked here is that it is very important to not hide the true religious affiliation of the nonJewish parent. If differences are not discussed honestly and openly then there is the risk that the child will perceive the “other” as shameful. Is it not inherent in all religions to teach respect and acceptance? For instance in Julie’s case by naming Daddy’s Catholic faith in a neutral way then by example the child will understand that his faith is accepted and acceptable by Mom and therefore okay. It is simply thought of as this is the way it is in my house. Julie’s husband is promoting one identity for their children and taking part in the important rituals. How wonderful for all. I believe in this day and age, with children growing up in a society filled with people from all over the world, it is important to not hide differences but teach respect and acceptance.

    Comment by Mary Ellen Markowitz — June 4, 2007 @ 9:00 pm

  11. Thanks for sharing your insights and experiences so that we may all learn to be more tolerant and respectful of one another.
    Together we can create a more perfect world for ourselves and for our children.
    Rabbi Kerry Olitzky

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — June 4, 2007 @ 10:05 pm

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