Half-Jews

What do Gwyneth Paltrow, J. D. Salinger, and Paula Abdul have in common?

The Half-Jewish Book: A Celebration


By Daniel Klein & Freke Vuijst


Villard, 301 pp.

Once upon a time, the half-Jew was regarded as a strange and lonely figure--an outsider both to society at large and to the Jewish people. Writer Dorothy Parker (nee Rothschild) used to refer to herself as a "mongrel." But as the intermarriage trend has continued, being half-Jewish suddenly seems unremarkably common. Indeed, according to Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst, authors of "The Half-Jewish Book," "halfies" now outnumber full-blooded Jewish children under the age of 11, and they're gaining on the rest.

More important, Klein and Vuijst contend, half-Jewish is not a partial or fragmented identity to be lamented, but rather a "rich and elaborate" double identity to be celebrated. Unfortunately, the authors--a married couple with a half-Jewish daughter-can't decide whether to name-drop glitzy personalities with Jewish origins or to explore their distinct new cultural sensibility. They end up doing a bit of both.

In People magazine mode, Klein and Vuijst provide a catalog of stars who are half-Jewish, including actors Paul Newman, Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas, DavidDuchovny, and Matthew Broderick; actresses Goldie Hawn, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Jane Seymour. Not all half-Jews are Hollywood types: the half-Jewish clan includes feminist icon Gloria Steinem; chess masters Bobby Fischer and Gary Kasparov; artist Frida Kahlo; poet Adrienne Rich; writers Dorothy Parker, J. D. Salinger, Mary Gordon, and Marcel Proust; singers Carly Simon, Arlo Guthrie, Paula Abdul, and Courtney Love ... Whew!

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When the authors get serious, attempting to explain "the existential complexity of being half-Jewish," they use interviews with non-famous halfies, as well as memoirs and novelistic depictions. Though halfies blend the character traitsof (at least) two cultures, they are in many instances typically Jewish: analytic, reflective, bookish, skeptical, given to complicated moral deliberation, self-mocking and ironic, averse to alcohol and violence, partial to classical music, and attached to liberal political causes. Even halfies who discover their Jewish origins late in life often express a sense of always having known they were somehow different.

Klein and Vuijst like to emphasize how "unique, remarkable, and downrightdazzling" the halfies are, how they harmonize two identities into "aglorious new and coherent whole." But they hedge their bets by citing a downside to every positive half-Jewish feature: broadmindedness, tolerance, andempathy are often counterbalanced by difficulty in committing to a single idea or cause, particularly those involving ethnic claims. Socially adaptable and moving easily between one group and another, half-Jews sometimes worry about a "chameleon-like" tendency that can make them feel like a "split personality." They find many forms of spirituality appealing but "never feel completely at home in any one religion." Thus, the authors concede, the half-Jewish condition can also be "lonely" and "fragmented."

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