Jewishness is matrilineal. If your mother is a Jew, you are a Jew, even if your father isn’t. It’s not the same the other way around though. If your father is a Jew but your mother is not, you are not, regardless of how staunchly religious you are or how involved with the Jewish community you are. Jewishness is matrilineal, and if your mother is not a Jew, you have to convert. You are not ‘real’. This odd disparity of ancestry is the theme of DM Miller‘s book, Half-Jew: Searching for Identity, in which she examines what it means to be ‘half’, why it matters, and more importantly, why it shouldn’t matter.
I should say, I’m not in the slightest bit religious. In fact, I’d even describe myself as anti-religion – although not doggedly so. After having attended a Church in Wales Christian school, attending church every Sunday until I was 16, and having been brought up in a loosely Christian household, I came to the conclusion that not only was religion not for me, but that the whole concept is entirely baffling and sometimes dangerous.
Of course, I’m not daft enough to think there is nothing good to be found in religion – a sense of community, positive (for the most part) moral teachings, and perhaps an easing of the fear of death and our own insignificance but that’s not enough for me to agree to the rest of it, especially given that you can have all those things without having to adhere to some idea of religion as well.
For those reasons though, I find religion fascinating. What exactly draws people to it, and how can people accept seemingly arbitrary rules, such as this ‘half-Jew’ one, so willingly? That’s one of the reasons that I was so intrigued by Miller’s book. Add to that a fascination with ancestry, and I knew I was in for a treat.
I wasn’t disappointed. Miller’s book, short and sweet as it is, is a fantastic introduction to a topic that I had previously only hazy notions of. She looks at the subject both from a personal, emotional viewpoint, and also from a scientific, well-researched based viewpoint, thus creating a narrative that is neither dry and fact-based nor too subjective to be of any interest. In fact, she provides the perfect balance between autobiographical detail and an examination of leading theories, historic information, and case studies.
It’s true that I don’t agree with all the conclusions that she comes to in regards to religion, or, for that matter, some of the truly bizarre research results, such as the one that showed Jews care more about Israel than about following Jewish law or living a moral life. That last one alone is enough for me to denounce religion yet again.
Having said that, this book held my attention throughout and Miller makes some excellent points to support her case. Certainly from an ancestral point of view, the idea that you can only be one thing if your mother is that thing – but not if it’s your father – is truly nuts (sorry Orthodox Jews – feel free to try to persuade me otherwise).
Miller’s voice is strong thoughout (and if you’ve watched any of her videos, you’ll hear the book being narrated in your head in her voice, as I did), and her emotional attachment and dedication to this topic make the book compelling, highly readable, and extremely enjoyable yet informative. This book is not just for Jews or so-called half Jews. It’s for anyone who has an interest in religion, it’s for anyone with an interest in ancestry, and it’s for anyone who enjoys an informative autobiographical tale of someone who is searching for her true identity and a place to ‘fit in’.