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My mother didn’t speak to her father for thirteen years after he welcomed me into the world with the following words: “That’s all we need, another Jew Bastard.” 

By the time they tried to reconcile, he’d gone mostly blind. We visited my grandfather in 1985, but he never really saw how the boy he’d cursed at birth looked more like the Aryan Nation’s Favorite Son. That day in Irvington, New Jersey (the day I met my maternal Polish Catholic grandfather, the only day I ever saw him), I didn’t grab him by the collar, raise him toward the ceiling, and set him straight about my adolescent relation to tradition or theology. I sat at the kitchen table. I petted one of the many cats. I snacked on the generous platter of cold cuts offered. And all I really remember from this confrontation thirteen years in the making—other than a stench of cat pee so strong you could taste it on every rolled-up slice of ham—was my grandfather asking me a question as though it were our only hope: 

“You box?” 

I was months into a five-year stint as a day student at the prep school in my town, a place that competed in crew, squash, lacrosse, cricket . . . not boxing. 

“Baseball,” I said. “Basketball, too.” 

These were unpopular sports at a school where everyone with a shred of preppy prestige played soccer, hockey, and lacrosse. Football, baseball, and basketball were America’s common denominator sports, for kids who spent summers at the Jersey Shore instead of the Vineyard or the Cape. But boxing? No one I knew boxed, and so it was as exotic as squash, this brutal “game” from my mother’s Newark neighborhood that never made it to New Jersey’s middle-class suburbs in the ‘80s, and certainly not to the fancy prep school where, again, a handful of my classmates spent their weekends wearing white sweaters while bowling toward something called a “wicket” on something called a “pitch.” 

Somewhere between the extremes of boxing and cricket, I spent my teenage recreational time on courts and diamonds. But playing non-preppy sports at a prep school is not so terrible a fate. Cursed at birth, the Jew Bastard born of Catholic mother and Jewish father could have had it much worse. Canine snout. Donkey hooves. Forked tongue. Horns. But the simple truth is that when two “opposites” are so attracted they make a third, the procreating cats and dogs (or Jews and Catholics) tend to create nothing more insidious than a “puppycat”—a peaceful crossbreed who innately understands and empathizes with more than one perspective, a characteristic that’s maybe important in a world historically overrun by pure-breeds who single-mindedly believe in extremes, and who tend to be willing to prove their side is right, no matter the catastrophe. 

The obvious fact of the existence of human beings who are neither one thing nor another thing and who might therefore see the world from a perspective that considers all sides (quaquaversally as opposed to single-mindedly) seems like a good thing, right? And maybe that’s why science supposedly favors puppycatdom, because it’s good for humanity? Isn’t the mutt better able to adapt than the so-called pure-breed? Isn’t being able to adapt a good thing? 

Take for example Merry Levov, fictional half-Jew of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Oh wait. Rather disturbed, wasn’t she? Didn’t deal so well with her puppycatdom, this daughter of an Irish beauty queen and a mythic Jewish sports hero from the same Newark neighborhood my father grew up in. My father, an assimilated sports star for Weequahic High himself, married a hot shiksa (just like the Swede did), and moved to one of New Jersey’s leafier areas to the west (just like the Swede did), where he produced a semi-levelheaded son (unlike the Swede’s daughter who blew shit up). But why did Merry Levov blow shit up? Because she couldn’t deal with her halflinghood? Is that why she stuttered? Is giving a character a speech impediment a cheap differentiating technique in fiction or is it excusable as a symptom of a cultural/theological confusion that ties sensitive tongues? 

I had a bit of an elementary-school lisp but it never made me blow shit up. Some speech therapy let me wield that tongue well enough to get good grades and be admitted to the prestigious prep school where my fully Jewish father had taught me how to properly throw a stone into the pond on campus, near where I’d learned to read my first word (“Stop”). Throwing stones in a pond creates ripples that can’t be stopped, much like the tendency of young boys to tease other young boys for any sort of difference. Some of my fellow students at this school, for example, would see a penny on the ground and ask if I’d like to pick it up. To which I’d respond: “I’m only half.” To which they’d respond: “Maybe tomorrow, Half-Klein.” Good-natured teasing like this never made me think about trying to stop the ripples caused by the stones they threw by lacing their lacrosse sticks with explosives and blowing their asses high into the sky over suburban New Jersey. 

Once in the western highlands of Guatemala, however, I met a clutch of militaristic hippies from Israel, killer Deadheads with accents (essentially) who discovered my last name when one of them asked to look at my passport. For a while they spoke English, enthusiastically including this American Jew in wish-fulfillment discussions about killing all the Arabs, etc. Until it came out my mother was Catholic. That I was baptized. And therefore officially not a Jew. Whereupon they reverted to speaking Hebrew, ignoring me as though I’d transformed into a pillar of goyish salt. The bastards! They’d talk to me if my father was Jewish, but not if my mother was Catholic. What total fuckheads! If more Merry Levov were in me, what terrible things I'd have done to these young veterans of the Israeli military, who probably deserved to be obliterated for their desire to blow up millions of innocent Arabs . . . 

Other than the pick-up-the-penny-every-other-day thing and the not-considered-Jewish-by-Israelis thing, not too many memorable incidents underscore my halflinghood compared to pervasive instances of in-betweenness unrelated to religion. For example, there’s the way-more-crucial sense of in-betweenness that comes from attending the aforementioned conservative prep school and then balancing that experience with four years at the famously progressive Oberlin College. There’s also something probably a bit psychogeographically essential to my sense of in-betweenness that comes from growing up in the very in-between state of New Jersey, that residential land strangers mistakenly think is all highways and suburbs between Philadelphia and New York. There’s maybe a dash of something added to the in-between stew about being totally absolutely white but nevertheless semi-skeptical of most gatherings of white folk, starchy hoi polloi and stinky hoo-has alike (not to mention there’s been a history of relationships with women of mixed race). Then there’s a further touch of something in-between about being male but being raised by a feminist to distrust the boorish, aggressive, pornographic baboonishness characteristic of testosterone surplus in my gender. And there’s probably also something influential related to in-between class consciousness about my mother and father coming from poor and lower-middle-class Newark, respectively, and then attaining traditional suburban comfort money-wise but nowhere near the wealth of the Boesky, Bunn, or Getty clans (or even all the families of the kids from my high school whose surnames don’t match those of insider traders, coffee-maker producers, or oil companies) while still living on the so-called “nice side” of Lawrence Township, the old leafy section toward Princeton (though we lived in a newer development, not one of the old “Village” houses), as opposed to the solidly middle-class area on the other side of the highway toward Trenton. And there’s probably also something fundamental (again in terms of class consciousness and psychogeography) about growing up in the small town sandwiched between the superfirstworldness of Princeton and Trenton’s sortofthirdworldness. And, finally, the kicker: essential to that pervasive sense of in-betweenness is the fact that I am the only child of an accountant father and an abstract-expressionist painter mother.  


One thing that last paragraph makes clear is that I suffer from a serious case of selective attention, seeing in-betweenness everywhere. But does this interest in in-betweenness come from my parents being raised with different religions? Or does it come more from me being raised by a father who is an accountant and a mother who is a painter? Or is it regional? Can I blame New Jersey’s location between major cities? 

Which in-betweenness is it? 

At this point it might help to point out that my particular type of halflinghood is German Jew and Polish Catholic, not German Jew and Irish Protestant, Hawaiian Pantheist, or Thai Buddhist. What this means is that in recent centuries some of my relatives may have crossed paths. One side of my lineage maybe even killed the other side. But who needs this? What good can come from oppositional in-betweenness inside you? Who needs to think half your genes are persistently attacking the other half because, being genes, they’re genetically predestined to do so? How to stop the internal violence? Take for example the recognition I had in first grade that if the Nazis invaded I’d live because I was nearly blond, blue-eyed, and taller than everyone (that is, everyone except Lisa Roberts). Again, the thought that went through my first-grade head: “If the Nazis invaded America and rounded up all the Jews, I would survive . . .”

That’s a pretty complicated calculation to make at an age when you haven’t yet taped the multiplication table to your desktop. But it’s an abstract math, with a much more elusive solution than the simple addition of “bit of lineage” plus “another bit of lineage” makes “someone obviously something thanks to their skin color.” All these words about my half-Jewishness, in fact, seem like wonky theoretical excavation compared to, say, the simple facts of my first girlfriend’s mother having caramel-colored skin and her father having more peach- or olive-colored skin so their daughter came out with skin a toffee color that inspired salivation in most everyone who (vulgarly) considered her “black.” Even if she was at least 70% European, the one-drop rule applied. She cried when friends said things like “for a black girl, you seem white on the inside.” 

The point is that no one has ever seen my 6’3’’ white ass walking down the street and said “woah, there’s goes a pretty big half-Jew.” No friend has ever said “for a half-Jew, you seem baptized on the inside.” No one has ever said anything remotely like that. Once it was learned at that prestigious prep school I was dating “a black girl” from Princeton High, however, some fuckhead drew an Oreo cookie on my day student locker. 


If someone of mixed race is talked about in terms of extremes, what can be said about a white man whose genealogical/theological complexity is so concealed it really only exists in his mind?

My religious background isn’t written on my skin. I could cite the many Christmases I’ve celebrated, claim Catholicism as the one true religion, and wipe another bit of Judaism off the faith of the earth. Or maybe the dissolution of Judaism in my family began long before my father (for whom tennis is several thousand times more a religion than the several thousand-year-old religion he inherited) knocked up a hot shiksa with long straight hair and a taste for Dinah Washington and High Art instead of, say, Barbara Streisand and tchotches. Maybe in America extremes are destined to die. Or maybe what I’m saying is really just an argument in favor of complexity, an argument against simple constrictions like “Jew,” or even “Half-Jew”? 

Consider the case of a man cursed at birth as a Jew Bastard. Who Israelis don’t consider Jewish. Who has never attended synagogue if it weren’t someone’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Who has had some passing interest in The Zohar as well as cartoon depictions of the Old Testament stories. Who has always tended to think of four-hour blocks of time in terms of how long it’d take to watch a televised showing of “The Ten Commandments.” Who maybe occasionally scooches across the half-Jew line when there’s talk of genocide or atrocity. Who appropriates Jewish tragedy about as often as he claims a right to Jewish comedy. Who with a degree of authority lets half his lineage perpetuate stereotypes of overbearing guilt or oy-laden kvetching or Seinfeld-style syntax in faux-arguments. Who on the surface of his skin doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes other than the one about American white men being semi-overfed. Who believes he might be more Jewish than he believes himself to be because others believe him to be Jewish and this belief makes him more Jewish than he is even if he knows he’s not really Jewish at all. 

In a world where things have always slipped toward terribleness thanks in part to a tendency toward opposition and extremism, maybe the only thing these words mean to say is “halflinghood is probably good.” Maybe not being completely one or the other enables a native understanding of blessed ambiguity, of “light and darkness in perpetual round” as Milton put it. Maybe airing all sides of any argument helps you see in-betweenness everywhere, an understanding of ambiguity that hopefully leads to empathy for everyone involved, that then hopefully makes it more difficult to simply call your newborn grandson “another Jew bastard” (or term a handful of countries that oppose your own “The Axis of Evil”). Maybe exercising a sense of in-betweeness can keep us from spending the next thirteen years not speaking to one another until we lose our sight and have the language of extremism pried from our cold dead mouths. Maybe halflinghood makes you interested in the quaquaversal perspective that, in turn, makes something as extreme as going to war seem ridiculous, considering long ago half your lineage wanted the other half dead because of religious differences, as well as all the other factors that make it easier for a word like hatred to stand in for all those required to relate the actual complexity—much like the way more than 2,400 words are needed to quaquaversally cover the subject of anyone’s halflinghood, including mine. 


This essay originally appeared in the anthology Half-Life: Jew-ish Tales From Interfaith Homes, published in 2006 by Soft Skull Press and edited by Laurel Snyder.


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