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Half Jews? Modern Day Judaism as a Math Problem

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The other day, driving back from a family member's bar mitzvah, my eldest son wanted to know if he would get to have one someday.

I told him it was not going to happen and reminded him of his blessed half-Jewishness; I added, however, that though he did not have a choice in regards to the bar mitzvah business, he did have a choice as to which half of his body could be Jewish. If he wanted his legs and arms to be Jewish, or his hair Catholic and his ears Jewish, that was fine; needless to say, as his penis is not circumcised that would naturally have to be part of his non-Jewish self.

Maybe, just maybe, I was not being fair. After I thought about it some more, I wondered if we could find a compromise of some sort. Yes, I would talk to his mom about having half a bar mitzvah. At first I saw it in the light of Italo Calvino's fantastical fable, "The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount." The scene before me would be cut in half, right down the middle: with half a rabbi, half a son and half a Torah. And, logically, half a God. I imagined half the people at a synagogue also split in half -- which I would not have minded, given my wacky extended family. Of course, that would mean half the cash, so I would have to foot a larger chunk of his college bills. Then again, half a service and half the haftorah portion, would be a welcome relief to those lucky enough to attend. And if my son felt inspired he could sing the missing half of the Torah portion in the shower at his one hundred percent intact bathroom. In spite of being a family of hardcore secularists I wondered if my wife would seek to balance out the religious equation by having our three boys eat half a communion wafer at church or hang half a portrait of the Virgin Mary on the wall near the Mark Rothko print.

Once I was through with these fantasies, I could not stop thinking about this half-Jewish stuff. Something did not sit right with this concept. It was too simplistic, a one size fits all way to deal with identity. Maybe it worked in the olden days, post-shtetl and pre-Obama. After all, not all half-Jews are worth the same. For starters, there is the case that if the mother is Jewish and the father is non-Jewish, the kids are not half-Jews, but full Jews; or that a circumcised son of a Jewish father is supposedly more Jewish than my sons. I surely lose points not just by having three uncircumcised boys, but having three uncircumcised boys who eat Spanish ham (sometimes on a bagel, though) with milk on a daily basis. On the other hand, I must be able to claim points for the six months spent in Jerusalem wandering aimlessly and playing out the part of a wondering Jew; or the fact that I complain a lot; or that I feel ethically, intellectually and just plain superior to my neighbors; or that I give every cool person I like, from a Portuguese landscape architect to a Malian guitarist, a Jewish ancestor; or that I am clumsy; or, God forbid, that I am writing a piece about Jewish identity because I am confused about my Jewish identity. Indeed, all this must somehow rub off at home and increase the percentage of my sons' half-Jewishness so they can get close to being the pure thing -- without infringing on their non-Jewish half and creating problems with my wife. This seems mathematically challenging, but oh well!

Plus, there are days when I feel more Jewish than other days. I leave my house feeling 54 percent Jewish and by the time I get to work I feel 98 percent Jewish. Sometimes I have, say, a 75 percent Jewish day but go to sleep and have a 100 percent Jewish dream. But then again, when I come across morally low points as the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories, my Jew-barometer drops down below O, somewhere around -63 percent. There are mornings that suck and I get down to feeling a mere 10 percent Jewish, but then I remember the members of the cool clan -- Kafka, Freud, Einstein, Billy Wilder and Groucho Marx, and the identity barometer rises back up to 100 percent.

Not to worry, though, as my son (who will not have to worry about studying for his bar mitzvah) is good at math and he will be able to figure all this out.