Do Three Halves Make a Whole? Doing Identity Math

Rachel Petroff Kessler
April 16, 2013
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When we were young, my brother and I had a habit of breaking ourselves down into fractions. We were: one-half Jewish, one-half Catholic, one-quarter Irish, one-half Russian, one-quarter Czech…if we were bored enough the list could go on and on. Not particularly bothered by the fact that our math didn’t add up, we loved mining our families background and asserting just how unique we were.


By high school I eschewed the game, and was no longer willing to entertain the possibility that when it came to Judaism, at least, being “half” was even an option. You were either in or out. As for me? I was definitely in. When I met people who didn’t know my family, they were astonished to learn that I had a parent who was raised Catholic. “You?” They would say incredulously, “but you’re SO Jewish!”


By the time I had committed myself to a career as a Jewish educator my family’s Jewish journey supported key building blocks in my thinking about the intersections between Jewish learning and Jewish living. Jewish learning that takes place in an open and non-judgmental atmosphere has the potential to impact the way that people would live their lives. Jewish rituals, texts, and community have the power to strengthen and support families. I bring these truths to my teaching with confidence, because I saw them in action in my own family.


When I introduce myself to students, I don’t generally talk much about my personal history, but it does tend to come up over the course of our time learning together. Adults and kids alike often remain surprised to hear that I was raised with a non-Jewish parent (I tend to say: my parents were an inter-faith couple; I was raised in a Jewish home) and more surprised still to hear my memories of Christmas trees and Easter egg hunts.


My hope is that my sharing creates space for everyone to feel at home in our community – it isn’t about having the right pedigree (I don’t even know what that would mean!) or the right kind of holiday observance. What matters is showing up, coming together to learn and share, to celebrate and console. Where we come from matters. But where we choose to go, and how we choose to get there is what really counts.

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Rachel Petroff Kessler is the Family Educator at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland. Originally from upstate New York, Rachel has worked as a Jewish educator in a variety of settings, including Hillel at Binghamton, Kutz: NFTY’s Campus for Reform Jewish Teens, and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Rachel graduated from HUC-JIR’s New York School of Education in April 2010 with a Masters in Religious Education and was a summer fellow at Yeshivat Hadar in 2009.


  1. I’m 100% Jewish, but also 100% familial Catholic. I’m also the only Jewish person in my whole family. (I converted to Judaism at 19.)

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  2. In background-identity math, I’ve long enjoyed saying “I’m a 1/4 Cuban Jew with an Irish last name” — really, that breaks down into 1/2 Eastern European Jewish (mom’s side), 1/4 Cuban Catholic (dad’s mom’s side), 1/4 Scots-Irish [or Ulster Scots] Protestant… and yes, 100% Jewish in my religious identity and community (as is my born-Catholic spouse, of various European-mix heritage). And, like the author of this piece, I find it useful at times to “out” myself in ways that challenge some others’ assumptions about committed and observant Jews: yes, I lead services and read Torah and speak Yiddish with my three-year-old daughter and wear a kippah full-time… and yes, I also have fond memories of visiting my non-Jewish granny at Christmastime, and plan to continue spending every-other-Christmas with the Catholic in-laws. (One great advantage of marrying across religious backgrounds: only 1 family wants you for seder, and only 1 family wants you for Christmas… so we don’t have conflicts over who to go to for those holidays!) Yes, I was raised in a Jewish home and went to Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah… and yes, my father is not Jewish.
    But there’s not always much “outing” to do: when you have an evidently “non-Jewish” last name and you wear a kippah, the cognitive dissonance for some people is pretty strong to start with, and they’re not always shy about asking — though they’re not always as blunt as to ask “Excuse me, but how are you Jewish?” (actual question from well-meaning shul friend who had just figured out that he knew my father from their mutual college days; he just couldn’t figure how it was that I was clearly Jewish, but he knew my dad was not) or to spot my kippah and object “You’re not Jewish! And you’re not male!” (actually, yes, I am; and no, I’m not!)…

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