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HALF-JEW by Susan Jacoby

HALF-JEW

A Daughter's Search for Her Family's Buried Past

By Susan Jacoby

Pub Date: May 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-684-83250-X
Publisher: Scribner

The memoir of a Catholic-trained atheist whose (ex-Catholic) Episcopalian father turns out to have been Jewish.

This memoir by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jacoby (Wild Justice, 1983) competently traces an inquisitive child's defiant

search for her father's hidden background. The identity issue remains on the surface, largely a matter of culture and

race—although there are some forays into history, examining the social restrictions of being a Jew in 19th-century America, for

example, or the deadlier repercussions of being even a Mischling (a partial Jew) in Europe under the Nazi regime. There are

precious few philosophical or theological elements present to give the story much in the way of depth, however, or to position

it much higher than the average “should-I-celebrate-Christmas” stocking stuffer. Jacoby's major attraction to her father's buried

past, outside of the usual adolescent obsession with questions of identity, appears to be a sincere identification with outsiders and

victims. Many African-American friends attend her second marriage, for instance—a non-Catholic church wedding to a man with

two atheist Jewish parents. As a talented young journalist, this small-town Midwestern girl meets many Jews and discovers for

the first time that Jacoby is a Jewish surname. Jacoby (and her father to some extent) can, by the late 1960s, see their Jewish

ancestry as an asset as well as a liability. Her father eventually admits the truth and turns the tables on his daughter by declaring

that “identifying oneself as a Jew simply because Jewishness had acquired a certain social and professional cachet was just as

opportunistic as denying one's Jewishness to escape social or professional stigmatization.” The gambling addiction of her Jewish

ancestors adds some pathos to Jacoby’s memoir, but her identity problems lack the drama of others she mentions: Secretary of

State Madeleine Albright and Catholic novelist Mary Gordon.

Lacking a stronger, schizophrenic conflict, Jacoby’s memoir tastes rather half-baked.