Religion & Beliefs

Defending J.D. Salinger’s Half-Jewish Roots

I was reading Virginia Heffernan‘s article for Tablet about her encounter as a young woman with J.D. Salinger in Cornish, NH.  Salinger died at age 91 on January 28th, 2010.  Heffernan, who is a convert,  reflected nicely on his half-Jewish … Read More

By / February 4, 2010

I was reading Virginia Heffernan‘s article for Tablet about her encounter as a young woman with J.D. Salinger in Cornish, NH.  Salinger died at age 91 on January 28th, 2010.  Heffernan, who is a convert,  reflected nicely on his half-Jewish identity and his troubled family life, but much to my astonishment, she was met with a barrage of comments that Salinger wasn’t Jewish because he had a Jewish father, and that he had deserted Judaism as an adult, etc., etc.  Here is my reply:

Dear Commenters: I never thought in a million years that I’d have to defend J.D. Salinger’s claim to Jewish roots.

I’m the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, the largest international organization for adult children and other descendants of intermarriage (www.half-jewish.net). As a member of Jewish outreach, I was recently informed that one of Salinger’s descendants currently lives as a Jew. If this information is true, I sure hope that his descendant does not see your thread, filled with ethnocentric attacks on Salinger’s connection to the Jewish people and negative comments implying that the author of the article, Mrs. Heffernan, is unworthy to comment on Jewish topics because she is Jew by choice.  Your negative remarks would likely cause Salinger’s descendant to question the wisdom of affiliating with the Jewish people.  Moreover, you display a profound ignorance of the situation in which many children of intermarriage find themselves, and of Mr. Salinger’s tragic personal history in particular.

Salinger Was Raised Jewish Mr. Salinger was Jewish as defined by both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. Both denominations require that the child of either a Jewish mother or a Jewish father be brought up as a Jew from birth, and given life cycle rituals like a bar or bat mitzvah. Even though no Jewish outreach to interfaith families existed when Mr. Salinger was born in 1919, he was raised as a Jew and had a bar mitzvah.  Shortly after his bar mitzvah, he was told that his mother — coerced by her Jewish in-laws — had been hiding her Christian identity.  Can you imagine the impact of this discovery on a 13 year old? No wonder the heroes of his fiction display a contempt for adult “phonies” and a suspicion towards all conventional appearances.

Why Didn’t He Live As A Jew? You also resent that he sought spirituality in other religions.  Given your unwelcoming attitudes can you blame him?…and this is the year 2010. Imagine the icy reception Salinger would have received from other Jews, in say, 1936, if as an unknown writer  he had expressed any interest in conversion or living as a Jew. I know from interviewing adult children of intermarriage who grew up in that era, that the American Jewish community often rejected them, which is in stark contrast with the German Jewish community of the 1930s.  There was no organized interfaith family outreach in American Judaism until the early 1980s, when Salinger was in his sixties. And even today, as evidenced by your negative comments, adult childen and grandchildren of intermarriage are routinely snubbed and rebuffed when attempting to gain entry to the Jewish community.  There is outreach for interfaith couples and Jews by choice, but almost none for half-Jewish people

His Experiences In World War II, The Holocaust Now, about Mr. Salinger’s personal history with the Holocaust.

With regard to the comment that Salinger, as a trainee in his father’s business, was in no danger in 1938 Vienna, because he had an American passport, please consult any history of the Holocaust, and see report after report of people being killed or injured in the streets everywhere in the Nazi empire from 1934 onward because they “looked Jewish.”  How quickly you forget.  You think that the Nazi thugs asked for paperwork categorically?

None of your hostile comments present any awareness that Salinger spent World War II as a staff sergeant in the Army, suffering through bloody campaigns in Europe against the Nazis, helping liberate a concentration camp, and then serving because of his fluent French and German as an interpreter to American officials rounding up German prisoners of war.  Salinger’s experiences in WWII were so bad that he had a nervous breakdown. I would say that those are substantial services to Judaism and humanity and should be treated with more respect.

Jews By Choice Get A Voice Now, with regard to your comment that Heffernan is a convert and therefore apparently has no right to discuss Jewish topics: have you read any Jewish texts?  As a convert Ms. Heffernan is considered a Jew and has every right to discuss Jewish topics.

Her perception of Mr. Salinger as a kvetching New York Jew in the utterly non-Jewish setting of Cornish, NH and his momentary kindness to her, is in keeping with what is known of his character and behavior. Irregardless of his adult spiritual beliefs, his early New York Jewish upbringing was marked in his behavior and outlook throughout his life.  Overall, her article is a tiny and precious snapshot which will be greatly appreciated by future Salinger biographers and scholars.

Double Bind Experiences in Jewish Community In conclusion, I would like to state that your negative comments on Salinger’s connections to Judaism epitomize the double bind experiences that many half-Jewish people find themselves in today when they encounter the Jewish community.  We are often told that we are “not Jewish” and if we attempt to live as Jews, obstacles are put in the way of our converting or entering Jewish communities. Then we are berated, subtly or openly, by some Jews with two Jewish parents, for having explored other spiritualities. It my earnest hope, as the leader of the Half-Jewish Network and of the Inclusivist Judaism Coalition that I will live to see a Judaism that is multicultural and multiracial, and where the number and gender of one’s Jewish ancestors will not be as important as one’s spiritual or secular culture ties to them, and that all persons connected to the Jewish people by family ties will see those ties honored.