The Sopranos and Entourage

Last night, both of HBO’s buzziest shows, The Sopranos and Entourage, included interfaith relationships as part of their storylines. And both were chock full of stereotypes.

One of the plotlines on last night’s ep of The Sopranos concerns Hesch (Jerry Adler), a retired Jewish record producer who has loaned money to Tony Soprano and his late father for decades. In the new episode, Tony forgets that he owes Hesch $200,000 for gambling losses; when Hesch demurely asks for the money, Tony starts resenting one of his oldest friends, calling him “Shylock” and making cracks about his Jewish obsession with money–as opposed to Tony himself, who instead of politely asking for repayment of loans, beats you up and steals your stuff to remind you that you’re in arrears.

For the first time in the show’s storied run, we get a glimpse into Hesch’s personal life. His son, Eli, is apparently a religious Jew, and Hesch’s girlfriend is a much younger black woman. To its credit, the show treats Hesch and his girlfriend’s relationship matter-of-factly. No one even notes the racial or age difference between the two. And as much as Tony unfairly stereotypes Hesch, Hesch does the same with Tony–he says that most of the time, Italians are alright, but when you get on their bad side, they’re like animals.
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Will Intermarriage Lead to a Schism in the Jewish World?

Tahl Raz, the talented editor of Jewcy, a web magazine/group blog for young Jews, recently was interviewed by Shmuel Rosner, Ha’aretz‘s U.S. correspondent. One of Rosner’s favorite subjects is intermarriage–in the past, he’s interviewed our own Ed Case, Steven Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman–and so he asked Raz about the issue.

Rosner asks Raz for his perspective on six broad themes in the Jewish world today: Jewish peoplehood, Tikkun Olam, intermarriage, Jewish organizations, Jewish renaissance and Hebrew. Raz responds point by point. Here’s his perceptive take on intermarriage:

3. Intermarriage:

Significant in that it’s crucial that we figure out how to overcome this anachronistic tribal obsession with endogamy. If Judaism and Jewishness are of value in the modern world, they will survive. If not, they won’t. Intermarriage will ultimately have little to do with it. In any case, it’s a natural feature of modern life, just as endogamy was a natural feature of shtetl life. People who think otherwise are tilting at windmills.

Then, as is typical with Rosner’s Q&As, Rosner opened up the questioning to his readers, two of whom ask about his dismissal of the concern over intermarriage as an “anachronistic tribal obsession.” His response? He doesn’t find opposition to intermarriage “morally distasteful, just hopelessly ineffectual.” “In a free and open society,” he says, “where we’re pitted against the American assimilationist machine, intermarriage is inevitable.” He doesn’t quite know what the Jewish community’s response should be, but he is encouraged by the Jewish community’s response to troublesome issues in the past–schisms over assimilation led to Zionism, Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism.

How to Be a Good Jewish Grandparent

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Julie Wiener’s new column focuses on the Jewish Outreach Institute’s new book, Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not to Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren. One of the book’s main points is that grandparents can be a powerful model of Jewish identity for their interfaith grandchildren, but they must respect their children’s boundaries.

The book is an answer to the many people who call the Institute when an adult child intermarries, eager for future grandchildren to be raised Jewish yet nervous about appearing meddlesome. My friend “Leah” whose brother recently married a Buddhist woman, tells me that her mother feels so awkward that she frequently tries (to her daughter’s annoyance) to make Leah a go-between, asking her to “remind him that Rosh HaShanah is coming.”

“There’s a general sense of not knowing what to do and feeling paralyzed,” Rabbi Olitzky says, noting that the new book offers “optimism,” as well as concrete suggestions. Those include throwing “the best holiday parties ever”; fostering a positive relationship with your grandchild’s parents and, if possible, offering to help pay for things like Jewish summer camp or other Jewish activities.

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Transformation

The (Baltimore) Jewish Times recently printed a moving column from Haydee M. Rodriguez, who writes about his impending conversion to Judaism.

It reflects the tension that many converts feel between believing and feeling Jewish and not being Jewish. Unlike most American Jews, his connection to Judaism is religious, not cultural. He believes “in the tenets which have guided Judaism for more than 3,000 years,” that “God spoke to Moses in an attempt to guide his people to righteousness and ethical living” and that he has a “responsibility to bring healing to the world.” But, at the same time, his parents were not Jewish, and he has no connection to Jewish culture.

Even in interfaith marriages that don’t end in conversion, the non-Jewish partner can feel a similar disconnect with Jewish culture. No amount of immersion into Jewish life will allow a convert to “claim a tradition of Yiddishkeit,” as Rodriguez says. However, as Rodriguez also says:

While I cannot claim Jewish history as my own, I hope to learn it. And while I cannot claim Jewish culture and tradition, I hope to learn it, to cherish it, to preserve it.

While non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages cannot claim Jewish history for themselves, they can claim it for their children.

Perspective

We occasionally get indignant over the way traditional Jewish leaders and organizations respond to intermarriage in their midst, but a recent headline put the civility of the debate in perspective: “Interfaith love sparks 23 deaths.”

The recent attack in Iraq where Islamist fundamentalists stopped a bus, separated out members of a tiny religious sect called Yazidi and shot 23 of them was part of a cycle of revenge stemming from an interfaith marriage between a Muslim and a Yazidi. Four months ago, a Muslim woman eloped with a Yazidi man; Islamic fundamentalists responded by torching homes in the Yazidi man’s village. Last week, a Yazidi woman eloped with a Muslim man and converted to Islam. In response, the woman’s family stoned her to death.

We and other parts of the Jewish community may have vigorous disagreements, but our debates are ultimately conducted in an atmosphere of baseline respect and decency. As bad as it can occasionally seem for the intermarried in the Jewish community, if we lived in another place, in another time, things could be much, much worse.

What Does the Restructuring of the UJC Mean for the Intermarried?

The umbrella organization for North American Jewish federations is undergoing a massive reorganization, dropping a major policy initiative that was created in the wake of the surprisingly high intermarriage rates announced in the early ’90s. What this will mean in practical terms is anybody’s guess.

Since 1999, the United Jewish Communities, which links federations that have raised more than $4 billion in recent years, has been organized around four policy pillars. One is the Renewal and Renaissance pillar, which is focused on Jewish identity-building activities like summer camps and trips to Israel. While the abandonment of this pillar may make it sound like the UJC is discontinuing those efforts, that’s highly unlikely. More likely is that UJC feels that those kind of efforts are better left to local federations than a national organization.

A more important piece of the UJC’s restructuring is a proposal to create an office in Israel with the goal of raising money from wealthy Israeli and Russian Jewish philanthropists. While international donors have less interest in outreach to the intermarried–and probably are more unfriendly towards this issue than their North American counterparts–I don’t know if their politics will have any impact on what federations in the U.S. are doing.

So is the restructuring of the most important Jewish organization in the Western Hemisphere good or bad news for the intermarried? We’ll just have to wait and see…

A Jewish School Full of Muslims

Britain’s The Independent has a truly astonishing article on a Jewish day school in Birmingham where half the students are Muslim–and everyone gets along. It’s not about the kind of interfaith relationships we focus on, but it demonstrates the salutary effects that interfaith connections can have on people’s worldviews. We’re not naive enough to suggest that people of different faiths falling in love will have an impact on world conflict, but intimate encounters with other cultures and faiths–especially ones perceived to be in conflict–do make it a little less easy to villainize others.

A Jew and a Nazi Fall in Love…

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Some random articles I’ve collected over the last week or two:

  • Black Book, Paul Verhoeven’s (Basic Instinct, Total Recall) new film about the Dutch Resistance during World War II, premieres today in limited release. An interfaith relationship is actually at the center of the story–although I doubt many readers would be able to relate to this particular romance between a tough-minded Jewish spy and a gentle Nazi officer. Judging from his previous films, that premise will probably come off as even more offensive on screen, which is to say, I am looking forward to seeing this movie. I don’t expect, however, to be in the slightest bit enlightened about the dynamics of real interfaith relationships.
  • The ongoing fracas over conversion standards in Israel continues, according to The (New York) Jewish Week. The latest development is that the main pluralist conversion school has stopped sending converts to the official Orthodox conversion courts as a protests against the courts’ unreasonable standards. The head of the school, Benny Ish-Shalom, is calling for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to change the conversion system, but I’m guessing he has other issues on his mind at that moment (and given his political vulnerability, I doubt he’d be willing to take on the Orthodox establishment that runs the conversion courts). The loser, as it always seems to be in these disputes, is not the courts or the school, but potential converts.
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Intermarriage Around the World

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As much as intermarried couples face a struggle for acceptance from some U.S. Jews, the American Jewish community is easily the most enlightened in the world when it comes to responding constructively to intermarriage. Depending on what country you’re comparing the U.S. to, we either have a low rate of intermarriage–Russia and other former Eastern Bloc countries have intermarriage rates far north of 50%–or a high one–countries where the Jewish community is dominated by the Orthodox, like Canada, South Africa and Turkey, have very low rates of intermarriage.

An article in the San Jose Mercury News (free login required) talks about how Reform worship is beginning to appear in Poland. It begins with the story of a woman who “was discouraged from joining Warsaw’s Orthodox Jewish community by one member because her husband isn’t Jewish.” The story continues to talk about intermarried Jews and children of intermarriage who don’t feel welcomed by the country’s Orthodox Jewish community, which is the only one officially recognized by the state.

The fact that the Orthodox Jewish community is the only officially recognized community is a problem throughout Europe. With less division between church and state than in the U.S., some Jewish communities in Europe actually receive funding from the state, which makes it that much harder for more progressive options, like Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative Judaism, to gain a foothold. And without progressive options, intermarried couples have no place to go.
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Judaism Your Way, and “Seventh Heaven”

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The Intermountain Jewish News has a great article on Rabbi Brian Field, who leads Judaism Your Way, an innovative “synagogue without walls” based in Denver, Colo.

Judaism Your Way targets unaffiliated Jews, but it’s clear that Field’s passion is engaging the intermarried. He officiates at interfaith weddings without making any demands that the non-Jewish partner convert. It’s not a radical stance, but it is in opposition to the position of the local rabbinical association. Judaism Your Way’s services include wedding ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews, baby namings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs or “alternative coming of age celebrations,” Shabbat services, regular holiday observances, and High Holiday services.

Judaism Your Way functions as an entryway toward Jewish practice, learning and community — if that’s what participants desire.

“One of the things we like to say is that wherever you are along your Jewish journey, we’ll meet you there and help you figure out the next step,” Rabbi Field says.

It’s an accommodating philosophy that sounds eerily similar to the approach used by Chabad.

But Rabbi Field stresses that unlike Chabad or other Jewish outreach groups, Judaism Your Way does not have a Jewish agenda that pulls participants toward more traditional forms of Judaism.

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