The Link Sink


Some links to sink your teeth into:

  • Two high-profile conversions: Mare Winningham, best known for playing Wendy Beamish in St. Elmo’s Fire, is starring in a new off-Broadway play, “10 Million Miles” and has just released a new country album of Jewish songs, titled “Refuge Rock Sublime.” She tells The Jewish Week of her enthusiasm for Judaism, “Converts can be annoying sometimes. We can be too enthusiastic and passionate, if there’s such a thing.” The other convert is Bob Tufts, a former pitcher for the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals, who converted when he married his Jewish wife. It’s interesting to compare the reactions to their conversions. Tufts converted 25 years ago, and recalls telling a fellow player he was converting to Judaism. “His eyes kidn of bugged out,” Tufts said, “and he said, ‘Well, then, you’re going to hell.’ and turned back to watch the ballgame.” Meanwhile, Winningham converted five years ago and found that her devout Catholic father was happy for her: “It was more important to her that her children be happy and have a relationship with God. When she found out I was having one, that was more important to her than what religion it was in.” I think the contrast highlights the way American culture’s relationship to Judaism has changed, even since the early ’80s. Especially among religious Christians, there seems to be a widespread acceptance of Judaism as a valid, and even perhaps blessed, religious path.
  • Julie Wiener wrote a provocative column last week on intermarriage in the Bible:

    Yes, there are passages in the Bible that rail against Jews marrying gentiles, and certainly much of the midrash, commentary and Talmud are devoted to this theme. But every spring, when Purim, Passover and Shavuot come and go, I can’t help but notice that the Bible stories we read for these holidays are all about people — Esther, Moses and Ruth — in interfaith marriages. (Yes, I know Ruth converted, but not until after her Jewish husband died.)

    She gleans some good insight from Rabbi Brian Field, who led a session on the topic of a “midrash of intermarriage” at our conference last month.

  • The Forward has a thought-provoking column on the relationship between Jewishness and whiteness and the Jewish community’s newfound enthusiasm for “diversity.” One of the more interesting observations:

    For instance, as immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, they were expected to conform and adapt to the sensibility and style of the more established and better-off German Jews, who themselves were hypersensitive about the reactions of the American Protestant elite of that time. They feared that their hard-won position would be disrupted by their wretched Eastern European cousins. In this climate, the concern was about conforming and being respectable, rather than celebrating diversity.

  • Baby Talk

    Rabbi Lev Baesh

    I participated in some fascinating discussions about birth ceremonies last week. The occasion was another excellent Outreach Training Institute program held on June 14, 2007 titled “Embracing the Covenant: Brit Ceremonies in Interfaith Families.” Dr. Paula Brody of the Reform movement’s Northeast Council runs four of these programs a year, funded by CJP, the Boston federation.

    One of the most interesting parts of the day was a presentation by Father Walter Cuenin – author of one of the most popular articles ever published on our site, Is Heaven Denied to an Unbaptized Child?. Apparently, Catholic theology and practice has changed in many respects that apply to intermarriage situations, but “the people” aren’t always up to speed on the changes. For example:
    Continue reading

    Cassandra vs. Nero?


    Jewcy is making a quite a name for itself with its readiness to wrestle sacred cows. It helps when the staff is made up of some of the most talented, eloquent, innovative young Jews around.

    This week, Senior Editor Joey Kurtzman goes toe to toe with Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school. Wertheimer has written extensively about the unwelcome demise of ethnocentric Judaism, a Judaism that is focused on Israel, internal socialization and helping other Jews, while Kurtzman, the product of intermarriage, is a proud defender of a catholic perspective that sees the suffering of Africans in Darfur as no less a tragedy than the suffering of Jews. And the notion of socializing with, or dating, only Jews? Both impractical and nearly “laughable,” he says.

    Kurtzman launches the opening salvo by arguing that “American life has annihilated Jewish peoplehood.”:

    Modern American life is the most corrosive acid ever to hit the ghetto walls. Young American Jews are whoring after Moab so fervently that the boundaries between Israel and Moab are being washed away. We‘re not merely influenced by the non-Jewish world—we‘re inseparable from it. Judaism and Jewishness have never had so limited a claim on the identity of young Jews.

    Continue reading

    Officiation as a Litmus Test?


    The question of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages threatens a schism in the Reform movement, writes Steve Lipman’s in today’s The (New York) Jewish Week:

    A decade after the movement’s rabbinical arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, examined the effects of intermarriage and outreach within its ranks, the largest Jewish denomination in the United States is again dealing with a question that may determine its immediate future: Is the marriage ceremony threatening to cause a divorce in Reform Judaism?

    I wouldn’t quite go that far, but Lipman does focus on a growing phenomenon: friction between rabbis who won’t officiate at intermarriages and members of their synagogue who want them to officiate. According to the story, officiation has become a litmus test for hiring in many congregations, especially congregations in small Jewish communities. “Officiating has become a sine qua non for rabbinic placement,” says Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, who is leaving The Temple in Atlanta partly due to his refusal to perform intermarriages and the tension that causes.

    This kind of controversy shows the importance and relevance of our recent hiring of Rabbi Lev Baesh to run our Rabbinic Circle. Rabbis grappling over the issue need a safe space to talk about the issue. Those who do officiate need templates for ways to articulate their decision to their congregations, and those who don’t need ideas for how to welcome and engage interfaith couples. And those on the fence need intelligent, reasoned arguments for and against.

    The fact that there is a gap between the desires of the lay membership and the consciences of their rabbis further demonstrates the need for the service Rabbi Baesh will be providing. People who are Jewishly engaged, as demonstrated by their membership in Reform synagogues, want authentic, credible rabbis to officiate at their interfaith weddings and don’t want to wade through the hazardous seas of the web, where it is difficult to determine who’s “legit” and who’s not.

    We’ve Hired a Rabbi

    Rabbi Lev Baesh

    The story broke today. We have hired our first rabbi. Rabbi Lev Baesh, who led a congregation in Dover, N.H., for 12 years and has taught classes for the Reform movement’s Northeast region, will start July 9 as director of our Rabbinic Circle.

    His role will have two goals:

    1. To help couples find rabbis to officiate at their interfaith weddings and help them connect with synagogues in their local communities. This will entail responding to requests, developing our referral list, establishing standards for the inclusion of rabbis on the list and following up with couples.
    2. To provide a safe space for rabbis to discuss and consider the question of officiation, without pressuring them to officiate. The enhanced Rabbinic Circle section of our site will include arguments for and against officiation, sermons from rabbis who have decided to officiate and other resources for rabbis interested in the question.

    We are well aware that rabbinic officiation is one of the most controversial issues among rabbis today–even the Reform movement’s rabbis are divided on the issue. We’re not looking to tell rabbis to officiate, but we are looking to provide greater reliability, efficiency and integrity to the process of looking for a rabbi to officiate.

    Let My People Convert!


    Russian Jewish immigrants to Israel face an absurd situation. In Russia, their identity cards marked them as Jewish, and they experienced anti-Semitism in their professional and personal lives. They were reminded of their Jewishness on a regular basis, whether they liked it or not.

    But once they get to Israel, if they can’t confirm that their mother was Jewish, they are viewed as non-Jews–and must face a laborious conversion process to be considered as Jews. The conversion process is controlled by the Orthodox religious monopoly, which demands these “non-Jews” adopt a traditional Orthodox lifestyle. Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist conversions are not officially recognized. The rationale for such a restrictive, demanding system is that “Non-religious converts, even if their conversions were performed by Jewish organizations, will not adapt, will not become acclimatized, and will lead to a future trail of separations and tragedies,” says Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, a rabbi for the conversion courts. But Rosen, like most arbiters of Jewishness in Israel, ignores the fact that half of Israelis consider themselves secular, and even the majority of those who consider themselves “traditional” are flexible about the rules of Shabbat.
    Continue reading

    Anti-Semites Who Loved the Jew, But Hated the Race


    Mandy Katz of Moment magazine has written a fascinating, occasionally repulsive, story about anti-Semites who fell in love with Jews.

    The big names are Hitler and Mussolini, although Hitler gets off on a technicality. The flirtatious girl he fantasized about marrying, as well as killing, was not Jewish, as he thought. Mussolini, however, was a notorious philanderer, and one of his most passionate conquests was Margherita Sarfatti, a wealthy Jew who wrote for the Socialist party paper Mussolini edited in 1911. She was part of his inner circle for nearly two decades, ghostwriting articles for him, helping him write his political diary, until the early 1930s, when Mussolini wanted to project the image of a decisive strongman.

    The Jew-loving Nazi stories get even more bizarre, with Leni Riefenstahl (the filmmaker behind the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will) being romanced by an Austrian Jewish currency trader, and an Aryan Nazi officer marrying and sheltering a Jewish former law student who escaped from a slave labor camp. Their child was the only Jew known to have been born in a German hospital during the war.

    The article delves into the Jewish (or at least Hebraic) loves of the Roman emporer Nero, the mentally unbalanced horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and even Wilhelm Marr, the creator of the term “anti-Semitism.”

    The tales aren’t pretty, but they illustrate how prejudice against groups always breaks down when confronted with the messy reality of interpersonal relationships.

    Half-Jewish SF Seeks Ortho Jewish SM


    A. Pinsker of the New York Press has written a moving, funny story about her relationship with a self-described “post-modern Orthodox Jew” and the way his spirituality ignited her–and his dogma made him reject her.

    Pinsker’s father is Jewish and her mother is not, but both share a distrust of religion. She’d never dated Jewish before–“it’d just be too close to home,” she says–instead opting for a rainbow of races, religions and nationalities. Meanwhile, she says, “my mother married my New York Jewish dad most likely to spite her very old-school, anti-Semitic parents.”

    Despite of–or perhaps because of–the lack of religion in her home, she says, “secretly, there was nothing I liked more than celebrating the Sabbath at my Orthodox neighbor’s home.”

    Dating this hip-hop-loving guy who lived in rabbinical students’ quarters helped re-awaken that fondness for Orthodox practice, but eventually she runs into the brick wall facing all Jews with non-Jewish mothers: the traditional community’s denial of their Jewishness.

    I’d say more, but it’s worth reading. The title alone should be enough to grab you: “A semi-shiksa lusts for her ultimate fetish: A cute Jew-boy.”

    Intermarriage in Less Religious Countries


    It’s widely known that the United States is the most religious of the major industrialized countries. Weekly church attendance may be as high as 40% and the great majority of people believe in God. Even the most liberal of politicians feel obligated to affirm their faith on the campaign trail.

    I’m not quite sure what the connection between intermarriage and our high level of religiosity is, but it’s interesting to notice the contrasts between the U.S. and other industrialized countries. Great Britain and Canada have significantly lower levels of church attendance and yet in both, the Jewish community is much more cohesive and insular–leading to much lower rates of intermarriage than in the U.S.

    Diane Flacks, author of Bear With Me, writes in the (Toronto) Globe and Mail about raising children in her intermarriage. She’s Jewish, her partner is not. “Is there a more polarizing issue than the place of religion in parenting?” she asks. I would bet no American writer would ask that question. In the U.S., it’s a given that religion will take a significant role in parenting.
    Continue reading

    Thank God for Non-Jewish Moms


    Recent research has shown that children are more frequently raised in the mother’s religion than the father’s religion, so when a non-Jewish mom raises a Jewish child, their family is bucking the odds. What’s more, these women are often the ones driving their children to Hebrew school, reading their children Jewish children’s books and buying their children dreidels. What a noble sacrifice they make to their husband’s religion.

    A beautiful example of such a mom is Amy Cummingham of New York, who writes about preparing for her son’s bar mitzvah in The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg, S.C. Cunningham is a committed Christian who attends church on a weekly basis, but agreed to raise her children Jewish because she “felt that the world could not, should not, lose any more of its radiant Jewish people.” She did indeed drive her children to Hebrew school twice a week and even went so far as to work events at the synagogue. She has some goals for the bar mitzvah ceremony:
    Continue reading