and Werewolf Bar Mitzvah


On the main site, we are running two opinion pieces, one in favor and one opposed to doing Halloween as a Jew.

I admit it. I’ve never been that interested in Halloween. I went through a phase of feeling guilty that Halloween was a watered-down version of this major Celtic pagan holiday Samhain. Then several pagan and Wiccan friends of mine told me that I shouldn’t feel guilty. Well, all right. I can go feel guilty about something else, and go trick-or-treating with my kid if he wants. He wants.

jukeboxMy son thinks Halloween is the bomb. He went through a totally different sort of phase of wanting to borrow books about Halloween out of the library. He’s not a big candy eater, but he does like to get candy to give away to others and to eat in small amounts over such a long period that we throw out the last of it at Passover. He also likes the whole costume-magical-cutting up pumpkins element of things, because it indulges his mistaken notion that I am crafty. He told us last night that he wants to be a jukebox for Halloween, but luckily he’s figured out how to make the costume himself without me buying a sewing machine. (“Like Anna’s mom.”)

In the meantime, some wonderful person left a bowl of these amazing chocolate covered stuffed dates in the kitchen of the offices we share with many other Jewish organizations. So I had the insight that, because the dates are from Saudi Arabia, we could be Ha ha, thank you, thank you, I’m here all week folks.

I’ll just embed my Jewish-themed Halloween video now, shall I? It’s below the cut. Continue reading

Talking Torah on the Internet


There are a lot of nifty ways to study Torah on the internet. It’s a great way to get an introduction to Judaism–you can get weekly commentaries from a Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist or Jewish Renewal perspective. But this new one has me smiling.

Banjo sculptureMy old friend Michael Carasik, who is involved in the amazingly cool project of translating the major compendium of Torah commentaries for the Jewish Publication Society, has a podcast! It’s called, not very originally, Torah Talk. He’s a major scholar these days, and I knew him when. We used to ride the commuter train to Brandeis together, and unfortunately I associate his voice with joking, so listening to these commentaries is cracking me up. These weekly Torah commentaries aren’t silly but they are light and I think accessible to anyone. Let me know if you think so, too.

I thought it was pretty neat when Michael and his wife Yaffa sent us a New Year’s card and mentioned that the new volume of The Commentator’s Bible. I mean, I get advance notice of a lot of new publications because I surf the web, but there is something special about getting advance notice of a major publication in handwriting. But the podcast–that brings us up to the 21st century!

Boy Wonder


When I had my bar mitzvah 18 years ago, it was truly all about the party. Back then, at least at my synagogue and in my community, there was no required community service project, kids didn’t lead the service and the theme of the party was more relevant than the theme of your haftarah portion.

Back then, I certainly didn’t know anyone like Thomas Karatzas.

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I miss my grandmother lately, and apparently I’m not the only one. Perhaps it is the season of the year, one in which Jews commemorate dead relatives and friends at memorial (Yizkor) services on Yom Kippur and on Shemini Atzeret at the end of Sukkot. Perhaps it is because of the economic downturn–we wish we could have a voice of wisdom.

dolphinsOne of my favorite bloggers, Vegan Lunchbox posted a link to this 92-year-old grandmother, Clara, who is showing people how to do Depression Cooking on Youtube. Check her out.

Clara might be competition for my favorite youtube grandma on Feed Me Bubbe. The 89-year-old Bubbe is nothing like my grandmother. For one thing, my grandmother did not grow up speaking Yiddish, and I called her Grandma. My son really loves this bubbe though. I like the way she sells the food to you while she cooks it.

My colleague circulated a link to the blog Margaret and Helen. I don’t know. This doesn’t sound a lot like any of the grandmothers I know. She’s very political and her language is kind of salty. Whether Helen Philpot is for real or not, she fills a need. We want to hear from grandmothers.

I always thought that being into our grandparents was a Jewish cultural value. After all, we have the expression, “and you will see your children’s children and peace will be on Israel.” If so, then probably everyone is Jewish. Elephants are Jewish, because they have grandmothers, and dolphins are Jewish, and a whole lot more people are Jewish than we thought.  Well, if loving your grandma makes you Jewish, I mean. You might as well say that it’s uniquely Jewish to like chocolate, or hugging. Or blintzes. Bubbe will show you how to make them from scratch below the cut. Continue reading

Why Bill Maher’s Wrong


Love him or loathe him, there’s one thing we can all agree on about Bill Maher: he’s a jerk.

In Religulous, his documentary-cum-diatribe on the horrors of religion, his approach to his interview subjects is at best mocking, at worst contemptuous. He variously interrupts, laughs at, winces at and provokes his subjects. He edits the interviews to highlight their ignorance and intercuts their answers with clips from old movies that are more amusing than insightful. This approach would be brave if he were interviewing, say, the Pope or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but it’s just mean-spirited when he’s talking with the guy who plays Jesus at a Christian amusement park or the pastor at a truckstop church. Only a handful of his subjects–such as Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Rabbi Dovid Weiss of the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta International–merit such ruthless mockery.

But misguided aesthetics aside, is Maher’s message worth heeding? Um, no.

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Post Yom Kippur


I don’t know why, but this Yom Kippur was really good for me, like the exhilarating ones I use to have when I was in my 20s. Maybe working here at IFF has made a dent in my spiritual ennui? I was swept up in the traditional prayers, and yet it all–fasting, praying, thinking about sin–felt a lot easier to do than usual. I looked with fresh eyes at the fact that we confess our sins in alphabetical order, thinking both about all the families at IFF who were doing it forblack-eyed peas the first time and about my kindergartener, who loves coming up with lists of words in alphabetical order. (He was in childcare while I was reciting the confessions, but I still thought about his alphabet love and it made me feel like we were part of a a great tradition together.)

I have a few post-Yom Kippur links to share–two serious and one very silly–and then it’s on to the next big serious Jewish holiday of the fall season, Sukkot!

I received a book in the mail this morning, I Live Here. The book is actually a four volume graphic novel documenting with art and words the experiences of individuals living through major world crises. Actress Mia Kirschner, a child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, led the large team that put together the project. The website is full-bore multimedia with a lot of video, and you can see pages from the book there if your computer system is up to it.

I also wanted to link people to another online resource, This is a site that makes available interviews with Holocaust survivors from Central Europe. It’s got a tool for high school students to share their history projects with each other, and lots of ways to search.

Our regular columnist Nate Bloom made sure we saw this video, all about the practice in the Jewish community of selling tickets for High Holiday services. My Havurah doesn’t sell tickets, but I still found this funny. Thanks, Nate! Video is below the cut. Continue reading

Hope, Not Fear


book coverI started as an independent non-profit in January 2002. There was a time three or four years into it that I gave serious thought to closing down. I started to write an essay that I thought I would submit to Moment magazine complaining bitterly about the lack of funding support for outreach to interfaith families.

Yes, we did have pioneering support, without which we couldn’t have gotten started, from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. But we were plateaued at a low level, and our existing funders were looking for others to join them.

There was a change in the funding climate that began in 2006. Important funders finally realized that attracting more interfaith families to Jewish life was essential to the growth and strength of the Jewish community. After fluctuating below $375,000 for four years, we raised $535,000 in 2006 and $875,000 in 2007, enabling us to take on important new projects with new staff and start a transition from a start up to a more mature organization.

Edgar M. Bronfman was a key catalyst in this change. His Samuel Bronfman Foundation was our first major new funder in 2006 and since then has been among our most generous funders.

We now have some insight as to why Mr. Bronfman supports our organization, as well as our friends at the Jewish Outreach Institute. With Beth Zasloff, he has written an important new book: Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance Here are some of the key things he has to say about intermarriage:

If we speak about intermarriage as a disaster for the Jewish people, we send a message to intermarried families that is mixed at best. How can you welcome people in while at the same time telling them that their loving relationship is in part responsible for the destruction of the Jewish people? No one should be made to feel our welcome is conditional or begrudging. The many non-Jews who marry Jews must not be regarded as a threat to Jewish survival but as honored guests in a house of joy, learning and pride.

The oft-cited figure that among intermarried families only 33 percent of children are raised Jewish does not take into account the possibility that if the Jewish community were more welcoming, those numbers could grow dramatically.

Our concern as a community now should be to welcome people into our community, not to build boundaries around it. Conversion should be a choice people make from their hearts and when they are ready, not a condition by which they and their children are accepted into the Jewish community. There are many non-Jews who may not be ready to formally convert – particularly if their parents are living – but may be willing to raise their children as Jews. From my son Adam I learned how insulting it is if your children, who have a non-Jewish mother, are considered not Jews by other Jews, despite the fact that they grew up in a Jewish….”

If more funders and policy makers in the Jewish community adopted Mr. Bronfman’s attitude towards intermarriage, we would see a much greater communal effort to attract interfaith families to Jewish life. We can only hope that that will be the case.

You can find an interesting interview of Mr. Bronfman’s co-author, Beth Zasloff, on Daniel Septimus’ blog at You can also listen to an NPR On Point show that focused on the book with a discussion with Mr. Bronfman and Sylvia Barack Fishman.

Upcoming and Good


I hope all our readers had a good and meaningful Rosh Hashanah. I have some good and meaningful links for you.

Lilith magazine sent us a preview of some articles that they are going to run in their next print issue called Switchbacks on the Road to Judaism. The three writers of the articles in the .pdf file are sensitive in their treatment of gender issues and interfaith families.

Another good and serious thing (appropriate for the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is Jewish Social Action Month. This year it will begin on October 30, in order to overlap with the month of Heshvan on the Hebrew calendar. It’s a great chance to take advantage of the end of the Jewish holiday season and reinfuse your Judaism with social meaning.