IFF Wins a Rockower Award

InterfaithFamily.com is a member of the American Jewish Press Association, which sponsors an annual conference and a journalistic competition, the Simon Rockower awards, every year. The staff at the AJPA let us know we would be receiving a Rockower Award months before I went to the AJPA conference in Chicago last week, but we didn’t know which item we’d submitted for consideration had won. Was it one of the two personal essays, Letting Go: A Lesbian Mom Brings Her Son to the Mikveh by Johanna Hammer or Back Talk by Alina Adams, or was it the website as a whole? No one on our team at IFF could decide. At first the Hammer piece was a heavy favorite, but when I asked the staff to bet on the day I left for the conference, we were evenly divided.

Everyone at IFF was very pleased to win the first place award for the best website. Here’s what they said about us:

A fabulous resource site that answers the easy and tough questions surrounding an interfaith family life. The site is easy to use, accessibly written, and discreet when necessary. This site makes a valuable contribution to the Jewish community using technology.

We competed with other website-only publications; it was the second year the prize was awarded. Continue reading

Michael Jackson and His Interfaith Kids

I have been trying to tune out all of the sad news about Michael Jackson passing away. This must be very hard on Michael Jackson’s three children whom he was raising. The two older children’s mother is Jackson’s ex-wife Debbie Rowe, who is Jewish. When the couple divorced in 1999, she signed over her parental rights to Jackson but later took him to court to contest the contract and win the right to become more involved in their lives. In 2006, the year after Jackson was acquitted of child molestation, Rowe won her case against Jackson in an appeals court, but later they settled out of court to leave the children in his custody.

The Los Angeles Jewish Journal reported that Ms. Rowe was upset that her children were being exposed to the Nation of Islam through their nanny and Rowe wanted them to exposed to her religion as well. According to the JTA, there are conflicting reports about whether Ms. Rowe will seek custody.

Jackson was a Jehovah’s Witness, as are his parents. He has one brother who converted to Islam. Jackson and his children spent a year in Bahrain in 2005 after his trial for child molestation, during which time he was seen in public in an abaya, a woman’s head covering, in order to maintain anonymity.

To complicate the story further, Jackson was also at one time a close friend and protégé of Rabbi Shmuely Boteach. At the time of Jackson’s death, he had not spoken with Boteach for five years. Boteach has expressed his sorrow for Jackson and his children.

I hope all of Michael Jackson’s children are able to make peace with their father’s death and remember him lovingly. I also wish Jackson’s two older children, son Prince Michael I, 12, and daughter Paris Michael Katherine, 11 are also given the opportunity to explore their Jewish heritage.

Resisting Anti-Semitism

Several people sent me links to blog about this New York Times article about how the state of Missouri wants to deal with a neo-Nazi group. They’ve decided that if the neo-Nazis want to perform community service by adopting a stretch of highway, they have to live with that for legal reasons, but they don’t have to like it. The state is considering renaming the highway after rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. In addition to having escaped the Nazis, Heschel developed a strong Jewish theological reasoning to support the movement for African-American civil rights in the 1960s.What I noticed in this article was that one of the neo-Nazis complained to the reporter that the state’s move to rename the highway was “childish.” I don’t know, folks. To me there is something desperately ridiculous about a neo-Nazi thinking anyone is going to care that she finds them childish. Continue reading

The Jews of Iquitos

We have a constant editorial dilemma chosing articles for InterfaithFamily.com. Converts to Judaism are part of our natural constituency–conversion creates an instant interfaith family, after all–and yet if we feature too many articles by or about conversion, we could make people in interfaith marriages feel pressured to convert. We want to be welcoming to people who choose Judaism, but at the same time we don’t want to proselytize. There are both important cultural and religious reasons for this. Religiously, many believe that proselytizing can invalidate a conversion. Culturally, Jews have a memory of being pressured or coerced to convert to other religions, and so don’t think Jews should do anything remotely like that. In this we’re in pretty much the same boat as the rest of the Jewish community–always struggling to be welcoming without exerting any pressure.

Many people who choose conversion to Judaism do so because they come from families with a Jewish grandparent or earlier ancestor. A recent article about a small Jewish community in Peru captures some of the issues facing both individuals and communities who become cut off from the rest of the Jewish people. The small community in Iquitos, Peru thought of themselves as Jews even when the Ashkenazi Jewish community in Peru wouldn’t recognize them. Descended from 19th century Sephardi merchants, the families had intermarried with local people and they look like them. At the same time, they retained some Jewish practices, beliefs and identity. This has to sound familiar to a lot of my regular readers! Continue reading

The Next Big Half-Jewish Hip Hop Star?

Aubrey Graham, AKA “Drake,” a former star of Degrassi: The Next Generation, is apparently about to be bigger than the Beatles, Elvis and Michael Jackson combined, if you are to believe this hyperbolic story in the Toronto Star. He hasn’t released an album yet, but Kanye West has directed his video, he’s touring with Lil Wayne this summer and he’s going to appear on a new single from Jay-Z.

We reprinted a profile of Graham a few years ago. His father, an African-American, is a musician, and his Jewish mother is an educator. While marketers are now calling him “the Derek Jeter of rap,” he didn’t date while attending a tony Toronto high school:

“It was very awkward,” he said. “I never had a girlfriend. Not one of those girls would bring me home. It would be too risky.”

In this blog post from Cosmogirl!, Graham writes about how he received a home gym for Hanukkah from his mother and grandmother because “my grandmother says I am too skinny to be a rapper.” The post also implies that Graham identifies as Jewish himself.

Will Graham–ahem, Drake–join the Beastie Boys in the tiny fraternity of nice Jewish boys who’ve become stars in hip hop? We’ll find out when his first official album debuts later this year.

In My Own Name

Yesterday a white supremacist walked into the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and shot a security guard, who died of his wounds. This past month, the FBI arrested men who were plotting to blow up synagogues in the Bronx in New York. It feels like a scary time to announce to the world that we are Jewish. Indeed, the department of Homeland Security had issued a report in April warning of possible anti-Semitic attacks by right-wing extremists.

I was sitting in my office all day yesterday watching the reports of the shooting as more information was available. I was feeling wound up. Why does my kid have to grow up in this environment? I want Jewishness to be all chocolate babka and inside jokes, not scary racists with guns. I also felt guilty that I couldn’t drop what I was doing and go down to the Boston Holocaust Memorial for the annual GLBT Pride Memorial Vigil. I want to stand up for something, if only to give someone the finger. (Though that’s not usually the source of my Jewish identity or practice, I admit that I do feel that way sometimes.) Continue reading

Life Lessons From New Israeli Cemetery

This morning, I read a news story about a new cemetery in Kfar Saba, in Israel. The Jerusalem Post article about the cemetery notes that this cemetery will provide options for interfaith couples who want to be buried together. Civil burials have been legal in Israel since 1996, when the Knesset passed an Alternative Burial Law. Until that time, death, like other lifecycle events, was governed by the religious community of the individual. Israel inherited this system from the British Mandate government, which in turn maintained what was in place under Ottoman rule, so for centuries, interfaith couples in the land of Israel couldn’t be buried near one another.

Until recently, the only burial option for interfaith couples (and presumably for anyone whom the Israeli rabbinate didn’t consider Jewish) was to be buried on one of the kibbutzim that shared non-religious cemetery space. The Kfar Saba plots will cost much less than kibbutz burials. Residents in Kfar Saba will pay what everyone in Israel pays to bury relatives in government cemeteries.

According to the article about the cemetery in Haaretz, The society that maintains the cemetery is called Menucha Nechona or “correct rest,” which is resonant with the words of the Jewish memorial prayer, El Malei Rachamim (God, Full of Mercy). The civil cemetery will allow people to have secular burials with such customs as coffins and music at funerals, though these are not allowed in state Jewish funerals, but I don’t see this as an anti-religious effort. The regular burial society of Kfar Saba cooperated with the new group in dedicating some of the burial ground as a traditional Jewish cemetery, and there will be Orthodox burials there in additional to liberal Jewish burials and secular, non-religious ones. Allowing immigrants from other countries burials in a style that they are used to is secondary to the issue of being able to bury families together.

For interfaith families in Israel, this is a step forward. It also provides a model for Jews in the diaspora. The Jewish community is pluralistic, it contains non-Jewish family members and it has to accommodate difference. Our cemeteries should allow for all of that too.

Statistics on Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage

Why didn’t I take statistics in graduate school? Who knew that instead of teaching history I’d be working for a non-profit where statistics are vitally important and constantly contested. Take the recent flurry of posts from major bloggers about Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage.

The bloggers’ exchange kicked off with a light post by Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Ta-Nehisi Coates suggesting a dating service for matching up African-Americans and Jews. A social scientist who seems to have created his blog for the express purpose of answering the questions that come up in this discussion (no biographical page!) posted to relate relevant data about attitudes of various groups toward interracial marriage according to the General Social Survey. (Here’s the first of the many times reading this that I kicked myself. I have no idea how to evaluate the GSS data, at all.)

Coates responded with a post about how negative Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage with Afrcian-Americans might indicate the end of the Black-Jewish alliance. Then, Ilya Somin, a blogger at the conservative Volokh Conspiracy, weighed in with a post on the role that negative Jewish attitudes toward interfaith marriage might play in attitudes to relatives marrying African-Americans. Somin cracked me up with this:

I suppose I should also mention that I am an ethnic Jew engaged to a gentile, and that I have at various times in the past dated non-Jews who are also non-white. However, my case is just one of many examples of the point I made in the post. Although I am ethnically Jewish, I am not religious, and my engagement will not actually lead to an interfaith marriage because our attitudes towards religion are actually very similar despite the ethnic difference.

Oh yeah, right. People are always telling me that they aren’t really in an interfaith marriage because they aren’t religious, but I generally assume that’s because I’ve buttonholed them in the supermarket and am trying to get them to write for our website. I think the problem is the word “interfaith” which makes it sound like every day of your marriage you sit down in a circle, sing “Kumbaya” and discuss comparative religion. A non-religious ethnic Jew marrying a non-religious gentile still has to make identity decisions when he or she has children. For the Jewish community’s purposes, that’s an interfaith marriage, even if it looks like an inter-no-faith marriage. Continue reading

June is Hope Month

June is LGBT Pride Month in the United States. It couldn’t come at a better time.

Last week on Tuesday we got the bad news that the Supreme Court of California had ruled to uphold the legality of Proposition 8, the statewide referendum against same-sex marriage. I live in Massachusetts, one of the five states that has same-sex marriage, so I have lots of reasons to think it’s a good thing.

The ruling actually had the seeds of hope in it. It said that people who got married between the California Supreme Court court case that declared same-sex marriage legal, and the passage of Prop 8, were still married. Why? Because Prop 8 is a change in the law. Unless someone introduces a specific, discriminatory clause into the constitution, civil marriage is not limited to opposite sex couples. Continue reading