Recognizing that going to synagogue for the first time can be a challenge, we offer you our booklet, What To Expect At A Synagogue. In it, you will find an overview of what Shabbat is, and how it is celebrated in synagogues. Language is explained, the prayer services are broken down, and many common questions are answered.
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I fasted yesterday for Tisha B’Av. It’s often hard for me to do that, because as a Jewish historian, I wonder whether we would have evolved this amazing religion and culture if the Romans had not destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., so how sad can I be? On the other hand, the fast day is also to commemorate the sinat hinam, the causeless hatred, that the rabbis believed enabled the Romans to quell the Jewish rebellion and burn Jerusalem. In my job, I monitor Jewish news, and believe me, there are more than enough stories of causeless hatred in the Jewish community to motivate a person to fast.
I’m not even sure how many of them to bring up here. After all, this is a site where we work hard to encourage interfaith families to affiliate with the Jewish community. But if we respond to these divisions, we can find the seeds of comfort, which we are meant to find this week on Shabbat Nachamu.
Aliza Hausman wrote a response to racism against Jews of color inside the Jewish community, in “A Lesson for Jews in Gates’ Arrest?”. It’s really time for Jews to end this particular variety of causeless hatred.
“How can a people that has experienced the Holocaust be so racist?” a young black prospective convert asked me, wringing his hands in total heartbreak. And on a regular basis, a white Jewish friend tells me “You’re too sensitive about race” and “I’m not racist, but…” So I have created a network of Jews of color, of white allies. With them, I know I can safely discuss the latest racist Jewish encounter that has left me raw, exposed, dying from the inside out.
There is hope for the Jewish community to be more inclusive to everyone: to interfaith families, GLBT Jews, Jews of color, people with disabilities. But it’s not something someone else is going to do for us. Do you ever say “I’m not racist, but…”? It’s time to take stock.
Right now the Jewish community is riven over how to react to crimes committed by Orthodox Jews. These crimes, if the accusations are proven, constitute a major sin in Judaism–a desecration of God’s name. As an Orthodox rabbi, Moshe Rosenberg, wrote in A Light Unto the Nations Or a Cautionary Tale? yesterday in the Forward,
Are we worse than other ethnic groups when it comes to white-collar crime? No, but we are obligated to be much better — the commandment “You shall love the Lord, your God” is explained by the Talmud to mean, “The name of heaven must be made beloved through you.”
It’s really easy for Ashkenazi Jews to point fingers at Syrian Jews or for Reform and Conservative Jews to mock the hypocrisy of supposedly ultra-Orthodox Jews. Yet we are one people and we have responsibility for each other. Certainly when Bernard Madoff ripped off Jewish charitable foundations, he hit all kinds of Jews. We were all angry that someone ripped off the tzedakah box and we were all worried that all Jews would be targets because of damage to our reputation. This is the same thing.
This is the period in the Jewish calendar when we move from mourning our historical tragedies to hope for the future, and an intention to reform ourselves personally. That’s the other plus of reading a lot of difficult stuff. It gives me a personal direction.
It’s difficult to explain Tisha B’Av, a fast day that starts this evening and goes until tomorrow evening. In our Jewish Holidays Cheat Sheet, I described it,
This fast day commemorates the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. In the medieval period, Jews began attaching other calamities to the day, including the expulsion from Spain in 1492, making it an all-purpose day of mourning.
I think it’s hard for people in our generation to appreciate the level of trauma that the Jewish people experienced when the Romans destroyed the holy Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. I’ve been able to enhance my historical understanding as I read Yonah Lavery’s Talmud Comics. Even texts I’ve actually read before come alive because of the art work. Lavery does a great job presenting berachot%2056b.jpg">the psychological impact of the loss of the Temple, and helped me to see, through her art, how this sense of loss was made real through study to Jews throughout our history.
In the 20th century, Tisha B’Av lost a lot of its punch. First, because of the Holocaust, and second, because of the creation of the State of Israel. When Israel was created, the majority of the Jewish people there and in the diaspora chose to commemorate the destruction of European Jewish communities with Yom Ha-Shoah, rather than following the older tradition of tacking all catastrophes onto the destruction of the Temple. After Israel retook Jerusalem in 1967, my husband’s grandfather, an Orthodox Jew, began to follow a minhag (custom) of fasting for half the day. After all, Jews had access to the Holy of Holies. A recent op-ed piece in Haaretz makes a persuasive case for the half-day fast–though not on Jewish textual grounds.
In my Reform congregation growing up, we didn’t mark the 9 of Av. I learned about it in the wider Jewish community–at JCC overnight camp, and elsewhere. It’s always felt awkward to me. Mark Washofsky, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Cinncinati, a Reform rabbinical seminary, wrote “Why We Mourn on the Ninth of Av” for the Forward. He says,
We have learned to read the traditional liturgy of Tisha B’Av — the biblical book of Eicha (Lamentations), the day’s Torah readings, the kinot (dirges) — not as an effort to explain or to justify the destruction but as a call to respond to it by redoubling our commitment to search our souls, to purify our conduct and to renew our shaken-but-not-shattered faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. This way of response permits us to acknowledge tragedy in all its darkness, but it forbids us to yield to a sense of helplessness and despair.
I met Wyman Brent on Twitter–he’s a librarian, which already biased me in his favor. Today he posted to tell his Twitter followers, “Tomorrow at 12 I sign agreement for Vilnius Jewish Library. 1st real Jewish library in Lithuania since war.” In an article in the Baltic Times, “Making the Vilnius Jewish Library a Reality,” he explained,
“It’s kind of strange because I’m not Jewish and I’m not of Lithuanian descent,” said Brent.
As Brent describes it, it’s not so much a project as a labor of love.
“I’ve always loved libraries, I’ve been volunteering in them for years. I love reading, that’s something my parents gave me, and I’m fascinated with Jewish culture. I fell in love with Lithuania when I went there the first time in 1994. So it was kind of like, I love libraries, I love Jewish culture and I love Lithuania, so let me put this all together into this Jewish library,” explained Brent.
There is still a small Jewish community in Vilnius, once called the Jerusalem of Lithuania. (In Yiddish, it’s called Vilna.) This is very interesting to me as a person working for an organization that serves interfaith Jewish families, since most of the small remnant of the formerly vibrant and large communities in Eastern Europe are in such families. And also — it’s Vilna, where Hirsch Glik wrote the stirring song of resistance with the chorus, “Mir zaynen doh” — we are here.
Another web resource about small Jewish communities is the Small Synagogues website, http://www.smallsynagogues.com/. It contains the sweet stories of synagogues in small towns like Abilene, Texas and Sheboygan, Wisc. I really liked the warm tone of Sherry Levine Zander’s articles. That, too, has overlap with the lives of a lot of children of interfaith families who grew up as the only Jews in small towns.
Last week, a British Court of Appeals ruled that an individual’s Jewish beliefs, not birth or conversion, determines Jewishness, and that to deny a child admission to a Jewish school due to the circumstances of his birth is racism. This was in response to a British court case in which the parent of a child was denied admission to JFS (formerly known as the Jews Free School), a publicly-funded Jewish school, because his mother’s conversion to Judaism was through an independent progressive synagogue that the Orthodox United Synagogue didn’t recognize. This is the second time that the case has been heard. JFS has said that it will appeal the case to the House of Lords, which functions like the US Supreme Court in being Britain’s court of last appeal.
If the appeals court decision stands, the 97 Jewish schools in Britain, all of which are Orthodox, will have to create new criteria to determine who is eligible for admission into Jewish day schools. A spokesperson from the British Board of Deputies (the equivalent of the United Jewish Communities in the US) told Haaretz that Jewish schools could be compelled to use “faith tests” similar to those done by publically-funded church schools in Britain. These faith tests could include home visits and attendance checks at the local synagogue. I can envision it now, desecrate the Sabbath, get kicked out of school!
“Did you know that Harry Potter is Jewish and is from an interfaith family?” my coworker asked. I corrected her, “No, Harry isn’t Jewish, Daniel Radcliffe is Jewish. We ran a celebrity column about that three years ago.” I admit, I knew that anyway. I love Dan Radcliffe–every interview he does charms me with his upbeat, bouncy personality. I haven’t read his poetry, though, and I might not. He’s 19 years old; it would have been nice to let the poetry stay pseudonymous, don’t you think? I wouldn’t want people to read my poetry from when I was 19.
But really, Harry Potter is Jewish — sort of. the entire Harry Potter series could be read as an allegory about how a small minority population that fears persecution deals with intermarriage with a majority population that isn’t entirely aware of it. I am well aware that I am not the first person to make this connection, but it’s even more interesting to me now that I work at InterfaithFamily.com. (If you somehow haven’t read the Harry Potter books–is that possible?–I’m going to spoil the ending of the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince movie below the cut.)
In the Harry Potter universe, wizards have undisputed magical powers, whether they come from “pureblood” families, mixed families or entirely non-magical families. There is no “who is a wizard” question–if you can do magic, you’re magical. Jewishness is far less easy to define. (If only Jews could fly.) Nevertheless, wizards and witches from pureblood families who fear the non-magical, Muggle majority, are the bad guys in Harry Potter.
Harry Potter’s parents were both magical, though he was raised by his non-magical aunt and uncle. He finds out when he enters the wizarding world at age 11 that his mother had a lower status to some wizards because she was a witch-by-choice. (OK, you know that I mean because she was a witch with non-magical parents.) Harry’s best friend Hermione is the target of an anti-muggleborn slur, and Harry finds out that pureblood mania is a big part of why some wizards supported the evil wizard who killed his parents. The Wizarding world has good reason to fear both the encroachment of Muggle ways into their subculture, and to worry about actual persecution.
We don’t learn until the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince that Severus Snape, the sarcastic teacher who heads Slytherin House, is the son of a magical mother and a non-magical father. If you know the books, you know what a problem this was for Snape–there are hints that his father had anti-magical bias.
Does that make Snape halachically a wizard? How about according to Reform Wizardry?
Should we be contacting Albus Dumbledore to see if he wants to list Hogwarts as a welcoming organization?
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn, Queens) is engaged to marry Huma Abedin, a member of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s staff at the State Department, the New York Daily News reported Sunday. Weiner is a strong supporter of Israel in Congress, leaning to the right on many issues, as the English-language Israeli news website Arutz Sheva reported. Continue reading →
It feels like an inexplicable coincidence. On July 8 I wrote an appreciation of Gary Tobin, a leading Jewish thinker and supporter of outreach to interfaith families who just passed away. I remembered his support for us and our tactical disagreement about how much to promote conversion to non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages. On the same day, the New York Jewish Week wrote about a major shift in the Conservative Movement about … how much to promote conversion as part of interfaith outreach. Continue reading →
I was very sad to learn that Gary Tobin died on Monday. He was a brilliant and provocative thinker, and a passionate advocate for opening Jewish communities to include interfaith families and Jews of color.When I stopped being a lawyer and started working in the Jewish non-profit world in 1999, the first gathering I ever attended was an event around the publication of Tobin’s Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community. I still have that book on my shelf, with many post-it notes interspersed among its pages. Continue reading →
Do you remember Steve Urkel, the nerd character on Family Matters in the 1990s? I always liked Jaleel White, the actor who played Urkel. I like him even more in his new role in the web TV series Road to the Altar. White plays the very attractive Simon Fox, who is engaged to Rachelle Shapiro (Leyna Juliet Weber), a Jewish girl from Brooklyn. To complicate things further, though Rachelle is not Orthodox, her family is. Yes, they are portraying an interfaith couple planning a wedding! If they were a real couple, I would refer them to the weddings page.
Even in the teasers and excerpts posted to Youtube.com, there’s been attention to issues of cultural difference. For example, in this scene, Simon has to figure out how to respond to Rachelle’s Orthodox cousin’s modesty when they’re shopping for bridesmaids’ dresses:
This web series looks entertaining. Perhaps Rachelle’s character is a little stereotypical–in the clips online now she’s a bit of a princess–but perhaps she’s more fleshed out in the full episodes. I hope so. Certainly her over-the-top persona contrasts well with Simon’s straight-laced rational character, who reminded me of Ross Geller, the nerdy Jewish paleontologist from Friends.
The show is filmed to look like a reality series. It’s a great gimmick for showing the emotional road to a wedding and the issues involved with an interfaith wedding. I look forward to seeing this show unfold. I’m already curious about how their ceremony and party turn out!
Check it out and let me know what you think.
Al Franken and his wife of 32 years, Franni Bryson.
Eight months after the election, Al Franken (D, Jewish) was declared the winner of Minnesota’s 2008 Senate election over incumbent Norm Coleman (R, Jewish). That makes Franken the 13th sitting Jewish U.S. senator. Like Coleman, Franken is intermarried.
JJ: I read that your wife is Catholic, and save for a seder once a year your life is low on Jewish practices. Yet, Jewish references and Jewish experiences appear repeatedly in your book [Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them, A Fair and Balanced Look at The Right, Dutton, 2003]. Can you tell me a little bit about your Jewish life today? How much does Judaism figure into your daily experience?
AF: My wife is a fallen Roman Catholic…. We don’t belong to a shul, and my kids have really been raised with no formal religious education, but they definitely consider themselves culturally Jewish. Partly it is growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was quite the opposite of my experience.
My wife—every year we have a Chanukah dinner and she makes the best latkes and … the best brisket on the Upper West Side.
But my kids definitely consider themselves Jewish, have very Jewish senses of humor and went to a high school that was two-thirds Jewish.
And the most important aspect of this—we did go to a Reform temple when I was a kid, and my parents were not particularly devout, but we were taught that there was a certain ethical base to our religion that was the essence of our Judaism, and I think my kids have grown up with that.
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