Not the Way to Do It

We’ve been following the case of an Illinois dentist and his wife, Max and Erla Feinberg, who put into his will that his grandchildren would only inherit his money if they married Jews. The grandchildren sued their parents over the will. The Illinois Supreme Court just overturned two lower court decisions, and ruled that it was legal for the will to disinherit four out of five of the grandchildren who had married non-Jews. Tablet blogger Gabriel Sanders pointed out that the Feinberg parents had a huge financial incentive to want their children to marry non-Jews, since they would then receive the inheritance themselves.

I can’t comment on the legalities of this case, or on the paradox of bribing one’s children to ensure that one’s grandchildren marry non-Jews, or Jews, or whichever. I get dizzy thinking about what this case means for religious freedom in US law. I do want to point out what this shows me, as a person working in the Jewish community on the issue of interfaith marriage.

Punishing Jews for marrying non-Jews, either financially, or with community disapproval, or through ostracism, has not worked for our community.  We’ve lost a lot of chances to bring in non-Jewish spouses as allies and friends to Judaism. We’ve lost a lot of wonderful, intelligent, creative Jewish children by pushing away their parents. We’ve broken the hearts of adult children of interfaith families when they came to the Jewish community, investigating their Jewish heritage. We’ve pushed some intermarried Jews out the door who might have come back into our Jewish lives, interfaith families and all. Let’s stop doing it this way. We can do better.

Perfect Book for the Days of Awe

I love how some people want to generously include the whole world in their greetings on Rosh Hashanah. It makes me smile to see people greet each other on person and on the internet.

Now we’re in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur called the Days of Awe. The traditional greeting for this period is “Gamar Hatimah Tovah,” a good completion of being sealed (in the book of life. Of course it’s also more than OK to keep saying “Happy New Year.”)  It’s during this period when people often take the opportunity to repair their relationships with one another.

One book that I’ve been enjoying in the last couple of weeks is Dawn Light by Diane Ackerman. It’s a book of essays about rising early to see the sunrise, and what other things in the natural world Ackerman was able to observe. She is the author of A Natural History of the Senses, a book that made a big impression on me, and the bestselling history book about Poland during the Second World War, The Zookeeper’s Wife. Ackerman writes about getting up early and observing the natural world. She does an excellent job of including Jewish spiritual and cultural practices in world cultural contexts, and the way she, as a seemingly non-religious person, is respectful of religion as a human artifact in general.

I liked the essay in which she repeats all the Hebrew names of Venus, the dawn star.

The book is just right for this time of year. It’s not about God or sin, but it is about wonder and awe, and to some extent about how life is ephemeral. She addresses a friend, a poet who died suddenly:

We all died last night, as we do every night. Waking is always a resurrection after what might have been death. What would dawn have been like, had you awakened? It would have sung through your bones. All I can do this morning is let it sing through mine.

That reminded me of the first prayer in the Jewish liturgy in the morning, “I am grateful to you, Living God, for restoring my soul in Your great faithfulness.” It’s a great book to be reading now, with the themes of this season in mind.

More to Love About Interfaith Dating

This morning our COO Heather Martin came in to work excited about a positive portrayal of an interfaith relationship on More to Love, a reality television show on Fox. The bachelor on the show, Luke, had his choice of several pretty, zaftig women. (Zaftig is a Yiddish word that means “juicy.”) He chose Tali, an Israeli woman.

Jennie Rivlin Roberts, the entrepreneur who runs ModernTribe.com, had a great take on the show on her blog, comparing Tali’s experience to her own with her husband, some negative, some positive:

Our non-Jewish significant other loves us, wants to know us, and deeply respects our Jewishness or we wouldn’t be in this relationship, right? So where does that openness, respect, and curiosity come from? There is usually at least one if not several non-Jewish family members who are open, respectful, curious, if not pleased with our Jewishness. (I am blessed to have many members of my family-in-law who fit this description.) Tali found this person to be Luke’s mom who immediately sensed the connection between Tali and Luke regardless of the religious differences.

It was on my mind to blog about interfaith dating because of Patrick Swayze’s recent death at age 57. Swayze had a charming stage presence with his lovely smile and in no role more so than in his turn in Dirty Dancing in 1987. In that movie he played the dance instructor at a predominantly Jewish resort in the Catskills who falls in love with the younger daughter of an upwardly-mobile Jewish family, played by Jennifer Grey. (Jennifer Grey is the daughter of Joel Grey, who my dad was proud to claim as a fellow Cleveland Jew.) Dirty Dancing was never my favorite movie, though it’s got a lot to recommend it, especially the dancing. It was an important part of the cultural environment when I was growing up. Interesting to realize that one of the cornerstone romance movies of my young adulthood was about an interfaith romance.

As I researched this blog post, I watched Patrick Swayze’s appearance on Oprah two years ago. Apparently a young couple had youtube hit with the video of their first wedding dance, which duplicated the climactic scene in Dirty Dancing. They were invited on Oprah Winfrey’s show, where Patrick Swayze surprised them by showing up to dance with them both! What a sweetheart. It makes his death that much sadder.

A New Year With You In It Will Be Happy

My dear friend contacted me this past week and asked,

When you get some time in the next week, will you share with me some of your holiday traditions and things? I feel like I’m trying to build a Jewish family from basically scratch here, and need some help with ways to make  in terms of holidays, all my knowledge is liturgical and theological, and none of it is practical how-does-a-family celebrate kind of thing.

I immediately directed her to the Guide to the High Holidays for Interfaith Families that I wrote last year.

We’ve also published a lot of other pieces on the site with Rosh Hashanah customs, including several stories with recipes, including Recipes for a Happy Jewish New Year, which has a list of some of the foods traditionally eaten to symbolize a good year. I love Teresita Levy’s pieces for our site which always combine her Puerto Rican culinary heritage with her observant Judaism, and this one, Feliz Ano Nuevo has some great alternative New Year’s recipes. We also ran an article on Tunisian Jewish recipes for Rosh Hashanah.

I was glad to get a reminder from Amy Meltzer’s blog Homeshuling that I own the children’s book that tells how to make a Rosh Hashanah seder. Doesn’t that sound cool?

I think if I had to make a list of the customs of this season that don’t always make it into Jewish education, they would be:

–new clothes
–New Year’s cards
–symbolic foods with obscure Hebrew puns–beets for the win!
–honey cake
–other cakes and cookies, I don’t want to forget or diss any!
–fancy meals with relatives
–round hallah with raisins. My husband insists they must be yellow raisins. My mother says raisins “symbolize money.”
–apologizing to people for hurts done in the past year in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
–visiting the cemetery between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and lighting a yahrzeit candle before the holidays if you are going to memorial services

Can you think of any that I missed? Any that you think a person who is new to the holiday would like to know?

If you are new to a Jewish family or to Judaism, this is a good time to bring insights from your past into your future together. That’s not just food (though of course, Jewish people want your unique cake recipes.) No, this is really the time to bring yourself to the table.

Positive Examples

“I’m a positive person,” my 6-year-old told me. He is! During this month of Elul before Rosh Hashanah, I’m working on being more positive, too. Sometimes it feels good just to point out all the great things Jewish organizations are doing to reach out to people from interfaith families, and all the great things people in interfaith families are doing in the world.

On Wednesday we published a great feature on Jewish healing rituals for interfaith families. Many of the organizations we mentioned wanted further contact with us, and I had a chance to speak with Rabbi Eric Weiss, the director of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. I think I persuaded him to join our network, since he’d like to do more outreach to people in interfaith couples and families, but I wanted to be sure to announce the Healing Center’s Grief and Growing Weekend, because it’s this weekend, September 11-13. If you know someone who just suffered a catastrophic loss, this program is to support them. I liked the way the web page explicitly welcomed non-Jewish participants in the Jewish programming.

Later this week we’re going to run an article by Jeffrey Grover about his experience developing a play on interfaith marriage, but just in case you live in Cleveland and don’t know about Thursday’s performance at the Ratner School of “Both Sides of the Family”, I wanted to give you a heads-up. The cool thing about this program is that the audiences demanded the discussion period after the show, by sticking around in their seats. I’m from Cleveland and I have to tell you, that’s pretty unusual! 

I also wanted to give a shout-out to Matthew Scott, who wrote a story for us about cooking Jewish food in an interfaith relationship. He’s started a new job teaching fourth grade in the Baltimore City Public Schools. Isn’t that cool? I would love to update people on the great things our authors are doing–would you like to hear more about that? I don’t mind a little kvelling in the comments, you know.

A Stupid, Ill-conceived Approach from Israel

Yesterday Ha’aretz reported that MASA, which it describes as “an organization that works to strengthen ties between Israel and Diaspora Jews,” had “launched a scare-tactic campaign that urges Israelis to combat assimilation in North America by working to prevent the “loss” through intermarriage of their own Jewish acquaintances.

This has got to be the most stupid, ill-conceived effort coming out of Israel in many years.

MASA is a partnership between the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government that helps finance and market semester- and year-length Israel programs for Jews outside of Israel. (The Jewish Agency for Israel is the organization in charge of immigration and absorption of Jews from outside of Israel.)

According to Ha’aretz, the 10-day Hebrew-language campaign features a video clip with a top Israeli TV reporter stating that more than 50% of young Jews assimilate. It likens Jews who marry outside of the religion to missing persons, with fake notices and pictures that as part of the campaign will be plastered on walls around Israel. MASA hopes the campaign will spur the Israeli public to commit to the cause of preventing marriage to non-Jews, which Jewish Agency officials believe is tantamount to a “strategic national threat.”

Equating intermarriage with assimilation is the classic mistake that Israeli leaders repeatedly make, as anyone who follows the Israeli press knows. I have long thought that Israeli leaders have no conception whatsoever of the realities of intermarriage in North America. (Last year when the annual convention of the United Jewish Communities was held in Jerusalem, I proposed a session to be called “What Israelis Should Know About Intermarriage in North America,” but the idea was rejected.)

Israeli leaders simply do not understand that many intermarried couples, and the adult children of intermarried parents, are actively engaging in Jewish life.

And they most certainly do not understand that many more would do so if they were welcomed, not described as a “strategic threat” by the community they want to participate in.

Indeed, the “strategic threat” to the liberal Jewish future lies in not doing whatever can be done to attract and support Jewish choices by people in interfaith relationships.

The MASA campaign is a step in exactly the wrong direction. According to Ha’aretz, the ad asks anyone who “knows a young Jew living abroad” to call MASA and concludes, “Together, we will strengthen his or her bond to Israel, so that we don’t lose them.” Half of those “young Jews living abroad” have intermarried parents and many of the rest are put off by condemnations of intermarriage. If MASA thinks it will successfully recruit those young Jews to its programs by marketing them as an antidote to intermarriage, it is very sadly mistaken.

It wasn’t that long ago that Jewish identity building programs in North America – birthright Israel, Jewish summer camps, day schools – marketed themselves as preventing intermarriage. After some effective lobbying took place, that rarely happens today. A significant percentage of birthright Israel trip participants have one Jewish parent, and the leaders and funders of that program realized that denigrating intermarriage would deter that population from participating. The leaders and funders of camps and day schools likewise realized that they couldn’t sell their programs to intermarried parents by arguing that they would prevent their children from intermarrying.

My hope is that the North American leaders of the United Jewish Communities and the philanthropists who have funded these programs and who have influence with the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel will use that influence wisely to lobby for an end to MASA’s counter-productive campaign.