Chelsea Clinton has been dating Marc Mezvinsky since before her mother was on the campaign trail for the Democratic nomination. This weekend they announced their engagement. Clinton is the daughter of former President Bill Clinton and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Mezvinsky, who is Jewish, is son of former Rep. Ed Mezvinsky and former Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinksy. Though all four of their parents were political figures–and both of their fathers were at the center of scandals–Clinton and Mezvinsky have led relatively quiet lives. He is an investment banker with Goldman-Sachs, and she works for a hedge fund, though she did some campaigning for her mother’s presidential bid. It will be interesting to see how the famous couple handles the interfaith aspects of their relationship.
Ah, Jewish Book Month is nearly over! Of course in my house, it’s always Jewish Book Month. Not that everything I read is a Jewish book–no, in fact I’m currently rereading all the Marilynne Robinson novels, which are all about the role of Protestant Christianity in American society. The resonant biblical language thrilled me, I can’t recommend her work highly enough–the new book, Home, made me cry at the beginning.
The reason it’s always Jewish Book Month is that I tend to do so much of my pleasure reading on Shabbat. During the week, I mainly read articles online, and do a lot of reading for work. On Shabbat, I don’t go online so I have to read books (and the occasional magazine article.) That’s why it’s always Jewish Book Month, to me–I’m always reading at the table with the white cloth on it, or in my post-challah stupor.
If you are looking for Jewish books to buy for your family members for Hanukkah (argh, we really do have to start talking about the December holidays, don’t we!) I have a few recommendations from the past year.
My husband got me The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman for my birthday last year. Though not an explicitly Jewish book, this verbal and artistic exploration of Kalman’s inner life is full of Jewish culture and Jewish spiritual concerns–in particular the passing of our parents’ generations. She is quirky, humorous, disposed to see beauty in everything. Kalman is the same person who did the illustrated version of Strunk and White’s Manual of Style.
I think everyone should read Betraying Spinoza by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Goldstein is a philosophy professor and a novelist, someone who has taught Spinoza’s philosophy–and also someone who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community. She relates to Spinoza as a person and to the Jewish community who rejected him in their post-traumatic hysteria. (Eventually I’m going to write an essay about this book!)
The Jewish book I want most is the second volume of The Commentator’s Bible, a project of my old Brandeis buddy Michael Carasik and the Jewish Publication Society. It’s a translation of all the major medieval commentaries on the Bible. Cannily, Carasik translated Exodus first, and then Leviticus, keeping us all waiting for the rabbinic commentaries on the exciting stuff in Genesis and Numbers. Doesn’t this seem like one of the handiest things ever, though? It will make you look like you know all these major commentators, not just Rashi.
I also want a copy of The Murmuring Deep by Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg. What an appropriate title for a book of Zornberg’s psychological and literary explorations of traditional Jewish commentaries on the bible. She’s wonderful.
OK, now you–what do you think people should go out and read in honor of Jewish Book Month?
I gave a talk at Cleveland’s Siegal College on November 2, and they took video, which they’ve posted to Youtube. I made a playlist so you can watch the whole thing–gesticulations and all. It was a general talk on the state of interfaith families in the Jewish community, and most of the time was devoted to questions and answers.
Robin Margolis wrote a fantastic blog entry for Jewcy.com, What Do Half-Jewish People Want From the Jewish Establishment? It’s an eye-opener. Well, not to me, actually, because I’ve been working here at InterfaithFamily.com and it’s finally started to dawn on me after reading repeated shocking stories that the Jewish community is doing a terrible job integrating and retaining children of interfaith marriage.
Because we assume that they are all already either with us in the community, or not. We don’t realize that even after children of interfaith families have grown into adulthood, it’s not too late to welcome them into our synagogues and our communities. We’re way too worried about the Jewish legal status of children of interfaith marriage and not worried enough about losing these members of our tribe. (Which they are, no matter what their Jewish status is.)
I think the biggest problem is insisting that people of dual heritage can’t find ways to be Jewish and to honor their other parent’s cultural background. I believe this stems from a fear of syncretistic blending of Christian and Jewish practices. But when people say, “I’m half Jewish and half Swedish,” they aren’t trying to tell you, “half the time I want to practice Christianity.” They want you to say, “That’s cool, it must be neat to have family in two cultures, I’ll bet you bring a lot to our community.”
I get why some people with one Jewish parent call themselves half Jewish, and I respect it–but I’m not going to call them that. I don’t believe in people being half Jewish. If a person has a Jewish parent, we share something–we share it 100%, not 50%, just like I share some things with every other person with Jewish heritage. If they are religiously and culturally Jewish, and also culturally something else, they aren’t Jewish 50% of the time. They are Jewish all the time, and also a part of their other culture of origin, all the time. (And maybe also 100% Canadian, all the time, 100% Star Trek fan, 100% vegetarian–whatever serious and trivial identities a person might bring with them to your community.)
If you want them to have both feet in the community, don’t push one half out the door.
We ran a review today of A Serious Man, and I wanted to also be sure to give you a chance to see the review I wrote for the Boston Jewish Film Festival booklet of one of the movies they are screening, Leap of Faith. (We also had a feature story about another film in the festival, Killing Kastner. The Boston Jewish Film Festival is still going on.
In general I think of Jewish film festivals as a great way for people in interfaith families to engage with Jewish culture. I’m not so sure whether these three movies are necessarily the ones I would recommend to interfaith families specifically, especially since the one they asked me to review was about conversion. Anyway, here’s my mini-review:
As the editor of InterfaithFamily.com, I read a lot of memoirs from Jews by choice. They often make me cry. I understand why people choose Judaism on an intellectual level – our religion has a lot to offer – but it touches me on a visceral level that they choose to become part of our people. Watching Leap of Faith reminded me again of what is so intense about the stories of Jews by choice. I can’t speak for everyone who was raised Jewish, but Jewishness is so close to my identity that every story about someone choosing Judaism feels like someone is choosing to join my family–even if the Judaism in their community doesn’t look exactly like the Judaism in mine.
The documentary follows several people who want to become Jews and are seeking conversion to Orthodox Judaism. Most of them come from devout Christian backgrounds and have come to believe that Judaism is a stronger expression of their beliefs, not only about God and monotheism, but about family, community and the good life. They have disrupted their previous lives to move into the heart of an observant Jewish community, because it’s nearly impossible to live a full Jewish life alone. The Orthodox conversion process requires living in the community for at least a year before one can come in front of the rabbinical court.
Any time someone wants to join a Jewish community, they must conform to that community’s norms. Jewish communities, whether they are Orthodox or more liberal, value close families. Not all Jewish families fit that cultural expectation, but we still build our culture and religion around it.
For the people in this documentary, families are a paradox. Without having the support of at least their nuclear families, they won’t succeed in making the transformation they seek. But when devout Christian families want what’s best for their family members, they want them to believe in Jesus, because only in that belief can they find salvation. How does one perform the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents while leaving their religion?
At the end of the film, one of the rabbinical authorities on conversion is asked whether he would want one of his children to marry a convert. The rabbi cannot answer the question. He’s stuck. He knows what he should say, but he can’t say it. It’s a very important moment in the film – will these people who have worked so hard to be Jewish ever really belong? Perhaps this rabbi’s paralysis is an extreme case; most Jews aren’t in communities that hold such contradictory views on Jews by choice. Still, it says something about our fear of difference as a community that we still find converts exotic, that we can’t forget they converted – perhaps because we can’t believe that they picked us.
Well, we like to think we’re the big time here at InterfaithFamily.com, but you’ll probably agree that the Washington Post is a bigger venue for discussions of issues that affect interfaith families. The introductory article has a link to an interview with Cokie and Steve Roberts, two well-known journalists in a Catholic-Jewish interfaith marriage. I watched the interview last night.
It did seem a little weird to me that Steve Roberts says that his mom is “very Jewish” but that she had never been to a Passover seder until her Catholic daughter-in-law coordinated one. I guess it shows what “very Jewish” means–it’s a cultural marker, something that says more about language and habits than religious practice. Sometimes when people use Jewish as an adjective I’m not totally sure where they are going with it, what it means to them. It’s an interesting interview overall and I’d love to hear what you thought about it.
I’m excited that Marion Usher, who is an old friend of IFF and an outreach professional, is going to be featured in a WaPo video on the work she does with interfaith families. I’ll try to stay on top of that and link it here. It will also be interesting for me to see interfaith family issues that affect families where neither partner is Jewish.
Over the summer, we blogged about a British Court of Appeals decision that involves the British government in the question of who is a Jew. In short, a student applied to London’s JFS (formerly the Jews Free School, largest Jewish school in Europe) and was rejected on the grounds that his mother’s conversion to Judaism was not acceptable to the Chief Rabbi of the United Congregations of the Commonwealth. The family sued the school, and lost, and then won on appeal.
Last week, the New York Times reported on the progress of the case to the British Supreme Court.
There’s a lot of backstory to this case, some of it having to do with the structure of British society and the place of Anglo-Jewry within it. There are 97 Jewish schools in the UK out of 7,000 publicly financed religious schools. All of the Jewish schools are under the auspices of the United Synagogue and therefore nominally Orthodox–but not all of them restrict their admissions to Jewish students. At least one, the King David School in Birmingham, a city with a shrinking Jewish population, is 50% Muslim. Many Christian schools of various denominations require religious practice tests–but they don’t have the challenge of not being able to write on their Sabbath when students go to worship, as Jewish students do.
Another piece of the backstory is the general acceleration of moral panic over self-definition that seems to have afflicted the entire Jewish people in the last year and a half, with the Israeli high rabbinical court declaring conversions invalid after the fact on what seem from my perspective to be entirely spurious grounds. In Britain, according to Miriam Shaviv in The Forward, the Chief Rabbi had already declared in 2005 that two women who’d converted in Israel (and therefore with an an Orthodox rabbinical court) weren’t Jewish enough for the United Synagogue, because they weren’t Jewish enough to pass muster with Haredi (trembling, or far-right Orthodox) Jewish authorities on the rabbinical court. Those families didn’t fight back–the family of the child in the present case, who was rejected in 2007, did. (Shaviv points out that the judge who ruled in the family’s favor on the appeals court is Jewish.)
I need to write at length about this moral panic over conversion and self-definition, because it’s incredibly painful for a lot of people in our lives. It’s probably enough for now to say that even with all the backstory, I can’t understand the rationale for keeping motivated kids out of a great Jewish school, or taking the risk of getting the government involved in that school’s admissions policy.
Paul Golin, associate executive director at Jewish Outreach Institute, wrote an op-ed about the recent Birthright Israel study. Miriam Shaviv, a Jewish journalist across the Atlantic at the Jewish Chronicle in London, thinks Golin’s statistics are “not good news”–because they assert that more Jews in North America are intermarrying than she realized.
It may be that the Brandeis Birthright Israel study is methodologically flawed–though frankly, I’m a historian and I often find it challenging to believe in the causal relationships that are set up in sociological studies. One blogger in an interfaith relationship challenges whether this is even the right question to ask. (He also assumes that the funders of Birthright are emphatically anti-intermarriage, but we don’t believe that is so — several of the leading Birthright funders also fund Jewish outreach to interfaith families–including InterfaithFamily.com.) Oh! Nearly missed my chance to cite the best blog post title ever: Intermarriage Not Cancer–though the author was just pointing to Leyna Krow’s post on the subject that ends with the line, “No need to taint it by claiming Birthright will fix a problem that isn’t really a problem.”
Here’s how I think about this. Either we as a people are in terrible trouble, because we are going to lose the children of interfaith marriage, who won’t be Jews. Or we are about to get a very nice present, because we are going to gain the children of interfaith marriage, who will be some very committed and interesting bicultural Jews.
Right now, we are seeing both things happen. We have some lovely young Jews from interfaith families working in the Jewish community and joining synagogues, and we have some children of interfaith families who are raising their own children as “nothing.” What’s it going to be? More Jews, or fewer? Punish the children because of who their parents are, or enjoy their company over your Shabbat table? Yes, interfaith families will choose–but they are part of our community, and they don’t make their choices in a vacuum.
I can’t say whether Birthright Israel is the one true way to encourage Jewish commitment. I’m a little nervous about putting all of our eggs in a single basket. I think we’ve developed different denominations, theologies and political ideologies–different ways to be Jewish–so that we can all stay connected to one another and pass along our cultural and religious heritage to a new generation. Interfaith families are part of that. We have run a lot of articles from children of interfaith families about their experiences with Birthright Israel. It’s worthwhile to listen to their voices in this discussion.
One of our writers, Franklin Velazquez, started a new group on InterfaithFamily.com’s network for Latino Jews. I thought this was a good excuse to point you to some articles and resources we have on the site for Latino Jews, and maybe to attract members to the group and writers for the site.
Velazquez wrote The Lonely Journey of Puerto Rican Jew for us, about being a Jew by Choice in an interfaith relationship, and we still get a lot of comments to that story from people who are looking to connect.
We also have some beautifully-written memoir articles with kosher, authentically Puerto Rican recipes from Teresita Levy. My friend Ruby Velez also wrote for us about food in A Surprising Challenge in an Intercultural Relationship. Aliza Hausman, who blogs under the handle La Jewminicana, wrote for us on creating a multi-cultural Dominican Jewish wedding, blending cultures in her household and coping with racism in the Jewish community.
We republished Ruby Marez video monologue about being the child of a Jewish and Puerto-Rican Catholic couple. I am always looking for more ways to feature the voices of adult children of interfaith marriage–this one had a sweet energy to it.
The Latino Jewish experience is varied. It includes people who learn their families were crypto-Jews and want to return to Judaism, people who choose Judaism out of conviction without any idea that they had Jewish heritage, children of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews who immigrated to Latin America and children of interfaith marriages in which one partner was Latino. I hope InterfaithFamily.com can be a resource to all of these groups as part of our overall mission of creating a more welcoming Jewish community.
I went to Cleveland to speak at the Siegal College of Judaic Studies about the current state of interfaith families in the Jewish community. I grew up in Cleveland and my mom earned a second BA in Hebrew Literature and a Master’s in Hebrew Literature at Siegal College back in the 1970s when it was the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies. In the 1990s, after she’d completed her PhD at Case, they hired her to be the Dean. She retired as Dean of the College two years ago, but it’s still a very important place to our family.
In the morning I was invited to speak to a group of 25 Jewish educators and rabbis who meet regularly to talk about adult and family education issues. It was incredibly cool to have people there from all of the large and medium-sized Reform and Conservative congregations and the relatively new Reconstructionist synagogue. The Conservative synagogues are very creative about outreach. One of the Conservative rabbis disagreed about IFF’s approach and I am hoping to get him to write for us about it. There were also some educators from the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, and I got to meet Jeffrey Grover, an actor and playwright who has created a non-profit that does education on subject of interfaith families.
In the evening I gave a longer presentation to 65 people as part of Siegal College’s fall series. (Only about half a dozen of the people in the crowd were my relatives, but they count–especially my father’s cousin Jo Anne Randall, who wrote a beautiful article for me about her interfaith marriage early in my tenure at IFF.) I got to meet more of the Jewish educators and outreach workers in the evening, too.
I also got to meet Elizabeth Meyer, who wrote My First Yom Kippur, and her husband. (I gave her a hug.) They are thinking of starting a group for young interfaith couples and I encouraged them to coordinate it through our site. If you have created such a group yourself, drop me a line–I would love to have an article about how to do that.
I spoke for an hour, showed off the website and took questions. The college staff took video that they are going to post on Youtube. I don’t have to summarize much, because you’re going to be able to see most of it, I think!
The crowd was very receptive to what I had to say. They were also funny. First one woman on one side of the room raised her hand to complain that I was being too positive. I said, “Well, I have a list of positive approaches, but I’m sure you’ll figure out from them what the problems are.” Then another woman on the other side of the room said, “You’ve outlined all the problems, how about some possible solutions?”
One of the comments from the audience–from a same-faith Jewish family who are South American–was about one their children being turned away from Hillel when he got to college because the person who met him at the door thought he looked Latino and therefore “not Jewish.” I remembered her son as a very small boy, it was kind of crazy when she came up afterward to tell me that he is now a PhD in Mathematics! It bothers me every time I hear or read these stories about people being effectively told to go away when they come into Jewish settings. Someday I want to do a David Letterman-style Top Ten list of what the Jewish community should not be doing if we want to retain and attract people! I do try to stay positive but sometimes it’s frustrating to know that a lovely kid like that could be turned away.