So Much Funukah

For me the holiday season doesn’t start after Thanksgiving or when the black Friday sales are advertised or even when the Christmas tree is lit on our town common. No, for me the holiday season starts the first time I hear Adam Sandler’s Hanukah Song on the radio. That day was today!

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As a kid growing up Jewish, surrounded by many Jewish friends and family, I never had the feeling of being a minority or an outsider. It wasn’t until I went to college that I experienced what it was like to be one of the few rather than one of the many. Having had this experience, I realized I want my children to have that sense of community and belonging I had surrounded by others like me. Being the Jewish part of an interfaith family and raising Jewish children it’s important to me to pay more than lip service to their Judaism. It was important for me to find a temple that will welcome our interfaith family (which we did at Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, Mass.) and to celebrate holidays and teach my children what it means to be Jewish.

This Sunday I will have my husband’s Roman Catholic family over for our annual Hanukkah party. We will eat latkes and jelly donuts, play dreidel, sing songs, give the kids gifts and tell the Hanukkah story. Sharing what it means to be Jewish, not only with my children but with my extended family, is a blessing for me. They are excited to learn about it and I’m happy to teach (at least as much as I know!)

I sat in my car this morning, driving to work belting out lines like “David Lee Roth lights the menorah. So do James Caan, Kirk Douglas, and the late Dinah Shore-ah,” (here are the rest of the lyrics) and got that warm feeling of being part of something. For that I say THANK YOU ADAM SANDLER.

Hanukkah is Gonna Be All Right

A lot of my blogging this December is going to fall into three categories: embedding gratuitously entertaining Hanukkah videos, linking you to Hanukkah resources, and promoting the blogs of our writers. This post does all three.

First, I think everyone should read Amy Meltzer’s blog Homeshuling (and that I should get more writing from her on our site!) Whether or not you are in an interfaith family, if you’re parenting Jewish children in a majority non-Jewish environment you will relate to her post Playing Christians. (Sometimes when I read these blogs I come down with blog envy–I wish people had written their posts for IFF instead. That happens to me a lot when I read Fifty Percenters, a new blog by people in interfaith couples and families.)

Aliza Hausman, one of my favorite IFF writers and author of the insightful Memoirs of a Jewminicana, asked on her Facebook page yesterday whether anyone had good songs for non-Jewish children to learn about Hanukkah. It turns out it’s for a friend of hers who is a pre-school teacher, but I thought it would be relevant to a lot of our readers.  I thought immediately of “I Had a Little Dreidel,” (MP3) the quintessential non-religious Hanukkah song in English. (The link is to a cool acapella group from Chicago, Listen Up! Acapella.)

In recent years, my favorite non-religious English song about Hanukkah has been Woody Guthrie’s Hanuka Dance. (The link there is to a Youtube video of a very earnest young man covering the song–it’s sweet!) Subsequent to my discovery of the Woody Guthrie recording of that song, one of my favorite bands of all time, The Klezmatics, covered Woody Guthrie’s Hanukkah songs in an album, Happy Joyous Hanukkah. (I wrote this post yesterday and actually heard the title song being piped over the loudspeaker in my local supermarket! Now that’s weird.)

You’re going to think this is bizarre, but I’m embedding a video that makes me cry. The Leevees, a bunch of indie rock musicians who do Hanukkah music, sang “Latke Clan,” at a synagogue nursery school. It’s dark, it’s December, it looks cold and grey, all the parents are hugging their kids, and the band is singing, “everyone’s together tonight.” I don’t know, it’s a happy, silly song and everyone’s happy and making jokes. I’m just touched because this is really how it is–we like to all be together. Hope that’s how it is for you. (Next Hanukkah post–pancakes!)

Chelsea Clinton may not need help finding a rabbi for her wedding, but…

Chelsea Clinton’s engagement to Marc Mezvinsky is big news; Ruth Abrams’ blog post here yesterday
was picked up by the Atlantic’s blog, the Atlantic Wire.

Ruth said it would be interesting to see how the famous couple handles the interfaith aspects of their relationship. One aspect of that of course is whether they will want to have a rabbi officiate, or co-officiate with other clergy, at their wedding.

One blogger speculated that Mezvinsky is affiliated with the Conservative movement based on the couple’s attendance at High Holiday services at the Jewish Theological Seminary. If the couple do want to have a rabbi officiate at their wedding, Conservative rabbis aren’t allowed to do so; they’ll have to look elsewhere.

I’m sure that such a well-connected couple should not have any trouble finding a rabbi. But that isn’t the case for everyone. One of the most important services InterfaithFamily.com provides is our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. So far this year, we’ve responded to 1,135 inquiries from couples all over the country asking for help to find a rabbi or cantor to officiate or co-officiate at their wedding. (In fact, we’re running a “promotion” right now – couples who request a referral are eligible for a drawing for a $500 gift card – that’s quite an engagement present!)

If it were easy for couples to find Jewish clergy for their weddings, we wouldn’t be experiencing demand for our service. We’d actually be glad if, some day, our service was no longer necessary. But officiation is still controversial among rabbis, so we don’t see that happening any time soon.

The reason we offer our referral service is simple. Recent research confirms that the negative experience many interfaith couples have seeking Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings is a “huge turnoff” (Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys, National Center for Jewish Policy Studies 2008). Through our officiation referral service, and our work with rabbis, we hope to make that experience one that leads to more Jewish engagement, not less.

So if Chelsea and Marc do want to have a rabbi participate in their wedding, we hope their experience is positive, and we hope it leads to more Jewish engagement – we think Chelsea Clinton would be a great addition to the Jewish community in whatever way she chooses to participate. And the former President and the Secretary of State wouldn’t be too shabby as grandparents for Jewish grandchildren, if that’s the direction the couple decides to take.

And if by any chance they would like help finding a rabbi for their wedding, we have some great ones on our list, both  in New York, and ones who travel to Martha’s Vineyard too.

Chelsea Clinton to Marry

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.

Jewish Book Month

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?

My Cleveland Talk on Youtube

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.

Enjoy.

Children of Interfaith Marriage, We Love You, Come Over for Lunch

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.

Why?

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.

Movie Review: Leap of Faith

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.

Interfaith Family Issues Hit the Big Time

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.

The Anglo-Jewish School Case, Revisited

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.