Glad I am Not a Werewolf and Can Eat Fruit

In the Hebrew school parking lot on Wednesday night, my son and I witnessed another little boy howling at the moon. “Sure glad I’m not a Jewish werewolf,” I said to my kid. “You would miss all the holidays.” It’s true–the Hebrew calendar assures that many Jewish holidays fall on the full moon, including Passover, Sukkot and Hanukkah. If you transform into a wolf when the moon is full, no matzah or latkes for you.

Tonight minor yet intriguing holiday, Tu Bishvat, called Hag La-Ilanot, the tree holiday, is no exception. Even its name, the 15th of Shevat, is a clue–because all Hebrew months start on the new moon. The holiday could be called the birthday of trees, since it was the date that Jews in ancient Israel used to figure out the age of their trees in order to know when to bring fruit from them to the Temple in Jerusalem on Shavuot. A highly technical date, Tu Bishvat has been transformed into a holiday celebrating agriculture in the land of Israel, kabbalistic theories of the universe and environmental consciousness.

When I was a kid, we celebrated Tu Bishvat by eating raisins and almonds in Hebrew school and by buying trees in Israel through the Jewish National Fund. We also sang a little song in Hebrew about almond trees, “Ha-Shkediyah Porachat.” (It’s not easy to transliterate the Hebrew word for almond tree.) The lyrics mean something like, “the almond trees are blooming, the golden sun is shining, on the top of every roof, birds sing to herald the holiday.” My friend taught me an alternate version that fits the weather here much better:

The almond tree is freezing, the apple tree is sneezing
If you think that this is spring, I can sell you anything
Tu Bishvat is here, Hag La-Ilanot
Tu Bishvat is here, where’s my overcoat?

I went searching for the original version of the song, and found this adorable Spanish-speaking family getting all excited about the almond trees and cyclamen in Israel:

Today, it’s become increasingly common for people to celebrate Tu Bishvat with a seder, a mystical practice that compares the peels and seeds of fruit to the inner nature of everything. We ran a great piece by Aaron Kagan about his interfaith Tu Bishvat seder that he had last year. I also found a cool little article with recipes on The Jew and the Carrot A Tu Bishvat Seder for Every Personality.

We’re actually invited to a Tu Bishvat seder tonight at my havurah–but we aren’t going. I can’t imagine how we are going to have enough energy even to eat the stuffed cabbage I prepared last night. (Which has fruit in it! Yes!)

If you are interested in an opportunity to think about the environment, to appreciate your local trees, and to think about mystical connections–and most important if you are not a werewolf– Tu Bishvat is the holiday for you.

Salinger dies at age 91

J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, died at age 91 in his home in Cornish, N.Y.

I read his books many times in high school and college, especially Franny and Zooey, the novel that spoke the most about the experience of a spiritual seeker who is the child of a Christian mom and a Jewish dad. No one can say if that was also Salinger’s experience. He was famous for being a private person. His daughter and one of his girlfriends each wrote memoirs about him, but it will take years to piece together his inner life, in particular because he had reserved some of his writing to be published after his death.

Nearly everyone who went to high school in the United States read The Catcher in the Rye. If you haven’t read Salinger’s other stories, from Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Nine Stories, I hope you’ll use the occasion of his death to take a look at them, and see why so many readers are expressing sadness for his loss today.

Privilege

Robin Margolis, an activist for children of interfaith marriage in the Jewish community who has written for us at IFF, has been posting about the issues adult children of intermarriage face in the community on Jewcy.com. In her latest piece, Why Many Jewish Outreach Workers Ignore Half-Jewish People, she creates a list of all the ways and all the reasons the Jewish community doesn’t offer explicit welcome or programming to adult children of intermarriage.

The list is comprehensive, but I think it misses the point. Most outreach workers are ignoring adult children of interfaith marriage because they don’t think adult children of interfaith marriage have a problem being accepted into the Jewish community. They really just don’t know, and when individuals try to explain, they think these individuals are exceptional. It’s the ignorance of privilege and it’s more intractable than active hostility.

I’m speaking for myself now, here, too. I remember the first time I met a Jewish woman of color, in college. She was an amazingly cool person and I had not known she was Jewish. I was very excited to learn we had Jewishness in common. She explained that because her mom was Jewish and her dad was African-American, Ashkenazi Jewish kids where she grew up told her she couldn’t be Jewish.

“But that’s not right,” I said, and went off into a pedantic explanation of the Jewish law, blah blah blah, to cover my distress. I wanted us to be connected by this identity that was important to me, and she had been pushed away from it. (We were still friends anyway, though she was considerably cooler than I. When I finish writing this I’m going to look her up on Facebook.) It was years before I saw that her experience was not an unusual one.

It’s not that committed Jews, whether we have one Jewish parent or two, don’t like people with complicated Jewish identities. We’ve seen all kinds of complication. It’s that we can’t accept our community could be rejecting. We think we’re good at accepting, and we aren’t. We have to wake up and realize our personal experiences of being Jewish aren’t the only ones.

Abraham Sutzkever

There’s a song that plays in my head whenever I learn that one of my heroes has died.
“They are falling all around me/the strongest leaves on my tree.
Every paper brings the news that/the teachers of my life are moving on.”–Bernice Johnson Reagon

Abraham Sutzgever died at the age of 96 on January 20. Considering that he risked his life to save Jewish culture from the Nazis, that’s pretty remarkable. Sutzgever was a member of the Paper Brigade, a group of Jewish intellectuals in Vilna, Lithuania who defied the Nazis by saving and hiding Jewish cultural artifacts from Eastern Europe’s largest pre-war Jewish archive, YIVO. At the same time, he continued to write poetry.

“If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t live,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1985 while reminiscing over a glass of French cognac. “When I was in the Vilna ghetto, I believed, as an observant Jew believes in the Messiah, that as long as I was writing, was able to be a poet, I would have a weapon against death.”

Sutzkever lived from the founding of the State of Israel until his death in Tel Aviv, editing a Yiddish literary magazine there until 1995. Even though the push in Israeli culture was to forget Yiddish and to teach Hebrew only, Sutzkever kept Yiddish literature and its values alive.

I had missed the initial news of Sutzkever’s death and didn’t understand why  one of my favorite bloggers had posted one of his poems in Yiddish out of the blue. She blogs in Yiddish a lot–I do my best to keep up. We in the succeeding generations continue to take seriously Yiddish speakers’ legacy of courage and creativity. As I researched this post, I found a 21-year-old Youtube user called Ikhveysnit–it means, “I don’t know”–who has been recording the poems of Sutzkever and other Yiddish poets of his generation.

I also found this video–Israeli singer Chava Alberstein, who has also done a lot to keep Yiddish alive, singing a song based on one of Sutzkever’s poems, Unter Dayn Vayse Shtern. The video is Chagall paintings, which is appropriate as Sutzkever saved some of Chagall’s paintings from the Nazis.

Fear of Disappearing

The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent ran a piece on the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia.” Apparently Philadelphia’s Jewish community has a high rate of interfaith marriage and a low rate of people in those marriages deciding to raise Jewish children. In the greater Philadelphia area, 45 percent for Jews under 40 marry non-Jews with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews. In the Philadelphia area, 60 per cent of same-faith Jewish couples affiliate with synagogues, but only 9 per cent of interfaith couples do.

The community then asks two familiar questions: Can we stop Jews from marrying non-Jews, and can we simultaneously welcome interfaith families to stay in the community? The reporter talked with different leaders in the Jewish community, some who advocate doing one, and some the other.

It’s really difficult for people outside of our community to understand this fear, but articles like these make it clear–it’s a fear of disappearing. It’s also clear what direction we should take. The article quotes:

Mindy Fortin, a mother of three, who’s married to a Catholic man and is a former board member of the synagogue, has overseen those efforts, which have included weekly classes with the rabbi for both Jewish and non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages.

“I understand the panic” over the numbers, she said. But she explained that all the difference in her own spiritual life has resulted from folks in her synagogue not writing her off, but encouraging her to become more involved.

“The biggest mistake is to equate intermarriage with apathy toward Judaism and write off immediately a Jew who has intermarried,” she said.

A Catholic Parent Using His Jewish Daughter As A Pawn In A Contentious Divorce.

I just came across  an article from Chicago CBS 2′s website that speaks volumes for the importance of an interfaith family being in agreement about the religious upbringing of their family.

In Chicago, Joseph Reyes may be in violation or a court order for taking his 3 year old daughter to church. Joseph Reyes had his child baptized and sent a photograph to his soon-to-be-ex wife, Rebecca. She asked the court to bar her husband from taking their daughter to church and exposing her to any religion other than Judaism. The court agreed that such exposure would be detrimental to the young child. Then the father took his child to church again, arranging for a television reporter to write on the story.

Joseph Reyes converted to Judaism after his daughter’s birth. Even though Jewish law forbids coercion in conversion, Mr. Reyes told the local reporter that he had been pressured to convert. He said he wants to expose his daughter to Catholicism and let her choose her own religion, and further, he can’t see much difference between Judaism and Catholicism:

I am taking her to hear the teachings of perhaps the most prominent Jewish Rabbi (Jesus) in the history of this great planet of ours. I can’t think of anything more Jewish than that.”

What jumped out at us at InterfaithFamily.com was the slanted way the reporter wrote the story, siding with the husband who had reversed agreements with his wife in the process of the divorce. There’s no recognition in the stories on the CBS 2 website of a Jewish viewpoint or even the idea that religion might be used in a divorce as a weapon. He didn’t quote any experts on interfaith families, nearly all of whom take  the position that raising children in one faith is less confusing. Certainly, adult children of interfaith families have told us they found it confusing to be raised “both”.

People do change after divorce, but we always hope that parents will stay with the parenting decisions they made for their children before the divorce. We had one of our interfaith marriage experts record his advice on how to weather divorce–emphasizing how children benefit from consistency. We know that the Reyes’ story is not uncommon, and that many interfaith couples who divorce wind up in conflict over religion. Perhaps we’re all lucky that the local news media don’t choose to involve themselves in every case!

Where to Donate to Help Haiti

If you are looking for a way to do something about the massive human suffering of the people of Haiti in the wake of the earthquake there, there are many organizations providing aid to Haiti that are accepting donations.

A group with a long history in the country is Partners in Health. They provide community-based health care and they know the situation on the ground well. They are also seeking doctors and other medical personnel to volunteer.

Another group with a pre-established presence in Haiti is Médicins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders. They have a donation page here.

A Jewish charity doing work in Haiti is American Jewish World Service, which makes grants to other organizations on the ground. You can make similar donations through the social action arm of the Union for Reform Judaism. Another organization, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) is part of an advocacy effort to allow Haitian immigrants and temporary workers to stay in the US under Temporary Protected Status.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel has sent a disaster relief team to Haiti. Israel has a record of expertise in providing earthquake aid in other countries. Several North American Jewish charities have contributed financial support to Israel’s work in Haiti, according to the Jerusalem Post, including American Jewish Committee,  B’nai Brith International,  the Canadian B’nai Brith branch and the Venezuela-based Central American branch of B’nai Brith.

Lighten Up Dude

I have been stewing over how to blog about the Eternal Jewish Family conversion scandal which I have been following on Twitter and on Failed Messiah since it broke. (If you follow the link, you can read the excellent take at Tablet Magazine on the story.) I just didn’t know how to deal with yet another horrible embarrassment for the Jewish people.  But I’m just teasing you–I still don’t know what I can say about this scandal that doesn’t involve a lot of ranting, raving and anthropological jargon.

Nope, today I’m going to write about Krusty the Clown. Remember Krusty, the character on The Simpsons patterned after Bozo the Clown–but Jewish. My former office-mate at the University of Massachusetts used to quote the line, “Krusty the Clown is Jewish?” at me to crack me up. (It didn’t really work, but nice try, Jeff.) Now, according to the Forward, In the next episode of The Simpsons, Krusty is in an interfaith relationship and his rabbi dad is going to officiate at the wedding.

Awesome!

I was sitting here fuming about a story in the Orthodox Jewish Press, Time to Bring Back the Communal Cold Shoulder. The link is there for completeness; I don’t recommend reading the article since it might raise your blood pressure. The rabbi who wrote this story looks back with nostalgia on his upbringing in Brooklyn, where people who violated Jewish law were ostracized. Why aren’t we ostracizing some of “those whose immoral and illegal behavior has contributed to chillul Hashem and to the diminution of respect others have for the Orthodox community and for the Torah itself.” The way they used to ostracize people back in Bensonhurst–and who is the example from his? An interfaith couple he remembers people shunned. (One in which the wife was Jewish, yet, so that the children would be considered Jewish under Orthodox legal interpretation.)

This is why I still have a job. There are still at least some Jewish leaders willing to compare extreme crooks, people who sell human kidneys, sexual abusers and folks who sell treif meat as glatt kosher–to intermarriage. Because they do not have good sense. If that couple had children, are those children Jewish today? Oh, why not do you think?

I have so many angry things to say about people who think interfaith marriage is more dangerous to the Jewish people than having rabbis who are crooks, creeps and criminals, so many hot words on the moral bankruptcy of this kind of position and why it leads to the kind of scandal we’re seeing at Eternal Jewish Family. 

And then you know–Krusty the Clown is Jewish? Heh.

He’s not the first Jew with a mezuzah on his door who had an adult bar mitzvah and then married a non-Jew. Send him our way–we’ve got a listing of synagogues that are welcoming to interfaith families–and cartoon clowns.

Songs of Praise

I’ve been trying to remember to blog about any project that highlights the culture of non-Ashkenazi Jewish communities. I’m sure we have some readers from those communities, and we also get a lot of readers in families of Ashkenazi Jews married to people from other cultures. It feels good when you’re raising a child in two (or more!) cultures to know that there were already Jews from the “other” culture. Plus it’s just good stuff, and I look for excuses to link you to good stuff.

[float=left][/float]My husband surprised us this weekend with two CDs produced by Jewish Records in London, one called Shbahoth and one called Shir Hodu. He thinks he learned about them from klezmershack.com, a great source for Jewish music news.

Shbathoth is an album of restored recordings of Jewish music from Iraq from the 1920s—the title of the CD is from the Iraqi pronunciation of the Hebrew word for praises—and Shir Hodu is an album of restored recordings of Jewish music from Bombay in the 1930s. Shir Hodu means both song of praise, and song of India. (It’s a pun in Hebrew.) If you live in London, you can attend a CD launch for Shir Hodu this Thursday, January 14. Our CDs actually came hand-addressed by Sara Manasseh, the musicologist who put the albums together, which made us really happy.

We had a listening session for Shir Hodu on Sunday, and wow, that was pretty cool. There are actually several different Jewish communities native to India, though most Jews of Indian descent now live in Israel or the English-speaking countries. The album has songs from four musical groups from different Indian Jewish cultural traditions, and feature Western instruments (violin, mandolin), Middle Eastern instruments (‘ud, qanun) and Indian instruments (sitar, jal tarang, dilruba, bansuri.) It’s always great to hear Jewish liturgical music sung in different traditions, especially songs that Ashkenazi Jews sing in a minor-key-sounding musical mode and other communities sing in a mode that sounds like a major key.

For copies of these CDs and Dr. Manasseh’s other musical project, Rivers of Babylon (which we’re going to buy later, I think!) go to her website.

More News on the Catholic-Jewish Relations Issue

The current Pope has signed a decree heroic virtues for two previous popes: his predecessor, John Paul II, and  Pius XII, who was pope during the Second World War. This is one step before beatification. Predictably, some Jews have already pointed out why they wouldn’t make Pius XII a saint–most historians believe he did little to save Jews from the Nazis.

Deborah Dwork, a historian and Holocaust expert at Clark University, and Rabbi Eric Greenberg, who runs interfaith work at the Anti-Defamation League, wrote an editorial condemning the move as an attack on Jews. Further, the editorial discusses and dismisses historians arguing that Pius XII did more behind the scenes to save Jewish lives than he seemed to have done in public. The Catholic League responded with another editorial that called Dwork and Greenberg’s criticism “unseemly” and pointed out all the things Pius XII was known to have done to save Jews. (To me, it’s not all that impressive, but you read it and see what you think.)

Tracking the issue of Catholic-Jewish relations for this blog has been very interesting for me. I grew up post-Vatican II and most of my adult life has been during the papacy of John Paul II, the pope who did the most to foster positive relations between Catholics and Jews of any pope, ever. The current papacy has made a series of missteps with relation to Catholic-Jewish relations–and people in my generation did not expect them, I think.

It’s true Pope Benedict XVI is German and a voice on the right on Church matters, but he was completely on board with John Paul’s gestures to the Jewish community–in fact, he was the one who prepared a definitive church document, Memory and Reconciliation, that outlines the Church’s responsibility in past anti-Jewish violence. We had reason to expect him to continue in the same line. Ruth Ellen Gruber’s JTA article, After Pius move, Pope Benedict practices delicate Jewish dance, outlines the back and forth of recent papal decisions.

I really don’t know the truth about Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. No one does, because the documents historians want to see to find out are in closed Vatican archives. It’s possible that the current pope knows something we don’t. I was trained as a historian and even if I weren’t Jewish I would probably be on Deborah Dwork’s side about opening those archives.