One Way to Get It Right and a signal boost

How great to see another model of Jewish-Catholic intermarriage in a Chicago newspaper. Alexa Aguilar’s piece, Two Faiths Can Join To Make a Happy Family in the Chicago Tribune today, provides a welcome contrast to the debacle of the Reyes case, in which a divorcing couple fought over their child’s religious practice. Aguilar writes:

My husband is Jewish. I was raised Catholic. He went to Hebrew school, I went to Catholic school. He was a bar mitzvah, I received all my sacraments.

But we are two people who believe there are many paths to God, and who recognize that much of our faith is intertwined with our warm memories of childhood. When we decided to marry, we were intent on being a couple who would be open-minded and respectful of each other’s traditions.

I really liked the subtitle at the top of the webpage: “Interfaith marriage: One way to get it right.” Because there is more than one way to get it right, just as there are so many ways to get it wrong.

Aguilar’s family goes to Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors, the congregation where our frequent contributor Rachel Baruch Yackley has had a leadership role. (It’s more of a havurah than a synagogue so there isn’t just one leader.) That was kind of nice to see, too.

I also want to boost the signal for Hila Ratzabi‘s project, an anthology of pieces by women in Jewish interfaith relationships. She has a blog post up about it on The Forward‘s The Sisterhood blog–a nifty Jewish web resource I should mention in any case.  (I find the internet slang “boost the signal” oddly amusing, don’t you? It sounds so technical.)

Shakshuka and Anne Frank

It’s lovely to see sunny Tori Avey, who wrote a great piece on how to run a Passover seder for us, telling the story of her Journey From Shiksa to Shakshuka in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. She is one of my favorite finds of the last few months–like a younger, American apprentice to Claudia Roden. (I know, if Tori reads that she’ll faint–Claudia Roden is every foodie’s hero. She’s certainly mine.) But she does the same thing–the recipe collecting and preserving–that Roden does so well. Because it’s partly about collecting and transcribing, but it’s also about testing and having the taste buds to choose the best variation.

I also really like to eat shakshuka. I haven’t made it in a long time–a bed of sauteed onions, tomatoes and sometimes peppers with fried eggs on top.

My friend Rebecca Lesses, a professor of Judaic Studies at Ithaca College, mentioned on her blog Mystical Politics a new feature on the Anne Frank House website. You can now see a lot of the exhibits in the museum without traveling to Amsterdam.

Fusion Cuisine Preserves Culture

I love Bryant Terry. I bought his cookbook, Vegan Soul Kitchen, and it helped me restore my energy for cooking and new recipes. Sometimes I feel like ethnic authenticity and my food needs as a Jewish vegetarian are at war, and Terry’s approach to both cuisines and food ethics are a breath of fresh air. He calls it “remixing.”

Terry and his partner, Jidan Koon, whose family is Chinese, decided to make a dish that combines Asian and African diaspora elements, and they chose jung, a kind of rice dumpling steamed in bamboo leaves. It required finding someone’s mom to show them the method. Then they blended the two cultures by using African-American ingredients, like peanuts and black-eyed peas, that they thought went with the Chinese dish–and they made it vegan. They published an article about the recipe in Hyphen Magazine. You can also watch a video with a more detailed method.

As you probably know, Jewish cuisines are completely and totally fusion cuisines. If I hadn’t realized it before, I know it now from writing the Jewish Food Cheat Sheet for this site. Many of the classic Ashkenazi foods–pastrami, borscht, babka–have non-Jewish versions, many of which are not kosher. (Pastrami made from pork? Shocking but true.)  Adapting the surrounding culture’s foods to your own dietary system is one of our oldest cultural traditions–and it’s one of the reasons we think Jewish food is so great. Immigration+kashrut X your bubbe’s ingenuity=fusion cuisine.

One of the obvious bonuses of bringing other cultures into the Jewish community through intermarriage and conversion has been the food blending. Make non-Jewish foods kosher? Yes. Interview the grandmothers to preserve the tradition? Yes. Good stuff–and it’s good for us. Like a remix, it brings freshness to an old song.

History of Jewish Intermarriage

I read the blog On the Main Line, even though I can never figure out how to justify it. It’s not like this Jewish history blogger who posts such diverse reproductions of primary sources is ever going to cover interfaith marriage, right? Most of my Jewish blogs eventually have posts I can use on this one.

Well, today On the Main Line posted an item from the 1909 Reform Advocate and called it Jewish-Chinese Intermarriage in 1909. SCORE!

The whole blog is a repository for nifty stuff. The blogger, who uses an alias, has an admirably omnivorous mind and must know some crazy number of languages. If you don’t know much Jewish history and can’t place any of the primary sources in context, it might be overwhelming.

But if you took a course like Me’ah, an adult ed program in Jewish history that started here in Boston and has been replicated in other cities, you might be ready to dive into some of these posts.

Anyway, check out the blog, because it’s cool even if not to all of our readers’ tastes. A piece like Where did Chad Gadya Come From Anyway?, discussing a famous song from the Passover seder, might be just your speed. If you’ve seen anything Jewish on the web that you think we should be linking for interfaith families because it’s cool, let me know.

Earth Day

Today is Earth Day. Zik Daniel, whom I follow on Twitter,  linked to a Carl Sagan video. It’s Sagan reading his speech, “The Pale Blue Dot.

Yes, Carl Sagan was Jewish. He was also a true agnostic about God, a skeptic and a secular person. Nevertheless, the videos circulating on the internet with his speeches feel intensely spiritual. As I’m still mulling over the experience of writing the Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide for our site, and trying to think about how to talk about these difficult, intensely personal subjects with my kid, I am filled with appreciation and love for Sagan.


See?

Yes That

What should we do about divorce in interfaith families? Two people who are always smart about interfaith family issues, Laurel Snyder, the editor of the book Half-Life: Jew-ish Tales From Interfaith Homes and Julie Wiener, a Jewish journalist writing on interfaith marriage for the New York Jewish Week, have written recently about outreach strategies and the Reyes divorce case. They said some things that have me saying a big Amen.

In After the Bus Wreck, Snyder wrote:

Because the single greatest problem I see in Jewish intermarriage is not a Christmas tree, it’s this—the shifting of a child’s religious identity—whatever it may be—after it has been solidified and formed. In all the most troubled cases I’ve encountered, this is the unifying narrative. Mom turns orthodox or Dad is born again. Dad moves to Israel or Mom marries a minister. Usually, divorce stands in for the lethal bus accident.

There is a polarizing force in divorce that attaches itself to religion. Religion helps to soothe the jangled soul of the newly single parent, creates automatic community and home. So divorce drives us into the bosom of faith.  But for a kid who has grown up with one set of rules and signifiers, the sudden shift, the change in terms, can be brutal. At a time when things are already baffling enough.

People who worry that interfaith marriage might lead to assimilation sometimes express the wish that intermarried partners would divorce. Aside from wishing misery on other people, which has to be some kind of sin somewhere, there’s this problem: adding a further layer of destabilization to a kid’s life by throwing their religious life up in the air.

And this case brings up the other “solution” to interfaith marriage–pressuring the non-Jewish spouse to convert. As Julie Wiener put it:

While I think conversion to Judaism can be a wonderful thing, too often the Jewish community pushes it in a way that seems like a dishonest, cosmetic solution to intermarriage — about making things look good, about covering up the non-Jewish partner’s embarrassing heritage and making the Jewish family feel like good Jews, rather than about encouraging real soul searching. I wonder how many of these cosmetic conversions actually last beyond the marriage that spurred them.

Julie then told the story of a woman she met who confided to her that though she’d converted during her marriage, she felt unmoored and like “nothing” after divorce.

A person can’t predict how he or she will feel in the wake of divorce. Most people don’t get married thinking, “this love is too good to last.” We can’t really blame people for changing their beliefs even in a marriage. What the Jewish community can do to support interfaith families is to get over discomfort about the role of non-Jews in the community.  It would be better for people in the Jewish community to live with the discomfort of figuring out how to include non-Jewish spouses and family members in Jewish life than to pressure people for cosmetic conversions. The stakes are high–let’s go for the big win and not the bus wreck.

More Bad Attitude from Israel

Back in October, the Jerusalem Post published an op-ed I wrote, What Israelis need to know about intermarriage in North America. As I blogged then, “it is critical for Israelis to know that intermarriage does not necessarily lead to loss of Jewish identity and affiliation; that many interfaith couples and families are engaging in Jewish life; and that intermarriage has the potential to increase support for Israel in America.”

Apparently, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benyamin Netanyahu, either didn’t read my op-ed, or if he did, the message didn’t register. In February, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke at the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of Governors meeting. Our friends at eJewish Philanthropy quoted him as saying that one main palpable challenge to the Jewish future is “the loss of identity – the loss of identity through assimilation or through intermarriage or through both is the greatest toll-taker of Jewish numbers in the last half-century.”

Paul Golin, the associate executive director at the Jewish Outreach Institute, had an interesting op-ed in the New York Jewish Weeklast week. As Paul aptly says,

The suggestion that intermarriage also represents absorption beyond recognition into the larger culture is an affront to the literally hundreds of thousands of households where one parent happens to be Jewish that are currently raising Jewish children. If intermarriage means the same thing as assimilation, there wouldn’t be intermarried members of synagogues, children of intermarriage on Birthright Israel trips or intermarried leaders of Jewish communal organizations.

Continuing to group “intermarriage and assimilation” into a synonymous phrase pushes away the intermarried families already among us.

About The New Busy

Wow, I really hate this new Hotmail ad campaign. I noticed and loathed it for the first time yesterday on a poster in a bus shelter in Boston, a big green field with the words, “THE NEW BUSY THINK 9 TO 5 IS A CUTE IDEA” in white letters.

Now, there are a lot of reasons to hate this. First, as one Seattle-area blogger pointed out in an aptly-titled post, New Ad Campaign for Hotmail Is Everything We Expect From Microsoft–Awkward, Baffling, Hard to Escape, “This exercise in tone-weirdness, this ball of syntactical confusion, has started showing up on billboards, buses, banner ads, and the signature lines of Hotmail users everywhere. ” Local Boston journalist Alex Beam considers this campaign part of “the War Against the English Language.” It’s a bad ad campaign for what seems to be an inferior product, a 15-year-old web-based email system.

I’m not all that crazy about Hotmail, since they seem to me to be more than usually vulnerable to hacking–but that’s not why I’m writing about this on our blog. I’m writing about it because I am finding our 24/7 work culture an affront to basic human dignity, because it flies in the face of the reason I observe Shabbat.

Shabbat is the opposite of the New Busy. Shabbat is the very old Not Busy. Shabbat is a time to unplug. Shabbat is the time when your family can be together without working. Without working! No working! Stop working! Rest! Because you have a RIGHT to rest sometimes! Your boss cannot possibly pay you enough to justify working all the time!

This isn’t only a Jewish issue–I’m not saying this just to get interfaith families to go to Tot Shabbat. (Though that’s also so nice.) I am saying it’s time for everyone to get off of this treadmill and admit that we need to rest.

I’m giving you advice about what you should do tonight. Go have a nice meal with your lovely family or friends, and then afterward, lie down and sleep. Take a DAY OFF this weekend. You are a person with needs and relationships. Affirm the basic inherent dignity of human individuals, the beauty of the natural world and its rhythms, something good that is not work. The New Busy is the old oppression.

Meaningful Spiritual Practices and New Translation of Psalms

I have often felt uncomfortable with the word spiritual. It’s usually used in a way that makes me feel inferior, because I don’t know if my experiences measure up. I mean, I get a lot out of traditional Jewish practice, like prayer and making blessings and doing mitzvot and stuff like that, but I can’t say that what I’m getting is spiritual. It’s a little zap or zing of feeling, something emotional, but maybe that’s not spiritual? I don’t know. I also get a little thrill reading poetry or listening to religious music in other traditions, like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Mavis Staples–but is that a spiritual thrill?

Nevertheless, I wrote a Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide for our site, after about three months of research and introspection–and kvetching. (The kvetching was surprisingly fruitful, if utterly unspiritual, because people responded with their insights in the face of my whining.) I thought a lot about how interfaith families have unique opportunities for hiddur mitzvah, making the performance of commandments extra beautiful and excellent.

After I wrote my piece, I found this blog post on jewsbychoice.org, Three Meaningful Spiritual Practices for Rural Isolated Jews. I love this! The practices that I chose for my guide were very community-based ones, and I am so happy to see something about how to find something meaningful on your own.

Another nifty thing I came across after I wrote my guide was Pam Greenberg’s The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation. I’m friendly with Pam and really excited about this new edition, which becomes available today. You can read and hear an interview with Pam on the pbs.org website. Psalms are a really important part of Jewish (and many Christian!) worship services, so a new translation that gives a chance to rethink them is very exciting. (Plus I’m so stoked to realize I watched Pam working on this at the Diesel Cafe! That’s just nifty, you know?)

I’d love to hear from you about your meaningful spiritual practices.

Because Some People Like Dancing

I’m reading the short excerpt from Elie Kaunfer’s book Empowered Judaism in the New York Jewish Week of April 9. The excerpt begins with this:

The false crisis — declining Jewish continuity, caused by assimilation and an intermarriage rate of 52 percent — has become the rallying cry of institutional Judaism. But fundamentally, it is a red herring. The real crisis is one of meaning and engagement. For the first time in centuries, two Jews can marry each other and have Jewish children without any connection to Jewish heritage, wisdom or tradition.

My first reaction to Kaunfer’s argument that the key is peer engagement and intellectually rigorous study is “Right on!” After all, that’s been my life in the Jewish world. Though I did train as a Jewish academic, my main Jewish experiences have been informal study in a havurah and in people’s homes in Boston, Jerusalem and Cleveland.

But then I realize that Kaunfer isn’t speaking for all Jews. When he says “Even people who are in-married by and large have little connection to Torah, Jewish practice and values,” I think that “even” is  too much of a concession to the (strictly biological) continuity fallacy. I’ve seen in this work how many intermarried Jews and their partners become more engaged with Jewish life because they have to do something different in order to raise Jewish children. (Not that there’s only one experience of interfaith marriage, of course.)  I agree that who we marry isn’t the sole determinant of what we have to pass down as Jewish religion and culture to our children–it’s only one piece. That “even” sticks out, a little pebble in my shoe.

Further, though, for all of us who love a good group of people sitting around with texts and dictionaries arguing over what some words mean, there are people who aren’t so interested in words. They want to bake bread, or dance, or do something with their hands. They like to sing or they like the gossip in the hallway or the kitchen of the synagogue. (Well, who doesn’t? That’s where you find out everything important.) I remember when my havurah did a lot of “movement midrash,” dance interpretations of the Torah portion. I found it uncomfortable and felt silly trying to do it, but it drew in some people who became very committed Jews–because they liked to dance.

In essence, I agree with Kaunfer–we shouldn’t dumb down Judaism, we need more empowered Jewish education and the best way to make sure that we have a very stimulating Jewish life is to take it into our own hands. I like Kaunfer’s model of the do-in-yourself, small, modular minyan; that’s how I’ve chosen to live. I’m just not ready to believe that everyone in the Jewish community has the same background, needs, learning style or tastes as I do.