Gloria Steinem on her Jewish background

Back in the dark ages before the internet, when I was a senior in high school, in 1983, I had the opportunity to interview Gloria Steinem. Even though I’d been reading Ms., the mainstream feminist magazine  Steinem founded, since I was in the 6th grade, I had no idea what to ask her. In those days, research was challenging.

It was not a problem for Danielle Berrin, who interviewed Steinem for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles last month. (I just saw the article reprinted in the San Francisco Jewish paper, j. weekly.) She asked Steinem a good question, “Was your desire to pursue feminist justice at all inspired by your Jewish background?” Steinem gave her a great answer:

My mother, who was not Jewish, was always very clear about the importance of the Jewish tradition and respect for the Jewish tradition. She really tried to stress that, and she loved her mother-in-law, adored her mother-in-law (who was Jewish.) You know the passage (in the Torah), ‘Wherever I shall go, you shall go?’ That was always how I knew it was a woman speaking to a woman — because of my mother.

This is, for me in my current job, a fascinating answer. (Yes, I know she didn’t get the quote 100% right, but that was pretty good from off the top of the head of someone who doesn’t happen to be named Ruth! It’s from the book of Ruth (Ruth 1:6) and you can find it here.)

I know from my academic work on the history of Jews in the woman suffrage movement that Steinem’s grandmother was a woman suffragist. Steinem herself wrote a piece on her grandmother Pauline Perlmutter Steinem for the Jewish Women’s Archive. She could have told the interviewer how having a Jewish grandmother who was a feminist influenced her. Instead she gave an answer that credited her mother’s role in preserving Jewish culture in her interfaith family. Which is great.

As much as young women of my generation needed people like Steinem as a feminist role model, the Jewish community needs models of retaining Jewish identity among children of interfaith marriage. Steinem, who is 75 years old,  wasn’t raised as a Jew, but she still gave that answer at a synagogue to a Jewish newspaper reporter. It made me happy to see it.

Biracial Identity and the Census

I admire Adam Serwer–I follow him on Twitter and read his work on The American Prospect website. I really like what he had to say here on Barack Obama’s choice to identify as black on the US Census.

Obama could have chosen to identify with both sides of his family, as Serwer and others have. As you know, and I know some of you know better than I do, when you come from two backgrounds, people often ask you to choose one, even though you come from two families and at least two cultures (if not more!) The US Census doesn’t ask you to do that–if you come from two or more of the racial categories the Census happens to measure, you can identify with both or all of them.

Serwer writes:

The question really becomes what “legacies” of the painful elements of our past do we voluntarily embrace and which ones we reject. To the extent that biracial black people identify as black, they are choosing to embrace a once-painful element of their history. It is not being forced on us. I happened to check both white and black on my census form, but that was my choice. Every mixed person has a right to tell their own story on their terms. You might as well tell Jews to stop celebrating Passover because it is part of the enduring legacy of Jewish slavery in Egypt. That’s exactly what it is, but that doesn’t tell you anything about its value to the culture or why it continues to endure.

I have been thinking about this question–whether we’re entirely shaped by the biases against us, or whether we have identity that’s independent of oppression–since I read Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew in 1987. (You know how there are some books that just shape your whole life? That was one for me.) The book made me think about my role as a person with white privilege in US society. I thought the dynamic Sartre describes between the biased person, the target of bias, and the “liberal”–a bystander who allows the targeting to happen and blames the victim–described how my society dealt with race. But at the same time, the book is about whether any cultural minority has a culture aside from what it creates in the negative space of a racist dynamic. Do Jews exist without anti-Semitism? I would say yes, we do, we have an identity and culture that is greater than simply resistance.

What do you think about how to fill out the census? I mean the literal one that will count our country this year so that we can apportion resources, but there is also a metaphorical census. When you stand up to be counted, how do you select from your various identities? Does context matter? Tell me about it.

Malcolm McClaren Dies

I had no idea that Malcolm McClaren, a key personality in the punk movement, was Jewish. McClaren, who died yesterday at the age of 64, was apparently the child of an interfaith family: a Scottish dad and a Jewish mom. He was raised by his Sephardi grandmother, Rose Isaacs, whom he identified as a key influence. As Dave Simpson, the Guardian obituary writer put it, “His father left home when he was two and Malcolm was raised by his grandmother, Rose, who home-schooled him and fed him slogans such as “it’s good to be bad and it’s bad to be good”, along with a general distaste for the royal family.”

McClaren was the impresario of the Sex Pistols, the person who gave them their name and their image. (Distaste for the royal family, indeed! If you’ve ever heard “God Save the Queen” you know why Simpson thought it was important to say that!) He was also responsible for Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant, two New Wave bands from the 80s.

The Infidel and Other Jokes

My coworker sent us all the link to the trailer for The Infidel, a new comedy by Anglo-Jewish writer David Baddiel. The film, which premiered in London last night, stars the British Iranian comedian Omid Djalili as a Muslim cab driver from the East End who discovers that he was adopted and that his birth family was Jewish. (Djalili is not Muslim; he’s Baha’i, but has played a lot of both Jewish and Muslim characters.)  It also features Richard Schiff from The West Wing, playing a Jewish friend of the main character, and Archie Panjabi, who was the older sister in the film Bend It Like Beckham.

The film looks funny and it’s certainly relevant to some of the people who come to our site–we get a lot of children and grandchildren of interfaith families who find out they are Jewish. (You also might want to look at Aliza Hausman’s great profile of Sadia Shepherd, a real person who was raised in an interfaith Muslim-Christian household and found out as an adult that she was also Jewish.)

I do share some of the ambivalence that Shazia Merza, a Muslim comedian who acted as a script consultant, expressed in David Baddiel’s last video blog about the making of the film.

You know, you always worry when you’re making jokes about a particular religion that hasn’t got a history of comedy. Jews have got a history of comedy and making jokes, and people have heard these jokes before, and they’ll relate to them, or they’ll find them funny, but with the Muslim jokes, you know, we haven’t had a history of comedy…

She then proceeds to tell what I thought was a pretty funny, feminist joke.

Baddiel sponsored a contest called Which Religion is Funniest? in order to have some stand-up at the movie premiere. Eh. I don’t know, perhaps it’s not the easiest subject for comedy It is a true pleasure to see what Yasmeen Khan calls “a small but vibrant interfaith comedy scene” in Britain, in  her article about the movie for The New Statesman–Jewish and Muslim comedians working together to puncture stereotypes and deflate bias. Whether or not The Infidel makes its way to the US, let’s hope that spirit of collaboration comes here, too.

Are Attitudes Towards Intermarriage Changing?

J.J. Goldberg, senior columnist at the Forward, has written an important essay, Generation to Generation, Our Changing Judaism, that I wanted to share with the IFF community.

Goldberg was attending a family bar mitzvah at the Pelham Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue outside of New York City. He spoke with a cousin, a federation executive, who was “trying to figure out the next phase in American Jewish history.”  Then the bar mitzvah boy, a public school student, delivered an insightful homily on the Torah portion: “‘a religion can change and grow,’ Jon said. We’re not exactly the same community we were yesterday, he said, and our religion grows with us. ‘The Torah wants us to understand that.’”

Goldberg continues that the parents’ role in the ceremony was “downright astonishing:”

[W]hen the rabbi called them to the bimah for an aliyah, a Torah blessing, something new happened. … [H]e called the parents’ names: Geoff Lewis ve-Chana bat Yosef…. Jon’s father, doesn’t have a Hebrew name. He’s not Jewish.

Goldberg had been to b’nai mitzvah ceremonies where children of interfaith families “performed the traditional rituals as credibly as any other Jewish child,” but:

I’ve never before seen a traditional, old-fashioned Hebrew davening in which a non-Jewish parent was welcomed as a participant, honored like any other parent who brings a Jewish child into the covenant — perhaps even more so, since he was bringing his child into a covenant he had not taken as his own…. The inclusiveness didn’t stop there. Both parents stood before the open ark and offered blessings to their son — Anne in Hebrew, Geoff in English.

Goldberg describes his reaction:

At first it was a shock to watch. Almost immediately, though, it felt completely natural. Now I can’t get over the shock that this is still unusual.

He then makes two conclusions. First, the father was “one-half of the couple that raised this Jewish child. How could he not be part of the celebration, not share his joy with the community as his child becomes a man?” Second, “how many other parents don’t bring their children into the covenant because they think — correctly, all too often — they won’t be welcomed?”

I think I was particularly taken with Goldberg’s essay because I spent most of the end of February and early March traveling around the country trying to raise funding for the cause of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life. Two comments stuck with me and made me wonder whether attitudes are really changing. A genuinely welcoming Reform rabbi said that he did not officiate at weddings of interfaith couples because he favors Jews marrying other Jews and thinks that by officiating for interfaith couples he is communicating an inconsistent message. The executive director of a Jewish foundation said he wants his children to marry other Jews and is not sure that InterfaithFamily.com’s work is conducive to that — although he wants to welcome couples once intermarriage has happened. Lydia Kukoff, our new Board member, told me that these are the same things she heard forty years ago, when she was a founder of the effort to engage interfaith families in Jewish life.

It is heartening to me for a thought leader of J.J. Goldberg’s stature to say that it felt natural and necessary for a non-Jewish parent to be an integral part of the celebration of raising a Jewish child, to question “how many other parents don’t bring their children into the covenant because they think — correctly, all too often — they won’t be welcomed,” and to give praise (very well-deserved, in my opinion) to Rabbi David Schuck who “dared to open [his community's] gates as few other rabbis have done.”

When more Jewish leaders recognize that Goldberg’s cousin’s family — with an unconverted non-Jewish parent participating in raising a Jewish child — is not sub-optimal, but instead is a positive Jewish outcome equal to any other — then we will have a truly “changing Judaism.” I hope Goldberg’s essay will help move us in that direction.

Judith Shulevitz on the Sabbath

It’s still Passover and I’m still processing the experience of my family seder, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to link you to two pieces about a new book by Judith Shulevitz, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. I’m delighted to see that Rebecca Neuberger Goldstein, who wrote the fantastic recent book on Spinoza and Jewish identity, did the New York Times review of Shulevitz’s book.

Shulevitz, who grew up in an observant Jewish household, is ambivalent about how to keep Shabbat in a traditional way. No longer Orthodox, she has to come to terms with how to rest on Shabbat. She has both a deep understanding and background in Jewish thought and culture, and a profoundly American sensibility–I’m listening to her interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air program, and it’s amazing.

When I’m trying to figure out how to talk about Jewish observance for interfaith families and not to repel people by making one mode of observance the normative one, it’s really hard to talk about resting on Shabbat. By resting I mean not only doing the rituals that make Shabbat beautiful, but stopping work, or as Shulevitz puts it, being together, not exerting mastery over the world–resting together, not only resting. Shulevitz says some great things in this interview and I’m enticed to read this book and have it reviewed on our site, if I can.