Memorial Day, 2010

Today is Memorial Day and I want to honor my father-in-law, Don Bosworth. Don is a World War II veteran and was a prisoner of war in Germany. He lives in assisted living and has been pretty sad since his wife Jean, my beloved mother-in-law, died in 2005.

Back in the 1970’s Don and Jean bought a small cottage in a very beautiful spot – Cape Porpoise harbor, part of Kennebunkport, Maine, a town most known as the summer residence of George H. W. Bush.  Kennebunkport is still a small town and they still put on a Memorial Day parade. It starts in Dock Square, the center of town – I remember one year when President Bush attended – and then the participants drive a few miles over to Cape Porpoise Square and the parade is repeated.

Most years on Memorial Day my wife and I would be in Maine, where we are today, and would walk down the street to Cape Porpoise Square to see the parade. More important than the middle school band and the baton twirlers and fire engines, a small group of increasingly aging, mostly male, veterans march a short distance in formation.

I came of age during the Vietnam War and never served myself. Most of the conflicts in my lifetime have not been popular. But I always feel it is important to be at the parade and to honor not only the veterans, but also those who currently serve in our armed forces. In large part it’s because of my father-in-law’s sacrifices during the war.

Despite all of its problems and shortcomings, we live in a great country. There may be uncertainties about more recent conflicts, but those who serve made and make it possible for all of us to enjoy our many freedoms – including religious freedom.

For many years I would get upset at the Memorial Day parade because there was always an invocation and benediction and invariably the priest or minister would conclude his or her prayer “in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” There were so many times I wanted to write down the clergy person’s name and write to him or her and point out that not everyone in attendance was Christian – but I never did. Finally a few years ago the references to Jesus ended.

A couple of years ago the State of Maine created a small Prisoner of War museum and invited all of the living ex-POW’s to attend the opening ceremony. My father-in-law is extremely modest and unassuming and didn’t want to be honored, but we persuaded him to go. It was a moving sight to see the 15 or so mostly WWII vets there, most using walkers. The chaplain who gave the invocation prayed in the name of Jesus, which for some reason upset me much more than usual. When the ceremony ended I went up to him and said with some vehemence that my father-in-law wasn’t a prisoner of war so that he could pray in a public ceremony in the name of Jesus – he was a prisoner of war so we would all have freedom to pray as we choose and without public favoring of any one religion over another. The poor chaplain was visibly taken aback – he actually said that some of his best chaplain colleagues were rabbis – but I’m pretty sure he got the point.

It’s because of the freedoms and pluralism and tolerance of America that Jews are no longer restricted to themselves and we have the challenge and great opportunity that intermarriage presents to the future of Jewish life. I’m pretty sure that my father-in-law wasn’t thinking during his army days that his service would contribute to the conditions where I could become his son-in-law. But I’m very glad it did, and I want to be sure to honor him today.

The Jewish Days and Nights of Adrienne Rich

I received a review copy of A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008, a slim volume of Adrienne Rich’s prose. Like many people who went to college in the 1980s, I read–and mostly failed to understand–Rich’s poetry in classes. In the 1990s, I went to hear her speak and was surprised that she identified as a Jew–my professors had never talked about that aspect of her identity when we read her celebrated early feminist poems (“Diving Into the Wreck” )  in my classes.

If I’d known her work better, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Rich wrote a foundational essay on reclaiming Jewish identity in 1982 after growing up in an interfaith family, “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity.” Born in 1929 to a Jewish father and a gentile mother, Rich was raised to hide the Jewish heritage she later came to embrace. She came of age as the crimes of the Holocaust were coming to light, and in “Split at the Root” recalls her first exposure, through newsreel footage, to Auschwitz.

Which may be why A Human Eye has a photograph of Muriel Rukeyser’s eye on the cover, and an essay about Rukeyser inside. Rich cites Rukeyser’s poem, “Letters to the Front,” 

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.

Adrienne Rich has chosen, as she writes in “Jewish Days and Nights,”

Every day in my life is a Jewish day. Muted in my house of origin, Jewishness had a way of pressing up through the fissures. … Jewishness was muted in my house of origin, but the sense of specialness was not: that house was–intensely–different from the homes of my middle-class, non-Jewish friends. For one thing, it was full of books.

The essay goes on to articulate a leftist Jewish political stance, one that is perhaps iconoclastic–but it is an insider’s stance.

As a poet and essayist who was among the first to transform the personal to the political, Rich has undergone many personal transformations in public. She was married to a Jewish man and raised three sons with him before she came out of the closet as a lesbian in 1970. Her feminist writing and poems about her lesbian experience have overshadowed these writings about reclaiming Jewishness. Yet they are here, fluent and beautiful, a testimony to the possibility of children of interfaith families passing on Jewish heritage and participating in the Jewish community–even in the capacity of voicing dissent.

Up and Dancing in Circles

I just loved this piece I heard on NPR last night about Abraham Inc., a joint project of classical clarinetist Dave Krakauer, funk trombone player Fred Wesley Jr. (who backed James Brown and Parliament Funkadelic, among others) and one of my favorite young musicians, hip-hop/klezmer maestro DJ Socalled, the performance name of Josh Dolgin. I just think DJ Socalled’s music is amazing–and as you know, I love cultural mash-ups.

There’s a documentary about Dolgin’s music on Youtube, which I knew was coming but didn’t realize had finally been released! It’s $.99 to view on youtube, here. Can’t believe I missed that. I’ll try to watch it in the next week and let you know what it’s like.

I was very tempted to include at least an introduction to other Jewish-African-American musical collaborations, but the list was immense. Then musicians who are both African American and Jewish–also too long. Another day!  Enjoy the video

Tell It

I was very excited when I found Jennifer Thompson, a young academic who did an ethnographic study of interfaith families in Atlanta–I have an article she wrote just for IFF here in my hot little hand. Don’t miss the great op-ed piece she wrote for The Forward, Look Who’s Raising Jewish Children. She hits one of my favorite subjects:

The language we use to talk about non-Jews is an important way of signaling who and what they are to Jewish communities. Yet we still don’t have a way to succinctly and accurately describe non-Jewish family members other than calling them “non-Jews.” This designation creates the false impression that Jewish people’s non-Jewish family members are as distant from the Jewish people as any other non-Jew — an impression that is ultimately counterproductive.

As Thompson notes, rabbis and other Jewish professionals tried to come up with a name for these non-Jewish allies in our families and communities–several thought ger toshav, which means something like “resident alien” or “live-in guest” might work. When I first started at IFF, I wrote a piece about this with a reporter, Welcoming the Stranger, Or Just Welcoming, which was about why, though I liked it and many rabbis liked it, the term ger toshav never caught on:

If you aren’t part of this mindset that I apparently share with these rabbis, you might be wondering why we need a ceremony or a category for people who aren’t Jewish who are supportive of Jewish relatives or friends. The sad answer is that Judaism does not assume that non-Jews are friends to the Jewish people, because Jewish history doesn’t support such a premise. This accounts for our perceived need for some ritual way to distinguish between the non-Jews who scare us and the ones we trust and love.

The funny answer is that, of course we need a ceremony, because everything needs a ceremony, preferably with a certificate and a big table of baked goods afterwards.

Do we need a special way to talk about non-Jewish parents raising Jewish children? Leyna Krow, a Jewish journalist in Seattle, has one–how about “mom”? She writes, in Sometimes the best Jewish mothers aren’t Jewish at all:

It’s a funny story, but it’s also a sad story. My mom had never even met a Jewish person until she roomed with a Jewish girl at UCLA as a college freshman. The religion was still pretty much a mystery to her when she met my dad. But she learned the basics and agreed to be a full participant in the Jewish education of their kid. She took me to and from Hebrew and Religious school, attended synagogue, picked out Jewish books from the book store, made our home festive for the holidays, helped plan my Bat Mitzvah, etc. And for her efforts she gets to be rewarded with the knowledge that most of the Jewish world still does not believe she’s raised a Jewish child? That she was incapable of the task? Doesn’t seem right. I feel pretty Jewish. And I credit both my parents equally for that.

What do you think?

Summer Reading

My 3-year-old recently discovered television.  He can turn on the television and search the channels for Dora the Explorer!  Though there is a time and a place for a television, mainly when Mommy needs to get something done, I am hoping this addiction wanes.    Luckily, I have help from the PJ Library!

Every month a new book or CD arrives.  Each book is well illustrated and brings up a different Jewish value or holiday.  I am actually saved our April book, No Rules for Michael by Sylvia Rouss, for this week.  This age-appropriate book about the role rules have in our life is perfect for Shavuot, when we celebrate revelation and the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

If your child is not already enrolled in the PJ Library, please consider enrolling them in this program.   The PJ Library is a national program which reaches many communities.  I was glad to hear that InterfaithFamily.com’s friends at the PJ Library Program of Greater Boston are now accepting new subscribers ages 0-5 years old. Children enrolled in the PJ Library receive a FREE high quality Jewish children’s book or CD each month for a year. There is no catch and no obligation.

Children of Hidden Jews

I saw a short item, “Polish-language guide to Shavuot distributed.” An organization called Shavei Israel which does outreach to people with Jewish roots or ancestry around the world, prepared the pamphlet.

Children of hidden Jews are, for the most part, children of interfaith marriages. In the Polish case this looks nothing at all like interfaith marriage in the United States–the level of anti-Semitism in Poland and the lack of freedom of religion means that hidden Jews are also people whose Jewish roots were hidden from them.

The interesting thing is that this outreach, which is entirely to people who descended from interfaith families, is under Orthodox auspices and the organization has on its website that it is “under the ongoing supervision of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel.”

Resources on Jewish Ethics

I’m gearing up to teach at Havurat Shalom‘s Tikkun Lel Shavuot–I’m planning to do a class on the Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide.  I wound up writing a lot about how Jewish ethics fit into Jewish spirituality. You can have a lot more discussion of ethical than spiritual questions in a class setting, I find.

The Jewish Publication Society has created a new website to accompany their new series of books on Jewish responses to contemporary ethical issues, Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices. The site includes a blog with some awfully high-powered writers (presumably excerpted from the series) a apparently permanently open chat window for discussing the issues, and forum with some incendiary starting questions. Hot stuff!

The second thing is a book review of Susan Handelman’s Fragments of Redemption by my friend Adina Levin. Why a book review? Because it contains a lucid and easy to understand discussion of Walter Benjamin. That’s not something you come across every day.

The third thing is a website that helps people write ethical wills, called www.ethicalwill.com. Writing an ethical wills is a Jewish cultural custom that anyone can adopt–the practice of putting on paper the moral legacy you’d like your children, grandchildren and students to have from you. What do you think are the most important insights you’ve learned in your life? If you are having a major lifecycle event, like a wedding, a bar or bat mitzvah, a divorce or a serious illness, it could be a good time to put it all on paper. Your ethics may be Christian or atheist or Buddhist, but passing them down is Jewish–the perfect custom for an interfaith family.

Is it Ethical to Post an Unethical Question?

I hate to draw attention to something that I think should never have surfaced,  but I was outraged by something I read in the New York Jewish WeekRabbi Joshua Hammerman writes an ethics column for the Jewish Week and he posted a reader’s question under the title “Should I be concerned about my kid’s non-Jewish friend?” To me, this question is so troubling that I think it should have been an ethical dilemma to the editors of the newspaper whether to give it attention by publishing it.

Some people have told me, “Well, that’s how traditional Jews think.” But the Jewish Week isn’t just for traditional Jews. While there are people out there who do seriously consider this an issue, it’s not OK to give credence to this thinking and a public forum for these hurtful biases.

I cannot imagine how I would feel if the “friend” in the story was my nephew.  How painful would it be to my husband to know that the religion he has agreed to raise his children in and the culture that his wife holds so dear, would insult and shun his family by allowing these concerns to be voiced so publicly.

Can you imagine the reaction if the ethics columnist for the New York Times published the same column and the “friend” in question was Jewish? How many Jews would be up in arms? The paper, the columnist, and the reader who asked the question, would all be called anti-Semitic. Letters would be written. Press releases would be sent. Why do the editors of a Jewish newspaper consider it OK to publish such a question?

Finally resting

I first saw the New York Daily News story reprinted on an Orthodox Jewish website, VosIzNeias. The news was, a New York state court determined that the non-Jewish widow of Jamie Herskowitz, Debra Eirand-Herskowitz, has permission to exhume and move her husband’s remains to the cemetery at the local church in Tuxedo, N.Y., after a three-year legal battle.

Apparently, when Mr. Herskowitz died, Eirand-Herskowitz gave permission to her mother-in-law for her husband to be buried at the family plot at the Mount Carmel Cemetery, not realizing she herself would not be able to be buried beside him because she is not Jewish. She later felt deceived and hurt by her in-laws because they did not inform her of the rules of traditional Jewish cemeteries.

Though Mr. Herskowitz, well-known in New York for his role as the concessionaire at Yankee Stadium, had discussed his burial plans informally with both his wife and his mother, he had not established his plans for burial in writing. According to the court proceedings, both parties–the widow and the mother–believed they knew Mr. Herskowitz’s wishes. In the end the court decided that the close marital relationship made it more likely that Eirand-Herskowitz knew what her husband had wanted.

Reading the court proceedings disturbed me. Much of the testimony was devoted to establishing the religious observance of Mr. Herskowitz. In order to show that he would not have minded being buried near a church, Eirand-Herskovitz discussed their observance of Christmas and Easter, mentioning that they had a Christmas tree in their home. Mr. Herskowitz’s mother, who lived in California and hadn’t had much contact with the couple over their 19 years of marriage, asserted that Jewishness was important to her son because when he went Carmel Cemetery with her to visit his father’s grave, he would take out a prayer book, put on a yarmulke, and say a prayer. It doesn’t seem to me that either having a Christmas tree or wearing a yarmulke and saying a prayer at a gravesite establish how important it was to an individual to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, or next to his spouse in a non-Jewish cemetery.

It’s a basic difficulty all interfaith couples face in death. If the Jewish partner wants to be buried next to his spouse, in most Jewish cemeteries he cannot. A few Jewish cemeteries have created sections where interfaith couples may be buried together, but most have not. To avoid this kind of sad family conflict at the worst possible time–when someone dies–talk with your family about what you want, and put it in writing. We have a discussion packet on this issue that will help you get started talking with your spouse.

Lena Horne Dies at Age 92

Lena Horne died yesterday in New York. She was a legendary singer and actress, most famous for her signature song, “Stormy Weather.” In addition to her work in Hollywood films and on the stage as a singer, Horne was a public activist for civil rights, a near life-time member of the NAACP and a participant in the March on Washington.

Horne’s second marriage, in 1947, was to a Jewish man, Leonard Hayton. Some sources say that the two were separated in the 1960s, but they remained married until his death in 1971. Her public comments about their relationship don’t paint it in the most positive light–in a 1980 interview with Ebony she said she’d married him to advance her career.

We published a celebrity column about Horne’s granddaughter, Jenny Lumet.  (Horne’s daughter from her first marriage, Gail Jones Lumet Buckley, was also married to a Jewish man, well-known film director Sidney Lumet, whom she subsequently divorced.) In Lumet’s most recent film, Rachel Getting Married, interracial marriage is no big deal–and in fact for Lumet herself, it isn’t, either. Jenny Lumet describes her own second husband as “a nice Jewish boy.”

For Lena Horne, marrying Lenny Hayton was a fraught experience–they had to leave California to get married, because interracial marriage was illegal in 1947, and there’s something suggestive about the fact that they apparently separated for some years but never divorced. The marriage was one of the many things she did to bring down barriers to equality in the United States, and she felt she had to explain it in a variety of ways. The Associated Press obituary quotes a 2009 biography in which Horne supposedly told a lover that she’d married a white man “To get even with him.” Who knows what their relationship was really like.

I just appreciate the contributions to society Horne made through her work and her visibility as an performer, contributions that have brought down some of the barriers she faced. If intercultural, interfaith and interracial marriages make it more complicated to pass down a cultural heritage to our children, they are also a sign of the gradual erosion of walls that separate us. With her grace and talent, Horne took down quite a few bricks from those walls.