A Spirit of Optimism

It’s Mother’s Day and I’m thinking about my job. A lot of what we do here is give advice, a lot of our readers are moms, and I have one child who is only 7. Many women my age have more children and have been moms longer. Sometimes I wonder how I have the chutzpah, the effrontery, to give advice, even about the Jewish educational pieces I know so well.

I’ll tell you how. I read a lot. I’m not kidding, even before I took this job, I spent a lot of time reading books and articles and websites about parenting. Because I trust books and I really, really do not want to make mistakes with this wonderful kid.

My favorite book about parenting, so far, is Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. It was the only book that used the same language I had in my head about values. Reading the authors’ Nine Principles for the Parenting Journey was a relief–no one else had combined the sense that parents need to impart their values, which seems a bit on the conservative, authoritarian end of the spectrum of parenting thinking, and also that parents should trust their children, which seems a bit on the liberal, earthy-crunchy side.

The third of the principles is, “Cultivating a spirit of optimism about your children: Believing in our children and enabling them to find their own answers are two of the greatest gifts we can give them.” A lot of my job here is balancing my need to worry (I don’t think that’s only a Jewish cultural thing!) with my ability to trust people to work things out.

I believe that if I impart my knowledge and deep love of Jewish religion and culture my son will be able to develop his own relationship to God and the Jewish people. If I tell my truth about the future I want for the world, he’ll be able to develop his own vision of the future and act to make it real. I also believe that most of the moms who read our site have children like mine–you know, the kind we’ll be very proud to claim as our kids when they are adults. Happy Mother’s Day.

Is it Really a Jewish Thing?

Lately I’ve been struggling with how my son’s friends address me and how he addresses his friends’ parents or my friends. I grew up calling all grown-ups by their first names, with the exception of teachers, of course. My parents’ friends were always Bob and Susan, Karen and Rich, Sam and Michelle. My friends’ parents were always Michael and Sarah, Carol and Fred, and George and Harriet. My husband grew up calling everyone Mr. and Mrs. He hardly ever called any adults by their first names.

Now I am finding myself in uncomfortable situations where I am addressing friends by their first names, but they are addressing themselves to my children as Mr. and Mrs. I am also dealing with the issue of how to ask children to address me. While  I would prefer to be called Heather, rather than Mrs. Martin, I don’t want to undermine my friends’ desires to have their children address adults with Mr. and Mrs.

It got me thinking – is this difference due to general upbringing or religion?  I grew up in South Florida and my husband grew up in New England, so could it be geography? I grew up Jewish, he grew up Roman Catholic, so could it be religion? In my circle of Jewish friends, there was never really a question about how people are addressed–everyone used first names. Today I also move in circles of friends where most are not Jewish and their preferences are more mixed between Mr. and Mrs. and first names. 

As a person navigating an interfaith relationship for a relatively short period of time (we’ve been married seven years and together nine) and the mother of young children (2 and 5), I seem to happen onto these things more and more as we embark on each new phase of life.  While some of it has nothing to do with religious upbringing, I cannot rule out the role of Jewish religion or culture as a possible reason for our differences. As I mentioned in my last blog post Learning from the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, being aware of the differences in upbringing between partners of different faiths can help the Jewish community be more welcoming.

The solution to my issue is, to me, pretty straight forward. I ask parents and friends what they would like my children to call them. I also let them know that I am fine with having their children refer to me by my first name.  The answer to whether or not religion is the reason behind these differences, I may never fully figure out.

Work-Arounds

How should synagogues and Jewish communities in general welcome interfaith families? Julie Wiener wrote a blog post about the article we featured today, Debbie Burton‘s “Speaking as a (Non-)Jewish Parent”–about not speaking at her daughter’s bat mitzvah. Wiener wrote:

Not allowing non-Jewish parents, particularly ones who’ve been supportive of their children’s Jewish upbringing, to participate in their children’s bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies just seems mean-spirited to me. Do people think it will actually discourage intermarriage and encourage gentiles to convert in hopes of getting better treatment?

Wiener points out that Conservative interpretations of halachah do provide some wiggle-room for congregations that want to honor non-Jewish family members. She cited as an example a piece by J.J. Goldberg about a Conservative movement bar mitzvah in which the non-Jewish dad of the bar mitzvah boy was honored.

We saw that piece, too, and Ed Case blogged about it–and last night, Rabbi David Schuck, the rabbi who led that service commented on our post to say,

I actually only called the mother (who is Jewish) of the bar mitzvah boy up to the bimah for an aliyah. Her husband, who is not Jewish, stood next to her, but we was not called up to the Torah. Mr. Goldberg seems to imply that the non-Jewish father had an aliyah, which of course, would be a violation of Halacha, of Jewish Law. As a Conservative synagogue that functions within the limitations of Jewish Law, we do not do this. I believe we in the synagogue are as inclusive as possible within the framework of Halacha, but this still leaves a number of significant limitations for the parent who is not Jewish.

To this I have to say: have some non-dairy frozen dessert. What? OK, say you keep kosher, you ate a meat meal, you really want some ice cream afterward? It used to be, if you wanted ice creamy sort of stuff after meat, you made something not-that-great out of whatever is they put in non-dairy creamer. It gave you the form of ice cream but didn’t violate the prohibition on mixing milk and meat. But today, we have some fantastic flavors of non-dairy frozen dessert, so you can have a totally kosher meat meal and have great, credibly ice-cream-like-stuff afterward. (Thank you, vegan foodies!)

Rabbi Schuck apparently figured out a work-around to made everyone feel welcome and part of the occasion at this much-discussed bar mitzvah. How? We all want to know that. We know it’s not only the form of the welcome but the content that makes a difference. Tell me about your community–how are you doing with welcoming non-Jewish parents?

Learning from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I’m in the midst of one reading one of the best book series I have read in a while, the  Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, which includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  While the story is interesting, I didn’t think it had anything to do with interfaith families, making Jewish choices or encouraging a welcoming Jewish community – until I read the following paragraph:

(Officer) Bublanski felt an urge to talk with God about the case, but instead of going to a synagogue he went to the Catholic church … As a Jew he had no business being in a Catholic church, but it was a peaceful place that he regularly visited when he felt the need to sort out his thoughts. He found the Catholic church an equally good place for contemplation, and he knew that God did not mind. There was a difference, besides, between Catholicism and Judaism. He went to the synagogue when he needed company and fellowship with people. Catholics went to church to seek peace in the presence of God. The church invited silence and visitors would always be left to themselves.

While the novel was keeping my attention, this paragraph caught me by surprise and I started to think about the differences between walking into a church and walking into a synagogue–at least those I’ve walked into. My experiences in church have been primarily around Christmas services, weddings and family baptisms. Having come from a Conservative Jewish background, I was taken aback by the formality and what I initially took as coldness of a Catholic church worship service. You walk in quietly, respectfully, find a seat and sit. You don’t talk, you never yell and if you see someone you know, you may wave inconspicuously. Even though many times the entire church is full, you hardly hear a peep. During the service there is hardly any fidgeting and once the service is over everyone files out nice and orderly. There may be a bit of socializing afterwards, but most of the time you walk to your car and leave.

You couldn’t easily walk into a synagogue during  a Friday night service, sit down and pray without everyone there turning their heads to see who just walked in. If you are new to the community, sometimes even before the service is over, someone–the president of the synagogue, the membership vice president and/or even the rabbi themselves — will come up and introduce themselves to you. They will ask you questions about who you are and what you are doing there.  They may try to find out about your family, background, occupation and  upbringing–and invite you to participate on a committee. It can be an overwhelming experience for a person who is used to walking into a place of worship, sitting down, praying and leaving.

Having had both experiences, Stieg Larsson’s description of the differences between Catholic and Jewish worship services hit home. While I enjoy the part of the synagogue community that welcomes people who walk in the door and the social aspect of services and events, I can understand how a person who has not had the typical synagogue experience could easily be put off by the welcome they get. Being aware of this is one way the Jewish community can be even more welcoming to interfaith couples. It’s not that a Catholic partner in an interfaith couple is not looking for company or fellowship, they just may need some time to get used to the differences.

When It Counts–More On Obama and the Census

Elizabeth Chang wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post last week, “Why Obama should not have checked ‘black’ on his census form,”

Although I knew Obama self-identifies as African American, I was disappointed when I read that that’s what he checked on his census form. The federal government, finally heeding the desires of multiracial people to be able to accurately define themselves, had changed the rules in 2000, so he could have also checked white. Or he could have checked “some other race.” Instead, Obama went with black alone.

I understand why Chang wrote this, and even though I’m mostly on the same page with her about a lot of this, I think she’s wrong.

Chang identifies as the mother of biracial children in an interfaith family, and as someone raising biracial Jewish children. The whole Jewish community is behind her in wanting her children to be able identify as more than one thing. Jewish and Chinese and Hawaiian? Beautiful, we are so on board with that.

But on the other hand, I think there is something to Chang’s phrase, “when it counts, he is black.”  When it counts, stand up for the people who need you. Based on his experiences, Obama judged this was the time to count as an African American. I read the piece in Newsweek last September on the work ahead of parents who want to raise anti-racist children. Parenting “colorblind”–pretending that racism doesn’t exist and that people aren’t different– doesn’t make racism go away or make your children accept difference. In fact it demonstrably does the opposite.

In that Newsweek story, the authors present an anecdote about a class of first graders reacting to a classroom event featuring a black Santa Claus.  For my Jewish child, a black Santa Claus in public school wouldn’t be a great thing. (Promoting inclusion and acceptance of difference through Santa Claus? Really?) But a black President of the United States? That’s a symbol that makes a difference!

I’m not biracial and this isn’t my personal struggle, but I definitely have a lot invested, as a Jewish woman and a mom, in a society in which people of mixed heritage can identify 100% with all parts of their heritage. When it counts, I want Elizabeth Chang’s daughters to have bat mitzvah ceremonies. When it counts, I want them to be part of the Jewish world where my son will live when he grows up.

You can’t list yourself as a Jew on the US Census–for many good reasons–and there might be reasons, in the future, for the Chang girls to list themselves as Asian-American on some document. They will still be Jewish. It’s not a rejection of the culture of the non-Jewish parent for a child of an interfaith marriage to call himself or herself a Jew, full stop, any more than President Obama has rejected his mother and grandparents in any way. The time to identify is when it counts–and I believe in the next generation enough to think they’ll figure out when that is.