Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
I’m afraid that the Jewish world is about to blow it again with interfaith couples and families, as happened just two months ago with negative reactions to the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky. This time, it’s about Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook.
Apparently the soon-to-be-released movie, The Social Network, written by Aaron Sorkin, suggests that Zuckerberg created Facebook so he could meet non-Jewish girls. This according to a piece by Danielle Berrin in the Huffington Post yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg Created Facebook To Get Non-Jewish Girls, that is disturbing on many levels.
Berrin writes that the movie assumes that “for some Jewish men, and perhaps Mark Zuckerberg, being a Jewish woman is a turn-off.” Apparently there is a scene in the movie where Zuckerberg and his friends are looking at a group of Asian women dancing and one comments that Jewish guys connect with Asian girls because they are not Jewish.
I don’t deny that there are stereotypes in culture of Jewish women. As Berrin says, young Jewish women are depicted as Jewish American Princesses and adult Jewish women are depicted as the Overbearing Jewish Mother. To her credit, Berrin says that these stereotypes “obviously, are egregiously unfair.”
But Berrin offends when she suggests that it is not “pure fiction” when Sorkin suggests that in Zuckerberg’s eyes “one of the best things about being an Asian woman is that she isn’t a Jewish woman” on the basis of the fact that Zuckerberg is in a serious relationship with Priscilla Chan, a Chinese-American medical student, whom he started dating in college. She also ends her piece by saying that Jewish women aren’t the problem, the problem is that Jewish men like Zuckerberg are hanging out with the wrong ones.
The notion that Mark Zuckerberg is in love with Priscilla Chan because she is not Jewish, and that he wouldn’t be with her if he had hung out with the “right” Jewish women, is, with all respect, ridiculous. And offensive.
Do you know anyone who is in love with a stereotype as opposed to a real person? Do you know anyone who fell in love with a person because he or she was a stereotype – or was not a person who fit some negative stereotype?
There’s no explaining why Mark Zuckerberg or anyone else is in love with who they are in love with. But I’m pretty confident that people don’t fall in love based on whether a person they are attracted to fits one stereotype or doesn’t fit another.
Berrin offends for another reason: She says a profile of Zuckerberg in the New Yorker gave “the Jewish world yet another reason to fret over the its future by suggesting Zuckerberg is on the road to intermarriage.” Can I ask why that is a reason for the Jewish world to fret? This is the same kind of backward thinking that recently led Jewish leaders to declare the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky “not a Jewish event.”
It’s too bad that this movie, judging from Berrin’s comments, is probably going to generate many more comments complaining that Jewish men aren’t interested in Jewish women and are on the road to intermarriage. It would be a lot smarter if the Jewish reaction to Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan would be a great big “mazel tov, welcome to our community.”
I admit that ever since the dramatic season finales of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, with its disgruntled widow shooting spree, and its spin-off Private Practice, with the death of Dell Parker by a drunk driver, I was wondering how they would begin the new seasons. I was happily surprised to find both episodes dealt with life-cycle events for interfaith couples on last Thursday’s season premiers.
On Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) married Dr. Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd). As described on Judaism/2009/08/Jewish-TV-Characters.aspx?p=2">BeliefNet, Christina considers herself Jewish; the character converted as a child when her mother married a Jewish oral surgeon, Dr. Saul Rubenstein. Christina has, from time to time, brought up her Jewish background. Both of Dr. Yang’s engagements were to non-Jews; it would have been great to see her plan/have an wedding that reflected her Jewish identity.
Dr. Yang’s first wedding, which was planned, but never happened, was to happen in a church with no Jewish clergy present. This wedding was planned by Dr. Yang herself, and not by a future mother-in-law, which gave Christina the perfect opportunity to have included a local rabbi in her ceremony. (InterfaithFamily.com has several rabbis and Jewish professionals in the Seattle area to whom we could have referred her.) I am disappointed that the recent season premier episode completely ignored her faith as well. This was a missed opportunity to portray how meaningful an interfaith wedding could be.
On Private Practice, Drs. Cooper Freedman (Paul Adlestein) and Charlotte King (Kadee Strickland) start the season making love while discussing how Charlotte’s pastor wants to talk to Cooper’s rabbi. I hope the powers that be take the opportunity to explore the dimensions of an interfaith wedding for them!
Looking forward to where the season will take these shows… And hoping to see some interfaith issues explored by the two couples!
Our friends at Mayyim Hayyim have produced a wonderful video of the conversion of an infant. The film was made by a terrific film maker, Jennifer Kaplan. We’ve added it to our Conversion Resource Page; you can watch the video on our site.
Please check out my comments on the video on Mayyim Hayyim’s new blog.
While you’re at it, consider attending Mayyim Hayyim’s international conference October 10-12.
If you come to this website, by now you must know that I have been nominated to be the Jewish Community Hero. It would be hard to miss, since when you come to the site a big pop us box asks you to VOTE in large orange letters. I hope that isn’t too annoying.
If you’re one of my 550 closest friends, you’ve been getting regular emails reminding you that you can vote for me every 12 hours. I hope that isn’t too annoying, either.
I’d like to explain why we’re taking the risk of being annoying. The Jewish Federations of North America sponsors this contest. The top twenty vote getters are evaluated by a panel of judges that picks one winner and four honorees. All five are recognized at the JFNA’s annual meeting, called the “General Assembly,” and all five receive grants for their organizations from the JFNA.
The General Assembly is the place where representatives of all of the local federations get together, along with most of the major Jewish family foundations. It is probably the most important Jewish communal gathering of the year. Especially if you are a non-profit looking for recognition and needing funding.
The cause of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life is terribly under-funded. A few years ago I calculated that the Jewish community gave less than one tenth of one percent of all of its communal spending to outreach to interfaith families – the total was less than $3 million for interfaith outreach against total spending of over $3 billion.
The federations at the time were responsible for spending close to $1 billion of that $3 billion. But very few local federations were spending anything for interfaith outreach – Boston and Atlanta being the notable exceptions.
If I can stay among the top 20 vote getters – I’m currently number 14 – and if the panel of judges takes an enlightened approach to what causes are important (in my opinion) and makes me one of the five honorees – then the cause of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life will be highlighted in front of the entire federation world. That kind of recognition could lead to funding from local federations – after all, InterfaithFamily.com serves people in every Jewish community – and help with the family foundations, too.
The grant from the JFNA would just be gravy – I don’t know how big the grants are, but frankly any amount would help.
I’m not looking for personal honor. I didn’t even seek to be nominated, a wonderful colleague at the Boston federation did that on her own. But being an honoree would be an important boost for our cause – so I want that very badly.
The first step is to be in the top 20 – and I figure that the higher I am in the list, the better my chances with the judges. I’d like to be in the top 10.
Right now at number 14 I have 2,120 votes. The person who is number 10 has 3,391 – so I have a long way to go to get into the top 10.
So please vote early – and vote often!
It’s no secret that, on top of all of the usual issues that come up in relationships, interfaith couples have the extra joy/challenge of navigating additional conversations about identity, heritage, culture, religion, and more. We have many sections of articles dealing with these very topics.
These discussions can feel, at times, overwhelming; some couples choose to ignore the topics all together. In the spirit of increasing dialogue, we would like to invite couples to participate in an online discussion group. If you are dating, engaged or newly married, and interested in exploring the issue of religion in your relationship, and:
[*]Can our children be Jewish if my wife does not convert? [/*]
[*] Can our children be Jewish if my wife does not convert? [/*]
[*] What does a conversion require?[/*]
[*]How can we respect both our religions if we decide to have Judaism as the “lead religion”? [/*]
[*]How can we approach our parents to help us with these dilemmas? [/*]
[*]Can our children go to Hebrew school if they are not converted at birth?[/*][/list][/*][/list]
then our discussion group is for you. You do not need to find the answers to the challenges of being part of an interfaith couple alone.
For 16 years, Dr. Marion Usher has offered a four-session workshop at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center that has been a model to guide couples in openly discussing issues they face as partners from two different backgrounds. The workshop offers you a safe environment to work on creating your religious lives together. You can make Jewish choices while still respecting your partner’s religion.
InterfaithFamily.com is now pleased to pilot the Love and Religion workshop, facilitated by Dr. Usher herself, using an online video conferencing system. Love and Religion – Online meets each Wednesday for four weeks, October 20 and 27 and November 3 and 10, from 7:30 to 9:00pm eastern time. The cost is $36 per couple.
To register for the workshop and for more details, click here. I hope you will want to participate in this pioneering, pilot effort. If it is successful, we’ll offer the online discussion group many more times.
A proposal I made for a workshop at the annual convention of the Jewish Federations of North America has been accepted. In November, I will be speaking before an audience of important Jewish leaders on this question: Can We Encourage In-Marriage and Welcome Interfaith Families? The session will involve presentations by me and my ideological nemesis, Steven M. Cohen, and then responses by some of the top federation executives in the country – Barry Shrage from Boston, Jay Sanderson from Los Angeles and Steve Rakitt from Atlanta. The panel will be moderated by Alisa Doctoroff, Chair of the UJA Federation of New York.
I’ve decided to seek help in shaping my presentation from InterfaithFamily.com’s community of readers. I have fifteen minutes to convey our position on a complicated question. I don’t want to spend a lot of time citing statistics, I want to tell stories – your stories – about how expression of preference for in-marriage affects interfaith couples. So please post your comments below.
I’d like to give three reference points for background. In an article I wrote for IFF then years ago, How to Talk to Your Kids about Interfaith Dating, I basically took the position that it was OK for Jews to say the following to young adults: We would like to see you live a Jewish life; if you want to, the statistics show that your chances are far greater if you marry someone who is Jewish; it is possible, but it isn’t so easy, to have a Jewish family and to raise Jewish children in an intermarriage. I’ve also said many times that it is not OK for Jews to say that intermarriage is wrong, or bad, or a violation of Jewish norms, because that message won’t deter the half of young adults who will intermarry anyway, but it will deter them from engaging Jewishly because people won’t go where they feel disapproval. So I’ve said in the past that it is possible to encourage in-marriage, but only in a very careful and limited way.
Recently Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, took the position that Jewish leaders should fully shed the preference for in-marriage. He said that “preference for one type of family over another inevitably must lead to a lesser welcoming for intermarried families. You simply cannot say, ‘We welcome everybody equally, but we prefer one kind over another.’” Paul did add, however, that “This is not to say that we can’t discuss the challenges of raising Jewish children when one parent is not Jewish; what I’m talking about is the open preference for one type of couple over another, even when both may choose to raise Jewish children.”
Finally, I blogged recently about a report that Steven M. Cohen had said that Jews and Jewish organizations are already plenty welcoming of interfaith couples. In response, I received a very powerful message from an individual that I posted on the blog (scroll down to July 21, 2010 comment). Here is part of what she said:
For all practical purposes, I am the ideal interfaith partner. I gave into everything, gave up all the religious traditions of my family and my childhood, and accepted that I was always going to be fundamentally different and separate from my children. And yet, the message that I get is that it is never enough, that I am simply wrong for not being Jewish, and I am a threat and a second class citizen. When I hear rabbis stress the evils of interfaith marriage in synagogue, how does Dr. Cohen think I feel? How do my children feel, knowing that their father was considered wrong, and that he married an unacceptable person? Is it so much to ask that yes, they soft pedal the admonitions and prejudice against intermarriage, given that we are advocating and living Jewish choices?
So now it’s your turn. What do you think? Should Jews and Jewish leaders fully shed the preference for in-marriage because it is not possible to welcome the non-preferred intermarried? Or is it possible to state a preference and still be welcoming – and if so, how? And if you were the person with fifteen minutes to make our case, what would you say?
Summer ended this weekend and I was thinking it would be nice to ease into the Jewish New Year, spend some time quietly introspecting on the past year and what’s to come. Instead all signs are for a year of creative ferment in attitudes in the intermarriage world, started perhaps by
Our friend Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, has written one of the most important essays in years, God’s Covenant, Judaism and Interfaith Marriage. His essay in the Huffington Post provides a well-reasoned theoretical/intellectual basis for why Jewish leaders should have embraced Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky.
Almost nowhere among Jewish leadership — even in the liberal movements — has there been a full shedding of the preference for in-marriage. And that preference for one type of family over another inevitably must lead to a lesser welcoming for intermarried families.
I urge you to read the entire essay. Here’s the conclusion:
Over the last quarter-century, nearly as many American Jews have married non-Jews as fellow Jews. Today, there are more intermarried than in-married households in the U.S., perhaps by as large a ratio as 60%-40%. The high rate of intermarriage can be seen as the defining opportunity to transform the Jewish community from an insular, tribal entity to a diverse and expanding peoplehood based on key common causes and beliefs. But first we have to make sure our common causes and beliefs are the right ones to be shouting from the mountaintops (hint: “don’t intermarry” isn’t one of them), and then we have to let go of the fear and begin genuinely welcoming as equal all who would select Judaism for themselves or their children.
Next, Rabbi James Ponet has written a very important piece for Tablet, Into the Jewish People: The rabbi who co-officiated at the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding on his journey to accepting intermarriage. True to his word, Rabbi Ponet does not talk about the wedding in his piece, but instead describes the evolution in his attitudes over the course of nearly forty years. Rabbi Ponet clearly is a very thoughtful rabbi with a very serious respect for Jewish tradition. Before becoming Yale Hillel director in 1981, he writes, he
had come to understand that halachah reflects not so much the truth of God as the pragmatics of attempting to live in the world connected to divine norms whose claim, by definition, eludes one’s ability fully to realize. This understanding has guided me as a practicing rabbi as I have been called upon to make practical decisions, especially in areas where there is no precedent. Like intermarriage.
Until five years ago, he worked with intermarrying couples do design a ceremony but would not officiate himself. Then
I began to acknowledge that my legal scruple about officiating or co-officiating at such a wedding was not consistent with my willingness to discount many other traditional norms. The halachah’s non-recognition of a particular action had never restrained me from praying in an egalitarian minyan where a woman might serve as cantor, for example, or joining in a service at which instruments were played on Shabbat….
Again, I urge you to read the entire essay. Here is the conclusion:
I submit that it is time for Judaism to formulate a thoughtful, traditionally connected ceremony through which a Jew may enter into marriage with a non-Jew, a prescribed way or ways by which a rabbi may officiate or co-officiate at such a wedding. I believe we are the ever-evolving people and that there will always be among us those who are rigorously attached to ancient forms. I believe it is critical that there will also always be among us those who vigorously dream and search for new vessels into which to decant the sam chayyim, the living elixir of Torah. If we only look backward as we move into the future, we will surely stumble. We need scouts, envoys, chalutzim, pioneers to blaze new ways into the ancient-newness of Judaism.
Next is a news article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, about Rabbi Noa Kushner (daughter of our own Karen Kushner), Judaism for Gen X: Get your Jewish on. Not ostensibly about intermarriage, Rabbi Kushner’s approach may be exactly what would appeal to young interfaith couples. Her motto is “Do Jewish stuff” and her goal is to get people to explore Judaism beyond traditions like services and seders, particularly the young families in her Marin County community. She created Nita (a project of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael), a group made up of primarily Gen Xers who meet periodically and informally for occasions from monthly Pop-Up Shabbats (featuring great music and takeout so no one needs to cook), to Havdallah House Parties and Storahtelling. She also created Lift Kits – a portable collection of items (including Shabbat candles, organic soap, a hot pink mezuzah and a directory of Jewish organizations) designed for High Holy Day preparation and to help people celebrate traditions wherever they happen to be. Here are some of Rabbi Kushner’s comments, and again I urge you to read the entire article:
Gen X’s less-than-enthusiastic response to synagogue life simply means there’s a new generation stepping forward, one that needs to figure out how “do Jewish” on its own terms.
Just a couple of other things to mention, with Rosh Hashanah imminent. Reboot has started a national project, 10Q, that asks people to answer a question a day online for ten days during the High Holidays, beginning on September 8. Visit their website to participate.
Finally, and I’ll have more to say about this later on – I have been nominated for the Jewish Community Hero award, given by the Jewish Federations of North America. They start with an online voting contest; the top twenty vote getters are then judged by a panel, which selects one winner and four other honorees, each of whom receives a grant for their organization, all announced at the General Assembly in November. Please vote for me on their website. You can vote every twelve hours, so vote early and often!
Right now I’m number 17 in the voting. I don’t care about winning an award for myself. But the JFNA hasn’t talked about intermarriage much in the past. I wish the other candidates well – but most of them come from the traditional Jewish world. It would be great if the federation world recognized not me personally but the cause of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life – especially when we are in a time where a new, heavily intermarried generation needs to figure out how to “do Jewish” on its own terms, when we are evolving new models of Jewish commitment and engagement with the world, and when we have an opportunity to transform the Jewish community from an insular, tribal entity to a diverse and expanding community based on key common causes and beliefs.
To all who are welcoming in the New Year, I wish that it is a happy, healthy and sweet one for you and your families. Shana Tova!
I have long felt that JCC’s are a prime location for welcoming interfaith families and engaging them in Jewish life. Unfortunately, with some exceptions, most notably the Pathways program at the Atlanta JCC, most JCC’s do not offer programming aimed specifically for people in interfaith relationships.
I was reminded of all of this by a noteworthy article in the New York Jewish Week, JCC, Synagogues In Holy War In Boca, by Stewart Ain. I’ve seen indications before that some JCC’s want to get more into the “Jewish life” business, which I think is a great development, and I was very pleased to see that Allen Finkelstein, the executive director of the JCC Association, is leading that effort:
“In the last year and a half, I’ve been pushing JCCs to get into conversations about what is happening in Jewish life,” he said.
I hope that will lead to more programming for interfaith families. I hope the JCC’s don’t buy the argument that people in interfaith relationships want general programs, not programs just for them; both kinds are needed.
The article reports that the Boca Raton JCC has hired a charismatic rabbi, Michael Stern, who meets people in their homes and asks them what they want and are looking for in Judaism, and who is now offering Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur programs. There are many references in the article to the JCC’s programming being particularly attractive to intermarried couples.
According to Marty Schneer, the JCC’s executive director, “We are targeting the unaffiliated and marginally affiliated who are not experiencing the holidays elsewhere.” The article reports that only 12% of the more than 120,000 Jews in the area are affiliated with a synagogue. Rabbi Stern, who will conduct the High Holiday programs, said that they would:
include “five or six pieces of the traditional service, stories that illustrate insight about the prayers, an explanation about the function of prayer and what we are trying to get out of prayer.” “My goal is to build a vibrant JCC community with the emphasis on the Jewish part of the JCC,” he said. “We are the frontline agency that touches more Jews than any other institution, particularly the intermarried. What should our response be?”
The “Holy War” in the article title reflects that the local rabbis apparently don’t like the JCC’s High Holiday programming one bit. One referred to Rabbi Stern as “an outside rabbi” and called it “usurpation” and “invasion” and said the JCC had stepped over the line and was acting as a synagogue. Another said “we will have a duplication of effort at a time when synagogues are also thinking of how best to serve the Jewish community.”
It is trite to say that there are way too many turf battles in the Jewish world. I was a large synagogue president and I sympathize with synagogues’ needs to attract members with their High Holiday services because they need members to pay dues to support their staff and buildings and program offerings. But synagogues have a real problem with the high cost of belonging, and some have a real problem with services and programming that is not compelling to young families. It is important that young families in particular have Jewish programming that they are attracted to and comfortable participating in, and if they find that at a JCC, that is a good thing.
Moreover, it should be possible for JCC’s and synagogues in a community to collaborate and coordinate their offerings. Wouldn’t it be smarter for the Boca Raton synagogues to view the JCC’s High Holiday programming as a potential “feeder” of people to the synagogues? If the JCC does a good job and turns young families on to Jewish life, won’t they naturally want to find the deeper programming and community that synagogues ideally should offer? There are too many communities in the country where alternatives to synagogues are viewed, not as feeders, but as competitors. I think that’s a shame.
When Micah Sachs was InterfaithFamily.com’s managing editor and blogger extraordinaire, he would every once in a while post a “Link Sink” with interesting but not necessarily thematically related links. I’ve been away some and not blogging regularly, so I thought I might revive that practice. But it didn’t turn out that way.
Anita Diamant, a wonderful writer including frequently for InterfaithFamily.com, has a wonderful post on the Huffington Post today, My (Jewish) Daughter’s Tattoo. Although Jews are not supposed to get tattoos, she says,
“My daughter has the Hebrew letters Chet, Zayin, Kuf on her right shoulder blade. This spells chazak, which means “strength.” She says, “I like this because it’s a word used when you finish reading one book of Torah and go to the next. It reminds me that we go from one thing to the next in strength.” She’s been planning this tattoo for nine years, since she was enrolled in a semester-long high school program. “Israel was a time of transition for me, and I feel like it reinforces that message of strength that is inside me forever and ever. “It’s more than just a tattoo,” she explains. “It’s a sense of pride, a display of who I am that you might not be able to tell by just looking at me.”
I don’t know about you, but this sounds pretty much like a Jewish tattoo to me.
Next, Rabbi Evan Moffic, a wonderful young rabbi at Temple Solel in Highland Park, IL, has an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week today, Jewish Weddings on Shabbat: A Different View. Rabbi Moffic responds to Rabbi Leon Morris’ earlier op-ed, A Call For A Moratorium on Shabbat Weddings. Rabbi Morris, reacting to the fact the Chelsea Clinton’s wedding took place on a Saturday before sundown, says that we need Shabbat now more than ever, and we should be more strident in our embrace of it. He says Reform rabbis should “model what it means to take time seriously, to honor a day, to live in symbolic ways that speak to the kind of Jewish world we would like to see and are committing ourselves to creating.”
Rabbi Moffic’s response: the proposed moratorium “would not only alienate the vast majority of American Jews, but it would constitute a tremendous abdication on the part of Reform rabbis to engage our members and honor the spirit of Reform Judaism.”
“The challenge, then, is to arrive at a place where we can honor Shabbat within the context of American life. It is not an either-or choice. We do not need to self-segregate in order to live fulfilling and committed Jewish lives.
As readers of my recent Forward op-ed on the Chelsea Clinton wedding know, I think Rabbi Moffic has the better argument here – especially when he concludes that “Many couples have a strong commitment to Jewish life and have legitimate concerns that lead them to get married a few hours before sunset on a Saturday evening. Are we going to turn them away?”
So it turns out that there is a thematic relationship here after all. And not just because both Anita Diamant and Evan Moffic are members of InterfaithFamily.com’s Advisory Board! The theme is that we are in the midst of a major transition in terms of what constitutes Jewish behaviors. Tattoos – never used to be; now, more common. Rabbis officiating at weddings on Shabbat – never used to be; now, more common. As Rabbi Moffic says, “The Talmud instructs us to “Puk Hazei Mai Amma Davar– go see what the people are doing” when we need to interpret a law or understand a principle.” Well, the people are doing new and different things, and who knows what sets of behaviors will emerge from the current transition? Something to consider as we enter a heavy period of reflection at the new year.