Gwyneth Paltrow Discovers Her Roots

Our celebrity columnist, Nate Bloom, just gave us a head’s up: This Friday’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? will follow Gwyneth Paltrow’s exploration of her Jewish ancestry.

The Canadian Jewish News tells us,

Actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s ancestral search, which will be told in a new episode of the NBC TV program Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA),  might not have happened if not for Jewish Records Indexing – Poland (JRI Poland).

Founded by Montrealer Stanley Diamond, JRI-Poland is an online searchable database of 4.2 million records related to Polish Jewry.

The April 1 episode of the celebrity documentary series will feature the Academy Award-winner’s genealogical journey.

And,

The Paltrow roots go back to a long line of rabbis named Paltrowicz from northeastern Poland and the towns of Suwalki, Lomza and nearby shtetls.

“The show’s researchers tapped into into JRI-Poland’s online database as the starting point in documenting Paltrow’s ancestry,” said Diamond.

You can read the full article here.

Or watch the trailer for the Friday, April 1 episode here.

Limmud Chicago 2011

I led a session on “changing attitudes towards intermarriage” today at Limmud Chicago. It was fun!

An interesting mix of people came – several who identified themselves as Orthodox, several young adults, several who looked like grandparents, and in between. We did a “take the temperature of the room” exercise where I asked people if they agreed, disagreed, or weren’t sure about, the following statements (thanks to Benjamin Maron for piloting this approach at TribeFest):
* if a rabbi and a priest or minister co-officiate, it’s not a Jewish wedding
* if you intermarry, your family will be a Jewish family only if your partner converts
* you can only raise Jewish children if both parents are Jewish
* if you have a Christmas tree in your house, your children won’t be Jewish.

The more traditional folks present expressed concerns on several fronts – a wedding between a Jew and someone not Jewish under Jewish law is not a Jewish wedding, why does a rabbi have to officiate, why couldn’t a judge officiate; what is the future going to be when there are so many people who identify as Jews who aren’t halachically Jewish; people won’t be recognized as Jews in Israel; etc. The very nice thing about the discussion is that it was civil and respectful on all sides. I don’t think anything was resolved, but I did offer my idea that everyone in the Jewish community could recognize self-identifying but non-halachic Jews as Jews for all purposes except those where halachic status matter.

I saw a lot of heads nodding when I talked about Jewish partners in interfaith relationships who say they get more Jewishly active because of the relationship, and partners who are not Jewish who get very Jewishly involved. People I talked with after the session appeared to be thirsting for ways to positively respond to and engage interfaith couples.

I haven’t been to a Limmud before and to be honest when I arrived it looked like a  mostly traditional set of attendees that made me wonder if anyone would come to my session and how it would be received. But it looked like perhaps 10% of the registration did come and it was a very lively discussion. It was great to be there, and I want to especially thank Debbie Burton, who has written many articles for InterfaithFamily.com, and has commented frequently on our discussion boards, for inviting me.

Candied Jelly Fruit and Other Things to Ponder

My Jewish cousin and her Buddhist boyfriend went to hear Cokie and Steve Roberts speak at the synagogue/">Sixth and I Historic Synagogue last night. The Robertses were promoting their new book, Our Haggadah.

My cousin called me after the event, which both she and her boyfriend really enjoyed, and we began talking about how being raised Jewish and dating/marrying non-Jewish partners has made us more aware of our Judaism. Both of us realized that had we partners who were Jewish, we may not be so in tune to all the nuances, meanings, explanations and differences between Judaism and other religions or cultures. We seemed to have a greater need to know and be aware of things because we have to explain them to our partners and their families.

I first encountered this when I had my in-law’s family over for a Hanukkah party years ago. I had to figure out how to explain sufganiot (jelly doughnuts) and why we eat them at Hanukkah. During the conversation with my cousin, we came up with other strange foods that are staples of Jewish holidays. The one we keyed in on immediately was the candied jelly fruit “things” (for lack of a better term) that we eat every passover">Passover. Everyone in my family (except for one uncle!) really dislikes them. Yet, every year someone purchases them and brings them to a seder. Why is that? Had I married someone Jewish, had my cousin been dating someone Jewish, we may never have pondered this question.

The more we talked, the more we both realized that being in an interfaith relationship is not pulling us farther away from our connection to Judaism, but actually bringing us closer. We are asking more questions and trying to have a better understanding of why we have done the things we have done all these years.

This Passover will be my cousin’s boyfriend’s first seder. It will be interesting to see what he thinks and what questions he will ask that we may or may not know the answers to. And, this year in addition to the standard 4 Questions, we may add one more: “Why on this night do we eat candied jelly fruit?”

For more answers to questions about the Jewish holidays, check out our Jewish Holidays Cheat Sheet and our Passover/Easter Resource Page. And, if there is a random question about something Jewish you are looking for an answer to, let us know by emailing [email=editor@interfaithfamily.com]editor@interfaithfamily.com[/email].

On Dame Elizabeth Taylor z”l and Conversion

Yesterday, the world lost an actress, an activist and a humanitarian when rabbi">Elizabeth Taylor died, at age 79.

She was really one of the first people in the public eye to take on the AIDS epidemic and embrace those living with HIV and AIDS. She took some of the fear away, and led a fight that still survives.

Late in life she became a social activist. After her friend Rock Hudson died, she helped establish the American Foundation for AIDS Research and helped raise money for it. In 1997, she said, “I use my fame now when I want to help a cause or other people.”

She was a really remarkable woman.

Increasingly, Ms. Taylor divided her time between her charitable works (including various Israeli causes) and commercial enterprises, like a line of perfumes marketed under her name. She helped raise more than $100 million to fight AIDS. In February 1997, she celebrated her 65th birthday at a party that was a benefit for AIDS research. After the party Ms. Taylor entered Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for an operation on a brain tumor. (From the NYTimes obit.)

Elizabeth Taylor also converted to Judaism over 50 years ago, sometime between her marriage to Mike Todd and wedding Eddie Fisher*. Fisher was Jewish, so it’s possible that she converted to marry him. 

Which got me thinking: How common were conversions circa 1958/1959?

In the book of Ruth, Naomi tried to get Ruth to go back to her own people 3 times before Ruth became a part of the Hebrew people. As a result, some rabbis “reject” a potential convert three times before discussing conversion with them. In 1950s Hollywood, did Taylor have to do that? And how did that take less than a year?

Today, it’s common for conversion to take at least a year (at least two years in many cases). And for many individuals it’s an even longer process than that, between deciding to explore Judaism, talking with a rabbi, taking conversion classes, and finally taking the dip in the mikvah (or otherwise completing the process). How did Dame Elizabeth convert in under a year? Was that the norm back then?

*This got the office excited, so I’ve got to include a footnote: Eddie Fisher was married to Debbie Reynolds, who wasn’t Jewish. Together, they had two children: Carrie and Todd (quite probably named after Elizabeth’s husband, Mike Todd, who died around the time of Todd’s birth). Eddie ended his marriage to Debbie to marry Elizabeth. Elizabeth is Carrie’s step-mother (maybe). But more importantly: Princess Leia is from an interfaith family!

A New URJ President and the Reform Commitment to Engaging Interfaith Families

We want to congratulate Rabbi Rick Jacobs on being chosen as the next president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

When the retirement of the current president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, was announced, I wrote about my mixed feelings. While I applauded many of Rabbi Yoffie’s initiatives, the Reform movement’s record on engaging interfaith families during his leadership was disappointing due to reductions in staff dedicated to helping Reform synagogues attract and welcome interfaith couples and families.

I’ve read everything I can find about Rabbi Jacobs since the announcement this afternoon and haven’t seen any mention of his involvement with the Reform movement’s past outreach efforts or his personal practices with respect to people in interfaith relationships. At this point I can only hope that Rabbi Jacobs will be receptive to my respectful suggestion when Rabbi Yoffie’s retirement was announced: that the number of intermarried couples that would be in a Jewish framework would be far, far greater if the Reform movement gave engaging them the priority it deserves.

We certainly wish him well as he prepares to take on this very significant responsibility.

Cokie and Steve Roberts, Revisited

I have to confess: I expected not to like Our Haggadah, the new book by Cokie and Steve Roberts.

But I did. I like it.

I’m doing a lot of confessing about the Robertses. Last week I confessed to envying all of the publicity they are able to garner for their book, and some regret because they are known for observing both of their religions in their home, exposing their children (now grown) to both religions, and not to raising children to identify with one religion or the other. As I said then, we don’t say the Roberts’ approach is wrong, or bad, it’s just not the approach that we recommend to interfaith couples.

Having now read the book, I was wrong to suggest that for the Robertses, the seder is not exclusive to Judaism. It is clear from Cokie Roberts’ introduction that she completely respects the seder as a Jewish ritual. She explicitly says she is not trying in way to “Christianize” the seder. In fact, it’s clear that the Robertses started conducting their seders at her insistence, which happens with many other interfaith couples and is something we want to applaud. Including partners who are not Jewish, and others, in experiencing the seder is of course something that InterfaithFamily.com also applauds.

I also want to credit Steve Roberts for saying that “many young Jews are marrying outside their faith, but at the same time, they are eager to preserve and nourish their ties to Judaism. Cokie and I have long argued that organized Jewry needs to embrace these couples, not reject them, and that is clearly beginning to happen.”

We’re happy to see that the Robertses mention a wonderful article written for us by Rabbi Rayzel Raphael, about adding an artichoke to the seder plate, as well as a wonderful article by Jim Keen about his experience as a non-Jewish father asked to lead a seder.

We still have differences in our approach to interfaith family life, but I don’t have any reservations about recommending Our Haggadah to interfaith couples. I share in the Roberts’ concluding hope that their Haggadah will inspire interfaith couples to celebrate their own “great heritage.”

Japan

If, like me, you’ve been watching the news coming out of Japan, I’m sure your thoughts and prayers are with the Japanese people.

In looking for ways to help I did what many have done: I googled.

A JTA News Alert informed me that the Jewish community, largely based in Tokyo, was spared (due in large part to distance from the epicenter). 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would help in whatever way possible.

The Japanese consul in Israel, Mitoshiko Shinomya, told the Israeli news website Ynet that he was heartened by the Israeli government’s offer of assistance. “Israel officially offered its help an hour after the earthquake struck,” Shinomya said. “It is very heart-warming, but at this point we do not know exactly what the extent of the damage is, so it is difficult for us to say what can be done.”

The Jewish Federations of North America is setting up an emergency relief fund to help those in affected areas, a spokesman said, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a federation partner, opened a mailbox Friday for donations to be used for Japan/Pacific disaster relief. Donations can be made at https://jdc.org/donation/donate.aspx.

According to the JDC’s site,

JDC is now partnering with the Japanese Jewish community to provide funding to a local NGO for emergency needs including food, water, and shelter in the disaster region. JDC acquired substantial expertise in earthquake and tsunami-related response in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Maldives, and India following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004.

The 8.9 earthquake, the most powerful to hit Japan in more than 100 years, has killed hundreds of people and caused untold damage through massive flooding. JDC worked in Japan before the American entrance into World War II, helping support Jewish refugees in Kobe, Japan who fled Hitler’s Europe. Today, several thousand Jews live and work in Japan.

Sadly, the number confirmed has now grown into the thousands, with the deaths estimated to be in the tens of thousands. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are now homeless, countless people are missing and entire towns washed away.

Please pitch in to the relief effort, as I have, if you’re able to.

Slacker Hamantashen

Our friends at JewishBoston.com have been hard at work. Well, as “hard at work” as “slackers” can be. You see, they’ve come up with the simplest hamantaschen recipe ever.

It’s so simple, all you need are two ingredients. Seriously. It’s great for making hamantaschen at your office (as they did) or in a dorm room. And if my count is correct, you only need five other items in addition to your two ingredients: a paper cup (“cookie cutter”), a paper plate (serving double duty as a “spatula” and a “plate”), a can opener (optional, depending on your hamantaschen filling), a spoon (optional, depending on the filling type) and a toaster oven. Done.

Watch their video for the recipe and instructions. (You might recognize Liz from our Hanukkah video!)

If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you might also check out our other hamantaschen recipes, submitted by InterfaithFamily.com readers like you.

Enjoy!

I Wish Cokie and Steve Roberts Were In Our Camp

Cokie Roberts, who I love as an ABC News commentator, and her husband Steve Roberts, have published a new “interfaith Haggadah”–Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families.

I have to confess to very mixed feelings about this. I don’t like feeling envy, but I do.

I’m envious because as celebrities, Cokie and Steve Roberts command a lot of attention. Their book is getting pretty extraordinary publicity for a Haggadah – have you ever seen another new Haggadah featured on MSNBC or ABC News? Or the subject of a book tour, with stops in Washington DC, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and I’m sure pretty much all over?

Now Steve Roberts is Jewish, Cokie Roberts is Catholic, and they’ve been married for 45 years. Their approach to interfaith family life, as best I understand it, is to observe both of their religions in their home, to expose children (their children are now grown) to both religions, and not to raise children to identify with one religion or the other.

We don’t pass judgment here at InterfaithFamily.com. We don’t say the Roberts’ approach is wrong, or bad. But it’s not the approach that we recommend to interfaith couples, and I’m envious of the publicity their approach is now getting.

In our camp, we think engaging in Jewish life is a wonderful source of meaning and value that is available not just to Jews but to their partners too, and we do what we can to invite interfaith couples to try it in hopes they will like it. We don’t say the religious traditions of the partner who is not Jewish should be hidden or forgotten. But in the surveys we’ve done for the last seven years, interfaith couples raising their children as Jews do participate in Christmas and Easter celebrations, but not in the religious aspects of the holidays. That’s the approach we recommend.

It’s wonderful that Cokie Roberts participates very fully in her family’s seder and appears to have been the driving force in starting the tradition in the first place. But according to ABC News, the Roberts’ Passover traditions “have evolved into a unique multi-cultural celebration that is exclusive to no faiths.” I think that’s sad. The Passover seder is exclusive to one faith — to Judaism.

What our camp needs is an interfaith couple with celebrity on the level of Cokie and Steve Roberts, to write a book about how an interfaith couple experiences Passover as a fundamentally Jewish, not multi-faith, holiday, as the story of the redemption of the Jewish people that is meaningful to both Jews and their partners. And then go on TV and a national book tour. Any takers?

TribeFest

I’m at the Las Vegas airport, waiting to return to Boston. I’m exhausted. TribeFest was exhausting. But in good way!

1280 people. Three days. Numerous sessions on a wide range of topics presented by diverse speakers. Musicians and performers. And, this being Vegas, free drinks at every turn. 

I was there representing InterfaithFamily.com. We had a booth in the Big Show (this being a conference for young adults in the Jewish community, everything was supposed to sound cool and hip – exhibition hall doesn’t make the cut). And I ran a session on interfaith issues. 

I spent a lot of time at our booth. I met some great folks and was able to talk about the importance of welcoming interfaith families into the Jewish community. 

Most of the conversations fell into one of two themes:

First, there were the people in interfaith relationships, or those who had grown up in interfaith families. They wanted to tell me their stories, ask for advice on how to talk to their parents about their partners, and wanted to have their views affirmed – that dating someone who wasn’t Jewish would not make them less Jewish. I listened, made suggestions, and fully agreed. I heard great stories about being Jews by choice, about raising Jewish children and choosing not to convert to Judaism, and how through their non-Jewish partners’ interest in Judaism they had become more educated in our religion and had taken on more Jewish religious practices. 

Second, I heard from representatives of many communities across North America. They each presented their case as unique, but it was always the same: they know there are a lot of interfaith families in their communities but they don’t know how to reach out to them, make their communities more inclusive. So I reassured them that they were not alone in their struggle and made suggestions. We brainstormed together, talked about language of inclusion, and how to post events on our Network. Above all, we talked about how this couldn’t be the only time they spent thinking about this issue, that time (and resources) should be dedicated to making sure all of our Jewish communities are welcoming. 

I also led a session on interfaith issues, where we talked about many of those same topics. 

The bottom line is that Federations, I think, are starting to realize that there’s a large part of the Jewish community that needs to be more fully embraced. That instead of turning our backs on a Jew who marries outside our religion, we should be embracing their spouse and family too. I might be leaving Vegas, and most of the 1280 others have already left, but I’m pleased that the conversations won’t end here.