Teaching the Why?

I attended part of the International Institute for Secular Humanist Judaism’s Colloquium at Northwestern this past weekend. The theme of the Colloquium was “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage. Paul Golin, Associate Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, explained that when Jews came to America the question they had was how to be American. Then, the community got so comfortable as Americans that the question became how to be Jewish. Now, the question is why be Jewish.

Those of us who work in Jewish education spend a lot of time thinking up the most creative, engaging programming, using the latest technology to teach children and families how to do Jewish things. We try to provide Jewish experiences that form memories of joy and togetherness around holiday celebrations, mitzvah days and shared Shabbat meals. But, are we missing the forest for the trees?

We may have fun baking challah and may feel good after volunteering in the soup kitchen. If we are lucky, we may help families see modern messages in ancient narratives. But are we passing on the greater meaning of the whole endeavor of Jewish living? Is meaning-making inherent? Can meaning be found if it’s not made explicit?

Is teaching someone to make challah or latkes enough? Once the person makes them, do they automatically feel the meaning behind cooking that food? Can you teach a feeling of being connected to past generations? Can you teach someone to internalize the idea that cooking with oil, for example, reminds us of miracles all around us? Is it enough to talk about miracles without discussing what it means to then sanctify the identification of those miracles in real ways? Does learning how to prepare latkes compel someone to make them each Hanukkah with and for friends and family? How do we even encourage someone to learn how to make them if we don’t explain why to make them?

Is it possible to “teach” culture and meaning? One can explain the story or law or ethics behind the tradition or ritual, but if the student doesn’t feel personally connected to, personally excited by, personally committed to, personally engaged with, personally moved by Jewish living, the whole pursuit of Jewish education is lost and shallow, short-lived and easily forgotten.

I have spoken before about the need for Jewish literacy. One way people make meaning is by having a depth of knowledge about a subject. Ultimately, meaning-making happens when the person feels that doing this thing fills a void, creates an answer for, and helps them live good lives.

As Jewish educators, we may need to take a step back and not worry so much about having the most unusual art supplies to make the coolest crafts, but spend as much time thinking about how to present the Jewish ritual object or anything else in a compelling enough way that our children and parents see that utilizing Judaism brings ultimate meaning to their days.

Drew and Will’s Wedding

Mazal tov to Drew Barrymore and Will Kopelman! They’ve made their wedding date (June 2) public.

E! Online suggests the rushed wedding date is because she’s pregnant (they refer to the upcoming wedding as “bumptastic”), but I have  a different theory.

Traditionally, the time between Passover and Shavuot is a period of semi-mourning. The period is known as the Omer. But what’s an “Omer”? It was a unit of measurement used for counting barley sheaves brought as an offering to the Temple in ancient Israel. The 49 days from Passover to Shavuot were each marked with a sacrifice of barley; today we count the days (“counting the Omer”) instead.

The rabbis of the 2nd century saw the period of counting the Omer as a “semi-mourning” period. As a result, some Jews refrain from having weddings or parties, dancing, listening to music or getting haircuts — all of which are customarily avoided during shiva (first week of mourning) — during the Omer.

There’s one escape from these restrictions: a minor holiday called Lag BaOmer (or “Lag b’Omer”) that falls on May 10 this year, 33 days after the start of Passover. The name literally translates to “33rd (day) of the Omer.” On Lag BaOmer, the restrictions are lifted for the day. (Check out how one Californian handles the restrictions in this humorous video.)

But back to Drew and Will.

E! Online reports that the wedding will be small and intimate, taking place at Drew’s home (er, “estate”). And, “keeping in line with the traditional values of Kopelman’s close-knit family, his family rabbi is expected to conduct the service.”

Since we’re currently counting the Omer, and since Will’s family (and, presumably, rabbi) are “traditional,” maybe they’re not wanting to be married during the Omer. Which would mean the first chance to be wed would be May 10, a Thursday. Most Americans choose to marry on the weekend so that family and friends can travel to and from the event. Not so easy to do in the middle of the work week. So the next option would be waiting until a weekend after Shavuot. Shavuot starts the evening of May 26 and ends the night of May 27 (for some communities, including many Reform congregations) or the night of May 28 (for the rest of the Jewish communities). The next weekend after that? Yup, June 2.

You heard it here first: Drew Barrymore and her fiancé, Will Kopelman, are following the laws of the Omer.

Wedding News

Two interesting stories you might have missed.

More Non-Jewish Couples Have Jewish-Style Weddings

Some couples include the elements of stomping on a glass or standing under a chuppah at their wedding. But increasingly,  couples, where neither partner is Jewish, choose the ketubah as the custom they’re borrowing.

According to YnetNews, a popular English language Israeli news website, this trend has been increasing over the last ten years.

Jannine Medrana Malave and her husband, Nelson, had a traditional Catholic wedding. Their ceremony included touches reflecting her Filipino roots and his Puerto Rican ones, but they also had a ketubah in a round design with English and Hebrew, signed by, among others, the priest who married them.

The ketubah was a gift from two close friends they consider their “Jewish mothers,” but it was Nelson’s idea after he noticed the ketubot in the shop of the National Museum of American Jewish History, where Jannine works as director of donor relations and special events.

“We like to learn about other cultures and other traditions,” said Jannine, 34. “It’s hanging in our living room, next to our crucifix no less.”

Will this trend continue? Do you know couples who chose Jewish elements for their wedding though neither partner was Jewish?

“Interestingly Jewish” NYTimes Wedding Announcement

Each Monday, Tablet magazine picks “the most interestingly Jewish announcement from that Sunday’s New York Times Weddings/Celebrations section. Some Mondays, this is difficult. This is not one of those Mondays.”

It’s difficult to know what to select from our winner, that of Chris Barley and the tastefully named Marc Kushner, and what to leave out so that you can enjoy the whole thing for yourself. The basics: Kushner, Jared’s (and therefore Ivanka’s) first cousin, was Barley’s boss at an architecture firm; Barley comes from a Mennonite home in Pennsylvania. And one quote: “He grew up in, like, butter-land,” says Kushner, “I’m from margarine-ville.” Okay, one more: “As a whole, Jewish gay guys might be marvelous people,” Kushner also says, “but the ones I met were insane.” In fact, we know Kushner thinks highly of at least one Jewish gay guy: that would be his husband, who (of course) converted. Mazel tov to the happy couple!

In many ways, this couple encountered the same stumbling blocks that other interfaith couples come up against while dating. Kushner, wanting to marry someone who was Jewish, ended their relationship. They reunited and Barley went through a conversion. I don’t know about you, but I wish the NYT article hadn’t skipped over that part of their relationship.

Photo: Tina Fineberg for The New York Times.

Thoughts on Jewish Identity

The Winter 2012 edition of Contact, the journal of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, is devoted to the question, “What is Identity?” You can read the issue online as a pdf.

The following are excerpts I found to be the most thought-provoking. They offer a snapshot into the issues raised in this publication. I’ve included my responses to each – what do you think?

Identity is Strongest When It Leads to Action
The more interesting question concerns how people come to consider their Jewishness as somehow helpfully guiding them as opposed to operating merely as a feature of their background.
- Bethamie Horowitz, page 3

As educators, ideally we show people how Judaism can be experienced in everyday life. We demonstrate how Judaism can be lived, how ancient values apply to modern scenarios, and we instill a sense of a Jewish purpose, connectedness and rootedness that guides the decisions we make. How do we do this as educators? We study Talmud, rabbinic stories and midrash to evaluate modern day ethics. We share a Judaism that applies to the transitions in the day, from waking up to eating to work to interacting with our friends, parents and children. And we suggest ways to access Shabbat that will be realistic and doable for modern families. Our “Jewishness” has to be helpful to us in living a life of meaning, purpose, joy and order.

What is Specifically Jewish About My Behavior?
The sharp boundaries that traditionally separated Jew and non-Jew have been blurred, and it is more difficult to know what self-identification means.  Intermarriage, in particular, adds to the complexity of describing Jewish identity both for the Jewish spouse and for the children of intermarried parents.

If Jewish identity is to be salient among the dozens of potential identities available, Jewish education will have to be prominent and effective.
- Leonard Saxe

Anytime I participated with my religious school in a social justice project, I always followed up by asking the students to describe what we did. The students would explain how cleaning up the park, working at the food pantry, serving dinner at a homeless shelter, etc., was a good deed and helped make the world a better place. They would talk about helping our neighbors and taking care of the earth. They would say that this is part of what it means to be a good person.

I would ask, “What was Jewish about what you did?” They would say that all religions teach these ethics and values; tzedakah (Hebrew, literally meaning “righteousness,” but generally referring to charitable giving) and gemilut chasadim (Hebrew, literally meaning “bestowing kindness”) are the way Judaism describes what to do, but ultimately it’s just about being a good person.

Is this true, that Judaism’s approach to repairing the world is based in universally held principles of kindness and generosity? Yes and no. We may share values, but each religion has specific ways of understanding, talking about and acting on them. Judaism has a language, guidelines and narratives that teach a specific way to approach areas of charity.

When those raised with Judaism grow up knowing the particularities and nuances of their religion, they may see more distinctions in a Jewish way of life. Rather than water down Judaism and Christianity to blend into a sea of universal ideas of being a good person, why not learn and celebrate the specific stories, specific heroes or models of a certain trait, and seek to emulate the profound values of our sacred texts?

Jewish Identity is About a Connection to the Jewish People
[The term Jewish identity] carries with it three misleading and ultimately distorting messages:
Being Jewish resides in the individual … is about subjective feelings … is a fixed quality.
- Steven M. Cohen, page 5

Cohen, like others in this publication, suggests that when someone has friends who are Jewish, he or she will tend to identity more strongly with Judaism. Affiliating with a community of other Jews is what it means to be Jewish. When someone is “unaffiliated,” we work tirelessly to bring them into the fold of organized Jewish communal life. We don’t care about people’s Jewish beliefs, behaviors or level of literacy nearly as much as whether the person belongs to a community with other Jews.

This is an ostracizing and potentially divisive and hurtful statement to make to people who are not Jewish who have Judaism in their lives and participate in Jewish communities like synagogues. Cohen is essentially saying that it is fine if people who aren’t Jewish raise Jewish children and attend synagogue programs, but the main factor in forming a strong Jewish identity is when children, teens and adults hang with other Jews.

I believe that identity is about feelings. It is about affirmations that one makes about one’s own sense of self and place in the world. Identity is personal, yet it can be expressed and felt in groups. Community is essential for living out Jewish ideals. However, the make-up of today’s Jewish community is more and more diverse. I think these new voices and backgrounds strengthen rather than diminish the group.

Key Seder Elements

A few interesting articles crossed my desk this morning, all about Passover.

The Four Questions

The Four Questions hold a central spot in the Passover seder. Why is this night different from other nights? Reform Judaism, the magazine for the named denomination, asks in its spring issue, “What’s your favorite language for reciting the first question?” They include 20 examples of that first question asked in different languages, from Phoenician to Thai to Klingon.

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Spanish
¿Por qué es diferente esta noche de todas las otras noches?

Klingon
Qatlh pimlaw’ ramvan rammey latlh je?

I’ve signed the Four Questions before (both in ASL and LSQ) and recited them in French. Which languages does your family ask them in? Have you tried having each person at the table ask one of the questions in a language that they know? It’s an interesting way to make the questions both universal and accessible in new ways.

The Ten Plagues

In discussions at your Passover table, how do your friends and relatives view the plagues? Inside Magazine, of Philadelphia, offers a review of the Ten Plagues, another central component of the Passover seder. In “Decimation and Emancipation: Understanding the impact of the 10 plagues,” competing opinions are presented on the importance of the plagues, their historical accuracy, their relevance, and more.

One view is that the plagues are “political allegory that is part of Exodus, the Israelites’ ‘birth of a nation’ story.” But that there weren’t ten, they didn’t happen in that order; there wasn’t this unnamed Pharaoh. Instead, the plagues represent the “systematic dismantling of the Egyptian socio-economic system, which was based on agriculture and the Nile.” In other words, they were formed so that the story is, “Our God brought Pharaoh of Egypt to its knees. That’s why we Israelites have the right to live independently.”

The opposing view could be summarized as more faithful. “Having not found proof of the plagues doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. It means the proof has not yet been found.”

“Are there acts of nature that can account for some of the plagues? Yes,” Rabbi Albert Gabbis, who lived in Egypt, says. “For example, the plague of blood in the Nile. We know that sometimes, the Nile turns red. When I was a child, I saw it with my own eyes. The rain brings the red clay from the mountains of Ethiopia into the Nile. But I would say this: In either case, the hand of God is there.”

Dinner!

Of course, food is super important to the seder! Jamie Geller recommends three Passover recipes that won’t “taste” like Passover. (Score!)

Then there’s the confusing matter of kitniyot (legumes, corn, rice, soy/tofu, etc.). Last year, we offered a concise guide to Passover food guidelines via our pals at JewishBoston.com. This year, the Jewish Journal (greater Boston area) expands on that guide with Corn, Rice? Yes, No? – and some often contradictory answers:

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott has advocated for the consumption of kitniyot on Passover for those who are comfortable with it.

“I believe in making Judaism more, not less accessible, and it makes Passover a heck of a lot easier if we can have corn products,” HaLevi said.

The important thing is that people understand the difference between a Jewish law and a custom. Chametz, like bread, is forbidden by Jewish law. Corn products depend on your custom, he said. Each year, he gets questions as people try to sort out the differences.

Rabbi Deborah Zuker of Temple Ner Tamid also receives questions, especially from people who visit Israel during Passover. She follows the Ashkenazic tradition of not consuming kitniyot.

“In Israel, you can find products marked ‘kosher for Pesach’ for people who eat kitniyot, but here we can’t know if the kitniyot have been mixed with wheat,” Zuker said.

She believes the Ashkenazic practices are old enough to be considered law in some communities, but added that different communities have different practices.

Dessert: the Afikomen

Not every seder is lucky enough to host Jake Gyllenhaal (sorry!), but you can enjoy his company for a few moments:

As far as “new thoughts” goes, this one might be a stretch. But come on – who doesn’t love Jake?

Hopefully some of these thoughts will help liven the discussions at your Passover seders this year!

Passover is Nigh!

I’m the first to admit it: I’m a little stressed out by Passover’s rapid approach. If, like me, you need a bit of a break from the cleaning, cooking, menu planning, seder prep, and last-minute-bread-and-pasta-binge-fests, take a look at the fun and interesting resources in this post.

Our friends at JewishBoston.com have just released a free guide to engaging kids and adults together at the seder, written by Jodi Jarvis, Director of Early Childhood / Family Life at Temple Isaiah in Lexington and CJP consultant. This 15-page booklet contains activities, discussion prompts, recipes and more to help prepare your family for Passover and spice up the seder itself. (It’s a great addition to the free Haggadah they released last year!)

Have you heard of Projecting Freedom: Cinematic Interpretations of the Haggadah? I hadn’t either. But I did enjoy their short animated film on maror (bitter herbs), a Passover seder plate staple:

The folks at Jewlicious have decided that, because President Obama uses the Mawell House Haggadah, he’s actually Jewish. Hrm…

Over on Bible Belt Balabusta, helpful tips for for bringing a “this is what Jewish is” show and tell to your child’s classroom, specifically for Passover.

Are any of you in NYC, ordering from the sustainable gefilte fish folk? If so, I’d love a review!

And, I’ll leave you with a blessing for interfaith families, written by Rabbi Frank Tamburello of the Westchester Community for Humanistic Judaism:

A Blessing for the Celebration of Passover and Easter

Again we come to our celebrations of Passover and Easter.
A time to celebrate the ever-newness of the resurrection of the spirit;
and the liberation of the peoples of the earth.
We rejoice in the rebirth of spring, as flowers, fields, and birds
come alive after the long sleep of winter.
May we, during the Easter and Passover season share along with them
the excitement of being alive and being free.

From our ancient traditions, we have prepared ageless signs of life,
bread, herbs, salt, eggs, and the paschal lamb.
These simple gifts have both power and meaning for us:
Bread to give us nourishment, herbs to give our lives healing and flavor,
salt to preserve our hope in a future world of peace;
the egg, the eternal sign of life, and the paschal lamb that represents
the cycle of the seasons.

May these blessed gifts of food grace all who shall partake of them.
May the family table where they are shared be illuminated with the
light of holiday candles, song, and happiness.
And may we be richly blessed with joy and peace. Amen.

A zissen Pesach – a sweet Passover!