Our Thoughts on Israel

Like everyone in the Jewish world, we at InterfaithFamily are deeply concerned about recent developments in Israel.

IFF does not take positions on the Israel-Palestinian issue, what the Israeli government or the Palestinian authorities should or shouldn’t do. We have staff and stakeholders who represent different views on this highly charged topic.

We do feel strongly, however, that exposure to Israel is a very positive experience for people in interfaith relationships. We have always encouraged content representing Israel in a positive and welcoming light, whether it is a story about a Birthright Israel participant who has one Jewish parent, or a story about an intermarried parent taking his family to Israel. These types of stories have always had a home at InterfaithFamily.

This December InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia is sponsoring a trip to Israel for interfaith families. We believe this trip will be an incredible experience for our participants. We are also in the process of exploring our role in the efforts to send newly married interfaith couples to Israel on a wider scale in the future.

We also feel strongly that Israel is threatened by negative opinion and vilification around the world, and that it is important to express support for Israel and for efforts to peacefully resolve conflict there. We are hopeful that steps will be taken in that direction speedily. Our hearts and minds are with our friends in Israel who are currently dealing with violence at this time.

“How We Be” – Our Day at Camp JRF

Training with counselorsEveryone stand in a big circle. If you have a parent who is not Jewish, take a step inside the circle. Stay there. Now, if you are still in the outside circle, and you have a close relative who is not Jewish, take a step inside the circle. 

Everyone looked around and saw that nearly all of the more than 75 participants had taken a step inside the circle.

And so began InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia’s Sensitivity Training for counselors at Camp JRF (the Reconstructionist movement’s overnight camp in the Pennsylvania Poconos) for working with children from interfaith homes. This training—which I conducted along with my IFF/Philadelphia colleagues Wendy Armon and Robin Warsaw—was part of the camp’s Inclusivity Training for counselors in the week before campers arrived. It was clear to all of the counselors in attendance that being part of an interfaith family isn’t just a theoretical issue for liberal Jews today, it’s something that touches almost every one of us personally.

Training with counselorsOver the next hour, we explored how the counselors could best handle various issues that might come up during the summer. For example, what do you do as a counselor when you’re leading a discussion about God and one of the campers brings up Jesus? The counselors also divided up into small groups and discussed and acted out various scenarios involving interfaith issues, such as how to react when a camper says that she is “half Jewish and half [another religion]” or when a camper claims that his bunkmate “isn’t really Jewish.”

Staff at camp training

From left: Rabbi Robyn Frisch, Wendy Armon, Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, Executive Director of Camp JRF, Robin Warsaw

 

I was amazed at the counselors’ thoughtfulness and sensitivity, their insight and creativity, and their openness to discussing challenging issues. After the training, the three of us from IFF/Philadelphia had the pleasure of joining the counselors for a healthy and delicious (really!) lunch—which was followed by a rousing song session in which the counselors sang some of the songs they’ve been learning in advance of the campers’ arrival. Then we were in for a real treat, as the camp’s director, Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, took us on a tour (by golf cart) of the camp. We saw how the different activity areas were labeled with signs that looked like Israeli street signs, naming the activity in Hebrew, English and Arabic. A highlight of the tour was the camp’s new Eco-Village (designed with the input of campers from the past year), a super cool area where campers entering their freshman and sophomore years of high school will live in yurts.

More than once throughout our day at Camp JRF, we heard someone use the camp expression “How We Be.” At Camp JRF, diversity isn’t just tolerated…it isn’t just accepted…it’s embraced! One thing was clear:  “We all be different…and that’s wonderful!” Camp JRF is very much a JEWISH camp, but every person at camp—counselor or camper—is encouraged to express his or her Judaism in a way that is personally meaningful. And each person understands that he or she has to respect how others “be.” There’s no “one size fits all.” Each individual is unique, and that makes for a vibrant camp community.

I have no doubt that the campers who attend Camp JRF this summer will have an amazing time. They’ll swim and play Frisbee; dance and sing; make new friends and have all kinds of exciting and rewarding experiences. If they’re going into ninth or tenth grade—they’ll even get to live in a yurt! But most important, they’ll know that they’re living in a community where their uniqueness is embraced and they are accepted for who they are, as they are. And THAT is a great way to “be.”

What I’ve Learned from Growing Up in an Interfaith Family

By Shannon Naomi Zaid

Staff of IFF/Chicago

Shannon (right) with IFF/Chicago staff: Jennifer Falkenholm & Rabbi Ari Moffic

My name is Shannon and I was brought up in a secular Jewish and secular Unitarian setting. I identify as Jewish, but deeply love and respect my Unitarian roots. In my experience, I’ve come to believe that one of the most important, and difficult parts of being a child raised under two different faiths is acknowledging the presences of each religion’s essence, and finding a way for them to coexist in the heart and mind.

As of last week I started an eight-week internship at InterfaithFamily/Chicago in Northbrook (as part of the JUF Lewis Summer Intern program). I was drawn to this position since I also come from an interfaith family background. When my supervisor, Rabbi Ari Moffic, came to me with the opportunity to blog about my experiences growing up in an interfaith setting, I was (and still am) so excited to be given the chance to share my story with others. By doing this, I hope to address any concerns, and uncertainties you may have about raising a child when parents come from two different faiths.

It’s not an easy task finding a common ground when beliefs butt heads, but it’s not impossible. It’s important to remember that everyone handles this struggle differently. Some people pick one religion and do not practice any aspects of the other religion. Some partake in syncretism (e.g. Jewbu, Hinjew, etc.). Some become secular and or identify themselves as not practicing. Some may even go against organized religions entirely. Anything is possible.

I’ve switched my stance on religion multiple times. For a large portion of my life, I refused to identify with either of my parents’ religions. I didn’t want to have to choose between the two, and it left me in an awkward situation. So, at the time, I decided to go against organized religion. I refused to learn anything about either religion and held this stance until sophomore year of high school. My parents accepted my views, which I thank them for because it allowed me to find my own spiritual path.

During my high school career many events took place that pushed me toward the Jewish life I lead today. One of the major factors in my decision was pride. I have two moms, and at school it pained me to see my Christian peers speak out against them.  That year I also experienced my first taste of anti-Semitism, and although I didn’t consider myself Jewish, I still fell victim to cruel jokes and bitter comments. I always took pride in the fact that I had two moms. I took pride in being different. The reason I sided with Judaism was because it was also different, and I felt a powerful need in my heart to defend it, more so than I ever felt with Unitarianism.

Sophomore year I started identifying as Jewish, and during that time I left Christianity out of my life. I did this until my freshman year in college, when I took several religious studies courses that focused on historical relationships between different religious faiths. It was in one of these classes that I asked myself the question: Why couldn’t the religions of my parents coexist for me in some way?

And why couldn’t they?

I now identify as a secular Jew. I relate to the Jewish culture. I feel a strong connection to Israel and I believe in the Jewish people. But I respect Unitarianism, and as a Jew, I feel I can relate to the constant struggle Unitarians have to face from other Christian denominations.

Here are some things I’ve figured out along the way about growing up in an interfaith home. I hope you find my experience helpful.

Shannon and her sister

Shannon (left) and her sister

My younger sister feels no connection to Judaism and is Unitarian. We have agreed to avoid talking to each other about religion. We do talk about up coming holidays and such, but we try and avoid getting into any religious debates. Good communication is crucial in family relationships. Together we decided to set up boundaries so we could coexist in an atmosphere in which we all felt respected.

Relatives are always hard to deal with. They don’t understand that our family has split beliefs, and they might say or do something that isn’t completely respectful toward the other faith. When this happens I’ve found it important to pull that person to the side, and remind them or explain to them that they need to be considerate of different values and beliefs.

When I’m able, I like going to church and learning about Unitarianism. Despite being Jewish, I think it’s important to be knowledgeable about both faiths. I also celebrate holidays like Christmas and Easter. By doing these things I feel it’s my way of showing respect for the other religion, even if it doesn’t resonate with me. My sister does the same by lighting the menorah at Hanukkah, participating during Purim and reading the questions with me at Seder during Passover.

Finding a Jewish Community that Feels Like Home

HBT mother and daughter

Photo courtesy of HBT

Temple Hillel B’nai Torah (HBT) is a Reconstructionist congregation located in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, a middle-class Boston neighborhood just minutes from Newton and Brookline. HBT is a welcoming, egalitarian, multicultural and inclusive spiritual community, which I observed firsthand when I was a substitute religious school teacher there a few years back. As with any synagogue, worship is a focal point, but this community also dedicates much of its time and resources to social justice and being responsive to the broader world in which we live.

If you are looking for an inclusive Jewish spiritual community in the Greater Boston area, Temple Hillel B’nai Torah is an exceptional option. Even if you aren’t in search of a temple to join, but simply an inclusive Jewish space for an occasional holiday or social program to attend, HBT’s vibrant community strives to make visitors feel right at home.

I recently interviewed Hillel B’nai Torah’s rabbi, Barbara Penzner. Rabbi Penzner is an exceptional spiritual and community leader. Below she shares insight pertaining to interfaith families at HBT, as well as the congregation’s values around inclusion.

Sukkot

Learning about Sukkot with Rabbi Penzner. Photo courtesy of HBT

What are some of the insights you have learned from working with interfaith families at HBT?

In my 19 years at Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, I have observed many different kinds of families. In some families, both parents are active participants while in others, only one parent maintains a strong connection to our community. It’s interesting that these differences do not divide easily between families with two Jewish parents, interfaith families or even families where one parent has converted to Judaism.

In one family, the mother never converted, but because she committed to raising children in the Jewish tradition—before the marriage—the boys both attended Jewish day school. In another family, the father who is not Jewish remains committed to his personal faith while attending every Jewish function with his family. Many of those who decided to convert to Judaism waited until their children were old enough to urge them to “take the plunge” and celebrated with them at the mikveh.

What policies or practices does HBT institute pertaining to interfaith families?

In the late 1990s, our congregation spent a year discussing the roles for members who aren’t Jewish in order to clarify our expectations for participation in ritual and governance. We all agreed that we wanted to include all family members for celebrations like a bar/bat mitzvah. The entire family stands together on the bimah for these occasions, and both parents give their child blessings, if they choose.

Our goal is to make our congregation a haven and a home, a place where people feel welcome no matter what their background: interfaith, multi-racial, LGBT and other seekers. Our bottom line is that we hope each member is willing to learn and grow.

What programming do you offer that supports and addresses the needs/concerns of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families/couples?

In recent years, a new group of families with young children have asked for a special group to help them deal with the challenges of raising children when parents have different religious backgrounds. Our group began as a gathering for interfaith couples. By the second year, we realized that the questions we were grappling with were valuable to all parents. We renamed the group “Parenting through Our Differences.” The group has discussed observing Jewish holidays, responding to the demands of extended family members, dealing with death and mourning in a Jewish way, and of course, navigating the December holidays

What brings you the most joy about your work, particularly your leadership around diversity and inclusion?

Lately I’ve enjoyed spending time with young couples who are preparing to marry and wish to explore the complexities of creating an interfaith family. I have watched couples navigate the dynamics of family and community that inevitably raise questions about the meaning of family, identity, religion and God. These are not easy questions and the answers are not straightforward.

What gives me faith in the future is the intention these couples bring and the open-heartedness with which they discuss their challenges. That, after all, is what religion is ultimately about. How we live out our religious practices and how we name our faith springs forth from our own personal truth; without that honest self-assessment, religion is only window-dressing. Ideally, our community seeks to foster these heartfelt investigations and create bonds of compassion and support.

On Sunday, November 9, HBT will be featuring scholar Keren McGinity, author of Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America to speak about her new book Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage and Fatherhood

InterfaithFamily Named Core Grantee by Natan for 2014-15

Natan logo(Newton, MA)—June 24, 2014—InterfaithFamily is honored to be selected for the second consecutive year as a core grantee by The Natan Fund, a giving circle based in New York City. The Natan Fund announced Tuesday they will give $953,000 to 54 grantees.

This year’s grant is part of the organization’s 11th annual round of grantmaking. Of the 298 applications, 54 grants were distributed and included 10 core grantees, which Natan’s website states are “those organizations most aligned with Natan’s grantmaking mission. Their exceptional leadership develops programs with significant and measurable impact, and they have the potential to make systemic change in the field in which they are working.” The decision-making is a rigorous three-stage process involving Natan’s 57 members on eight grant committees.

“We are so excited to be a Core Grantee of the Natan Fund for the second year in a row and are honored to be in the company of great organizations like G-dcast, Hazon, IKAR, Keshet and Moishe House,” said Jodi Bromberg, President of InterfaithFamily. “It’s especially meaningful to us to have young philanthropists recognize the importance of our work.”

See the full announcement of Natan’s grants and the full list of grantees.

About InterfaithFamily

InterfaithFamily is the premier resource supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities. We offer educational content at www.interfaithfamily.com; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy and other program providers; and our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative, providing coordinated comprehensive offerings in local communities, including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Belonging” as a Parent with a Jewish Son

Stacie and family

Stacie, her husband Andrew and Sammy, the day of the aliyah

This past weekend, our 5-month-old son was formally welcomed into our synagogue community when our family was honored with an aliyah (being called to the honor of Torah). Our rabbi offered blessings, everyone sang “Siman tov u’mazel tov” and we talked about how Sammy got his name. He is named in honor of both of his grandfathers and we described the qualities we hope he will inherit from each: creativity, curiosity, intellect, humor and a big heart.

It was wonderful for us to celebrate the birth of our son together with our synagogue community and receive their congratulations. Every new parent needs all the support they can get!

But it also made me think about a comment my husband, who is not Jewish, made to me a few months ago. He said that now that he is raising a Jewish son, he feels like he is connected to and belongs to the Jewish people in a stronger way.

This comment surprised me a little because I thought he already felt like he belonged. After all, we’ve been celebrating Jewish holidays together since we started dating, we regularly attend neighborhood Shabbat dinner potlucks, and say Hamotzi (the blessing over bread) before dinner each night. Even when I was pregnant and not fasting, my husband decided to keep the fast during Yom Kippur anyway!

But then I thought about it. Being married to a Jewish woman is one thing. Committing yourself to raising a Jewish child is another. It is an awesome responsibility, and I hope, an opportunity. How wonderful that fulfilling that role has brought my husband closer to Judaism!

I hope that as we move through our life together and reach various Jewish milestones of Sammy’s—starting Hebrew school, having a Bar Mitzvah, being confirmed—that this sense of belonging is reinforced by our synagogue community and continues to grow. There are opportunities to invite both of us in as parents—Jewish and not Jewish—to learn along with Sammy and share in the lessons from Hebrew school; to think about the deeper meaning of becoming a Bar Mitzvah and taking on the responsibilities of a Jewish adult; and to engage with the synagogue community.

From our experience so far in our synagogue, I have faith that there will be a place for both of us as Sammy’s parents. Even during the aliyah, there was an alternate blessing for my husband to recite that acknowledges his different and special relationship to Torah while I recited the traditional blessings. I hope that continues to be the case for us, and I hope that all interfaith families have the opportunity to feel like they “belong” to the Jewish people.

Wedding/Bar Mitzvah Gift Giving Tips

Marilyn's menorahThe summer months are usually filled with life cycle events and celebrations, especially weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. It can be a challenge to find the perfect gift for the couple or young person, especially if you want to give something Jewish and are not sure what might be appropriate or where to find a particularly meaningful gift.

For weddings, a couple will register for toasters, dishes and small appliances but they may not think to list typical Jewish ritual items (Judaica) in their registry. The basic items that most Jewish couples might want to include in their Judaica collection are Shabbat candlesticks, a challah plate or board, a challah cover, Kiddush cup, a mezuzah—one or one for each doorway (except the powder room), a Hanukkah menorah, a dreidel and a small collection of Jewish books, such as a Siddur (prayer book), Tanach (Hebrew bible), Haggadot for Passover and a general book about Jewish rituals. You can also consider a seder plate for Passover, noise makers for Purim, apple and honey dishes for Rosh Hashanah or a cheesecake plate for Shavuot.

There are lots of places to shop for Judaica, online and in your community. You can Google “Judaica” or check out Fair Trade Judaica for wonderful handmade items that are crafted with no child labor, fair pay, and safe work conditions. You can also visit a local synagogue or Jewish Community Center and purchase something from their gift shop. A portion of your purchase will help support them and there will always be a very helpful salesperson who can help you to choose something special.

Books can be found at the Jewish Publication Society or at most online retailers. IFF/Bay Area created an extensive reading list relating to marriage that I urge you to make use of.  My Jewish Learning has an extensive list of recommended books. One of my favorites is Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs and Values for Today’s Families by Anita Diamant & Howard Cooper. You can also choose something from InterfaithFamily’s list of interfaith-related titles.

Another option is to choose a family heirloom from your Judaica collection. I was given an old brass menorah by my stepmother before she passed away a few years ago and it remains a cherished memory of her faith, our roots in the old country and reminds me of the strong presence she had in my life.

When my husband and I got married a year ago, we decided that we preferred not to receive gifts, and instead, we chose four charities and asked our guests to send a donation in our honor. You can find a great source of charitable ideas on the Charity Navigator website, including ratings and top ten lists to browse through. You can also think about what issues are important to the recipient and donate to a nonprofit that supports that issue.

No matter what you choose, you can be certain that a gift of Judaica or help for a non-profit will be appreciated and remembered fondly for many years.

Relief in the Summer Months

Donating foodI am trying to raise my kids to think more about the world than their next playdate, TV show or snack. Recently a friend decided to host her 40th birthday party at a food distribution warehouse for the hungry. My first thought was, I’d rather take my friend out for a drink to toast her birthday, but I knew this was a nice thing to do. I thought about bringing a gift for her but I will do that another time. Little did I realize, I was the one to receive the real gift.

It was a Sunday morning on a beautiful day. My kids wanted to swim, sleep, watch TV… anything but go to the food warehouse. Through some serious and exhausting negotiation, I was able to encourage my oldest child to go with me.

In the warehouse, there are lots of smiling volunteers handing out cans and boxes of food to other volunteers holding boxes. Once the boxes are filled, they are closed and given to volunteers to distribute locally. I heard the requests over the loudspeaker to come and sign up for a route to deliver boxes to the elderly. My son and I hadn’t planned on delivering boxes. The boxes are a little heavy and, well, he’d rather be swimming. Frankly, so would I. But we decided that these boxes needed to be delivered and so we stepped up to get our list and directions to the address building where we would be delivering food.

When we arrived, we saw lots of people in the apartment building going out for the day and receiving Sunday visitors. What surprised me was that I drive by this building a few times a week. I never knew that there were hungry people living there. But there are. And the people in the building look just like my parents, aunts and uncles. Retired, happy. But some of them don’t have enough food to eat. I realized that one day that person without enough food to eat could be me. Or it could be you.

I dutifully delivered the boxes and suddenly wished I could do more. I thought about how lucky I am that I don’t worry at the grocery store about whether there will be enough money to pay for the food. It certainly puts life in perspective. And last night, I slept better than I would have, had I just gone swimming all day. Once again, by giving, I ended up receiving so much more through an increased level of appreciation for all that I have.

In Judaism, there is a concept of tikkun olam—repair the world. It happens that the organization that coordinated the food distribution is the Jewish Relief Agency based in Philadelphia. The organization distributes food once a month throughout the Philadelphia area. Many of the hungry folks are immigrants but some are not. Many are Jewish but some are not. (Click here to learn about upcoming dates to volunteer with JRA.)

In this crazy time of graduations, camp and vacations, repairing the world is important to remember. It also helps us repair a little of ourselves!

Open Doors on Beacon Hill

Front of Vilna ShulNestled within Boston’s picturesque Beacon Hill neighborhood, the Vilna Shul is a gem that the city is lucky to have. The cultural center opens its doors widely to the entire Boston community, offering substantive Jewish programming, dynamic historical and contemporary exhibits and an egalitarian minyan (a Jewish prayer group).

In this interview, which is as fascinating as the Vilna Shul itself, Program Manager Jessica Antoline discusses what sets the Vilna Shul apart from many organizations, and provides a glimpse into the uniquely honest and well-rounded framework with which the shul’s staff coordinates programming.

The Vilna Shul continues to honor its long multicultural history and has been a wonderfully inclusive space for Jewish interfaith and interracial families to celebrate life cycle events and participate in programming.

 


What sets the Vilna Shul apart from other organizations and spiritual communities?

There are so many things! I like to think that the Vilna stands apart for three reasons:

1. On a historical level, we are it—the last synagogue from the era that brought most Jews to Boston (1880-1924). It’s an era that changed the city entirely, and we are the only place where you can learn about the Jewish contribution to that change.

2. We are also a hybrid organization, functioning both spiritually and culturally when we need to. We are non-denominational and open to all walks of Jewish life. Just to give you an example, we can have a Shabbat one day and a lecture on the rise of Jewish atheists the next. It’s very exciting.

3. I like to think that all of us at the Vilna try to share a realistic rather than idealistic Jewish story. We love to tell the happy stories, but we will never shy away from the dark sides of Jewish history. Jews are humans. We can both build up and break the world so easily. As I like to say to our visitors, Jewish people are all pieces of one dynamic culture worth celebrating. But we were never a people apart, never a people who stayed static in our actions or philosophies. Like every person we have our light and dark sides to our history. Like every people we need to evaluate who we are and what we are doing in and for this world. At the Vilna, we challenge what it means to be Jewish, what Jewish traditions and histories are and where they come from without any judgment or criticism. Through this open line of communication, I like to think we help strengthen people’s understanding of themselves and their community.

Purim at Vilna Shul

Purim at the Vilna Shul in 2014

What are the ways in which interfaith families and couples have enriched the Vilna Shul?

They help us keep our focus and ensure that we are doing our job. At the Vilna Shul our mission is to preserve and share Jewish culture in ways that are open and accessible to everyone, Jewish or not. What is the Vilna if it is not offering the public what it wants and needs? It becomes just a building without any life. Interfaith couples and families bring new perspectives, lead members of the community to think closely about their words and actions, and help everyone understand each other on a level far deeper than if they were absent from the community.

What programming do you offer that support the needs of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families and couples?

All of our programming is open to interfaith families. Generally when it comes to addressing their needs, we do it within programs during the planning process rather than hosting programs about interfaith issues. (We know that is your field, not ours!) We ensure that every program we offer can be accessed equally by those who identify as Jewish and those who do not.  From having words in transliteration and translation to working specifically with scholars, historians, musicians and others who are experienced in working with diverse groups, we always try to answer the question “would I understand this concept if I lived outside of a Jewish context?” before bringing a program to the public.

Our Havurah on the Hill Shabbats and holiday celebrations are an excellent example of this. HOH was designed to be accessible to everyone. It’s actually the number one thing people love about the program. The young Jews who attend come from many backgrounds: children of traditional Jewish backgrounds, children of interfaith parents, couples who are interfaith but considering a Jewish path, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, secular…everything!

In your experience or based upon what members/visitors have told you, what are the salient considerations regarding interfaith families that the Vilna Shul takes into consideration when making institutional decisions or developing programming and education?

Language is always a consideration, based on what our community has told us. They appreciate that we try to make everything we do accessible so we always consider that when making a program. They also appreciate when we bring in many histories based on who is in the audience. For example, if we know that someone attending a program may have a friend, child, or partner who is Catholic-Irish or Hindu or Baptist African American, we try and take the time to make reference to their histories and any connections they have to Jewish history.

What brings you the most joy in your work, particularly your and the Vilna Shul’s leadership around diversity and inclusion?

Actually, what I just talked about brings me the most joy. Being open to everyone, being known as a safe, accessible place to talk about all aspects of Jewish culture, makes me love my job. No one is here to define your Jewishness for you. Instead, you are given access to information and a non-judgmental atmosphere. You must decide the rest! Sounds easy, right? But the pursuit of knowledge and freedom of choice are such difficult paths to take.

I smile when I see interfaith couples getting married at the Vilna. I love seeing a child of an interfaith and intercultural relationship shine as they read from the Torah during their bar or bat mitzvah. My heart soars when a Muslim student tells me he finally found a place and a person to ask the questions he was holding inside for so long.

5 Things I Hope Rebecca Ferguson Knows Before Starring in The Red Tent

Book coverIf you haven’t read Anita Diamant’s bestselling novel, The Red Tent, here is some extra incentive. Lifetime is launching what they call an “epic movie event” this fall starring Rebecca Ferguson, Minnie Driver, Morena Baccarin and Debra Winger based on the book. Even if it doesn’t go on your summer reading list, here are five fun facts that will make watching it even more fun. Did you know that:

1)  The book was a sleeper until Diamant got the idea to send doomed-to-be-shredded copies of the novel to rabbis who then used it in their teachings and made it a worldwide phenomenon?

2)  Diamant used the first chapters of the book of Genesis as a launching pad for her creativity, based in the silence of the character of Dina who is said to have been raped in Genesis, Ch. 34?

3)  Goddess worship in the novel is based in scholarship of the biblical period? In fact, even the Torah itself tells us of the matriarch, Rachel, taking off with the household idols.

4)  The Red Tent purposely gets the birth order of the tribes wrong? The author plays throughout the novel with the ideas of storytelling and authorship, maintaining that women were absent from the construction of the Torah and, therefore, left out of the telling of our history.

5)  Countless midwifery communities have named themselves, The Red Tent, after the novel?

And now a bit of explanation.

The Rent Tent was published in 1997 with limited success, and within a few years went from being unheard of to a bestseller. What turned it into a book group phenomenon? Anita Diamant was well-known long before the novel for those of us who help people create Jewish life-cycle rituals. She wrote several how-to Jewish books that are the first ones I recommend when someone is planning a Jewish wedding, baby naming or thinking about conversion (The New Jewish Wedding Book, The New Jewish Baby Book). But then Diamant wrote her first novel, The Red Tent, an imaginative telling of the life of the matriarchs in the book of Genesis. When the book wasn’t finding great success, the author got an idea. She sent copies of the book to Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, many of whom knew her earlier work well, and later to women ministers and independent booksellers. Leaders found that the book opened up a much needed conversation about women in our texts and historical silence. Before long, no book group was without its Red Tent month. It became a bestseller.

You don’t have to know the story of Genesis to appreciate the book. But many readers have found that they want to crack open a Torah for the first time in eons to distinguish what is actually written in the Torah about the matriarchs of Genesis and what is Diamant’s creative retelling. She jumps off from the Genesis stories, only using them as a frame. But even the pieces she fabricated are largely based in research. Not only did she include details that come from traditional Jewish sources like the Midrash (see below), she based much of her story in research about the lives of women in the biblical period. She studied daily life in the region at that time, including ancient goddess worship, birthing rituals and midwifery, medicine and funeral practices.

The worship of gods and goddesses, for example, is rampant in her story which reflects what scholars know about near Eastern practice and is hinted at in the book of Genesis and the prophetic writings of the Torah. The matriarch, Sarah, is referred to as a priestess in The Red Tent, another gleaning from early feminist biblical scholarship. She gives names to women who are left unnamed in the Torah. She imagines that Dinah was following a tradition of being a midwife when the events of Genesis 34 unfold.

She once said of her novel, “Dinah is one of the silent women of the Bible. Her silence intrigued me…gave me a window. Where there was silence, I created three-hundred pages.” [Cynthia Dettelbach, “Entering The Red Tent With Anita Diamant.” The Cleveland Jewish News 74, no. 2(1999): 4] In her version, women tell their own stories and, at times, are frustrated at hearing them mis-told by the men in the family. She goes as far as to insinuate that the “writers” of the biblical tales made mistakes because women’s voices were not involved in the construction or transmission of the Torah.

Within Jewish circles, there has been some controversy stirred by the novel about who is “allowed” to interpret and reinterpret Jewish texts. Diamant says she wrote a work of historical fiction, not midrash (a creative elaboration of the Torah, filling in the gaps in the Torah narratives), but still some argued that her work pretends to fit into that textual tradition dating back to the Rabbis of the 2nd-6th centuries BCE. Her response to one such opponent was that, “It is my birthright. My audacity is the Jewish approach to Scripture…Every word of Torah has seven hundred faces of God and six hundred meanings. There is no one correct interpretation of Scripture as Jews have made up stories…for centuries”. [Joan Gross, “Jacob’s Daughter Hits the Bigtime in 2001.” The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California 105, no. 13 (2001): 40.]