The Jewish Mother Thing

  

boys licking chocolate off their messy facesI remember standing with a few friends after my oldest son was born. We were talking, as new mothers do, about how hard parenting can be, how scary. We were comparing neurotic-helicopter-mom moments, laughing at ourselves.

I shared a story about taking my son to the doctor when he seemed to have a fever. “His temperature is high!” I’d cried to the pediatrician, who only chuckled knowingly and said, “Well, maybe you want to unwrap some of these blankets when he’s indoors.” Of course my son was fine, just overheated.

I blushed telling this story. My friends grinned. They had the same stories, of course.  About cutting food up (choking hazards!) into tiny bits too small for the kids to actually pick up. About perceived rare (thanks, WebMD!) skin conditions that turned out to only be heat rash.

But I remember, in the middle of all the laughter that day, someone said, “Well, who can blame us? It’s the ‘Jewish Mother Thing.’ We’re supposed to be anxious and neurotic!  It’s in our DNA!” The laughter continued, and then we probably all had some coffee, or wine.

As the years have passed (10 of them), I’ve gone back to that moment a lot. Because it turns out that as a parent, I’m not especially neurotic. I’m the mom who often shows up with junky snacks, when other people have baked gluten-free, organic muffins. I’m the mom whose kids shower once a week. My boys walk around the neighborhood unattended, own pocketknives and occasionally we forget to eat dinner.

Do these things mean I’m not a Jewish mother? Of course stereotypes are flawed, inexact, problematic. But when I joined a Jewish Mom group on Facebook and saw the effort other Jewish parents put into the details of summer camp selection, perfect birthday cupcakes and finding the best specialists, I found myself wondering, and feeling a little… different. Outside the norm.

It never occurred to me until I saw so many Jewish Mothers all in one place that I might not be one, in the traditional sense. But of course this is absolutely logical, because I never had a Jewish Mother. My own overworked mom, raised Catholic in California—regularly left me at the library until after the doors were locked (it was fine, I sat and read on the steps). She didn’t make kugel and she didn’t speak in Yiddishisms. I rode public buses and did my homework (or didn’t) without anyone ever looking at it. I survived, and learned, I guess, how to parent a little haphazardly, with spit and tape. I learned how fine things usually are, in the end. I learned to avoid stress whenever possible.

But does this mode of parenting make me somehow less Jewish?

Here’s the thing—I am a Jewish mother. I know I am. Because I’m raising Jewish sons. And maybe what the rising intermarriage rates suggest is that we’re going to see a shift in the “Jewish Mother Thing” in the near future. Maybe the next generation of Jewish mothers, raised themselves by women from a more diverse array of religions, regions and cultures, will be less similar, less careful, a little less neurotic. Because they don’t have this “Jewish Mother” stereotype in their heads.

Or maybe not! Maybe all mothers are anxious sometimes and the “Jewish Mother Thing” is a fiction, a narrative we’ve crafted as a culture, a way of embracing and forgiving ourselves for our neurotic maternal impulses; a myth we perpetuate.

In any case, I want to take a moment today to honor us all.. This week, for Mothers’ Day, I want to say to ALL the Jewish Mothers of the world, Yasher Koach! Good job on your perfectionism, or your relaxed attitude. Good job on the homemade cupcakes, or the Ho-Ho you stuck a candle in at the last minute. Good job on remembering the dental appointment, or forgetting and rescheduling it because you took the kids for a hike that day instead. Good job on raising a diverse world of wonderful Jewish kids who will strengthen and alter and carry on our tradition. I’m proud of us all.

Thank You, Source of Stuff: A Gratitude Practice for Kids

  

Boy eating chicken legWhen my kids were young, I introduced them to the practice of saying the Hebrew blessing, the motzi, before eating. Thank you, God, who brings forth bread from the earth.

My older child instantly connected not only to the routine of the ritual but the theological aspect as well. But a few years ago, my other son started to challenge the idea of God. At a young age, he was already an avowed atheist and didn’t want to thank God for our food. I explained that he still needs to stop for a moment and acknowledge what it took for that food to get to his plate.

As a pre-dinner ritual, we started to list all the physical conditions and individuals who made our food possible: the sun, rain, seeds, individuals who plant and harvest under harsh conditions without sufficient pay or job security, the people who process it, those who drive it to the store, the store clerks who sell it to us whom we see as we pay our grocery bill. And me, to make it into dinner.

Motzi is a moment of gratitude so we don’t take for granted the deep blessing of sustenance. I learned this practice many years ago when I helped organize a Passover seder for Worker Justice (laborers seeking justice) in Los Angeles. Included in our haggadah was this prayer as part of the Kiddush ritual:

A toast to those who made this wine!
¡Un saludo a los que hicieron este vino!

Wine bottle with glassTo the holy-oneness of everything whose creation gives us sweet fruit for the mouth, eye and nose to enjoy
Al unidad-sagrado-de-todo quien hizo una creacion que nos da frutas dulces para gozar la boca, los ojos, y el nariz

To those who put passion, dreams and capital into wine and entrepreneurship
A los quienes invertieron su passion, sus suenos, y sus fondos al negocio del vino

To those who plowed the fields
A los quienes araron la tierra

To those who planted the vines
A los sembradores de los vides

To those who tended the vines
A los cultivadores de vides

To those who picked the grapes
Alos quienes sacaron las uvas

To those who fermented the fruit
A los que hicieron el vino

To those who cleaned and maintained the winery
A los limpiadores y cuidadores de la fabrica

To those who bottled the wine
A los que lo pusieron en botellas

To those who loaded and trucked the bottles for delivery
A los que metieron a las botellas en las trocas y que las cargaron

To those who sold the wine
A los que lo vendieron

And to those who served the wine here this evening!
¡Y a los que sirvieron el vino esta noche!

We give you our thanks!
¡Les agradecemos!

This got our family thinking about what we were really trying to accomplish when we said the motzi. We talked about the most important part of that moment: taking time to stop and appreciate our food. But those particular words we say are human-made. Yes, they have survived thousands of years, but they are the expressions of a certain group of rabbis a long time ago. We make these ancient words into idols, enshrining them while depriving us of a creative thought process—the kind of passionate engagement with ideas and words that must have inspired those rabbis to formulate such poetry so long ago.

Liturgist Marsha Falk encourages us to exercise our creativity: No convention of prayer ought to become completely routine; lest it lose its ability to inspire authentic feeling.” My son would probably agree with her assertion that our traditional opening blessing formula “is an example of a dead metaphor… a greatly overused image that no longer functions to awaken awareness of the greater whole.” (The Book of Blessings, p.xvii)

Greatly influenced by Falk’s ideas, I have been crafting my own prayers for years. So I asked my son what he would want to say instead of the motzi. This is what my young atheist came up with: Thank you, source of stuff, for the food.Sometimes he says, “Thanks to the universe and science and all that stuff… for the food.”

These days, we take turns saying a blessing at our table so everyone’s interests and concerns are heard. I don’t want to lose the traditional prayer language completely and I want my kids to know those formulations. When we say the motzi in the usual way, I talk to my kids about how I infuse those sacred words and sounds with my own theological understanding of the universe; how we are interconnected with the food, the sources of that food and the people who made it possible for such bounty to reach our plates. To me, that holy process is God.

Other nights, our sons offer their favorite renditions. Lately as they start to cook parts of the meal themselves, the son who helps gets to offer his favorite way of blessing the food. But we always stop, appreciate and bless.

My Macaroni & Cheese Lightbulb Moment

  

Boy eating mac_cheeseAs I have admitted before, I see the whole world through an interfaith family lens (see my past blog post HERE). I am so uber-saturated in this work that I am always thinking about the experience of the partner who isn’t Jewish who is connected to someone Jewish and what it means to have interfaith families as full members of congregations. So, when I was on a four-hour flight to meet with the other seven rabbis who direct InterfaithFamily offices around the country, I saw an ad that stopped me in my tracks. It is the new Kraft Macaroni & Cheese ad (which might understandably be torture to watch mid-way through Passover!).

The tag line is, “It’s changed, but it hasn’t.”

What does mac & cheese have to do with supporting interfaith families exploring Jewish life, our tag line at IFF? When interfaith families are truly part of a community doing Jewish (notice I don’t say Jewish community—this will be the subject of my next blog post), will the community and the experience of Judaism change? Will there be anything recognizable about Judaism in the generations to come? Will the recipe have changed so much that it becomes a different thing altogether? To continue the food analogy, will interfaith families be a sweetener and add something healthier for the overall enterprise of Judaism?

I hope that when interfaith families are members and leaders of their communities, everything will change for the better. We will frame liturgy and worship in new ways, cognizant that we need to give meaning because many people there are still learning (yes—this should always be the approach, but interfaith families dictate this approach). We will continue to adapt and change liturgy as it feels outdated and offensive to our diverse communities.This has been the Reform tradition since the beginning. We say what we believe.

Much of prayer is poetry and isn’t literal but is evocative. Our language will change and it should feel palpable. Those who visit a congregation’s website should sense change and it should feel inspiring and positive. We can look to the experience and narratives of those who didn’t grow up with Judaism to enrich the context and lens by which Judaism is now taught and lived.

What do you think? When interfaith families are truly part and parcel of a community, do you sense that their inclusion changes the community over time? Can you point to the changes? Is it so normative at this point that we have a diverse community that we take this fact for granted and have moved past it in some way? As always, more questions than answers and lots of right answers.

 

Cooking From Memory

  

matzah ball soupMy grandma Zelda taught me many things about Judaism and preparing for the Jewish holidays. However, what she did not teach me was her recipes. In fact, in all the years I watched and helped her cook, I don’t ever remember seeing her follow a recipe or consult a cookbook. Whenever she cooked, she did it from memory.

Rabbi Sarah Tasman with Grandma Zelda

Rabbi Sarah Tasman with Grandma Zelda

For her huge fluffy matzah balls, I remember her telling me to mix together the matzah meal, schmaltz (chicken fat) and water. “If it’s too thick,” she said, “add more water. If it’s too wet, add more matzah meal.” There was no recipe to follow, just the steps she had learned from her mother, which were the steps she used her entire life and the same ones she shared with me.

Often she would tell me stories about what it was like growing up strictly kosher or what it was like living in a family of eight children.

Looking back now, I see that my grandmother taught me how to cook from memory. For the most part, if I learn how to cook something once, I can pretty much cook it again without the recipe. I know what “season with salt and pepper to taste” means, and I do not measure exactly how much goes in of this or that ingredient. When I bake a chicken, I don’t usually use a timer since I know how it’s supposed to look and taste when it’s ready. That is how I learned to cook from Grandma Zelda.

More than how or what to cook, much of what I learned from my grandmother was about how to build a Jewish home (even if I don’t follow the rules of keeping kosher in exactly the same way she did). I learned how to let Judaism be a framework for my life, how to follow the seasons and celebrate the holidays and how to make room within that structure for my own personality and creativity. I learned the value of taking the time to prepare for holidays—not just physically cleaning and cooking, but spiritually, too. I learned from her how to gather my family around me and how to make the observance of a holiday meal more meaningful. I learned how to open the door to those who come from other backgrounds and traditions.

This will be our first Passover since my grandmother passed away and my first time hosting Passover in my own home. It feels like an honor, a duty to carry on this tradition and a very large task for which I will need a lot of help. In large part, it’s about the food, but it’s also about the rituals and about the memories.

I know that our Passover seder this year will look and feel different from the Passover meals we used to have at Grandma Zelda’s. It will be the first time not being in her home and the first seder without her. I will think of her every step of the way as I clean my house and prepare for my guests. We will light her Sabbath candles on the first night of Passover, we will fill her Miriam’s cup and I will prepare and teach in her honor. I will cook with my memories, and I will cook from memory, just like she taught me.

This article was reprinted with permission from Jewish Food Experience.

My Eastover Basket

  

Girl_Easter_BasketAs a kid, I loved Passover and Easter.

Passover meant a big seder, with my grandfather chanting at the end of the table. My cousins and I would scramble around the house, hunting for the afikomen. Then my uncle would play the piano in the basement while we all sang. It was a wonderful holiday.

MatzahPassover also meant skipping my usual PB&J and taking buttered matzah to school, wrapped in aluminum foil. I remember how the butter would melt into shiny globules, and I’d rub them in with my finger. There was something nice about being “The Jewish Kid” in the class, with my special food. I loved the rituals. I liked the hyper-awareness of Passover, the symbolism of the seder plate. Mortar and tears—the sense that everything mattered.

And while we didn’t celebrate Easter religiously at our house, I did get a basket from my (Catholic) mom, filled with jellybeans and chocolate eggs. This was nice, too—that while I got to be “The Jewish Kid” I also didn’t feel totally left out of Easter. Sometimes there was a neighborhood parade and we made Easter hats from cardboard, glue and feathers.

Then came a year when the holidays overlapped. My parents were newly divorced, and not communicating well. My mom did her best with Passover. If memory serves, I took my matzah to school like usual. But then on Sunday morning… I got my Easter basket. Filled with bright jelly beans.

I tore into it, of course, mouth filled with sweetness, until I crunched through a blue candy shell into the crisp goodness of a malted robin’s egg. And suddenly, it hit me. Easter wasn’t Kosher for Passover! I spit the candy out into my hand, confused. What should I do?

For the next few days, my Easter basket sat on top of the fridge, waiting for me. I remember staring up at it, thinking about how it wasn’t fair, that nobody else I knew had to wait to eat her candy. But the truth was, my dad wasn’t there to enforce the rules anymore. It was all me. I had put the basket on top of the fridge, and I felt conflicted, but also firm in my resolve.

Years later, as an adult, the holidays overlapped again, and remembering the basket on the fridge, I did a funny thing. I assembled a Kosher-for-Passover Easter basket for myself. I did a good job, hunted down fruit-gels and made chocolate-covered matzah. The basket looked lovely.

But you know what? It was no good. It didn’t make me happy at all. Staring at that basket of fruit slices and jelly rings didn’t feel the same as waking up to an Easter basket. Not remotely. It felt… wrong.

I think sometimes, in the interfaith community, we seek to smooth the ruffled feelings, to reconcile all our conflicts and contradictions. We want to believe that we’re creating families in which everything can blend, fit and make sense. But here’s the thing—some things are distinct, even mutually exclusive. Some years, choosing to keep Kosher for Passover means not eating Easter candy. And that’s annoying, but also OK. Things don’t have to be easy to matter.

In a way, I feel like I undermined the essence of each holiday in that Eastover Basket I made. For me (and I can only speak for my own experience), Passover is about the restrictions, the rigor. Passover feels powerful because of its deprivation. And for me, Easter baskets are the opposite—about abundance, sheer pleasure.

This is fine! These two holidays don’t have to blend. Each holiday holds a special place in my memory. Easter and Passover can co-exist without merging. And you know what? The truth is that all the most meaningful experiences of my life have included conflict. Every deep relationship I’ve had has been imperfect, particular and occasionally inconvenient. Often, rituals matter most when we have to wait for them, or forego something else. Sometimes, conflict serves a purpose.

When I was a kid, I stared up at my Easter basket on the fridge and thought about both holidays. I owned them both and recognized that they both mattered to me. That year, for the first time, I truly decided to keep Kosher for Passover. It mattered more than it ever had before. And then a few days later, I decided to eat my robin’s eggs.

They were delicious.

Top 7 Passover Song Parodies

  

cant_eat_this_videoWhen I was growing up, I always looked forward to my family’s Passover seders. One of my favorite parts of the seder was the songs—and not just the songs that were in the haggadah, like “Dayenu,Chad Gadya” and “Who Knows One?”  I also loved the silly song parodies we’d sing each year at our seder based on (somewhat) modern songs, like “Take Me Out to the Seder” sung to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,”There’s No Seder Like Our Seder” sung to the tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and “The Ballad of the Four Sons” sung to the tune of “Clementine.” (You can click here to find the words to these songs and others.)

As corny as these all seem to me now, I can still remember how clever I thought they were when I was young—and how they didn’t cease to amuse me each year.

In recent days, with Passover approaching, some of my friends have posted Passover parodies of pop songs on Facebook, and they’ve reminded me of those parodies we used to sing at our seder when I was young. So, for fun, I thought I’d compile a list of my favorite Passover song parodies. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Although Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez probably didn’t realize it when they composed the song “Let it Go” for the movie Frozen, they had written the perfect phrase to be parodied as a Passover song. And it was parodied—endlessly—in 2014. One of the better videos, in my opinion, was “Let Us Go,” made by members of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.

2. But my favorite Frozen parody by far was Six13’s “Chozen (A Passover Tribute).” It even included an introduction with John Travolta flubbing the name of the group, just as he had mispronounced Idina Menzel’s name when introducing her to sing “Let it Go” at the Oscars.

3. Just as 2014 was the year of the “Let it Go” Passover parody, 2015 was the year of the “Uptown Funk” Passover parody. Aish HaTorah’s “Passover Funk” was a great parody of the Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars hit song.

4. But again, my favorite version of 2015’s most-parodied song for Passover was by Six13. Their “Uptown Passover (An ‘Uptown Funk for Pesach)” put them at the top of my Passover song parody list for the second year in a row.

5. Following up on the success of their 2014 “Let Us Go,” members of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA, did a great job parodying Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” in their 2015 “All About Those Plagues.” Having noted in a blog that I wrote this past December that most Hanukkah pop song parodies that I liked were by all-male groups and that I hoped to see more women and girls coming out with some awesome parodies, I love that the B’nai Shalom videos feature more than just young men. I can relate to the woman who wrote on YouTube about “All About Those Plagues”: “I must congratulate you. I’m so tired of these all-male Orthodox groups having a near-monopoly on Jewish holiday videos… [This video] features a wide diversity of ages, genders and even races. That’s what Judaism is about…”

6. Felicia Sloin’s Video “Batya—Floating in The Reeds” is a fun parody of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep.” And again, it was nice to watch a video featuring a woman.

7. And finally, here’s another video featuring a woman, this one a funny take on the foods that can and can’t be eaten on Passover: Julie Geller’s “U Can’t Eat This,” a parody of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” that you don’t want to miss.

With Passover less than a month away, I’m disappointed that I still haven’t seen any good 2016 Passover pop song parodies. Maybe the Maccabeats (famous for their “Candlelight” parody of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” and many other songs) will release a video before Passover. I can hope… and if they don’t, I’ll just have to watch “U Can’t Eat This” a few more times… or break out signing “Take Me Out to the Seder.”

What’s your favorite Passover song parody?

David Gregory Bares His Spirituality

  

CJP Interfaith conversation

“I feel I’m Jewish not just because I’ve chosen Judaism but because Judaism has chosen me.”
–David Gregory, April 5, 2016

You might recognize David Gregory from his time as NBC newsman or as Meet the Press moderator. But he visited Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston Federation–a supporter of InterfaithFamily/Boston and leader in interfaith issues–this morning in the role of author, husband and father. He was joined by Dr. Erica Brown, an extraordinary Jewish author and teacher. Gregory and Brown were interviewed by CJP President Barry Shrage about interfaith relationships and Jewish life.

Brown made a good point early on in the conversation: So often, it’s not Jewish ritual or prayer or the organized Jewish community that puts off people who are not Jewish. To a newcomer, it’s the inside jokes, that “tribalism” about Jewish culture—the very thing that makes many Jews feel pride—that can be so isolating.

Many of us have seen this play out, whether you are the Jewish one, joking about a Jewish stereotype or using insider lingo, or you’re the one hearing it and not quite feeling part of the conversation.

Gregory is in a unique position to speak on the pulse of interfaith relationships having felt like both insider and outsider. He is the product of an interfaith family (he was raised by a Catholic mother and Jewish father) and it was his wife’s strong Protestant faith that inspired him to explore his own faith and religion. After a great deal of religious and spiritual exploration, he said, “I feel more Jewish than I ever have in my life.”

It’s time for Jews to change their thinking, Gregory said. As his wife Beth put it: “I know what you are but what do you believe?”

Unfortunately, he points out, the idea of appreciating Judaism for its vibrancy, community and spirituality is an “elective.” The more powerful conversation on the table is still the endurance of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, so it can be difficult to steer the conversation toward the richness of what Judaism has to offer; the “what you believe” rather than the “what you are.”

Gregory is by no means saying that it is futile to embrace and share the notion that Judaism has a great deal to offer those who are not already engaged, however. He challenged those in the room from Jewish organizations to think about creating inroads to the Jewish community that have authenticity for interfaith couples. Brown also pointed out that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, as every person and couple is unique.

What was most compelling about the conversation was hearing Gregory talk from experience. He does not claim to have the answers for anyone else, but he has been on quite a journey with his personal relationship with Judaism. Its importance has the power to bring him to tears and to propel him forward on this intellectual and heartfelt journey with his family.