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.]

Lessons from ‘My Basmati Bat Mitzvah’

I don’t normally read books written for middle schoolers, but I was in the children’s section of my local library picking up a book for my daughter the other day when I noticed a book with a bright yellow cover with a pretty Indian girl entitled My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, written by Paula J. Freedman, on display. I opened the book and started to read the summary on the inside cover:  “For Tara Feinstein, life with her Jewish-Indian-American family is like a bowl of spicy matzoh ball soup. It’s a mix of cultures that is sometimes delicious, and sometimes confusing…”

I was hooked, and I immediately checked out the book. As someone who devotes my days to working with interfaith couples and families and advocating for a welcoming Jewish community, I couldn’t wait to start reading.

And I wasn’t disappointed. It was a lot of fun to read the story of Tara’s desi mispacha—a term that Tara describes in the book as a “Hindi + Yiddish made up term meaning a family that’s a little bit Indian and a little bit Jewish. Nicer than ‘Hin-Jew’…” I appreciated how the author depicted Tara’s struggles as she prepares to become a Bat Mitzvah—her questioning whether or not she believes in God; her worry that by celebrating becoming a Bat Mitzvah she will somehow be less Indian; her confusing relationship with her Catholic best friend who wants to be her boyfriend.

Tara’s Indian mother converted to Judaism years earlier, before marrying her father, but Tara still feels a deep connection to her Indian family and her Indian heritage. She deeply loved her mothers’ parents who lived in India and died several years earlier. She feels a special bond to her Nanaji (her mother’s father) and wants to be sure that celebrating her Bat Mitzvah won’t make her forget him. She adores Indian food, and though her mother doesn’t cook, her father—who grew up Jewish in America—makes great Indian food. Tara loves to watch and act out scenes from Bollywood movies. And for good luck, she rubs the statue of Ganesha that sits on her dresser.

One particular scene in the book really struck me. When Tara realizes that a friend of hers has stolen a bracelet, Tara grabs the bracelet and goes to the store to return it. As she’s reaching to put the bracelet back on the jewelry counter, she’s stopped by a security guard, who thinks that Tara’s involved in the shoplifting. When she tells the security guard that her name is “Tara Feinstein,” he looks at her skeptically and says to her: “No, really.”

That’s what it’s constantly like for Tara…people making assumptions about her, and her Jewishness, based on how she looks, and on her mother’s (and thus her) background. And this is what it’s like for so many children from interfaith, inter-racial and/or inter-cultural homes. Fortunately for Tara, she comes to realize that connecting to her Judaism on a deeper level doesn’t mean that she has to distance herself from her Indian heritage. As she says in her Bat Mitzvah speech: “…now I know that inspiration can come from many different sources, and that having multicultural experiences can actually make you stronger and more accepting of different points of view.” She comes to see that “Nanaji would really have liked my Bat Mitzvah…he was a very spiritual person…he would have approved, as long as I did it with an open heart.

When my children write book reports for school, they always have to tell whether they would recommend the book, and why or why not. Well, I can say that I would highly recommend My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. It was refreshing to read about a young woman coming of age and dealing with the multiple aspects of her identity, and realizing that she could be fully Jewish AND still honor her Indian cultural heritage (as she did by wearing a treasured sari from her mother’s family which was made into a dress for her Bat Mitzvah).

The book shows in a touching way not just the challenges, but also the blessings, of growing up in an interfaith, inter-cultural family. It’s always said that kids need to see themselves reflected in the dolls they play with, the television and movies they watch, and the stories they read.  I’d imagine that a middle schooler, especially a girl, growing up in an interfaith, inter-racial or intercultural home would at least find some aspects of herself reflected in Tara.

If you’re a mom or dad in an interfaith home and you have a child in middle school, I suggest that you get My Basmati Bat Mitzvah for your child. Better yet, read it with your kid! It’ll give you a great opening to discuss complex issues of belonging and identity. If you’re raising your child as a Jew, you can discuss with them how they can still be one hundred percent Jewish even if one parent did not grow up (and may still not be) Jewish. And you can talk about how being Jewish and proudly celebrating your Jewish identity doesn’t mean that you can’t love and honor family members who aren’t Jewish with a full heart or that you can’t embrace aspects of what you inherited from your parent who did not grow up Jewish.

I have to return My Basmati Bat Mitzvah to the library soon, before it’s overdue. And when I get there, I may just go back to the children’s section to see what other great books I can find for myself.

Seth Meyers is Jew-ish

Seth Meyers reveals that…he’s not Jewish! Despite what “every single Jewish person thinks,” he is not Jewish (though he does have a Jewish grandfather).

In this clip from Late Night with Seth Meyers, he talks about getting married to his now wife Alexi, who is Jewish, under a chuppah, and about his in-laws who consider him “Jewish enough.” Meyers may have thought he was merely being funny, but little did he know he was becoming the poster celebrity for InterfaithFamily!

Chelsea Clinton’s Pregnant and We Have Baby Naming Resources For Her

Chelsea & MarcIt’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for…Chelsea Clinton is pregnant! When Chelsea and Marc Mezvinsky tied the knot in 2010, we reported on their widely talked about co-officiated wedding. InterfaithFamily’s CEO Ed Case summarized the Jewish media response to their nuptials, which was not quite as congratulatory as ours and ultimately hoped that their wedding would serve to inspire other interfaith couples to incorporate Jewish practices into their weddings as Chelsea and Marc did.

Now that Chelsea and Marc are expecting, we’re excited for the opportunity to share with ALL expecting parents our helpful baby naming resources. From this guide, “What to do when the baby arrives: Tips for inclusive naming ceremonies” to our booklet, “Brit Bat: birth ceremonies for girls” and our other booklet, “To Circumcise or Not: That is The Question” we are here to help new interfaith families along the way. If you’re planning for a family (or if you want to offer Chelsea some tips), you can also check out this guide to birth ceremonies for interfaith families which includes lots of resources and sample naming ceremonies. We look forward to supporting Chelsea and all expecting interfaith families along their journey, and we’ll be watching to see if and how they raise their child with Judaism.


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Why We’re Talking About Princesses: Long Island

Cast members Princesses Long IslandSince the new Bravo reality show Princesses: Long Island began a few weeks ago, many blogs have popped up in the Jewish and secular media berating the show and the network for its portrayal of Long Island Jewish women. The bloggers’ responses range from horror to amused disgust to acceptance. JTA has a whole guide to blogs about the show.

If you haven’t seen the show, it’s about six twenty-something Jewish Long Islanders who live with their parents, agonize over finding a husband to take care of them, and for the most part, do not work. They seem to have been encouraged to make Judaism a big part of the show, as they are constantly touting how Jewish their lifestyle is and making a scene over drinking Manischewitz and eating Shabbat dinner.

This all might sound harmless and hardly cause for alarm, if it weren’t for the fact that the women on the show are so horribly over the top in their dependency on their parents, men and money. More than that, they actively promote stereotypes about Judaism, and explicitly say that their lifestyle is typically “Jewish” and “Long Island,” when there’s nothing typical about anything they say or do.

When one cast member says that she’s a Reform Jew, which means “We’re not that Jewish,” what is someone who doesn’t know the difference supposed to think?

You may ask, if there’s so much already out there about this nonsense, why bother adding to the mix? Because I learned this lesson well: When something is happening that is damaging to Jews, or any ethnic/religious group, I have a responsibility to speak out. Am I being melodramatic? I don’t think New York Congressman Steve Israel (who represents the part of Long Island where the show is filmed) would think so. Yup, he’s blogged about it too:

“Much to my dismay, the characters on the show spewed gross generalizations about the living and dating habits of unmarried Jewish women. And the stereotyping didn’t stop there. In the latest episode, the characters get together for a Shabbat dinner, an important tradition in the Jewish faith and culture. As a Jew, I can say with confidence that this dinner was exactly the opposite of what the sacred Sabbath dinner is supposed to be. But for those watching unfamiliar with the holy meaning of the Jewish Sabbath, it is shown in the worst way possible, with excessive drinking and fighting.”

Thank you, Steve. Because I found the response of Emily Shire, on The Forward’s Sisterhood blog more than a little offensive. Maybe because she says she’s familiar with the types of girls portrayed on the show from her own Long Island youth, she’s now desensitized to their behavior. But I can’t really accept her passivity on the subject: “I wish I could rally more ire for this show and be more outraged, but I can only shrug and watch with the same curiosity I approach other reality shows.”

While I can understand Shire does not find the show shocking, she has to imagine the repercussions it has on viewers with less familiarity with this small, not-at-all representative group of Jewish Long Islanders. Shire admits that she worries that people will think of the cast as models of Jewish women, but then she refers to Jersey Shore and says: “Even when I thought little of the cast, I never thought of it as an overall reflection of Italian-Americans, and anyone who thought six twenty-somethings on MTV spoke for an entire ethnic group was probably already going to be unfairly judgmental and somewhat racist.”

Does that make it OK?

What Shire is missing is the large population of our country (never mind the population of viewers in other countries who have access to the show) who know nothing about Judaism. Whether the viewer is judgmental or not, this is not the first glimpse of my religion I want them to see.

Imagine if you are a Jew dating someone who is not Jewish, who perhaps knows very little about your religion. I for one would feel embarrassed if he or his parents watched this show. And while you have probably introduced your wife who is not Jewish to your culture, does it help you to welcome her into your faith when the stereotype that stands out about Jewish women is that they’re spoiled, ignorant gold-diggers?

To give you a taste, in the very first episode, one cast member asks to be carried to her car after a mani/pedi (by someone who works at the shop) because she refuses to walk in shoes without heels.

Of course the other side of the argument is that all of this buzz we’re creating around the show is only bringing it attention, and probably more viewers. Joe Winkler suggests on JTA that “Maybe, instead of taking up arms in boycott, we could do a lot more by just looking the other way and waiting for them to shrivel into obscurity.” And while that might be true, I’m with Israel, who says:

“I will not silently tolerate a show that paints Jewish women on Long Island with all-too-familiar and painful stereotypes—money-hungry, superficial, Jewish-American Princesses.”

Because I want Bravo to think again before airing another season of this show, or producing any other show that promotes such a negative stereotype of any religion or ethnicity.

I’m curious what other people think? Did you watch the show? If you are less familiar with Judaism, what did you think of how the cast portrayed the religion?

Being Jewish and Being Human

This is a guest post by Jeremy Burton, executive director of Boston’s JCRC. After seeing his tweets about an undead, supernatural interfaith wedding on TV, I challenged him to blog about it. Luckily, he accepted. You can also follow him on twitter, @burtonjm.

After a tumultuous relationship, this week we witnessed one of the most unusual interfaith Jewish marriages, between two Boston werewolves on SyFy’s Being Human. This seems as good a time as any to reflect back on a three-season journey of identity and the story of one of TV’s more proudly Jewish character’s search for happiness (warning: spoiler alerts).

Being Human - wedding

photo via Entertainment Weekly (image credit: BBC America)

Josh Levison began this series (a knockoff of a BBC original of the same title) as a recently turned werewolf who distances himself from his family amidst his struggle to reconcile his new reality with his former life. Filled with loathing over whether he deserves happiness or will only bring harm to those he loves, he has found friendship with a colonial era vampire, Aidan. Together they commit to help each other explore their lingering humanity. They make their home in Boston and Josh works as an orderly at a local hospital (Aidan is a nurse, which allows for easy access to an abundant blood supply).

Much to their surprise, the home they rent happens to have a newbie ghost in residence, Sally, a recently murdered bride-to-be of South Asian descent. Their home comes to serve as a kind of supernatural Moishe House with them as the facilitating in-residence guides to various visiting undead creatures: newbies learning to “live” with their conditions, old-timers engaging in long debates about evolving ethical challenges of traditional occult ways in a modern world (the ethics of live blood donors v. blood banks; are possessions acceptable and under what circumstances?), all while challenging each other to strive for more effort toward achieving an aspirational “normal” life.

Josh’s journey is played out in several relationships, including his on-again off-again rapprochement with his lesbian sister, and his relationship with Nora a doctor at the hospital. One constant throughout the series is that even as Josh struggles with honest relationships with himself and his loved ones, he is deeply connected to his Jewish identity, carefully protecting his Star of David necklace from damage every month before he turns. Plus there’s the occasional Jewish joke, usually in the kitchen.

Nora and Josh deal with pregnancy, miscarriage, breakups, and along the way the accidental turning of Nora who is now a werewolf too. As the relationship deepens, Josh persuades her to take him to meet her family. Nora’s greatest anxiety about this event is made evident when, to his astonishment, she hides his necklace under his clothing so that they don’t discover his Jewish identity. This concern for their judgment is made moot when it becomes clear there was abuse in Nora’s childhood and Josh determines to protect her from an environment that is still not a healthy space for her.

Somewhere along the line these four undead youth find a new family in each other, one filled with love, trust, and unimaginable acts of compassion for each other (when Sally is brought back to corporeal form as a Zombie, Aidan allows her to eat his healing flesh rather than leave her to chow down on humans).

After prolonged second guessing, Josh and Nora become engaged in truly romantic fashion. Initially wanting a well-planned wedding, they move up the date so as to marry before Sally dies a second time (hard to explain but trust me on this). Nora reaches out to Josh’s sister, Emily, who despite their difficulties plans his bachelor party at which, in a moment of life saving urgency, Josh and Aidan are outed as these magical creatures. Josh pleads with Nora for understanding, begging for the kind of acceptance he gave her when she came out, prompting her memorable line: “You’re comparing being a murderer to being gay?”

But when the wedding day arrives, Emily returns, determined to accept and embrace her brother for the totality of his identity, and also to ensure the wedding goes on as planned despite the minor distraction of a battle to the death with an oddly yiddishist survivor of the Andover, MA witch trials; because after all Emily rode the Boston T (subway) for 45 minutes to get to this wedding and how dare they postpone now?

And so we find ourselves in the living room, with a chuppah built by a very WASPy vampire (he was a Minuteman in the Revolution) who got himself an internet ordination for the ceremony, a ghost as maid-of-honor, and this interfaith werewolf couple saying their vows before select human friends and family. As Aidan and Josh appreciate this very normal moment they also recognize the completely unusual circumstances.

In the end (so far), Josh’s journey wasn’t about becoming human again (he tried that and failed). His was a search for his true family — alive and undead — who know his authentic self. In that moment, a wolf under a chuppah, surrounded by love, he is what we all aspire to be, unconditionally true to all aspects of himself and his choices and fully embraced for it by those who count.

Comic Wedding

Mazel tov to Kathy Kane and Maggie Sawyer on their engagement!

What’s that? You haven’t heard of them? What if I use their aliases, Batwoman and Captain Sawyer?

Spoiler alert!

In the DC Comic universe, Batwoman is Jewish. Towleroad reports:

Kathy Kane, the Batwoman, DC’s leading lesbian lady asks Maggie Sawyer, Captain Sawyer, her secret girlfriend to…be her wife. No idea how well that’s going to go down. And you have to read the build up to this — and the rather dangerous epilogue. There’s no guarantee we’re going to hear wedding bells.”

There may not be a guarantee, but if they do get to the chuppah, our free Jewish Clergy Referral service could help them find a rabbi or cantor to officiate the wedding. Well, maybe… We’ll need to find some fictional, 2 dimensional rabbis to add to the list!

Thanks to Bleeding Cool for the image.

NCIS: Interfaith Couple?

NCIS: promo for "Sabbat Shalom"

I enjoy watching NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service), the CBS crime drama that airs Tuesday evenings. I appreciate the multi-culturalism on the show. Often I turn to my husband for a Spanish translation of a line here or there. I was excited when Cote de Pablo joined the cast in season three. She plays the Israeli former Mossad (Israel’s national intelligence agency) officer, Ziva David. For me, it is even more fun when they throw a little Hebrew into a show. I appreciate that they seem to “get it right” in both phrasing and accent.

Last week the episode “Shabbat Shalom” aired. Of course I was intrigued when I saw the title in my DVR. I assumed it had something to do with Ziva, why else the Hebrew title? As I watched the episode I learned that Ziva’s father, the head of Mossad, came to the U.S. to see her and to broker a peace agreement with his Iranian counterpart.

Little did I know that the episode was a cliffhanger. But this week on Tuesday night I was taking the red-eye to Boston to meet my InterfaithFamily coworkers in-person for the first time; I wasn’t able to watch the episode. As I was gathering my suitcase and heavy jacket, expecting it to be colder in Boston than it was in San Francisco, my best friend called me. She was also travelling for work this week and watched NCIS from her Maryland hotel room.

“What does Tony say to Ziva at the end of the episode?” she asked. I didn’t know, it wasn’t even going to air in California for another three hours. I was headed to the airport and wouldn’t be able to watch until Friday. She couldn’t wait until Friday for the answer; so, as any good friend would do, I googled it. “What does Tony say to Ziva at the end of NCIS?” Since the episode had just ended, there wasn’t much about it online yet. Apparently there was some buzz a few years ago when Tony said something to Ziva in Spanish. But that wasn’t what I was looking for.

NCIS: promo for "Shiva"


I added “2013″ and “Shiva” (the title of this episode) to my search. IMDB wasn’t up-to-date yet so I had to rely on Yahoo answers where I found the question: “At the end of the newest NCIS episode tonight, what did Tony say to Ziva before she left? I think it was in Hebrew, but I didn’t catch it.”

Great! Someone must have posted the answer… the first two entries: “I love you” and “Ani ohev otach, I love you.” As much as I (and apparently others) want Tony and Ziva to get together, that didn’t seem right to me. I hadn’t seen the episode but I knew what happened last week and I was pretty confident it wasn’t time for Tony’s declaration of love for Ziva.

I kept reading the yahoo answers. “You are not alone.” Ok, that made more sense. The fifth post read: “he said ‘aht lo leh vahd‘ a translation thing on the internet said it means ‘you are not alone.’” I love that we can use the internet to translate Hebrew on mainstream TV in the U.S., and post the answer for others! I called my friend back and reported the two options. Having seen the episode she also ruled out “I love you.”

So this morning, finally back at home I watched the episode waiting (and waiting) for Tony’s line. He does say “aht lo leh vahd” which does mean “you are not alone.” What does it mean for the relationship between Tony and Ziva? All we can do is continue watching NCIS and see; I look forward to them being the next intermarried couple on TV.

Grounded in Judaism

Mayim Bialik at the Golden Globes

When you’ve had a tough week, month, or year, where do you find your strength to keep going? Are you able to find optimism, a belief that things will improve?

According to People, Mayyim Bialik credits her rootedness in Judaism:

“When you’ve had a 2012 like me, things can only get better,” she told PEOPLE on Sunday at the Golden Globe Awards. “That’s the glass half-full.”

Judaism has helped get her through the tough times.

“I’m a person of deep religious faith,” the Terani-clad actress, 37, explained. “I really believe that things will be right in the universe. Things are hard, but I’ve really been taught in my tradition that the harder things are, the greater the potential reward. I really believe that.”

Adds the Big Bang Theory star, “I don’t want to say everything happens for a reason, but every day is lined up right next to the other one for a reason. The best you can do is do each day well with kindness and as a good person.”

Dueling December Ditties

As many of you know, all the best Christmas songs were written by Jews. But what about Hanukkah songs? Many of us might be able to hum a few bars of Adam Sandler’s parody or “I Had a Little Dreidel,” but surely there must be more, right?

The Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation (I hadn’t heard of them either), has just announced the release of an album that will highlight both Christmas and Hanukkah music, but with a twist: it’s bringing listeners through the holidays’ dueling history.

The collection tells a uniquely American story: once Christmas was declared a national holiday in 1870, the competitive campaign to beef up Hanukkah began. The obscure, minor Jewish holiday rapidly elevated: not only will we celebrate Christmas, we will create a rival holiday of our own to celebrate as well! You have one day of presents, we will have eight nights. But Jews could not resist the allure of Christmas, and for reasons of money-making, sentimentality, or a simple love for the music, every major Jewish performer cut a Christmas track. The result was a truly American phenomenon: a category of Christmas music, as sung by Jews, became a vital part of the holiday fabric.

I just listened to Dreidel, and was super impressed to find a Hanukkah tune that I hadn’t previously known.

The two disc album, ‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights, comes out November 15, and might be a fun way to lighten the December dilemma in our homes.

With a big thanks to our friend David at JewishBoston.com.