No Defense for Lord Sinderby

The Sinderbys

Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014 for MASTERPIECE

In Downton Abbey, Lord Sinderby is the disapproving Jewish father who opposes his son’s interfaith marriage to Rose. In Lord Sinderby’s time, there were virtually no opportunities for interfaith families to engage in Jewish life, unless Rose were to convert.

Fortunately, we don’t live in that time anymore. Today, many interfaith families can live active Jewish lives – and many do. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements consider children to be Jewish if there is one Jewish parent (regardless of whether it is the mother or father) and they are raised as Jews. They can be married by a rabbi and join a synagogue.

While Jane Eisner defends Lord Sinderby (“Defending Lord Sinderby,” The Forward, March 1, 2015), I cannot. Too many Jewish professionals and communities still think that Jews are “throwing it all away”, to paraphrase Lord Sinderby’s words, when they marry someone who isn’t Jewish. With a different approach, however, we can see interfaith relationships as an opportunity to invite more people in to the Jewish community. Rose, although naïve, is already eager to learn about the faith. And wouldn’t it be beneficial to have Lord Grantham as an ally?

I do agree with Eisner on a few points, though. We do need to ask the difficult questions, not only of interfaith families, but also of Jewish institutions. If we want to ask the spouse who wasn’t raised Jewish “to commit to doing her part to carry on a precious tradition,” as Eisner says, then can’t we ask Jewish institutions to welcome them and provide opportunities for learning and community?

What would happen if we shifted the focus from who someone marries to helping all families – interfaith and in-married – find their place in the Jewish community? I bet we would see a myriad of beautiful Jewish traditions being passed on to the next generation. That points to a bright Jewish future indeed.

Why We’re Tuning in to Kosher Soul

Kosher Soul

Here at InterfaithFamily HQ, we have heard some fascinating personal stories about balancing interfaith lives, many of which are hilarious. Clearly, Lifetime Television agrees that interfaith lives have great stories to tell as they prepare to launch their all-new docu-sitcom Kosher Soul (#KosherSoul).

Premiering Wednesday, February 25, at 10p ET/PT, we hope you will join us in tuning in to the story of outrageous and sure-to-be entertaining Miriam and O’Neal as they bring their own interfaith story to life. I will live tweet the event over on our @interfaithfam twitter account (using the #KosherSoul hashtag) and hope you will join us in some lively conversation about this premier!

 

Kosher SoulDespite doubts and concerns from their loved ones, recently engaged Miriam and O’Neal are preparing to marry and begin their lives in a Jewish home. Madly in love, O’Neal is ready to prove his dedication to Miriam by converting to Judaism in order to be accepted by her mother, Nancy, who wants her future grandchildren to be raised Jewish. At the same time, Miriam is trying to blend O’Neal’s southern upbringing and traditions into her life. What results is a hilarious and touching peek into the love and affection between two soul mates whose deep and emotional connection overcomes cultural barriers.

Don’t worry guys! We have plenty of resources to help you through your journey. According to the trailer… you might need this!

Don’t forget to check out my live tweets during the first episode. See you there!

Andi Dorfman & Josh Murray Break Engagement

Andi Dorfman & Josh Murray

Andi's Instagram photo is captioned: Happy Holidays to all and a very Merry Christmas today! Hope everyone has a blessed holiday. I know I feel blessed to be surrounded by so much love. Thanks to y'all! @joshmurray11 #happyholidays

Today Jewcy thoughtfully reported on the recent break-up of Bachelorette star Andi Dorfman and her chosen suitor Josh Murray. While this is not a surprise (few Bachelor/Bachelorette engagements lead to successful marriages), we were wondering how this interfaith couple would go about planning their wedding ceremony and how religion would play into their lives together. Though this doesn’t tell us anything definitive about their own plans for religion (if they had any), from the look of Andi’s Instagram profile, there was lots of Christmas holiday celebrating with Josh’s family and no mention of Hanukkah.

The couple put out the following statement: “After several months of being engaged and working on our relationship, we have decided that it’s best for both of us to go our separate ways,” reads the statement. “We are very sad that it has come to this point, but this is what’s best for both of us individually.”

Elissa Goldstein pretty much sums it up below, wondering what role religion played in their pre-engagement conversations and why religion is so under wraps on the show. In any case, we say talk, talk, talk, and then talk some more before getting engaged!

“Here at Jewcy HQ, we can’t help but wonder how much the couple’s religious differences might have contributed to the split—she’s Jewish (and seemingly pretty secular), he’s a devout Christian (with Jewish heritage). Close readers of Tova Ross’ season 10 recaps will recall that the show’s producers conveniently elided these facts in their race to the ratings altar. We never saw Andi or Josh (or any of the suitors) discuss hot-button topics like politics or religion—you know, the sort of stuff couples should talk about before getting engaged. Did these conversations take place? Perhaps, but we’ll probably never find out, which is kind of a shame. Regardless of the reason for the split (hey, maybe Andi just didn’t want to marry into a family of Chiefs fans), it’s weird—even remiss—that The Bachelor franchise has an embargo on conversations about interfaith dating.”

Cameron Diaz & Benji Madden: Interfaith?

Cameron Diaz

Update: As suspected, Benji Madden has Jewish ancestry and it is likely this couple had a Jewish wedding for a reason.

If you’ve seen the news buzzing about Cameron Diaz and Benji Madden’s quick, surprise Jewish wedding, you might be wondering: Are one of these people Jewish? It seems pretty strange to have a Jewish wedding, complete with breaking the glass, a yichud (a ritual where the bride and groom take time alone immediately following the ceremony) and other religious traditions if neither Diaz nor Madden practice Judaism or have Jewish relatives.

Which is why I am of the opinion that there is some meaning behind these ceremonial customs. Wouldn’t it seem a bit disrespectful to incorporate a religion that has no personal meaning to you into your wedding day of all days? I wouldn’t put it past Hollywood, but I have a feeling a rational explanation will eventually come out. Or at least I hope so.

What do you think? Did the couple have a Jewish wedding just for kicks or do they come from diverse religious backgrounds and chose to connect with Judaism?

Interfaith Engagement for Andi Dorfman

Andi and Josh

Javier Pesquera / ABC

It’s official: The Bachelorette, Andi Dorfman, is in an interfaith relationship. But we already knew that—the frontrunners in her quest for love were not Jewish, and Andi is (she famously acknowledged her religion when she was a contestant on The Bachelor). Interestingly, the man she chose and whose proposal she accepted, Josh Murray, was raised Christian but comes from an interfaith family. While the Jewish Week was quick to call this a Jewish match, the fact is, it’s a combining of faiths, as so many relationships are. Josh’s mother is Jewish and his father is not, but the family practices Christianity.

It seems faith is important in both Andi and Josh’s families. Josh’s younger brother, apparently, has a tattoo of a cross and a tattoo of the Star of David. Josh, 29, is from Tampa, FL, and now lives in Atlanta—conveniently where Andi herself, a 27-year-old district attorney is based. From the interviews they’ve already done since last night’s season finale, we get the gist that they’re planning to wed next year, and that they plan to have a few kids. What will their wedding look like? Christian? Jewish? Neither? Because religion is important to both families, we’re putting our money on an interfaith ceremony.

Andi's proposal

Javier Pesquera / ABC

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” on December 7, 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.


ABC US News | ABC Business News

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?