Starting the TV Season with Interfaith Couples

I admit that ever since the dramatic season finales of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, with its disgruntled widow shooting spree, and its spin-off Private Practice, with the  death of Dell Parker by a drunk driver, I was wondering how they would begin the new seasons. I was happily surprised to find both episodes dealt with life-cycle events for interfaith couples on last Thursday’s season premiers.

On Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) married Dr. Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd). As described on Judaism/2009/08/Jewish-TV-Characters.aspx?p=2">BeliefNet, Christina considers herself Jewish; the character converted as a child when her mother married a Jewish oral surgeon, Dr. Saul Rubenstein. Christina has, from time to time, brought up her Jewish background. Both of Dr. Yang’s engagements were to non-Jews; it would have been great to see her plan/have an wedding that reflected her Jewish identity.

Dr. Yang’s first wedding, which was planned, but never happened, was to happen in a church with no Jewish clergy present. This wedding was planned by Dr. Yang herself, and not by a future mother-in-law, which gave Christina the perfect opportunity to have included a local rabbi in her ceremony. (InterfaithFamily.com has several rabbis and Jewish professionals in the Seattle area to whom we could have referred her.) I am disappointed that the recent season premier episode completely ignored her faith as well. This was a missed opportunity to portray how meaningful an interfaith wedding could be.   

On Private Practice, Drs. Cooper Freedman (Paul Adlestein) and Charlotte King (Kadee Strickland) start the season making love while discussing how Charlotte’s pastor wants to talk to Cooper’s rabbi.  I hope the powers that be take the opportunity to explore the dimensions of an interfaith wedding for them!

Looking forward to where the season will take these shows… And hoping to see some interfaith issues explored by the two couples!

Amare Stoudemire – Jewish Journey

With Ed out of the office, InterfaithFamily.com was lucky to have Micah Sachs come back as a guest blogger.

When a celebrity declares his desire to get in touch with his Jewish roots, the Jewish community is wary. How serious can Madonna/Lindsey Lohan/Ashton Kutcher be, we wonder—without considering the irony that many of us are not particularly serious about our religion either.

So it’s no surprise that NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire’s recent trip to Israel to seek out his “Hebrew roots” was met with a sense of bemused skepticism, both inside and outside the Jewish community. It doesn’t help that he suggests, but never reveals, the source of his suspicion that his mother had Jewish roots. When pressed about whether he’s Jewish, he responds, “Through history, we all are.” The obsession with wearing a yarmulke on his trip and the Tweeting in basic Hebrew only add to the sense that Stoudemire doesn’t get it.

But what exactly doesn’t he get? That Judaism should not be embraced publicly? That one shouldn’t be vocal about one’s enthusiasm for learning about Judaism? That Jewishness is reserved only for those with Jewish genes? In outsize form (both metaphorically and literally—he is 6-foot-10), Stoudemire’s exploration of Judaism mirrors the experience of many converts, who often encounter skepticism both for their motives and for their practice. His evasiveness about his genetic connection to Judaism is a quiet rebuttal to those who would make Jewish identity contingent on maternity. In his claimed decision to celebrate Shabbat, observe Passover and fast during Yom Kippur (unless there’s a basketball game, in which case, he says, “I’ll have to eat”), he is embracing the most important part of Jewish life: its rituals. It doesn’t matter whether he is a member of a synagogue, or is an officially sanctioned Jew, he’s interested in Judaism purely because of what he feels it offers him spiritually and emotionally. It is an expansive and unorthodox (big and little “o”) approach to Judaism that is espoused by only a few radical voices, like Rabbi Irwin Kula.

Of greater concern from my perspective is how his newfound Judaism fits in with his older professed Christianity. He has a tattoo of the star of David on his left hand, yes, but he also has a tattoo declaring himself “Black Jesus” on his neck. In 2007, he told the Christian sports website “Beyond the Ultimate”:

Even though (my father) died when I was twelve, my mother made sure that Christianity continued to be a central part of my family’s life. That’s why I have such a strong faith today. Going to church helped me develop a relationship with Jesus, and that has given me something to lean on as I have worked to reach my goals.

In none of the articles about Stoudemire’s interest in Judaism does he address the place of Jesus in his belief system. It is certainly possible that his beliefs have changed. But if his beliefs haven’t changed, his exploration of Judaism and adoption of Jewish rituals may make him a Judeophile, but they won’t make him a Jew. 

Scarlett Johansson Wins Tony Award

It’s a strange side effect of working here at InterfaithFamily.com, but I’ve come to follow many of the careers of actors who are adult children of interfaith marriage–and to root for them. I have a particular soft spot for Daniel Radcliffe, the star of the Harry Potter movies, who is only 21, and Scarlett Johansson, 25. I first saw Johansson in Ghost World in 2001, when she was really young.

They are both secular people who identify strongly with their Jewish heritage and do good things in the world in their spare time. I’ll never stop being impressed with Daniel Radcliffe’s advocacy for gay teens with The Trevor Project–it’s not easy to be a young heterosexual actor and stand up for queer youth.

It was delightful to see this video of Radcliffe presenting the Tony Award to Johansson last night for her work on “A View From the Bridge.” They have both matured (I didn’t want to say grown up about DanRad!) into very dedicated actors. It’s strange to kvell about famous young people, but I did, and you might, too–enjoy:

And Baby Makes More

[float=left][/float]I’ve been waiting for this! Susan Goldberg, who has written some beautiful and moving pieces for IFF, edited a book, with ChloĂ« Brushwood Rose, called And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families.  The book has been available in Canada for some months now, and is finally being released in the US. If you live in New York and this is an issue dear to your heart, you should go to the book release party, Tuesday June 8 at 7PM at Bluestockings.

I read the excerpt on the publisher’s website–the introduction and first chapter–and it is great! 

Up and Dancing in Circles

I just loved this piece I heard on NPR last night about Abraham Inc., a joint project of classical clarinetist Dave Krakauer, funk trombone player Fred Wesley Jr. (who backed James Brown and Parliament Funkadelic, among others) and one of my favorite young musicians, hip-hop/klezmer maestro DJ Socalled, the performance name of Josh Dolgin. I just think DJ Socalled’s music is amazing–and as you know, I love cultural mash-ups.

There’s a documentary about Dolgin’s music on Youtube, which I knew was coming but didn’t realize had finally been released! It’s $.99 to view on youtube, here. Can’t believe I missed that. I’ll try to watch it in the next week and let you know what it’s like.

I was very tempted to include at least an introduction to other Jewish-African-American musical collaborations, but the list was immense. Then musicians who are both African American and Jewish–also too long. Another day!  Enjoy the video

Summer Reading

My 3-year-old recently discovered television.  He can turn on the television and search the channels for Dora the Explorer!  Though there is a time and a place for a television, mainly when Mommy needs to get something done, I am hoping this addiction wanes.    Luckily, I have help from the PJ Library!

Every month a new book or CD arrives.  Each book is well illustrated and brings up a different Jewish value or holiday.  I am actually saved our April book, No Rules for Michael by Sylvia Rouss, for this week.  This age-appropriate book about the role rules have in our life is perfect for Shavuot, when we celebrate revelation and the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

If your child is not already enrolled in the PJ Library, please consider enrolling them in this program.   The PJ Library is a national program which reaches many communities.  I was glad to hear that InterfaithFamily.com’s friends at the PJ Library Program of Greater Boston are now accepting new subscribers ages 0-5 years old. Children enrolled in the PJ Library receive a FREE high quality Jewish children’s book or CD each month for a year. There is no catch and no obligation.

Fusion Cuisine Preserves Culture

I love Bryant Terry. I bought his cookbook, Vegan Soul Kitchen, and it helped me restore my energy for cooking and new recipes. Sometimes I feel like ethnic authenticity and my food needs as a Jewish vegetarian are at war, and Terry’s approach to both cuisines and food ethics are a breath of fresh air. He calls it “remixing.”

Terry and his partner, Jidan Koon, whose family is Chinese, decided to make a dish that combines Asian and African diaspora elements, and they chose jung, a kind of rice dumpling steamed in bamboo leaves. It required finding someone’s mom to show them the method. Then they blended the two cultures by using African-American ingredients, like peanuts and black-eyed peas, that they thought went with the Chinese dish–and they made it vegan. They published an article about the recipe in Hyphen Magazine. You can also watch a video with a more detailed method.

As you probably know, Jewish cuisines are completely and totally fusion cuisines. If I hadn’t realized it before, I know it now from writing the Jewish Food Cheat Sheet for this site. Many of the classic Ashkenazi foods–pastrami, borscht, babka–have non-Jewish versions, many of which are not kosher. (Pastrami made from pork? Shocking but true.)  Adapting the surrounding culture’s foods to your own dietary system is one of our oldest cultural traditions–and it’s one of the reasons we think Jewish food is so great. Immigration+kashrut X your bubbe’s ingenuity=fusion cuisine.

One of the obvious bonuses of bringing other cultures into the Jewish community through intermarriage and conversion has been the food blending. Make non-Jewish foods kosher? Yes. Interview the grandmothers to preserve the tradition? Yes. Good stuff–and it’s good for us. Like a remix, it brings freshness to an old song.

Malcolm McClaren Dies

I had no idea that Malcolm McClaren, a key personality in the punk movement, was Jewish. McClaren, who died yesterday at the age of 64, was apparently the child of an interfaith family: a Scottish dad and a Jewish mom. He was raised by his Sephardi grandmother, Rose Isaacs, whom he identified as a key influence. As Dave Simpson, the Guardian obituary writer put it, “His father left home when he was two and Malcolm was raised by his grandmother, Rose, who home-schooled him and fed him slogans such as “it’s good to be bad and it’s bad to be good”, along with a general distaste for the royal family.”

McClaren was the impresario of the Sex Pistols, the person who gave them their name and their image. (Distaste for the royal family, indeed! If you’ve ever heard “God Save the Queen” you know why Simpson thought it was important to say that!) He was also responsible for Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant, two New Wave bands from the 80s.

The Infidel and Other Jokes

My coworker sent us all the link to the trailer for The Infidel, a new comedy by Anglo-Jewish writer David Baddiel. The film, which premiered in London last night, stars the British Iranian comedian Omid Djalili as a Muslim cab driver from the East End who discovers that he was adopted and that his birth family was Jewish. (Djalili is not Muslim; he’s Baha’i, but has played a lot of both Jewish and Muslim characters.)  It also features Richard Schiff from The West Wing, playing a Jewish friend of the main character, and Archie Panjabi, who was the older sister in the film Bend It Like Beckham.

The film looks funny and it’s certainly relevant to some of the people who come to our site–we get a lot of children and grandchildren of interfaith families who find out they are Jewish. (You also might want to look at Aliza Hausman’s great profile of Sadia Shepherd, a real person who was raised in an interfaith Muslim-Christian household and found out as an adult that she was also Jewish.)

I do share some of the ambivalence that Shazia Merza, a Muslim comedian who acted as a script consultant, expressed in David Baddiel’s last video blog about the making of the film.

You know, you always worry when you’re making jokes about a particular religion that hasn’t got a history of comedy. Jews have got a history of comedy and making jokes, and people have heard these jokes before, and they’ll relate to them, or they’ll find them funny, but with the Muslim jokes, you know, we haven’t had a history of comedy…

She then proceeds to tell what I thought was a pretty funny, feminist joke.

Baddiel sponsored a contest called Which Religion is Funniest? in order to have some stand-up at the movie premiere. Eh. I don’t know, perhaps it’s not the easiest subject for comedy It is a true pleasure to see what Yasmeen Khan calls “a small but vibrant interfaith comedy scene” in Britain, in  her article about the movie for The New Statesman–Jewish and Muslim comedians working together to puncture stereotypes and deflate bias. Whether or not The Infidel makes its way to the US, let’s hope that spirit of collaboration comes here, too.

How do you feel about this?

We received an email from a company that is selling Hebrew prayer flags. I’ve seen prayer flags in my neighborhood–they are a Buddhist spiritual practice that originated in Tibetan culture.

One reason I feel uncomfortable about this tradition is that I think it’s cultural appropriation. How is it that we have the right to take for ourselves, out of context, another culture’s spiritual practice? Like all examples of cultural appropriation, you could see this in a positive or a negative light. Is it an expression of our shrinking world, that we know and love each other’s cultures and feel connected to one another? Or is this just more of the culturally (and economically, and every other way) hegemonic West grabbing up and using other people’s things for their “authenticity”?

I mean, I guess I’m happy that we can use Jewish texts to display proudly in the yard, if we’re noshing at the smorgasbord of world spirituality. There is another problem, though. In Tibetan culture, the flags are supposed to deteriorate, in order to allow the prayers to distribute the blessing of the words to the world. (Wow, I find that image compelling and beautiful.)

In Jewish tradition, we treat the physical words of Torah with respect. Like Muslims, Jews kiss holy books that fall to the ground. We bury books in which God’s name is written when they deteriorate–is that consonant with prayer flags that are intentionally ephermal?

What do you think about this kind of thing? Are you more open than I am to syncretistic expressions of spirituality? Would you like brachot, blessings, from Jewish tradition to extend to all sentient beings? Would you put a sutra in a mezuzah?  I’m interested in your point of view.