Purim: Not Just for Kids

A few years ago, I went to my niece’s bat mitzvah and was delighted that they had a Mardi Gras theme. The room was decked out with tents, each one housing costumes for the guests. With lots of beads and masks, partygoers went into the tents and came out looking mysterious. I thought it was cute to celebrate Mardi Gras at a bat mitzvah. Then I realized it was all about Purim.

It was amusing to see the merriment. Guests were joking about characters from the Megillah, the Book of Esther that’s read on Purim: The beautiful queen Esther, the “starter wife” Vashti, the silly king Ahashverosh, the villain Haman, and the wonderful hero Mordechai.

I was so amused to think of the Purim story and see some similarity to Mardi Gras. If you took Mardi Gras and mixed it with Halloween, it would look something like Purim. Purim is a fun-filled holiday with a wonderful story of good guys, bad guys, kings, and queens — and it has a kind ending. But I had always thought of it as a holiday for kids.

This year, our synagogue is putting together a Purim program using popular music. It is based on “Saturday Night Fever” and a cast singing mostly Bee Gee’s music. Songs like “Jive Talkin’” (to Ahashverosh) and “More Than a Woman” are turning out to be quite adaptable to the holiday. I had thought that so many aspects of Judaism were for kids, but our community is having fun merging music from the 1970s with the ancient story of love and rescue. And the kids are getting a lesson in American culture, singing the infamous song by Kool & the Gang, “Celebrate Pu-rim come on!”

If you are looking for a fun Saturday night party with modern themes, and maybe some alcohol, check out your community’s Purim festivities. There are events for young and old, hip and square, kids and adults, everyone! You might just have a blast! Now if you will excuse me, I have to go dust off my disco shoes…

Purim is Upon Us

I’m way behind on my Purim prep. Yes, I made hamantashen, last night, but I’m still writing my chapter of the Purimspiel, which will be performed on the eve of Purim–Saturday night! My husband is making my son’s costume. (I cannot tell you what my son wants to be for Purim, or I will start cackling hysterically again.)  I am going as…a very tired mom, probably, even though I think that’s what I went as last year.

What a great holiday for introducing your non-Jewish partner, friend or relative to the Jewish community, though. It’s traditional to have parties, eat yummy sweets, drink alcoholic beverages and dress up in costumes. It was also the start of Jewish theater–the Purimspiel, based on the Book of Esther, is always full of satire. (And sometimes actual humor. Jokes, anyway.) Plus it’s a holiday all about a Jewish woman who preserves her religious and cultural identity in an intermarriage and saves the Jewish people. Can’t say better than that.

Here’s this year’s 92nd Street Y Purim video. It’s about a werewolf dentist. I have no idea why it’s about a werewolf and not a vampire, but whatever. Enjoy.

Watch Your Language: On Shibboleths, Ghettoes and Bageling

If you want to welcome people to your community, whether your Jewish community, your workplace or your secular institution, you have to talk to them in a friendly way. Sometimes this is very simple–you just hold out your hand, say hello and it’s all good. Sometimes, however, your language can get in the way. It can convey unaware assumptions that are offensive or just not inclusive. On the internet, where everything is words and there are no physical handshakes, language is paramount and there are so many different ways to convey assumptions that could hurt someone.

talking silouettesHere at InterfaithFamily.com, we have a big challenge. We’re a Jewish organization providing Jewish resources to families with members who are and are not Jewish. So what do we call the people in the families who are not Jewish? We do not use the denotatively neutral but connotatively negative Hebrew term goyim, unless we are quoting someone, nor do we use the more negative shiksa or shaygetz. But that’s easy to figure out. Can we use “gentile”? Well, it’s not pejorative, but it does make some people’s skin crawl. We generally use non-Jew a lot, but lately there has been a sense that calling someone a non-Jew is defining them by what they are not. We can’t say “Christian” though, because some spouses and family members come from other religious backgrounds, and also, some people only call themselves Christians if they are active believers in a sect of Christianity. It’s a puzzle.

In the wider world, there has been a movement to stop using language that assumes some kinds of people are normal and some aren’t.

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American Heaven

As a North American Jew, I’m accustomed to reading the endless kvetching of Jewish traditionalists about how American Judaism is inauthentic, assimilated or corrupted. It’s our default position as a community. We often bewail each other’s creativity and spirituality in the process. What I like is learning that all the other religions in the United States are similarly Americanized, unruly and individualistic, and similarly annoying their religious authorities. It makes me think of Whitman’s Song of Myself in Leaves of Grass.

When I read Charles M. Blow’s New York Times column, Heaven for the Godless, it lit me up inside. Here’s a good summary:

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. [...] [They] complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And that’s not all. Nearly half the respondents thought atheists would go to heaven, and most thought that people with no religious faith could also go. Continue reading

Is Judaism Becoming a Girls’ Club?

In the opening line of his latest column for The (New York) Jewish Week, Editor and Publisher Gary Rosenblatt asks:

Is it fair to trace our communal challenges of intermarriage, assimilation and lack of affiliation back to boys losing interest in Jewish life after their bar mitzvah celebrations?

It’s a provocative question that relates to a familiar problem to anyone who’s spent time in synagogues or at Jewish organizations in the last 10 years: Judaism is going female.

While the highest echelons of leadership in the Jewish world remain stubbornly male, the grass roots of Judaism, in synagogues, youth groups and local organizations, is increasingly female. At a conference of young Jewish leaders I attended in November, 23 participants were women–nine were men.

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That Thing We Do

I need an intervention. No matter how much I try to move away from writing about Noah Feldman’s The Orthodox Paradox, I keep getting called back by the tantalizing aromas of fresh opinions. The way it makes me feel part of something bigger than myself, the way it makes my worries wash away, the way it builds my self-confidence… My name is Micah and I am an Orthodox-Paraholic.

But maybe one last taste?

Andrew Silow-Carroll, the ever-insightful editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, wrote a follow-up to his op-ed “The way we do the things we do.” In that essay he argued that the Feldman essay–and a recent volley of intellectual fireworks between Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative movement’s rabbinical seminary, and Joey Kurtzman, editor of Jewcy–demonstrated the growing schism between the “particularists” and the “universalists.” The particularists, like Wertheimer, see Judaism first and foremost as a culture and view Jewish strength in inverse relationship to Jewish assimilation. The universalists, like Kurtzman (and to a lesser extent, Feldman), see Judaism as a universally accessible philosophy that is compromised by the obsession over communal boundaries. Silow-Carroll is more sympathetic to the first position–indeed, he lives his life by the rules of the particularist–but in this new column, he wonders whether his “choices will ensure the survival of anything.”
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What You Think

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Since the Sept. 26 issue of our Web Magazine last year, we’ve been running polls alongside the table of contents. We typically get around 20 responses. While nothing like a statistically reliable sample, they do provide an interesting barometer of our readers’ opinions on interfaith issues.

For example, in our last issue on interfaith weddings, we asked “Do you think interfaith couples are more likely to participate in the Jewish community if a rabbi officiates at their wedding?” Eighteen people responded. 72% said Yes, 28% said No. In our new issue, out today, on growing up in an interfaith family, we asked, “Can a person be half-Jewish?”

We received the most respondents to our December holidays question: “Christmas music: Love it or hate it?” The 69 respondents were evenly split. Half said it was “OK in limited doses,” while slightly more than a quarter (28%) said “Love it” and slightly under a quarter (22%) said “Hate it.” Count me in the last category.
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We’re All Intermarried

At our conference a few weeks ago, Rabbi Sam Gordon, of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Ill., led a fascinating session on what he called “sociograms.” He had everyone at the session–who were mostly Jewish–break up into different groups based on how they’re different from their husband, wife or significant other. His point was to show that all marriages are intermarriages in some way, whether it be across religious, cultural, educational, political, class or personality lines.

In a column for The (New York) Jewish Week, “The Other Kind of Mixed Marriage,” Abby Wisee Schachter eloquently demonstrates this point. She says:

I thought that when I fell in love and got married to a Jewish man, I was home free. After all, there’s been a ton of hand wringing across the Jewish community about intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. But I wasn’t going to have any of that kind of trouble. My husband and I are both Jewish, so we weren’t facing the complications of combining two very different traditions into our new home, right?

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A Tangled Knot

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As promised, I’m returning to “Untying a civil knot,” where Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer argues that the state should have nothing to do with marriage.

His argument needs to be explained in detail before it can be refuted or critiqued. His fundamental assumption is that marriage is a religious act, and under the principle of the separation of church and state, it should therefore be separate from the state’s control.

He believes the state should instead issue a “civil commitment certificate.” This certificate would essentially be a contract that couples would sign where they would make certain legally binding promises regarding “the exclusivity of the union, how it is to be terminated and what the responsibilities of each party will be at termination and beyond.” Any couple who wants to make their marriage in a religious institution legally binding in the secular world would be obligated to get a civil commitment certificate.

The benefit of this solution is twofold, he argues: one, it frees civil courts from the expense, time and pain of determining divorce settlements because everyone who has a civil commitment certificate will essentially have a prenup; and two, it resolves the contentious issue of same-sex marriage because it would be illegal to bar two homosexual men or women from entering into a contract together.
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Why Jewish Life? (Part II)

While we don’t push non-Jewish spouses in intermarriages to convert to Judaism, converts often have an extraordinary perspective on Judaism. Where born Jews have the culture first and then learn the religion, converts find the religion first and then learn the culture. This outsider’s perspective on Jewish identity can lead to amazing insights into Judaism; they are capable of shining a bright light on Judaism’s forgotten virtues as well as its hidden flaws.

Gail Nord Ginsburg, a former pastor at an evangelical mega-congregation, wrote a brilliant piece for the World Jewish Digest last month called “Why Choose Judaism?” (login required) She is a rare kind of convert: one who was immersed and deeply engaged in a different religious tradition before choosing Judaism. As such, she can offer a comparative analysis of Judaism that few others can.

Her piece is simultaneously a tribute to Judaism and a critique of the way it is lived and practiced in modern-day America.
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