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This summer I met with the senior staff at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL. The staff told me about a chavurah (fellowship group) that had grown organically at their synagogue, made up of mostly interfaith families with young children. One request the staff at Temple Chai had heard from the parents in this group was the desire to have a learner’s service on Shabbat so that they (and older children) could come to understand the whole Jewish worship experience on a deeper level.
On November 17 at 10:00am, the Learner’s Service: Shabbat Unpacked will take place, and I will be co-leading the service with Rabbi Stephen Hart and Laura Siegel Perpinyal, their Director of Congregational Learning. We have been working on a handout that will unpack five main prayers in the Shabbat morning service. For each prayer we offer three ways to understand it by sharing the history and background information for the prayer, a brief “instruction manual” to understand how to “do” the prayer in terms of choreography, and a timing explanation in terms of when the prayer is said during the service and why.
As we go through the interactive service, we will highlight these five prayers and share even more through music, explanations about the meaning of the prayers historically, and how we can make them our own today. There will be childcare for young children, but children are welcome to join in the service as well.
In order for Jewish prayer to be meaningful, maybe especially for someone who didn’t grow up being exposed to Jewish worship, several things have to happen. Hebrew has to be grappled with. Most people in congregations can’t translate prayer book Hebrew word for word. Yet, through understanding basic Hebrew roots (the letter core of words), which often repeat and shed light on the meaning, one is able to gain a tremendous amount about the nature of the prayer. For instance, the root for “holy” in Hebrew is three letters, koof daled shin. These three letters form the word kiddush (blessing over wine), kadosh (the actual word meaning holy), and kaddish (the prayer said by mourners). Yet even if one knows many Hebrew root words, understanding prayer transcends literal understanding of the words. This is because much of prayer is poetry. So the sound the Hebrew makes and the rhythm is important (this can be understood by just listening to the Hebrew being said or sung). As well, reading the English translation can tell you what the prayer says, although thinking about the imagery and the repetition of words can bring deeper meaning. Thus even though Hebrew may feel like a barrier and a challenge, one can understand prayer on some level even when just beginning to learn Hebrew.
Other ways to make Jewish prayer more meaningful are to learn about the prayers (as will be a goal of this service), to contemplate Jewish views of God and one’s own sense of spirituality, and also to seek meaning in being part of community. Prayer can be deeply meaningful when the images in prayer of peace or shelter, for example, lead us to action to brings these ideals to reality on earth.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading theologians, once said those “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.” Jewish prayer can feel mysterious, boring, antiquated, and removed from what we know and understand today. Yet it can also elevate, inspire, and connect us. I hope those of you in Chicagoland will join us for a lively and upbeat prayer experience on November 17.
We just finished an online class called Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. Participants came to their computers on their own time and read essays, watched videos, read narratives written by other interfaith families and discussed with each other the content and meaning of the eight sessions. The sessions were about major aspects of parenting, from bedtime to meals to raising ethical children, and the wisdom Judaism can provide about these areas.
An interesting discussion arose about Shabbat family worship. Parents said that Friday evening services were too late for young children. Tot Shabbat was fun for the children but didn’t fill the adults with spirituality or insight. Parents who were raised Christian said that they had warm memories of attending Church as a family on Sunday mornings: adults were able to participate in communal worship and children could join in or attend the nursery program. The whole family had an enriching experience that grounded their week and brought them together.
Why did this not exist within liberal Judaism, they wondered? It seemed as if Reform temples had essentially private bar or bat mitzvahs on Shabbat mornings, with no childcare for young children. Some Conservative synagogues had more options on Shabbat morning for the whole family, but parents who aren’t Jewish worried that they wouldn’t know enough Hebrew and would feel out of place somehow. I encouraged all of the participants to try both Reform and Conservative worship to see how they felt in reality, as assumptions and apprehensions may or may not come true. But the frustration was clear. Parents spoke about how their Jewish neighbors were taking the kids to soccer and swim lessons and anything other than Shabbat family worship.
I can relate to this frustration. I have worked at different Reform congregations around the country, and at least once a year it seems the senior staff would get together to talk about what to do with Shabbat! Were there ways to meet for earlier Friday evening family programs with dinner? If it was too early, parents who worked outside the home couldn’t attend. Every idea for Shabbat morning family worship would be put forth: musical services, services with crafts and projects at the end for the children, services ending with lunch, and other ideas to make the service more “attractive” or “appealing.” However, time and time again no matter how Shabbat morning got programmed, few families would attend. Even when rabbis preached about the need for this gift called Shabbat, the gift of time, of joy, of changing pace if only for an hour or two, of re-connecting… nobody seemed to bite.
Some rabbis explain this by saying that Judaism is a religion of the home, and it is not cultural to feel a pull to attend congregational worship. Families often do the Shabbat blessings over their own special dinner and have friends over. The kitchen table is referred to as the mikdash m’at (a miniature temple) in rabbinic writings because what goes on around the Shabbat table is worship. But that still does not answer our questions.
Perhaps this challenge can help bring positive changes to our Jewish communities. Maybe interfaith families will take the lead in bringing Shabbat family worship to liberal Jewish families who may not even realize what spending an hour or two on a Saturday morning together in song and peace would do for their family. Imagine if it became the cultural norm for families to come to synagogue from 9:30-11:00 on Saturday mornings in order to ground their week in hope, love and community. It will be exciting to see what ideas congregations can come up with for participatory, inclusive and engaging family worship with nursery options and learner’s services so that the whole family can come together in making meaningful memories.
Purim is a great holiday for families and kids: there are costumes, excuses to make noise and act silly, and many communities have parties, carnivals or other celebrations appropriate for the littlest members or our families (or those who feel young at heart). This post is about making Purim fun for the whole family. Let us know how your family celebrates by sharing your customs, ideas and suggestions in the comments!
The mom who blogs at Bible Belt Balabusta explains that she’s “worked hard to go from zero to….whatever speed I’m going these days, and I love sharing what I’ve learned with anyone who is even vaguely interested.” She’s all about the DIY as she says, “I especially love the ‘why’ behind it: I explore the customs and traditions behind holiday projects. If I’m learning, I’m happy.” So I was totally excited to see her LEGO gragger for Purim, that actually works! But if that’s still not geekily awesome enough for you, she has 4 different models and instructions to make your own. Amazing.
In a recent blog post for the URJ, Rabbi Vicki Tuckman explained the importance of being a “kitchen Jew.”
There is not a Jewish holiday that comes around that I do not partially practice – and reinforce my own Jewish identity as a cultural Jew – in the kitchen. To me, Mordecai Kaplan was correct when he first stated in 1934 that “Judaism is more than a religion; it is an entire civilization. Not merely religious texts but also language, literature, and even arts and crafts are a part of it.”
So how can you bring Purim into your kitchen? There’s plenty to bake on Purim! Looking for a way to explain hamantaschen, a popular Purim treat, to your kids or their friends? Check out Shalom Sesame’s video on making hamantaschen. Want some recipes? Check out our hamantaschen recipes, including a video recipe for “slacker hamantaschen” (what could be easier than 2 ingredients?). Or maybe you’d rather try some recipes for orejas de Haman (“Haman’s ears”) a Purim treat from the Sephardi communities.
As a bonus, there’s always the intersection between kitchen Judaism and math. Yes, math. Because you too can bake your way to the “Sierpinski Hamantaschen.”What’s that? “You may be familiar with the Sierpinski triangle, a mathematically attractive, self-repeating fractal that starts with one equilateral triangle and breaks down into ever-smaller triangles.” Some basics of the Sierpinski triangle:
First of all, when rotated to any side, it looks the same; I couldn’t even tell where I’d started it. Also, as the triangles get smaller, notice a pattern in the quantity of each size: 1, 3, 9, 27…. I’m sure it would go on if I could make really really tiny hamantaschen, but I don’t have that much power. Also, technically this triangle has no area, so maybe all the sugar doesn’t count? But careful with that logic: it has infinite perimeter, and that dough for the perimeter is full of not-healthy ingredients like flour and sugar and oil.
So bring your love of math to the kitchen, teach your kids about the wonders of fractals, and have fun creating this uberhamantaschen.
Want a fun way to encourage your kids to act on one of Purim’s four commandments (mitzvot)? Try using unopened boxes of pasta as noisemakers during the reading of the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther). Shake those boxes for a satisfying rattling noise each time Haman’s name is read. Then donate the boxes of food to a local food bank, fulfilling the mitzvah (commandment) to give to the poor on Purim.
And, finally, for those of you with teens or older kids who appreciate the finer offerings of Broadway, enjoy this new video made by Reform rabbinic and cantoral students studying at HUC-JIR Jerusalem campus. “The Book of Purim” is a spoof of The Book of Mormon.
Friday, January 13, we hosted a JCC Makor Shabbat for Interfaith Families with Young Children, a community dinner organized by the JCC Shure Kehilla. The guidelines for the dinner we hosted were that participants need to be 21-39, and some of the parents who came to our house were pushing this, but everyone loved the idea of a program whose aim is to connect this cohort with great Jewish happenings all around Chicagoland. The night we held our interfaith family Shabbat, there were three other community Shabbat dinners organized by the Kehilla happening in the city (blue-line Shabbat, travelers Shabbat, music and arts) and another taking place out in Wheeling.
For this Shabbat, however, we were having four other couples with their combined eight children to our home for blessings, dinner, schmoozing and playing. I started by getting the whole house organized and cleaned up (which actually felt really good to do). Then I went to Taboun Grill to pick up the food the JCC had ordered. When I got there, I met Genia who runs the Russian Hillel. I have known Genia in name for years through the work I have done in and around Odessa, Ukraine, but she didn’t know me. I was so excited to learn that she had become a Jewish professional in Chicago. I got to connect with her in person over some tea while we waited for our orders to be packed. (Genia was hosting the Wheeling Shabbat for Jews in the ‘Burbs, another of these community dinners organized through the Kehilla.) We talked about interfaith couples in the Russian community and what she is seeing in terms of identity and interests of her students.
Wow, I really hate this new Hotmail ad campaign. I noticed and loathed it for the first time yesterday on a poster in a bus shelter in Boston, a big green field with the words, “THE NEW BUSY THINK 9 TO 5 IS A CUTE IDEA” in white letters.
Now, there are a lot of reasons to hate this. First, as one Seattle-area blogger pointed out in an aptly-titled post, New Ad Campaign for Hotmail Is Everything We Expect From Microsoft–Awkward, Baffling, Hard to Escape, “This exercise in tone-weirdness, this ball of syntactical confusion, has started showing up on billboards, buses, banner ads, and the signature lines of Hotmail users everywhere. ” Local Boston journalist Alex Beam considers this campaign part of “the War Against the English Language.” It’s a bad ad campaign for what seems to be an inferior product, a 15-year-old web-based email system.
I’m not all that crazy about Hotmail, since they seem to me to be more than usually vulnerable to hacking–but that’s not why I’m writing about this on our blog. I’m writing about it because I am finding our 24/7 work culture an affront to basic human dignity, because it flies in the face of the reason I observe Shabbat.
Shabbat is the opposite of the New Busy. Shabbat is the very old Not Busy. Shabbat is a time to unplug. Shabbat is the time when your family can be together without working. Without working! No working! Stop working! Rest! Because you have a RIGHT to rest sometimes! Your boss cannot possibly pay you enough to justify working all the time!
This isn’t only a Jewish issue–I’m not saying this just to get interfaith families to go to Tot Shabbat. (Though that’s also so nice.) I am saying it’s time for everyone to get off of this treadmill and admit that we need to rest.
I’m giving you advice about what you should do tonight. Go have a nice meal with your lovely family or friends, and then afterward, lie down and sleep. Take a DAY OFF this weekend. You are a person with needs and relationships. Affirm the basic inherent dignity of human individuals, the beauty of the natural world and its rhythms, something good that is not work. The New Busy is the old oppression.
It’s still Passover and I’m still processing the experience of my family seder, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to link you to two pieces about a new book by Judith Shulevitz, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. I’m delighted to see that Rebecca Neuberger Goldstein, who wrote the fantastic recent book on Spinoza and Jewish identity, did the New York Times review of Shulevitz’s book.
Shulevitz, who grew up in an observant Jewish household, is ambivalent about how to keep Shabbat in a traditional way. No longer Orthodox, she has to come to terms with how to rest on Shabbat. She has both a deep understanding and background in Jewish thought and culture, and a profoundly American sensibility–I’m listening to her interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air program, and it’s amazing.
When I’m trying to figure out how to talk about Jewish observance for interfaith families and not to repel people by making one mode of observance the normative one, it’s really hard to talk about resting on Shabbat. By resting I mean not only doing the rituals that make Shabbat beautiful, but stopping work, or as Shulevitz puts it, being together, not exerting mastery over the world–resting together, not only resting. Shulevitz says some great things in this interview and I’m enticed to read this book and have it reviewed on our site, if I can.
I baked challah last night. I’m sorry I don’t have a photo–I did some cool braiding. I made the first recipe in the wonderful A Blessing of Bread, by Maggie Glezer. Glezer collected recipes, mainly from Jewish grandmothers, for holiday and festival breads. I’ve learned a lot since I started baking from it. I wanted to bake again to try to use up the rest of the flour in our house. I also made cake, and I’m planning to make pasta. The carb-a-thon is due to my need to clean out my cupboards of non-Passover food before cleaning the house for Passover.
I was thinking about how I would like to have more guests just this morning, as I was mulling over the resource guide to Jewish spirituality that I’m writing for IFF. I wanted to make the case that Jewish spirituality was mundane, something in which everyone could participate, Jewish or not. I thought of the mitzvah of hospitality in Judaism. I hadn’t known until I looked it up that it trumps prayer or study–it’s one of the most important mitzvot of all. Great for interfaith families, too, because there are lots of hospitable people who don’t realize that they are doing something spiritual. I have a great impression of the people who read and write for our site–they love to cook and invite people. When we do that, we’re in imitation of God, of whom we say in Psalms 145:16, “You open your hand and satisfy all the living.” That’s how we should be, too.
That’s why I am planning to spring Global Hunger Shabbat on my havurah this Shabbat, when I lead services on Saturday morning. (Now I’ll find out who is reading my blog posts, eh?) I’m going to use some of their educational materials–I also have some selections from Psalms in mind to sing. The Global Hunger Shabbat is part of a project from the American Jewish World Service. I also want to give a shout out to Project Mazon, A Jewish Response to Hunger, which makes grants to local hunger-relief agencies. In my area we have the Greater Boston Food Bank. We also have organizations that give to Jews in need–Passover food is extra expensive–like Jewish Family and Children’s Service Family Table.
Before Passover is a great time to think about people who are hungry, as we gear up for the seder when we say, “All who are hungry, let them come and eat.”
Several people whom I know happened to be purchasing new stoves or ovens, and asked me, “What does it mean that the appliance has a Sabbath mode?” I knew what it was, even though my oven [float=left][/float]doesn’t have it! My current oven isn’t very useful for Shabbat observance, since it shuts off after a few hours. Though I can leave food in to stay warm on Friday evenings in the winter, the oven would shut off before lunch the next day. Apparently, some people complained to oven manufacturers, and they invented Sabbath mode as a way to let oven users override the automatic shutoff.
Once I had explained what the oven feature was, one of my friends wanted to know why someone would want to leave the oven on for 24 hours. At that point, I had to explain that not working on Shabbat has a very specific meaning in rabbinic Judaism. The rabbis had to figure out which work counted as the labor you aren’t doing on Shabbat, and which other activities you could do, and they developed the classification of 39 categories of labor which is based on this week’s Torah portion and the proximity of the instruction to keep Shabbat to the discussion of how the Israelites built the mishkan, the portable tabernacle they used while wandering in the desert.
My friend said, “I knew you weren’t supposed to cook–I just assumed that meant a cold meal.” The rabbis of the Talmud didn’t like that idea, and they invented work-arounds that would make it possible not to cook but to still keep the food warm. Today’s work-arounds are of course more sophisticated. (Well, and less, since part of what they involve is a button to shut off the ways the oven beeps and thinks for itself about when to shut off!)
Professor Aryeh Cohen (whom I used to follow around with puppy-like devotion when we were both graduate students at Brandeis) wrote a discussion of this week’s Torah portion in which he understands Shabbat as a means of separating into a special space, just by what we aren’t doing:
I thought this was cool, because I was trying to figure out how to translate “Sabbath mode” into what human beings do, and it’s true–shutting off your regular functions is what makes it possible to have a Sabbath mode.
On the other hand, Aryeh’s implication here about Jewish distinctiveness is difficult for me, because I know a lot of interfaith families who are sharing the benefits of Shabbat. What if “your neighbor” isn’t just your neighbor, but your very very good friend, such a good friend you decided to get married? Not exactly a neighbor. As Ed Case puts it, any Shabbat experience an interfaith family does is shared.
Not that I totally want to reject an opportunity for Jewish pride in distinctiveness. I sometimes see a bumper sticker, “The Labor Movement–The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.” You could say the same about the Jewish people–we invented the idea of a day off, something everyone needs. Everyone in the world should feel invited into Shabbat territory, Shabbat headspace–Sabbath mode. It’s a Jewish contribution, a gift to civilization.
I’m writing this knowing fully well that stopping, not working, not doing, is much more challenging than you think. Most people, even those who want to, can’t do it. That’s why Exodus 31:13 in this week’s portion has this mysterious word “ach” meaning still, but, nevertheless or however. Because not working is hard, even on your day off.
In the Hebrew school parking lot on Wednesday night, my son and I witnessed another little boy howling at the moon. “Sure glad I’m not a Jewish werewolf,” I said to my kid. “You would miss all the holidays.” It’s true–the Hebrew calendar assures that many Jewish holidays fall on the full moon, including Passover, Sukkot and Hanukkah. If you transform into a wolf when the moon is full, no matzah or latkes for you.
Tonight minor yet intriguing holiday, Tu Bishvat, called Hag La-Ilanot, the tree holiday, is no exception. Even its name, the 15th of Shevat, is a clue–because all Hebrew months start on the new moon. The holiday could be called the birthday of trees, since it was the date that Jews in ancient Israel used to figure out the age of their trees in order to know when to bring fruit from them to the Temple in Jerusalem on Shavuot. A highly technical date, Tu Bishvat has been transformed into a holiday celebrating agriculture in the land of Israel, kabbalistic theories of the universe and environmental consciousness.
When I was a kid, we celebrated Tu Bishvat by eating raisins and almonds in Hebrew school and by buying trees in Israel through the Jewish National Fund. We also sang a little song in Hebrew about almond trees, “Ha-Shkediyah Porachat.” (It’s not easy to transliterate the Hebrew word for almond tree.) The lyrics mean something like, “the almond trees are blooming, the golden sun is shining, on the top of every roof, birds sing to herald the holiday.” My friend taught me an alternate version that fits the weather here much better:
The almond tree is freezing, the apple tree is sneezing
I went searching for the original version of the song, and found this adorable Spanish-speaking family getting all excited about the almond trees and cyclamen in Israel:
Today, it’s become increasingly common for people to celebrate Tu Bishvat with a seder, a mystical practice that compares the peels and seeds of fruit to the inner nature of everything. We ran a great piece by Aaron Kagan about his interfaith Tu Bishvat seder that he had last year. I also found a cool little article with recipes on The Jew and the Carrot A Tu Bishvat Seder for Every Personality.
We’re actually invited to a Tu Bishvat seder tonight at my havurah–but we aren’t going. I can’t imagine how we are going to have enough energy even to eat the stuffed cabbage I prepared last night. (Which has fruit in it! Yes!)
If you are interested in an opportunity to think about the environment, to appreciate your local trees, and to think about mystical connections–and most important if you are not a werewolf— Tu Bishvat is the holiday for you.
My husband found this blog, Sephardic Food, where culinary expert Janet Amateau posts Sephardi cultural lore and recipes. Some of the blog posts are in Spanish because Amateau lives in Spain. I’ve been meaning to tell you about it, because I know a lot of our readers want Sephardi recipes, and these are great–with great explanations.
When I wrote the Jewish Food Cheat Sheet, which defined dozens of Ashkenazi Jewish food terms, it came with an introduction, Understanding Jewish Food Traditions, which placed Ashkenazi Jewish food in a more global Jewish context, with Sephardi, Mizrachi and other Jewish cultures.
The truth is, all the Jews in the US aren’t all Eastern European, and even those of us who are Ashkenazi Jews love Jewish food traditions from elsewhere. Interfaith families are totally part of this. If you’re married to someone Italian who isn’t Jewish, it’s pretty cool to read Classic Italian Jewish Cooking by Edna Servi Machlin, just as an example. If you’re a Jew by choice, it’s nice to find ways to incorporate your old food traditions into new kosher rules.
In my overwhelmingly vegetarian, mainly Ashkenazi community, there are great fans of Olive Trees and Honey. I am still cooking my way through Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, though my copy is falling apart.
I am always looking for ways to include recipes on the site, so if your family has kosher-ized some of the recipes from the non-Jewish side, or has revved up an Ashkenazi dish with the spices of another culinary tradition, or done any tasty sort of thing with food and culture, contact me.