Own Your Judaism

KetubahSometimes Jews who don’t live their lives by the rubrics of Jewish law feel inauthentic in their identity or less Jewish than more observant Jews. I often hear phrases like, “we weren’t that religious” or “we were very Reform” to describe an upbringing that did not include regular synagogue attendance or Shabbat rituals, for instance.  Sometimes a person who marries a Jew not concerned with Jewish tradition as it applies to food, prayer or holiday observances can be confused when that person wants a rabbi at his or her wedding and wants to raise Jewish children because it doesn’t seem the person cares that much about being Jewish.

There are many ways into Judaism and many ways to practice one’s Judaism.

Sometimes Jews are worried about “doing it wrong” or not following the tradition (as if there is only one) at major life cycle moments. For instance, in preparing for a wedding, many people are concerned with who can sign their ketubah. I explain that “traditionally” it would be people who are Jewish and not related to the couple but that since this is a “non-halachic, not legal” ketubah signed by a bride or groom who isn’t Jewish that they should pick witnesses who they trust and wish to honor and worry less about whether that person is Jewish and related to them. Sometimes brides or grooms are worried about wearing a yarmulke at their wedding when they don’t intend to wear one regularly again. They have to pause to ask themselves why they would want to wear one on their wedding day, what it symbolizes to them and then see if it feels meaningful.

Some of my colleagues have recently been discussing whether they should write that the couple is getting married on Shabbat in a ketubah (even if the wedding is before sundown on Saturday which is still Shabbat) since it is not traditionally thought permissible to hold a wedding on Shabbat. I feel very strongly that if the wedding is on Shabbat that the ketubah in an unapologetic way reflect that by stating the accurate day of the week in both English and Hebrew (rather than writing “Sunday”). This couple and this rabbi must not be accustomed to keeping Shababt in ways that prohibit driving, exchanging money, etc. and thus getting married on Saturday evening fits with their Jewish expression.

In fact, Rabbi Eugene Mihaly who died in 2002 at the age of 83, a professor at Hebrew Union College, the Reform Rabbinical Seminary wrote about whether marriage on the Sabbath is allowed according to the Jewish rabbinic sources.  He concluded that:

“A religious marriage ceremony is a profound spiritual experience. The goals of Sabbath observance for the Reform Jew are also based on the traditional themes of the Sabbath as a day of delight (oneg), of refreshment of soul, of perfect freedom, a day devoted to hallowing of life, the enhancement of person, a weekly projection into the messianic. The spirit of a religious marriage ceremony is thus in perfect consonance with the spirit of the Sabbath. Halachic (legal) tradition, liberally interpreted, as it must be by Reform Judaism, far from prohibiting a marriage on the Sabbath would, on the contrary, encourage it as a most appropriate and fitting activity, congruent with and an enhancement of the highest reaches of Sabbath observance.”

We have a tendency as Jews to put a hierarchy on Jewish practice and observance level. When one is able to learn about Judaism and then live it in a meaningful, thoughtful way, it becomes part of the life force of that person and not something to try on for an hour here or there. The ability to own one’s own Judaism is crucial. When one can talk about it with confidence and not in what one doesn’t do but in what one does and believes and values, then it fills the person. How can we nurture the next generation to be able to do this? If we worry less about “tradition” which is certainly not monolithic and more about knowing why we do what we do, then our identity can sustain us in real ways.

Wedding/Bar Mitzvah Gift Giving Tips

Marilyn's menorahThe summer months are usually filled with life cycle events and celebrations, especially weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. It can be a challenge to find the perfect gift for the couple or young person, especially if you want to give something Jewish and are not sure what might be appropriate or where to find a particularly meaningful gift.

For weddings, a couple will register for toasters, dishes and small appliances but they may not think to list typical Jewish ritual items (Judaica) in their registry. The basic items that most Jewish couples might want to include in their Judaica collection are Shabbat candlesticks, a challah plate or board, a challah cover, Kiddush cup, a mezuzah—one or one for each doorway (except the powder room), a Hanukkah menorah, a dreidel and a small collection of Jewish books, such as a Siddur (prayer book), Tanach (Hebrew bible), Haggadot for Passover and a general book about Jewish rituals. You can also consider a seder plate for Passover, noise makers for Purim, apple and honey dishes for Rosh Hashanah or a cheesecake plate for Shavuot.

There are lots of places to shop for Judaica, online and in your community. You can Google “Judaica” or check out Fair Trade Judaica for wonderful handmade items that are crafted with no child labor, fair pay, and safe work conditions. You can also visit a local synagogue or Jewish Community Center and purchase something from their gift shop. A portion of your purchase will help support them and there will always be a very helpful salesperson who can help you to choose something special.

Books can be found at the Jewish Publication Society or at most online retailers. IFF/Bay Area created an extensive reading list relating to marriage that I urge you to make use of.  My Jewish Learning has an extensive list of recommended books. One of my favorites is Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs and Values for Today’s Families by Anita Diamant & Howard Cooper. You can also choose something from InterfaithFamily’s list of interfaith-related titles.

Another option is to choose a family heirloom from your Judaica collection. I was given an old brass menorah by my stepmother before she passed away a few years ago and it remains a cherished memory of her faith, our roots in the old country and reminds me of the strong presence she had in my life.

When my husband and I got married a year ago, we decided that we preferred not to receive gifts, and instead, we chose four charities and asked our guests to send a donation in our honor. You can find a great source of charitable ideas on the Charity Navigator website, including ratings and top ten lists to browse through. You can also think about what issues are important to the recipient and donate to a nonprofit that supports that issue.

No matter what you choose, you can be certain that a gift of Judaica or help for a non-profit will be appreciated and remembered fondly for many years.

Wedding News

Two interesting stories you might have missed.

More Non-Jewish Couples Have Jewish-Style Weddings

Some couples include the elements of stomping on a glass or standing under a chuppah at their wedding. But increasingly,  couples, where neither partner is Jewish, choose the ketubah as the custom they’re borrowing.

According to YnetNews, a popular English language Israeli news website, this trend has been increasing over the last ten years.

Jannine Medrana Malave and her husband, Nelson, had a traditional Catholic wedding. Their ceremony included touches reflecting her Filipino roots and his Puerto Rican ones, but they also had a ketubah in a round design with English and Hebrew, signed by, among others, the priest who married them.

The ketubah was a gift from two close friends they consider their “Jewish mothers,” but it was Nelson’s idea after he noticed the ketubot in the shop of the National Museum of American Jewish History, where Jannine works as director of donor relations and special events.

“We like to learn about other cultures and other traditions,” said Jannine, 34. “It’s hanging in our living room, next to our crucifix no less.”

Will this trend continue? Do you know couples who chose Jewish elements for their wedding though neither partner was Jewish?

“Interestingly Jewish” NYTimes Wedding Announcement

Each Monday, Tablet magazine picks “the most interestingly Jewish announcement from that Sunday’s New York Times Weddings/Celebrations section. Some Mondays, this is difficult. This is not one of those Mondays.”

It’s difficult to know what to select from our winner, that of Chris Barley and the tastefully named Marc Kushner, and what to leave out so that you can enjoy the whole thing for yourself. The basics: Kushner, Jared’s (and therefore Ivanka’s) first cousin, was Barley’s boss at an architecture firm; Barley comes from a Mennonite home in Pennsylvania. And one quote: “He grew up in, like, butter-land,” says Kushner, “I’m from margarine-ville.” Okay, one more: “As a whole, Jewish gay guys might be marvelous people,” Kushner also says, “but the ones I met were insane.” In fact, we know Kushner thinks highly of at least one Jewish gay guy: that would be his husband, who (of course) converted. Mazel tov to the happy couple!

In many ways, this couple encountered the same stumbling blocks that other interfaith couples come up against while dating. Kushner, wanting to marry someone who was Jewish, ended their relationship. They reunited and Barley went through a conversion. I don’t know about you, but I wish the NYT article hadn’t skipped over that part of their relationship.

Photo: Tina Fineberg for The New York Times.

Happy Purim

Purim is a silly holiday.

 It’s a deeply spiritually meaningful Jewish holiday, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a holiday whose observance involves a lot of being silly. For example, we have Purim Torah, a sort of high level satirical joking. (Or sometimes not really so high level.) Then there are Purim costumes, which in some communities are very silly indeed. Purimspiel at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, Mass. Purim plays (also called purimspielen) were some of the first Jewish theater, and to this day there are opportunities for members of Jewish communities to mock each other and the current political situation as they retell the story of the Book of Esther. There are Purim carnivals for children in costume. There are special Purim foods, like hamantashen, the jam-filled pastries that we North American Jews of Eastern European extraction make for this holiday, and, well, alcoholic beverages. (No, alcohol is not mandatory. I’ve been to more than one Purim party where people claim to be drinking when they are really holding cups of alcohol while telling jokes. You should never feel pressure to drink. Or to laugh.)

It’s the perfect holiday for this blog, because:

1. It’s a holiday about a Jewish woman who entered an interfaith marriage, preserved her identity and saved the Jewish people. Enough said.

2. On the internet, no one knows whether you’re wearing a Purim costume. (No, I’m not. For one thing, it’s not Purim yet. Also, I’m at work. In addition, I don’t even wear a costume at the megillah reading. Those are my real nose and glasses.)

3. If you haven’t seen this funny video, you should. Continue reading