Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This booklet explains the history of Hanukkah, the symbolism and significance of lighting candles for eight nights, the blessings that accompany the lighting of the candles, the holiday's foods, the game of dreidels, and more!
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
My grandma Zelda taught me many things about Judaism and preparing for the Jewish holidays. However, what she did not teach me was her recipes. In fact, in all the years I watched and helped her cook, I don’t ever remember seeing her follow a recipe or consult a cookbook. Whenever she cooked, she did it from memory.
Rabbi Sarah Tasman with Grandma Zelda
For her huge fluffy matzah balls, I remember her telling me to mix together the matzah meal, schmaltz (chicken fat) and water. “If it’s too thick,” she said, “add more water. If it’s too wet, add more matzah meal.” There was no recipe to follow, just the steps she had learned from her mother, which were the steps she used her entire life and the same ones she shared with me.
Often she would tell me stories about what it was like growing up strictly kosher or what it was like living in a family of eight children.
Looking back now, I see that my grandmother taught me how to cook from memory. For the most part, if I learn how to cook something once, I can pretty much cook it again without the recipe. I know what “season with salt and pepper to taste” means, and I do not measure exactly how much goes in of this or that ingredient. When I bake a chicken, I don’t usually use a timer since I know how it’s supposed to look and taste when it’s ready. That is how I learned to cook from Grandma Zelda.
More than how or what to cook, much of what I learned from my grandmother was about how to build a Jewish home (even if I don’t follow the rules of keeping kosher in exactly the same way she did). I learned how to let Judaism be a framework for my life, how to follow the seasons and celebrate the holidays and how to make room within that structure for my own personality and creativity. I learned the value of taking the time to prepare for holidays—not just physically cleaning and cooking, but spiritually, too. I learned from her how to gather my family around me and how to make the observance of a holiday meal more meaningful. I learned how to open the door to those who come from other backgrounds and traditions.
This will be our first Passover since my grandmother passed away and my first time hosting Passover in my own home. It feels like an honor, a duty to carry on this tradition and a very large task for which I will need a lot of help. In large part, it’s about the food, but it’s also about the rituals and about the memories.
I know that our Passover seder this year will look and feel different from the Passover meals we used to have at Grandma Zelda’s. It will be the first time not being in her home and the first seder without her. I will think of her every step of the way as I clean my house and prepare for my guests. We will light her Sabbath candles on the first night of Passover, we will fill her Miriam’s cup and I will prepare and teach in her honor. I will cook with my memories, and I will cook from memory, just like she taught me.
Passover meant a big seder, with my grandfather chanting at the end of the table. My cousins and I would scramble around the house, hunting for the afikomen. Then my uncle would play the piano in the basement while we all sang. It was a wonderful holiday.
Passover also meant skipping my usual PB&J and taking buttered matzah to school, wrapped in aluminum foil. I remember how the butter would melt into shiny globules, and I’d rub them in with my finger. There was something nice about being “The Jewish Kid” in the class, with my special food. I loved the rituals. I liked the hyper-awareness of Passover, the symbolism of the seder plate. Mortar and tears—the sense that everything mattered.
And while we didn’t celebrate Easter religiously at our house, I did get a basket from my (Catholic) mom, filled with jellybeans and chocolate eggs. This was nice, too—that while I got to be “The Jewish Kid” I also didn’t feel totally left out of Easter. Sometimes there was a neighborhood parade and we made Easter hats from cardboard, glue and feathers.
Then came a year when the holidays overlapped. My parents were newly divorced, and not communicating well. My mom did her best with Passover. If memory serves, I took my matzah to school like usual. But then on Sunday morning… I got my Easter basket. Filled with bright jelly beans.
I tore into it, of course, mouth filled with sweetness, until I crunched through a blue candy shell into the crisp goodness of a malted robin’s egg. And suddenly, it hit me. Easter wasn’t Kosher for Passover! I spit the candy out into my hand, confused. What should I do?
For the next few days, my Easter basket sat on top of the fridge, waiting for me. I remember staring up at it, thinking about how it wasn’t fair, that nobody else I knew had to wait to eat her candy. But the truth was, my dad wasn’t there to enforce the rules anymore. It was all me. I had put the basket on top of the fridge, and I felt conflicted, but also firm in my resolve.
Years later, as an adult, the holidays overlapped again, and remembering the basket on the fridge, I did a funny thing. I assembled a Kosher-for-Passover Easter basket for myself. I did a good job, hunted down fruit-gels and made chocolate-covered matzah. The basket looked lovely.
But you know what? It was no good. It didn’t make me happy at all. Staring at that basket of fruit slices and jelly rings didn’t feel the same as waking up to an Easter basket. Not remotely. It felt… wrong.
I think sometimes, in the interfaith community, we seek to smooth the ruffled feelings, to reconcile all our conflicts and contradictions. We want to believe that we’re creating families in which everything can blend, fit and make sense. But here’s the thing—some things are distinct, even mutually exclusive. Some years, choosing to keep Kosher for Passover means not eating Easter candy. And that’s annoying, but also OK. Things don’t have to be easy to matter.
In a way, I feel like I undermined the essence of each holiday in that Eastover Basket I made. For me (and I can only speak for my own experience), Passover is about the restrictions, the rigor. Passover feels powerful because of its deprivation. And for me, Easter baskets are the opposite—about abundance, sheer pleasure.
This is fine! These two holidays don’t have to blend. Each holiday holds a special place in my memory. Easter and Passover can co-exist without merging. And you know what? The truth is that all the most meaningful experiences of my life have included conflict. Every deep relationship I’ve had has been imperfect, particular and occasionally inconvenient. Often, rituals matter most when we have to wait for them, or forego something else. Sometimes, conflict serves a purpose.
When I was a kid, I stared up at my Easter basket on the fridge and thought about both holidays. I owned them both and recognized that they both mattered to me. That year, for the first time, I truly decided to keep Kosher for Passover. It mattered more than it ever had before. And then a few days later, I decided to eat my robin’s eggs.
When I was growing up, I always looked forward to my family’s Passover seders. One of my favorite parts of the seder was the songs—and not just the songs that were in the haggadah, like “Dayenu,” “Chad Gadya” and “Who Knows One?” I also loved the silly song parodies we’d sing each year at our seder based on (somewhat) modern songs, like “Take Me Out to the Seder” sung to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” “There’s No Seder Like Our Seder” sung to the tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and “The Ballad of the Four Sons” sung to the tune of “Clementine.” (You can click here to find the words to these songs and others.)
As corny as these all seem to me now, I can still remember how clever I thought they were when I was young—and how they didn’t cease to amuse me each year.
In recent days, with Passover approaching, some of my friends have posted Passover parodies of pop songs on Facebook, and they’ve reminded me of those parodies we used to sing at our seder when I was young. So, for fun, I thought I’d compile a list of my favorite Passover song parodies. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Although Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez probably didn’t realize it when they composed the song “Let it Go” for the movie Frozen, they had written the perfect phrase to be parodied as a Passover song. And it was parodied—endlessly—in 2014. One of the better videos, in my opinion, was “Let Us Go,” made by members of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.
2. But my favorite Frozen parody by far was Six13’s “Chozen (A Passover Tribute).” It even included an introduction with John Travolta flubbing the name of the group, just as he had mispronounced Idina Menzel’s name when introducing her to sing “Let it Go” at the Oscars.
3. Just as 2014 was the year of the “Let it Go” Passover parody, 2015 was the year of the “Uptown Funk” Passover parody. Aish HaTorah’s “Passover Funk” was a great parody of the Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars hit song.
4. But again, my favorite version of 2015’s most-parodied song for Passover was by Six13. Their “Uptown Passover (An ‘Uptown Funk for Pesach)” put them at the top of my Passover song parody list for the second year in a row.
5. Following up on the success of their 2014 “Let Us Go,” members of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA, did a great job parodying Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” in their 2015 “All About Those Plagues.” Having noted in a blog that I wrote this past December that most Hanukkah pop song parodies that I liked were by all-male groups and that I hoped to see more women and girls coming out with some awesome parodies, I love that the B’nai Shalom videos feature more than just young men. I can relate to the woman who wrote on YouTube about “All About Those Plagues”: “I must congratulate you. I’m so tired of these all-male Orthodox groups having a near-monopoly on Jewish holiday videos… [This video] features a wide diversity of ages, genders and even races. That’s what Judaism is about…”
6. Felicia Sloin’s Video “Batya—Floating in The Reeds” is a fun parody of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep.” And again, it was nice to watch a video featuring a woman.
7. And finally, here’s another video featuring a woman, this one a funny take on the foods that can and can’t be eaten on Passover: Julie Geller’s “U Can’t Eat This,” a parody of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” that you don’t want to miss.
With Passover less than a month away, I’m disappointed that I still haven’t seen any good 2016 Passover pop song parodies. Maybe the Maccabeats (famous for their “Candlelight” parody of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” and many other songs) will release a video before Passover. I can hope… and if they don’t, I’ll just have to watch “U Can’t Eat This” a few more times… or break out signing “Take Me Out to the Seder.”
“I feel I’m Jewish not just because I’ve chosen Judaism but because Judaism has chosen me.” –David Gregory, April 5, 2016
You might recognize David Gregory from his time as NBC newsman or as Meet the Press moderator. But he visited Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston Federation–a supporter of InterfaithFamily/Boston and leader in interfaith issues–this morning in the role of author, husband and father. He was joined by Dr. Erica Brown, an extraordinary Jewish author and teacher. Gregory and Brown were interviewed by CJP President Barry Shrage about interfaith relationships and Jewish life.
Brown made a good point early on in the conversation: So often, it’s not Jewish ritual or prayer or the organized Jewish community that puts off people who are not Jewish. To a newcomer, it’s the inside jokes, that “tribalism” about Jewish culture—the very thing that makes many Jews feel pride—that can be so isolating.
Many of us have seen this play out, whether you are the Jewish one, joking about a Jewish stereotype or using insider lingo, or you’re the one hearing it and not quite feeling part of the conversation.
Gregory is in a unique position to speak on the pulse of interfaith relationships having felt like both insider and outsider. He is the product of an interfaith family (he was raised by a Catholic mother and Jewish father) and it was his wife’s strong Protestant faith that inspired him to explore his own faith and religion. After a great deal of religious and spiritual exploration, he said, “I feel more Jewish than I ever have in my life.”
It’s time for Jews to change their thinking, Gregory said. As his wife Beth put it: “I know what you are but what do you believe?”
Unfortunately, he points out, the idea of appreciating Judaism for its vibrancy, community and spirituality is an “elective.” The more powerful conversation on the table is still the endurance of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, so it can be difficult to steer the conversation toward the richness of what Judaism has to offer; the “what you believe” rather than the “what you are.”
Gregory is by no means saying that it is futile to embrace and share the notion that Judaism has a great deal to offer those who are not already engaged, however. He challenged those in the room from Jewish organizations to think about creating inroads to the Jewish community that have authenticity for interfaith couples. Brown also pointed out that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, as every person and couple is unique.
What was most compelling about the conversation was hearing Gregory talk from experience. He does not claim to have the answers for anyone else, but he has been on quite a journey with his personal relationship with Judaism. Its importance has the power to bring him to tears and to propel him forward on this intellectual and heartfelt journey with his family.
I had the date on my calendar for weeks: a Shabbat dinner with some of the couples in my “Love and Religion” class. We’ve gotten together several times over meals and I knew that nobody has any eating restrictions besides “kosher style.” Emily was hosting the dinner at her house and had offered to order chicken from Zankou (a favorite LA chicken spot) with all the delicious fixings: hummus, babaganoush and tabbouleh. I was making challah and bringing wine. I knew everyone ate chicken which is perfect for Shabbat, convenient and would be a big hit. I was sure of it.
Then, as the three of us started trading emails to coordinate the menu, one of the guests said, “Chicken is great for me, but my boyfriend is observing Lent—we’ll bring fish.” Oh right. It’s Lent! And Shabbat! And he’s Catholic. This IS an interfaith couples’ Shabbat dinner after all. Now what the heck do I do for Lent?
Shabbat is a time for people to be together and celebrate community. It can be a time for inclusion and joy…and eating. When people feel singled out or excluded it is hard to strengthen relationships and build community, and that’s antithetical to so much of what I aim to create at a Shabbat dinner. I appreciated the participant bringing up her boyfriend’s tradition. I also appreciated her offer to bring something special for him, but it would have detracted from the spirit of the gathering. In order to create the best scenario for community and relationship-building, I realized I needed to learn more about his tradition in order to honor it and make sure everyone felt included.
I reached deep into my religious studies major memory bank to try to remember the rules about Lent—something about Fridays and fish but I have no clue. Are there special prayers? Do they HAVE to eat fish or can we get falafel and call it a day? (Does he even like falafel? It seems to be the go-to vegetarian option for Jewish functions, but is that a normal thing or one of those weird Jewish things that no one else does?)
I realized I need to call in reinforcements. I emailed some colleagues and I posted on Facebook: “Catholic friends, please tell me what you like to eat on Fridays during Lent!” I typed in a search in Pinterest: “Challah and fish recipes.”
I went into the living room to talk with my El Salvadorian, kind-of-Catholic nanny. “Do you know anything about Lent customs?” I asked. “Yes, you don’t eat meat on Fridays,” she said. “But sometimes people eat chicken. Not everyone will eat chicken. Chicken broth is OK for some Catholics, but not everyone. People like to eat fish.”
Oy, what had I gotten myself into? By this point, I had so many different opinions and answers and I just didn’t know what to do. And then I got a text from my InterfaithFamily/LA project manager. “Want me to have my wife call you to talk about Lent?”
Yes! How had it had slipped my mind that her wife is Catholic?
She tells me everything I need to know. Order fish: It’s one of those things that’s not necessary but it’s tradition. And either way, fish is delicious and healthy.
We hang up the phone and I text her. “Any restaurant recommendations for good Catholic fish?”
She responds, “I know of a few places, but there’s not really ‘Catholic fish.’ Catholics eat pretty much anything.”
Except chicken on Shabbat during Lent, apparently. As I kept trying to find a solution that worked for everyone, the emails continued and the couple offered again to bring their own fish. But I’ve been that person who had to bring her own food to gatherings and parties because they were making pork and I kept kosher. I hated being singled out like that and I always felt alienated. As much as she reassured me that they could bring their own food, I did not want her boyfriend to feel left out at this interfaith dinner.
I insisted on serving fish for dinner and, as it turned out, our host said she would rather have fish anyway and would love to cook it for everyone rather than ordering in from a restaurant. It was her first time hosting a Shabbat dinner and thought we were supposed to eat chicken on Shabbat, even though she would have rather eaten fish all along!
Problem solved. We had fish. And I even tried my hand at a fish-shaped challah. Because if you can’t braid your challah into a fish on lent, when can you?
It’s been a few weeks since the dinner and I’m happy to share that it went extremely well. The Catholic partner and his Jewish girlfriend were touched that they were both made to feel so welcome and included. The fish was excellent. And after spending all afternoon Googling “How to braid a challah shaped like a fish,” I let it rise too long and it melted in the oven. So we had flatbread for our Lenten Shabbat dinner and I’m bringing in a better baker to teach us all how to make a proper challah next time.
We love Mo Willems books in our house! My little one just brought home one of his gazillions of titles called, I Really Like Slop. As I have written before, I now see the world through interfaith family lenses. When we read this story, all I could think about was interfaith couples at Passover! How in the world did I make that leap?
This children’s book teaches us to try our friends’ food and customs
The book tells the story of Piggie presenting her friend Gerald, the elephant, with a pot of her slop. Gerald looks at the smelly concoction with trepidation. He asks some questions about the make-up of the slop. Piggie begs him to try some. She explains that it’s part of Pig culture! Gerald touches his tongue to the slop and chokes and gags. Piggie asks Gerald if he likes it. Gerald explains that he does not like it, but he does like Piggie. And he is happy he tried it.
As are all of Mo Willems’ books, this story is precious and even poignant. It made me think about someone who didn’t grow up with, let’s say, gefilte fish, being presented with it for the first time at a Passover seder. This person is no doubt sitting with a significant other at their parents’ house, surrounded by family and trying to fit in and make a good impression. This person is trying to avoid any cultural faux pas. They may be worried that the haggadah (the book read during the Passover meal) will be read aloud going around the table and that there will be unfamiliar words and transliterated Hebrew to navigate (on four cups of wine, no less). And, now this person is presented with this foreign, kind of smelly food, with a gel-like substance wiggling around on top.
If you were brought up with this food and don’t like it, it is easier to dismiss it. But, for a newcomer, how does one politely excuse themselves from trying it? (Especially if is homemade. This usually makes it a lot better than if it’s cold from the jar—although some people love that. Who am I to yuck your yum, as my child’s feeding therapist implores.)
What Piggie and Gerald teach us is that we don’t have to like our partner’s cultural things. They don’t have to become ours. We don’t have to feel comfortable eating the food or donning certain garb. We don’t automatically have to feel comfortable with the language, traditions or dances. Maybe after experience and time, we will come to like things. We will make them our own. But, maybe we never will. And, that’s OK. Showing respect, asking questions, learning about and even trying aspects important to our loved ones is what matters.
Happy prepping for Passover!
Learn more HERE about gefilte fish and other fun Passover foods. And for a complete cheat sheet on Jewish foods (that you can share with you friends!) click HERE.
Two of the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory’s main characters, Howard and Bernadette, announced that they are having a baby. Mere moments after hearing the news, the father-to-be was fretting about how they would raise their child since they come from different religious backgrounds. “How’s this all going to work? You’re Catholic, I’m Jewish. What religion do we raise it?! And if it’s a boy, do we get him circumcised?”
While their different backgrounds have bubbled up in past episodes, I imagine that Wolowitz’ rant in this scene hit home for many interfaith couples. Navigating two distinct backgrounds is often quite simple…until someone is holding a positive pregnancy test in hand.
When does the topic of religion usually come up in interfaith relationships? Some begin talking about religion before anything gets serious, especially when a faith background is very important to one or both people. But the reality for many couples from different religious or cultural backgrounds is that they only start to discuss these potential differences well into their relationship. For those who plan to have children, conversations about raising children often occur only after having them. Bringing a child into the world can rouse religious questions for the first time. In fact, the least religiously connected time of many people’s lives is young adulthood, so when they meet a partner, religion may be the last thing on their minds.
My advice is to talk early and often. Try introducing the topic with these conversation starters—either before having kids or when kids are young:
1. Talk about your respective backgrounds. Do you both come from a religious heritage that is significant to you? Or just one?
2. Imagine your life about 5 or 10 years down the road. Do you picture particular religious rituals occurring (ie. baby namings, baptism, bris/Jewish ritual circumcision, bar or bat mitzvah, confirmation, etc)? Religious education? Explain to each other what is important to you and why—even if you never had to articulate it before.
3. Talk about holidays and milestones. Which will you celebrate? Why are they important to you? With whom will you spend them? How will you explain your decisions to your child so they feel pride and ownership over their identity or identities?
4. How will you include family members who don’t share traditions and celebrations you choose to observe?
5. You don’t have to have it all figured out right this minute, but setting the stage will help tremendously. You will develop a shared language and a better understanding of what is important to each of you. When issues do arise, it won’t be the first time you’ve thought about religion together.
The clearer you are about the decisions you are making, the clearer you can be with your kids, in-laws and other extended family and friends. Don’t shy away from talking about religion. You will actually become stronger as a couple when you learn to communicate about delicate subjects without fear of threatening the relationship between the two of you or extended family. Plus, as you learn more about one another’s backgrounds, hopes and desires, you could actually be uncovering stories that allow you to know each other on an even deeper level. If you feel more comfortable having a guide with you as you broach these questions, the InterfaithFamily staff is here to help.
Are Bernadette and Howard too late to figure out the logistics of an interfaith family? Not at all. But better to not be taken by surprise.
Naming things gives us a connection to them. Even little children name their lovies and their toys. We label and name to organize things in our minds and to recognize things. How surprising it has been for me as a mother to have a child who says she knows she is the gender not typically aligned with the anatomy she has. It made sense to me when she explained that she wants a name that goes with how she looks and feels. She started using her new name and slowly it has stuck.
When I officiate at a baby naming ceremony, I often explain how important names are within Jewish tradition. Our biblical ancestors’ names told their stories—Avraham, Father of a People; Miriam (from sea water), when she was alive, the people had water. Within the narratives of our ancient scroll, names changed when roles change. Jacob becomes Israel, for instance. The rabbis during the rabbinic period in the first centuries of the Common Era, spoke about having a crown of a good name, meaning your total reputation.
They helped us understand what Jews can believe about heaven. When you have been a good person and touched people who want to carry on your name and your memory, that is eternal life. Passing on the name of a loved one to the next generation is a way we enable this person, of blessed memory, to continue to impact the world through deeds done in their name. Sometimes elderly family members will say to the younger generation that they are their Kaddish (the prayer said to remember loved ones who have died). This means that they are looking to the ones living to carry on their memory.
A friend from childhood who has become a lawyer ushered my family through our minor name change process on Thursday, March 3. It was a profound moment when she reminded me that I named her children within the Jewish tradition and now she was naming my child in this way.
After the high and emotions of leaving court that day with a new name for my child, I drove into the city to help another family bestow Hebrew names on their three children ranging in age from 7 to 13. The mom in this family is Jewish and the father is Catholic. They have raised their children with the hopes of literacy, knowledge and comfortability within both religious realms and traditions. They have celebrated Jewish and Catholic holy days. These kids feel close to both rabbis and priests and both sides of their family. They know that they will have to wrestle like Jacob and discern what they believe about Jesus. They also know that they can turn to both traditions in times of joy and in times of need. They are enriched for this way of living and learning. They are not confused but full of joy. Their parents have a depth of compromise and respect for each other that is inspiring.
So, I stood with a priest who has become a friend and mentor as he baptized the children with water and anointed them with oil. I blessed them. We spoke about the loved ones for whom they were named and what their names in Hebrew mean. This was a ceremony of symbolism, metaphor and meaning.
Last year InterfaithFamily launched a social media campaign called #ChooseLove. As InterfaithFamily/Your Community Directors, we discussed whether our rabbinic colleagues would think we were suggesting that couples should choose love over religion, which was not our intention. Thursday, March 3 was a day when I understood what it means to choose love. Love rises above expectations and assumptions. It envelopes fear and uncertainty. It sweetens disappointment and loss. We don’t always have control over the circumstances of our lives, but we can choose to have compassion at all times.
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehechehyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh. We praise You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all: for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this joyful time.
Here’s what my “To Do” List on a recent day looked like:
Fill out evaluation form for current grant
Write grant proposal for next year
Prepare to teach workshop tonight and copy handouts
Return library books
Schedule dentist appointments for kids
Prepare wedding ceremony for Sarah and John
Send emails about next week’s program
Prepare agenda for tomorrow’s meeting
Buy groceries and make dinner
And that was only about the first third of the list. I like having to “To Do” lists. They give order to my day, and ensure that I (usually) don’t forget to do what I need to get done on a given day. Plus, there’s that little rush I get when I cross something off the list. Even if it’s a simple task that I’ve completed, I have at least a momentary sense of accomplishment and the thrill of seeing the number of things that have to get done lessened … at least until a few minutes later when I think of something new to add to the list.
I always have lots to “do”—and I’m really good at getting things “done.” But often, at the end of the day, it’s not a sense of accomplishment that I feel, but a sense of exhaustion. I may have crossed many items off my “To Do” list that day, but I already have a whole new list for the next day. And then there are those things—really important things—that too often haven’t gotten the time and attention that they deserve; things like: hanging out with my kids (not in the car on the way to some activity or errand, but just on the couch); eating a relaxed meal; having an uninterrupted conversation with my husband; relaxing and reading a book; or meditating. These are things that aren’t about “doing” but simply about “being,” and on most days I don’t get to all, or sometimes any, of them.
And even worse, sometimes I’m so busy “doing” the things on my oh-so-important list—usually something like writing a text or email, or looking something up on my computer, something that involves being “connected”—that when one of my kids is talking to me, sensing that I’m not fully present for them, they’ll say: “Are you listening?”
I’ll respond half-heartedly: “Of course I am,” as I go about my typing.
And then, they’ll call me on it: “What did I say?”
“Um, I don’t know exactly,” comes my lame response, as my kid’s eyes drop and they walk away.
Sometimes I’m so busy doing … and so “connected” … that I become “disconnected” from the people that matter the most.
Fortunately in Judaism we have a built-in mechanism that encourages us to “disconnect” from our phones and other devices so that we can “connect” with the people that matter to us … and to our own selves. It’s Shabbat. Shabbat reminds us of what we truly are: not “human DOINGS” but “human BEINGS.” (For more on the idea that we are “human beings” and not “human doings,” you can read my blog on The Spirituality of Mindfulness Meditation.)
Observing Shabbat in a traditional manner involves lots of things that one can’t “do.” For example, if you’re Shomer Shabbat (i.e, if you “keep Shabbat” according to the rules of traditional Jewish law) you don’t drive on Shabbat, or use electricity or make phone calls. Often, I hear people who, like myself, aren’t Shomer Shabbat, say that observing Shabbat in a traditional sense sounds too difficult, perhaps even unpleasant. Most of all, they can’t imagine being “unplugged” for an entire day.
But honestly, I long for a day of being totally unplugged … totally “disconnected.” And that’s why I’m going to participate in the National Day of Unplugging on March 4-5, 2016.
Why am I so excited about unplugging from Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown? Because if I can’t “do” things like check my email, texts and voice messages, it’ll force me to put a lot more focus on “being.” After returning home from Shabbat morning services and lunch at my synagogue on Saturday, I’ll be able to: spend time hanging out with my husband and kids; read a book; play with my dog; or maybe just take a well-needed nap, not worrying that the sound of my phone ringing will wake me up.
I know it won’t be easy to spend an entire day totally unplugged … I’ll miss that rush of dopamine that I get when I see a new text or email come in. But I also know of the benefits that can come if I resist the cravings to connect to technology for a whole day. And if I’m lucky, really lucky, I may just be able to sense what the rabbis meant when they spoke of Shabbat as “a taste of the World to Come.”
Last week, my son started wondering about the edge of the universe. What is at the end? Is there an end? What does the word “everything” really mean? Is there anything outside of “everything”?
I could tell as we talked that his mind was trying to expand enough to picture our expanding universe. We weren’t just talking big. We were talking about something larger than our imaginations could hold. He was awe-stricken.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… To be spiritual is to be amazed” and, “Wonder is an act in which the mind confronts the universe.” Sometimes we are privileged to experience or think about something that religious mystics would say lifts the veil, exposing something deeper, clearer or more intense about the universe and our place in it. At those moments, we become overcome by a sense of the grandeur of life that is hard to describe. Religious writers would say it is ineffable, impossible, to convey in words.
When my son had this experience, we wanted him to know that some people call that expansiveness, that interconnectedness, or that feeling he was having—G!d. The medieval Kabbalists called that expansiveness, “Eyn Sof,” literally describing G!d as “Endlessness.” But do we need religion to feel that sense of being connected to the entire universe? Do we need to call it G!d?
Of course not. Some people may label such experiences “holy,” “miracles” or even “G!d,” while many others would not. Richard Dawkins, contemporary atheist and scientist, imagines himself as a child lying under the stars, “dazzled by Orion, Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way” (The God Delusion, p.11).
Although no two experiences of awe are alike, the feeling of interconnectedness and awe in the face of the vastness of the universe Dawkins describes is akin to the writings of many mystics across religious traditions. He wonders in the book why he could have such an experience and become a scientist while his friend could have that same type of experience and go into the priesthood. This is his premise for undoing religion. For me, his observation only reinforces that it doesn’t matter what we call it. His friend called it G!d. He didn’t. Why should it matter, when what is truly important is that they both had an expansive experience of awe as young children? They both went on into lines of work where they could cultivate that skill, living in awe of the universe. For Dawkins and the rest of us, those moments of clarity can influence the way we live our lives.
Dawkins is far from being alone. According to a Pew Research study, a rising number of Americans across the religious spectrum report that they often feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being as well as a sense of wonder about the universe. But what is more surprising, especially since fewer and fewer Americans affiliate themselves with any religion, is that a rising number of atheists also reported feelings of wonder about the universe. That number rose from 37 to 54 percent from 2007 to 2014, which means that their sense of awe is even higher than those within some religious traditions.
What has changed for atheists that they are reporting a sense of increased wonder? Perhaps one of the reasons that the “nones” and atheists are finding awe is that it has become clear that wonder in no way negates the intellectual, the scientific. For Dawkins, a feeling of “becoming one with the universe” is eventually tied to his reverence for science.
The 20th century Jewish thinker, Aaron Zeitlin, warns us in a poem that if we look at the stars and yawn, then we have been created in vain. Although Dawkins rejects any religious explanation of his experience, he would never look at the stars and yawn. In the words of sociologist Ryan Cragun, “It could be that those who are now admitting they are atheists … are also more willing to admit that they do experience what many people consider ‘spiritual’ feelings. Perhaps normalizing “atheism” has benefitted those seeking non-religious language to express wonder.
We certainly do not need religion to feel a sense of the grandeur of life and the universe. But religion at its best is about the cultivation of awe. Embedded in most religious traditions is a deep sense of wonder, and an examination of the self in relation to the vastness of the universe. We all begin life with innate curiosity, but where is that ability to live in awe cultivated as we grow up? Our religious spaces could—and should—be the places we take those questions that shake us and challenge us. Not to answer them, but to provide the space to wonder. And religious practice can serve as a catalyst to invoke these feelings. Many religious rituals are designed to lead us to those spaces of awe and wonderment on a regular basis, and encourage us to feel gratitude at the magnificence of the universe.
Judaism has a blessing for everything, from the appearance of a rainbow or an unusual sight to the seemingly mundane, daily miracles of eating food and using the bathroom (yes, that is truly awe-inspiring when you think about it). Daily life is filled with large and small moments of awe. Amidst the busyness of our everyday lives, from time to time we slow down for long enough that we are allowed to glimpse something deeper: the magnificence, the terrifying immensity of it all.
Because the blessings are associated with specific moments or acts, they are not allowed to pass by unnoticed. We learn how to better notice and embrace these moments. I hope to teach my kids not that one needs religion to feel awe, but that religious rituals and language can help us cultivate a sense of awe and express gratitude for the universe we live in. I want to give them a religious language to talk about wonder and perhaps to feel comforted by the fact that people have been feeling that sense of grandeur and awe for ages.
However you find your sense of awe, embrace it. Don’t worry too much about what you call it. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to seek it out within religious structures. You might find new language and more opportunities to discover your own Radical Amazement.
Note on the spelling of G!d’s name: Traditionally the divine name is written G-d. But here I use G!d to connote the idea that the divine is one way of expressing Radical Amazement.