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In March 2015, InterfaithFamily conducted its 11th annual Passover/Easter Survey to determine the attitudes and behaviors of people in interfaith relationships during Passover and Easter. The survey attracted 1,136 responses—an increase of about 21% over 2014. Of those 1,136 respondents, 730 said they were in interfaith relationships. Of those, 501 have children and of those, 444 (89%) are raising their children with some Judaism, though not necessarily exclusively.
To simplify our findings, here are the top 10 things we learned from just those 444 respondents. (Of course, this does not reflect the behaviors of interfaith couples in general, or the behaviors of all interfaith couples with children, and the figures should not be reported as representative of all interfaith families.)
1. Passover matters. The overwhelming majority of respondents—more than 92 percent—celebrate Passover, and for most, it had some religious significance. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being “deeply religious,” 67% rated Passover a 3, 4 or 5. Only 7% said it was entirely secular. For those who were having or attending a seder—420 respondents—most said it would include a seder plate (94%), reading from a Haggadah or telling the Passover story (92%), food rituals like dipping parsley in salt water, making a matzah sandwich, etc. (93%), hiding the afikoman (85%) or discussing the meaning of Passover (76%). And going to a seder wasn’t new—99% had been to or hosted one before.
2. It’s about the kids. When asked why they celebrate Passover, the vast majority of respondents—more than 86%—said “to share the holiday with my children,” and “sharing the holiday with my kids” was also respondents’ favorite part of Passover. Almost 70% said they were looking for “ways to make the seder fun for kids.”
3. And food. 86% of respondents said they would be eating matzah as one of their Passover activities, with 49% following dietary restrictions for most or all days of Passover. And the resource people wanted most, next to ways to make the seder fun for kids? Recipes.
4. If you’re going to buy a Haggadah, Maxwell House is still the haggadah you count on. More than half who responded said they use a store-bought haggadah (54%), and of those, 25% were planning to use the Maxwell House Haggadah this year—more than any other haggadah mentioned, which we found surprising considering how many new haggadahs are on the market these days. However, of those who planned to use a store-bought haggadah, 36% were not sure/couldn’t remember which one and 26% said “Other” to the haggadah options we provided—using everything from Sammy Spider’s Haggadah to congregational haggadahs. More than 8% planned to use the 30 Minute Seder and 7% said A Different Night, The Family Participation Haggadah.
5. Interfaith families look for resources to meet their specific challenges. 41% of respondents were looking for resources to make the seder comfortable and meaningful for relatives and friends who aren’t Jewish, while 38% wanted help navigating the Easter/Passover overlap. 88% would be or might be interested in a haggadah specifically for interfaith families—we’ll have one ready next year!
6. Many interfaith families raising their kids with Judaism also celebrate Easter… About half of respondents (49%) said they would be participating in Easter celebrations this year, and another 16 percent said that they “maybe” would.
7. … But it’s a secular holiday for most. 59% said it was an “entirely secular” celebration. Most celebrations centered around Easter egg hunts or baskets—56% said they would be participating in an Easter egg hunt, and 51% said they would be decorating eggs, while 47% said they would give Easter baskets to kids or extended family. Another 55% would be attending an Easter meal at the home of family or extended family, while 15% would host an Easter meal (vs. the 47% who host a Passover seder).
8. Easter is not seen as a threat to Jewish identity. Likewise, 62% don’t think celebrating Easter will affect their children’s connection to Judaism. (27% said not applicable, which may mean that Easter is not celebrated.) Said one, “It’s a secular celebration that’s basically just having food with family. I was raised Jewish and I still ate Easter candy, decorated eggs, etc.”
9. Most do not struggle or expect to struggle with observing Passover and/or Easter, but of those who do… Of the 444 respondents, 261 responded to this write-in question asking what they struggle with, and many of those simply said these holidays weren’t a struggle for their family. Responses included:
“My in-laws are extremely open and welcome my Passover traditions at their Easter meal—they regularly put out matzah, without a request from me, and make desserts that are flourless for my benefit.”
“None. We’ve been doing this long enough, we have it down,” another said, while a third remarked:
“I expect the same challenges that I experience in other areas of my married life with a partner [who is not Jewish]. There are many areas of negotiation with this part of our identities; we practice good communication in order to resolve and acknowledge differences. There [are] always going to be challenges of understanding, of belief and of acceptance.”
Of those who answered with a specific struggle, some cited in-laws and extended families, or balancing the needs of both partners or holidays. Said one, “We have wondered whether to let our son eat Easter candy that contains corn syrup during Passover,” while another struggled with “Restrictions on my children eating chametz or bread during Easter.” Some cited in-laws and extended families as a concern, or simply that the extended family wants their children to observe holidays differently than how they are being raised. Several people expressed frustration with these family members not understanding or appreciating the Jewish holiday or trying to balance everyone’s needs during the two holidays.
One respondent said “My Catholic Mother—she is trying very hard to be supportive, but struggles to find a way to feel connected to her grandchildren during holidays,” while a spouse said: “I love Easter merchandise: the colors, the bunnies, the eggs. I find all of it so cute but I don’t buy my daughters any of it because we’re raising them fully Jewish. It can be hard for me.”
10. Passover is a “lot of work” holiday. We were interested to hear why people think that surveys often indicate fewer interfaith couples participate in Passover seders than couples where both partners are Jewish. The overwhelming response was that Passover is a holiday celebrated at home and takes a lot of work; that it can be intimidating if it is not a holiday you grew up celebrating and the rituals are unfamiliar. As one person explained, “Passover is pretty involved. It’s a lot more than just showing up for a one hour service at a church. It takes a big commitment.”
Another said, “Try[ing] not to hurt anyone’s feelings, not having all the resources, not knowing where to start,” while a third responded, “It takes a serious time/travel commitment to attend one or both seders, especially if they’re during the work week. We typically return to my parents—a four-hour drive away—so if one member of the couple doesn’t take that commitment seriously, it’s hard to do.”
Note: All comments on InterfaithFamily are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed.
Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Joy Levitt have written an extremely important op-ed for JTA: “If You Marry a Jew, You’re One of Us.” For the past 14 years, we at InterfaithFamily have been advocating for Jews to welcome, embrace and fully include interfaith couples and families into Jewish life and community. We have always maintained that the attitudes Jews have toward intermarriage need to change from negative or ambivalent, to seeing the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families.
It is wonderfully affirming to now hear Jewish leaders like Levitt, the brilliantly successful director of the JCC in Manhattan, and Cohen – until recently one of the most vociferous critics of intermarriage – espouse the same views.
The crux of their essay (I am quoting what I feel are the most important points):
We know that where both parents identify as Jews, nearly all their children identify as Jews as well. And when only one parent sees himself/herself as Jewish, only a minority of their children grow up as Jews. Aside from raising the inmarriage rate, how can we create more households where both partners see themselves as part of the Jewish people?
One answer is for all of us to change the way we think of, and treat, those who love and marry our children, family members and friends. Basically we should agree and fully internalize the idea: If you marry a Jew, you’re fully part of our community until proven otherwise.
Born Jews would undergo a subtle but critical shift in the way they relate to family members and friends not born Jewish. It would mean fully including them in holiday practices, life-cycle ceremonies, and Jewishly centered social action and political activities.
[F]or those who choose to be part of our community without formal conversion — who come to the Passover seder and drive their children to Hebrew school, who sit shiva with us, or who bring their sons into the community at a
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Note: All comments on InterfaithFamily are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed.
I spend a lot of time at Starbucks. All different Starbucks locations. Lately, I have been seeing signs about it being a “Third Place in our daily lives.” We have our work places, our homes and we have the coffee shop. I think for lot of people, walking into Starbucks is comforting and familiar. The smells, the furniture, the vibe, the culture there, the drinks—we know what to expect and it feels good.
At our recent InterfaithFamily/Chicago event, Barbara Mahany read from her new book, Slowing Time. She talked about how children raised with both Judaism and Catholicism in their lives often understand the in-between spaces of life. They relate to the grays, to nuance, to ambiguity and discrepancy and can hold multiple identities and ideas in one intact soul and psyche. They don’t practice a new religion or a Jewish-Catholic blend. Rather, they hold both traditions in their hearts and minds. They keep them separate and draw from each at different times. They experience both. They understand about both of their parent’s backgrounds. In a way, this is a third place for Judaism and Christianity.
I have heard some people refer to the interfaith schools that exist around the country where families with one Christian parent and one Jewish parent come to learn and worship with the intent to raise their children as “both” as being Third Spaces. These communities aren’t synagogues or churches but have elements of both and clergy from both.
At a recent teaching session at one of Chicago’s interfaith programs, the parents asked me whether any liberal synagogues could open their doors to families raising their children “both.” Could synagogues have a track for these families where they have a certain membership level knowing that the children wouldn’t use the religious school? These families could send their children to mid-week Hebrew school and of course become part of the community on Shabbat and holidays, during social justice pursuits and on retreats. These children would have a sacred space to mark the first time they read from the Torah scroll, which is often very important to their families.
In order for this to happen, congregations would have to accept and appreciate families who want Judaism in their lives in this way. They would have to accept that everyone’s Jewish expression looks different and that every family configuration is different. These families who want both religions in their lives are often very thoughtful about faith and traditions and eager learners and worship regulars.
I think if synagogues could find their way toward working with and hearing families who want Judaism in their lives in authentic ways but who also need to have the children learn about and experience the other parent’s faith, it will enhance the community. Struggling to understand and define the boundaries of “in” and “out” will help us all clarify our path, our fears and hopes and our vulnerabilities. Having a community of diverse practices under a shared tent of united desire to see Judaism continue and flourish is good for all of us.
For some, the synagogue or being with their community is a third space in importance next to their home and their office. For others, it falls farther down their line of places they frequent (perhaps after Starbucks). Do you think the Jewish world can or should find space for families who see religion in a third way? Not as just Jewish or just Catholic but as something more fluid?
Note: All comments on InterfaithFamily are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed.
My friend’s daughter is dating someone from a different faith and her grandparents are upset. The daughter called me and asked for advice. We talked about how people often participate in religion because of guilt or shame. For today’s society, guilt or pressure from families no longer works. In America, where everything is marketed so that you “need it now,” my philosophy is to make sure that the Jewish family is as welcoming, interesting, educational and inviting as possible. The family should be welcoming, not just because the new boyfriend or girlfriend is at the table, but for everyone. If a person has miserable memories associated with the family, they are not going to be inclined to practice Judaism when it is their turn.
If there is a new (or potential) family member at the table, make sure that the newcomer is having a positive and enjoyable experience. The family’s goal with any guest should be to put on their best version of themselves. In short, every parent’s goal should be to make the new family member fall in love with the family—its rituals, customs and craziness! Grandparents can tell stories of how important Judaism is to them and why they love it. Keep it positive, appreciative and most important, non-judgmental.
Maybe new family members will understand why the Jewish family has worked hard for so many years to maintain the beauty of Judaism. Maybe it’s the silliness. Maybe the bonding or the joy of special foods. No matter what, make it pleasant. Make it a wonderful memory. And if it gets awkward, just smile and plan to laugh about it the next day. We all have at least one annoying relative—just smile because they aren’t going to change just because you wish they would.
Talk to your parents and grandparents and tell them to show off a bit. Tell them to keep all interaction inviting. Tell them that you love them and you have so many positive family memories. Tell them you want your new (potential) family member to have these great memories too. For instance: “Grammy and Pops, I love you. I hope that he falls in love with you too. It will be easy since you are so loveable! And please get to know him. Ask him questions so you can learn how wonderful he is.” A positive tone with a little flattery should go a long way toward new wonderful memories.
Good luck and keep us posted! We want to hear about your family experiences, questions and advice.
As you may know from Ed Case’s blog post last week, this is a very exciting time in the history of InterfaithFamily. Three years ago, Ed and the Board of Directors began thinking about and creating a transition plan—a plan that included Ed’s desire to remain involved in the organization, but not, as he would put it, “in charge.”
So about two years ago, IFF began looking for a president—someone who could work with Ed, learn about the organization from the inside, and when the time was right, become the CEO. At the time, I was a disenchanted lawyer looking for an opportunity to have a more meaningful impact on the world, and when I saw the job announcement, I thought, “Well, that’d be a dream job.”
You see, I’ve been a fan of InterfaithFamily’s work for a long time—in my personal inbox, I have IFF’s email newsletters dating back to 2005, when my now-spouse and I started dating, and I started thinking, “Well, I really ought to figure out whether I can build a life with someone who’s not Jewish.” Like many of you, I found solace in the stories of the people I read about on InterfaithFamily’s website, and inspiration from its resources: The only reason my kids say the Shema before bed every night is because I took IFF/Philadelphia’s “Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” class with Tami Astorino, and it seemed like a good idea.
I was thrilled when, after seven rounds of interviews spanning the East Coast, I became the president of InterfaithFamily. My family and I packed up our home in Philadelphia and headed north to Boston, and the day the Pew Report came out, I began working at InterfaithFamily.
Tomorrow, 16 months later, we take the next step forward in that plan, as I become the CEO and Ed transitions to the new position of Founder.
The conventional wisdom is that founders should depart when successor CEOs take over. But that’s not the right model for us. For us, the “mutual success” strategy is what makes sense—the one where Ed will remain on as the Founder of IFF, focused on what he does best—advocacy and key funding relationships. As IFF Board Chair Lynda Schwartz said to me once, “Don’t be afraid to do what makes sense.” And for us, this transition makes sense.
One of the key reasons it makes sense is Ed. We have logged a lot of hours and miles together on planes, trains and automobiles. We’ve eaten in some of the best and worst restaurants around the country. Ed has been a mentor, a guide, a source of humor and wisdom. He is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met—with his time, with his resources, with himself. And it is his drive and get-it-done-now attitude that have been the force behind IFF’s growth. I am so very glad he’s staying on in his new role, because I count him as a trusted advisor, and will continue to do so—and he’s got important work still to do. We will all have an opportunity to thank him on October 22 at a special day of learning and appreciation that we’re planning in Boston.
We are a very different organization than we were when I joined in October 2013. We have more than doubled the size of our staff to 24 (and soon to 29) and launched communities in Boston and Los Angeles, an affiliate in Cleveland—with Atlanta and a community for another major city to come later this year. We’ve added capacity to our national staff to better support what’s going on in local communities, and to increase our advocacy and training efforts.
I often say that the hardest part of our work is finding the right people to join our team—and it is a remarkable team, without exception. We work hard with too-few resources, and the only reason we get as much accomplished as we do is because we have a smart, savvy accomplished staff, and a board that’s got our back every step of the way. I am grateful for their collective know-how, smarts and commitment to the hard work we do. I am especially thankful for COO Heather Martin, who has been a friend from the beginning and has clarity of purpose, the ability to make things happen—and a way of making it look easy.
We are, of course, not done. I am humbled by both the responsibility and opportunity to continue to play a role in helping shape a world where interfaith families see the value, relevance and joy in making Jewish choices—and are accepted by the Jewish community in doing so. My promise to you is that we will do everything we can to support interfaith families, and those who want to work with them. Together with your input and collaboration, we will continue this important work.
Over the next months, I hope to meet many more of you than I already have, and deepen the relationships I’ve begun with many others of you, to thank you for your commitment and to share how we will continue to expand our work. In the meantime, please feel free to reach out and share your thoughts, your family story and your hopes for the Jewish future. My door is always open.
Jodi Bromberg can be reached at jodib at interfaithfamily dot com
March 31, 2015 is a big day in my life and the life of InterfaithFamily, the organization I founded in 2001 and have led for the last fourteen years: Jodi Bromberg, IFF’s President for the last year and a half, will become CEO, and I will transition to a new Founder role.
I hasten to add that I am not retiring and will continue to work for IFF. I will be focusing primarily on certain fundraising relationships and IFF’s advocacy work, subject to Jodi’s direction. My passion for engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community is unabated, and there is much work to do.
But I won’t be the person in charge.
This transition is a milestone in a carefully thought out plan developed over the past three years with InterfaithFamily’s Board of Directors. In 2012, spurred largely by the rapid growth of our InterfaithFamily/Your Community model (see more below), I told our Board that while I wanted to continue to work with IFF, it was time for new leadership and to find a successor to be in charge of the organization. After an extensive search, we found Jodi to be the perfect combination of passion for the issue, and great leadership and interpersonal skills. Our expectation was that Jodi would learn about and take on responsibility for our operations and fundraising activities over a period of up to two years, and if successful in that interim period would be elected CEO by the Board. Jodi has done so well that last October, after only a year as IFF’s President, Jodi and I proposed that she become CEO on March 31, and the Board enthusiastically agreed.
We are well aware that the accepted business school and consultant wisdom is that founders of non profit organizations should “get out” when successor CEOs take over. It’s called the “graceful exit” strategy. We are following a minority view, what’s called the “mutual success” strategy, based on successful cases of founders staying on and working productively under the direction of their successors.
Many people say that I should be very proud of what InterfaithFamily has accomplished in the last fourteen years. When we started in 2002 it was me and a half-time editor, Ronnie Friedland, with a budget of about $200,000. Fast forward to 2015, and we have 24 on staff and three open positions, with a 2015 budget of $3.2 million.
IFF started as a web-based resource. We expanded organically in response to “customer” demand, from personal narratives of people in interfaith relationships, to how-to-do-Jewish resources, listings of welcoming Jewish organizations and professionals, our Jewish clergy officiation referral service, and advocacy writing. By 2008, we had 282,000 unique visitors to the site.
I always felt that local services and programs for interfaith families were badly needed, and always thought about InterfaithFamily filling that void. In 2008 and 2009, our then Board chair Mamie Kanfer Stewart and I spent a lot of time working with a group of Jewish family foundations who were developing a plan to “change the paradigm” on intermarriage to the positive. That funder group said that three things were needed: a “world class” website, training of Jewish leaders to be welcoming, and a range of local services and programs. Because of Madoff and a downturn in the economy, their plan was never funded. But it laid out a road map that I was determined to follow.
The original plan was to run IFF/Chicago as a pilot for two years, refine it, and then seek to expand to other communities. But when Jeff Zlot, a lay leader in San Francisco, heard about the pilot, he said, “I want that in the Bay Area.” Coincidentally, the leaders of InterFaithways, a Philadelphia non profit founded by one of my heroes, Leonard Wasserman, expressed interest in merging with IFF. As a result, by mid 2012, I was waking up in the middle of every night with my mind racing with details of the Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia projects. That was the point I decided that we needed someone other than me, someone much better suited to manage a rapidly growing organization, to be our CEO.
Since Jodi joined IFF in October 2013 we have continued to expand, opening IFF/Boston in 2013, an affiliate relationship with Cleveland in 2014, IFF/Los Angeles in 2014, and securing funding to open IFF/Atlanta by mid-2015; another major city federation told us just this week that they expect to fund our next IFF/Your Community starting this year. We have a strategic plan to be in nine communities by the end of 2016. My personal hope for the organization is to be in twenty communities over the next five years.
I believe that the InterfaithFamily/Your Community model is the single best available opportunity the liberal Jewish community has to engage significant numbers of interfaith families in Jewish life and community. No one else is offering or proposing to offer anything that compares to our synergistic, national and local, top-down bottom-up approach of national web-based and training resources, and a comprehensive range of services and programs on the ground in local communities.
We are executing well on our very ambitious offerings – traffic to our website grew by 30% in 2014 to over 864,000 unique visitors, and if we grow at half that rate we will reach 1 million visitors in 2015. We have developed a resources and training capability that can now help organizations all over the country be more welcoming, and we are demonstrating impact in our local communities, with thousands of interfaith couples becoming aware of what is available to them in their local Jewish community, building trusted relationships with our staff, and engaging in Jewish learning experiences that build community with other Jewishly-engaged interfaith families. Because of what we do, thousands of young Jews with one Jewish parent are engaging in camps, youth groups, Israel trips and other Jewish learning experiences.
I am highly confident that Jodi Bromberg will lead IFF on this path of continued growth. She has a wonderful way of working with people and working through process that is not my strong suit (to put it mildly). She understands the need to put mechanisms and procedures in place so that the high level of activity and expansion can be controlled and managed well (I would tend to want to do everything myself). She has her own compelling personal story underlying her passion for our cause. IFF’s future will be very bright with Jodi in charge. I look forward to continuing to contribute as best I can.
I have a very long list of people to thank for their part in making InterfaithFamily’s success and growth possible. I’m looking forward to doing that on October 22, when IFF is having an Afternoon of Learning and a reception at which I will be honored, along with another of my heroes, CJP President Barry Shrage. But I would be remiss not to mention Heather Martin, IFF’s Chief Operating Officer, who has put up with me since 2004. Whatever I went out and promised to funders and partners, Heather always made it happen. It would not be an overstatement to say that none of IFF’s growth would have been possible without her involvement. Fortunately, Heather and Jodi have developed a great relationship, making me even more optimistic about IFF’s future.
I remember the day I introduced our kids to The Prince of Egypt. I loved this movie, and I was excited to be sharing it with them. Then my partner entered the living room: “How can we teach our kids these stories?!” The slavery, the plagues, and worse, God as a killer of babies. Suddenly, I felt the need to defend Passover, the Exodus story and Judaism as a whole. I know the Exodus is a tough story, but I also felt passionately about it.
It was not the first time my partner, who did not grow up Jewish, has challenged Judaism in this way to me. It began many years ago, before having children, at a Shabbat service. We were nearing the end of the liturgy, singing the “Aleynu” prayer. She nudged me, whispering, “Do you know what you’re saying?” Startled out of my rote recital, I looked at the page. “You [God] have not created us like them, you have not made our lot like the families of the earth.”
Eek! Honestly, I had never read the English, and didn’t know enough Hebrew back then to have parsed it out myself. I had grown up with translations of this prayer that lessened the “chosenness” aspect. I didn’t know what to say. So I stopped saying it. Not based solely on the Aleynu, I ended up choosing to become a rabbi through the Reconstructionist movement which deletes notions of chosenness from the liturgy.
It was a great example of someone with fresh eyes pushing me to think more deeply and critically at my own tradition. I had to resist a knee-jerk reaction and listen. This kind of dialogue, I believe, is an interfaith relationship at its best. Since then, my partner has pointed out countless issues to me, shaking me out of my complicity to call out where Judaism needs to evolve and transform.
But it also raises the issue: Who gets to criticize? It’s a common interfaith scenario: An issue comes up around a holiday, or a rabbi or pastor says something during services that rubs someone the wrong way. Suddenly, one partner feels responsible for defending an entire tradition spanning thousands of years. But something else happens as well. Often, the “defender” gets worried. What if my partner is so angry about this that we can’t have this tradition alive in our home?
The truth is that every one of us has gripes with our own religion. And in Judaism, criticizing from within is built into this tradition that loves to hold many opinions as equally valid. But something different happens when a person of another faith criticizes your own, and when that person is your partner, different dynamics can arise. Perhaps at another point in your life, such a critique may have been the entrée into an interesting interfaith dialogue about why a tradition does this or that. But in this moment it can feel threatening.
Interfaith couples keep a lot of our religious or cultural issues swept nicely under the carpet. We fear that if we really explore what we want our lives to look like, or what we really believe or don’t believe, we could threaten our relationship. So we tuck issues away because it seems to go just fine if we do. That is, until they come up again. And they always do.
I would like to offer some tips for getting through “critique” moments:
1. Everyone picks at the little things. Get past the “Oh no, he is going to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater!” mentality. Discuss long range, overarching plans for spirituality and religion in your home. Then you will be freed up to discuss the details of how those broad decisions will play out in your everyday lives. The little things can be merely interesting, philosophical conversations instead of “make it or break it” moments.
2. Use those critiques as opportunities to learn together. What does Jewish tradition say about that ritual? Was it always observed in that way? Do other movements in Judaism see it differently, and is there flexibility in how the practicing partner executes it?
3. Take a deep breath. If you do feel the need to defend a ritual, a piece of liturgy or a theological stance, ask yourself why you feel aligned with it. Is it nostalgic? A deeply held belief? Or because “that is the way it has always been?” Do you feel the need to present a “perfect” version of your tradition to your partner? What is coming up for you?
4. Judaism holds that all Jews were standing at Mount Sinai (where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God according to the Book of Exodus). That means that everyone heard the revelation of the tradition, and everyone has equal allowance to interpret it for themselves. But there was also an “erev rav”—a mixed multitude of fellow travelers who left with the Israelites from Egypt. They heard it as well and, therefore, get to weigh in on this evolving tradition. That means that by bringing a partner into a Jewish life who isn’t Jewish, she or he gets to have a say. Listen carefully to each other’s critiques—there is often great wisdom and insight when someone is coming from another perspective.
Have you or a loved one ever had the experience of overhearing or being told something point blank that was anti-Semitic because the speaker didn’t think they were in the company of someone Jewish? Michael Douglas did.
Raised without formal Jewish religion by father Kirk Douglas (Jewish) and his mother Diana (not Jewish), Douglas began to connect with his Jewish heritage as an adult, after his son Dylan began connecting with Judaism through his friends.
“While some Jews believe that not having a Jewish mother makes me not Jewish, I have learned the hard way that those who hate do not make such fine distinctions,” wrote Douglas, who recounted his first experience with anti-Semitism (in high school during a conversation with a friend who did not know he had a Jewish background) in a recent op-ed in the LA Times.
Unfortunately, his son Dylan also learned the hard way through an unprovoked encounter while on vacation in Southern Europe. Dylan was wearing a Star of David, which his father realized must have been the trigger for the encounter.
After defending his son, Douglas decided to use the power of his voice to speak out on a broader platform. “Anti-Semitism, I’ve seen, is like a disease that goes dormant, flaring up with the next political trigger,” he wrote. Simply put: “It is time for each of us to speak up against this hate.”
We’re glad to see that Douglas is inspired by the honor of this year’s Genesis Prize to take a leadership role in the Jewish community and to make his voice heard. He appeals to all of us to challenge ourselves to stand up to anti-Semitism. “Because if we confront anti-Semitism whenever we see it, if we combat it individually and as a society, and use whatever platform we have to denounce it, we can stop the spread of this madness.”
If you, like me, are past the age of 40, you may remember years ago hearing the claim that Little Mikey of LIFE cereal fame died from the explosive effects of mixing Pop Rocks candy with soda pop. Or you may have heard that children’s television show host Mr. Rogers (Fred Rodgers) always wore long-sleeved shirts and sweaters on his show to conceal the tattoos on his arms he obtained while serving in the military. Or perhaps you’ve heard that alligators live under the New York City sewer system. But, in reality, none of these stories are true. They’re all “urban legends.” And I’m proud to say that I never believed any of them (well, except the one about Mikey and Pop Rocks—I did believe that one for awhile…).
But there’s another urban legend, one connected to the Passover seder, that I’ve believed for years. In fact, I’ve told this story many times at my own seders. It’s the story of the “orange on the seder plate.” And until this week, I always thought the story I told was true—after all, I’d heard it so many times, and read it in so many different places.
The story goes something like this: Professor Susannah Heschel was giving a lecture in Miami Beach, when a man stood up and yelled: “A woman belongs on a bimah like an orange belongs on a seder plate.” In order to show that women DO belong on the bimah—that women have the right to a place in Jewish ritual and in Jewish leadership—Heschel and others began to place oranges on their seder plates. (According to another version of the story, the man yelled: “A woman belongs on the bimah like a piece of bread belongs on the seder plate.” Wanting to make a point about women’s rightful place in Judaism, but not wanting to place bread, which is forbidden on Passover, on her seder plate, Heschel replaced “bread” with “an orange,” since the incident took place in Florida, “The Orange State.”)
I learned the story of “the orange on the seder plate” sometime in the late 1990s, when I was a rabbinical student. At the time I was in my early 30s, hosting my own seders for the first time. Like many of my colleagues, I strived to make my seders authentic, relevant and meaningful by balancing tradition with creativity and innovation. I embraced the traditional symbols of the seder (the four cups of wine, matzah, egg, parsley, etc.) and also newer symbols, such as Miriam’s Cup and the orange. For the past 15 years or so, when I’ve gone to the produce store to buy parsley, horseradish and apples and nuts for my charoset, I’ve made sure to purchase an orange for my seder plate as well. And at every seder I’ve hosted, I’ve shared the “story of the orange on the seder plate” and how it represents women’s equality in Judaism.
But recently I found out that the story I’ve been telling simply isn’t true. Here’s the TRUE STORY, in Professor Susannah Heschel’s own words, from an article that she wrote for The Jewish Daily Forward in 2013:
“At an early point in the seder…I asked each person to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit and eat the segment in recognition of gay and lesbian Jews and of widows, orphans, Jews who are adopted and all others who sometimes feel marginalized in the Jewish community.
“When we eat that orange segment, we spit out the seeds to repudiate homophobia and we recognize that in a whole orange, each segment sticks together. Oranges are sweet and juicy and remind us of the fruitfulness of gay and lesbian Jews and of the homosociality that has been such an important part of Jewish experience, whether of men in yeshivas or of women in the Ezrat Nashim.”
Heschel went on to write of the Miami Beach lecture urban legend:
“That incident never happened! Instead, my custom had fallen victim to a folktale process in which my original intention was subverted. My idea of the orange was attributed to a man, and my goal of affirming lesbians and gay men was erased.
“Moreover, the power of the custom was subverted: By now, women are on the bimah, so there is no great political courage in eating an orange, because women ought to be on the bimah.
“For years, I have known about women whose scientific discoveries were attributed to men, or who had to publish their work under a male pseudonym. That it happened to me makes me realize all the more how important it is to recognize how deep and strong patriarchy remains, and how important it is for us to celebrate the contributions of gay and lesbian Jews, and all those who need to be liberated from marginality to centrality. And Passover is the right moment to ensure freedom for all Jews.”
I’m glad to have finally learned the “true story” of “the orange on the seder plate.” And now that I know it, will I still put an orange on MY seder plate this Passover? I sure will! But, like Professor Heschel, I’ll invite each of the participants at my seder to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit that grows on trees and eat the segment in recognition of gay and lesbian Jews and of widows, orphans, Jews who are adopted, interfaith couples and families and all others who sometimes feel marginalized in the Jewish community.
After all, the Passover seder is very much a time for asking questions (for the importance of questions in the Passover seder—beyond the “Four Questions”—see my blog from last year about the seder). And if I’ve learned anything from discovering the truth about the urban legend of the “orange on the seder plate,” it’s that we need to constantly be questioning: even those things that we’re confident we already “know.”
You may have heard about a new program that we are starting up at InterfaithFamily/Bay Area called Meet Us at Synagogue (Shul)! The idea came from my experience with returning to Judaism after being disengaged for forty years. It was my chapter of wandering in the desert. One grand life experience pushed me to think about a spiritual return. It was on a trip to Israel where I discovered that in my heart, I missed so much from my Jewish history.
Returning was not easy, which is why I want to support others who may have a glimmer of aspiration to experience a Jewish Shabbat service in 2015. Today’s Judaism is miles away from what it was when I was a child and I love it.
What interests me is the question: What inspires someone to go to a Jewish Shabbat service, and if they do, what will they find?
If you are Jewish and have not been to a Shabbat service for a long time, or ever, it can be incredibly meaningful to connect with our spiritual and cultural roots. If you are not Jewish, and are partnered, related to or close to someone who is, going to a Shabbat service will show you more than you might think about that person’s heritage and it might bring you closer together too. In one short evening or morning, you can take a journey through the musical, spiritual, communal, culinary and ritual character of Judaism. In some synagogues, you may find quite a bit of Jewish historic memorabilia.
This is a journey that Jews and their loved ones all over the world can share. Sometimes on Shabbat, when I sing a prayer with the congregation, I think about all of the other people across the planet who are doing the same thing, something that has been happening for thousands of years. For me, the music, more than anything else, connects me to the divine and to the congregation. There is something about the Jewish musical key that lifts me up and brings me completely to the present moment. For others, Jewish or not, spending part of Shabbat in a congregation is an opportunity to see old friends, meet new and interesting people, have a little nosh (food), and take time out from the rat race.
Shabbat services are not all the same. In the Bay Area, we have organizations that are reinventing Judaism in exciting ways. Some are highly inclusive of ancient traditions and others are bringing a spiritual creativity to Shabbat that is in keeping with California’s trend-setting culture. Services are held indoors in traditional and non-traditional spaces, outdoors in parks, farms and the wilderness. One can find a service that is held early or late, with music or without and most use prayer books that are filled with inspiring and inclusive language. Shabbat can also be a transformative musical experience, whether it be rock, chanting and drums, sing along, dancing or meditation. It is all here in the Bay Area, waiting to be discovered!