Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
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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.”
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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.”
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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!
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In Downton Abbey, Lord Sinderby is the disapproving Jewish father who opposes his son’s interfaith marriage to Rose. In Lord Sinderby’s time, there were virtually no opportunities for interfaith families to engage in Jewish life, unless Rose were to convert.
Fortunately, we don’t live in that time anymore. Today, many interfaith families can live active Jewish lives – and many do. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements consider children to be Jewish if there is one Jewish parent (regardless of whether it is the mother or father) and they are raised as Jews. They can be married by a rabbi and join a synagogue.
While Jane Eisner defends Lord Sinderby (“Defending Lord Sinderby,” The Forward, March 1, 2015), I cannot. Too many Jewish professionals and communities still think that Jews are “throwing it all away”, to paraphrase Lord Sinderby’s words, when they marry someone who isn’t Jewish. With a different approach, however, we can see interfaith relationships as an opportunity to invite more people in to the Jewish community. Rose, although naïve, is already eager to learn about the faith. And wouldn’t it be beneficial to have Lord Grantham as an ally?
I do agree with Eisner on a few points, though. We do need to ask the difficult questions, not only of interfaith families, but also of Jewish institutions. If we want to ask the spouse who wasn’t raised Jewish “to commit to doing her part to carry on a precious tradition,” as Eisner says, then can’t we ask Jewish institutions to welcome them and provide opportunities for learning and community?
What would happen if we shifted the focus from who someone marries to helping all families – interfaith and in-married – find their place in the Jewish community? I bet we would see a myriad of beautiful Jewish traditions being passed on to the next generation. That points to a bright Jewish future indeed.
The following is a sermon I gave at Saint Elisabeth’s Church in Glencoe, Illinois, on February 22.
Thank you for welcoming me so warmly into your community. What a blessing it has been to become involved with St. Elisabeth’s. I have spent my rabbinate these past eight years working with interfaith couples and families and those who grew up in interfaith homes. I spend time with grandparents who have grandchildren growing up in interfaith homes and with Jewish clergy and professionals who want to welcome those from interfaith homes to what we call “organized” Jewish life. What I mean by an interfaith family is a situation in which one parent grew up with Judaism and one didn’t. Sometimes these partners are raising Jewish children and have a Jewish home—don’t ask me what a Jewish home is—many Jews describe what having a Jewish home is differently. Sometimes these families have a parent who is Jew-ish…not a practicing anything else but hasn’t converted to Judaism. Sometimes these families have a parent who is a practicing and believing Christian or Hindu. In some of these families they want their children to be exposed to both faiths.
In the past 10 years, excluding Orthodox marriages, 72 percent of Jewish marriages have been interfaith. The majority of American Jews are partnered with someone not Jewish. There are more children growing up now with one Jewish parent than two. So, what does this all mean for the future of liberal Judaism? (Orthodox Judaism will remain, it seems—the question is non-Orthodox Judaism.) For the kind of Judaism I subscribe to?
A recent headline read “More Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope: Last year’s survey of American Jews brought dire news—rising intermarriage, falling birthrates, dwindling congregations.”
Many in the Jewish world are scared. They are scared that young people won’t seek out congregations for their families. That they will privatize religion. That people don’t value Jewish community anymore. That adults who grew up with Judaism now affirm a universal ethics or morality and want their children to “be good people” and not specifically or distinguishably Jewish. Jews have been said to be the ever-dying people. Are we going to disappear into a generalized feel-good, do-good thing?
What about the mitzvot? The commandments? The specific way we live? Worship in Hebrew? Allegiance to Israel? A sense of Peoplehood? Of being part of the Tribe? Yiddish-isms? Judaism has been a religion of boundaries and distinctions and that has kept us a unique people, in some ways, for so many generations and generations. Now, in an open, global world, can Judaism be inclusive enough to allow participation by people who aren’t Jewish and still remain true to Jewish traditions?
I think that we need to promote both radical inclusion and diversity. Ironically, in order to perpetuate a culture that is unique, we need to remove almost all boundaries that define who is permitted to participate.
This is the tension of my work and of this sermon: perpetuating a unique culture that is still authentically Jewish and yet allowing for diversity and inclusion. And, this brings us to the biblical reading for today. Did God choose each people to fulfill their own unique destiny, their own unique way? Does each people have its own covenant with God?
What happens when we blur the lines that define religion and think about theology as metaphor and as nuance? When we compartmentalize different aspects of different faiths so that we can accommodate many traditions and ways in one intact psyche? Isn’t life more fluid nowadays with many things? Are we so separate and distinct? Each group with its own destiny?
When we see a rainbow in the sky is it a shared symbol of our partnership with God who promises never to destroy the world again? (God might not do it, but people seem to be doing a good job in this regard.)
We share these basic Noahide commandments of civil society. We share more than not. But, this holy time in both of our calendars, this time leading up to Passover and Easter sometimes highlights our theological differences.
In an article written on InterfaithFamily, writer Charlotte Honigman-Smith explains what Easter means to her: “Easter is the holiday that evokes in me the most ambivalence about my identity as a Jewish women with a Catholic father and extended family. Easter is harder (than Christmas) Edgier. More conflicted…I think that much of my reaction can be traced to the fact that Easter, for the Eastern European Jewish communities my mother’s grandparents came from, was a potentially deadly time…local violence broke out at Easter. Easter, for me, seems to represent the final break between Judaism and Christianity, the point at which the two belief systems parted ways forever. I find that I resent that a little. Perhaps, deep down, I think it would be easier if we all believed the same things.
But growing up in an interfaith family and a multicultural neighborhood taught me something about dealing with differences and cultural contradictions. It’s good to be able to share, and to find common ground; for me it has been a blessing to have two cultures to draw on. But I’ve learned to use this holiday as a reminder that we are not all alike, that some things have no common ground to be found, and that still, this does not mean that there can’t be love, respect, and mutual humanity. It’s important, though harder, to know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced without understanding…as matters of faith.”
We share the Noahide Covenant; we share the symbol of the rainbow. But there are other covenants made at other times that are meant for different peoples and different traditions. Later in the scroll, we read about the covenant given at Mt. Sinai. In his final appeal to the people of Israel, Moses reminds them that the covenant they are establishing with God will be valid for eternity. “I make this covenant with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).
There is a lot of commentary about who is not there that day. From an interfaith standpoint, I view this covenant as a covenant with anybody who would find themselves in a family with Jews. For any fellow-travelers. This can be an inclusive covenant because it included the then diverse people of Israel and it surely now encompasses a diverse group who (thank God) still think about it and struggle with it, and for whom these ancient laws and ways still have enduring truths so many thousands of years later.
The rabbis said that we should say 100 blessings a day and then spelled out specific blessings for various occasions that arose daily. When we see a rainbow, there is a special blessing that is said.
Barukh Ata Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh ha’Olam
Holy One of blessing, Your presence fills creation,
May each of us rise to perpetuate the unique traditions and religiosity we have inherited or hold true today. As well, may we know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced, and that is good too.
Kayn Yihi Ratzon, May this be God’s Will
This blog post arose after a conversation about the challenges for interfaith families in which one parent is a practicing Christian trying to raise Jewish children. We were speaking about many hot topics including:
So, here are my top five reasons for congregations to consider the idea of holding religious and Hebrew education on Shabbat morning given how many interfaith families are now in Jewish life. This switch of days could help with some of the above challenges.
When I was little, my mom made a huge deal of the Passover afikomen hunt. The prize for finding the broken pieces of matzah throughout the house was the hot toy of the day (I vividly remember the year of the Beanie Baby craze). She also created an elaborate Easter egg hiding game in which one rhyming clue (starting on our pillows in the morning) led to another, with a big basket filled with eggs as the grand finale. What is the allure of the hide-and-seek element of both Easter and Passover? Do they have anything in common?
As early as the age of peek-a-boo, hiding and finding is a huge part of our development of object permanence. Dad leaves the room but it’s OK! He still exists and will come back in a minute. Just because we can’t see or hear something doesn’t mean it’s gone. Then, as we grow, the basic game of hide-and-seek excites us for an amazingly long stretch of years. I have to imagine, as my kids are playing hide-and-seek with me at the park, that the moments when I can’t see them—while panicky for me—are exhilarating for them. A sweet taste of future independence. Perhaps our spring rituals capture the excitement and expectation of these early forays into mystery and autonomy.
Both Passover and Easter share a theme of rebirth in springtime. For Christianity, Christ’s rebirth is symbolized in the egg. On the seder plate we place an egg as a symbol of hope, recalling the Israelites’ escape from slavery and birth as a free nation. Although in Judaism, the egg isn’t hidden, both rituals harken back to celebrations of the bursting forth of life at this season that far predate either religious tradition and are shared by many peoples around the world.
But when did people start hiding Easter eggs? Legend has it that the Protestant Christian reformer, Martin Luther, held egg hunts in which men hid the eggs for the women and children. Some Christians have claimed the egg as a symbol of Christ’s tomb, symbolizing his rebirth, and the hunt for eggs was likened to the hunt for Jesus in the tomb. There are images of Mary Magdelene with an egg as well. The Easter bunny didn’t enter the picture as the deliverer of those eggs until the 17th century.
The afikomen ritual clearly has very different origins, and there is no evidence that the hide-and-seek rituals are linked. Afikomen means “that which comes after” or “dessert” in Greek, and the hunt for it is a clever ploy to keep kids engaged in the often lengthy seder until the end. The kids’ elevated role is in keeping with the entire Passover experience; the holiday ritual is an elaborate scheme to pass the story of enslavement to freedom onto children.
How does it work? Early in the seder, the leader breaks the middle matzah on the table and leaves half of it as “dessert” to be eaten after the meal. Then after everyone has eaten, the leader cannot close the seder until the dessert matzah is found and eaten. Families enact this in myriad ways, but here are two popular options:
Either way, the ritual empowers children. It’s always fun to put one over on your parents. But the kids also learn that while they often feel less important than adults, at this moment they are powerful!
What about bringing these overlapping spring rituals together in an interfaith home? This is a matter for each family to decide. But some might find it comforting to know that egg painting in springtime is a tradition older than either Judaism or Christianity and it celebrates rebirth, hope, life and fertility. In fact, some Israelis even remember growing up decorating eggs for Passover, and might find it surprising that American Jews don’t generally approve of it on the grounds that in the United States, it is associated with Christianity. There are important historical reasons why some customs have become considered off limits in order for Jews to retain their particular status as separate from the dominant culture around them. But if you end up with a colored egg on your seder plate, you are far from alone. It is common enough that a great guidebook for grandparents of interfaith grandchildren is called, There’s an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate.
How will you celebrate this year? Do spring traditions overlap or collide in your home? When planning a seder or Easter rituals, think about what you want to convey through the games and symbols you share. Think back with your partner or other family members about the rituals you each grew up with around the spring holidays and share what was meaningful—or confusing—about them. Articulate what you need out of the experience to feel personally and spiritually fulfilled. Together, explore the messages you hope your kids will take away from this season.
And while you’re thinking about Passover and Easter, take our 2015 Passover/Easter Survey for a chance to win $500!
After 12 years of working and volunteering in L.A.’s Jewish community, I had stepped away. I’d loved all of the places I’d been: The Jewish Federation, Sinai Temple, with Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, and Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, but something was always slightly off. Not the work, which was rewarding. Not the people, who were wonderful. It was me. I had a deep, dark secret that was keeping me at arm’s length from the organizations I worked for and the communities I was serving.
In reality, that secret was neither deep nor dark. Everyone knew, but it was always on my mind. I was living in an interfaith household. And it was a topic I avoided. Not because communities weren’t welcoming—many were, but the conversations around interfaith families that I had at work were so vastly different from those I was having at home. It became harder and harder to imagine that the reality of my life, and the lives of many of my peers, was ever going to connect with the Jewish community as I knew it.
So I left. While stepping away was hard, it also felt right. Working outside of the Jewish community was challenging and fun and, most of all, not personal. There were some bumps, of course. It took ages to realize that when someone agreed with me, it was sincere. Without the “buts” and complaints and opposing opinions I couldn’t imagine that “yes” meant yes. And I often found myself calling synagogue board members to catch up on gossip and getting coffee with friends in faith communities just to hear them talk about work. But I felt I couldn’t go back.
Then I heard that InterfaithFamily was opening a “Your Community” in L.A. It was the first time I hesitated in those two Jewish-free work years.
Nah…Well, maybe…Mmm…I mean, I might as well find out what they’re about…Right?
The more I spoke with the staff at IFF, the more I learned about the communities they were already in and the work they do nationally, the more my guard fell. I had no idea that there was an organization that was openly engaging the very issues my family and I had been struggling with alone.
I admit that until I walked into the national office, I remained a bit skeptical. But even someone who doesn’t believe in signs from above couldn’t miss these. My start date coincided with a pre-planned trip to Boston, and while at IFF HQ, every game of Jewish geography bore fruit and every conversation was one I’d had in my head but never had the opportunity to have out loud.
It felt like home on that very first day.
As IFF/LA launches, every day has been amazing. Engaging with the extraordinary and diverse interfaith community here in L.A. and the institutions that welcome them has been inspiring and energizing. I’m working with teen librarians at the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library on a Passover-Easter family program. With Haggadot.com, we’ll be offering a program on incorporating the traditions of family members who did not grow up Jewish into their seder. For Tu B’Av we’re working on a celebration with Honeymoon Israel.
I’ve met with amazing professionals and families from across the spectrum of Judaism and cannot wait to meet more. Instead of just acknowledging that Judaism has interfaith families, our conversations are about ways we can incorporate and honor them. And for the first time, “them” is me.
It’s almost embarrassing to be this enthusiastic about work. But as IFF/LA grows, I hope that the interfaith families here in the city and the Jewish institutions that welcome them will grow with us.
Like all Jewish holidays in my family, Passover with my family is an entirely interfaith affair. There are Catholic adults and kids, Jewish adults and kids, Christian adults and kids and one 92-year-old Russian Orthodox (Christian) grandma.
But the emphasis is on the kids: Between my brothers and me, we have 10 children. My brothers’ are Catholic and Christian and mine are Jewish, and so, it’s important to me that the Passover seder is interesting and fun and meaningful for them.
For as long as I can remember, our family has used the Maxwell House Hagaddah. The old one…from 1932…which I love and have fond memories of. But I wanted something different, something more accessible for the under-18 crowd and for a group that is mostly not Jewish.
I never thought about creating my own until my friend and colleague, IFF COO Heather Martin, told me about the one she created for her family, and shared it with me. I was hooked. I wanted our own personalized haggadah with silly Passover songs sung to the tune of “My Favorite Things” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame!” You see, while this may not constitute a very traditional haggadah, what’s important to me is creating a seder in which family members who are not Jewish feel comfortable and connected, and in which all of the kids participate and enjoy.
And so, using Haggadot.com and JewishBoston.com and some of Heather’s haggadah as a jumping-off point, we made our own. We cut and pasted and pulled bits and pieces from different sites, including a quiz for the older kids at the end.
It was a big hit—the seder was fun and silly (vital for the under 7 crowd) and accessible and interesting (important for everyone else). Most importantly, it was relevant to our family—it made sense for the people sitting around the table, who mostly weren’t Jewish but were there to celebrate Passover in a way that was meaningful. We left a lot out in order to create an abridged version that worked for my family, and I made sure to include the pieces that were most important for me to share the meaning of the holiday. Yours might look completely different, but you’re welcome to use this as a starting off point, or even to bring into your seder if you wish.
Here it is—take a look. Like it? Hate it? I’d love to hear what you think.
InterfaithFamily CEO Ed Case contributed an important article, “What We Know About Intermarried Families” for the Fall 2014 issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service which is disseminated with the permission of JPRO Network, publishers of the Journal. Case discusses the answers that aren’t being discussed from the 2013 Pew report and his reaction, as well as how to respond as a community to the issues that are raised. We’re pleased to be able to share this essay here.