Tell It

I was very excited when I found Jennifer Thompson, a young academic who did an ethnographic study of interfaith families in Atlanta–I have an article she wrote just for IFF here in my hot little hand. Don’t miss the great op-ed piece she wrote for The Forward, Look Who’s Raising Jewish Children. She hits one of my favorite subjects:

The language we use to talk about non-Jews is an important way of signaling who and what they are to Jewish communities. Yet we still don’t have a way to succinctly and accurately describe non-Jewish family members other than calling them “non-Jews.” This designation creates the false impression that Jewish people’s non-Jewish family members are as distant from the Jewish people as any other non-Jew — an impression that is ultimately counterproductive.

As Thompson notes, rabbis and other Jewish professionals tried to come up with a name for these non-Jewish allies in our families and communities–several thought ger toshav, which means something like “resident alien” or “live-in guest” might work. When I first started at IFF, I wrote a piece about this with a reporter, Welcoming the Stranger, Or Just Welcoming, which was about why, though I liked it and many rabbis liked it, the term ger toshav never caught on:

If you aren’t part of this mindset that I apparently share with these rabbis, you might be wondering why we need a ceremony or a category for people who aren’t Jewish who are supportive of Jewish relatives or friends. The sad answer is that Judaism does not assume that non-Jews are friends to the Jewish people, because Jewish history doesn’t support such a premise. This accounts for our perceived need for some ritual way to distinguish between the non-Jews who scare us and the ones we trust and love.

The funny answer is that, of course we need a ceremony, because everything needs a ceremony, preferably with a certificate and a big table of baked goods afterwards.

Do we need a special way to talk about non-Jewish parents raising Jewish children? Leyna Krow, a Jewish journalist in Seattle, has one–how about “mom”? She writes, in Sometimes the best Jewish mothers aren’t Jewish at all:

It’s a funny story, but it’s also a sad story. My mom had never even met a Jewish person until she roomed with a Jewish girl at UCLA as a college freshman. The religion was still pretty much a mystery to her when she met my dad. But she learned the basics and agreed to be a full participant in the Jewish education of their kid. She took me to and from Hebrew and Religious school, attended synagogue, picked out Jewish books from the book store, made our home festive for the holidays, helped plan my Bat Mitzvah, etc. And for her efforts she gets to be rewarded with the knowledge that most of the Jewish world still does not believe she’s raised a Jewish child? That she was incapable of the task? Doesn’t seem right. I feel pretty Jewish. And I credit both my parents equally for that.

What do you think?

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