A Shame That It Takes a Tragedy

Yesterday Benjamin Maron put up a blog post about the awful attack on US Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Everyone at InterfaithFamily.com, like most people, feels terribly about what happened in Tucson.

The violent incident in itself is not something that we would ordinarily comment about. (My personal view that there should be a huge outcry about gun control isn’t something that is an issue for InterfaithFamily.com either.) If Congresswoman Giffords didn’t have an interfaith family background, we wouldn’t have commented. But she does, and we thought it would be interest to our readers, and in part it was our way of expressing our distress.

The mission of InterfaithFamily.com is to empower people in interfaith relationships to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices. There are so many interfaith couples that are potentially interested in Jewish life, we want to present information that will attract them to give it a try. When a person of celebrity comes from or is in an interfaith relationship and is engaged Jewishly, we want to let our site visitors know, because it may trigger interest or steps in that direction. From all accounts, Gabrielle Giffords is a very wonderful person in the public eye, who came from an interfaith family — her father is Jewish, her mother is not — and was not raised very Jewishly and yet chose to identify Jewishly as an adult. We think it’s important for our readers to know that.

There is another significance to the Giffords story that is very relevant to IFF’s advocacy work for more welcoming of interfaith families by Jewish communities. Thankfully Gabrielle Giffords apparently was not greeted, when she decided to get more Jewishly involved, with an attitude that she was not welcome, she was not “really” Jewish, etc. In that regard, the Jerusalem Post ran a very important editorial yesterday. The Post, not exactly known to be liberal on intermarriage issues, basically says that Giffords should be considered to be a Jew – even though she is not halachically Jewish.

Some of the Post’s language is striking. They say for example that Giffords “actively embraced Judaism” after a 2001 trip to Israel – this about a person who has not converted. They also say that the “broadening definition of Jewishness is not restricted to the Reform movement,“ citing a paper about halachically non-Jewish offspring of intermarried parents not being excluded from Conservative congregations. The editorial concludes:

Is it conceivable to exclude Giffords, another “non-Jew,” who is so unequivocally Jewish? With all our desire for a universally accepted definition of “Who is a Jew?” that would unify the Jewish people, we cannot ignore the complicated reality that many “non-Jews” are much more Jewish than their “Jewish” fellows. Congresswoman Giffords is one of them.

The flip side of IFF’s work trying to attract people in interfaith relationships to Jewish life is that Jewish communities need to welcome them. It’s a shame that it takes a tragedy like this one for leading Jewish commentators to come to that conclusion.

Gabrielle Giffords

This weekend, tragedy unfolded when a gunman opened fire in front of a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz. Six people were killed and 14 others were wounded, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

Giffords was the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona state Senate, and then in 2007 became the third Arizona woman ever to serve in Congress. At that time, she also became Arizona’s first Jewish congresswoman. Raised in an interfaith family, Giffords didn’t always identify as Jewish.

[Giffords' father], Spencer, married outside his faith. Gloria Giffords is a Christian Scientist. The couple say they always encouraged their children to learn about other religions.

“We were kind of neutral,” Spencer Gifford said. “We let them decide for themselves. That’s what Gabby did.”

When his daughter was a state senator in 2001, she traveled to Israel for the first time with the American Jewish Committee on a trip that turned out to be life-changing.

“It just cemented the fact that I wanted to spend more time with my own personal, spiritual growth. I felt very committed to Judaism,” she said. “Religion means different things to different people. It provides me with grounding, a better understanding of who I came from.”

Upon returning from Israel, Giffords introduced legislation, which became law, to help protect the claims of Arizonans seeking unpaid benefits under Holocaust-era insurance policies.

On a personal level, she made contact with Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of the Reform Jewish Congregation Chaverim in Tucson, and began a deeper exploration of both her faith and heritage. She already was technically considered Jewish since the Reform movement of Judaism says that the child of one Jewish parent, mother or father, is presumed to be Jewish. (Read more in a profile in the Arizona Daily Star of Giffords.)

We find more about Gifford’s Jewish heritage in the Forward:

Giffords’ Jewish roots run deep. As the Forward reported back in 2006, her paternal grandfather, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, was born Akiba Hornstein. He changed his name, first to Gifford Hornstien and later to Gifford Giffords, apparently to shield himself from anti-Semitism out West.

“I was raised not to really talk about my religious beliefs,” Giffords said, in an interview with Jewish Woman magazine. “Going to Israel was an experience that made me realize there were lots of people out there who shared my beliefs and values and spoke about them openly.”

She is also among five members of Congress to serve on United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

We wish her an easy and fast recovery, while her husband says, “There is little that we can do but pray for those who are struggling,” Giffords included.

Our condolences go out to the families and friends of the victims: Christina Taylor Greene, 9; Dorothy Morris, 76; John Roll, 63, U.S. District Judge; Phyllis Scheck, 79; Dorwin Stoddard, 76; and Gabe Zimmerman, 30, director of community outreach for Giffords. May their memories be for blessing.

Representing Interfaith Families at the GA

If you’re like me, the closest you got to the General Assembly in New Orleans was your twitter feed. I knew when our CEO, Ed Case, took the stage because the tweets became about interfaith families. Great!

So if you’re curious to hear what was said about interfaith families, interfaith inclusion, at the largest gathering of the North American Jewish community, look no further. We have a copy of Ed’s remarks here, just for you.

Let us know what you think!

Starting the TV Season with Interfaith Couples

I admit that ever since the dramatic season finales of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, with its disgruntled widow shooting spree, and its spin-off Private Practice, with the  death of Dell Parker by a drunk driver, I was wondering how they would begin the new seasons. I was happily surprised to find both episodes dealt with life-cycle events for interfaith couples on last Thursday’s season premiers.

On Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) married Dr. Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd). As described on Judaism/2009/08/Jewish-TV-Characters.aspx?p=2">BeliefNet, Christina considers herself Jewish; the character converted as a child when her mother married a Jewish oral surgeon, Dr. Saul Rubenstein. Christina has, from time to time, brought up her Jewish background. Both of Dr. Yang’s engagements were to non-Jews; it would have been great to see her plan/have an wedding that reflected her Jewish identity.

Dr. Yang’s first wedding, which was planned, but never happened, was to happen in a church with no Jewish clergy present. This wedding was planned by Dr. Yang herself, and not by a future mother-in-law, which gave Christina the perfect opportunity to have included a local rabbi in her ceremony. (InterfaithFamily.com has several rabbis and Jewish professionals in the Seattle area to whom we could have referred her.) I am disappointed that the recent season premier episode completely ignored her faith as well. This was a missed opportunity to portray how meaningful an interfaith wedding could be.   

On Private Practice, Drs. Cooper Freedman (Paul Adlestein) and Charlotte King (Kadee Strickland) start the season making love while discussing how Charlotte’s pastor wants to talk to Cooper’s rabbi.  I hope the powers that be take the opportunity to explore the dimensions of an interfaith wedding for them!

Looking forward to where the season will take these shows… And hoping to see some interfaith issues explored by the two couples!

“Does this make me look fat?” asked the Minister.

I came across the blog Beauty Tips for Ministers thanks to a link from JewishBoston.com. It gave me a good laugh. Rev. Victoria “Vicki” Weinstein writes it under the name PeaceBang. While the blog is entertaining, what I found even more interesting was that Rev. Weinstein, a Universalist Unitarian minister,  is the child of an interfaith family. According to a Boston Globe  article, she is the daughter of a Jewish father and Russian Orthodox mother. She was raised Unitarian because the Unitarians welcomed her parents. Maybe we would have had one more really cool rabbi had her family been welcomed into a synagogue.

It’s an interesting link to the issue of welcoming. If you’ve been following our blog posts on the issue you’ll know that this is a heated topic in the “Jewish interfaith outreach world”. If you are not in the “Jewish interfaith outreach world”, the idea of welcoming people into a religious community may just be  good manners. No one wants to feel unwelcomed, let alone made to feel like an outsider once they have been told to come on in. At InterfaithFamily.com, we hear all kinds of stories from people who have had negative interactions with clergy, professionals and lay people ­ from a receptionist telling a woman who came in to sign her children up for Hebrew school but whose last name did not sound Jewish, “did she know that this was a JEWISH synagogue,” to a rabbi asking a long term Jewish congregant who was intermarried and whose parent had passed away “was she going to sit shiva [since she was intermarried]” to a non-Jewish spouse who was told he was not allowed to play on the synagogue’s softball team because he wasn’t Jewish.  The Jewish community (as a whole or in parts) needs to work on what it means to be welcoming, but as individuals I think we need to work on our manners and common sense.

Another Problematic Article About Intermarriage

The other day I blogged about an article about intermarriage that got a lot of recent attention. Three Jewish women’s non-Jewish husbands didn’t participate in raising their children Jewish. I said it was a sad story, but not typical.

Another article about intermarriage, this one in the Huffington Post, also elicited a lot of comment recently: Interfaith Families: Can You Be Jewish and Christian at the Same Time, by Kate Fridkis. I won’t say this one is sad, but again, it’s not typical, and it’s problematic.

The article starts off with the provocative question, “Can someone identify as a Jew and a Christian simultaneously?” and says that people involved with The Interfaith Community
are doing just that by educating children of interfaith marriages in both Jewish and Christian traditions.

I know and respect Sheila Gordon, the founder of The Interfaith Community, as a serious and well-intentioned person. Sheila persuaded me years ago to list the IFC on InterfaithFamily.com’s Network, even though the Network is primarily meant to connect interfaith families with welcoming Jewish organizations, by contending that the Jewish identity of the Jewish partners was strengthened by their involvement with IFC.

After that InterfaithFamily.com still didn’t want to have much to do with IFC, although our thinking has evolved. We now would be happy to present, to people who gravitate to the IFC’s approach, the Jewish perspective and the model of interfaith families choosing  Jewish identity for their children while learning about and respecting the other religious tradition in the family.

I’m sure that there are some number of interfaith couples for whom the IFC’s approach resonates. At IFF we would not presume to pass judgment on them or suggest they were making a mistake. But educating children in both traditions is not the approach we recommend.

Fridkis writes that “a growing number of people are unwilling to give up their religious tradition just because their partner has a different one.” I question whether she has any data to back up that statement. She may be right that there is a trend in that direction – but I hope she isn’t.

I also question what “giving up a religious tradition” means in this context.  When IFF does holiday surveys, for example, we consistently find that high percentages of couples who are raising their children as Jews participate in Christmas and Easter celebrations, but not as religious holidays involving affirmation of the divinity of Jesus. Have the parents who are not Jewish in those families “given up their religious traditions”? Other than the theological beliefs – no.

I don’t like the imagined conversation Fridkis  scripts in her article. She suggests that most interfaith couples are not observant “so maybe they can just flip a coin” and has the partner who is not Jewish describe Easter as “the most bored I’ve been in my life” and the partner who is Jewish saying “I eat bagels and lox ALL the time, though.” This depiction remains demeaning of interfaith couples even after Fridkis says “OK, so maybe people don’t really talk like that.” I hate to come off as humorless, but it isn’t funny.

The serious point Fridkis makes is the argument that educating children in both traditions allows for “more in-depth future exploration” and leaves them “better prepared to make their own choices.” Here is the brief counter to that: I once heard a young adult woman express the great sadness she felt when her parents left her to pick a religious identity and community – she felt like she was choosing between, not her mother and her father, but between her two grandmothers. And there are numerous personal narratives and “expert” opinions on InterfaithFamily.com to the effect that being grounded in one religious identity and feeling part of one religious community is important for children and young adults.

What motivates the Board and staff of InterfaithFamily.com is the firm belief that engaging in Jewish life can be a source of profound meaning and value for interfaith couples and their children. It’s a shame that Jewish leaders and institutions have neither presented Jewish life in compelling ways nor genuinely welcomed interfaith couples to engage in it. If that were to happen more of the folks who are attracted to the idea of “doing both” might decide that the identity of their family and their children is Jewish while one parent’s is not, and that the non-theological traditions of that parent can still be part of the family’s life.

Scarlett Johansson Wins Tony Award

It’s a strange side effect of working here at InterfaithFamily.com, but I’ve come to follow many of the careers of actors who are adult children of interfaith marriage–and to root for them. I have a particular soft spot for Daniel Radcliffe, the star of the Harry Potter movies, who is only 21, and Scarlett Johansson, 25. I first saw Johansson in Ghost World in 2001, when she was really young.

They are both secular people who identify strongly with their Jewish heritage and do good things in the world in their spare time. I’ll never stop being impressed with Daniel Radcliffe’s advocacy for gay teens with The Trevor Project–it’s not easy to be a young heterosexual actor and stand up for queer youth.

It was delightful to see this video of Radcliffe presenting the Tony Award to Johansson last night for her work on “A View From the Bridge.” They have both matured (I didn’t want to say grown up about DanRad!) into very dedicated actors. It’s strange to kvell about famous young people, but I did, and you might, too–enjoy:

Back to Poland

The Forward ran a feature story by Mladen Petrov , “Poles Create Images That Say ‘I Miss You, Jew’”. It’s about an art project conducted by a Warsaw ad executive, Rafal Betlejewski. On the front page of the paper is a person sitting in a chair in Lodz, where my best friend’s grandmother grew up–next to an empty chair to symbolize all the Jews who aren’t there.

You can see the website of the project, where many Poles have collected their memories of Jews, at tesknie.com. Betlejewski was moved by reading Jan Gross’ book Neighbors, about a pogrom during the Second World War in the small Polish town of Jedwabne.

I’d read about this project before, because I knew about Gross and Jedwabne from working with Joanna Michlic, a historian of Polish Jewry. Dr. Michlic is a specialist on the history of the relationships of Poland’s Jews with the broader community of non-Jewish Poles. She’s also a child of an interfaith family. She and I are about the same age. I was reading about the Solidarity movement in the Cleveland Plain Dealer while she was active in the Solidarity movement–and it was in that context she first understood herself to be Jewish. She was raised with no Jewish identity. Her family didn’t think it was safe.

Her experience of growing up in an interfaith family is nothing like the experiences of the people who use our site. In the Forward article, Petrov writes:

The idea is not strongly supported everywhere. During a recent photo shoot in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, a town near Warsaw where Jews constituted 87% of the population at the beginning of the 19th century, only 15 people showed up. At the Gdański train station, a large number of those who came were in attendance mainly because of their own Jewish roots. Some critics see in the project both a hidden Jewish agenda and a simple gimmick for self-promotion by Betlejewski, who has conducted two unrelated social campaigns in his work as an ad agency executive.

Betlejewski’s partner in the project, Judyta Nekanda-Trepka, tells the reporter, “With the campaign, we wanted to remind people of the actual meaning of the word. ‘Jew’ is not an offensive word!”

Joanna Michlic has made the point that Polish nationalism could have two characters: an ethnic exclusivist character or an inclusivist civic character. In the present day, Poles are choosing inclusivist civic nationalism, and over 3,000 people have posted to tesknie.com to tell the stories they felt they couldn’t tell about their Jewish neighbors.There’s more than one lesson to pull out of this story for American Jews, for people in interfaith families, for people in the United States grappling with how to deal with ethnic difference and immigration. We have the same choices in front of us–to be hidden or to be open, to include or to exclude.

The Jewish Days and Nights of Adrienne Rich

I received a review copy of A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008, a slim volume of Adrienne Rich’s prose. Like many people who went to college in the 1980s, I read–and mostly failed to understand–Rich’s poetry in classes. In the 1990s, I went to hear her speak and was surprised that she identified as a Jew–my professors had never talked about that aspect of her identity when we read her celebrated early feminist poems (“Diving Into the Wreck” )  in my classes.

If I’d known her work better, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Rich wrote a foundational essay on reclaiming Jewish identity in 1982 after growing up in an interfaith family, “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity.” Born in 1929 to a Jewish father and a gentile mother, Rich was raised to hide the Jewish heritage she later came to embrace. She came of age as the crimes of the Holocaust were coming to light, and in “Split at the Root” recalls her first exposure, through newsreel footage, to Auschwitz.

Which may be why A Human Eye has a photograph of Muriel Rukeyser’s eye on the cover, and an essay about Rukeyser inside. Rich cites Rukeyser’s poem, “Letters to the Front,” 

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.

Adrienne Rich has chosen, as she writes in “Jewish Days and Nights,”

Every day in my life is a Jewish day. Muted in my house of origin, Jewishness had a way of pressing up through the fissures. … Jewishness was muted in my house of origin, but the sense of specialness was not: that house was–intensely–different from the homes of my middle-class, non-Jewish friends. For one thing, it was full of books.

The essay goes on to articulate a leftist Jewish political stance, one that is perhaps iconoclastic–but it is an insider’s stance.

As a poet and essayist who was among the first to transform the personal to the political, Rich has undergone many personal transformations in public. She was married to a Jewish man and raised three sons with him before she came out of the closet as a lesbian in 1970. Her feminist writing and poems about her lesbian experience have overshadowed these writings about reclaiming Jewishness. Yet they are here, fluent and beautiful, a testimony to the possibility of children of interfaith families passing on Jewish heritage and participating in the Jewish community–even in the capacity of voicing dissent.

Children of Hidden Jews

I saw a short item, “Polish-language guide to Shavuot distributed.” An organization called Shavei Israel which does outreach to people with Jewish roots or ancestry around the world, prepared the pamphlet.

Children of hidden Jews are, for the most part, children of interfaith marriages. In the Polish case this looks nothing at all like interfaith marriage in the United States–the level of anti-Semitism in Poland and the lack of freedom of religion means that hidden Jews are also people whose Jewish roots were hidden from them.

The interesting thing is that this outreach, which is entirely to people who descended from interfaith families, is under Orthodox auspices and the organization has on its website that it is “under the ongoing supervision of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel.”