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The other day I blogged about an article about intermarriage that got a lot of recent attention. Three Jewish womenâs non-Jewish husbands didnât 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 wonât say this one is sad, but again, itâs not typical, and itâs problematic.
The article starts off with the provocative question, âCan someone identify as a Jew and a Christian simultaneously?â and says that people involved with The Interfaith Community
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.comâs 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 didnât 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 IFCâs 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.
Iâm sure that there are some number of interfaith couples for whom the IFCâs 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 âa growing number of people are unwilling to give up their religious tradition just because their partner has a different one.â I question whether she has any data to back up that statement. She may be right that there is a trend in that direction â but I hope she isnât.
I also question what âgiving up a religious traditionâ 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 âgiven up their religious traditionsâ? Other than the theological beliefs â no.
I donât like the imagined conversation Fridkis scripts in her article. She suggests that most interfaith couples are not observant âso maybe they can just flip a coinâ and has the partner who is not Jewish describe Easter as âthe most bored Iâve been in my lifeâ and the partner who is Jewish saying âI eat bagels and lox ALL the time, though.â This depiction remains demeaning of interfaith couples even after Fridkis says âOK, so maybe people donât really talk like that.â I hate to come off as humorless, but it isnât funny.
The serious point Fridkis makes is the argument that educating children in both traditions allows for âmore in-depth future explorationâ and leaves them âbetter prepared to make their own choices.â 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 â 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 âexpertâ 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. Itâs 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 âdoing bothâ might decide that the identity of their family and their children is Jewish while one parentâs is not, and that the non-theological traditions of that parent can still be part of the familyâs life.
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:
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:
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.
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,”
Adrienne Rich has chosen, as she writes in “Jewish Days and Nights,”
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.
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.”
Lena Horne died yesterday in New York. She was a legendary singer and actress, most famous for her signature song, “Stormy Weather.” In addition to her work in Hollywood films and on the stage as a singer, Horne was a public activist for civil rights, a near life-time member of the NAACP and a participant in the March on Washington.
Horne’s second marriage, in 1947, was to a Jewish man, Leonard Hayton. Some sources say that the two were separated in the 1960s, but they remained married until his death in 1971. Her public comments about their relationship don’t paint it in the most positive light–in a 1980 interview with Ebony she said she’d married him to advance her career.
We published a celebrity column about Horne’s granddaughter, Jenny Lumet. (Horne’s daughter from her first marriage, Gail Jones Lumet Buckley, was also married to a Jewish man, well-known film director Sidney Lumet, whom she subsequently divorced.) In Lumet’s most recent film, Rachel Getting Married, interracial marriage is no big deal–and in fact for Lumet herself, it isn’t, either. Jenny Lumet describes her own second husband as “a nice Jewish boy.”
For Lena Horne, marrying Lenny Hayton was a fraught experience–they had to leave California to get married, because interracial marriage was illegal in 1947, and there’s something suggestive about the fact that they apparently separated for some years but never divorced. The marriage was one of the many things she did to bring down barriers to equality in the United States, and she felt she had to explain it in a variety of ways. The Associated Press obituary quotes a 2009 biography in which Horne supposedly told a lover that she’d married a white man “To get even with him.” Who knows what their relationship was really like.
I just appreciate the contributions to society Horne made through her work and her visibility as an performer, contributions that have brought down some of the barriers she faced. If intercultural, interfaith and interracial marriages make it more complicated to pass down a cultural heritage to our children, they are also a sign of the gradual erosion of walls that separate us. With her grace and talent, Horne took down quite a few bricks from those walls.
How great to see another model of Jewish-Catholic intermarriage in a Chicago newspaper. Alexa Aguilar’s piece, Two Faiths Can Join To Make a Happy Family in the Chicago Tribune today, provides a welcome contrast to the debacle of the Reyes case, in which a divorcing couple fought over their child’s religious practice. Aguilar writes:
I really liked the subtitle at the top of the webpage: “Interfaith marriage: One way to get it right.” Because there is more than one way to get it right, just as there are so many ways to get it wrong.
Aguilar’s family goes to Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors, the congregation where our frequent contributor Rachel Baruch Yackley has had a leadership role. (It’s more of a havurah than a synagogue so there isn’t just one leader.) That was kind of nice to see, too.
I also want to boost the signal for Hila Ratzabi‘s project, an anthology of pieces by women in Jewish interfaith relationships. She has a blog post up about it on The Forward‘s The Sisterhood blog–a nifty Jewish web resource I should mention in any case. (I find the internet slang “boost the signal” oddly amusing, don’t you? It sounds so technical.)
Back in the dark ages before the internet, when I was a senior in high school, in 1983, I had the opportunity to interview Gloria Steinem. Even though I’d been reading Ms., the mainstream feminist magazine Steinem founded, since I was in the 6th grade, I had no idea what to ask her. In those days, research was challenging.
It was not a problem for Danielle Berrin, who interviewed Steinem for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles last month. (I just saw the article reprinted in the San Francisco Jewish paper, j. weekly.) She asked Steinem a good question, “Was your desire to pursue feminist justice at all inspired by your Jewish background?” Steinem gave her a great answer:
This is, for me in my current job, a fascinating answer. (Yes, I know she didn’t get the quote 100% right, but that was pretty good from off the top of the head of someone who doesn’t happen to be named Ruth! It’s from the book of Ruth (Ruth 1:6) and you can find it here.)
I know from my academic work on the history of Jews in the woman suffrage movement that Steinem’s grandmother was a woman suffragist. Steinem herself wrote a piece on her grandmother Pauline Perlmutter Steinem for the Jewish Women’s Archive. She could have told the interviewer how having a Jewish grandmother who was a feminist influenced her. Instead she gave an answer that credited her mother’s role in preserving Jewish culture in her interfaith family. Which is great.
As much as young women of my generation needed people like Steinem as a feminist role model, the Jewish community needs models of retaining Jewish identity among children of interfaith marriage. Steinem, who is 75 years old, wasn’t raised as a Jew, but she still gave that answer at a synagogue to a Jewish newspaper reporter. It made me happy to see it.
I admire Adam Serwer–I follow him on Twitter and read his work on The American Prospect website. I really like what he had to say here on Barack Obama’s choice to identify as black on the US Census.
Obama could have chosen to identify with both sides of his family, as Serwer and others have. As you know, and I know some of you know better than I do, when you come from two backgrounds, people often ask you to choose one, even though you come from two families and at least two cultures (if not more!) The US Census doesn’t ask you to do that–if you come from two or more of the racial categories the Census happens to measure, you can identify with both or all of them.
I have been thinking about this question–whether we’re entirely shaped by the biases against us, or whether we have identity that’s independent of oppression–since I read Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew in 1987. (You know how there are some books that just shape your whole life? That was one for me.) The book made me think about my role as a person with white privilege in US society. I thought the dynamic Sartre describes between the biased person, the target of bias, and the “liberal”–a bystander who allows the targeting to happen and blames the victim–described how my society dealt with race. But at the same time, the book is about whether any cultural minority has a culture aside from what it creates in the negative space of a racist dynamic. Do Jews exist without anti-Semitism? I would say yes, we do, we have an identity and culture that is greater than simply resistance.
What do you think about how to fill out the census? I mean the literal one that will count our country this year so that we can apportion resources, but there is also a metaphorical census. When you stand up to be counted, how do you select from your various identities? Does context matter? Tell me about it.
You may wonder why I’m making a post about the 2010 US Census. As a non-profit organization, InterfaithFamily.com relies heavily on sociological and demographic research to prove that we’re needed and that what we do is meeting our goals as an organization. Probably the research that did the most for our founding was the National Jewish Population Surveys, which persuaded the Jewish community in the United States of the widespread trend of Jews marrying non-Jews. We’ve also used data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and kept abreast of the studies of Jewish sociologists through the North American Data Bank.
The US Census Data hasn’t been that useful to us at IFF, because in the United States, the government hasn’t, for many years, asked questions about religion on the census and doesn’t classify Jewishness as an ethnicity. For Jews, this has been reassuring. In the near historical past, governments that considered Jews an ethnic group nearly invariably discriminated against Jews.
(I should be clear that the US Census, in any case, does not release individuals’ data for a full 72 years after you fill in the census, at which time the documents are archived. My friend who is working for the census bureau told me that she had to take an oath of preserving the confidentiality of the documents. The penalty for breaking the oath is five years in prison or $250,000.)
The Census is going to be useful to you. This is the second census on which individuals can identify with more than one racial category. For people of mixed heritage, this is pretty exciting, because it means that you’ll be helping both sides of your family count. If your dad was an Ashkenazi Jew and your mom had one parent who was African-American and another who was Japanese, you don’t have to pick only one.
This is the first year that the census will allow people in same-sex relationships to identify as married, even if their relationships aren’t recognized as marriages in their state. If your relationship is committed but not a marriage, the census has a category for that too–whether your partner is male or female.
There are a lot of reasons to want to be counted accurately–it makes a difference in your congressional representation, and in federal funding your area receives for things like hospitals and roads. It could also change our picture of who lives in the United States–of racial and ethnic identity, what constitutes a household, who has disabilities–who counts. Let’s be counted.