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.”

Lena Horne Dies at Age 92

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.

One Way to Get It Right and a signal boost

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:

My husband is Jewish. I was raised Catholic. He went to Hebrew school, I went to Catholic school. He was a bar mitzvah, I received all my sacraments.

But we are two people who believe there are many paths to God, and who recognize that much of our faith is intertwined with our warm memories of childhood. When we decided to marry, we were intent on being a couple who would be open-minded and respectful of each other’s traditions.

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.)

Gloria Steinem on her Jewish background

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:

My mother, who was not Jewish, was always very clear about the importance of the Jewish tradition and respect for the Jewish tradition. She really tried to stress that, and she loved her mother-in-law, adored her mother-in-law (who was Jewish.) You know the passage (in the Torah), ‘Wherever I shall go, you shall go?’ That was always how I knew it was a woman speaking to a woman — because of my mother.

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.

Biracial Identity and the Census

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.

Serwer writes:

The question really becomes what “legacies” of the painful elements of our past do we voluntarily embrace and which ones we reject. To the extent that biracial black people identify as black, they are choosing to embrace a once-painful element of their history. It is not being forced on us. I happened to check both white and black on my census form, but that was my choice. Every mixed person has a right to tell their own story on their terms. You might as well tell Jews to stop celebrating Passover because it is part of the enduring legacy of Jewish slavery in Egypt. That’s exactly what it is, but that doesn’t tell you anything about its value to the culture or why it continues to endure.

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.

Stand Up and Be Counted Part One–US Census 2010

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.

The Real World Without the Communal Showers

Did you see the New York Times piece about Moishe House, “The Four Bedroom Kibbutz”? It made us at InterfaithFamily.com pretty happy, since we’re friends, as an organization, with Moishe House, as an organization. (Which is not the same thing as being friends on Facebook, or anything like that. No, it just means that our CEOs had a beer together last Purim.)

It’s also great to see the acknowledgment of Jewish diversity and of the role of children of interfaith marriage as leaders in the Jewish community.

Salinger dies at age 91

J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, died at age 91 in his home in Cornish, N.Y.

I read his books many times in high school and college, especially Franny and Zooey, the novel that spoke the most about the experience of a spiritual seeker who is the child of a Christian mom and a Jewish dad. No one can say if that was also Salinger’s experience. He was famous for being a private person. His daughter and one of his girlfriends each wrote memoirs about him, but it will take years to piece together his inner life, in particular because he had reserved some of his writing to be published after his death.

Nearly everyone who went to high school in the United States read The Catcher in the Rye. If you haven’t read Salinger’s other stories, from Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Nine Stories, I hope you’ll use the occasion of his death to take a look at them, and see why so many readers are expressing sadness for his loss today.

Bicultural Delights

I’m always on the lookout for projects that combine Jewish culture with other cultures. I know people in interfaith families are sometimes delighted seeing the two or more cultures they share in their family blend together in works of art or on stage. (Or in cookbooks, I know you agree that cookbooks are a great place for cultural blending!) It also helps reinforce the idea that Jewish people can come from a lot of places in the world and have more than one kind of experience and still be connected to each other.

All of which is my excuse for sharing my excitement about Lorin Sklamberg’s joint project with Susan McKeown, called Saints and Tzadiks. Sklamberg sings and plays with the Klezmatics, and McKeown, an Irish singer from Dublin, has a solo career in the Celtic music revival. She’s also sung with the Klezmatics before, on some of my favorite tracks I find. On Saints and Tzadiks, the two sing in both Yiddish and Irish. It sounds great and I have got to get a recording, yesterday!

Oh yeah, and, this was recorded in the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albequerque as part of a world music festival.

Race and the Future of Jewishness

In the January 11 Newsweek, which published on the web yesterday, Ellis Cose has a piece called Race: The Future of Whiteness in America. It’s a complex piece, about more than one thing of interest to me in my work here: the shifting definitions of who is white, the increase in intermarriage between groups that previously didn’t mix, the complexity of articulating a mixed identity on the U.S. Census.

Cose highlights the shifting nature of racism in the United States by picking out Jews as an example. He cites Karen Brodkin Sach’s How Did Jews Become White Folks? and discusses how Ashkenazi Jews, who now consider ourselves, and are considered by others, to be white, used to be categorized as non-white in the United States. (In some people’s minds, we still are.) It reminds me of the first time I read Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew where he describes a three-way dance between Jews, anti-Semites and liberals–the target of discrimination, who is defined by it, the racist, and bystanders. I had a revelation about the way racism was working in the United States in my lifetime when I read Sartre’s Second World War insights into French anti-Semitism. People get defined as people of color not based on their physical characteristics, exactly, but on whether their current society considers those characteristics real signs of difference.

Of course, there are problems with this model. Jews don’t only exist as a group because of anti-Semites, but because of our shared history, religion and culture. Blackness in the United States isn’t only the condition of being discriminated against because of being Black–it’s also the culture that comes out of that experience. I should also add there are already many Jews in North America who would be recognized as people of color even in our current set of social definitions.

What it means for interfaith families is there are definitely going to be more Jews of mixed heritage as we get older, and the Jewish community is going to have to relax about it. At the same time, everyone else is going to be facing the same problem we are–how to hang on to our distinctive subculture as society opens up.

I’m not worried (worried?) that anti-Semitism is going to disappear. We don’t have the FBI’s Hate Crimes statistics for 2009 yet, but for 2008 they reported that of 1,732 religious hate crimes, 66.1 percent were against Jews. Racial violence, which like all hate crimes may be under-reported, was even higher–more than half of single-bias hate crimes were motivated by racism. We’re not moving rapidly to a society where former targets of bias are suddenly handed the task of self-definition as all hatred evaporates instantly. (I know, that kind of trouble you could handle.)

But for all of us, the picture is gradually changing. It’s going to be increasingly normal to be a person of mixed heritage, and more people are going to be able to relate to the desire to preserve more than one culture. It would be great if we all could have our differences in common.