When my husband read an early draft of this essay, he asked, "Why doesn't her partner have to support our daughter? After all, they agreed to raise children as Jews." What does it mean to raise a Jewish child?Go To Parenting
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why are programs and activities created especially for interfaith families called “outreach”? A blogger whom I’ve been following since I started my job here at InterfaithFamily.com referred to this rhetorical strategy as “symbolic violence”–a way of articulating the idea that good Jews are on the inside and interfaith relationships are on the outside. Why, she asks, are all the programs about the December Dilemma and conversion, with nothing acknowledging how much of the work of Jewish life is actually done by people in interfaith families? Why is the model to have people from in-married families doing outreach to intermarried families?
(Ah ha, I just finished an entire month of December Dilemma articles with a Resource Guide to Jewish Conversion. Nice timing, I now feel maximum defensiveness–though also an enhanced appreciation for January.)
Why do we call it outreach? The way the Jewish community has traditionally dealt with anything it finds scary is through ostracizing. When people talk about outreach, or in Hebrew kiruv, the implication isn’t only that someone is on the outside and someone is inside, reaching. It’s also that we aren’t actively pushing people who are inside, away.
“We” shouldn’t only mean in-married Jews who are working with intermarried Jews, because in my experience, people in interfaith families, including non-Jewish partners, are in the Jewish community, making good things happen. But I’m afraid the vision is still as my original blogger indicates, in spite of all the Jewish educators, lay and professional community workers and voices of the Jewish community that are children of interfaith families or in interfaith relationships or marriages.
Lately, I’ve seen more use of the word “welcoming” to mean something comprehensive about what kinds of synagogues and Jewish communal institutions we’d like to have. Sometimes we make a list of the groups of people we are explicitly NOT excluding, and sometimes not.
At the same time, the Jewish community is still doing the push-away activities that outreach is supposed to oppose. Unfortunately we still need a good code to communicate to people who want open, friendly Jewish communities, “we aren’t mean rude jerks.” Or at least, that we don’t mean to be–there are so many ways to fall short. I guess we have to keep listening if we want to achieve a Jewish community with no outreach because no one is out and it’s not a big reach for them to belong.
Robin Margolis wrote a fantastic blog entry for Jewcy.com, What Do Half-Jewish People Want From the Jewish Establishment? It’s an eye-opener. Well, not to me, actually, because I’ve been working here at InterfaithFamily.com and it’s finally started to dawn on me after reading repeated shocking stories that the Jewish community is doing a terrible job integrating and retaining children of interfaith marriage.
Because we assume that they are all already either with us in the community, or not. We don’t realize that even after children of interfaith families have grown into adulthood, it’s not too late to welcome them into our synagogues and our communities. We’re way too worried about the Jewish legal status of children of interfaith marriage and not worried enough about losing these members of our tribe. (Which they are, no matter what their Jewish status is.)
I think the biggest problem is insisting that people of dual heritage can’t find ways to be Jewish and to honor their other parent’s cultural background. I believe this stems from a fear of syncretistic blending of Christian and Jewish practices. But when people say, “I’m half Jewish and half Swedish,” they aren’t trying to tell you, “half the time I want to practice Christianity.” They want you to say, “That’s cool, it must be neat to have family in two cultures, I’ll bet you bring a lot to our community.”
I get why some people with one Jewish parent call themselves half Jewish, and I respect it–but I’m not going to call them that. I don’t believe in people being half Jewish. If a person has a Jewish parent, we share something–we share it 100%, not 50%, just like I share some things with every other person with Jewish heritage. If they are religiously and culturally Jewish, and also culturally something else, they aren’t Jewish 50% of the time. They are Jewish all the time, and also a part of their other culture of origin, all the time. (And maybe also 100% Canadian, all the time, 100% Star Trek fan, 100% vegetarian–whatever serious and trivial identities a person might bring with them to your community.)
If you want them to have both feet in the community, don’t push one half out the door.