Why Be Jewish Today?

  

Family holds red heart in hands

Anti-Semitic acts have been happening in our country every day for the past couple of months. And every day I get asked the same question, “Why should I be Jewish?”

To be Jewish is to accept the challenges along with the joys. To have Jewish heritage is to be born into a club of which you will always be a member, even if you choose not to engage in Jewish life. To choose to be Jewish, or to be partnered with someone Jewish, you are joining a family where you become part of its celebrations, accomplishments, disappointments, failures, challenges and tragedies.

So why choose to be part of a family with such tragic stories in the distant and not so distant past? Why wake up every day and make the choice to be part of a family that is the recipient of hateful speech and acts of terror and desecration? Why be a part of a group who sometimes seems to have more challenges than joys when, in America, you can choose to be anything?

I asked this question on Facebook and was given a lot of answers to why people choose to engage in Jewish life. But, I also received some questions:

How can you even choose?

Is it a choice to be Jewish?

Can you choose to ignore your family heritage?

What if you don’t have Jewish family heritage? 

How do you choose Judaism?

I want to add a few more questions to the above. If you’re in an interfaith relationship, why choose Judaism as your household religion, when it would be so easy to ignore or deny it? Being Jewish seems to come with all this extra baggage—why voluntarily carry it and ask your family to carry it?

Why do interfaith couples go out of their way to practice Judaism when being Jewish means subjecting yourself to scrutiny and possibly danger?

How about when it means sending your kid to school at a JCC or Jewish day school knowing it may get threatened and evacuated?  Or when it means going through a metal detector for synagogue? And after all that, when it means people repeatedly tell you that you’re not really Jewish, or your family’s not Jewish or your family and relationship is leading to the decline of Judaism? Why do interfaith couples and families keep it up?

For love.

Love of the past—of the parent to whom Judaism was so important. Or of the grandparent who died at Dachau or Sachsen-Hausen. Or for the mother-in-law who wants so badly for your children to be Jewish.

Love of the present—of the partner to whom Judaism is so important. The synagogue that needs your membership and participation to keep its doors open. The community that welcomes you and celebrates with you in times of joy and supports you in times of sadness. The connection you feel to other people as they navigate the journey of being Jewish in an interfaith family.

Love of the future—to give your children a tradition and culture. For Judaism to continue, thrive and flourish. For the Jewish tradition to think of the next generation and plant the seeds of faith and community that only our children and grandchildren with see the fruit of. For the story found in a Jewish text, called the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a), in which a man named Honi plants a carob tree, knowing that it will not bear fruit in his generation. When asked why he would care about a tree that wouldn’t offer him any fruit, he answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.” This view of Jewish engagement is hope for the future.

Keeping faith in a time when you are unsure, when your people are being threatened, is an act of love. It’s an act that transcends you and is bigger than you and your family. You find your own reasons for engaging Jewishly and having a Jewish identity. And through it all, you know there’s a bigger reason for your family. Through the fear, threats, insults and the rejection, you stick with it and pass through your family the love you have for the past, present and future of Judaism.

Everyone has their own reasons for this love. Familial heritage may resonate with you or Jewish continuity may drive your Jewish identity. Maybe it’s the participation in community events or Jewish ritual that increases your connection with Judaism. In a world where anti-Semitism is part of our daily lives and freedom of religion is part of our society, people have a choice how they identify with Judaism.  I hope you will find your own reason for being in the family as you #ChooseLove each day.

Why do you #ChooseLove and choose Judaism? Share in the comments.

Michael Douglas Speaks About Interfaith Families on Today Show

  

We’re so proud of the role that Michael Douglas is playing. No, not his new movie, Beyond the Reach, where he plays a villain, Gordon Gekko-style. We’re proud that he’s chosen to speak out against anti-Semitism—first in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, and this morning on the Today Show. And, as important, that he’s supported his son Dylan as he has explored Judaism and begun making Jewish choices, including a bar mitzvah in Israel last year—and that he is becoming an advocate for interfaith families.

The recent recipient of this year’s Genesis Prize, Douglas said of his son, “he’s brought a lot of spirituality to our lives.” We’re thankful for that, because as Douglas says, “Now I’m actively involved with bringing interfaith families together.”

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Michael Douglas Speaks Out on Anti-Semitism

  

Michael DouglasHave you or a loved one ever had the experience of overhearing or being told something point blank that was anti-Semitic because the speaker didn’t think they were in the company of someone Jewish? Michael Douglas did.

Raised without formal Jewish religion by father Kirk Douglas (Jewish) and his mother Diana (not Jewish), Douglas began to connect with his Jewish heritage as an adult, after his son Dylan began connecting with Judaism through his friends.

“While some Jews believe that not having a Jewish mother makes me not Jewish, I have learned the hard way that those who hate do not make such fine distinctions,” wrote Douglas, who recounted his first experience with anti-Semitism (in high school during a conversation with a friend who did not know he had a Jewish background) in a recent op-ed in the LA Times.

Unfortunately, his son Dylan also learned the hard way through an unprovoked encounter while on vacation in Southern Europe. Dylan was wearing a Star of David, which his father realized must have been the trigger for the encounter.

After defending his son, Douglas decided to use the power of his voice to speak out on a broader platform. “Anti-Semitism, I’ve seen, is like a disease that goes dormant, flaring up with the next political trigger,” he wrote. Simply put: “It is time for each of us to speak up against this hate.”

We’re glad to see that Douglas is inspired by the honor of this year’s Genesis Prize to take a leadership role in the Jewish community and to make his voice heard. He appeals to all of us to challenge ourselves to stand up to anti-Semitism. “Because if we confront anti-Semitism whenever we see it, if we combat it individually and as a society, and use whatever platform we have to denounce it, we can stop the spread of this madness.”

Respond with Hope for Peace

  

DoveIn the wake of the horrific attack at the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the subsequent deaths in the kosher deli, there has been much talk on television, in print and online about the xenophobic and anti-Muslim reaction that followed in France and around the world. I have fielded angry and scared questions about how to punish those responsible and how we can maintain our sense of faith when we see so much violence in the world. And unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we have been exposed to such violence born of hatred and fear in our lifetime and certainly over the course of human history.

The Jewish community has known more than our fair share of this strain of human nature. Yet each time it happens, one very loud reaction seems to focus on the same call for violence and hatred pointed at the perpetrators. It seems only natural that we direct our rage and hurt and fear in the direction of those responsible. However, this rage we feel can darken and dull our sense of real justice and so many of us end up hating and persecuting those around us who in appearance or only in our minds have some tangential connection to the perpetrators. We too are often bound by fear of the other, that which we do not fully understand and the cycle of mistrust, of misinformation and blind hatred continues.

I understand the worry and even the hopelessness that we all felt when we received the first breaking news email about the attack in Paris and turned on the news to watch the events unfold—another instance of the worst of humanity. I imagine so many of us spent time asking why and then how. I cannot understand the intense anti-Muslim rhetoric, the assumption that all who believe different than we are responsible and should be exiled or worse.

We have come so far in the world, have so much more than our parents and grandparents; the ability to reach across the globe and communicate, the ability to access information at speeds unheard of a mere 10 or 20 years ago, the deep celebration and appreciation of diversity and struggle for complete equality in so many places that seemed impossible in generations past. Nevertheless, we are still plagued with the most basic of human reactions, revenge and hatred of what we do not know.

The work that we do at InterfaithFamily is about celebrating and embracing diversity, about opening our communities and ourselves to the possibility that there is more to gain than fear from “the other.” I try to live my life by this message because I want to live in a world where true and lasting peace in the broadest and the narrowest lens exists between family members and between nations. It saddens me when all of the remarkable strides we humans have made are diminished by violence and by the reactions to violence.

So let us remember and honor those who were killed in the choices we make every day, how we treat the strangers we encounter and what we teach our children about those with whom we disagree or just don’t understand. A Muslim man, Lassana Bathily was working at the Paris kosher grocery that day and saved several people by hiding them in the store’s walk-in freezer. Tell this story and find hope every day in all the individuals who make a difference, who act with bravery in the face of fear and who teach us that although we may at times witness the very worst of humanity, we can also, every day, see the spark of the best.

Our diversity is our strength and our future and I hope we will not allow our anger to weaken our commitment to it. Let us seek peace and pursue it, even in the face of those set to destroy it, even amid our justified fear and concern as we have done time and time again. Let our compassion and hope guide our reactions as we search for the light in humanity to dispel the darkness.

Wrestling with the Ethics of the Sochi Olympics

  

The following is reprinted with permission from MyJewishLearning.org. We thank them for their words on this year’s Olympics which we know is weighing heavily on our readers’ minds. 

By Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Sochi peace logoThe more I read and learn about what has been happening in Russia, the more I am afraid for its citizens. The attention that the fairly recently implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law is getting is certainly high on the list of reasons to be concerned. What begins as fines quickly becomes imprisonment. There is already more than enough evidence that creating an environment of state-sponsored discrimination against a section of the population based on an essential part of their being leads to violence against those individuals. There are numerous accounts of LGBT Russians being attacked by vigilantes and thugs.

We should all be concerned by these stories. As a Jew, and as a lesbian, I cannot help but think about Germany in the 1930s. We teach that history precisely so that we might better recognize the early signs of state-sponsored prejudice that can quickly escalate into something more. I don’t think I’m being reactionary. I’m truly and deeply concerned.

What does this mean for the Sochi Olympics, and beyond the events of the Olympics themselves. I admit, I find myself at a gut level drawn to the idea of boycott – of simply not watching. But I’m not convinced that this is an effective or meaningful response at this stage.  I would have supported the International Olympics Committee if they had made a decision to relocate or cancel the games at an earlier juncture, and I also recognize the logistical, legal, and political complexities of making such a decision.

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Why We’re Talking About Princesses: Long Island

  

Cast members Princesses Long IslandSince the new Bravo reality show Princesses: Long Island began a few weeks ago, many blogs have popped up in the Jewish and secular media berating the show and the network for its portrayal of Long Island Jewish women. The bloggers’ responses range from horror to amused disgust to acceptance. JTA has a whole guide to blogs about the show.

If you haven’t seen the show, it’s about six twenty-something Jewish Long Islanders who live with their parents, agonize over finding a husband to take care of them, and for the most part, do not work. They seem to have been encouraged to make Judaism a big part of the show, as they are constantly touting how Jewish their lifestyle is and making a scene over drinking Manischewitz and eating Shabbat dinner.

This all might sound harmless and hardly cause for alarm, if it weren’t for the fact that the women on the show are so horribly over the top in their dependency on their parents, men and money. More than that, they actively promote stereotypes about Judaism, and explicitly say that their lifestyle is typically “Jewish” and “Long Island,” when there’s nothing typical about anything they say or do.

When one cast member says that she’s a Reform Jew, which means “We’re not that Jewish,” what is someone who doesn’t know the difference supposed to think?

You may ask, if there’s so much already out there about this nonsense, why bother adding to the mix? Because I learned this lesson well: When something is happening that is damaging to Jews, or any ethnic/religious group, I have a responsibility to speak out. Am I being melodramatic? I don’t think New York Congressman Steve Israel (who represents the part of Long Island where the show is filmed) would think so. Yup, he’s blogged about it too:

“Much to my dismay, the characters on the show spewed gross generalizations about the living and dating habits of unmarried Jewish women. And the stereotyping didn’t stop there. In the latest episode, the characters get together for a Shabbat dinner, an important tradition in the Jewish faith and culture. As a Jew, I can say with confidence that this dinner was exactly the opposite of what the sacred Sabbath dinner is supposed to be. But for those watching unfamiliar with the holy meaning of the Jewish Sabbath, it is shown in the worst way possible, with excessive drinking and fighting.”

Thank you, Steve. Because I found the response of Emily Shire, on The Forward’s Sisterhood blog more than a little offensive. Maybe because she says she’s familiar with the types of girls portrayed on the show from her own Long Island youth, she’s now desensitized to their behavior. But I can’t really accept her passivity on the subject: “I wish I could rally more ire for this show and be more outraged, but I can only shrug and watch with the same curiosity I approach other reality shows.”

While I can understand Shire does not find the show shocking, she has to imagine the repercussions it has on viewers with less familiarity with this small, not-at-all representative group of Jewish Long Islanders. Shire admits that she worries that people will think of the cast as models of Jewish women, but then she refers to Jersey Shore and says: “Even when I thought little of the cast, I never thought of it as an overall reflection of Italian-Americans, and anyone who thought six twenty-somethings on MTV spoke for an entire ethnic group was probably already going to be unfairly judgmental and somewhat racist.”

Does that make it OK?

What Shire is missing is the large population of our country (never mind the population of viewers in other countries who have access to the show) who know nothing about Judaism. Whether the viewer is judgmental or not, this is not the first glimpse of my religion I want them to see.

Imagine if you are a Jew dating someone who is not Jewish, who perhaps knows very little about your religion. I for one would feel embarrassed if he or his parents watched this show. And while you have probably introduced your wife who is not Jewish to your culture, does it help you to welcome her into your faith when the stereotype that stands out about Jewish women is that they’re spoiled, ignorant gold-diggers?

To give you a taste, in the very first episode, one cast member asks to be carried to her car after a mani/pedi (by someone who works at the shop) because she refuses to walk in shoes without heels.

Of course the other side of the argument is that all of this buzz we’re creating around the show is only bringing it attention, and probably more viewers. Joe Winkler suggests on JTA that “Maybe, instead of taking up arms in boycott, we could do a lot more by just looking the other way and waiting for them to shrivel into obscurity.” And while that might be true, I’m with Israel, who says:

“I will not silently tolerate a show that paints Jewish women on Long Island with all-too-familiar and painful stereotypes—money-hungry, superficial, Jewish-American Princesses.”

Because I want Bravo to think again before airing another season of this show, or producing any other show that promotes such a negative stereotype of any religion or ethnicity.

I’m curious what other people think? Did you watch the show? If you are less familiar with Judaism, what did you think of how the cast portrayed the religion?