Muhammad Ali’s Grandson is Bar Mitzvahed

Mazal tov to Jacob Werthheimer, grandson of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, whose bar mitzvah was celebrated recently. Jacob's parents are Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer, Muhammad's daughter, who was raised as a Muslim, and her huband Spencer Wertheimer, who is Jewish.

On religion and her interfaith family, Ali-Wertheimer is quoted saying,

"I was born and raised as a Muslim," Khaliah says. "But I'm not into organized religion. I'm more spiritual than religious. My husband is Jewish. No one put any pressure on Jacob to believe one way or another. He chose this on his own because he felt a kinship with Judaism and Jewish culture."

"The ceremony was wonderful and very touching," Khaliah continues. "The theme of Jacob's presentation was inclusiveness and a celebration of diversity. My father was supportive in every way. He followed everything and looked at the Torah very closely. It meant a lot to Jacob that he was there."

Khaliah says proudly that Jacob is an "A" student and a good athlete with Ivy League aspirations. She also notes that the bar mitzvah of Muhammad Ali's grandson is "a wonderful tale of what's coming in the world."

The article continues, noting that Muhammad Ali would likely agree with his daughter's view of the world:

Shortly before lighting the Olympic flame at 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, he proclaimed, "My mother was a Baptist. She believed Jesus was the son of God, and I don't believe that. But even though my mother had a religion different from me, I believe that, on Judgment Day, my mother will be in heaven. There are Jewish people who lead good lives. When they die, I believe they're going to heaven. It doesn't matter what religion you are, if you're a good person you'll receive God's blessing. Muslims, Christians and Jews all serve the same God. We just serve him in different ways. Anyone who believes in One God should also believe that all people are part of one family. God created us all. And all people have to work to get along."

If your family is starting to think about an upcoming bat mitzvah or bar mitzvah, or if you're wondering what it all entails, check out our new booklet, Bar & Bat Mitzvah for the interfaith family:

Another Step Towards a Changing Judaism

My friend and wonderful writer Judy Bolton-Fasman’s most recent column is a great one, and not just because of the shout-out to InterfaithFamily.com. In An Interfaith Family with a Jewish Heart, Judy writes about the bar mitzvah of the son of one of her oldest friends, Vicki, and her Lutheran-raised husband, Kurt. It’s a very moving account.

[The bar mitzvah boy] talked about how his beautiful mother and his generous father supported his Jewish learning. His non-Jewish grandparents read the Schechehiyanu… I took Kurt aside during the weekend and thanked him for being a beloved companion of the Jewish people.

Judy’s column, which I read in hard copy in the Jewish Advocate of Boston, reminded me of a blog post from a year ago describing a similar situation. J.J. Goldberg, senior columnist for the Forward, had written a column titled “Our Changing Judaism” about his experience at a family bar mitzvah where the father was not Jewish. I wrote at the time that “It is heartening to me for a thought leader of J.J. Goldberg’s stature to say that it felt natural and necessary for a non-Jewish parent to be an integral part of the celebration of raising a Jewish child” and concluded:

When more Jewish leaders recognize that Goldberg’s cousin’s family — with an unconverted non-Jewish parent participating in raising a Jewish child — is not sub-optimal, but instead is a positive Jewish outcome equal to any other — then we will have a truly “changing Judaism.”

I welcome Judy’s piece as another step in that direction.

A Storahtelling B Mitzvah

Last night, I attended a gala celebrating Storahtelling. And it was great*.

If you’re not familiar with Storahtelling, they’re a ritual theatre company, focusing on bringing the Torah, and Judaism, to wider audiences, making it more accessible and relevant today. I didn’t crib that from their mission statement, so allow me to excerpt it here:

Storahtelling restores the Torah Service to its original stature through a revival of the lost craft of the Maven, the traditional storyteller who translated the Hebrew Torah into local language. Rooted in biblical text and ritual practice, Storahtelling uses dramatized interpretations, traditional chanting, orginal music and live interaction to bring Bible off the page and onto the global stage.

The event was great, celebrating Storahtelling’s “b mitzvah,” which, as founding director Amichai Lau-Levie explained, is a “bar mitzvah, a bat mitzvah, a b mitzvah inclusive celebration for all genders.” And what a b mitzvah it was! Storahtelling turned 13, honoring their founding director, their incoming executive director and members of the board.

But what’s a b mitzvah without a little Torah? Jackie Hoffman, Jewish actress and comedian extraordinaire, studied with the Storahtelling staff, learning the Torah parsha that would have been her bat mitzvah parsha when she was a girl (raised Orthodox, Jackie didn’t have the option). She tackled a topic that many shy from: the rape of Dinah.

She broke the story up, making it more palatable, relevant and interesting. She interspersed chanting and discussion – with a healthy dose of humor, of course. (Amichai gave the English translations to Jackie’s Torah chanting on the fly.)

With more than a little (much appreciated) feminism flavoring her words, Jackie gave voice to Dinah. Dinah, the central character of this story, does not have any of her own words in the Bible. So Jackie, channeling Dinah, asked why the women of the Bible were too often chattel, to be swamped and shared amongst the men. She set the scene: Dinah had “two Jewish mothers. Think about that for a moment. And 12 stinky brothers.” She asked why Dinah’s mother was so willing to marry Dinah to the man who had raped her. (“Was she so desperate to see her daughter married, she’d ok a man who would defile her? Oh wait, that’s my mother!”) And she might have relished in her telling of the circumcisions of the men of Shechem: “They were in penis pain for three days!”

But it was an impromptu statement after she finished (and after she accepted her present from the “Sisterhood,” two gay Storahtelling staff) that summarized Storahtelling’s work so perfectly: “I’m a person who hates everything, and I dug this experience hard.”

And that’s just it. For Jackie, it was about bringing in some feminism, giving voice to the silent and suffering Dinah, and wrapping it all up in some jokes. For others, it might be highlighting gay characters or interfaith families, placing the Torah stories in contemporary settings, drawing and singing and acting the stories… bringing them to life. If you have the chance to get to a Storahtelling event, I highly recommend it.

[sub]*The only thing that would have made this night better? Had I gotten my photo taken with the hilarious Jackie Hoffman. And had she performed her Shavuot song, just for me.[/sub]

Life Cycle Innovations

A couple recent articles relating to Jewish life-cycle events caught my eye.

For starters, via Jewschool we learned about a  Wall Street Journal piece looking at birth ceremonies. Specifically:

Manhattan lawyer [Epstein] recently asked New York federal judge Kimba Wood to grant him a day’s reprieve in a criminal trial to attend the bris of his grandson. Epstein’s daughter has not yet given birth — so he doesn’t yet know the sex of the baby. But Epstein wanted to give Judge Wood ample notice to consider his request, given that his daughter’s due date is Dec. 3, smack in the middle of the scheduled trial.

So Epstein was stuck in the slightly awkward position of asking Judge Wood for a day off if, in fact, the baby turns out to be a boy. If it’s a girl, well, no bris, no day off needed.

Wrote Epstein, in this letter filed with the court on Thursday:

“Should the child be a girl, not much will happen in the way of public celebration. Some may even be disappointed, but will do their best to conceal this by saying, ‘as long as it’s a healthy baby.’ … However, should the baby be a boy, then hoo hah! Hordes of friends and  family will arrive … for the joyous celebration … known as the bris. … My presence at the bris is not strictly commanded, although my absence will never be forgotten by those that matter.”

Judge Wood, in a note written at the bottom of the letter, granted the request. But she did Epstein one better. Wrote Wood:

“Mr. Epstein will be permitted to attend the bris, in the joyous event that a son is born. But the Court would like to balance the scales. If a daughter is born, there will be a public celebration in Court, with readings from poetry celebrating girls and women.”


Fantastic!

I then learned of virtual bar mitzvah studies via the NY Times:

If dating, shopping and watching TV can be revolutionized by the Internet, why should bar and bat mitzvahs be immune? Parents who once might have turned to their local synagogue for Hebrew lessons and spiritual guidance are now turning to Google…

It was interesting but it’s too bad that they focused on the downside of group learning – or highlighted the ease of individual learning. Learning with others (chavruta especially) holds many benefits for both religious and secular studies.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that our clergy referral service isn’t just for weddings – we can direct you to clergy for all life cycle events, from a baby naming or bris to bar or bat mitzvah to weddings and funerals.

Work-Arounds

How should synagogues and Jewish communities in general welcome interfaith families? Julie Wiener wrote a blog post about the article we featured today, Debbie Burton‘s “Speaking as a (Non-)Jewish Parent”–about not speaking at her daughter’s bat mitzvah. Wiener wrote:

Not allowing non-Jewish parents, particularly ones who’ve been supportive of their children’s Jewish upbringing, to participate in their children’s bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies just seems mean-spirited to me. Do people think it will actually discourage intermarriage and encourage gentiles to convert in hopes of getting better treatment?

Wiener points out that Conservative interpretations of halachah do provide some wiggle-room for congregations that want to honor non-Jewish family members. She cited as an example a piece by J.J. Goldberg about a Conservative movement bar mitzvah in which the non-Jewish dad of the bar mitzvah boy was honored.

We saw that piece, too, and Ed Case blogged about it–and last night, Rabbi David Schuck, the rabbi who led that service commented on our post to say,

I actually only called the mother (who is Jewish) of the bar mitzvah boy up to the bimah for an aliyah. Her husband, who is not Jewish, stood next to her, but we was not called up to the Torah. Mr. Goldberg seems to imply that the non-Jewish father had an aliyah, which of course, would be a violation of Halacha, of Jewish Law. As a Conservative synagogue that functions within the limitations of Jewish Law, we do not do this. I believe we in the synagogue are as inclusive as possible within the framework of Halacha, but this still leaves a number of significant limitations for the parent who is not Jewish.

To this I have to say: have some non-dairy frozen dessert. What? OK, say you keep kosher, you ate a meat meal, you really want some ice cream afterward? It used to be, if you wanted ice creamy sort of stuff after meat, you made something not-that-great out of whatever is they put in non-dairy creamer. It gave you the form of ice cream but didn’t violate the prohibition on mixing milk and meat. But today, we have some fantastic flavors of non-dairy frozen dessert, so you can have a totally kosher meat meal and have great, credibly ice-cream-like-stuff afterward. (Thank you, vegan foodies!)

Rabbi Schuck apparently figured out a work-around to made everyone feel welcome and part of the occasion at this much-discussed bar mitzvah. How? We all want to know that. We know it’s not only the form of the welcome but the content that makes a difference. Tell me about your community–how are you doing with welcoming non-Jewish parents?

Lindsay Lohan Choosing Judaism?

It looks like Lindsay Lohan is interested in converting to Judaism. According to several news sources including the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz Lohan announced her intentions on her Facebook page with a profile change. (By the way, InterfaithFamily.com has a Facebook fan page and you are welcome to join!)

Lindsay Lohan

Lohan and her girlfriend, Samantha Ronson, recently went to London for Ronson’s brother’s bar mitzvah. One part of the media blitz on this topic disturbed me. Every article I have read on the topic spoke of how she was only doing this to please her girlfriend. Lohan has explored other religions in the past and it seems unfair to say that she is just converting for love. Maybe Ronson introduced her to Judaism, but I hope she is making this decision for herself.

InterfaithCandy.com and Werewolf Bar Mitzvah

On the main site, we are running two opinion pieces, one in favor and one opposed to doing Halloween as a Jew.

I admit it. I’ve never been that interested in Halloween. I went through a phase of feeling guilty that Halloween was a watered-down version of this major Celtic pagan holiday Samhain. Then several pagan and Wiccan friends of mine told me that I shouldn’t feel guilty. Well, all right. I can go feel guilty about something else, and go trick-or-treating with my kid if he wants. He wants.

jukeboxMy son thinks Halloween is the bomb. He went through a totally different sort of phase of wanting to borrow books about Halloween out of the library. He’s not a big candy eater, but he does like to get candy to give away to others and to eat in small amounts over such a long period that we throw out the last of it at Passover. He also likes the whole costume-magical-cutting up pumpkins element of things, because it indulges his mistaken notion that I am crafty. He told us last night that he wants to be a jukebox for Halloween, but luckily he’s figured out how to make the costume himself without me buying a sewing machine. (“Like Anna’s mom.”)

In the meantime, some wonderful person left a bowl of these amazing chocolate covered stuffed dates in the kitchen of the offices we share with many other Jewish organizations. So I had the insight that, because the dates are from Saudi Arabia, we could be interfaithCANDY.com. Ha ha, thank you, thank you, I’m here all week folks.

I’ll just embed my Jewish-themed Halloween video now, shall I? It’s below the cut. Continue reading

Boy Wonder

When I had my bar mitzvah 18 years ago, it was truly all about the party. Back then, at least at my synagogue and in my community, there was no required community service project, kids didn’t lead the service and the theme of the party was more relevant than the theme of your haftarah portion.

Back then, I certainly didn’t know anyone like Thomas Karatzas.

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