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I was almost too old for Harry Potter when JK Rowling introduced her masterpiece to the world in 1997. I may have been almost too old but that didn’t stop me from spending the next 10 years voraciously reading, re-reading and waiting impatiently for the next book to arrive. When the final book was finally published, I was visiting my parents’ house for the weekend. Obviously, I had pre-ordered the book months in advance and I hadn’t realized that I wouldn’t be home that weekend. Panicked, I went online and changed the delivery location to my parents’ house, crisis averted. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I met the UPS driver in my parents driveway with unabashed glee and proceeded to ignore my family for the next 24 hours as I made my way through the final book. It was totally worth it.
These days, my love of Harry Potter lives in my heart as quiet embers, easily fanned into a greater flame when JK Rowling tweets something incredible (which is often) or more recently, when something new is announced. Yes, I have already pre-ordered a copy of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, a West End play beginning this summer, telling the story of an adult Harry and company.
Perhaps it is unnecessary at this point to extoll the virtues of the Harry Potter series; the magic of Harry Potter is different for everyone. In the nine years since the final book was published and the 19 years since the first book, entire other books have been written about every possible angle and theme of the series, not to mention countless articles, blog posts and of course memes. If you’re a Harry Potter lover, you’ve had ample time to analyze the reasons why, and if you could care less about Harry Potter, thank you for getting this far into this blog post.
JK Rowling’s genius is making the world of Harry Potter seem almost possible. While I begrudgingly accepted my fate as that of a muggle, I still hope that even if I could not be a witch, somewhere someone is. This epic story speaks to those marginalized by society, those whose dreams seem too big, those who want to change their circumstances, those drawn to making the world a better place, to fighting against injustice.
As my life has changed and evolved since I first picked up Book 1 in 1997, so has my reading of the story. I hear the commentary on human nature more loudly. Not everything is always as it seems and rarely is what we see, what we actually get. We meet a wide swath of characters in Harry’s world, not simply heroes and villains, but complex individuals who make difficult decisions in the face of fear, of change, of darkness. Sometimes, those who come from the most “perfect, pure” families choose evil and destruction while those from the most humble, diverse roots—the “mudbloods”—are the ones who remind us what is truly important and even save our humanity. And sometimes the heroes make the wrong decisions, while the villains find the light.
I have always cringed at the term, “mudblood.” In college, I identified with it acutely when I was told I wasn’t Jewish because my mother wasn’t. How could I not belong in the only community I ever truly felt part of? Why didn’t it matter how I behaved, the choices I made, the way I lived my life? Why did none of that “count” because my mother’s blood ran through my veins? It threw me into an identity crisis that took years to reconcile.
These days, my life and my work at InterfaithFamily reminds me again of the powerful message of Harry Potter, as we strive to teach our beloved community to not only tolerate the diversity among us, but rather embrace it, learn from it and allow it to change us for the better. After all, where would we be without the most famous “mudblood,” Hermione? The more stories I hear, people I meet, families I am honored to learn from, the more I realize that we are all mutts, all a combination of geography, culture, history, and blood. We are all mudbloods. That doesn’t mean we are all the same or should be, but it does mean that the humanity we share can be more powerful than all the Voldemorts out there.
I would feel remiss if I didn’t end with the powerful and yes, magical, words of Professor Albus Dumbledore: “Differences of heart and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”
We love Mo Willems books in our house! My little one just brought home one of his gazillions of titles called, I Really Like Slop. As I have written before, I now see the world through interfaith family lenses. When we read this story, all I could think about was interfaith couples at Passover! How in the world did I make that leap?
The book tells the story of Piggie presenting her friend Gerald, the elephant, with a pot of her slop. Gerald looks at the smelly concoction with trepidation. He asks some questions about the make-up of the slop. Piggie begs him to try some. She explains that it’s part of Pig culture! Gerald touches his tongue to the slop and chokes and gags. Piggie asks Gerald if he likes it. Gerald explains that he does not like it, but he does like Piggie. And he is happy he tried it.
As are all of Mo Willems’ books, this story is precious and even poignant. It made me think about someone who didn’t grow up with, let’s say, gefilte fish, being presented with it for the first time at a Passover seder. This person is no doubt sitting with a significant other at their parents’ house, surrounded by family and trying to fit in and make a good impression. This person is trying to avoid any cultural faux pas. They may be worried that the haggadah (the book read during the Passover meal) will be read aloud going around the table and that there will be unfamiliar words and transliterated Hebrew to navigate (on four cups of wine, no less). And, now this person is presented with this foreign, kind of smelly food, with a gel-like substance wiggling around on top.
If you were brought up with this food and don’t like it, it is easier to dismiss it. But, for a newcomer, how does one politely excuse themselves from trying it? (Especially if is homemade. This usually makes it a lot better than if it’s cold from the jar—although some people love that. Who am I to yuck your yum, as my child’s feeding therapist implores.)
What Piggie and Gerald teach us is that we don’t have to like our partner’s cultural things. They don’t have to become ours. We don’t have to feel comfortable eating the food or donning certain garb. We don’t automatically have to feel comfortable with the language, traditions or dances. Maybe after experience and time, we will come to like things. We will make them our own. But, maybe we never will. And, that’s OK. Showing respect, asking questions, learning about and even trying aspects important to our loved ones is what matters.
Happy prepping for Passover!
Zach Levy, the left-leaning son of Holocaust survivors, promises his mother on her deathbed that he will marry within the tribe and raise Jewish children. When he falls for Cleo Scott, an African American activist grappling with her own inherited trauma, he must reconcile his old vow to the family he loves with the present realty of the woman who may be his soul mate. A New York love story complicated by the legacies and modern tensions of Jewish-American and African-American history, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, by Letty Cottin Pogrebin, explores what happens when the heart runs counter to politics, history and the compelling weight of tradition.
On September 10 at the Levin Ballroom at Brandeis University, InterfaithFamily is proud to be a co-sponsor of Faith, Race, Feminism and the Ties that Bind: Professor Anita Hill in Conversation with Letty Cottin Pogrebin with opening remarks from our own Rabbi Jillian Cameron, director of Interfaithfamily/Boston.
This event is a conversation that is set around the release of Cottin Pogrebin’s book, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate by Feminist Press. These two iconic feminists discuss the movement’s past, present and future, and the imprint of family history on identity and values.
We have two copies of this book to give away in conjunction with this exciting event. Enter to win by August 31 and please join us for this exciting event at the Levin Ballroom on the Brandeis campus. The event is free, but reservations are highly recommended.
I don’t normally read books written for middle schoolers, but I was in the children’s section of my local library picking up a book for my daughter the other day when I noticed a book with a bright yellow cover with a pretty Indian girl entitled My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, written by Paula J. Freedman, on display. I opened the book and started to read the summary on the inside cover: “For Tara Feinstein, life with her Jewish-Indian-American family is like a bowl of spicy matzoh ball soup. It’s a mix of cultures that is sometimes delicious, and sometimes confusing…”
I was hooked, and I immediately checked out the book. As someone who devotes my days to working with interfaith couples and families and advocating for a welcoming Jewish community, I couldn’t wait to start reading.
And I wasn’t disappointed. It was a lot of fun to read the story of Tara’s desi mispacha—a term that Tara describes in the book as a “Hindi + Yiddish made up term meaning a family that’s a little bit Indian and a little bit Jewish. Nicer than ‘Hin-Jew’…” I appreciated how the author depicted Tara’s struggles as she prepares to become a Bat Mitzvah—her questioning whether or not she believes in God; her worry that by celebrating becoming a Bat Mitzvah she will somehow be less Indian; her confusing relationship with her Catholic best friend who wants to be her boyfriend.
Tara’s Indian mother converted to Judaism years earlier, before marrying her father, but Tara still feels a deep connection to her Indian family and her Indian heritage. She deeply loved her mothers’ parents who lived in India and died several years earlier. She feels a special bond to her Nanaji (her mother’s father) and wants to be sure that celebrating her Bat Mitzvah won’t make her forget him. She adores Indian food, and though her mother doesn’t cook, her father—who grew up Jewish in America—makes great Indian food. Tara loves to watch and act out scenes from Bollywood movies. And for good luck, she rubs the statue of Ganesha that sits on her dresser.
One particular scene in the book really struck me. When Tara realizes that a friend of hers has stolen a bracelet, Tara grabs the bracelet and goes to the store to return it. As she’s reaching to put the bracelet back on the jewelry counter, she’s stopped by a security guard, who thinks that Tara’s involved in the shoplifting. When she tells the security guard that her name is “Tara Feinstein,” he looks at her skeptically and says to her: “No, really.”
That’s what it’s constantly like for Tara…people making assumptions about her, and her Jewishness, based on how she looks, and on her mother’s (and thus her) background. And this is what it’s like for so many children from interfaith, inter-racial and/or inter-cultural homes. Fortunately for Tara, she comes to realize that connecting to her Judaism on a deeper level doesn’t mean that she has to distance herself from her Indian heritage. As she says in her Bat Mitzvah speech: “…now I know that inspiration can come from many different sources, and that having multicultural experiences can actually make you stronger and more accepting of different points of view.” She comes to see that “Nanaji would really have liked my Bat Mitzvah…he was a very spiritual person…he would have approved, as long as I did it with an open heart.”
When my children write book reports for school, they always have to tell whether they would recommend the book, and why or why not. Well, I can say that I would highly recommend My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. It was refreshing to read about a young woman coming of age and dealing with the multiple aspects of her identity, and realizing that she could be fully Jewish AND still honor her Indian cultural heritage (as she did by wearing a treasured sari from her mother’s family which was made into a dress for her Bat Mitzvah).
The book shows in a touching way not just the challenges, but also the blessings, of growing up in an interfaith, inter-cultural family. It’s always said that kids need to see themselves reflected in the dolls they play with, the television and movies they watch, and the stories they read. I’d imagine that a middle schooler, especially a girl, growing up in an interfaith, inter-racial or intercultural home would at least find some aspects of herself reflected in Tara.
If you’re a mom or dad in an interfaith home and you have a child in middle school, I suggest that you get My Basmati Bat Mitzvah for your child. Better yet, read it with your kid! It’ll give you a great opening to discuss complex issues of belonging and identity. If you’re raising your child as a Jew, you can discuss with them how they can still be one hundred percent Jewish even if one parent did not grow up (and may still not be) Jewish. And you can talk about how being Jewish and proudly celebrating your Jewish identity doesn’t mean that you can’t love and honor family members who aren’t Jewish with a full heart or that you can’t embrace aspects of what you inherited from your parent who did not grow up Jewish.
I have to return My Basmati Bat Mitzvah to the library soon, before it’s overdue. And when I get there, I may just go back to the children’s section to see what other great books I can find for myself.
Many will agree that taboo topics of conversation include sex, politics, money, and religion. We’re guided not to discuss these things at work, sometimes not even with our extended family, but do we talk about them at home, with our spouse? With our children? If you don’t talk about these topics, how will your children know what’s important to you?
Jim Keen states, in response to his daughter’s query, “What is God?” in When My Jewish Child Asks Me about God: A Christian Parent’s Perspective,
Certainly, none of us want to leave a large gap in our child’s development. So, let’s start talking about it.
Answer these questions for yourself: Where does God live? How does God listen? Does God ever sleep? Does God forgive me? Does God hear my prayers? Children are thinking about these things and developing their own responses. Ask your child what he/she thinks. Share your ideas. If you’re stuck, check out the Children’s Spirituality Quest Set published by Skylight Paths Publishing in Woodstock, VT. They are designed for children ages 3-6, but I’ve used them when teaching teens. This set is perfect for any family; it has been “endorsed by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist religious leaders.”
Another book you may consider adding to your child’s library (or your own), In God’s Name shares insights from many different people about qualities that they see in God and what each calls God. This book allows the reader to create his/her own connection to God and adapt one of the names in the book or develop his/her own name for God.
My personal favorite is called God’s Paintbrush. In writing this, I discovered that there is now a special 10th Anniversary Edition of God’s Paintbrush. In the introduction, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso tells a sweet story of a child explaining to his grandmother why he likes this book so much. “It’s because it asks questions.” When asked if the answers to the questions were in the back of the book, she explained, “no, the answers are inside you.”
She goes on to share some ideas for how to read and utilize the book to open the door for conversation.
So start your conversation. Take the “taboo” label off God and start talking about God with your partner, with your children, with your family, and maybe even with your friends!
This year my parents hosted their 44th annual Passover seder. I’m not old enough to have been to them all, but the only year I didn’t attend was when I was living in Israel. Thus, for me, this is how Passover seder is “done.” It’s the seder that I grew up with. I distinctly remember the first time I went to a different seder and realized that there are other ways of observing this Jewish tradition.
Many years ago my family started holding our seder on the Saturday night during Passover. Although not always the traditional first or even second night seder, it is ours. This year our seder took place on the sixth night. By bringing family together on the weekend, we are able to max-out the dining room that each year stretches into the living room, setting places for 29 people (not including Elijah). The Haggadah was the same as it always is with the additions over the years for Miriam’s Cup, a contemporary Dayeinu, and some other assorted embellishments.
However this year was different from other years because my niece (the only of her generation) is nearly 21 months old and now able to interact with all of us. Upon her birth, I enrolled my niece in PJ Library — an amazing program that sends a free Jewish book to children every month. My sister-in-law brought the most recent edition, and a current favorite, Company’s Coming: A Passover Lift-the-Flap Book.
What’s special about this book? The flaps make reading fun. The message is straight-forward. It walks the young reader through the elements of preparing for Passover, setting the table, and the items on the seder plate. Since we were setting the table while my mom read to her, it was fitting to show the actual items as they appeared in the book. We made reading come alive even more than the lift-the-flaps.
My favorite part was how she embraced the kippah. She put it on my dad’s head. She put it on her own head. She even put it on the dog’s head! Bless her heart; the dog was so patient, never moving while this adorable little girl dressed up for the seder. (Need proof? Check out the adorably cute photos below!)
If you have (or know) a little one, consider signing up for PJ Library. You may not love every book as much as my family loves this one, but I’m sure you’ll find a gem of your own. In the Bay Area, sign up online or visit their site to find the PJ Library nearest you.
Right around Passover, there was some prominent coverage in the secular press about intermarriage due to the publication of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s book, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part and reviews in the Wall Street Journal (where she has been a religion writer) and the New York Times.
I’ve ordered the book but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I thought Riley’s suggestion that religious communities “strike a delicate balance” in their approach to interfaith families, as described in the Wall Street Journal review, was itself fairly balanced:
I’m concerned about the emphasis on the last point — that interfaith marriage leads young adults “away from the fold.” According to the Wall Street Journal review, Riley says that questions about child-raising can “tear at the fabric of a marriage,” that interfaith families are on average less likely to be happy, that the partners lose steadiness of observance and belief, that children are more likely to reject their parents’ faiths, and that couples are more likely to divorce.
The divorce point makes me question the basis for Riley’s observations. Back in 2010, I wrote a blog post, Are Interfaith Marriages Really Failing Fast, about a story Riley wrote for the Washington Post. Here’s what I said back then:
Susan Katz Miller, in her blog On Being Both, also finds Riley’s stance on intermarriage to be “strangely pessimistic” and finds her “gloom and doom” not supported by Riley’s own data.
I also question the basis of Riley’s observations because at InterfaithFamily we have published many narratives and heard from so many interfaith couples that they have resolved questions about child-raising, have children who learn to love Jewish practice, and who themselves strengthened observance and belief — and are quite happy in their marriage. People like the brother of Stanley Fish, author of the review in the New York Times, who describes the lengths which their father went to break up his brother’s relationship and concludes:
The New York Times review suggests that Riley isn’t against intermarriage — she’s in an interfaith and inter-racial marriage that has worked:
That’s balanced advice, too — although again, I’m concerned that “bed of thorns” overdoes it.