Attention all Beatles Fans!

Attention all Beatles fans! That favorite of all tween and teen girls of the 60′s (confession: that would be me!) has chosen to be a Jew.

PAUL MCCARTNEY, baptized Roman Catholic but admittedly never very devout, quietly told pals after his marriage to socialite NANCY SHEVELL – who’s Jewish and takes her religion seriously – that he’s studying Judaism and promised his new bride he’ll convert, reports a friend of the star. The former Beatle’s first wife, LINDA EASTMAN, came from a prominent Jewish family and McCartney had talked about converting after they married, but just never got around to it. Paul told pals he’ll complete his conversion studies next year.

Dare we hope that he starts to write songs with Jewish themes?? I don’t usually care about what stars of stage, screen and music are doing, but this is different. (And we can trust the National Enquirer with this story, right?)

JDate & The Search for Mr. Right

I suppose my desire to rejoin JDate was reinforced yesterday in an InterfaithFamily.com staff meeting while discussing our new 401K plan.  The sign up form was simple – but all I could see were two boxes looming at me:

    “Check here for Married.” 
    “Check Here for NOT MARRIED.” 

It was like a flashing beacon in the room.  I was the only unmarried one (well, unless you count Benjamin, but he’s got one foot down the aisle with his lovely fiancée).  So, I thought to myself, “It’s time to get back on the horse.”

It’s been a while since I’ve been on JDate.  I had taken a breather to move apartments, start a new job at IFF, and you know, smell the roses.

JDate has changed since I first joined (let’s just say….) many years ago.  I think one of the best changes is that it now offers the option for non-Jews to join the site and can choose one of the following as the “religion” option:

It appears that this was an important shift with JDate.  According to its mission, JDate is “deeply committed to Israel and Jewish cultural programs” but also provides “support for numerous non-profit organizations of all faiths.” With about 50% of the population intermarrying, this is an important option for those of us still looking for Mr. or Ms. Right.  For support and more information on interdating, visit here.

I’m off to find my Mr. Right.

In Other News…

Three stories of interest to readers of InterfaithFamily.com:

Kansas!

The new president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, Miriam Scharf, is on the right track.

In addition to other goals, like education and resource development, she plans to make “welcoming interfaith families a priority”:

“Studies show that in some communities as many as 50 percent of Jewish families are interfaith,” she said. “In a community like Kansas City, I think we can do a better job of addressing some of the needs that interfaith families have, engaging the interfaith family in Jewish community activities and making them feel welcome.”

Miriam, if you need any help, we’re here for you and your community.


Speaking up for Jews by Choice

Writing in Haaretz, Rabbi Michael Knopf busts myths about Jews by Choice (aka, converts to Judaism). He lays out possible historical reasons for being skeptical, or even critical, of those who convert (or want to convert) to Judaism. But his bottom line?

But here is the truth: A Jew by Choice is just as Jewish as any Jew by Birth. For over two millennia, this has been the normative position of the Jewish tradition toward those brave and blessed souls who have chosen to become part of the Jewish people.

It is a position that has its pedigree in Talmudic law (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47), and, according to many scholars, likely predates the Mishna itself.

Although the sincerity of any potential convert must be ascertained prior to bringing them into the Jewish fold, once they emerge from the mikveh (the ritual bath), they are a Jew in every way.

When a convert becomes Jewish, it is irrevocable. The Talmud, Maimonides, Jacob ben Asher, and Joseph Caro (to name but a few) all agree that conversion means a complete shedding of non-Jew status; a Jew by Choice is as fully Jewish as any Jew by Birth.

Thanks for reiterating this, rabbi. Let’s hope that more people hear your message and treat all of us, by choice or by birth, equally.


Chinese Jews

I was surprised to stumble across an article about the “who’s a Jew” debate in the Wall Street Journal. The Jews of the Chinese town of Kaifeng followed patrilineal descent (“Kaifeng Jews trace their heritage through their father, as Chinese traditionally do”). But when they visit Israel, or get in touch with the Chabad House in Beijing, they’re told they’re not actually Jewish (“They may stem from Jewish ancestry, but they aren’t Jewish,” says Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who runs the orthodox Chabad House in Beijing. “There hasn’t been a Jewish community in Kaifeng in 400 years.”).

Except there is one, though it’s divided and diminished. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people in the city say they are descendants of Kaifeng Jews and cling to at least some Jewish traditions. A canvas poster at No. 21 Teaching the Torah Lane announces the street as the site of a synagogue that was destroyed in an 1860 flood and never rebuilt. Inside a tiny courtyard house, “Esther” Guo Yan works as a tour guide and sells knick-knacks decorated with Jewish stars.

When tourists stop by, she quizzes them on Jewish ceremonies, like what prayers to say when lighting Sabbath candles. She says she hasn’t yet managed to fast a full day on Yom Kippur, though she is trying. As the granddaughter of a Kaifeng Jew, she says the orthodox standard on Judaism is unfair: “We read the Torah with Eastern thoughts; deal with it.”

The first Jewish merchants arrived when Kaifeng was in its heyday as the Song dynasty capital. They married the local women and rose to become mandarins and military officials. Over the centuries they blended in ethnically and were forgotten by the world until 1605, when a Jewish scholar from Kaifeng, Ai Tien, met Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in Beijing. The missionary then spread the news that Jews had been living in China for centuries.

The Kaifeng Jewish population is thought to have peaked at around 5,000, but by the early 1900s, none could read Hebrew and the community’s Torah scrolls were sold to collectors. Jews were called “the Muslims with the blue caps,” referring to the color of the yarmulkes some still wore.

“In our family, we didn’t eat pork, that’s for sure,” says Nina Wang, a 24-year-old Kaifeng native who now lives in Israel and underwent orthodox Jewish conversion. The family had menorahs and Sabbath cups, she said, “but we didn’t know what to do with those things.”

It’s a really interesting read about a community not known to many of us!

Celebrity Updates: Ivanka and Gwyneth

Despite the frequency with which I blog about them, I actually have little care about celebrities’ lives. But they keep coming up in the news, saying things of relevance to intermarriage, interfaith families, so I guess I’ll have to keep blogging…

First, mazal tov to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner on the birth of their daughter on July 17.

The AP tells us,

Kushner is the owner of the New York Observer newspaper. He and Trump wed in 2009. She converted to Judaism before the wedding.

They’ve named their daughter Arabella Rose. I’m not quite sure where the name fits on the bizarre-celeb-baby-name chart, though it’s certainly saner than “Alef” (and has been described as “exotic” by Donald Trump).

If you want to follow the goings on in the Trump/Kushner home, Ivanka’s tweeting, starting with this one from Arabella’s second day:

Jared and I are having so much fun playing with our daughter! Arabella Rose is beyond adorable. She’s truly a blessing.

The next update is about Gwyneth Paltrow, a regular feature in our interfaith celebrities column.

An =http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2016674/Gwyneth-Paltrow-Ill-raise-Apple-Moses-Jewish.htmlarticle in the Daily Mail reveals,

She once claimed that she did not believe in religion.

But now Gwyneth Paltrow has revealed she wants to raise her children in the Jewish faith, following an appearance on the ancestry programme Who Do You Think You Are

The American actress, whose late father was Jewish film producer Bruce Paltrow, was moved to discover earlier this year on the show that her family came from a long line of influential East European rabbis.

And this has inspired her to raise daughter Apple, seven, and five-year-old son Moses in a Jewish environment, she told guests of a London event hosted by Jewish charity the Community Security Trust.

Her decision is a far cry from comments she made last year about her experience of being raised as both Jewish and Christian.

‘It was such a nice way to grow up,’ she said, but later added: ‘I don’t believe in religion. I believe in spirituality. Religion is the cause of all the problems in the world.’

Gwyneth, if you need any resources for yourself, your husband or your family, we’re here for you.

On Dame Elizabeth Taylor z”l and Conversion

Yesterday, the world lost an actress, an activist and a humanitarian when rabbi">Elizabeth Taylor died, at age 79.

She was really one of the first people in the public eye to take on the AIDS epidemic and embrace those living with HIV and AIDS. She took some of the fear away, and led a fight that still survives.

Late in life she became a social activist. After her friend Rock Hudson died, she helped establish the American Foundation for AIDS Research and helped raise money for it. In 1997, she said, “I use my fame now when I want to help a cause or other people.”

She was a really remarkable woman.

Increasingly, Ms. Taylor divided her time between her charitable works (including various Israeli causes) and commercial enterprises, like a line of perfumes marketed under her name. She helped raise more than $100 million to fight AIDS. In February 1997, she celebrated her 65th birthday at a party that was a benefit for AIDS research. After the party Ms. Taylor entered Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for an operation on a brain tumor. (From the NYTimes obit.)

Elizabeth Taylor also converted to Judaism over 50 years ago, sometime between her marriage to Mike Todd and wedding Eddie Fisher*. Fisher was Jewish, so it’s possible that she converted to marry him. 

Which got me thinking: How common were conversions circa 1958/1959?

In the book of Ruth, Naomi tried to get Ruth to go back to her own people 3 times before Ruth became a part of the Hebrew people. As a result, some rabbis “reject” a potential convert three times before discussing conversion with them. In 1950s Hollywood, did Taylor have to do that? And how did that take less than a year?

Today, it’s common for conversion to take at least a year (at least two years in many cases). And for many individuals it’s an even longer process than that, between deciding to explore Judaism, talking with a rabbi, taking conversion classes, and finally taking the dip in the mikvah (or otherwise completing the process). How did Dame Elizabeth convert in under a year? Was that the norm back then?

*This got the office excited, so I’ve got to include a footnote: Eddie Fisher was married to Debbie Reynolds, who wasn’t Jewish. Together, they had two children: Carrie and Todd (quite probably named after Elizabeth’s husband, Mike Todd, who died around the time of Todd’s birth). Eddie ended his marriage to Debbie to marry Elizabeth. Elizabeth is Carrie’s step-mother (maybe). But more importantly: Princess Leia is from an interfaith family!

More Who Is a Jew

A month ago I blogged about the “who is a Jew” questionthat arose from the tragic attack on Gabrielle Giffords. My main point was this:

It behooves everyone in the Jewish community, Orthodox included, to regard Gabrielle Giffords as a Jew for all purposes except where halachic status matters. Many would say that the entire community benefits from having a staunch supporter of Israel in the US Congress, for example. When halachic status is important, it can be dealt with. A Jew to whom halachic status is important in a marriage partner, for example, can choose not to marry someone who does not measure up to his or her halachic standards, or the non-halachic Jew can convert according to those same standards. It would be a major advance if the idea took hold that the Jewish community consists of Jews who are halachic and who are not halachic and that issues of halachic status could be dealt with when they arise.

The Forward issue dated today has two related articles of interest. My former colleague Rabbi Sue Fendrick, in Beyond ‘Yes or No’ Jewishness,
seems to agree with me. She makes the interesting point that the State of Israel recognizes the advantages of distinguishing “Jewish for what purpose?” – the state’s eligibility rules for immigration and for ritual status are different. I loved her statement,

… we gain nothing by ignoring or failing to name the ways that an individual’s Jewishness “counts” – whether they live a Jewish life and identify as a Jew, come from a Jewish family or are “half-Jewish,” or are simply identified by other Jews as being “one of us.” … Simple yes/no definitions of Jewishness are inadequate to the task of naming reality. We need to make room for descriptions that tell us about Jewishness as it is, not obscure its realities and complexities.

Rabbi Andy Bachman, in Patrilineal Promise and Pitfalls, suggests that children raised as Jews who are not considered Jews outside of the Reform movement because their mothers are not Jewish should be taken to the mikveh for conversion by Reform rabbis by the age of Bar of Bat Mitzvah. The problem with that approach is that the Jews who don’t consider those children Jewish, wouldn’t recognize such a conversion if it were under Reform auspices. If Reform conversions were so recognized, I would be in favor of this kind of process, or even of incorporating conversion into a bris or baby naming ceremony. Sadly this is not in the cards.

House, MD

How did I miss this when it originally aired?

I was watching a backlog of House episodes, when I came to the episode “Larger Than Life”, which originally aired on January 17, 2011. I was impressed by the interfaith dating questions that came up.

For those who don’t know. Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Jewish, played by Lisa Edelstein) is dating Dr. Gregory House (who, in this episode, declares himself an atheist and is played by Hugh Laurie). Cuddy’s mother, Arlene  (played by Candice Bergen), visits the couple – and meets House for the first time. We learn that she had converted to Judaism to marry Cuddy’s father.

Anyway. They’re all having dinner together, and Bergen asks, “if you were to marry, would you (House) convert to Judaism?” House explains that it’s a little early to be thinking of such things. His best friend, Dr. Wilson, who is also at the meal, jumps in, “actually, that’s really interesting…”

Cuddy’s mother doesn’t see House’s atheism as reason not to convert. “Half the Jews I know are atheists,” she replies. Adding, “it’s about community.”

House, being House, manages to evade the discussion as only he can.

But it made me think: is there such a thing as too early to talk about religious differences in a relationship? Were Cuddy and House real people, and not just characters on a television program, what would we tell them? I’d hope they’d talk about what their expectations were of one another, how they viewed their relationship, plan on spending holidays  together. And I’d suggest they take a look at Issues Interfaith Families Confront, Plus Six Tips for Couples Considering Intermarriage in addition to our other resources for couples interdating.

Serious But Not Fully Observant Jews

I would like to recommend an excellent article by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, On Joining the Covenant.  Rabbi Greenberg is a very highly regarded Modern Orthodox rabbi. He apparently wrote the article to take a position on the current crisis over conversion standards in Israel. But it has implications which I find fascinating, for liberal Jews and people in interfaith relationships here in America.

The background is that there are hundreds of thousands of people from the former Soviet Union who had one Jewish grandparent and were able to move to Israel under its law of return , but are not halachically Jewish themselves (their mother or mother’s mother was not Jewish). Many serve in the Israel Defense Force, but are not considered Jewish for purposes of personal status, including marriage and burial. Many want to convert in order to be fully recognized as Jews, but conversion in Israel is controlled by the extremely strict Orthodox rabbinate, which requires potential converts to agree to live an Orthodox lifestyle, complying with all requirements of Jewish law.

Rabbi Greenberg provides elegant and concise explanations of what the covenant between God and the Jewish people, and conversion, are about. The covenant is about tikkun olam, defined as the replenishment of the deficiency in creation, when the real world will conform to the ideal world, with humanity as God’s partner, the ultimate aim of Judaism. The first Jewish family, Abraham and Sarah, took on this covenantal mission, but because the family is dedicated to the higher ideal, it is not just a family that one joins by being born into it. Conversion is about accepting the family’s mission and committing oneself to its ideals.

In addition to the ritual requirements of conversion (circumcision for males and immersion in the mikveh) and to pledging to identify and continue the life’s work of the family, Jewish law imposes a third requirement of conversion, “the knowing acceptance of” the Torah. This is where the dispute arises as to the degree of observance of Jewish law that is required. Rabbi Greenberg provides a wonderful short description of different kinds of mitzvot, those involving ethics and interpersonal dealings, and those involving ritual activities.

Rabbi Greenberg’s formulation is that a convert is saying, with respect to the Torah, that “I acknowledge that there are obligations on me. I will not act and do whatever I please but rather will discipline my behavior to advance the purpose and mission of the covenant.” He goes on to say that “a person’s acknowledging and accepting the principle that there are indeed obligations we are commanded to keep if we would live up to” the covenant, in itself fulfills the conversion requirement of knowing acceptance of the Torah. “The individual should then accept the mitzvot in principle, while explicitly committing himself or herself to the fundamental precepts of ethics as well as to such basic rituals as kashrut and shabbat.”

And even here, there is room for nuance. For instance, kosher means that, because one is a Jew, one will or won’t eat certain foods. Thus, a person who gives up pig or shellfish, or eats no hametz (leavened products) on Passover, can, even if not keeping a kosher home, legitimately say: I accept the obligation to keep kosher. By the same token, a person can honor shabbat as a special day by lighting candles, scheduling a special family meal on Friday night, visiting mother and father religiously on the Sabbath day, and thus, even if not observing the 39 proscribed categories of labor spelled out in the Talmud, still legitimately declare: as a Jew, I will observe shabbat.

As an Orthodox Jew and rabbi, Rabbi Greenberg says he wants people to observe kashrut and Shabbat fully, but he affirms the limited form of observance as a legitimate accommodation to enable the conversion of people in Israel who will be “serious Jews – albeit not Orthodox Jews.” Later in the essay he says these standards meet the needs for conversion in the Diaspora as well. And he concludes by saying that if his approach of not insisting on full observance of the ritual mitzvot were followed,  “I am convinced we would in fact end up with many more fully observant converts than we have now, not to speak of the tens of thousands who, even though less than fully observant, would be fully serious Jews.”

Coming from an admittedly non-Orthodox perspective as I do, Rabbi Greenberg’s approach to the current conversion crisis in Israel, and to appropriate conversion standards here in America, is enlightened. As a “political” matter, I wish that more Orthodox authorities would agree with him. There are other questions that interest me more: To what extent can a non-converting non-Jewish partner still participate in the Jewish people’s mission to make the real world conform to the ideal? To what extent can such a person be said to be committed to the principle that there are obligations involved in that mission, and to observe them? Can a non-Jewish or for that matter a Jewish partner acknowledge that there are obligations involved in living up to the covenant without accepting that those obligations are commanded by God?

In my personal practice, I don’t keep fully kosher, but I scrupulously avoid eating pork. I used to feel embarrassed by this “not good enough” practice until another rabbi told me years ago that “anything that you do in the direction of keeping kosher is good.” I find Rabbi Greenberg’s tolerance of less than full observance of Jewish law and his welcoming of serious but not fully observant Jews to be very heartening. InterfaithFamily.com is trying to encourage interfaith couples and families to engage in Jewish life. They by and large are not going to be fully observant, but they could be seriously Jewishly engaged. If that approach is respected, and considered close to if not within the covenant, then more interfaith couples and families may move in that direction.

Hodge Podge!

There’s been a lot of talk, of late, about intermarriage, interfaith Jews and the eternal “who is a Jew” debate. Some of it was spurred by the attack on Rep. Giffords, and the Jewish community’s near unanimous response that, yes, she is Jewish. (See, for example, Julie Wiener’s recent column in The Jewish Week, Is Anyone Jewish Enough?)

But that wasn’t the only source of news this week. So cuddle up with a mug of hot cocoa, stay warm and watch the snowstorms move in while you read another hodge podge:

An article in the Jewish Exponent looked at bullying in the Jewish community, specifically in Jewish schools.

Even if violence is minimal, day school students said that doesn’t make the emotional or mental abuse any easier to bear.

“It’s worse for us because our cliques can’t be based on color or race, so instead, it goes a little bit deeper,” Becca Richman, 16, a junior at Barrack Hebrew Academy, said during a discussion on bullying at an Anti-Defamation League youth leadership conference in late November.

Since everyone shares the same ethnicity, students might discriminate over whether someone is overly observant, not observant enough, from an intermarried family, homosexual, wealthy and so forth, her classmates added.

Read more from Taking Bullying by the Horns to see how the problem is being addressed.

Meanwhile, the religion blog in the National Post, a Canadian newspaper, linked to a story on Intermarriage, the law of return and the modern Israeli state. It might be interesting to you to read some of the proposals Israel has for dealing with intermarriage, people who are “Jewish enough” to move to Israel but not “Jewish enough” to be considered Jewish for marriage. (I will add the disclaimer that when I read the line, “One brave exception is Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a member of the Knesset from the Shas political party.” I had to fight the urge to stop reading…)

Now, I wouldn’t normally share an article (Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match) that boasts an OU (Orthodox Union) approved dating site, but I how else would I have learned about intermarriage statistics for the Jewish Deaf community?

In the past, the rate of intermarriage among the deaf was close to 60%.

Another article looking at the “who’s a Jew” question in Israel focuses instead on Y.B., a 23-year-old would-be convert to Judaism (he was raised Jewish, has a non-Jewish mother) who is gay.

The soldier’s experience highlights the plight that gay would-be converts to Judaism face in Israel: Because there is no separation of state and religion, and the state religion is regulated by the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate, it is practically impossible for an openly gay person to convert to Judaism. Under Orthodox Jewish law, a would-be convert who rejects a tenet of the Torah — in this case, the prohibition against homosexual intercourse — cannot join the faith.

And:

An IDF spokesman denied that Y.B. was expelled from the course because he is gay.

“The IDF believes that a person’s origin, gender and sexual orientation cannot have an impact on his or her ability to appropriately complete the conversion process,” the spokesman said in response to a JTA query. “The soldier in question chose to leave the course of his own accord because, as he noted, ‘He did not feel ready to complete the conversion process.’ The soldier was clearly informed he could return to the course when he felt ready to do so.”

Y.B. says that during his meeting with conversion course officials, he signed a form saying he was not ready to complete the process only because he was told he could not continue to study if he indeed was gay. The stipulation given for his return would be based on his agreeing to pursue relationships with women, Y.B. says he was told.

Soldier’s story highlights plight facing gay would-be converts in Israel is an interesting read. It made me wonder if there are other cases of soldiers being ousted from converting for not following one of the commandments. Have people been ousted for carrying outside an eruv on Shabbat? For wearing shatnez (fabric containing both wool and linen)?

So that’s some food for thought… Let us know what you think!

From Mormon to Jew

New kid on the block blog Kveller has a new post up, written by Mayim Bialik. You might remember her from Blossom – she played the title role. You might now notice her on The Big Bang Theory, playing the deliciously nerdy (and stealthily modestly dressed) girlfriend to Sheldon.

She’s written about her husband Mike’s conversion to Judaism. He was raised a Mormon:

Yes, you heard me right: my husband was raised Mormon. How Mormon? Well, let’s see… Sunday school, accepting the priesthood, baptizing the dead, family in Utah who don’t drink hot beverages and strongly disapprove of “Big Love.” Should I stop now? Yes. Very Mormon.

So how did his family react?

Mike’s decision to convert to Judaism after five years of dating “SuperJew” (that would be one of my nicknames) was welcomed by his family. They saw his identification with any religion better than the identification with none  that he had happily had since he left the Church due to disbelief and disinterest at the age of 12. In addition, an understanding and appreciation of Judaism is integral to the Mormon religion, and the Jews are regarded as a people chosen by G-d to receive the Ten Commandments and the Old Testament.

Really, you should just head over and read the full article on Kveller.