Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
I’ve been to a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs in my life, but I’ve never been so deeply moved as I was on a recent Shabbat.
My cousin, Nancy Sharp, who I’ve always adored, has experienced a life of tragic loss and re-found joy. Her husband, Brett, who I remember vividly as a most wonderful young man, died of brain cancer when their twins, Casey and Rebecca, were 2 1/2 years old. Nancy decided to move from Manhattan to Denver, where she had one friend.
After relocating, Nancy read about Steve Saunders, a local TV journalist, in a magazine article about eligible bachelors; Steve’s wife had died of cancer and he was raising two young teens, Ryan and Dylan. Long story short, Nancy and Steve met, married and combined their families. Nancy has told her story in a remarkable book, Both Sides Now. And this spring, Casey and Rebecca became bar and bat mitzvah.
The service and the celebration were amazing. Brett’s family, though living at a distance, has remained very close to Nancy and her children. Brett’s mother, an aunt and uncle, and many cousins were all present and there were not a few tears when Brett’s mother presented his tallit to Casey at the start of the service. But Steve’s family, who are not Jewish, were very present too; I could see that Casey and Rebecca have acquired a third set of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. The kindness and the love that flowed between Steve and Brett’s family, and Steve’s family and my cousins, was plain for all to see.
I learned that Ryan and Dylan had many Jewish friends growing up, attended Jewish summer camp and one of Steve’s very adorable nephews (who is not Jewish) even attends the pre-school at Temple Micah, where Nancy and Steve are members. So the Saunders family was not unfamiliar with what happens at a bar or bat mitzvah. And Rabbi Adam Morris did an extraordinarily sensitive job of bringing Brett into the service while keeping the focus on the present.
Rebecca and Casey
But what I especially appreciated was how inclusive Rabbi Morris was of Steve and his family. In many Reform synagogues, part of a bar or bat mitzvah service is a symbolic passing of the Torah from grandparents to parents to child, but at many, the grandparents and parent who are not Jewish don’t get to participate (on the theory that the Torah is not “theirs” to pass, or perhaps that they couldn’t have passed Judaism to the child). At this b’nei mitzvah, I was very glad to see the Torah passed from my cousins Ron and Sue to Brett’s mother, to Steve’s parents, to Steve and Nancy and then to their children.
As in probably all Reform synagogues, part of the bar or bat mitzvah service involves the parents having an aliyah (saying the blessings before and after a portion of the Torah is read). But as best I know, the vast majority of Reform rabbis will not allow a parent who is not Jewish to join in reciting the Torah blessings at their own child’s bar or bat mitzvah. I believe this is based on theory that the blessing refers to God choosing “us” and giving “us” the Torah, and the parent who is not Jewish isn’t part of the “us.” I felt so grateful to Rabbi Morris, and told him so afterwards, for allowing Steve to join with Nancy in the parents’ aliyah. I wish the rabbis who wouldn’t have permitted that could have been at the b’nei mitzvah of Casey and Rebecca Zickerman. Maybe seeing the contribution that Steve, not to mention his extended family, has made to passing Judaism on to Casey and Rebecca might persuade them to change their minds. Something is very wrong, in my opinion, when rabbis can’t consider the family of a person like Steve to be the “us” to whom the Torah was given, making it fully authentic and appropriate for a person like Steve to thank God for giving the Torah to his family—to “us.”
Rabbi Morris’ inclusive approach should not have been a surprise; in 2004 he wrote an excellent sermon explaining why, as it says on the Temple Micah website, “I proudly officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples.” To our knowledge, he is the only congregational rabbi in Denver who will do so.
Nancy Sharp’s story is very personal and emotional for me, and one of, if not the, most inspiring stories I have ever encountered. I love Nancy and her family; the loss she suffered was painful, and the love that she found is a source of great joy. I think the lesson here is about being open to and choosing love. The love that Nancy was open to and chose with Steve, and the love that flows between their families, including Brett’s, is what makes their example so powerful. I hope that the inclusive approach of their rabbi, who chooses to privilege love and family over other concerns, becomes an increasingly powerful example to his colleagues, too.
The other night, my husband was watching arguably his favorite show, Shark Tank. He shouted from the other room (literally, the only other room in our wee Boston apartment), “Lindsey, come see this!” I thought maybe I knew someone on the show. Turned out, in a way, I did. It was a holiday episode featuring some interfaith holiday items, ones I’m familiar with. Pitching his company was Neal Hoffman of Mensch on a Bench—it’s a Hanukkah plush toy that looks like an old rabbi modeled after the Christmas Elf on a Shelf (sound a little scary? One of the Sharks, Barbara Corcoran, pointed out as much, and was ready to give The Mensch a makeover). After Hoffman explained his own interfaith background and made a deal with Sharks Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec, we caught up with someone from Season 5 who made a deal with his Star of David “Hanukkah Tree Topper.”
I loved that Shark Tank was doing an interfaith episode before Hanukkah, and here at IFF, we don’t tell people they’re doing religion “wrong” or which way is the right way. Whatever way you want to connect with Judaism is great! But we also haven’t been advertising what seem to me to be Christmas items for Jews. Personally, I can see how an interfaith family might end up with all kinds of Jewish items from around their home on their Christmas tree, but something about purchasing a Jewish symbol as a tree topper might cross the line for some people and, truth: makes me cringe a bit. Same with an Elf on the Shelf for Hanukkah. That said, lots of people love it—and I do mean it when I say that you should enjoy any way you like to celebrate the holidays!
Regardless of what any of us think, this episode of Shark Tank drove home the fact that Jewish and interfaith merchandise for the holidays could quickly find their place in our local Target, CVS, maybe even the Christmas Tree Shops. So I may as well weigh in now, and say that if more toys and decorations are being created for Hanukkah, I’d like to see some that are uniquely related to Hanukkah.
Instead of blending Christmas and Hanukkah into one holiday, why not respect them each for what they are, and come up with some fun new ways to celebrate Hanukkah for families of all kinds? Is there a candy menorah? Maybe one that doubles as a musical instrument? Musical candles that play the blessings? An app for kids that’s actually fun and entertaining? Some plush singing Maccabees? If any of you entrepreneurs out there capitalize on any of these ideas, just send the royalty checks my way. Thanks.
What did you think of the Shark Tank episode and interfaith holiday merchandise? If you missed it, you can catch the Battle Over Mensch on a Bench here.
Below are five observations from working with interfaith families that may get our hearts racing and hopefully prompt respectful discussion:
1. Language matters. God created the world with words, “Let there be light…and there was…” The rabbis said that to embarrass someone is to kill their soul—to bring blood to their face. The same word in Hebrew for “word,”—d’var—is also the word for “thing.” Words create reality. The old adage “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” is not Jewish. Thus, when we say, “non-Jew” for example, we are saying that someone is a “non-entity” or different from, and that isolates and estranges the very people we seek to endear and hold close. Thus, I say, “not Jewish” because I believe this difference is more than semantics.
2. Owning It. Many people who grew up with Judaism and are getting married describe themselves as “culturally Jewish.” I have started pushing people to define what this means. Which culture? Ashkenazkic Jewish? If you go to your parent’s for the holidays and your mother makes kugel and brisket, she is a cultural Jew. Can you claim this as an authentic identity as an adult vicariously? Is there a cut-off age for this when you have to own it yourself? Are people cultural Jews because they grew up culturally Jewish: going to Jewish camp (or camp with lots of Jews), having Jewish friends, getting together with family for break-fast and Passover?
As adults, we identify as Jewish, but maybe this hasn’t been actualized since the Bar/Bat Mitzvah circuit or since a Jewish sorority or fraternity or a birthright trip. When people say they are culturally Jewish, they may be describing their upbringing more than anything. They may also be saying what they are not. They are not members of a synagogue (neither are their parents, often) and they do not think about Judaism on a regular basis. But lifecycle moments often must be Jewish. There is no other way for them to imagine getting married or welcoming a baby than to have a rabbi present and to look to Jewish tradition. Is this empty or lacking? Not to me. This is real. This is a basis upon which new learning and experiences can take place. This is roots. This is connectedness and family closeness. If we dismiss this, we will lose another generation of people who grew up with Judaism and need to be sold on its value as a way of life.
3. Re-branding Judaism. Selling Judaism. I find myself cheerleading for Judaism. I hear story after story about not having loved religious school; leaving the synagogue after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah; finding services boring, hard to follow, irrelevant; being disappointed by rabbis for whatever reasons; etc. I try to re-sell an open-minded, loving, vibrant, relevant Judaism in which people will find moral grounding, inspiration, other young people, accessible clergy, and rituals open to anybody who loves a Jew and is comfortable being part of everything—whether or not they formally convert. Does this Judaism exist? Should it exist? I tell people that this Judaism exists because I have experienced it in many places here in Chicago and in many different ways.
4. Inclusion. Can Judaism be an inclusive religion? Inclusion is a recent American ideal. For instance, we aim to create neuro-diverse classrooms because we believe that inclusion of different kinds of learners benefits everyone. But, can it be a Jewish ideal? We have been an insular, tight knit, ethnically bound people and this has kept us going. We are a religion of boundaries: day and night, holy and profane, Shabbat and the rest of the week, before 13 and after 13, kosher or treif. Can we have a Judaism that is totally open and includes everybody? This will change our Judaism. Is this OK? What will it look and feel like? Will there be a reason to formally convert anymore? (Anecdotally, I have found that when those come to experience Judaism they want more and more and do end up wanting a formal conversion, quite often…)
Beyond being welcoming, the real question is how and to what extent can Judaism be an inclusive religion?
5. Both religions. Each of these observations I have gleaned from working with interfaith families’ present challenges and opportunities in the Jewish world. But, this last point is perhaps the most tricky. This one really gets our hearts racing and leads to arguments among Jewish leaders. What about families who want both religions of the parents to be part of their lives? What does it mean anymore to raise Jewish children? Is there a litmus test to this? Can one raise Jewish children and not belong to a synagogue (pretty hard to do in America, I personally think). Can one raise Jewish children if those children attend church with one parent or grandparent or cousins and take part in Christian holidays? Only if those holidays are celebrated “culturally” and not “religiously”? Can one raise Jewish children if Shabbat is not part of their lives, if they do not give tzedakah and if Judaism may not come up in the course of a day or week?
Many, many couples I meet with think they will want some aspects of both religions in their lives. They don’t believe this will confuse children. They feel that if the parents are on the same page, the children will be too. If there is love, tolerance, respect, empathy, a willingness to learn and experience and a depth of compromise, it will enrich the family to become literate in both faiths and to celebrate aspects of both faiths. Whatever we think about this, we are going to have to confront this reality. How can and should the liberal Jewish world respond? What will our religious schools look like if we have more and more children exposed to both religions who feel “half and half” and say it with wholeness and pride? Will this dilute Judaism? Will this expand Judaism? Will all children raised within liberal Judaism today come to love the idiosyncrasies of our way in to the big questions of life: kindness, social justice, the meaning of sin, how to talk about God, what it means to have lived a good life?
If you are an interfaith couple, do these observations resonate? What are your answers? What are your questions? Have I captured some of this? We want to know the top things you are thinking about so that we can think this stuff through with you. Judaism needs your voices and your presence.
Over the three years since InterfaithFamily/Chicago began, many brides and grooms have asked me to connect them with another couple in a similar religious situation to see how they have successfully navigated their relationship. Many times a Catholic woman marrying a Jewish man has wanted to speak to someone else who can understand how her mother and grandmother feel about the faith, upbringing and baptism, specifically, of a theoretical baby one day.
No matter what wisdom I can share from how other couples have worked out interfaith issues, there is nothing like speaking one-on-one with someone who has actually been there. We have done our best to connect couples over the years and have heard back about how helpful those matches have been.
Because we have seen what an organic need this is, we are thrilled that we received a JUF Breakthrough Fund grant to launch a comprehensive and supported new, innovative Mentoring Program for interfaith couples and families.
We are just beginning the program. If you are an interfaith couple seriously dating, engaged or married or an interfaith family with young children who would like to be paired with another couple or family who shares a similar religious story and lives near you, we would be so happy to make a match for you.
The mentors will be available to you through email, phone and in-person to talk through how they handle holidays and extended family, how they made religious decisions, how their kids have felt about their family’s decisions and all the other questions that can come up for interfaith families. The mentors will also invite their mentees to their home between December and May. You may be able to get together in-person (depending on your schedules) for certain holidays or at least to see how the other couple observes a Sabbath and brings peace, time for reflection and revitalization to their lives.
We will stay in touch with everybody and make sure the matches have been successful and that participants are benefitting from their new relationships. This is really a shehecheyanu moment for us at InterfaithFamily (the prayer of joy and gratitude that is said upon doing something for the first time). In the middle of this hard-to-pronounce Hebrew word is the word “chai” (life). This is a prayer about celebrating the joys of life. We have wanted to pair couples with one another in an organized program for some time and we are so proud and happy that the time has come.
InterfaithFamily/Chicago just offered a book talk on David Wolpe’s book Teaching Your Children about God. In the book, Wolpe makes a couple of observations. He writes that we often sense God or something bigger than ourselves in beginnings. This is why when something new starts, we sometimes feel an urge to mark that with prayer or a ritual. He also explains that it is through God’s presence that we can truly see each other. I pray that as we start this new program that it draws people closer to one another and to sacred purpose, hope and inspiration.
If you would like to be paired with a mentor couple or you would like to serve as a mentor couple, please email Judy Jury at email@example.com. Judy is the Jewish educator who will be directing this new program. The mentors will participate in a training program on Sunday, November 9 at the Weinger Northbrook JCC to consciously articulate and think about their religious journeys and how they can best support a couple just starting out. At that meeting, the mentors will receive the contact information for who they will be working with. Mentees can be expected to be contacted by their mentors soon after that date.
The Chancellor of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary wrote a recent article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled “Wanted: Converts to Judaism.” In the article, Eisen writes, “I am asking the rabbis of the Conservative movement to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion, bringing potential converts close and actively making the case for them to commit to Judaism. I am asking Jewish leaders to provide the funding needed for programs, courses and initiatives that will place conversion at the center of Jewish consciousness and the community’s agenda.”
I can just see it now: When you enter a Conservative synagogue, there will be billboards that will say, “Have you considered conversion to Judaism?” Partners who are not Jewish but are part of a Jewish family and raising children with Judaism may want to run the other way or hide for fear of being encouraged to convert when they have not expressed a desire or openness to do so.
Today I spoke with someone whose husband describes himself as “Jew-ish.” He has no other faith or religion in his life today in his mind or heart or soul. He is raising a Jewish son and is enjoying the journey immensely. He leaves work early each month for a family Shabbat experience at our local JCC. He already dreams about his son’s bar mitzvah. He does not want to convert at the present time. He feels that it would hurt his family to become a different religion. He feels it is too much of a break from his family of origin and too drastic. He loved his upbringing and feels close to his extended family and this seems like it would cause unnecessary pain to them.
Instead of using “every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion,” why not explicitly and strongly say that when an interfaith family joins a congregation, then the partner who isn’t Jewish has become a “member of the community.” Being a “member of the community” would be a status granted because this person is making a statement that the majority of American Jews are not making any more. That statement is that Judaism is best lived in community and that for the community to exist we need structures that can house and support learning, worship, life cycle events, pastoral care and social justice work. When an interfaith family joins a congregation, the surveys indicate they behave similarly to in-married families. The synagogue is a vehicle for Jewish behavior and Jewish continuity.
When someone becomes a “member,” he or she will hopefully be enticed to want more learning and may even want the spiritual experience that most liberal Jews have not enjoyed of immersing in a mikveh. I would encourage any liberal Jew to immerse in a mikveh when they as adults have chosen Judaism by supporting a congregation or raising children with Judaism.
Joining a congregation can be a prohibitive financial pursuit and thus there are people who want to join who can’t. Our money should be going to creating different synagogue financial structures, not toward funding programs aimed at conversion. This looks at people in only two categories—Jewish or not Jewish. The statement Eisen is making is that we want all those in our community to be “Jews.” This doesn’t take into account that for a partner who is not Jewish to join a congregation, it means that they are more than “not Jewish.” And they don’t need to be changed in order to live as Jews and to enrich the Jewish community.
Nestled within Boston’s picturesque Beacon Hill neighborhood, the Vilna Shul is a gem that the city is lucky to have. The cultural center opens its doors widely to the entire Boston community, offering substantive Jewish programming, dynamic historical and contemporary exhibits and an egalitarian minyan (a Jewish prayer group).
In this interview, which is as fascinating as the Vilna Shul itself, Program Manager Jessica Antoline discusses what sets the Vilna Shul apart from many organizations, and provides a glimpse into the uniquely honest and well-rounded framework with which the shul’s staff coordinates programming.
The Vilna Shul continues to honor its long multicultural history and has been a wonderfully inclusive space for Jewish interfaith and interracial families to celebrate life cycle events and participate in programming.
What sets the Vilna Shul apart from other organizations and spiritual communities?
There are so many things! I like to think that the Vilna stands apart for three reasons:
1. On a historical level, we are it—the last synagogue from the era that brought most Jews to Boston (1880-1924). It’s an era that changed the city entirely, and we are the only place where you can learn about the Jewish contribution to that change.
2. We are also a hybrid organization, functioning both spiritually and culturally when we need to. We are non-denominational and open to all walks of Jewish life. Just to give you an example, we can have a Shabbat one day and a lecture on the rise of Jewish atheists the next. It’s very exciting.
3. I like to think that all of us at the Vilna try to share a realistic rather than idealistic Jewish story. We love to tell the happy stories, but we will never shy away from the dark sides of Jewish history. Jews are humans. We can both build up and break the world so easily. As I like to say to our visitors, Jewish people are all pieces of one dynamic culture worth celebrating. But we were never a people apart, never a people who stayed static in our actions or philosophies. Like every person we have our light and dark sides to our history. Like every people we need to evaluate who we are and what we are doing in and for this world. At the Vilna, we challenge what it means to be Jewish, what Jewish traditions and histories are and where they come from without any judgment or criticism. Through this open line of communication, I like to think we help strengthen people’s understanding of themselves and their community.
Purim at the Vilna Shul in 2014
What are the ways in which interfaith families and couples have enriched the Vilna Shul?
They help us keep our focus and ensure that we are doing our job. At the Vilna Shul our mission is to preserve and share Jewish culture in ways that are open and accessible to everyone, Jewish or not. What is the Vilna if it is not offering the public what it wants and needs? It becomes just a building without any life. Interfaith couples and families bring new perspectives, lead members of the community to think closely about their words and actions, and help everyone understand each other on a level far deeper than if they were absent from the community.
What programming do you offer that support the needs of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families and couples?
All of our programming is open to interfaith families. Generally when it comes to addressing their needs, we do it within programs during the planning process rather than hosting programs about interfaith issues. (We know that is your field, not ours!) We ensure that every program we offer can be accessed equally by those who identify as Jewish and those who do not. From having words in transliteration and translation to working specifically with scholars, historians, musicians and others who are experienced in working with diverse groups, we always try to answer the question “would I understand this concept if I lived outside of a Jewish context?” before bringing a program to the public.
Our Havurah on the Hill Shabbats and holiday celebrations are an excellent example of this. HOH was designed to be accessible to everyone. It’s actually the number one thing people love about the program. The young Jews who attend come from many backgrounds: children of traditional Jewish backgrounds, children of interfaith parents, couples who are interfaith but considering a Jewish path, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, secular…everything!
In your experience or based upon what members/visitors have told you, what are the salient considerations regarding interfaith families that the Vilna Shul takes into consideration when making institutional decisions or developing programming and education?
Language is always a consideration, based on what our community has told us. They appreciate that we try to make everything we do accessible so we always consider that when making a program. They also appreciate when we bring in many histories based on who is in the audience. For example, if we know that someone attending a program may have a friend, child, or partner who is Catholic-Irish or Hindu or Baptist African American, we try and take the time to make reference to their histories and any connections they have to Jewish history.
What brings you the most joy in your work, particularly your and the Vilna Shul’s leadership around diversity and inclusion?
Actually, what I just talked about brings me the most joy. Being open to everyone, being known as a safe, accessible place to talk about all aspects of Jewish culture, makes me love my job. No one is here to define your Jewishness for you. Instead, you are given access to information and a non-judgmental atmosphere. You must decide the rest! Sounds easy, right? But the pursuit of knowledge and freedom of choice are such difficult paths to take.
I smile when I see interfaith couples getting married at the Vilna. I love seeing a child of an interfaith and intercultural relationship shine as they read from the Torah during their bar or bat mitzvah. My heart soars when a Muslim student tells me he finally found a place and a person to ask the questions he was holding inside for so long.
Parenting Through a Jewish Lens is a program offered through Hebrew College in over a dozen locations in the Greater Boston area (many providing free child care in the daytime!). I recently participated in the program, and it was an incredible experience. The curriculum itself has been continuously updated and modified for several years now (the class used to be called Ikkarim) and has been well supported by CJP since its inception 10 years ago.
PTJL has assembled some of the best educators around. And the content of the materials are worth their weight in gold. This is one notebook you will want to keep in your library, as the lessons really help parents to open up and share ideas and real experiences, which are universal to all parents, yet center around the particular beauty of building one’s Jewish identity inside a growing family.
There are ten lessons in this brilliant yet very accessible curriculum. The lessons are grouped into four domains: Outward Bound (the interpersonal domain), Inward Bound (the domain of personal meaning), Upward Bound (the transcendent domain) and finally Homeward Bound (the domain of identity).
Joshua (left) and his family
The program is a great way to meet other parents who are going through similar struggles in parenting in the modern age. Rather than throw our arms into the air in total bewilderment of twenty-first century parenting, it turns out that there are some very relevant concepts in parenting within Jewish education as old as the Torah itself. Delving into these texts with a diverse group of parents and fantastic teachers, all one needs is a love of learning and a curiosity about what Judaism has to offer.
I took the class myself this past semester and have relished every moment. I was one of the “elders” as my kids are 6 and 9 and most of the group had 0-3-year-olds. Either way, parenting is parenting, and there is no need to feel any sense of isolation with such a loving and caring Jewish community that we are blessed with in Boston. This non-denominational water is nice—so jump in!
Additionally, InterfaithFamily is helping to promote a PTJL class that specifically focuses on intermarried parents, which will be wonderful as well. Any chance you have to take this class, I highly recommend it. Who couldn’t be a better parent? This is precisely the kind of family education that will deepen your lives with elevated meaning and purpose, and you might even make a new friend or two. I can’t say enough about this class. Sign Up!
PTJL offers three types of classes that support parents with children in all stages of development:
Parenting Through a Jewish Lens (for parents of children birth to 10)
Parenting your Tween Through a Jewish Lens (for parents of tweens age 10 to 12)
Parenting your Teen Through a Jewish Lens (for parents of teens age 13 to 19)
Participants come from all backgrounds and include interfaith couples, LGBTQ parents, single parents and those raised in other faiths. This fall, PTJL is holding a class specifically for interfaith families! It will take place on Thursdays, 7:30-9:00pm in Newton starting November 6, 2014.The early bird registration rate ends on June 30, so sign up soon!
You can learn more about Parenting Through a Jewish Lens by visiting its website or by checking out the PTJL blog where past PTJL participants and instructors share their stories and insights.
Have you taken this class? Let us know what you thought in the comments!
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.
I have a tradition with a friend whose birthday is also in April, of going out for lobster to celebrate. This is the fourth year we have done this. She is a former synagogue president and Jewish volunteer and as you know, I am a rabbi. I do not promote or broadcast my decision not to keep kosher (each liberal Jew has to learn about and make an educated, autonomous choice about how to practice Judaism) and for some, keeping kosher is a daily reminder about ethical living, environmentalism, animal rights, our sacred responsibility to feed the hungry, choices we are making about the food we consume and the blessings around us all the time.
Ari (right) with her server, Josh S.
Our server’s name was Josh S. We told Josh S. that this was our “un-kosher” birthday lunch and we were hungry and excited to eat! He chuckled. During the meal my friend was telling me about how her son, who married a Catholic woman, just got baptized over Easter as a Hebrew Catholic. It was with some sadness, internal wrestling and wonderment that she shared this news with me. She and her family attended his baptism and her son cried tears of joy and relief that his family supported him through his spiritual and religious journey.
My friend knows that some other mothers would have said, “love is lost and you are no longer my son,” and other mothers would have said, “love is not lost, but I can’t come to your ceremony.” Her son was an active Reform Jew his whole life and even sought out his local synagogue when he was living on his own after college. He did not feel he was greeted there with warmth, welcome or interest from anyone in the community as a newcomer. When he went to church with his wife, however, he was greeted with retreat opportunities to get to know others in a relaxed, fun and engaging atmosphere. He was greeted with love and open arms. We spoke about the need for radical cultural shifts in many synagogues to become a place not of “membership” like a private club, but “My House Shall Be a House of Prayer for All People” as is emblazed across Chicago Sinai a verse from Isaiah, for instance. My friend has come to a beautiful place of acceptance and peace because her child is happy.
At the end of our two-pound lobster lunch (in addition to multiple coleslaws and garlic bread—yes we felt a little sick!) our waiter came with the check. Something made me ask him about being “Josh S.” He explained that he was the new Josh and had to have his last initial on his name tag. He went on to tell us that the S. stands for Schwartz and his Dad is Jewish and mom is Catholic. He was raised Catholic but certainly feels close to his Jewish side of the family. He spoke about going to his grandma’s for holidays and of Jewish foods. He told me he was open to talking more and learning more about InterfaithFamily/Chicago. He said he was confused or conflicted at times growing up, but as an adult has a religious identity.
Oh, I have so many questions for this young man. Are there any ways the Jewish community could be accessible to him if he wants to learn about his heritage? I am going to suggest a Taste of Judaism class among other ideas. He shared his email address so that we can continue the conversation. I taught him the Yiddish word, “beshert” meaning inevitable or preordained (often referring to one’s soul mate).
What’s my take-away from this lunch? There are many, many people who have family members who are Jewish, who are heirs to this great culture and way of life. Whatever paths they have chosen, they may be interested in learning more about Judaism and connecting in some way as adults. We need to make sure our synagogues are accessible, period. And Jewish Community Centers and other Jewish cultural centers like Spertus should also be celebrated by our community as places where someone can tentatively tip toe in and maybe end up staying a while.
My grandmother was a force to be reckoned with. Smart as a whip and made up her own mind about everything. Incredibly independent considering she was married at 19 and never spent a night away from my grandfather in their 72 years together. She had a master’s degree. Traveled the world. Cared deeply about Judaism. All of her strength and character was put to the test when she developed esophageal cancer in her 70s. She moved from Florida to New York for treatment, which no one was particularly hopeful about. People much younger than her rarely beat this type of cancer. She did.
In the year before my grandmother passed at age 91, I explained to her what my new job was at InterfaithFamily, and while I don’t think she fully understood what it is that we do, I think she understood that we help people to live Jewishly. It seems like a simple goal: to help all kinds of people connect with Judaism at all different stages in their lives.
But most often, it’s when someone dies, or someone gets married or is born that people turn to religion. I felt the truth of this over the last week at her funeral and while sitting shiva with my family and friends. Having a rabbi from my family’s synagogue lead us in prayer at our house was unexpectedly comforting.
Just two weeks earlier, in the same house, the same friends were gathered to celebrate my engagement. The Jewish pieces my fiancé and I are fitting together in preparation for our wedding (What should the ketubah say? What will our chuppah be made out of?) are essential parts of the ceremony, for us.
But even though we were both brought up Jewish, we were not born with Jewish knowledge of how to have a Jewish funeral or a Jewish wedding. We needed the rabbi at the cemetery to tell us not to pass the shovel we were using to toss dirt into the grave from one person to another, but to stick it back in the earth first (so as not to pass death), and why to form a path for the immediate family to walk through on their departure from the cemetery (we were supporting my father, uncle and great aunts). While we don’t know all the answers, it is easier for us to find them: We have rabbis and religious family members to turn to with our questions. We had a cousin translate our ketubah into Hebrew.
What if what we needed was not within arm’s length? Where would we turn to find it? Would we even bother?
Creating inclusive Jewish resources for pivotal times in our lives as well as every day that couples with little or no prior religious knowledge can use, and letting people know we have them—and they’re free—is what I think about every day. I also think about my grandmother every day. I don’t think she believed for a second that she would succumb to cancer, and she moved back to Florida after her treatment like nothing had happened. Her natural way of moving through life was to persevere and to be proud of who she was and where she came from. I hope that when you visit this website, you feel welcomed for who you are and supported in finding what you’re looking for.