My Name is Shannon, and I’m a Jew

By Shannon Naomi Zaid

My internship with the Jewish United Federation and InterfaithFamily has put me in religious Jewish settings that I wouldn’t have normally found myself in. During one of these times, working an InterfaithFamily booth at an event, an issue was brought to my attention that I’d never thought existed: prejudice based on names. In this day and age it seems so odd to assume something about a person based solely on their name, especially so in the U.S. where the culture is a founded on many different ethnicities and geographical backgrounds. Yet there I was, trying to defend my Judaism to a couple of older Jewish men who thought I was Catholic based off my name.

The River Shannon

River Shannon

The origin of the name Shannon is Irish. Depending on whom you ask it means: small and wise, or river. My name was given to me by my birth mother, and my parents chose to keep it when they adopted me. In some ways I can understand why these men assumed I was Catholic. The southern nation of Ireland has been and remained Catholic for centuries, and the name “Shannon” derives from Ireland’s longest river, River Shannon. That being said, I was upset that they couldn’t picture a Jew having my name, and it was only after I explained to them my family background, that they acknowledged me as Jewish.

I understand that in Judaism a name carries weight. Historically, there were three groupings of Jews: the Levites, Kohens and Israelites. Descendants of the Levites and Kohens were tasked with special religious duties (e.g. Kohens were priests and Levites served directly under the Kohens), while the Israelites (i.e. everyone else) held the lowest standing. At some synagogues, Kohens and Levites are still treated differently from everyone else. For example, Kohens can be called up to read from the Torah first, followed by Levites. Even outside the biblical context, a family’s name identifies a person. The Jewish community has always been tight knit, and last names now serve as a tool to help place a person in the community.

In the case of first names, I notice the repetition of certain names within the Jewish community. Daniel, Jeremy, Rachel, Joseph, Sarah, Ari, Noah, Adam, Elizabeth, Rebecca, David, Jonathan, Dana, Shana, Michael, Sam. Chances are you’ll come across these names in a Jewish community, but that doesn’t strictly mean all Jews take their names from the same set. There are Jews all over the world in many different countries. You can’t expect that they all share the same few names.

While I am proud to call myself Jewish, I recognize its drawbacks. Judaism is very good at being exclusive, even toward those who identify with it. Call it a design flaw, or a result of social conditioning from centuries of persecution, either way an individual shouldn’t have to be questioned on what faith they are because their name is different.

Growing up in an interfaith family, I always felt as if I was secretly having an identity crisis, never knowing where I really fit it. But I’ve grown into myself, and I know who I am. My name is Shannon. I identify as a secular Jew. I come from an interfaith family. I’m adopted. Part of my family is from Israel, and the other half is from Europe. I know and understand all of this. The problem is everyone who doesn’t understand.

What I’ve Learned from Growing Up in an Interfaith Family

By Shannon Naomi Zaid

Staff of IFF/Chicago

Shannon (right) with IFF/Chicago staff: Jennifer Falkenholm & Rabbi Ari Moffic

My name is Shannon and I was brought up in a secular Jewish and secular Unitarian setting. I identify as Jewish, but deeply love and respect my Unitarian roots. In my experience, I’ve come to believe that one of the most important, and difficult parts of being a child raised under two different faiths is acknowledging the presences of each religion’s essence, and finding a way for them to coexist in the heart and mind.

As of last week I started an eight-week internship at InterfaithFamily/Chicago in Northbrook (as part of the JUF Lewis Summer Intern program). I was drawn to this position since I also come from an interfaith family background. When my supervisor, Rabbi Ari Moffic, came to me with the opportunity to blog about my experiences growing up in an interfaith setting, I was (and still am) so excited to be given the chance to share my story with others. By doing this, I hope to address any concerns, and uncertainties you may have about raising a child when parents come from two different faiths.

It’s not an easy task finding a common ground when beliefs butt heads, but it’s not impossible. It’s important to remember that everyone handles this struggle differently. Some people pick one religion and do not practice any aspects of the other religion. Some partake in syncretism (e.g. Jewbu, Hinjew, etc.). Some become secular and or identify themselves as not practicing. Some may even go against organized religions entirely. Anything is possible.

I’ve switched my stance on religion multiple times. For a large portion of my life, I refused to identify with either of my parents’ religions. I didn’t want to have to choose between the two, and it left me in an awkward situation. So, at the time, I decided to go against organized religion. I refused to learn anything about either religion and held this stance until sophomore year of high school. My parents accepted my views, which I thank them for because it allowed me to find my own spiritual path.

During my high school career many events took place that pushed me toward the Jewish life I lead today. One of the major factors in my decision was pride. I have two moms, and at school it pained me to see my Christian peers speak out against them.  That year I also experienced my first taste of anti-Semitism, and although I didn’t consider myself Jewish, I still fell victim to cruel jokes and bitter comments. I always took pride in the fact that I had two moms. I took pride in being different. The reason I sided with Judaism was because it was also different, and I felt a powerful need in my heart to defend it, more so than I ever felt with Unitarianism.

Sophomore year I started identifying as Jewish, and during that time I left Christianity out of my life. I did this until my freshman year in college, when I took several religious studies courses that focused on historical relationships between different religious faiths. It was in one of these classes that I asked myself the question: Why couldn’t the religions of my parents coexist for me in some way?

And why couldn’t they?

I now identify as a secular Jew. I relate to the Jewish culture. I feel a strong connection to Israel and I believe in the Jewish people. But I respect Unitarianism, and as a Jew, I feel I can relate to the constant struggle Unitarians have to face from other Christian denominations.

Here are some things I’ve figured out along the way about growing up in an interfaith home. I hope you find my experience helpful.

Shannon and her sister

Shannon (left) and her sister

My younger sister feels no connection to Judaism and is Unitarian. We have agreed to avoid talking to each other about religion. We do talk about up coming holidays and such, but we try and avoid getting into any religious debates. Good communication is crucial in family relationships. Together we decided to set up boundaries so we could coexist in an atmosphere in which we all felt respected.

Relatives are always hard to deal with. They don’t understand that our family has split beliefs, and they might say or do something that isn’t completely respectful toward the other faith. When this happens I’ve found it important to pull that person to the side, and remind them or explain to them that they need to be considerate of different values and beliefs.

When I’m able, I like going to church and learning about Unitarianism. Despite being Jewish, I think it’s important to be knowledgeable about both faiths. I also celebrate holidays like Christmas and Easter. By doing these things I feel it’s my way of showing respect for the other religion, even if it doesn’t resonate with me. My sister does the same by lighting the menorah at Hanukkah, participating during Purim and reading the questions with me at Seder during Passover.

This is Strength

Lindsey's grandmother

My grandmother. Photo by Cory Silken

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.

A Mantra For Holiday Stress (and other challenging circumstances)

CookiesI know we are supposed to be in a time of joy and merriment but if you’re feeling like I am, everything is overwhelming right now. Preparing for the holidays can be busy! Are you shopping, cooking, traveling, negotiating, planning, decorating, compromising, missing and wishing?

Are you feeling well or exhausted?

Are you busy squeezing everything in and rushing?

Are you worried about money this time of year?

Are you worried about pleasing everyone?

Did you just have school conferences and new worries have cropped up?

Hopefully the joy of family and friends being together and the excitement and magic that seems to be in the air is filling your heart. Maybe volunteering and giving back is a fulfilling experience that you look forward to each Thanksgiving or on Christmas or as part of Hanukkah?

If you are feeling stressed, Judaism can offer some solace. I use a mantra that I return to over and over when my heart is beating fast, the emails and voicemails are unanswered, when there is too much to do and not enough time and when everyone needs me at once.

The mantra is from the Torah. The line is: Ozi v’zimrat Ya, vayihi li, yishuah. (My strength and the song of God will be my salvation.) This is a line from Exodus 15:2 and Psalm 118:14. To me it means that our inner strength coupled with the poetic, the Mysterious, and the beauty around us will lift us above the mundane and ground us with stability.

Hear a sung version of this line here. 

Repeating the same line over and over can calm us, bring a smile to our face, and remind us what is important.

I wish you all a happy and healthy holiday season. May your strength and the song of God be a saving grace to you.

Best Advice Ever—Pick Three Things

We all know lots of people who won’t compromise. One friend spent so much time compromising that he didn’t realize his partner wasn’t compromising at all. Not only was there no balance in that relationship, there was no respect. Trying to find balance is a constant effort but crucial to the success of any relationship.

I remember when I was engaged and planning our wedding, my family had strong opinions about many things. It felt like we were arguing about everything. A friend gave me the best advice: Pick three things.

This seemed too easy.

I could easily pick the three things I cared about: the music, the city and my dress. My fiancé picked the three things that were important to him: the venue, the food and the hotel. Then the parents got to pick. Suddenly, the agony of negotiation dissipated. The pains in my neck began to subside (literally) and everyone got along wonderfully.

Home buyingI have found that this advice can be applied to so many things. When making decisions with a partner, there are a variety of aspects to the decision. Take any hot topic and divide it into sections. The great thing about having a piece of a decision in your control is that you are in control of something. For many people, it is the lack of control that brings out frustration and even anger. And leaving pieces of the decision in other people’s hands means that you aren’t acting like a “control freak” and that you are respecting the desires and needs of others.

For example, when you and your partner are looking to buy a house, instead of debating about a specific house, one of you can pick the general location and the other can pick the style of house. If the decision making process gets too contentious, you and your partner should switch priorities. You may find that when you switch roles, the stress disappears.

When searching to buy our home where would be raising our kids, my husband and I debated about schools and school districts. We realized that finding a synagogue to join with a religious school we liked was also a part of the equation. After a while when we still couldn’t reach an agreement on where we wanted to live, we switched priorities. Quickly, we resolved the issue. As long each of us had control over some aspect of the decision process, we ultimately came up with a plan that made us both happy. We both felt that we had input and we were able to respect the other’s wishes.  And now for 8 years we’ve been living in a house and an area that we love!

Do you have a technique that helps you negotiate life’s decisions? Tell us about it!

My Favorite Family Recipe

What memories do you have of growing up? How did your family celebrate holidays?

My favorite holiday has always been Passover. While I was growing up, my parents hosted the Passover Seder for the extended family. We’d add tables, outgrowing the dining room and “kids’ table” until we had a series of three tables spanning the dining room, entry way and into the living room. My aunts, uncles and cousins would all come to our house for a few days and we’d celebrate Passover.

Living in Northern California, we did not have an abundance of kosher-for-Passover options. Luckily, my aunts would buy out all the markets in Los Angeles and bring delicacies with them that would last throughout the week of Passover.

PancakesAfter the crowds left, my mom would make matzo meal pancakes. Light and fluffy, made mostly of egg whites and air, they were my favorite (probably because I ate them with tablespoons of white sugar on top).

It wasn’t until a month ago that I learned where the matzo meal pancake recipe came from. I should have known that my mom’s mom was not the source. My grandmother was raised Mormon and converted to Judaism before marrying my grandfather. They raised three wonderful Jewish children and always had a Jewish household (see nature vs. nurture).

Rebecca's Grandmother

Rebecca's great-grandmother, Sarah Davis

During summer break, while my mother was in high school, she traveled to Indianapolis to visit my father for a weekend while he was working there for the summer. At that time, not yet married, it was not “appropriate” for them to stay under the same roof, so while he was living with his cousins, my mother stayed with my father’s grandmother.

One morning, my great-grandmother made the pancakes for my mom. Mom immediately fell in love with them. My great-grandmother’s recipe has been a family treasure ever since.

InterfaithFamily is here to help families discover long-lost family recipes and traditions, to create your own traditions and to help you explore what aspects of Judaism you want to incorporate into your lives as you create new traditions for your family.

In the Bay Area, newlyweds and nearly-wedded couples can begin this process by joining us for our Love and Religion – Online workshop which begins July 29.

A High, a Low, and a Mitzvah

"...not just a one-time good deed or mitzvah, but part of something that our family is now making a priority each and every day."

We are currently in week 5 of our Philadelphia-based online class, Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. This week’s focus was “doing good” through mitzvot. In Hebrew, “mitzvah” means “commandment” but is also commonly understood to mean a good deed. Like most people, I want my children to care about others and take action to make the world a better place — to do mitzvot (the plural of mitzvah, commandments or good deeds). I try to teach by example and provide them with opportunities that make a difference for others.

Still, in our busy lives, I don’t always feel that we make it as much of a priority as it should be. This week, I was inspired by a simple message our facilitator, Tami Astorino, sent out to the class at the beginning of the week. Here is part of what she wrote:

This week, “Inspiring Our Children To Do Mitzvot” probably speaks to everyone. We all want a way to inspire our children, at any age, to be good people and live their lives with a moral compass.

A dinner ritual I learned when my kids were in preschool we STILL enjoy doing with our kids (now ages 9 and 11). At dinner we often share three things about our day, “a high, a low, and a mitzvah.” Each person at the table takes a turn sharing:

  • something about their day that brought them happiness or satisfaction (the high)
  • something that made them mad, sad or disappointed (the low)
  • something they did to help others, make the world better, show kindness or compassion, etc. (the mitzvah)

Though I am not officially enrolled in the class, I have been following along and reading the class materials and discussion posts. As Tami predicted, this week’s theme did speak to me and I wanted to do something about it. As I was driving my children (ages 8 and 11) to their afternoon activity that day, I told them about Tami’s family ritual and asked them about trying it in our own home. My youngest was eager to get started, my oldest was a bit skeptical. I told my oldest he could have a ‘bye’ for the first night and see how he felt after hearing everyone else. The second night, he shared with no hesitation. We have now adopted this as a ritual in our own home.

We’ve only been doing it for a short time, but I can already see an impact. I have noticed that we are all sharing more with one another and making an effort to really listen. The highs and lows have been great conversation starters and the mitzvah discussions have made us all more mindful of trying to do good for others daily.

This weekend, my family is participating in a program called Stop Hunger Now. Stop Hunger Now is an international hunger relief organization that coordinates the distribution of food and other life-saving aid around the world. We will be joining with families from our synagogue and another local synagogue to pack dehydrated, high protein, and highly nutritious meals that will be used to help feed people in developing countries around the world. We have done this project in the past, but I am hoping that this year it will be even more meaningful because it is not just a one-time good deed or mitzvah, but part of something that our family is now making a priority each and every day.

If thinking about a high, a low, and a mitzvah gives you ideas for your family, consider enrolling in our next online session of Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family (currently offered in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Chicago). For just 20 minutes a week, you will be inspired!

Passover Seder Fun

Who wants to dress up like one of the Ten Plagues?

Having grown up in a traditional family, we always celebrated Passover seders literally: seder means “order” in Hebrew. We followed every word, sang every song in the haggadah. It was long but exciting to stay up late. We certainly had fun — I stole the afikomen and dashed under our long dining room table with my grandmother as my accomplice. My four older siblings were angry for years! That was a far better reward than the $2 I received as my prize… For once, I outsmarted them — victory was mine!

My kids enjoy seders too. We probably follow 80% of the seder according to the haggadah. Through the positive influence of our pre-school, we now have all kinds of props for our seder: a tiny baby Moses in a basket, a brick that my daughter decorated with gem stones, and homemade pillows for reclining. The kids enjoy setting the table, making place cards, and bringing every pillow they can find into our dining room.

My friends and I are always looking for ways to make the seder more fun and engaging for our families. Here are some of the tips we’ve compiled:

  1. Throw things! A friend says that the best way to make a seder fun is to throw things. What kid, old or young, doesn’t like throwing things when they shouldn’t be? We have stuffed frogs that are small — it’s fun to see where this “plague” lands. Just remember, if you’re using glass or crystal on your table, move the throwing to the floor or away from the table.
  2. Egg and matzah soup! This is a family tradition that is bizarre but really fun. Mash up a piece of matzah, and, along with two hard boiled eggs and salt, add it all to your soup broth. It makes a mess but the kids love to feel like they’re cooking. Yes, there will be crumbs, but it’s Passover — keep the vacuum handy all week!
  3. Make a tent! This year we are going to my friend’s house for a seder. She mentioned that she might make a tent and let us eat in the living room, a tip InterfaithFamily suggests in our Passover seder booklet. How fun! I can’t wait. Finally, I won’t have to get upset with my kids for eating with their hands.
  4. Write your own hagaddah! My friends did this when they were newly married. I think it bonded them, sharing their Passover memories and customs. They tell the story of freedom and talk about how freedom is meaningful in their lives.
  5. Dress up! Kids and adults alike can take the sheets and dress like Egyptians or slaves. And this goes well with the next tip…
  6. Act it out! My friend’s family encourages the kids to create a play of the Exodus while the adults enjoy a visit before the seder starts. Here’s a hint: laundry baskets work really well to pretend to float baby Moses down the river. And those plagues can be fun and creative! Or everyone can act out the dynamics of the Passover story as the seder progresses: bossing each other around like slaves and masters, building pyramids with play-dough, wading through the Red Sea, etc.
  7. Add five words! Go around the table and have everyone say five words of the telling of the Passover story, each person adding to what the previous person said. It will get everyone involved and will be quite amusing.
  8. Bingo! With Passover words, it’s a game everyone can play. Try making the cards with your kids in advance, and review the vocabulary with them so they’re ready for the seder.

If your family isn’t interested in a formal seder, have you considered watching The Ten Commandments together, while eating dinner? The kids can count how many times they say the word “Moses” (maybe making a PG version of a drinking game — pass the seltzer!).

Do you have any special memories or ideas for making seders fun? Share them!

Rethinking the Bar or Bat Mitzvah

A rabbinical student recently wrote a post for Kveller called Ban the Bar Mitzvah. In the post, he argues that bar and bat mitzvahs generally fail for four main reasons. They don’t accomplish much, they aren’t part of Jewish tradition or continuity, the money parents pay for the bar/bat mitzvah keep synagogues afloat which would otherwise drown, and it makes parents look like hypocrites since their children are learning skills and taking part in ritual and worship that adults don’t know or regularly take part in.

The article was posted just as the Reform Movement is beginning their “bnai mitzvah revolution”, hoping to help children and families find more relevance in the process and prayer services, and as a larger attempt to retain youth in congregational life after the bar/bat mitzvah is over.

There have been dozens of posts written in response on how to re-imagine the bar/bat mitzvah. Many argue that the bar/bat mitzvah may seem to be all about a lavish party, but in reality it can be a transformative experience for the child and family. College students look back at pivotal Jewish experiences of their youth and name having a bar/bat mitzvah as being a top, identity building time. Others have pointed out that the time the child spends with clergy one-on-one and in small groups preparing for this rite of passage is priceless. Family education is part of many congregational programs as children prepare for bar/bat mitzvah, offering parents the opportunity to explore topics that perhaps will (re-)kindle interest in worship, learning, or performing mitzvot (commandments).

Perhaps the point of the Banning Bar Mitzvah blog post was to force us to re-think why we spend so much time, effort and money around this one- or two-day affair. Children spend countless hours in tutoring to prepare for their day. When “successful,” the preparation and effort stays with a young person for years and years to come. Families are touched deeply. “Mitzvah projects” (projects focusing on community service and/or social justice in the child’s local community or in the world at large) have left an impact and sometimes are continued long after the synagogue service and party are over. However, if we want the bar/bat mitzvah to be more meaningful, then perhaps we should look at how we bring family members who aren’t Jewish to this sacred time. There are educators and clergy who spend special time speaking to interfaith families about the role for their family members who aren’t Jewish and who work creatively and with empathy and openness to involve parents and grandparents, from both sides of the family, in the service.

One great way that parents can find more meaning in this process, especially if they didn’t grow up having experienced bar/bat mitzvah personally, is to access our online resources around this theme. We will share eight sessions which will teach you more about the meaning of the worship service and rituals and which can help you think about how to bring deeper spirituality and connectedness to this process for your pre-teen. We suggest parents access this material as early as when your child is in 4th grade and you are starting to wrap your heads and hearts around what this can all mean. If you would like log-in information to look at this course content, just email me, Rabbi Ari, at arim@interfaithfamily.com.

Adaptation and Flexibility for Death and Mourning Customs

My Aunt just died. She had been sick, lived to be 88, and had a wonderful marriage of 62 years. One of the sweetest people I ever knew. Her dear husband is 96 and devastated. He is in excellent health and still drives. He keeps remarking, “who lives to be 96?” He bought a car last year and the salesman offered an extended service plan. He looked at his daughter and laughed. He was lucky she was letting him get a car. My uncle is stunned to be alive and well but now without his beloved wife.

Our family is understandably sad and is in mourning. Typically in Judaism there is a funeral and a mourning process called shiva. What is unique about this case is that her husband (my uncle) doesn’t want a funeral or to observe shiva. To provide you with his perspective, he escaped the Holocaust, leaving Vienna for the US. His parents however were killed in a concentration camp. He feels that his parents had no funeral or religion associated with their death and he and my aunt decided long ago that there was no need for any ceremonies for them either.

My side of the family is quite religious and would like to observe shiva, but we completely respect his wishes. I would have gone to a funeral or to see my uncle and cousins but that is not what my uncle wants. My father has decided to sit shiva at his home (in another state). Many of my father’s cousins who knew my aunt will come to the house and tell sweet stories about her. This process will likely help my father and his brother grieve the loss of their sister. My father will say kaddish for a month (a prayer at daily services) and this too will help him grieve.

What I find so beautiful is that Jewish culture supports both wishes and both needs. Everyone grieves in their own way, and I love that Jewish culture provides us with what we need, when we need it. Grief is personal but can be lonely. Judaism provides the constructs for people to move forward at their own pace.