Is God Taboo?

Many will agree that taboo topics of conversation include sex, politics, money, and religion. We’re guided not to discuss these things at work, sometimes not even with our extended family, but do we talk about them at home, with our spouse? With our children? If you don’t talk about these topics, how will your children know what’s important to you?

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Jim Keen states, in response to his daughter’s query, “What is God?” in When My Jewish Child Asks Me about God: A Christian Parent’s Perspective,

“My wife and I had never really discussed the topic of how we would explain God to our kids. The frequent discussions we had had about raising our children in an interfaith family had left what suddenly seemed to be a large gap.”

Certainly, none of us want to leave a large gap in our child’s development. So, let’s start talking about it.

Answer these questions for yourself: Where does God live? How does God listen? Does God ever sleep? Does God forgive me? Does God hear my prayers? Children are thinking about these things and developing their own responses. Ask your child what he/she thinks. Share your ideas. If you’re stuck, check out the Children’s Spirituality Quest Set published by Skylight Paths Publishing in Woodstock, VT. They are designed for children ages 3-6, but I’ve used them when teaching teens. This set is perfect for any family; it has been “endorsed by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist religious leaders.”

Another book you may consider adding to your child’s library (or your own), In God’s Name shares insights from many different people about qualities that they see in God and what each calls God. This book allows the reader to create his/her own connection to God and adapt one of the names in the book or develop his/her own name for God.

My personal favorite is called God’s Paintbrush. In writing this, I discovered that there is now a special 10th Anniversary Edition of God’s Paintbrush. In the introduction, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso tells a sweet story of a child explaining to his grandmother why he likes this book so much. “It’s because it asks questions.” When asked if the answers to the questions were in the back of the book, she explained, “no, the answers are inside you.”

Sandy continues,

“For children to give us a glimpse of what is deep inside them is their great gift to us. For adults to give our children the language to talk about their spiritual lives is our great gift to them. Time and again parents have read these pages to open a window in the soul, their children’s and their own.”

She goes on to share some ideas for how to read and utilize the book to open the door for conversation.

So start your conversation. Take the “taboo” label off God and start talking about God with your partner, with your children, with your family, and maybe even with your friends!

The Power of Reading

This year my parents hosted their 44th annual Passover seder. I’m not old enough to have been to them all, but the only year I didn’t attend was when I was living in Israel. Thus, for me, this is how Passover seder is “done.” It’s the seder that I grew up with. I distinctly remember the first time I went to a different seder and realized that there are other ways of observing this Jewish tradition.

Many years ago my family started holding our seder on the Saturday night during Passover. Although not always the traditional first or even second night seder, it is ours. This year our seder took place on the sixth night. By bringing family together on the weekend, we are able to max-out the dining room that each year stretches into the living room, setting places for 29 people (not including Elijah). The Haggadah was the same as it always is with the additions over the years for Miriam’s Cup, a contemporary Dayeinu, and some other assorted embellishments.

However this year was different from other years because my niece (the only of her generation) is nearly 21 months old and now able to interact with all of us. Upon her birth, I enrolled my niece in PJ Library — an amazing program that sends a free Jewish book to children every month. My sister-in-law brought the most recent edition, and a current favorite, Company’s Coming: A Passover Lift-the-Flap Book.

What’s special about this book? The flaps make reading fun. The message is straight-forward. It walks the young reader through the elements of preparing for Passover, setting the table, and the items on the seder plate. Since we were setting the table while my mom read to her, it was fitting to show the actual items as they appeared in the book. We made reading come alive even more than the lift-the-flaps.

My favorite part was how she embraced the kippah. She put it on my dad’s head. She put it on her own head. She even put it on the dog’s head! Bless her heart; the dog was so patient, never moving while this adorable little girl dressed up for the seder. (Need proof? Check out the adorably cute photos below!)

If you have (or know) a little one, consider signing up for PJ Library. You may not love every book as much as my family loves this one, but I’m sure you’ll find a gem of your own. In the Bay Area, sign up online or visit their site to find the PJ Library nearest you.


‘Til Faith Do Us Part

Right around Passover, there was some prominent coverage in the secular press about intermarriage due to the publication of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s book, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part and reviews in the Wall Street Journal (where she has been a religion writer) and the New York Times.

I’ve ordered the book but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I thought Riley’s suggestion that religious communities “strike a delicate balance” in their approach to interfaith families, as described in the Wall Street Journal review, was itself fairly balanced:

On the one hand, they must welcome them if they wish to keep up a connection with the believing spouse and his or her children. But they must also provide a strong sense of community and a gracious but confident expression of their own religious worldview. “Regularly engaging nonmember spouses in conversations about the faith is important,” she writes, noting that such engagement, if done with a soft touch, may bring the spouse into the fold. Finally, religious communities must focus more on reaching young adults, giving them a venue where they can engage their religious faith in a new way and meet a “soul mate” who draws them closer to the fold rather than leading them away from it.

I’m concerned about the emphasis on the last point — that interfaith marriage leads young adults “away from the fold.” According to the Wall Street Journal review, Riley says that questions about child-raising can “tear at the fabric of a marriage,” that interfaith families are on average less likely to be happy, that the partners lose steadiness of observance and belief, that children are more likely to reject their parents’ faiths, and that couples are more likely to divorce.

The divorce point makes me question the basis for Riley’s observations. Back in 2010, I wrote a blog post, Are Interfaith Marriages Really Failing Fast, about a story Riley wrote for the Washington Post. Here’s what I said back then:

My main complaint about the article is that it cites no compelling evidence whatsoever to support the thesis of the title that interfaith marriages are failing fast. It is a common perception, to be sure, that interfaith marriages fail at rates higher than same faith marriages, but I have never been able to find reliable evidence to that effect. In addition to citing a 1993 paper (but not any data in it comparing inter- and intra-faith divorce rates), Riley says that “According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.” Who made the calculations? Are they published some place — and available to be scrutinized?

Susan Katz Miller, in her blog On Being Both, also finds Riley’s stance on intermarriage to be “strangely pessimistic” and finds her “gloom and doom” not supported by Riley’s own data.

I also question the basis of Riley’s observations because at InterfaithFamily we have published many narratives and heard from so many interfaith couples that they have resolved questions about child-raising, have children who learn to love Jewish practice, and who themselves strengthened observance and belief — and are quite happy in their marriage. People like the brother of Stanley Fish, author of the review in the New York Times, who describes the lengths which their father went to break up his brother’s relationship and concludes:

If the idea was to separate the two young people, it didn’t work. Shortly after Ron got to California, he sent Ann a plane ticket. When she arrived, they got married and have remained married to this day. She got a job at the university, took a class in Judaism and, much to my brother’s surprise, converted, although it took her a while to find a rabbi willing to give her the required course of instruction. Just the other day she remarked, “It was a hard club to get into.”

The New York Times review suggests that Riley isn’t against intermarriage — she’s in an interfaith and inter-racial marriage that has worked:

She just wants prospective interfaith couples to know that it is work, that love doesn’t conquer all, that “a rocky road may lie ahead of them” and that they “need to think in practical terms about their faith differences — how it will affect the way they spend their time, their money, and the way they want to raise their kids.” Her message is that if you don’t make the mistake of thinking it will be a bed of roses, you’ll have a better chance of its not being a bed of thorns.

That’s balanced advice, too — although again, I’m concerned that “bed of thorns” overdoes it.

Nature vs Nurture

If you don’t receive our bi-weekly eNewsletter, you may not know that we’re looking ahead to Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) in the spring. The last two editions asked for folks who are descendant of Holocaust survivors and have relatives who intermarried. If you are, we’d love to hear your stories — contact Benjamin!

Rebecca's grandfather (a German Jewish Holocaust survivor) and grandmother (an American Mormon) with their children, her mother, uncle, and aunt, in the 1960s.

My grandfather is a Holocaust survivor from Germany. My grandmother was raised Mormon in Utah. How they met, fell in love, and eventually married is a story for another time. For now I want to fast forward to the dinner table at my parents’ home last week.

A Holocaust educator, my mother often writes about the Holocaust, modern Germany, and her own life experiences in Indianapolis’ National Jewish Post and Opinion. I thought she would jump at the chance to share one more layer of her story. When I broached the subject with her, her response was (with what sounded like a tone of offense) “I don’t consider myself to have been raised in an interfaith family.” I was surprised that she sounded so offended.

Earlier this week I was in Chicago, where I had the opportunity to visit with my mom’s older sister. I met her at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, where she volunteers twice a month. I perused the museum as she finished her shift and then we went to dinner. Usually we see each other at a family reunion or life cycle event. Finding time for a 1:1 conversation in these settings is next to impossible; this was the first time we had a chance to speak as adults.

I told my aunt about the note in our eNewsletter and she said she’d be interested in writing. I then told her my mom’s response and she replied, “Of course we were an interfaith family!” I was shocked! One sibling considers her family to be interfaith while the other doesn’t.

To break the tie, I emailed my uncle. He responded,”Well, the short answer is that ‘Of course we were an interfaith family.’ Not only did we visit cousins in Utah who were still Mormon (even if not fervent in their practice), but my mother frequently invited the Mormon missionaries, who were working in our home town, over for dinner. I even went to Europe one summer with a group that was mostly Mormon. My mother somehow hooked us up with this group and she served as one of the chaperones. Imagine going to the Moulin Rouge at the age of 15 and sitting at a table with your mother!” (Or, for that matter with a group of Mormon missionaries!)

He continues, “I think I know more about the Mormon religion than most other Christian religions… My Mom was very involved with the Jewish organizations, and we observed all the holidays. I have a theory that when it comes to religion, when people of different faiths marry, those with strong backgrounds tend to find one another, more so than people of the same religion who came from opposite ends of the observance spectrum.”

My grandparents made a lot of great decisions about how they would raise their children, weighing both how much German and Jewish influence, as well as how much American and Mormon influence, would permeate their household. In the end, they raised three fantastic children. I suppose my take-away is that parents have a lot of power. They nurture each child. But eventually it’s the children who decide who they are, how they identify, and what role religion (which religion) has in their lives. How you define yourself is ultimately up to you.

Our Passover/Easter Survey Results Are In

Thanks to all of you who responded to our Passover/Easter survey.

The results are in! We just sent out the following press release — let us know what you think of the findings.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Edmund Case, edc@interfaithfamily.com, (617) 581-6805

Interfaith Families Continue To Participate in Secular Easter Activities Without Compromising Their Children’s Jewish Identity; Trend Towards More Comfort with Easter, Steady Observance of Passover

(Boston, MA) — The ninth annual Passover/Easter Survey conducted by InterfaithFamily, an independent non-profit, again shows that interfaith families raising their children Jewish address the “Spring dilemma,” the confluence of Passover and Easter, by continuing to participate in secular Easter activities and continuing to believe that doing so does not compromise their children’s Jewish identity.

Some observers of intermarriage have cast a skeptical eye on this behavior and argue that interfaith families can’t impart a strong Jewish identity to their children and celebrate Christmas or Easter. The results of InterfaithFamily’s surveys suggest that they are doing so.

Interfaith families raising Jewish children who participate in Easter celebrations are giving clear priority to Passover over Easter, as both a family celebration and a religious holiday:

  • Virtually all plan on hosting or attending a seder; 40% will host or attend Easter dinner, an increase from 31% in 2012.
  • Small minorities engage in “religious” Easter activities like attending church (9%) or telling the Easter story (only 1%).
  • Sixty percent see their Easter celebrations as entirely secular, down from 70% in 2012, but only 4% see their Passover celebrations as entirely secular.
  • A full 86% of the respondents believe that their participation in Easter celebrations does not affect their children’s Jewish identity.

“For nine years about half of interfaith couples raising Jewish children have told us they participate in Easter celebrations,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily. “This year’s survey confirmed that these families by large measure see their Easter celebrations as secular in nature and not confusing to their children’s Jewish identity.”

“This year we observed somewhat more comfort in participating in Easter celebrations (45%), reversing a past decline from 47% in 2010 to 40% in 2011 to 32% in 2012,” Case added. “Meanwhile, the percentage of respondents who are not Jewish who reported being comfortable participating in Passover remained steady at 75%.

For more information, read “What We Learned from the 2013 Passover/Easter Survey,” available online at: http://www.interfaithfamily.com/files/pdf/WhatWeLearnedfromthe2013PassoverEasterSurvey.pdf.

About InterfaithFamily
InterfaithFamily empowers people in interfaith relationships — individuals, couples, families and their children — to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices, and strongly encourages Jewish communities to welcome them. We are the premiere resource supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities, offering educational content; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy and other program providers; and our new InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative, providing coordinated comprehensive offerings in local communities including Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: InterfaithFamily has developed a resource page for interfaith families dealing with the Passover and Easter holidays that includes resources such as “Tips for Interfaith Families: How To Make a Seder Inclusive” and numerous articles that help interfaith families have a more enjoyable and meaningful holiday season. For more, visit www.interfaithfamily.com/passover.

That Bar Mitzvah Video Thing

I admit it: when I watch bar mitzvah kids’ videos I get squeamish. I might channel the collective angst of tweens everywhere. And, as I’d rather see the bar (and bat) mitzvah emphasize the mitzvah and learning component more than the party and flash, I tend to find these videos more than a little annoying. But this one? Kinda cool! I’m a sucker for a kitschy Queen medley.

Here’s how Heeb magazine introduced “The Best Half-Jewish/Half-Asian, Queen-Inspired Bar Mitzvah Video You’ll Ever See”:

Remember a few weeks ago, when we declared that Bar Mitzvah videos had jumped the shark, after some pischer from Atlanta made his star-studded entry into Jewish adulthood/The rap game? Of course you do – things like “novelty Bar Mitzvah rap videos” aren’t easily forgotten.

Well, frankly, this video blows that one out of the water. Meet Jorel, the Queen-belting, crotch-pointing, Bar Mitzvah boy who makes us wish we were half this cool when we were in middle school. Jorel, today you are a man. An awesome, awesome man. Mazal tov!

“Easy come, easy go, will you say ‘Shalom’?”

(And no, the dad’s not waving Monopoly money, that’s a handful of colourful Canadian bills.)

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!

A Razzie Award for the Jewish Media?

I’ve been thinking about starting a “Razzie Award” — referring to raspberries, referring to the negative sound of “blowing a raspberry,” sort of like “worst of” awards — for the Jewish media. The latest contender would be “Branding Judaism”
by Mayrav Saar in Orange County Jewish Life
.

What particularly bothers me about this one is that Saar quotes a podcast by Archie Gottesman, who happens to be my cousin, and a supporter of InterfaithFamily, saying: “If you don’t want to see your grandchildren being baptized someday, the time to think about it is now.” Suggesting that Gottesman was sending a “don’t intermarry” message, Saar says:

I’ve been to church weddings of people with Jewish surnames. I’ve sent Christmas presents to children whose grandmothers lit menorahs. And we all know the stats: 47% of Jews marry non-Jews. When they have kids only 28% of them are raised Jewish and only 10% of those Jewish kids go on to marry Jews themselves. So nearly all children of intermarriage are lost to the Jewish people.

Aside from the outdated statistics, the assumption that receiving Christmas presents makes children of intermarried parents not Jewish, and the flat wrong statement that “nearly all children of intermarriage are lost,” Saar is wrong about Gottesman’s message. Archie’s December, 2010 JTA op-ed, New Ten Commandments for the Jewish People, includes this:

1. Jewish grandchildren
You want them, right? Then raise your children to be Jewish. Children do not decide religion; parents do. No matter who you marry, decide ahead of time that the kids will be brought up as Jews. Wishy-washy will get your children joining a church or just not considering themselves Jewish. If the thought of being invited to your grandchild’s baptism troubles you, do something about it now. [emphasis mine]

Like I said about two other Razzie Award contenders recently, I would hope that Jewish media writers would like to contribute to attracting young interfaith couples to engage in Jewish life and community. Making gratuitous negative comments about intermarriage doesn’t help.

Grandparenting in Interfaith Families

Are you a Jewish grandparent navigating your relationship with your child, their partner, and your grandchild? GrandmaAre you the adult, sandwiched between your parent and your young child, respecting the one who raised you and hoping they will respect your choices in raising your own family? I am curious what works (and what doesn’t work). Please comment below and join me as we start a dialogue about the role of grandparents!

I believe step one should be to have a conversation. The grandparent should sit down with their adult child and discuss how each sees the other’s role. Share thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams. Respect each other. Recognize that this can be easier said than done!

But then what? Grandparents: what do you do (have you done) that has worked really well? What didn’t work so well that you would do differently next time? Children, what have your parents done that worked (or didn’t)? What do you wish they would do?

I have five ideas to get us started; I’m interested to hear if you think these will be well received.Grandparents

  • Celebrate a Jewish holiday with the other grandparents. For example, invite them to the Passover seder (along with your child’s family). Include them in your religious/cultural celebrations. Help them better understand Judaism and its rich traditions.
  • Ask your child if they need support, resources, or guidance from you. Offer to assist them in the choices that they make. Being active in the Jewish community can be expensive; if you are in a position to help, offer to pay for religious school or summer camp (if your assistance would be appreciated).
  • Offer to babysit, but make sure you’re transparent with your plans. Tell your child that you’d like to invite your grandchildren over for dinner on Friday night, light Shabbat candles, say the blessings, and enjoy a wonderful meal together. Attain quality time with your grandchildren and give their parents the night off for their own quality time together!
  • Be visible in your grandchild’s life. Visit often if you can. Use modern technology like Skype to see and talk to your family if they live far away (or even if they are around the corner).
  • Keep the dialogue open.

What would you like to add to this list?

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.