Being Jewish and Being Human

This is a guest post by Jeremy Burton, executive director of Boston’s JCRC. After seeing his tweets about an undead, supernatural interfaith wedding on TV, I challenged him to blog about it. Luckily, he accepted. You can also follow him on twitter, @burtonjm.

After a tumultuous relationship, this week we witnessed one of the most unusual interfaith Jewish marriages, between two Boston werewolves on SyFy’s Being Human. This seems as good a time as any to reflect back on a three-season journey of identity and the story of one of TV’s more proudly Jewish character’s search for happiness (warning: spoiler alerts).

Being Human - wedding

photo via Entertainment Weekly (image credit: BBC America)

Josh Levison began this series (a knockoff of a BBC original of the same title) as a recently turned werewolf who distances himself from his family amidst his struggle to reconcile his new reality with his former life. Filled with loathing over whether he deserves happiness or will only bring harm to those he loves, he has found friendship with a colonial era vampire, Aidan. Together they commit to help each other explore their lingering humanity. They make their home in Boston and Josh works as an orderly at a local hospital (Aidan is a nurse, which allows for easy access to an abundant blood supply).

Much to their surprise, the home they rent happens to have a newbie ghost in residence, Sally, a recently murdered bride-to-be of South Asian descent. Their home comes to serve as a kind of supernatural Moishe House with them as the facilitating in-residence guides to various visiting undead creatures: newbies learning to “live” with their conditions, old-timers engaging in long debates about evolving ethical challenges of traditional occult ways in a modern world (the ethics of live blood donors v. blood banks; are possessions acceptable and under what circumstances?), all while challenging each other to strive for more effort toward achieving an aspirational “normal” life.

Josh’s journey is played out in several relationships, including his on-again off-again rapprochement with his lesbian sister, and his relationship with Nora a doctor at the hospital. One constant throughout the series is that even as Josh struggles with honest relationships with himself and his loved ones, he is deeply connected to his Jewish identity, carefully protecting his Star of David necklace from damage every month before he turns. Plus there’s the occasional Jewish joke, usually in the kitchen.

Nora and Josh deal with pregnancy, miscarriage, breakups, and along the way the accidental turning of Nora who is now a werewolf too. As the relationship deepens, Josh persuades her to take him to meet her family. Nora’s greatest anxiety about this event is made evident when, to his astonishment, she hides his necklace under his clothing so that they don’t discover his Jewish identity. This concern for their judgment is made moot when it becomes clear there was abuse in Nora’s childhood and Josh determines to protect her from an environment that is still not a healthy space for her.

Somewhere along the line these four undead youth find a new family in each other, one filled with love, trust, and unimaginable acts of compassion for each other (when Sally is brought back to corporeal form as a Zombie, Aidan allows her to eat his healing flesh rather than leave her to chow down on humans).

After prolonged second guessing, Josh and Nora become engaged in truly romantic fashion. Initially wanting a well-planned wedding, they move up the date so as to marry before Sally dies a second time (hard to explain but trust me on this). Nora reaches out to Josh’s sister, Emily, who despite their difficulties plans his bachelor party at which, in a moment of life saving urgency, Josh and Aidan are outed as these magical creatures. Josh pleads with Nora for understanding, begging for the kind of acceptance he gave her when she came out, prompting her memorable line: “You’re comparing being a murderer to being gay?”

But when the wedding day arrives, Emily returns, determined to accept and embrace her brother for the totality of his identity, and also to ensure the wedding goes on as planned despite the minor distraction of a battle to the death with an oddly yiddishist survivor of the Andover, MA witch trials; because after all Emily rode the Boston T (subway) for 45 minutes to get to this wedding and how dare they postpone now?

And so we find ourselves in the living room, with a chuppah built by a very WASPy vampire (he was a Minuteman in the Revolution) who got himself an internet ordination for the ceremony, a ghost as maid-of-honor, and this interfaith werewolf couple saying their vows before select human friends and family. As Aidan and Josh appreciate this very normal moment they also recognize the completely unusual circumstances.

In the end (so far), Josh’s journey wasn’t about becoming human again (he tried that and failed). His was a search for his true family — alive and undead — who know his authentic self. In that moment, a wolf under a chuppah, surrounded by love, he is what we all aspire to be, unconditionally true to all aspects of himself and his choices and fully embraced for it by those who count.

Humanistic Judaism: Basics & Intercultural/Interfaith Family Appeal

This is a guest post by Rabbi Adam Chalom, written after a recent presentation on Humanistic Judaism to a program of InterfaithFamily/Chicago for soon-to-be or recently married couples. He thought it could be useful both as a basic explanation of Humanistic Judaism and to explain why his denomination is a good fit for many intercultural couples and families. This is cross-posted from his blog.

If you wanted to explain Humanistic Judaism in one sentence, it would be “Humanistic Judaism celebrates Jewish culture through our human-focused philosophy of life.” Since I have room for more than one sentence, I’ll expand a bit.

Humanistic Judaism

a logo for Humanistic Judaism

For Humanistic Jews, Jewish identity is an ethnic, family, cultural identity. This can include elements understood as “religious” like life cycle ceremonies or holidays, but also art, history, literature, food, language, jokes and more. And this is not unique to our movement; many Jews connect to Jewish culture more strongly than to Jewish religious beliefs or practices. There is no “Methodist-land,” while there is a sense of a Jewish homeland and a feeling of connection to other Jewish people, however diverse that peoplehood may be. Even the most traditional definition of “who is a Jew” is an ethnic definition: who your parents are rather than theological beliefs or rituals. Our cultural Jewish identity is who we are and where we come from, as well as what we do.

There are several implications from a cultural Jewish identity. First, culture evolves and changes, was created by people to respond to their time and place, responds to new circumstances and is open to new creativity. So what Jews 2000 ago believed or prescribed may or may not still inspire us. Second, cultures are available to choose from, just as we may connect with certain aspects of American culture and not others. In weddings I perform, couples choose which elements they want to include, and how to include them; for example, sometimes each one breaks a glass, rather than only one (male) partner. Most important [for this audience], we live in multiple cultures, multiple families at once. I am part of my own family, and also my wife’s family; even though both families are Humanistic Jewish, we learn from each other’s traditions and celebrate each other’s milestones. So, too, with intercultural families who are connected to both partners’ traditions (and both sets of grandparents!).

Humanistic Jews celebrate our identity, or our identities, through our human-focused philosophy. All too often religion is not about people — read a siddur/prayer book, particularly the Hebrew text or a clear translation. The focus is on what people CAN’T know, what people CAN’T do, how much help we need from above and beyond. Our Humanistic approach is to change the focus: instead of looking above and beyond for help, let’s celebrate what we CAN do, how much we HAVE achieved (individually and together). Let’s learn what really happened in our past, through critical study and archaeology, so we can discover how we really came to be who we are. And let’s celebrate the reality of the world we know, the life we share, the power we have, the inspiration we seek.

What are the implications of this philosophy? We can learn from our tradition, since it was created by people, and we also learn from modern human knowledge in the sciences, psychology, genetics and all the rest. We believe that all cultures, including Jewish culture, are responses to the human experience, and so we can find parallels and points of common ground between ours and others, and even learn from them. It’s not an accident that other cultures also have light-lighting holidays in the depths of winter! Most important, you are in charge of your own life — whom you choose to marry, how you create your family, what values you want to live. That means more responsibility, but also potentially great satisfaction for a life well lived.

This is why Humanistic Judaism has officiated at interfaith marriages and welcomed intercultural families from the very beginning, including our first policy statements in support of these families, both intermarriage and co-officiation, in 1974 and 1982.

Humanistic Judaism can be a comfortable Jewish home for intercultural families who share core human-focused values; we are very meaningful as the Jewish piece of an intercultural mosaic.

You can hear more about our/my approach to intermarriage in this audio podcast.

White Poinsettias and Blue Foil

This is a guest post by Ruth Nemzoff who, in addition to being on InterfaithFamily’s Advisory Board, is the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children and Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family.

Last week I walked into the lobby of my apartment and found it filled with white poinsettias wrapped in blue foil. “How lovely,” thought I, “and how brilliant of the management to include and please both those who celebrate Hanukkah (the blue and white colors) and those who celebrate Christmas (the poinsettias) while not offending the Buddhists and Muslims in the building. A creative idea indeed!”

Later that same day, walking down the street, I overheard two women chatting: “…and it has gotten so politically correct at school that we can’t even wrap the presents in red and green.” I suppose some of their friends who were celebrating Hanukkah might have had similar complaints. Each one of us has a choice. We can enjoy these solutions or we can complain about every minor change or unmet expectation.

It occurred to me that every special occasion, religious or not, gives us that choice. We can pick and poke and complain about this detail or that. We can mock the host and hostess for some minor deviation from our dream and raise it to an egregious error. Or we can decide to admire the attempts to blend the old and the new, the familiar and the unfamiliar.

At weddings, the arenas for supercilious disparagement are enormous. The dresses, the colors, the flowers, the food, the band, the music, the wine — or lack thereof. As Lincoln said, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Let’s make a resolution this holiday season to try to applaud those who try. Give the bride credit who includes her in-laws and siblings in the ceremony, even if she does so with customs different from yours, and give the groom credit as he honors both his traditions and those of his bride. None of us will get everything we want at the wedding, but appreciating what we do get just might help us reach the real prize: families who can get along, who manage to enjoy the joys that life brings, and who support each other when the troubles come.

So lighten up, this holiday season, if I might use a tired pun. Treasure what good will any group has to offer. And, as you attend those holiday weddings, think good thoughts not critical ones. Religion is meant to make us better people not rude ones. It’s a lot more fun and definitely in the spirit of the season no matter your beliefs.

My Jewish December

This is a guest post by Sara Beth Berman, the Nadiv Educator at The Davis Academy and URJ Camp Coleman. Nadiv is a program through the Foundation for Jewish Camp, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and The AVICHAI Foundation. The Davis Academy is a large Reform Jewish Day school in Atlanta, Georgia, with students in Kindergarten Prep through 8th Grade and URJ Camp Coleman is a Reform Jewish summer camp at Cleveland, GA. Sara Beth has worked at many Jewish summer camps and is excited to be doing experiential Jewish education at the Davis Academy during the year.

“It’s like that latke that wouldn’t stop screaming,” a Davis Academy Middle School student stated, when talking about media clips in their Beit Midrash presentation today.

The Davis Academy Beit Midrash (DABM) is a monthly experience for all Davis Middle Schoolers, where they take a day out of their Judaic Studies curriculum to engage in “Torah Lishmah” — learning for the sake of learning. In the DABM, learners engage with texts, both modern and ancient, while experiencing an educational methodology that addresses multiple intelligences.

This month’s DABM was focused on our students’ Jewish December. For our Reform Jewish Day school, questions about Chanukah and Christmas — and about Judaism and Christianity — can pepper class discussions in all grades. Many of our students come from interfaith households. Their observance of non-Jewish holidays covers the entire spectrum from zero knowledge to attending mass with their Christian family members. Some of our kids have Christmas trees or Chanukah bushes.

The students started the activity by watching a video of Hazzan Matthew Klein reading Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story. Set off by the loud and frustrated fried potato pancake, our learners were ready to talk! The discussion was heated and excited, as the kids were finally getting their chance to ask questions about Christmas. Why do we celebrate this — or that? Do we combine holidays? How are the holidays different? How do *I* feel about being a Jew during this time of year? Why can’t I have a tree? What does going to church with your family mean to you? Would you ever wear this sweater?

They also had a chance to voice their issues and beliefs. Students talked about their experiences visiting church, how they feel when they’re wished a “merry Christmas” around town at this time of year, and how nice it is for them to celebrate Christmas with their non-Jewish parent. They aired frustrations and asked for clarity. What is the whole presents thing all about, after all?

One student said, “I am not forced to celebrate Christmas with my dad. I choose to celebrate with him.” Her explanation gives great hope. Being an educator at a Reform Jewish Day school, we’re trying to teach informed choice based on study of Jewish laws and texts. How wonderful that our students, who are Jewish, show such respect to their non-Jewish parents, as it is written in the Torah.

Interested in the conversation? Check out the Prezi, put together for use at the Davis Academy today, as an introduction to the conversation. How would you respond?

Volunteering’s The Way to My Heart

This is a guest blog post by Jordyn Rozensky, who has written for us before. She’s the Director of Young Adult & Service Programs at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.

In an article I wrote for InterfaithFamily about my family’s approach to Christmas celebrations, I mentioned that volunteering is a great way to navigate the holidays. But why wait for Christmukkah to do good in your community? Many communities are in need of volunteers. And here in Boston, we have an opportunity for interfaith couples to volunteer as a cohort!

You’re part of an interfaith couple and looking for a way to be involved in the Jewish community? Interested in volunteering, together? Looking for other young adults who might be asking some of the same questions? Well, ReachOut! could be the answer to those questions!

ReachOut! is excited to be expanding our offerings to include a volunteer opportunity for members of our community in interfaith relationships. This track, which would require participation from both members of the couples, will provide a chance to explore shared values of volunteering, as well as to discuss issues of service and community in an interfaith environment.

The interfaith track will take place Monday nights beginning on October 15th from 6:30-7:30 at Golda Meir House in Newton. The Golda Meir House is a senior residence, and part of the JCHE network. Volunteers will lead a weekly discussion group, having a chance to form relationships and create intergenerational connections.

The nitty gritty details are available on our event listing on the InterfaithFamily Network.

Got more questions? Well, we have more answers. Contact me, Jordyn, or swing by our launch party.