The Invasion of Skokie

In discussing interfaith marriage, language matters. I was reminded of this truth in watching the play Invasion of Skokie. The play pivots on the 1978 Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois. At the time, Skokie had a very high percentage of Holocaust survivor residents. The American Nazi party petitioned the city of Skokie for the right to hold the march there.

When the city granted the motion on the grounds of free speech, the city erupted in tension. Jews were on both sides of the issue. Some strong free speech advocates contended that no matter how heinous and offensive the Nazi message was, the First Amendment guaranteed them the right to march. A larger group, including many survivors, condemned the march and, according to the play, took up arms as a means of defense.

The play revolves around one family in which this tension plays out. The father opposes the march and works with a group arming themselves to fight the Nazis. His daughter supports the rights of the marchers, even as she finds their message horrible. The third character is known as the “Shabbos Goy,playing on an ancient (and to our ears, a very offensive) designation of a non-Jewish person who turns lights and stoves on and off in a Jewish home or synagogue on Sabbath when observant Jews are forbidden from doing so.

Eventually the daughter falls in love with him, and tension begins to play out between the father and daughter. When they ask for his blessing for their marriage, the father says no unless he converts. All of this story is playing against the background of the Nazi march. The fiancé says no to conversion, explaining that he does not share their faith even as he loves their daughter and respects Judaism.

As I led a discussion group after the play, I realized the importance of language in speaking to interfaith couples. Had the father not dismissed the potential marriage or focused immediately on conversion, I think the couple would have responded differently. Their relationship with him would have played out differently. We would have experienced a more honest and open discussion.

That is one of the lessons we teach at InterfaithFamily. When we see the issues of Jewish identity and family in black and white terms; when we think that conversion is the only way to have Judaism in the home, we often close the doors for future Jewish life.

The play brought up many feelings some still hold. If we care about passing on Judaism to the next generation, then we have to listen, accept and love. We fill find that there will be openings for Judaism to live vibrantly for couples and families who have been welcomed and supported.

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.

Howard Stern: Anti-Semitism Crusader

As I heard the rhythmic song begin its first beat, I knew this song was not going to be funny or clever.  This morning, Howard Stern introduced his listeners on SiriusXM 100 to an anti-Semitic song created by pseudo-celebrity Andy Dick.  Howard Stern, who often jokes on the radio about being “half-Jewish,” is actually the child of two Jewish parents, Ben and Ray Stern.  Stern has been doing an outstanding job of defending against the anti-Semitism that Andy Dick has been spouting  all over the airwaves.  In an interview several weeks back, Dick ranted and raved about his distaste for Jewish people, and how he felt as if Stern only hired Jewish people.  He also referred to Stern as a “shallow, money-grubbing Jew.”

While Stern has allowed callers to call him a “hook-nosed Jew bastard” and other derogatory terms, he seems to uphold the philosophy that if you are going to make fun of someone, then make fun of everyone.  But with Andy Dick, it’s different.  His anti-Semitism is spiteful and anything but funny.  It’s personal.

Andy’s song, entitled “The Jews are out to get you,” includes the lyrics:  Go home Jews, Hitler’s after you… Hitler’s hanging out in the shadows… he’s looking for you.   

There is one good thing: Andy has pulled the song from his personal website.  The bad thing – you can still listen to it here (warning: you may find this song offensive; Benjamin and I sure did): 

I can’t wait to continue to listen to Stern defend Judaism.

Back to Poland

The Forward ran a feature story by Mladen Petrov , “Poles Create Images That Say ‘I Miss You, Jew’”. It’s about an art project conducted by a Warsaw ad executive, Rafal Betlejewski. On the front page of the paper is a person sitting in a chair in Lodz, where my best friend’s grandmother grew up–next to an empty chair to symbolize all the Jews who aren’t there.

You can see the website of the project, where many Poles have collected their memories of Jews, at tesknie.com. Betlejewski was moved by reading Jan Gross’ book Neighbors, about a pogrom during the Second World War in the small Polish town of Jedwabne.

I’d read about this project before, because I knew about Gross and Jedwabne from working with Joanna Michlic, a historian of Polish Jewry. Dr. Michlic is a specialist on the history of the relationships of Poland’s Jews with the broader community of non-Jewish Poles. She’s also a child of an interfaith family. She and I are about the same age. I was reading about the Solidarity movement in the Cleveland Plain Dealer while she was active in the Solidarity movement–and it was in that context she first understood herself to be Jewish. She was raised with no Jewish identity. Her family didn’t think it was safe.

Her experience of growing up in an interfaith family is nothing like the experiences of the people who use our site. In the Forward article, Petrov writes:

The idea is not strongly supported everywhere. During a recent photo shoot in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, a town near Warsaw where Jews constituted 87% of the population at the beginning of the 19th century, only 15 people showed up. At the Gdański train station, a large number of those who came were in attendance mainly because of their own Jewish roots. Some critics see in the project both a hidden Jewish agenda and a simple gimmick for self-promotion by Betlejewski, who has conducted two unrelated social campaigns in his work as an ad agency executive.

Betlejewski’s partner in the project, Judyta Nekanda-Trepka, tells the reporter, “With the campaign, we wanted to remind people of the actual meaning of the word. ‘Jew’ is not an offensive word!”

Joanna Michlic has made the point that Polish nationalism could have two characters: an ethnic exclusivist character or an inclusivist civic character. In the present day, Poles are choosing inclusivist civic nationalism, and over 3,000 people have posted to tesknie.com to tell the stories they felt they couldn’t tell about their Jewish neighbors.There’s more than one lesson to pull out of this story for American Jews, for people in interfaith families, for people in the United States grappling with how to deal with ethnic difference and immigration. We have the same choices in front of us–to be hidden or to be open, to include or to exclude.

Children of Hidden Jews

I saw a short item, “Polish-language guide to Shavuot distributed.” An organization called Shavei Israel which does outreach to people with Jewish roots or ancestry around the world, prepared the pamphlet.

Children of hidden Jews are, for the most part, children of interfaith marriages. In the Polish case this looks nothing at all like interfaith marriage in the United States–the level of anti-Semitism in Poland and the lack of freedom of religion means that hidden Jews are also people whose Jewish roots were hidden from them.

The interesting thing is that this outreach, which is entirely to people who descended from interfaith families, is under Orthodox auspices and the organization has on its website that it is “under the ongoing supervision of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel.”

Shakshuka and Anne Frank

It’s lovely to see sunny Tori Avey, who wrote a great piece on how to run a Passover seder for us, telling the story of her Journey From Shiksa to Shakshuka in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. She is one of my favorite finds of the last few months–like a younger, American apprentice to Claudia Roden. (I know, if Tori reads that she’ll faint–Claudia Roden is every foodie’s hero. She’s certainly mine.) But she does the same thing–the recipe collecting and preserving–that Roden does so well. Because it’s partly about collecting and transcribing, but it’s also about testing and having the taste buds to choose the best variation.

I also really like to eat shakshuka. I haven’t made it in a long time–a bed of sauteed onions, tomatoes and sometimes peppers with fried eggs on top.

My friend Rebecca Lesses, a professor of Judaic Studies at Ithaca College, mentioned on her blog Mystical Politics a new feature on the Anne Frank House website. You can now see a lot of the exhibits in the museum without traveling to Amsterdam.

London Jewish Museum reopens

The Jewish community of Great Britain is a cultural powerhouse, I can’t even summarize all the great stuff that has come out of it. It’s the Jewish community responsible for the first Limmud, Aviva Zornberg, Neil Gaiman, Claudia Roden, Harold Pinter, Julian Sinclair, Martyn Poliakoff, Susan Edni, and so many other amazing people in arts, entertainment, science, politics, literature and Jewish life. (Yes, I am aware that list was a little random–give me yours!)

Two of those people, the food writer Nigella Lawson and creative director of the BBC Alan Yentob, re-opened the Jewish Museum in London this past week. The Jewish Museum in London has a slightly different model than some of the ones in the US. It seems poised to use the Jewish experience as “one of Britain’s oldest minorities” to bring other immigrant and minority experiences to the foreground. Cara Nissman reported for us last year on how Jewish museums might provide neutral territory for interfaith families. You don’t need to be Jewish to go to a museum, and in fact the exhibits in a Jewish museum may provide an opening to discuss the non-Jewish partner’s history and culture.

If you’re going to London, check the Jewish Museum’s events list–it looks like they have a lot of interesting events there.

Stand Up and Be Counted Part Two–Jewish Library in Jerusalem of Lithuania

Last July, I blogged about Wyman Brent’s efforts to start a Jewish library in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Vilnius, known as Vilna in Yiddish, was a center of Jewish life. Many Jewish families who live in the US are descendants of Jews from Lithuania. As Brent explains,

The purpose of the Vilnius Jewish Library is to help strengthen Jewish culture in the Jerusalem of Lithuania.  There were more than 100 synagogues and prayerhouses in Vilnius before the war.  There was also the YIVO Institute which did so much to promote knowledge and education.  Now there is one functioning synagogue here and, YIVO has moved its operations to the USA.  Since the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, there has not been a proper center of Jewish culture.

Another focus of the library is to promote tolerance and understanding.  There remains lingering anti-Semitism which is visible in the national media and within the Lithuanian government. The idea is to create a center which puts the spotlight not just on Jewish religion and culture but also upon the amazing accomplishments of Jews throughout history.

Brent, who is not Jewish, believes in libraries and the power of books and culture in general to overthrow bias. Now, people in the rest of the world have an opportunity to support his vision:

I was able to see the space which will hopefully house the library.  This is not the permanent location but it will be more than suitable for two or three years.  The place is directly across the street from the Parliament and the National Library buildings.  Both can be seen from the front windows of the proposed library.  There is room for concerts, lectures, and offices.  I say not permanent because eventually the collection will outgrow those rooms.  However, it is a beautiful and fitting location in which to begin.

After years of work, I feel like I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.  There is one thing which still needs to be done.  The Prime Minister is the one which will have the final decision in this matter.  I was told the best way to influence things in a positive manner is to receive letters of support for the Vilnius Jewish Library.  The letters need to be actually mailed as opposed to being sent by email.  I am reaching out to you and to anyone you know in getting out those letters.  The letters can be printed out or hand written but all must be signed and there must be somewhere their name printed so it can actually be read.  If a person is uncomfortable in providing a home address, they are very welcome to use a P.O. Box or business address.  This is NOT a call for donations of money or materials.

Here’s my letter–it’s really short:

Ruth Abrams, Managing Editor
InterfaithFamily.com
90 Oak Street
Newton, MA 02464

Wyman Brent
Ausros Vartu 20-15A
Vilnius LT-02100
Lithuania

February 25, 2010

Dear Mr. Brent,

I am writing in support of the creation of a Jewish library in Vilnius. As Jewish tourists seek their roots in Eastern Europe, the library could provide them with a space to explore Jewish culture. The library would also be a resource to Lithuanians and a source of pride for them and of connection between the people who share this history.

Please share this letter, among many others from interested parties around the world, with the Prime Minister of Lithuania.

Sincerely,

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Ruth Abrams

Abraham Sutzkever

There’s a song that plays in my head whenever I learn that one of my heroes has died.
“They are falling all around me/the strongest leaves on my tree.
Every paper brings the news that/the teachers of my life are moving on.”–Bernice Johnson Reagon

Abraham Sutzgever died at the age of 96 on January 20. Considering that he risked his life to save Jewish culture from the Nazis, that’s pretty remarkable. Sutzgever was a member of the Paper Brigade, a group of Jewish intellectuals in Vilna, Lithuania who defied the Nazis by saving and hiding Jewish cultural artifacts from Eastern Europe’s largest pre-war Jewish archive, YIVO. At the same time, he continued to write poetry.

“If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t live,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1985 while reminiscing over a glass of French cognac. “When I was in the Vilna ghetto, I believed, as an observant Jew believes in the Messiah, that as long as I was writing, was able to be a poet, I would have a weapon against death.”

Sutzkever lived from the founding of the State of Israel until his death in Tel Aviv, editing a Yiddish literary magazine there until 1995. Even though the push in Israeli culture was to forget Yiddish and to teach Hebrew only, Sutzkever kept Yiddish literature and its values alive.

I had missed the initial news of Sutzkever’s death and didn’t understand why  one of my favorite bloggers had posted one of his poems in Yiddish out of the blue. She blogs in Yiddish a lot–I do my best to keep up. We in the succeeding generations continue to take seriously Yiddish speakers’ legacy of courage and creativity. As I researched this post, I found a 21-year-old Youtube user called Ikhveysnit–it means, “I don’t know”–who has been recording the poems of Sutzkever and other Yiddish poets of his generation.

I also found this video–Israeli singer Chava Alberstein, who has also done a lot to keep Yiddish alive, singing a song based on one of Sutzkever’s poems, Unter Dayn Vayse Shtern. The video is Chagall paintings, which is appropriate as Sutzkever saved some of Chagall’s paintings from the Nazis.

More News on the Catholic-Jewish Relations Issue

The current Pope has signed a decree heroic virtues for two previous popes: his predecessor, John Paul II, and  Pius XII, who was pope during the Second World War. This is one step before beatification. Predictably, some Jews have already pointed out why they wouldn’t make Pius XII a saint–most historians believe he did little to save Jews from the Nazis.

Deborah Dwork, a historian and Holocaust expert at Clark University, and Rabbi Eric Greenberg, who runs interfaith work at the Anti-Defamation League, wrote an editorial condemning the move as an attack on Jews. Further, the editorial discusses and dismisses historians arguing that Pius XII did more behind the scenes to save Jewish lives than he seemed to have done in public. The Catholic League responded with another editorial that called Dwork and Greenberg’s criticism “unseemly” and pointed out all the things Pius XII was known to have done to save Jews. (To me, it’s not all that impressive, but you read it and see what you think.)

Tracking the issue of Catholic-Jewish relations for this blog has been very interesting for me. I grew up post-Vatican II and most of my adult life has been during the papacy of John Paul II, the pope who did the most to foster positive relations between Catholics and Jews of any pope, ever. The current papacy has made a series of missteps with relation to Catholic-Jewish relations–and people in my generation did not expect them, I think.

It’s true Pope Benedict XVI is German and a voice on the right on Church matters, but he was completely on board with John Paul’s gestures to the Jewish community–in fact, he was the one who prepared a definitive church document, Memory and Reconciliation, that outlines the Church’s responsibility in past anti-Jewish violence. We had reason to expect him to continue in the same line. Ruth Ellen Gruber’s JTA article, After Pius move, Pope Benedict practices delicate Jewish dance, outlines the back and forth of recent papal decisions.

I really don’t know the truth about Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. No one does, because the documents historians want to see to find out are in closed Vatican archives. It’s possible that the current pope knows something we don’t. I was trained as a historian and even if I weren’t Jewish I would probably be on Deborah Dwork’s side about opening those archives.