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This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Thereâ€™s been a steady stream of intermarriage news related to the Conservative movement. In April Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, an emeritus rabbi who weâ€™ve applauded before, who was expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly because he officiated for interfaith couples, was published in theÂ Washington Post:Â I performed an intermarriage. Then I got expelled.
Then in May a much younger Conservative rabbi, Steven Abraham, a 2011 JTS graduate, offeredÂ Itâ€™s Time to Say â€śYes.â€ťÂ Our friend Rabbi Brian Field (a Reconstructionist himself) responded that Rabbi Abraham is not alone, and gave a wonderful explanation howÂ The Torah of Inclusion Offers Us a â€śYesâ€ť to Interfaith Couples.Â But another young Conservative rabbi wrote aboutÂ five steps to â€śsave Conservative Judaismâ€ťÂ â€“ with no mention of interfaith families.
In June an article in theÂ ForwardÂ about rabbis trying toÂ make the Conservative movement more gay-friendlyÂ mentions Rabbis Adina Lewittes and Amichai Lau-Lavie as leading advocates within the movement for intermarried spouses; â€śLau-Lavie will not perform any weddings until the movement revisits its blanket prohibition on rabbis officiating marriages for them; Lewittes resigned from the R.A. in order to lead interfaith ceremonies.â€ť
Lau-Lavieâ€™s Lab/Shul hadÂ announced an annual celebrationÂ on June 13 featuring â€śthe revelation of our groundbreaking response to intermarriage and the evolving identities of Jewish Americansâ€ť â€“ but the news is out in an piece by theÂ Forwardâ€™sÂ Jane Eisner,Â Why This Renegade Rabbi Says He Can Marry Jews â€” And The Jew-ish.Â As Eisner describes it, Lau-Lavie plans to use theÂ ger toshav, resident alien, concept â€świthin a halachic framework to justify intermarriage under certain conditions.â€ť He will ask prospective couples to devote six months to learn about core Jewish values and to demonstrate a genuine commitment to community (he wonâ€™t co-officiate). He will engage academics to â€śstudy whether this explicit welcome-with-conditions will result in a strengthened Jewish commitment.â€ť He will most likely have to resign from the Rabbinical Assembly.
Eisner, who is hostile to intermarriage, says she is â€śfascinatedâ€ť by the experiment, but skeptical. She apparently lined up Steven M. Cohen, also hostile to intermarriage, toÂ simultaneously commentÂ that while we â€śneedâ€ť Lau-Lavieâ€™s approach, it wonâ€™t succeed unless Jews â€śunderstand that Judaism believes that Jews should marry Jews.â€ť
I have enormous respect for Amichai Lau-Lavie. I look forward to his own explanation of his approach, and I hope that it helps the Conservative movement address intermarriage. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, hasÂ expressed open-nessÂ to the experiment â€” but cautions that itâ€™s the Rabbinical Assembly that makes halachic rulings. But creating a status that confers certain benefits, which necessarily means that another status does not have those benefits, is not the inclusivity that liberal Judaism needs to thrive in the future.
In the newÂ ForwardÂ piece Cohen says that about 8% of the grandchildren of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews-by-religion, but last fall he gave me data that showed a total of 38% were being raised as Jews-by-religion, partly Jews-by-religion, and Jewish but not by religion. He of course will say that if children arenâ€™t raised Jews-by-religion, itâ€™s not really good enough. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman, also hostile to intermarriage, have aÂ new paperÂ released by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute with their tired analysis that intermarried Jews donâ€™t measure up on their traditional scale of how Jews ideally would behave, and offering policy suggestions to get Jews to marry Jews.
That train has left the station and trashing intermarriage just pushes those who intermarry away. Â Eisner says she wants to â€śsustain and enrich modern Jewish life;â€ť Cohen says â€śBeing Jewish gives us meaning because it makes demands upon us â€“ to treat others kindly; to help improve the world; to engage in Jewish learning; to imbibe in Jewish culture; to mark the Jewish holidays and live the Jewish calendar; to be involved in the affairs of the Jewish people, State, community and, yes, family.â€ť We will experience more people gaining that meaning and doing their best to follow those demands â€“ and thereby sustaining modern Jewish life â€“ with a radically and totally inclusive, truly audacious welcoming, of interfaith couples.
In an otherwise really nice article,Â How My Daughterâ€™s Bat Mitzvah Almost Didnâ€™t Happen, Peter Szabo, who is intermarried, marvels that somehow, the Judaism within his family â€śsurvived assimilation in Hungary, Holocaust machinery, suburban assimilation in America.â€ť Â Szabo can be excused for incorrectly citing the Pew Report as saying that 80% of the children of intermarriages are not raised Jewish, but theÂ ForwardÂ editors surely know that the correct figure is 37%.
In an otherwise fine article titledÂ College doesnâ€™t turn Jews away from Judaism, Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, senior director of research and analysis at the Jewish Federations of North America, says that Jews with and without college degrees are just as likely to have a Jewish spouse, then says â€ścollege education and assimilation do not go hand in hand.â€ť In other words, he equates not having a Jewish spouse â€“ being intermarried â€“ with assimilation. He should know better.
Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackleyâ€™sÂ TEDx talkÂ about how they are raising their children withÂ Christianity and Islam has interesting parallels to Jewish-Christain couples doing both.
Iâ€™ll be writing more about new editions of two books that are great resources for interfaith couples. The second edition of Jim Keenâ€™sÂ Inside IntermarriageÂ â€“ I was honored to write the Foreword â€“ will be available on August 1 but can beÂ pre-orderedÂ now. The third edition of our friend Anita Diamantâ€™sÂ The New Jewish WeddingÂ â€“ now titledÂ The Jewish Wedding NowÂ â€“ came out this past week.
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 withÂ 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.Â The fiancĂ© 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.
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!
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.
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 â€śhalf-Jewish,â€ť 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 â€śshallow, money-grubbing Jew.â€ť
While Stern has allowed callers to call him a â€śhook-nosed Jew bastardâ€ť 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, itâ€™s different. His anti-Semitism is spiteful and anything but funny. Itâ€™s personal.
Andyâ€™s song, entitled â€śThe Jews are out to get you,â€ť includes the lyrics: Go home Jews, Hitler’s after you… Hitler’s hanging out in the shadowsâ€¦ he’s looking for you.
There is one good thing: Andy has pulled the song from his personal website. The bad thing â€“ you can still listen to it here (warning: you may find this song offensive; Benjamin and I sure did):
I canâ€™t wait to continue to listen to Stern defend Judaism.
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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,
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:
Here’s my letter–it’s really short:
Ruth Abrams, Managing Editor
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.
There’s a song that plays in my head whenever I learn that one of my heroes has died.
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.
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.