Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'”
Up here at Camp Tawonga in Northern California, the Jewish theme of the summer is “being a mensch.” One of those Yiddish words that has found its way into the English lexicon, a mensch is a good person. It could be argued that Judaism, as well as every religion, is built around making us good people. A related Jewish term is “derech eretz,” or, how we are in the world as human beings.
I often talk to my kids about this idea. There are many things I hope for my children: happiness, success… But if they aren’t kind, if they aren’t at a basic level good people, none of the rest matters.
A great tool for figuring out how to be a good person (and raise a good person) is the Making Mensches Periodic Table. It lists 43 of the attributes Jewish Mussar (ethics movement of the 19th century) named as mensch-like qualities, for example: compassion, love, joy, modesty, justice and integrity. This chart can be particularly helpful to interfaith couples. When partners come from different backgrounds, it can be difficult to figure out which tradition to emphasize or how two religious traditions can be expressed side by side.
Try this exercise that I ask of every couple I marry: Figure out what values you share. Some couples value education more than saving money, others value a shared sense of human responsibility toward the natural world. For others, a peaceful home is more important than hospitality. These values are, most likely, part of what attracted you to one another, how you saw yourself intertwined with that person, or maybe even what one of you lacked growing up that you value in the other. Think about these values that underpin your relationship.
If you need ideas, scan the Table. Which five values or qualities are most important to you? Which are lower on your list? Have your partner do the same. Talk about why certain values rose to the top for each of you and why. What do you share? Where do you differ? Do you express your commitment to those values in unique ways based on where you first learned about them? Who passed them on to you? Don’t worry if they aren’t completely aligned. Talk about what you want this shared life to look like so you can start to intentionally live according to those values and make them come alive in your home and your relationships.
Many of us were raised with some iteration of the Golden Rule. In the Torah, Leviticus 19:18 teaches us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whatever you name it, wherever you learned it, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Does the huge conversation about Rachel Dolezal, who resigned as president of the Spokane, WA, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after it was revealed that she identified as African-American while her parents are White, have any relevance to efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community?
I’m not commenting on Dolezal’s conduct or its implications on race and race relations; Samuel Freedman addresses those issues and describes her as “clearly disturbed” in the Forward’s “How Rachel Dolezal Crossed the Line from Solidarity to Slumming.” Dolezal’s claim to be transracial has also been criticized as demeaning to people who are transgender, which I certainly don’t mean to be.
In “What My Black Jewish Son Teaches Me About Rachel Dolezal,” (also in the Forward) Alina Adams, a Jewish woman married to an African-American man, who has written six wonderful articles for us over the years, says that her three children “are being raised Jewish, and they identify as 100 percent Jewish, not ‘half’,” while her husband “didn’t convert, and he doesn’t self-identify as Jewish. But he does identify with the Jewish people via his children.”
As the wife of an African-American man and the mother of three biracial children, I feel much more personally connected to cases of police shootings, racial profiling and the academic achievement gap for minority children than I ever did before my marriage.
Would I self-identify as black? No. Never. That would be insulting, in my opinion. (I believe even wearing ceremonial clothes of another culture is pretentious, though many would disagree with me.)
But do I feel black?
Then, about her husband, she says:
The same way my husband sometimes says “us” or “we” or “our” when he’s talking about Jews. I honestly can’t imagine how you can love a person and not feel like a part of their struggle. Which is a part of them. Which becomes a part of you.
So Alina Adams doesn’t “self-identify as black” but she “sort of” “feels black” while her husband sometimes includes himself when talking about Jews, and his wife and their children’s Jewishness has become a part of him.
It sounds like Alina would not describe herself as “transracial.” Does it make any sense or serve any purpose to describe Alina’s husband as “transJewish?”
I don’t think so. I don’t think coming up with categories or labels for people like Alina’s husband is helpful. Over the years, some people have suggested calling a supportive partner from another faith tradition a “ger toshav,” a Biblical category that literally means “stranger in the camp.” But the motivation is usually to allow people who fall into the category to participate in more Jewish ritual than those who don’t, and I think that’s a bad idea.
I know that some people would say that it doesn’t make sense to talk about “transJewish” because a person who comes to identify as Jewish can convert. But as of now there’s no civil or cultural conversion, only religious conversion, and in any event there are many people who feel sort of or partly Jewish who for many reasons aren’t interested in converting.
But the notion of a person who is born with and/or raised with one identity, who feels an affinity with and eventually adopts in some fashion a different identity—that’s what strikes close to home. There are many people who were not born or raised Jewish, who are married or partnered with Jews, who feel an affinity with Jews and Jewish traditions and who in some fashion adopt a Jewish identity, the way Alina Adams’ husband has. The increasing understanding that that kind of identity shifting happens is the positive implication of the Dolezal incident for those interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly.
I agree with Alina’s conclusion:
My primary takeaway from the incident and my family’s own experience is that, apparently, identity is much more complicated than my husband and I ever imagined it would be before our kids were born. And that instead of having all the answers, we’re going to be learning right alongside with them—and the rest of America.
Postscript June 23, 2015
In the Sunday New York Times on June 21, 2015, there is a letter to the editor from Ron Brown of Brooklyn, who describes himself as a Christian married to Jewish woman for 30 years, with adult children who identify as Jewish.
He writes, “Over time, I have grown to ‘feel’ Jewish myself. I even feel a bit insulted and left out when I am singled out as the only one in the family who is Christian. I can understand feeling so identified with a certain group that you wish you were born into that group, so identified that even a reminder that you are separate from that group hurts. I can understand Rachel Dolezal. But I would never consider lying about it. I wish Ms. Dolezal hadn’t either. There’s no doubt in my mind that she would have been welcomed into the African-American community just the way she was.”
I’ve been reading a lot these days about “the Millennials,” the oft-described scary generation who came of age as the millennium marker came and went. I was surprised to find out in my reading that I am in fact considered to be a part of this generation, albeit one of the founding members having been born in the early ‘80s. So I find myself in a tenuous balance between the desire to defend my own Millennial nature and that of my peers; and trying to figure out the age-old question of what does this new generation want and need?
It is a difficult task, to pin point the soul of a generation. The advertising agencies of the world seem to be doing a better job at it than anyone else, but that’s nothing new. There are studies both within and especially outside of the Jewish world aimed at understanding what makes us different from previous generations, what makes us tick, how do we spend our money, what are our goals, etc.
The Millenial conversation seems to center around integration of technology, somewhat questionable values and very high expectations concerning money, both wanting to make a lot and adversely, not wanting to pay a lot. This seems like a fantastic generation with which to identify!
I must confess, sometimes I find myself acting like a millennial; I text…a lot, I rely heavily on the Internet and am somewhat of a savant at locating anything on the great Google. I watch TV shows on my computer and I don’t have a landline. I am more inclined to attend an event if it’s free and I love having lots of choices for everything I could possibly want. I have big goals for myself professionally and I expect and demand that my gender, sexuality, politics or ideology will help not hurt me as I go through life.
On the other hand, I have the heart of an historian. I have been accused many a time of knowing more than anyone else my age does about a variety of topics from pop culture of an age long gone to lyrics of obscure songs recorded decades before my birth. I have a reverence for the past as it informs the future that many think is missing from my generation. I even took a How Millennial Are You quiz (online, of course) and as I suspected, scored 50 percent: six of one, half dozen of the other.
But that’s just who I am. Like a good millennial, I straddle a variety of identities and I am comfortable in them all. But statistics and studies cannot tell my story completely.
The first time I confronted statistics was not as a member of a generation but rather as the child of interfaith parents. Statistically, as the child of a Catholic mother and Jewish father, there was little chance that I would end up identifying as Jewish. I love this statistic, this tiny percentage, because I was always so proud that despite the odds stacked against me, not only do I identify as Jewish but I became a rabbi: I center my life around Judaism. While I fully understand the importance of these studies and these numbers, I know first hand that they never tell everyone’s story. My story will be different from yours even if we share a percentage.
The great cycle of generations always seems to contain a smattering of confusion and frustration coupled with a yearning for youth and the promise it brings. The Millenials are certainly not the first nor will be the last to feel the pressure from previous generations to conform just a little bit more. But rather than bemoan how left behind we all inevitably feel as a new generation takes its place, let’s keep listening to peoples’ stories and keep telling our own.
While each of us are irrevocably tied to the time and space in which we were born and raised, it is how we live our lives and the choices that we make that define us far beyond statistics. There are always those who define the trend as well as those who buck it and it will continue to be far more important to me to ask why and listen to the answers rather than assume that I already know because I read a study or an article in The New York Times.
No matter your generational identity, I think we all want the same things at the end of the day: some happiness, love and community, and to leave the world better than we found it, despite how differently we may express it or how differently that might look.
Hopefully, with a bit of luck, we will all figure out the wants and needs of this Millenial generation just in time for the next generation to confound us once again.
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 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.
I spent last week at California’s Camp Tawonga as the rabbi on staff for their “Taste of Camp” (a six-day introduction to the camp experience for kids who aren’t ready for a longer session yet). I overheard two 8- or 9-year-olds getting to know each other’s backgrounds on the way back to the cabin.
Excitedly, one girl told the other, “My Mom is Jewish and my Dad is Christian. But we are mostly Jewish.”
The other smiled and piped in, “In our house, we are also mixed! We eat some Hebrew food, and some Mexican food.”
This comment cracked me up and reminded me of being a little kid and having other kids ask me, “Are you Hanukkah or Christmas?” The conversation went on, comparing which holidays they each celebrate that are “Hebrew” and delighting in finding much commonality between their families.
What impressed me most about the conversation was their comfort and ease with the subject. Tawonga is a camp unaffiliated with any particular Jewish denomination, and many kids come from interfaith households. It seemed the perfect place for two kids to explore how they view their backgrounds and make sense of who they are becoming.
I don’t know the full picture of these kids’ family lives, but I would venture to say that they have been given a great gift: clarity. There is much worry that children with parents from different backgrounds will be confused, especially if the parent who is not Jewish continues to be connected to her or his religious heritage. From my experience working with interfaith families, some children are confused, and others—not in the least bit. And a lot of that is dependent on how intentional, clear and forthcoming parents are about what their “religious plan” is for the family. When they know how they are planning on affiliating with religions, communicate that effectively to their children and follow through on it, the kids are more likely to feel secure in who they are religiously as well—regardless of what the plan actually is.
What is the “religious plan” for the little girl who says she is “mostly Jewish”? I don’t know. But I imagine that she is comfortable saying her family is “mostly Jewish” and talking freely about it because they have an idea of how they are living spiritually and have communicated that to her. Perhaps she is being raised Jewishly and being sent to a Jewish camp. But she is also keenly aware that there is more to the story and honors her parent who is not Jewish as a contributor to her emerging identity.
We’ve all heard about “half Jews.” And people who say they are “part Jewish,” or “a quarter Jewish.” I think these kids just came up with a new category. Mostly Jewish. And proud of it.
Everyone stand in a big circle. If you have a parent who is not Jewish, take a step inside the circle. Stay there. Now, if you are still in the outside circle, and you have a close relative who is not Jewish, take a step inside the circle.
Everyone looked around and saw that nearly all of the more than 75 participants had taken a step inside the circle.
And so began InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia’s Sensitivity Training for counselors at Camp JRF (the Reconstructionist movement’s overnight camp in the Pennsylvania Poconos) for working with children from interfaith homes. This training—which I conducted along with my IFF/Philadelphia colleagues Wendy Armon and Robin Warsaw—was part of the camp’s Inclusivity Training for counselors in the week before campers arrived. It was clear to all of the counselors in attendance that being part of an interfaith family isn’t just a theoretical issue for liberal Jews today, it’s something that touches almost every one of us personally.
Over the next hour, we explored how the counselors could best handle various issues that might come up during the summer. For example, what do you do as a counselor when you’re leading a discussion about God and one of the campers brings up Jesus? The counselors also divided up into small groups and discussed and acted out various scenarios involving interfaith issues, such as how to react when a camper says that she is “half Jewish and half [another religion]” or when a camper claims that his bunkmate “isn’t really Jewish.”
From left: Rabbi Robyn Frisch, Wendy Armon, Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, Executive Director of Camp JRF, Robin Warsaw
I was amazed at the counselors’ thoughtfulness and sensitivity, their insight and creativity, and their openness to discussing challenging issues. After the training, the three of us from IFF/Philadelphia had the pleasure of joining the counselors for a healthy and delicious (really!) lunch—which was followed by a rousing song session in which the counselors sang some of the songs they’ve been learning in advance of the campers’ arrival. Then we were in for a real treat, as the camp’s director, Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, took us on a tour (by golf cart) of the camp. We saw how the different activity areas were labeled with signs that looked like Israeli street signs, naming the activity in Hebrew, English and Arabic. A highlight of the tour was the camp’s new Eco-Village (designed with the input of campers from the past year), a super cool area where campers entering their freshman and sophomore years of high school will live in yurts.
More than once throughout our day at Camp JRF, we heard someone use the camp expression “How We Be.” At Camp JRF, diversity isn’t just tolerated…it isn’t just accepted…it’s embraced! One thing was clear: “We all be different…and that’s wonderful!” Camp JRF is very much a JEWISH camp, but every person at camp—counselor or camper—is encouraged to express his or her Judaism in a way that is personally meaningful. And each person understands that he or she has to respect how others “be.” There’s no “one size fits all.” Each individual is unique, and that makes for a vibrant camp community.
I have no doubt that the campers who attend Camp JRF this summer will have an amazing time. They’ll swim and play Frisbee; dance and sing; make new friends and have all kinds of exciting and rewarding experiences. If they’re going into ninth or tenth grade—they’ll even get to live in a yurt! But most important, they’ll know that they’re living in a community where their uniqueness is embraced and they are accepted for who they are, as they are. And THAT is a great way to “be.”
I don’t normally read books written for middle schoolers, but I was in the children’s section of my local library picking up a book for my daughter the other day when I noticed a book with a bright yellow cover with a pretty Indian girl entitled My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, written by Paula J. Freedman, on display. I opened the book and started to read the summary on the inside cover: “For Tara Feinstein, life with her Jewish-Indian-American family is like a bowl of spicy matzoh ball soup. It’s a mix of cultures that is sometimes delicious, and sometimes confusing…”
I was hooked, and I immediately checked out the book. As someone who devotes my days to working with interfaith couples and families and advocating for a welcoming Jewish community, I couldn’t wait to start reading.
And I wasn’t disappointed. It was a lot of fun to read the story of Tara’s desi mispacha—a term that Tara describes in the book as a “Hindi + Yiddish made up term meaning a family that’s a little bit Indian and a little bit Jewish. Nicer than ‘Hin-Jew’…” I appreciated how the author depicted Tara’s struggles as she prepares to become a Bat Mitzvah—her questioning whether or not she believes in God; her worry that by celebrating becoming a Bat Mitzvah she will somehow be less Indian; her confusing relationship with her Catholic best friend who wants to be her boyfriend.
Tara’s Indian mother converted to Judaism years earlier, before marrying her father, but Tara still feels a deep connection to her Indian family and her Indian heritage. She deeply loved her mothers’ parents who lived in India and died several years earlier. She feels a special bond to her Nanaji(her mother’s father) and wants to be sure that celebrating her Bat Mitzvah won’t make her forget him. She adores Indian food, and though her mother doesn’t cook, her father—who grew up Jewish in America—makes great Indian food. Tara loves to watch and act out scenes from Bollywood movies. And for good luck, she rubs the statue of Ganesha that sits on her dresser.
One particular scene in the book really struck me. When Tara realizes that a friend of hers has stolen a bracelet, Tara grabs the bracelet and goes to the store to return it. As she’s reaching to put the bracelet back on the jewelry counter, she’s stopped by a security guard, who thinks that Tara’s involved in the shoplifting. When she tells the security guard that her name is “Tara Feinstein,” he looks at her skeptically and says to her: “No, really.”
That’s what it’s constantly like for Tara…people making assumptions about her, and her Jewishness, based on how she looks, and on her mother’s (and thus her) background. And this is what it’s like for so many children from interfaith, inter-racial and/or inter-cultural homes. Fortunately for Tara, she comes to realize that connecting to her Judaism on a deeper level doesn’t mean that she has to distance herself from her Indian heritage. As she says in her Bat Mitzvah speech: “…now I know that inspiration can come from many different sources, and that having multicultural experiences can actually make you stronger and more accepting of different points of view.” She comes to see that “Nanaji would really have liked my Bat Mitzvah…he was a very spiritual person…he would have approved, as long as I did it with an open heart.”
When my children write book reports for school, they always have to tell whether they would recommend the book, and why or why not. Well, I can say that I would highly recommend My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. It was refreshing to read about a young woman coming of age and dealing with the multiple aspects of her identity, and realizing that she could be fully Jewish AND still honor her Indian cultural heritage (as she did by wearing a treasured sari from her mother’s family which was made into a dress for her Bat Mitzvah).
The book shows in a touching way not just the challenges, but also the blessings, of growing up in an interfaith, inter-cultural family. It’s always said that kids need to see themselves reflected in the dolls they play with, the television and movies they watch, and the stories they read. I’d imagine that a middle schooler, especially a girl, growing up in an interfaith, inter-racial or intercultural home would at least find some aspects of herself reflected in Tara.
If you’re a mom or dad in an interfaith home and you have a child in middle school, I suggest that you get My Basmati Bat Mitzvah for your child. Better yet, read it with your kid! It’ll give you a great opening to discuss complex issues of belonging and identity. If you’re raising your child as a Jew, you can discuss with them how they can still be one hundred percent Jewish even if one parent did not grow up (and may still not be) Jewish. And you can talk about how being Jewish and proudly celebrating your Jewish identity doesn’t mean that you can’t love and honor family members who aren’t Jewish with a full heart or that you can’t embrace aspects of what you inherited from your parent who did not grow up Jewish.
I have to return My Basmati Bat Mitzvah to the library soon, before it’s overdue. And when I get there, I may just go back to the children’s section to see what other great books I can find for myself.
A version of this blog post was reprinted in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and can be read here.
“Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)
These words, spoken by the young widow Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi, are among the most well known and most powerful words in the Bible. They express Ruth’s commitment to Naomi—and to Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God. With this declaration, Ruth the Moabite cast her lot with the lot of the Jewish people, and she recognized the God of Israel as her God.
Often Ruth is spoken of as the first convert to Judaism. Of course Ruth’s “conversion” wasn’t like the conversions of today. Ruth didn’t attend an Introduction to Judaism class (I can’t imagine that any such classes were offered in Moab!); she didn’t appear before a Beit Din (a rabbinic court); and she didn’t immerse herself in the mikveh(ritual bath). And in fact, throughout the Book of Ruth, even after Ruth makes her declaration of commitment to Naomi, the people of Israel and the God of Israel, Ruth is constantly referred to as “the Moabite,” reminding us, the readers, that Ruth was still seen as an “outsider.”
Even if we are to accept that Ruth converted to Judaism (at a time long before conversion as we now know it), the timing of Ruth’s “conversion” is noteworthy. Having lost her husband and two sons, Machlon (Ruth’s husband) and Chilion (who was married to another Moabite woman, Orpah), while living in Moab, Naomi was preparing to head back to Israel. She told her daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families, and Orpah followed her instructions. Ruth, however, clung to Naomi, and when Naomi told her to “return to her people and her gods” as Orpah had done, Ruth responded: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go….”
By the time Ruth made her famous declaration to Naomi, Ruth’s Israelite husband was already deceased. This was after Ruth’s marriage, not before it. This means that Ruth’s marriage to Machlon, which lasted about ten years, was an interfaith marriage! I can only imagine that Ruth’s great love for Naomi was based on the fact that throughout the period of the marriage and beyond Naomi accepted Ruth for who she was—making Ruth feel valued and loved.
So often today I hear a Jewish mother lament when her son marries a woman who isn’t Jewish: “She’s a lovely girl. If ONLY she were Jewish…” I can only imagine how this must make the daughter-in-law feel: that she’s not quite good enough, that she’s second class. That’s not how Naomi treated Ruth. While the text may go out of its way to call her “Ruth the Moabite,” to Naomi she was simply “Ruth”: beloved daughter-in-law. And what a remarkable mother-in-law Naomi must have been for Ruth to want to leave her own land and her own people to return to Naomi’s homeland with her after Machlon had died.
Just imagine what it would be like today if Jewish parents—and the Jewish community as a whole—could be as non-judgmental and accepting of their children’s interfaith marriages as Naomi must have been of Machlon’s marriage to Ruth. Surely some of the children-in-law, like Ruth, would fall in love with their extended Jewish family and the Jewish people and religion, and choose after a period of time to become Jewish. We see this happen all of the time: Someone who’s had a Jewish partner for a number of years converting after truly knowing what it means to be Jewish. (As a rabbi, I would much prefer that someone wait to convert until they’re sure that it’s right for them, rather than converting to appease a prospective in-law or just make things “easier” when getting married. A conversion just to make someone else happy seems to me to be “empty” and insincere.)
Of course even if parents-in-law and the Jewish community are non-judgmental and accepting of interfaith marriages, not every partner in an interfaith marriage who didn’t grow up Jewish is going to convert. Some people won’t convert because they still practice another religion, and others will decide—for a variety of reasons—that conversion to Judaism isn’t for them. And that’s OK too! Our community needs to honor those who’ve chosen to marry Jews, but who haven’t chosen Judaism for themselves—just as Naomi showed Ruth respect throughout the time that she was married to Machlon. As Naomi realized throughout the marriage, it wasn’t her place to tell her daughter-in-law how to live her life or what choices she should make. Naomi loved Ruth for who she WAS—not for what she WANTED Ruth to be.
At the end of the Book of Ruth, Ruth gives birth to Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. Ruth “the Moabite” who was in an interfaith marriage to Machlon is the great-grandmother of David—not only a great King of Israel, but the progenitor of the Messiah.
Soon it will be Shavuot. It’s customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate Matan Torah,the Giving of the Torah. It’s quite appropriate to read the story of a woman who demonstrated her loyalty to Judaism on the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. As Shavuot approaches, I will celebrate Ruth, who wasn’t raised Jewish, from our Jewish past. And I will also celebrate all of those people in our Jewish present who weren’t raised Jewish: those who’ve chosen to convert to Judaism as well as those who’ve chosen to join their lives to the Jewish community in less formal ways (by marrying Jews, by raising Jewish children and by participating in the life of the Jewish community). All of them, like Ruth before them, help us to ensure the Jewish future.
I went to an edgy opera recently called, Lilith the Night Demon in One Lewd Act. Lilith isn’t mentioned in the book of Genesis, but the opera based itself on early Jewish tales of a woman who was created before Eve in the Garden of Eden. Unlike Eve, who was born out of Adam’s side, Lilith was created from the earth at the same moment as Adam. They fought about everything, especially her refusal to assume his desired sexual position. Adam made it clear to God that he didn’t appreciate this insubordination and wanted her out. Lilith left in a huff, followed by three angels who implored her to return to the Garden of Eden. When she refused, they told her that she would spend eternity as a demon, bearing and killing hundreds of demon babies daily. With Lilith gone, Eve was created, destined to play the obedient and submissive “good girl” to Lilith’s strong-willed and demanding “bad girl.” The legend also provided a rationale for the high numbers of babies and women dying in childbirth. Lilith became the scapegoat for the unexplained mysteries of life and death.
Lilith rose in contemporary times as a model of strength, and has an all-woman folk music festival named for her as well as a Jewish feminist magazine. Treating her as a feminist icon, we often conveniently forget the part of the story when she turns into a baby-killing demon. Or perhaps we quietly recognize that so often women have been metaphorically demonized when they demanded personhood.
But Lilith is also beloved because she is the quintessential outsider, allowing us to easily identify with her. It is an epidemic in Judaism to believe that each of us stands outside of some inner sanctum peeking in. In truth, I have met a handful of Jews who don’t feel this way. But many more share this uneasy feeling that we are the only ones who don’t know enough: We don’t know what’s going on during services, we don’t have the right parentage, we don’t know the Yiddish or Hebrew that is tossed around in conversation. We aren’t wealthy like other Jews. We were not born Jewish, or we are in an interfaith relationship. Like a kid on the school playground, many Jews and people who spend time in Jewish communities see ourselves as the kid left out of the club. Other people are the ones who really belong. If only we knew that most everyone feels this way.
Unfortunately, too many of us have actually been told at one time or another that we don’t quite fit an internal stereotypical image of what a Jew should be, or aren’t following the rules. This is natural within a community that defines itself both as one people, yet also contains within it many distinct ways of defining itself. Furthermore, throughout our history, Judaism has had to create walls to define who is in and who is out for its own survival and we still struggle over the height of those boundaries. Reality, yes. But it still hurts.
The problem is, I see us “othering” ourselves. Once we feel or are told that there is a bias against us, we often glorify our place on the outside. We revel in it. We define ourselves by it. We become Lilith peeking in at what everyone else is doing in the Garden of Eden.
There was a time in my life when I identified strongly with the figure of Lilith. I was a rabbinical student dating someone who wasn’t Jewish. I didn’t even know if I would finish my studies to become a rabbi. I felt like a boundary-breaker and wanted to own it. Perhaps even to flaunt it. I studied Lilith. I wrote about Lilith. I read every reference to her I could get my hands on. Except for the baby-killing part of the story, I wanted to be her. But I received some good advice from a trusted mentor to be wary of overly identifying with her. She was right. I was basking in my feelings of otherness. If I had stayed there, I wouldn’t have been able to see myself as a change-maker from inside Judaism.
Feeling that I was on the outside woke me up to how so many people in Jewish communities feel. And I started to realize what a loss it is for everyone if we accept a seat on the outside. Jewish communities need all of us—not just the ones who fit nicely into a box.
Lilith has a lot to teach us. She teaches us to figure out who we are and stand up for what we believe is right. And she teaches us that if we allow others to cut us out, we can’t effect change from within.
Mychal (right) with other college students at the first of many Jewish professional conferences
When I was in college, I had a serious boyfriend who wasn’t Jewish. At that time I also got involved as a leader with Hillel, the Jewish campus organization. For me, these two major preoccupations with my time were not in conflict. In fact, I brought him frequently to Hillel events and was the first to correct people when they assumed he was Jewish.
In my sophomore year, I was invited to a major conference for Jewish professionals. I was excited to be one of the few representatives of engaged college students. The highlight of the conference was a plenary about intermarriage. I was surprised to walk into a room full of hundreds of people. I honestly, and naively, hadn’t realized what a major hot-button issue this had become. So there I was, a teen amidst a sea of (mostly angry, frustrated) Jewish leaders, listening to them try to figure out why Jewish young people were interdating and intermarrying, surmising that it must be a result of those Jews not having a strong Jewish identity. I was a shy kid, and it took a lot for me to muster up the courage to raise my hand. When they saw me, a real live flesh-and-blood Jewish teenager, the room hushed. I told them about my boyfriend. I told them that I was a Jewish leader on my campus. I had come to their conference. Clearly, I was a Jew with a strong identity.
I wanted to dispel what I still consider a myth: that interdating and identity are always necessarily linked. No one knew what to do with my proclamation as it flew in the face of everything they thought they knew. Was I the ideal product of their Jewish educational system? Or did I represent their deepest failure? I think it made an impression (my quote appeared in Jewish newspapers). What I didn’t know at the time was that a major population study had just been published that year, the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. That survey was famous for reporting that the national Jewish intermarriage rate had risen 27% since the year I was born. I had unwittingly stepped into one of the earliest moments of communal panic, and I was a confusing representative of my age cohort. Looking back, I would say it was my first public piece of advocacy for the Jewish interfaith community.
A few weeks ago, a conference of Jewish scholars met to explore the idea of “Jewish identity,” co-organized by Professor Ari Kelman, a friend of mine from Stanford University and a leading thinker in the field of Jewish education. He says of the subject, “No one has the foggiest idea what Jewish identity even means.” He asks, “Why is identity the desired outcome of Jewish education?” It’s a great question. The Jewish leaders in my workshop back in 1990 figured that this elusive thing called Jewish identity must ensure that someone would want to marry within Judaism. But, even as a college student, I had every intention of leading a Jewish life, and my choice of partner was not going to change that.
As if he was at that workshop with me as a teen, Kelman asks, “In what other world is marital choice”—[which is thought to be] a key indicator of Jewish identity—“a valuable educational outcome?” I remember lots of talk when I was growing up in a synagogue about Jewish identity. If they could instill in us a sense of deep Jewish connection, we would marry someone Jewish and raise Jewish kids. But I don’t think that as a community we were asking the right questions. The mistake was that one can’t always make accurate assumptions about the degree of an individual’s Jewish passion merely by asking who they are dating or marrying.
When I look at my kids around the Shabbat table (or even my college students when I worked for Hillel), I’m not thinking, “Phew, I’m doing a good job. They are going to have strong Jewish identities.” What am I hoping? I hope that because they are learning to live life through a Jewish lens, they will grow up looking at the world with wonder and awe, possess a strong sense of self, and understand that they are interconnected with other people and the natural world. The goal is living a life of meaning, not possessing a Jewish identity.
Perhaps when a Jewish person is partnered with someone who isn’t, instead of making assumptions about a faulty Jewish identity, we can ask instead what fills their lives with meaning. Now that’s an answer I can’t wait to hear.