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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
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.
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.
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.
Many people want to be welcoming but don’t necessarily know exactly how to provide the welcoming learning environment for interfaith families and kids. In this essay, I’ll provide some tips on how to engage kids from interfaith homes in classrooms and how to handle potentially awkward situations.
1. Respect the family. Keep your own opinion out of the conversation. The children need to feel validated, not uncomfortable. Be prepared for anything. Families come in all shapes and sizes and have all kinds of dynamics. Some families may be raising their children in “both” religions or incorporate varying degrees of each religion. Grandparents may not be supportive. Students may believe in Santa Claus. Relatives may celebrate Kwanza. There are infinite ways to be a family.
2. Respect the other parent’s religion. If a child refers to another holiday celebration with relatives who are not Jewish:
a. Listen. A key element of listening is eye contact. Pay attention to what the student is telling you about a religious experience. If you can relate their story to something Jewish, great. If not, just listen attentively. If you don’t have time to talk because class is starting, say that you would love to talk in greater detail after class and then make sure to offer to talk to them after class.
b. Ask questions. “Did you enjoy going to church?” If you end the conversation abruptly because you are uncomfortable or in a rush, the student may think that he said something wrong. Asking questions (within time constraints of the class) shows that you are interested.
c. Support. Your response of support will enable the student to be happy about their experience. Students should never feel bad if they participated in a family event that wasn’t Jewish. Responses like: “That is great that you had fun with your cousins. You are lucky to be exposed to so many different types of religion.”
d. Pay attention to all of the students. The whole class is potentially listening to your conversation about interfaith issues. The students will take their cues from you and it is key to set an example of support. If you hear another student give a negative response (or make a face) be sure to provide a supportive environment to all of the students. The student that provides a negative response should get the cue that in this classroom, we don’t judge other people but accept one another. It is a mitzvah to support your whole family.
3. Truth. What if a child says: “My cousins told me that the Jews killed Jesus—but I told them, I didn’t.” This is simply not true but it is a long stated myth. This is a good opportunity to set the record straight by saying. 1) That’s not true. 2) The Romans killed Jesus. 3) That was a long time ago and Romans are predominantly Christian now. Please remember that what you teach the students now is what they will remember their entire life. This opportunity to teach not only this student, but the whole class, will be important for defending against anti-Semitic comments in the future.
4. Unconditional support. Families and children need encouragement. Religious school for many families is not a requirement like a high school diploma so a negative interaction can be catastrophic. Families frequently switch to another synagogue if they have a bad experience in Hebrew school. In some cases, families will leave Jewish life completely. The burden is on you (not easy, is it?!). Make it fun, be welcoming, be supportive and teach the students as much as you can.
5. Adaptation. Whenever you can, point out ways in which interfaith families have been important to the Jewish culture. The story of Ruth (an ancestress of King David), a Moabite woman who married a Jewish man and identified with the Jewish people and God, that we read on Shavuot is a great example. The story of Esther, who married a King who wasn’t Jewish and saved the Jews, which read on Purim, is another example.
6. Instill pride. Jessica is part Jewish, Cherokee, Irish and Italian. She is special and unlike any other human being. She should finish her year in your class feeling happy that she has learned some stories, some songs, some traditions, some Hebrew, some of the commandments, and wants to come back next year! Jessica should be proud to be Jessica. Interfaith kids should NEVER be made to feel like anything less than ALL JEWISH when they are in your classroom. All students should be proud of their differences and proud of their Judaism. People will participate in a culture where they feel like they are part of the “home team.” You should never call a child “half-Jewish” or their parent a “goy” and should try to stay away from saying “non-Jew” as well. If a child is attending religious school, then that child is Jewish.
7. Turn it around. There will be many awkward situations throughout your career. Take the opportunity to turn the situation into a “teachable moment.” Many families may not be enlightened about how to be welcoming. You will set the example for the kids about how to be proud and accepting of people’s differences, not only regarding religion but other differences as well.
You are an educator and your role in the development of your students is meaningful and powerful. On behalf of Jewish families in America, thank you for your efforts.
I will be speaking as part of Diversity Shabbat on Friday, April 25. The
Here is what I believe:
Who is the “whole Israelite community?” It is all of you here. If you were brought up with Judaism, or have found yourself in Jewish life because you fell in love with someone Jewish, if you have a parent who isn’t Jewish, if you wandered away from organized Jewish life, whether you think about Judaism throughout the week or not…you are the whole Israelite community.
If you cast your fate, so to speak, with the Jewish people…feel proud of and part of our amazing history, feel inspired by our audacious hope even in the face of despair, want your children to learn values and ancient wisdom from our texts which we still argue with and confront today, you are the whole Israelite community. If you want American, liberal Judaism to exist in the years to come because it adds creativity, nuance, ingenuity, joy, order, sacred purpose, social justice, support for education and so much more to our society, then you are the whole Israelite community.
If you have a Christmas tree in your living room, enjoy a cheeseburger, have grandparents and cousins and extended family who share Christianity with your children, yet you are here because you identify with Judaism, you are the whole Israelite community. You are in. You are good enough. We want you here. You are worthy. Your Judaism is authentic. You have layered, complex, multi-faceted family dynamics and you work to create Shalom bayit—peace in your home and your wider home—which is one of the most important mitzvot (commandments)…we understand. It’s a journey. You make decisions. You revisit decisions. Identity grows and changes. You are the whole Israelite community.
There is one God of peace and love. We are one people, trying to make our family, our circle of friendships, our workplaces, our school communities, our Temple family, our world a more just, kind and decent place.
You shall be holy. This is holy work. The word in Hebrew for honor as in the 10 Commandments, to honor our parents, is kavod. This word also comes from the word for heavy. True honor and respect is a heavy pursuit. This is not for the faint of heart. This stretches us and brings us into new territory. But, ultimately, loving our neighbor next to us in these seats is holy because you are your neighbor. We are one.
…if your child tells you they are dating someone from another religion (race, culture or same gender).
By Wendy Armon and Joycellen Young Auritt Ph.D.
1. Breathe and smile. Your child has just told you that they are seeing someone seriously. Your child is happy and is hoping for your approval of their happiness.
2. Be happy that your child is happy. Think about the joy in your child’s face. Does your child seem happy for the right reasons? Does this person make your child feel confident? We want our children to have happy and stable relationships where they can evolve into the best versions of themselves. If you think that the person is a bad fit for your child, proceed cautiously with concrete examples of your concerns. The fact that their partner wasn’t brought up the way you had hoped becomes a lesser priority if you feel that their partner is not kind, accommodating or considerate of your child. Such concerns can and should be expressed in a careful and thoughtful way.
3. Think before you talk. You may have told your child that you hoped they would marry someone of the same religion, race or culture. Do you still feel the same way? Think about what you are afraid might happen if this person is your child’s partner for life. Are you worried that your child will reject their upbringing? If you say something negative, realize that your child may fulfill your fear of rejection of their upbringing—this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. With positive reinforcement, you are likely to encourage your child and/or their partner to have good feelings about their upbringing.
The best way to express your concerns is through general, positive and thoughtful questions. Your concerns could be valid, but your child may not realize it so don’t expect an immediate revelation. For example, if you feel that your child has a dramatically different background and value system, a conversation might begin with this type of statement: “That is terrific that you and your partner are able to work out the differences from your backgrounds. I’m glad that you two are so thoughtful that you can work out such dramatic variables. I don’t think I could do that. I am very impressed.”
4. Encourage compatibility. It is OK to remind your children (throughout their childhood) that it is important to consider compatibility qualities in their future partners. Similar values in financial management, politics, education, family and discipline are all important in a long term relationship. Many clergy encourage couples to complete a survey to analyze and discuss these similarities and differences. Compatibility is very important and it is an OK topic to ask your child about delicately and privately.
5. If you are upset, think about why. Do you feel rejected? Your child didn’t reject you, he/she simply fell in love. (See Rabbi Robyn Frisch’s blog “Marrying Out is Not Abandoning Judaism”) Do you feel like you did a poor job raising your child? Think about whether your child is a kind person who is leaving a positive impact on society—if you can say yes, you did a great job as a parent. If you are upset that friends and relatives may be upset, you should relax. Any friends are likely to be supportive and to have experienced similar situations. Judgment from family members is an unacceptable reason to reject your child and their relationship. People who love your child and you will adapt and support their happiness if you set a positive example.
6. Be welcoming. If you are worried that your future grandchildren won’t be raised in the manner that you had hoped you should understand that you are not going to have control over how your grandchildren will be raised. Accept this lack of control. Then, embrace the couple and their future offspring. Only good can come from welcoming. Encourage them to participate in your holidays and culture. Positive behavior can lead to positive results. Negativity usually causes a backlash down the road.
What not to do?
1. Don’t be angry. Your child probably isn’t trying to make you angry. Even if your child is trying to be spiteful, reacting in a negative way will simply fulfill your child’s goal. Being angry serves no benefit. Your response to your child when your child tells you that he or she is serious with a potential life partner will be remembered.
2. Don’t threaten or reject your child. Your child needs to know that you will be there no matter what. This feeling of security that you will continue to love your child will provide satisfaction in the future. You will likely want your child to feel comfortable and unjudged if there are problems in the future. We all want have a safe place to go with our joys and our sadness. The arms of our parents should always provide us with that loving safety net.
Divinity school is an unlikely place for a rabbi to meet her spouse. In my first week of graduate school, I became friends with a Coptic nun from Egypt, a Southern Baptist minister, a Jewish Buddhist and a young scholar of Early Christianity. The last would one day become my wife. I was one of a handful of Jewish students and I relished the opportunity to study religion more broadly within this diverse community before making the final decision to become a rabbi. It became increasingly clear to me that I wanted to pursue a career like my classmates who were studying to become ministers and priests. They were community builders, teachers, healers in a fractured world. Apparently, I needed future ministers to help me decide that I wanted to become a rabbi.
For the first time in my life, I was dating a Jewish man. Since I was seriously considering becoming a rabbi by this time, I believed I had to marry someone Jewish, and he met all the criteria of a perfect spouse for me. He was not only Jewish; we had been counselors together at a Jewish camp, he spoke fluent Hebrew, had spent time in Israel and studied Judaism in college. But he simply wasn’t the right person for me.
My life took a major turn when I met Kirsti. She had grown up in a non-religious household with parents who had rejected Christianity. So, of course, she became fascinated by religion: religious people, religious texts, religious language. Like me, she was pursuing her masters at Harvard Divinity School. She would go on to earn a PhD in Early Christianity as I embarked on rabbinical school. We shared a love of religious mysticism and stayed up nights talking about Jewish and Christian mystical texts, and struggling with belief. In those early days, we also had to process the reality that dating a woman was new to both of us which, frankly, overpowered any worry about coming from different religious backgrounds.
Although she did convert many years into our relationship, Kirsti and I still question religion together and bring our knowledge, ideas and queries to the dinner table. We address our children’s musings with honesty and depth rather than supplying overly clear-cut answers we think they should be hearing. We hope our kids will be inspired to treat all people and ideas with respect and inquiry while being grounded in a rich, Jewish tradition. My Jewish life has been profoundly shaped by traveling this path with Kirsti for the past 20 years. She has led me to challenge pieces of our tradition that I blindly followed, and has deepened my connection to certain parts of our liturgy and rituals by seeing them in a new light.
I am delighted that as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, I have the opportunity to help families from mixed backgrounds navigate Judaism like we have. I will also strive to help Jewish communities become more welcoming to all types of people who don’t fit the long-gone model of a traditional, Jewish family. We are most enriched as a community when we offer space for people to bring their whole selves and their full narratives to Jewish life.
Maybe a rabbi meeting her spouse at divinity school is a rarity, but each family’s story is unique, with its own twists and turns. Who we love and choose to share our lives with cannot be reduced to a checklist of criteria to be met. Our stories are far more interesting than that.
A couple of months ago I officiated at the wedding of a wonderful couple—the bride was Jewish and the groom was Christian. Several days after the wedding, I received the following email from the bride, Susan (not her real name):
I have a question for you about Purim. Esther married the king, who wasn’t Jewish, and ended up saving her people. If she had not married the king, all of the Jews in the kingdom would have died. Extrapolating from this example, why is it considered such a bad thing for one to marry outside of the Jewish faith?
What a great question! Susan made a good point. In Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther, where we find the Purim story), the beautiful young Jewish Esther marries the Persian King Ahasuerus. At first, following the instructions of her cousin Mordechai, Esther hides the fact that she is Jewish. But when the evil Haman convinces the king that all of the Jews in the kingdom should be killed, Mordechai tells Esther that she should go to the king and reveal her true identity. At first Esther refuses, explaining to Mordechai that the king hasn’t summoned her for the past thirty days, and if she goes before the king without being summoned he may order that she be killed. But Mordechai replies, in words that have become very famous: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (Esther 4:13-14 – JPS translation)
Having been convinced by Mordechai’s powerful words of her responsibility to her people, Esther, after fasting for three days, goes before the king. Ultimately, Esther reveals to the king that she is a Jew, and she asks that the Jews of Persia not be exterminated. The evil Haman is impaled on the stake which he had put up for Mordechai, and the Jews survive.
So here’s how I responded to Susan’s email:
Over the years rabbis and Jewish commentators have offered various explanations about Esther’s marriage to the gentile Persian king. Of course the explanations/commentaries generally reflect more about the writer/commentator (who often has his—and historically it always was a “him”—own agenda/bias he is trying to promote when commenting on the text) than they reflect about the text. There are rabbis (clearly opposed to intermarriage) who have claimed that Esther was forced to marry the king against her will. The Zohar even says that the Shekhinah concealed Esther’s soul and sent another soul in its place, so that when King Ahasuerus slept with Esther, he wasn’t sleeping with the real Esther.
Of course the biblical text doesn’t say this at all. In the biblical text itself no judgment is made on Esther marrying out of her faith. And as you point out, by marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish, Esther ended up saving her people.
So here’s what I have to say about Esther: By marrying a man who wasn’t Jewish, and ultimately “coming out” to her husband, the king, as a Jew, Esther saves her people. The text doesn’t comment on the fact that Esther is in an interfaith marriage, and I agree that she should be held out as a positive example to interfaith couples.
In my view, the only thing Esther should be faulted for in the story is denying Mordechai’s first request to tell the King that she is Jewish, though she does this because she fears that the king may have her killed. But at Mordechai’s urging she ultimately reveals her true identity to the king and in doing so she saves the Jewish people. The bottom line is: There’s no problem with Esther’s intermarriage—the only problem would have been keeping her Jewish identity secret.
Esther can be a terrific role model for the idea that it’s OK to marry someone who isn’t Jewish so long as you openly and proudly maintain your connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. And just like Esther, you could end up “saving” the Jewish people along the way. The problem is NOT intermarriage…it is when someone stops identifying as a Jew.
Once again, Susan, mazel tov on your wedding. May you, like Esther, have a husband who supports you in that which is most important to you and honors your connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. And may you always be proud of your Jewish identity.
“Ben Zoma asks, ‘Who is worthy of honor?
My wife and I are always reminding our children that there is nothing more important than being kind. Hearing the “mean talk” of children’s taunts or playground mishaps—which of course happens everywhere—makes our ears perk up. Mess up on your homework, that can be resolved pretty quickly, but if you treat another person with disrespect, the consequences can be devastating.
The Hebrew word for respect is kavod. It is also translated as honor, dignity, and even glory. Kavod is a cherished word in Judaism. The Hebrew root of the word, (KVD) likens itself to weight, importance and abundance. Simply stated, kavod is not something to be taken lightly. It is all about how one treats their fellow person. This is ascribed an indisputable holiness that is essential in Jewish philosophy. Right in the heart of the Torah, we are instructed to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
A psychologist studying the aftermath of a Golden Gate Bridge jumper in 2003 said, “I went to this guy’s apartment afterward with the assistant medical examiner. The guy was in his thirties, lived alone, pretty bare apartment. He’d written a note and left it on his bureau. It said, ‘I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.’” (New Yorker, 2003)
Apparently no one smiled at him and the rest is a tragic moment in the history of the Golden Gate Bridge, and suicide in general. Of course, there was a deep psychological imbalance in his life that led to such a horrific decision. Yet, the fact that people continue to regularly disregard each other is troubling. Admittedly, no one passing by this tortured soul could have known the level of despair he was in, but perhaps back then and even now, people could make an effort to show a stranger in our midst a little pre-emptive kavod. Surely all of us have felt uplifted by the gift of another’s smile in passing. How much the more so for people we know!
So what are you doing to show honor and respect to the ones you love? How do you express dignity and kindness to the people you meet? The littlest gesture can make such a difference.
Interfaith relationships offer an incredible opportunity to contribute to Judaism’s enduring strength and diversity. All people should be welcomed and included in Jewish rituals that are such an incredible source of value and meaning to all who participate in them. Perhaps the question when planning life cycle events should not be what are you going to get out of this moment or the person involved in the ritual, but rather, what can you give to the relationship? How can you help break down the barriers and include others?
I invite you to think about this as you peruse our interfaith forums and dialogues here at InterfaithFamily. Let’s open our hearts and minds, for kavod is all around us and it all starts by recognizing the holiness inside you.