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We are glad to report that the Conservative movement is making anÂ important step toward inclusion. In an official moveÂ on March 1, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism voted 94-8 to allow individual congregations to permit people who are not Jewish to be members.Â Some Conservative synagogues, like many in the Bay Area, have already welcomed those who are not Jewish as members of their congregations.
In a recent article, Religion News Service stated that there were Conservative synagogues that considered those who were not Jewish as members through family memberships. With this official vote, individuals can now be welcomed as members without being part of a family membership.
There is speculation that this could pave the way for the Conservative rabbis’ associationÂ to allow rabbis to officiateÂ at interfaith weddings in the future.
I recently got introduced to a childrenâs book called Zero by Kathryn Otoshi. Itâs a book aimed at preschoolers, but adults will also love it. In the book, Zero feels left out of the counting that all the other numbers get to do. They have value as counted numbers, but Zero doesnât. She tries to impress those numbers with little success and even tries to look like them. Zero then realizes that she can convince the other numbers that if they add her on, they will count as a higher number. With Zero, they became 10, 20, 30, 100 and more. After reading this book, my kids and I were prompted to a discussion about how it feels to be left out and how sometimes we want to dress like someone else or act like someone else to fit in.
As the story of Zero unfolded, my interfaith family inclusion buzzer went right off! (This happens to me quite often.) It reminded me of a talk I heard earlier this year at Temple Sholom that was sponsored by A Wider Bridge. The talk was given by the leaders of The Aguda, an Israeli NationalÂ LGBT Task Force.Â They shared about a tour they did in LA of one of the largest LGBTQ agencies in the world. When they asked an agency executive about where their work would be headed in the next 10 or 15 years, the executive responded that maybe they can work themselves out of a job in the decades to come. The Aguda leaders thought this was a sad answer because they believe it will take years to win legal equal rights across all areas that touch LGBTQ people in America and internationally. It might take just as long to bring about cultural acceptance including ending homophobic and transphobic discrimination. The Aguda leaders hope that when that day comes, there would be many more agencies and organizations devoted to LGBTQ people because communities around the globe would feel incomplete without the overt contributions that queer people would bring. In other words, queer people and their varied lenses of life would add essential value to leadership positions, boards and councils in all professions.
To me, the same is true when it comes to interfaith family inclusion in Jewish life. Congregations need to find ways to support couples around lifecycle events, especially weddings. They may also need to translate Hebrew so that people reading their website or sitting in services will have a more meaningful experience. Classes should be offered so that people who need a refresher or a first-time explanation have ways to learn. Rabbis need to share stories during family Shabbat gatherings that represent same-sex parents, single parents, interfaith families, gender non-confirming children and racially diverse families.
Congregations should look at membership forms, school enrollment materials and written ritual policy statements to make sure they are inclusive and sensitive. It will go far when congregants acknowledge the gift a parent who didnât grow up with Judaism is giving to help raise children with Judaism. It is wonderful when the parent who isnât Jewish can be referred to in the positive (rather than just ânon-Jew,â) as someone who is Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, secular and so forth, along with the other parts of their identity like activist, volunteer, their profession, etc.
For families like mine, where both partners are Jewish, and for Jewish professionals, the main lesson from Zero is that we need to realize people from different backgrounds in our communities enrich our expression of Judaism. Inclusion of people who didnât grow up with Judaism should be seen as equal to those of us who did grow up with Judaism, and the gazillions of complicated amalgamations in between help us all count more. A diverse community adds energy, creativity, beauty and depth to this ancient and always dynamic civilization of Judaism.
Thank you to Zero for reminding me of this sacred goal.
I was almost too old for Harry Potter when JK Rowling introduced her masterpiece to the world in 1997. I may have been almost too old but that didnât stop me from spending the next 10 years voraciously reading, re-reading and waiting impatiently for the next book to arrive. When the final book was finally published, I was visiting my parentsâ house for the weekend. Obviously, I had pre-ordered the book months in advance and I hadnât realized that I wouldnât be home that weekend. Panicked, I went online and changed the delivery location to my parentsâ house, crisis averted. Perhaps I shouldnât admit this, but I met the UPS driver in my parents driveway with unabashed glee and proceeded to ignore my family for the next 24 hours as I made my way through the final book. It was totally worth it.
These days, my love of Harry Potter lives in my heart as quiet embers, easily fanned into a greater flame when JK Rowling tweets something incredible (which is often) or more recently, when something new is announced. Yes, I have already pre-ordered a copy of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, a West End play beginning this summer, telling the story of an adult Harry and company.
Perhaps it is unnecessary at this point to extoll the virtues of the Harry Potter series; the magic of Harry Potter is different for everyone. In the nine years since the final book was published and the 19 years since the first book, entire other books have been written about every possible angle and theme of the series, not to mention countless articles, blog posts and of course memes. If youâre a Harry Potter lover, youâve had ample time to analyze the reasons why, and if you could care less about Harry Potter, thank you for getting this far into this blog post.
JK Rowlingâs genius is making the world of Harry Potter seem almost possible. While I begrudgingly accepted my fate as that of a muggle, I still hope that even if I could not be a witch, somewhere someone is. This epic story speaks to those marginalized by society, those whose dreams seem too big, those who want to change their circumstances, those drawn to making the world a better place, to fighting against injustice.
As my life has changed and evolved since I first picked up Book 1 in 1997, so has my reading of the story. I hear the commentary on human nature more loudly. Not everything is always as it seems and rarely is what we see, what we actually get. We meet a wide swath of characters in Harryâs world, not simply heroes and villains, but complex individuals who make difficult decisions in the face of fear, of change, of darkness. Sometimes, those who come from the most âperfect, pureâ families choose evil and destruction while those from the most humble, diverse rootsâthe âmudbloodsââare the ones who remind us what is truly important and even save our humanity. And sometimes the heroes make the wrong decisions, while the villains find the light.
I have always cringed at the term, âmudblood.â In college, I identified with it acutely when I was told I wasnât Jewish because my mother wasnât. How could I not belong in the only community I ever truly felt part of? Why didnât it matter how I behaved, the choices I made, the way I lived my life? Why did none of that âcountâ because my motherâs blood ran through my veins? It threw me into an identity crisis that took years to reconcile.
These days, my life and my work at InterfaithFamily reminds me again of the powerful message of Harry Potter, as we strive to teach our beloved community to not only tolerate the diversity among us, but rather embrace it, learn from it and allow it to change us for the better. After all, where would we be without the most famous âmudblood,â Hermione? The more stories I hear, people I meet, families I am honored to learn from, the more I realize that we are all mutts, all a combination of geography, culture, history, and blood. We are all mudbloods. That doesnât mean we are all the same or should be, but it does mean that the humanity we share can be more powerful than all the Voldemorts out there.
I would feel remiss if I didnât end with the powerful and yes, magical, words of Professor Albus Dumbledore: âDifferences of heart and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”
Because I have tweens in my house (today that means 7- and 9-year-olds), I have pop songs playing in the soundtrack of my brain all day. As I write the title for this blog, I am thinking of Demi Lovatoâs âWhatâs Wrong with Being Confident?â My question is: Whatâs wrong with saying “Jewish community?”
Youâll hear some Jewish leaders talk about the Jewish community as if itâs one enterprise that needs saving and fixing. Even here at InterfaithFamily, we want the people we work with to feel connected to the âJewish community,â to feel part of it and to know how to access it. We are open to the idea that âJewish communityâ can be your dining room table with friends or a synagogue sanctuary or a soup kitchen with volunteers if itâs sponsored by a Jewish organization. However, I have a problem with the language.
If we start with the word Jewish then some of the people at these events automatically may feel other or not included. Jewish modifies the word community. It is a community in this case because itâs Jewish. I donât believe we can have an inclusive communityâa community that respects, honors, sees and appreciates everyoneâif we start with what some of the people are not.
Can we start with community and modify that with Judaism? A community is made up of the people coming together for a shared purpose. Maybe they are coming together for comradery around Shabbat or for social justice inspired by religion or for prayer or holidays. Judaism is a civilization that everybody can experience, learn about, try, be inspired by, commit to, carry on, speak about and support. Some of the people who take part in Judaism will be Jewish by upbringing and continue to make the choice to engage and affirm. Others will be Jewish through a conversion process, meaning that they made a decision to identify as Jewish. Others in the community cast their fate with the larger Jewish enterprise and are aligned with their Jewish family through marriage and partnership but do not call themselves personally Jewish.
I want people to engage with Judaism: a living, dynamic civilization with a land, language, history, texts, foods, cultures, music, rituals, traditions, customs and more. I want people to engage with community around these aspects of Judaism because Judaism is done with people. I hope people will call themselves Jewish with pride and raise children who see themselves as connected to Judaism and as the next link in the chain of tradition. But, if we keep saying âJewish community,â I feel we are putting the emphasis on the wrong thing. We become ethnic and exclusive more than open and diverse.
Maybe you say that people know that the phrase âJewish communityâ means a community gathering for the pursuit of Jewish living and learning more than a community of Jews. I say language matters and by catering to inclusion, we will emphasize that each person who shows up to engage with Judaism is equal and good enoughâand a blessing. Â
As I have admitted before, I see the whole world through an interfaith family lensÂ (see my past blog postÂ HERE). I am so uber-saturated in this work that I am always thinking about the experience of the partner who isnât Jewish who is connected to someone Jewish and what it means to have interfaith families as full members of congregations. So, when I was on a four-hour flight to meet with the other seven rabbis who direct InterfaithFamily offices around the country, I saw an ad that stopped me in my tracks. It is the new Kraft Macaroni & Cheese adÂ (which might understandably be torture to watch mid-way through Passover!).
The tag line is, âItâs changed, but it hasnât.â
What does mac & cheeseÂ have to do with supporting interfaith families exploring Jewish life, our tag line at IFF? When interfaith families are truly part of a community doing Jewish (notice I donât say Jewish communityâthis will be the subject of my next blog post), will the community and the experience of Judaism change? Will there be anything recognizable about Judaism in the generations to come? Will the recipe have changed so much that it becomes a different thing altogether? To continue the food analogy, will interfaith families be a sweetener and add something healthier for the overall enterprise of Judaism?
I hope that when interfaith families are members and leaders of their communities, everything will change for the better. We will frame liturgy and worship in new ways, cognizant that we need to give meaning because many people there are still learning (yesâthis should always be the approach, but interfaith families dictate this approach). We will continue to adapt and change liturgy as it feels outdated and offensive to our diverse communities.This has been the Reform tradition since the beginning. We say what we believe.
Much of prayer is poetry and isnât literal but is evocative. Our language will change and it should feel palpable. Those who visit a congregationâs website should sense change and it should feel inspiring and positive. We can look to the experience and narratives of those who didnât grow up with Judaism to enrich the context and lens by which Judaism is now taught and lived.
What do you think? When interfaith families are truly part and parcel of a community, do you sense that their inclusion changes the community over time? Can you point to the changes? Is it so normative at this point that we have a diverse community that we take this fact for granted and have moved past it in some way? As always, more questions than answers and lots of right answers.
I had the date on my calendar for weeks: a Shabbat dinner with some of the couples in my âLove and Religionâ class. Weâve gotten together several times over meals and I knew that nobody has any eating restrictions besides âkosher style.â Emily was hosting the dinner at her house and had offered to order chicken from Zankou (a favorite LA chicken spot) with all the delicious fixings: hummus, babaganoush and tabbouleh. I was making challah and bringing wine. I knew everyone ate chicken which is perfect for Shabbat, convenient and would be a big hit. I was sure of it.
Then, as the three of us started trading emails to coordinate the menu, one of the guests said, âChicken is great for me, but my boyfriend is observing Lentâweâll bring fish.â Oh right. Itâs Lent! And Shabbat! And heâs Catholic. This IS an interfaith couplesâ Shabbat dinner after all. Now what the heck do I do for Lent?
Shabbat is a time for people to be together and celebrate community. It can be a time for inclusion and joyâŚand eating. When people feel singled out or excluded it is hard to strengthen relationships and build community, and thatâs antithetical to so much of what I aim to create at a Shabbat dinner. I appreciated the participant bringing up her boyfriendâs tradition. I also appreciated her offer to bring something special for him, but it would have detracted from the spirit of the gathering. In order to create the best scenario for community and relationship-building, I realized I needed to learn more about his tradition in order to honor it and make sure everyone felt included.
I reached deep into my religious studies major memory bank to try to remember the rules about Lentâsomething about Fridays and fish but I have no clue. Are there special prayers? Do they HAVE to eat fish or can we get falafel and call it a day? (Does he even like falafel? It seems to be the go-to vegetarian option for Jewish functions, but is that a normal thing or one of those weird Jewish things that no one else does?)
I realized I need to call in reinforcements. I emailed some colleagues and I posted on Facebook: âCatholic friends, please tell me what you like to eat on Fridays during Lent!â I typed in a search in Pinterest: âChallah and fish recipes.â
I went into the living room to talk with my El Salvadorian, kind-of-Catholic nanny. âDo you know anything about Lent customs?â I asked. âYes, you donât eat meat on Fridays,â she said. âBut sometimes people eat chicken. Not everyone will eat chicken. Chicken broth is OK for some Catholics, but not everyone. People like to eat fish.â
Oy, what had I gotten myself into? By this point, I had so many different opinions and answers and I just didnât know what to do.Â And then I got a text from my InterfaithFamily/LA project manager. âWant me to have my wife call you to talk about Lent?â
Yes! How had it had slipped my mind that her wife is Catholic?
She tells me everything I need to know. Order fish: Itâs one of those things thatâs not necessary but itâs tradition. And either way, fish is delicious and healthy.
She responds, âI know of a few places, but thereâs not really âCatholic fish.â Catholics eat pretty much anything.â
Except chicken on Shabbat during Lent, apparently. As I kept trying to find a solution that worked for everyone, the emails continued and the couple offered again to bring their own fish. But I’ve been that person who had to bring her own food to gatherings and parties because they were making pork and I kept kosher. I hated being singled out like that and I always felt alienated. As much as she reassured me that they could bring their own food, I did not want her boyfriend to feel left out at this interfaith dinner.
I insisted on serving fish for dinner and, as it turned out, our host said she would rather have fish anyway and would love to cook it for everyone rather than ordering in from a restaurant. It was her first time hosting a Shabbat dinner and thought we were supposed to eat chicken on Shabbat, even though she would have rather eaten fish all along!
Itâs been a few weeks since the dinner and Iâm happy to share that it went extremely well. The Catholic partner and his Jewish girlfriend were touched that they were both made to feel so welcome and included. The fish was excellent. And after spending all afternoon Googling âHow to braid a challah shaped like a fish,â I let it rise too long and it melted in the oven. So we had flatbread for our Lenten Shabbat dinner and Iâm bringing in a better baker to teach us all how to make a proper challah next time.
I have a confession to make: For a while now, Iâve been pretty anti-Jewish prayer. I know that may sound startling coming from a rabbi. But Iâve kind of been dreading Friday night services lately. All that rote Hebrew that many people arenât following and donât understand what theyâre saying. Now that Iâve been working with interfaith families, I am especially aware of the barrier that Hebrew creates and have wondered about all different ways to get over that wall. Many in the Jewish world think that some of our prayers (especially ones that have the words âvâtzivanu,â like the Shabbat candle blessings) can only be said by Jews and this poses other problems for those in our families who want to join in and are not sure where they fit.
Friday night services can have highs and music definitely helps get into the mood of the often universal and timeless themes in the liturgy. Sometimes itâs nice to just be with others and feel a sense of camaraderie, joint mission and shared purpose. Itâs good to put my phone away for an hour and move at a different pace. Taking a deep breath, being in a beautiful space and hearing words from our tradition can be good for the soul. But, actual liturgy or communal prayer has been my nemesis for a while. Â
In fact, I was wondering if we could start a congregation with no prayer. There would be no Friday night or Saturday morning âservices.â We would come together when we were up for it and looking forward to it for experiences of meaning. A bar or bat mitzvah service could involve a few major words of our faith tradition like the Shema or our Kaddish because a couple of prayers are transcendent. Their sound and their words are wholly evocative and needed. But, the core of the life cycle event would be to read from the sacred Torah scroll, to interpret the ancient text, to share who this child is at this moment and to celebrate a coming of age. To say words that feel compelling, engaging, inspiring and relevant. This is what has been going on in my heart and mind lately.
And then I was invited by A Wider Bridge to help lead Friday night worship at the Creating Change Conference in Chicago. I was invited because InterfaithFamily/Chicago works for inclusion and our mission aligns with the mission of this massive conference. I was invited because I am a proud ally for LGBTQ people within the Jewish world and non-profits in this realm.Â I was honored to help plan a service with Rabbi Shoshana Conover from Temple Sholom and Judith Golden from Congregation Or Chadash. But all did not go smoothly, and you can read multiple news stories about the drama and trauma that happened that night at the conference. I am still not sure what to do when you find that you agree with a group on so many grounds but have a major schism of belief in an area that is fundamental to your world view. But, the political pieces aside, I have to report that something happened to me in that service.
There was no guitar. Judith sang with emotion and feeling and it was participatory. I. Was. Moved. I felt it. I think other people in the room felt it (and maybe thatâs why we, the prayer leaders, felt it). We sang for purpose. We sang for freedom. We prayed for help from the Source above. We were in the moment. We werenât thinking about what we need at the grocery store. We were there together. A new group. People from all over the world and from all different backgrounds. Pluralistic. Egalitarian. The beat was contagious. Clapping and moving, smiles and swaying. Maybe because each of the prayer leaders desperately, and with all of our hearts and souls, wanted every person in that room to feel supported and part of it and included and lovedâthe vibe went out and it reverberated back.
I got my prayer mojo back. Now, how to keep it?
I had a few takeaways from this experience, and hereâs what I suggest might make prayer more meaningful for me and possibly others:
Thank you Creating Change for reminding me that I love to pray with other people.Â I’m sorry there was so much tumult. I’m sorry there was so much pain. I pray we will all know peace.
This article was cross-posted on HuffingtonPost.com.
As the editorial director at an organization that works toward the inclusion of interfaith couples and families in Jewish life, I read and hear a lot of commentary on the future of Judaism and how interfaith families fit into it. Over and over I hear or read Jewish professionals and rabbis say how much they would like to welcomeÂ non-Jews into the community.
Say for a minute you were thinking deeply about joining an exclusive tennis club. You’ve been wanting to become a tennis player for years and you’re finally taking the steps toward that goal. You found a club that alleges to be welcoming and in need of newcomers, but when you tell them you haven’t learned to play yet, and that you might continue to play basketball even after you join, they suddenly don’t seem as welcoming as you expected. The club members and leadership refer over and over to you as a non-tennis player, making you feel not so much like you will ever be a member of the club but a visitor.
Obviously “joining” Judaism is a much weightier life choice than playing tennis. Perhaps the analogy of “non-man” to describe a woman hits closer to home? Non-meat eater? In any case, the Jewish community’s decision making around welcoming new people into its fold should not be treated as trivial. But assuming you have decided that you do in fact want to welcome newcomers who are not Jewish to explore Jewish life within your organization (or family or neighborhood)–stand by that decision.
If you want interfaith couples and children of intermarriage to feel welcomed by your community I applaud you on your efforts. If you want that aspiration to translate to reality, start by thinking about the person you’re trying to welcome every time you speak on the topic or write language of welcoming or interact with this audience. How will your messages be perceived by that person? Will they hear that you have a policy of welcoming? Or will they also hear that you want them to be there?
These are two different things.
Step one: You intend to welcome.
Step two: You actually welcome.
Let’s start by speaking in terms of who someone is, not in terms of who someone is not. Respect the audience you seek to invite into your fold by treating them as equals to everyone else in your fold. If someone feels that they are being tolerated and not celebrated, they may not walk through your door. Or if they do walk in, they may turn around and leave.
There isn’t a good word for non-Jew. But you can use the words “partner who is not Jewish” or “partner of another faith.”
It’s not just about this one compound noun. It’s about speaking to interfaith families the way you would Jewish-Jewish families. It’s about deciding whether they are your future and if you answer yes, treating them like it.
The following is a sermon I gave at Saint Elisabethâs Church in Glencoe, Illinois, on February 22.
Thank you for welcoming me so warmly into your community. What a blessing it has been to become involved with St. Elisabethâs. I have spent my rabbinate these past eight years working with interfaith couples and families and those who grew up in interfaith homes. I spend time with grandparents who have grandchildren growing up in interfaith homes and with Jewish clergy and professionals who want to welcome those from interfaith homes to what we call âorganizedâ Jewish life. What I mean by an interfaith family is a situation in which one parent grew up with Judaism and one didnât. Sometimes these partners are raising Jewish children and have a Jewish homeâdonât ask me what a Jewish home isâmany Jews describe what having a Jewish home is differently. Sometimes these families have a parent who is Jew-ishâŚnot a practicing anything else but hasnât converted to Judaism. Sometimes these families have a parent who is a practicing and believing Christian or Hindu. In some of these families they want their children to be exposed to both faiths.
In the past 10 years, excluding Orthodox marriages, 72 percent of Jewish marriages have been interfaith. The majority of American Jews are partnered with someone not Jewish. There are more children growing up now with one Jewish parent than two. So, what does this all mean for the future of liberal Judaism? (Orthodox Judaism will remain, it seemsâthe question is non-Orthodox Judaism.) For the kind of Judaism I subscribe to?
A recent headline readÂ âMore Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope:Â Last yearâs survey of American Jews brought dire newsârising intermarriage, falling birthrates, dwindlingÂ congregations.â
Many in the Jewish world are scared. They are scared that young people wonât seek out congregations for their families. That they will privatize religion. That people donât value Jewish community anymore. That adults who grew up with Judaism now affirm a universal ethics or morality and want their children to âbe good peopleâ and not specifically or distinguishably Jewish. Jews have been said to be the ever-dying people. Are we going to disappear into a generalized feel-good, do-good thing?
What about the mitzvot? The commandments? The specific way we live? Worship in Hebrew? Allegiance to Israel? A sense of Peoplehood? Of being part of the Tribe? Yiddish-isms? Judaism has been a religion of boundaries and distinctions and that has kept us a unique people, in some ways, for so many generations and generations. Now, in an open, global world, can Judaism be inclusive enough to allow participation by people who arenât Jewish and still remain true to Jewish traditions?
I think that we need to promote both radical inclusion and diversity. Ironically, in order to perpetuate a culture that is unique, we need to remove almost all boundaries that define who is permitted to participate.
This is the tension of my work and of this sermon: perpetuating a unique culture that is still authentically Jewish and yet allowing for diversity and inclusion. And, this brings us to the biblical reading for today. Did God choose each people to fulfill their own unique destiny, their own unique way? Does each people have its own covenant with God?
What happens when we blur the lines that define religion and think about theology as metaphor and as nuance? When we compartmentalize different aspects of different faiths so that we can accommodate many traditions and ways in one intact psyche? Isnât life more fluid nowadays with many things? Are we so separate and distinct? Each group with its own destiny?
When we see a rainbow in the sky is it a shared symbol of our partnership with God who promises never to destroy the world again? (God might not do it, but people seem to be doing a good job in this regard.)
We share these basic Noahide commandments of civil society. We share more than not. But, this holy time in both of our calendars, this time leading up to Passover and Easter sometimes highlights ourÂ theologicalÂ differences.
In an article written on InterfaithFamily, writerÂ Charlotte Honigman-Smith explains what Easter means to her:Â âEaster is the holiday that evokes in me the most ambivalence about my identity as a Jewish women with a Catholic father and extended family. Easter is harder (than Christmas) Edgier. More conflictedâŚI think that much of my reaction can be traced to the fact that Easter, for the Eastern European Jewish communities my mother’s grandparents came from, was a potentially deadly timeâŚlocal violence broke out at Easter. Easter, for me, seems to represent the final break between Judaism and Christianity, the point at which the two belief systems parted ways forever. I find that I resent that a little. Perhaps, deep down, I think it would be easier if we all believed the same things.
But growing up in an interfaith family and a multicultural neighborhood taught me something about dealing with differences and cultural contradictions. It’s good to be able to share, and to find common ground; for me it has been a blessing to have two cultures to draw on. But I’ve learned to use this holiday as a reminder that we are not all alike, that some things have no common ground to be found, and that still, this does not mean that there can’t be love, respect, and mutual humanity. It’s important, though harder, to know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced without understanding…as matters of faith.â
We share the Noahide Covenant; we share the symbol of the rainbow. But there are other covenants made at other times that are meant for different peoples and different traditions. Later in the scroll, we read about the covenant given at Mt. Sinai.Â In his final appeal to the people of Israel, Moses reminds them that the covenant they are establishing with God will be valid for eternity. “I make this covenant with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).
There is a lot of commentary about who is not there that day. From an interfaith standpoint, I view this covenant as a covenant with anybody who would find themselves in a family with Jews. For any fellow-travelers. This can be an inclusive covenant because it included the then diverse people of Israel and it surely now encompasses a diverse group who (thank God) still think about it and struggle with it, and for whom these ancient laws and ways still have enduring truths so many thousands of years later.
The rabbis said that we should say 100 blessings a day and then spelled out specific blessings for various occasions that arose daily. When we see a rainbow, there is a special blessing that is said.
Barukh Ata Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh ha’Olam
Holy One of blessing, Your presence fills creation,
May each of us rise to perpetuate the unique traditions and religiosity we have inherited or hold true today. As well, may weÂ know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced, and that is good too.
Kayn Yihi Ratzon, May this be Godâs Will
Youâre at a social or family gathering when someone starts throwing around a bunch of Jewish gobblygook you donât understand. One guy is talking about a cool, new âminyanâ in town and youâre picturing this guy.
Someone else is talking about her âboobieâ and you wonder if this is really too intimate a conversation for a party (Bubbie = Yiddish for Grandmother). Has this ever happened to you? A few minutes into a conversation among people who are Jewishly identified, and youâre likely to hear a little Yiddish, maybe bits of Hebrew or references to things that would be obscure outside of a Jewish context. Jews love Jewish jargon. Even some who arenât Jewish love it (Check out Ed Begley Jr. turning on the Yiddish in the film, A Mighty Wind).
Some throw around Jewish jargon without realizing it and assume everyone understands. It is just part and parcel of being immersed in a civilization with a particular set of texts, languages, history and cultural terminology. They might feel that a Jewish contextâa Jewish Community Center, synagogue or Jewish homeâis a place where they can let their pent-up inner Jew run free. Jewish jargon can signal in-group solidarity as well. To be honest, though, I think others use it so they sound âin the knowâ or to purposely alienate someone elseâwhich is unfortunate.
Whether intended or not, the result of Jewish insider-speak is that it can alienate people who arenât Jewish and often even those who are. Judaism often seems like a club for the initiated. But we are becoming so diverse that one canât expect even in Jewish places that everyone shares a common knowledge base anymore. And with the growing numbers of intermarried couples involved in Jewish life, there are bound to be a significant portion of people at any given Jewish happening who weren’t raised with Judaism.
I am hearing more and more often that if the Jewish community wants to be truly welcoming of interfaith couples, we need to make sure people donât feel alienated by insider-speak, and that we should eliminate or curb some of our Jewish particularisms. Some even think that since we donât want to create situations that make people stand out as unknowledgeable, we might want to tone down Hebrew in services to make them more universal. I remember speaking with one interfaith couple in which the partner who isnât Jewish felt this way, remarking that heâll never feel comfortable in a space where there is so much Hebrew because itâs not welcoming to him.
To become a truly welcoming Jewish community, do we need to become, well, a little less Jewish? Is it time to junk Jewish jargon?
Absolutely not. Judaism can be both welcoming and uniquely Jewish. My grandparents and parents grew up in the American melting pot era. Anyone âdifferent,â including Jews, tried to play down their uniqueness and blend in. But we live in a very different time. We wouldnât dream of asking any other minority, ethnic or religious group to abandon the very particulars that make it unique. In fact, most of us find these differences among us to be the interesting byproducts of living in a multi-cultural society (and maybe even what attracted us to our partners who come from a different background!).
So why would we rob Judaism of what makes it Jewish? Contemporary Judaism is more and more open to anyone who wants to be a part of it, and we are enriched by the diversity of people who are being drawn to Jewish life. That may mean that we can no longer assume we are all in on the jargon. But it doesnât mean we have to dilute it. Instead, here are a few suggestions to make Judaism more welcoming while retaining its unique flavor, and some others that might help those less knowledgeable about Jewish life navigate Jewish jargon moments.
WHEN YOUâRE FEELING âIN THE KNOWâ:
Translate. Does your mother-in-law talk about the machatenem (the other set of parents-in-law)? Whether youâre speaking at a party or speaking from the bima, take a page from our InterfaithFamily website. We always hyperlink words that might not be known (point in case: bima).Â What if we all talked this way, offering subtle explanations just in case someone needs it? The worst that can happen is that everyone nods as if to say, âWe already know.â Far better than the alternative: making someone feel that he or she is the only one who doesnât.
Explain. You never know if people have the same cultural or religious contexts you do, so itâs always a good idea to explain what you mean when talking about ideas particular to a certain field or group of people.
Transliterate. Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish and Ladino are hallmarks of our rich, Jewish cultures. Letâs not abandon them. Instead, transliterate as a regular practiceâwhether it is a synagogue handout or a wedding booklet.
WHEN YOUâRE NOT FEELING âIN THE KNOWâ:
Ask for help. If you are in need of more contextual information to make sense of something that was said, donât be scared to ask for an explanation. You will be reminding the speaker that not everyone shares her or his knowledge and you may be saving the next listener from the same situation. Donât just continue to nod as if you knowâJudaism is a tradition with thousands of years of history, text and language. No one knows it allâeven the person whoâs speaking.
Donât apologize. You have vast areas of knowledge that others donât possess. There is nothing wrong, embarrassing or shameful about not knowing something!
Be open to learning. Judaism is a rich and complex tradition. Donât assume that something within it isnât meant for you. Delve in and learn something new or try to follow along in the transliterated Hebrew. Give it a try rather than expecting Judaism to cut out the pieces you donât yet understand.
As our society and our families become more diverse, we are in the wonderful position of celebrating rather than diminishing our differences. So go aheadâŚembrace what is yours and learn about what isnât. Itâs a mechiah! (A great relief or blessing.)