The Text in Them

The artist behind www.talmud.comics.net, Yonah Lavery, got in touch with her fans in North America last night. She has been in Jerusalem studying Talmud (what else?) all year, and just got married! Now she’s Yonah Lavery-Israeli. I was so happy for her.

I was even more happy for myself because she sent along a blog post and a comic about things that are really important to our readers. Like all of her comics, it’s an illustration of a passage of Talmud, presented in an accessible style–in this case the story of the sons of Rabbi Chiyya in Tractate (that’s one of the 60 or so chapters of Talmud, also called a massechet in Hebrew) Berachot (Blessings) 3:18. Here’s the part of the comic I wanted to write about (click on it to see the whole thing at her site):

One thing Lavery-Israeli does in her comics is to show Jews as they are–diverse. We don’t all look the same. She wrote on her blog:

I was working on this comic in a little park in Netanya, and a religious Teimani (Yemenite) girl of about 8 or 9 came up and asked to look through. She asked what they were, and I told her comics of Masechet Berachot, and she was thrilled. It was really gratifying! “This comes from Talmud??” she asked a few times. I was suddenly very glad that I drew some (not enough) sages as people of colour and focussed on or drew in more (not enough) women. It’s so important that religious Jews be able to see themselves in the text and the text in them.

The other piece that makes this comic appropriate is that it’s about the pain of lost knowledge. It’s kind of amazing that this has been a cultural trope since the time of the Talmud. And here’s where we get to make the interfaith family link–it immediately made me think of Jane Larkin’s recent piece for us, Outreach Matters. In her discussion of why in-married families like to participate in interfaith family programs in her synagogue, she considered:

It’s a non-threatening environment. Our groups provide a safe learning environment. An inmarried mom said she felt embarrassed that she had questions about mitzvahs. In a setting where many of the other the participants weren’t raised Jewish and so didn’t expect themselves to know about Jewish concepts, it was safe for this mom to say, “I don’t know.”

We think of ourselves as the first generation to grapple with these issues, but in the learning-based culture of rabbinic Judaism, there’s been always been this sense of having lost knowledge. We learn again and again what it says in the Talmud (also in the same tractate or masechet, Berachot): “Teach your tongue to say, ‘I don’t know.’” (I will never forget this one because of the famous Ben Shahn poster–I try to keep those words in mind always.) There’s no way we could ever know as much as we think we should–so we might as well start where we are.

Back to Poland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shakshuka and Anne Frank

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

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

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

History of Jewish Intermarriage

I read the blog On the Main Line, even though I can never figure out how to justify it. It’s not like this Jewish history blogger who posts such diverse reproductions of primary sources is ever going to cover interfaith marriage, right? Most of my Jewish blogs eventually have posts I can use on this one.

Well, today On the Main Line posted an item from the 1909 Reform Advocate and called it Jewish-Chinese Intermarriage in 1909. SCORE!

The whole blog is a repository for nifty stuff. The blogger, who uses an alias, has an admirably omnivorous mind and must know some crazy number of languages. If you don’t know much Jewish history and can’t place any of the primary sources in context, it might be overwhelming.

But if you took a course like Me’ah, an adult ed program in Jewish history that started here in Boston and has been replicated in other cities, you might be ready to dive into some of these posts.

Anyway, check out the blog, because it’s cool even if not to all of our readers’ tastes. A piece like Where did Chad Gadya Come From Anyway?, discussing a famous song from the Passover seder, might be just your speed. If you’ve seen anything Jewish on the web that you think we should be linking for interfaith families because it’s cool, let me know.

Meaningful Spiritual Practices and New Translation of Psalms

I have often felt uncomfortable with the word spiritual. It’s usually used in a way that makes me feel inferior, because I don’t know if my experiences measure up. I mean, I get a lot out of traditional Jewish practice, like prayer and making blessings and doing mitzvot and stuff like that, but I can’t say that what I’m getting is spiritual. It’s a little zap or zing of feeling, something emotional, but maybe that’s not spiritual? I don’t know. I also get a little thrill reading poetry or listening to religious music in other traditions, like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Mavis Staples–but is that a spiritual thrill?

Nevertheless, I wrote a Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide for our site, after about three months of research and introspection–and kvetching. (The kvetching was surprisingly fruitful, if utterly unspiritual, because people responded with their insights in the face of my whining.) I thought a lot about how interfaith families have unique opportunities for hiddur mitzvah, making the performance of commandments extra beautiful and excellent.

After I wrote my piece, I found this blog post on jewsbychoice.org, Three Meaningful Spiritual Practices for Rural Isolated Jews. I love this! The practices that I chose for my guide were very community-based ones, and I am so happy to see something about how to find something meaningful on your own.

Another nifty thing I came across after I wrote my guide was Pam Greenberg’s The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation. I’m friendly with Pam and really excited about this new edition, which becomes available today. You can read and hear an interview with Pam on the pbs.org website. Psalms are a really important part of Jewish (and many Christian!) worship services, so a new translation that gives a chance to rethink them is very exciting. (Plus I’m so stoked to realize I watched Pam working on this at the Diesel Cafe! That’s just nifty, you know?)

I’d love to hear from you about your meaningful spiritual practices.

One More Passover Roundup Post

I think it was Jewschool that tipped me off to the Idelsohn Society Passover Mix Tape. It’s not a tape, really, it’s a sound file with all kinds of music on it. It has Socalled on it and I really love that stuff. (It’s a little hipster-ish, but we like to be hip, right?)

If you feel hip to using the web for your seder, you will love My Haggadah Made It Myself. Our board chair, who is very web-savvy, found this one for us  in a blog post on coolhunting.com. I love the look of these illustrations!

Of course our CEO Ed Case is going to use the latest Velveteen Rabbi Haggadah.

When I tweeted yesterday’s Passover roundup post, I really won the jackpot–Esther Kustanowitz invited me to be a beta tester at haggadot.com, a project her roommate Eileen Levinson,  an artist and graphic designer, is masterminding. If you are the kind of person who knows what beta testing means, write to Eileen at info@haggadot.com.  For a lot of interfaith families, the Passover seder is best when you put together your own service. There are a lot of great resources out there to do this, but this one seems to put the emphasis on the pretty. I’m hoping that next year, this site will be available to everyone to make really personal haggadot that fit your family.

Good Things for Passover Roundup

We are gearing up for the holidays here at IFF, planning travel for Passover and Easter, and doing a little last-minute brainstorming about how to make our seders more accessible. At home, my family is getting stressed out (about the cleaning) and excited (about the seder.)

I’ve been following TweetTheExodus on Twitter. My husband found it last night and shared it with my 7-year-old  son, who was fascinated that @TheTenPlagues have their own account. If you want to see the story of the Exodus acted out in 140-character tweets, get over there and watch it!

Yesterday, I shared with my son an album I found in our house–Benjamin Lapidus on Herencia Judia. I wanted him to hear the rhumba version of the Four Questions. Most of the album is Caribbean musical settings of Ashekenazi tunes, except the first track is Sephardi, half in Ladino. I cannot believe how much fun it is to hear these tunes that are so familiar to me in this setting.

I wrote a short piece for Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies CJP Family Connections newsletter, Passover for Children, with some tips I’ve used with my family, including the books we used last year for our second-night, kid-focused seder. Not that all seders aren’t focused on teaching our children–no matter how old the children are.

This is probably the last possible minute for you to buy a variety of awesome seder-enhancers from haggadahsrus.com. You might have the bag of plagues or the Sedra Scenes (little plays you can use to act out the Passover story) at your local Judaica shop, but if you don’t–you can get them shipped directly from the land of my forefathers, Cleveland. Come comment here if you have a favorite hagaddah you want to recommend, or a Passover picture book you love. 

Oooh look, one more thing! our favorite food blogger smitten kitchen has posted< a Passover cookie recipe! OK, that had to go in this post, because that is a bona fide good thing for Passover.

London Jewish Museum reopens

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

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

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

New Passover Books and Web Stuff

It wasn’t one of the plagues of Egypt–they expected the Nile to flood, and relied on the alluvial mud for agriculture–but floods are hard on Bostonians. One of the roads I travel to work has been closed and commuters are wailing and gnashing their teeth. It’s a good thing most of my work is online!

I was really happy I came in to the office yesterday because there was a new book for me, The Lone and Level Sands– a graphic novel about the exodus from Egypt. I have to say, it’s a little weird that so much of the book is from the point of view of the Egyptians. It’s like the part of the seder when you spill drops of wine to acknowledge Egyptian suffering in the plagues–a whole book of that. I didn’t see much in the book about the suffering of the Israelites under slavery–and that bothers me now, because I think it shows the extent to which people in our society identify with the people oppressing rather than with the oppressed. Still, the book is gorgeous–the artwork and the design are just fantastic. It could be a good way for a person who is very visual to understand the Passover story, and it’s non-sectarian.  Check it out!

Another Passover-themed book I was lucky enough to get at work is Dara Horn’s All Other Nights which just came out in paperback. It deserves all the hype it received in Jewish publications. Following the career of a Jewish spy for the Union in the Civil War, this novel does a much better job of troubling the question, “who were the good guys,” without losing the moral absolute that slavery and racism are wrong. Horn plays deftly with Jewish cultural and religious symbols–it doesn’t feel, excuse the expression, ham-handed, and neither does her presentation of the history.

One of our favorite Passover resources to recommend to interfaith families is The Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach–now available in a new version! Our CEO Ed Case uses this one every year. It’s free but do comment to let the editor know how much you love her work.

I also want to commend to you two books you can get through the web for Passover. One is my friend Debra Cash’s chapbook, Who Knows One–a book of poems with Passover images. You can see a sample poem in Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner’s supplementary seder readings. (You can find more of his Passover treasures at www.jewishfreeware.org.) The other online, sorry you do have to pay for it, book is A La Muestra! Recipes for a Rhodesli Passover by Janet Amateau.  Amateau is a scholar of Sephardi food whose grandparents were from the island of Rhodes.

I am excited to find a vegetarian Passover seder menu from Trinidad. The blogger is an amazing find–kosher Caribbean recipes! The seder recipes don’t seem particularly Trinidadian–but they are creative and mouth-watering, and I’m totally going to be following this blog from now on.

If you’re looking for plantains at the seder table, look to us at IFF–everyone should read Teresita Levy’s kosher-for-Passover Puerto Rican Easter dinner article. We have plenty of ideas, and we always want more. If you’re blending two cultures at your holiday table, we want to hear about it!

No More Rubber Cement!

This is amazing. I knew something like this was going to be invented, but I’m still blown away. IFF’s partner and friend, BBYO (the organization formerly known as Prince –no, sorry  Bnai Brith Youth Organization) sent out a press release about their new resource, buildaprayer.org. It’s a website where people can put together their own Jewish services out of the traditional liturgy, meeting the needs of the people who will be there.

I started making a sample service on the site, just so I would know how it works. (I didn’t print out, because the last thing I need is to have to find a respectful way to dispose of paper with the divine name printed on it.) Right now they have four choices: Friday evening, Saturday morning, Saturday evening services and Grace after Meals. As you may know, there are set prayers in Hebrew for different occasions–these are the ones that youth group members need the most frequently. You can choose a traditional service or only components of it to build your own custom service–Hebrew prayers, with translation or transliteration, with two choices of layout of the components and places to insert other introductory or inspirational texts.

If, like me, you used to participate in Reform youth group services back in the dark ages before personal computers were common, you know that we did, in fact, use actual scissors and rubber cement to lay out services with these components.

Now, it’s true that this site doesn’t give you the opportunity to change the Hebrew liturgy. You can’t paste a text from the Talmud into the Psalms, as we sometimes do at my Havurah. But for knowledgeable Jews in interfaith families who are planning a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding and want to make sure that their non-Jewish relatives and friends understand the service? This is a fantastic tool. There are also impressive resources on the site for learning more about the history and meaning of Jewish liturgy.

We already love BBYO around here. Check out this great article, Teenagers In Love which shows how enthusiastic teens from interfaith families feel about the youth movement. This buildaprayer.org site is such a nifty resource that I would be excited about it even if we didn’t already think BBYO was awesome–go look!