In Other News…


Three stories of interest to readers of


The new president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, Miriam Scharf, is on the right track.

In addition to other goals, like education and resource development, she plans to make ”welcoming interfaith families a priority”:

“Studies show that in some communities as many as 50 percent of Jewish families are interfaith,” she said. “In a community like Kansas City, I think we can do a better job of addressing some of the needs that interfaith families have, engaging the interfaith family in Jewish community activities and making them feel welcome.”

Miriam, if you need any help, we’re here for you and your community.

Speaking up for Jews by Choice

Writing in Haaretz, Rabbi Michael Knopf busts myths about Jews by Choice (aka, converts to Judaism). He lays out possible historical reasons for being skeptical, or even critical, of those who convert (or want to convert) to Judaism. But his bottom line?

But here is the truth: A Jew by Choice is just as Jewish as any Jew by Birth. For over two millennia, this has been the normative position of the Jewish tradition toward those brave and blessed souls who have chosen to become part of the Jewish people.

It is a position that has its pedigree in Talmudic law (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47), and, according to many scholars, likely predates the Mishna itself.

Although the sincerity of any potential convert must be ascertained prior to bringing them into the Jewish fold, once they emerge from the mikveh (the ritual bath), they are a Jew in every way.

When a convert becomes Jewish, it is irrevocable. The Talmud, Maimonides, Jacob ben Asher, and Joseph Caro (to name but a few) all agree that conversion means a complete shedding of non-Jew status; a Jew by Choice is as fully Jewish as any Jew by Birth.

Thanks for reiterating this, rabbi. Let’s hope that more people hear your message and treat all of us, by choice or by birth, equally.

Chinese Jews

I was surprised to stumble across an article about the ”who’s a Jew” debate in the Wall Street Journal. The Jews of the Chinese town of Kaifeng followed patrilineal descent (“Kaifeng Jews trace their heritage through their father, as Chinese traditionally do”). But when they visit Israel, or get in touch with the Chabad House in Beijing, they’re told they’re not actually Jewish (“They may stem from Jewish ancestry, but they aren’t Jewish,” says Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who runs the orthodox Chabad House in Beijing. “There hasn’t been a Jewish community in Kaifeng in 400 years.”).

Except there is one, though it’s divided and diminished. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people in the city say they are descendants of Kaifeng Jews and cling to at least some Jewish traditions. A canvas poster at No. 21 Teaching the Torah Lane announces the street as the site of a synagogue that was destroyed in an 1860 flood and never rebuilt. Inside a tiny courtyard house, “Esther” Guo Yan works as a tour guide and sells knick-knacks decorated with Jewish stars.

When tourists stop by, she quizzes them on Jewish ceremonies, like what prayers to say when lighting Sabbath candles. She says she hasn’t yet managed to fast a full day on Yom Kippur, though she is trying. As the granddaughter of a Kaifeng Jew, she says the orthodox standard on Judaism is unfair: “We read the Torah with Eastern thoughts; deal with it.”

The first Jewish merchants arrived when Kaifeng was in its heyday as the Song dynasty capital. They married the local women and rose to become mandarins and military officials. Over the centuries they blended in ethnically and were forgotten by the world until 1605, when a Jewish scholar from Kaifeng, Ai Tien, met Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in Beijing. The missionary then spread the news that Jews had been living in China for centuries.

The Kaifeng Jewish population is thought to have peaked at around 5,000, but by the early 1900s, none could read Hebrew and the community’s Torah scrolls were sold to collectors. Jews were called “the Muslims with the blue caps,” referring to the color of the yarmulkes some still wore.

“In our family, we didn’t eat pork, that’s for sure,” says Nina Wang, a 24-year-old Kaifeng native who now lives in Israel and underwent orthodox Jewish conversion. The family had menorahs and Sabbath cups, she said, “but we didn’t know what to do with those things.”

It’s a really interesting read about a community not known to many of us!

Take a Break


It’s that busy time of the year (is there ever not a busy time of the year?). Hanukkah’s over but we’re still celebrating the December holidays with friends and family, colleagues and communities. You need a break, we need a break, time for a hodgepodge of links. Happy reading!

Take a break…


And now back to the holidays…

Until the next hodge podge…

The Text in Them


The artist behind, 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.

Lena Horne Dies at Age 92


Lena Horne died yesterday in New York. She was a legendary singer and actress, most famous for her signature song, “Stormy Weather.” In addition to her work in Hollywood films and on the stage as a singer, Horne was a public activist for civil rights, a near life-time member of the NAACP and a participant in the March on Washington.

Horne’s second marriage, in 1947, was to a Jewish man, Leonard Hayton. Some sources say that the two were separated in the 1960s, but they remained married until his death in 1971. Her public comments about their relationship don’t paint it in the most positive light–in a 1980 interview with Ebony she said she’d married him to advance her career.

We published a celebrity column about Horne’s granddaughter, Jenny Lumet.  (Horne’s daughter from her first marriage, Gail Jones Lumet Buckley, was also married to a Jewish man, well-known film director Sidney Lumet, whom she subsequently divorced.) In Lumet’s most recent film, Rachel Getting Married, interracial marriage is no big deal–and in fact for Lumet herself, it isn’t, either. Jenny Lumet describes her own second husband as “a nice Jewish boy.”

For Lena Horne, marrying Lenny Hayton was a fraught experience–they had to leave California to get married, because interracial marriage was illegal in 1947, and there’s something suggestive about the fact that they apparently separated for some years but never divorced. The marriage was one of the many things she did to bring down barriers to equality in the United States, and she felt she had to explain it in a variety of ways. The Associated Press obituary quotes a 2009 biography in which Horne supposedly told a lover that she’d married a white man “To get even with him.” Who knows what their relationship was really like.

I just appreciate the contributions to society Horne made through her work and her visibility as an performer, contributions that have brought down some of the barriers she faced. If intercultural, interfaith and interracial marriages make it more complicated to pass down a cultural heritage to our children, they are also a sign of the gradual erosion of walls that separate us. With her grace and talent, Horne took down quite a few bricks from those walls.

When It Counts–More On Obama and the Census


Elizabeth Chang wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post last week, “Why Obama should not have checked ‘black’ on his census form,”

Although I knew Obama self-identifies as African American, I was disappointed when I read that that’s what he checked on his census form. The federal government, finally heeding the desires of multiracial people to be able to accurately define themselves, had changed the rules in 2000, so he could have also checked white. Or he could have checked “some other race.” Instead, Obama went with black alone.

I understand why Chang wrote this, and even though I’m mostly on the same page with her about a lot of this, I think she’s wrong.

Chang identifies as the mother of biracial children in an interfaith family, and as someone raising biracial Jewish children. The whole Jewish community is behind her in wanting her children to be able identify as more than one thing. Jewish and Chinese and Hawaiian? Beautiful, we are so on board with that.

But on the other hand, I think there is something to Chang’s phrase, “when it counts, he is black.”  When it counts, stand up for the people who need you. Based on his experiences, Obama judged this was the time to count as an African American. I read the piece in Newsweek last September on the work ahead of parents who want to raise anti-racist children. Parenting “colorblind”–pretending that racism doesn’t exist and that people aren’t different– doesn’t make racism go away or make your children accept difference. In fact it demonstrably does the opposite.

In that Newsweek story, the authors present an anecdote about a class of first graders reacting to a classroom event featuring a black Santa Claus.  For my Jewish child, a black Santa Claus in public school wouldn’t be a great thing. (Promoting inclusion and acceptance of difference through Santa Claus? Really?) But a black President of the United States? That’s a symbol that makes a difference!

I’m not biracial and this isn’t my personal struggle, but I definitely have a lot invested, as a Jewish woman and a mom, in a society in which people of mixed heritage can identify 100% with all parts of their heritage. When it counts, I want Elizabeth Chang’s daughters to have bat mitzvah ceremonies. When it counts, I want them to be part of the Jewish world where my son will live when he grows up.

You can’t list yourself as a Jew on the US Census–for many good reasons–and there might be reasons, in the future, for the Chang girls to list themselves as Asian-American on some document. They will still be Jewish. It’s not a rejection of the culture of the non-Jewish parent for a child of an interfaith marriage to call himself or herself a Jew, full stop, any more than President Obama has rejected his mother and grandparents in any way. The time to identify is when it counts–and I believe in the next generation enough to think they’ll figure out when that is.

Biracial Identity and the Census


I admire Adam Serwer–I follow him on Twitter and read his work on The American Prospect website. I really like what he had to say here on Barack Obama’s choice to identify as black on the US Census.

Obama could have chosen to identify with both sides of his family, as Serwer and others have. As you know, and I know some of you know better than I do, when you come from two backgrounds, people often ask you to choose one, even though you come from two families and at least two cultures (if not more!) The US Census doesn’t ask you to do that–if you come from two or more of the racial categories the Census happens to measure, you can identify with both or all of them.

Serwer writes:

The question really becomes what “legacies” of the painful elements of our past do we voluntarily embrace and which ones we reject. To the extent that biracial black people identify as black, they are choosing to embrace a once-painful element of their history. It is not being forced on us. I happened to check both white and black on my census form, but that was my choice. Every mixed person has a right to tell their own story on their terms. You might as well tell Jews to stop celebrating Passover because it is part of the enduring legacy of Jewish slavery in Egypt. That’s exactly what it is, but that doesn’t tell you anything about its value to the culture or why it continues to endure.

I have been thinking about this question–whether we’re entirely shaped by the biases against us, or whether we have identity that’s independent of oppression–since I read Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew in 1987. (You know how there are some books that just shape your whole life? That was one for me.) The book made me think about my role as a person with white privilege in US society. I thought the dynamic Sartre describes between the biased person, the target of bias, and the “liberal”–a bystander who allows the targeting to happen and blames the victim–described how my society dealt with race. But at the same time, the book is about whether any cultural minority has a culture aside from what it creates in the negative space of a racist dynamic. Do Jews exist without anti-Semitism? I would say yes, we do, we have an identity and culture that is greater than simply resistance.

What do you think about how to fill out the census? I mean the literal one that will count our country this year so that we can apportion resources, but there is also a metaphorical census. When you stand up to be counted, how do you select from your various identities? Does context matter? Tell me about it.

Stand Up and Be Counted Part One–US Census 2010


You may wonder why I’m making a post about the 2010 US Census. As a non-profit organization, relies heavily on sociological and demographic research to prove that we’re needed and that what we do is meeting our goals as an organization. Probably the research that did the most for our founding was the National Jewish Population Surveys, which persuaded the Jewish community in the United States of the widespread trend of Jews marrying non-Jews. We’ve also used data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and kept abreast of the studies of Jewish sociologists through the North American Data Bank.

The US Census Data hasn’t been that useful to us at IFF, because in the United States, the government  hasn’t, for many years, asked questions about religion on the census and doesn’t classify Jewishness as an ethnicity. For Jews, this has been reassuring. In the near historical past, governments that considered Jews an ethnic group nearly invariably discriminated against Jews.

(I should be clear that the US Census, in any case, does not release individuals’ data for a full 72 years after you fill in the census, at which time the documents are archived. My friend who is working for the census bureau told me that she had to take an oath of preserving the confidentiality of the documents. The penalty for breaking the oath is five years in prison or $250,000.)

The Census is going to be useful to you. This is the second census on which individuals can identify with more than one racial category. For people of mixed heritage, this is pretty exciting, because it means that you’ll be helping both sides of your family count. If your dad was an Ashkenazi Jew and your mom had one parent who was African-American and another who was Japanese, you don’t have to pick only one.

This is the first year that the census will allow people in same-sex relationships to identify as married, even if their relationships aren’t recognized as marriages in their state. If your relationship is committed but not a marriage, the census has a category for that too–whether your partner is male or female.

There are a lot of reasons to want to be counted accurately–it makes a difference in your congressional representation, and in federal funding your area receives for things like hospitals and roads. It could also change our picture of who lives in the United States–of racial and ethnic identity, what constitutes a household, who has disabilities–who counts. Let’s be counted.

Songs of Praise


I’ve been trying to remember to blog about any project that highlights the culture of non-Ashkenazi Jewish communities. I’m sure we have some readers from those communities, and we also get a lot of readers in families of Ashkenazi Jews married to people from other cultures. It feels good when you’re raising a child in two (or more!) cultures to know that there were already Jews from the “other” culture. Plus it’s just good stuff, and I look for excuses to link you to good stuff.

[float=left][/float]My husband surprised us this weekend with two CDs produced by Jewish Records in London, one called Shbahoth and one called Shir Hodu. He thinks he learned about them from, a great source for Jewish music news.

Shbathoth is an album of restored recordings of Jewish music from Iraq from the 1920s—the title of the CD is from the Iraqi pronunciation of the Hebrew word for praises—and Shir Hodu is an album of restored recordings of Jewish music from Bombay in the 1930s. Shir Hodu means both song of praise, and song of India. (It’s a pun in Hebrew.) If you live in London, you can attend a CD launch for Shir Hodu this Thursday, January 14. Our CDs actually came hand-addressed by Sara Manasseh, the musicologist who put the albums together, which made us really happy.

We had a listening session for Shir Hodu on Sunday, and wow, that was pretty cool. There are actually several different Jewish communities native to India, though most Jews of Indian descent now live in Israel or the English-speaking countries. The album has songs from four musical groups from different Indian Jewish cultural traditions, and feature Western instruments (violin, mandolin), Middle Eastern instruments (‘ud, qanun) and Indian instruments (sitar, jal tarang, dilruba, bansuri.) It’s always great to hear Jewish liturgical music sung in different traditions, especially songs that Ashkenazi Jews sing in a minor-key-sounding musical mode and other communities sing in a mode that sounds like a major key.

For copies of these CDs and Dr. Manasseh’s other musical project, Rivers of Babylon (which we’re going to buy later, I think!) go to her website.

Cooking Up New Traditions


My husband found this blog, Sephardic Food, where culinary expert Janet Amateau posts Sephardi  cultural lore and recipes. Some of the blog posts are in Spanish because Amateau lives in Spain. I’ve been meaning to tell you about it, because I know a lot of our readers want Sephardi recipes, and these are great–with great explanations.

When I wrote the Jewish Food Cheat Sheet, which defined dozens of Ashkenazi Jewish food terms, it came with an introduction, Understanding Jewish Food Traditions, which placed Ashkenazi Jewish food in a more global Jewish context, with Sephardi, Mizrachi and other Jewish cultures.

The truth is, all the Jews in the US aren’t all Eastern European, and even those of us who are Ashkenazi Jews love Jewish food traditions from elsewhere. Interfaith families are totally part of this. If you’re married to someone Italian who isn’t Jewish, it’s pretty cool to read Classic Italian Jewish Cooking by Edna Servi Machlin, just as an example. If you’re a Jew by choice, it’s nice to find ways to incorporate your old food traditions into new kosher rules.

In my overwhelmingly vegetarian, mainly Ashkenazi community, there are great fans of Olive Trees and Honey. I am still cooking my way through Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, though my copy is falling apart.

I am always looking for ways to include recipes on the site, so if your family has kosher-ized some of the recipes from the non-Jewish side, or has revved up an Ashkenazi dish with the spices of another culinary tradition, or done any tasty sort of thing with food and culture, contact me.

Race and the Future of Jewishness


In the January 11 Newsweek, which published on the web yesterday, Ellis Cose has a piece called Race: The Future of Whiteness in America. It’s a complex piece, about more than one thing of interest to me in my work here: the shifting definitions of who is white, the increase in intermarriage between groups that previously didn’t mix, the complexity of articulating a mixed identity on the U.S. Census.

Cose highlights the shifting nature of racism in the United States by picking out Jews as an example. He cites Karen Brodkin Sach’s How Did Jews Become White Folks? and discusses how Ashkenazi Jews, who now consider ourselves, and are considered by others, to be white, used to be categorized as non-white in the United States. (In some people’s minds, we still are.) It reminds me of the first time I read Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew where he describes a three-way dance between Jews, anti-Semites and liberals–the target of discrimination, who is defined by it, the racist, and bystanders. I had a revelation about the way racism was working in the United States in my lifetime when I read Sartre’s Second World War insights into French anti-Semitism. People get defined as people of color not based on their physical characteristics, exactly, but on whether their current society considers those characteristics real signs of difference.

Of course, there are problems with this model. Jews don’t only exist as a group because of anti-Semites, but because of our shared history, religion and culture. Blackness in the United States isn’t only the condition of being discriminated against because of being Black–it’s also the culture that comes out of that experience. I should also add there are already many Jews in North America who would be recognized as people of color even in our current set of social definitions.

What it means for interfaith families is there are definitely going to be more Jews of mixed heritage as we get older, and the Jewish community is going to have to relax about it. At the same time, everyone else is going to be facing the same problem we are–how to hang on to our distinctive subculture as society opens up.

I’m not worried (worried?) that anti-Semitism is going to disappear. We don’t have the FBI’s Hate Crimes statistics for 2009 yet, but for 2008 they reported that of 1,732 religious hate crimes, 66.1 percent were against Jews. Racial violence, which like all hate crimes may be under-reported, was even higher–more than half of single-bias hate crimes were motivated by racism. We’re not moving rapidly to a society where former targets of bias are suddenly handed the task of self-definition as all hatred evaporates instantly. (I know, that kind of trouble you could handle.)

But for all of us, the picture is gradually changing. It’s going to be increasingly normal to be a person of mixed heritage, and more people are going to be able to relate to the desire to preserve more than one culture. It would be great if we all could have our differences in common.