Children of Interfaith Marriage, We Love You, Come Over for Lunch

Robin Margolis wrote a fantastic blog entry for Jewcy.com, What Do Half-Jewish People Want From the Jewish Establishment? It’s an eye-opener. Well, not to me, actually, because I’ve been working here at InterfaithFamily.com and it’s finally started to dawn on me after reading repeated shocking stories that the Jewish community is doing a terrible job integrating and retaining children of interfaith marriage.

Why?

Because we assume that they are all already either with us in the community, or not. We don’t realize that even after children of interfaith families have grown into adulthood, it’s not too late to welcome them into our synagogues and our communities. We’re way too worried about the Jewish legal status of children of interfaith marriage and not worried enough about losing these members of our tribe. (Which they are, no matter what their Jewish status is.)

I think the biggest problem is insisting that people of dual heritage can’t find ways to be Jewish and to honor their other parent’s cultural background. I believe this stems from a fear of syncretistic blending of Christian and Jewish practices. But when people say, “I’m half Jewish and half Swedish,” they aren’t trying to tell you, “half the time I want to practice Christianity.” They want you to say, “That’s cool, it must be neat to have family in two cultures, I’ll bet you bring a lot to our community.”

I get why some people with one Jewish parent call themselves half Jewish, and I respect it–but I’m not going to call them that. I don’t believe in people being half Jewish. If a person has a Jewish parent, we share something–we share it 100%, not 50%, just like I share some things with every other person with Jewish heritage. If they are religiously and culturally Jewish, and also culturally something else, they aren’t Jewish 50% of the time. They are Jewish all the time, and also a part of their other culture of origin, all the time. (And maybe also 100% Canadian, all the time, 100% Star Trek fan, 100% vegetarian–whatever serious and trivial identities a person might bring with them to your community.)

If you want them to have both feet in the community, don’t push one half out the door.

Latino Jews

One of our writers, Franklin Velazquez, started a new group on InterfaithFamily.com’s network for Latino Jews. I thought this was a good excuse to point you to some articles and resources we have on the site for Latino Jews, and maybe to attract members to the group and writers for the site.

Velazquez wrote The Lonely Journey of  Puerto Rican Jew for us, about being a Jew by Choice in an interfaith relationship, and we still get a lot of comments to that story from people who are looking to connect.

We also have some beautifully-written memoir articles with kosher, authentically Puerto Rican recipes from Teresita Levy. My friend Ruby Velez also wrote for us about food in A Surprising Challenge in an Intercultural Relationship. Aliza Hausman, who blogs under the handle La Jewminicana, wrote for us on creating a multi-cultural Dominican Jewish wedding, blending cultures in her household and coping with racism in the Jewish community.

We republished Ruby Marez video monologue about being the child of a Jewish and Puerto-Rican Catholic couple. I am always looking for more ways to feature the voices of adult children of interfaith marriage–this one had a sweet energy to it.

The Latino Jewish experience is varied. It includes people who learn their families were crypto-Jews and want to return to Judaism, people who choose Judaism out of conviction without any idea that they had Jewish heritage, children of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews who immigrated to Latin America and children of interfaith marriages in which one partner was Latino. I hope InterfaithFamily.com can be a resource to all of these groups as part of our overall mission of creating a more welcoming Jewish community.

First, the good news

I have a backlog of interfaith-family related news stories to cover on the blog, but I think I’d like to do the pleasant stories first. Sue Fishkoff published a new feature with JTA, Jews of Color come together to explore identity. It discusses a recent gathering sponsored by Bechol Lashon, a San Francisco organization for ethnically and racially diverse Jews and their families, and The Jewish Multiracial Network, which meets on this coast at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

I follow the Jewish Multiracial Network on Facebook, but I didn’t know that in June, they elected their first African-American president. Fishkoff explains:

The group was started by Ashkenazim who adopted multi-racially, and for the past several years Bowers says there has been “some tension between these well-intentioned Jewish parents and the people of color in the organization, a lot of control issues.” By this summer the parents were ready to let go, and Bower stepped forward.
“We still want the parents involved,” she says. But the agenda is being set by the new generation. The summer retreat was the first to boast a separate track for Jews of color, along with the previous tracks set up by the group’s founders.

It’s a very hopeful sign when the generation of the founders gets to step aside in favor of younger leaders.

This is not my only happy news for you. If you are in a multiracial Jewish family right now, the Jewish Multiracial Network has a resource for you, a Welcoming Synagogues List. It’s “a list of synagogues where we as multiracial families and individual Jews of color have personally attended, felt comfortable, and are now recommending to others.” Aliza Hausman (who writes for IFF)  is seeking more recommendations from Jews of color and people in multiracial Jewish families. Contact her through her page here if you are a member of our site, or at jewminicana1@gmail.com. She needs to know the synagogue’s name, a link to the synagogue website and the city, state and country where the synagogue is located.

One more piece of good news: Rashida Jones, an African-American Jewish actress, singer and model has exceeded her coolness quotient by writing a graphic novel, Frenemy of the State which she’s now adapting for the big screen. Hat tip to Adam Serwer, who mentioned it on Twitter.

More about Jewish Arts and Crafts

In my post yesterday I mentioned a new book of Jewish holiday crafts, and one of our regular readers expressed interest in learning about Jewish art.

You know the old saying, “I don’t know art, but I know what I like”? Well, I love to look at art, but I’m not a real expert. You aren’t going to believe this, but my first art history class in college had a midterm that was all about the architecture of medieval cathedrals and I couldn’t memorize the difference between the nave and the transept.

The question does give me the opportunity to share some cool things I’ve found on the web. First, Menachem Wecker, an arts writer who wrote a great piece for us about synagogue art called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Synagogue”, has a blog Iconia where he covers religion and art in general. He was just interviewed on Mima’amakim, a Jewish arts website. (I know the site because they also interviewed Yonah Lavery, and featured my favorite of her Talmudcomics.net comics.) Wecker has some interesting things to say about Jewish art in general.

He also did a dynamite piece on My Jewish Learning about Siona Benjamin, an Indian Jewish artist whose work draws on all kinds of influences. The images included with this piece are amazing. I love this kind of cross-cultural art.

I always want to know what instructions are out there for creating Jewish art forms like the ones that Sara mentioned in her comment: Jewish papercuts, micrography and other forms of calligraphy. I haven’t found much. What has thrilled me has been finding the beautiful website of The Pomegranate Guild, an association of Jewish needle artists, with their mouth-watering list of links to Jewish needlework resources. For many years I used to torture myself with the paper catalog for California Stitchery, now called Crafty Needle–but I only made one needlepoint. I can’t really do that stuff since I’m killing my hands with constant typing … and anyway my one needle point matzah cover lurches to the left in an alarming way. If I could knit, I might want to buy some of the great Patterns for Peacebuilders–you can knit all the objects in a Passover seder and benefit peace in the Middle East! (I don’t knit, though, I just collect links on the internet.)

I’m torn between wanting to learn more about Eastern European Jewish arts like the trompe-l’œil ceilings I saw in synagogues when I visited Ukraine in 1990 and the wooden carving tradition explored in this exhibition and wishing I knew more about non-Ashkenazi arts traditions. Luckily there are a lot of new Jewish art museums–Cara Nissman wrote a piece for us about how they reach out to interfaith families. We should all get a lot more opportunities to learn.

Comfort? Or Causeless Hatred?

I fasted yesterday for Tisha B’Av. It’s often hard for me to do that, because as a Jewish historian, I wonder whether we would have evolved this amazing religion and culture if the Romans had not destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., so how sad can I be? On the other hand, the fast day is also to commemorate the sinat hinam, the causeless hatred, that the rabbis believed enabled the Romans to quell the Jewish rebellion and burn Jerusalem. In my job, I monitor Jewish news, and believe me, there are more than enough stories of causeless hatred in the Jewish community to motivate a person to fast.

I’m not even sure how many of them to bring up here. After all, this is a site where we work hard to encourage interfaith families to affiliate with the Jewish community. But if we respond to these divisions, we can find the seeds of comfort, which we are meant to find this week on Shabbat Nachamu.

Aliza Hausman wrote a response to racism against Jews of color inside the Jewish community, in “A Lesson for Jews in Gates’ Arrest?”. It’s really time for Jews to end this particular variety of causeless hatred.

"AlizaHausman" wrote:
“How can a people that has experienced the Holocaust be so racist?” a young black prospective convert asked me, wringing his hands in total heartbreak. And on a regular basis, a white Jewish friend tells me “You’re too sensitive about race” and “I’m not racist, but…” So I have created a network of Jews of color, of white allies. With them, I know I can safely discuss the latest racist Jewish encounter that has left me raw, exposed, dying from the inside out.

There is hope for the Jewish community to be more inclusive to everyone: to interfaith families, GLBT Jews, Jews of color, people with disabilities. But it’s not something someone else is going to do for us. Do you ever say “I’m not racist, but…”? It’s time to take stock.

Right now the Jewish community is riven over how to react to crimes committed by Orthodox Jews. These crimes, if the accusations are proven, constitute a major sin in Judaism–a desecration of God’s name. As an Orthodox rabbi, Moshe Rosenberg, wrote in A Light Unto the Nations Or a Cautionary Tale? yesterday in the Forward,

"MosheRosenberg" wrote:
Are we worse than other ethnic groups when it comes to white-collar crime? No, but we are obligated to be much better — the commandment “You shall love the Lord, your God” is explained by the Talmud to mean, “The name of heaven must be made beloved through you.”

It’s really easy for Ashkenazi Jews to point fingers at Syrian Jews or for Reform and Conservative Jews to mock the hypocrisy of supposedly ultra-Orthodox Jews. Yet we are one people and we have responsibility for each other. Certainly when Bernard Madoff ripped off Jewish charitable foundations, he hit all kinds of Jews. We were all angry that someone ripped off the tzedakah box and we were all worried that all Jews would be targets because of damage to our reputation. This is the same thing.

This is the period in the Jewish calendar when we move from mourning our historical tragedies to hope for the future, and an intention to reform ourselves personally. That’s the other plus of reading a lot of difficult stuff. It gives me a personal direction.

Gary Tobin, An Appreciation

I was very sad to learn that Gary Tobin died on Monday. He was a brilliant and provocative thinker, and a passionate advocate for opening Jewish communities to include interfaith families and Jews of color.When I stopped being a lawyer and started working in the Jewish non-profit world in 1999, the first gathering I ever attended was an event around the publication of Tobin’s Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community. I still have that book on my shelf, with many post-it notes interspersed among its pages. Continue reading

The Jews of Iquitos

We have a constant editorial dilemma chosing articles for InterfaithFamily.com. Converts to Judaism are part of our natural constituency–conversion creates an instant interfaith family, after all–and yet if we feature too many articles by or about conversion, we could make people in interfaith marriages feel pressured to convert. We want to be welcoming to people who choose Judaism, but at the same time we don’t want to proselytize. There are both important cultural and religious reasons for this. Religiously, many believe that proselytizing can invalidate a conversion. Culturally, Jews have a memory of being pressured or coerced to convert to other religions, and so don’t think Jews should do anything remotely like that. In this we’re in pretty much the same boat as the rest of the Jewish community–always struggling to be welcoming without exerting any pressure.

Many people who choose conversion to Judaism do so because they come from families with a Jewish grandparent or earlier ancestor. A recent article about a small Jewish community in Peru captures some of the issues facing both individuals and communities who become cut off from the rest of the Jewish people. The small community in Iquitos, Peru thought of themselves as Jews even when the Ashkenazi Jewish community in Peru wouldn’t recognize them. Descended from 19th century Sephardi merchants, the families had intermarried with local people and they look like them. At the same time, they retained some Jewish practices, beliefs and identity. This has to sound familiar to a lot of my regular readers! Continue reading

Statistics on Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage

Why didn’t I take statistics in graduate school? Who knew that instead of teaching history I’d be working for a non-profit where statistics are vitally important and constantly contested. Take the recent flurry of posts from major bloggers about Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage.

The bloggers’ exchange kicked off with a light post by Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Ta-Nehisi Coates suggesting a dating service for matching up African-Americans and Jews. A social scientist who seems to have created his blog for the express purpose of answering the questions that come up in this discussion (no biographical page!) posted to relate relevant data about attitudes of various groups toward interracial marriage according to the General Social Survey. (Here’s the first of the many times reading this that I kicked myself. I have no idea how to evaluate the GSS data, at all.)

Coates responded with a post about how negative Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage with Afrcian-Americans might indicate the end of the Black-Jewish alliance. Then, Ilya Somin, a blogger at the conservative Volokh Conspiracy, weighed in with a post on the role that negative Jewish attitudes toward interfaith marriage might play in attitudes to relatives marrying African-Americans. Somin cracked me up with this:

I suppose I should also mention that I am an ethnic Jew engaged to a gentile, and that I have at various times in the past dated non-Jews who are also non-white. However, my case is just one of many examples of the point I made in the post. Although I am ethnically Jewish, I am not religious, and my engagement will not actually lead to an interfaith marriage because our attitudes towards religion are actually very similar despite the ethnic difference.

Oh yeah, right. People are always telling me that they aren’t really in an interfaith marriage because they aren’t religious, but I generally assume that’s because I’ve buttonholed them in the supermarket and am trying to get them to write for our website. I think the problem is the word “interfaith” which makes it sound like every day of your marriage you sit down in a circle, sing “Kumbaya” and discuss comparative religion. A non-religious ethnic Jew marrying a non-religious gentile still has to make identity decisions when he or she has children. For the Jewish community’s purposes, that’s an interfaith marriage, even if it looks like an inter-no-faith marriage. Continue reading

Fishy Logic

I get a lot out of the investigative journalism that Shemarya Rosenberg provides for free to the Jewish community, and he mainly gets a lot of undeserved mean and nasty comments for it. But this guest post on Rosenberg’s blog Failed Messiah did not pass the logic test.

gefilte fish in LA deli from flickrBased on reading a story by Hillel Halkin in Commentary the anonymous, Orthodox guest blogger made the case that Jews have always intermarried, and that only recently has this been a source of contention in the Jewish community.

The basis of this claim is that many Jewish men have a genetic marker associated with Levites on their Y chromosome. Jewish women, on the other hand, do not have a genetic marker. So, the nameless guest blogger suggests, this must mean that Jewish men married non-Jewish women and were perhaps more relaxed about them converting.

But how does he deduce that? It’s a Jewish genetic marker on the Y chromosome. Continue reading

A Great Moment to Reflect

Here at InterfaithFamily.com, one of our missions is to encourage the Jewish community to be welcoming to people in interfaith families.

A key issue that we don’t often discuss in this connection is race, and this hopeful, inclusive moment seems like a great time to do it. Because the majority of Jews in the United States are descended from the large wave of Eastern European immigration from roughly 1880-1920, we feel safe assuming that all Jews look about the same. Well, that’s not a good assumption. All Jews do not look the same, and all Jews are not white. Continue reading