Our Sukkah without Walls

Maurice's sukkah

Our sukkah this year. As you can see, despite the Oregon Ducks’ train wreck of a loss last week, we continue to welcome them symbolically into our sukkah.

This year our sukkah is unkosher. It has no walls.

According to traditional Jewish law, a sukkah is supposed to have walls – four of them, actually, though one of them can be the side of a house if it’s been built up against a house. The walls can be made out of any material, but they have to be strong enough to withstand some wind without falling down.

Our sukkah has no walls because, in the midst of many challenges, we didn’t get around to putting them up. But that’s not the only reason. I confess that my wife and I also kind of like the way the sukkah looks and feels inside this way. A sukkah without walls is an appropriate religious symbol for our family.

Our nuclear family consists of four people and two dogs. It’s me, a liberal rabbi; Melissa, my spouse, who was my intermarried partner for part of the time I was a rabbinical student, before she converted; and Clarice and Hunter, neither of whom was born Jewish, and both of whom were old enough at the time of the adoption to have the right to decide whether or not to become Jewish. So far, they haven’t, at least not formally. On a day to day basis they alternate between identifying Jewishly and not. So, while neither of our kids identify with another religion, because, at least halakhically (according to Jewish law), they’re not Jewish, we are what gets referred to as an interfaith family.

For me, our sukkah without walls symbolizes Melissa’s and my core value of openness to welcoming the stranger deeply into our home and life. There’s a framework, a structure to our sukkah, as well as a roof made of foliage, and a lulav and an etrog too. Anyone who knows what a sukkah is who saw ours would know that it is a sukkah, or someone’s good try at erecting a proper sukkah. But our sukkah, perhaps inspired by Abraham and Sarah’s tent, is literally open on all sides. Like a sukkah with the traditionally prescribed walls that won’t fall down in a gust of wind, our “open architecture” sukkah also can withstand a gust of wind, but it accomplishes that feat not by resisting the movement of the air with sturdy barriers; rather, the changing winds blow right on through. (Metaphor now fully expressed, and possibly even overdone…)

Our sukkah without walls also speaks to me because our extended families consist of a really wide assortment of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins living on different continents, practicing different religions, and speaking different languages.Our open sukkah reminds me of the huppah at our wedding, where Melissa’s down home conservative evangelical country relatives mixed with my loud and effusive Moroccan-Israeli clan. Everyone was welcome. Jewish traditions, practiced with some creative deviation from traditional Jewish law (Melissa wasn’t Jewish at the time, after all), defined the space, but with very open access to people of many faiths and identities.

Our sukkah also represents, for me, what I call our local family of choice. Our dear friend, Ariel,* was the single mother of four kids when we first met her and began helping each other parent our collective half dozen children with different challenges. Because of what our kids went through to end up in the foster care system, we needed the strength and support of others to parent them without falling apart. And because Ariel, who was accepted to law school and is the hardest working person we know, grew up in foster care herself, she’s a great model of resilience to our kids, and she really gets them in ways that we don’t. We’ve been able to help each other out in countless ways, and our daughter practically thinks of Ariel as another parent.

Ariel, by the way, is Baha’i. A little over a year ago I officiated at her wedding to Nathan,* who is Christian, and he and his son from a previous marriage are now part of this growing hybridized nuclear fusion Brady Bunch. (Full disclosure: One of our two dogs is actually their dog, staying with us for the time being.)

The boundaries between our two families are kind of like, well, our sukkah without walls. There are structures there between our families that are real and that operate every day. And yet, there’s also a very easy flow between our families and our homes, even our vehicles. (You can tell this because the empty cups and food wrappers on the floors of our cars are a mixed multitude of representatives of our various bad food choice preferences.)

I’m not seeking pity with what I’m about to say, but one of the painful things in my life, as a rabbi and even just as a Jew, is that I’m all too aware that for a part of the Jewish community, it’s not just my sukkah that’s unkosher, but our family is kind of unkosher too. A previously intermarried rabbinical student? That’s not kosher! A spouse of a rabbi who converted but not in an Orthodox way? For some, that means I’m still an intermarried rabbi. Totally unkosher (well, maybe not anymore). A rabbi’s family and their kids aren’t Jewish?! It’s like it’s raining pork and shellfish. On Shabbos.

There are some Jewish thought leaders who argue that it’s families like ours that are putting the future of the Jewish people at risk. There are too many different identities in the household, they say, and the boundaries aren’t strong enough to promote Jewish children, and aren’t rabbis supposed to be exemplars of Jewish lives that are more emphatically and unambiguously Jewish? Well, I suppose I can’t prove that these critics are wrong, though the truth is that they don’t know for a certainty what will or won’t make for a vibrant and meaningful Jewish future. I think their claims tell us more about their values and preferences than about how the future is or isn’t going to unfold.

The same can be said about my values and preferences, I admit. My values and preferences favor a Judaism of open and welcoming structures, of joyful and sincere practices shared with people of any background freely, and of flexibility and trusting the unknown. Perhaps my marriage will not produce any children who become Jewish adults raising Jewish children, and perhaps, therefore, we’ll be judged by some as a failed Jewish family, a Jewish continuity dead end.

But here’s the thing. Because of our life choices, it’s not just our two kids who know what a sukkah is and have helped build and decorate a sukkah and have heard Melissa and me talk about the themes of trust and welcoming guests and vulnerability. It’s not just our kids who have, again, broken the pitom (the stem) off ouretrog halfway through the holiday, thus rendering the etrog unkosher like our sukkah, and who have had to hear me discover this and yell, “Dammit! Who the hell broke off the pitom!? That’s the first thing you learn you’re not supposed to do! And it cost, like, forty dollars!” It’s also Ariel’s kids, who’ve had great fun in our sukkah over the years, as have Nathan, and his son, and some of our neighbors. And because the rabbinical seminary I attended didn’t turn me away, despite my way of doing Jewish, and neither did the synagogue I served for 8 years, I’ve taught and worked with well over a hundred kids in helping them to develop a Jewish identity of warmth, pride, and ethics. And sorry to be all bragging on myself, but I’ve also had two Jewish non-fiction books published, both of which strive to open access to Judaism to people of all faiths.

So maybe our unkosher family and our unkosher sukkah is a symbol of the demise of liberal Judaism. Could be. Or maybe it’s something else, maybe even something wonderful.

* names have been changed

Why I Don’t Keep Kosher


Jillian (right) with her cousins and grandmother in Ipswich, MA.

Growing up, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I ate. One of my parents and then a housekeeper for a while, used to cook dinner for me and made my lunch to take to school. We didn’t keep any sense of kosher; I didn’t really understand what kashrut was until I was much older. My parents attempted to instill the values of healthy eating, feeding us fresh produce, buying food from whatever farms existed in suburban New Jersey, but beyond the health aspects, we never really discussed food in any other way.

As I grew older, I was confronted with a variety of food ethics, whether cultural, religious or health related. As I spent time thinking about the food choices I make now, I realized that the decisions I make about most aspects of my life reflect how I think, how I was raised, my cultural context and my values. As a child of an interfaith marriage, there was always a combining of cultures in our household, from the most mundane of details to the most controversial. Whenever two people combine their lives and create a family even if they seem incredibly similar on the surface, there is bound to be a certain amount of combining (usually preceded by a hefty degree of compromise).

But my parents were not only intermarried in terms of their religious backgrounds, but my mother was from high treif (non-kosher) land, New England, and my father’s family was old Jewish Bronx (brisket, anyone?). Some of my fondest food memories are when we visited my mom’s family in Ipswich, MA: fried clams, steamers, lobster rolls, scallops, you name the seafood, we ate it, and we ate it joyfully. Since I did not live near my mom’s family and was being raised as a Jew, the love of seafood represented my connection with them. I thought about giving it up over the years, as I had given up pork, but those family moments, those points of connection always prevented me. I studied and contemplated and struggled with my decision because I wanted to maintain my own sense of integrity in who I am and what my title represents. But even as a rabbi, as a leader and example in the Jewish community, I long ago decided that having a connection to my family, being able to sit with them and break bread (and lobster claws) was more important than keeping kosher. And I have never once regretted it.

We live in a world of abundant choices and options and as our community grows ever more diverse, we will only continue to face these types of decisions. There is no one right answer, it’s up to each of us to take the time, do the work and decide how we want to live our lives.

Special Diets + Passover = Stress


What to eatFollowing a special diet can be a challenge. Most of us have followed a diet in the past to lose weight, or for humanitarian or health reasons. Some of us are on one right now. In my own small circle of family, friends and colleagues, almost all of the major diet categories are covered. We have gluten free, low fat, dairy free, sugar free, vegan, vegetarian, Kosher, high protein and low carb. Passover is coming and my diet-centered world is about to short circuit. What kind of meals can I make if I have to eliminate gluten, fat, dairy, sugar, eggs, meat and all of the items that are not consumed during Passover from the list of acceptable ingredients?

There can be some confusion about how to make our choices about what to eat during Passover. Tradition plays a strong role for religious Jews and can influence the decisions we make in our modern interpretation of our holiday observance. Jews from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazim) refrain from eating Kitnyot (KIT-NEE-OT) during the eight days of Passover. Kitnyot are grains and legumes such as, rice, corn, beans, soy, peanuts, string beans, peas, lentils, mustard, seeds (sesame, poppy, sunflower, etc.), and their derivatives which can be found in corn starch, corn syrup and soy sauce. Jews from other lands (Sephardim) do eat Kitnyot during Passover. Why is there a distinction?

The Torah tells us not to eat leaven (also called Chametz) during the holiday of Passover. Chametz consists of “five grains” from wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye. In ancient times, a strict observance of this commandment caused the Jews in lands where these grains were grown to be extra careful. All grains were stored in the same type of sack and could be easily mixed up or misidentified. The only way to be sure of not eating the five grains was to avoid any foods that could possibly have a similar appearance. Sephardim did not have this tradition because the five grains were not grown in their lands.

A little research on the Internet results in some obscure and interesting items to avoid during Passover. Who would have known that organic lipstick may contain wheat or oat flour? We must also avoid eating anything that contains vinegar like ketchup, mayonnaise, and pickles, anything with glucose or dextrose, such as sugar alternatives, and decaf coffee and tea, which are processed using an additive called Maltodextrin, which is made from starch. Whisky and beer are also prohibited because they contain wheat or barley.

There are some very good menu and recipe suggestions available if one is willing to dig around a bit on the web. Daniella Silver has a list of Healthy Gluten/Dairy Free Vegetarian Passover Recipes that look very yummy. I am definitely going to try the Garlic Sweet Potato Rice and the Triple Chocolate Hamentaschen. My favorite site is from Shana Lebowitz called 34 Healthy Passover Recipes and it is full of interesting Passover relevant twists on regular dishes. Try her Grain-Free Banana Bread (it does include eggs) or the Bitter Herbs Salad that she found in a 2012 New York Times post.

It is a highly personal decision to change our diet for eight days. Whether or not you give up just bread, bread-like foods, or choose to follow all of the ancient traditions is up to you. Please share your favorite healthy Passover recipe with our readers so that we all have more food options to consider as we decide what our own unique celebration will entail.

Chag sameach (Happy holiday)!