What Does it Mean to Be Jewish?

I love questions that do not have one right answer. They allow each of us to explore the question and connect in our own way. Defining what it means to be Jewish is a perfect example. Close your eyes. What images come to mind when you think about what it means to be Jewish?

The InterfaithFamily staff from across the country (San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston) came together for two days of retreat and meetings in our national office. One of the first questions posed to us was “What does it mean to be Jewish?” In true retreat style, paper and markers were brought out and we each got to draw our own answer to this profound question.

What would you draw to show what it means to be Jewish?

Staff Day

I drew a picture of a home and, next to it, people holding hands in a circle. You may notice that my artistic ability is not amazing. My people took the form of stick figures and I showed diversity by using every color of marker that was available. As I started to think about how to explain my drawing to my colleagues, I realized you could “read” my picture from left to right like English, or from right to left like Hebrew.

In “English,” my drawing says that one needs Judaism in their home to transmit values and traditions to the next generation. Then, one needs a community to share those values and traditions. To deepen the connections and share the experiences. But my explanation didn’t stop there.

I thought about my own family’s history and that of many interfaith households. For them, Judaism often starts with the community, reading my picture in “Hebrew.” It is with this community and their support that each individual family can find Jewish traditions and values that they want to embrace. Often they don’t have the tools to do this on their own. For them the community aspect is imperative. And with a supportive community, Judaism can infuse into traditions in the home as well.

My colleagues came up with so many different interpretations. I’m curious what you imagine when you answer the question, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” Please share your thoughts in the comments section—and remember, there is not one “right” answer.

Belt It Out!

In my head I am an opera singer. When I sing in the shower, it sounds so good. Yet when I sing out loud, I quickly realize that I am not in tune and even my 4-year-old now tells me so! He attends the JCC Appachi Village Day Camp.

He comes home every Friday singing Shabbat music. He learns it by hearing it each week and it sticks. He does not get every word right, but he gets most of it. He loves the melodies, he loves the energy of the song leaders, he loves the music. He knows it is for Shabbat and that it goes with challah and grape juice. He knows it is a special part of the week and part of being Jewish. He sings Shabbat songs in the bathtub and the car. It tickles me that he and my older daughter sing Jewish music with pride and joy. Here’s a short video of him singing:

I was recently meeting with an interfaith couple who have adult children. The wife, who had supported her children learning about and celebrating aspects of Judaism, shared that Hebrew has always been a hurdle for her in Jewish participation. She asked why we haven’t removed more Hebrew from synagogue services like Latin in a Catholic Mass. Why don’t we encourage people to say the prayers in English at home? This way parents and kids would understand what they are saying and it would have more meaning. The thought of “doing” Jewish would be less intimidating and more accessible.

I really struggle with how much Hebrew should be in a service, how to teach people to read and say the prayers, how to teach meaning, how to transmit a reverence for this LIVING language with ancient roots and how to understand the values inherent in the Hebrew language itself. For instance, if we know that the root of kavod (respect) is the word for heavy, then we learn something about the Jewish understanding of the concept of respect. If we know that the root of shalom (peace) is wholeness, then we know more about the meaning of peace within Jewish tradition.

My son can’t translate mah yafe hayom (How lovely today is. Shabbat Shalom). He has no idea what the Hebrew words mean. Yet, he knows the words connect him to his friends at camp. He knows the words are special. If adults could approach Hebrew in this way, maybe it would be more poetic and less literal. Meaning is always good and something we should strive for. But Hebrew, in prayer and song, goes beyond grammar and translation and enters the realm of the sacred just by the sound and rhythm and feelings it can imbue and conjure up. Has this ever happened to you: that you memorized the Hebrew to a prayer or song and it felt good in some way to repeat it and sing it?

‘Til Faith Do Us Part

Right around Passover, there was some prominent coverage in the secular press about intermarriage due to the publication of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s book, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part and reviews in the Wall Street Journal (where she has been a religion writer) and the New York Times.

I’ve ordered the book but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I thought Riley’s suggestion that religious communities “strike a delicate balance” in their approach to interfaith families, as described in the Wall Street Journal review, was itself fairly balanced:

On the one hand, they must welcome them if they wish to keep up a connection with the believing spouse and his or her children. But they must also provide a strong sense of community and a gracious but confident expression of their own religious worldview. “Regularly engaging nonmember spouses in conversations about the faith is important,” she writes, noting that such engagement, if done with a soft touch, may bring the spouse into the fold. Finally, religious communities must focus more on reaching young adults, giving them a venue where they can engage their religious faith in a new way and meet a “soul mate” who draws them closer to the fold rather than leading them away from it.

I’m concerned about the emphasis on the last point — that interfaith marriage leads young adults “away from the fold.” According to the Wall Street Journal review, Riley says that questions about child-raising can “tear at the fabric of a marriage,” that interfaith families are on average less likely to be happy, that the partners lose steadiness of observance and belief, that children are more likely to reject their parents’ faiths, and that couples are more likely to divorce.

The divorce point makes me question the basis for Riley’s observations. Back in 2010, I wrote a blog post, Are Interfaith Marriages Really Failing Fast, about a story Riley wrote for the Washington Post. Here’s what I said back then:

My main complaint about the article is that it cites no compelling evidence whatsoever to support the thesis of the title that interfaith marriages are failing fast. It is a common perception, to be sure, that interfaith marriages fail at rates higher than same faith marriages, but I have never been able to find reliable evidence to that effect. In addition to citing a 1993 paper (but not any data in it comparing inter- and intra-faith divorce rates), Riley says that “According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.” Who made the calculations? Are they published some place — and available to be scrutinized?

Susan Katz Miller, in her blog On Being Both, also finds Riley’s stance on intermarriage to be “strangely pessimistic” and finds her “gloom and doom” not supported by Riley’s own data.

I also question the basis of Riley’s observations because at InterfaithFamily we have published many narratives and heard from so many interfaith couples that they have resolved questions about child-raising, have children who learn to love Jewish practice, and who themselves strengthened observance and belief — and are quite happy in their marriage. People like the brother of Stanley Fish, author of the review in the New York Times, who describes the lengths which their father went to break up his brother’s relationship and concludes:

If the idea was to separate the two young people, it didn’t work. Shortly after Ron got to California, he sent Ann a plane ticket. When she arrived, they got married and have remained married to this day. She got a job at the university, took a class in Judaism and, much to my brother’s surprise, converted, although it took her a while to find a rabbi willing to give her the required course of instruction. Just the other day she remarked, “It was a hard club to get into.”

The New York Times review suggests that Riley isn’t against intermarriage — she’s in an interfaith and inter-racial marriage that has worked:

She just wants prospective interfaith couples to know that it is work, that love doesn’t conquer all, that “a rocky road may lie ahead of them” and that they “need to think in practical terms about their faith differences — how it will affect the way they spend their time, their money, and the way they want to raise their kids.” Her message is that if you don’t make the mistake of thinking it will be a bed of roses, you’ll have a better chance of its not being a bed of thorns.

That’s balanced advice, too — although again, I’m concerned that “bed of thorns” overdoes it.

Community’s Response to Intermarriage

Over on the Forward, there’s an interesting opinion piece on intermarriage that responds to Jane Eisner’s concerns. She wrote:

What haunts me and the many parents I know who have children in their twenties and thirties is whether they will marry and, if so, whether they will marry Jews.

The fact that this concern is rarely discussed publicly by the organized Jewish community highlights the disconnect between our so-called leadership and how most of us live our lives. And it reflects the extreme reluctance liberals feel to express out loud what may be perceived as a traditional, even intolerant point of view.

I found this interesting to read, given that I hear the conversations about intermarriage all the time. Of course, I work here at InterfaithFamily. But even when working at other Jewish organizations, intermarriage was a topic frequently discussed (and ususally from the perspective of “how are we going to prevent this second Holocaust?!?”). And, yes, these discussions happened amongst individuals who would be labeled as “liberal.”

Eisner’s conclusion?

We need to figure out how to honor individual choice and the desire to move beyond ghettoization with the communal need to promote marriage as the foundation for a healthy Jewish culture.

And that’s where things get interesting. Enter Dan Brotman’s response, also in the Forward.

Intermarriage is a deeply personal affair for American Jews, as most of us have a close relative or friend who has married out of the faith. If Eisner takes a look at the personal lives of major non-Orthodox Jewish donors and lay leaders in the United States, she will find that many of them are themselves married to non-Jews, or have children who are married to non-Jews.

How can she expect American Jewry’s “so-called leadership” to fight the battle against intermarriage when many of them have married out of the faith or have intermarried children? We are talking about people’s lives here, so a Jewish leader aggressively fighting against intermarriage will most likely risk hurting their intermarried children, friends and relatives. Like it or hate it, it is much easier to focus on Israel than to discuss an issue which so personally affects each and every one of us.

A great point to start us off. He continues,

Eisner’s alarmist language (“If current trends continue, worrying about whether our children hear an anti-Israel slur in the college dorm will be the least of our concerns”) makes intermarriage out to be a zero-sum game. But I know from personal experience that it is not. If Jewish continuity is Eisner’s biggest concern, she should first look at how the American Jewish establishment can make it easier for young people to raise Jewish families. This means highly subsidizing Jewish education and institutions, which will incentivize young Jewish professionals to get married and have children sooner.

If we accept that intermarriage cannot be wished away, then we need to ask whether the American Jewish establishment (federations, synagogues, schools, etc.) have been welcoming enough of interfaith families. Families which feel included in the Jewish community are more likely to raise Jewish children than if they are shut out. A single negative experience at a Jewish communal event or institution can sufficiently traumatize a non-Jewish spouse to the extent that they will distance themselves and their family from the Jewish community.

By the same token, a parent who rejects their child’s decision to marry a non-Jew risks that child not raising a Jewish family at all. It is much more effective for parents to actively assist their children to incorporate Judaism into their interfaith family than to treat it as an all-or-nothing situation.

Just read the whole response. He makes excellent points that mirror the mission and work of InterfaithFamily.

Welcoming in Philadelphia

Wondering what we’re up to in Philadelphia? The Jewish Exponent has a new article highlighting our new branch, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, and the resources we bring to the community.

Starting with marriage as the entry point to the article, they write:

For many interfaith families, the wedding ceremony is the point of entry into Jewish life and also a potential point of tension and conflict. A new group, InterfaithFamily, has just set up shop in Philadelphia to help families navigate such obstacles, from finding a rabbi to officiate to helping them feel more welcome. It could be the biggest local development in interfaith engagement in years.

We certainly hope we are!

For more than two decades, there was a conflict within much of the Jewish community over whether to adopt a more open, welcoming attitude toward interfaith families. Those opposed to embracing such families argued that intermarriage was threatening the future of the Jewish people and communal organizations needed to redouble their efforts to prevent such marriages from taking place.

Though the debate still goes on, decision-makers who favor a more open approach now appear to hold sway at many local communal organizations and congregations.

The 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia” revealed that the intermarriage rate has reached 45 percent for Jews under 40 in the five-county region, with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews.

Those results raised calls for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which sponsored the study, and other groups to come up with ways to reach this population and encourage parents to educate and raise their children as Jews.

One way Federation has responded is by facilitating the merger of two organizations. InterFaithways, a small, local organization that has struggled financially in the last few years, has become part of InterfaithFamily, a 13-year-old organization with a national reputation that recently opened branches in San Francisco and Chicago. (The legal process of merging locally is expected to be completed by the new year.)

InterfaithFamily’s local branch will maintain a comprehensive database of clergy members who will perform interfaith ceremonies as well as provide other services. The group will also introduce two new educational initiatives, first introduced in Chicago, that are aimed at interfaith couples.

But wait, there’s not just this one article. The Jewish Exponent has a few other columns of interest to our readers.

There’s an interesting editorial piece on welcoming interfaith couples/families. It starts:

For those not inclined to bury their heads in the sand, it’s time to recognize an established fact: The tide has turned when it comes to intermarriage. While many of us rightly worry about the long-term impact of the escalating number of intermarriages on our community, it is wiser to address the issue openly and honestly than to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Then there’s an opinion column from a rabbi, addressing how synagogues and rabbis might welcome (“embrace”) intermarried couples and their families.

And the last that I’ll mention here is a really lovely column by a woman (“I had cornered the market on non-Jewish credentials. I was a card-carrying member of the Mayflower Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames. I was a practicing Episcopalian.”) who married a Jewish man, the “son of Holocaust survivors.” She goes on to talk about how she found many wonderfully welcoming places and individuals in the Jewish community, people who shaped her life — and her family’s. Definitely worth a read.

Understanding Our Commandments

We are half-way through one of our online classes, Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family. One of the sessions is about the concept of “mitzvah,” the word in the name of this life cycle event, “bar mitzvah” or “bat mitzvah.”

Mitzvah is a Hebrew word that means commandment. The word mitzvah is in many Jewish blessings. The Friday night candle lighting blessing says, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who make us holy through commanding us to light the Sabbath lights.”

Because of the commanded language, some rabbis hesitate to permit those who aren’t Jewish, who have not formally through conversion taken on the commandments, to say the blessing and do the ritual. Thus, a mom who is not Jewish, who has raised Jewish children, may not be able to light the candles at the Friday night service before her child’s bat or bar mitzvah in some synagogues.

In the session on mitzvot (plural of mitzvah meaning commandments), we asked our class how the parents understood the concept of being commanded. Two interesting comments came up:

“I want to lead a spiritual and ethical life, and in that way there is a sense of commandment, but if someone were to ask me if I’m commanded by God to be ethical and spiritual, I don’t feel particularly comfortable thinking of it in these terms….”

“When I hear/read “commanded by God” what I feel is “connected to God.” Being mindful of performing mitzvot not only makes the world better (animals are being taken care of, kindness is extended and experienced) but also helps to keep me grounded. It’s easy to get caught up in my life, my own needs, wants, etc. I like the way the concept of connectedness helps me to remember others and my place in the world — as a contributor and vessel for good things beyond me.”

It seems that those connected to liberal Jewish families understand “mitzvah” in much broader terms than adhering to the actual ritual or ethical commandments of the Torah, as elucidated by the rabbis in the first centuries of the common era. This should be no surprise as Reform Judaism, in particular, can be fully expressed when lived within the spirit more than the letter of the law.

I would think that liberal rabbis would also understand “b’mitzvotav vitzivnu” — “with God’s commandments, God has commanded us” in a broader sense. There are moms and dads connected to Jewish families who understand the concept of “commanded” as guiding their lives in profound ways. To keep someone from saying blessings with commanded language because they are not technically commanded seems misguided in some circumstances, as the comments above beautifully prove.

Leo Baeck (1873-1956) was a German rabbi, teacher and writer who led the push for Progressive Judaism (which today encompasses Reform Judaism). He taught that God’s commandments can be understood by the individual as boiling down to the ultimate statement of “Thou shalt.” It is up to each of us to fill in that blank, “Thou shalt _______.” It’s clear that the parents in this class are harkening a call for ethical and moral living by filling in the commandments in a broad sense — and this is powerful.

If you are in Chicagoland and would like to take one of our on-line classes (with opportunities for in-person sessions), please register at www.interfaithfamily.com/Chicago. The next round starts in February.

Our Fathers

Originally published on the Jewish Women's Archive blog, Jewesses With Attitude. Cross-posted with permission.

In a blog post last week, Gabrielle Orcha asked, "What about the Jewish father? … Who is he really?"

[table][tr][td][/td][td]With Father's Day coming up this weekend, we wanted to start a dialogue about the Jewish fathers, or fathers (who may or may not be Jewish) of Jewish daughters. We put out a call for Jewish daughters to tell us about their fathers. We'd also like to thank the folks at Kveller.com, who took up the call and helped collect these stories.[/td][/tr][/table]

As you will see from the stories below, we learned that our fathers are Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and non-religious. However, one thing stands out in our stories: Fathers are involved and invested in the lives of their Jewish daughters as teachers, advocates, entertainers, and role models. Considering the legacy of Jewish women — their accomplishments and contributions recognized on jwa.org — we think they're doing a pretty good job.

You'll meet 12 fathers in this post. If you'd like to add a story about your father, please do so in the comments. We look forward to reading what you have to say.

My Episcopalian dad proposed to my Jewish mom on their very first date over Irish Coffee and she laughed at him. But, my dad had charm, and she agreed to go out with him again. And again. And again. And over the next eight years when he'd ask her to marry him night after night, she would shake her head and laugh. But then, one night, while stuck in traffic on the 405 Freeway near the Wilshire Exit, she said "Yes." But with one condition: They would have a Jewish home." And my dad agreed. Every Friday night, we lit candles for Shabbat. He went to Torah class with our rabbi. We kept Kosher. And my dad's love for my mom allowed me to grow up in a home where I grew up loving Judaism.
-Sarah Tuttle-Singer
“What do you think is the nature of reality?” I gazed down at my untied shoelace, my skinned knee, the grass poking out of the sidewalk. “I dunno,” I shrugged. “What is it?” “There is no right answer,” my father said, his corrective shoes keeping time with my own. “But it’s our job to keep asking the question anyway.” My Daddy knows a lot, but that did not make sense. Questions should have right answers like in arithmetic.

What l did know was it was summertime. I was seven. I had 27 freckles and two little sisters and Mommy was wearing the blue shirt again that meant another sister was coming. And after supper Daddy asked just me to take a walk. In the soft Ohio dusk I was initiated into the Big Thinkers Club. That fundamentally unanswerable “nature of reality” question, one that would eventually be posed to each of his five small daughters, gifted us with the chutzpah to shake our small fists at the limits of human knowing in a deeply Jewish way. It was, more than anything else, our father’s sweetest gift.
-Deborah Fineblum Raub

My father turned 90 in February. Every day and year are special because he is a part of our lives. My mother died when I was five years old, so dad was both mom and dad to my brother and me. Growing up, and when he had grandchildren, he was more of a kid than any of us, challenging us to enjoy skiing, sledding, hiking — everything with him and making it just fun!  He is going to meet his newest great grandchild, my granddaughter Orly, next weekend and his excitement to meet and influence yet another child in the family comes through in his voice every time we are on the phone. Happy Father's Day, Dad. You are one in a million.
-Susan Raskin
My Jewish identity became official on Dec. 21, 2009, with my mikveh – and three years after I lost my Catholic father to Lou Gehrig’s disease. My Dad loved my Jewish boyfriend the minute he met him (thanks, baseball!) and his support of our relationship never waivered. I see his proud face at our wedding, our son’s bris, our daughter’s baby naming. He did worry about our children not having “Santa,” but that didn’t last once he saw how much joy Judaism brought to our lives. I used to think I would never convert, but after I lost my Dad to a terrible disease, I knew I was ready. I had begun the journey and didn’t know it. He gave me a foundation of faith as a child, and a foundation of support for the path I chose for my family.
-Michelle Breier
My dad is my rav. While he is not a rabbi, he is the one who opened my heart to the beauty of Torah. I remember participating in minyan as a 10 year old, looking up at my father beaming with pride. It is because of my father that I am now going to become a rabbi. My dad’s passion for learning and living Judaism permeated my childhood experiences. My parents moved us to Israel, heightening our awareness of what it meant to be part of Am Yisrael. Years have passed, but our relationship grows tighter as we bond over our shared love: the love of our tradition. My dad introduced me to what it meant to be a committed, dedicated, and loving Jewish person. He is generous, kind, and smart.  As I become a rabbi this year, the ten-year-old inside will look up and smile. Thank you Dad, for instilling in me the love of tradition, Judaism, and Israel. I love you.
-Dani Gobuty Eskow
My father has always been a great father. Involved, loving, interfering when my mother has been impossible with me and my sister.  Insisting in the 60's that I be allowed to go march in the Vietnam Moratoriums, insisting I travel in Europe with my boyfriend after high school because it would broaden my world view. Sticking up for my sister and me when my mother is being critical. My father was a wonderful son and son-in-law, a loving brother, uncle, and friend. He talks to everyone, cab drivers and scholars alike. He reads news constantly and listens before he states his opinion. I am blessed to have the father I do. And my uncles and grandfather were also loving gentle Jewish men.
-Marci Mitler
One night when my father was about ten years old, he came downstairs looking for his mother. He paused at the top of the cellar steps. In the basement, he saw his parents and his maternal grandfather savoring a local delicacy — Chesapeake Bay oysters. In later years, my father would say that this night in 1933 marked the end of any real feeling he had for Judaism. He loved and respected his grandfather, a successful self-made businessman who was a pillar of the shul where my father would be bar mitzvahed and confirmed. But even as a ten-year-old, he knew hypocrisy when he saw it.

Still, my father never failed to make a generous contribution to the Associated Jewish Charities every year; he was famous for his skill at telling Jewish jokes, and without ever using the words, he instilled a strong sense of tikkun olam in his sons (two) and daughters (two). Did he make the connection between the importance he placed on service to the community — a value he both lived and passed on — and his Jewish heritage? I wish I had asked him.
-Ellen K. Rothman

My father came from a large, Jewish family of extremely humble origins who lived in Kalisz, Poland. He quit school at the age of eight in order to help keep his family alive. He sold candy to street people, worked in a coal mine, repaired bicycles, worked as a fur piecer and madebatteries for cars. Eventually he became one of the top Schiffli embroidery manufacturers in northern New Jersey. He loved to work with his hands and worked to make things better for his wife and family.

Ten years ago, at the age of 76, he told me that if he died tomorrow he would die a happy man. He loved his life … every minute of it. He could ride a unicycle, crack a walnut with his bare hands, and extinguish a candle with his fingers and and some spit. He enjoyed golfing, swimming, taking long walks on the beach, and watching nature documentaries (the bane of my mother's existence "Ugh, disgusting…I'm going upstairs"). He loved the mountains, the ocean, not to mention his wife, family, and friends. Max Smulen was a simple, beautiful, unpretentious, and humble man who took whatever card life dealt him. Luckily he was dealt a Royal Flush.
-Terry Ann Smulen

My dad is the son of Holocaust survivors, and for him, that is the basis of what it means to be Jewish. Growing up, my mom was the one who took us to shul. "Why doesn't Dad have to go?" we would whine. When I asked my dad if he believed in God, he would only repeat what his own parents told him: "If there is a God, I'd give him a zetz." But for him Judaism wasn't about belief. It was about family and community. It was about tradition and learning. It was about bagels and lox. I think I've always been an atheist, but thanks to my dad's strong Jewish identity, it never felt like a contradiction to be atheist and Jewish, and I am extremely grateful for this.

In recent years, my dad has gotten more and more involved with our synagogue. He still doesn't attend services except on the High Holidays, but these days he takes adult ed classes, attends lectures, and soaks up everything he can about Judaism, Jewish history, and Torah. I'm inspired by his Jewish journey, which reminds me daily that belief is not a prerequisite for engagement with Jewish life.
-Leah Berkenwald

My father chose my name, and that cemented my connection to Judaism. He named me after his mother, Pruva, who died in Auschwitz. The “American” version of my name is Preeva, and it is on my birth certificate. Daddy took to me shul on Friday nights, and we came early so he could talk to his friends and show me off a little: He would say: “Preeva, explain your name.” And I would straighten my dress, and recite: “When God created man, on the sixth day he said to him, Pru U'Rvu Ee melu et ha'aretz, be fruitful and multiply and develop the earth. From that comes Pruva, which we pronounce here in America, Preeva.” He set an example for me by putting on t’fillin every morning before work, even when he worked on Saturday. He also took me to the Wailing Wall in 1968 and blessed me there. Unfortunately, he died when I was 16, but I turned out well. I was just named president of Etz Chayim, an independent liberal synagogue in Palo Alto, and I am working on a book about the facts of his life.
-Preeva Tramiel
My Jewish father is the one who has always taught me how to use his tools — many of which he has gifted to me, how to fix things, and how to make homemade horseradish. I know he is preparing me for the day when he is no longer with me and I love him for this. At age 91, his life is a blessing to me and I am grateful for every bit of wisdom he imparts to me, his oldest daughter.
-Sue Kelman
My zaidy was a Holocaust survivor. After coming to America, he rebuilt the life he had lost. On a literal level, he was a carpenter, so he built storefronts for a living. My zaidy worked hard to support his family, waking up at 5:30 a.m. in order to pray and get to the shop on time. He instilled Jewish values in his two daughters, taking them with him to synagogue every Shabbat and holiday and putting them both through Jewish day schools. Although I was not privileged to meet my zaidy, I was given the honor of being named after him. His Hebrew name was Naftali. In Kabbalah, the name Naftali is read as nafat li, which means “sweetness is to me.” Although I can’t imagine my traditional European zaidy would wholeheartedly approve of my Jewish feminist sensibilities, I certainly hope that he is proud of me, his namesake.
-Talia Weisberg

A Jewish Tooth Fairy?

A question was asked on Ask a Rabbi, a project of JewishBoston.com. Quite simply put, “Is there anything in Jewish tradition about losing baby teeth? Prayers, folk stories or customs? My 6-year-old wanted to know if there is a Jewish tooth fairy.”
Great question. When I think of the Tooth Fairy, I associate her/him/zir with Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny. Very firmly, to me they live in the realm of Things That Do Not Exist.

A good friend of mine was raised in a lapsed Christian home. Her family celebrated holidays, but mostly Christmas (Santa) and Easter (Mr. Bunny). Even as a kid, she knew that this wasn’t a religious approach; when asked her religion, she replied they were Commercialists. When we were housemates, and she was about to have her wisdom teeth removed, her mother called me to explain the inner workings of their family’s Tooth Fairy beliefs and practices. As her parents were not local, it would fall to me to supply the money ($20/molar!) and a note (dictated by her mother – er, the Tooth Fairy herself). Even as a 20something, my friend maintained her pretend belief in the Tooth Fairy, Santa and the Easter Bunny. (Don’t get me started on the treats I had to leave out for her the year we were traveling abroad during chol ha’moed Passover [the middle days of Passover] and Easter!) The three characters were a core of her family’s not-so-religious practice. As such, I’ve come to associate the Tooth Fairy as being Christian (even if a lapsed Christian).

Given my belief that a pretend character is not Jewish, I was rather impressed with the answer Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek gave:

While many cultures have different traditions about losing baby teeth, Judaism has not traditionally marked this childhood experience. However, that wouldn’t necessarily imply that there is no Jewish tooth fairy. If in fact multiple tooth fairies carry out this particular duty, it seems reasonable to assume that among the multitudes of tooth fairies visiting children around America, at least a few are Jewish!

From my own experience, I have learned that Jewish tooth fairies do not appreciate skepticism. My mother recently showed me an exchange of notes that I had with the Tooth Fairy when I was about eight years old. Apparently I had been heard to doubt the Tooth Fairy’s existence, the result being that no money was left under my pillow, in its place a note chastising me for my disbelief. I then had to write a note in response, professing my sincere conviction that the Tooth Fairy did indeed exist. Apparently that did the trick, as the exchange ended, and I got my quarter (and a complete set of adult teeth). From this I would surmise that it is entirely possible to engage — and perhaps even bargain with — the Jewish tooth fairy, and that, in good Jewish form, dialogue and debate are always encouraged.

If you are seeking a new Jewish ritual around losing baby teeth, I encourage you to visit Ritualwell.org, a wonderful source of contemporary rituals and resources for all manner of life cycle events. There you’ll find a few suggestions for blessings and related practices to make the moment of losing a tooth an opportunity to instill Jewish values.

Maybe my friend’s upbringing was more religious than I’d thought…

Thoughts on Jewish Identity

The Winter 2012 edition of Contact, the journal of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, is devoted to the question, “What is Identity?” You can read the issue online as a pdf.

The following are excerpts I found to be the most thought-provoking. They offer a snapshot into the issues raised in this publication. I’ve included my responses to each – what do you think?

Identity is Strongest When It Leads to Action
The more interesting question concerns how people come to consider their Jewishness as somehow helpfully guiding them as opposed to operating merely as a feature of their background.
- Bethamie Horowitz, page 3

As educators, ideally we show people how Judaism can be experienced in everyday life. We demonstrate how Judaism can be lived, how ancient values apply to modern scenarios, and we instill a sense of a Jewish purpose, connectedness and rootedness that guides the decisions we make. How do we do this as educators? We study Talmud, rabbinic stories and midrash to evaluate modern day ethics. We share a Judaism that applies to the transitions in the day, from waking up to eating to work to interacting with our friends, parents and children. And we suggest ways to access Shabbat that will be realistic and doable for modern families. Our “Jewishness” has to be helpful to us in living a life of meaning, purpose, joy and order.

What is Specifically Jewish About My Behavior?
The sharp boundaries that traditionally separated Jew and non-Jew have been blurred, and it is more difficult to know what self-identification means.  Intermarriage, in particular, adds to the complexity of describing Jewish identity both for the Jewish spouse and for the children of intermarried parents.

If Jewish identity is to be salient among the dozens of potential identities available, Jewish education will have to be prominent and effective.
- Leonard Saxe

Anytime I participated with my religious school in a social justice project, I always followed up by asking the students to describe what we did. The students would explain how cleaning up the park, working at the food pantry, serving dinner at a homeless shelter, etc., was a good deed and helped make the world a better place. They would talk about helping our neighbors and taking care of the earth. They would say that this is part of what it means to be a good person.

I would ask, “What was Jewish about what you did?” They would say that all religions teach these ethics and values; tzedakah (Hebrew, literally meaning “righteousness,” but generally referring to charitable giving) and gemilut chasadim (Hebrew, literally meaning “bestowing kindness”) are the way Judaism describes what to do, but ultimately it’s just about being a good person.

Is this true, that Judaism’s approach to repairing the world is based in universally held principles of kindness and generosity? Yes and no. We may share values, but each religion has specific ways of understanding, talking about and acting on them. Judaism has a language, guidelines and narratives that teach a specific way to approach areas of charity.

When those raised with Judaism grow up knowing the particularities and nuances of their religion, they may see more distinctions in a Jewish way of life. Rather than water down Judaism and Christianity to blend into a sea of universal ideas of being a good person, why not learn and celebrate the specific stories, specific heroes or models of a certain trait, and seek to emulate the profound values of our sacred texts?

Jewish Identity is About a Connection to the Jewish People
[The term Jewish identity] carries with it three misleading and ultimately distorting messages:
Being Jewish resides in the individual … is about subjective feelings … is a fixed quality.
- Steven M. Cohen, page 5

Cohen, like others in this publication, suggests that when someone has friends who are Jewish, he or she will tend to identity more strongly with Judaism. Affiliating with a community of other Jews is what it means to be Jewish. When someone is “unaffiliated,” we work tirelessly to bring them into the fold of organized Jewish communal life. We don’t care about people’s Jewish beliefs, behaviors or level of literacy nearly as much as whether the person belongs to a community with other Jews.

This is an ostracizing and potentially divisive and hurtful statement to make to people who are not Jewish who have Judaism in their lives and participate in Jewish communities like synagogues. Cohen is essentially saying that it is fine if people who aren’t Jewish raise Jewish children and attend synagogue programs, but the main factor in forming a strong Jewish identity is when children, teens and adults hang with other Jews.

I believe that identity is about feelings. It is about affirmations that one makes about one’s own sense of self and place in the world. Identity is personal, yet it can be expressed and felt in groups. Community is essential for living out Jewish ideals. However, the make-up of today’s Jewish community is more and more diverse. I think these new voices and backgrounds strengthen rather than diminish the group.

Key Seder Elements

A few interesting articles crossed my desk this morning, all about Passover.

The Four Questions

The Four Questions hold a central spot in the Passover seder. Why is this night different from other nights? Reform Judaism, the magazine for the named denomination, asks in its spring issue, “What’s your favorite language for reciting the first question?” They include 20 examples of that first question asked in different languages, from Phoenician to Thai to Klingon.

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Spanish
¿Por qué es diferente esta noche de todas las otras noches?

Klingon
Qatlh pimlaw’ ramvan rammey latlh je?

I’ve signed the Four Questions before (both in ASL and LSQ) and recited them in French. Which languages does your family ask them in? Have you tried having each person at the table ask one of the questions in a language that they know? It’s an interesting way to make the questions both universal and accessible in new ways.

The Ten Plagues

In discussions at your Passover table, how do your friends and relatives view the plagues? Inside Magazine, of Philadelphia, offers a review of the Ten Plagues, another central component of the Passover seder. In “Decimation and Emancipation: Understanding the impact of the 10 plagues,” competing opinions are presented on the importance of the plagues, their historical accuracy, their relevance, and more.

One view is that the plagues are “political allegory that is part of Exodus, the Israelites’ ‘birth of a nation’ story.” But that there weren’t ten, they didn’t happen in that order; there wasn’t this unnamed Pharaoh. Instead, the plagues represent the “systematic dismantling of the Egyptian socio-economic system, which was based on agriculture and the Nile.” In other words, they were formed so that the story is, “Our God brought Pharaoh of Egypt to its knees. That’s why we Israelites have the right to live independently.”

The opposing view could be summarized as more faithful. “Having not found proof of the plagues doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. It means the proof has not yet been found.”

“Are there acts of nature that can account for some of the plagues? Yes,” Rabbi Albert Gabbis, who lived in Egypt, says. “For example, the plague of blood in the Nile. We know that sometimes, the Nile turns red. When I was a child, I saw it with my own eyes. The rain brings the red clay from the mountains of Ethiopia into the Nile. But I would say this: In either case, the hand of God is there.”

Dinner!

Of course, food is super important to the seder! Jamie Geller recommends three Passover recipes that won’t “taste” like Passover. (Score!)

Then there’s the confusing matter of kitniyot (legumes, corn, rice, soy/tofu, etc.). Last year, we offered a concise guide to Passover food guidelines via our pals at JewishBoston.com. This year, the Jewish Journal (greater Boston area) expands on that guide with Corn, Rice? Yes, No? – and some often contradictory answers:

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott has advocated for the consumption of kitniyot on Passover for those who are comfortable with it.

“I believe in making Judaism more, not less accessible, and it makes Passover a heck of a lot easier if we can have corn products,” HaLevi said.

The important thing is that people understand the difference between a Jewish law and a custom. Chametz, like bread, is forbidden by Jewish law. Corn products depend on your custom, he said. Each year, he gets questions as people try to sort out the differences.

Rabbi Deborah Zuker of Temple Ner Tamid also receives questions, especially from people who visit Israel during Passover. She follows the Ashkenazic tradition of not consuming kitniyot.

“In Israel, you can find products marked ‘kosher for Pesach’ for people who eat kitniyot, but here we can’t know if the kitniyot have been mixed with wheat,” Zuker said.

She believes the Ashkenazic practices are old enough to be considered law in some communities, but added that different communities have different practices.

Dessert: the Afikomen

Not every seder is lucky enough to host Jake Gyllenhaal (sorry!), but you can enjoy his company for a few moments:

As far as “new thoughts” goes, this one might be a stretch. But come on – who doesn’t love Jake?

Hopefully some of these thoughts will help liven the discussions at your Passover seders this year!