On Different Hebrew Pronunciation…

A friend of mine, Amanda, is writing some articles for InterfaithFamily.com, explaining the different ways different people pronounce, translate and transliterate (write with English letters) Hebrew. The first article just went up: The Case of the Missing Sav, and other mysteries in the transition of American Hebrew. But in addition to that, I wanted to share an article that didn’t make it into her final draft.

Wait. Let me back up. One of the sources cited in her article was Alan Mintz’s Hebrew in America: perspectives and prospects. In it he writes,

I am not convinced that the American teaching agenda [of Hebrew] must be set by a dependence on Israeli teachers.

I agree! And I suspect that many parents who have or had children try to learn Hebrew in a synagogue’s religious or Hebrew school would also agree. Fluency in a language does not necessarily a teacher make.

But his argument goes on to explain, as Amanda’s article paraphrases, that in America:

Camps, schools and other infrastructure existed to teach children Ashkenazi Hebrew, in addition to it being the language of synagogues’ prayers. The transition to Sephardi pronunciation was gradual, and was aided by growing feelings of Zionism, the availability of Hebrew courses on college campuses taught in Sephardi Hebrew, sometimes by Israeli instructors, and other factors.

So what does that mean? The majority of Jews in the U.S. are of German and Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi). Many of them spoke Hebrew with their community’s pronunciation, which included pronouncing some “t” sounds (the Hebrew letter tav) as “s” (sav), “o” sometimes became “oy”, and “a” sometimes was “o.” There were many other differences too. (Which we’ll be sharing a resource on shortly!)

Sometimes, because of the push to standardize Hebrew in the U.S., fuelled, in part, by Zionism and a desire to align our Diaspora Jewish communities with Israel, the “old school,” Ashkenazi pronunciations are seen as backwards, stupid, and sloppy. I strongly diagree. In fact, I call that bullshis. (See what I did there?)

And here we return to the article that didn’t make the cut. Because she, and I, found it offensive. It’s archived from a URJ email discussion list, and we don’t know much about it. But the author, Burt, says in part:

Over the course of the last eight years I have discovered something deeply frustrating within our Reform congregational world. The struggle to instill a knowledge and love of standard, modern Hebrew is challenged not only by the centrifugal pulls of assimilation, the extracurricular demands on our children, the challenges of maintaining two-income households and a terminal case of “pleasure principle”, but by the persistence of archaic and inaccurate pronunciation of Liturgical Hebrew due to old habits, ce , pseudo-orthodox affect or cultural sentimentality. The widespread use of this strange half-Hebrew, half-Yiddish dialect I call Ashkebonics (the Jewish equivalent of Ebonics), subverts the proper teaching of Hebrew and exacerbates a cultural and cognitive gap with between the American Jewish Community and Israel. The fact that so many of our Jewish professionals use and reinforce Ashkebonics is to me both puzzling and deeply frustrating.

If you want to read his rant, by all means. But I’ll stop quoting there. In essence, he argues that this historical, cultural, familial Hebrew pronunciation system should be squashed once and for all. He wants to see all Americans using the Hebrew pronunciation of Israel.

Would that simplify things, help folks learn? Perhaps. Perhaps it would be less confusing if we all referred to the 25 hours of Friday evening through Saturday night as “Shabbat” instead of some people saying “Shabbos.” But then, doesn’t learning about our multitude of cultures and histories make us a stronger, deeper, more enriched community as a whole? When we recognize that there is more than one way to speak or pronounce Hebrew, just as there is more than one way to be or do Jewish, just as there is more than one way to claim Judaism as our own… the whole community benefits.

In Case You Missed It…

A few interesting articles that you might have missed:

1. Rabbi Bruce Warshal opined on why interfaith families should raise their children in just one religion. Check out Choose One But Not Two Religions.

2. A clip from Samon Koletkar’s “Mahatma Moses Comedy Tour,” during which he discsusses being a Jew in America. (Warning, he also drops the “r” word, too many times, at the end. To counter that, a PSA from Glee‘s Becky and Sue.)

3. Instead of arguing about how to count the Jewish population, an argument for increasing egalitarian parenting. Why?

Both quantitative and qualitative studies have found that if the intermarried Jew is a woman, the children will more likely be raised Jewish. Further, intermarried Jewish men stand a greater chance of raising children to identify as Jews if the organized Jewish community will count those children as Jews.

Intermarried Jewish men can raise Jewish children as effectively as intermarried Jewish women provided they are able to integrate work and family, currently a national challenge evident by President Barack Obama urging ìTake time to be a dad, today.î Increasing the contemporary understanding of the relationship between gender, religion and culture will be what determines how Jewish is the Jewish population in the future.

4. Effective March, 2010, gay and lesbian couples in Washington, DC were able to legally marry. In what’s believed to be a first, an Orthodox rabbi, Steve Greenberg (who’s openly gay), officiated at the marriage of a gay couple at the synagogue/">Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Mazal tov!

5. Last week, I was unable to go to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. (Luckily, Joanna and Ed were able to go and represent InterfaithFamily.com.) There, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer gave the opening address, bravely (given his audience) talking about how “continuity” should not be the Jewish community’s focus. Instead, he suggested, it should be learning. From the op-ed version of his speech:

Jews, like all people, are searching for meaning, substance and connection. The more we are inundated with e-mails, status updates and tweets, the more we want to go deeper. Our souls are calling out for engagement; our hearts are crying out to be opened.

Judaism, at its core, is a response to that yearning, an answer to that call. What are we “continuing” with our calls for “continuity”? Why does Judaism need a future? Because Judaism offers a system, a covenantal language, a heritage and tradition that responds to the human need for meaning, substance and connection. It is our system, our language, our heritage; it is relevant, and that is the reason that we need a Jewish future.

We Jews have a word for the pathway to meaning, substance and connection. It is called Torah. I don’t just mean the Torah scroll that sits alone in the ark, or even just the words of the five books of Moses. I mean the sum total of Jewish sources and texts — the wisdom stored up in our textual heritage.

I agree. The rest of his speech-turned-op-ed is worth reading as well.

October News Hodgepodge

It’s been a while since I last blogged in hodgepodge style. With the fall holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, sukkot/Sukkot_and_Simchat_Torah.shtml">Sukkot and Simchat Torah) behind us, a new year begun and so many interesting things happening the the Jewish community and wider communities around us, it seemed like a great time to share some interesting articles and blog posts that I’ve come across. Let me know what you think!

1.  In the Creation story in Genesis (the first book of the Torah), we read that a snake tricked Eve into tasting a “forbidden fruit” (and she, in turn, gave it to Adam to eat). On DovBear, they wonder what the unnamed fruit might have been. With 125 comments so far, this is far from an easy question to answer. Apple? Maybe. Figs? Perhaps. What about a pomegranate?

2.  You may remember that last year, we were asking you to vote for InterfaithFamily.com’s CEO, Ed Case, for Jewish Community Hero. No, I’m not going to ask you to vote for him again. Instead, I’m going to share a list of nominees you might want to vote for this year, all of whom are “heroes for their justice work combating racism, poverty and injustice.” The list, posted to Jewschool, was compiled by Kung Fu Jew (who admits to wearing “New York-tinted glasses”).

3.  There’s a lot going on with the Occupy movement that is specifically Jewish. First, Keith Olbermann debunks the anti-Semitic charges of Occupy Wall Street (the relevant part starts at the 1 minute mark). Now then, with that settled, let’s look at some of the amazing Jewish practices coming out of the Occupy movement. This long, personal piece by Avi Fox-Rosen examines his reasons for being involved with leading the Kol Nidre service at Occupy Wall Street, and how it played his “incredibly ambivalent” Jewishness and atheism off his enjoyment of ritual and “traditional cantorial a capella singing” (known as chazzanus). And on Jewschool, a bit about how there came to be Jewish practice at Occupy Wall St, Occupy K St and elsewhere.

4.  Many organizations, including ours, examine statistics, look to data to know if we’re having an impact. One such source was the last national Jewish population survey, done in 2000-2001. Over ten years later, another study hasn’t come along to update those numbers. Gary Rosenblatt, in The Jewish Week, asks, How Many U.S. Jews, And Who Cares?

5.  You know who cares? Pat Buchanan. And he seems to have it all figured out. “In his new book, Suicide Of A Superpower, Pat Buchanan takes a look at the Jewish population of the United States and concludes that Americans Jews are disappearing because they decided, as a group, to have lots and lots of abortions.” Seriously. He blames the Jewish women who were among the leaders of the feminist movement and… oy, just read about it all here.

6.  And in Israel a campaign has been launched, encouraging “parents of non-Jewish children to inform them of their [non-Jewish] status in childhood.” This stems from patrilineal descent, largely among Israel’s Russian population. And the implication, according to the campaign, is that patrilineal descent Jews are finding out that they’re “not Jewish” as adults, which means they need to convert to Judaism in order to get married. I wonder if this is a common issue or discovery in North America, where the Reform movement also holds by patrilineal descent?

And there you go. Recent news in a nutshell.

“Outing” Celebrity Jews as Jews

We’ve seen these articles before, or heard the rumblings from co-workers or friends. “Did you hear that [famous person] is Jewish?” In our own celebrity column, the famous are “outed” as having Jewish ancestors on a fairly regular basis.

Every time another celebrity is surprised with the news that they’re Jewish — Madeleine Albright, Senator George Allen, playwright Tom Stoppard, John Kerry (on his father’s side) — the same series of perplexed shrugs ripple through the media. Did they really never know? What made the Jewish parent turn away? Anyway, what’s the difference? Are you Jewish if you never practiced Judaism? And why is this even in the newspaper?

Good questions. Thanks, Jewish Daily Forward.

The latest new-Jew is Ralph Branca:

Ralph Branca, 85, the onetime Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher best known for throwing the most notorious homerun ball in baseball history, the “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” which lost his team the 1951 National League pennant to the New York Giants. A lifelong Catholic, he learned of his mother’s Jewish origins earlier this summer from a journalist who then turned it into a 1,900-word front-page story in the August 15 New York Times. The usual reactions followed: What is he now, a Jewish athlete? Why does anyone care? And why 1,900 words of this trivia in the world’s leading newspaper?

J.J. Goldberg, who wrote Joining the Tribe Late in Life: The Ever-Widening Circle of Celebrity Jews in the Forward, suggests that there are other questions that should be asked, but never are:

Why are there so many such cases? If there are this many among the famous (and this list is very partial), how many more are there who aren’t famous? How many never find out because they’re not famous enough for journalists to poke through their family secrets? Are there any discernable [sic] patterns? Is anyone’s life changed afterward? Can we — should we — learn anything about Jewish life from these dramas?

There are some answers in the article, if you want to click on over.

But I think the other unasked question, of relevance to readers of InterfaithFamily.com, is: if celebrities or other famous people are so readily declared Jews, after their parents turned away from Judaism, or after a couple generations have not practiced Judaism or even known they were Jewish, why aren’t the same standards applied to the rest of us, the non-famous? If Celebrity X can be proclaimed Jewish in the media, a couple generations after their last relative practiced Judaism or identified as a Jew, why can’t Regular Citizen Y get the same treatment? Why are so many descendants of interfaith families struggling to have their Jewish identities acknowledged by the community, when the press seems so willing to hand it over to athletes, politicians and actors?

Goldberg concludes,

What does all this mean? Heaven only knows. And precisely because Heaven only knows, we shouldn’t expect to find all the answers. The best we can do is to keep our minds and hearts open and leave the welcome mat out for wandering kinfolk who find their way home.

I would suggest instead, “The best we can do is to keep our minds and hearts open and leave the welcome mat out for those already in our midst and for wandering kinfolk who find their way home.”

Jewish Women’s History Month

In honor of May being Jewish Women’s History Month, we’re participating in a social media experiment with the Jewish Women’s Archive.

At least once a week, we will be tweeting about something from their encyclopedia that we find interesting. I’m trying to keep the content relevant to the scope of InterfaithFamily.com.

So, for the first entry…

In the last three decades of the twentieth century, scores of film and video makers gave voice to enduring Jewish themes of historic oppression, resistance, immigration and exile. Some independent feature films have reached much broader audiences, especially when they situate specifically Jewish characters in romantic and/or comedic stories. But what may characterize independent Jewish cinema most, including those works made by Jewish women, is its lack of unifying discourse. While the major signifiers of Jewish life in the post-World War II era continue to be Judaism as religion, the Holocaust, and Israel, independent American Jewish cinema seems to subvert that triumvirate with images of hybrid identities, interfaith romance, oppositional politics, and jump-cut collective memories.

I enjoy that the entry on “Filmmakers, Independent North American” points out that there isn’t just one way to do/be Jewish in Jewish films. And that one of the variances among our communities, that’s reflected on the screen, is that interfaith relationships can be a norm.

Have you seen a film that reflected your interfaith relationship? Your interfaith family?

To follow other people and organizations tweeting about this, follow the hashtag #jwapedia.

12 Days of Hodgepodge

Let’s just call this a random hodgepodge. A bunch of stuff came across my desk (or over the series of tubes that make up the internet) this week that were too interesting not to share:

Step aside Chelsea Clinton and Mark Mevinsky, here comes Lauren Bush and David Lauren! Yup, the grandaughter of former President George H. W. Bush, and niece of former President George W. Bush, is marrying David Lauren, son of the famous Jewish fashion designer Ralph Lauren. The Jewish press has run plenty of headlines proclaiming that she’ll become “Lauren Lauren” but, really, let’s hope she keeps her birth-name.

Remember that General Assembly that Ed’s mentioned a few times? Well, our friends at Keshet were there too. And they made a great video while they were there:

After seeing one of our tweets, Rachel Barenblat wrote a blog post expanding on her reply to our tweet, “Having a Christmas tree doesn’t make you “less Jewish” – or does it?” And it isn’t just about conifers. And in response to that blog post, MiriyaB posted her thoughts as well.

The Public Religion Research Institute released a survey today that showed that Americans are divided over what greetings businesses should use during the December holidays. This time of year, do you prefer a generic “happy holidays” or “merry Christmas”?

A contributor to our website blogged about a teachable moment: teaching children about God. How do you teach your children about God?

The San Francisco Chronicle offered up a list of 11 musicians who “found religion.” I enjoyed the photo of rapper Shyne Moses Levi in his Breslover garb.

If you’re visiting a church this Christmas for the first time, the Old First Reformed UCC church of Philadelphia has some helpful hints.

And our friends at JewishBoston.com suggested that this is the “most” Jewish of Christmas songs:

Bonus: Have you ever wondered, “Jew, or Not?” Given how many of you read our interfaith celebrities column, I’m guessing you have. You’re welcome.

Memorial Day, 2010

Today is Memorial Day and I want to honor my father-in-law, Don Bosworth. Don is a World War II veteran and was a prisoner of war in Germany. He lives in assisted living and has been pretty sad since his wife Jean, my beloved mother-in-law, died in 2005.

Back in the 1970’s Don and Jean bought a small cottage in a very beautiful spot – Cape Porpoise harbor, part of Kennebunkport, Maine, a town most known as the summer residence of George H. W. Bush.  Kennebunkport is still a small town and they still put on a Memorial Day parade. It starts in Dock Square, the center of town – I remember one year when President Bush attended – and then the participants drive a few miles over to Cape Porpoise Square and the parade is repeated.

Most years on Memorial Day my wife and I would be in Maine, where we are today, and would walk down the street to Cape Porpoise Square to see the parade. More important than the middle school band and the baton twirlers and fire engines, a small group of increasingly aging, mostly male, veterans march a short distance in formation.

I came of age during the Vietnam War and never served myself. Most of the conflicts in my lifetime have not been popular. But I always feel it is important to be at the parade and to honor not only the veterans, but also those who currently serve in our armed forces. In large part it’s because of my father-in-law’s sacrifices during the war.

Despite all of its problems and shortcomings, we live in a great country. There may be uncertainties about more recent conflicts, but those who serve made and make it possible for all of us to enjoy our many freedoms – including religious freedom.

For many years I would get upset at the Memorial Day parade because there was always an invocation and benediction and invariably the priest or minister would conclude his or her prayer “in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” There were so many times I wanted to write down the clergy person’s name and write to him or her and point out that not everyone in attendance was Christian – but I never did. Finally a few years ago the references to Jesus ended.

A couple of years ago the State of Maine created a small Prisoner of War museum and invited all of the living ex-POW’s to attend the opening ceremony. My father-in-law is extremely modest and unassuming and didn’t want to be honored, but we persuaded him to go. It was a moving sight to see the 15 or so mostly WWII vets there, most using walkers. The chaplain who gave the invocation prayed in the name of Jesus, which for some reason upset me much more than usual. When the ceremony ended I went up to him and said with some vehemence that my father-in-law wasn’t a prisoner of war so that he could pray in a public ceremony in the name of Jesus – he was a prisoner of war so we would all have freedom to pray as we choose and without public favoring of any one religion over another. The poor chaplain was visibly taken aback – he actually said that some of his best chaplain colleagues were rabbis – but I’m pretty sure he got the point.

It’s because of the freedoms and pluralism and tolerance of America that Jews are no longer restricted to themselves and we have the challenge and great opportunity that intermarriage presents to the future of Jewish life. I’m pretty sure that my father-in-law wasn’t thinking during his army days that his service would contribute to the conditions where I could become his son-in-law. But I’m very glad it did, and I want to be sure to honor him today.

Summer Reading

My 3-year-old recently discovered television.  He can turn on the television and search the channels for Dora the Explorer!  Though there is a time and a place for a television, mainly when Mommy needs to get something done, I am hoping this addiction wanes.    Luckily, I have help from the PJ Library!

Every month a new book or CD arrives.  Each book is well illustrated and brings up a different Jewish value or holiday.  I am actually saved our April book, No Rules for Michael by Sylvia Rouss, for this week.  This age-appropriate book about the role rules have in our life is perfect for Shavuot, when we celebrate revelation and the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

If your child is not already enrolled in the PJ Library, please consider enrolling them in this program.   The PJ Library is a national program which reaches many communities.  I was glad to hear that InterfaithFamily.com’s friends at the PJ Library Program of Greater Boston are now accepting new subscribers ages 0-5 years old. Children enrolled in the PJ Library receive a FREE high quality Jewish children’s book or CD each month for a year. There is no catch and no obligation.

Is it Really a Jewish Thing?

Lately I’ve been struggling with how my son’s friends address me and how he addresses his friends’ parents or my friends. I grew up calling all grown-ups by their first names, with the exception of teachers, of course. My parents’ friends were always Bob and Susan, Karen and Rich, Sam and Michelle. My friends’ parents were always Michael and Sarah, Carol and Fred, and George and Harriet. My husband grew up calling everyone Mr. and Mrs. He hardly ever called any adults by their first names.

Now I am finding myself in uncomfortable situations where I am addressing friends by their first names, but they are addressing themselves to my children as Mr. and Mrs. I am also dealing with the issue of how to ask children to address me. While  I would prefer to be called Heather, rather than Mrs. Martin, I don’t want to undermine my friends’ desires to have their children address adults with Mr. and Mrs.

It got me thinking – is this difference due to general upbringing or religion?  I grew up in South Florida and my husband grew up in New England, so could it be geography? I grew up Jewish, he grew up Roman Catholic, so could it be religion? In my circle of Jewish friends, there was never really a question about how people are addressed–everyone used first names. Today I also move in circles of friends where most are not Jewish and their preferences are more mixed between Mr. and Mrs. and first names. 

As a person navigating an interfaith relationship for a relatively short period of time (we’ve been married seven years and together nine) and the mother of young children (2 and 5), I seem to happen onto these things more and more as we embark on each new phase of life.  While some of it has nothing to do with religious upbringing, I cannot rule out the role of Jewish religion or culture as a possible reason for our differences. As I mentioned in my last blog post Learning from the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, being aware of the differences in upbringing between partners of different faiths can help the Jewish community be more welcoming.

The solution to my issue is, to me, pretty straight forward. I ask parents and friends what they would like my children to call them. I also let them know that I am fine with having their children refer to me by my first name.  The answer to whether or not religion is the reason behind these differences, I may never fully figure out.

About The New Busy

Wow, I really hate this new Hotmail ad campaign. I noticed and loathed it for the first time yesterday on a poster in a bus shelter in Boston, a big green field with the words, “THE NEW BUSY THINK 9 TO 5 IS A CUTE IDEA” in white letters.

Now, there are a lot of reasons to hate this. First, as one Seattle-area blogger pointed out in an aptly-titled post, New Ad Campaign for Hotmail Is Everything We Expect From Microsoft–Awkward, Baffling, Hard to Escape, “This exercise in tone-weirdness, this ball of syntactical confusion, has started showing up on billboards, buses, banner ads, and the signature lines of Hotmail users everywhere. ” Local Boston journalist Alex Beam considers this campaign part of “the War Against the English Language.” It’s a bad ad campaign for what seems to be an inferior product, a 15-year-old web-based email system.

I’m not all that crazy about Hotmail, since they seem to me to be more than usually vulnerable to hacking–but that’s not why I’m writing about this on our blog. I’m writing about it because I am finding our 24/7 work culture an affront to basic human dignity, because it flies in the face of the reason I observe Shabbat.

Shabbat is the opposite of the New Busy. Shabbat is the very old Not Busy. Shabbat is a time to unplug. Shabbat is the time when your family can be together without working. Without working! No working! Stop working! Rest! Because you have a RIGHT to rest sometimes! Your boss cannot possibly pay you enough to justify working all the time!

This isn’t only a Jewish issue–I’m not saying this just to get interfaith families to go to Tot Shabbat. (Though that’s also so nice.) I am saying it’s time for everyone to get off of this treadmill and admit that we need to rest.

I’m giving you advice about what you should do tonight. Go have a nice meal with your lovely family or friends, and then afterward, lie down and sleep. Take a DAY OFF this weekend. You are a person with needs and relationships. Affirm the basic inherent dignity of human individuals, the beauty of the natural world and its rhythms, something good that is not work. The New Busy is the old oppression.