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This is a guest post by Rabbi Evan Moffic on the topic of a new book that examines Jewish identity. It is partially in response to another review, “Jews, Damned Jews, and Sociologists”.
What is Judaism? At first glance, this question seems simplistic. Judaism is, of course, a religion. Yet, what religion has its own language (Hebrew)? What religion has generated hundreds of cookbooks? Well, we might say, Judaism is a culture. Culture, however, is an inherently vague word, and how does one create schools and synagogues around a culture? The truth is that Judaism does not fit into traditional sociological categories. It is a religion, a culture, a philosophy, and much more. Its many dimensions have made Judaism a subject of serious exploration in a variety of scholarly fields, including those centered on identity formation. Scholars and rabbis have sought to address the issue of what establishes and creates Jewish identity. What does it mean to be Jewish?
A recent volume brings together a variety of voices on this question. Edited by three eminent sociologists, and including essays from a variety of disciplines, Dynamic Belonging: Contemporary Jewish Collective Identities offers few answers. It does, however, offer some new insights into the contemporary Jewish community. For those of us who work with and in the field of interfaith families, we can take comfort in knowing that scholars better understand that Jewish identity does not fit in fixed categories. Marrying someone who is not Jewish, for example, does not mean a personno longer has a place in the Jewish community. Judaism, rather, has a deeply subjective aspect to it. It is not something externally imposed by a traditional authority. It is a faith, a people, an approach to life that we embrace, and through which we can find both personal meaning and vibrant community.
This view is not without opposition. Those who study the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities, as well as differences between Jewish life in America and in Israel, have identified the issue of authority as a core tension. Many in the Orthodox community and in Israel identified Judaism as defined within a larger communal framework of authority. For Orthodoxy, that framework is Jewish life. For those in Israel, it is the Jewish national culture.
Those in America, and in non-Orthodox communities around the world, tend to see Judaism as an autonomously chosen way of life. It is something more fluid than fixed. It changes and evolves over time, and we look at differently depending on where we are in the journey of our lives. WE are our own primary authorities.
Both approaches have their dangers. For those in the camp of communal authority, Judaism can easily become frozen. It can appeal to a smaller and smaller subculture of the Jewish world. For those in the individualist camp, Judaism can become so subjective that we lose any sense of boundaries or communal cohesion.
These are questions we address every day. This book helps us understand and appreciate our own story.Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.
A difference between Christians and Jews, one could say, is that Christians believe the Messiah came (you might have heard of him – a fellow named Jesus?), while Jews are still waiting for the Messiah. Over the years, this basic difference has become, amongst some sects, more confusing:
But, Messianic Jews and some Chabadniks/Lubavitchers aside, the broad distinction remains; Jews and Christians view the role and level of importance of Jesus, as it pertains to their own theology, quite differently.
Boteach said he regrets that Jews allowed Jesus “to be ripped away from them without even a fight.”
The excerpt, from an interview with Ha’aretz, continues. Let me quote Shmarya Rosenberg of FailedMessiah.com:
Enter Jesus, the latest subject of Boteach’s ‘scholarship.’[/quote]
What do you think? Will you be reading the book? Will it further relations and bridge-building between Christians and Jews? Are you, like Shmarya Rosenberg, skeptical and worried?
Looking for something a little different?
SMITH Magazine and our friends at Reboot have teamed up and need your help: They’re seeking “six-word memoirs on the Jewish life.” The best ones will be included in a new book, Oy! Only Six? Why Not More — Six Words on the Jewish Life, out in early 2012.
Need some inspiration? Check out the “memoirs” submitted by others here or watch the video:
If you watch the video trailer for the book, you’ll notice that there are a whole bunch of succinct memoirs touching on interfaith families, which is great! But let’s help them collect memoirs from the full diversity of our community.
The deadline to submit your six-word memoir is December
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.
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.)
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.
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.
I agree. The rest of his speech-turned-op-ed is worth reading as well.
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
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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”?
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:
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.