Spiritual Journeys

An interesting article appeared in the most recent edition of our local Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Advocate, outlining the interfaith, interreligious, intercultural practices of one of our community members.

Friday afternoon he goes to the Mosque for the Praising of Allah on Shawmut Avenue in Roxbury for the Jumu’ah prayer. By 6 p.m., he is at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, throwing on a tallis to drum for the Shabbat services. He returns to TBZ on Saturday morning for Torah study and services. Sunday he begins the day at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Roslindale and then heads to his own church, the Unitarian Universalist First Church of Roxbury.

[Reverend Ronald] White, 66, said he has been doing the same routine for the past three years, and over time he has become more than a visitor at each place of worship. On Friday night during Sukkot, TBZ congregants clapped their hands to the beat as White pounded the drum and shook his tambourine from his seat in the front row of the sanctuary. After services, he schmoozed with congregants in the sukkah before getting on his bike to ride home to Jamaica Plain.

Wow. That’s quite a commitment!

He and his interfaith family are members at Temple Israel in Boston, where his three daughters, who were raised Jewish, all had bat mitzvahs.

Possibly of interest to our readers in the Boston area,

For a class at TBZ, Rabbi Waldoks asked White to draw on his personal experience. On four Tuesdays beginning Oct. 19, he will teach a class at TBZ called “Spiritual Journeys: Sharing Our Personal and Communal Narratives.”

It sounds like it will speak to those of us who continue to grow and wrestle with our Judaism – and those who are in interfaith families/relationships.

Learning from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I’m in the midst of one reading one of the best book series I have read in a while, the  Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, which includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  While the story is interesting, I didn’t think it had anything to do with interfaith families, making Jewish choices or encouraging a welcoming Jewish community – until I read the following paragraph:

(Officer) Bublanski felt an urge to talk with God about the case, but instead of going to a synagogue he went to the Catholic church … As a Jew he had no business being in a Catholic church, but it was a peaceful place that he regularly visited when he felt the need to sort out his thoughts. He found the Catholic church an equally good place for contemplation, and he knew that God did not mind. There was a difference, besides, between Catholicism and Judaism. He went to the synagogue when he needed company and fellowship with people. Catholics went to church to seek peace in the presence of God. The church invited silence and visitors would always be left to themselves.

While the novel was keeping my attention, this paragraph caught me by surprise and I started to think about the differences between walking into a church and walking into a synagogue–at least those I’ve walked into. My experiences in church have been primarily around Christmas services, weddings and family baptisms. Having come from a Conservative Jewish background, I was taken aback by the formality and what I initially took as coldness of a Catholic church worship service. You walk in quietly, respectfully, find a seat and sit. You don’t talk, you never yell and if you see someone you know, you may wave inconspicuously. Even though many times the entire church is full, you hardly hear a peep. During the service there is hardly any fidgeting and once the service is over everyone files out nice and orderly. There may be a bit of socializing afterwards, but most of the time you walk to your car and leave.

You couldn’t easily walk into a synagogue during  a Friday night service, sit down and pray without everyone there turning their heads to see who just walked in. If you are new to the community, sometimes even before the service is over, someone–the president of the synagogue, the membership vice president and/or even the rabbi themselves — will come up and introduce themselves to you. They will ask you questions about who you are and what you are doing there.  They may try to find out about your family, background, occupation and  upbringing–and invite you to participate on a committee. It can be an overwhelming experience for a person who is used to walking into a place of worship, sitting down, praying and leaving.

Having had both experiences, Stieg Larsson’s description of the differences between Catholic and Jewish worship services hit home. While I enjoy the part of the synagogue community that welcomes people who walk in the door and the social aspect of services and events, I can understand how a person who has not had the typical synagogue experience could easily be put off by the welcome they get. Being aware of this is one way the Jewish community can be even more welcoming to interfaith couples. It’s not that a Catholic partner in an interfaith couple is not looking for company or fellowship, they just may need some time to get used to the differences.

Meaningful Spiritual Practices and New Translation of Psalms

I have often felt uncomfortable with the word spiritual. It’s usually used in a way that makes me feel inferior, because I don’t know if my experiences measure up. I mean, I get a lot out of traditional Jewish practice, like prayer and making blessings and doing mitzvot and stuff like that, but I can’t say that what I’m getting is spiritual. It’s a little zap or zing of feeling, something emotional, but maybe that’s not spiritual? I don’t know. I also get a little thrill reading poetry or listening to religious music in other traditions, like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Mavis Staples–but is that a spiritual thrill?

Nevertheless, I wrote a Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide for our site, after about three months of research and introspection–and kvetching. (The kvetching was surprisingly fruitful, if utterly unspiritual, because people responded with their insights in the face of my whining.) I thought a lot about how interfaith families have unique opportunities for hiddur mitzvah, making the performance of commandments extra beautiful and excellent.

After I wrote my piece, I found this blog post on jewsbychoice.org, Three Meaningful Spiritual Practices for Rural Isolated Jews. I love this! The practices that I chose for my guide were very community-based ones, and I am so happy to see something about how to find something meaningful on your own.

Another nifty thing I came across after I wrote my guide was Pam Greenberg’s The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation. I’m friendly with Pam and really excited about this new edition, which becomes available today. You can read and hear an interview with Pam on the pbs.org website. Psalms are a really important part of Jewish (and many Christian!) worship services, so a new translation that gives a chance to rethink them is very exciting. (Plus I’m so stoked to realize I watched Pam working on this at the Diesel Cafe! That’s just nifty, you know?)

I’d love to hear from you about your meaningful spiritual practices.

The Infidel and Other Jokes

My coworker sent us all the link to the trailer for The Infidel, a new comedy by Anglo-Jewish writer David Baddiel. The film, which premiered in London last night, stars the British Iranian comedian Omid Djalili as a Muslim cab driver from the East End who discovers that he was adopted and that his birth family was Jewish. (Djalili is not Muslim; he’s Baha’i, but has played a lot of both Jewish and Muslim characters.)  It also features Richard Schiff from The West Wing, playing a Jewish friend of the main character, and Archie Panjabi, who was the older sister in the film Bend It Like Beckham.

The film looks funny and it’s certainly relevant to some of the people who come to our site–we get a lot of children and grandchildren of interfaith families who find out they are Jewish. (You also might want to look at Aliza Hausman’s great profile of Sadia Shepherd, a real person who was raised in an interfaith Muslim-Christian household and found out as an adult that she was also Jewish.)

I do share some of the ambivalence that Shazia Merza, a Muslim comedian who acted as a script consultant, expressed in David Baddiel’s last video blog about the making of the film.

You know, you always worry when you’re making jokes about a particular religion that hasn’t got a history of comedy. Jews have got a history of comedy and making jokes, and people have heard these jokes before, and they’ll relate to them, or they’ll find them funny, but with the Muslim jokes, you know, we haven’t had a history of comedy…

She then proceeds to tell what I thought was a pretty funny, feminist joke.

Baddiel sponsored a contest called Which Religion is Funniest? in order to have some stand-up at the movie premiere. Eh. I don’t know, perhaps it’s not the easiest subject for comedy It is a true pleasure to see what Yasmeen Khan calls “a small but vibrant interfaith comedy scene” in Britain, in  her article about the movie for The New Statesman–Jewish and Muslim comedians working together to puncture stereotypes and deflate bias. Whether or not The Infidel makes its way to the US, let’s hope that spirit of collaboration comes here, too.

How do you feel about this?

We received an email from a company that is selling Hebrew prayer flags. I’ve seen prayer flags in my neighborhood–they are a Buddhist spiritual practice that originated in Tibetan culture.

One reason I feel uncomfortable about this tradition is that I think it’s cultural appropriation. How is it that we have the right to take for ourselves, out of context, another culture’s spiritual practice? Like all examples of cultural appropriation, you could see this in a positive or a negative light. Is it an expression of our shrinking world, that we know and love each other’s cultures and feel connected to one another? Or is this just more of the culturally (and economically, and every other way) hegemonic West grabbing up and using other people’s things for their “authenticity”?

I mean, I guess I’m happy that we can use Jewish texts to display proudly in the yard, if we’re noshing at the smorgasbord of world spirituality. There is another problem, though. In Tibetan culture, the flags are supposed to deteriorate, in order to allow the prayers to distribute the blessing of the words to the world. (Wow, I find that image compelling and beautiful.)

In Jewish tradition, we treat the physical words of Torah with respect. Like Muslims, Jews kiss holy books that fall to the ground. We bury books in which God’s name is written when they deteriorate–is that consonant with prayer flags that are intentionally ephermal?

What do you think about this kind of thing? Are you more open than I am to syncretistic expressions of spirituality? Would you like brachot, blessings, from Jewish tradition to extend to all sentient beings? Would you put a sutra in a mezuzah?  I’m interested in your point of view.

London Jewish Museum reopens

The Jewish community of Great Britain is a cultural powerhouse, I can’t even summarize all the great stuff that has come out of it. It’s the Jewish community responsible for the first Limmud, Aviva Zornberg, Neil Gaiman, Claudia Roden, Harold Pinter, Julian Sinclair, Martyn Poliakoff, Susan Edni, and so many other amazing people in arts, entertainment, science, politics, literature and Jewish life. (Yes, I am aware that list was a little random–give me yours!)

Two of those people, the food writer Nigella Lawson and creative director of the BBC Alan Yentob, re-opened the Jewish Museum in London this past week. The Jewish Museum in London has a slightly different model than some of the ones in the US. It seems poised to use the Jewish experience as “one of Britain’s oldest minorities” to bring other immigrant and minority experiences to the foreground. Cara Nissman reported for us last year on how Jewish museums might provide neutral territory for interfaith families. You don’t need to be Jewish to go to a museum, and in fact the exhibits in a Jewish museum may provide an opening to discuss the non-Jewish partner’s history and culture.

If you’re going to London, check the Jewish Museum’s events list–it looks like they have a lot of interesting events there.

Faith and Marriage

Does faith have a positive or negative effect on the marriages of interfaith couples compared to its role in same-faith marriages? A master’s candidate at Northern Illinois University is comparing the roles of faith for individuals who are part of Jewish, Catholic, and interfaith couples. The researcher,  Patty Fishman, is trying to determine what the positives are in an interfaith marriage.
As part of my work at InterfaithFamily.com I have heard about a lot of interfaith families with strong marriages as well as strong Jewish identifies.  I am curious about what Patty’s research will reveal. 
You can take the survey here.

When you are finished answering the survey questions, you may enter a drawing for the chance to win one of two $50 Target gift cards.

A Catholic Parent Using His Jewish Daughter As A Pawn In A Contentious Divorce.

I just came across  an article from Chicago CBS 2′s website that speaks volumes for the importance of an interfaith family being in agreement about the religious upbringing of their family.

In Chicago, Joseph Reyes may be in violation or a court order for taking his 3 year old daughter to church. Joseph Reyes had his child baptized and sent a photograph to his soon-to-be-ex wife, Rebecca. She asked the court to bar her husband from taking their daughter to church and exposing her to any religion other than Judaism. The court agreed that such exposure would be detrimental to the young child. Then the father took his child to church again, arranging for a television reporter to write on the story.

Joseph Reyes converted to Judaism after his daughter’s birth. Even though Jewish law forbids coercion in conversion, Mr. Reyes told the local reporter that he had been pressured to convert. He said he wants to expose his daughter to Catholicism and let her choose her own religion, and further, he can’t see much difference between Judaism and Catholicism:

I am taking her to hear the teachings of perhaps the most prominent Jewish Rabbi (Jesus) in the history of this great planet of ours. I can’t think of anything more Jewish than that.”

What jumped out at us at InterfaithFamily.com was the slanted way the reporter wrote the story, siding with the husband who had reversed agreements with his wife in the process of the divorce. There’s no recognition in the stories on the CBS 2 website of a Jewish viewpoint or even the idea that religion might be used in a divorce as a weapon. He didn’t quote any experts on interfaith families, nearly all of whom take  the position that raising children in one faith is less confusing. Certainly, adult children of interfaith families have told us they found it confusing to be raised “both”.

People do change after divorce, but we always hope that parents will stay with the parenting decisions they made for their children before the divorce. We had one of our interfaith marriage experts record his advice on how to weather divorce–emphasizing how children benefit from consistency. We know that the Reyes’ story is not uncommon, and that many interfaith couples who divorce wind up in conflict over religion. Perhaps we’re all lucky that the local news media don’t choose to involve themselves in every case!

More News on the Catholic-Jewish Relations Issue

The current Pope has signed a decree heroic virtues for two previous popes: his predecessor, John Paul II, and  Pius XII, who was pope during the Second World War. This is one step before beatification. Predictably, some Jews have already pointed out why they wouldn’t make Pius XII a saint–most historians believe he did little to save Jews from the Nazis.

Deborah Dwork, a historian and Holocaust expert at Clark University, and Rabbi Eric Greenberg, who runs interfaith work at the Anti-Defamation League, wrote an editorial condemning the move as an attack on Jews. Further, the editorial discusses and dismisses historians arguing that Pius XII did more behind the scenes to save Jewish lives than he seemed to have done in public. The Catholic League responded with another editorial that called Dwork and Greenberg’s criticism “unseemly” and pointed out all the things Pius XII was known to have done to save Jews. (To me, it’s not all that impressive, but you read it and see what you think.)

Tracking the issue of Catholic-Jewish relations for this blog has been very interesting for me. I grew up post-Vatican II and most of my adult life has been during the papacy of John Paul II, the pope who did the most to foster positive relations between Catholics and Jews of any pope, ever. The current papacy has made a series of missteps with relation to Catholic-Jewish relations–and people in my generation did not expect them, I think.

It’s true Pope Benedict XVI is German and a voice on the right on Church matters, but he was completely on board with John Paul’s gestures to the Jewish community–in fact, he was the one who prepared a definitive church document, Memory and Reconciliation, that outlines the Church’s responsibility in past anti-Jewish violence. We had reason to expect him to continue in the same line. Ruth Ellen Gruber’s JTA article, After Pius move, Pope Benedict practices delicate Jewish dance, outlines the back and forth of recent papal decisions.

I really don’t know the truth about Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. No one does, because the documents historians want to see to find out are in closed Vatican archives. It’s possible that the current pope knows something we don’t. I was trained as a historian and even if I weren’t Jewish I would probably be on Deborah Dwork’s side about opening those archives.

Interfaith Family Issues Hit the Big Time

Well, we like to think we’re the big time here at InterfaithFamily.com, but you’ll probably agree that the Washington Post is a bigger venue for discussions of issues that affect interfaith families. The introductory article has a link to an interview with Cokie and Steve Roberts, two well-known journalists in a Catholic-Jewish interfaith marriage. I watched the interview last night.

It did seem a little weird to me that Steve Roberts says that his mom is “very Jewish” but that she had never been to a Passover seder until her Catholic daughter-in-law coordinated one. I guess it shows what “very Jewish” means–it’s a cultural marker, something that says more about language and habits than religious practice. Sometimes when people use Jewish as an adjective I’m not totally sure where they are going with it, what it means to them. It’s an interesting interview overall and I’d love to hear what you thought about it.

I’m excited that Marion Usher, who is an old friend of IFF and an outreach professional, is going to be featured in a WaPo video on the work she does with interfaith families. I’ll try to stay on top of that and link it here. It will also be interesting for me to see interfaith family issues that affect families where neither partner is Jewish.