The Jewish Mother Thing

  

boys licking chocolate off their messy facesI remember standing with a few friends after my oldest son was born. We were talking, as new mothers do, about how hard parenting can be, how scary. We were comparing neurotic-helicopter-mom moments, laughing at ourselves.

I shared a story about taking my son to the doctor when he seemed to have a fever. “His temperature is high!” I’d cried to the pediatrician, who only chuckled knowingly and said, “Well, maybe you want to unwrap some of these blankets when he’s indoors.” Of course my son was fine, just overheated.

I blushed telling this story. My friends grinned. They had the same stories, of course.  About cutting food up (choking hazards!) into tiny bits too small for the kids to actually pick up. About perceived rare (thanks, WebMD!) skin conditions that turned out to only be heat rash.

But I remember, in the middle of all the laughter that day, someone said, “Well, who can blame us? It’s the ‘Jewish Mother Thing.’ We’re supposed to be anxious and neurotic!  It’s in our DNA!” The laughter continued, and then we probably all had some coffee, or wine.

As the years have passed (10 of them), I’ve gone back to that moment a lot. Because it turns out that as a parent, I’m not especially neurotic. I’m the mom who often shows up with junky snacks, when other people have baked gluten-free, organic muffins. I’m the mom whose kids shower once a week. My boys walk around the neighborhood unattended, own pocketknives and occasionally we forget to eat dinner.

Do these things mean I’m not a Jewish mother? Of course stereotypes are flawed, inexact, problematic. But when I joined a Jewish Mom group on Facebook and saw the effort other Jewish parents put into the details of summer camp selection, perfect birthday cupcakes and finding the best specialists, I found myself wondering, and feeling a little… different. Outside the norm.

It never occurred to me until I saw so many Jewish Mothers all in one place that I might not be one, in the traditional sense. But of course this is absolutely logical, because I never had a Jewish Mother. My own overworked mom, raised Catholic in California—regularly left me at the library until after the doors were locked (it was fine, I sat and read on the steps). She didn’t make kugel and she didn’t speak in Yiddishisms. I rode public buses and did my homework (or didn’t) without anyone ever looking at it. I survived, and learned, I guess, how to parent a little haphazardly, with spit and tape. I learned how fine things usually are, in the end. I learned to avoid stress whenever possible.

But does this mode of parenting make me somehow less Jewish?

Here’s the thing—I am a Jewish mother. I know I am. Because I’m raising Jewish sons. And maybe what the rising intermarriage rates suggest is that we’re going to see a shift in the “Jewish Mother Thing” in the near future. Maybe the next generation of Jewish mothers, raised themselves by women from a more diverse array of religions, regions and cultures, will be less similar, less careful, a little less neurotic. Because they don’t have this “Jewish Mother” stereotype in their heads.

Or maybe not! Maybe all mothers are anxious sometimes and the “Jewish Mother Thing” is a fiction, a narrative we’ve crafted as a culture, a way of embracing and forgiving ourselves for our neurotic maternal impulses; a myth we perpetuate.

In any case, I want to take a moment today to honor us all.. This week, for Mothers’ Day, I want to say to ALL the Jewish Mothers of the world, Yasher Koach! Good job on your perfectionism, or your relaxed attitude. Good job on the homemade cupcakes, or the Ho-Ho you stuck a candle in at the last minute. Good job on remembering the dental appointment, or forgetting and rescheduling it because you took the kids for a hike that day instead. Good job on raising a diverse world of wonderful Jewish kids who will strengthen and alter and carry on our tradition. I’m proud of us all.

Who Am I to Yuck Your Yum?

  
Gefilte fish can be intimidating for a newcomer!

Gefilte fish can be intimidating for a newcomer!

We love Mo Willems books in our house! My little one just brought home one of his gazillions of titles called, I Really Like Slop. As I have written before, I now see the world through interfaith family lenses. When we read this story, all I could think about was interfaith couples at Passover! How in the world did I make that leap?

The children's book teaches us to try our friends' food and customs

This children’s book teaches us to try our friends’ food and customs

The book tells the story of Piggie presenting her friend Gerald, the elephant, with a pot of her slop. Gerald looks at the smelly concoction with trepidation. He asks some questions about the make-up of the slop. Piggie begs him to try some. She explains that it’s part of Pig culture! Gerald touches his tongue to the slop and chokes and gags. Piggie asks Gerald if he likes it. Gerald explains that he does not like it, but he does like Piggie. And he is happy he tried it.

As are all of Mo Willems’ books, this story is precious and even poignant. It made me think about someone who didn’t grow up with, let’s say, gefilte fish, being presented with it for the first time at a Passover seder. This person is no doubt sitting with a significant other at their parents’ house, surrounded by family and trying to fit in and make a good impression. This person is trying to avoid any cultural faux pas. They may be worried that the haggadah (the book read during the Passover meal) will be read aloud going around the table and that there will be unfamiliar words and transliterated Hebrew to navigate (on four cups of wine, no less). And, now this person is presented with this foreign, kind of smelly food, with a gel-like substance wiggling around on top.

If you were brought up with this food and don’t like it, it is easier to dismiss it. But, for a newcomer, how does one politely excuse themselves from trying it? (Especially if is homemade. This usually makes it a lot better than if it’s cold from the jar—although some people love that. Who am I to yuck your yum, as my child’s feeding therapist implores.)

What Piggie and Gerald teach us is that we don’t have to like our partner’s cultural things. They don’t have to become ours. We don’t have to feel comfortable eating the food or donning certain garb. We don’t automatically have to feel comfortable with the language, traditions or dances. Maybe after experience and time, we will come to like things. We will make them our own. But, maybe we never will. And, that’s OK. Showing respect, asking questions, learning about and even trying aspects important to our loved ones is what matters.

Happy prepping for Passover!

Learn more HERE about gefilte fish and other fun Passover foods. And for a complete cheat sheet on Jewish foods (that you can share with you friends!) click HERE.

My 6-Year-Old Changed Her Name

  
Ari's daughter changes her name

Ari’s daughter, Allie, after her name change

Naming things gives us a connection to them. Even little children name their lovies and their toys. We label and name to organize things in our minds and to recognize things. How surprising it has been for me as a mother to have a child who says she knows she is the gender not typically aligned with the anatomy she has. It made sense to me when she explained that she wants a name that goes with how she looks and feels. She started using her new name and slowly it has stuck.

When I officiate at a baby naming ceremony, I often explain how important names are within Jewish tradition. Our biblical ancestors’ names told their stories—Avraham, Father of a People; Miriam (from sea water), when she was alive, the people had water. Within the narratives of our ancient scroll, names changed when roles change. Jacob becomes Israel, for instance. The rabbis during the rabbinic period in the first centuries of the Common Era, spoke about having a crown of a good name, meaning your total reputation.

They helped us understand what Jews can believe about heaven. When you have been a good person and touched people who want to carry on your name and your memory, that is eternal life. Passing on the name of a loved one to the next generation is a way we enable this person, of blessed memory, to continue to impact the world through deeds done in their name. Sometimes elderly family members will say to the younger generation that they are their Kaddish (the prayer said to remember loved ones who have died). This means that they are looking to the ones living to carry on their memory.

A friend from childhood who has become a lawyer ushered my family through our minor name change process on Thursday, March 3. It was a profound moment when she reminded me that I named her children within the Jewish tradition and now she was naming my child in this way.

After the high and emotions of leaving court that day with a new name for my child, I drove into the city to help another family bestow Hebrew names on their three children ranging in age from 7 to 13. The mom in this family is Jewish and the father is Catholic. They have raised their children with the hopes of literacy, knowledge and comfortability within both religious realms and traditions. They have celebrated Jewish and Catholic holy days. These kids feel close to both rabbis and priests and both sides of their family. They know that they will have to wrestle like Jacob and discern what they believe about Jesus. They also know that they can turn to both traditions in times of joy and in times of need. They are enriched for this way of living and learning. They are not confused but full of joy. Their parents have a depth of compromise and respect for each other that is inspiring.

So, I stood with a priest who has become a friend and mentor as he baptized the children with water and anointed them with oil. I blessed them. We spoke about the loved ones for whom they were named and what their names in Hebrew mean. This was a ceremony of symbolism, metaphor and meaning.

Last year InterfaithFamily launched a social media campaign called #ChooseLove. As InterfaithFamily/Your Community Directors, we discussed whether our rabbinic colleagues would think we were suggesting that couples should choose love over religion, which was not our intention. Thursday, March 3 was a day when I understood what it means to choose love. Love rises above expectations and assumptions. It envelopes fear and uncertainty. It sweetens disappointment and loss. We don’t always have control over the circumstances of our lives, but we can choose to have compassion at all times.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehechehyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh. We praise You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all: for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this joyful time.

Unplug for Less Doing and More Being

  

Working mother with son

Here’s what my “To Do” List on a recent day looked like:

To Do:

  • Fill out evaluation form for current grant
  • Write grant proposal for next year
  • Prepare to teach workshop tonight and copy handouts
  • Return library books
  • Schedule dentist appointments for kids
  • Prepare wedding ceremony for Sarah and John
  • Send emails about next week’s program
  • Prepare agenda for tomorrow’s meeting
  • Buy groceries and make dinner
  • Write blog

 

And that was only about the first third of the list. I like having to “To Do” lists. They give order to my day, and ensure that I (usually) don’t forget to do what I need to get done on a given day. Plus, there’s that little rush I get when I cross something off the list. Even if it’s a simple task that I’ve completed, I have at least a momentary sense of accomplishment and the thrill of seeing the number of things that have to get done lessened … at least until a few minutes later when I think of something new to add to the list.

I always have lots to “do”—and I’m really good at getting things “done.” But often, at the end of the day, it’s not a sense of accomplishment that I feel, but a sense of exhaustion. I may have crossed many items off my “To Do” list that day, but I already have a whole new list for the next day. And then there are those things—really important things—that too often haven’t gotten the time and attention that they deserve; things like: hanging out with my kids (not in the car on the way to some activity or errand, but just on the couch); eating a relaxed meal; having an uninterrupted conversation with my husband; relaxing and reading a book; or meditating. These are things that aren’t about “doing” but simply about “being,” and on most days I don’t get to all, or sometimes any, of them.

And even worse, sometimes I’m so busy “doing” the things on my oh-so-important list—usually something like writing a text or email, or looking something up on my computer, something that involves being “connected”—that when one of my kids is talking to me, sensing that I’m not fully present for them, they’ll say: “Are you listening?”

I’ll respond half-heartedly: “Of course I am,” as I go about my typing.

And then, they’ll call me on it: “What did I say?”

“Um, I don’t know exactly,” comes my lame response, as my kid’s eyes drop and they walk away.

Sometimes I’m so busy doing … and so “connected” … that I become “disconnected” from the people that matter the most.

Fortunately in Judaism we have a built-in mechanism that encourages us to “disconnect” from our phones and other devices so that we can “connect” with the people that matter to us … and to our own selves. It’s Shabbat. Shabbat reminds us of what we truly are: not “human DOINGS” but “human BEINGS.” (For more on the idea that we are “human beings” and not “human doings,” you can read my blog on The Spirituality of Mindfulness Meditation.)

Observing Shabbat in a traditional manner involves lots of things that one can’t “do.” For example, if you’re Shomer Shabbat (i.e, if you “keep Shabbat” according to the rules of traditional Jewish law) you don’t drive on Shabbat, or use electricity or make phone calls. Often, I hear people who, like myself, aren’t Shomer Shabbat, say that observing Shabbat in a traditional sense sounds too difficult, perhaps even unpleasant. Most of all, they can’t imagine being “unplugged” for an entire day.

But honestly, I long for a day of being totally unplugged … totally “disconnected.” And that’s why I’m going to participate in the National Day of Unplugging on March 4-5, 2016.

Why am I so excited about unplugging from Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown? Because if I can’t “do” things like check my email, texts and voice messages, it’ll force me to put a lot more focus on “being.” After returning home from Shabbat morning services and lunch at my synagogue on Saturday, I’ll be able to: spend time hanging out with my husband and kids; read a book; play with my dog; or maybe just take a well-needed nap, not worrying that the sound of my phone ringing will wake me up.

I know it won’t be easy to spend an entire day totally unplugged … I’ll miss that rush of dopamine that I get when I see a new text or email come in. But I also know of the benefits that can come if I resist the cravings to connect to technology for a whole day. And if I’m lucky, really lucky, I may just be able to sense what the rabbis meant when they spoke of Shabbat as “a taste of the World to Come.”

Rather than making a “To Do” list for the National Day of Unplugging, I’ve made a “To Be” list, and here’s what it says:

To Be:

  • Be unplugged
  • Be mindful
  • Be present
  • Be grateful
  • Just be……

 

Will you join me in unplugging on March 4-5, 2016? Here are some ideas of ways to unplug with your family.

A Letter to Chelsea For Her Second Pregnancy

  
Chelsea Clinton & Marc Mezvinsky

Chelsea and Marc after her mother’s announcement that she will seek nomination for the presidency in 2016. Credit: Andy Katz

Dear Chelsea & Marc,

First I want to say B’sha’ah tovah and mazel tov on your pregnancy. Your pregnancy announcement was adorable and I hope Charlotte adjusts to your pregnancy and the new baby once it arrives. I glanced below the article I read including your announcement and saw several comments from people who, for whatever reason, think they know what’s best for your family. If you haven’t read them yet, don’t. If you have read them, or if you’ve heard them elsewhere—I’m sorry people are treating you as the role model for interfaith families. I’m especially sorry your daughter will grow up hearing these comments and constantly having to explain her family to others.

But the truth is, you are a role model, and your daughter will be one too. No, not because you’re the daughter of a President (or maybe two?). And no, not because you are a public figure. But because you are married to a Jewish man. And you’re not alone in this. All interfaith couples and families become role models and representatives. You see, we Jews have a lot of opinions on how the Jewish people should behave. But the thing is, we all behave differently. We have no one standard of how a “Jewish” family should behave or how an “interfaith” child should act.

I hope that you and your family are able to look past all the judgment and shame that other people might place on you, and enjoy this time. There are many of us rooting for you and following your journey hoping to learn from your experience. Teach your daughter love and kindness and go from there. Being a mom to a toddler and pregnant is already enough to deal with. I hope that the love in your life and family only continues to grow, and that you can continue living the life you want for your daughter and your new addition.

Being a role model for interfaith families can be tough, but creates a groundwork for future families to follow. Let the love you have guide you and you will be supported. In the meantime—know that there are other families navigating this crazy road alongside you and that there are many of us in the Jewish community who welcome you with open arms. InterfaithFamily has loads of baby resources just for you. May your family go from strength to strength in this holiday season.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas and mazel tov,

Rabbi Keara Stein

Does The Good Dinosaur Have a Not-So-Good Message About Family?

  

The Good DinosaurThe new movie, The Good Dinosaur, a Pixar Entertainment film directed by Peter Sohn, debuted in theatres on November 25. I took my 6-year-old and 8-year-old to see it at a sold-out movie theatre.

Perhaps it is because I have been working with interfaith couples and families in an intense way for over four years as Director of IFF/Chicago, but my sensitivity alarm went off in a major way during this film.

Here are my impressions:

1.  The dinosaur dad dies as well as Spot’s (the cave-boy) parents. The death of parents in animated films has no doubt been the basis of more than one thesis. It’s important to be comfortable seeing death, talking about loss and understanding memory. The death of parents in so many films for children is thought-provoking, for sure. But why does there have to be so much of it?

2.  There is a theme in the movie that if you are going to really engage with life, then there will be fear. You will be scared. The important thing is what to do about it. How we react and how we cope and get through something tough shows our character.

Unfortunately, the way Arlo, Spot’s dinosaur friend, shows he can face fear is through physically fighting and warding off the predators. This is the way he leaves his mark; this is how he shows he has done something worthy and important. I wished there was a way he showed his inner strength and resolve without fighting. Standing up for oneself and defending against harm is important at times. However, more often than needing to physically harm someone else to protect oneself when standing up to bullies or navigating difficult people and circumstances, is the need to think with ingenuity and resolve.

Ari's kids

Ari’s kids at the movie

3.  The last theme I want to discuss is the one with interfaith connotations, for me. In one scene, Arlo shows Spot what a family is. He puts sticks in the ground for each family member and draws a circle around them. Then Spot does the same thing and draws a circle around his family of sticks. At the end, Spot is taken in by another cave family and Arlo reunites with what is left of his dinosaur family. There seems to be a message that each kind stays with their group. I was waiting for Arlo and Spot to join their circles and show symbolically that they have become a family because they have cared for each other. This does not happen. They go their separate ways at the end.

The cave parents show Spot how to walk on two feet, and it is clear that only within your species can you learn certain skills. The dinosaurs on all fours would not have been able to teach him this. I think this raises all kinds of questions about adoption, whether different cultures can raise each other, and whether different animals, in the most figurative way, can be a family. With my interfaith family hat on, I was hoping there would be a message of unity within diversity.

Did you cry through it like we did? Did you have a similar take on these themes? As Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught us, “The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.”

Ask What Your Kid Really Thinks of Hanukkah & Christmas

  

 

A child with a menorah

We tend to ask our children the same questions over and over which are super hard to answer. Educators and parents ask, “What are you thankful for?” This questions is asked repeatedly around Thanksgiving time. Children say, “my parents, my home, food, friends and toys.”

Ask your child now. What did he or she say? A parent volunteer told me that when the librarian asked the kids this question, my 6-year-old said, “the solar system.” That was an unusual answer. I’m not sure where that one came from. Maybe there was a poster of outer-space or a book nearby that caught her eye?

There is nothing wrong with this question but it is very hard to tap into real feelings of gratitude, appreciation and thanks and then to be able to articulate those feelings. Sometimes I ask my kids what makes them happy and that seems easier for them to talk about. Gratitude has to be cultivated and modeled.

As we move into the Hanukkah and Christmas season, I asked my 6-year-old and 8-year-old what they know about these holidays. You would think that being children of two rabbis and living in a heavily Jewish suburb would sway or weight their answers some. Yet, they love their idea of Christmas even though they have had limited personal experience with it (much to their chagrin).

When I asked them what they think about when I say the word, “Christmas” they beamed with joy, lit up and said, “presents!” Now, my pastor friends and practicing Christians may be cringing. These are not the holy parts of this holiday. In addition, these are children who have lots of stuff. They are not lacking for presents. However, the idea of getting a gift is ever thrilling.

They don’t have much first-hand experience with a religious and/or a cultural Christmas. (Hopefully their experiences will vary and multiply as they get older and they will come to value volunteering during the time of darkness and need for so many, and will be inclined to cherish the priceless and precious gifts of time and presence more than material things). Their ideas about Christmas fun come primarily from TV and I’m not sure where else.

Then I asked them to tell me about Hanukkah. They said lighting the menorah and presents are what come to mind. My children don’t like latkes. Or matzah ball soup, lox or noodle kugel. I know, it’s just wrong, but I’m being as honest as possible here. They do like Elf on the Shelf, Christmas cookies and the lights, beauty and magic of Christmas.

When I reminded them and gave hints, they were able to conjure up details about the miracle of the oil lasting and about the re-dedication of the Temple. They know the role of the shamash, or helper candle that lights the other ones. They know how to play dreidel and play it with zeal. They love games! They love getting together with friends and family over Hanukkah. They sing Hanukkah songs and enjoy going to synagogue where each family lights a menorah and it glows with warmth and love.

I don’t think my children are more spoiled or more materialistic than others. They love life, and they love surprises and being playful. They love their friends, feel connected to their family and enjoy school and learning. They generally are into things.

Am I worried that my children—who I hope will look to Judaism to give them order, meaning, sacred purpose, connectedness, hope, values, inspiration, pride, and so much more—love aspects of Christmas? No, not one bit. I do want them to be literate in tenets of Christianity too. I want them to know more about Jesus. They will learn history as they mature and will have context and gain perspective and understanding. I don’t want them to feel threatened by Christianity and Christmas. I want them to be able to ask their own questions and take Christian theology and beliefs seriously. I want them to understand that there is religion and there is culture and there is secularism, and how each of these aspects inform a person’s expression. I don’t ever want Hanukkah and Christmas to compete.

I think that making a child raised with Judaism feel badly about liking Christmas is not a great approach. It won’t create closeness with Judaism. The main thing is to keep asking our children what they think and teaching our children as much as we can so that they can create well-rounded notions of these two holidays, central to our American psyche. Knowledge is good. Not being shamed for loving parts of another religion’s holidays is good.

Let’s stop asking rote questions and expecting rote answers. Your kids will tell you what they honestly know and think and it will open your eyes to their little developing souls.

The Imbalance of a Working Mom

  

Keara and her family

“Mama! Mama!”

“Hold on sweetheart, mama needs to send an email.”

“Mama, book!”

“One minute baby, I really need to type something!”

Thankfully my boss understands when my emails have random letters and characters written in them since he also has a young child. Being a working mom is hard, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling. Being able to work from home is hard, but it’s also amazing. As I write this I hear my toddlers giggling with the nanny through the baby monitor. I know that I have an hour to work until the nanny leaves and hopefully they will be sleeping so I can squeeze some more work in today. Otherwise, I’ll send emails and schedule meetings after they go to sleep, over a glass of wine and perhaps while watching Project Runway.

Balance.

Some days it feels like I’m never getting anything done and some days it feels like I’m always working. Some days I feel like I’m giving my kids everything and some days it feels like I am ignoring them. Some days it feels like I’m doing amazing things for the interfaith families and couples in LA. Some days it feels like the work I do will never be enough.

Balance.

Some days my husband I are on the same page with our calendars, our child rearing techniques and our relationship. Some days we barely see each other and only have time to sing with the kids as we are putting them to bed right before we both fall asleep after an exhausting day of work. We treasure our Saturdays as the only day all four of us can do something as a family all day, but we also want to watch our Oregon Ducks play football.

Balance.

During the fall months, we find ourselves asking: Do we go to kid’s services or the pumpkin patch with the one day my husband and I have off at the same time? Which is more important to imprinting my children’s identity? Tot Shabbat. They won’t remember either, but by taking them to synagogue and to celebrate Shabbat we’re teaching them the values that a pumpkin patch never could.

Having balance in the family doesn’t mean everything is equal all the time. It means that sometimes the balance shifts heavy toward work, and sometimes it shifts heavy toward kids and every now and then it falls somewhere in the middle. I have learned that the most important yet most difficult part of the work/family balance is accepting the fact that it will need to be flexible.

“Mama! Mama! Clap!”

“OK darling, let’s sing a song and clap together.”

Bridget Loves Bernie: During Interfaith Family Month We Celebrate Their Love

  

Bridget Loves BernieIt’s 1972. An off-duty, dark haired young cabbie drives by a young blond woman. Slowing down and noticing that the woman is attractive, he switches his light to “on duty” and backs up to pick her up. He drops her off at the school where she teaches, then watches as she walks in. Flash forward to the end of the school day and as the teacher leaves school, the cabbie’s there waiting to pick her up. A montage unfolds: The good looking couple walking over a bridge in New York’s Central Park with their arms around each other; him playfully chasing her; the two of them kissing in the back of the cab; kissing more by the bridge. And then, they finally speak:

Woman: “You know, this is crazy. I don’t even know your full name.”

Man: “Bernie….Steinberg. What’s yours?”

Woman: “Bridget….Bridget – Theresa – Mary – Helene – Fitzgerald.”

Then they both say at the same time: “I think we have a problem.”

So opened the pilot episode of Bridget Loves Bernie (you can CLICK HERE to see it yourself), about the interfaith marriage of Irish Catholic Bridget (played by Meredith Baxter) and Jewish Bernie (played by David Birney).

Bridget Loves Bernie had a primetime Saturday night slot between two very popular shows and it was the fifth highest rated TV show of the 1972-1973 season. But it was cancelled by CBS executives in response to hate mail from viewers who opposed its portrayal of the couple’s interfaith marriage. To this day, Bridget Loves Bernie is the highest rated TV show to be cancelled after only one season.

I was a young girl when Bridget Loves Bernie was on TV, but I still remember the show. And I remember the atmosphere in which it aired, at least in the Jewish community—and certainly in the tight-knit Conservative synagogue where I grew up. It was a shonda (a shame, a pity) if you were Jewish and you married someone from another faith. People assumed you didn’t care about Judaism. When you “married out” you were seen as “writing off” your Judaism. I heard stories of parents who “sat shiva” (performed the Jewish mourning rituals) for a child who “married out.” The parents wondered what they had done wrong. The married children usually cut off ties with the synagogue and the Jewish community. (Can you blame them?)

To a large extent, things have changed. The days when I grew up, when Bridget Loves Bernie’s interfaith marriage was too controversial for primetime television, are fading—at least in a large segment of the liberal Jewish community. In today’s world—a world in which, according to the 2013 Pew Portrait of American Jews, 71 percent of liberal Jews who are getting married are marrying someone who isn’t Jewish—it’s not a shock when Bridget loves Bernie (or, for that matter, when Bridget loves Bernice). And now, with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s recent decision to allow inter-partnered candidates apply to the school, it may become less of a big deal when Bridget loves RABBI Bernie or Bernice.

If you identify as a liberal (non-Orthodox) Jew you almost certainly have friends, and most likely family members, who are in interfaith relationships. If you belong to a Conservative, Humanist, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal or unaffiliated synagogue, you almost certainly know fellow-congregants who are in interfaith marriages. And you probably know parents who aren’t Jewish who are actively involved in the Jewish education and upbringing of their children.

Today, there are lots of real couples like Bridget and Bernie, each with their own unique stories, and we can’t just “cancel the show” and ignore reality. (For years, the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage was to preach against it.  Not only did intermarriage rates continue to rise, but people in interfaith relationships often felt alienation from and resentment toward the Jewish community.)

If Bridget and Bernie were real people living today, InterfaithFamily, and many like-minded people in the Jewish world, would see Bernie’s marriage to Bridget not as a threat to Jewish continuity, but rather as an opportunity. We’d want to celebrate Bridget and Bernie’s marriage (they could even use our free clergy referral service to find a rabbi or cantor to officiate at their wedding), to provide Jewish resources and support and a safe, non-judgmental space to explore the role of religion in their lives and their marriage. If Bridget and Bernie decided to move to Philadelphia (or one of the other cities that has an InterfaithFamily/Your Community office) they could take our “Love and Religion” workshop and meet with other interfaith couples to discuss how to have religious traditions in their lives together. When they had kids, they could take our online “Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” class to consider “how” and “why” to bring Jewish traditions into their lives.

Bridget and Bernie are ready for primetime. And for InterfaithFamily, “primetime” is the month of November, when we celebrate Interfaith Family Month. This is a time for synagogues and Jewish organizations to publicly acknowledge and thank those members of our community who aren’t Jewish; to let them know that we don’t just tolerate them, but we are grateful to them for their commitment to Judaism and Jewish continuity. It’s a time to let those Jews who have partners who aren’t Jewish know that not only are we not “sitting shiva” for them, but we hope that they will fully engage in the Jewish community, and that we don’t see their choice of a life-partner as a reflection on their Jewish commitment. It’s a time to declare that rather than fighting against intermarriage, we are working for a vibrant Jewish community—and we welcome anyone who wants to join us.

Interfaith Family Month is a time to let all of the “Bernies” out there know that we don’t love them any less because they love “Bridget.” And for all of the “Bridgets” out there, we hope that just as you love “Bernie,” you will come to love his Jewish community too, because we are committed to building a Jewish community where the two of you can truly feel at home.

Our Sukkah without Walls

  
Maurice's sukkah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* names have been changed