New flicks with celebs in interfaith relationships and from interfaith backgrounds, plus their baby news!Go To Pop Culture
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 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 itâ€™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 Willemsâ€™ books, this story is precious and even poignant. It made me think about someone who didnâ€™t grow up with, letâ€™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 parentsâ€™ 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 donâ€™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 itâ€™s cold from the jarâ€”although some people love that. Who am I to yuck your yum, as my childâ€™s feeding therapist implores.)
What Piggie and Gerald teach us is that we donâ€™t have to like our partnerâ€™s cultural things. They donâ€™t have to become ours. We donâ€™t have to feel comfortable eating the food or donning certain garb. We donâ€™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, thatâ€™s OK. Showing respect, asking questions, learning about and even trying aspects important to our loved ones is what matters.
Happy prepping for Passover!
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 ancestorsâ€™ names told their storiesâ€”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 donâ€™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.
Hereâ€™s what my â€śTo Doâ€ť List on a recent day looked like:
And that was only about the first third of the list. I like having to â€śTo Doâ€ť lists. They give order to my day, and ensure that I (usually) donâ€™t forget to do what I need to get done on a given day. Plus, thereâ€™s that little rush I get when I cross something off the list. Even if itâ€™s a simple task that Iâ€™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 â€¦ at least until a few minutes later when I think of something new to add to the list.
I always have lots to â€śdoâ€ťâ€”and Iâ€™m really good at getting things â€śdone.â€ť But often, at the end of the day, itâ€™s not a sense of accomplishment that I feel, but a sense of exhaustion. I may have crossed many items off my â€śTo Doâ€ť list that day, but I already have a whole new list for the next day. And then there are those thingsâ€”really important thingsâ€”that too often havenâ€™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 arenâ€™t about â€śdoingâ€ť but simply about â€śbeing,â€ť and on most days I donâ€™t get to all, or sometimes any, of them.
And even worse, sometimes Iâ€™m so busy â€śdoingâ€ť the things on my oh-so-important listâ€”usually something like writing a text or email, or looking something up on my computer, something that involves being â€śconnectedâ€ťâ€”that when one of my kids is talking to me, sensing that Iâ€™m not fully present for them, theyâ€™ll say: â€śAre you listening?â€ť
Iâ€™ll respond half-heartedly: â€śOf course I am,â€ť as I go about my typing.
And then, theyâ€™ll call me on it: â€śWhat did I say?â€ť
â€śUm, I donâ€™t know exactly,â€ť comes my lame response, as my kidâ€™s eyes drop and they walk away.
Sometimes Iâ€™m so busy doing â€¦ and so â€śconnectedâ€ť â€¦ that I become â€śdisconnectedâ€ť from the people that matter the most.
Fortunately in Judaism we have a built-in mechanism that encourages us to â€śdisconnectâ€ť from our phones and other devices so that we can â€śconnectâ€ť with the people that matter to us â€¦ and to our own selves. Itâ€™s Shabbat. Shabbat reminds us of what we truly are: not â€śhuman DOINGSâ€ť but â€śhuman BEINGS.â€ť (For more on the idea that we are â€śhuman beingsâ€ť and not â€śhuman doings,â€ť you can read my blog on The Spirituality of Mindfulness Meditation.)
Observing Shabbat in a traditional manner involves lots of things that one canâ€™t â€śdo.â€ť For example, if youâ€™re Shomer Shabbat (i.e, if you â€śkeep Shabbatâ€ť according to the rules of traditional Jewish law) you donâ€™t drive on Shabbat, or use electricity or make phone calls. Often, I hear people who, like myself, arenâ€™t Shomer Shabbat, say that observing Shabbat in a traditional sense sounds too difficult, perhaps even unpleasant. Most of all, they canâ€™t imagine being â€śunpluggedâ€ť for an entire day.
But honestly, I long for a day of being totally unplugged â€¦ totally â€śdisconnected.â€ť And thatâ€™s why Iâ€™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 canâ€™t â€śdoâ€ť things like check my email, texts and voice messages, itâ€™ll force me to put a lot more focus on â€śbeing.â€ť After returning home from Shabbat morning services and lunch at my synagogue on Saturday, Iâ€™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 wonâ€™t be easy to spend an entire day totally unplugged â€¦ Iâ€™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 Iâ€™m lucky, really lucky, I may just be able to sense what the rabbis meant when they spoke of Shabbat as â€śa taste of the World to Come.â€ť
Rather than making a â€śTo Doâ€ť list for the National Day of Unplugging, Iâ€™ve made a â€śTo Beâ€ť list, and hereâ€™s what it says:
Will you join me in unplugging on March 4-5, 2016? Here are some ideas of ways to unplug with your family.
Dear Chelsea & Marc,
First I want to say Bâ€™shaâ€™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 whatâ€™s best for your family. If you havenâ€™t read them yet, donâ€™t. If you have read them, or if youâ€™ve heard them elsewhereâ€”Iâ€™m sorry people are treating you as the role model for interfaith families. Iâ€™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 youâ€™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 youâ€™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 â€śJewishâ€ť family should behave or how an â€śinterfaithâ€ť 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 meantimeâ€”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
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. Â The dinosaur dad dies as well as Spotâ€™s (the cave-boy) parents. The death of parents in animated films has no doubt been the basis of more than one thesis. Itâ€™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. Â 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, Spotâ€™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.
3. Â 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?Â As Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught us, â€śThe whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.â€ť
We tend to ask our children the same questions over and over which are super hard to answer. Educators and parents ask, â€śWhat are you thankful for?â€ť This questions is asked repeatedly around Thanksgiving time. Children say, â€śmy parents, my home, food, friends and toys.â€ť
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, â€śthe solar system.â€ť That was an unusual answer. Iâ€™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, â€śChristmasâ€ť they beamed with joy, lit up and said, â€śpresents!â€ť 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 donâ€™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 Iâ€™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 donâ€™t like latkes. Or matzah ball soup, lox or noodle kugel. I know, itâ€™s just wrong, but Iâ€™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 donâ€™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 childrenâ€”who I hope will look to Judaism to give them order, meaning, sacred purpose, connectedness, hope, values, inspiration, pride, and so much moreâ€”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 donâ€™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 personâ€™s expression.Â I donâ€™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 wonâ€™t create closeness with Judaism.Â 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 religionâ€™s holidays is good.
Letâ€™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.
â€śHold on sweetheart, mama needs to send an email.â€ť
â€śOne minute baby, I really need to type something!â€ť
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 itâ€™s also incredibly fulfilling. Being able to work from home is hard, but itâ€™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, Iâ€™ll send emails and schedule meetings after they go to sleep, over a glass of wine and perhaps while watching Project Runway.
Some days it feels like Iâ€™m never getting anything done and some days it feels like Iâ€™m always working. Some days I feel like Iâ€™m giving my kids everything and some days it feels like I am ignoring them. Some days it feels like Iâ€™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.
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.
During the fall months, we find ourselves asking: Do we go to kidâ€™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 childrenâ€™s identity? Tot Shabbat. They wonâ€™t remember either, but by taking them to synagogue and to celebrate Shabbat weâ€™re teaching them the values that a pumpkin patch never could.
Having balance in the family doesnâ€™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.
â€śMama! Mama! Clap!â€ť
â€śOK darling, letâ€™s sing a song and clap together.â€ť
Itâ€™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 â€śon dutyâ€ť 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 cabbieâ€™s there waiting to pick her up. A montage unfolds: The good looking couple walking over a bridge in New Yorkâ€™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: â€śYou know, this is crazy. I donâ€™t even know your full name.â€ť
Man: â€śBernieâ€¦.Steinberg. Whatâ€™s yours?â€ť
Woman: â€śBridgetâ€¦.Bridget â€“ Theresa â€“ Mary â€“ Helene â€“ Fitzgerald.â€ť
Then they both say at the same time: â€śI think we have a problem.â€ť
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 coupleâ€™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 communityâ€”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 didnâ€™t care about Judaism. When you â€śmarried outâ€ť you were seen as â€śwriting offâ€ť your Judaism. I heard stories of parents who â€śsat shivaâ€ť (performed the Jewish mourning rituals) for a child who â€śmarried out.â€ť 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 Bernieâ€™s interfaith marriage was too controversial for primetime television, are fadingâ€”at least in a large segment of the liberal Jewish community. In todayâ€™s worldâ€”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 isnâ€™t Jewishâ€”itâ€™s not a shock when Bridget loves Bernie (or, for that matter, when Bridget loves Bernice). And now, with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Collegeâ€™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 arenâ€™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 canâ€™t just â€ścancel the showâ€ť and ignore reality. (For years, the Jewish communityâ€™s response to intermarriage was to preach against it.Â 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 Bernieâ€™s marriage to Bridget not as a threat to Jewish continuity, but rather as an opportunity. Weâ€™d want to celebrate Bridget and Bernieâ€™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 â€śLove and Religionâ€ť 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 â€śRaising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Familyâ€ť class to consider â€śhowâ€ť and â€śwhyâ€ť to bring Jewish traditions into their lives.
Bridget and Bernie are ready for primetime. And for InterfaithFamily, â€śprimetimeâ€ť 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 arenâ€™t Jewish; to let them know that we donâ€™t just tolerate them, but we are grateful to them for their commitment to Judaism and Jewish continuity. Itâ€™s a time to let those Jews who have partners who arenâ€™t Jewish know that not only are we not â€śsitting shivaâ€ť for them, but we hope that they will fully engage in the Jewish community, and that we donâ€™t see their choice of a life-partner as a reflection on their Jewish commitment. Itâ€™s a time to declare that rather than fighting against intermarriage, we are working for a vibrant Jewish communityâ€”and we welcome anyone who wants to join us.
Interfaith Family Month is a time to let all of the â€śBerniesâ€ť out there know that we donâ€™t love them any less because they love â€śBridget.â€ť And for all of the â€śBridgetsâ€ť out there, we hope that just as you love â€śBernie,â€ť 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.
This year our sukkah is unkosher. It has no walls.
According to traditional Jewish law, a sukkah is supposed to have walls â€“ four of them, actually, though one of them can be the side of a house if itâ€™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 didnâ€™t get around to putting them up. But thatâ€™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. Itâ€™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 havenâ€™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), theyâ€™re not Jewish, we are what gets referred to as an interfaith family.
For me, our sukkah without walls symbolizes Melissaâ€™s and my core value of openness to welcoming the stranger deeply into our home and life. Thereâ€™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 someoneâ€™s good try at erecting a proper sukkah. But our sukkah, perhaps inspired by Abraham and Sarahâ€™s tent, is literally open on all sides. Like a sukkah with the traditionally prescribed walls that wonâ€™t fall down in a gust of wind, our â€śopen architectureâ€ť 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 overdoneâ€¦)
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 Melissaâ€™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 wasnâ€™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, sheâ€™s a great model of resilience to our kids, and she really gets them in ways that we donâ€™t. Weâ€™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 Bahaâ€™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, thereâ€™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.)
Iâ€™m not seeking pity with what Iâ€™m about to say, but one of the painful things in my life, as a rabbi and even just as a Jew, is that Iâ€™m all too aware that for a part of the Jewish community, itâ€™s not just my sukkah thatâ€™s unkosher, but our family is kind of unkosher too. A previously intermarried rabbinical student? Thatâ€™s not kosher! A spouse of a rabbi who converted but not in an Orthodox way? For some, that means Iâ€™m still an intermarried rabbi. Totally unkosher (well, maybe not anymore). A rabbiâ€™s family and their kids arenâ€™t Jewish?! Itâ€™s like itâ€™s raining pork and shellfish. On Shabbos.
There are some Jewish thought leaders who argue that itâ€™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 arenâ€™t strong enough to promote Jewish children, and arenâ€™t rabbis supposed to be exemplars of Jewish lives that are more emphatically and unambiguously Jewish? Well, I suppose I canâ€™t prove that these critics are wrong, though the truth is that they donâ€™t know for a certainty what will or wonâ€™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 isnâ€™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, weâ€™ll be judged by some as a failed Jewish family, a Jewish continuity dead end.
But hereâ€™s the thing. Because of our life choices, itâ€™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. Itâ€™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, â€śDammit! Who the hell broke off the pitom!? Thatâ€™s the first thing you learn youâ€™re not supposed to do! And it cost, like, forty dollars!â€ť Itâ€™s also Arielâ€™s kids, whoâ€™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 didnâ€™t turn me away, despite my way of doing Jewish, and neither did the synagogue I served for 8 years, Iâ€™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 Iâ€™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 itâ€™s something else, maybe even something wonderful.
* names have been changed
I have always loved Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They were among the few Jewish holidays I remember celebrating as a child, and I can still picture the Post-It notes my mom would put in the various dishes as she was setting up for Rosh Hashanah dinner to help her remember which kugel would go in which dish. I loved the first sweet taste of apples and challah dipped in honey for the new year, and sitting in that large hotel ballroom (where my synagogue held its High Holy Day services in order to accommodate the larger crowd) listening to our beloved rabbi declare after every song â€śthis is my favorite one.â€ť
And for Yom Kippur, my family (including all of the â€ścousinsâ€ťâ€”whether or not we were related) would gather to break the fast. I looked forward to these two holidays every year, less for their religious significance and more for the time spent together with family and community. When I moved out of my family home in college and in the years after, I continued many of these traditions and traveled home when possible to spend this joyous time with my family. And then last year, everything changed. I had twins two short months before Rosh Hashanah.
During a time when I would normally be booking airline tickets or menu planning or sermon writing, I was just trying to stay afloat, learning how to be a new mom of twins and a new rabbi, all on very little sleep. They were born on July 2 and we spent the Fourth of July in the hospital; our first holiday as a family passed without any mention. Those first two months were beyond difficult for me physically and emotionally. Every day felt like an eternity, but September crept up on us out of the blue and we had no idea what to do for the High Holy Days.
We arranged childcare for Rosh Hashanah morning service, and decided to switch off for Yom Kippur services. We also planned on switching off for the evening services: My husband would go to erev (the first night of) Rosh Hashanah and I would go to Kol Nidre (the first night of Yom Kippur). It was my first night alone with my babies, and it did not go well. My husband ended up leaving services early to come and help me with them, and by the next morning we were exhausted and in no mood to pray or celebrate with community. But we had a sitter and we went to services together, our first time alone together out of the house since the twins were born. I had to leave services twice in order to pump breastmilk and we ended up leaving before services were over to get home in time to relieve the sitter.
Am I glad I went? No. Did I have a fulfilling and joyful Rosh Hashanah last year? No. I tried so hard to recreate the experience I used to have, that I completely missed the point of the holiday. For Yom Kippur we decided to put the kids to bed and watch services live online. I fell asleep halfway through. My experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from last year left me disappointed, sad and lonely.
I vowed to make this year different. My twins are 14 months old now, I am away from them every day, I sleep seven hours a night and I can finally create the experience I want. So how is it that two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, my husband and I just decided what we are going to do?
We canâ€™t follow the prescribed routine of spending all day in synagogue praying and singing and then fasting. So what can we do as a family? Should we leave our kids with the nanny and celebrate the holidays without them? Should we skip the adult services and only go to the kidâ€™s service? Are they even old enough to â€śgetâ€ť it?
These holidays are so important to me, but how can I honor my own need for celebration and introspection while also including my kids? Is it OK to be selfish on the High Holy Days?
I donâ€™t have the answers to these questions yet, but I am talking to other families about how they do it, and then trying some things out for my family. Part of the joy of the holidays is seeing it through my childrenâ€™s eyes and that is the lens through which I am trying to view Rosh Hashanah this year. Yesterday my babies heard the shofar for the first time and were equally excited and afraidâ€”the exact emotions that the sound of the shofar should evoke from all of us. We are planning on attending adult services together and bringing the kids to the tot service later in the day, but also being prepared for the fact that when you have kids, plans can change in an instant.
Rosh Hashanah is about celebrating a new year and sharing the sweetness with our family and friends. Yom Kippur is about looking deep within and finding areas for improvement in my own character to better myself, my family and the world around me. By reflecting on my experience of past High Holy Days, and adjusting this yearsâ€™ experience I can better serve myself and my family, thus teaching my children the most important values I want to pass on to them. We are honoring past traditions and hoping to create some new ones together.
For those of you who are parents navigating the High Holy Days, check out ourÂ Celebrating the High Holy Days with Kids booklet and our Guide to the High Holy Days, including sections on family, school, activities and more.