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a) A child born from the sperm of a Jewish male and the egg of a Jewish female, who was carried by a surrogate who was not Jewish and then raised by her Jewish biological parents.
b) The child of a biological father who was not Jewish and a biological mother who was not Jewish at the time of conception but who had a traditional Jewish conversion two days before giving birth to the child, who is adopted at birth and raised by parents who are not Jewish.
c) The biological child of a Jewish father and a mother who is not Jewish at the time she gives birth but later converts to Judaism, who is raised as a Jew by his biological parents.
In fact, only the child in (b) is considered Jewish according to halacha. The only factor that matters in determining the Jewish “status” of a child is the religion of the woman who gives birth to the child at the time she gives birth. Whether the biological father is Jewish; whether adoptive parents are Jewish; whether a biological mother is Jewish if she is not the one who gives birth to the child; even whether the child is raised as a Jew…all of these factors are not relevant in determining whether the child is Jewish according to halacha. (For discussion of this issue by a Conservative Rabbi CLICK HERE.)
The issue of “Who is a Jew?” can be confusing; it can seem illogical, and at times unfair. Due to the traditional Jewish rule of “matrilineal descent,” when a birth-mother is Jewish—regardless of how (or by whom) the child is raised—the child is Jewish according to halacha. But when the father is Jewish (or, in the case of adoption or surrogacy, both parents may be Jewish) but the birth mother is not Jewish, even if the child is raised as a Jew, he is not Jewish according to halacha.
Nancy and Drew (not their real names) were aware of the traditional Jewish requirement of matrilineal descent when they sat in my office recently, Nancy six months pregnant with their first child, a girl. Drew, who is Jewish, and Nancy, a practicing Catholic, had decided that any children they had would be raised as Jews. “So,” Nancy said to me, her hand resting on top of her growing belly, “how long after the baby is born should we take her to the mikveh (the ritual bath which is used for conversion to Judaism)?”
As a Reform Rabbi, I was somewhat taken aback by Nancy’s question. It has been years since the Reform Movement began recognizing “patrilineal descent” (i.e., the child can be recognized as a Jew if the father is Jewish, even if the mother is not Jewish). Drew grew up in a Reform synagogue, and he and Nancy had even begun to discuss joining a local Reform synagogue, where nobody would ever question the Jewishness of their daughter. Why, I wondered, did they feel a need to convert their daughter to Judaism when she would already be Jewish? To me, a conversion would be not only unnecessary, but problematic, since it would imply that the baby wasn’t “really” Jewish even though Drew was Jewish and she would be raised as a Jew.
And so I asked the couple why they wanted to convert their daughter, since it wasn’t necessary. Their response was simple and practical: “What if we end up at a Conservative synagogue one day, or what if our daughter grows up and wants to be married by a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi? We wouldn’t want her to feel that her being Jewish is in question, so we figured it’s best to ‘cover all of the bases’ while she’s a baby. This way, more people will consider her to be Jewish.”
I understood where they were coming from. After all, if they decided at some point to join a Conservative synagogue—even one that was very welcoming of interfaith families—since “patrilineal descent” isn’t recognized by the Conservative movement, their daughter might be allowed to be enrolled in Religious School without converting, but she would have to convert before being allowed to become a
I understood and respected their motivation to shield their daughter from the potential future pain of having her Jewishness questioned…of being told by others that because her mother wasn’t Jewish, she wasn’t Jewish, even though she’d been living as a Jew her entire life and had always identified as a Jew. My own daughter, simply because she was born to a Jewish mother, will never have to endure such painful questioning of her identity by others; why should Nancy and Drew have to worry that their daughter would have to deal with such questioning?
But still, I felt that by embracing Nancy and Drew’s “solution” to “convert” a child that I would already consider Jewish, I wouldn’t be holding true to my belief in the legitimacy of “patrilineal descent.” And so while I acknowledged the benefits of the couple “converting” their daughter while she was still a baby, I also expressed my concerns.
Whether Nancy or Drew will take their daughter to a mikveh for conversion while she is still a baby is their decision to make, and I will honor whatever decision they come to. But it saddens me that they have to make such a decision: choosing between their own liberal Jewish beliefs and the desire for their daughter to be recognized as a Jew by the larger Jewish community.
What would you do in Nancy and Drew’s situation? Would you take your child to the mikveh? What if the child were adopted and neither of the biological parents were Jewish?
On Friday evening, July 18, I had a great time welcoming Shabbat. My family’s Shabbat dinner guests were six young interfaith couples who I’ve come to know over the past year—either through officiating at their weddings or through my work at InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. My IFF/Philadelphia colleague Wendy Armon, her husband Bruce and daughter Tess also joined us.
It was wonderful celebrating Shabbat with these six couples. For some of the attendees who were not Jewish it was their first time attending a Shabbat dinner and I felt privileged to be able to make this happen for them and to share in their experience.
After everyone arrived and had the chance to meet one another (none of the couples knew one another previously) and talk for a while, we all gathered to recite the Shabbat blessings. Anyone who wanted one was given a kippah and/or a copy of InterfaithFamily’s “Shabbat Made Easy” booklet. Then I lit the candles and recited the blessing. Before Wendy and I blessed our kids with the traditional Friday evening blessing for children, I pointed out that the blessing for sons begins with the phrase “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe.” Interestingly, the mother of Ephraim and Menashe (Joseph’s sons in the Bible) was Asenath, an Egyptian woman. It felt quite appropriate to bless my own son Benji with the words “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe” (two men who grew up in an “interfaith” family in the Bible) as I was surrounded by interfaith couples who will one day have families, like Joseph and Asenath’s, where the parents are from different religious backgrounds.
I shared with the couples how in some traditional Jewish homes the husband sings Eishet Chayil (“A Woman of Valor”—from Proverbs 31) to his wife. Rather than reciting “A Woman of Valor,” I invited the couples to each share with their partners what they loved about them, or perhaps a wish for the week ahead. Each couple did this as Wendy and I blessed our children.
My son Benji recited the kiddush (blessing over the wine) after which I invited each couple to share from their own cup of wine (just as those who were married had done at their wedding ceremonies). In truth, my impetus for doing this was that I had enough silver kiddush cups for six couples, but not enough for twelve individuals.
After we said
My hope is that the interfaith couples who attended the Shabbat dinner at my house will now “pay it forward” and host Shabbat dinners of their own. IFF/Philadelphia wants to help them with this, so we have created a Shabbat Dinner Program. Here’s how it works: Anyone who attended our Shabbat dinner—or who has participated in one of our Love and Religion workshops for interfaith couples or our online “Raising a Child with Judaism in your Interfaith Family” classes for parents of young children—is invited to host a Shabbat dinner of their own, which will be subsidized by InterfaithFamily. We encourage participants in our Shabbat Dinner Program to invite other interfaith couples and/or families to celebrate Shabbat with them so that they can create a community of their peers. However, we also believe that inviting guests from different backgrounds can help inspire a lively discussion about Shabbat and Jewish life, so participants in our Shabbat Dinner Program are also welcome to invite others who are not in interfaith relationships to their Shabbat dinner.
IFF/Philadelphia will not only provide those participating in the program with resources for hosting a Shabbat dinner, we will also help pay. And while the Shabbat dinner at my house can be a model for those who attended, we encourage people to “make Shabbat their own” in a way that feels right for them.
For those of you who are alumni of one of our workshops or classes, please be in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we are happy to tell you more about our Shabbat Dinner Program and give you any assistance you need in planning your own Shabbat dinner. If you happen to live in Philadelphia or South Jersey and you aren’t yet connected with IFF/Philadelphia but would like to attend a Shabbat dinner hosted by an interfaith couple or family, let us know and we’ll try to hook you up with someone who is hosting a Shabbat dinner near you.
And finally, even if you don’t live in the Philadelphia area, consider having a Shabbat dinner of your own. All you need are two candlesticks and candle holders (or you can use two tealights) and matches; a kiddush cup (though any cup is fine) and some wine or juice; challah (which, depending on where you live, you can probably get at a local bakery or grocery store, or you can make your own—Rabbi Mychal Copeland recently shared her recipe) and a challah cover (or you can just cover your challah with a napkin); and kippot for your guests if you want to offer them. You can print out InterfaithFamily’s “Shabbat Made Easy” Booklet for explanations, blessings, etc. And you don’t have to make a big deal about dinner: You can make or order something simple, or you can even make it potluck. The point is that you’re together with others to share the beauty and joy of celebrating Shabbat.
We’d love to hear about your Shabbat experiences. Whether you celebrate Shabbat regularly in your home, or whether you just hosted or attended a Shabbat dinner for your first time, tell us about it. Who did you invite to share Shabbat with you? What was your favorite part of the evening? What will you do the same next time? What will you do differently?
I just read your article in the Wall Street Journal, Wanted: Converts to Judaism, in which you advocate for “the rabbis of the Conservative movement to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion.” Considering that you are the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement, your words carry great weight. And because of this, I am asking you to reconsider your position.
I of course agree with you that there is much beauty and deep meaning in living a Jewish life. I am overjoyed when someone comes to me and says that she has decided to pursue the path toward conversion—whether it is because she has lived with a Jewish partner and raised Jewish children and now wholeheartedly desires to become a Jew; she has fallen in love with a Jewish person and thinks that living as a Jew could elevate her own life; or because, independent of any personal relationships, she has found Judaism and has come to believe that she is meant to be a Jew.
It is incumbent upon those of us who are rabbis as well as all people and institutions that are committed to Jewish continuity that we let all people, and especially those family members in our midst who are not Jewish, know that they are always welcome to become Jewish if that is what their soul desires, and that our doors are open wide. As a rabbi, there are few things I have done that are more rewarding than accompanying someone on their journey to becoming a Jew. Conversion, when done for the right reasons, is a blessing for the new Jew as well as for the Jewish community. But conversion isn’t the only option, and it isn’t always the right option. And while I am sure you in no way intended this, I greatly worry that by advocating for conversion, the Jewish community will give the impression that any conversion is OK, even without the sincerity of conviction and belief that a genuine conversion would require.
I agree with you that we should ensure that “opportunities for serious adult study of Judaism and active participation in Jewish life” are always available. Over the years, I have seen many family members who are not Jewish take Jewish learning very seriously, and I have seen such family members actively participating in Jewish communal life. I am sure you have witnessed this as well. Sometimes family members who are not Jewish decide over time to become Jewish themselves (often before a significant life-cycle event, such as a child’s Bar or
While I believe that family members who are not Jewish should always know that they are welcome to explore becoming Jewish and that we would be honored to have them as converts if this is what they truly want and believe, I worry that if “Jewish institutions and their rabbis…actively encourage non-Jewish family members in our midst to take the next step and formally commit to conversion,” as you suggest we do, we will not only encourage conversions for the wrong reasons, but that we will also be putting undue pressure on family members who are not Jewish. Rather than bringing them into the fold, as you desire, I fear that we could turn them away.
Instead, I think we need to send the message that we welcome family members who are not Jewish as part of our community just as they are (rather than trying to turn them into what we want them to be). Rather than “explicitly and strongly advocat[ing] for conversion” as you suggest, I believe that we should let family members who are not Jewish know that we would be honored to help them become Jewish if that is what they wish for themselves, and we would be equally honored if they do not convert but make the commitment to raise their children as Jews. What we really need to do is to ensure that resources are available for parents who did not grow up Jewish (as well as those who did grow up Jewish) to raise their children with Judaism in their lives, whether or not they themselves convert.
Toward the end of your article, you make reference to the biblical character Ruth, the “most-famous convert in Jewish tradition.” While we often refer to Ruth as a “convert,” using such a term is anachronistic, since “conversion” as we now know it did not exist in Biblical times. But, more important, as I point out in my blog Re-reading Ruth: Not “Ruth and Her Conversion” but “Ruth and Her Interfaith Marriage,” we cannot ignore the timing of Ruth’s conversion. As I noted in my blog, by the time Ruth made her famous declaration of commitment to her mother-in-law Naomi and to the people and God of Israel, Ruth’s Israelite husband, Noami’s son Machlon, was already deceased. This was already after Ruth’s marriage—not before it.
Ruth may have found, as you point out, “community, meaning and direction by entering deeply into her new identity,” but this didn’t happen because Naomi or anyone else in her family encouraged Ruth or advocated for her to take on a new identity. In fact, the Book of Ruth explicitly informs us that after Machlon had died and Naomi was leaving Ruth’s homeland of Moab to return to Bethlehem, Naomi repeatedly urged Ruth to “turn back” (Ruth 1:11-15) rather than accompany Naomi on her journey. Ruth uttered the words “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God (Ruth 1:16) not because Naomi “actively encouraged her” but because Naomi had already accepted her for so many years for who she was—a Moabite, an “outsider,” that was married to her son. It was because of Naomi’s unconditional love for Ruth that Ruth linked her future with that of Naomi, her people and her God—and ultimately went on to become the great-grandmother of King David.
Chancellor Eisen, you note in the first paragraph of your article that “Judaism needs more Jews.” I agree with you that the high rate of intermarriage “presents the Jewish community…perhaps, with a unique opportunity.” But where we disagree is on what that opportunity is. In my view, the opportunity we have is not to necessarily convince those who are married to Jews to convert. Instead, like Naomi, we can help to ensure our Jewish “tomorrows” by unconditionally welcoming spouses and partners of Jews into our Jewish community and making it as easy and meaningful as possible for them to raise Jewish children.
Rabbi Robyn Frisch
A few weeks ago, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia hosted our first gathering for young adults from interfaith homes and those who are in interfaith relationships: Love, Religion & Cockatils. We were fortunate enough to work with The Jewish Collaborative, a local organization that works with people in their 20s and 30s. In addition, our programming committee was terrific in coming up with the right type of program and the appropriate language for the marketing materials. Lots of organizations have mixers or programs, but this event was a little bit of both. It was an amazing night!
Drinks and appetizers: Everyone was given two drink tickets and there was a table with appetizers so that everyone could snack and mingle. We wanted everyone to have a chance to engage in casual conversation before we broke up into two groups. We served the “Love & Religion” as our signature cocktail. We’re pretty sure our participants enjoyed our special concoction.
A unique format: We wanted people to talk casually about their experiences and to connect with one another. The programming committee thought that the best way to achieve this would be to ask lighthearted questions such as, “What is your favorite holiday movie and why?” We hoped participants would explain their points of view as to why they liked certain movies, thus sparking conversation about issues such as how childhood memories inform our identity. We know that for many people, there is a lot of passion about their religion that has to do with memories. We asked other fun questions such as “If you described your family as a food, what would it be?” We heard, “a pizza bagel,” “a potato latke.” The answers were fun and touched upon the backgrounds of each person. One person talked about feelings associated with a Christmas tree. Another person talked about family meals and holidays.
During our conversations, we heard the most fascinating stories. One woman who grew up in America went to Israel and is now engaged to a Muslim from Sudan. Another woman told us about growing up in a Jewish/Puerto Rican household. One of the couples talked about how the rabbi at their wedding was so wonderful and welcoming that the partner who did not grow up Jewish is now considering converting.
A measure of success: we handed out short evaluations and all data indicated that everyone seemed quite happy with the program. The real measure of success in my mind was that people stayed for an hour after the event ended to talk to one another and our staff. Obviously, there is a real need for a forum for folks to connect and share their stories. I’m proud that IFF/Philadelphia offered that space for them and I’m pleased to be part of an organization that offers a safe space for people to share and communicate online and in person.
Would you like to attend Love, Religion and Cocktails in the future in Philadelphia or elsewhere? Share your comments and ideas below.
Everyone stand in a big circle. If you have a parent who is not Jewish, take a step inside the circle. Stay there. Now, if you are still in the outside circle, and you have a close relative who is not Jewish, take a step inside the circle.
Everyone looked around and saw that nearly all of the more than 75 participants had taken a step inside the circle.
And so began InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia’s Sensitivity Training for counselors at Camp JRF (the Reconstructionist movement’s overnight camp in the Pennsylvania Poconos) for working with children from interfaith homes. This training—which I conducted along with my IFF/Philadelphia colleagues Wendy Armon and Robin Warsaw—was part of the camp’s Inclusivity Training for counselors in the week before campers arrived. It was clear to all of the counselors in attendance that being part of an interfaith family isn’t just a theoretical issue for liberal Jews today, it’s something that touches almost every one of us personally.
Over the next hour, we explored how the counselors could best handle various issues that might come up during the summer. For example, what do you do as a counselor when you’re leading a discussion about God and one of the campers brings up Jesus? The counselors also divided up into small groups and discussed and acted out various scenarios involving interfaith issues, such as how to react when a camper says that she is “half Jewish and half [another religion]” or when a camper claims that his bunkmate “isn’t really Jewish.”
I was amazed at the counselors’ thoughtfulness and sensitivity, their insight and creativity, and their openness to discussing challenging issues. After the training, the three of us from IFF/Philadelphia had the pleasure of joining the counselors for a healthy and delicious (really!) lunch—which was followed by a rousing song session in which the counselors sang some of the songs they’ve been learning in advance of the campers’ arrival. Then we were in for a real treat, as the camp’s director, Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, took us on a tour (by golf cart) of the camp. We saw how the different activity areas were labeled with signs that looked like Israeli street signs, naming the activity in Hebrew, English and Arabic. A highlight of the tour was the camp’s new Eco-Village (designed with the input of campers from the past year), a super cool area where campers entering their freshman and sophomore years of high school will live in yurts.
More than once throughout our day at Camp JRF, we heard someone use the camp expression “How We Be.” At Camp JRF, diversity isn’t just tolerated…it isn’t just accepted…it’s embraced! One thing was clear: “We all be different…and that’s wonderful!” Camp JRF is very much a JEWISH camp, but every person at camp—counselor or camper—is encouraged to express his or her Judaism in a way that is personally meaningful. And each person understands that he or she has to respect how others “be.” There’s no “one size fits all.” Each individual is unique, and that makes for a vibrant camp community.
I have no doubt that the campers who attend Camp JRF this summer will have an amazing time. They’ll swim and play Frisbee; dance and sing; make new friends and have all kinds of exciting and rewarding experiences. If they’re going into ninth or tenth grade—they’ll even get to live in a yurt! But most important, they’ll know that they’re living in a community where their uniqueness is embraced and they are accepted for who they are, as they are. And THAT is a great way to “be.”
I am trying to raise my kids to think more about the world than their next playdate, TV show or snack. Recently a friend decided to host her 40th birthday party at a food distribution warehouse for the hungry. My first thought was, I’d rather take my friend out for a drink to toast her birthday, but I knew this was a nice thing to do. I thought about bringing a gift for her but I will do that another time. Little did I realize, I was the one to receive the real gift.
It was a Sunday morning on a beautiful day. My kids wanted to swim, sleep, watch TV… anything but go to the food warehouse. Through some serious and exhausting negotiation, I was able to encourage my oldest child to go with me.
In the warehouse, there are lots of smiling volunteers handing out cans and boxes of food to other volunteers holding boxes. Once the boxes are filled, they are closed and given to volunteers to distribute locally. I heard the requests over the loudspeaker to come and sign up for a route to deliver boxes to the elderly. My son and I hadn’t planned on delivering boxes. The boxes are a little heavy and, well, he’d rather be swimming. Frankly, so would I. But we decided that these boxes needed to be delivered and so we stepped up to get our list and directions to the address building where we would be delivering food.
When we arrived, we saw lots of people in the apartment building going out for the day and receiving Sunday visitors. What surprised me was that I drive by this building a few times a week. I never knew that there were hungry people living there. But there are. And the people in the building look just like my parents, aunts and uncles. Retired, happy. But some of them don’t have enough food to eat. I realized that one day that person without enough food to eat could be me. Or it could be you.
I dutifully delivered the boxes and suddenly wished I could do more. I thought about how lucky I am that I don’t worry at the grocery store about whether there will be enough money to pay for the food. It certainly puts life in perspective. And last night, I slept better than I would have, had I just gone swimming all day. Once again, by giving, I ended up receiving so much more through an increased level of appreciation for all that I have.
In Judaism, there is a concept of tikkun olam—repair the world. It happens that the organization that coordinated the food distribution is the Jewish Relief Agency based in Philadelphia. The organization distributes food once a month throughout the Philadelphia area. Many of the hungry folks are immigrants but some are not. Many are Jewish but some are not.
In this crazy time of graduations, camp and vacations, repairing the world is important to remember. It also helps us repair a little of ourselves!
I don’t normally read books written for middle schoolers, but I was in the children’s section of my local library picking up a book for my daughter the other day when I noticed a book with a bright yellow cover with a pretty Indian girl entitled My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, written by Paula J. Freedman, on display. I opened the book and started to read the summary on the inside cover: “For Tara Feinstein, life with her Jewish-Indian-American family is like a bowl of spicy matzoh ball soup. It’s a mix of cultures that is sometimes delicious, and sometimes confusing…”
I was hooked, and I immediately checked out the book. As someone who devotes my days to working with interfaith couples and families and advocating for a welcoming Jewish community, I couldn’t wait to start reading.
And I wasn’t disappointed. It was a lot of fun to read the story of Tara’s desi mispacha—a term that Tara describes in the book as a “Hindi + Yiddish made up term meaning a family that’s a little bit Indian and a little bit Jewish. Nicer than ‘Hin-Jew’…” I appreciated how the author depicted Tara’s struggles as she prepares to become a
Tara’s Indian mother converted to Judaism years earlier, before marrying her father, but Tara still feels a deep connection to her Indian family and her Indian heritage. She deeply loved her mothers’ parents who lived in India and died several years earlier. She feels a special bond to her Nanaji (her mother’s father) and wants to be sure that celebrating her Bat Mitzvah won’t make her forget him. She adores Indian food, and though her mother doesn’t cook, her father—who grew up Jewish in America—makes great Indian food. Tara loves to watch and act out scenes from Bollywood movies. And for good luck, she rubs the statue of Ganesha that sits on her dresser.
One particular scene in the book really struck me. When Tara realizes that a friend of hers has stolen a bracelet, Tara grabs the bracelet and goes to the store to return it. As she’s reaching to put the bracelet back on the jewelry counter, she’s stopped by a security guard, who thinks that Tara’s involved in the shoplifting. When she tells the security guard that her name is “Tara Feinstein,” he looks at her skeptically and says to her: “No, really.”
That’s what it’s constantly like for Tara…people making assumptions about her, and her Jewishness, based on how she looks, and on her mother’s (and thus her) background. And this is what it’s like for so many children from interfaith, inter-racial and/or inter-cultural homes. Fortunately for Tara, she comes to realize that connecting to her Judaism on a deeper level doesn’t mean that she has to distance herself from her Indian heritage. As she says in her Bat Mitzvah speech: “…now I know that inspiration can come from many different sources, and that having multicultural experiences can actually make you stronger and more accepting of different points of view.” She comes to see that “Nanaji would really have liked my Bat Mitzvah…he was a very spiritual person…he would have approved, as long as I did it with an open heart.”
When my children write book reports for school, they always have to tell whether they would recommend the book, and why or why not. Well, I can say that I would highly recommend My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. It was refreshing to read about a young woman coming of age and dealing with the multiple aspects of her identity, and realizing that she could be fully Jewish AND still honor her Indian cultural heritage (as she did by wearing a treasured sari from her mother’s family which was made into a dress for her Bat Mitzvah).
The book shows in a touching way not just the challenges, but also the blessings, of growing up in an interfaith, inter-cultural family. It’s always said that kids need to see themselves reflected in the dolls they play with, the television and movies they watch, and the stories they read. I’d imagine that a middle schooler, especially a girl, growing up in an interfaith, inter-racial or intercultural home would at least find some aspects of herself reflected in Tara.
If you’re a mom or dad in an interfaith home and you have a child in middle school, I suggest that you get My Basmati Bat Mitzvah for your child. Better yet, read it with your kid! It’ll give you a great opening to discuss complex issues of belonging and identity. If you’re raising your child as a Jew, you can discuss with them how they can still be one hundred percent Jewish even if one parent did not grow up (and may still not be) Jewish. And you can talk about how being Jewish and proudly celebrating your Jewish identity doesn’t mean that you can’t love and honor family members who aren’t Jewish with a full heart or that you can’t embrace aspects of what you inherited from your parent who did not grow up Jewish.
I have to return My Basmati Bat Mitzvah to the library soon, before it’s overdue. And when I get there, I may just go back to the children’s section to see what other great books I can find for myself.
On Shavuot, Jews celebrate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. If you didn’t grow up Jewish, or even if you did, you may not know much about Shavuot. Although Shavuot is one of the Shelosh Regalim (the three Pilgrimage Festivals), equal in importance to Passover and Sukkot, it’s less commonly celebrated than the other two holidays. Maybe this is because Shavuot doesn’t have a well-known home component, like the Passover Seder (celebrated by more Jews than almost any other Jewish ritual) or the sukkot (huts) some Jews build outside of their homes on Sukkot. Maybe it’s because Shavuot comes at the end of the school year, so even if you have kids in a Jewish preschool, religious school or day school, there’s not as much time available in the curriculum to focus on Shavuot. Whatever the reason, I for one would love to see a change, and for more people to learn about Shavuot, and celebrate the holiday in meaningful ways.
In that spirit, as Shavuot approaches, I have seven suggestions for how to make the holiday more meaningful. Why seven? Because Shavuot marks the fiftieth day after the start of the counting of the Omer. (We begin counting the Omer, which links Passover to Shavuot, on the second night of Passover.) Shavuot (which means “weeks” in Hebrew) marks the completion of counting seven weeks of seven days.
1. Read the Book of Ruth. Traditionally, the Biblical Book of Ruth is read in synagogues on Shavuot. Ruth’s story is read on this holiday for several reasons:
a. The Book of Ruth describes the harvest season and Shavuot is also known as Hag HaKatsir, the Harvest Festival.
b. On Shavuot, when Jews celebrate God’s giving—and the Jewish people’s accepting—the Torah, we read of Ruth’s willingly entering into the Jewish faith and thus, according to Jewish understanding, a life of Torah.
c. The end of the Book of Ruth describes the lineage of King David, who is Ruth’s great-grandson. According to Jewish tradition, King David was born and died on Shavuot.
Even if you don’t go to services on Shavuot, you can read and discuss the story of Ruth with family members or friends. Ruth is often celebrated as the first Jew by Choice, but as I argue in my recent blog, I think she really should be celebrated as a woman in an interfaith marriage who helps to ensure the Jewish future.
2. Study the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are traditionally read from the Torah at Shavuot services. Take time to read the Ten Commandments and learn about them. If you have younger kids, your family can decide what Ten Commandments/Rules should be followed in your home. Older kids and adults can discuss how they feel about posting the Ten Commandments in public places such as court houses. Click here to read the position the Anti-Defamation League took on this issue in 2005.
3. Attend a Tikkun Leil Shavuot. There’s a wonderful custom of staying up all (or part of) the first night of Shavuot to study Torah. One of my personal favorite Shavuot experiences was when I was living in Jerusalem and I spent all night learning at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot and then at sunrise walked with the rest of the people attending the Tikkun to the Kotel for the morning service.
Look online to see if a synagogue or other Jewish organization near you is having a Tikkun. Or host your own Tikkun and invite friends over to study Torah.
4. Make (and eat!) Dairy Foods. It’s customary to eat dairy foods like cheesecake and cheese-filled blintzes on Shavuot. Some say that this is because the Bible compares Torah to “honey and milk…under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11). Another explanation is that when the Israelites received the Torah and learned for the first time the laws for keeping kosher, they didn’t have time right away to prepare kosher meat. In order not to eat meat that wasn’t kosher, they ate dairy. And so, on Shavuot, when the Giving of the Torah is celebrated, many Jews eat dairy in commemoration of how the Israelites ate when they first received the Torah.
In keeping with the tradition of eating dairy on Shavuot, after dinner on Shavuot I like to put out different flavors of ice cream and bowls with all kinds of toppings for everyone in my family to make their own ice cream sundae. My kids love doing this—and so do I!
5. Bake a Special Challah. Even those familiar with the braided challot for Shabbat and the round challot traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah may not be aware of the tradition of having specially shaped challot for Shavuot. This Shavuot, bake a challah in the shape of the Ten Commandments, as mentioned above, or in the shape of a Heavenly Ladder, a Torah or Mount Sinai (where God gave the Torah to Moses). To learn how to make these challot click here.
6. If You Have Young Children, Read Books Related to Shavuot: Check out PJ Library for a list of Shavuot books.
7. Attend a Shavuot Service. In Israel and most Reform and Reconstructionist congregations outside of Israel, Shavuot is observed for one day. In Orthodox and most Conservative congregations outside of Israel, Shavuot is observed for two days. In many congregations, Confirmation (a group ceremony, generally at the end of tenth grade, celebrating the completion of a religious curriculum) is celebrated on Shavuot. Not only is Shavuot near the end of the school year, but the association of Shavuot with the Giving of Torah is thematically connected to the study of Torah acknowledged at Confirmation as well as the idea of students committing themselves to a life of Torah. You can look at the websites of local synagogues to find out when their Shavuot services are being held.
Chag Sameach! Have a happy holiday!
A version of this blog post was reprinted in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and can be read here.
These words, spoken by the young widow Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi, are among the most well known and most powerful words in the Bible. They express Ruth’s commitment to Naomi—and to Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God. With this declaration, Ruth the Moabite cast her lot with the lot of the Jewish people, and she recognized the God of Israel as her God.
Often Ruth is spoken of as the first convert to Judaism. Of course Ruth’s “conversion” wasn’t like the conversions of today. Ruth didn’t attend an Introduction to Judaism class (I can’t imagine that any such classes were offered in Moab!); she didn’t appear before a Beit Din (a rabbinic court); and she didn’t immerse herself in the mikveh (ritual bath). And in fact, throughout the Book of Ruth, even after Ruth makes her declaration of commitment to Naomi, the people of Israel and the God of Israel, Ruth is constantly referred to as “the Moabite,” reminding us, the readers, that Ruth was still seen as an “outsider.”
Even if we are to accept that Ruth converted to Judaism (at a time long before conversion as we now know it), the timing of Ruth’s “conversion” is noteworthy. Having lost her husband and two sons, Machlon (Ruth’s husband) and Chilion (who was married to another Moabite woman, Orpah), while living in Moab, Naomi was preparing to head back to Israel. She told her daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families, and Orpah followed her instructions. Ruth, however, clung to Naomi, and when Naomi told her to “return to her people and her gods” as Orpah had done, Ruth responded: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go….”
By the time Ruth made her famous declaration to Naomi, Ruth’s Israelite husband was already deceased. This was after Ruth’s marriage, not before it. This means that Ruth’s marriage to Machlon, which lasted about ten years, was an interfaith marriage! I can only imagine that Ruth’s great love for Naomi was based on the fact that throughout the period of the marriage and beyond Naomi accepted Ruth for who she was—making Ruth feel valued and loved.
So often today I hear a Jewish mother lament when her son marries a woman who isn’t Jewish: “She’s a lovely girl. If ONLY she were Jewish…” I can only imagine how this must make the daughter-in-law feel: that she’s not quite good enough, that she’s second class. That’s not how Naomi treated Ruth. While the text may go out of its way to call her “Ruth the Moabite,” to Naomi she was simply “Ruth”: beloved daughter-in-law. And what a remarkable mother-in-law Naomi must have been for Ruth to want to leave her own land and her own people to return to Naomi’s homeland with her after Machlon had died.
Just imagine what it would be like today if Jewish parents—and the Jewish community as a whole—could be as non-judgmental and accepting of their children’s interfaith marriages as Naomi must have been of Machlon’s marriage to Ruth. Surely some of the children-in-law, like Ruth, would fall in love with their extended Jewish family and the Jewish people and religion, and choose after a period of time to become Jewish. We see this happen all of the time: Someone who’s had a Jewish partner for a number of years converting after truly knowing what it means to be Jewish. (As a rabbi, I would much prefer that someone wait to convert until they’re sure that it’s right for them, rather than converting to appease a prospective in-law or just make things “easier” when getting married. A conversion just to make someone else happy seems to me to be “empty” and insincere.)
Of course even if parents-in-law and the Jewish community are non-judgmental and accepting of interfaith marriages, not every partner in an interfaith marriage who didn’t grow up Jewish is going to convert. Some people won’t convert because they still practice another religion, and others will decide—for a variety of reasons—that conversion to Judaism isn’t for them. And that’s OK too! Our community needs to honor those who’ve chosen to marry Jews, but who haven’t chosen Judaism for themselves—just as Naomi showed Ruth respect throughout the time that she was married to Machlon. As Naomi realized throughout the marriage, it wasn’t her place to tell her daughter-in-law how to live her life or what choices she should make. Naomi loved Ruth for who she WAS—not for what she WANTED Ruth to be.
At the end of the Book of Ruth, Ruth gives birth to Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. Ruth “the Moabite” who was in an interfaith marriage to Machlon is the great-grandmother of David—not only a great King of Israel, but the progenitor of the Messiah.
Soon it will be Shavuot. It’s customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. It’s quite appropriate to read the story of a woman who demonstrated her loyalty to Judaism on the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. As Shavuot approaches, I will celebrate Ruth, who wasn’t raised Jewish, from our Jewish past. And I will also celebrate all of those people in our Jewish present who weren’t raised Jewish: those who’ve chosen to convert to Judaism as well as those who’ve chosen to join their lives to the Jewish community in less formal ways (by marrying Jews, by raising Jewish children and by participating in the life of the Jewish community). All of them, like Ruth before them, help us to ensure the Jewish future.
Today in The Jewish Daily Forward, an article was published by Nathan Guttman: “Does Intermarriage Drive Young Jews Away from Israel?” The article suggests that yes, being the product of an intermarriage is a major factor in young Jews’ feeling alienated from Israel. That, along with liberal political views.
I’ll let you read the article yourself for the statistics these conclusions were drawn from, but suffice it to say, whether or not children of intermarriage are more likely to feel alienated from Israel, let’s do a better job at engaging interfaith families in Judaism, including Israel.
Let’s make our synagogues welcoming, let’s not turn away interfaith couples from the community, let’s encourage children of interfaith families to take advantage of trips to Israel. On that front, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia is now registering interfaith families for our subsidized trip to Israel in Dec. 2014-Jan. 2015. Learn more here.