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This essay was reprinted with permission from J. Weekly.
Earlier this month I was the rabbi at the Fellowship for Affirming Ministries’ biennial conference at City of Refuge Church in Oakland. I was invited to blow the shofar for the new Hebrew month of Av, and I lit candles to usher in Shabbat before the worship began. I returned to my seat, filled with love for the extraordinary Christian leaders I had met that day, honored to bring a taste of Judaism into their prayer space and feeling welcomed as someone who had entered that morning as an outsider, now an insider sharing a sacred moment.
Then came the scriptural reading from the New Testament: “Everything [the Pharisees] do is done for people to see. … Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! … You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:5, 27, 28).
How should I react? Was anyone looking at me? Do I show my discomfort as a Jew listening to these words? I tried to be invisible, wondering if anyone who was standing up and calling out affirmations of this reading might be associating me, the very public representation of Judaism at this gathering, with a Pharisee. Were the rituals Matthew was criticizing related to ones I just performed? Were they viewed as empty, for show?
It was mere minutes later that I felt a tap on my shoulder. The presiding pastor presented a handwritten note. “Please forgive me for my choice of scripture, which I’m sure was painful to hear. … I felt pain as I listened. … and apologize for any harm this may have done to your heart just after you gifted us with a Sabbath Blessing.” I caught her eye, expressing how deeply this touched me. Her apology doesn’t erase the reality of the text existing, or being read as sacred Scripture, nor should it. But it brought me peace.
What followed was a regular part of the weekly liturgy at her church. The entire congregation recited a five-minute “Confession for the misuse and abuse of Scripture” that speaks, among other things, to the harm done to Jews and others as a result of the misuse of Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. At this point, feeling a swell of gratitude, I wondered if we Jews ever ask publicly for forgiveness for any harm our texts have caused. In drashes, I have condemned our use of anti-gay verses, I have openly challenged Torah that oppresses women or further disempowers the powerless. But do we ever apologize directly to the people sitting among us who are squirming in their seats as a result of our words?
Because I was the direct recipient of someone’s confession, my mind is fixed on the people who sit and listen to sacred text being chanted in our sanctuaries. For the first time in a long stretch of history, a large percentage of people sitting in services are not Jewish. Most of them have entered our holy spaces because they love someone who is, and many have made personal sacrifices to raise Jewish families. This Shabbat, they may open the Chumash and read, “You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and God’s anger will blaze forth against you” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4).
This week, I would ask forgiveness from interfaith couples who came to synagogue in support of their Jewish families. They might historicize these verses (this addressed long-gone nations and a nascent people) or even think about our contemporary interreligious battles (Jews worry that their kids might worship the god of the very people who have tried to extinguish them for centuries). But at a time when more interfaith couples are choosing a Jewish life for their families, I feel what the pastor felt for me — that our texts, attitudes and parts of our liturgy may be doing harm to their hearts even as they gift us with their presence and the presence of their children.
If you could reach out to someone who may be hurt by our texts, who would it be?
Kurt Vonnegut wrote in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'”
Up here at Camp Tawonga in Northern California, the Jewish theme of the summer is “being a mensch.” One of those Yiddish words that has found its way into the English lexicon, a mensch is a good person. It could be argued that Judaism, as well as every religion, is built around making us good people. A related Jewish term is “derech eretz,” or, how we are in the world as human beings.
I often talk to my kids about this idea. There are many things I hope for my children: happiness, success… But if they aren’t kind, if they aren’t at a basic level good people, none of the rest matters.
A great tool for figuring out how to be a good person (and raise a good person) is the Making Mensches Periodic Table. It lists 43 of the attributes Jewish Mussar (ethics movement of the 19th century) named as mensch-like qualities, for example: compassion, love, joy, modesty, justice and integrity. This chart can be particularly helpful to interfaith couples. When partners come from different backgrounds, it can be difficult to figure out which tradition to emphasize or how two religious traditions can be expressed side by side.
Try this exercise that I ask of every couple I marry: Figure out what values you share. Some couples value education more than saving money, others value a shared sense of human responsibility toward the natural world. For others, a peaceful home is more important than hospitality. These values are, most likely, part of what attracted you to one another, how you saw yourself intertwined with that person, or maybe even what one of you lacked growing up that you value in the other. Think about these values that underpin your relationship.
If you need ideas, scan the Table. Which five values or qualities are most important to you? Which are lower on your list? Have your partner do the same. Talk about why certain values rose to the top for each of you and why. What do you share? Where do you differ? Do you express your commitment to those values in unique ways based on where you first learned about them? Who passed them on to you? Don’t worry if they aren’t completely aligned. Talk about what you want this shared life to look like so you can start to intentionally live according to those values and make them come alive in your home and your relationships.
Many of us were raised with some iteration of the Golden Rule. In the Torah, Leviticus 19:18 teaches us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whatever you name it, wherever you learned it, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
This post is based on an article by Rabbi Copeland that originally appeared on jweekly.com
There have always been Jews-by-association. Nowadays this term, JBA for short, is becoming well known as a catch-all category for people who hang out with Jews, including people who gravitate toward Judaism, have many Jewish friends, or are partnered with someone Jewish. But the only thing that is new about the category is the name.
Throughout our history, there have been categories of people who cast their lots with the Jewish people but, for a variety of reasons, were never fully integrated into Judaism. Some may have wanted to become fully Jewish, others not. But common to all of them was that they walked a common path with Jews.
We are about to celebrate Shavuot, the holiday when we study the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Jew-by-Association. She married one Israelite, followed her mother-in-law back to their people after his death, and then married a second Israelite. She is hailed as the first convert, but historically, conversion did not yet exist as a mechanism one could undergo to become part of Judaism. What she did do was utter the words, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people.” [Ruth 1:16] She declared herself a fellow traveler.
But Ruth wasn’t the only one. A person who walked the path with us in the Torah was in the category of the ger toshav, the resident stranger who lived among the early Israelites and was to observe the same rituals and laws. There is even a rationale for treating the ger toshav like an Israelite: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Leviticus 19:34] The presence of this group of people was perhaps a daily reminder of the lessons we learned from our enslavement.
These resident strangers were even included in the ceremony of covenant when the community heard the law from Moses in Moab [Dt. 29:9-11]: “You stand here this day, all of you, before YHWH Your God-your tribal heads, your elders and your officials…even the stranger within your camp—to enter into the covenant”. Just as they were not full Israelites, they were not considered foreigners either.
There was also the erev rav, the mixed multitude who left the slavery of Egypt along with the rest of the Israelites [Nu.15:16]. Later in our history, during the second temple period, there was a category of Jews-by-association called “God-fearers” who, like the other categories, were people who aligned themselves with the Jewish people. Since there was no such thing as conversion, such strangers among us were left as they were—people who clearly cast their lot with the Jewish people.
In our time, there are countless people who reside within Jewish communities who consider themselves fellow travelers. Now, we draw a sharper line between those who are Jewish and those who are not. As of the early centuries CE, we do have a way for people to become fully integrated into Judaism: Conversion. But as that category has become more and more solidified, there has been less and less space for people who don’t fit neatly into one group or the other.
Conversion should be celebrated. But we should also take time to celebrate those who would have fallen nicely into one of these historical categories as fellow travelers who do not wish to convert.
People walk the path with the Jewish people because they love someone Jewish or feel an affinity with Judaism. Many are helping to raise Jewish kids, keeping this tradition thriving into the next generation. As we celebrate Shavuot, let this season of Ruth be an invitation to appreciate our many fellow travelers.
My kid taught me a good lesson today. I was pulling out of our driveway as the usual flood of people were walking by, oblivious to my own tight morning schedule. I muttered to myself how they should be paying attention to the cars rather than being engrossed in their conversations and that I had a schedule to keep. “Come on, people, move!” I seethed, unaware that my kids heard me. My son proceeded to open the window and yell, “Come on, people, move!” at the passersby. I was mortified! But why? He did nothing wrong. He merely saw me as a model and said aloud what I was too cowardly to share. If I want my kids to be patient, kind people, I need to walk the talk because they are watching my every move.
This aspect of parenthood terrifies me. I want to present my “best self” all of the time and be a model of the values I say I live by. But it is exhausting! I fall short of those expectations on a daily basis, and try to have compassion for myself. But I also want to push myself to walk the talk, to be consistent and live what I preach.
So much of my energy as a parent focuses on my children’s behavioral shortcomings, but being a mother has also made me more aware of where I fall short of expectations for my own behavior. When I fail to walk the talk in any aspect of life, they push me to return to my goals, values and expectations. If I tell my kids they should be patient, kind,and express their needs directly rather than passively, but then contradict these values in the way I behave, I might as well have saved my breath. If I want them to respect the rules, how can I explain the instances when I bend them myself? If I hope that they own their mistakes, I need to model that I do that as well. Kids watch, imitate and yes, at times, rebel. But even then, if I have walked the talk, hopefully they will know what I stand for.
Walk the talk goes for religious life as well. The interfaith couples I work with often ask me how they should go about raising Jewish children. My advice is that if you aren’t living a Jewish life in any way (and I define that broadly), your kids most likely won’t either. If living a life according to certain values and practices is becoming important to you, or was previously more present in your life, this is the time to start exploring or re-exploring it. Couples who are anticipating having children and like the idea of Shabbat often ask me when they should start lighting Shabbat candles. I tell them to begin now. If it becomes meaningful to them, they will transmit those values and sentiments to their children organically if and when they arrive. It will be part of their routine.
If we expect kids to learn how to lead a Jewish service, we had better spend some time in the sanctuary as well. Back when I was a tutor preparing kids to become Bar or
Walking the talk does not just apply to the observance piece of religious life either. I decided early on that if I hoped my children would uphold values of tikkun olam (repairing the world) through volunteerism, I’d better get out there and find time to volunteer, and tell them about why it is so important to me. If I wanted them to be the kind of people who stop when someone is asking for food, I’d better model doing that as well. I want to be careful that I am not trying to fulfill my own hopes for an ideal life—or resolving my own shortcomings—through my kids. I don’t want to be the kind of parent who thinks she can live vicariously through them, pinning hopes on what they become that I can’t live up to myself.
Sometimes doing things primarily for the benefit of children is just fine. But how much more powerful and resonant are those spiritual practices or ideas if the adults modeling them are experiencing them for themselves as well and, hopefully, discovering deep meaning in them?
This approach requires more from us. It means we have to spend some time thinking about why we are interested in a religious or spiritual path, ritual or teaching, and we have to examine what it means to us. And when partners come from different backgrounds, we need to take the time to figure out how practices or ideologies match our shared values as a couple and how it feels to bring those ideas into our families. We need to see ourselves as modeling behavior, belief or practice—which can be terrifying, especially when we worry that we aren’t good models. But we don’t need to have it all figured out; each of us is a work in progress. If we are exploring and struggling, walking our own talk, we are the best of models.
I remember the day I introduced our kids to The Prince of Egypt. I loved this movie, and I was excited to be sharing it with them. Then my partner entered the living room: “How can we teach our kids these stories?!” The slavery, the plagues, and worse, God as a killer of babies. Suddenly, I felt the need to defend Passover, the Exodus story and Judaism as a whole. I know the Exodus is a tough story, but I also felt passionately about it.
It was not the first time my partner, who did not grow up Jewish, has challenged Judaism in this way to me. It began many years ago, before having children, at a Shabbat service. We were nearing the end of the liturgy, singing the “Aleynu” prayer. She nudged me, whispering, “Do you know what you’re saying?” Startled out of my rote recital, I looked at the page. “You [God] have not created us like them, you have not made our lot like the families of the earth.”
Eek! Honestly, I had never read the English, and didn’t know enough Hebrew back then to have parsed it out myself. I had grown up with translations of this prayer that lessened the “chosenness” aspect. I didn’t know what to say. So I stopped saying it. Not based solely on the Aleynu, I ended up choosing to become a rabbi through the Reconstructionist movement which deletes notions of chosenness from the liturgy.
It was a great example of someone with fresh eyes pushing me to think more deeply and critically at my own tradition. I had to resist a knee-jerk reaction and listen. This kind of dialogue, I believe, is an interfaith relationship at its best. Since then, my partner has pointed out countless issues to me, shaking me out of my complicity to call out where Judaism needs to evolve and transform.
But it also raises the issue: Who gets to criticize? It’s a common interfaith scenario: An issue comes up around a holiday, or a rabbi or pastor says something during services that rubs someone the wrong way. Suddenly, one partner feels responsible for defending an entire tradition spanning thousands of years. But something else happens as well. Often, the “defender” gets worried. What if my partner is so angry about this that we can’t have this tradition alive in our home?
The truth is that every one of us has gripes with our own religion. And in Judaism, criticizing from within is built into this tradition that loves to hold many opinions as equally valid. But something different happens when a person of another faith criticizes your own, and when that person is your partner, different dynamics can arise. Perhaps at another point in your life, such a critique may have been the entrée into an interesting interfaith dialogue about why a tradition does this or that. But in this moment it can feel threatening.
Interfaith couples keep a lot of our religious or cultural issues swept nicely under the carpet. We fear that if we really explore what we want our lives to look like, or what we really believe or don’t believe, we could threaten our relationship. So we tuck issues away because it seems to go just fine if we do. That is, until they come up again. And they always do.
I would like to offer some tips for getting through “critique” moments:
1. Everyone picks at the little things. Get past the “Oh no, he is going to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater!” mentality. Discuss long range, overarching plans for spirituality and religion in your home. Then you will be freed up to discuss the details of how those broad decisions will play out in your everyday lives. The little things can be merely interesting, philosophical conversations instead of “make it or break it” moments.
2. Use those critiques as opportunities to learn together. What does Jewish tradition say about that ritual? Was it always observed in that way? Do other movements in Judaism see it differently, and is there flexibility in how the practicing partner executes it?
3. Take a deep breath. If you do feel the need to defend a ritual, a piece of liturgy or a theological stance, ask yourself why you feel aligned with it. Is it nostalgic? A deeply held belief? Or because “that is the way it has always been?” Do you feel the need to present a “perfect” version of your tradition to your partner? What is coming up for you?
4. Judaism holds that all Jews were standing at Mount Sinai (where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God according to the Book of Exodus). That means that everyone heard the revelation of the tradition, and everyone has equal allowance to interpret it for themselves. But there was also an “erev rav”—a mixed multitude of fellow travelers who left with the Israelites from Egypt. They heard it as well and, therefore, get to weigh in on this evolving tradition. That means that by bringing a partner into a Jewish life who isn’t Jewish, she or he gets to have a say. Listen carefully to each other’s critiques—there is often great wisdom and insight when someone is coming from another perspective.
You may have heard about a new program that we are starting up at InterfaithFamily/Bay Area called Meet Us at Synagogue (Shul)! The idea came from my experience with returning to Judaism after being disengaged for forty years. It was my chapter of wandering in the desert. One grand life experience pushed me to think about a spiritual return. It was on a trip to Israel where I discovered that in my heart, I missed so much from my Jewish history.
Returning was not easy, which is why I want to support others who may have a glimmer of aspiration to experience a Jewish Shabbat service in 2015. Today’s Judaism is miles away from what it was when I was a child and I love it.
What interests me is the question: What inspires someone to go to a Jewish Shabbat service, and if they do, what will they find?
If you are Jewish and have not been to a Shabbat service for a long time, or ever, it can be incredibly meaningful to connect with our spiritual and cultural roots. If you are not Jewish, and are partnered, related to or close to someone who is, going to a Shabbat service will show you more than you might think about that person’s heritage and it might bring you closer together too. In one short evening or morning, you can take a journey through the musical, spiritual, communal, culinary and ritual character of Judaism. In some synagogues, you may find quite a bit of Jewish historic memorabilia.
This is a journey that Jews and their loved ones all over the world can share. Sometimes on Shabbat, when I sing a prayer with the congregation, I think about all of the other people across the planet who are doing the same thing, something that has been happening for thousands of years. For me, the music, more than anything else, connects me to the divine and to the congregation. There is something about the Jewish musical key that lifts me up and brings me completely to the present moment. For others, Jewish or not, spending part of Shabbat in a congregation is an opportunity to see old friends, meet new and interesting people, have a little nosh (food), and take time out from the rat race.
Shabbat services are not all the same. In the Bay Area, we have organizations that are reinventing Judaism in exciting ways. Some are highly inclusive of ancient traditions and others are bringing a spiritual creativity to Shabbat that is in keeping with California’s trend-setting culture. Services are held indoors in traditional and non-traditional spaces, outdoors in parks, farms and the wilderness. One can find a service that is held early or late, with music or without and most use prayer books that are filled with inspiring and inclusive language. Shabbat can also be a transformative musical experience, whether it be rock, chanting and drums, sing along, dancing or meditation. It is all here in the Bay Area, waiting to be discovered!
When I was little, my mom made a huge deal of the Passover afikomen hunt. The prize for finding the broken pieces of matzah throughout the house was the hot toy of the day (I vividly remember the year of the Beanie Baby craze). She also created an elaborate Easter egg hiding game in which one rhyming clue (starting on our pillows in the morning) led to another, with a big basket filled with eggs as the grand finale. What is the allure of the hide-and-seek element of both Easter and Passover? Do they have anything in common?
As early as the age of peek-a-boo, hiding and finding is a huge part of our development of object permanence. Dad leaves the room but it’s OK! He still exists and will come back in a minute. Just because we can’t see or hear something doesn’t mean it’s gone. Then, as we grow, the basic game of hide-and-seek excites us for an amazingly long stretch of years. I have to imagine, as my kids are playing hide-and-seek with me at the park, that the moments when I can’t see them—while panicky for me—are exhilarating for them. A sweet taste of future independence. Perhaps our spring rituals capture the excitement and expectation of these early forays into mystery and autonomy.
Both Passover and Easter share a theme of rebirth in springtime. For Christianity, Christ’s rebirth is symbolized in the egg. On the seder plate we place an egg as a symbol of hope, recalling the Israelites’ escape from slavery and birth as a free nation. Although in Judaism, the egg isn’t hidden, both rituals harken back to celebrations of the bursting forth of life at this season that far predate either religious tradition and are shared by many peoples around the world.
But when did people start hiding Easter eggs? Legend has it that the Protestant Christian reformer, Martin Luther, held egg hunts in which men hid the eggs for the women and children. Some Christians have claimed the egg as a symbol of Christ’s tomb, symbolizing his rebirth, and the hunt for eggs was likened to the hunt for Jesus in the tomb. There are images of Mary Magdelene with an egg as well. The Easter bunny didn’t enter the picture as the deliverer of those eggs until the 17th century.
The afikomen ritual clearly has very different origins, and there is no evidence that the hide-and-seek rituals are linked. Afikomen means “that which comes after” or “dessert” in Greek, and the hunt for it is a clever ploy to keep kids engaged in the often lengthy seder until the end. The kids’ elevated role is in keeping with the entire Passover experience; the holiday ritual is an elaborate scheme to pass the story of enslavement to freedom onto children.
How does it work? Early in the seder, the leader breaks the middle matzah on the table and leaves half of it as “dessert” to be eaten after the meal. Then after everyone has eaten, the leader cannot close the seder until the dessert matzah is found and eaten. Families enact this in myriad ways, but here are two popular options:
Either way, the ritual empowers children. It’s always fun to put one over on your parents. But the kids also learn that while they often feel less important than adults, at this moment they are powerful!
What about bringing these overlapping spring rituals together in an interfaith home? This is a matter for each family to decide. But some might find it comforting to know that egg painting in springtime is a tradition older than either Judaism or Christianity and it celebrates rebirth, hope, life and fertility. In fact, some Israelis even remember growing up decorating eggs for Passover, and might find it surprising that American Jews don’t generally approve of it on the grounds that in the United States, it is associated with Christianity. There are important historical reasons why some customs have become considered off limits in order for Jews to retain their particular status as separate from the dominant culture around them. But if you end up with a colored egg on your seder plate, you are far from alone. It is common enough that a great guidebook for grandparents of interfaith grandchildren is called, There’s an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate.
How will you celebrate this year? Do spring traditions overlap or collide in your home? When planning a seder or Easter rituals, think about what you want to convey through the games and symbols you share. Think back with your partner or other family members about the rituals you each grew up with around the spring holidays and share what was meaningful—or confusing—about them. Articulate what you need out of the experience to feel personally and spiritually fulfilled. Together, explore the messages you hope your kids will take away from this season.
And while you’re thinking about Passover and Easter, take our 2015 Passover/Easter Survey for a chance to win $500!
My 7-year-old lost another tooth last night. Since we have been through many of these over the last couple of years, the two of us agreed to put aside any pretention that it would end up under his pillow. He is a non-believer and finds the story of the tooth fairy to be the most ridiculous of all of the farces adults tell children. From an early age, he dismissed anything beyond his definition of “real” as utterly ridiculous. Since my partner and I have agreed to tell our kids the truth when they ask directly for it (lest they grow up not trusting us), we let him know from early on that his suspicions were correct about the incredulity of these tales. The one rule is that he isn’t allowed to go to school and burst someone else’s bubble.
My 9-year-old, on the other hand, has a more complicated relationship with reality. For years, he has regaled us with stories rivaled only by Dr. Seuss’ I Saw it on Mulberry Street. Tales would begin in our sphere of reality but end in a fantastical world. We were never quite sure if he knew where the line was between fiction and non-fiction, and only now that he is older does he sometimes fess up to knowing the difference.
Our elder child recently came up with a way to distinguish his penchant for fantasy from his brother’s realism. Some people, he explains, are “myth blind” and some are not. Some are able to see past everyday reality while others just can’t—it is part of their nature. Both kids seem satisfied with the terminology, and quite out of character, they don’t seem to preference one above the other.
This conversation in our home is juicy enough that the kids reintroduce it periodically, adding on layers and meanings. Recently, this category was stretched to include one’s proclivity to believing in God. The “myth blind” child sees himself as an atheist, and easily links not believing in the tooth fairy, Easter bunny, or Santa with not believing there is such a thing as God. The one who is not “myth blind” remains intrigued by theology and asks lots of questions about God. They have also surmised that one of their parents seems to be myth blind while the other is not. This observation is astute, and we don’t mind being included in this categorization.
As the “not myth-blind” parent, I have to confess that I like the sound of this category. It goes beyond the usual definition of a believer being one who is somehow able to suspend reality, as if the rational mind is just waiting to pounce, bringing us back to our senses. One who is not myth blind sees another layer of reality and is not terrified by it. To be not “myth blind” does not necessarily mean you believe, he explains. It simply implies that you are open to the idea. Furthermore, his use of the word “myth” acknowledges that whether or not the story is “True” is inconsequential. It is, in fact, more important than “True”: it is real, it is powerful.
There is a Jewish mystical concept that while we are living in the “real” world every day, there is another layer of reality beneath it or beyond it. Sometimes we get a peek, usually just a fleeting moment, when we see that there is something more real beyond the particulars of our daily lives. Our material world is dressed in the colors, human structures,and natural world we see around us. But there are moments in our lives when a veil of sorts is lifted and we see that there is something else, something deeper. This can happen during meditation when everything “real” can seem to disappear for a moment, or when the body is being supported by a yoga mat at the end of a practice and feels like it is suspended and weightless. Or when you’re watching your kids grow and it seems like no time has passed, and simultaneously that eons have elapsed, crunching and expanding time in ways our minds can’t understand. It can happen when we gaze at the stars and feel the concept of space and time changing as we try to picture what “everything” really entails. I think that not being myth blind is about being able to lift the veil for a moment, experiencing another way of seeing the universe.
I don’t need my kids to believe in the tooth fairy. I don’t think I did, even as I carefully placed my teeth in a special white tooth-sized pillow someone gave me. I commend my 7-year-old for being confident and bold enough to come to his own conclusions and challenge what he hears around him. But someday both kids will learn that most of us would place ourselves somewhere between these poles rather than identifying wholly with one category or the other, seeing the nuance and challenge of complex philosophical ideas. For now, it’s an interesting way to start to make sense of their stories in relation to who they are becoming. I do hope that as they grow up they will be critical, but also that they might feel comfortable stretching their minds and being open to mystery.
You’re at a social or family gathering when someone starts throwing around a bunch of Jewish gobblygook you don’t understand. One guy is talking about a cool, new “minyan” in town and you’re picturing this guy.
Someone else is talking about her “boobie” and you wonder if this is really too intimate a conversation for a party (Bubbie = Yiddish for Grandmother). Has this ever happened to you? A few minutes into a conversation among people who are Jewishly identified, and you’re likely to hear a little Yiddish, maybe bits of Hebrew or references to things that would be obscure outside of a Jewish context. Jews love Jewish jargon. Even some who aren’t Jewish love it (Check out Ed Begley Jr. turning on the Yiddish in the film, A Mighty Wind).
Some throw around Jewish jargon without realizing it and assume everyone understands. It is just part and parcel of being immersed in a civilization with a particular set of texts, languages, history and cultural terminology. They might feel that a Jewish context—a Jewish Community Center, synagogue or Jewish home—is a place where they can let their pent-up inner Jew run free. Jewish jargon can signal in-group solidarity as well. To be honest, though, I think others use it so they sound “in the know” or to purposely alienate someone else—which is unfortunate.
Whether intended or not, the result of Jewish insider-speak is that it can alienate people who aren’t Jewish and often even those who are. Judaism often seems like a club for the initiated. But we are becoming so diverse that one can’t expect even in Jewish places that everyone shares a common knowledge base anymore. And with the growing numbers of intermarried couples involved in Jewish life, there are bound to be a significant portion of people at any given Jewish happening who weren’t raised with Judaism.
I am hearing more and more often that if the Jewish community wants to be truly welcoming of interfaith couples, we need to make sure people don’t feel alienated by insider-speak, and that we should eliminate or curb some of our Jewish particularisms. Some even think that since we don’t want to create situations that make people stand out as unknowledgeable, we might want to tone down Hebrew in services to make them more universal. I remember speaking with one interfaith couple in which the partner who isn’t Jewish felt this way, remarking that he’ll never feel comfortable in a space where there is so much Hebrew because it’s not welcoming to him.
To become a truly welcoming Jewish community, do we need to become, well, a little less Jewish? Is it time to junk Jewish jargon?
Absolutely not. Judaism can be both welcoming and uniquely Jewish. My grandparents and parents grew up in the American melting pot era. Anyone “different,” including Jews, tried to play down their uniqueness and blend in. But we live in a very different time. We wouldn’t dream of asking any other minority, ethnic or religious group to abandon the very particulars that make it unique. In fact, most of us find these differences among us to be the interesting byproducts of living in a multi-cultural society (and maybe even what attracted us to our partners who come from a different background!).
So why would we rob Judaism of what makes it Jewish? Contemporary Judaism is more and more open to anyone who wants to be a part of it, and we are enriched by the diversity of people who are being drawn to Jewish life. That may mean that we can no longer assume we are all in on the jargon. But it doesn’t mean we have to dilute it. Instead, here are a few suggestions to make Judaism more welcoming while retaining its unique flavor, and some others that might help those less knowledgeable about Jewish life navigate Jewish jargon moments.
WHEN YOU’RE FEELING “IN THE KNOW”:
Translate. Does your mother-in-law talk about the machatenem (the other set of parents-in-law)? Whether you’re speaking at a party or speaking from the bima, take a page from our InterfaithFamily website. We always hyperlink words that might not be known (point in case: bima). What if we all talked this way, offering subtle explanations just in case someone needs it? The worst that can happen is that everyone nods as if to say, “We already know.” Far better than the alternative: making someone feel that he or she is the only one who doesn’t.
Explain. You never know if people have the same cultural or religious contexts you do, so it’s always a good idea to explain what you mean when talking about ideas particular to a certain field or group of people.
Transliterate. Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish and Ladino are hallmarks of our rich, Jewish cultures. Let’s not abandon them. Instead, transliterate as a regular practice—whether it is a synagogue handout or a wedding booklet.
WHEN YOU’RE NOT FEELING “IN THE KNOW”:
Ask for help. If you are in need of more contextual information to make sense of something that was said, don’t be scared to ask for an explanation. You will be reminding the speaker that not everyone shares her or his knowledge and you may be saving the next listener from the same situation. Don’t just continue to nod as if you know—Judaism is a tradition with thousands of years of history, text and language. No one knows it all—even the person who’s speaking.
Don’t apologize. You have vast areas of knowledge that others don’t possess. There is nothing wrong, embarrassing or shameful about not knowing something!
Be open to learning. Judaism is a rich and complex tradition. Don’t assume that something within it isn’t meant for you. Delve in and learn something new or try to follow along in the transliterated Hebrew. Give it a try rather than expecting Judaism to cut out the pieces you don’t yet understand.
As our society and our families become more diverse, we are in the wonderful position of celebrating rather than diminishing our differences. So go ahead…embrace what is yours and learn about what isn’t. It’s a mechiah! (A great relief or blessing.)
Years ago, I struggled with how I was going to do Hanukkah in our home. Christmas was already set. We visit my partner’s parents who aren’t Jewish for the holiday season. I tell our kids, as many Jewish parents in interfaith relationships do, that we are helping their grandparents celebrate Christmas. It may sound a little weak but it is really true. Their grandparents would be sad to not have family around their tree, as would my partner. And our Jewish kids love getting a taste of Christmas even though they know it’s not “our” holiday.
But what to do about Hanukkah? This still posed a problem. My kids come to expect presents for Christmas, and I didn’t want them to receive too much at this time of year. Did they really need the eight nights of presents I grew up with if they were about to receive mounds of gifts a few weeks later? And what if the holidays overlapped? It would send a message of overabundance I try to temper all year long and would feel antithetical to the values I’m trying to instill.
I also didn’t want to fall into the trap of pitting the two holidays against each other. When Hanukkah and Christmas compete, Hanukkah loses every time. It is a minor Jewish holiday only made grand here in the United States by its proximity to Christmas. I’m not a fan of lifting it up in importance to make a point. Instead, in our family, we expend that energy by celebrating the more important Jewish holidays and Shabbat year round.
So the question remained: What would I want my kids to associate with Hanukkah as they grow up?
The answer came to me one year when I was doing my end-of-year philanthropic donations. I thought about the proximity of Hanukkah and the symbol of gelt, and the larger societal messages about December as a time of giving. As I waded through the mail, I recalled the piles of leaflets on my kitchen table growing up and how much I learned from my parents teaching me about the organizations they support. The timing was perfect! I decided to make Hanukkah into a holiday of giving—not receiving. In the glow of the Hanukkah candles, I taught my kids that tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root meaning “justice” and that philanthropic giving is a way we can help bring justice to the world. At their ages, they loved the idea that life could be fairer.
I gathered all of the leaflets we received from organizations and asked the kids what they thought. Which communities would they want to support? What makes them upset as they look around their world, from natural disasters to homelessness to our treatment of the environment? We poked around online as they thought about people who had had a particularly rough year. I told them how much we had to give, and asked them to make the tough choices about how to divide it up. Do we give a lot to a few places and really make an impact? Or give a little to many organizations so they know we care about them? Each year as they grow in maturity, I give them new problems to solve. Now, we put coins in a tzedakah box throughout the year before lighting candles on Friday night and they know that this money will also go to the Hanukkah giving pot.
Their choices have evolved over time. The first time we did this, they were excited about Sesame Workshop because bright red Elmo was (wisely) featured on the organization’s envelope. Next was their Jewish summer camp that suffered fire damage. Then we tackled the question of whether to give to local food banks or to hunger advocacy organizations trying to stamp out poverty from the top down. Would they rather support people in their neighborhood, in other regions of the country or the elsewhere in the world? The year DOMA was struck down, we discussed giving to Lambda Legal, an organization defending cases for the LGBT community. As they become more concerned about the environment, we have looked for organizations that address their concerns. This year, we will add to the list the importance of InterfaithFamily, helping families like ours navigate the holidays! (Yes, that was a not-so-subtle plug!) There is so much to do that it easily lasts eight nights.
Who knows what messages my kids will take away from the holiday season as they grow up? What will Christmas represent? What will they remember most about Hanukkah? I hope that by consciously highlighting tzedakah as a specific value, they will take the best from both of the December holidays that are part of their lives.