Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
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.
When it comes to religion, many parents don’t want to choose for their kids. Their hesitation isn’t just about choosing a single religion over another—they are hesitant to make any choices about religious education for their children at all. What I most often hear is that people want to allow their kids to choose for themselves.
In an age when we value our kids for being independent thinkers and want to allow them to develop freely, I completely understand this sentiment. Many adults don’t look favorably on the religious education they received when they were children. They don’t want to force their own kids to believe anything in particular. And if they are part of an interfaith couple, they often don’t want one religion to take precedence. The result is that they often do…nothing. Or very little.
Even though I can see where this well-intentioned reasoning is coming from, I’d like to play the devil’s advocate. Here’s why:
1) Every adult has the option to make choices around religion. In fact, adult children will make decisions about religion no matter what we have given them. So I would like to eliminate this as a concern for parents raising young children. No matter what you do, they will choose what works for them.
2) Parents are scared of indoctrinating their kids. I know that the word sounds terrible, authoritarian. And of course I’m using it in a tongue-in-cheek manner to make a point. All I’m saying is that parents try and pass on what we hope our kids will learn according to values we think are worth living by. Call it “parenting” or “teaching.” We teach our kids about our values in many arenas: political and social values, the importance of education, open mindedness, how to treat others. We “indoctrinate” from the moment they get up in the morning to the moment they lay their heads down through the stories we tell, the schools we choose, the way we talk about daily events. We teach them the value of music as we schlep them, often against their will, to piano lessons. It’s not a bad thing.
We are teaching them the values we hold dear because we believe that our values lead to treating others well, and a life well lived. So why do we feel terrified to teach our kids about religion? If you develop a clear idea of what values, traditions, holidays and ritual are important to you and your family, there is nothing wrong with teaching them what it looks like to live within that framework. If they don’t like it, they will reject it, or pieces of it. But they will never be able to say that they didn’t know what was important to you.
3) Give them some knowledge! If they know more about the traditions represented in their home, they will be better able to make those decisions as adults we all want to see them make. If you give them nothing or very little, from my experience, they will grow up having many questions, little foundation, and perhaps feel frustrated that they were cheated out of not one, but TWO great legacies. Give them the knowledge and experience so that they can be better educated choosers. If you don’t, they will likely grow up feeling like they don’t know enough to even walk into a religious institution. (I have to thank my father for this one. He enrolled me, reluctantly, in Hebrew school as a kid. He argued that I would clearly rebel against it as he had, but wanted to ensure that I knew what I was rebelling against. He ended up with a kid who is a rabbi. See how you just can’t control them no matter what you do?)
4) That leads me to my last point. One thing is for sure: You can’t win! I know plenty of adults who felt they received far too much religious instruction, and plenty who complain that they were given very little. As with everything in parenting, follow your instincts and know that your kids will, indeed, be independent thinkers and not necessarily follow your path…no matter what you do.
I am fully aware that I inculcate my values at home. I send my kids to a dual-immersion Spanish program because I want them to value other cultures and be able to see from the inside what another person’s experience of the world might be like. I tell them who I’m voting for, and why. And I teach them Jewish values. I tell them as we are stopping by the road to give a homeless person some food that the Jewish value, tzedakah, means that humans are responsible for bringing justice to the world.
At Passover time, I press the idea that no one should ever be enslaved and we need to lift up those who cannot lift themselves up. Every time we say “motsi,” the Jewish prayer before eating bread, I am teaching them through a Jewish lens that we must pause in gratitude before delving in.
I am inculcating values they will live by and someday grapple with as they are deciding who they want to be. Sure, I’d love for them to always value the same things I do, but at some point they will grow to be independent beings who may reject any or all of what we’ve given them. Which is what we all want in the first place.
This blog post was reprinted with permission from j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.
I recently visited a San Francisco synagogue for the first time. I rang the bell and a teenage girl came to let me in. She wasn’t working there; she was just doing her homework. She welcomed me with a warm smile and asked if she could help me. We chatted about her schoolwork and life at the synagogue, and then the rabbi came running out to meet me. He was in the middle of
What came to my mind that night is that this synagogue clearly practices and teaches what some have recently been calling audacious or radical hospitality. They went out of their way to make sure I was treated like an honored guest. This spirit of embrace is ingrained in their culture to the extent that even a teenager is among the initiated! We all know people who seem to go far above and beyond what might be considered polite or inclusive. And we know how encountering such an individual has the power to change our outlook. Those of us who work for Jewish organizations struggle to figure out how our institutions can reflect this value. We may have the best programs, the most beautiful services, the best school. But at the end of the day, what supersedes everything else is whether or not people feel in each and every personal encounter that they matter.
Sukkot is the Jewish season for nurturing this quality of openness in ourselves and our institutions. We move out of our homes into huts, and we invite people to join us in these temporary, yet holy spaces. The holiday goes by many names: the Feast of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, and He-Chag (the holiday). But if we stress the injunction to welcome those in need into our sukkahs, we could also name it the Festival of Hospitality.
In a few weeks, we will read in the Torah about Abraham and Sarah in another kind of shelter, their tent in Mamre [Gen.18]. Three strangers passed through, and amidst a culture in which a stranger could be a major threat, they invited them in. They rushed to greet them, washed their feet, and fed them. The strangers turned out to be angels telling Sarah of her pregnancy. But the beauty of the story is that Sarah and Abraham had no idea that their visitors were divine guests. This is how they treated everyone they met. A midrash on the apocryphal book of Jubilees makes this connection between the holiday of Sukkot and Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality clear. It tells us that part of their preparations for their holy guests was, in fact, building the first sukkah to shelter them.
What would the world look like if we treated everyone we encountered as worthy of our attention? What would our Jewish communities look like if every person who walked through a door were greeted like Abraham and Sarah’s guests? What would the world look like if we treated even people we don’t know across the globe with that degree of humanity?
Sukkot is the holiday of the open tent. It seems it should be the most accessible holiday, but unfortunately it is also one of the harder holidays to celebrate. Not everyone has the space or strength to build a sukkah. If you are fortunate enough to have one, imitate Abraham and Sarah during the remaining days of the holiday and welcome someone who has never been to a sukkah or doesn’t think he knows enough about Judaism to partake. There is a kabbalistic custom to invite ushpizin, ancestral, transcendent guests, into the sukkah. But even more important is filling your sukkah with real, flesh-and-blood visitors. This Sukkot, may we go above and beyond to make people feel like the divine guests that they are—when they enter our institutions, our work, our homes and our tents.
The most chilling song I have ever heard is Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire.” His deep, haunting voice is perfect for the lyrics, which acknowledge that none of us knows how our lives will come to an end. In case we are morbidly curious, the song lists some possibilities: “Who by fire, who by water, who for his greed, who for his hunger.” And it gets darker: “Who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate…Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand.” For those familiar with the legendary Canadian singer/songwriter, it’s not the only time he takes us to that place we have been trying to avoid.
But this idea wasn’t actually his. Cohen, well versed in Jewish practice and liturgy, based these lyrics on a dramatic piece of the High Holy Day liturgy called the “Unetanetokef.” The prayer is named for its powerful, opening words, “Now, we declare the sacred power of this day.” The Unetanetokef brutally reminds us of how fragile we are by asking who, in the year to come, will live on and who shall die. Who will die by the sword, and who by the beast. It sounds like a dirge, adding to the drama of the prayer. The perfect melding of these two artful pieces, the prayer and the song, is when some synagogues sing the Unetanetokef to Cohen’s melody.
The tough part of this piece of liturgy, theologically speaking, is that it sounds like all of this is preordained: On Yom Kippur, the course of every life is sealed! I think the prayer is saying something else. In a world in which we think we are totally in control, we have to be reminded from time to time that we aren’t. The High Holy Days bring our mortality front and center.
From the Yom Kippur fast that makes us feel like we are barely alive to the custom of wearing white or even a kittel, a burial garment, we are asked at this time of year to face our mortality and fragility head on. Hopefully, that confrontation affects how we will enter the New Year and how we will live our lives. Both the prayer and Leonard Cohen’s version are a calling to keep it all in perspective and thank our lucky stars that we are alive another day.
P.S. If you haven’t heard the song, check out a great rendition from YouTube before the holidays:
Where are you from? It seems an innocent enough question. But as our families become more and more diverse, the answer can get wonderfully complicated. Recently at a “Saturdays Unplugged” event at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, I asked attendees about their ancestry and invited them to place pins in a world map marking their families’ journeys.
The map shows that a sampling of Jewish San Francisco families come from Argentina, Cyprus, Lithuania and China to name a few countries of origin. As kids turned to their parents and grandparents asking, “Where am I from?” I started to think about how complicated this question is.
So I asked one of my own kids: “Do you know where you’re from?” He started breaking it down into “sides” immediately. “Mama, your side is from Poland and Russia, right? Mommy’s side is from Germany, Scotland, Finland…” I was glad he added her ancestry without hesitation even though I gave birth to him and he isn’t biologically related to her. Clearly, where someone is from is not as easy as a DNA test. As he continued rattling off the countries where he felt he had a connection, I realized that I also hoped he would list his sperm donor’s ancestry. After all, he wouldn’t be here without him. So we added those to the mix. This child who was birthed by me, an American Jew with only Eastern European ancestry, can now identify himself with a good portion of Europe.
What about my other child? He was birthed by my partner, a mix of Northern European ancestry who converted to Judaism long before his birth. Along with those regions of the world, does this little boy also claim an Ashkenazi heritage? He certainly claims a Jewish one and our Jewish practice is largely Ashkenazi…but is he “from” Eastern Europe as my ancestors were?
Jews have long disagreed about what exactly Judaism is: a matter of biology, peoplehood, civilization, religion or ethnicity. Even early on in Jewish history, there were at least two strands of thought: Being Jewish was in some instances about claiming a certain lineage, and at other times about observance of a spiritual tradition. The first line of reasoning made it very difficult to join, for example, while the latter made it much easier to choose to identify as a Jew even if one wasn’t born one.
One scholar notes that tension ensued due to these “two distinct definitional standards…the religious and the ethnic.” [Porton, Gary. The Stranger Within Your Gates] We still struggle with those definitions, but today, with more and more conversion, intermarriage, adoption, donor insemination and surrogacy, we are moving away from a genetic definition (in my eyes a welcome shift) to a Judaism defined more as an affinity with a unique worldview. A lineup of kids at a typical Bay Area synagogue classroom is quite different than it would have looked 40 years ago when I was a kid.
A few years back, I worked with college students to create a photo exhibit of their peers who claim multiple ancestries. It was called, “Jews Untitled” and they challenged visitors to the exhibit to rethink the way they defined “Jewish” and allowed Jews to create their own self definitions. With the diversification of Jewish families, we asked one another how we can best teach children about their mix of rich backgrounds. How can we help Jews claim and take pride in their multitude of heritages? And how can we make sure that the entire Jewish community is engaging in this conversation as well?
I imagine us having an infinite capacity to claim a variety of stories as our own. I was recently at an author event for the book Just Parenting about creative family making. One participant with an adopted child told the group that she tossed out a baby book she had been given because on the first page there was a picture of a family tree to fill in. She was so overwhelmed by the challenge of fitting her child’s family story into a neatly defined map with two “sides” that she decided it needed to go.
For many of us, two “sides” doesn’t tell the full story of our origins and our affiliations. An Ashkenazi Jewish friend of mine adopted a child from China with her Filipino husband. The child says of herself at age 7, “I’m half Chinese, half Filipino, half American, and half Jewish.” She has four sides! But, really, who doesn’t? We all have more complicated stories than “two sides” allows. She’s a model of how we can comfortably hold many identities within us.