We’re Mostly Jewish

Campers at Tawonga

Photo courtesy of Camp Tawonga

I spent last week at California’s Camp Tawonga as the rabbi on staff for their “Taste of Camp” (a six-day introduction to the camp experience for kids who aren’t ready for a longer session yet). I overheard two 8- or 9-year-olds getting to know each other’s backgrounds on the way back to the cabin.

Excitedly, one girl told the other, “My Mom is Jewish and my Dad is Christian. But we are mostly Jewish.”

The other smiled and piped in, “In our house, we are also mixed! We eat some Hebrew food, and some Mexican food.”

This comment cracked me up and reminded me of being a little kid and having other kids ask me, “Are you Hanukkah or Christmas?” The conversation went on, comparing which holidays they each celebrate that are “Hebrew” and delighting in finding much commonality between their families.

What impressed me most about the conversation was their comfort and ease with the subject. Tawonga is a camp unaffiliated with any particular Jewish denomination, and many kids come from interfaith households. It seemed the perfect place for two kids to explore how they view their backgrounds and make sense of who they are becoming.

I don’t know the full picture of these kids’ family lives, but I would venture to say that they have been given a great gift: clarity. There is much worry that children with parents from different backgrounds will be confused, especially if the parent who is not Jewish continues to be connected to her or his religious heritage. From my experience working with interfaith families, some children are confused, and others—not in the least bit. And a lot of that is dependent on how intentional, clear and forthcoming parents are about what their “religious plan” is for the family. When they know how they are planning on affiliating with religions, communicate that effectively to their children and follow through on it, the kids are more likely to feel secure in who they are religiously as well—regardless of what the plan actually is.

What is the “religious plan” for the little girl who says she is “mostly Jewish”? I don’t know. But I imagine that she is comfortable saying her family is “mostly Jewish” and talking freely about it because they have an idea of how they are living spiritually and have communicated that to her. Perhaps she is being raised Jewishly and being sent to a Jewish camp. But she is also keenly aware that there is more to the story and honors her parent who is not Jewish as a contributor to her emerging identity.

We’ve all heard about “half Jews.” And people who say they are “part Jewish,” or “a quarter Jewish.” I think these kids just came up with a new category. Mostly Jewish. And proud of it.

Wedding/Bar Mitzvah Gift Giving Tips

Marilyn's menorahThe summer months are usually filled with life cycle events and celebrations, especially weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. It can be a challenge to find the perfect gift for the couple or young person, especially if you want to give something Jewish and are not sure what might be appropriate or where to find a particularly meaningful gift.

For weddings, a couple will register for toasters, dishes and small appliances but they may not think to list typical Jewish ritual items (Judaica) in their registry. The basic items that most Jewish couples might want to include in their Judaica collection are Shabbat candlesticks, a challah plate or board, a challah cover, Kiddush cup, a mezuzah—one or one for each doorway (except the powder room), a Hanukkah menorah, a dreidel and a small collection of Jewish books, such as a Siddur (prayer book), Tanach (Hebrew bible), Haggadot for Passover and a general book about Jewish rituals. You can also consider a seder plate for Passover, noise makers for Purim, apple and honey dishes for Rosh Hashanah or a cheesecake plate for Shavuot.

There are lots of places to shop for Judaica, online and in your community. You can Google “Judaica” or check out Fair Trade Judaica for wonderful handmade items that are crafted with no child labor, fair pay, and safe work conditions. You can also visit a local synagogue or Jewish Community Center and purchase something from their gift shop. A portion of your purchase will help support them and there will always be a very helpful salesperson who can help you to choose something special.

Books can be found at the Jewish Publication Society or at most online retailers. IFF/Bay Area created an extensive reading list relating to marriage that I urge you to make use of.  My Jewish Learning has an extensive list of recommended books. One of my favorites is Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs and Values for Today’s Families by Anita Diamant & Howard Cooper. You can also choose something from InterfaithFamily’s list of interfaith-related titles.

Another option is to choose a family heirloom from your Judaica collection. I was given an old brass menorah by my stepmother before she passed away a few years ago and it remains a cherished memory of her faith, our roots in the old country and reminds me of the strong presence she had in my life.

When my husband and I got married a year ago, we decided that we preferred not to receive gifts, and instead, we chose four charities and asked our guests to send a donation in our honor. You can find a great source of charitable ideas on the Charity Navigator website, including ratings and top ten lists to browse through. You can also think about what issues are important to the recipient and donate to a nonprofit that supports that issue.

No matter what you choose, you can be certain that a gift of Judaica or help for a non-profit will be appreciated and remembered fondly for many years.

5 Things I Hope Rebecca Ferguson Knows Before Starring in The Red Tent

Book coverIf you haven’t read Anita Diamant’s bestselling novel, The Red Tent, here is some extra incentive. Lifetime is launching what they call an “epic movie event” this fall starring Rebecca Ferguson, Minnie Driver, Morena Baccarin and Debra Winger based on the book. Even if it doesn’t go on your summer reading list, here are five fun facts that will make watching it even more fun. Did you know that:

1)  The book was a sleeper until Diamant got the idea to send doomed-to-be-shredded copies of the novel to rabbis who then used it in their teachings and made it a worldwide phenomenon?

2)  Diamant used the first chapters of the book of Genesis as a launching pad for her creativity, based in the silence of the character of Dina who is said to have been raped in Genesis, Ch. 34?

3)  Goddess worship in the novel is based in scholarship of the biblical period? In fact, even the Torah itself tells us of the matriarch, Rachel, taking off with the household idols.

4)  The Red Tent purposely gets the birth order of the tribes wrong? The author plays throughout the novel with the ideas of storytelling and authorship, maintaining that women were absent from the construction of the Torah and, therefore, left out of the telling of our history.

5)  Countless midwifery communities have named themselves, The Red Tent, after the novel?

And now a bit of explanation.

The Rent Tent was published in 1997 with limited success, and within a few years went from being unheard of to a bestseller. What turned it into a book group phenomenon? Anita Diamant was well-known long before the novel for those of us who help people create Jewish life-cycle rituals. She wrote several how-to Jewish books that are the first ones I recommend when someone is planning a Jewish wedding, baby naming or thinking about conversion (The New Jewish Wedding Book, The New Jewish Baby Book). But then Diamant wrote her first novel, The Red Tent, an imaginative telling of the life of the matriarchs in the book of Genesis. When the book wasn’t finding great success, the author got an idea. She sent copies of the book to Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, many of whom knew her earlier work well, and later to women ministers and independent booksellers. Leaders found that the book opened up a much needed conversation about women in our texts and historical silence. Before long, no book group was without its Red Tent month. It became a bestseller.

You don’t have to know the story of Genesis to appreciate the book. But many readers have found that they want to crack open a Torah for the first time in eons to distinguish what is actually written in the Torah about the matriarchs of Genesis and what is Diamant’s creative retelling. She jumps off from the Genesis stories, only using them as a frame. But even the pieces she fabricated are largely based in research. Not only did she include details that come from traditional Jewish sources like the Midrash (see below), she based much of her story in research about the lives of women in the biblical period. She studied daily life in the region at that time, including ancient goddess worship, birthing rituals and midwifery, medicine and funeral practices.

The worship of gods and goddesses, for example, is rampant in her story which reflects what scholars know about near Eastern practice and is hinted at in the book of Genesis and the prophetic writings of the Torah. The matriarch, Sarah, is referred to as a priestess in The Red Tent, another gleaning from early feminist biblical scholarship. She gives names to women who are left unnamed in the Torah. She imagines that Dinah was following a tradition of being a midwife when the events of Genesis 34 unfold.

She once said of her novel, “Dinah is one of the silent women of the Bible. Her silence intrigued me…gave me a window. Where there was silence, I created three-hundred pages.” [Cynthia Dettelbach, “Entering The Red Tent With Anita Diamant.” The Cleveland Jewish News 74, no. 2(1999): 4] In her version, women tell their own stories and, at times, are frustrated at hearing them mis-told by the men in the family. She goes as far as to insinuate that the “writers” of the biblical tales made mistakes because women’s voices were not involved in the construction or transmission of the Torah.

Within Jewish circles, there has been some controversy stirred by the novel about who is “allowed” to interpret and reinterpret Jewish texts. Diamant says she wrote a work of historical fiction, not midrash (a creative elaboration of the Torah, filling in the gaps in the Torah narratives), but still some argued that her work pretends to fit into that textual tradition dating back to the Rabbis of the 2nd-6th centuries BCE. Her response to one such opponent was that, “It is my birthright. My audacity is the Jewish approach to Scripture…Every word of Torah has seven hundred faces of God and six hundred meanings. There is no one correct interpretation of Scripture as Jews have made up stories…for centuries”. [Joan Gross, “Jacob’s Daughter Hits the Bigtime in 2001.” The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California 105, no. 13 (2001): 40.]

It’s Not Only About the Kids

The first commandment in the Torah is to be fruitful and multiply. Judaism takes that very seriously. One blog sums it up this way: “Jewish mothers like to bug their kids about ‘hurrying up and getting married and giving me some grandchildren already before I die because I’m not going to be around forever you know my health isn’t what it used to be.’” Judaism is so concerned about the next generation that in some families, anything and everything is forgiven as soon as there are children involved.

We come by this emphasis on children honestly. Judaism is a small minority and there is profound panic that a people with a deep history, wisdom and beauty will die out if we don’t procreate like crazy. For a tiny tribe to grow to survival, and then withstand the many historical trials we have endured, reproducing ourselves at a rapid rate has truly seemed a necessary component of our survival. Now, more than ever, the pressure is mounting. More of us who do want kids are delaying until later in life, facing more difficulties getting pregnant and having fewer of them. Some Jewish leaders have made it their mission to encourage people to marry younger and start bringing in the babies. So I know I’m going against the grain of thousands of years of Jewish thinking, and contradicting scores of contemporary Jewish thought leaders. But I have some serious fears about our procreation-obsession.

Here are my top 4 reasons we should ease up on the pressure:

1)  Many people don’t want children. And who would want a person who doesn’t want kids to actually become a parent? Childrearing is tough enough even if you really wanted them.

2)  Some want them…but not yet. By pushing women to find mates earlier and start reproducing, we are reversing decades of feminist progress that afforded women a wider array of choices about childbearing.

Shabbat dinner3)  There are so many who cannot have kids, due to fertility challenges, societal, economic or other personal issues. Within the LGBT community, although it is far easier than it once was, having kids can still be challenging.

4)  Finally, I believe the emphasis on children has great implications for interfaith couples. When a couple from different backgrounds is pondering questions about religion in their home, often the first thing we ask is, “Will your children be Jewish?” How we ask this question is crucial. I am a huge proponent of couples exploring this question long before there are children. I have seen countless families struggle because they avoided these tough conversations when it was still hypothetical. But more often, the tone of this question is one of urgency: All is not lost if we can make sure the kids are Jewish.

The results of this pressure are manifold. People who choose not to or cannot have children are left to struggle with their sense of purpose Jewishly. Not having children can be a source of pain and even a feeling of rejection from Judaism.  Some who do have kids don’t know why they should raise them Jewishly because they don’t know for themselves why Judaism is important.  This can even affect those who do raise their kids in the Jewish tradition. I remember a feisty and resistant bar mitzvah student asking his parents point-blank why Judaism was important to them. They were dumbfounded by the question.

My overarching fear is that Judaism appears more concerned with our survival than perpetuating something worth keeping alive. We pay an inordinate amount of attention to “pediatric Judaism,” the overemphasis of the child’s experience of Judaism. Don’t get me wrong—I strive mightily to make Jewish holidays, rituals and values engaging for my own kids and in my teaching in the Jewish community. It is crucial to introduce children to an active, relevant and joyful Judaism that will carry them through a lifetime of meaningful Jewish connection. This is a central piece of my work, and I love and value it. But I fear that while we are fretting about the kids, we sometimes forsake adults’ spiritual journeys.

If Judaism is to survive, it is often times because an adult discovers that it is centering to light Shabbat candles after a long day at work on Friday night as she takes in the warmth of the fire. It is because an adult who loses a parent finds that the Jewish shiva rituals give him the time and space he needs to mourn. It is because an adult finds a community with which to celebrate, learn and argue. This is not to say that kids cannot also discover those experiences for themselves, but the vast majority of the time, it’s the adults who will feel compelled to pass on Judaism because it is a frame for the values they are trying to live and instill in their kids if they have them. Those kids will see their parents engaged and fulfilled by Jewish ritual, activism or conversation. What they will preserve is a meaningful tradition that enables them to live life with more depth, inquiry, and intention.

You matter. You, the adult reading this blog, matter. Your spiritual journey is important and of immense value. Your questions, brilliant insights and challenges are part of the continuous unfolding of the Jewish story, whether or not you were raised in this tradition. It’s not only about the kids.

Lilith: The Quintessential Jewish Outsider

Lilith

Artwork by Phil Blank

I went to an edgy opera recently called, Lilith the Night Demon in One Lewd Act. Lilith isn’t mentioned in the book of Genesis, but the opera based itself on early Jewish tales of a woman who was created before Eve in the Garden of Eden. Unlike Eve, who was born out of Adam’s side, Lilith was created from the earth at the same moment as Adam. They fought about everything, especially her refusal to assume his desired sexual position. Adam made it clear to God that he didn’t appreciate this insubordination and wanted her out. Lilith left in a huff, followed by three angels who implored her to return to the Garden of Eden. When she refused, they told her that she would spend eternity as a demon, bearing and killing hundreds of demon babies daily. With Lilith gone, Eve was created, destined to play the obedient and submissive “good girl” to Lilith’s strong-willed and demanding “bad girl.” The legend also provided a rationale for the high numbers of babies and women dying in childbirth. Lilith became the scapegoat for the unexplained mysteries of life and death.

Lilith rose in contemporary times as a model of strength, and has an all-woman folk music festival named for her as well as a Jewish feminist magazine. Treating her as a feminist icon, we often conveniently forget the part of the story when she turns into a baby-killing demon. Or perhaps we quietly recognize that so often women have been metaphorically demonized when they demanded personhood.

But Lilith is also beloved because she is the quintessential outsider, allowing us to easily identify with her. It is an epidemic in Judaism to believe that each of us stands outside of some inner sanctum peeking in. In truth, I have met a handful of Jews who don’t feel this way.  But many more share this uneasy feeling that we are the only ones who don’t know enough: We don’t know what’s going on during services, we don’t have the right parentage, we don’t know the Yiddish or Hebrew that is tossed around in conversation. We aren’t wealthy like other Jews. We were not born Jewish, or we are in an interfaith relationship. Like a kid on the school playground, many Jews and people who spend time in Jewish communities see ourselves as the kid left out of the club. Other people are the ones who really belong. If only we knew that most everyone feels this way.

Unfortunately, too many of us have actually been told at one time or another that we don’t quite fit an internal stereotypical image of what a Jew should be, or aren’t following the rules. This is natural within a community that defines itself both as one people, yet also contains within it many distinct ways of defining itself. Furthermore, throughout our history, Judaism has had to create walls to define who is in and who is out for its own survival and we still struggle over the height of those boundaries. Reality, yes. But it still hurts.

The problem is, I see us “othering” ourselves. Once we feel or are told that there is a bias against us, we often glorify our place on the outside. We revel in it. We define ourselves by it. We become Lilith peeking in at what everyone else is doing in the Garden of Eden.

There was a time in my life when I identified strongly with the figure of Lilith. I was a rabbinical student dating someone who wasn’t Jewish. I didn’t even know if I would finish my studies to become a rabbi. I felt like a boundary-breaker and wanted to own it. Perhaps even to flaunt it. I studied Lilith. I wrote about Lilith. I read every reference to her I could get my hands on. Except for the baby-killing part of the story, I wanted to be her. But I received some good advice from a trusted mentor to be wary of overly identifying with her. She was right. I was basking in my feelings of otherness. If I had stayed there, I wouldn’t have been able to see myself as a change-maker from inside Judaism.

Feeling that I was on the outside woke me up to how so many people in Jewish communities feel. And I started to realize what a loss it is for everyone if we accept a seat on the outside. Jewish communities need all of us—not just the ones who fit nicely into a box.

Lilith has a lot to teach us. She teaches us to figure out who we are and stand up for what we believe is right. And she teaches us that if we allow others to cut us out, we can’t effect change from within.

My Marriage Choice Doesn’t Dictate My Jewish Commitment

Mychal at a conference

Mychal (right) with other college students at the first of many Jewish professional conferences

When I was in college, I had a serious boyfriend who wasn’t Jewish.  At that time I also got involved as a leader with Hillel, the Jewish campus organization. For me, these two major preoccupations with my time were not in conflict. In fact, I brought him frequently to Hillel events and was the first to correct people when they assumed he was Jewish.

In my sophomore year, I was invited to a major conference for Jewish professionals.  I was excited to be one of the few representatives of engaged college students. The highlight of the conference was a plenary about intermarriage. I was surprised to walk into a room full of hundreds of people. I honestly, and naively, hadn’t realized what a major hot-button issue this had become. So there I was, a teen amidst a sea of (mostly angry, frustrated) Jewish leaders, listening to them try to figure out why Jewish young people were interdating and intermarrying, surmising that it must be a result of those Jews not having a strong Jewish identity. I was a shy kid, and it took a lot for me to muster up the courage to raise my hand. When they saw me, a real live flesh-and-blood Jewish teenager, the room hushed. I told them about my boyfriend. I told them that I was a Jewish leader on my campus. I had come to their conference. Clearly, I was a Jew with a strong identity.

I wanted to dispel what I still consider a myth: that interdating and identity are always necessarily linked. No one knew what to do with my proclamation as it flew in the face of everything they thought they knew. Was I the ideal product of their Jewish educational system? Or did I represent their deepest failure? I think it made an impression (my quote appeared in Jewish newspapers). What I didn’t know at the time was that a major population study had just been published that year, the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. That survey was famous for reporting that the national Jewish intermarriage rate had risen 27% since the year I was born. I had unwittingly stepped into one of the earliest moments of communal panic, and I was a confusing representative of my age cohort. Looking back, I would say it was my first public piece of advocacy for the Jewish interfaith community.

A few weeks ago, a conference of Jewish scholars met to explore the idea of “Jewish identity,” co-organized by Professor Ari Kelman, a friend of mine from Stanford University and a leading thinker in the field of Jewish education.  He says of the subject, “No one has the foggiest idea what Jewish identity even means.” He asks, “Why is identity the desired outcome of Jewish education?”  It’s a great question.  The Jewish leaders in my workshop back in 1990 figured that this elusive thing called Jewish identity must ensure that someone would want to marry within Judaism. But, even as a college student, I had every intention of leading a Jewish life, and my choice of partner was not going to change that.

As if he was at that workshop with me as a teen, Kelman asks, “In what other world is marital choice”—[which is thought to be] a key indicator of Jewish identity—“a valuable educational outcome?” I remember lots of talk when I was growing up in a synagogue about Jewish identity. If they could instill in us a sense of deep Jewish connection, we would marry someone Jewish and raise Jewish kids. But I don’t think that as a community we were asking the right questions. The mistake was that one can’t always make accurate assumptions about the degree of an individual’s Jewish passion merely by asking who they are dating or marrying.

When I look at my kids around the Shabbat table (or even my college students when I worked for Hillel), I’m not thinking, “Phew, I’m doing a good job. They are going to have strong Jewish identities.” What am I hoping? I hope that because they are learning to live life through a Jewish lens, they will grow up looking at the world with wonder and awe, possess a strong sense of self, and understand that they are interconnected with other people and the natural world. The goal is living a life of meaning, not possessing a Jewish identity.

Perhaps when a Jewish person is partnered with someone who isn’t, instead of making assumptions about a faulty Jewish identity, we can ask instead what fills their lives with meaning. Now that’s an answer I can’t wait to hear.

My Wife Eats Cereal in The Garage

Passover cerealWe have been through 20 Passovers together. My wife does pretty well with the eating restrictions but somewhere around the middle of the holiday, there she is eating cereal in the garage. That’s where I store the chametz, the bread products that are off-limits during Passover, to make the rest of the house ready for the holiday. I “sell” it to a friend or neighbor who isn’t Jewish but is intrigued enough to play along. (That ensures that I don’t technically own it and it can stay there as long as it’s undisturbed.) But there it sits, calling out to Kirsti all week. Each bite of matzah brie and cardboard flavored Passover cereal increases her longing for the good stuff she knows is only steps away. Do I care? No, I have never cared. I have always drawn a line between my own, personal practice and hers. I need to clean the house of bread. I need to bring out the glass plates. But Kirsti didn’t grow up Jewish, and while many Jewish practices are meaningful to her, this one is not.

Now enter two kids. None of these differences in our practices made an impact on our home life until we had children. While she can practice however she likes, I do want to maintain a Jewish household for our kids. In similar cases, we tend to face our differences head on, explaining to our children where our beliefs or practices may differ from one another.

Many parents who come from different backgrounds will only tell one parent’s side of things until kids get older and can better handle the paradoxes. I see the value in that approach, but it’s not for us. We have always told the truth about where we differ religiously…for better or for worse. We have different ideas about theology and share with our boys that people generally—and even Jews—don’t all believe the same thing. We have different needs in terms of attending synagogue, and I am happy to be the regular Shabbat service goer with them, explaining that while she’ll go sometimes, it’s more of a regular practice for me.

But Passover is tough because it’s centered in the house. Do I want them to learn that it’s OK to run to the garage when they have a craving? I don’t need my partner to keep to it, but I want them to learn the discipline early on as a meaningful part of the Passover celebration. I want them to internalize their history as slaves being freed as they stop themselves instead of reaching for some bread. I hope they will share the excitement with me when the kitchen gets turned upside down to get ready for the holiday. But I also don’t want to denigrate my partner’s practices by making them lesser. I respect her and her relationship to Judaism. How do I hold both realities?

In truth, I’ve never lived in a house where we were all practicing Judaism in the same way.  I grew up in a home with two Jewish parents for whom Jewish eating practices held no meaning. We always laughed that it wasn’t Passover if there wasn’t a honey-baked ham on the table. OK, we never went that far, but ham and seafood were staples in our home. My mother would proudly say, “I don’t practice my religion through my stomach.” But even as a kid, I was drawn to the idea that refraining from bread made the week of my favorite holiday feel special, and I worked around my family’s need for their cupboards to remain untouched.

So we talked to our kids this Passover about the realities of different kinds of Jewish practice. They were informed that their Mommy sneaks some chametz (not surprising since they already knew that although she has tried valiantly to give them up over the years, she has a soft spot for cheeseburgers). But we didn’t dwell on the food-talk. What we did spend time discussing were the values we hope they took away from the holiday. Standing up for those who are oppressed. Using your own story of pain and difference to inspire you to rescue others. That freedom is possible. And for my partner, we know that her freedom is saying farewell to matzah for another year.

How I Met the Mother of My Children

Mychal's wedding

Mychal and Kirsti's wedding ceremony

Divinity school is an unlikely place for a rabbi to meet her spouse. In my first week of graduate school, I became friends with a Coptic nun from Egypt, a Southern Baptist minister, a Jewish Buddhist and a young scholar of Early Christianity. The last would one day become my wife. I was one of a handful of Jewish students and I relished the opportunity to study religion more broadly within this diverse community before making the final decision to become a rabbi. It became increasingly clear to me that I wanted to pursue a career like my classmates who were studying to become ministers and priests. They were community builders, teachers, healers in a fractured world. Apparently, I needed future ministers to help me decide that I wanted to become a rabbi.

For the first time in my life, I was dating a Jewish man. Since I was seriously considering becoming a rabbi by this time, I believed I had to marry someone Jewish, and he met all the criteria of a perfect spouse for me. He was not only Jewish; we had been counselors together at a Jewish camp, he spoke fluent Hebrew, had spent time in Israel and studied Judaism in college. But he simply wasn’t the right person for me.

My life took a major turn when I met Kirsti. She had grown up in a non-religious household with parents who had rejected Christianity. So, of course, she became fascinated by religion: religious people, religious texts, religious language. Like me, she was pursuing her masters at Harvard Divinity School. She would go on to earn a PhD in Early Christianity as I embarked on rabbinical school. We shared a love of religious mysticism and stayed up nights talking about Jewish and Christian mystical texts, and struggling with belief. In those early days, we also had to process the reality that dating a woman was new to both of us which, frankly, overpowered any worry about coming from different religious backgrounds.

Although she did convert many years into our relationship, Kirsti and I still question religion together and bring our knowledge, ideas and queries to the dinner table. We address our children’s musings with honesty and depth rather than supplying overly clear-cut answers we think they should be hearing. We hope our kids will be inspired to treat all people and ideas with respect and inquiry while being grounded in a rich, Jewish tradition. My Jewish life has been profoundly shaped by traveling this path with Kirsti for the past 20 years. She has led me to challenge pieces of our tradition that I blindly followed, and has deepened my connection to certain parts of our liturgy and rituals by seeing them in a new light.

I am delighted that as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, I have the opportunity to help families from mixed backgrounds navigate Judaism like we have. I will also strive to help Jewish communities become more welcoming to all types of people who don’t fit the long-gone model of a traditional, Jewish family. We are most enriched as a community when we offer space for people to bring their whole selves and their full narratives to Jewish life.

Maybe a rabbi meeting her spouse at divinity school is a rarity, but each family’s story is unique, with its own twists and turns. Who we love and choose to share our lives with cannot be reduced to a checklist of criteria to be met. Our stories are far more interesting than that.

Special Diets + Passover = Stress

What to eatFollowing a special diet can be a challenge. Most of us have followed a diet in the past to lose weight, or for humanitarian or health reasons. Some of us are on one right now. In my own small circle of family, friends and colleagues, almost all of the major diet categories are covered. We have gluten free, low fat, dairy free, sugar free, vegan, vegetarian, Kosher, high protein and low carb. Passover is coming and my diet-centered world is about to short circuit. What kind of meals can I make if I have to eliminate gluten, fat, dairy, sugar, eggs, meat and all of the items that are not consumed during Passover from the list of acceptable ingredients?

There can be some confusion about how to make our choices about what to eat during Passover. Tradition plays a strong role for religious Jews and can influence the decisions we make in our modern interpretation of our holiday observance. Jews from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazim) refrain from eating Kitnyot (KIT-NEE-OT) during the eight days of Passover. Kitnyot are grains and legumes such as, rice, corn, beans, soy, peanuts, string beans, peas, lentils, mustard, seeds (sesame, poppy, sunflower, etc.), and their derivatives which can be found in corn starch, corn syrup and soy sauce. Jews from other lands (Sephardim) do eat Kitnyot during Passover. Why is there a distinction?

The Torah tells us not to eat leaven (also called Chametz) during the holiday of Passover. Chametz consists of “five grains” from wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye. In ancient times, a strict observance of this commandment caused the Jews in lands where these grains were grown to be extra careful. All grains were stored in the same type of sack and could be easily mixed up or misidentified. The only way to be sure of not eating the five grains was to avoid any foods that could possibly have a similar appearance. Sephardim did not have this tradition because the five grains were not grown in their lands.

A little research on the Internet results in some obscure and interesting items to avoid during Passover. Who would have known that organic lipstick may contain wheat or oat flour? We must also avoid eating anything that contains vinegar like ketchup, mayonnaise, and pickles, anything with glucose or dextrose, such as sugar alternatives, and decaf coffee and tea, which are processed using an additive called Maltodextrin, which is made from starch. Whisky and beer are also prohibited because they contain wheat or barley.

There are some very good menu and recipe suggestions available if one is willing to dig around a bit on the web. Daniella Silver has a list of Healthy Gluten/Dairy Free Vegetarian Passover Recipes that look very yummy. I am definitely going to try the Garlic Sweet Potato Rice and the Triple Chocolate Hamentaschen. My favorite site is from Shana Lebowitz called 34 Healthy Passover Recipes and it is full of interesting Passover relevant twists on regular dishes. Try her Grain-Free Banana Bread (it does include eggs) or the Bitter Herbs Salad that she found in a 2012 New York Times post.

It is a highly personal decision to change our diet for eight days. Whether or not you give up just bread, bread-like foods, or choose to follow all of the ancient traditions is up to you. Please share your favorite healthy Passover recipe with our readers so that we all have more food options to consider as we decide what our own unique celebration will entail.

Chag sameach (Happy holiday)!

Fun with the Hebrew Calendar

CalendarThere is a Jewish joke that says: Two Jews are in a synagogue, and one turns to the other as asks “when is Hannukah this year?” and the other responds “the same as always, on the 25th of Kislev.” This little tale helps us to learn about the Hebrew calendar. Jewish holidays are celebrated on the same day of the Hebrew calendar each year, but since the Hebrew year is not the same as the solar year used by most of the Western world, Jewish holidays always fall on a different Western calendar day each year.

This quirky calendar difference can be confusing. My husband likes to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries using the Hebrew date and this takes some effort on my part to keep track. I am fortunate that the two most important dates I need to remember happen to fall on important dates in both calendars. In the year that my husband was born, the first night of Hanukkah fell on December 25—Christmas Day—and that day is his birthday. Every year, we celebrate the first night of Hanukkah and Nathan’s birthday. Last year, it was also Thanksgiving, which made it a triple celebration! We got married on the 18th of the Hebrew month of Lyar, which is also the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, another special day that is on every Jewish calendar, making it easy to remember our anniversary.

The Hebrew calendar has a fascinating twist, a method to reconcile the lunar and solar years. The secular calendar is based on the solar cycle, in which the earth revolves around the sun in approximately 365¼ days. Since we cannot measure a quarter of a day, we have 365 days each year, and every 4th year add a 366th day, creating a leap year every four years. The Jewish calendar consists of months based on the lunar cycle, the time it takes the moon to revolve around the earth. A lunar month consists of 29½ days. Again, since we cannot have ½ day, we have some Hebrew calendar months with 29 days, and some with 30 days. As a result of the extra half days, the Hebrew calendar also includes some leap years.

Every so often, 7 times out of every 19 years, the Jewish calendar adds an extra month of Adar and names them Adar I and Adar II. This year, 2014/5774 has one of those fun occurrences. The reason for the extra Adar is that a solar year consists of 365 days, and a lunar year consists of 354 days, causing the same Hebrew calendar day to occur 11 days earlier in the following year. As a result, Passover which is supposed to occur in springtime, would happen earlier and earlier each year, eventually ending up in the winter, fall, and summer. To prevent this backward slippage, the Jewish sages added an extra month to reconcile the Jewish and secular calendars.

This leap month is called Adar Sheni, or Adar the 2nd (Adar II). Interestingly, Adar II is the month that is constant every year, where Adar I, is the one added in a Hebrew leap year. The way we know this is that Purim, which always occurs in the month of Adar, is celebrated during Adar II in a leap year. Interestingly, a year consisting of 13 months is not called a leap year, but Shana Me’uberet, a pregnant year.

During Talmudic times, the Hebrew calendar was established by the Rabbinic court in Jerusalem, based upon the sighting of the new moon by two witnesses, who were quizzed to determine the reliability of their testimony. In the 4th Century, the Jewish sage Hillel II, established a fixed calendar, basing it on mathematical and astronomical calculations. This is the Hebrew calendar that we use today to know precisely when to celebrate holidays in the current year, and to help us plan for the future.

It is a fun activity to compare the Hebrew and Western calendars to find out if you were born or married on a Jewish holiday, important day in Jewish history, or if you share a birthday with a famous Jewish leader or prophet. You can find a Hebrew date using the online HebCal date converter and then see what happened on that Day in Jewish History. I was born on the 30th day of the month of Sivan, which is a day of celebrating the new moon and the day before Joseph, the Son of Jacob and Rachel was born!