Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
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 Bar Mitzvah lessons and apologized for his delay in welcoming me. He didn’t know I was a rabbi or what I was doing there; it appeared that this is how he welcomed anyone walking in the door. I explained that I was fine—just a bit early for a meeting. The night went on in this fashion. I have to admit that I was a bit flabbergasted. I had to wonder, why shouldn’t every encounter be this way?
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 Parentingabout 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.
Do you need a little lift amidst the conflict in the Middle East? A growing movement of Tweeters are telling the world that “JewsandArabsRefuseToBeEnemies.” Documented in the article, “Under Muslim-Jewish Hashtag, Sharing a Message of People Over Politics” by Maayan Jaffe, the campaign was started by two college students from Hunter College in New York.
Syrian Dania Darwish and Israeli Abraham Gutman began a trend when they posted photos of themselves with the hashtag written in Hebrew and Arabic. The campaign is bringing out scores of people who are friends, romantic partners or spouses across these two religious lines. Assumed to be the mix of traditions that cannot possibly be joined, many of these pairs are the children of intermarried Muslims and Jews or intermarried themselves.
The stories they are collecting challenge the notion that interdating and intermarriage threaten those established traditions. One Jewish partner in a Jewish-Muslim relationship, Matt Martin, commented that, “A product of the media mainly, it seems you always have to marginalize people, paint someone as the bad buy or good guy. But there are two sides and people from different backgrounds can get along, work together, be as successful and happy as other friends or couples that are from the same background.”
This theme was reiterated by many contributors, viewing intermarriage as a way couples can grow by relating to someone with a different background. In the words of Dr. Sahar Eftekhar, an Iranian Muslim dating a Jewish American, “Sometimes it is hard for others to put themselves in someone else’s shoes or to see the world through someone else’s eyes. I think this is a very dangerous thing. Underneath those stereotypes, which we have placed on each other, we are the same. We are all human…I hope our generation will be more open-minded and spread this message.”
Another post by Martha Patricia reads, “My mother is Jewish. My father is Palestinian. I am their face.”
Check out the tweets and enjoy the love, from pictures of people kissing to kids from different backgrounds hugging or sporting an Israeli flag on one cheek and a Palestinian flag on the other. My favorite of the day is from Gutman himself: Hate is a waste of time.
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.
The 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 Hanukkahmenorah, 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.
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.
If 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” on December 7, 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.]
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.
3) 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.
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.
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.