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.
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This post is based on an article by Rabbi Copeland that originally appeared on jweekly.com
There have always been Jews-by-association. Nowadays this term, JBA for short, is becoming well known as a catch-all category for people who hang out with Jews, including people who gravitate toward Judaism, have many Jewish friends, or are partnered with someone Jewish. But the only thing that is new about the category is the name.
Throughout our history, there have been categories of people who cast their lots with the Jewish people but, for a variety of reasons, were never fully integrated into Judaism. Some may have wanted to become fully Jewish, others not. But common to all of them was that they walked a common path with Jews.
We are about to celebrate Shavuot, the holiday when we study the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Jew-by-Association. She married one Israelite, followed her mother-in-law back to their people after his death, and then married a second Israelite. She is hailed as the first convert, but historically, conversion did not yet exist as a mechanism one could undergo to become part of Judaism. What she did do was utter the words, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people.” [Ruth 1:16] She declared herself a fellow traveler.
But Ruth wasn’t the only one. A person who walked the path with us in the Torah was in the category of the ger toshav, the resident stranger who lived among the early Israelites and was to observe the same rituals and laws. There is even a rationale for treating the ger toshav like an Israelite: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Leviticus 19:34] The presence of this group of people was perhaps a daily reminder of the lessons we learned from our enslavement.
These resident strangers were even included in the ceremony of covenant when the community heard the law from Moses in Moab [Dt. 29:9-11]: “You stand here this day, all of you, before YHWH Your God-your tribal heads, your elders and your officials…even the stranger within your camp—to enter into the covenant”. Just as they were not full Israelites, they were not considered foreigners either.
There was also the erev rav, the mixed multitude who left the slavery of Egypt along with the rest of the Israelites [Nu.15:16]. Later in our history, during the second temple period, there was a category of Jews-by-association called “God-fearers” who, like the other categories, were people who aligned themselves with the Jewish people. Since there was no such thing as conversion, such strangers among us were left as they were—people who clearly cast their lot with the Jewish people.
In our time, there are countless people who reside within Jewish communities who consider themselves fellow travelers. Now, we draw a sharper line between those who are Jewish and those who are not. As of the early centuries CE, we do have a way for people to become fully integrated into Judaism: Conversion. But as that category has become more and more solidified, there has been less and less space for people who don’t fit neatly into one group or the other.
Conversion should be celebrated. But we should also take time to celebrate those who would have fallen nicely into one of these historical categories as fellow travelers who do not wish to convert.
People walk the path with the Jewish people because they love someone Jewish or feel an affinity with Judaism. Many are helping to raise Jewish kids, keeping this tradition thriving into the next generation. As we celebrate Shavuot, let this season of Ruth be an invitation to appreciate our many fellow travelers.
My kid taught me a good lesson today. I was pulling out of our driveway as the usual flood of people were walking by, oblivious to my own tight morning schedule. I muttered to myself how they should be paying attention to the cars rather than being engrossed in their conversations and that I had a schedule to keep. “Come on, people, move!” I seethed, unaware that my kids heard me. My son proceeded to open the window and yell, “Come on, people, move!” at the passersby. I was mortified! But why? He did nothing wrong. He merely saw me as a model and said aloud what I was too cowardly to share. If I want my kids to be patient, kind people, I need to walk the talk because they are watching my every move.
This aspect of parenthood terrifies me. I want to present my “best self” all of the time and be a model of the values I say I live by. But it is exhausting! I fall short of those expectations on a daily basis, and try to have compassion for myself. But I also want to push myself to walk the talk, to be consistent and live what I preach.
So much of my energy as a parent focuses on my children’s behavioral shortcomings, but being a mother has also made me more aware of where I fall short of expectations for my own behavior. When I fail to walk the talk in any aspect of life, they push me to return to my goals, values and expectations. If I tell my kids they should be patient, kind,and express their needs directly rather than passively, but then contradict these values in the way I behave, I might as well have saved my breath. If I want them to respect the rules, how can I explain the instances when I bend them myself? If I hope that they own their mistakes, I need to model that I do that as well. Kids watch, imitate and yes, at times, rebel. But even then, if I have walked the talk, hopefully they will know what I stand for.
Walk the talk goes for religious life as well. The interfaith couples I work with often ask me how they should go about raising Jewish children. My advice is that if you aren’t living a Jewish life in any way (and I define that broadly), your kids most likely won’t either. If living a life according to certain values and practices is becoming important to you, or was previously more present in your life, this is the time to start exploring or re-exploring it. Couples who are anticipating having children and like the idea of Shabbat often ask me when they should start lighting Shabbat candles. I tell them to begin now. If it becomes meaningful to them, they will transmit those values and sentiments to their children organically if and when they arrive. It will be part of their routine.
If we expect kids to learn how to lead a Jewish service, we had better spend some time in the sanctuary as well. Back when I was a tutor preparing kids to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I had a telling conference between a child and his parents. He wasn’t meeting his weekly assignment goals and we were talking about how to proceed. Suddenly, he got up and argued, “This doesn’t mean anything to you. Why are you making me do it?” His parents were stumped. They were not walking the talk. And their child saw that.
Walking the talk does not just apply to the observance piece of religious life either. I decided early on that if I hoped my children would uphold values of tikkun olam (repairing the world) through volunteerism, I’d better get out there and find time to volunteer, and tell them about why it is so important to me. If I wanted them to be the kind of people who stop when someone is asking for food, I’d better model doing that as well. I want to be careful that I am not trying to fulfill my own hopes for an ideal life—or resolving my own shortcomings—through my kids. I don’t want to be the kind of parent who thinks she can live vicariously through them, pinning hopes on what they become that I can’t live up to myself.
Sometimes doing things primarily for the benefit of children is just fine. But how much more powerful and resonant are those spiritual practices or ideas if the adults modeling them are experiencing them for themselves as well and, hopefully, discovering deep meaning in them?
This approach requires more from us. It means we have to spend some time thinking about why we are interested in a religious or spiritual path, ritual or teaching, and we have to examine what it means to us. And when partners come from different backgrounds, we need to take the time to figure out how practices or ideologies match our shared values as a couple and how it feels to bring those ideas into our families. We need to see ourselves as modeling behavior, belief or practice—which can be terrifying, especially when we worry that we aren’t good models. But we don’t need to have it all figured out; each of us is a work in progress. If we are exploring and struggling, walking our own talk, we are the best of models.
When I was little, my mom made a huge deal of the Passoverafikomen 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:
The children grab the afikomen at some point when the leader isn’t looking and hold it hostage until the adults find it in the house and pay a ransom, or
The adults have hidden it and the children have to find it in order to move the night along. It is now common practice that an adult hides enough pieces for every kid at the seder to find one and turn it in for a prize of a special coin, candy or gift. I use chocolate-covered matzah to make it more dessert-y. (Hint: put them in Ziploc bags so you don’t end up with a mess, which also allows you to hide them in tricky spots such as inside books, a piano or drawers with a corner sticking out for less savvy seekers.)
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.
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?
Our kid-friendly menorah and tzedakah box
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.
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.