Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
A friend of mine, Amanda, is writing some articles for InterfaithFamily.com, explaining the different ways different people pronounce, translate and transliterate (write with English letters) Hebrew. The first article just went up: The Case of the Missing Sav, and other mysteries in the transition of American Hebrew. But in addition to that, I wanted to share an article that didn’t make it into her final draft.
Wait. Let me back up. One of the sources cited in her article was Alan Mintz’s Hebrew in America: perspectives and prospects. In it he writes,
I am not convinced that the American teaching agenda [of Hebrew] must be set by a dependence on Israeli teachers.
I agree! And I suspect that many parents who have or had children try to learn Hebrew in a synagogue’s religious or Hebrew school would also agree. Fluency in a language does not necessarily a teacher make.
But his argument goes on to explain, as Amanda’s article paraphrases, that in America:
Camps, schools and other infrastructure existed to teach children Ashkenazi Hebrew, in addition to it being the language of synagogues’ prayers. The transition to Sephardi pronunciation was gradual, and was aided by growing feelings of Zionism, the availability of Hebrew courses on college campuses taught in Sephardi Hebrew, sometimes by Israeli instructors, and other factors.
So what does that mean? The majority of Jews in the U.S. are of German and Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi). Many of them spoke Hebrew with their community’s pronunciation, which included pronouncing some “t” sounds (the Hebrew letter tav) as “s” (sav), “o” sometimes became “oy”, and “a” sometimes was “o.” There were many other differences too. (Which we’ll be sharing a resource on shortly!)
Sometimes, because of the push to standardize Hebrew in the U.S., fuelled, in part, by Zionism and a desire to align our Diaspora Jewish communities with Israel, the “old school,” Ashkenazi pronunciations are seen as backwards, stupid, and sloppy. I strongly diagree. In fact, I call that bullshis. (See what I did there?)
And here we return to the article that didn’t make the cut. Because she, and I, found it offensive. It’s archived from a URJ email discussion list, and we don’t know much about it. But the author, Burt, says in part:
Over the course of the last eight years I have discovered something deeply frustrating within our Reform congregational world. The struggle to instill a knowledge and love of standard, modern Hebrew is challenged not only by the centrifugal pulls of assimilation, the extracurricular demands on our children, the challenges of maintaining two-income households and a terminal case of “pleasure principle”, but by the persistence of archaic and inaccurate pronunciation of Liturgical Hebrew due to old habits, ce , pseudo-orthodox affect or cultural sentimentality. The widespread use of this strange half-Hebrew, half-Yiddish dialect I call Ashkebonics (the Jewish equivalent of Ebonics), subverts the proper teaching of Hebrew and exacerbates a cultural and cognitive gap with between the American Jewish Community and Israel. The fact that so many of our Jewish professionals use and reinforce Ashkebonics is to me both puzzling and deeply frustrating.
If you want to read his rant, by all means. But I’ll stop quoting there. In essence, he argues that this historical, cultural, familial Hebrew pronunciation system should be squashed once and for all. He wants to see all Americans using the Hebrew pronunciation of Israel.
Would that simplify things, help folks learn? Perhaps. Perhaps it would be less confusing if we all referred to the 25 hours of Friday evening through Saturday night as “Shabbat” instead of some people saying “Shabbos.” But then, doesn’t learning about our multitude of cultures and histories make us a stronger, deeper, more enriched community as a whole? When we recognize that there is more than one way to speak or pronounce Hebrew, just as there is more than one way to be or do Jewish, just as there is more than one way to claim Judaism as our own… the whole community benefits.
There is a new novel out that strikes me as significant. It is A New Song by Sarah Isaias. It is about an interfaith relationship between a Jewish doctor and a Muslim poet and it is a relationship not only of warmth and respect between those two individuals but of their two families.
Growing up in a Jewish enclave in Detroit and spending my adult life fully involved in the Jewish world, I knew next to nothing about the Koran and very little about the practice of Islam before reading this fast paced novel.
Sarah Isaias has written a story that held me through 400 pages taking me to the libraries of Cambridge, to Jews in Spain before the expulsion, Egypt, Israel, Palestine and through the steps of the Haj. As the characters explore the origins of a legend in both their Abrahamic traditions that tells of a poem that could redeem the world, they share passages in the Koran and contrast them to passages in the Hebrew bible.
Their quest isn’t only academic. As they travel the world together there are shadowy conspirators and extremists who intend to stop them at any cost.
This story is such a wonderful model of an interfaith relationship between two religions and cultures that are most often portrayed in the media as enemies. In a delicately portrayed love story with authentic Jewish and Moslem characters we can see how their openness to each other and to each other’s cultures helps them discover a truth that is powerfully simple and never more urgent.
It’s lovely to see sunny Tori Avey, who wrote a great piece on how to run a Passover seder for us, telling the story of her Journey From Shiksa to Shakshuka in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. She is one of my favorite finds of the last few months–like a younger, American apprentice to Claudia Roden. (I know, if Tori reads that she’ll faint–Claudia Roden is every foodie’s hero. She’s certainly mine.) But she does the same thing–the recipe collecting and preserving–that Roden does so well. Because it’s partly about collecting and transcribing, but it’s also about testing and having the taste buds to choose the best variation.
I also really like to eat shakshuka. I haven’t made it in a long time–a bed of sauteed onions, tomatoes and sometimes peppers with fried eggs on top.
My friend Rebecca Lesses, a professor of Judaic Studies at Ithaca College, mentioned on her blog Mystical Politics a new feature on the Anne Frank House website. You can now see a lot of the exhibits in the museum without traveling to Amsterdam.
I had no idea that Malcolm McClaren, a key personality in the punk movement, was Jewish. McClaren, who died yesterday at the age of 64, was apparently the child of an interfaith family: a Scottish dad and a Jewish mom. He was raised by his Sephardi grandmother, Rose Isaacs, whom he identified as a key influence. As Dave Simpson, the Guardian obituary writer put it, “His father left home when he was two and Malcolm was raised by his grandmother, Rose, who home-schooled him and fed him slogans such as “it’s good to be bad and it’s bad to be good”, along with a general distaste for the royal family.”
McClaren was the impresario of the Sex Pistols, the person who gave them their name and their image. (Distaste for the royal family, indeed! If you’ve ever heard “God Save the Queen” you know why Simpson thought it was important to say that!) He was also responsible for Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant, two New Wave bands from the 80s.
The Jewish community of Great Britain is a cultural powerhouse, I can’t even summarize all the great stuff that has come out of it. It’s the Jewish community responsible for the first Limmud, Aviva Zornberg, Neil Gaiman, Claudia Roden, Harold Pinter, Julian Sinclair, Martyn Poliakoff, Susan Edni, and so many other amazing people in arts, entertainment, science, politics, literature and Jewish life. (Yes, I am aware that list was a little random–give me yours!)
Two of those people, the food writer Nigella Lawson and creative director of the BBC Alan Yentob, re-opened the Jewish Museum in London this past week. The Jewish Museum in London has a slightly different model than some of the ones in the US. It seems poised to use the Jewish experience as “one of Britain’s oldest minorities” to bring other immigrant and minority experiences to the foreground. Cara Nissman reported for us last year on how Jewish museums might provide neutral territory for interfaith families. You don’t need to be Jewish to go to a museum, and in fact the exhibits in a Jewish museum may provide an opening to discuss the non-Jewish partner’s history and culture.
If you’re going to London, check the Jewish Museum’s events list–it looks like they have a lot of interesting events there.
My husband found this blog, Sephardic Food, where culinary expert Janet Amateau posts Sephardi cultural lore and recipes. Some of the blog posts are in Spanish because Amateau lives in Spain. I’ve been meaning to tell you about it, because I know a lot of our readers want Sephardi recipes, and these are great–with great explanations.
When I wrote the Jewish Food Cheat Sheet, which defined dozens of Ashkenazi Jewish food terms, it came with an introduction, Understanding Jewish Food Traditions, which placed Ashkenazi Jewish food in a more global Jewish context, with Sephardi, Mizrachi and other Jewish cultures.
The truth is, all the Jews in the US aren’t all Eastern European, and even those of us who are Ashkenazi Jews love Jewish food traditions from elsewhere. Interfaith families are totally part of this. If you’re married to someone Italian who isn’t Jewish, it’s pretty cool to read Classic Italian Jewish Cooking by Edna Servi Machlin, just as an example. If you’re a Jew by choice, it’s nice to find ways to incorporate your old food traditions into new kosher rules.
In my overwhelmingly vegetarian, mainly Ashkenazi community, there are great fans of Olive Trees and Honey. I am still cooking my way through Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, though my copy is falling apart.
I am always looking for ways to include recipes on the site, so if your family has kosher-ized some of the recipes from the non-Jewish side, or has revved up an Ashkenazi dish with the spices of another culinary tradition, or done any tasty sort of thing with food and culture, contact me.