Breaking Bread with the In-Laws

Last Friday night, I watched as my kids lit Shabbat candles and said the prayers at our table with my in-laws standing by. My partner’s parents are not Jewish, and I felt a deep appreciation for them in this moment. When we all met, none of us could have imagined this scene. Nearly two decades ago, I stayed at their home for the first time. My partner and I were graduate students on the East Coast and we headed west to see her folks at their ranch in central Oregon over break. Like many people, Jewish or not, they really aren’t into religion at all. Here we were, a rabbinical student and a PhD candidate in religious studies. We pretty much ate, drank and breathed religion.

I wanted to be careful not to overwhelm them with Jewish talk or Jewish practice. That was tough because I was starting to observe Shabbat and other rituals for the first time. I chose carefully which ones I absolutely had to do. One of my new, favorite Shabbat rituals was baking challah. As Friday morning rolled around, it felt strange not to make it. I started to get the ingredients out, and the implications ran through my mind:

1) This kitchen is going to be really, really messy.

2)  It would feel weird to me if we ate challah on Friday night without saying the prayer over it.  But saying it will feel really weird too.

3) Oh no…it will feel weird to do the prayer over the bread without doing all three Shabbat blessings.  Now it’s a full ceremony and it’s going to be awkward.

In the end, I did it anyway. The result? Wow, these people love challah. I know most people like it. What’s not to like? My recipe includes eggs, flour and tons of sugar and butter which make it more like a Shabbat dessert. It’s always a crowd pleaser. But I have never seen anyone so overtaken by it. Seeing how excited her parents were and knowing how worried I was about engaging in Jewish ritual in their house, my partner made sure they knew that getting to the challah meant that there would be Jewish prayers at their table. For people who really disagree with religion as a whole, don’t believe in the God we are thanking in these prayers and have no context for the foreign language being spoken at their table, this could have been a huge deal.

It wasn’t.

Challah

Mychal's family's homemade challah

It’s been almost two decades, and I’m still making challah for my in-laws. Now when we visit, our kids help bake and decorate. We do the entire Shabbat ceremony consisting of all three prayers: lighting candles, saying kiddush over wine and grape juice and the motsi over the challah, my partner’s parents stand by, knowing that challah is coming.

I am greatly appreciative that my in-laws have been able to witness our family’s rituals and other religious choices. Clearly, some of these rituals have been easier to stomach than others. My mother-in-law enjoys the challah far more than she did the bris (then again, I’m with her on that one). It’s not easy when your kids choose a lifestyle so different from your own. In one sense, I credit the challah. It was one of the first moments when we came together around a Jewish custom, and unlike lots of other Jewish foods that are acquired tastes, challah was the one that could allow them to see into a completely new religious framework and even allow for it to happen at their family table. In a way, it’s just bread. But “breaking bread” together is also the way people from many cultures have traditionally and symbolically expressed that they can cross a difficult boundary. So maybe it’s no accident that this openness was instigated by a couple of loaves of home-baked bread. But at a deeper level, I credit my in-laws for demonstrating incredible openness to new ideas and most of all, for embracing us. That, and helping me clean the kitchen.

Sweet Egg Bread (Challah) 

Ingredients

5-6 cups of flour
2-3 tsp. salt
1 package dry yeast or equivalent of 1 Tbs.
4 Tbs. sugar (yep, really) or try honey
1 stick margarine or butter (Butter is better…but for those observing the kosher laws, butter poses a problem if there is meat on the table. Oil can also be used.)
1 cup hot water (130 degrees or whatever the yeast you are using requires)
4 eggs

  • Start boiling water and take your margarine/butter and yeast out of the refrigerator to get them to room temperature.
  • In a large bowl, mix 1 and 1/8 cups of flour, the sugar and the salt.
  • Put the yeast (room temperature) in a small bowl with a smattering of sugar.
  • Measure out the hot water at desired heat for yeast.
  • Pour some of the hot water into the yeast/sugar and mix vigorously with a spoon until the yeast dissolves. Let it sit for about 4 minutes until it bubbles up and rises.
  • Pour the yeast/sugar/water mixture into the large bowl with the flour and stir.
  • Cut a stick of softened margarine/butter into the mixture and stir, leaving a little aside.
  • Add the rest of the cup of hot water. The mixer bowl should feel warm, not hot.
  • Separate one egg, putting the white into the mixture while keeping the yolk in the refrigerator for later.
  • Add ½ cup flour into the mixture and the other 3 eggs into the bowl. Mix.
  • Add 3 more cups of flour and stir until it gets too thick to mix with a cooking spoon.
  • Spread some flour onto a large cutting board and begin kneading the dough, adding flour as necessary to keep it from getting sticky. Knead for about 10 minutes or until it seems right.  Really get your palms into it. If you have kids around let them make handprints in it.
  • Butter a bowl (with the extra margarine) and place the dough in the bowl. Find a cool, dark place to let the dough rise for about an hour with a damp dish towel covering it.
  • After an hour, remove the dough and punch it (with a buttered fist).
  • Divide it into two pieces (this is for two loaves, but kids like making several small ones instead so they can decorate their own). Divide each half into three sections and braid it. Remove an olive-sized piece of dough as an offering for the Levites. Say the blessing: Baruch ata Adonai, eloheinu melekh haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu l’hafrish challah min ha-isah (who has commanded us to separate challah from the dough). Leave the little ball on the side of the pan and cook it with the rest.
  • Butter/margarine/crisco a cookie sheet and place the braided loaves on it in a cool, dark place for another hour.
  • Beat the reserved egg yolk with a little water and brush it over the tops of the loaves. Sprinkle poppy seeds, cinnamon/sugar, sesame seeds, chocolate chips, rainbow sprinkles or whatever you think sounds good. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes to half an hour, testing it often with a toothpick. When the toothpick comes out mostly dry, it’s done!

Own Your Judaism

KetubahSometimes Jews who don’t live their lives by the rubrics of Jewish law feel inauthentic in their identity or less Jewish than more observant Jews. I often hear phrases like, “we weren’t that religious” or “we were very Reform” to describe an upbringing that did not include regular synagogue attendance or Shabbat rituals, for instance.  Sometimes a person who marries a Jew not concerned with Jewish tradition as it applies to food, prayer or holiday observances can be confused when that person wants a rabbi at his or her wedding and wants to raise Jewish children because it doesn’t seem the person cares that much about being Jewish.

There are many ways into Judaism and many ways to practice one’s Judaism.

Sometimes Jews are worried about “doing it wrong” or not following the tradition (as if there is only one) at major life cycle moments. For instance, in preparing for a wedding, many people are concerned with who can sign their ketubah. I explain that “traditionally” it would be people who are Jewish and not related to the couple but that since this is a “non-halachic, not legal” ketubah signed by a bride or groom who isn’t Jewish that they should pick witnesses who they trust and wish to honor and worry less about whether that person is Jewish and related to them. Sometimes brides or grooms are worried about wearing a yarmulke at their wedding when they don’t intend to wear one regularly again. They have to pause to ask themselves why they would want to wear one on their wedding day, what it symbolizes to them and then see if it feels meaningful.

Some of my colleagues have recently been discussing whether they should write that the couple is getting married on Shabbat in a ketubah (even if the wedding is before sundown on Saturday which is still Shabbat) since it is not traditionally thought permissible to hold a wedding on Shabbat. I feel very strongly that if the wedding is on Shabbat that the ketubah in an unapologetic way reflect that by stating the accurate day of the week in both English and Hebrew (rather than writing “Sunday”). This couple and this rabbi must not be accustomed to keeping Shababt in ways that prohibit driving, exchanging money, etc. and thus getting married on Saturday evening fits with their Jewish expression.

In fact, Rabbi Eugene Mihaly who died in 2002 at the age of 83, a professor at Hebrew Union College, the Reform Rabbinical Seminary wrote about whether marriage on the Sabbath is allowed according to the Jewish rabbinic sources.  He concluded that:

“A religious marriage ceremony is a profound spiritual experience. The goals of Sabbath observance for the Reform Jew are also based on the traditional themes of the Sabbath as a day of delight (oneg), of refreshment of soul, of perfect freedom, a day devoted to hallowing of life, the enhancement of person, a weekly projection into the messianic. The spirit of a religious marriage ceremony is thus in perfect consonance with the spirit of the Sabbath. Halachic (legal) tradition, liberally interpreted, as it must be by Reform Judaism, far from prohibiting a marriage on the Sabbath would, on the contrary, encourage it as a most appropriate and fitting activity, congruent with and an enhancement of the highest reaches of Sabbath observance.”

We have a tendency as Jews to put a hierarchy on Jewish practice and observance level. When one is able to learn about Judaism and then live it in a meaningful, thoughtful way, it becomes part of the life force of that person and not something to try on for an hour here or there. The ability to own one’s own Judaism is crucial. When one can talk about it with confidence and not in what one doesn’t do but in what one does and believes and values, then it fills the person. How can we nurture the next generation to be able to do this? If we worry less about “tradition” which is certainly not monolithic and more about knowing why we do what we do, then our identity can sustain us in real ways.

A Day of Unplugging – My Personal Challenge

Shabbat was created to give us one day of rest each week. Traditional Jews follow a very strict guide about what activities they avoid for 26 hours, beginning at sundown on Friday and ending after sunset on Saturday. They don’t work, clean, shop, spend money, watch movies, listen to music, write, draw, drive, cook with heat, turn on or off anything that is electrical, battery, or gas powered, or carry things outside the home. One of the widely promoted benefits of disconnecting from electronic devices is to reconnect with family, friends, and analog activities. It can be a special time to spend doing things that we have a hard time getting to.

For less traditional Jews, keeping Shabbat can take many forms. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.” In the global scheme of the modern world, separating time from space seems like an impossible dream.

Technology is part of my identity. I am rarely without my smart phone, one of those people who checks email and social media first thing in the morning and after lights out at night. Giving it up for 26 hours is a frightening prospect. I have tried many times and failed miserably. Cooking, I can do without, lights and heat can be easily set to operate by timers, shopping can wait, and all other “don’ts” can be accomplished with my smart phone. That’s the thing, the smart phone is operation central of my life. How could I possibly live without it?

I unplugReboot, “a non-profit group designed to ‘reboot’ the cultures, traditions and rituals of Jewish life” has created an event to help us see Shabbat in a whole new way. It is called the National Day of Unplugging and with this blog, I am publicly committing to unplug on Shabbat, March 7-8. (IFF President Jodi Bromberg made the pledge too–read why here.) Is it possible for me to succeed? My idea is to separate the space into manageable sections. The first section will be enjoyed at Unplug SF, a celebration of Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging from 7:00pm to 12:30am. Catching up on sleep will cover the hours well past dawn, so that leaves about 11 hours to fill until Havdalah at 6:49pm.

For liberal Jews living in the modern world, what is OK and what isn’t OK on Shabbat? Each individual must decide what a spiritually meaningful Jewish practice looks like. These are not always easy decisions. The world does not stop just because it is Shabbat for a small minority of people. My family and friends might not understand my lack of response to their calls, emails, and text messages. Maybe it is just hard to change old habits and try something new. I cannot know what it feels like to unplug unless I try it. There is a cool page of real people’s reasons for unplugging on the National Day of Unplugging website. A couple of my favorites are “play with my puppy,” “spend quiet time with my loved ones” and “get outside.”

The unplug pledge is really just one day out of my entire life. My dog needs a hike, my family needs my attention, I need some exercise and there is beautiful world waiting to be discovered. I unplug to stroll the happy trails on Montara Mountain!

Belt It Out!

In my head I am an opera singer. When I sing in the shower, it sounds so good. Yet when I sing out loud, I quickly realize that I am not in tune and even my 4-year-old now tells me so! He attends the JCC Appachi Village Day Camp.

He comes home every Friday singing Shabbat music. He learns it by hearing it each week and it sticks. He does not get every word right, but he gets most of it. He loves the melodies, he loves the energy of the song leaders, he loves the music. He knows it is for Shabbat and that it goes with challah and grape juice. He knows it is a special part of the week and part of being Jewish. He sings Shabbat songs in the bathtub and the car. It tickles me that he and my older daughter sing Jewish music with pride and joy. Here’s a short video of him singing:

I was recently meeting with an interfaith couple who have adult children. The wife, who had supported her children learning about and celebrating aspects of Judaism, shared that Hebrew has always been a hurdle for her in Jewish participation. She asked why we haven’t removed more Hebrew from synagogue services like Latin in a Catholic Mass. Why don’t we encourage people to say the prayers in English at home? This way parents and kids would understand what they are saying and it would have more meaning. The thought of “doing” Jewish would be less intimidating and more accessible.

I really struggle with how much Hebrew should be in a service, how to teach people to read and say the prayers, how to teach meaning, how to transmit a reverence for this LIVING language with ancient roots and how to understand the values inherent in the Hebrew language itself. For instance, if we know that the root of kavod (respect) is the word for heavy, then we learn something about the Jewish understanding of the concept of respect. If we know that the root of shalom (peace) is wholeness, then we know more about the meaning of peace within Jewish tradition.

My son can’t translate mah yafe hayom (How lovely today is. Shabbat Shalom). He has no idea what the Hebrew words mean. Yet, he knows the words connect him to his friends at camp. He knows the words are special. If adults could approach Hebrew in this way, maybe it would be more poetic and less literal. Meaning is always good and something we should strive for. But Hebrew, in prayer and song, goes beyond grammar and translation and enters the realm of the sacred just by the sound and rhythm and feelings it can imbue and conjure up. Has this ever happened to you: that you memorized the Hebrew to a prayer or song and it felt good in some way to repeat it and sing it?

Encouraging the Welcoming of Interfaith Couples and Families

Six years ago, under the leadership of Leonard Wasserman, InterFaithways board member Bill Schwartz urged the organization to begin a program called “InterFaithways Family Shabbat Weekend.” Bill thought that if the organization could convince just one synagogue to welcome interfaith families for one event at the beginning of November, others would follow. Bill was right. Under the guidance of then Vice President Rabbi Mayer Selekman (current Chairman of the Board) who helped develop the model, Interfaith Family Shabbat Weekend has become an important ritual for nearly 50 synagogue communities in the greater Philadelphia area.

From its inception, the number of participating congregations grew rapidly. Interfaith Shabbat Weekend is now an integral part of these congregations’ programming, along with other programmatic spin-offs as a result of this program. The numbers have grown but, more importantly, the programming has become more enriching and impactful. With this year’s theme, “For Jewish Tomorrows,” many synagogues are reaching out to interfaith couples and families, between November 3-12, and welcoming them to beginner services, tot Shabbats, seminars, and panels of interfaith grandparents. Now that InterFaithways is merging with a national organization, InterfaithFamily, to become InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, there is an opportunity to expand our Interfaith Shabbat Weekend model nationwide.

While many synagogues have thought that hosting a weekend for interfaith couples and families would be good for their membership rolls, it is much more than that. Through sharing personal journeys about their own interfaith experiences in their own congregations, listeners are sensitized to the reality that interfaith families need a sense of belonging and desire to be included in the Jewish community. Many non-Jewish spouses embrace Judaism, attend services, drive their children to Hebrew school, encourage the practice of Jewish holidays — often more enthusiastically than their Jewish spouse. In fact, many synagogues are enriched and benefit from the involvement of their interfaith couples in many ways.

Any element of rejection is a negative reflection on the Jewish people. But, if couples are welcomed, they are more likely to embrace Judaism and share it with their children. InterFaithways has heard so many stories where the child experiences a little Judaism at a young age and then chooses to become a bar or bat mitzvah. Does InterFaithways encourage interfaith marriage? Absolutely not. However, InterFaithways recognizes that since there are so many interfaith marriages in the American Jewish community, the welcoming of interfaith families is not only necessary but an opportunity for growth. Growth in numbers, as a culture, and in spirit. Jews have always been at the forefront of civil rights — fighting for minorities, the poor, the oppressed. Yet isn’t it time to welcome our interfaith children and families? We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.