“Outing” Celebrity Jews as Jews

We’ve seen these articles before, or heard the rumblings from co-workers or friends. “Did you hear that [famous person] is Jewish?” In our own celebrity column, the famous are “outed” as having Jewish ancestors on a fairly regular basis.

Every time another celebrity is surprised with the news that they’re Jewish — Madeleine Albright, Senator George Allen, playwright Tom Stoppard, John Kerry (on his father’s side) — the same series of perplexed shrugs ripple through the media. Did they really never know? What made the Jewish parent turn away? Anyway, what’s the difference? Are you Jewish if you never practiced Judaism? And why is this even in the newspaper?

Good questions. Thanks, Jewish Daily Forward.

The latest new-Jew is Ralph Branca:

Ralph Branca, 85, the onetime Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher best known for throwing the most notorious homerun ball in baseball history, the “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” which lost his team the 1951 National League pennant to the New York Giants. A lifelong Catholic, he learned of his mother’s Jewish origins earlier this summer from a journalist who then turned it into a 1,900-word front-page story in the August 15 New York Times. The usual reactions followed: What is he now, a Jewish athlete? Why does anyone care? And why 1,900 words of this trivia in the world’s leading newspaper?

J.J. Goldberg, who wrote Joining the Tribe Late in Life: The Ever-Widening Circle of Celebrity Jews in the Forward, suggests that there are other questions that should be asked, but never are:

Why are there so many such cases? If there are this many among the famous (and this list is very partial), how many more are there who aren’t famous? How many never find out because they’re not famous enough for journalists to poke through their family secrets? Are there any discernable [sic] patterns? Is anyone’s life changed afterward? Can we — should we — learn anything about Jewish life from these dramas?

There are some answers in the article, if you want to click on over.

But I think the other unasked question, of relevance to readers of InterfaithFamily.com, is: if celebrities or other famous people are so readily declared Jews, after their parents turned away from Judaism, or after a couple generations have not practiced Judaism or even known they were Jewish, why aren’t the same standards applied to the rest of us, the non-famous? If Celebrity X can be proclaimed Jewish in the media, a couple generations after their last relative practiced Judaism or identified as a Jew, why can’t Regular Citizen Y get the same treatment? Why are so many descendants of interfaith families struggling to have their Jewish identities acknowledged by the community, when the press seems so willing to hand it over to athletes, politicians and actors?

Goldberg concludes,

What does all this mean? Heaven only knows. And precisely because Heaven only knows, we shouldn’t expect to find all the answers. The best we can do is to keep our minds and hearts open and leave the welcome mat out for wandering kinfolk who find their way home.

I would suggest instead, “The best we can do is to keep our minds and hearts open and leave the welcome mat out for those already in our midst and for wandering kinfolk who find their way home.”

Birthright and Intermarriage

An article hit the internet today that’s sure to ruffle some feathers. Written by Kiera Feldman, a “baptized child of intermarriage” who went on a Birthright trip in February of 2010, the article, “Operation Birthright,” supported by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and appearing in this week’s Nation magazine, examines the mission of Birthright trips.

Of relevance to our readers are the discussions about Birthright’s creation, with goals that included ending (combating?) intermarriage.

The story of Birthright begins with the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. The findings unleashed a panic within the halls of American Jewish institutions: 52 percent of Jews were marrying outside the faith. Steinhardt, a legendary hedge-fund manager, was among the Jewish community leaders who rallied to confront what soon became known as the “crisis of continuity,” characterized not only by intermarriage but by the weakening of Jewish communal ties such as synagogue membership and a waning attachment to Israel. A Goldwater Republican turned chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, Steinhardt wanted to make Jewish institutions more appealing to the young. He enlisted Yitz Greenberg, a well-known Orthodox rabbi and educator, as director of the foundation that would incubate Birthright. Reflecting on that 1990 survey some years later, Greenberg said, “I felt I’d been asleep at the switch as this disaster was coming.” Birthright trips, he hoped, would shore up a social order in decline.
The originator of the Birthright idea was Yossi Beilin, a Labor Party stalwart and an instrumental figure in the Oslo Accords. Widely considered an archliberal and reviled by Israel’s right, Beilin is an unlikely figure to boast the moniker “godfather of Birthright.” In a recent phone interview, Beilin compared his worries about intermarriage and Jewish identity to “the personal feeling of an old man who wants to see that his family is still around.” Among Beilin’s top goals for Birthright: “to create a situation whereby spouses are available.” An ardent Zionist and longtime friend of Bronfman, Beilin unsuccessfully pitched Birthright to him and Steinhardt in the mid-1990s.

Have you been on Birthright? What do you think?

Hodge Podge!

There’s been a lot of talk, of late, about intermarriage, interfaith Jews and the eternal “who is a Jew” debate. Some of it was spurred by the attack on Rep. Giffords, and the Jewish community’s near unanimous response that, yes, she is Jewish. (See, for example, Julie Wiener’s recent column in The Jewish Week, Is Anyone Jewish Enough?)

But that wasn’t the only source of news this week. So cuddle up with a mug of hot cocoa, stay warm and watch the snowstorms move in while you read another hodge podge:

An article in the Jewish Exponent looked at bullying in the Jewish community, specifically in Jewish schools.

Even if violence is minimal, day school students said that doesn’t make the emotional or mental abuse any easier to bear.

“It’s worse for us because our cliques can’t be based on color or race, so instead, it goes a little bit deeper,” Becca Richman, 16, a junior at Barrack Hebrew Academy, said during a discussion on bullying at an Anti-Defamation League youth leadership conference in late November.

Since everyone shares the same ethnicity, students might discriminate over whether someone is overly observant, not observant enough, from an intermarried family, homosexual, wealthy and so forth, her classmates added.

Read more from Taking Bullying by the Horns to see how the problem is being addressed.

Meanwhile, the religion blog in the National Post, a Canadian newspaper, linked to a story on Intermarriage, the law of return and the modern Israeli state. It might be interesting to you to read some of the proposals Israel has for dealing with intermarriage, people who are “Jewish enough” to move to Israel but not “Jewish enough” to be considered Jewish for marriage. (I will add the disclaimer that when I read the line, “One brave exception is Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a member of the Knesset from the Shas political party.” I had to fight the urge to stop reading…)

Now, I wouldn’t normally share an article (Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match) that boasts an OU (Orthodox Union) approved dating site, but I how else would I have learned about intermarriage statistics for the Jewish Deaf community?

In the past, the rate of intermarriage among the deaf was close to 60%.

Another article looking at the “who’s a Jew” question in Israel focuses instead on Y.B., a 23-year-old would-be convert to Judaism (he was raised Jewish, has a non-Jewish mother) who is gay.

The soldier’s experience highlights the plight that gay would-be converts to Judaism face in Israel: Because there is no separation of state and religion, and the state religion is regulated by the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate, it is practically impossible for an openly gay person to convert to Judaism. Under Orthodox Jewish law, a would-be convert who rejects a tenet of the Torah — in this case, the prohibition against homosexual intercourse — cannot join the faith.

And:

An IDF spokesman denied that Y.B. was expelled from the course because he is gay.

“The IDF believes that a person’s origin, gender and sexual orientation cannot have an impact on his or her ability to appropriately complete the conversion process,” the spokesman said in response to a JTA query. “The soldier in question chose to leave the course of his own accord because, as he noted, ‘He did not feel ready to complete the conversion process.’ The soldier was clearly informed he could return to the course when he felt ready to do so.”

Y.B. says that during his meeting with conversion course officials, he signed a form saying he was not ready to complete the process only because he was told he could not continue to study if he indeed was gay. The stipulation given for his return would be based on his agreeing to pursue relationships with women, Y.B. says he was told.

Soldier’s story highlights plight facing gay would-be converts in Israel is an interesting read. It made me wonder if there are other cases of soldiers being ousted from converting for not following one of the commandments. Have people been ousted for carrying outside an eruv on Shabbat? For wearing shatnez (fabric containing both wool and linen)?

So that’s some food for thought… Let us know what you think!

Outdated and Offensive Views

You might be wondering how much mileage we can get from Ed’s session at the GA. Ed recently blogged about it, and we’ve told you about the video of his session.

But there’s just so much to say… And we’re not the only ones who think so.

In her latest Jewish Week column, Steven M. Cohen Promotes “Meaningless Jewish Associations”, Julie Wiener looks at the arguments against intermarriage. And, specifically, how outdated (and “offensive”) the arguments are. Click on over, it’s worth the read.

The bottom line? The message to Jews should not be a “just say no” approach to intermarriage. Rather, recognize that the point is for Jews to marry someone who “is supportive of them living a full Jewish life and raising Jewish children,” whether they are Jewish or not.

Representing Interfaith Families at the GA

If you’re like me, the closest you got to the General Assembly in New Orleans was your twitter feed. I knew when our CEO, Ed Case, took the stage because the tweets became about interfaith families. Great!

So if you’re curious to hear what was said about interfaith families, interfaith inclusion, at the largest gathering of the North American Jewish community, look no further. We have a copy of Ed’s remarks here, just for you.

Let us know what you think!

One Way to Get It Right and a signal boost

How great to see another model of Jewish-Catholic intermarriage in a Chicago newspaper. Alexa Aguilar’s piece, Two Faiths Can Join To Make a Happy Family in the Chicago Tribune today, provides a welcome contrast to the debacle of the Reyes case, in which a divorcing couple fought over their child’s religious practice. Aguilar writes:

My husband is Jewish. I was raised Catholic. He went to Hebrew school, I went to Catholic school. He was a bar mitzvah, I received all my sacraments.

But we are two people who believe there are many paths to God, and who recognize that much of our faith is intertwined with our warm memories of childhood. When we decided to marry, we were intent on being a couple who would be open-minded and respectful of each other’s traditions.

I really liked the subtitle at the top of the webpage: “Interfaith marriage: One way to get it right.” Because there is more than one way to get it right, just as there are so many ways to get it wrong.

Aguilar’s family goes to Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors, the congregation where our frequent contributor Rachel Baruch Yackley has had a leadership role. (It’s more of a havurah than a synagogue so there isn’t just one leader.) That was kind of nice to see, too.

I also want to boost the signal for Hila Ratzabi‘s project, an anthology of pieces by women in Jewish interfaith relationships. She has a blog post up about it on The Forward‘s The Sisterhood blog–a nifty Jewish web resource I should mention in any case.  (I find the internet slang “boost the signal” oddly amusing, don’t you? It sounds so technical.)

Biracial Identity and the Census

I admire Adam Serwer–I follow him on Twitter and read his work on The American Prospect website. I really like what he had to say here on Barack Obama’s choice to identify as black on the US Census.

Obama could have chosen to identify with both sides of his family, as Serwer and others have. As you know, and I know some of you know better than I do, when you come from two backgrounds, people often ask you to choose one, even though you come from two families and at least two cultures (if not more!) The US Census doesn’t ask you to do that–if you come from two or more of the racial categories the Census happens to measure, you can identify with both or all of them.

Serwer writes:

The question really becomes what “legacies” of the painful elements of our past do we voluntarily embrace and which ones we reject. To the extent that biracial black people identify as black, they are choosing to embrace a once-painful element of their history. It is not being forced on us. I happened to check both white and black on my census form, but that was my choice. Every mixed person has a right to tell their own story on their terms. You might as well tell Jews to stop celebrating Passover because it is part of the enduring legacy of Jewish slavery in Egypt. That’s exactly what it is, but that doesn’t tell you anything about its value to the culture or why it continues to endure.

I have been thinking about this question–whether we’re entirely shaped by the biases against us, or whether we have identity that’s independent of oppression–since I read Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew in 1987. (You know how there are some books that just shape your whole life? That was one for me.) The book made me think about my role as a person with white privilege in US society. I thought the dynamic Sartre describes between the biased person, the target of bias, and the “liberal”–a bystander who allows the targeting to happen and blames the victim–described how my society dealt with race. But at the same time, the book is about whether any cultural minority has a culture aside from what it creates in the negative space of a racist dynamic. Do Jews exist without anti-Semitism? I would say yes, we do, we have an identity and culture that is greater than simply resistance.

What do you think about how to fill out the census? I mean the literal one that will count our country this year so that we can apportion resources, but there is also a metaphorical census. When you stand up to be counted, how do you select from your various identities? Does context matter? Tell me about it.

Faith and Marriage

Does faith have a positive or negative effect on the marriages of interfaith couples compared to its role in same-faith marriages? A master’s candidate at Northern Illinois University is comparing the roles of faith for individuals who are part of Jewish, Catholic, and interfaith couples. The researcher,  Patty Fishman, is trying to determine what the positives are in an interfaith marriage.
As part of my work at InterfaithFamily.com I have heard about a lot of interfaith families with strong marriages as well as strong Jewish identifies.  I am curious about what Patty’s research will reveal. 
You can take the survey here.

When you are finished answering the survey questions, you may enter a drawing for the chance to win one of two $50 Target gift cards.

Fear of Disappearing

The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent ran a piece on the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia.” Apparently Philadelphia’s Jewish community has a high rate of interfaith marriage and a low rate of people in those marriages deciding to raise Jewish children. In the greater Philadelphia area, 45 percent for Jews under 40 marry non-Jews with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews. In the Philadelphia area, 60 per cent of same-faith Jewish couples affiliate with synagogues, but only 9 per cent of interfaith couples do.

The community then asks two familiar questions: Can we stop Jews from marrying non-Jews, and can we simultaneously welcome interfaith families to stay in the community? The reporter talked with different leaders in the Jewish community, some who advocate doing one, and some the other.

It’s really difficult for people outside of our community to understand this fear, but articles like these make it clear–it’s a fear of disappearing. It’s also clear what direction we should take. The article quotes:

Mindy Fortin, a mother of three, who’s married to a Catholic man and is a former board member of the synagogue, has overseen those efforts, which have included weekly classes with the rabbi for both Jewish and non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages.

“I understand the panic” over the numbers, she said. But she explained that all the difference in her own spiritual life has resulted from folks in her synagogue not writing her off, but encouraging her to become more involved.

“The biggest mistake is to equate intermarriage with apathy toward Judaism and write off immediately a Jew who has intermarried,” she said.

Either the Worst or the Best Thing–We Choose

Paul Golin, associate executive director at Jewish Outreach Institute, wrote an op-ed about the recent Birthright Israel study. Miriam Shaviv, a Jewish journalist across the Atlantic at the Jewish Chronicle in London, thinks Golin’s statistics are “not good news”–because they assert that more Jews in North America are intermarrying than she realized.

It may be that the Brandeis Birthright Israel study is methodologically flawed–though frankly, I’m a historian and I often find it challenging to believe in the causal relationships that are set up in sociological studies. One blogger in an interfaith relationship challenges whether this is even the right question to ask. (He also assumes that the funders of Birthright are emphatically anti-intermarriage, but we don’t believe that is so — several of the leading Birthright funders also fund Jewish outreach to interfaith families–including InterfaithFamily.com.)  Oh! Nearly missed my chance to cite the best blog post title ever: Intermarriage Not Cancer–though the author was just pointing to Leyna Krow’s post on the subject that ends with the line, “No need to taint it by claiming Birthright will fix a problem that isn’t really a problem.”

Here’s how I think about this. Either we as a people are in terrible trouble, because we are going to lose the children of interfaith marriage, who won’t be Jews. Or we are about to get a very nice present, because we are going to gain the children of interfaith marriage, who will be some very committed and interesting bicultural Jews.

Right now, we are seeing both things happen. We have some lovely young Jews from interfaith families working in the Jewish community and joining synagogues, and we have some children of interfaith families who are raising their own children as “nothing.” What’s it going to be? More Jews, or fewer? Punish the children because of who their parents are, or enjoy their company over your Shabbat table? Yes, interfaith families will choose–but they are part of our community, and they don’t make their choices in a vacuum.

I can’t say whether Birthright Israel is the one true way to encourage Jewish commitment. I’m a little nervous about putting all of our eggs in a single basket. I think we’ve developed different denominations, theologies and political ideologies–different ways to be Jewish–so that we can all stay connected to one another and pass along our cultural and religious heritage to a new generation. Interfaith families are part of that. We have run a lot of articles from children of interfaith families about their experiences with Birthright Israel. It’s worthwhile to listen to their voices in this discussion.