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!

Intercultural Adoption

The Boston Jewish Film Festival is underway, running November 3-14. There are a couple screenings of particular interest to interfaith families, or those interested in interfaith and/or intercultural issues. We reviewed a couple already, and are pleased to tell you about another one now.

I Love You Mommy is a stirring documentary about one family’s cross-cultural adoption of their daughter, Faith.

With two biological sons and a daughter previously adopted from China, this American Jewish family is looking to adopt a second daughter. They agree with their children to adopt an older girl so that their daughter can have a big sister. The documentary follows the family as they travel to China, meet their new daughter, Faith, and, over 17 months, go through the struggles of becoming a family together.

If you’re like me, you might have some knowledge of adoption, and might have friends who have adopted children before. None of my friends have adopted older children (Faith is 8 or 9 years old when she’s adopted) who are also from other countries. It was stirring to see Faith’s initial reactions to her new mother (she’s scared, she cries) and to her grandfather (she steps away from him when he approaches and hides behind the adoption agency’s interpreter) — the two family members who traveled to China to get Faith. Watching how her parents react to, and include, cultural differences and celebrations is really refreshing to see, as is Faith’s acclimation to her new culture, family and religion.

It’s amazing to watch her transition, see how the family grows with her, meets her challenges, and welcomes her as a new addition to their family and home.

If you’re in the Boston area, I Love You Mommy is playing on Tuesday, November 9 at 7:00pm at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.

I recommend it!

Back to Poland

The Forward ran a feature story by Mladen Petrov , “Poles Create Images That Say ‘I Miss You, Jew’”. It’s about an art project conducted by a Warsaw ad executive, Rafal Betlejewski. On the front page of the paper is a person sitting in a chair in Lodz, where my best friend’s grandmother grew up–next to an empty chair to symbolize all the Jews who aren’t there.

You can see the website of the project, where many Poles have collected their memories of Jews, at tesknie.com. Betlejewski was moved by reading Jan Gross’ book Neighbors, about a pogrom during the Second World War in the small Polish town of Jedwabne.

I’d read about this project before, because I knew about Gross and Jedwabne from working with Joanna Michlic, a historian of Polish Jewry. Dr. Michlic is a specialist on the history of the relationships of Poland’s Jews with the broader community of non-Jewish Poles. She’s also a child of an interfaith family. She and I are about the same age. I was reading about the Solidarity movement in the Cleveland Plain Dealer while she was active in the Solidarity movement–and it was in that context she first understood herself to be Jewish. She was raised with no Jewish identity. Her family didn’t think it was safe.

Her experience of growing up in an interfaith family is nothing like the experiences of the people who use our site. In the Forward article, Petrov writes:

The idea is not strongly supported everywhere. During a recent photo shoot in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, a town near Warsaw where Jews constituted 87% of the population at the beginning of the 19th century, only 15 people showed up. At the Gdański train station, a large number of those who came were in attendance mainly because of their own Jewish roots. Some critics see in the project both a hidden Jewish agenda and a simple gimmick for self-promotion by Betlejewski, who has conducted two unrelated social campaigns in his work as an ad agency executive.

Betlejewski’s partner in the project, Judyta Nekanda-Trepka, tells the reporter, “With the campaign, we wanted to remind people of the actual meaning of the word. ‘Jew’ is not an offensive word!”

Joanna Michlic has made the point that Polish nationalism could have two characters: an ethnic exclusivist character or an inclusivist civic character. In the present day, Poles are choosing inclusivist civic nationalism, and over 3,000 people have posted to tesknie.com to tell the stories they felt they couldn’t tell about their Jewish neighbors.There’s more than one lesson to pull out of this story for American Jews, for people in interfaith families, for people in the United States grappling with how to deal with ethnic difference and immigration. We have the same choices in front of us–to be hidden or to be open, to include or to exclude.

Children of Hidden Jews

I saw a short item, “Polish-language guide to Shavuot distributed.” An organization called Shavei Israel which does outreach to people with Jewish roots or ancestry around the world, prepared the pamphlet.

Children of hidden Jews are, for the most part, children of interfaith marriages. In the Polish case this looks nothing at all like interfaith marriage in the United States–the level of anti-Semitism in Poland and the lack of freedom of religion means that hidden Jews are also people whose Jewish roots were hidden from them.

The interesting thing is that this outreach, which is entirely to people who descended from interfaith families, is under Orthodox auspices and the organization has on its website that it is “under the ongoing supervision of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel.”

London Jewish Museum reopens

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.

Stand Up and Be Counted Part Two–Jewish Library in Jerusalem of Lithuania

Last July, I blogged about Wyman Brent’s efforts to start a Jewish library in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Vilnius, known as Vilna in Yiddish, was a center of Jewish life. Many Jewish families who live in the US are descendants of Jews from Lithuania. As Brent explains,

The purpose of the Vilnius Jewish Library is to help strengthen Jewish culture in the Jerusalem of Lithuania.  There were more than 100 synagogues and prayerhouses in Vilnius before the war.  There was also the YIVO Institute which did so much to promote knowledge and education.  Now there is one functioning synagogue here and, YIVO has moved its operations to the USA.  Since the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, there has not been a proper center of Jewish culture.

Another focus of the library is to promote tolerance and understanding.  There remains lingering anti-Semitism which is visible in the national media and within the Lithuanian government. The idea is to create a center which puts the spotlight not just on Jewish religion and culture but also upon the amazing accomplishments of Jews throughout history.

Brent, who is not Jewish, believes in libraries and the power of books and culture in general to overthrow bias. Now, people in the rest of the world have an opportunity to support his vision:

I was able to see the space which will hopefully house the library.  This is not the permanent location but it will be more than suitable for two or three years.  The place is directly across the street from the Parliament and the National Library buildings.  Both can be seen from the front windows of the proposed library.  There is room for concerts, lectures, and offices.  I say not permanent because eventually the collection will outgrow those rooms.  However, it is a beautiful and fitting location in which to begin.

After years of work, I feel like I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.  There is one thing which still needs to be done.  The Prime Minister is the one which will have the final decision in this matter.  I was told the best way to influence things in a positive manner is to receive letters of support for the Vilnius Jewish Library.  The letters need to be actually mailed as opposed to being sent by email.  I am reaching out to you and to anyone you know in getting out those letters.  The letters can be printed out or hand written but all must be signed and there must be somewhere their name printed so it can actually be read.  If a person is uncomfortable in providing a home address, they are very welcome to use a P.O. Box or business address.  This is NOT a call for donations of money or materials.

Here’s my letter–it’s really short:

Ruth Abrams, Managing Editor
InterfaithFamily.com
90 Oak Street
Newton, MA 02464

Wyman Brent
Ausros Vartu 20-15A
Vilnius LT-02100
Lithuania

February 25, 2010

Dear Mr. Brent,

I am writing in support of the creation of a Jewish library in Vilnius. As Jewish tourists seek their roots in Eastern Europe, the library could provide them with a space to explore Jewish culture. The library would also be a resource to Lithuanians and a source of pride for them and of connection between the people who share this history.

Please share this letter, among many others from interested parties around the world, with the Prime Minister of Lithuania.

Sincerely,

[float=left][/float]

Ruth Abrams

Where to Donate to Help Haiti

If you are looking for a way to do something about the massive human suffering of the people of Haiti in the wake of the earthquake there, there are many organizations providing aid to Haiti that are accepting donations.

A group with a long history in the country is Partners in Health. They provide community-based health care and they know the situation on the ground well. They are also seeking doctors and other medical personnel to volunteer.

Another group with a pre-established presence in Haiti is Médicins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders. They have a donation page here.

A Jewish charity doing work in Haiti is American Jewish World Service, which makes grants to other organizations on the ground. You can make similar donations through the social action arm of the Union for Reform Judaism. Another organization, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) is part of an advocacy effort to allow Haitian immigrants and temporary workers to stay in the US under Temporary Protected Status.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel has sent a disaster relief team to Haiti. Israel has a record of expertise in providing earthquake aid in other countries. Several North American Jewish charities have contributed financial support to Israel’s work in Haiti, according to the Jerusalem Post, including American Jewish Committee,  B’nai Brith International,  the Canadian B’nai Brith branch and the Venezuela-based Central American branch of B’nai Brith.

Songs of Praise

I’ve been trying to remember to blog about any project that highlights the culture of non-Ashkenazi Jewish communities. I’m sure we have some readers from those communities, and we also get a lot of readers in families of Ashkenazi Jews married to people from other cultures. It feels good when you’re raising a child in two (or more!) cultures to know that there were already Jews from the “other” culture. Plus it’s just good stuff, and I look for excuses to link you to good stuff.

[float=left][/float]My husband surprised us this weekend with two CDs produced by Jewish Records in London, one called Shbahoth and one called Shir Hodu. He thinks he learned about them from klezmershack.com, a great source for Jewish music news.

Shbathoth is an album of restored recordings of Jewish music from Iraq from the 1920s—the title of the CD is from the Iraqi pronunciation of the Hebrew word for praises—and Shir Hodu is an album of restored recordings of Jewish music from Bombay in the 1930s. Shir Hodu means both song of praise, and song of India. (It’s a pun in Hebrew.) If you live in London, you can attend a CD launch for Shir Hodu this Thursday, January 14. Our CDs actually came hand-addressed by Sara Manasseh, the musicologist who put the albums together, which made us really happy.

We had a listening session for Shir Hodu on Sunday, and wow, that was pretty cool. There are actually several different Jewish communities native to India, though most Jews of Indian descent now live in Israel or the English-speaking countries. The album has songs from four musical groups from different Indian Jewish cultural traditions, and feature Western instruments (violin, mandolin), Middle Eastern instruments (‘ud, qanun) and Indian instruments (sitar, jal tarang, dilruba, bansuri.) It’s always great to hear Jewish liturgical music sung in different traditions, especially songs that Ashkenazi Jews sing in a minor-key-sounding musical mode and other communities sing in a mode that sounds like a major key.

For copies of these CDs and Dr. Manasseh’s other musical project, Rivers of Babylon (which we’re going to buy later, I think!) go to her website.

More News on the Catholic-Jewish Relations Issue

The current Pope has signed a decree heroic virtues for two previous popes: his predecessor, John Paul II, and  Pius XII, who was pope during the Second World War. This is one step before beatification. Predictably, some Jews have already pointed out why they wouldn’t make Pius XII a saint–most historians believe he did little to save Jews from the Nazis.

Deborah Dwork, a historian and Holocaust expert at Clark University, and Rabbi Eric Greenberg, who runs interfaith work at the Anti-Defamation League, wrote an editorial condemning the move as an attack on Jews. Further, the editorial discusses and dismisses historians arguing that Pius XII did more behind the scenes to save Jewish lives than he seemed to have done in public. The Catholic League responded with another editorial that called Dwork and Greenberg’s criticism “unseemly” and pointed out all the things Pius XII was known to have done to save Jews. (To me, it’s not all that impressive, but you read it and see what you think.)

Tracking the issue of Catholic-Jewish relations for this blog has been very interesting for me. I grew up post-Vatican II and most of my adult life has been during the papacy of John Paul II, the pope who did the most to foster positive relations between Catholics and Jews of any pope, ever. The current papacy has made a series of missteps with relation to Catholic-Jewish relations–and people in my generation did not expect them, I think.

It’s true Pope Benedict XVI is German and a voice on the right on Church matters, but he was completely on board with John Paul’s gestures to the Jewish community–in fact, he was the one who prepared a definitive church document, Memory and Reconciliation, that outlines the Church’s responsibility in past anti-Jewish violence. We had reason to expect him to continue in the same line. Ruth Ellen Gruber’s JTA article, After Pius move, Pope Benedict practices delicate Jewish dance, outlines the back and forth of recent papal decisions.

I really don’t know the truth about Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. No one does, because the documents historians want to see to find out are in closed Vatican archives. It’s possible that the current pope knows something we don’t. I was trained as a historian and even if I weren’t Jewish I would probably be on Deborah Dwork’s side about opening those archives.

JFS Case Settled and Jewish Community Unsettled

We’ve posted before on the British Jewish school court case, first when the Court of Appeals ruled that JFS, the largest Jewish high school in Europe, couldn’t exclude a boy whose mother was a non-Orthodox convert, and then when the British Supreme court was ruling on the case. Now the British Supreme Court has returned a verdict–the school admissions policy was discriminatory.

As The Guardian reported,

Phillips said the judges did not consider the Chief Rabbi to be racist. The judgment “should not be read as criticising the admissions policy of JFS on moral grounds, or suggesting it was ‘racist’ in the pejorative sense”, he added.

Is there a non-pejorative sense of racist? I can’t think of one.

In past blog posts I’ve tried to provide some context for this case. First there is the context of the British educational system, which provides government funds to “faith schools,” which are one third of the state schools in England. That’s very different from here in the US, where religious schools are private, and only provide public services in a limited way under contract. Another piece of the context is the religious complexion of Britain’s Jewish community, which seems to consist mainly of non-observant Jews affiliated with the modern Orthodox United Synagogue, under the aegis of the Chief Rabbi. There is also a growing minority of haredi or far-right Orthodox Jews, who have a strong influence on the rabbinical court of the Chief Rabbi, and there is another minority of liberal Jews whose beliefs and practices line up (not very precisely) with Reform and Conservative Judaism here.

Another piece of the puzzle is JFS–an excellent school that is oversubscribed. Making admissions contingent on the most stringent definitions of who is a Jew (excluding some children whose mothers had undergone Orthodox conversion as well as the child in the present case) gave the school a way to weed through the candidates. This has left an unpleasant taste in some community members’ mouths, as the New York Times reported today:

David Lightman, an alumnus of JFS who keeps kosher, whose wife is a convert to Judaism and whose daughter was also denied entry to the school on the grounds that it did not recognize the conversion, said that its old admissions policy was narrow-minded and divisive.

His wife is the head of the school’s English department, he said; his daughter teaches Hebrew classes. Why, he asked, should they be considered less Jewish than a non-believing atheist, say, whose mother happens to be Jewish?

“God can work it out,” Mr. Lightman said. “He’s a big boy; he’s been around for a long time. He can decide who’s Jewish and who isn’t.”

Lightman isn’t inventing a straw person for the sake of argument; last year The Guardian ran an article about atheist sending their children to faith schools because these schools were academically better than the local secular ones.

I know that some Jewish educators in the US are scratching their heads and wishing they had these problems–state funded, excellent schools so good that people are fighting to get their children into them. Or maybe not? Because who really wants the state involved in the internal decisions of their community, and requiring students to prove they are “religious” when they aren’t in school. It will be interesting to see how the school handles their new problem of determining who is a Jew–who is behaving in a Jewish way–and whether it’s easier or harder than their old problem.