European Leaders Changing Ways on Intermarriage?


Munich synagogueMost European Jewish leaders support liberalizing their approach to intermarriage and conversion, a new survey shows.

As the JTA reports, 85 percent of the 251 respondents to a pan-European survey of Jewish leaders felt it was “not a good idea to strongly oppose intermarriage and bar intermarried Jews and their spouses from communal membership.” Further:

… fewer than 27 percent of respondents felt that only those who were born to a Jewish mother or who have undergone an Orthodox conversion should be allowed to become a member of the community. Even among those describing themselves as Orthodox or Modern Orthodox, 43 percent believed that those who have undergone conversion under rabbinic supervision from any denomination should be allowed to join. Similarly, 46 percent of Orthodox respondents agreed that one Jewish parent was enough to justify membership in communal organizations.

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Pope Lifts Excommunication of Anti-Semitic Bishop


On Friday, Pope Benedict XVI announced that the Catholic Church would reintegrate four bishops that the church had excommunicated in 1988 because they were ordained by Archbishop Michel Lefebvre, the founder of a breakaway Traditionalist Catholic sect, Society of St. Pius X. Jewish groups around the world have protested the reinstatement of Richard Williamson, a Briton who denies the historical truth of the Holocaust. Liberal Catholics in the US are also waking up to the fact that Williamson apparently denies that terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It’s one of the many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to which Williamson subscribes. For a comprehensive run-down on Williamson’s anti-Semitism, see Professor Rebecca Lesses’ blog, which has a translation an article from the German newspaper Der Spiegel on some of the scary things that Williamson has said, including suggesting that conservative Catholics arm to fight other Catholics.

Though Williamson is the most colorfully, scarily anti-Semitic (and also anti-gay and apparently just generally prone to saying wildly offensive things) of these four bishops, it’s not surprising that followers of Archbishop Lefebvre hold extreme right-wing positions. The Catholic Church is not a monolithic body, any more than Judaism is a monolithic body. Even within a single country, leaders in the Church can take left, right or centrist positions. Lefebvre supported the Vichy collaboration with the Nazis, the right-wing neo-fascist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen and right-wing dictatorships in other countries as well. His Society of St. Pius X has long been a source of anti-Semitic rhetoric.

It’s difficult for me as a Jew to figure out why this Pope, who is the first to visit a US synagogue and only the second to visit a synagogue at all, would make such a decision. One would think that he would be eager to distance himself from his past, apparently forced, membership in the Hitler Youth. My guess is that he decided that it was more important to have unity within the Church, and possibly to have support for other traditionalist positions on gender and sexuality, than it was to maintain the positive relations with the Jewish community that he and his predecessor had so carefully fostered.

One Catholic blogger points out that though the bishops’ excommunication was reversed, the Pope has not reinstated them to “exercise their ministry,” and also has not said that the original excommunication was wrong. Still, it looks to those of us outside the Church like the Pope is throwing his relationships with Jews under a bus in order to promote Church unity.

I don’t regard this position as reflecting anything about the Catholic leaders here in the United States who have reached out to the Jewish community, nor indeed does it have anything to do with centrist Catholic clergy in other countries. I’m going to continue to forge alliances and build friendships with the devout Catholics in my life who have consistently reached out to me as a Jew.

Jewish Mourning in Mexico–A Comedy?


I’ve been meaning for some time to write about my Twitter pal, Rabbi Joshua Kullock, the rabbi of Guadalajara, Mexico. He blogs at Kol Ha-Kehila. If you are looking for Spanish-language resources to share information about Judaism with Spanish-speaking extended family, Rabbi Kullock does a regular online class on the prophet Amos in Spanish, and you can watch the class after it as aired as a recording, though you have to register. (I’m posting this now in part because I finally registered and figured out how to listen to it.)

I thought of Rabbi Kullock when I saw this crazy movie trailer. This is the second movie trailer I’ve seen about a shivah, the Jewish traditional week of mourning after a funeral–but this one is a comedy. Continue reading

American Heaven


As a North American Jew, I’m accustomed to reading the endless kvetching of Jewish traditionalists about how American Judaism is inauthentic, assimilated or corrupted. It’s our default position as a community. We often bewail each other’s creativity and spirituality in the process. What I like is learning that all the other religions in the United States are similarly Americanized, unruly and individualistic, and similarly annoying their religious authorities. It makes me think of Whitman’s Song of Myself in Leaves of Grass.

When I read Charles M. Blow’s New York Times column, Heaven for the Godless, it lit me up inside. Here’s a good summary:

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. […] [They] complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And that’s not all. Nearly half the respondents thought atheists would go to heaven, and most thought that people with no religious faith could also go. Continue reading

Getting Ready for Election Night!


Vote o bothIf you are like me, you are getting ready to stay up all night tomorrow, watching the election returns. I do not remember an election in my adult life that seemed as important to the United States’ future.
As Americans debate the politics of the election, some are debating another matter. Some bloggers claimed to have uncovered evidence that Sarah Palin’s maternal grandmother was Jewish. Others assert that Palin’s maternal grandmother was not Jewish. You can read both sides of the gossip about Palin’s possible Jewish ancestry here, among other places on the web. Palin was raised Catholic and joined a Pentacostal church in adulthood. She identifies as “a Bible-believing Christian.”
One electoral race that caught my eye is Colorado’s 6th District race for the U.S House of Representatives where Hank Eng is running. He is a Chinese-American convert to Judaism. Though Eng was born in New York, he discovered Judaism when he lived in Bejing. Eng, who is married to a Jew, discusses his attraction to the Jewish idea of Tikun Olam, the obligation of repairing the world.
I would not be a good former Minnesotan if I did not mention that there are two Jews running against each other for the senate seat. Comedian Al Franken, a Democrat is running against the incumbent Republican Norm Coleman. Both candidates are in apparently happy interfaith marriages. I am pleased that no matter which way the election goes, the Frozen Chosen will be represented.

Jews in the Presidential Campaign and the Blogosphere


I get a lot of Jewish blogs in my RSS reader, and one of the ones I follow, The Velveteen Rabbi, had a link to another blogger who had liveblogged a conference call with Barack Obama. A group of rabbis has started a group called Rabbis for Obama, which the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has called “a first in US politics.” Apparently 900 rabbis from all denominations were on the call; three rabbis asked questions of the candidate. Obama quoted from the Talmud and used Hebrew phrases with some facility.

Interesting! As both candidates court the Jewish vote and attract Jewish supporters, we’re going to get to see a lot about Jewish culture in the news.

In other Jewish blogging news, and on a completely different, non-political note I have been digging Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. It’s a group blogging effort by a group of diverse Jewish writers. They have begun a three-year reading ofThe Book of Legends (in Hebrew, Sefer Ha-Aggadah) by Haim Nahman Bialik, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the publication of the collection of Jewish legends by the famous Hebrew poet. I love the diversity of the writers’ perspectives.

Jewish-Irish Cultural Links


My 5-year-old son is really interested in holidays, especially ones that have special costumes. How do you explain St. Patrick’s Day to a Jewish boy–who lives in Boston? We passed people wearing green clothing and sparkly hats on the street yesterday, probably on their way to the famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which is the oldest celebration of Irish heritage in the United States. Being Irish is cool in Boston. But is it a Jewish holiday? Maybe!

Jewish-Irish t-shirt by Daniel GreeneYou can be Jewish and Irish at the same time; it’s not only the stuff of jokes. (I bow to Philologos of the Jewish Forward for having published the aged but still effective Sean Ferguson joke in his column this week–great timing!) Jews have a long history as a tiny minority in Ireland. There was probably a community as early as the 1200s, and unlike the Jews of England, Ireland’s Jews never underwent expulsion. They have had a small, visible and audible presence in the modern period as political and cultural figures.

The Jewish Advocate ran an article this past week in their print edition about Carl Nelkin, recently featured in the documentary Shalom Ireland. Nelkin, a Jewish community leader and a lawyer, is also a musician who has released an album of Yiddish music played on traditional Irish instruments. Jewish-Irish cultural blending goes beyond Leopold Bloom. I now have a small list of Jewish-Irish music CDs I’m going to be forced to acquire. Research for my job here, essential, very important! Continue reading

Tahiti’s 200 Jews


Keeping with the theme of island paradises, Ben Frank of JTA has written a story on the tiny Jewish community of Tahiti, where more than half of the Jews are intermarried.

The island is home to one Orthodox synagogue and while Shabbat services attract only about 20 regular worshippers, most of the island’s 200 Jews attend High Holiday services.

Having an Orthodox shul as the isle’s only religious option makes for some interesting situations. For years, the synagogue’s sunday school has admitted children of intermarriage, but it recently started barring children of non-Jewish mothers from attending.

Despite the tension between inclusion and exclusion and tradition and modernity, Joseph Sebbag, a former president of the community, says, “It is not a problem; everyone knows everyone else. …. We are all friends. We’re not so many, we are a family. Just that everyone knows we have an Orthodox synagogue.”

The Jewish Al Sharpton


I was going to write about Reform Judaism magazine’s impressive package of articles on outreach, but I felt the need to respond to the latest instance of Abe Foxman-related controversy.

In the most recent issue of The (Boston) Jewish Advocate, Raphael Kohan reports on Boston Jewish leaders’ reaction to Abe Foxman’s Oct. 24 Q&A with JTA’s Ami Eden. In that Q&A Foxman discusses, among other issues, his position on the pending Congressional resolution calling the Turkish expulsion of Armenians in 1915-17 a genocide, and the Boston Jewish community’s reaction to his position. In the Q&A, Foxman is critical of Boston Jewish leaders’ support of the resolution, saying “What I didn’t realize was to what extent the American Jewish community has reversed Hillel [referring to Rabbi Hillel’s famous quote, “If I am only for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”], or at least in Boston and Massachusetts.” He directly calls out Combined Jewish Philanthropies President Barry Shrage and Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston Executive Director Nancy K. Kaufman: “The last thing we need now is for Barry Shrage and Nancy Kaufman to be fighting us.”

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Three Little Birds


It’s been two weeks since Hurricane Dean left surprisingly little damage in Jamaica, a place filled with shoddily constructed housing and tenuous infrastructure. A few days after the storm, Paul Rockower wrote an essay for The Jerusalem Post about Jamaica’s “small, vibrant Jewish community” of 250-300.

Despite the community’s microscopic size–down from a one-time high of 5,000-6,000–Rockower reports that 20 people were at the island’s only synagogue, Sha’are Shalom, on Shabbat when he visited. The sounds of the synagogue’s pipe organ filled the room, and the floors were carpeted with white sand. The community’s spiritual leader, Stephen Henriques told Rockower how intermarriage was common but that “nearly all children from those unions were raised as Jews.”

I’ve always found it interesting how the Jewish establishment in the U.S. makes a stink about intermarriage, while far smaller Jewish communities–such as Jamaica and Nicaragua–accept it as a fact of life, and move on. Better to keep up the important business of living a rich Jewish life and building Jewish community, and whoever wants to participate does so. Even a few days before Hurricane Dean, when water was thigh-deep in the streets of Kingston, nearly 10 percent of Jamaica’s Jewish population came out for services.

As Bob Marley sang, “Every little thing’s gonna be alright.”