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You’re at a social or family gathering when someone starts throwing around a bunch of Jewish gobblygook you don’t understand. One guy is talking about a cool, new “minyan” in town and you’re picturing this guy.
Someone else is talking about her “boobie” and you wonder if this is really too intimate a conversation for a party (Bubbie = Yiddish for Grandmother). Has this ever happened to you? A few minutes into a conversation among people who are Jewishly identified, and you’re likely to hear a little Yiddish, maybe bits of Hebrew or references to things that would be obscure outside of a Jewish context. Jews love Jewish jargon. Even some who aren’t Jewish love it (Check out Ed Begley Jr. turning on the Yiddish in the film, A Mighty Wind).
Some throw around Jewish jargon without realizing it and assume everyone understands. It is just part and parcel of being immersed in a civilization with a particular set of texts, languages, history and cultural terminology. They might feel that a Jewish context—a Jewish Community Center, synagogue or Jewish home—is a place where they can let their pent-up inner Jew run free. Jewish jargon can signal in-group solidarity as well. To be honest, though, I think others use it so they sound “in the know” or to purposely alienate someone else—which is unfortunate.
Whether intended or not, the result of Jewish insider-speak is that it can alienate people who aren’t Jewish and often even those who are. Judaism often seems like a club for the initiated. But we are becoming so diverse that one can’t expect even in Jewish places that everyone shares a common knowledge base anymore. And with the growing numbers of intermarried couples involved in Jewish life, there are bound to be a significant portion of people at any given Jewish happening who weren’t raised with Judaism.
I am hearing more and more often that if the Jewish community wants to be truly welcoming of interfaith couples, we need to make sure people don’t feel alienated by insider-speak, and that we should eliminate or curb some of our Jewish particularisms. Some even think that since we don’t want to create situations that make people stand out as unknowledgeable, we might want to tone down Hebrew in services to make them more universal. I remember speaking with one interfaith couple in which the partner who isn’t Jewish felt this way, remarking that he’ll never feel comfortable in a space where there is so much Hebrew because it’s not welcoming to him.
To become a truly welcoming Jewish community, do we need to become, well, a little less Jewish? Is it time to junk Jewish jargon?
Absolutely not. Judaism can be both welcoming and uniquely Jewish. My grandparents and parents grew up in the American melting pot era. Anyone “different,” including Jews, tried to play down their uniqueness and blend in. But we live in a very different time. We wouldn’t dream of asking any other minority, ethnic or religious group to abandon the very particulars that make it unique. In fact, most of us find these differences among us to be the interesting byproducts of living in a multi-cultural society (and maybe even what attracted us to our partners who come from a different background!).
So why would we rob Judaism of what makes it Jewish? Contemporary Judaism is more and more open to anyone who wants to be a part of it, and we are enriched by the diversity of people who are being drawn to Jewish life. That may mean that we can no longer assume we are all in on the jargon. But it doesn’t mean we have to dilute it. Instead, here are a few suggestions to make Judaism more welcoming while retaining its unique flavor, and some others that might help those less knowledgeable about Jewish life navigate Jewish jargon moments.
WHEN YOU’RE FEELING “IN THE KNOW”:
Translate. Does your mother-in-law talk about the machatenem (the other set of parents-in-law)? Whether you’re speaking at a party or speaking from the bima, take a page from our InterfaithFamily website. We always hyperlink words that might not be known (point in case: bima). What if we all talked this way, offering subtle explanations just in case someone needs it? The worst that can happen is that everyone nods as if to say, “We already know.” Far better than the alternative: making someone feel that he or she is the only one who doesn’t.
Explain. You never know if people have the same cultural or religious contexts you do, so it’s always a good idea to explain what you mean when talking about ideas particular to a certain field or group of people.
Transliterate. Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish and Ladino are hallmarks of our rich, Jewish cultures. Let’s not abandon them. Instead, transliterate as a regular practice—whether it is a synagogue handout or a wedding booklet.
WHEN YOU’RE NOT FEELING “IN THE KNOW”:
Ask for help. If you are in need of more contextual information to make sense of something that was said, don’t be scared to ask for an explanation. You will be reminding the speaker that not everyone shares her or his knowledge and you may be saving the next listener from the same situation. Don’t just continue to nod as if you know—Judaism is a tradition with thousands of years of history, text and language. No one knows it all—even the person who’s speaking.
Don’t apologize. You have vast areas of knowledge that others don’t possess. There is nothing wrong, embarrassing or shameful about not knowing something!
Be open to learning. Judaism is a rich and complex tradition. Don’t assume that something within it isn’t meant for you. Delve in and learn something new or try to follow along in the transliterated Hebrew. Give it a try rather than expecting Judaism to cut out the pieces you don’t yet understand.
As our society and our families become more diverse, we are in the wonderful position of celebrating rather than diminishing our differences. So go ahead…embrace what is yours and learn about what isn’t. It’s a mechiah! (A great relief or blessing.)
Sometimes 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.
What memories do you have of growing up? How did your family celebrate holidays?
My favorite holiday has always been Passover. While I was growing up, my parents hosted the Passover Seder for the extended family. We’d add tables, outgrowing the dining room and “kids’ table” until we had a series of three tables spanning the dining room, entry way and into the living room. My aunts, uncles and cousins would all come to our house for a few days and we’d celebrate Passover.
Living in Northern California, we did not have an abundance of kosher-for-Passover options. Luckily, my aunts would buy out all the markets in Los Angeles and bring delicacies with them that would last throughout the week of Passover.
After the crowds left, my mom would make matzo meal pancakes. Light and fluffy, made mostly of egg whites and air, they were my favorite (probably because I ate them with tablespoons of white sugar on top).
It wasn’t until a month ago that I learned where the matzo meal pancake recipe came from. I should have known that my mom’s mom was not the source. My grandmother was raised Mormon and converted to Judaism before marrying my grandfather. They raised three wonderful Jewish children and always had a Jewish household (see nature vs. nurture).
During summer break, while my mother was in high school, she traveled to Indianapolis to visit my father for a weekend while he was working there for the summer. At that time, not yet married, it was not “appropriate” for them to stay under the same roof, so while he was living with his cousins, my mother stayed with my father’s grandmother.
One morning, my great-grandmother made the pancakes for my mom. Mom immediately fell in love with them. My great-grandmother’s recipe has been a family treasure ever since.
InterfaithFamily is here to help families discover long-lost family recipes and traditions, to create your own traditions and to help you explore what aspects of Judaism you want to incorporate into your lives as you create new traditions for your family.
In the Bay Area, newlyweds and nearly-wedded couples can begin this process by joining us for our Love and Religion – Online workshop which begins July 29.
One of the things I like about the Passover seder at my aunt’s house is how we incorporate multiple languages and cultures. Specifically, toward the end of the seder, it is a family tradition to sing Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem) and God Bless America. When my cousin married a man from Togo (a country in West Africa), we also added the Togolese national anthem. So now we’re singing in Hebrew, English, and French!
I didn’t even realize that the tradition of singing God Bless America began with her great-grandmother who was an immigrant from Eastern Europe. I never had the chance to meet her, but my cousin recently told me that she would insist on singing this American standard at the seder each year. She wanted to express how grateful she was to be here. (I wonder if she knew it was written by a Jew, who was inspired by similar sentiments?)
Now if that isn’t a statement about freedom, I don’t know what is!
In fact, the whole exercise seems like a symbol of freedom to me. We are free to speak in whatever language we want, free to practice the religion of our choosing, and free to marry who we love (at least here in Massachusetts). Not all of us attending the seder were raised Jewish (both my cousin and I intermarried), but we all come together on Passover to celebrate our freedom in song.
One question couples typically ask me as we go over their wedding ceremony is, “can we have a ketubah even if my partner isn’t Jewish?” A ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract, a tradition that goes back thousands of years. I usually explain how they have changed over time as Judaism and society have changed.
The ketubah as part of the wedding ceremony for Jews who are not Orthodox has come back into vogue. For the recent generations past, the ketubah was sometimes seen in liberal Jewish settings as archaic, too legalistic, and unnecessary. However, in part because it is often a purchased piece chosen for its artwork as much as for the text, and in part because liberal Jews have begun to re-embrace and reinterpret Jewish traditions that had been discarded, it is popular again. (Where “again” is “for the last 4-5 decades.”) It is signed in the presence of witnesses who are close to the couple; it’s displayed in the home as a tangible memento of the wedding.
Traditionally, the two witnesses who signed the ketubah had to be Jewish, males over the age of 13, and not related to the couple. With a modern ketubah, the couple can pick whomever they want to sign it. Once we veer from a strict interpretation of Jewish law, I feel that any decisions regarding the ketubah can be adapted as well. Thus, as a woman rabbi signing the ketubah, I am open to having parents or siblings of the couple sign the ketubah, even if they aren’t Jewish. The point is to pick witnesses who are valued and trusted — the couple will be seeing their signatures for years to come, and they should elicite feelings of warmth, connection, pride, and love.
You may think that anything other than a halachic (and it’s always whose version of halachic) text to be absurd, a farce, or inauthentic. However, Judaism has always had room within it for descent, for adaption, for re-interpretation, and for adaptability. An interfaith couple that finds meaning in Judaism and seeks to imbue their wedding ceremony with Judaism, can have a ketubah — absolutely.
The question I ask myself is at what point does a tradition or custom get so altered that it becomes something else? Is it possible to appropriate such totally different meaning to a tradition that it no longer makes sense? I think that the original point of a ketubah was to write out the terms of the wedding legally and to protect each partner financially if anything happened to one or the other or the sanctity of the union. While a liberal Jewish ketubah or interfaith ketubah may not be a legal document within Jewish or secular courts, it is still a wedding contract. The texts speak about the parameters for the marriage in terms of hopes and dreams the couple share and in terms of the values each see in the other. So although an interfaith ketubah stretches this Jewish tradition far from the original texts, I do believe it is still within the spirit of traditional ketubahs and still meaningful and emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically binding. Signing the ketubah can be a beautiful way to begin a wedding.
What are your thoughts? Did you use a ketubah at your wedding? Do you hope to include a ketubah as part of your wedding?
My Aunt just died. She had been sick, lived to be 88, and had a wonderful marriage of 62 years. One of the sweetest people I ever knew. Her dear husband is 96 and devastated. He is in excellent health and still drives. He keeps remarking, “who lives to be 96?” He bought a car last year and the salesman offered an extended service plan. He looked at his daughter and laughed. He was lucky she was letting him get a car. My uncle is stunned to be alive and well but now without his beloved wife.
Our family is understandably sad and is in mourning. Typically in Judaism there is a funeral and a mourning process called shiva. What is unique about this case is that her husband (my uncle) doesn’t want a funeral or to observe shiva. To provide you with his perspective, he escaped the Holocaust, leaving Vienna for the US. His parents however were killed in a concentration camp. He feels that his parents had no funeral or religion associated with their death and he and my aunt decided long ago that there was no need for any ceremonies for them either.
My side of the family is quite religious and would like to observe shiva, but we completely respect his wishes. I would have gone to a funeral or to see my uncle and cousins but that is not what my uncle wants. My father has decided to sit shiva at his home (in another state). Many of my father’s cousins who knew my aunt will come to the house and tell sweet stories about her. This process will likely help my father and his brother grieve the loss of their sister. My father will say kaddish for a month (a prayer at daily services) and this too will help him grieve.
What I find so beautiful is that Jewish culture supports both wishes and both needs. Everyone grieves in their own way, and I love that Jewish culture provides us with what we need, when we need it. Grief is personal but can be lonely. Judaism provides the constructs for people to move forward at their own pace.