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My grandma Zelda taught me many things about Judaism and preparing for the Jewish holidays. However, what she did not teach me was her recipes. In fact, in all the years I watched and helped her cook, I don’t ever remember seeing her follow a recipe or consult a cookbook. Whenever she cooked, she did it from memory.
For her huge fluffy matzah balls, I remember her telling me to mix together the matzah meal, schmaltz (chicken fat) and water. “If it’s too thick,” she said, “add more water. If it’s too wet, add more matzah meal.” There was no recipe to follow, just the steps she had learned from her mother, which were the steps she used her entire life and the same ones she shared with me.
Often she would tell me stories about what it was like growing up strictly kosher or what it was like living in a family of eight children.
Looking back now, I see that my grandmother taught me how to cook from memory. For the most part, if I learn how to cook something once, I can pretty much cook it again without the recipe. I know what “season with salt and pepper to taste” means, and I do not measure exactly how much goes in of this or that ingredient. When I bake a chicken, I don’t usually use a timer since I know how it’s supposed to look and taste when it’s ready. That is how I learned to cook from Grandma Zelda.
More than how or what to cook, much of what I learned from my grandmother was about how to build a Jewish home (even if I don’t follow the rules of keeping kosher in exactly the same way she did). I learned how to let Judaism be a framework for my life, how to follow the seasons and celebrate the holidays and how to make room within that structure for my own personality and creativity. I learned the value of taking the time to prepare for holidays—not just physically cleaning and cooking, but spiritually, too. I learned from her how to gather my family around me and how to make the observance of a holiday meal more meaningful. I learned how to open the door to those who come from other backgrounds and traditions.
This will be our first Passover since my grandmother passed away and my first time hosting Passover in my own home. It feels like an honor, a duty to carry on this tradition and a very large task for which I will need a lot of help. In large part, it’s about the food, but it’s also about the rituals and about the memories.
I know that our Passover seder this year will look and feel different from the Passover meals we used to have at Grandma Zelda’s. It will be the first time not being in her home and the first seder without her. I will think of her every step of the way as I clean my house and prepare for my guests. We will light her Sabbath candles on the first night of Passover, we will fill her Miriam’s cup and I will prepare and teach in her honor. I will cook with my memories, and I will cook from memory, just like she taught me.
This article was reprinted with permission from Jewish Food Experience.
You might find it hard to believe but I love going to church. I don’t go very often, but the times that I have been, I have found it very moving and spiritual. I have prayed and spoken with God in a variety of settings: in the desert, in the forest, in the ocean, in non-denominational campus chapels, in hospital rooms, on my yoga mat, though conversations with my friends and colleagues who are ministers and chaplains of other faiths and yes, in a church.
Sunday, January 31, 2016 I had the opportunity to worship with the community at Calvary Baptist Church and to give a sermon and the benediction. The clergy team, the choir and the congregation warmly welcomed me and I felt right at home. What helped was that I had been there before to speak to an adult education class and that my colleague at Calvary, Pastor Erica Lea, had spent a lot of time sharing with me about the congregation and the service so I knew what to expect. Not only did she let me brainstorm sermon ideas with her that would resonate with the congregation but she encouraged me to be myself and to share my own words of Torah (scripture) and to teach from my heart.
The occasion for my visit to Calvary Baptist Church was Interfaith Sunday, a service in celebration of the UN Resolution on Interfaith Harmony Week. I spoke about sowing the seeds of interfaith harmony. In the physical sense, I connected the idea of planting seeds to the Hebrew month of Shevat. There is a teaching that the seeds that are planted in the month of Shevat (in winter) will bloom in Nissan (the month of spring time, in the time of Passover, redemption and freedom). Interfaith Harmony doesn’t happen overnight. It must be achieved by planting seeds and nourishing those seeds to blossom.
In the metaphorical sense of sowing seeds for Interfaith Harmony, I spoke about building relationships. I drew inspiration from the recent Torah portion from the book of Exodus in which we read about Moses’ relationship with his father-in-law Yitro. Yitro was a Midianite priest, and he served as mentor and counsel to Moses, the leader of the Israelites.
The relationship between Moses and his father-in-law is one of the earliest and most powerful examples of interfaith harmony in our tradition. Though they come from different faiths, they understand each other’s language and liturgy, each other’s spiritual practice and each other’s laws. Moreover, they understand something universal: how important is for spiritual leaders to have support and mentorship of their own.
I have been blessed with guidance and mentorship from spiritual leaders of other faiths and I have found time and time again how valuable those relationships are in my life. As I think of the support Moses received from Yitro, I am reminded of the support I received from my high school guidance counselor, Dr. Melanie-Prejean Sullivan, who is now Director of Campus Ministry at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, who helped me understand my calling. I think of Rev. Sheila McNeill-Lee who was my Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor at Sibley Memorial Hospital when I was chaplain intern, who helped me to articulate my beliefs, the value of self-care and how to check my assumptions. I think of my dear friend and interfaith collaborator on creative expression and spirituality, Erin Brindle, who is an art therapist. I also think of my new colleagues at Calvary including Pastor Erica Lea and her team.
During my chaplaincy training, a colleague who is now a Presbyterian chaplain led us in what has become one of my favorite spiritual experiences which I recreated for the community at Calvary. At the end of my sermon, I invited all of the congregants to write their prayers on paper flowers and then bring them up to the altar and place them in a glass vase. Together we planted our own seeds for interfaith harmony by offering up a beautiful bouquet of our prayers. I truly hope that the seeds we planted at Calvary that day continue to be nourished through conversation and discussion and community partnership.
In rabbinical school, I learned what you might call the “real” story of Hanukkah. I also learned about the “real” story of Purim – there is more beyond the Disney version which includes a violent ending to the Book of Esther, which I never knew about as a child. I also learned about other gruesome stories in the Torah like the punishment for those who built the Golden Calf (they had to drink an elixir made from the ground-up golden calf and subsequently died) as well as consequences such as being swallowed alive by the earth for other disobedience.
What I mean when I say that I learned the “real” story of Hanukkah is that I became acquainted with the historical and rabbinic ambivalence toward the holiday. For starters, unlike all other Jewish holidays (with the exception of modern day Israeli holidays instituted after the creation of the state of Israel), the story and holiday of Hanukkah is not in the Hebrew Bible. It’s part of another genre of literature called the Apocrypha. Secondly, the holiday was established by the Maccabees to commemorate a military victory in which their small Jewish army defeated the huge Greek army. This war was forged by the Maccabees against both the Jews who had become too assimilated into Greek culture and against the Greeks themselves who had forbidden the Jews certain practices of Judaism.
The Maccabees were quite zealous in their religious fervor and it makes me wonder if they would have found my family, my community and me too assimilated as well. Though many of our holidays are also a celebration of our survival, the Maccabees’ establishment of the holiday in honor of their military victory was a distinctly Greek practice. The Rabbis of the Talmud were troubled by much of this and they even asked, “Mai Hanukkah” which, loosely translated from the Aramaic, means, “What the heck is Hanukkah?”
In the Talmud, the rabbis go on to tell the story of the destruction of the Temple, the re-dedication of the Temple and the lighting of the menorah with one tiny cruse of oil that was supposed to last only one night, but lasted eight nights. For the rabbis, that was the miracle of Hanukkah. The Talmud does not mention the military victory.
Ever since my rabbinical studies of Hanukkah, I’ve also wondered culturally about how Greek Jews feel about the Hanukkah story. (I also wonder how the Greeks feel about getting a bad rap in this story.) As a former Hillel staff member and Hillel rabbi, I also thought about the Greek Jews on campus, meaning the Jewish students who were members of Jewish fraternities and sororities. How did they feel about the Maccabees’ fight against the Jews who were too Hellenized — the Jews who were too Greek?
Jews of all communities and cultures learn to preserve their heritage but are also influenced by the area of the world in which they live. Jews from just about every Sephardic country have their own foods, recipes, and songs that most of us who grow up Ashkenazi don’t know about. I love learning about different kinds of Jewish cultural practices, which to me, are not about assimilation, but about embracing the creativity and the survival of the Jewish people.
Being the eager student ready to share what I had just learned about the “real” story of Hanukkah in rabbinical school, I told it all to my family at Hanukkah. I thought they would find it all as fascinating as I had. But sadly, they were not intrigued or excited by the ambivalence in our tradition to the different versions of the stories. My grandma was actually upset. “So the story of the Maccabees isn’t real? It’s not what Hanukkah is really about?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “it’s only one part of the story. It’s not the whole story but it is one part of it.” So she asked me what I thought the real miracle was. I told her that I thought the real miracle was when everyone in our family was lighting Hanukkah candles – even when we weren’t together, even if we were far apart – that at one time of year – we each lit the candles, and saw our own hope, joy and memories reflected in the light of the candles.
Wherever you are; wherever your loved ones are; from whatever culture or background; I hope that your Hanukkah was a chance for you to come together.
This blog post originally appeared at Rituallwell.org
One of my favorite parts of being a rabbi and the director of InterfaithFamily/DC is working with couples to prepare for their wedding. I meet with a lot of couples that come from diverse backgrounds and no two couples are the same. Each is a unique set of individuals bringing together their life experience, their families, and their hopes for the future.
Whatever kind of wedding they have in mind, I tell them that my goal is to create a ceremony together, a ritual which we can personalize so that their wedding reflects who they are as individuals and as a couple and their intentions for their life together. On the simplest level, a ritual helps us mark sacred time and helps us to be present in the moment. And no matter what the individuals’ backgrounds, I want their wedding to be one of many beautiful, meaningful, and accessible Jewish rituals in their lives.
When I teach couples about the components of the Jewish wedding ceremony, it’s often the first time they have learned about the meanings behind the rituals. And as with most things in Judaism, there are often multiple explanations for why a tradition came into practice. That fact alone is empowering for many people to learn that it’s ok that some explanations resonate and some don’t.
The mission statement of Hebrew College, where I was ordained, says that “Judaism, at its best, is a creative, intellectual and spiritual encounter among the individual, the community and the received tradition.” As rabbinical students and rabbis, we are “encouraged and empowered to see ourselves as both inheritors and innovators—active participants in the unfolding story of the Jewish people.” My role as a rabbi is to transmit a Judaism that is expansive enough to be inclusive and meaningful.
Our Talmud class on weddings had a big impact on me. We read ancient ketubot (wedding contracts) that varied in content and formulation, written hundreds of years before the standard Orthodox ketubah came into wide spread use and thousands of years before the myriad of modern-day options. We also learned about other kinds of marriage and partnership documents and rituals. Historical and cultural variations in practices around the documents, huppah (canopy), wedding garments, and rituals objects have long encouraged couples to personalize and beautify the ceremony.
The history of Jewish creativity around ritual has been a wonderful way to see the current trends in reclaiming, modifying, and forming new rituals as an inherent part of Jewish tradition and practice. In my understanding, creativity and inclusion lead to an enriched, enlivened, and more beautiful Judaism. In my role as officiant and m’saderet kiddushin (one who orders wedding ceremony), my hope is that there will be a balance of tradition and creativity. I hope that all couples I work with, especially interfaith couples, will be empowered to make Jewish rituals and practices their own, thus opening the doorway for their engagement in Jewish life on their terms, in a way that is meaningful to them.
This November, congregations and Jewish organizations around the country are celebrating Interfaith Family Month. Some may choose to offer a blessing or do a special program. InterfaithFamily has created some lovely readings and blessings. But I also want to encourage other clergy and Jewish leaders to think about offering something from their heart. One way to do this is to think about the gifts that interfaith couples and families have given you and your community.
And with that in mind, I want to say thank you to the interfaith couples I’ve worked with for their willingness to engage with Judaism. Thank you to the individuals who want to honor and include their non-Jewish partners or family members so that we can create more inclusive rituals and more expansive experiences of Judaism. I want to say thank you to the individuals who want to incorporate rituals from other cultures who have showed me that there are more similarities than there are differences. I am grateful to work for an organization that has supported me to embrace interfaith couples and families and for our partnership with organizations like Ritualwell who enrich the work that I do.
Last week I had a whirlwind trip to Boston for our InterfaithFamily #ChooseLove Celebration honoring our Founder, Ed Case, and President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Boston’s Federation), Barry Shrage.
The trip began with a fabulous day-and-a-half long IFF Directors meeting for the local directors of the IFF/Your Community initiative before the big gala, followed by a chance for the directors to participate in the Board of Directors meeting after the event.
Each part of this trip was an opportunity for me to reflect on the impact of our work and our vision for the future. In doing so, I felt grateful for the colleagues I get to work with at IFF and for our partners in the community. Each part of my trip re-inspired me to do this work.
Check out the video we shared at the gala and I think you’ll be inspired too!
During our IFF/YC Directors meeting, we had a chance to really think about what is working in our communities, where there is room for growth and why we’re doing what we’re doing. One of my favorite parts of our meeting involved putting a large dry erase calendar on the wall and filling in big initiatives and ideas for 2016 and seeing how the work we’re doing locally supports our work nationally. I love hearing the ideas of my colleagues since they often come up with ways to think about things that wouldn’t have occurred to me. As the newest IFF/YC Director, it is so helpful for me to learn from my colleagues’ experiences.
On Thursday night, we all gathered at Hebrew College (my rabbinical school alma mater) for a community conversation with Rabbi David Ellenson (Hebrew Union College), Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz (Temple Emanuel, Newton), Rabbi Joy Levitt (JCC Manhattan), Sheila Katz (Hillel), April Baskin (URJ) and Rabbis Ari Moffic (IFF/Chicago) and Mychal Copeland (IFF/Bay Area).
One comment from Rabbi Joy Levitt in the afternoon panel is still vividly in my mind as I prepare for sessions I’m offering in November for Interfaith Family Month about how to make our family gatherings more inclusive. She offered the following three outcomes of an all too common phenomenon when a family member brings a partner from another faith or culture (or no faith background) to a holiday family gathering, like a Passover seder.
One outcome is that the family seder doesn’t change and the person coming from another background might feel completely confused about what is happening, doesn’t understand the language or the rituals, and feels alienated, uncomfortable or left out. A second option is that the family changes everything, takes out all of the Hebrew and songs or anything that might be unfamiliar to their guest, thus losing much of the richness of their family tradition. A third option is that the family really thinks about why their family seder came to be the way it is, intentionally incorporates elements that would make it accessible to others, and expands their current seder to include meaningful explanations and teaching moments that touch on both universal and personal themes.
Ultimately it is the third option that we hope can happen. With the right tools and resources, these kinds of experiences can actually be positive and transformative. We hope that the presence of family members from different backgrounds and cultures enrich our family traditions in a way that allows us to share and learn from one another and create something special. Many people in the room that night have been helping families do option three, many were ready to and many felt that there are still people in the Jewish community who aren’t ready for option three. We know there is more work to be done.
The celebration continued with the evening reception with speeches and videos honoring Ed Case and Barry Shrage, and special guest speaker Josh Kraft, Nicholas President and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston.
It was incredible to get a glimpse into the past 14 years and see how much InterfaithFamily has expanded and impacted the Jewish community on a personal, local and national level. It was very inspiring to watch and to imagine the potential we have for the future.
InterfaithFamily/DC launched only a few months ago and already organizations are welcoming us to consult, co-sponsor and collaborate. I’m meeting new individuals, couples and families every week who are so happy to learn that IFF exists. As we enter Interfaith Family Month, I am happy to say thank you to the members of our community who are our partners in this work and look forward to the future.
If you were not able to make it to our event but still want to #ChooseLove by donating to our cause, click here.
In late April, I attended the Consultation on Conscience, a social justice conference in Washington D.C., created and organized by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. I wrote about it in a previous blog, but I left out one very important detail: By some stroke of luck, I was able to get into the Supreme Court to hear a portion of the arguments for the case that would decide on marriage equality in all 50 states. I write this blog post many weeks later, knowing now how the case turned out, still in awe and in a state of permanent pride both as a member of the gay community and as an American. So here is my story:
The final day of the conference was Tuesday, April 28, the day that the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments on the historic case, Obergefell v Hodges, the case that could possibly make gay marriage legal in all 50 states. I decided to skip the final morning of the conference and head over to the Supreme Court; I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I arrived at 8am and the plaza was near full already! The energy was infectious and colorful, rainbows abound. People were singing, chanting and praying, sending all their energy toward the looming white building in front of them.
Of course there were also those there shouting for an entirely different result. I found a few friends and grabbed as much rainbow paraphernalia as I could and joined in with the crowd. In the midst of the chaos I also joined a long line, hoping to get one of those elusive bright yellow squares of paper, given out by the Supreme Court security guards that allowed the recipient a full three minutes INSIDE the courthouse. I was absolutely sure there was no way I was going to get in—there were too many people ahead of me, too many people on the plaza, but I waited in that line, next to a man spewing such vile hatred in the name of his God that I almost moved several times. But I stood my ground, blocked out the noise, focused on the rainbows as the clock ticked down.
Thirty minutes before the end of the arguments, the word came down the line that they were allowing one more group in, as there had been a protester who had gotten in to the court earlier and caused quite a commotion. The security guard walked down the line and one by one, handed out the yellow tickets. I put my hand out, took a deep breath, and he placed one in my palm. I was in!
We were led onto the large plaza directly in front of the court to a side entrance. After two metal detectors and stuffing my large bag into a very small locker so fast I didn’t even remember which locker number I had chosen, I waited with my group of about 10 outside the large imposing doors of the Supreme Court courtroom. I was buzzing. After several more instructions given by even more security guards, none of which I had even a small hope of remembering, the doors opened and I walked into the Supreme Court in the middle of the closing arguments. As I walked to my seat, I stared at each justice, down the line and tried to figure out as quickly as possible, what was going on in the case.
One lawyer for the plaintiff was telling the story of a career Army man who served his country for many years with honor and pride and was married to his husband in a state where it was legal. He was then transferred to a base in a state that did not recognize his marriage. All of a sudden, so many of the equal rights he and his husband had enjoyed were no longer available to them through no choice of their own: He was following his transfer orders.
This man’s story was one of thousands of stories of discrimination that could change if the court voted it so. I think I held my breath the entire time I was inside the courtroom, afraid I would miss something. Since I had been the last group in, as we were led out of the courtroom and back to the locker room (thankfully, I sort of remembered where I put my things!), the court let out and I watched in awe as well-known senators and congressmen and women walked by, every major director of every organization fighting for marriage equality walked by and then the plaintiffs themselves and their lawyers walked right by.
We all ended up on the large plaza, news anchors and paparazzi yelling, a whirlwind of flashes and chaos. I think I finally took a breath. When I think about it now, I still can’t believe I was able to hear a bit of the closing arguments on a case that would not only allow millions of people in this country to choose love and would right a very long standing wrong, but would also affect me personally. I wasn’t sure how I was going to wait until the end of June to hear how those nine justices would rule.
Fast forward to this past Friday morning: While on vacation, feverishly scanning Twitter and stuck in front of CNN, I heard the news, saw the scroll on the bottom of the screen: “Same Sex Marriage Legal in All 50 States.” I blinked…it was still there. Tears filled my eyes and I had goosebumps on my arms—we did it, it was done, same-sex couples can legally get married in each and every single state of our Union.
Starting now, we live in a more just country, a place I am a little happier to be from, a place where our children won’t remember a time when loving couples who choose to marry were discriminated against, told they weren’t worthy, their love wasn’t enough, wasn’t valid, wasn’t real love. This decision is monumental, it is life changing and it is above all, justice. I had the honor of officiating at a wedding this weekend, on a little piece of paradise in the Caribbean and toward the end of the ceremony, I recited the words of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion:
May we all seek and receive equal dignity for the decisions we make and the relationships we have in the eyes of the law, within our families and in our own hearts.
As we say in Judaism, Ken Y’hi Ratzon, May it be so!
We have many more fights to achieve true equality and lasting justice in our country but let us revel in this win and let that rainbow flag fly high with pride alongside our American flag.
Yesterday Ari Moffic and I had the privilege of participating in the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Welcoming Interfaith Families: A Community Conversation with more than one hundred professionals and interested individuals. It was very affirming to hear the top leadership of the Washington Federation – Steve Rakitt, CEO, and Stuart Kurlander, President – express their commitment to engaging interfaith families in Jewish life in the DC Jewish community. Ann Bennett, the Chair of the program, and Marci Harris-Blumenthal, the Federation’s Director of Community & Global Impact, put together a great program. Our friend Marion Usher played a key role helping to design and facilitate the program.
The program started with an interfaith couple telling about their Jewish journey, starting with Marion’s Love and Religion workshop and continuing to membership in Adas Israel, a leading Conservative synagogue. Several organizations gave brief presentations about their programs and resources, including our own InterfaithFamily/Your Community, the DC JCC, 6th & I Historic Synagogue, JOI and its Mother’s Circle program, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, and PJ Library.
Next came breakout sessions on various topics – I attended one Ari Moffic facilitated on preparing for bar/bat mitzvah. It was a great discussion – the mother who started the program said she had recently received the date for her son’s bar mitzvah, I believe four years in advance; not having had a bat mitzvah herself, and with a husband who is not Jewish, she was already wondering how she would include her husband’s family. One participant pointed out the opportunity for parents who had not experienced bar or bat mitzvah to learn along with their child if they wanted to, including learning how to read Torah. We got some great ideas for additional resources to put on our Bar and Bat Mitzvah Resource Page that would help interfaith families prepare, ranging from lists of questions synagogue members should ask their synagogue professionals, to tips for parents thinking about whether or not to have a bar or bat mitzvah.
After a presentation about the play Love, Faith and Other Dirty Words created by the New Center for Arts and Culture, a panel described in Ari’s blog post shared their interfaith experiences. Like Ari, I was struck by how much of the concluding conversation concerned rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples after an interfaith couple told of their difficult experience. It reinforced to me how important it is for communities to make it easy for interfaith couples to find officiating clergy.
All in all it was a great conversation and we are very much looking forward to the next steps the Washington community takes. The Federation is making some of the presentations available on a new page on its website: be sure to check out shalom.dc.org/interfaithresources.