A Holiday Disclosure

This is a guest post by Dr. Steve Moffic (my father-in-law, a Milwaukee psychiatrist). It was originally posted on his blog which deals with ethics.

How did a Jewish psychiatrist end up playing Santa Claus for his daughter 35 years ago? Is it possible that this could connect in any way to this same daughter now being a Sunday school teacher? And, even more of a possible stretch, even connect to her younger brother becoming a Rabbi and who also married a Rabbi? A blog just written by this psychiatrist begins to consider how Christmas, self-disclosure, and cross-cultural respect all come into play in trying to answer these questions. God, indeed, may work in mysterious ways.

The idea to play Santa for our young daughter was not mine. I was early in my career as a psychiatrist. Being a psychiatrist at that time would have led me in the other direction. At that time, the view of Freud, who of course came from a Jewish background, was that religion was like an opiate for people at best, a neurotic belief at worse. He could have been called an ethnic Jew, though we don’t for sure know if he turned more to religious beliefs as he was dying of cancer.

However, my wife wanted to do this and I wanted to please her. Moreover, it seemed like fun and I was just getting interested in masks, so I put on the mask and clothes of Santa. It worked, at least in its deception and enjoyment of our daughter. We later did this with our son, who was 8 years younger, though by then our daughter knew of the deception, so this time it wasn’t the same.

My wife recollected wanting to do this because it was a family tradition on her side. She felt it fulfilled a desire of her family to adapt to American values and traditions, while at the same time remaining strongly Jewish. She and her sisters all ended up marrying Jewish men and having long marriages. All of their children have married other Jews to date.

As I learned more about being a psychiatrist and how to help patients, I found out that self-disclosure on my part was filled with complexity and, despite any temptation, had to be done with utmost care and concern for how this would benefit my patients, not me.

In the field of psychiatry, the analysis of religion seemed to mature beyond Freud over the years. Religion could later be seen as a sound and normal social and cultural activity. At its best, at least in my opinion, it could not only complement the mental understandings of psychiatry, but take up where psychiatry left off and probe into the deeper questions of spiritual sustenance and the meaning of life. Psychiatry also didn’t have thousands of years of helping people cope with the challenges of life; we could certainly learn from religion.

I tried to apply this knowledge as best I could with being a parent as these same years went on. So that when my wife began to have thoughts and desires that our son should become a Rabbi, I didn’t tell her (or him) that she was “crazy”. Now that it happened, I think this, as well as our daughter teaching in a Jewish Sunday school, is one of the most wonderful legacies imaginable of being a parent.

Much later, after our son became firmly dedicated to becoming a Rabbi, I became more interested in Jewish religion and history. I finally succumbed to my wife’s request for us to attend weekly Torah study at our Reform synagogue. And, lo and behold, what did I find is that the Torah depicted human nature in all its successes and failures, that it could be analyzed in a depth even greater than Freudian interpretations, and that it left questions for us to ponder for the rest of our lives.

Self-disclosure in Torah was a prominent theme. Just consider God. God only reveals the qualities of God slowly and depending on circumstances. We are never allowed to see the “face” of God directly. God has an eternal mask of sorts, at least for us.

Jacob, with the direction of his mother, deceives his father by trying to disguise himself as his brother Esau. Was that really necessary to obtain the birthright? Did it lead to problems with Esau’s progeny over history all the way up to today? Interestingly, Jacob later is very open with his own children, conveying obvious favoritism to Joseph and somewhat berating all his children on his deathbed. Not what I would recommend as a psychiatrist. You may naturally have favorites as a parent, but that is best kept to yourself and try to treat all the children as having equivalent value in the image of God. And, before dying, it is psychologically best to resolve old animosities, if time and illness allows, rather than to disclose without time for discussion and better resolution.

Of course, Jacob’s father Isaac had already been subject to – a psychiatrist might say traumatized by – his father Abraham’s getting all set to sacrifice him. Was that what God really wanted, for Abraham to keep this from his son? Why not let Isaac argue with him, just like Abraham did with God once upon a time? Psychological trauma tends to repeat over family generations unless processed, reframed, and mistakes admitted and forgiven.

Then there is Moses. What is self-disclosed to him about his origins by his sister and other family? Perhaps all that can be concluded is that he likely learned of his background at the right age, at the right time, and with the right explanation for being “given up” for his own benefit.

As I specialized in treating patients from many different cultures, I learned that several things were essential for success. I had to respect other cultural values, even if I didn’t believe in them and even if I thought they were harmful. There were there for a historical reason. I had to not only empathize with the values of other cultures, but sometimes experience them directly, whether that be visiting those from other cultures or attending many of their cultural events. And, I had to be careful as to when I revealed my own cultural background and values. Timing was – and is – essential, for psychiatrists and parents. It needed to be when, as best as I could ascertain, and sometimes with the consultation of colleagues, that it should benefit the patient. Fantasy, imagination, and transference (what we call the projection of feelings to parents onto the psychiatrist) are all important – and inevitable – for a patient to experience in their relationship to a psychiatrist. Treatment, of course, had to be consistent with what their cultural identities valued. Over time, I developed multi-cultural holiday events for patients and staff at this time of year. I brought the Menorah and information about Hanukah.

An essential part of the development of any child is for them to know that they are a separate person from their parents, and that they have control over how much they may reveal of their own thoughts. Too much or too little can prove costly.

So, clearly, playing Santa Claus many years ago did not harm my Jewish identity. Nor did it not harm that of my children. And, who knows, could it have paradoxically helped? Surely, it is impossible to tease out the influence of this one activity over 35 years. But, now, as I write this, our adult children are most capable of considering the reasons I did this, the complexity and even anguish of our parental decisions over time, and how they can do better. Someday, when our four grandchildren seem ready, we will tell them this family Santa story.

Six Words: Go!

Looking for something a little different?

SMITH Magazine and our friends at Reboot have teamed up and need your help: They’re seeking “six-word memoirs on the Jewish life.” The best ones will be included in a new book, Oy! Only Six? Why Not More — Six Words on the Jewish Life, out in early 2012.

Need some inspiration? Check out the “memoirs” submitted by others here or watch the video: 

If you watch the video trailer for the book, you’ll notice that there are a whole bunch of succinct memoirs touching on interfaith families, which is great! But let’s help them collect memoirs from the full diversity of our community.

The deadline to submit your six-word memoir is December 25 31, 2011. Go for it!

How Can a Religious School Teacher Respond?

I recently spent an hour with religious school teachers in a Reform synagogue, talking about the children from interfaith homes in their classrooms. It amazed me just how emotional and personal even talking about interfaith families was for them. Everyone had a story to share about someone in his or her own family who intermarried or a story about what a child said in the classroom.

It was clear that at this time of year especially, children in Reform religious schools are talking about Hanukkah and Christmas. They are talking about the Christmas trees in their own homes; they are talking about going to their grandparents’  for Christmas; they are discussing how many presents they are going to get; they are trying to work out who they are, what they are experiencing and what it all means.

We grappled with what the “best” response should be when children share parts of their lives that involve family members who aren’t Jewish or experiences such as going to church. Should the teacher just say, “Thank you for sharing that but now we are focusing on learning about Judaism…” and just move on in the lesson? Should the teacher say, “Wow…our Jewish families are each different. Some of you have a parent who isn’t Jewish or wasn’t born Jewish, some of you have cousins and grandparents who aren’t Jewish… but there are lots of things that tie each of you together. Each of you is here because your parents hope you find meaning in Judaism.” Should the teacher stop the lesson and explain that each of us is made up of many traits, attributes, relationships and talents? Some of us are sisters or brothers. We are a daughter or son. We are neighbors and friends. Some of us are known by the sports we play, the art we create, our abilities in math. Some of us are known by our humor or our generosity. We are many things, but in amongst our traits is our Judaism and that is why we are here… to learn about that part of us. 

The religious school teachers and I debated how to best approach a lesson with language that would be the most sensitive and inclusive to a child who has a parent who isn’t Jewish. Is it okay to make blanket statements such as, “Jewish homes have mezuzot,” when in fact some of the children (whether both parents are Jewish or not) have a Jewish home without a mezuzah? Or is it better to talk about some Jewish homes having this or that and explain the meaning behind the ritual or tradition followed by sending materials home so that parents can learn about the ideas as well and have a chance to discuss with their children whether that tradition feels right for their family? 

Is it possible to be sensitive to every unique kind of family so that no child in the room could possibly feel alienated or marginalized? Some teachers wondered if they could say anything at all that wouldn’t rub one child or another the wrong way. I think that when a teacher speaks from his or her heart and soul about his or her own love of Jewish living, and when a teacher imagines that each child in his or her class is the current link in our chain of tradition that goes back thousands of years, and when a teacher gets to know the parents of the children in his or her class so that the teacher can be as understanding as possible of where that child is coming from so that the teacher can make the bridge from the class to the car ride home to the dinner table to the tuck-in time at night… that teacher has done everything he or she can do to fulfill the mandate to teach our children from the V’ahavta (the full version of the Shema which instructs us to, among other things, “teach our children diligently.”) 

Israelis Should Not Marry Americans, the Netanyahu Edition

Oh, Israel… Seriously? Ed just came into my office to ask if I’d seen Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest post for the Atlantic.

I immediately looked it up, and, well, OY.

Basically, the Israeli government wants to convince its citizens to remain in, or return to, Israel. That’s not so bad – most countries likely share that desire. So the government has launched a campaign, targeting Israelis living in the US. Jeffrey makes some suggestions for great campaign slogans:

How about, “Hey, come back to Israel, because our unemployment rate is half that of the U.S.’s”? Or, “It’s always sunny in Israel”? Or, “Hey, Shmulik, your mother misses you”?

Unfortunately, this isn’t the route taken by Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. Instead, they’re running ads that claim Israelis will lose their Jewish identities if they stay in the US too long. Worse,

The Ministry is also featuring on its website a series of short videos that, in an almost comically heavy-handed way, caution Israelis against raising their children in America — one scare-ad shows a pair of Israeli grandparents seated before a menorah and Skypeing with their granddaughter, who lives in America. When they ask the child to name the holiday they’re celebrating, she says “Christmas.” In another ad, an actor playing a slightly-adenoidal, goateed young man (who, to my expert Semitic eye, is meant to represent a typical young American Jew) is shown to be oblivious to the fact that his Israeli girlfriend is in mourning on Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day.

So here are the videos. The translation of the Hebrew text at the end is mine.


They always remain Israeli.
Their children do not.
Help them return to Israel.


They always remain Israeli.
Their spouses do not always understand what that means.
Help them return to Israel.

I watched the videos, read the article, and was amazed and disgusted. Forget intermarriage, these ads seem to be saying that Israeli Jews shouldn’t marry American Jews!

I wasn’t sure what else to say about it. Thankfully, Jeffrey came to the rescue there too:

The idea, communicated in these ads, that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik (if you don’t mind me resorting to the vernacular). The message is: Dear American Jews, thank you for lobbying for American defense aid (and what a great show you put on at the AIPAC convention every year!) but, please, stay away from our sons and daughters.

Gross. Shame. Shonde.

An Unexpected “Thank You”

As members of the Jewish community settled into their seats recently at Yom Kippur services, everyone had a pretty good idea of what to expect. It’s the annual spiritual cleansing, dedicated to recognizing a long list of human failings — from jealousy to gluttony to gossip.

But in many Reform synagogues across Chicago and the nation, the faithful heard something that had nothing to do with atonement and everything to do with celebration: a blessing for non-Jewish spouses.

“We want to tell you how much you matter to our congregation and how very grateful we are for what you have done.”

With that one line, sleepers suddenly snapped to attention.

A recent Chicago Tribune article looks at blessings offered, during Yom Kippur services, to non-Jewish spouses helping raise Jewish families. Wow.

At synagogues large and small, the myriad paths traveled were recognized. “Some of you are living a Jewish life in virtually all respects,” the blessing continued. “Some are devoutly committed to another faith. Some of you do not define yourself as religious at all.”

But by agreeing to raise Jewish offspring — “giving up the joy of passing your own religious traditions down to your kids” — the non-Jewish parent ensured a future for a very small tribe, the tribute said.

The blessing also cited other contributions: Driving Hebrew school carpool, nagging kids to get up on Sunday mornings, learning to make kugel (a noodle pudding) and latkes (potato pancakes), and even trying to like gefilte fish (an acquired taste, exempt from any marriage vows).

“With all our hearts, we want to thank you for your generosity and strength of spirit in making the ultimate gift to the Jewish people.”

It’s wonderful to hear such a public thank you as blessing!

“You should have told me that I was going to need Kleenex,” Lauren Kern told Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, after services at B’nai Yehuda Beth Shalom in Homewood. Back in 1985, when she married her lapsed Christian husband, John, neither could have envisioned such inclusiveness.

Tears were also on hand at Oak Park Temple, where Rabbi Max Weiss led the congregation in paying tribute to some 75 to 100 spouses. The morning after, Weiss received a flurry of email. “I doubt that spouses make this commitment with the expectation or even the need of thanks,” wrote one woman. “And that’s what makes it even more important.”

Has your congregation thanked non-Jewish spouses in a similar way? Does your community have other ways of showing thanks and inclusion? Let us know!

October News Hodgepodge

It’s been a while since I last blogged in hodgepodge style. With the fall holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, sukkot/Sukkot_and_Simchat_Torah.shtml">Sukkot and Simchat Torah) behind us, a new year begun and so many interesting things happening the the Jewish community and wider communities around us, it seemed like a great time to share some interesting articles and blog posts that I’ve come across. Let me know what you think!

1.  In the Creation story in Genesis (the first book of the Torah), we read that a snake tricked Eve into tasting a “forbidden fruit” (and she, in turn, gave it to Adam to eat). On DovBear, they wonder what the unnamed fruit might have been. With 125 comments so far, this is far from an easy question to answer. Apple? Maybe. Figs? Perhaps. What about a pomegranate?

2.  You may remember that last year, we were asking you to vote for InterfaithFamily.com’s CEO, Ed Case, for Jewish Community Hero. No, I’m not going to ask you to vote for him again. Instead, I’m going to share a list of nominees you might want to vote for this year, all of whom are “heroes for their justice work combating racism, poverty and injustice.” The list, posted to Jewschool, was compiled by Kung Fu Jew (who admits to wearing “New York-tinted glasses”).

3.  There’s a lot going on with the Occupy movement that is specifically Jewish. First, Keith Olbermann debunks the anti-Semitic charges of Occupy Wall Street (the relevant part starts at the 1 minute mark). Now then, with that settled, let’s look at some of the amazing Jewish practices coming out of the Occupy movement. This long, personal piece by Avi Fox-Rosen examines his reasons for being involved with leading the Kol Nidre service at Occupy Wall Street, and how it played his “incredibly ambivalent” Jewishness and atheism off his enjoyment of ritual and “traditional cantorial a capella singing” (known as chazzanus). And on Jewschool, a bit about how there came to be Jewish practice at Occupy Wall St, Occupy K St and elsewhere.

4.  Many organizations, including ours, examine statistics, look to data to know if we’re having an impact. One such source was the last national Jewish population survey, done in 2000-2001. Over ten years later, another study hasn’t come along to update those numbers. Gary Rosenblatt, in The Jewish Week, asks, How Many U.S. Jews, And Who Cares?

5.  You know who cares? Pat Buchanan. And he seems to have it all figured out. “In his new book, Suicide Of A Superpower, Pat Buchanan takes a look at the Jewish population of the United States and concludes that Americans Jews are disappearing because they decided, as a group, to have lots and lots of abortions.” Seriously. He blames the Jewish women who were among the leaders of the feminist movement and… oy, just read about it all here.

6.  And in Israel a campaign has been launched, encouraging “parents of non-Jewish children to inform them of their [non-Jewish] status in childhood.” This stems from patrilineal descent, largely among Israel’s Russian population. And the implication, according to the campaign, is that patrilineal descent Jews are finding out that they’re “not Jewish” as adults, which means they need to convert to Judaism in order to get married. I wonder if this is a common issue or discovery in North America, where the Reform movement also holds by patrilineal descent?

And there you go. Recent news in a nutshell.

Attention all Beatles Fans!

Attention all Beatles fans! That favorite of all tween and teen girls of the 60′s (confession: that would be me!) has chosen to be a Jew.

PAUL MCCARTNEY, baptized Roman Catholic but admittedly never very devout, quietly told pals after his marriage to socialite NANCY SHEVELL – who’s Jewish and takes her religion seriously – that he’s studying Judaism and promised his new bride he’ll convert, reports a friend of the star. The former Beatle’s first wife, LINDA EASTMAN, came from a prominent Jewish family and McCartney had talked about converting after they married, but just never got around to it. Paul told pals he’ll complete his conversion studies next year.

Dare we hope that he starts to write songs with Jewish themes?? I don’t usually care about what stars of stage, screen and music are doing, but this is different. (And we can trust the National Enquirer with this story, right?)

“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.”

Why It Matters

We spend a lot of time talking, writing, thinking about the whole “who is a Jew” debate around here. 

It’s important, in the context of an organization that welcomes and advocates for interfaith families in the Jewish community, to encourage inclusivity in the definition. 

Why?

Because when a Jewish person chooses to marry someone who is not Jewish, it does not mean they are less of a Jew. Let me repeat that: who we marry does not add or detract from our Jewishness. Converting to Catholicism detracts from one’s Jewishness. Marrying a Catholic does not. 

So when I read in publications that I like (did you see  The Unlikely Emissary or The Other Rosenbergs? They were really good!), a comment that is hateful, exclusionary and promulgating of the view that doing something can make one less of (or not at all) a Jew, it annoys me. 

In the most recent issue of Moment Magazine, they published a comment about a previous article. The article, “The Best Jewish TV Shows of All Time,” January/February 2011, included The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Should The Daily Show with Jon Stewart have made the list? He is married to a non-Jew, doesn’t belong to a synagogue and doesn’t affiliate with the Jewish community or any Jewish organization. And, as I’m given to understand, his children are not being raised as Jews.

Last time I checked, belonging to a synagogue wasn’t criteria for being a Jew. (If it were, we’d hardly have any Jews in our midst under the age of 40.) And how does the writer know with whom Stewart affiliates?

Allow me to fully own my bias: I’ve been a regular viewer since the early double naughts; there are few episodes I’ve missed. And one of the things I enjoy are Stewart’s Yiddishisms, Jewish jokes and occasional confessions that he doesn’t know much about his religion. (Though his writers clearly do.) His made up Hebrew is fantastic and uber-gutteral. Regardless of the choices he and his wife have made, he is still as much a Jew as any other Jew. And his show certainly deserves to be on a list of great Jewish shows. 

But that’s not really the point (or, at least, the main point). My main point is this: The Jewish community owes it to all of us to be welcoming and inclusive, not to belittle or shame another for how they’ve chosen to practice their religion, and certainly not to claim that folks lose their Jew card if they’re “bad.”

I’d like to see the community working together to squash these views, educating one another on just “who is a Jew,” rather than publishing them. 

More Who Is a Jew

A month ago I blogged about the “who is a Jew” questionthat arose from the tragic attack on Gabrielle Giffords. My main point was this:

It behooves everyone in the Jewish community, Orthodox included, to regard Gabrielle Giffords as a Jew for all purposes except where halachic status matters. Many would say that the entire community benefits from having a staunch supporter of Israel in the US Congress, for example. When halachic status is important, it can be dealt with. A Jew to whom halachic status is important in a marriage partner, for example, can choose not to marry someone who does not measure up to his or her halachic standards, or the non-halachic Jew can convert according to those same standards. It would be a major advance if the idea took hold that the Jewish community consists of Jews who are halachic and who are not halachic and that issues of halachic status could be dealt with when they arise.

The Forward issue dated today has two related articles of interest. My former colleague Rabbi Sue Fendrick, in Beyond ‘Yes or No’ Jewishness,
seems to agree with me. She makes the interesting point that the State of Israel recognizes the advantages of distinguishing “Jewish for what purpose?” – the state’s eligibility rules for immigration and for ritual status are different. I loved her statement,

… we gain nothing by ignoring or failing to name the ways that an individual’s Jewishness “counts” – whether they live a Jewish life and identify as a Jew, come from a Jewish family or are “half-Jewish,” or are simply identified by other Jews as being “one of us.” … Simple yes/no definitions of Jewishness are inadequate to the task of naming reality. We need to make room for descriptions that tell us about Jewishness as it is, not obscure its realities and complexities.

Rabbi Andy Bachman, in Patrilineal Promise and Pitfalls, suggests that children raised as Jews who are not considered Jews outside of the Reform movement because their mothers are not Jewish should be taken to the mikveh for conversion by Reform rabbis by the age of Bar of Bat Mitzvah. The problem with that approach is that the Jews who don’t consider those children Jewish, wouldn’t recognize such a conversion if it were under Reform auspices. If Reform conversions were so recognized, I would be in favor of this kind of process, or even of incorporating conversion into a bris or baby naming ceremony. Sadly this is not in the cards.