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This past week, my family stumbled late into the pizza dinner before one of our local congregation’s children’s Shabbats. It was a rainy, surprisingly chilly Friday in June, and after a week of no school and being relatively cooped up at home, both children felt more than ready to get out of the house and go to services.
When we arrived, we saw three cars in the parking lot, and immediately wondered if we’d come on the wrong date. Ben pulled out his phone and confirmed that a “Pizza Dinner and Children’s Shabbat” was, in fact, listed on the calendar. Inside, a grandfatherly gentleman greeted us in the community hall where at least five tables were set up with silverware, candles, pitchers of water and simple flower arrangements.
But there were no other families! We’ve been to a couple of other dinners at this synagogue, and we’re usually surrounded by noise and chatter. This time, though, our grandfatherly host quickly informed us that most of the younger part of the congregation was away at camp, hence the empty tables.
Empty tables: I’m used to this in the summer time, when Protestant congregations empty out for the summer. Sunday schools close for the long break and families find themselves busier than ever with travel, enjoying outdoor markets or early morning bike rides and are otherwise disengaging from organized religion during the warmer months. Some congregations I have known switch from two Sunday services to one, and many ministers might take extended time off during the summer, filling the pulpit with lay or other guest preachers. Although this picture is by no means true for all congregations, in many of the more liberal pews I’ve sat in, it’s a common scenario.
I’m still learning to what extent this pattern repeats itself in Jewish congregations as well. When I asked Ben a few years ago if synagogues also closed shop for the summer, comparatively speaking, he surprised me by saying “no, they didn’t.” Historically, this pattern makes sense. The majority of America’s Jews have always been city dwellers, rather than farmers or rural folk (and farming characterized the majority of the American populace until remarkably recently). The need to help out at the farm meant that American schools closed over the summer, which in turn affected Sunday schools and the calendar of events in America’s churches, as well.
In terms of the liturgical calendar, of course, nothing in either the Jewish or Christian traditions suggests that congregations should become quieter over the summer. My daughters would tend to agree. However much they might appreciate summer as a time of expanded freedom, they still crave the comfort and familiarity of a weekly routine.
Although we don’t attend services every week at this point in our lives, both girls sense the familiarity that can be found in a mostly-regular routine or ritual. As outgoing, social kids, they enjoy the company of other children and even of the adults they see when we go. Shabbat on Friday nights gives them that comfort, no matter whether the sun is up long past their bedtimes, or down long before.
Does your synagogue scale down in the summertime? What do you think about this phenomenon?
Earlier this month my family hosted some of the Israeli staff from my son’s summer camp before they went to the camp for training. We have done this for the past three summers, and it has been a wonderful experience.
This year, the staff that we hosted had spent time with Birthright tours in Israel, and one had an American girlfriend who he met while serving as an IDF liaison to a trip. As he told us about her, he mentioned that she was Jewish. Really Jewish. Since 30 percent of Birthright participants have only one Jewish parent, I assumed that he meant that this young woman came from an inmarried family or was of matrilineal descent. A moment later, my young Israeli friend elaborated on the comment, “Her mother and father are both Jewish.”
The language used was an immediate red flag because my son’s camp was affiliated with the Reform movement and accepted as Jewish any child with one Jewish parent regardless of whether that parent was the mother or father. There would be many not-really-Jewish kids at camp. I wanted the counselor to understand that his language was not acceptable and could be hurtful to the very children whose Jewish identities camp was supposed to nurture. I need to say something.
I explained that since the camp was Reform, there would be many children from interfaith homes being raised within Judaism and that all were accepted and welcomed as Jews. I shared that there were no really-Jewish and not-really-Jewish campers. They were all Jewish. Drawing any distinction between kids from inmarried and intermarried homes was not in the spirit of camp, especially one that greets everyone with the phrase, “Welcome to Camp!” My guest said he understood.
The conversation made me think about the larger discussion about intermarriage not just in the US, but also in Israel. With the intermarriage rate in the US at 70% for non-Orthodox Jews, the success of American efforts to connect interfaith families to Judaism is hugely important to Jewish continuity and the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Many researchers and Jewish communal professionals in America see programs such as Birthright as significant opportunities to build the Jewish identity and connection to Israel of children of intermarriage. Program data proves that the trips are doing just that which is great news.
But working to create Jewish communities that are welcoming and inclusive of interfaith families needs also to happen in Israel. The old rhetoric about intermarriage that is still common among Israelis has to change if children of intermarriage are to develop a strong connection to the Promised Land. Let’s face it; future generations of American Jews will mostly come from interfaith homes. If they feel disconnected and alienated from Israel, the historic ties between the American Jewish community and Israel will diminish.
But even with the trends we see in Judaism, change will be difficult because Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate controls religious law and services. Hopefully, over time and with political and religious reform, money, and more Israeli exposure to the diversity of Jews in America, we can at least get everyone to refer to children like my son as simply “Jewish.”
At bedtime recently, 5-year-old Laurel was having trouble settling towards sleep, not unsurprising given that it’s still light out at her bedtime. Looking for a change of pace that might help her feel sleepy, I started to sing the Shema, as my husband and I often do during her bedtime songs. She listened quietly, laying her head in my lap instead of putting the sheet over her head and declaring she had become a bouncing tent, as she’d been doing not too many minutes before that. (InterfaithFamily has a great booklet about saying the Shema as a kids’ bedtime ritual. Check it out here.)
When I finished singing the quiet words about God’s onnness, she asked, “Sing me another Jewish song, Mommy,” and I did, choosing Oseh shalom, which is one of my favorite tunes to sing her before sleep. I love the melody, and the soothing message about peace that it conveys. Sometimes I get a little bit too into the song, my head nestled against her ear, and she tells me, “Sing more quietly, Mommy; you’re too loud!”
As is almost usual, she started talking halfway through the song. “Mommy? Mommy?”
“… shalom aleinu…” I continue, pausing to say, “be quiet, sweetie, I’m singing!”
Eventually, my voice quieted as the song ended. “What did you want to ask?”
“How do you know Jewish songs, Mommy?”
I chuckled. “I’ve learned them by singing them many times, honey,” I explained, “the same way you learned the songs for your class’s Spring Sing.”
“Oh,” she said. She’d recently memorized “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Chinese for the Spring Sing, so I thought she might understand my own learning of songs I didn’t grow up with as a similar process.
As usual, though, I wasn’t prepared for her follow-up question: “Do you know any Christian songs, Mommy?”
I deliberated before answering. Previous readers of my blog entries will know that I’m now a Unitarian Universalist, and was raised in a liberal Episcopalian household. In answer, I could have recalled songs I sang decades in the children’s choir at in the church of my childhood, songs like “Here I Am, Lord,” which is about answering God’s call to serve people in the world. But I can just imagine myself getting caught up in theological difficulties as I sing it: who’s doing the sending? Is it Jesus, or God the Father? What if they’re the same? With that level of chatter going on in the back of my mind, it’s easier to choose other songs to sing, like “Puff the Magic Dragon” or “My Favorite Things.”
In the end, I replied, “Christmas songs are Christian,” which garnered an un-illuminated “oh” from Laurel and a serious query as to whether there are other Christian songs.
“Well, there are,” I told her, “but I don’t remember them very well.” Bedtime is probably not the right time to explain that in addition to not remembering them very well, I am not sure I want to sing traditional Christian songs. At bedtime I usually fall back on the kinds of songs my parents sang to me when I wasn’t quite ready to sleep yet: songs from musicals from my mom, and folk songs from the 1960s from my dad. Now I wonder that the melancholy of so many folk songs did not keep me up at night (shouldn’t I have been bothered by “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”?)
Laurel’s innate sense of fairness suggests to her that I ought to sing Christian songs to her to balance the Jewish songs she’s already learning. She knows I am not Jewish and that we therefore have an interfaith home. She wants “not Jewish” to have an “is something” attached to it, and I take her request for “Christian songs” as a request for my background and heritage to be hers, as well. If I am to be true to us as an interfaith family, I also need to be true to the complexities of what my husband and I both bring to our interfaith childrens’ lives.
Next time, when Laurel asks me to sing a “Christian” song, I’ll realize that she’s asking about my background, and I’ll be better prepared to sing a different song – not necessarily a Christian song – but a song to which I can bring as much joy as I bring to Oseh shalom. As she grows older, too, I hope that my repertoire of songs I’ve learned as an adult, especially including the Jewish songs that are so important to Laurel, will continue to expand. Maybe, once again, she’ll ask me to sing “just a little quieter, Mommy, and not right in my ear.”
Interested in attending a “Goodnight, Sleep Tight” session in Chicago with InterfaithFamily/Chicago’s Director? Contact Rabbi Ari Moffic (arim at interfaithfamily dot com) for more information.
Driving home from school the other day, Ruthie began singing “Ma Tovu” to herself in the back seat. She repeated it a couple of times alone, and then I decided to try to sing it back to her. But after I got the first two lines out of my mouth, she stopped me.
“No, Mommy,” she said, frustrated, “You sing it like this!”
And she began again, more confidently, singing something that sounded very much the same to me as what I had sung, but was clearly different to her. Her tune, her way.
This interaction felt powerful as I reflected back on the end of Ruthie’s first year of Sunday School. Up until last September, most of the influences on Ruthie’s religious identity had come from, or at least occurred in the presence of, Eric or me. But in September, when we dropped her off with Morah Naomi for the first time, what being Jewish means for Ruthie began to happen on her own, in a way that is connected, but miraculously independent, from us.
Ruthie is a child who generally enjoys school, and she has relished in getting new knowledge at Sunday School each week. She loves the chance to share our family’s practices with her class, and to learn her own things to bring home to us. This spring, she particularly enjoyed her class “trip” to Israel (not an actual trip!), and is still slowly doling out tidbits about the Wailing Wall, the Dead Sea or even the way that Israelis take a midday break for lunch and family every day.
Exploring her Judaism in this way has also encouraged her to articulate her interfaith identity independently, too. She knows that not all of her friends from Sunday School celebrate Christmas with their families, and she thinks she’s pretty lucky that she gets to do that. She asks lots of questions about the faith of our family members and close friends, trying on different ways of fitting herself into the world.
A few weeks ago, we had a conversation that went something like this:
“Mommy, when I am a grown-up, and I get to pick if I am Jewish or Christian, well, I’ll probably be Jewish but I am not sure, anyway, I am going to have a cat.”
Ruthie has only taken her first steps on a lifelong journey of self-discovery and understanding. At this moment, I am so grateful that it started off with a zeal for learning, an open heart, and curiosity about what it means to make her way in the world with a loving family that includes different faiths. I hope that we can both continue to choose love and embrace the learning journey. As always, I am glad to be along for the ride.
Recently, the membership director at my synagogue asked me if I would reach out to a young woman who was the Jewish half of an interfaith couple and a new temple member with her husband. She was also expecting her first child. Knowing the importance of a warm welcome, especially for intermarrieds, I said I would be happy to reach out.
I assumed my conversation with this Jewish intermarried would be similar to the discussions I’ve had with other intermarried partners looking for a Jewish home. She would feel grateful and relieved to have found a welcoming, inclusive community that dedicated resources to interfaith-specific programming.
When I called the woman, I told her about my involvement over the years in the congregation’s Interfaith Moms group and its evolution into Interfaith Families. I discussed how the group was a great way to meet other intermarrieds and build community at our large synagogue. I said I would add her name to the group’s distribution list so she would receive information on future activities.
At this point, the conversation took a strange turn. She told me that she wasn’t sure she wanted to be involved with an interfaith group because she needed to be “very strategic” about who her family associated with. I wondered what that meant.
The interfaith mom-to-be explained that she was raised in an active Conservative home that kept kosher. She had a Jewish wedding and her children would be raised Jewish. So far, a common story.
Then she made a few statements that started to help me understand what “very strategic” meant. She said interfaith groups were not comprised of families like hers where the mother was the Jewish parent. Instead, they “were mostly non-Jewish women, who really weren’t interested in raising Jewish children.”
What?!?! I’d never heard another intermarried use the same (old) stereotypes still peddled by some segments of the Jewish community or held by older generations.
She added that since the female partner controlled the religious upbringing of children and the identity of a home the families in our interfaith group would never be Jewishly active. “Besides,” she said, “Their children will never really be Jewish anyway.”
At this point, I had enough of the outdated rhetoric regarding intermarriage and decided it was time to dispel a few myths and explain what type of community she had joined.
In a friendly but firm tone, I explained that our interfaith families group was diverse. It included families with a Jewish mom and a not Jewish dad, a Jewish dad and not Jewish mom, a parent that converted, and same-sex couples with one not Jewish partner. Since the group was synagogue-based, regardless of family composition, the participants were all raising Jewish children and creating singularly Jewish homes, or moving in that direction.
I shared that many of the not Jewish partners were the ones reconnecting their Jewish spouses to Judaism. She interjected with another generalization, “Isn’t that always how it is? The convert becomes more zealous about practicing than the one born Jewish.”
I didn’t want her to have the impression that all of the not Jewish partners had converted or were in the process of converting. I said, “Some convert, some maintain their identity but aren’t practicing, and some are active in and fully committed to raising Jewish children but remain connected to their individual faith.” I also explained that we were a Reform congregation, which meant that we welcomed, recognized and accepted children as Jewish if they had one Jewish parent–regardless of the gender of the parent. The woman got quiet.
I asked her if she had any questions or if I could help her in any way. She asked about baby naming ceremonies for girls. As she shared her questions, I empathized with this young woman. I remembered the early years of my marriage when I was also unsure of how my and my husband’s choice to be Jewish would play out.
I also thought that I needed to direct our Jewish life and worried about the influence of interfaith couples making different decisions. I didn’t start feeling more relaxed about being Jewish and interfaith until we found an inclusive and welcoming community. Only then did I realize that sharing a commitment to create a Jewish home was what was important, not how each couple implemented that decision. In fact, the diversity of approaches became an opportunity to learn, rather than something to be feared.
This woman and I spoke for another few minutes. It was a nice conversation. When I hung up, I hoped that after her initial hesitation wore off, she and her husband and baby would try an interfaith families activity. Because if they tried it, they’d realize that there is nothing to fear and much to gain from having a vibrant community of interfaith families to navigate the joys and challenges of intermarriage with.