O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree! Thy Candles Shine so Brightly!

‘Tis the season for Jewish Scrooges to say, “Bah! Humbug!” to anything that they judge to be a blend of Hanukkah and Christmas or an inflation of a minor Jewish holiday. Any attempt to sprinkle Hanukkah with a little tinsel is depicted as a perversion of the holiday’s message.

These Jewish grinches shout “syncretism” and “commercialization” from pulpits; in classrooms, traditional media outlets and homes; and across social media. Yet, many Jews and Jewish interfaith families, ignore the rhetoric and go big with Hanukkah anyway.

Some do it to assuage Christmas envy, others to honor the traditions of not Jewish family members or to simply make religion fun. But whatever the reason, there is a strong desire to inject Hanukkah with some of the holiday cheer present in our surrounding culture. That is the rationale behind the Menorah Tree.

The Menorah Tree was designed by two Jewish brothers as a way to “ramp up” the Festival of Lights, and honor the Christmas tree tradition of one of their wives. The goal was to create something that was as festive as a tree, but genuinely Jewish. Something, that was big enough to be the centerpiece of a family’s Hanukkah celebration.

While a giant 6-foot tall hanukkiah with Frazier pine garland isn’t something that everyone will embrace, there is nothing wrong with something that screams “Jewish” even if it does borrow from dominant Christian culture. Blending ideas, foods, symbols, and rituals from other cultures to increase Judaism’s fun-factor isn’t bad and doesn’t weaken Jewish identity as some in the community want us to believe.

Religious activities and observances that are perceived as fun create positive faith experiences and lasting memories. I share in From Generation to Generation the effect a lack of positive religious experiences in childhood has had on members of my own extended family. One inmarried sibling observes Jewish holidays out of obligation and not because he derives any fulfillment from the experience, and my Jewish uncle has a home that is absent of religion.

Examples like this highlight why adding fun to holidays now can make the celebrations more memorable than they would be otherwise without diminishing their significance. And positive memories increase the likelihood that children will want to carry on the tradition in adulthood. Christmas is the perfect case in point.

Many adults who grow-up with Christmas, have a strong emotional attachment to the holiday regardless of whether they are religious Christians. This connection is often not derived from recollections of going to services on Christmas Eve, but rather, from everything else that surrounds the holiday. My not Jewish mother-in-law, who is active in her church and faith, has never said that the reason Christmas is her favorite holiday is because of services, Jesus, God, or wise men. However, memories of decorating the tree, candy canes, gingerbread houses, holiday lights and carols, baking cookies and opening stockings and presents all contribute to her holiday love.

A community concerned about declining engagement, shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss things that can help build positive Jewish memories and connection. That’s the goal of the Menorah Tree, Maccabee on the Mantel and other Hanukkah-themed products. What’s wrong with that?

A child curled up with his Maccabee doll next to a Menorah Tree reading the Maccabee on the Mantel on the night before Hanukkah would be good for the Jews. Maybe he could even sing a few Hanukkah carols.

O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Much pleasure thou can’st give me;
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Much pleasure thou can’st give me;
How often has the Menorah tree
Afforded me the greatest glee!
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Much pleasure thou can’st give me.

O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Thy candles shine so brightly!
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Thy candles shine so brightly!
From base to summit, gay and bright,
There’s only splendor for the sight.
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Thy candles shine so brightly! – Adapted from “O Christmas Tree”

A Halloween Postscript: Why Opposition to Trick-or-Treating Won’t Strengthen Jewish Identity

I didn’t intend to write a post-Hallowen blog. To be honest, Halloween isn’t something that is big in my family. I’m not a costume or candy person, and neither is my husband. While our son Sammy enjoys trick-or-treating in our neighborhood, it isn’t something that he wants to do every year.

This year we weren’t home for the holiday. We took Sammy to Legoland for a belated birthday celebration. As we relaxed at the hotel on Halloween night, I posted on Facebook pictures of the Shabbat set we built from the box of bricks in our room and scrolled through pictures of my friends’ children in costumes.

As I gazed at princesses and zombies, I came across a post by a non-Orthodox rabbi that a friend had commented on. It was a Halloween put-down. It griped about the overly commercialized pagan holiday that encourages children to play tricks on others and eat too much candy. It suggested that costumes be saved for the “truly fun holiday” of Purim.

Some friends of the post’s author shared his distaste for trick-or-treating. They said celebrating Halloween sent a confusing message to Jewish children since it wasn’t a Jewish holiday. That participating in such celebrations blurred the lines of who Jews were and what they stood for and contributed to the increased weakening of Jewish identity.

Really? I’m certain that Sammy has never been confused about his religious identity because we celebrate Halloween. He has never asked if we’re pagans instead of Jews or mistaken Halloween for a Jewish holiday. Like most people, he sees Halloween as an American tradition just like Thanksgiving. The more I read the comments from the Jewish anti-Halloween crusaders, the more I realized how out of touch some of these communal leaders were with the reality of Jewish life in America today.

According to the 2013 Pew report, many non-orthodox Jews now identify as Jews of no religion. They feel a cultural connection to Judaism but have few ties to Jewish organizations. They are Jews of the world–assimilated and cosmopolitan in their thinking and lifestyle. To reach them, they need to be met where they are–in secular life.

Demonizing a holiday that most American Jews view as a harmless, secular observance that enables children to dress up and have fun is not meeting them where they are. Nor is it the way to strengthen the ties of the loosely affiliated or bring Jews with a weak connection back to the faith. Anti-Halloween rhetoric is simply tone deaf.

I state in From Generation to Generation that we need to help all Jews–inmarried and intermarried, affiliated and unaffiliated–answer the question why be Jewish. We can do this by using opportunities presented by the secular and non-Jewish to demonstrate how Judaism is part of this world, not separate from it. Concerning Halloween, we can show families and children how Jewish values and traditions are mirrored in the holiday.

We can highlight the similarities between Halloween and Purim: both are joyous holidays that share a tradition of dressing in costumes, giving gifts of food (mishloach manot) and charity. We can discuss how collecting for UNICEF or donating Halloween candy to charities that help families in need is an act of tzedakah.

We can encourage people to celebrate their Jewish-Americanness by adding some Halloween fun to their Shabbat celebrations–enjoy challah stuffed with candy or a costume party Shabbat. And we can remind families that greeting their neighbors as their children go house-to-house or as they distribute candy is honoring the Jewish principle of loving thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:18 and 19:34).

These kinds of things make Judaism more accessible to modern American Jews because they help them see that they can embrace aspects of Jewish faith and culture regardless of affiliation, marriage partner or belief in God. On the other hand, loud and proud opposition to Halloween focuses on maintaining strict boundaries between Judaism and the secular world.

Jews who view themselves as Jews of the world are not interested in this kind of boundary maintenance. They want to have their candy corns and eat them too. Therefore, the drumbeat of the anti-Halloween crowd will likely do as much to strengthen people’s ties to Judaism as intermarriage prevention efforts have done to increase inmarriage and engagement.

Now that Halloween is over, the debate may have died down, but it will soon be back as the anti-Halloweeners turn their attention toward Hanukkah and Christmas. Their rants about the commercialization and inflation of Hanukkah, the syncretism of Hanukkah bushes and menorah trees, and the participation by Jews in any Christmas tradition is coming to your Twitter and Facebook feed. So, grab a gingerbread latte and read their holiday diatribes while you enjoy a little holiday cheer.

Don’t let the Weather Fool You, It’s Time to Think Camp

Registration for many Jewish overnight camps began in Oct. Don't wait until the spring to sign-up your camper.

While many people have apple cider and pumpkins, and maybe even turkey and holiday gifts on their mind, I’m thinking about camp. Part of why I have camp on the brain is that I just watched the American Camp Association’s 2009 video “Because of Camp.” My overnight camp posted it on Facebook.

How I, a die-hard former camper and lover of all things camp, did not see this video previously escapes me. It features celebrities, athletes and journalists speaking about how camp changed their lives. It made me reflect on how camp helped me realize that I was a good athlete even though I was always the smallest girl on the court or field.

It also made me think about how summer camp is affecting my son Sammy. He is discovering new passions and broadening his horizons, learning life skills and independence. Because his camp is Jewish, he is also deepening his connection to the Jewish people, and experiencing Judaism in ways that are often more relevant to him than religious school, services or home ritual.

The other reason I have camp on my mind is because it’s registration season. Many Jewish camps open enrollment following Yom Kippur and offer early birds discounts. I signed up Sammy three weeks ago and paid a discounted rate. Now is also the period to investigate and apply for camp scholarships if this is a consideration.

If you or your children still have questions about camp, the fall and winter are the seasons to get answers. Check out camp videos online; attend a camp presentation at a synagogue, school, community center or private home, or schedule a meeting with the camp director when he or she visits your area.

Another reason that the time is right to think about camp is that between the fall and early spring, some camps invite existing and potential campers to camp for youth retreats. For first-time campers, these weekends are a chance to experience camp to see if they like it or are ready to be away from home. For returning campers, they are a great opportunity to reconnect with friends and make new ones before the summer. Sammy will be going to his camp for a retreat in early November, and he can’t wait.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but sweater weather is really the best time to think about camp. June, July and August are great months to see camps fully operational, but apple season is when you should make your children’s summer plans. To help you in your planning, refer to these InterfaithFamily resources:

Don’t let the fall leaves and crisp air fool you. Now is the time to “think camp.” You and your kids will be glad you did.

 

My New Year’s Resolution: Improvement Not Perfection

A lesson on caring for our world before a park cleanup made me realize I wasn't doing all I could to fulfill my responsibility to be a guardian of the earth.

If you’ve read some of my blogs related to Sukkot and Tu Bishvat or articles in the InterfaithFamily article archive, you know that the environment is an issue that my family and I care deeply about. We have an organic vegetable garden, use earth-friendly cleaning products and buy local meats and produce whenever possible. We keep our house warm in the summer and cool in the winter, and support environmental organizations such as Jewish National Fund. I drive a small hybrid car and like any good tree-hugger, my favorite shoes are an old pair of Birkenstock sandals that I occasionally wear with socks in the winter.

Given our passion for the environment, you can imagine how excited we were when we learned that the family mitzvah project for our son Sammy’s religious school class was a park clean up at White Rock Lake. White Rock Lake is the Central Park of Dallas.

The morning of the event, we grabbed our yard gloves and bug spray, and headed to our synagogue to meet our group. Before we left for the park, one of our rabbis led us in a discussion about our responsibility as Jews for caring for the earth. After discussing some Jewish texts, she asked the kids to share what they would do if they saw trash on the ground. They all said that they would pick it up and throw it away.

Then she asked if they would pick up the trash if it were gooey and dirty. Most children still said yes because they would have a nabber-grabber or plastic bag with them to use to grab the sticky garbage. These kids were not going to admit easily that there were times that they might not pick up trash. The rabbi then asked what they would do if they didn’t have nabber-grabbers or bags.

Knowing that there is often a contrast between what people say about themselves and actual behavior, the rabbi shared a story about herself. She talked about how when she walks her dog in her neighborhood she often sees garbage along the side of the road. She tries always to pick it up, but sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she walks past the sticky Gatorade bottle even though she knows she shouldn’t.

After her story, we headed to the park. I parked my Prius next to my rabbi’s. As we were walking to get our cleanup instructions and materials, I told her that I was also guilty of not always picking up the trash I see when I walk our dog.

I explained that while I have the best intentions if the dog hasn’t gone to the bathroom, I worry that I won’t have enough bags to clean up his waste. I tell myself that I’ll pick up the garbage after he goes when we’re on our way home, but often we don’t walk the same way. I feel bad when I do this, but I do it anyway.

Admitting my own lapses in environmental stewardship was easier after hearing someone that has moral authority admit that they make the same mistake. As I confessed, my rabbi nodded in understanding and I realized that others shared the moral dilemmas of dog walking.

As we worked to clean up the park, I thought about the morning’s discussion. I knew I could and should do more to live my earth-loving values and picking up trash when walking the dog was an easy way to do it. I resolved to increase the frequency of my trash pick up.

Later in the day, I shared my resolution with Sammy. I thought it was a good opportunity to model the concept of teshuva, repentance. I even explained the action I would take to meet my goal of increased garbage pick up: bring more bags to ensure that I had enough for garbage and poop.

Sammy thought my plan was good but asked if I was going to separate recyclables. “It’s better to recycle if you can,” he said. And what about dog waste that other owners neglected to pick up, he asked, “Are you going to clean up that too?”

Walking the dog was becoming more morally complicated by the minute. I thought this must be why people walk by garbage and dog poop–there are too many ethical decisions to consider.

But I didn’t want too many moral choices to stop me from fulfilling my responsibility to be a shomrei adamah, guardian of the earth. So, I decided to keep it simple. Separate trash from recyclables when possible; otherwise place it all in the trash and pick up dog waste if I had enough bags. Focus on maximizing the amount of garbage I pick up.

Three weeks into the implementation of my resolution, I’m happy to report that I have increased the frequency of trash pickup when I walk our dog. I’m not perfect, but my goal is improvement not perfection. And that is exactly what Judaism asks of us.

It doesn’t ask us to be perfect; it simply asks us to commit and work to change our behavior in order to live more responsible and humane lives. As we move from the season of atonement into the season of rejoicing, my trash pick plan is, in a small way, helping me to do that. And that’s worth celebrating.

The Evolution of an Awesome Rosh Hashanah Observance

A game at our first Rosh Hashanah party

When Sammy was little, everything about being Jewish and celebrating Jewish holidays was “awesome.” His love of all things Jewish stemmed, in part, from his loving and joyful experience at the preschool at our synagogue. It also came from a conscience effort made by me and Cameron to make religious engagement enjoyable.

As I wrote in Rosh Hashanah Party for the New Year, Cameron and I felt that when we were children faith was more serious than fun. We believed that this more formal approach to religion was one reason many in our generation were less religiously engaged as adults. In my own family, I had siblings and relatives–inmarried and intermarried–who celebrated Jewish holidays because they felt obligated to; not because they found them meaningful or fulfilling.

We wanted Sammy to have a different relationship with faith. We wanted him to see the joy in Judaism, so we tried to create fun and memorable celebrations. These holiday observances had a strong community component in order to help nurture Sammy’s connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.

When Sammy was in preschool, we decided to host a Jewish New Year party. We created a carnival-like atmosphere in our backyard for Sammy and our friends’ families to enjoy. We had games and holiday crafts and apple and honey-themed treats.

We had an apple beanbag toss, a kid-safe version of bobbing for apples using Nabber Grabbers, and a Pin the Apple in the Tree game. There were Rosh Hashanah-themed coloring pages, a Design Your Own Apple Tree craft, and apple-shaped cookies to decorate. It was a lot of work, but it was, in the words of my then-preschooler, “awesome.” Our friends and their kids also loved it; so much so, that we decided to make it an annual event.

After several years of our Rosh Hashanah backyard carnival, Sammy and his friends outgrew the crafts and games. Our party had become too babyish. When Sammy told me this, I was a little shocked. He was still my little boy. Wasn’t it just yesterday that he stopped wearing diapers? How could he be too old for coloring pages and the beanbag toss?

However, the fact was that he stopped wearing diapers four years earlier, and sports were now much cooler than Pin the Apple in the Tree. Sammy asked if we could replace the little kids stuff with gaga. Gaga is an Israeli variation of dodgeball that is played in an octagonal or hexagonal shaped pit and is popular at US Jewish summer camps and day schools.

So, in order to maintain the awesomeness of our Rosh Hashanah party, we turned our backyard into a gaga pit. Doing it was a real sign of Cameron’s love for me and Sammy. Cameron derives much pleasure from working in the yard, and he sacrificed his grass for his Jewish family. I could tell that it took a lot of emotional energy for him to remain calm as he watched the lawn disappear inside the large space we used for the pit.

Once we established gaga as the party activity, I thought we had found a way for the tradition to grow with the kids, but Sammy and his friends were one step ahead of us on the coolness ladder. Last year we were told that gaga was out (Cameron was thrilled!), and choose your own adventure (or activity) was in. We adapted again.

We moved the party to a park in our neighborhood and invited our friends for coffee, juice and sweet (in honor of the New Year) breakfast treats. Some families brought their dogs and others brought balls. The kids played Frisbee, basketball, baseball and other games they invented; the adults spent time catching up.

The celebration was…awesome, and it was about what it has always been about: sharing the holiday with our community, creating happy Jewish memories for our family and friends, and helping Sammy and his friends learn to associate observance with fun and enjoyment, rather than simply obligation.

When we host our annual Jewish New Year celebration this weekend, it will again follow the freedom-to-do-what-you-want model, and I imagine that we will stick with this format for a while now that Sammy is moving into the tween years. But then again, it might change. If I’ve become hip to anything over the past few years, it’s that we must evolve to remain awesome. Just as we sometimes need to rethink our celebrations in order to keep them relevant to the next generation.

American Jewish Community Must Learn From Jewishly Engaged Intermarrieds to Remain Vital

The Jewish community needs to engage more interfaith families in Jewish life.

When I set out to write my book From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity, I wanted to demonstrate through the telling of my family’s story that intermarriage has not been as bad for the Jews as many in the Jewish community would have us believe. I wanted to show that the reality of the religious lives of mixed faith families is more nuanced and richly Jewish, than is often portrayed through surveys, statistics, and snapshot anecdotes.

For years, the Jewish community’s belief that intermarriage is a significant factor in the decline of the Jewish population has been reinforced by how it collects its data. Jewish demographic surveys mostly look at rates of intermarriage and Jewish childrearing by intermarrieds. There have been few studies that I’ve come across that dig deeper into this issue through qualitative and quantitative research; few researchers, academics, or community leaders interested in understanding the hows and the whys of Jews who are intermarried.

This focus on calculating the percentage of Jews that intermarry and raise singularly Jewish children has failed to move the debate about how to best address intermarriage and its effect on Jewish continuity forward in a meaningful way. Instead, it continuously creates communal hysteria and vitriol with the release of each new study.

One of the problems with the data on intermarriage is that it captures the religious choices of families at a single point in time. This method assumes that interfaith family life is static. However, an intermarried family’s relationship to faith can be as dynamic as an inmarried family’s.

For example, some not Jewish partners choose to convert after many years of living a Jewish life. Previously uncommitted couples decide to engage Jewishly when a child is born or starts preschool. Interfaith families who identify as Jews of no religion become more involved after a significant life event. Families who start out as dual-faith later make the decision to have singularly Jewish homes. Children of intermarriage choose to identify as Jews in some way when they reach adulthood.

Until recently, most demographic studies have failed to measure the Jewish identification, engagement, and experience of interfaith families in a way that captures scenarios such as the ones highlighted above. However, after the publication of the Pew report, Theodore Sasson, a senior research scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies asked the Pew research team to look at the rate at which young adult children of intermarriage identified as Jews.

He found that over the years, “the proportion of adult children of intermarriage identifying as Jewish has steadily increased, reaching 59%” for children born after 1980. The result was almost evenly split between those identifying as Jews by religion and those identifying as Jews of no religion.

In discussing his findings, Sasson states in the Spring 2014 issue of Contact, “the higher-than-expected rate of Jewish identification among the adult children of intermarriage is…a significant milestone. The rate at which young adult children of intermarriage identify as Jewish exceeds the rate at which their parents claimed to be raising them as Jewish in the NJPS 2000-01 survey.”

Sasson’s data captures people like my cousin, the child of a Jewish father and not Jewish mother raised in a home with no religion. During his first year of college, he met other kids like him. Some of his friends had heard of Birthright and suggested that they all look into it.

The idea of exploring his Jewish heritage interested my cousin enough that he announced at his family’s secular Christmas dinner that he was planning to apply to go on the Israel trip with his friends. My Jew of no religion uncle, who had been turned-off by the faith after his bar mitzvah, did not resist the idea. He said, “I’d be okay with that.”

By collecting data on intermarriage and the child-rearing choices of intermarried Jews in the way that we do, we do not allow for the possibility that being Jewish or engaging in Judaism can become important or of interest to interfaith families and children of intermarriage over time. Dr. Sasson’s findings will hopefully get the Jewish research community to consider additional ways to study intermarriage’s effect on Jewish identity.

I hope to see more qualitative research being done too in order to better understand why intermarrieds are or are not choosing Judaism, and how they are engaging in Judaism if they are associating themselves with the Jewish people in some way. But, until communal leaders start asking these questions, it is up to intermarrieds who are actively choosing Judaism to make our voices heard.

By sharing my family’s interfaith and Jewish journey in From Generation to Generation, I hope others will be encouraged to share their story. Our narratives can help answer questions such as why, how, and when are intermarrieds making Jewish choices.

The Jewish community needs to learn from and leverage the experiences of interfaith families living Jewishly in order to draw more intermarrieds into American Jewish life. If it does not, the predictions of the communal pessimists will eventually become reality.

Sasson suggests that the Jewish community support efforts to maximize the percentage of intermarrieds raising Jewish children and welcome young adults not raised as Jews to explore their Jewish heritage. He seems to recognize what many Jewishly engaged intermarrieds already know; Jewish spouses will not sustain us, but Jewish engagement will.

From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity is available at Indibound, Amazon and other retail outlets.

Resource:

Theodore Sasson, “Investing in the Children of Intermarriage,” Contact: The Journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Spring 2014, Volume 16, no. 1, 8-9. http://www.steinhardtfoundation.org/wp-install/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/spring_2014.pdf

 

 

 

A Walk in the Woods, A Conversation About Life and Death, A Moment of Connection

A nurse log in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska.

I have a talkative family. Mostly, our everyday conversations are about routine topics such as schedules, work, food, sports, and updates on family and friends, but there are moments when we have rich conversations about meatier subjects such as ethics, history, faith and fate.

These thoughtful discussions are never planned, they happen organically. But while the timing of them is unpredictable, I have noticed that they tend to take place in three locations: in the car, around the Shabbat table, and in nature.

Maybe these conversations happen in these spots because we are relaxed, our minds are cleared of to-do lists, and our hands and eyes are freed from electronics. Or maybe the settings put us in a contemplative mood. Whatever the cause, I cherish these opportunities to connect with my family, and especially my son Sammy who is about to enter his preteen years officially.

In these magical moments, my husband and I get to hear our son’s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes we’re discussing, we weave in details about history, Judaism, books, science and other relevant topics. Because our son is present and engaged in these conversations, he absorbs and is more receptive to the information being presented.

On a walk in the Vermont woods during our recent summer vacation, the subjects of life and death came-up. I pointed out a nurse log on the side of the path. A nurse log is a decomposing tree trunk that provides the moisture and nutrients necessary for the growth of new plants. We learned about them last summer during a hike in Alaska.

As we looked at the log, Sammy said that all living things, including people, are like nurse logs. He explained his theory of what happens when people die and are buried. He said that as the bodies decay, nutrients are added to the soil, the enriched soil nourishes the growth of new life in the form of plants.

I thought his idea was quite logical, in line with Sammy’s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, “But the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a person’s soul?”

I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind – our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one way–a tangible way–to think about living on, but that wasn’t what he was talking about. His thoughts were metaphysical in nature.

He said he believed that when the body decays part of its soul moves into the plant that grows from the soil that has been nourished during decomposition. When an animal eats the plant, it absorbs the soul. In this way, the soul moves up the food chain eventually reaching another person.

My husband and I listened intently while Sammy shared his ideas. We were fascinated by how he easily his mind moved between rational and mystical thinking, and how he interwove concrete and abstract concepts.

I shared with him that the idea that the soul moves through different realms after death is present in Judaism. “Really?” He said.

“Really. Some Jews believe that when they recite the Kaddish for a loved one who has died, it lifts the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to another moving it ever higher each year that the Mourner’s Prayer is said.”

“Wow. That’s pretty cool,” Sammy replied. He then added, “Don’t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now we’re talking about the soul.”

My husband and I do love these conversations as much as Sammy. They are unlike our everyday parent-child interactions. There is no nagging, admonishing, reminding or repeating. We appreciate these small opportunities to build connection and family intimacy because, in our hyperscheduled, too-busy-for-downtime lives these moments aren’t always easy to find.

Do I Need to Censor the Word “Jeez?”

My 9-year-old son, Sammy, was bursting to tell me something after his robotics class the other day. I assumed it was about his class activities, so I was surprised when the first thing he told me was this:

“I was working with my partner to design something in a computer program and I made a mistake. I said, ‘Oh, jeez’ because I was annoyed that I needed to redo my work. My partner says, ‘Don’t speak The Boy’s name in vain!’ I looked at him like he was crazy. All I said was ‘jeez.’ I didn’t say Jesus or Jesus Christ, but that’s what he thought I meant. I also didn’t understand why he used ‘The Boy’ to refer to Jesus.”

I have to admit, I was as dumbstruck as Sammy, and I rolled my eyes at this only-in-the-Bible-Belt moment. When I shared the story with my husband, who was raised in a Christian home, his reaction was the same. Neither of us had ever heard anyone take offense to the word “jeez” or use “The Boy” to describe Jesus. Our Christian family and friends have always used “jeez” in the same way that Sammy did–to express surprise or annoyance.

I never imagined that we might have to censor a word that we felt was simply an innocent expression of shock or frustration. I could think of many other four-letter words that Sammy could use to express the same emotions that I’d never want to come out of his mouth.

But I’m also a Jew. I know that words can have negative and hurtful meanings. I reconsidered my give-me-a-break response.

Maybe Sammy did say something offensive. Maybe “The Boy” is a common way to describe Jesus. I decided that since we live in the Bible Belt, I had better find out. I headed for the dictionary and computer to see what I could learn in hopes of preventing us all from making any more offensive remarks.

Various dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster defined “jeez” as an interjection used as a mild oath or introductory expletive used to express surprise, astonishment, disappointment, etc. All of the entries noted that it was a euphemism for Jesus first used in the 1920s. I understood why Sammy’s partner thought using the term was taking the Lord’s name in vain.

I also found a discussion on LDS.net, a site affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ about whether or not to chastise a person for saying “jeez.” Some commenters believed they should because Mormons are taught to avoid the use of any sensitive words or similar sounding substitutes in speech including gosh, dang, shoot, jeez, etc. Others felt that they should only admonish people when the words are said with intent to offend.

One person said if the speaker does not consider the word “to be a shortened form of taking the name of the Lord in vain, but instead” considers it a nonsense “exclamation then there is” no reason to chastise.

But someone else pointed out that all substitute words are offensive including gee whiz, geez, goodness, and jeepers because they are based on the offensive word. After reading the debate, all I could say was, “Oy vey.”

Regarding the use of “The Boy” to refer to Jesus, I found nothing. There was a religious school lesson plan on the LDS website called “Jesus Christ was a Child like Me.” The purpose of it was “to strengthen children’s desire to be like Jesus Christ by increasing their knowledge of Jesus’ childhood.” Maybe that’s where the term came from. Or maybe it came from the idea that Jesus is the Son of God. In Trinitarian Christianity, God is referred to as “The Father.” Since “boy” can mean “son,” it follows that “The Boy” could mean Jesus.

After spending a good portion of the day trying to understand the reaction of Sammy’s partner, I decided that you could go crazy trying to scrub your speech so that no group is offended. Since that is nearly impossible to do, especially for a child, it made me ask: Where do we draw the line? How do we, with our limited knowledge of every religious, ethnic, and cultural group, know what is and is not disrespectful? How do we, in a hypersensitive environment, prevent ourselves from being forced into silence by our fear that we might offend someone?

I don’t know the answers. But I do know that I don’t want my child to be afraid to speak.

I’m not going to tell Sammy never to use the word “jeez” given the context in which he used it. But I am going to reinforce what we’ve taught him about offensive speech: don’t use stereotypes, don’t use speech that attacks an individual or group on the basis of a trait or characteristic, don’t use language to disparage or intimidate, apologize if you unintentionally offend someone and learn from the incident.

In the meantime, I told Sammy that the next time he gets annoyed or frustrated in class, just say, “Oy vey!”

I Stand with Israel

As I left the gym early this morning, I walked past a TV showing an MSNBC interview with the Israeli Counsel General in New York. I paused to read the closed captions at the bottom of the screen and then made my way to my car.

While Israel has been on my mind for weeks, I have kept my thoughts about what is going on at a distance, and focused more on the pictures of my son enjoying his last weeks of overnight camp. But by late afternoon yesterday, I could no longer push away Israel. Two things drew me in:

A friend, in Israel for her son’s bar mitzvah, posted about her experience in the Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem on Facebook. She wrote, “A peaceful stroll…turned scary as sirens blared and people started running towards the basement for safety.” She said a salesperson calmly told her group that they must go to the basement immediately. She commented that after no more than 10 minutes in the shelter, the mall returned to normal: “people eating, shopping, smiling, playing music…it was surreal.” She said she felt strangely unafraid, and that the experience gave her and her family a genuine appreciation for this sadly regular part of Israeli life.

Reading this post made me think about one of our 16-year-old babysitters who is in Israel on an NFTY trip. I immediately sent a text to his mom, who happens also to be a friend. I needed to know, what she had heard. She said the kids were safe and enjoying the trip. Today’s plan was for a hike up Masada and a float in the Dead Sea. She said she was staying abreast of the situation, but she was calm, hoping her son would be able to complete his journey in peace and safety. She said that other parents were concerned and wanted to bring their children home before the trip’s scheduled end.

These two situations got me more engaged because they touched people I know. But they also moved me to verbalize my support. I stand with Israel.

I stand with Israel, not out of blind obedience to my people, or because I believe all Israel’s actions to be just. I stand with Israel, as I stand with the United States–sometimes with a critical eye, always with a loving heart.

How I feel about Israel mirrors how I feel about this country. I am proud of her accomplishments yet disappointed by some of her policies; frustrated by her politics but unwilling to disengage from the discussion of the issues; angry at the rhetoric of some government officials or the behavior of some of her citizens, but reluctant to give up my allegiance.

Israel is not perfect, nor is any country. Like all human societies, she fights to balance moral excellence and self-defense. As Paul Johnson writes in the epilogue to his 1987 bestselling book A History of the Jews (read it, if you haven’t already), Israel was “founded to realize a humanitarian ideal,” and discovered “in practice that it must be ruthless simply to survive in a hostile world.”

Combining moral authority with, as Johnson says, “the practical demands of a state capable of defending itself,” is not an easy task, especially when the eyes of the world are watching–closely, very closely. Israel is threatened by rockets, and as Ed Case, states on the IFF Network blog, “by negative opinion and vilification around the world.” It is important to support her and efforts to resolve this crisis peacefully.

So here is why I stand with Israel:

I stand with Israel because of the good she does and the hope she embodies. I stand with Israel because of the ideals she represents and the safe haven she provides. I stand with Israel because I dare to hope for a better, more peaceful tomorrow.

A Reminder to Diligently Teach Our Children

Sammy's first letter from camp simply fulfilled his promise to my husband.

Before my son, Sammy, left for overnight camp, my husband made him commit to writing us weekly. Sammy was not happy about being forced to communicate with us while he was enjoying his four weeks of freedom from parental oversight. About a week before camp, he complained to me before bed.

“Daddy says I have to write to you once a week. I’m going to be too busy having fun! You know that. I told him you didn’t care if I write. I’ll write you one letter, but I don’t want to have to do it every week.”

“We would love to hear from you while you’re away,” I said, “but we also know that if we don’t get a letter it’s because you’re having a great time.”

“That’s what I told Daddy!”

“Sammy, it’s up to you whether or not you write home. Neither Daddy nor I will be at camp to make you write. We’d love to get an update on what you’re doing, but it’s your choice. It’s not a big deal if you don’t write.”

I don’t like contradicting my husband and giving Sammy mixed messages, but as a former camper, I also know the reality of camp–no news is usually good news. I was willing to suffer through a month of one-way communication.

But a few days after my conversation with Sammy, I changed my mind about him writing home. The catalyst for my change of heart was The Seesaw, the column about interfaith life in The Jewish Daily Forward.

As some Parenting Blog readers know, in addition to writing for InterfaithFamily, I am a contributor to The Seesaw. Shortly after my discussion with Sammy, I was asked to respond to a question submitted by a young woman raised in an interfaith home, who is now dating a Modern Orthodox man.

She said that her boyfriend asked her to dress modestly and participate in reciting blessings when they visit his mother. She goes along with his request even though it makes her uncomfortable. She asked, if she should continue to show respect to her boyfriend’s mother, or if she should “put her foot down” before it’s too late.

I began my answer by reminding the questioner of the fifth commandment. I said, “The Torah commands us to honor our parents by showing them appreciation, dignity, and reverence. It doesn’t require us to love, blindly obey, or embrace our parents’ choices.” I added that even though her boyfriend’s mother was not her mother, she still deserved deferential treatment. I also noted; that to get respect from others we need to show respect.

As I wrote my response to this young woman, I considered Cameron’s request that Sammy write weekly letters and my response to Sammy “putting his foot down.” I thought, “How can I advise this woman to show respect for her boyfriend’s mother, and not ask my child to show respect to his father?”

I couldn’t. So later that day, I spoke to Sammy. “You know how I told you that it was your choice whether or not to write to us weekly as Daddy has asked you to do?”

“Yeah,” said Sammy.

‘Well, I changed my mind. You do need to honor the commitment that you made to Daddy to write, and this is why: If you want Daddy to honor his commitments to you, such as taking you for your weekly father-son breakfast on Sundays or coming to school events, then you need to honor your commitments to him.

We respect the fact that you will be having fun and be busy doing things with other kids in your bunk during rest time. The letters you write do not have to be long and you can have fun with them, even be silly. But you have to write once a week as you promised Daddy. We work hard so that you can do fun things like camp. Writing to us shows us that you appreciate what we do to give you these kinds of experiences. Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” said Sammy. Then in a perky voice, “Maybe I’ll write a silly letter like that one we read on that blog, you know, where the boy said he was using his toothbrush to dig for worms and using another kid’s to brush his teeth!”

“You can be as creative as you like as long as you follow through on your commitment,” I said.

I didn’t consider what the letter writing debate was about until I began drafting my Seesaw response. Then I saw it for what it was – an opportunity to reinforce a core Jewish value.

While his second letter home was a little silly, Sammy did thank us for sending him to camp.

In Deuteronomy 6:5-8, we are told to teach God’s words diligently to our children, but often, imparting the lessons of the Torah to our children only happens in religious school classrooms. We think teaching Jewish values and ideas needs be explicit–“This is what the Torah says.” We forget, probably because we are caught up in our busyness, that there are opportunities in our daily lives to connect our actions and behaviors to Jewish teachings even in subtle ways.

The Seesaw question reminded me to be on the lookout for these opportunities. I don’t expect to be present enough in every situation to seize each one of them, but hopefully I’ll be mindful enough to grab them more often.

And in case you’re wondering, Sammy has followed through on his promise. We’ve received two letters from camp.