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Over the years, Hanukkah, a minor celebration that isn’t even in the Torah, has become the unofficial national holiday of the American Jewish community. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was promoted as the Jewish alternative to Christmas. Since then, many individuals and communal leaders have fought against the “make Hanukkah big” movement and urged Jewish families to refrain from embracing the idea of Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas.
But the reminders of Hanukkah’s lesser holiday status have not stopped its growth. What once was an eight-day festival has evolved into a six-week season. And many Jewish families are using the holiday to reafﬁrm their Jewishness in a big way. Instead of small electric menorahs in windows, they’re putting a Jewish twist on non-Jewish holiday decorations and traditions, declaring in a loud and proud way, “I’m Jewish!” For interfaith families, this increase in Hanukkah festiveness allows parents from other backgrounds to indulge their love of all-things-holiday while honoring their commitment to building a Jewish home.
As we move into the holiday season, here are some ideas for boldly sharing the light of Hanukkah. Share the creative ways you make the Festival of Lights special in the comments section.
Hang Hanukkah on the Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates: Wreaths and door decorations are not just for Christmas. Pinterest, Etsy, and eBay have many Hanukkah wreath styles and ideas for making your own. From rustic Jewish stars with lights to evergreen wreaths with Hanukkah garland and dreidels, there are many pre-made and make-your-own options. My neighbor hangs a Hanukkah banner on her front door and highlights it by placing an evergreen garland mixed with Stars of David on the surrounding doorframe.
Shine Some Light on Your Jewish Identity: Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, yet holiday lights have always been associated with Christmas. But in recent years, some Jewish families have decided to make holiday lights their own. A Christian friend, who is raising Jewish children with her husband, and loves holiday lights, decorates the outside of her house with blue and white LEDS. For those that like lawn ornaments, there are lighted Hanukkah characters and symbols including pre-lit Jewish dogs and dreidels, and 8-foot lighted inflatable menorahs.
Wear Your Jewishness on Your Sleeve (or Pants or Chest): Represent the Jewish tradition and stand out from the red, white and green crowd in cozy Hanukkah PJs, leggings, t-shirts, and underwear. Have some real holiday fun in an ugly Hanukkah sweater and menorah hat. Spin around your office Christmas party in dreidel socks.
Rock it Like a Maccabee: While you may not find any local radio stations that play only Hanukkah songs for six-plus weeks, there is plenty of great holiday music to get you in the Festival-of-Lights-spirit. Tune into Jewish Rock Radio on your computer or mobile device. Check out the Jewish A Cappella group the Maccabeats singing “Candlelight,” the Hanukkah version of “Dynamite,” and “All About That Neis.” Listen to “Miracle” by Jewish reggae rapper Matisyahu. Explore the music of Jewish rockers Dan Nichols, Rick Recht and Josh Nelson, and the Kosher Gospel of Joshua Nelson.
Deck Your Halls With Stars and Dreidels: Dress your mantel with silver tinsel and modern star garland. Hang Star of David paper lanterns. Add some festiveness to your home by dangling Hanukkah ornaments throughout. Add a Jewish twist to an advent with Hanukkah countdown bags that hang over the fireplace. Use Hanukkah tablecloths, napkins and dishes for the entire holiday. Get more ideas online.
Eat Like A Champ: Hanukkah follows the traditional Jewish story of “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” So, eat like a champion. Expand your holiday menu beyond latkes and donuts. Make different kinds of Hanukkah cookies and share with family, friends and coworkers. Enjoy a holiday breakfast with dreidel muffins and dreidel-shaped pancakes, or use your Hanukkah cookie cutters to make holiday-themed challah French toast. Bake Star of David cupcakes for a yummy dessert. Get creative with your traditional foods. Try squash or root vegetable latkes. Think outside the brisket and chicken box.
What do a disappearing groom, a witch in a milk bottle, a demon that writes Mezzuzot, and a clay giant have in common? They’re all part of Judaism’s rich but rarely discussed centuries old tradition of ghost stories, superstitions, and spooky tales. That’s right; Jews go “Boo!” too.
Ancient rabbis and Jewish thinkers, Kabbalists, and Talmudic scholars all dabbled in demonology, and there was a serious Jewish belief in the supernatural dating back to biblical times. Because Judaism always co-existed with other tribes and races, it was influenced by and incorporated beliefs and practices of the surrounding cultures including speculation about the existence of supernatural beings. In Babylonia, Jews were influenced by the Chaldean and Persian belief in good and evil spirits, and this became a feature of Jewish ideas about supernatural beings. In Europe, Jewish demonology took the form of superstition mirroring Teutonic, Celtic, and Slavic practices. Following are a few examples of Jewish characters fit for Halloween.
Lilith first appears in the Bible in the Book of Isaiah as a dweller in waste places, and the name is often translated as night creature, night monster, night hag, or screech owl. Lilith is known as an ancient witch and Adam’s first wife. According to legend, she is created at the same time as Adam and from the same earth, unlike Eve, who is created from one of Adam’s ribs. Lilith develops her reputation as a fiercely independent woman when she leaves Adam because she refuses to be subservient to him. When God asks Lilith to return to Eden at Adam’s request, she refuses and couples with the “Great Demon,” Samael. She morphs into a kidnapper, murderer of children and seducer of men.
Beginning in the sixth century BC, the first visual depictions of Lilith appear and Jewish magical practices develop bowls and amulets with inscriptions designed to ward off the she-devil that represents unchecked sexuality and an uncontrollable woman. Lilith reminds men of how attraction to another can destroy a marriage and the dangers of marrying an independent female who is wild and sexually liberated.
Today, the Lilith legend is common source material for modern comics and literature, fantasy and horror films where she is often depicted as voluptuous and sexy.
Witch of Endor
Like the Lilith, the Witch of Endor is a biblical character perfect for Halloween. While Lilith is scary, the Witch of Endor is spooky but generally good. The witch can channel the dead in what you might imagine as an ancient séance.
In the First Book of Samuel, King Saul expels, some say kills, all the necromancers, witches, and magicians in the land of Israel. But some remain in the part of Israel called Endor. After the expulsion, Saul is preparing for battle. His trusted prophet Samuel is dead, and he seeks wisdom from God about the upcoming fight with the Philistines. He receives no answer. Desperate for guidance, he looks for another medium to channel the divine. He finds the Witch of Endor, who claims that she can see dead people. She conjures a vision of the prophet Samuel that speaks to Saul. The ghost complains of being disturbed, reminds Saul of his sins, and predicts Saul’s downfall, which happens the next day.
Golems and Dybbuks
Two of the most famous Jewish supernatural creatures are the golem and dybbuk. The golem, like Frankenstein, is a manmade creation. It is made out of clay, and given life and controlled by man. In some stories, the golem develops a mind of its own and does bad things, but Jewish tradition typically describes it as a creature created by a rabbi to serve the Jewish community, often in times of great need. The rabbi forms the creature from earth and brings it to life with his breath and the recitation of words from holy texts. The tale of the Golem of Prague is the most well-known golem story and is often used as the basis for modern depictions of golems and golem-like creatures in literature and culture, especially the fantasy and horror genres.
The dybbuk is an evil spirit from Jewish mythology that attaches itself to a living person’s soul causing mental illness and the creation of a separate and alien personality. Dybbuks are generally considered souls that because of the enormity of their sins are not allowed to transmigrate so instead, seek refuge in the body of a living person. There is even Jewish literature on how to exorcise dybbuks from the possessed and redeem the lost soul or cause it to enter hell. And you thought exorcisms weren’t a Jewish thing! Dybbuks are often found in literature and movies.
Halloween provides the perfect opportunity to share these and many other Jewish stories of ghosts and ghouls, and demons and witches with your family. They allow you to put a uniquely Jewish twist on a non-Jewish celebration. These Jewish tales also provide an opportunity to make Judaism relevant to your children by sharing how Jewish tradition has influenced popular culture. So, give your kids something Jewish to scream about this Halloween. Connect Judaism’s scary stories and characters to modern books and movies and help them make Halloween their own.
Books on Jewish Ghosts, Witches, and Magic:
Ghosts and Golems: Haunting Tales of the Supernatural by Michele Palmer
In this space, we typically address parents who are part of an interfaith couple creating a Jewish home. But this month, I want to address the parents of children who are intermarried or in interfaith relationships. Their actions and behaviors often affect the choices that couples navigating intermarriage make.
As an engagement professional at my synagogue in Dallas, I’m charged with helping to connect interfaith couples and families, and 20s and 30s to Jewish life. One of the things I frequently hear from young married and engaged couples is how uber Jewish the Jewish partners’ family has become. Suddenly, the frequency of attendance at Friday evening services has jumped and there is an intense focus on all things Jewish. Holidays that were once fairly laid back gatherings are now more significant affairs.
This story of parents acting more Jewish and dragging intermarrieds to more Jewish services and events is usually followed by the comment, “My family has never been this involved in Jewish life. They’ve suddenly become Super Jews because I married someone who isn’t Jewish.” Sometimes, it’s the partner from another background who says; “My husband/wife says that his/her parents rarely went to services before we got engaged. Now, anything related to Judaism is important.”
My reaction to these stories is always the same. I smile and nod. I tell the couple that their parents or in-laws behavior is common. Many Jewish parents, in response to a child intermarrying or interdating, think that if they up their level of Jewish engagement, that they can influence the decisions of interfaith couples. They believe their newfound connection to Jewish life will communicate how important Judaism and its continuation is to them.
I explain to the couples that their parents or in-laws behavior is a result of various emotions–nervousness, uncertainty, fear, and guilt to name a few. Parents worry that the intermarrieds won’t make Jewish choices or honor their commitment to have a Jewish home. They fear their grandchildren won’t identify as Jews, that Christmas will overshadow Jewish rituals and traditions. They feel guilty for not having been more engaged in Judaism when their son or daughter was growing up and wonder if they had done more would their child have chosen a Jewish partner.
Parents use intensified engagement as a surrogate for talking with their child and his or her partner about their feelings and why Judaism and Jewish peoplehood is important to them. The problem with this approach is that intermarrieds see through it. They know their parents’ or in-laws’ actions are disingenuous.
So how can parents influence the religious choices of intermarrieds in a way that is genuine?
Disingenuous hyper involvement in Jewish life won’t guarantee that intemarrieds will create Jewish homes or raise Jewish children. But it will turn them off or push them away. Instead, remember that your family’s Jewish journey is still unfolding. A strong embrace of Judaism by the interfaith couple may not happen quickly. But by being honest and welcoming, and supporting the choices the couple makes, you can have a positive influence on the future.
This past week, the JCC Maccabi Games were played in my city, Dallas. Dallas was one of three cities hosting regional games this summer.
The Maccabi Games are an Olympic-style sports competition held each summer in North America. It’s the second largest organized sports program for Jewish teenagers in the world and is part of the worldwide Maccabi Movement. Jewish kids, age 12-16, from all over the world compete. Thirty delegations competed in Dallas including ones from Australia, Mexico, Panama, Israel, and cities across the United States.
The games strive to instill a deeper understanding and appreciation of Jewish values in participants and strengthen their Jewish identity and connection to Israel. The other goal is to foster many of the same values as the Olympics–respect and sportsmanship, excellence on and off the field, and friendships that transcend gender, racial, ethnic, cultural, political and religious differences.
It’s the last of these values that I appreciate the most. Sure, there are kids from across the denominational spectrum competing but athletes from interfaith homes can participate too. The Maccabi Games’ definition of “Jewish” is having “at least one Jewish parent.” At the Maccabi Games, there are no half-Jewish, sort-of-Jewish, not-really-Jewish athletes. There is no one checking whether kids are matrilineal or patrilineal Jews. There is simply one kind of competitor, Jewish.
Matrilineal and patrilineal Jews compete side by side, as teammates and competitors. Children from wholly Jewish and interfaith homes share the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, nondenominational and unaffiliated; and those with high levels of Jewish engagement and little Jewish connection work and play together. All the labels that the Jewish community allows to divide us melt away at the games.
As an intermarried Jewish mom of one of the boys in the Los Angeles Westside delegation said, “We do the [Jewish] holidays, but my son never had a bar mitzvah. The generosity of spirit, of acceptance, was wonderful. No one treated him differently.”
At other times, differences were celebrated. A friend who hosted two basketball players from Australia told me with excitement about how they discovered at Shabbat dinner that the tune for the Hamotzi, or blessing over the challah, was not universal. She and her family were delighted to learn the Aussies’ melody.
To me, these things are what make the event magical. They remind us (or should remind us) that there is more that unites us than divides us. Yet, as a community, we still spend so much time focusing on what makes us different and quantifying and measuring who is really or more Jewish. If we understand the power of respect and acceptance to build Jewish identity and connection, why do we allow the differences to separate us?
I don’t know the answer. But I hope that these athletes, who are part of the Jewish future, will grow up to challenge the rhetoric. I hope they will see the rich diversity of the Jewish people as positive. I hope, that because of this experience they will work to create a more inclusive and united Jewish community.
If there is one thing I’m passionate about, it’s expanding Judaism’s tent. After years of living as a Jewishly engaged interfaith family, I got tired of hearing Jewish professionals, academics, and community leaders blame families like mine for the demise of Judaism. So, for six years, I shared my family’s story in forums such as InterfaithFamily.com, the Forward, and Tablet to paint a different picture of intermarriage and interfaith family life. I even wrote a book From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity.
Now, I’m excited to be embarking on a new phase in my Jewish journey as I begin work as a Jewish professional at my synagogue. As the new assistant director of engagement, I oversee my congregation’s efforts to connect more interfaith and LGBT families, 20- and 30-somthings, and people interested in conversion to Jewish life. It’s work that I have been doing as a volunteer lay leader, writer, and speaker for years. I’m thrilled that now I get to interact on a more personal level with those wanting to “do Jewish.”
One of my favorite parts of my new job is meeting with interfaith couples and families new to Dallas or about to get married. I spend many hours over coffee listening to the joys and challenges they are experiencing as intermarrieds or soon-to-be intermarrieds. I offer advice on navigating issues and relationships with extended family members culled from personal experience. I hope to convince them that there is a place for them in Judaism and that they are wanted and will be embraced by our Jewish community. Each day, I feel that I’m doing sacred work.
As I talk to parents and young couples, I often find myself scribbling on napkins and scraps of paper the names of books that I find to be helpful for building a Jewish home or raising Jewish children. I thought InterfaithFamily.com readers might also be interested in these materials.
So here are some of my favorite Jewish and interfaith books. They are resources that I find myself reading and referring to often. It is by no means a comprehensive list and I hope you’ll share your favorites in the comment section below.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and Miriyam Glazer, The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Visions, and Dreams: Learned, engaging and provocative, this book offers three commentaries on each Torah portion. A great resource for discussing the week’s parsha during Shabbat dinner, it weaves together the insights of ancient rabbis and sages, medieval commentators and philosophers, and modern scholars and religious leaders.
Thomas Cahill, The Gift of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels: A light-handed account of ancient Jewish culture, the culture of the Bible. The book is written from a modern point of view, yet it encourages us to see the Old Testament through ancient eyes.
Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews: A national bestseller, this brilliant 4,000-year survey covers not only Jewish history but the impact of Jewish genius and imagination on the world. Johnson’s work begins with the Bible and ends with the establishment of the State of Israel.
James Keen, Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family: Written by a Christian father who is helping his Jewish wife raise Jewish children. Keen provides practical advice on how to give children a clear Jewish identity while maintaining a comfort level for both parents and includes perspectives from professionals who work with interfaith families.
Milton Steinberg, Basic Judaism: A classic work for the Jewish and the not Jewish reader. A concise and readable introduction to Judaism that makes complex theological and philosophical concepts easy to understand, and contrasts various Jewish perspectives.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, its People, and its History: An indispensable reference on Jewish life, culture, tradition, and religion. It covers every essential aspect of the Jewish people and Judaism.
Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Jerusalem: Renowned chefs, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi explore the vibrant cuisine of their home city—with its diverse Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities. This stunning cookbook offers recipes from their unique cross-cultural perspective, from inventive vegetable dishes to sweet, rich desserts.
Tina Wasserman, Entrée to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora and Entrée to Judaism for Families: A culinary adventure through the Jewish Diaspora, it is as much a history book as it is a cookbook. Wasserman explains how Jews around the world and across the ages adapted local tastes and ingredients to meet the needs of Jewish holidays and dietary laws, creating a rich and diverse menu of flavors and styles.
Sharon G. Forman, Honest Answers to Your Child’s Jewish Questions: A Rabbi’s Insights: A helpful resource that provides successful responses to many Jewish questions children ask, and summarizes Jewish thought in an easy-to-understand, readable format.
Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner, The Faith Club: The story of three women, their three religions, and their quest to understand one another.
Meredith L. Jacobs, Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat: Connect and Celebrate—Bring Your Family Together with the Friday Night Meal: An easy-to-read book that shows how the Friday night Shabbat meal can bring a family together and help them connect, even as children grow older. It includes recipes, art projects, and summaries of the weekly Torah portion.
Wendy Mogul, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children: A guide for raising self-reliant children. Mogel takes stories of everyday parenting problems and examines them through the lens of the Torah, the Talmud, and other important Jewish teachings.
Ronnie Friedland and Edmund Case, The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook: Practical ideas for creating strong interfaith relationships from those in interfaith partnerships and those who work with mixed faith couples.
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.”
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.
The Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education (CJPE) is a resource and catalyst for developing education about collective Jewish belonging, often focused on the areas of Jewish peoplehood and Israel. Through its blog and Peoplehood Papers series, the organization generates dialog about the meaning and importance of Jewish peoplehood and how to nurture it.
Recently, I wrote an essay for the CJPE blog about the significant influence peoplehood had on the decision to have a Jewish home by inmarrying and intermarrying couples in a pre-marriage class that I taught at my synagogue. I discussed how we created a curriculum that showed how Jewish engagement could deepen connection to the Jewish people regardless of whether or not both partners were Jewish.
While the following piece addresses engaged couples, it applies to any family interested in building a Jewish home, regardless of life stage. The questions my co-teacher and I ask students–why is being Jewish significant to you, what does it mean to have a Jewish home, how will you go about creating one–are relevant to us all. They are questions we should continually ask ourselves because as we journey through religion, spirituality and life, the answers may change.
I hope you’ll share in the comment section below why you chose to be Jewish, what having a Jewish home meant when you got married, why being Jewish is important to you today and how your idea of a Jewish home has evolved.
This essay is reprinted with permission.
Six months ago, I began teaching a premarital class to intrafaith and interfaith couples being married by clergy at my synagogue. The impetus for the class was the increasing disaffiliation and disconnection of Jewish young adults from Jewish life.
Regardless of whether couples were endogamous or interfaith, we believed that marriage presented an opportunity to influence their religious engagement. We felt that this relationship stage provided us with the chance to effect faith related choices, something especially important as we sought to encourage more interfaith couples to participate in Judaism.
We recognized during premarital counseling that we asked inmarrying and intermarrying couples to make a Jewish home, but that many of these couples didn’t know how to go about creating one. Most of the Jewish partners were raised in progressive Jewish households, either wholly Jewish or interfaith, and grew up practicing Judaism episodically. Their upbringing focused on the High Holidays, Passover, and Hanukkah and few participated in Jewish education post-b’nai mitzvah or remembered anything from religious school.
We wanted to push these often Jewishly illiterate and religiously disconnected couples to think about why being Jewish was significant to them and help them understand how to honor their commitment to have a Jewish home. So, we created a two- to four-week learning experience for engaged partners.
At the start of each session, we asked the couples how they decided to have a Jewish home and why having one was important to them. Interestingly, regardless of whether the Jewish partner or partners grew up secularly Jewish, episodically Jewish, modestly observant or very observant, the reason having a Jewish home was important was the same. All had a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
We used our curriculum, which focused on Shabbat and community building, to show the couples how ritual and communal involvement, could deepen their feeling of Jewish peoplehood. We discussed how rituals, whether viewed as divine commandments or social customs, were a means to transmit Jewish heritage, beliefs, and values. We explained the importance of Shabbat and ways to embrace it. We talked about using the holiday to bring sacredness into the couple’s relationship and home.
These classroom discussions provided a foundation for what was in my opinion the most significant component of the class–experiential learning. Over a Shabbat meal at a congregant’s home, the students experienced the power of Shabbat in a communal setting. Since many of the couples didn’t grow up with a Shabbat home ritual because their families weren’t observant or they weren’t Jewish, we wanted to demonstrate and demystify the holiday. The more relaxed social setting of a home also provided couples the opportunity to deepen the connections they were forming in the classroom demonstrating how Shabbat could be used to build community.
Forging relationships between students was high on our priority list because community was a significant predictor of Jewish engagement. Since we knew that adults with more densely Jewish social networks were more likely to engage in Judaism and raise Jewish children we added a second non-classroom learning experience. At the end of the program, we brought the couples together for Havdalah in a member’s home. This endpoint allowed us to expose participants to another ritual and gave students an opportunity to deepen their connection to each other.
When endogamous and interfaith couples make the decision to be married by a rabbi, it opens the door to a Jewish conversation. It gives us the chance to encourage Jewish choices. Using classroom and experiential learning plus premarital counseling, we can help Jewish and not Jewish partners see how Judaism can help them feel part of something bigger and connect them to Jewish life.
Several months ago, I read Jennifer Senior’s All Joy No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Senior’s book is one of the few that examines the effects of children on their parents. How does parenthood affect our marriage, our work, our lifestyle, and our happiness?
Much of the book resonated with me, especially the chapter about the lengths parents go to develop their children so they can compete for spots at top colleges or athletic scholarships. Senior writes how this concerted cultivation has resulted in overscheduling and excessive parental involvement and contributed to the decline of real family activities such as meals.
One mother explains to Senior that, “homework has replaced the family dinner.” The reason for dinner’s displacement is that kids “tell you stuff” when you sit and create something together, and many parents don’t cook anymore. Given the amount of time they spend schlepping kids to activities it’s easier to do takeout. Senior wonders if the time spent in family study hall might not “be more restorative and better spent” doing things that create family bonds, “the stuff of customs and stories and affectionate memories.”
When I read this, the first thing I thought of was Shabbat. Shabbat is all about restoration, connection, rituals, stories, and creating warm memories. On Friday evenings, we give thanks for time together and the food we eat, we remember through stories–Jewish and personal–our connection to community and heritage, we take a break.
But even though Shabbat is a simple solution to the problem Senior describes and only requires a once a week commitment, many of us still struggle to do it. We’re busy with work and after school activities. We don’t have time to set a nice table or cook a meal. Our children would rather attend a high school football game or professional sporting event. I can relate.
When my son Sammy was in preschool, Shabbat was magical. On Friday afternoons, he and I baked challah. In the evenings, we gathered as a family, sat at a nicely set table, and said the prayers. Following the blessing for boys, my husband and I each whispered a special message in our son’s ear, and we shared with each other our favorite part of the week.
But as my son has grown, my family’s once magical Shabbat has lost some of its glow. We no longer sit down for a family dinner every week. When we do, our once carefully set table now looks like the one we eat at every weeknight: papers and magazines are pushed to a corner, and nondescript placemats and napkins decorate the surface. Our challah is store-bought, and my family who is starving and a little grumpy, requests the fast version of the blessings.
Because our Shabbat practice no longer seems special, it would be easy for us to surrender to our hectic schedule, to say we can’t celebrate, to abandon our flawed observance. But each week, we find ourselves trying to honor our ritual in some way.
During football season, if Sammy’s school is playing at home, we light the candles and bless the challah before we go as a family to the game. In the spring, if we have tickets to see our local minor league baseball team on a Friday night, we wish each other “Shabbat Shalom” as we enjoy America’s pastime.
But it’s when we do enjoy a real Shabbat dinner, even a thrown together one, that we remember the power of this ancient ritual. Over long discussions of the week’s Torah portion that encourage us to talk about life, politics, history, sports, and other subjects, we reconnect. During after dinner walks or family board games or while sitting by a fire, we relax.
Whether spent at the dinner table or the ballpark, these few hours help us to recharge, bond and create memories. That’s the magic of Shabbat.
At the end of the chapter on concerted cultivation, Senior suggests that parents make dinner the new family dinner. I love the idea but know that in my home, family dinner isn’t going to happen every weeknight. But I can make family time happen on Shabbat.
So, stop saying, “You can’t,” or “You’re too busy.” Find a way to celebrate Shabbat. You might just find that it becomes your new family dinner even if dinner is a hot dog at the ballpark.
As the end of the school year approaches, my family is actively planning our summer vacation. This year we’re traveling to Santa Fe for art, culture and hiking.
As I’ve done since my husband and I began traveling together before we married, I’m researching the various landmarks, historical sites and things to do at our destination. I’m also looking at how we can incorporate Jewish heritage into our trip.
Often we think that we must travel to Israel in order to explore Jewish life and history. But, Jewish heritage, like the heritage of other faiths especially Christianity, exists the world over.
For example, when my husband and I traveled to Europe, we visited many famous churches and cathedrals, but we also stopped at Jewish cultural sites. In Paris, we visited the renowned French Gothic cathedral Notre Dame on the same day we walked through the nearby Jewish Quarter in the Marais district.
While walking the streets of the Pletzel, the Yiddish name of the Jewish district, we stopped at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme. The museum, housed in the 17th-century mansion known as the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan, presented the 2,000-year history of the Jewish community in France and positioned French Jewry in the broader context of Judaism as a whole. It featured magnificent ritual objects from across the ages, tombstones from the Middle Ages and Judaic art from various periods, and it depicted Jewish life in Paris during Emancipation and at the beginning of World War II.
In Rome, we toured the Vatican and the remains of the Jewish ghetto, Great Synagogue, and Jewish Museum. We viewed Michelangelo’s Renaissance masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel and discovered that it wasn’t the only magnificently painted ceiling in a Roman religious institution. The ceiling and interior of the Tempio Maggiore di Roma (The Great Synagogue of Rome) were magical. The inside of the square aluminum dome had a rainbow and trees, and the ceiling was a rich blue with gold stars that looked brilliant against the massive 50-foot free-standing ark.
In Prague, the Jewish Quarter with the Jewish Museum, Ceremonial Hall, Old-New and Spanish Synagogues, and the old Jewish cemetery, captivated us while the Church of St. Nicholas dazzled. In Budapest, we spent time at St. Stephen’s Basilica and investigated my ancestral roots at the grand Dohany Street or Great Synagogue.
This summer, in Santa Fe, we plan to investigate the Jewish influences in the city from iconic churches to art. We look forward to finding the Hebrew inscription for the name of God above the entrance to St. Francis Cathedral. Some people believe the engraving is a tribute to a Jewish benefactor who helped finance the construction of the church. We are also excited to learn how Judaism mixed with local culture.
Travel provides a wonderful opportunity for interfaith families to explore the Jewish and not Jewish religious and cultural traditions of an area. It shows us how Judaism intermingled with general culture offering new insights and context to the Jewish experience. It reminds us, and our children, that there is more to Jewish history than persecution and Israel. When we mix in stops at synagogues, Jewish museums, and other venues with visits to sites important to other faiths, we get a fuller picture of the world. We also develop a richer sense of Jewish heritage.
This summer, as you travel with your family, bring some balance to your sightseeing. Visit breathtaking cathedrals and churches as well as Jewish points-of-interest. Before you go, check out the travel website Jewish Discoveries to find lesser-known areas of Jewish culture. Use your trips to learn more about your family’s background and deepen your family’s connection to Judaism.