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Last week my family hosted some of the international staff from my son’s Jewish camp before they went to camp for training. We have done this for the past four summers and it’s been a wonderful experience. Most of the staffers are Israeli, and we have built lasting relationships with them, giving us the opportunity to one day visit each of them in Israel.
This year, camp participated in a program with other Reform camps to bring young adult members of the Ugandan Jewish community to Jewish summer camps throughout the U.S. Most people’s reaction when I mentioned that camp would have Ugandan and Israeli staff this year said, “There are Jews in Uganda?” Yes, there are Ugandan Jews.
About a week before the international staff arrived, I received an email from one of the assistant camp directors asking if my family would host the Ugandan, rather than the Israeli, counselors. “Of the families who can host next week, you immediately jumped to mind as someone who could provide the most hospitable experience for these two new staff members.” How could I say no? Plus, it seemed like an amazing opportunity to learn and enable our entire family to experience the diversity of the global Jewish community.
Most Jews in Uganda are members of the Abayudaya (“People of Judah”), a 100-year-old community of nearly 2,000 Jews who live mostly in villages in Eastern Uganda. Unlike Ethiopian Jews, who are descendants of Israelite tribes that settled in Ethiopia, Ugandan Jews trace their Jewish origins to the turn of the 20th century and two powerful leaders, Joswa Kate Mugema, an influential Buganda chief, and Semei Kakungulu, who was selected by the British to be a Christian missionary.
Mugema and his tribe were dissident Protestants who were devoted to the Bible and adopted many Jewish traditions. They recognized Saturday as the Sabbath, violently opposed any sign of idol worship and forbade the eating or pork. Kakungulu, bitterly disillusioned by the British authorities, cooperated with the Mugema tribe, helping to spread its faith. During this period, Kakungulu was drawn to the teachings of the Old Testament and in 1919 he and his community began practicing Judaism.
When Idi Amin Dada rose to power in the early 1970s, he banned Jewish practice and many Jews were forced to convert to other religions. After the fall of Amin in 1979, the remaining members of the Abayudaya gathered to rebuild the Jewish tradition. Today, there are seven Jewish communities in Uganda and members try to come together as often as possible to interact, connect, worship and learn.
Our guests told us that Conservative rabbis in the early part of the 21st century began to come to Uganda to supervise the “conversion” of Uganda’s Jews. Some in the global Jewish community did not see the Abayudaya as Jewish since they didn’t have a biological link to Israel. While the rabbis viewed the ritual they were performing as a conversion, the community saw it as an “affirmation” of its Jewish faith. Our visitors told us, “Many people, especially in Israel, still do not accept us as Jews.”
I told them that they were not the only Jews with this problem. I explained patrilineal descent and how the Reform movement accepts as a Jew anyone raised Jewish with one Jewish parent but that many non-Reform traditions and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel do not accept this definition of “Who is a Jew.” We also discussed how those who convert to Judaism through a non-Orthodox tradition are also not considered Jewish according to some denominations and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. I emphasized that they would meet many campers this summer who, like themselves, are not accepted as Jews by parts of the world Jewish community, and who, like them, feel strongly that their religious identity is Jewish.
The discussion made me think about how these two groups of Jewish outsiders would spend the summer nurturing each others’ Jewish growth. I smiled as I thought about the richness outsiders bring to the Jewish tradition and how we outsiders are slowly becoming insiders thanks to the efforts of those, including InterfaithFamily, who believe that Judaism’s tent is big, and its doors wide open.
There are days when my preteen son is angry with me for reasons that neither of us knows. There are days when he’s embarrassed by me because of a comment or action that I’m quite certain no one has seen. There are days when he’s ornery, gloomy, argumentative or grumpy or sometimes all of the above.
And then there are days when the sweet, loving boy with the heart filled with goodness shines through. Days when he is quick with a smile, a hug or an I-love-you and wants to snuggle close or just do something with me. Days like today, when he reminds me that while being his mom is the hardest job I’ll ever have, it’s also the very best job I’ll ever have.
When we were studying Judaism together as a young couple, it made sense to buy into an “all in” model for a Jewish household. For our future children’s sake, if we were choosing to raise them with a religion, we would stick to just one. It would be less confusing, and they could be engaged in a specific spiritual community where they could experience a sense of belonging. This would be better for their development, and would empower them to make well-grounded decisions about their spirituality as adults.
It also made sense that we would respect the religious beliefs of family members who were not Jewish by sharing in their celebrations and participating as guests. Guests who were also loving relatives. We would speak openly about their holidays and lovingly about Eric’s personal history celebrating those holidays.
This relatively black and white idea seemed clear when our children were theoretical creatures. Seven-and-a-half years into our very real parenting journey, what I have found is that stepping thoughtfully into the gray area of this proposition not only strengthens our connections to our extended family, but also strengthens our nuclear family connectivity.
The “all in” model assumed we did not let Christian holidays into our home life, but we did celebrate them in our families’ homes. This simple idea is complicated by the 2,000 miles between our home and Eric’s parents’ and sister’s homes.
On days like Easter Sunday, we can get our heads around the Easter Bunny not coming to our house, and around the impossibility of teleporting to Colorado. But both Eric and I have trouble getting our heads around not doing something to mark a day so important to our heritage and celebrated by our closest family members.
So here’s where we are right now, as of Easter 2016. We don’t celebrate Easter with a visit to church or the corresponding new Easter dresses. We do cherish the Easter eggs we get from Eric’s parents, and the celebrations we share with friends who celebrate the holiday. And as a foursome, we celebrate that it is a day to think about and be with family, and to do something out of the ordinary that celebrates our lives together.
For us, this year, it was a fancier-than-usual breakfast with all the bells and whistles. Considering this breakfast, I can’t help but think two things. First, I have witnessed as a parent how much children benefit from whatever black and white explanations we can provide for things as complicated as religion. On the other hand, if the gray area between celebrating something “all in” and not doing anything is finding an extra reason to celebrate love and family, there can’t possibly be anything negative about spending quality time in the gray.
Every team’s victory is another team’s defeat, and the stakes were high two Sundays ago when the New England Patriots I was raised on played the Denver Broncos, the team that hails from Eric’s hometown. In the ten years since we moved to Boston, Eric has happily come into the Red Sox fray. Because of his Sox allegiance, my father innocently assumed that Eric had similarly converted to be a Pats fan. The morning of the AFC championship game, I overheard a conversation that went like this between Eric and my father:
Dad: So, I guess the conversations between you and your family might get a little heated this evening, disagreeing about who should win.
Eric: Well, it is not such a big deal, since I am a Broncos fan.
Dad, with a perplexed expression on his face: Uh-huh….
A moment of tension, as Dad prepared himself for the inevitably disappointing statement.
Eric: Yeah, we’re rooting for the Broncos.
Dad inhales, unsure if he should butt in about how we raise our kids.
Eric continues: Well, we are raising our kids Jewishly, so I got to pick the football team.
Suddenly, the tension dissipated entirely. My father chuckled.
Dad: Fair enough, fair enough.
Choosing a football team is not on par with choosing a religion, at least not in either of our extended families. But Eric’s choice of the Broncos is symbolic of something that is extremely significant for both of us – Judaism isn’t the only choice we get to make about what kind of family we are. It is important to us that our children are raised with a mix of traditions that bring them closer to both sides of our extended families.
Rooting for the Broncos has been very special in that regard. Sunday afternoons and evenings, Eric’s phone is abuzz with calls and texts about the Broncos plays, and for the span of the game the distance between Boston and Denver feels that much shorter. Colorado is a really magical place, and rooting for the Broncos helps the girls tie their identity to the home of their grandparents, aunt and uncle and cousins that much more.
So tonight, Ruthie can stay up late to root for Peyton Manning. Hopefully there can be some FaceTime during the game with homebase in her grandparents’ living room. I will watch the rooting with a smile on my face. Mum’s the word on who my team will be.
By Courtney Naliboff
Flying makes me nervous. It never used to, but a few years ago on a bumpy trip back from England, I lost my faith in the Bernoulli principle. I used to pop a Xanax and snooze my way through the anxiety, but now that I’m a parent, I need to stay awake and alert to tend to my daughter on flights.
Without my sedative crutch, I turned to superstition to get me through a cross-country flight to California this winter. I bought a little silver hamsa necklace with an elegant branch and leaf design on the palm. I put it on before we left our island home in Maine for the airport, and haven’t taken it off. If the Evil Eye had any designs on our airplane, we’d be covered.
We got through the flight (Penrose is a much better traveler than I am these days) and landed in the warm embrace of my husband’s extended family, all of whom live in Southern California. His mother’s side is from Guatemala and his father’s side is Italian and German. Dozens of them descended on his childhood home for the holidays, drawn by Penrose’s presence.
She sat on my lap and met relative after relative, warming up slowly to each new person. When she got overwhelmed, she would turn into me and often hold my hamsa in her hand.
“This?” she asked.
“It’s my hamsa,” I answered.
“Ham,” she replied, touching it gently.
Beyond the irony of her abbreviation for the symbol, she began to connect my necklace to the jewelry of others.
“Abue ham?” she asked, wondering if her grandmother had a similar necklace.
“Abuela doesn’t wear a hamsa; sometimes she wears a cross,” I said. “I wear a hamsa because I’m Jewish. Abue wears a cross sometimes because she’s Catholic.”
“That’s right, Mommy’s Jewish.”
“Me joosh?” she asked, pressing a palm to her chest.
“Yes, you’re Jewish too.”
“No, Daddy’s not Jewish.”
Although this was Penrose’s second holiday season, and she was enthusiastic about candles, latkes, and matzah balls (and Christmas tree lights and wrapping paper), it hadn’t yet occurred to me to talk to her about our Jewish identity, and how that differed from her father’s side of the family.
As a secular humanist, I haven’t imbued our day-to-day life with Jewish rituals. My husband doesn’t practice any elements of Christianity, and we are planning to celebrate Hanukkah, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah. When we are in Maine for Christmas, we often attend the Lessons and Carols service as musicians and enjoy the quiet evening of storytelling and song, but we’re hoping to avoid the Santa and tree elements of the holiday. We often talked about the fact that Penrose would be the island’s first Jewish child, and my excitement—and anxiety—about that. I wanted to find a way to start explaining to Penrose what it actually meant to be “joosh” other than wearing jewelry. But I wasn’t sure what she would understand at 20 months old.
“To me, being Jewish means that we are connected back thousands of years to strong people who fight for what they believe in,” I said. “We help people and we work to fix the world. We never stop learning. We celebrate holidays that remind us of our freedom. We eat delicious things.”
She nodded and squirmed off my lap to find her abuela. Over time, we’ll continue the conversation. She likes to look in the Union Haggadahs I inherited from my grandfather and pretends to read the prayers out loud. She would be perfectly happy eating latkes every night, and asks to see my hamsa when it’s hidden under a sweater. Every night, especially, for some reason, when she’s singing “Bow wow wow, whose dog are thou?” she runs through the list of Jewish family members.
Even though she might not yet understand what it means, my heart swells with pride when she ends the list with “Me, joosh.” It’s not a question for her anymore—it’s become a part of her story.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Courtney Naliboff lives on North Haven, an island off of midcoast Maine. There she teaches music, theatre and English, takes her daughter to the beach, plays music and teaches Pilates. Her writing can also be seen in MaineBiz and Working Waterfront.
Today is Tu Bishvat, and the trees in New England are dressed in white for the occasion. The snow was late to come this year, but it has announced itself and covered the frozen earth, still new enough to be beautifully iridescent and crisp.
I have written before about the oddity of celebrating the birthday of the trees in a season when it is impossible to imagine planting one. On this side of the planet, the mid-winter holiday presents itself as an opportunity to revisit our commitment to conservation, to healing the world by nurturing the earth.
Of course, just like last year, I am still challenged by what sometimes feels like the impossibility of simultaneously being a model conservationist and a toddler’s mother. We still haven’t conquered the dichotomy of saving water and properly washing our hands after the playground, after the bathroom, after finger painting, before we eat, and whenever a bug is coursing its way through preschool. And now that we are thankfully out of diapers, I am faced with a new challenge of building self-sufficiency and keeping mindful boundaries around water and paper goods.
Yesterday, when I dropped Ruthie and Chaya off at Sunday school, Ruthie’s teacher shared her enthusiasm about celebrating Tu Bishvat with a cake for the trees. Eating a cake doesn’t save water, but it does celebrate our environment. It isn’t planting a tree, but it is something. And every year, we all have a chance to do something, even if we can’t do everything. At 7, I am finally seeing Ruthie embrace a mastery of junior conservationist practices. Her self-motivation reminds me that doing something every year, even through the tough toddler years, can really amount to meaningful practice over time.
So let’s all do something. Eat a cake (I won’t twist your arm, but isn’t it a great idea?). Use the backside of the memo you printed at work to write your grocery list. Cut your shower down by a minute this evening. Or, if nothing else, just notice how you are using resources – be more mindful about the earth today than you were yesterday, and carry it into your week. Because regardless of the season, it is a beautiful day to renew our respect for nature, and nurture a better practice for the future.
Every day, I open the newspaper or listen to the news, and I am disheartened by what is happening in the world—violence at home and abroad, food shortages, disease, natural disasters, drought and environmental issues. There are days when I just have to tune out because what is good seems to have disappeared.
But recently, two things have restored my faith in humanity. After the devastating storms in Dallas following Christmas, I watched as friends and neighbors mobilized to help complete strangers try to pick up the pieces of their lives. Then in the early hours of Saturday morning, the home of my son’s classmate burned to the ground. The family had built the house and had only moved in two weeks ago during winter break. Thankfully, the family escaped unharmed, but they lost everything. As news of the tragedy spread on the class Facebook page, parents mobilized to help make sure the family’s immediate needs were met.
One family arranged for temporary housing and stocked the kitchen with groceries, and another parent set-up an online sign-up for gift cards, clothing and more. Other parents offered their home as a collection point for donations. I arranged for the school’s resale shop to open on Sunday so my son’s classmate and his brother could get the uniform clothing they needed. Teachers purchased school supplies; the head of school provided a laptop, the school counselor reached out to the family. The senior class purchased items and parents from the community that didn’t know the family whose home was destroyed called to offer help. It was amazing what was accomplished in the span of a few hours.
I told my son when he woke-up on Saturday morning what happened. As I was cooking breakfast, he said, “I want to help James and his family.”
Our son’s Hanukkah gift this past year was gelt or money. Each night he received “Gelt to Get” and “Gelt to Give.” The idea was that he received money that he could spend on himself and received an equal amount that he had to distribute to those in need in any way he chose. The “Gelt to Give” was given in small bills so that he could choose to distribute a little to many people or organizations, or pool it and give a large lump sum.
After watching the news of the tornadoes in Dallas on TV while we were on vacation, my son decided that he wanted to adopt a family and give his gelt to them. As of Saturday, a week after getting home from our trip, we had not identified a way to get the money to a family in the affected area.
After hearing the news about his friend’s house fire, my son changed his tzedakah or charity distribution plan. He was going to use his money to help his classmate. Later that day, I took my son to the grocery store so he could buy a gift card for his friend’s family so that they could buy food. As I watched with pride as my son paid for the gift card with his wad of cash, I thought of the saying, “Charity begins at home.”
The phrase expressed the demands of taking care of one’s family, before caring for others. But for me, it meant something else. It was a reminder that learning to be charitable, learning to be a tzadik or righteous person began at home. As parents, we were primarily responsible for modeling the values and behaviors that we wanted our children to see as important and to embrace. If we wanted our kids to take their responsibility to the world around them seriously, then it was up to us to show them what it meant to help others and our community.
I knew that my husband and I were far from perfect parents. There were many things we had done wrong or could have done better, but teaching our son what it meant to act justly and serve the community was one thing we’d gotten right. Whether it was helping a friend in need, raising money for education and clean water for children in Haiti, volunteering at the local food bank, purchasing prayer books for a synagogue with limited resources or doing a park cleanup, my son’s actions showed that charity did, in fact, begin at home.
Eight nights of wax have hardened on the little menorah that has traveled with me for more 25 years of Hanukkah celebrations. It looks as if the last scrap of wrapping paper is finally in the recycling bin, and for what feels like the first time in eight days, I have found a moment of stillness. As I remember this year’s celebration of miracles, I am thinking about some of the modern miracles and gifts we have enjoyed since we recited our first blessings nine days ago. Here are just a few things I am thankful for this year…
1. I am thankful for the miracle of 8 mornings. So much about life feels especially precious and fragile these last few weeks, and I am so grateful for the days I have had to wake up with my family and discover what the day holds.
2. I am thankful that even though we are not fully unpacked from this summer’s move, we found two menorahs to put in the window of our new home to light each night.
3. I am thankful for two little girls that have adopted those menorahs as their own, one for each, and for the miracle of hearing centuries-old blessings pouring out in their sweet voices.
4. I am thankful that my husband has spent the last 16 years perfecting his latke-making skills, and for the gift of the perfect homemade latke (crisp on the outside, warm and gooey inside) from his griddle on my plate.
5. I am thankful for the gift of my family’s annual Hanukkah party, and not only for the good fortune we have to exchange gifts with one another, but for the miracle of the warmth and love I feel in their company.
6. I am thankful for the friends and family, new and old, who helped make every day of this year’s celebration a special occasion.
7. I am thankful the blessings that my family who is not Jewish calls to wish us a Happy Hanukkah, and that they will share a Christmas greeting call with my Jewish father in 11 days.
8. I am thankful that through the miracle of air travel and the gift of a vacation, we can celebrate Christmas with Eric’s family next week….and
9. I sure am thankful for the gift of 11 days to recover from Hanukkah and rebuild my energy to share in some Christmas cheer.
Happiest, happy holidays!
I was supposed to celebrate my birthday, which fell on the seventh night of Hanukkah with my husband Cameron and son Sammy. We were going to light the hanukkiah, exchange gifts and go out for a sushi dinner. The plan sounded ideal to me–I love Hanukkah, sushi and spending time with my guys.
But the celebration did not turn out as planned. The night before, as we were getting ready to leave to go to Sammy’s string concert at school, we got a message from the dad of one of Sammy’s friends with a last minute request. Could Sammy come to his older son’s bar mitzvah tomorrow night?
Apparently, cousins with children the same age as Sammy’s friend just cancelled, and Sammy’s friend was not going to have anyone his age to hang out with at the reception. He would love Sammy to be his running mate for the evening.
It would have been easy for me to call back and say, “I’m sorry, Sammy can’t make it. We have plans,” or “It’s my birthday tomorrow and we are celebrating as a family.” As a parent, I could have made an executive decision. But I did not. I shared the invitation with Sammy and let him decide. I knew we needed to start to loosen the strings that tied Sammy to us and empower him to make decisions for himself.
Sammy’s reaction to the invite was excitement followed by a blank stare. “It’s your birthday tomorrow,” he said. I could tell he was worried that the decision he wanted to make would upset me.
I said, “There will be many more birthdays and Hanukkahs to celebrate together. If you want to go to the bar mitzvah, you should go.”
I realized that now that we were in the tweenage years there would be many more of these types of requests–requests that came with choices. I also knew that as commitments go, a quiet Hanukkah and birthday celebration were small. There would be times when the answer had to be “no.” Call it a good parenting day, but intuitively I knew that saying “yes” now was like putting money in the bank. It would make the necessary “no’s” easier to take.
Sammy said he wanted to go. I called the friend’s dad and told him that Sammy would love to celebrate with their family.
As we drove to the strings concert, I told Sammy that I would be happy to go with him to the bar mitzvah service and then he could go on the bus to the party with the other kids. “No thanks,” he said. “You don’t need to.” My little boy was now an independent 11-year-old.
Saturday night, Cameron dropped off Sammy and another friend who was invited at the bar mitzvah service. He walked them into our synagogue, got them seats and left. They were now responsible for navigating the evening themselves.
Later, as Cameron and I celebrated my birthday over dinner, we talked about how this was Sammy’s first “night on the town” without us. And the various parenting questions that arose when you entered this stage—should you send them with a phone and if so, what are the appropriate usage guidelines; in the absence of anything illegal or dangerous, when do you rescue your child from a situation and when do you make them stick it out—dominated our dinner conversation.
We knew we were entering rookie territory. As we toasted the occasion and I reflected on the year ahead, I realized that it would be a year of learning, learning to parent to a way more suited to Sammy’s new stage of life, and learning to let go.
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.