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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
Tashlich, the Jewish New Year practice of symbolically casting our sins off into the water, was not something I knew much about growing up. It is a practice I have come to enjoy as an adult, however. There is something both powerful and relieving about the physical opportunity to throw away your digressions, even in the form of breadcrumbs. It is also a nice tradition to embark on as a family; to take a walk around a river or lake; to be in nature together and enjoy the early fall weather as we observe the holiday with an activity that everyone can participate in in some way. This year’s journey to the Charles River has me thinking a lot about the act of practice and how a new focus on that concept can be a guide to successful resolutions and growth in the new year.
After Rosh Hashanah services this year, I rallied my girls and my extended family to take a walk to the river for Tashlich. We stood by the water and lined up, bits of crackers in each of our hands.
I was glad to have something for Chaya to do that would be marginally spiritual but mostly just a chance to be with family and throw some things – always a winner for my three year old. But for Ruthie I had high hopes. She had this monumental first year of sunday school and four weeks into first grade, she is making mental leaps and bounds of which I am in daily awe. I got ahead of myself imagining how she’d talk about being a better listener; a nicer friend; a more caring big sister. I even went so far as to think about how cute those things would sound right here in my blog.
“Throw a piece of cracker in the water, sweetie, and say something you want to do better next year,” I encouraged her.
“I want to be a better reader!” she said, throwing her first crumbs.
Not quite what I had in mind, so I tried again.
“Something you don’t do so well now, that you are hoping to change,” I suggested.
“I want to ride my bike without training wheels!” Another crumb in the water.
I smiled at her aspirations, and I thought about stopping her. Going deeper than I had planned into the concept of sin, or even suggesting to her something I thought she could improve.
Then I remembered the old adage about parenting being a marathon, and not a sprint and that really doing something from the heart takes practice. This year, when I talked about doing things better, Ruthie thought about her skills. Next year, she may interpret my instructions differently. Or she may not – at least not yet. We don’t do our traditions, we practice them. She has to practice Tashlich, and my hope is she’ll have the chance to practice it for a long time.
On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, I stopped myself from getting in my own, and I let her name a few more skill building hopes. Then I took my turn alongside and threw in crumbs for less screen time during family time, for being a more patient parent, for appreciating the people I love more and a few more things.
Since that day, though, I have been pondering the idea of practice. Because it doesn’t just apply to Rosh Hashanah, or to our spiritual beliefs. We can’t change overnight, and luckily we usually get more than one chance to try to do things better. So whether it is Tashlich or how I manage my low energy reserve at bedtime, I am going to try to remember that learning something different takes practice. If the universe allows it, I will get another year at the river. In the interim, I am not going to be better, I am going to practice being better – right alongside Ruthie as she sheds those training wheels, too.
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.
In mid-April, I joined an army of Instagramers around the world on a journey called The 100 Day Project. The project was a “celebration of process that encourages everyone to participate in 100 days of making.” To participate, you simply committed to do one thing every day for 100 days, and then to post a picture of that thing on social media. After learning about the project from a college classmate (#100spotsforsitting), I launched #100TrueSleepers, a photo journal of what sleep really looks like in my house.
My project, inspired by my interest in one of the biggest themes from my parenting life, uncovered some deeper revelations about how big 100 days can really be. This week, most of us will transition from the long days of summer into the excitement of September and the introspective spirit of the High Holidays. At this important moment, I wanted to share some reflections from my project to encourage us all (myself included) to pay attention to at least one small thing everyday, as a reminder of how our children, and we as parents, grow every single day, whether we notice it or not.
Two things about sleep have intrigued me ever since I became a mother. First, I love to watch my girls sleep. It is not that I prefer it to when they are awake, it is just that I love seeing the peace of a day well lived on their faces. The second is a dialogue I’ve always wanted to explore in a more public fashion – that bedtime parenting can be really tough. My kids have never been easy sleepers, and I sometimes wonder if the popularity of sleep training and related techniques makes us less inclined to be honest about what really happens in our homes on the path from dinnertime to dreamland. I launched #100TrueSleepers as the intersection of these two ideas.
During the course of 100 days, my photos narrated drawn out bedtimes, moments of frustration, and how much of a superhero Eric is for saving the bedtime hour most nights. I also got to share some great shots of my girls holding hands asleep, looking completely peaceful, and entirely beautiful.
During the process of showing up every day to take my pictures, I discovered a third and powerful thing. As I captured my girls’ sleeping moments, I also paid closer attention to the space of each day. I often heard a certain line in my head as I posted the pictures, a psalm I came to understand from Barbara Myerhoff’s Number Our Days, a fantastic book I studied in college:
“So teach the number of our days, so that we shall acquire a heart of wisdom.”
Psalms Chapter 90, Verse 12
This idea, that wisdom is gained in the counting of individual days, gained more and more resonance as my 100 days accumulated.
Often, the way I track time is driven by milestones and deadlines, and not by individual days. The theme of a week or a month is a project deadline, a new school year, our weekend away – major events that we plan for, and build up to. By picking a way to significantly note each day, I began to understand how much all of those milestones can be attributed to one 24 hour period, or three, or even 100. Taking that moment to catalog each photo, I also could take note of the magic of that day, and even in what had changed from one, or two, or 10 days ago.
Some amazing but smaller things happened in those 100 days – the girls changed how they liked to sleep, where they slept, and which lovies were the best sleeping companions. I was able to count the number of nights I missed entire evenings with my family (8), the nights we all slept away from home (22) and the night the girls put themselves to sleep all by themselves (Night #100).
Some big milestones happened for each girl – Ruthie lost her first two teeth and learned how to read her sister bedtime stories on her own. Chaya grew out of her nap AND her pacifier. And some big and unexpected things happened, too. Eric’s Nana passed away, a huge loss. And we moved out of our condo, the first place both girls called home, and into a new house, something we never would have predicted on Day One.
I finished my 100 Day Project about a month ago, and I decided to take a break from the every day of it. The project was a lot of fun, and has given me pause – to look more closely at how the days add up into the story of our journey as a family. It is a wonderful reminder to take into the new year.
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
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.
Recently, my family and I attended a “Sunday in the Park with Bagels” event sponsored by Big Tent Judaism, which appeared to be a consortium of Reconstructionist and Reform Jewish organizations, including InterfaithFamily.
I didn’t research the event beforehand and didn’t know what to really expect. Bagels were a great selling point, of course! But I thought it would just be few families camped out on blankets, eating bagels. I learned about the event from the IFF/Chicago’s Facebook group, and knowing how my family feels about bagels at any time of day, I knew it would be something we’d enjoy, particularly in a park on a nice sunny morning. I had no idea that we’d be a part of a very well-attended and well-thought-out morning of Jewish education and, yes, bagels.
When we arrived, we found more than a dozen tents, each hosted by a local Jewish organization and featuring a food and a craft activity based on a moment in the Jewish liturgical year.
The first table we visited was Rosh Hashanah, and Laurel jumped at the chance to decorate an apple with stickers and crayons, as well as stringing beads on it to make a necklace. We didn’t follow a regular order from table-to-table, as Laurel spent considerable time decorating her apple, and 2-year-old Holly preferred to wander much more speedily from table-to-table in search of games and, preferably, food.
Both children eagerly rolled blue paper around two toilet paper rolls, topped with silver tin-foil points, to make their own tiny Torahs. We found the promised bagels at the Shavuot table, where Rabbi Ari wore a paper crown with green leaves. She helpfully explained that the leaves were a reference to the idea that Mount Sinai had actually been a desert oasis. Both kids ate the bagels with relief and delight! Laurel made a crown, while Holly determinedly stuffed bean bags directly into the goal point of the bean-bag-toss game.
Nearby, we saw representatives wearing gold paper crowns on their heads, and guessed correctly that we’d found Purim. Holly focused on the hamantaschen at the table, while Laurel skillfully decorated the front and back of an appropriately abrasively noisy wooden gregor. We somehow avoided Sukkot, which offered falling-down sukkahs made of graham crackers and melting green icing (in a summery and sugary rendition of a Jewish gingerbread house).
By the time we worked our meandering way to the Shabbat table, I found myself fully in the arts-and-crafts mode, too. At the Shabbat table, the craft consisted of using permanent markers to decorate a challah cover, and I wanted to help little Holly not get permanent marker all over the wrong places (such as her clothes). I grabbed a cut-out of a challah, placed it on the center of the cover, and traced it. Holly scribbled big black lines along the bottom. I grabbed a candlestick and placed it just above and to the left of the challah, and traced it. I was about to trace a Jewish star when I decided it would be really strange not to add the second customary Shabbat candlestick to my challah cover, so I traced a second candlestick as well, and drew a couple of free-hand flames on each. Holly scribbled gleeful blue lines all over the orange challah in the center. When we finished, we all enjoyed a slice of challah to cap the experience.
Working side-by-side with my children, I found an open and accessible entry point into the Jewish childhood I never had, but which my children are clearly enjoying. This version of Judaism centered on food and crafts rather than Torah, Talmud and ritual observance. Certainly, the emphasis came in part from the types of Jewish organizations sponsoring the event, but the end result emphasized Judaism as something accessible and fun for the whole family, even for family members of a different faith. Some of the crafts my kids made, like the challah cover or the gregor, will likely serve a ritual purpose in our home. The crafts allowed even the youngest of children a way to enjoy the Jewish environment.
Even more so, food is the great equalizer. By eating together, people cement their shared allegiance. That morning, it wasn’t the food of kosher laws that brought people together, but the simple act of eating foods in a Jewish context—from the menorah dripped with too much icing and sprinkles to the off-season hamentaschen (Purim cookie). Food transcended both age and artistic ability: Everyone, of whatever age or background could enjoy a slice of challah or an icing-dipped graham cracker. No wonder the tote bag said “We ‘heart’ Jewish food!”
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.”
At bedtime recently, 5-year-old Laurel was having trouble settling towards sleep, not unsurprising given that it’s still light out at her bedtime. Looking for a change of pace that might help her feel sleepy, I started to sing the Shema, as my husband and I often do during her bedtime songs. She listened quietly, laying her head in my lap instead of putting the sheet over her head and declaring she had become a bouncing tent, as she’d been doing not too many minutes before that. (InterfaithFamily has a great booklet about saying the Shema as a kids’ bedtime ritual. Check it out here.)
When I finished singing the quiet words about God’s onnness, she asked, “Sing me another Jewish song, Mommy,” and I did, choosing Oseh shalom, which is one of my favorite tunes to sing her before sleep. I love the melody, and the soothing message about peace that it conveys. Sometimes I get a little bit too into the song, my head nestled against her ear, and she tells me, “Sing more quietly, Mommy; you’re too loud!”
As is almost usual, she started talking halfway through the song. “Mommy? Mommy?”
“… shalom aleinu…” I continue, pausing to say, “be quiet, sweetie, I’m singing!”
Eventually, my voice quieted as the song ended. “What did you want to ask?”
“How do you know Jewish songs, Mommy?”
I chuckled. “I’ve learned them by singing them many times, honey,” I explained, “the same way you learned the songs for your class’s Spring Sing.”
“Oh,” she said. She’d recently memorized “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Chinese for the Spring Sing, so I thought she might understand my own learning of songs I didn’t grow up with as a similar process.
As usual, though, I wasn’t prepared for her follow-up question: “Do you know any Christian songs, Mommy?”
I deliberated before answering. Previous readers of my blog entries will know that I’m now a Unitarian Universalist, and was raised in a liberal Episcopalian household. In answer, I could have recalled songs I sang decades in the children’s choir at in the church of my childhood, songs like “Here I Am, Lord,” which is about answering God’s call to serve people in the world. But I can just imagine myself getting caught up in theological difficulties as I sing it: who’s doing the sending? Is it Jesus, or God the Father? What if they’re the same? With that level of chatter going on in the back of my mind, it’s easier to choose other songs to sing, like “Puff the Magic Dragon” or “My Favorite Things.”
In the end, I replied, “Christmas songs are Christian,” which garnered an un-illuminated “oh” from Laurel and a serious query as to whether there are other Christian songs.
“Well, there are,” I told her, “but I don’t remember them very well.” Bedtime is probably not the right time to explain that in addition to not remembering them very well, I am not sure I want to sing traditional Christian songs. At bedtime I usually fall back on the kinds of songs my parents sang to me when I wasn’t quite ready to sleep yet: songs from musicals from my mom, and folk songs from the 1960s from my dad. Now I wonder that the melancholy of so many folk songs did not keep me up at night (shouldn’t I have been bothered by “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”?)
Laurel’s innate sense of fairness suggests to her that I ought to sing Christian songs to her to balance the Jewish songs she’s already learning. She knows I am not Jewish and that we therefore have an interfaith home. She wants “not Jewish” to have an “is something” attached to it, and I take her request for “Christian songs” as a request for my background and heritage to be hers, as well. If I am to be true to us as an interfaith family, I also need to be true to the complexities of what my husband and I both bring to our interfaith childrens’ lives.
Next time, when Laurel asks me to sing a “Christian” song, I’ll realize that she’s asking about my background, and I’ll be better prepared to sing a different song – not necessarily a Christian song – but a song to which I can bring as much joy as I bring to Oseh shalom. As she grows older, too, I hope that my repertoire of songs I’ve learned as an adult, especially including the Jewish songs that are so important to Laurel, will continue to expand. Maybe, once again, she’ll ask me to sing “just a little quieter, Mommy, and not right in my ear.”
Interested in attending a “Goodnight, Sleep Tight” session in Chicago with InterfaithFamily/Chicago’s Director? Contact Rabbi Ari Moffic (arim at interfaithfamily dot com) for more information.
Driving home from school the other day, Ruthie began singing “Ma Tovu” to herself in the back seat. She repeated it a couple of times alone, and then I decided to try to sing it back to her. But after I got the first two lines out of my mouth, she stopped me.
“No, Mommy,” she said, frustrated, “You sing it like this!”
And she began again, more confidently, singing something that sounded very much the same to me as what I had sung, but was clearly different to her. Her tune, her way.
This interaction felt powerful as I reflected back on the end of Ruthie’s first year of Sunday School. Up until last September, most of the influences on Ruthie’s religious identity had come from, or at least occurred in the presence of, Eric or me. But in September, when we dropped her off with Morah Naomi for the first time, what being Jewish means for Ruthie began to happen on her own, in a way that is connected, but miraculously independent, from us.
Ruthie is a child who generally enjoys school, and she has relished in getting new knowledge at Sunday School each week. She loves the chance to share our family’s practices with her class, and to learn her own things to bring home to us. This spring, she particularly enjoyed her class “trip” to Israel (not an actual trip!), and is still slowly doling out tidbits about the Wailing Wall, the Dead Sea or even the way that Israelis take a midday break for lunch and family every day.
Exploring her Judaism in this way has also encouraged her to articulate her interfaith identity independently, too. She knows that not all of her friends from Sunday School celebrate Christmas with their families, and she thinks she’s pretty lucky that she gets to do that. She asks lots of questions about the faith of our family members and close friends, trying on different ways of fitting herself into the world.
A few weeks ago, we had a conversation that went something like this:
“Mommy, when I am a grown-up, and I get to pick if I am Jewish or Christian, well, I’ll probably be Jewish but I am not sure, anyway, I am going to have a cat.”
Ruthie has only taken her first steps on a lifelong journey of self-discovery and understanding. At this moment, I am so grateful that it started off with a zeal for learning, an open heart, and curiosity about what it means to make her way in the world with a loving family that includes different faiths. I hope that we can both continue to choose love and embrace the learning journey. As always, I am glad to be along for the ride.