Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
I am so excited. It is back to school time. Not for Sammy, he’s been in school since late August, for me.
Several years ago, I received a call from my friend Renee who is a teacher at our congregation inviting me to participate in a new class. She was going to be teaching a pilot of a Florence Melton Adult Mini School curriculum called Foundations of Jewish Family Living. It was designed as a course to help parents understand how Jewish values influence daily life. It was going to be taught on Sunday mornings during religious school hours.
It sounded interesting, but my first inclination was to say no. Sunday was my day to sleep in, food shop and practice yoga. I wasn’t interested in committing to something that felt like an obligation. I had enough of those.
But the course material sounded interesting, and Renee is a friend and excellent teacher. I was torn – guard my Sunday me-time or do something to indulge my intellectual curiosity. I chose to take the class, but not because I had a burning desire to expand my Jewish mind. While I love learning, I made my decision because of Renee. A personal invitation from a friend is hard to turn down.
Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book Relational Judaism, says that people “come to synagogues…and other Jewish organizations for programs, but they…stay for relationships.” I came to adult Jewish education because of relationships and have stayed for the same reason.
When I arrived on the first day of class, I found old friends and new faces, Jews and those who are not Jewish, born Jews and Jews-by-Choice. A diverse group united by the common theme of parenthood, and the shared goals of raising good, decent children within Judaism and creating more meaningful lives.
As we studied together this varied group bonded as we shared deeply personal stories, debated ideas, offered each other inspiration and saw the world – Jewish and otherwise – through each other’s eyes. We expanded each other’s minds, but also each other’s hearts. After 10 weeks we were more than classmates, we were like family.
I began to look forward to getting to the room that was my new Sunday morning home because I enjoyed both the social and intellectual aspects of the class. I wasn’t alone, others felt similarly connected, and after completing the parenting curriculum we decided that we wanted to continue to learn together.
Over the past two-and-half years, we have explored the Jewish experience in America, Judaism’s denominations and the challenges they face, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. We have also deepened our connection to one another supporting each other during the good times – births, celebrations, conversions, new careers and moves – and bad – deaths, illness and job loss.
For the transplants among us we have become, in a way, each other’s Dallas family; and for the Jews-by-Choice and those who aren’t Jewish among us we have become each other’s Jewish family. But it is not just familial ties that have kept us together. The freedom to choose what we learn has been an important factor too.
Rather than being limited to topics selected by synagogue leaders, we have been allowed to select the subject matter we study. This ability to indulge our group’s Judaic curiosity has resulted in a classroom filled with people who are excited to learn and eager for discussion.
This combination of community and learning has been a powerful force in strengthening our connection to our congregation, and made a large organization (Temple Emanu-El has over 2,500 families) smaller. I suspect that the engagement and relationships developed through our class are an example of the Relational Judaism Dr. Wolfson speaks of.
But whatever you call it, it is one of the things I look most forward to each week. Now after the summer break, I am eagerly anticipating getting back to school and to my family. We have a lot to catch-up on.
My children believe in Christmas elves. And leprechauns. They also believe that there are little elves who live in our backyard. Last year when spring came, the elves moved in to our pine tree and set up a mini Adirondack chair, a white picket fence, and a miniature watering can outside. And they nailed a small 12-inch door into the tree trunk. Last weekend, while everyone was taking a nap, they left a little note on the counter announcing they were back and leading the kids on a scavenger hunt around the yard. These are our stretelech, Yiddish for magical little people.
My husband discovered the stories of stretelech at the Conference of American Jewish Educators conference after seeing David Arfa speak. Later he asked his Yiddish-speaking grandmother about them. She confirmed that as a child she was scared of the shtretelech. Like many fairy tale creatures over the past century, they have morphed from evil trolls into mischievous pranksters.
So who are these little Jewish elves? Apparently they live outside for most of the year, but relocate behind our stoves during the winter. Children are excellent at spotting stretelech in the woods, but adults have trouble identifying their tracks. Some stories identify them as musicians. Others as shoemakers. One Yiddish folk teller says the Elves and the Shoemaker story about the poor shoemaker who wakes one morning to find that someone has mysteriously made a pair of exquisite shoes, is a stretelech tale.
One of the things I really loved as a kid were fairy tale creatures. I remember chasing the end of a rainbow with a very real belief that there would be a pot of gold, guarded by a mischievous little leprechaun. And even though I never really believed in Christmas elves, I loved the idea of tiny people making toys and singing Christmas carols. So I was excited to learn about the stretelech, and since there is so little known about them, I could make their story whatever I wanted. I read (in the Encyclopedia Britannica) that Jewish fairy tales are “conspicuously absent” from Jewish legends, “because fairies, elves, and the like are foreign to the Jewish imagination, which prefers to populate the otherworld with angels and demons subservient to God.” Well! This just isn’t true, not when I know there are a group of stretelech who live in my backyard.
For a picture of what a stretelech might look like, click here. Otherwise, you’ll have to search for one on your own.
My kids attend a Jewish daycare/preschool program full-time, and they’ve blossomed under the Jewish instruction. Also, I’ve come to appreciate the support it gives me as a parent trying to raise Jewish children. There are Shabbat songs and Israeli folk dances and Shavuot art projects that are unknown to me because I converted as an adult. I like that my kids have something to add to our observance; when we sing songs for Friday night dinner, I love that they teach me about a shabbat dinosaur knocking on the door.
Since Eli will begin Kindergarten in the fall, our local Hebrew day school has started its sell on why our son would be a great fit for their school. In many ways, he is a perfect fit. But we won’t be sending him to the Hebrew day school, and instead he will attend a secular private day school. One that doesn’t teach about Shabbat dinosaurs knocking on the door.
I hadn’t really thought about how public our decision would be, until friends, day school staff, and congregants began to call us on the phone or cornered us in hallways and asked us to consider the Hebrew day school. Suddenly I’ve felt defensive about my decision, and I didn’t know how to respond without it sounding like I was saying, “My child is too good for this school.”
So my husband and I put our heads together and formulated a response that focuses on Eli’s best interests and stays far away from discussing why the Hebrew day school is NOT in his best interests. Hopefully people won’t believe that this is an indictment of the Hebrew day school. I don’t know if it will work. People are sensitive to these issues.
We are not turning our backs on Judaism or our local community, nor do we discount all we have learned from the past 3 years at a Jewish daycare. Still… I know it feels like a betrayal to some people, even though our decision was never meant to be.
It is that time of year again. The leaves haven’t fallen off the trees. Halloween pumpkins are still un-carved. Thanksgiving seems like a million years away. But the conversation about Christmas has already started. Like the ornaments and holiday music in the stores, it seems that I start the conversation about December, earlier and earlier with my kid’s public school teachers.
In October, our temple does a program for teachers about religious sensitivity. They talk about how Christmas-themed everything is sort of insensitive to kids that aren’t Christian. That kids that aren’t Christian have to suck it up every year because it is being done in a fun festive spirit. I send the letter out to the kids’ teachers and say, hey, if you want to go to this you not only get continuing education credits, but I will pay for it. (It is only $10 so it isn’t like I am breaking the bank, but I want to leave no stone unturned.)
Usually, I get no response. This year, my letter seemed to trigger something in one of my son’s teachers. She emailed me and told me about a project that they do every year. The parents send in $5 and the kids make Christmas trees out of foam and fabric. I remember this from when my older son was in 4th grade. What they end up with is cute, BUT, you cannot imagine how irritating it is to have my money go towards something that is religiously insensitive.
I understand the Supreme Court ruling that states that Christmas Trees are secular. I understand that technically what they are doing isn’t illegal. But, logically it is nonsensical to make a Jewish kid give his parents a Christmas Tree for Hanukah. What about the Muslim kids? Yes, my kids have an out, they can always give it to Grandma. But somewhere, deep in my heart, it bothers me. Why do we have to do this? I can think of about eleventy billion other projects that the kids could do that are cute, easy and NOT a Christmas Tree. Heck, I just saw a very cute snowman doorstop made out of a key shaped paver.
So, I haven’t even bought Halloween candy yet, and already I am having the conversation about Christmas with my kid’s teachers. I used to get fired up about it. Stand solidly on my soap box and denounce all the religion in the schools. But, I have gotten exactly nowhere with that. I guess I am tired of trying. Or maybe this year I am taking the chicken exit, but we are just not going to go to school for a week and I have asked all the teachers to hold off on the Christmas stuff till we skedaddle out of town.
There are many reasons why we are leaving town when we are leaving town, and the stuff at school isn’t the driving force, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you I am relieved to not have to worry about it this year. (Something in my head says that those are famous last words and that Christmas is still going to rear its ugly head, but hopefully I will be on the beach by the time it happens.)
As a parent, you never know the unintended benefits of signing your kids up for extra-curricular activities like sports, dance, gymnastics, etc. In our case, we sign our boys up for things we think they will like, things that fit into our budget and our schedule. My 7-year-old who is a sports fanatic – thanks in part to me and my husband – usually likes to do things that are sports related. This fall we signed him up for a floor hockey class at the JCC. He loves ice hockey and follows the Bruins obsessively – we DVR the games for him at night and then he watches them when he wakes up in the morning – he is a very early riser. The floor hockey class fit our budget and it was at the JCC on one of the days he goes there for the after-school program. The unintended benefit of this hockey class is that he met three adorable Jewish boys who all go to Jewish day school. Three more Jewish friends to have playdates with and to identify Jewishly with.
On Martin Luther King Day, he was invited by these three boys to “bring a friend to school day” at their Jewish day school. It is a great marketing tool for the school because all the public schools are closed and families who might be thinking about sending their kids to the school get a day to see what it’s all about. It was also great for me because I didn’t have to arrange for childcare or take the day off from work!
All kidding aside, I went to Jewish day school from 4 – 6th grade. Jewish day schools typically do half the day in Hebrew (prayer, Hebrew, Torah study, holidays, etc.) and half the day in English (math, science, language arts, social studies, etc.). To this day, any prayer that I sing in services or any blessing that I know by heart and certainly any Hebrew that I can read, are all due to my days at Jewish day school. I don’t think my husband and I ever considered it for our kids for a few reasons: cost is one and another is that the public schools in our area happen to be pretty good. Additionally, since my husband isn’t Jewish I didn’t think he would be comfortable with that kind of school – although I know that many intermarried couples choose Jewish day school in part to educate their kids as well as themselves.
There were many positive takeaways of “bring a friend to school day.” Our son tried something totally new, with new friends, in a new environment, with not a lot of advanced knowledge about what to expect that day. My husband and I were so proud of him for trying all of these new things and he was also very proud of himself – the best unintended benefit by far.
Where am I? Somewhere between adoption and something else. I don’t know what just yet. But as I pause here wondering which way to go, I’ve had some time to think and most of that thinking has been about the question I asked in my last post, “who am I if I’m not a mother?”
As a person that is not married and has no children I spend a lot of time sitting in the pew watching traditional families (married couples with kids) on their way up to the bimah – baby namings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and wedding blessings (aufruf), wedding anniversaries. Jewish ritual greets traditionals at every turn ready to teach how Torah can speak to them at that particular time in their lives, affirming their place in the community and marking it with congregational celebration.
But what if these events don’t happen in your life? Then who are you? Who am I? I don’t find it surprising that a loss of identity is an outcome of infertility and/or failed adoption because so much of Jewish life is structured by these milestones in traditional family life.
“I love my church and I hate my church” a friend who is struggling with infertility tells me. She sighs and adds, “everything is centered around the kids so I’m an outsider when I most need my community.” The Jewish community is no different.
That’s not to say that I’m not happy for all these families. I am. But couldn’t we be more inclusive? Aren’t there transitions that occur in adult life aside from marriage and kids that cry out for engagement in Jewish learning, ritual and celebration?
What if we had a ritual marking the entery into adult life after college or a program of study at the turning of 40 years old (which is a time of deep soul searching for some)? Or for retirees that are adjusting from work to retirement and wondering how to re-imagine their lives? I don’t mean just a class or an aliyah but a full program of study culminating a unique and appropriately sacramental recognition. Wouldn’t ceremonial and educational opportunities like these add to the richness of our congregations and to the lives of those that participate?
As our community continues to change maybe we need to think about re-structuring or simply adding more milestones on the Jewish pathway through life – after all Judaism has something to say every Jew wherever they may be.
My kids just walked in the door. The boys are laughing and retelling stories of their afternoon and laughing some more. As they grab something to eat, they both agree that they love to go to Religious School. Assembly was so much fun this week, they tell me. The Rabbi is hysterical.
Jewish education is part of developing a strong Jewish identity. I was always uncertain about how the kids would respond to what seemed to me to be “extra” school. But the Educator does a great job making it fun for everyone. This is great, because our belief is that unless you are sick, you are going to Religious School. My husband and I do not generally let the kids miss for social events.
The problem is soccer, which is almost religion in our household. Our kids play soccer every single day, even in the snow. They kick the ball in the house, in spite of the fact that I tell them not to kick the ball in the house. Last winter, our middle son started to play on the local travel team. The travel team uses fields that are not available on Saturday mornings, so games are generally played on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings.
Can you guess what the conflict is? Do we as good Jewish parents let our kids miss Religious School to play soccer? Do we let the one kid who would die on the sword for soccer miss occasionally to do the one thing he truly loves? As the schedules were being determined for the soccer season, we request no practice on Wednesday. We ask for no games on Sunday mornings. But this isn’t always feasible.
We agree that it is important for the kids to develop a strong Jewish foundation and going to Religious School is part of creating a Jewish identity, it is also important to consider the whole child. Right now my kids like to go to Religious School. They understand the importance of going. We recognize that “making” them go when they might want to do something else could cause resentment.
Granted it is a slippery slope: miss a day for soccer and another for a play date, what if soccer practices conflict with Wednesday Religious School, everyone is too tired from the week, when does it stop? We walk a fine line maintaining the importance of obtaining a religious education/identity and living our lives in modern society. We work hard to keep that balance for our kids. This Sunday, while our youngest and oldest are in Religious School, our soccer player will be on the soccer pitch stopping goals. (He promised to study his Hebrew extra hard this week and to get the assignments he will miss so that he will be prepared.)