Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
See how Portman is making her big splash in Israel and don't miss Paper Towns with Nat WolffGo To Pop Culture
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.
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.
There are times in life when we’re in the zone. We’re so involved in performing or participating in an activity that we get lost in the experience. Other times, we’re more of a participant-observer. We’re engaged in the action or event, but we have enough distance from what is happening that we can study or reflect on what is going on at the moment.
I had a participant-observer experience at the Passover Seder we attended this year. We celebrated the first night of the holiday at our friend’s house. We met this family when we first moved to Dallas. The wife and I were in a Mommy & Me class together at the JCC. We were kindred spirits and both intermarried Jewish women raising Jewish children with the support of our not Jewish husbands. We became close friends quickly and navigated the joys and challenges of intermarriage and observed holidays together.
Over the years, our families had celebrated Passover with each other so many times that we had a holiday routine. We read a Haggadah for young families. The adults and kids ate at separate tables. The same friends and family filled the seats. But this year there were several changes to our typical ritual. We graduated to a Haggadah for families with elementary and middle school age children. The adults and kids sat together at one long table in my friend’s living room. There were new faces seated among the usual suspects.
Maybe those changes made me listen more carefully and observe more closely, or maybe I was simply more attentive on that particular evening. Whatever the reason for my heightened awareness, I saw several things that made this Passover different from others. I noticed that a regular Seder attendee, who brought her new boyfriend, was more relaxed and contented than she was in years past. I noted the good behavior of a usually mischievous young guest. I marveled at my husband’s and my friend’s husband’s Hebrew skills.
It was this last observation that grabbed me the most. How had I not noticed before how well both of these men pronounced and enunciated Hebrew words? Was this facility with Hebrew new or had it been there for a while, and I missed it?
After more than a decade of living a Jewish life, I knew that my husband and my friend’s husband could recite, in Hebrew, most of the Friday evening Shabbat blessings. And I knew my husband had participated in Havdalah enough times that he could sing the prayers. But the Hebrew words that were part of their assigned Haggadah readings weren’t familiar. Yes, there was transliteration. But transliteration was a pronunciation, not enunciation, tool. These guys pronounced the Hebrew clearly and crisply with the right emphasis.
Maybe the language skills of my husband and my friend’s husband stood out to me because of how different they were from many of the Jewish guests. Both husbands read the transliterated Hebrew with confidence. Many of the Jewish participants read the Hebrew hesitantly, mispronouncing words and using incorrect articulation. Several times during the Haggadah reading, these guests acknowledged that they had not done much Jewishly since their bar or
The scenario demonstrated how repeated exposure to Hebrew and frequent involvement in Jewish life can positively affect Jewish fluency regardless of someone’s religious background. It also highlighted why the usual rhetoric about intermarrieds—they are less likely to raise Jewish children or associate themselves with Jewish practice—isn’t universally true. Rather, it illustrated how a focus on engaging interfaith families benefits Judaism.
As the children at our Seder recited the Four Questions, a fifth question came to mind. Ma Nishtantah? Why are Jewishly active interfaith families different from other Jewish families? The answer: regular engagement with Judaism.
Two-and-a-half years ago, when we got our dog Brady, my son asked if an animal can have a religion. The question was only half-serious. He knew that pets didn’t actually practice a faith, but he wanted the dog to have a religious identity anyway.
But what would that identity be? My son and I are Jewish, my husband is not. We have an active Jewish home and consider ourselves more Jewish than interfaith. Since Brady was delivered to us on a Friday night in December shortly before the start of Shabbat and the day before the start of Hanukkah, we were convinced that his religious identity was preordained. Brady would be Jewish.
But neither of his canine parents were Jewish. So, we gave Brady a bath and called it a mikveh. Now he was officially a Jewish pup and like any child being raised in the Jewish faith, he needed a Jewish education.
My mother-in-law purchased a dog-training book for us at a “Friends of the Library” sale–How to Raise a Jewish Dog. The book offered tips for training dogs from the Rabbis of the Boca Raton Theological Seminary. Apparently, the rabbis were renowned for their ability to teach owners how to create unbreakable bonds with their dogs.
We were skeptical about the rabbis’ approach, which used child-rearing techniques employed by Jewish mothers of previous generations–guilt, shame, passive aggression, sarcasm and Conditional Unconditional Love. As we read the book, I could hear my mother’s voice jumping from the page.
The rabbis’ system focused on instilling in dogs the ideas that our parents instilled in us, such as “be perfect or disappoint those who love you” and “you may think you’re smart, but you’re wrong about certain things.” It also promised to develop three important traits of Jewish dogs–an exaggerated sense of his own wonderfulness, an exaggerated sense of her own shortcomings, and an extremely close relationship with his master.
The book was cute and clever, filled with neurotic, nervous, intellectual Woody-Allenesque prose. I even imagined Allen playing the dog-training rabbi in a film. But we didn’t want a neurotic Jewish dog. We wanted a dog that was just Jewish.
As we thought about how to do that, we realized that we didn’t need a book or a trainer. We already had one of the best methods for creating Jewish identity–Shabbat. Since we had a regular home practice, we didn’t need to learn new commands or systems. We just needed to keep lighting the candles on Friday night.
To make Brady feel part of our ritual, we blessed him when we blessed our son. In the beginning, the touching and blessing made Brady growl, but he enjoyed getting a piece of challah after we said the Hamotzi. Soon he realized that giving thanks for and getting bread followed the blessing for children. The growling stopped.
Routine is a great teacher of humans and dogs. Brady now knows what is going to happen when he sees us set the table for Shabbat. As we begin the home rituals, he sits close and watches as we light the candles. He accepts the blessing for male children and sits as we recite the Kiddush and Hamotzi, eagerly anticipating the challah. As we give him a piece of Shabbat deliciousness, we wish him Shabbat Shalom.
If you want to raise a Jewish pup–four-legged or two-legged–forget about the books and trainers, guilt and sarcasm. Just celebrate Shabbat.
An email from the family in charge of leading the discussion for the next fourth-grade book club landed in my inbox. It said the selection for this month’s meeting was Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. An appropriate choice since we were about to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Some parents were hesitant to let their kids read about the Holocaust. I was not. My son Sammy already knew about the horrors of World War II. He had been introduced to this part of Jewish history when he was in Kindergarten at a Jewish Day School. At the time, I thought six was too young for the lesson, but it was taught whether parents approved or not. Even though Sammy knew about the Holocaust, I was glad the book was about heroes and survival, rather than labor camps and gas chambers.
Number the Stars tells the story of the evacuation of the Jews from Nazi-held Denmark during World War II. On September 29, 1943, word spread throughout the country that Jews were to be detained and then relocated to extermination camps. Within hours, the Danes including average citizens, resistance fighters, and police arranged boats to take 7,000 Jews to Sweden. Lowry fictionalizes this true-story and brings it to life through 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen, whose family harbors her best friend, Ellen Rosen, on the eve of the round-up and smuggles Ellen’s family out of the country.
My son loved the story, as did the other kids. As the children eagerly talked about the book, the adult discussion leader asked them if they thought it was possible for a holocaust to happen again.
All the kids agreed that it was possible for a holocaust-like tragedy to happen if a “mad man” came to power, but all felt it was not probable. They said that the United States would never allow it. They believed that the President would protect Jews in the US from such evil and would ensure that our country came to the aid of others if it happened elsewhere in the world.
As the children spoke, the parents sitting on the outer edge of the circle exchanged glances and began to whisper. Should we tell them that the US didn’t help the Jews during the war? Should we make them aware of recent genocides and how little America did to stop them? We decided we should.
We told the kids that mass killings didn’t end with the Holocaust, they were still happening today. We told them that the response of America and her allies to these atrocities in countries such as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, Myanmar and the Central African Republic was anemic. We said that rescuing the Jews targeted by Nazi Germany was not a priority for the US during World War II. We explained that the US government greatly restricted the number of Jews it allowed to immigrate here during the war and sent those fleeing the Nazis by ship back to Europe.
We didn’t want to scare the kids. But we also didn’t want them looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. We wanted them to understand that the actions of the Danish were truly heroic and that they exemplified the ideal of human decency. Under the leadership of King Christian X, they acted with courage and integrity to save almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark. Their heroism was mesmerizing.
After book club, I asked Sammy if the discussion changed how he felt about the US. He said no, it just highlighted the mistakes our government made and showed that it didn’t always act with a conscience. Then I asked him if it changed how he felt about being Jewish. He paused. After a moment, he said it did, but in a good way.
“It made me realize that as a Jew, I have a responsibility to act with decency, treat others kindly and with dignity, and not discriminate. As a Jew, I have a responsibility to be courageous.”
Over the next few weeks, we will be reminded of these responsibilities when we celebrate Purim and Passover. Hopefully, we will take the lessons to heart and when faced with a crisis act like Esther and Moses, Christian X and the Danes, the Johansens and Rosens. Hopefully, we will be courageous.
For four years, we tried a day school education for our son. For the first two years, it worked. The secular education was excellent, our son’s Jewish identity blossomed, and his knowledge of Jewish history, texts, and the Hebrew language grew.
But our overall satisfaction with the education didn’t mean that we thought the school was perfect. It wasn’t, no school is. We wished there was a greater sense of community and felt that the Jewish studies program was too narrowly focused. But our son was thriving, so it was easy to overlook these issues.
In our son’s third year, the school put in place a new administration. It adjusted the secular curriculum and teaching style in a way that didn’t work for our son. Now the lack of community and the prayer and language focus of the Judaic education nagged at us. Still, we gave the changes a chance. But by year four, it was obvious it was time for a change.
Moving from day school to a non-Jewish learning environment meant that our son would attend religious school starting in the fall. Some of our extended Jewish family and the day school administrators suggested that we let him skip it for a year since he would be ahead of the other students. I wouldn’t consider it.
I didn’t care that he was practically fluent in Hebrew. I didn’t care that his understanding of the Torah was deeper than other children his age. I didn’t care that weekday Hebrew and Sunday school might be filled with much drudgery. And I didn’t care to listen to my son whine about going before he even attended a single class. He was going to religious school. Period. The end.
I explained to him that religious school was not optional and that it was something that a majority of American Jews endured; a right of passage. I told him that if he didn’t go he’d feel left out when all of the other kids complained. I wanted him to have something to complain about too.
I knew it was futile to try to convince him that religious school was fun. I wasn’t sure it was. I knew from my position as a trustee at my synagogue that the religious school staff was working to improve the experience, but I wondered how much improvement there had really been in the past 30 years.
But it didn’t matter to me whether religious school changed a little or a lot. My son was still going. I cared too much about a Jewish future to make it optional.
People think that the faith of a marriage partner is a monolithic determinant of Jewish identity. It’s not, but Jewish education is. According to a 2008 Steinhardt Social Research Institute study, “every additional hour of Jewish education received has an exponentially greater impact than the hour that came before” on the relevance of Jewish identity and attitudes towards Israel.
Another significant predictor of future Jewish engagement is community. The Steinhardt study found that adults who grew up “with more densely Jewish social networks are…more likely to engage in ritual practice…and to raise their children as Jews.”
Religious school might be universally loathed, but it is a shared activity. And shared experiences create bonds. Like it or not, religious school bonds most American Jews. It builds community.
Over the course of a few hours each week, Jewish kids engage with other Jewish kids. For some, it’s the only time they interact with other Jews. For others, like my son, it’s a place to rekindle relationships with preschool friends and reconnect with kids from overnight camp. This community is what makes religious school tolerable, and dare I say it, enjoyable.
My son may complain about going, but on the way home he always says he enjoyed it. He likes his teachers, likes the discussions, and loves seeing his buddies. I’m surprised and thrilled because as Deb Morandi’s recent blog post points out religious school is not enjoyed or even tolerated by all.
I give Deb credit. She has not given up on Jewish education and is trying to find an alternative that can help make being Jewish meaningful and enjoyable for her children. Luckily, there are many choices that involve various levels of parent engagement. I hope Deb and other parents in similar situations find an educational method or tool that works for their family because education is too important to a Jewish future to be optional.
‘Tis the season for Jewish Scrooges to say, “Bah! Humbug!” to anything that they judge to be a blend of Hanukkah and Christmas or an inflation of a minor Jewish holiday. Any attempt to sprinkle Hanukkah with a little tinsel is depicted as a perversion of the holiday’s message.
These Jewish grinches shout “syncretism” and “commercialization” from pulpits; in classrooms, traditional media outlets and homes; and across social media. Yet, many Jews and Jewish interfaith families, ignore the rhetoric and go big with Hanukkah anyway.
Some do it to assuage Christmas envy, others to honor the traditions of not Jewish family members or to simply make religion fun. But whatever the reason, there is a strong desire to inject Hanukkah with some of the holiday cheer present in our surrounding culture. That is the rationale behind the Menorah Tree.
The Menorah Tree was designed by two Jewish brothers as a way to “ramp up” the Festival of Lights, and honor the Christmas tree tradition of one of their wives. The goal was to create something that was as festive as a tree, but genuinely Jewish. Something, that was big enough to be the centerpiece of a family’s Hanukkah celebration.
While a giant 6-foot tall hanukkiah with Frazier pine garland isn’t something that everyone will embrace, there is nothing wrong with something that screams “Jewish” even if it does borrow from dominant Christian culture. Blending ideas, foods, symbols, and rituals from other cultures to increase Judaism’s fun-factor isn’t bad and doesn’t weaken Jewish identity as some in the community want us to believe.
Religious activities and observances that are perceived as fun create positive faith experiences and lasting memories. I share in From Generation to Generation the effect a lack of positive religious experiences in childhood has had on members of my own extended family. One inmarried sibling observes Jewish holidays out of obligation and not because he derives any fulfillment from the experience, and my Jewish uncle has a home that is absent of religion.
Examples like this highlight why adding fun to holidays now can make the celebrations more memorable than they would be otherwise without diminishing their significance. And positive memories increase the likelihood that children will want to carry on the tradition in adulthood. Christmas is the perfect case in point.
Many adults who grow-up with Christmas, have a strong emotional attachment to the holiday regardless of whether they are religious Christians. This connection is often not derived from recollections of going to services on Christmas Eve, but rather, from everything else that surrounds the holiday. My not Jewish mother-in-law, who is active in her church and faith, has never said that the reason Christmas is her favorite holiday is because of services, Jesus, God, or wise men. However, memories of decorating the tree, candy canes, gingerbread houses, holiday lights and carols, baking cookies and opening stockings and presents all contribute to her holiday love.
A community concerned about declining engagement, shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss things that can help build positive Jewish memories and connection. That’s the goal of the Menorah Tree, Maccabee on the Mantel and other Hanukkah-themed products. What’s wrong with that?
A child curled up with his Maccabee doll next to a Menorah Tree reading the Maccabee on the Mantel on the night before Hanukkah would be good for the Jews. Maybe he could even sing a few Hanukkah carols.
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!