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A week before Thanksgiving, I stood in the doorway of a building on Skulagata, a street in Reykjavik, Iceland, with my husband and son looking out at the North Atlantic and trying to find shelter from the blustery wind that was making the 30-degree evening feel much colder. We were waiting for our tour guide to pick us up for our search for the Northern Lights. Other tourists were waiting to be picked up by other tour operators. I started talking to a young American woman who was traveling alone. Our conversation turned to the election. I mentioned that I was concerned about some of the president-elect’s choices for advisors because of their association with the alt-right movement.
“My son and I are Jewish,” I said.
“Me too,” the woman said.
We talked for a few more minutes and then our guide arrived. The woman and I wished each other good luck in finding the Northern Lights and safe travels. As we drove out of the city, I smiled and started quietly humming the opening lines of Rabbi Larry Milder’s famous Jewish tune:
Wherever you go,
Milder was right; even in Iceland, which has a permanent Jewish population of about 100 people, it wasn’t hard to stumble across a fellow tribe member. After Iceland, we traveled to London, with a Jewish population of 172,000. I can’t say if we met any Jewish Londoners, but we did see a few Hasidic Jews snapping photos of Buckingham Palace as we walked back to our flat one evening, and we took in some Jewish history.
We walked through biblical times at the British Museum, which has a large collection of archaeological material and ancient art from Mesopotamia, Iran, the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel), Anatolia (Turkey), Arabia and Central Asia and the Caucasus. Highlights of the collection include Assyrian reliefs, treasure from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the Oxus Treasure, Phoenician ivories and the library of cuneiform tablets from Nineveh. Items from Ur, Abraham’s home which he left for Canaan, and Nineveh, mentioned in Genesis 10:10-12 as the home of Nimrod and again in the Book of Jonah, brought the stories of the Torah to life.
The Assyrian Flood Tablet, which tells the story of a plan by the gods to destroy the world using a great flood, was startlingly similar to the story of Noah. Utu-napishtim, a character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, was warned in secret by the god Ea that humankind would be destroyed and told to build a huge boat to ensure the survival of humans and animals. Birds were released from the ark before it landed safely.
This item was of particular interest to us because Noah is my son’s Torah portion for his bar mitzvah. It was cool to look at his parsha written not in Hebrew, but in cuneiform! And versions of this familiar story existed at least 1,000 years before the Assyrian tablet. This object sparked a conversation about how Judaism developed and evolved from and in response to other ancient societies, and how the writers of the Torah made important stories from other cultures part of Jewish literature.
From the Bible, we jumped in Jewish time to the 17th century and the Spanish Inquisition by way of lunch at Kerbisher & Malt, a fish-and-chips restaurant. We learned that fish and chips have Jewish roots—Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition introduced the crispy, light fish to the British. Typically, street vendors sold the fish from large trays hung from their necks. In the 1800s, fish shops, or “fish warehouses,” were serving fish with bread or baked potatoes.
Encounters with other Jews and discoveries of Jewish connections are intriguing because they remind us that we are part of something bigger, that our family extends beyond our family tree to include a community we feel connected to but do not know personally. This bond created between Jews by shared history and experience is called peoplehood. And it’s best learned through engagement in Jewish life.
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 creates dialog about the meaning and importance of Jewish peoplehood and how to nurture it.
At the end of October, I posted an essay on the CJPE blog about the role peoplehood played in my interfaith family’s decision to create a singularly Jewish home. I did this after reading many pieces written by a diverse group of Jewish individuals and professionals. I noticed that not a single article addressed intermarriage or the place interfaith families occupy among the Jewish people. With the majority of Jews marrying someone of a different faith from 2000 to 2013, I felt it was important that our voices were heard.
The winter holidays can heighten our feelings of connection to our faith and cultural identities. For Jews, the story of the Maccabees’ fight for religious freedom reminds us of our shared history and connection to the Jewish people. Retelling it brings out our Jewish pride. It is with this in mind that I share my CJPE essay below.
I’d love to hear what Jewish peoplehood means to you and your interfaith family. Is it important; if so, why; how do you instill it in your children; is Israel part of how you define it; how has intermarriage changed or influenced your relationship to it. I look forward to reading your comments.
This essay is reprinted with permission.
I always assumed I would marry a Jew and have a Jewish home. Then I started dating a non-Jewish man.
Early in the relationship, I gave little thought to our different religions. But as we became more serious and started to discuss marriage, I was confronted with the possibility that my future children might not have a connection to the Jewish people. I realized Judaism was too important to me to let that happen.
As we discussed how we would approach the issue of faith in a future home, my boyfriend asked me why I felt strongly about raising my children as Jews. I didn’t have a good answer. “Because,” was the best I could come up with.
I needed a better reason than that, so I thought more about what being Jewish meant to me. I realized that for me, being a Jew was as much about peoplehood as it was about God. In fact, what connected me to Judaism was not faith, but rather culture, values, shared history and community.
It’s not that I didn’t believe in God, it’s just that I believed in the Jewish people more: our common destiny, our mission to make the world a better place, our shared kinship and mutual responsibility, our obligation to each other. I explained to my boyfriend that a bond unites every individual Jew with the larger Jewish community. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh — All Jews are responsible for one another. I wanted my children to feel a part of this bigger group.
It took my boyfriend some time to understand my emotional and cultural connection to Judaism. The idea that a religion could be about more than faith was new to him; there is not a similar concept in Christianity. But after several months of considering the idea of peoplehood and taking a class on interfaith relationships with a priest and rabbi, my boyfriend said, “I’m on board with raising our children as Jews. In our society, you don’t need to do anything to feel Christian. There is more to being Jewish than religion. For our children to be Jewish, they need to be taught what it means to be Jewish.”
My heart exploded with happiness and gratitude. The following month, my boyfriend proposed and a year later we were married.
My husband and I have now been building a Jewish home together for 12 years. We have a 10-year-old son who engages in Jewish education, attends Jewish overnight camp and participates in Jewish youth activities. We are active in our synagogue community and have a regular family Shabbat practice. We take in Jewish culture and host in our home Israeli young adults en route to summer jobs at US camps. Because of the various ways we engage with Judaism, my son thinks being part of the Jewish people is “special.” My non-religious, God-questioning husband does too.
Peoplehood is why my family is Jewish and it can be a powerful reason for other interfaith couples to choose Judaism as well. It doesn’t require acceptance of a certain idea about God and it doesn’t pressure non-Jewish partners to conform to a specific religious belief. What peoplehood does is open the door to the multi-dimensional nature of Judaism, allowing intermarrieds the freedom to explore the faith in their own way and at their own pace.