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By Joy Fields
When my fiercely independent mother recently suffered myriad health issues, it was clear she could no longer live alone. My husband and I were faced with finding an assisted living facility that would address all her health needs, but provide her with a comfortable social atmosphere that would keep her mentally healthy as well. We had to add to the decision making mix her being very active in Houstonâ€™s Jewish communityâ€”an area of town a 45 minute drive from us. Without traffic. Whenâ€™s that?
Mom had been a five- to ten-minute bus ride from two Reform temples, two Conservative temples and a â€śSephardicâ€ť temple, which made her raise her eyebrows but had the best onegs (post service desserts). There were also Orthodox temples and a Lubavitch Center but really, darling, who needs to be that religious? Friends accompanied her to the nearby Jewish Community Center for occasional classes, artistic performances and lunch seminars where, to be honest, she couldnâ€™t quite understand the rebbe, but the lox was fantastic. She sang in two choirs and led karaoke as a volunteer at a Jewish nursing home.
Our suburb has one temple that services every denomination within a thirty mile radius. Over half the families are interfaith and there are many from a plethora of backgrounds who converted. The shul is open most Friday nights, plus Sunday and Wednesday evenings for classes. No choir. No cantor. The rabbi sings slightly off-tune but can be drowned out pretty easily.
The grocery store next to Momâ€™s apartment complex had every imaginable kosher-for-Passover item on display a month before the holidays. She could get up early in the morning and stock up on pesadich borscht before the masses completely bought it out (kosher for Passover beet soupâ€”really, not something anyone need to know about). She could buy enough garlic/onion Tam Tams to provide snacks for twenty friends. Donâ€™t worry darling, those never go bad. Sometimes sheâ€™d pull out a box in September and offer you one to prove that point.
Our suburban grocery stores usually remember to order multipacks of plain white matzah. They also carry gefilte fish in the â€śethnic aisleâ€ť between the hoisin sauce and the frijoles. Not sure why.
My husband and I both work full time and were already exhausted from our numerous commutes to her hospital room near her old digs. We knew that if Mom were closer to us, weâ€™d be able to visit more regularly and address her emergency issues (like bottle tops being screwed on too tightly, running out of pennies before the Bingo tournament or the prescription caddy spilling, which seems a higher priority to me).
So after a whirlwind of Internet searching and facility touring, we found a great place near us. In an ethnically diverse environment that would expose her to cultural richness from all over the world, but no JCC.
Itâ€™s a safe but affordable studio, with three daily meals served in a high ceilinged, brightly lit room on white linen and china, where she can be seated with friendly residents. Snacks available 24/7. Van transportation for appointments, organized outings and â€śWallyWorld Wednesdays.â€ť On-site therapists, nurses, aids, beauticians and an activities director that would put The Love Boat staff to shame. There was even a sing-along group. We showed Mom the â€śStandard Favoritesâ€ť song list. She could later ease in to gospel night.
At first Mom was very apprehensive, but realizing she would not be able to care for herself and not wanting to move in with us, she agreed to try it out. We addressed her dietary concerns: There were substitute menu items for pork chop night. She could politely decline bacon at breakfast. The activities director would introduce her around to residents who had similar interests to sit with. We explained showing silent respect to anyone blessing their meal according to their custom, without being expected to join in. No one would force her to cross herself. Or eat the crunchy white part of the lettuce that she hates.
We arranged all of her furniture that would fit as closely as possible to her previous apartment layout. Her prayer books and song books were on the most easy to reach bookcase shelf. Her Jewish community newspaper would arrive in her new mailbox. As, of course, would the TV guide. (This may not have religious significance to you, but to the retired, itâ€™s universally sacred.)
We hung her family photos and set out her knick-knacks. Her â€śShalom Yâ€™allâ€ť and â€śKeep Calm and Kosher Onâ€ť magnets were on her mini-fridge. Her candle holders and hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) were displayed on a top shelf. No way were we giving her matchesâ€¦um, facility rules. We affixed a magnet to her mezuzah so it would hang on her door frame.
This turned out to be a conversation starter with residents taking a walker break in front of her door. She loved explaining what that â€śthingâ€ť was, and what was on the scroll inside it. Several of her neighbors had short term memory problems so she could explain it again the next day. And they could share background on their religious articles with her. Repeatedly.
We set out a large calendar and several pens so she could keep track of appointments. We set out her address book, because who needs to type all those numbers into your phone when you can just look it up? We pointed out the cords for emergency help, there, there and there. We clarified the definition of â€śemergency.â€ť
We stocked her mini-fridge with healthy snacks, and were encouraged to later find her checking labels for non-vegetarian ingredients to make sure she could share with her new Hindu neighbor across the hall.
Very quickly, we were assured her transition was going smoothly. I picked up a prescription for her on my way home from work, and signed in to the reception area. One of Momâ€™s new lunch partners shuffled by and winked at me, adding, â€śOh, arenâ€™t you a mensch!Â But I think sheâ€™s about to say ganug on the meds already.â€ť (Yiddish for â€śgood personâ€ť and â€śenough.â€ť)
I pressed the elevator button. The door swung open and there was Mom, practically running me down with her walker. â€śHi Mom, I got your medication.â€ť
â€śOh, thanks, doll. Just put it up in my room. Theyâ€™re having a wine and cheese party in the activity room and I donâ€™t want to be late.â€ť
Praised be the maker of the fruit of the vine.
By Rabbi Keith Stern
My friend Marcus and I were in rabbinic school together. He was a rebel, a guy who reflexively said no when anyone said yes. No one could tell him what to do. He was raised in a predominantly Jewish community in New Jersey that unceremoniously fled en masse for the suburbs when the first black family moved into town. (We donâ€™t like discussing this, but Jewish families were certainly in the first waves of white flight). He says that he was the only white kid whose family stuck around. Within four years he was the only white kid on the block. This, Marcus says, is the crucible in which he learned to be his own man.
Marcus exercised his rebellious philosophy at various times in rabbinic school. His biggest â€śno one can tell me what to doâ€ť was his girlfriend Nonnie. Nonnie was not born Jewish. She came from a hippie family that lived for a time on a commune and who worshipped the sacredness of the cosmos in a pretty eclectic way that generally included cannabis and â€™shrooms. Nonnie was what demographers call unchurched. She rarely went to Jewish/school events with Marcus. Then again, Marcus rarely went.
When the dean of HUC took Marcus aside a year before ordination and told him that in order to be ordained Nonnie had to convert, he was, as you might imagine, a tad upset. Marcus fought and cursed, but in those days the notion that a rabbi could have a significant other who wasnâ€™t Jewish was ludicrous. But Nonnie converted, albeit without much joy. They got married, had a kid three years later and divorced two years after that. It still makes Marcus angry that he was forced into a series of actions he opposed.
According to Professor Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at HUC known for demographic studies of American Jewry, â€śin-marriageâ€ť has historically â€śbeen central to what it means to be a Jew.â€ť Its modern importance, he explains, is amplified because of the ongoing population decline among non-Orthodox Jews, which he attributes largely to intermarriage.
Cohen also argues that American Jews put â€śrabbis at the top of the symbolic hierarchy.â€ť As a result, â€śit is logical for rabbinical schools to hold rabbis to higher standards.â€ť While Cohen affords some merit to the suggestion that intermarried rabbis could serve as models for interfaith communities, he cautions that â€śwe donâ€™t know for sure what the impact of having intermarried rabbis will be upon those families.â€ť We do know, he says, that â€śintermarried rabbis will have no chance of teaching the next generation the importance of marrying Jews.â€ť Or at least, so he said in 2009.
Nearly all of the countryâ€™s rabbinical colleges have firm policies that prohibit the admission and ordination of students who are in committed relationships with partners who are not Jewish. Even as interfaith couples are increasingly being welcomed into congregations of all denominations, they are effectively barred from pursuing the rabbinate.
But as Bob Dylan adjures, â€śthe times they are aâ€™changing.â€ť The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which ordains rabbis for the denominationâ€™s more than 100 congregations across the country, just ended their policy prohibiting applications from students in interfaith relationships. Says Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, â€śWe believe that the only strategy that will work in todayâ€™s world of choice is one that engages rather than polices, one that truly welcomes and provides role models for intermarried Jews rather than one that disowns them.â€ť
And Keren McGinity, a former member of TBA opines, â€śthe Reconstructionist Rabbinical Collegeâ€™s new policy to welcome and graduate Jewish students who are in committed relationships with partners of other faith backgrounds is an excellent, forward-thinking decision.â€ť
But Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, disagrees with McGinityâ€™s assessment and she disagrees with the RRC as well. Eisner, a friend and fellow Wesleyan grad who spoke here for the Margaret Miller Memorial lecture series, hangs onto the atavistic belief that intermarriage is the biggest crisis for American Jewry. She writes that letting interfaith people get too involved, too close with Jewish life is dangerous. She says that â€śâ€¦ at some pointâ€¦ inclusion leads to diminishment. At some critical point, boundaries become so porous that they no longer function as boundaries, and standards become so vacuous that they lose all meaning. This decision brings the Reconstructionist movement to that point, and to the degree that it places pressure on other denominationsâ€”and history suggests that it willâ€”then it risks damaging our religious, moral and spiritual leadership at a time when we need it the most.â€ť
It would be wonderful to find a true whipping boy for the various phenomena that plague postmodern American Jewry. If we could just say intermarriage is the cause of our troubles we can spend a lot of money trying to fix it, lest we damage â€śour religious, moral and spiritual leadershipâ€ť beyond repair. But as Rabbi Waxman says, â€śFor those of you still fighting, the battle was lost years ago. The Pew report, citing that 58 percent of marriages since 2005 are intermarriages, has disabused all of North American Jewry of the notion that Jews intermarrying can somehow be stopped by pressure from families, rabbis, or editorials from editors of Jewish publications.â€ť
Reconstructionist rabbis will choose the partners they choose. If their partner is Jewish, I hope their partner will support them in their work. If their partner is not Jewish, I hope their partner supports them in their work. Intermarriage will not make or break American Jewry. The more open hearted a temple is to welcoming interfaith families, the more likely that synagogue and their interfaith families will thrive.
The true threat to American Jewry, and to mainline Protestant denominations and to Catholicism is the extent to which Americans consider religious and church/synagogue affiliation important. More important than soccer practice, ski trips or sleeping late on weekends. For Jews a synagogue must be a place that provides meaning and community and connection and fun. A synagogue must be like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. Thatâ€™s the real work of Jewish survival, not who the rabbi is married to. And to provide that kind of institution is hard and will only become harder.
It would be so much easier to make intermarriage the bugaboo. But itâ€™s not. To make a synagogue relevant and worthwhile for millennials as well as baby boomers is complicated and will require more and more nontraditional solutions. Eisnerâ€™s idea that too much inclusion leads to diminishment is an outdated Conservative movement cryâ€”that has led them over the cliff.
As Tevye said to Golda, â€śItâ€™s a new world.â€ť That must be our mantra now as we consider our trajectory as American Jews, and as a Reform temple in Newton, MA. We are going to have to be courageous and audacious as we dare to move in new ways. Looking back with yearning is not a recipe; just ask Lotâ€™s wife.
Well Iâ€™ve gone and done it. I didnâ€™t mean to make you mad, but I can tell that I did.
There I was, a Jewish girl from New York, living my life, building a career, being a young adult in a big city, when out of nowhereâ€Šâ€”â€ŠBAMâ€Šâ€”â€ŠI fell in love with a kind mid-western man.
He was smart and loving and well, raised in a different faithâ€Šâ€”â€Šbut frankly, the fact that we were in love trumped anything else.
But I didnâ€™t expect you to be so disappointed in me.
You see, this man asked me to marry him, and there we were, planning our weddingâ€Šâ€”â€Ša Jewish weddingâ€Šâ€”â€Šbecause that is what we agreed it would be, because it was meaningful to me and I knew, and he agreed, we would keep Judaism in our lives. So I naturally asked a rabbi to be with us on our big day. he said no, he would not, under these circumstances, bless our union. I asked another and another and yet another and the prospect of having our Jewish wedding dwindled. But I struggled through and found a way to have the ceremony we wanted with a cantoral student who helped us create our beautiful Jewish wedding.
And then I got pregnant. A BOY, what a joy to behold! A blessing in our lives! But my husband had questions that I could not answer about mohels and ritual and foreskin and we sought the counsel of a rabbi to help. We called on your synagogues to find some answers. And we kept calling and calling and messages were left from the kind man who married the Jewish girl again and again, but again we were denied access to you. Once again we stood up for our family and the traditions we wanted to uphold and found a mohel that came to our home and we had a lovely bris for our beautiful boy. One fitting for bringing a Jewish boy into the world.
A third time I sought you outâ€¦ to care for this child and teach him. But as you glared at my tattooed body and asked about my husbandâ€™s background, I was told that your communityâ€™s childrenâ€™s programs were reserved for those who were members and perhaps I should look elsewhere.
And somewhere that day, I lost the fight. I gave up on you right then and there, Judaism. You clearly didnâ€™t want me. There are only so many times you can be turned away before you wonder why you are trying in the first place. You did not want my family, Judaismâ€¦ so I gave up trying.
But I was heartbroken.
I know youâ€™re trying to find a way to welcome us, but youâ€™re not there yet. When we encounter your barriers and your walls we struggle to get through them. And eventually we give up, because it is hard and we donâ€™t want our children to hear your clucking or your message that they are not good enough for you.
Yet, your articles and comments and letters to the editor tell us it is we who are ruining Judaism. It stings to hear that we, the intermarried are destroying Jewish continuity.
But I am stubborn, and thereâ€™s something about you Judaism, thatâ€™s too important to let go. So after I gave up on you, a friend and fellow Jewish professional told me that my experience was not the Judaism she knew and loved and encouraged me to try again. I found my own way to keep the faith in you. I created a Jewish home and holidays and traditions in my own Jewish way. And eventually, I found a community that embraced me and supported my family for who we areâ€Šâ€”â€Šand doesnâ€™t punish us for what weâ€™re not. There are so many of us out here making our own wayâ€¦ but also so many who gave up, never to return.
You see, when you denounce intermarried rabbis and talk about the declining vitality of Judaism, we, the families are listening to you talk about how these rabbisâ€Šâ€”â€Šwhose families closely resemble our ownâ€Šâ€”â€Šdonâ€™t count for you. We hear you tell us, yet again, that we are not good enough but that you are welcoming in the same breath.
So while some of your newspapers and your blogs and your institutions (and your commenters, oh gosh, your commenters) whisper too loudly behind my back and wonder what to do with a â€śproblemâ€ť like my family, my boys will bound through the door this Friday, giddy from the waning of the week and ask â€śMOM? What time is Shabbat?