How We Found the Right Synagogue for Us

  

By Elizabeth Vocke

 

Almost two years ago we started talking about joining a synagogue. We knew it was time to put our daughter in Sunday school if she was going to be a bat mitzvah (which so far, is the plan—her choice). The synagogue we chose for Sunday school gave us a year before we had to fully commit and join, so we waited. But this year, we had to join for her to continue to attend Sunday school.

Boy do I feel like an adult.

This is the first time I’ve belonged to a synagogue since attending with my family as a child. And, it’s the first time my husband has belonged ever since, well, he’s not Jewish.

Choosing a synagogue was not an easy decision. There are two local synagogues that we were trying to choose between. One is a Conservative synagogue that my extended family has belonged to for more than 60 years. Our name is on a Torah, and, it’s also where our daughter attended preschool. So we have a strong sense of history there.

The other is a Reform synagogue that has a much larger congregation, and in particular a much larger group of children.

In the end, this was the deciding factor. But it took us a while to get there.

Over the years, we’ve visited both during the High Holidays, and enjoyed both. They are very inclusive and we felt comfortable as an interfaith family. This is great, but it didn’t help us in trying to choose one over the other. We talked to friends at each congregation and weighed the pros and cons.

The Conservative synagogue is where I had family, a sense of history and connection— that on its own was almost enough to sway us to join. But when I compared the religious schools and thought about my own experiences in religious school, in a very small Jewish community, we saw the benefits of the larger Reform synagogue.

There were other things we considered.

I write a weekly “Mensch of the Week” column and during one interview, I learned about our Reform synagogue’s annual Mitzvah Day. Dozens of congregants go out to organizations across the community and spend a day giving back. I loved this emphasis on community and volunteerism. Plus, there were many opportunities to get involved socially and the events looked like fun.

I’m sure there are similar opportunities for events and social engagements at both synagogues, and ultimately, it came down to the number of children in the larger congregation.

During that first year, as I dropped my daughter off at Sunday school, I saw my own friends, watched families greet each other with excitement and saw how happy my daughter was when I picked her up. She made new friends and wanted to do play dates after Sunday school with the kids in her class.

So, we chose to stick with the Reform synagogue and have been happy with our decision. And while the fact that the synagogue we joined is a Reform congregation didn’t really play into our decision, I certainly see the benefits for an interfaith family like ours.

We recently attended our first High Holy Day services as members. I was struck by the sense of peace I experienced. For the first time that day I could quiet my mind, enjoy the choir, think and just be.

Our next step is to figure out if and how the synagogue will be a part of our daily lives. For my husband, that’s a bigger question. Synagogue has never been a big part of my life, but when I join something I tend to enjoy it more if I’m active, so now I’m trying to figure out if and how to get involved. Maybe Sisterhood, maybe volunteering in some capacity. Maybe next year.

For now, I’m enjoying bumping into friends at Sunday school drop-off and reflecting on those peaceful moments I had during the holidays.

How to Discuss Anti-Semitism with Youths

  

By Dr. Ruth Nemzoff

Q: I am about to have Jewish grandchildren, and I am terrified! Don’t get me wrong; we love our son-in-law. He has brought out the best in our daughter and they make sensible decisions together. We have never had any complaints; in fact, we are looking forward to learning about new holidays and celebrating them with our grandchildren.

However, recent incidents where Neo-Nazi’s chanting “Jews will not Dr. Ruth Nemzoff gives advice about family reunionsreplace us” in Charlestown have changed my perspective. I now understand that the alt-right is spreading Jewish hatred. We had no idea that along entering into a new community, we were entering a community that lives with fear.

My family immigrated to America from England in the early 1600s because of Protestant persecution during the Catholic Restoration. Since then, we have advocated for religious freedom in America. I have never been conscious of experiencing prejudice on the same scale. I thought that anti-Semitism was a thing of the past: relevant to 1940s Germany, but not present here. Charleston has changed my thinking. I was stunned and horrified to see that anti-Semitism is still a relevant force in the United States. I am having nightmares in which the Nazis are coming for me and my grandchildren. The rise of Neo-Nazis has unsettled me. How do you, as a Jew, deal with this? How do I, as a grandparent, explain this to my grandchildren?

A: First, b’sha’ah tovah, which means “may the birth happen at a good time,” which is the traditional Jewish greeting when you announce a pregnancy, in recognition of the fact that the fate of the pregnancy is not in our hands alone.

Second, I want to thank you and your ancestors for working to support religious freedom. It is indeed a gift that we cannot take for granted—one which we now realize must be continually guarded and protected.

Third, I want to welcome you as a friend of the Jewish people and to thank you for being excited and willing to help bring up Jewish grandchildren. I hope you will find much that is interesting and intellectually challenging as you come to know the the meaning in our holidays and customs. It is not easy to join a minority, or take up the causes which threaten its people.

You may be surprised by this recent anti-Semitic phenomenon, but Jews have dealt with these realities as a part of our identity throughout history. In 605 BCE, the Babylonians sent our people into exile. Then, early Christian preachers promoted an interpretation of the New Testament (Matthew 27:24-25) to imply Jews killed Christ, which has led historically to misunderstanding and calls to violence. After 300 years of prosperity and intellectual flowering in Spain, the Spanish monarchy established an Inquisition, which killed and expelled Jews. Similarly, after a period of relative freedom in Germany and Eastern Europe, the Jews were systematically killed during the Holocaust.

We know our history, and we have lived under this threat for centuries—whether or not it has always been as apparent as it is now, to others. We know the fragility of life and of status—it vacillates.

There are strategies for dealing with the reality of discrimination as we try to change it. Much like black parents must warn their children that policeman might assume they are guilty of one thing or another because of the color of their skin, Jews and those affiliated with the Jews must fortify their children by teaching them their history and the nature of scapegoating; whether it be against Jews or others.

I remember when I was young, and my father told me about how children used to throw stones at him, and call him “a dirty Jew.” I asked how he felt, how he was able to put up with this abuse without being moved to violence or anger? He said: “I knew I wasn’t the problem.”

You remember that your forebears were once persecuted, and out of this came your family’s commitment to protecting religious freedom. Anti-semitism is not new: what has changed is your recognition of it. Recently, the fact that its voice has become louder in our society has made the uncertainty more apparent; anti-semitism has been present in America for a long time, recently as the 1940s and 1950s when there were zoning restrictions on where Jews could live and what clubs and businesses they could join. In current times, instead of allowing fear to move you to inaction, use your awareness to act and to protect freedoms.

Jews are commanded every year at Passover to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt, and that they must work toward freedom for others, because we know that freedom is not always assured. Our resolve is strengthened.

If you give your grandchildren a sense of pride in their identity, they will be less likely to be intimidated, and more likely to understand those who express hatred as limited by their unwillingness to understand religious perspective, and their desire to hate for the sake of blaming what they do not understand.

Your grandchildren will know that they are not sinners, nor Christ-killers, nor any other terms used against them, if you teach them what they are, and how to understand those around them. The same small-minded fear that motivates bigotry and anti-Semitism must be guarded against in all people—it is important to share your family’s religious understanding with your grandchild, as well as encouraging them to explore their own perspective.

Like many Jews, you are shaken; and I cannot promise that your action alone will immediately change what is frightening. But this is a step in the right direction. If we are vigilant against all kinds of prejudice (because we know that prejudice against one group eventually was morphs into prejudice against many) we stand a better chance of maintaining our civility. We resist those who hate. All of us must work together to assure the fragile, but incredibly important ideal of E pluribus unum.

This post originally appeared on The American Israelite and is reprinted with permission.

Converting Meant Adding Judaism, Not Losing Japanese

  
Kristin conversion

Kristin at her synagogue, Congregation Emanu-el. Credit: Laurel Street Kitchen

On March 22, 2016, I completed a journey many years in the making when I sat before a beit din (rabbinical court), immersed myself in the waters of a mikveh (ritual bath), and converted to Judaism. It felt as if my soul had finally found the home it had been searching for my whole life. In Judaism, I found a sense of community I longed for, and so much comfort in the rituals of our thousands-of-years-old tradition. I also gained a new sense of responsibility as a Jew: to do my part to repair our world. It is a day I will always remember as one of the most powerful and meaningful days of my life.

My journey to Judaism started long before I met my now-husband Bryan, but my interest in it deepened because of him and his Jewish heritage. I’ve always been interested in learning about my Japanese heritage, so when Bryan and I started discussing our future together, I was quietly interested in conversion early on. Since I was not raised in a particular religion, I felt fortunate for the gift of choice given to me by both my parents. I’m grateful that they also fell in love with Bryan and supported my decision to convert wholeheartedly from the beginning. But that doesn’t mean the process was easy by any means.

After years of attending Jewish holiday gatherings at friends’ homes, Introduction to Judaism courses at our temple, countless meetings with my guide rabbi, Hebrew classes at the JCC, building Jewish community at our Reform synagogue, Congregation Emanu-el, regularly attending Shabbat services, reading Jewish books and cooking Jewish recipes, one would think that I would finally be ready.

There was just one problem: I was afraid that there wasn’t enough space within me to take on being Jewish. I felt I was barely holding onto my Japanese heritage. I had spent my entire life tightly gripping the few parts of my heritage that were left for me. My dad’s generation had lived through being Japanese-American in Hawaii during and after World War II, and they had to assimilate as quickly as possible if they were to keep their families safe and rebuild their lives here. Though my Mom is from Japan, she quickly learned the importance of assimilation as well. So much of my heritage was lost before I came into the world. The same can be said for Bryan’s Jewish heritage.

Luckily (though it did not feel so lucky on those early Saturday mornings), I grew up going to Japanese school and spending summers in Japan. But Saturday school and Japanese relatives don’t teach you how to navigate being Japanese-American in America. I’ve spent most of my life feeling painfully in between: Not behaving quite Japanese enough in Japan and not looking American enough in the US. To top that off, I’ve often felt the pressure of being the last “link” to the Japanese part of my family. I was hanging onto my complicated Japanese American heritage by a string. I worried that by adding Judaism to the mix I would lose it all, and my heart ached for my ancestors and for future generations of my family.

Synagogue

Kristin’s synagogue. Credit: Perfect Circle Photo

This is how I ended up in my guide rabbi’s office sobbing. I told him I wasn’t ready and that I didn’t think I could do it anymore. To which he responded, “You’re ready.” I was completely baffled, but he continued by asking me if I had ever considered that there was space for everything? I hadn’t. And that simple change of perspective was exactly what I needed to hear. I walked into his office only being able to see two options: Holding on to my Japanese heritage or letting go of it to be Jewish. Thankfully, he helped me to see there was a third choice: What if there was enough space for everything?

The funny thing is, now I have a company called Nourish that does exactly that: We help people define their cultural narrative, on their own terms. I’m not just Japanese. I’m not just Jewish. I’m not just American. I’m a Japanese-American Jew. While it’s complex, I have even more opportunities to celebrate who I am, and more opportunities to reinterpret my heritages in ways that help me connect more deeply. I may still use chopsticks incorrectly and unpack some takeout before lighting candles on Shabbat sometimes, but never have I felt so connected and nourished by my Japanese and Jewish traditions. I’d like to think that’s all our ancestors could have wanted for us, anyway.

Next spring, I will celebrate my bat mizvah at the same temple where Bryan and I were married. In a few weeks, I will travel to Japan to study my heritage. In some ways, I feel I am reclaiming the lost parts of my Jewish and Japanese heritage and now there’s plenty of room for both.

All the Jewish Infighting is Killing Me

  

By Debra Lynn Shelton

Years ago, my Catholic husband decided he wanted to convert to Judaism. At the time, we’d only been married a few years, and my family belonged to a reform synagogue. My husband signed up for and attended the conversion classes, and over a six-month period he studied history, holidays, religious teachings, and even a little Hebrew. It was an involved process that he was deeply committed to completing.

The final piece was his appearance before a panel of rabbis. They asked him questions designed to determine whether or not he would be accepted into the Jewish fold. Not surprisingly, he said it was  challenging. But they accepted him and allowed him to become a convert to Judaism.

At the time, we were aware there were those who didn’t fully consider him a Jew. Reform and Conservative conversions aren’t legitimately Jewish in the eyes of some ultra-Orthodox Jews, while converts are often viewed as “less than” even within the more progressive Reform community. And what did this mean for our kids? Though we were raising them Jewish, there was always the background noise of, “but their dad’s not really a Jew…”

I thought about this when I read about Nachum Eisenstein, the chief rabbi of eastern Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Ma’alot Dafna neighborhood, who said, “Reform and Conservative Judaism threaten to undermine the survival of the Jewish people.” In Israel, some would have it so that conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis don’t count. Rather than Reform and Conservative Judaism undermining the survival of the Jewish people, I have to wonder: is it the“I’m a Jew and you’re not” mentality that will eventually bring us down?

Lately I’ve experienced a large chasm among my fellow Jews, specifically between those who consider themselves secular or less religious and those who consider themselves religious. Why, I wonder, do we Jews often pit ourselves against one another?

In a previous article, I wrote about my transformation from Jewish-Leader-Wannabe to atheist and secular Jew. I received a lot of grief for speaking my truth. But doesn’t the freedom to follow a religious or spiritual path apply equally to those whose paths eventually walk away from observance? I don’t understand the ultra-religious way of life, yet I never question others’ freedom to observe as they please. Shouldn’t that be the case for all who claim to be Jewish, no matter the branch of religion or depth of faith?

As long as some people see themselves as the only true Jews, I doubt we will ever be able to come together as a worldwide Jewish community. In a time when the Jewish population is stagnant at best, it makes sense to welcome with open arms those who observe in a liberal fashion as well as those who choose to convert.

It’s been said before, but it’s true: in Nazi Germany, it made no difference what one’s relationship to their Jewish faith was. Whether in name only, or deeply religious, all were Jews and all were targets. So isn’t sticking together no matter what arises the most important lesson we Jews can learn? Isn’t that the key to our survival? Didn’t every one of us, no matter our particular background, feel a sting of fear, anger, and horror watching Nazis walk down an American street yelling, “Jews will not replace us?”

In the wake of horrifying incidents like Charlottesville, how do we teach our children about the ills of bigotry and prejudice when we’re not even accepting of all within our own religion?

In some ways, the infighting reminds me of when my children were little.

Those who breastfed and those who chose not to were (and still are) at complete odds. How about we take a step back and entertain the idea that each of us knows what’s best for ourselves and our families?

And in the case of religion, can we get to the place where we agree that “I know what level of religiosity works for me, and you know what works for you”? Wouldn’t it be a better world if we could?

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

Jews Like Me

  

By Aimee Ellis

At Jewish summer camp (Camp Tawonga, to be specific), I felt a little different than the other campers. I wasn’t raised religiously Jewish and was also from a lower income interfaith family. I attended public school with mostly non-white students and had never been to a synagogue in my life. I didn’t have a clear understanding of my Jewish identity. My Jewish mother was the first in our family to stop Jewish religious practice, so she was struggling with how to best integrate being Jewish into my upbringing.

These days, my mother sometimes cries because of guilt she feels about not having provided me with a Jewish education or religious experience. I tell her it’s OK because I am the face of the new American Jewish identity. I also make efforts to encourage other Jews from interfaith and mixed race families to feel proud of their identity. I frequently hear from “Jews like me” that they want nothing to do with the mainstream Jewish community because they “aren’t really Jewish” or feel concerned they’ll be questioned, shamed or called out for not being Jewish enough.

My one Jewish connection, though, was Jewish summer camp where I didn’t know the prayers, but was relieved they had a large display to read off of so I didn’t feel ashamed or afraid to learn. To date, they are the only Jewish prayers I can recall from memory. As an adult, during my years working as a Jewish professional, I was astounded by the subtle difference in attitude I sometimes experienced within the Jewish community. I felt scrutinized whenever I asked questions about Jewish religious practice or shared that I didn’t know much about it. It was assumed that because I was a Jewish professional, I automatically knew about the religious practice. The subtle bad attitudes I experienced sometimes caused me to feel unwelcomed and excluded.

Aimee (on the right) and her friend at Camp Tawonga

I’m sensitive about my lack of knowledge of religious practice and feel ashamed when I don’t have special support and an acknowledgement that it’s OK if you don’t know certain things. When I go to synagogue, it would mean the world to me if the rabbi stated that they wanted to welcome everyone, including those not familiar with the prayers and practice. When I don’t know the prayers, I feel embarrassed and afraid someone will notice and think I’m not a good enough Jew. As for Jewish leaders and community members already going to great lengths to be inclusive toward every kind of Jew, I salute you—it doesn’t go unnoticed.

Our work is far from over, particularly with the population composure and religious practice preference changes taking place in America that are reflected within the Jewish community.  Each and every one of us can and should continue to find new and creative ways to address these challenges. Special support systems for “Jews like me” are much needed and can make a big difference in strengthening the diversity of our community.

Aimee Ellis is a San Francisco based speaker and writer on the topic of secular, interfaith, mixed race, and intersectional Jewish identity. Linked here are past articles and a webinar on this topic.

Don’t Call Me Bubbe–I’m Grandma.

  

By Sherrie Bergus

On the eve of my first birthday as a grandmother, which happened to be the day of the eclipse, I wrote this manifesto down. It took courage, this but here I am. Like Thoreau before me, I headed out to reflect upon the waters of a beloved lake and declared this:

I am a grandma, not a Bubbe.

It didn’t really take the momentous act of the world going dark for not quite three minutes, or this Jewish woman celebrating her birthday, to realize that my existence is light years away from that of my own Bubbe Ida’s.

Besides our DNA, so little of our experience is the same.

I was born into an Orthodox Jewish family. My husband grew up in a “modern” Conservative household. Both of my children were bar/bat mitzvah and continued their religious studies beyond. Their education and travel landed them in different locales, both with non-Jewish partners and their own way of living Jewishly.

Of course, traditions, love, and blood still bind us all.

So I could theoretically assert that I am a Bubbe in the Land of Nanas and Omas, I could redefine the label of Bubbe and modernize it, in keeping with our family, a patchwork of cultures and traditions.

But I am sorry, Bubbe. I just cannot.

At my daughter’s engagement party—she was marrying a man from Montreal—my aunt who is called Bubbe by her grandkids pressed me: “I can’t wait to hear your grandchildren call you Bubbe with a French accent.” In response I whisper seethed, “I will not be called Bubbe.”

It just didn’t feel right: My son-in-law is an atheist. My daughter, wishing to embrace her religion in her new Canadian residence has become part of the fabric of a vibrant, Reform-Jewish community. She has taught her life partner that to her, God is “your invisible best friend.” He attends services with her and lovingly wears her hand-crocheted kippah (head covering). As an avid foodie/chef he enjoys cooking brisket for Rosh Hashanah, latkes at Hanukkah and celebrating the holidays through food.

They’re making it work.

And when it comes to the other side of my family, my daughter-in-law is a practicing Catholic. A Reform Rabbi and an Episcopal Priest intricately wove together their wedding ceremony. Less than six months later, my mother passed away.

On the way to the funeral we were discussing our dinner plans for later that evening. I remembered that it was Lent. I asked her if there was anything we should avoid to make things easier for her. Quickly, she told me not to worry about her at all.

I feel awed by the way my family is marching into modernity, with such thoughtfulness. So do you see my confusion when it comes to what I’ll be called—new traditions, new family permutations, new ways—old names?

I mean, it is 2017 and I didn’t just step out of the shtetl. I would love to add a unique cultural spin on my new name. If I really go back to my Belorussian roots, my little grandbabies would call me “Babka.” Nope. I can’t do it. I have thought about it, but I am not a cushiony soft savta, nor any type of baked goods.

So I have devised the perfect solution. For now, Grandma it is. Ultimately, of course, the baby will decide.

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

How Do We Talk About Hate as a Family?

  

By Elizabeth Vocke

Vocke family

A couple of weeks ago, as we were going to sleep, my husband said, “I’m sorry there are people out there who don’t like you because of your religion.” I have to say, I was a little startled by the comment, though it was appreciated.

As a Conservative Jewish person growing up in a small town, I’ve always known there was anti-Semitism out there. If not overtly, then just this sense of being “other.” But marrying someone who is not Jewish, and raising a Jewish daughter together, gives me a new perspective.

Several years ago, there was a hate crime on a college campus. It was apparent to me that it was a hate crime, but my husband wasn’t sure. He thought it was horrible, but maybe just a college kid’s prank. We fought about it and likely came to some agreement, but I was surprised by his views. He had a different world view. Not because he’s unaware or ignorant—he’s one of the most intelligent and well-read people I know—but because 1. It’s something he hasn’t experienced and 2. He just could not believe someone would feel and act so hateful.

Fast forward a couple years and someone made a Jewish “joke” in front of me. Again, he was floored and outraged. This time, not quite so shocked.

Fast forward again to today’s political and social climate and sadly the shock is gone, but the outrage is still there, and has grown.

Vocke family at the beachWhat does that mean for our daughter, who is being raised Jewish and in the religion her father grew up with?

She’s 9 now and for years I never talked to her about racism of any kind. I didn’t want her to see it or know that it exists. But in Kindergarten, she had an African American teacher. I happened to be volunteering in the class on MLK Day and listened as the teacher explained the importance of the day to the kids. They listened and I listened and I was so glad to have her perspective and hear how she so freely and frankly explained why Dr. King is important.

Still, it took a while before I explained the Holocaust. Again, I didn’t want to introduce the ideas. But eventually we did talk about it and she accepted what had happened as children do.

But hate is more apparent today than ever in my memory, so how do we talk about it? We are still figuring it out, but here’s what we do.

First, we don’t let our daughter watch the news. It’s horrific and scary and not meant for a 9-year-old. We do talk to her about it as much as we feel is appropriate for her age and maturity.

Second, we use this as a learning tool. We talk about our own beliefs in respecting everyone’s religion and ethnicity.

Third, we stress the importance of multiculturalism and just how cool it is to know people of different backgrounds.

And no matter what, we support each other 150 percent. It’s a given that my husband stands against hate and prejudice of any kind—he would regardless of whether he was married to a Jewish woman—but this hits closer to home because of our marriage.

Perhaps most important, we keep the lines of communication open. We answer questions and are always available for discussion. And we don’t tolerate hate or prejudice of any kind.

Shouldn’t that be a given for all?

Mazel Tov to Andy Samberg and Joanna Newsom!

  
SAG Awards Andy Samberg and Joanna Newsom by Mark Davis

Photo by: Mark Davis/Wireimage.com

A bundle of surprise! Andy Samberg and Joanna Newsom, one of our favorite interfaith couples, just welcomed a baby girl. It’s their first child together. Many were surprised and didn’t realize that the couple was expecting. News of Newsom’s pregnancy was kept under wraps from the public.

Samberg (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and his musician wife, Newsom, married in 2013 after dating for five years. In an interview with Larry King in 2015, Newsom mentioned that she and husband, Samberg, had been thinking about becoming parents some day.

We’re excited to see what new melodies (and comedies) will come about from the new parents!

 

Advice for Assimilated Family Reunions

  

By Dr. Ruth Nemzoff

Family Reunion

Q: I am having a family reunion. Half of the youngest generation has married people of other backgrounds. How can I use this opportunity to educate the Jewish members of my family about their heritage? And also to help those who do not currently identify as Jewish to understand how important Judaism has been in contributing to their lives?

A: I can only share my own experience in response to this question. A confluence of events—a bar mitzvah, a graduation, a wedding, a trip to Maine—brought four of the seven lines of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of my grandparents, Zelda and Shmuel, to Boston. Thus, a long talked-about family reunion was planned and executed. It involved 54 cousins of four generations from ages 2 to 88 with two in utero. I was the host for the meal.Dr. Ruth Nemzoff gives advice about family reunions

 

Like so many assimilated families, progeny of a once very close extended family had scattered across the States. Though many of us had never met each other, family behavior immediately kicked in. Everyone volunteered to either bring food or to pay the expenses. Many of us, including myself, found old insecurities coming to the fore. Though my self concept is not “hostess with the mostest,” I worried whether or not my family would approve of my choice of paper plates. After all, a gracious table could mean china and silver for some in the family and for others, matching paper plates. Of course, no one cared.

We used the opportunity to tell our family history, which few of the third or fourth generation knew. My family owes its existence to the courage of two people who separated themselves from their families and all that was familiar to chance life in a strange new land. My family is also a product of world events beyond their control.

My grandfather left Russia because he heard at the market that the Russo-Japanese War had broken out. He sent a note to his pregnant wife and three children under six that he would send for them. He had already served four years in the Czar’s army and was not interested in fighting in a war which meant nothing to him. Over fifty future lives were changed by that decision, changed by a war that many of us had never heard, or knew only as a footnote in a history book. Our family’s history is also the story of their progeny, growing up with one foot in the Old World culture of their parents and one in the new.

I used the food, too, to educate about our grandparents’ customs. It did not seem fitting to mix milk and meat at the event, since my grandparents kept a Kosher home. Their lives revolved around Shabbat and the holidays. I knew a meat deli platter would horrify the younger generation, some of whom are vegetarian, which is, after all, the new Kosher. Like Kashrut, vegetarianism adds meaning to the daily task of eating. It makes us think about what we do and how we live in the world. I pointed this out to the attendees.

Kugels, garden salad and mandel bread were the solution, a way to bring back the smells and tastes of weekly gatherings for all the aunts and uncles and their families: the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of those in the room. Planning this menu proved to be a wonderful way to manage conflict. We were able to compromise and accommodate the needs of everyone, despite their gastronomical preferences.

Food gives sustenance to families both literally and figuratively. It allows us to pass our customs on generation to generation. Food is both a way to control children and  to educate them. We used the food to teach the younger generation about kashrut: how it helped Jews to maintain their community, and how the lack of it—more recently—is one way of demonstrating their assimilation.

There was, for the older generation, emotional memory in the food. It connected us with the past and honored our grandparents. Food was a way of including our progenitors and bringing religion and culture, into a family in which only some of them considered themselves Jewish. The food was also a way of reinforcing identity. It was a reminder of family life. But, also, of a more gendered time: a time when women were in the kitchen and men sat in the living room. In the English aristocracy, a family meal meant work for the servants. For Jewish peasants, a family meal meant the women gossiping, preparing and cleaning, creating both memories and nourishment.

We spent the day connecting and fantasizing about a simpler time, much as our grandparents would have done as they told stories of the old country. In both cases, the nostalgia glossed over the difficulties. In der haim (in the old country), my grandmother would nostalgically recall the family Shabbat, despite the fact that their life involved hunger and dirt floors. We explored the losses and gains of assimilation.

The food provided a way to manage conflict and a way to reconnect. As we collectively produced the food and cleaned up, it gave us a shared task and a way for us to act like family.

Whether family members considered themselves Jewish or “of Jewish heritage,” the serendipity of our births rested on the more than the accidental coming together or a particular sperm and a particular egg. It was a result of the kindness of Christians who protected our grandmother in the shtetl as the Cossacks came through on a killing spree. She had stayed long enough to experience the rampage resulting from the Czar’s blame of the Jews for the losing the  war.

The existence of each one of us was owed to the kindness of the Jewish community as Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) supported my grandmother when she was waylaid in Germany while my six-year-old Aunt Alice was cured of trachoma. My grandfather Shmuel had finally saved enough money working as a Kosher butcher to send passage for her and the kids. No one could deny that being Jewish was an integral part of their story, nor that each of us owes a debt to the organized Jewish community.

Zelda and Shmuel had seven children in total. The two boys won scholarships to college. The five girls settled for post-high school training. Who knows how far and how fast those five remarkable sisters might have gone had women had equal opportunity. We are indeed products of the opportunities our times give us.

What was evident as we sat and chatted, was that this family was built on Jewish values. Unlike most peasants, both my grandmother and grandfather could read. This gave them, and subsequently each of us, a leg up here in America. These values focused on family and education and involvement in their community.

My generation spanned thirty years. Our varied stories were a lesson in historiography. What is truth, what is memory, and why do they differ? Our various interpretations of our past was also a chance to reinforce a collective identity, and remind the youngest generation of their debt to Jewish values and to the Jewish community. We talked of how the lessons passed on to us influenced our life choices, why so many of us volunteered our time and so many of went into helping professions. We knew our lives depended on others.

I cannot reverse the tide of history, nor the results of assimilation. But, I think our reunion was powerful tool for educating even those family members who do not identify as Jewish that they owe a huge debt to Judaism and the Jewish community for their very existence and for some of their opportunities. My hope is that each person who attended was inspired to tell this story to their children.

You can use your family reunion to demonstrate that as marvelous, brilliant and creative as we may think we are, we are also products of our current time and place, as well as cultural-historical past.

This post originally appeared on The American Israelite and is reprinted with permission.

Will My Husband Understand The Annex?

  

By Madeleine Deliee

Madeleine and her husband

Madeleine and her husband

Shortly after the election last November, a friend sent me a real estate listing. It was for a private island in Scotland, including several buildings, its own postage stamp and infrastructure. I started breaking down costs, much to my husband’s bewilderment. He didn’t understand. But when I talked to my mother about it, she understood immediately. “We’ll know when it’s time to go,” she said. My husband thought we were being paranoid. I said we were being Jewish.

The fact is that it isn’t in my husband’s belief system to think that his government would ever turn on him. He simply cannot imagine that such a thing could happen. I can.

I knew long ago that there were some gaps in our perceptions of the world. He did not know about Dr. Brown’s soda, for one thing, or how to wear a yarmulke. He’d never seen a Woody Allen movie or lit a menorah. His relatives had largely fled the Potato Famine. He’s taught me about kneelers, having nuns in your family and growing up Boston Irish.

I wasn’t sure what we were going to learn about each other on our recent trip to Amsterdam. To me, going to Amsterdam meant art, the canals and probably some good beer, but mostly it meant finally getting to see the secret annex. I read Anne Frank’s account of living in hiding when I was in elementary school; it was a source of both hero worship and nightmares for me. I was excited about getting to experience the setting of her story firsthand, but my excitement contained both reverence and nausea. This was where she wrote. This was where she hid to save herself. Would my husband, who was not Jewish, be able to understand all of this?

We waited in line, in the sun, for hours to gain admission. “You can go,” I kept telling him. “It’s hot and there’s nowhere to sit. I don’t mind.” He said no. We took turns standing or sitting on the ground, talking with the German woman behind us who was waiting with her dog and eavesdropping on the loud group of Americans in front of us. They kept exclaiming loudly about how seeing the house was at the top of their to-do list in Amsterdam “because it’s like the biggest attraction.” We cringed. “I was like, OMG, we totes have to go and get the T-shirt or whatever,” I whispered to him. He rolled his eyes. Solidarity.

He took my hand as we crossed into the museum, making our way through the lower levels, the offices and store rooms that buffered the Franks and the other residents of the annex from discovery. The further up we went, the harder it became to swallow the lump in my throat. They were here, I thought. Those pictures on the wall are the ones Anne wrote about in her diary. This is where they ate. This is the textbook they used for lessons to occupy their time—to maintain some semblance of normalcy in a world that was no longer anything like normal.

This has always been part of what I’ve found so hard to explain to my husband: Their world was normal and then it wasn’t. Yes, things got worse and worse, until they were so bad that they fled for their lives. But it was incremental—a pot with the water gradually heating to boiling. This is what I mean when I ask, “How will we know?” I mean, how will we be better-equipped to recognize that the temperature is rising too high?

We were both silent as we left the museum, passing all the postcards bearing the images of the photos we’d encountered throughout the tour. It felt somehow indecent to buy them, although I hesitated over the copy of the picture of the sole survivor, Otto Frank, standing in the annex in 1960. How do you bear that? How do you endure being in the place where your family lived, knowing you couldn’t save them? “I love this picture,” I told my husband. “But I’m not buying it.” He nodded, understanding what I meant: We have children.

We went to a café for a drink, both deep in our own thoughts while we waited for our order. “I wasn’t sure you’d understand,” I admitted.

“I know,” he said.

“I didn’t like feeling that—but you’re right, I don’t have that context.”

“You don’t,” I said. “But I saw you in there. You felt what I did.”

“Yes, of course,” he said. “That doesn’t depend on context.”

We turned our attention to what was in front of us then: the drinks, watching people walk along the canal, and I realized that I’d needed his explanation as much as he’d needed mine. Our context is different, but we are not.