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By Dr. Ruth Nemzoff
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 eventsâa bar mitzvah, a graduation, a wedding, a trip to Maineâbrought 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.
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 âhostess with the mostest,â 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 Czarâs 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 familyâs 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 andÂ 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 itâmore recentlyâis 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 âof Jewish heritage,â 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 theÂ 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 onÂ The American IsraeliteÂ and is reprinted with permission.
The phone rang and I heard my dadâs apprehensive voice. âHi Sarah. I have a bit of a strange question for you. We are thinking ahead about Easter and we would like to have everyone over for brunch and an Easter egg hunt. We would of course love to have you there, but we know youâre raising Shira Jewish and we donât want to offend you by extending the invitation.â
I cut him off before he could even muster up the right words for the question that would follow. I was ready for this moment and said, âWe will be there. Iâm glad you brought this up, since we havenât had a conversation about it yet. Yes, we are raising her Jewish, but we want her to understand that her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins celebrate other holidays. We wonât observe them in any religious capacity, but whenever invited, we want her to participate in those holidays to appreciate what her loved ones celebrate.â
He and I both seemed relieved that the conversation, albeit brief, finally took place. My daughter is 2 years old and weâre now on our third round of celebrating Easter. We just got through her third Christmas as well. I found the timing of the conversation to be funny because we made it this far without having a need for it.
Then I remembered that earlier in the day, my dad had been over at our house and Shira was sharing leftover challah with him. I told him that making and eating the challah is her favorite part of our weekly Shabbat routine. He could see the challah cover, kiddush cup and Shabbat candlesticks proudly standing on our kitchen table. I understand now that up until that moment, he didnât realize that we practiced Jewish traditions together as a family on such a regular basis. He knew we had done the Simchat Bat ceremony and we observe Passover and Hanukkah, but other than the celebrations and holidays weâve included him in, our Jewishness is mostly kept rather quiet and simple within our own home.
It must have struck him that we were indeed raising her Jewish in the everyday, not just on the seemingly big holidays. He may have been surprised to come to that realization because it was in stark contrast to how I was raised.
Like my daughter, I was born into an interfaith family. My mother, now deceased, was Jewish, and my father is Protestant. Growing up, we celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, but that was the extent of the religiously affiliated holidays we celebrated as a family. None of our holiday observances felt religious in nature. Our celebrations were much more about culture and family traditions. As a young child, I didnât feel any strong religious identity.
After my mom passed, my dad remarried someone who was Catholic. With this change in our household religious dynamic, any element of Judaism that I once had some connection to had to continue on my own will. My dad and stepmom were both supportive of me lighting the Hanukkah menorah, going to Friday night Shabbat services with friends and joining a local Jewish youth group to explore my roots. They always joined in and happily participated whenever my momâs family invited us to a Passover seder.
At the same time, I joined them in their celebrations of Christmas and Easter. I had celebrated them when my mom was around, so it felt normal to continue celebrating those occasions with my family. For this reason, I couldnât see raising my own family without Christmas and Easter. These holidays have always been a part of my upbringing. While my husband and I are raising our family Jewishly, in a more religious and observant way than how I was raised, we both grew up celebrating these Christian holidays and we want our daughter as well as any future children to understand that these holidays are an important piece of our family fabric.
We hadnât been intentionally avoiding the subject with our families, but we knew that with Shira being so young, her understanding of differing religions, rituals and celebrations is still very limited. My husband and I knew we would need to address it with her, and our respective families, once she reached an age of more awareness. We were preparing for the topic to come up eventually, and this challah-snacking Shabbat day just happened to present the perfect opportunity.
âŚwith Grandparents with Grandchildren of Interfaith Marriages
ByÂ Rabbi Richard Address, D. Min.Â
In my travels to congregations and Jewish organizations for Jewish Sacred Aging, many issues seem to emerge organically in discussions of family dynamics. More often than not, concerns about caregiving and end-of-life issues are quickly raised. Not unusually, as situations get unpacked, another issue emerges: that of how to grandparent our grandchildren who are products of interfaith marriages.
This issue is no longer representative of a small cohort of families. Indeed, as baby boomers age and become grandparents, we are beginning to see the impact of the gradual rise in interfaith marriages among our own children. How many of our friends have confronted their children when it comes to the question of âHow will you be raising your children?â Those childrenâthose names of those childrenâare part of our claim on immortality. Is it our name, our legacy that is at stake? Or is it something else – a sense of time passing, a loss of control and a sadness that the world we expected will not be ours?
Every clergy person who does weddings has walked this walk with families. Indeed, some of those very same clergy have dealt with this in their own families. The time has come for our community to begin a serious dialogue on this issue. Opportunities for discussions and support for grandparents who are dealing with this issue need to take place and include those grandparents who already are having the conversation and adults whose children are engaged and about to be married.
There are an increasing number of clergy who are now performing interfaith ceremonies. Often during premarital counseling, the issue of how one will raise children comes up. Rarely, in my experience, however, are there opportunities for a conversation with the potential grandparents on their feelings and concerns. We all wish our children to be âhappy.â We take pride in the fact that we have raised independent adults, responsible for their own choices. We also are observing that our adult children are more and more choosing marital partners from diverse cultural backgrounds.
How is this growing cultural and religious pluralism given voice within the framework of the larger family system? Could greater opportunities for dialogue and honest sharing of emotions lead to greater harmony and understanding? Hiding those feelings surely can and does create barriers and in the end, donât we all wish to nurture and savor these very primal family relationships? Arenât these relationships ever more meaningful as we age?
I recently sat down with a grandparents whose children married partners who are not Jewish. Not atypical, this couple was in a second marriage and so we add the issues of âblendedâ relationships and the boundaries that come with this reality. We discussed some of the issues that these grandparents, both active and involved within their Jewish community, faced when dealing with their married children and their grandchildren. I asked them if they could suggest a brief checklist of issues that would be good to keep in mind. Some of the issues they raised were:
These questions and concerns are being discussed and considered by an increasing number of grandparents now. Itâs time for our community to create meaningful and non-judgmental opportunities for these issues to be raised. Our most important social connection remains family. How can we have an open conversation and honest dialogue? To repress emotions leads only to anger and discomfort and in an age which is so fraught with uncertainty, letâs open these doors to a pathway to âshalom bayit.â
By Tara Worthey Segal
I formally converted to Judaism one month after I lost my father and two weeks before getting married.
I hadnât been raised with much religion. I was baptized Lutheran, but always joked that my parents did that more out of superstition than dogma. They didnât do much to disabuse me of this notionâwe attended services at the local Lutheran church on Christmas Eve, but beyond that and spending a week or so at an Episcopal church camp for a few summers, I didnât have much of a religious identity.
My parents said they didnât want to force religion on us. Other kids in that situation might never have gravitated toward organized religion at all, but my sister and I both wound up finding our own. She became a Mormon, drawn to it by the community she found in her Idaho college town and by the man who would become her husband. Mine also came through the man Iâd eventually marry. Matt was raised in a conservative Jewish household, and though he wasnât hugely religious himself, it was important to him that he marry a Jew.
As I began to study for my conversion, I was relieved that no one told me what to think and instead discussed with me how we see and live life through a Jewish lens. I was invited to take part in conversations rather than evaluated on obedience. Always uncomfortable with the idea of pledging allegiance to a transcribed set of beliefs, I was drawn to the idea that I could keep my curiosity, that it was OK to question leaders and make sense of the world myself, using the values of Judaism as a guide.
One reservation I did have was my father. He didnât object to me marrying a Jewish man; to the contrary, he loved Matt and was incredibly proud of his achievements. As for his own daughter becoming JewishâŚ Iâm not sure he understood the necessity. We didnât speak about my conversion process much, as he was sick and I was planning a wedding. And then, before we had the chance to really discuss it, he was gone.
I wanted him to know that my conversion wasnât a rejection of him and my mother, or of our upbringing. In fact, it was because of the way I was raised that becoming Jewish came to make sense to me. People often talk about their finding their spiritual homes, but for me, arriving at Judaism was less of a homecoming and more of a recognition of something that was always there. An emphasis on family. Intellectual curiosity. Passing on a shared history and traditions to the next generations.
The things that eventually drew me to Judaism were my fatherâs values, as well. From him, I learned that knowledge is liberating. He didnât have much formal education but he shared with me his love for reading (he gave me his tattered copy of âThe Diary of Anne Frankâ when I was 8), and said attending college was a non-negotiable.
From him, I learned the value of being able to stand up for my own views. He played devilâs advocate every time we talked politics, driving me to distraction at times (though in the end he voted for Obama).
From him, I learned never to be passive or complacent. He may not have recognized the term tikkun olam (repairing the world), but I also never saw him turn away from somebody who he had the ability to help in any capacity. And he felt guilty when he didnât have spare change for someone asking on the street.
These are all things that, as far as I can tell, embody Jewishness.
After he died, I found comfort in that oft-repeated phrase âmay his memory be a blessing.â It doesnât promise that I will see him again or that he is in a better place. It doesnât force me to place hope in something that Iâm not sure exists. It allows me, simply, to find joy in the fact that I had him for 27 yearsâand I have as many yearsâ worth of memories to hold close, when I can no longer pick up the phone to call him and argue about Hillary Clinton.
My husband and I had a traditional Jewish wedding, with the chuppah and the ketubah (marriage contract) and the hora and evenâbecause both of our siblings had married before usâa double mezinke (a dance for parents whose last child is marrying). And as I watched the endless line of wedding guests dance around my husbandâs mother and father and my own mother, and as I saw the mix of grief, pleasure, and bewilderment on my momâs face, I wondered what my father would have thought of it all.
He knew that he would be leaving me before his time, and he never spoke about concrete ideas of heaven or hell, redemption, or eternal kingdoms. I think, though, that he would be at peace knowing that Judaism gave me a way to grieve him without clinging to a narrative that wouldnât feel genuine to either of us.
Itâs been three years now since I lost him. Every winter, both his birthday and the anniversary of his death pass in the same week. Every year, the anniversary of my conversion and the anniversary of my marriage follow close behind. The later dates are inextricably tied to the earlier ones. I light a candle and stand to recite the Mournerâs Kaddishâfor a man who was not Jewish and who likely did not know what a yahrzeit was.
But my father deserves to be honored, and his Jewish daughter intends to do so.
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.
We were late. âTwas the night before Christmas, and all through the aisles of Target, my husband and I were doing our version of stuffing stockings. We were running so fast we were practically sliding to try to fill his stocking and my festive Chinese takeout box before we left for his parentsâ house.
We each picked up cookie cutters for the other person, but unfortunately Target is not known for its Jewish cookie cutters. Although I found a package of winter cookie cutters for him, they still included a tree. I love Target and would buy out the entire store, but itâs not our go-to for Jewish holiday foods or items. We were lucky to find a menorah at one store the year before, though. (Whatâs funny is that my husband is the one who usually remembers to light our Hanukkah candles.)
We did our best, but in the end he still couldnât find cookie cutters for Hanukkah at Target. I think this exemplifies how I feel at Christmas: Takeout boxes and menorahs aside, it ainât easy beinâ Jewish.
Growing up in a college town in Iowa, mine was one of the few Jewish families around. I still remember wanting to connect with other kids celebrating Christmas while we were ordering Chinese food and going to the movies. So although I feel guilty about it, thereâs a part of me thatâs happy that I finally get to celebrate Christmas. We open presents and bake cookies. It all works like clockwork until I go to church with my in-laws on Christmas Eve and hear the word âJesusâ one too many times. And, suddenly, I feel more alone than ever.
The winter holidays are easier and harder since I met my husband. Now I have the right person to celebrate them with, but it has come with a conflicted sense of identity. Instead of the clearly defined separation from Christmas that I grew up with, I canât remain on the outside of the holiday and culture that surrounds us in the States. I still want to remain outside, but Iâm also inside the phenomenon.
The phrase âDecember dilemmaâ implies thereâs a conflict. But while itâs easy to say itâs external, between spending time decorating the tree or lighting Hanukkah candles, isnât it more internal? Itâs the cognitive dissonance between being with people you love and hearing about the one they adore, and needing to escape into the lobby of the church. Itâs making Christmas cookies and needing to avoid most of the cookie cutters because theyâre outlining the differences youâre not discussing.
Now, however, Iâm trying a different strategy. For my husband, the holiday season was incomplete until we had a Christmas tree in our home. I still have trouble unfolding this umbrella tree (and not just because itâs larger than I am), but now I try to see it as a traditional symbol, not a religious one. Indeed, the tree is a fake one that my in-laws took with them when they moved from house to house; itâs literally part of their familyâs history.
Helping my partner lug the tree up our basement stairs is part of helping him observe his holiday. (Our cats try to help set up the tree, too, but their version involves eating the tinsel instead of putting it up.) Itâs all part of our life together. I used to walk through the store aisles, see menorah and dreidel ornaments and feel confused. Now I understand that these are pieces of new traditions we are creating. In a way, when we add these to a Christmas tree, we are resting symbols of a smaller Jewish holiday on the branches of a much bigger Christian one. We all make choices. I never anticipated having a Christmas tree in my home, but I always knew there would be a menorah shining out the window.
Christianity started when people began following a Jewish man. He searched and others found him to be so wise they thought he was the Messiah. Although Jews think he was a good man, we disagree with the Christian conclusion. This could be considered, simply, a major difference of opinion. The weird part is that itâs between Christians and Jews, rather than between two Jews (who would, of course, have three opinions).
We hold different beliefs and lug different traditions out of our storage closets. And Target may or may not have our cookie cutters. But in the end, I think each of us would like a secure place to keep whatever cookie cutters weâve bought, and family to help us fill them with dough. My mother-in-law has a fabulous recipe, and although she keeps it close, I think it involves elements found in many kitchens: love, warmth and laughter. Â Maybe a little bit of teasing and schmaltz, too.
1.Â Thoroughly cream shortening, sugar and vanilla. Add egg; beat until light and fluffy.Â Stir in milk. Sift together dry ingredients, then blend into creamed mixture.Â Divide dough in half. Chill 1 hour.
2.Â On lightly floured surface, roll half of dough to 1/8-inch thickness.Â Keep other half of dough chilled until ready to use.Â Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters.Â Bake on greased cookie sheet at 375 degrees about 6 to 8 minutes. Cool slightly, then remove from pan.Â Makes two-dozen cookies.
By Kelly Banker
I am 8 years old. My siblings and I are huddled in my parentsâ bedroom, awaiting the precious sound of the Hanukkah bell. We have just come from an evening of lighting the menorah, dancing and singing in a circle and haplessly spinning a dreidel. Now here we are, eyes closed and ears open for the sound of that beautiful bell. My dad looks at us and slowly raises his hand, cupping the bell gently. He shakes the bell three times and the magic settles upon us. We giggle nervously as my mother slips out of the room to see if the Hanukkah Fairy has visited our house.
We wait for what seems like an hour, but is more likely about 10 minutes. Each minute crawls by as we stare intently at my fatherâs face, trying desperately to see if he is giving us a clue about where we should look, about what to expect. Finally, the long-awaited knock comes and my mother is at the door, beckoning us out into the hallway to search for the presents that the Hanukkah Fairy has left for us. We tear through the house, searching every nook and cranny to find the impeccably wrapped gifts, signed with a sweet note from the Hanukkah Fairy herself.
As each of us find our present, we sit in a circle on the green rug in the living room, running the fringe through our fingertips, waiting. When everyone has found their gift, we sit together in a circle and open our presents all at once. Together we exclaim, âThank you, Hanukkah Fairy!â And âHappy Hanukkah!â The angelic-looking doll, who we understand as a stand-in for the real Hanukkah Fairy, rests on a table nearby. With her tightly curled blonde hair and blue eyes, she watches us as we thank her for bringing us such sweet gifts.
Fast forward to 16 years old. The Hanukkah traditions of my earlier childhood have worn away slowly, and at this point have dwindled to lighting the candles for one or two nights, perhaps with some singing that reminds us all of our younger days. The magic of lighting the candles remains, though. No matter how few or how many nights bring us together for the lighting of the menorah, I am always left with a sense of wonder that I cannot explain. I am awestruck by the beauty of the blessing, the solemnity of it, the gathering of voices and the soft glow of the menorah lighting up the dark night.
I was at least 18 years old when I learned that, in fact, the Hanukkah Fairy is not a staple of Jewish practice, but rather a very creative concept devised by my intermarried parents. You can imagine my shock and laughter when I found out from more observant Jewish friends that they had never heard of the Hanukkah Fairy, and that in fact she sounded like a blend of the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Hanukkah and Christmas. I remember that moment of learning; I remember feeling an immediate surge of pride for my parentsâ ingenuity. They created a ritual that became meaningful for our family that in many ways merged their two traditions.
My father was raised Catholic, but no longer identifies with any religion. My mother is Jewish and identifies as such, but more in an ancestral sense than in a practicing sense. As such, my childhood was typical in many ways of interfaith families: We celebrated Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah and sometimes Passover, and for many years we attended a local Unitarian Universalist church. We were raised to have a deep respect for all religious traditions yet without a true grounding in any particular one. The open approach to religiosity in my childhood, far from being a limitation or barrier, has in fact been transformative for me as an adult.
For the past several years, I have slowly begun to delve deeper into spiritual practice, first through an exploration of Goddess traditions, and then through a connection with earth-based Jewish practice, primarily in Renewal Jewish communities. I love every moment of this choice. Had I been raised with a more dogmatic approach to one or both traditions, I feel that my relationship to God and Jewish practice would be different; more difficult, perhaps, to return to. Now when I light Shabbat candles, or sing the Shema or make Havdalah, I feel intimately connected to the tradition because I enter it from a place of consent, agency and pure joy. Every time I engage in Jewish practice, I feel that I am returning to myself, to God and to my ancestors.
As someone who is now engaged in rich and informed Jewish practice, I look back at the Hanukkah Fairy fondly. I feel proud of my familyâs invented tradition with such a lovely blend of Jewish and Christian practice. I feel so much gratitude that my parents decided to invent this blended ritual for my siblings and me, and that they chose throughout my upbringing to give us the agency to make our own decisions about whether and how we wanted to participate in spirituality. That precious, sweet sound of the Hanukkah Fairyâs bell rings for me now and always as a reminder of that profound familial tradition and the blessing of coming from an interfaith family committed to action, choice and knowledge.
Kelly recently earned her BA from Carleton College in Religion and Womenâs Studies. She currently works as a resident organizer at Moishe Kavod House and as an intern at Mayyim Hayyim. She also teaches Hebrew school and yoga at local synagogues. Kelly has also worked as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence and as a doula. She loves movement, running in the woods, poetry and the moon.
ByÂ Melissa K. Rosen,Â Director of National Outreach for Sharsheret
A cancer diagnosis affects so much more than you think it will. Of course I expected the physical challenges. And it came as no surprise when I found myself emotionally drained. What I didnât recognize for either of my two diagnoses was the impact cancer had on my spiritual life.
Living Jewishly has been important to me since childhood. Through the years it has meant very different things, yet has always been an integral part of who I am. I grew up in a Reform temple. My husband, now a committed Jew, grew up in a Christian home. We have spent time in both Conservative and Orthodox communities. Those varied experiences have made us sensitive to both the ways we practice and our relationships with God and community.
During my first diagnosis, I instinctively turned to faith and spirituality. I went to synagogue, spoke with God, wore an amulet with Jewish text and even received a healing bracha, or blessing, from a rabbi. My community and my faith were a large part of my recovery. I drew strength from what had always been important to me.
Seventeen years later, at the time of my second diagnosis, without even realizing it, I shut down spiritually. In retrospect, it was as if a switch was flipped. I withdrew from my community. I stopped attending Shabbat services and drew little joy from holidays and Shabbat.
Navigating cancer places unique pressures not just on the patient, but on the family as well. A medical crisis can bring family togetherâand it can also highlight differences. In my family, with our joyful and carefully constructed religious life, changes of any type were a challenge that needed to be addressed. Were the changes I made permanent? How would they impact my family? Were they actually helping me deal with my diagnosis?
I realize now, both from the benefit of time and from the conversations I have had with other cancer survivors, that diagnosis can make a person spiritually fragile. When you are diagnosed you may look to find meaning in the experience. That may mean drawing closer to faith, changing the way your faith is expressed or turning away completely. It may be an intentional decision, or something you realize in retrospect. Maybe I was mad. Maybe I needed every ounce of strength I had to deal with my treatment. What I know now, healthy and long past treatment, is that my life is missing something.
Jewish observance and commitment has always been an active conversation in my home, so Iâm not sure why it took me months to realize the changes that occurred at my second diagnosis. Now that Iâm aware of what I have lost, I have made myself a promise to fight my way back to something that has always brought me joy and comfort. Iâm not sure where I will find myself in the end, but I know one thing for sure: Iâll be in synagogue next Shabbat!
Sharsheret, Hebrew for âchain,â is a national not-for-profit organization that supports young women and families, of all Jewish backgrounds, facing breast cancer at every stageâbefore, during and after diagnosis.
By Nicole Rodriguez
Whenever I meet someone new, thereâs always an instant connection the moment I find out theyâre Jewish. Itâs almost like an immediate form of familiarity, even though we just met. However, when I meet someone from a different faith, I am just as interested to learn more about their culture as I am when someone is a different denomination of Judaism.
Growing up in a Reform Jewish household, I was often told by my parents, âYou can marry anyone you want, but we prefer a nice Jewish boy.â A big emphasis was on the âprefer.â But Iâve dated many people and the religious aspect hasnât weighed heavily. The one serious relationship I had was with someone who was not Jewishâhe was Lutheran. But besides the occasional questions here and there about our faiths, we rarely talked about it. It just became one of the details I knew about him. We were both pretty non-observant religiously; less organizational and more family-centered and holiday-based.Â All the other positive aspects about him were more important to me than the fact that he came from a different faith and belief system, which ensured a successful relationship.
Interfaith dating forces someânot allâpeople to make the difficult decision of whether they should or should not pursue a potential relationship with someone of a different faith. My opinion as a millennial in this day and age is that beliefs are not a key factor in determining the outcome of a relationship; values are. Date whomever you want based on personality, sense of humor, how that person shows their love for you, etc. Truly good people are those who find ways to apply their beliefs to their lives and aspire to live a life by the right values.
Though all the different kinds of faiths across the globe may vary from one to the next, many of their values are universal. As long as both people share similar values and are able to maintain mutual respect for each otherâs beliefs, there shouldnât be anything holding them back from being together. Both parties can carry on the religious traditions important to them, share in each otherâs practices and celebrate the unity of their values. There will be different approaches to how to be a good person, and that can potentially be enriching to learn about and process.
As a famous Beatle once said, âAll you need is love.â Now, John, what do you mean by that? Specific love from specific people? Love as long as itâs with someone from your religion? No. I think he means that any love is worth your time and affection, regardless of religious differences. By limiting yourself to one cluster of people, you might be denying who can truly make you happy. Some couples might disagree, but in my opinion finding someone who will love you the way you truly are is the truest kind of love.
Judaism has a sense of peoplehood and a shared text, language and connection to a land. However, when you find a mate with real love and connection that isnât Jewish, it doesnât mean they canât still be a great addition to the community. I wonât lose my Jewish connections and Jewish allegiances, identity and pride when I #ChooseLove. Iâm not choosing love over sharing the same religion. If I can have both, awesome! Iâm hoping for love with someone who will support me for me and let my beliefs inform them as well.
By Joy Fields
We are commanded to honor our parents. The fifth commandment can present a few challenges, however, like when my Jewish mother is sitting next to my Presbyterian father-in-law in his favorite Chinese restaurant, waving a pink morsel around on her fork and loudly asking, âWhat is this?â
âIt may be pork, Mom, just eat around it,â I whisper. OK, maybe I hiss. Iâd prefer to think I whisper. Loudly. Iâm sure I try to make a point of using an indoor voice without actually telling Mom to shut it.
She holds the morsel closer and focuses through her bifocals as if checking a diamond for flaws.
âPut it down and eat around it,â I repeat, trying not to appear angry.
âOh, fine. I have plenty to eat anyway. Who needs rice?â She refocuses on her dinner plate. âDo you think I can eat the moo goo gai pan?â
Not with your mouth open. Remember, thatâs your rule, Mom.
Of course I donât verbalize this because itâs not going to help to argue with her in front of my in-laws, the restaurateurs theyâve been visiting for 20 years and the general public. I can just quietly break my chopsticks under the tablecloth, so no one will notice. Ah, that feels better.
I make a mental note to do a little advance preparation in the future. There must be ways to avoid confrontation and honor my parents. Not to mention my mental health.
To start, I try looking at the situation from my parentsâ viewpoint. I made a decision to embrace an interfaith relationship, but Mom didnât. Iâm open to new experiences and accepting of different cultures; she loves me and is OK with my spouse, but isnât comfortable outside of her own microcosm. Before bringing her into an unfamiliar situation, I should have discussed it with her so she would be a bit more prepared.
I would also try to use a positive viewpoint to appeal to her. Next time Iâll say: âMom, the Smiths have invited you to their favorite restaurant because they really want you to enjoy a meal with them. They really love the food there and donât realize itâs not what youâre used to. There will be something on the menu you will be able to eat, but the most important thing will be enjoying each otherâs company. They really look forward to seeing you.â Iâll print a menu from the restaurantâs website (in large font, no less) so Mom can be thinking about what she could comfortably tolerate before she even gets there.
I also consider my in-lawsâ viewpoint. My father-in-law typically enjoys ordering family-style to show his prowess at selecting the best flavor combinations. So I would politely let him know in advance that Mom has complicated dietary concerns, and although everyone appreciates his expertise, it might be better this time to let everyone order their own thing. He would understand and reward me with a detailed recount of his recent gallbladder surgery recuperation that required a special diet. He would be careful to remind me that itâs now perfectly OK to bring him a plate of those pecan cookies anytime I want to.
I would discuss with Mom their before-meal prayer routine. Most Jews I know donât say Kiddush (the prayer over wine) before sipping wine in a restaurant, but my Christian family bows their heads slightly as the head of the family says a blessing before digging in to the meal.
I would point out the similarities between this and saying HaâMotzi (the prayer before meals) before Momâs Shabbat meal. Iâd let her know that although some may bow, sheâs certainly not required to. Most will voice âamen,â which is also not required of her. She can just keep her lips sealed. (I vaguely remember seeing her do this at some point in time and feel reasonably sure she can replicate it if she practices.)
Instead of focusing on differences, another great way to prepare is letting my family know what they have in common with others at the gathering. People of all backgrounds love gardening, crafting, investing and complaining about how long it takes their fancy new phone to update.
âMom, why donât you sit next to Ralph?â I would suggest. âHe read that same Patterson novel you just did, and you can discuss the plot flaws with him until the cows come home while the rest of us talk about something weâre interested in.â
Finally, I heed the advice I received from a nurse experienced with dementia patients, which is applicable to all families: Donât correct or argue about recanted memories. If Mom wants to tell Ralph and Mary all about her experience as a Broadway chorus girl, Iâll sit back and enjoy the show. I donât mention that Mom grew up in New Jersey and couldnât dance her way out of a paper bag. The family is entertained, everyone is happy and the fifth commandment has been fulfilled.
By Robyn Bacon
Like his other mother, my 4-month old son Sam is Jewish. I am not. I was born and raised Catholic. My mother and her sister converted to Catholicism while attending the Catholic schools that offered a better education to black families than the separate but equal public schools in the segregated South. My mother went to mass every day and, after she died, the congregation at her local church planted a tree in her honor outside the front door. My aunt (her sister) regularly serves communion at Sunday mass. My fatherâs family has been Catholic for generationsâhis cousin was Mother Superior of a convent of black nuns in New Orleans. My Catholic background was such a point of pride for me that, even after agreeing that our son would be Jewish, I still wanted to name him Ignatius Xavier in honor of the founders of the Jesuits.
With this history, I wasnât sure what to expect when I told my family that Sam was going to be Jewish. I was especially concerned about my father. Dadâs family is Louisiana Creole. For him, being Catholic is not just about religion. Itâs a core part of his identity, as integral to his sense of self as being black and from Texas. Sam was already biracial and a native Californian. I was afraid that when Dad learned that Sam was going to be Jewish, he might decide Sam was too different to be his grandson.
To my surprise, my father was not only accepting, he was also enthusiastic. And full of questions. Why was Sam going to be Jewish? How could my baby be Jewish if Iâm not? Was he going to be baptized Jewish? What were the Jewish holidays? It was a bit overwhelming. Figuring that it would be better to let him find his own answers, I asked IFF/LAâs Rabbi Keara Stein for book recommendations.
Dad came to visit Sam for the first time a week ago. When he called before the visit, he mentioned that he had read the books. Judaism had made a strong impression on him and he was âexcitedâ that it was going to be a part of Samâs life. He liked the Jewish sense of community and the rituals, but most of all he liked how, as he described it, Judaism emphasized study over knowledge. âI feel like that really resonates with me,â he said.
I suggested that he join us for Shabbat dinner while he was in town. (His text message response was âIâm down w/âShabbatâ after I look up what it is.â) We also invited my cousin, who just moved to LA, and my motherâs brother, who happened to be in town. So my father experienced his first Shabbat with his grandson, surrounded by family. It was the first time he had ever shared a family meal at my house. It was also the first time he ate challah, which he thoroughly enjoyed.
At his suggestion, he and I took Sam to services on Saturday morning, where, after seeing me navigate the prayer book, he asked if I knew Hebrew. (âNot really,â I answered. âBut itâs OK to just la la la if you donât know the words.â He laughed.) Driving home, we talked about what to expect at Samâs bar mitzvah. And he finally asked an easy question. Dad wanted to know why Sam didnât have my last name. âEasy,â I said. âOur name is Bacon. Thatâs just not very Jewish.â
Before he left, my father told me how much he enjoyed his trip, even the two hours we spent at services. Looking back, it might have been the best visit weâve had as adults. Talking about Judaism made for some of the longest and most personal conversations weâve ever had. And his curiosity gave me a chance to think more deeply about what it means to raise our son in our Jewish community. Dadâs parting words were a request that I let him know when holidays were coming so he could be prepared. Perhaps Iâll give him a call for Shavuot.