Breast Cancer and An Unexpected Spiritual Journey

  

By Melissa K. Rosen, Director of National Outreach for Sharsheret

Melissa K. Rosen SharsheretI went to Shabbat services this morning for the first time in months. My long absence wasn’t an intentional decision. In fact, I only became aware of the “decision” recently.

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 didn’t 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 together—and 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 I’m not sure why it took me months to realize the changes that occurred at my second diagnosis. Now that I’m 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. I’m not sure where I will find myself in the end, but I know one thing for sure: I’ll be in synagogue next Shabbat!

Sharsheret, Hebrew for “chain,” is a national not-for-profit organization that supports young women and families, of all Jewish backgrounds, facing breast cancer at every stage—before, during and after diagnosis.

If you are interested in learning more, or would like to run a Sharsheret Pink Shabbat®  to raise breast cancer awareness in your community, you can contact the author at mrosen@sharsheret.org.

Beyond the Bagel: A Vegan Shabbat Dinner

  

By Zoe Crum

My husband, Erik, and I recently attended “Love and Religion,” a workshop for interfaith couples who are exploring their spirituality and how their religion, spirituality and traditional practices will play into their future lives. I myself am not Jewish—Erik is—and I was raised, as we collectively decided to put it in class, with “Christian undertones.”

Erik and I have known each other since our undergraduate years at Drew University. We have been engaged for almost three years and will be getting married later this summer. Erik recently moved to Washington, D.C., to join me there. Since we have been living together we have decided to spend this time, and the early years of our marriage, experimenting with traditions and deciding what we want to nurture in our household from both of our upbringings. This is what led us to “Love and Religion” and eventually to this blog post!

Through this workshop at the DC JCC, we were lucky enough to meet the wonderful Rabbi Sarah Tasman, director of InterfaithFamily/DC, and hear about the “Jewish Food Experience: Beyond the Bagel Program Grants for Interfaith Families.”

beyond_bagel_dinner

I could gush forever about this program, as I’m a self-proclaimed vegan foodie. Cooking and baking are a huge passion of mine, and I love the opportunity to cook for people I care about. When we found out there was a program that would not only help fund a dinner for our friends but would allow me to explore new recipes and that directly related to our new relationship mission of exploring each other’s cultural traditions, we didn’t have to think twice. Of course we were going to host an interfaith veggie Shabbat—my very first.

We applied for the grant and the rest was delicious.

Friends of all backgrounds joined us for Shabbat, including both of the couples with whom we attended “Love and Religion.” We started the night with homemade hummus with veggies and flatbread, vegan cashew cheese with crackers, and dates and olives to snack on. Many people drank wine, which I have learned is standard for Shabbat, and a tradition the group wholeheartedly embraced.

Erik led us through the Shabbat rituals and got everyone involved. We lit candles and broke the vegan challah. We washed our hands and drank the wine. I wish I had gotten more pictures, but we implemented a strict no-phones-at-the-table rule. Then we sat down for strawberry, walnut and spinach salad and challah.

beyond_bagel_baked3Making challah was an interesting challenge, especially since I had never tasted it myself. However, from my understanding, it’s a heavily egg-based bread. Luckily, I found a nice and easy recipe from the cookbook “Betty Goes Vegan” and started the dough for two loaves. One was a classic challah, and the other I quickly decided should be a cheesy, garlic bread challah of my own devising. Apparently I didn’t do too badly (or my friends are just too nice). Everyone loved the challah, and one person even commented that they would buy the cheesy garlic one at the store if they could!

For the main course we had summer squash lasagna roll-ups with a walnut and sundried-tomato pesto, roasted lemon asparagus and roasted purple potatoes with rosemary. I had hoped to make a few more veggies but ran out of time (and it’s a good thing too, since there was plenty left over!).

On to the most important course: dessert. One of our fabulous guests brought a delightful peach crisp and coconut-based vanilla ice cream. I paired this with a vegan blueberry cheesecake with a graham-cracker crust from the cookbook “Vegan Pie in the Sky.”

The night was a huge success, filled with many insightful questions about Shabbat, Judaism and veganism. We are looking forward to our next chance to host a big dinner, and are so incredibly grateful to Sarah for connecting us with this opportunity. Shabbat shalom!

An Open Letter to Judaism from an Interfaith Family

  

Dear Judaism,

Well I’ve gone and done it. I didn’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 nowhere — BAM — I fell in love with a kind mid-western man.

He was smart and loving and well, raised in a different faith — but frankly, the fact that we were in love trumped anything else.

But I didn’t expect you to be so disappointed in me.

You see, this man asked me to marry him, and there we were, planning our wedding — a Jewish wedding — because 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 out… to care for this child and teach him. But as you glared at my tattooed body and asked about my husband’s background, I was told that your community’s children’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 didn’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, Judaism… so I gave up trying.

But I was heartbroken.

I know you’re trying to find a way to welcome us, but you’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 don’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 there’s something about you Judaism, that’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 are — and doesn’t punish us for what we’re not. There are so many of us out here making our own way… 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 rabbis — whose families closely resemble our own — don’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 “problem” like my family, my boys will bound through the door this Friday, giddy from the waning of the week and ask “MOM? What time is Shabbat?

Liz's kids

Turn Jew and I’ll Marry You

  

Turn Jew and I'll Marry You Blog PostThis blog post was reprinted with permission from Red Said What? 

By Jennifer Reinharz

Larry and I struck our deal over Sicilian pie.

“Turn Jew and I’ll marry you.”

I shook my head.  “You’re crazy.”

“Then raise the kids Jewish.”

Bringing up nonexistent children in a faith other than my own seemed easier to digest than lukewarm mozzarella.

“OK,” I shrugged.

One civil ceremony two children, and 15 years later Larry and I have put some mileage on our interfaith marriage bus since that momentous meal.

Turns out, there are many of us traversing a similar highway.

Hoping our collective experience might offer insight to couples merging toward the on ramp, I reached out to a handful of drivers in my lane. Together, we created a travel guide we wished someone had stashed in our glove compartment years ago.

1. Know Your Baseline

A clear belief system is the anchor for future decision making.

Flushing out what spiritually, culturally and religiously, if anything was important to me: not extended family, not community, but me, before I was in a committed relationship would have saved me years of agita.

2. Face Fears

Fear is at the root of all issues interfaith.

Jill, who is married to a Jewish man, raised Jewish children, and is active in her church and synagogue believes, “If you are strong in who you are, then there is nothing to fear. Notice when you feel threatened and investigate within yourself.”

3. You Are You

Individual identities are often clarified and strengthened when one is in an interfaith relationship as its nature requires each party to listen, reflect and respond regularly.

I still hear Larry say, “Marrying outside my faith made me a better Jew.  It puts me in a position to think about what matters.”

4. Your Children Will Always Be Yours

After our son’s bris, an outsider remarked, “He should go to the mikveh. It’s part of the deal.”

I felt torn between the conviction to do right by Larry’s conservative upbringing and dread that my child’s formal conversion would jeopardize our mother-son bond.

In search of guidance, I went to see a Reform rabbi. She explained the difference between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox interpretations regarding matrilineal descent and ultimately offered, “Think of bringing your baby to the ritual bath as a beautiful rebirth.”

Screw that, I thought. What was wrong with his first one?

My son never made it to the mikveh but believe you me, the kid is all mine. And when it comes time for him to stand on the bimah as a bar mitzvah, this Catholic mom will beam with pride.

5. Make a Plan

Whether it’s before the nuptials or on the second date, but definitely before babies make an appearance: decide. How will you raise the children?

Will your family choose one religion, formally teach two or like Laurie who is one-half of an interfaith and intercultural couple, celebrate and observe all holidays and life cycle events with a focus on spirituality, values, tradition and gratitude?

The plan will likely change, but a shared vision will minimize confusion, create the structure and identity children crave and help all parties feel safe.

Don’t rush this conversation to avoid cold pizza. Invest the time.

6. Show Up

Stacey, a proud Italian who was raised Catholic and her husband, a Conservative Jew, decided to raise their children in the Jewish tradition. He was responsible for schul (synagogue)-shopping and schleps the kids to Hebrew school. She holds court during the holidays and planned each child’s bar and bat mitzvah celebrations with care.

Laurie and her spouse deem it the responsibility of the parent whose tradition is being celebrated to teach the children about it in a meaningful way.

Regardless of approach, each person takes a turn behind the wheel.

7. Find a Friendly Rest Stop

When my children were young, I was fortunate to find a local interfaith group. During our regular “Coffee Talk” meet ups, we kicked around ideas, vented, listened, sought validation and offered guidance. These women and men were my leaning post and sounding board.

8. Build a Bridge

After agonizing through years of Hebrew laden Rosh Hashanah services and prayer-heavy meals with extended family, I cracked. “This is not my holiday. I don’t get it. It’s too much and I’m not going anymore.”

My outburst and subsequent conversation with Larry gave us permission to create a tradition where we each felt included and able to derive meaning from the environment. We started with a relatable rabbi, the children’s service at our Temple, and a meal with friends and have since graduated to grown up services and food with Larry’s family.

9. Celebrate Your Spouse’s Traditions

Larry, who was raised in a moderately observant home, had a post-decorating nightmare after he participated in my mother’s Christmas tree trimming party for the first time.

When we decided to put up our own Christmas tree a few years ago, I brought home a modest bush, concerned that a grand statement might make him squeamish. Larry gave our five-footer the once over, examined the nine foot ceilings and announced, “This tree doesn’t do the room justice. Next year it has to be much bigger!”

10. Give Extended Family a Chance

Let extended family on the bus. Offer to take a ride with them. Prepare a kosher meal. Attend a mass. Kindness, sensitivity and respect breed growth and mutual acceptance.

11. Be Open to the Journey

Jill feels being part of an interfaith family is, “An opportunity for you and your children to learn and understand not just one, but two cultures and religions on a very deep and intimate level. Learn and embrace as much as you can.”

The scenery doesn’t look quite the same as when Larry and I shared our Sicilian pie. Interfaith marriage is a journey and we are a work-in-progress.

In the end, we need to map the course which best suits our own family. Honoring each other along the way will make the ride more enjoyable and make all the difference.

Jennifer Reinharz writes for children; blogs for grown ups; is a teacher, CrossFitter and Mom.  She is a 2015 BlogHer Voice of the Year and creator of the personal essay blog, Red said what?  Her work has also appeared in Brain, Child, Mamalode and Club Mid.  Visit her on Twitter and Facebook.