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.

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.

How My Hindu Husband Became the Favorite Jewish Grandchild

  

By Jessica Melwani

How My Hindu Husband Became the Favorite Jewish GrandchildI’d been dating the man who’d eventually become my husband for about a year when my grandmother sat me down for a heart-to-heart.

“I saw Aishwarya Rai on Oprah last week. You know, the Dollywood [she meant Bollywood] actress? Stunning girl!” Then came the truth bomb: “She told Oprah that your boyfriend already has a bride arranged for him back in India. At some point, he’s going to leave you high-and-dry, marry the girl his parents chose, and move back into their house.”

I was pretty sure Aishwarya Rai hadn’t been discussing my love life with Oprah. And while my future husband didn’t actually have a clandestine bride arranged in India, he also wasn’t the Jewish doctor to whom my grandmother had married me off in her fantasies.

“He seems very nice,” she said of the love of my life. “But that’s just how they do things.”

They. She’d never met an Indian person before and, on some level, I was touched by her urge to protect me, even if it was born of her own frustrating, dated brand of xenophobia.

My boyfriend and I were born at the same hospital, raised in the same town and attended the same schools. From an objective eye, we weren’t some sort of star-crossed pair. Still, he wasn’t white and he wasn’t Jewish, and for all the many things we had in common, those two facts seemed like insurmountable differences to her. At least at first.

In the years before our engagement, I ran interference, often dispelling bizarre myths about Hinduism and Indian traditions.

“Jess. Your grandfather printed out an article from the computer. It said that Hindus have 300 million gods and that they worship monkeys. Monkeys.”

False.

“Jess. I just watched a program about women in India. If you marry him, you’ll have to get a dot tattooed on your forehead. A tattoo. On your face.”

Super, super false (and racist.)

Without being too pushy, I tried to create opportunities for her to see us together, to help her understand why our relationship worked, despite what she believed to be deal-breaking differences.

And here’s where the story gets surprising: during our visits, I watched my grandmother and my husband form an extraordinary bond.

As it turned out, they shared a mutual appreciation for beautiful things—art, music, even fashion—and were able to talk about everything from Matisse to Mozart to Alexander McQueen. It didn’t hurt that my guy had developed a masterful knack for conversational Yiddish, having grown up in a predominantly Jewish suburb—and could confidently describe an ugly dress as a schmatte or flowery piece of music as schmaltz. He literally and figuratively spoke her language.

Before the wedding, we invited her to visit our apartment. It was kind of a big deal. She entered tentatively, taking in all the unmarried, interfaith sin around her. Then she stopped in front of a painting by an emerging Indian artist that my husband had acquired before we started dating; a painting that I had made a lot of noise about hating, for no good reason. She gasped.

“The colors. The lines. It’s so…sensual!” I burst out laughing, not because my grandmother had said the word “sensual” (which was definitely hilarious), but because she had simultaneously validated my husband’s taste in art and solidified their unexpected connection.

Over the years, my husband asked her about gallery openings in the ‘70s and Coney Island in the 40’s. She clipped articles for him about contemporary art exhibits and Indian actors in Hollywood. They also shared one key interest—me—and to her delight, she’d finally found an audience for her outsized stories about my childhood. To anyone else, she would have been bragging, but between them, she was simply affirming his good taste.

My husband was attentive to her in ways that grandchildren who’ve had the luxury of time with a grandparent too often are not. And ultimately this was what made her change her mind and deem him a mensch of the highest order.

From birth, my grandmother and I had a special relationship. My status as the favorite grandchild was an open family secret. But by the time she passed, we all agreed that my husband had become the apple of her eye—we even joked about their rocky start.

Friends and strangers alike often ask about the challenges my husband and I faced marrying outside our cultures. They assume that that our parents presented the biggest roadblocks. They didn’t. Not by a long shot. The older generation—my grandmother in particular—held longer, more entrenched views on the importance of marrying within one’s community, and thus they had a much steeper hill to climb to reach a point of acceptance.

There’s that word: acceptance. Too often, we use it to describe some sort of blissful, interfaith end-game. In my experience, it’s just the cost of entry. It’s what we need from the people we care about to maintain the status quo in our relationships. But beyond that threshold genuine love, messy and strong, is what we really crave. And that love can grow in unlikely, even inhospitable places.

That love grew for my grandmother as she got to know my husband, and I was more than happy to relinquish the title of favorite grandchild when she discovered it.

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.

Jessica Melwani, Kveller.com contributorJessica Melwani is a freelance writer and editor. A recent suburban transplant, she lives outside New York City with her husband and their two awesome, ridiculous boys. When she isn’t in the car overcoming her fear of highways and left turns, you can find her binge-watching British crime dramas or sometimes even blogging.

Why We Say Yes to the Easter Invite

  

Family having Easter dinner

The phone rang and I heard my dad’s apprehensive voice. “Hi 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 you’re raising Shira Jewish and we don’t want to offend you by extending the invitation.

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, “We will be there. I’m glad you brought this up, since we haven’t 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 won’t observe them in any religious capacity, but whenever invited, we want her to participate in those holidays to appreciate what her loved ones celebrate.”

He and I both seemed relieved that the conversation, albeit brief, finally took place. My daughter is 2 years old and we’re 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 didn’t 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 we’ve 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 didn’t 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 mom’s 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 couldn’t 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 hadn’t 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.

A Not-So-Cookie Cutter Hanukkah

  

By Jessica TobacmanTobacman_cookie cutters

We were late. ‘Twas 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 parents’ 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 it’s not our go-to for Jewish holiday foods or items. We were lucky to find a menorah at one store the year before, though. (What’s 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 couldn’t find cookie cutters for Hanukkah at Target. I think this exemplifies how I feel at Christmas: Takeout boxes and menorahs aside, it ain’t easy bein’ 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, there’s a part of me that’s 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 “Jesus” 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 can’t remain on the outside of the holiday and culture that surrounds us in the States. I still want to remain outside, but I’m also inside the phenomenon.

The phrase “December dilemma” implies there’s a conflict. But while it’s easy to say it’s external, between spending time decorating the tree or lighting Hanukkah candles, isn’t it more internal? It’s 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. It’s making Christmas cookies and needing to avoid most of the cookie cutters because they’re outlining the differences you’re not discussing.

Now, however, I’m 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 it’s 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; it’s literally part of their family’s 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.) It’s 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 it’s 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 we’ve 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.  Maybe a little bit of teasing and schmaltz, too.

Sugar Cookies

  • 2/3 cup shortening
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 egg
  • 4 tsp. milk
  • 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ¼ tsp. salt

 

1. Thoroughly cream shortening, sugar and vanilla. Add egg; beat until light and fluffy. Stir in milk. Sift together dry ingredients, then blend into creamed mixture. Divide dough in half. Chill 1 hour.

2. On lightly floured surface, roll half of dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Keep other half of dough chilled until ready to use. Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters. Bake on greased cookie sheet at 375 degrees about 6 to 8 minutes. Cool slightly, then remove from pan. Makes two-dozen cookies.

How a Symbol Proved to Me that Love Always Wins

  

Mezuzah touch and kiss.

By Debra Lipenta

I, like many people, was deeply shaken after the results of the presidential election. After feeling so hopeful and then having that hope shattered, I really struggled internally. I feared the recent divisive and hateful rhetoric might take our nation and our communities back to a less accepting, less safe time. When I saw the first evidence of this — the news that someone had spray-painted hateful messages and swastikas in my own neighborhood — I was horrified.

A swastika is just a symbol. It’s a small visible representation of something much larger: pure hate. Hate to the point of mass murder. Mass murder of my people. The symbol itself should not be able to hurt me, but it does. Each time I see a swastika, it elicits a strong, visceral reaction from deep inside me. I was inconsolable at the thought that this kind of hate still exists, and so close to my own home.

I’m grateful to have a loving, supportive and thoughtful partner, John. Though he is not Jewish, John saw and understood the pain that the swastikas had caused me. We had recently moved into the neighborhood together, our first home. When I called him, distraught, his reaction, unprompted and immediate, was, “We’re going to hang up our mezuzah tonight.”

A mezuzah is just a symbol. Yes, it holds a blessing for a home and to hang one is a mitzvah, but it’s also a symbol that, by its very presence, says, “A Jewish person lives here.” It is a mark of solidarity among the Jewish community, and it does not hide in the face of hate. We, John and I, would not hide in the face of hate. In this seemingly small gesture, John reassured me of my safety and his solidarity. It was both an outward-facing sign to our community, and a personal act of support for me. It meant more to me than he ever could have known.

We hung our mezuzah that evening, he with the hammer while I said the blessing. For me, it is now also a symbol of his love, and I can find comfort and hope knowing that love always wins.

Expressing Gratitude During the High Holidays

  

By Jessica Tobacman

Rosh hashanah (jewish New Year) concept. Traditional symbolsRosh Hashanah—also known as the “birthday of the world”—is fast approaching. Soon we’ll celebrate the world’s big day with a round birthday cake of challah and apples, with honey on the side.

Common birthday gifts include standard prayers sung to melodies old and new, and foods that are as old as our great-grandparents with tweaks as young as the babies celebrating this holiday for the first time.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we have a chance to step back and look more closely at the path before us.

When I was growing up, I’d sit down to a holiday dinner, which included brisket and tsimmes, with my parents and two brothers. Now a cantorial soloist with little time to spare on the evening Rosh Hashanah begins, I’m grateful for the Wendy’s burgers my husband buys so we can sit down together, albeit briefly, and remind ourselves that the holiday isn’t just about getting to services with a few minutes to spare. Instead, he reminds us both that family time is integral to the High Holidays. I’m fortunate that my husband, who isn’t Jewish, almost always attends the services I lead, during which he pores over the English translations of the Torah and Haftarah portions and reads aloud with the congregation when they pray in English. These may seem like small actions within the larger context of a service or Judaism itself, but he helps fit the vital pieces of family, community and prayer into a much larger Jewish puzzle.

My parents set the precedent early on in my childhood that the secular New Year would always begin with a family dinner before any other non-family plans came into play. After dinner all bets were off, as the focus tended to be on where you were, and with whom, when the clock struck 12.

For the Jewish New Year, however, the holiday is always more of a kaleidoscope as you twist the end and see diamonds filled with families praying and singing together in communal services.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are arguably the two most important yearly holidays on the Jewish calendar. While the name of the first holiday translates to “head (rosh) of the year (hashanah),” the Day of Atonement is also about the “rosh.” It calls for paying attention to it in a different way, as we eat only in a spiritual sense, fasting for what amounts to about 25 hours.

One of the goals of the long fast is to attain spiritual clarity as a group by taking a break from the material world. Another is to build a sense of community as each of us pulls away from the rest of the world and toward Jewish worship simultaneously, for a common cause.

Judaism tells us to fast on Yom Kippur, unless you’re very young, pregnant, elderly or have a medical condition. Indeed, we refrain from eating as a community. In certain prayers, like “Sh’ma Koleinu,” the plural ending of “nu” is used to show how Jews take responsibility for one another and how important community is. The Jewish people have been persecuted and driven out from the lands they have inhabited on many occasions, including the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. So it’s no wonder we’ve got a bit of a community mentality, despite the pretty accurate idea that if there are two Jews in a room, they generally have three opinions.

The number “three” is a lamppost lighting the way forward during the High Holy Days: To be inscribed in the Book of Life, we need to repent, pray and perform good deeds, as the prayer “U’t’shuvah” states.

The good thing about the High Holidays is there are plenty of opportunities to do all three. Congregations often have food drives, where bringing nonperishable items to services as donations is commonplace. Doing tefillah (prayer) is the modern substitute for sacrifices and is integral to High Holy Day services. And performing t’shuvah (repentance) is a huge reason we go to synagogue in the first place.

Recently, I started the practice of writing gratitude emails, thanking the people in my life for their good deeds. Each message evokes a positive sense of the relationship, bringing it back to ground zero if something has gone awry in the past or if we simply need a fresh start with the new year coming. During this time of year, I suggest combining the idea of gratitude emails with one of sending messages asking for forgiveness. It has the potential to reorganize your life and your relationships so you have a better sense of how to move forward as we start the year 5777.

If nothing else, it’s a great time to reach out to those you care about and reconnect during this potentially sweet, nostalgic time of year. It might be time for a reboot, or simply a chance to celebrate the beautiful world we live in.

To find out more about Jessica, visit her website at http://www.jessicaleestudio.com/.

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.

A Millennial’s Take on Interfaith Dating

  

By Nicole Rodriguez

Interfaith Dating for MillenialsWhenever I meet someone new, there’s always an instant connection the moment I find out they’re Jewish. It’s 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, “You can marry anyone you want, but we prefer a nice Jewish boy.” A big emphasis was on the “prefer.” But I’ve dated many people and the religious aspect hasn’t weighed heavily. The one serious relationship I had was with someone who was not Jewish—he 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. 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 some—not all—people 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 other’s beliefs, there shouldn’t be anything holding them back from being together. Both parties can carry on the religious traditions important to them, share in each other’s 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, “All you need is love.” Now, John, what do you mean by that? Specific love from specific people? Love as long as it’s 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 isn’t Jewish, it doesn’t mean they can’t still be a great addition to the community. I won’t lose my Jewish connections and Jewish allegiances, identity and pride when I #ChooseLove. I’m not choosing love over sharing the same religion. If I can have both, awesome! I’m hoping for love with someone who will support me for me and let my beliefs inform them as well.

How Jewish Am I?

  

By Nicole Rodriguez

Nicole and her parents

Nicole and her parents

I am Jewish. I identify as being Jewish. Well, actually, I identify as being Jew-ish. I was born Jewish, but was raised in a non-observant home. No synagogue, no bat mitzvah and no serious Jewish boyfriend (yet?) to help me learn about Judaism and Jewish culture. We did have the occasional tradition (that’s an oxymoron, right?) of watching The Ten Commandments and Eight Crazy Nights on Passover and Hanukkah, put on by my father, who converted to Judaism before my parents got married. I still light the candles on Hanukkah with my parents and many of my best friends are Jewish. I was very happy growing up Jew-ish, but it has led to my fair share of awkward questions.

“OMG, your dad converted? So you’re technically half Catholic!?” Nope! Some Jewish denominations might disagree, but I am actually 100 percent Jewish.

“I’m confused, you’re Jewish but don’t Mexicans celebrate Christmas?” My Dad converted but we still join his family on Christmas as guests, not to celebrate.

“You’re Mexican, can you help me with my Spanish homework?” I doubt I know more Spanish than you do.

“What synagogue do you belong to?” My family and I don’t belong to one.

“You don’t look Jewish.” Um OK? What does a Jewish person look like?

I recently read an article about people who say “You don’t look Jewish,” as if it’s a compliment.

There is no such thing as a “Jewish” look. You wouldn’t tell someone on the street that they don’t look American. Children are taught to value diversity and respect those of other ethnic backgrounds because America is a land of many cultures. The same goes for anyone who is Jewish.

In addition to being Jew-ish, I try to maintain a deep connection with my Mexican heritage. Although I am not fluent, I try to speak Spanish as much as I can with my Mexican half of the family. However, I do not celebrate The Day of the Dead nor does my family play Selena music throughout the house or watch George Lopez 24/7. Stereotypes, man.

I have been dogged by many stereotypes and presumptions for as long as I can remember. I’m not your average Jew or average Mexican—but honestly, today’s world is becoming less and less stereotypical. For example, more interfaith families are becoming part of American Judaism.

By interning at InterfaithFamily this summer as part of the Chicago JUF Lewis Intern Program, I am able to connect with other young adults like me. I see a whole network of people out there trying to find meaning and make our way in our Jewish world. Sometimes this world feels welcoming and embracing and sometimes I feel out of place and awkward. Meet me, an eager newbie with lots to learn, a deep sense of pride of who I am, with new Jewish memories and an open heart and soul ready to forge our future.