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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 eventsâ€”a bar mitzvah, a graduation, a wedding, a trip to Maineâ€”brought four of the seven lines of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of my grandparents, Zelda and Shmuel, to Boston. Thus, a long talked-about family reunion was planned and executed. It involved 54 cousins of four generations from ages 2 to 88 with two in utero. I was the host for the meal.
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 â€śhostess with the mostest,â€ť 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 Czarâ€™s army and was not interested in fighting in a war which meant nothing to him. Over fifty future lives were changed by that decision, changed by a war that many of us had never heard, or knew only as a footnote in a history book. Our familyâ€™s history is also the story of their progeny, growing up with one foot in the Old World culture of their parents and one in the new.
I used the food, too, to educate about our grandparents’ customs. It did not seem fitting to mix milk and meat at the event, since my grandparents kept a Kosher home. Their lives revolved around Shabbat and the holidays. I knew a meat deli platter would horrify the younger generation, some of whom are vegetarian, which is, after all, the new Kosher. Like Kashrut, vegetarianism adds meaning to the daily task of eating. It makes us think about what we do and how we live in the world. I pointed this out to the attendees.
Kugels, garden salad and mandel bread were the solution, a way to bring back the smells and tastes of weekly gatherings for all the aunts and uncles and their families: the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of those in the room. Planning this menu proved to be a wonderful way to manage conflict. We were able to compromise and accommodate the needs of everyone, despite their gastronomical preferences.
Food gives sustenance to families both literally and figuratively. It allows us to pass our customs on generation to generation. Food is both a way to control children 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 itâ€”more recentlyâ€”is one way of demonstrating their assimilation.
There was, for the older generation, emotional memory in the food. It connected us with the past and honored our grandparents. Food was a way of including our progenitors and bringing religion and culture, into a family in which only some of them considered themselves Jewish. The food was also a way of reinforcing identity. It was a reminder of family life. But, also, of a more gendered time: a time when women were in the kitchen and men sat in the living room. In the English aristocracy, a family meal meant work for the servants. For Jewish peasants, a family meal meant the women gossiping, preparing and cleaning, creating both memories and nourishment.
We spent the day connecting and fantasizing about a simpler time, much as our grandparents would have done as they told stories of the old country. In both cases, the nostalgia glossed over the difficulties. In der haim (in the old country), my grandmother would nostalgically recall the family Shabbat, despite the fact that their life involved hunger and dirt floors. We explored the losses and gains of assimilation.
The food provided a way to manage conflict and a way to reconnect. As we collectively produced the food and cleaned up, it gave us a shared task and a way for us to act like family.
Whether family members considered themselves Jewish or â€śof Jewish heritage,â€ť 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.
By Shawna Gale
My parents, who are both Jewish, were married in the 1970s. In the year they took their vows, only 36 percent of the Jewish respondents in a 2013 Pew Research Center survey had married spouses who were not Jewish. By 2005, the year I was married, that number had climbed to almost 60 percent. Now, as the children of this recent boom in interfaith marriages begin to explore their Judaic roots and, consequently, synagogues prepare to experience an influx of interfaith families, many Jewish communities are entering uncharted territory, endeavoring to preserve a tradition that is thousands of years old while accepting the realities of our modern timeâ€”a reality they must embrace if Judaism is to have a future.
I am a part of that reality. My husband and I met when we were in the ninth grade. By the time we left for college (at schools 1,000 miles apart), we had been a couple for over a year and we had every intention of staying that way. Our families were, for the most part, supportive of our relationship. But every so often they would remind usâ€”sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtlyâ€”that despite our many similarities, there was one defining difference.
I was raised in a Jewish home. My husband was brought up in an Episcopalian family. Yet at age 17, this didnâ€™t even register as a concern for us. My husband knew even then that someday I intended to raise my children Jewish. It was never a point of contention. He was fine with it. I was fine with it. What was the problem? A challenge was maintaining a long-distance relationship in the age before cell phones and Skype. Being an interfaith couple at the dawn of the new millennium was no big deal, right?
Perhaps the writing was on the wall as we sat, eight years later and newly engaged, listening to my childhood rabbi patiently explain why he could not marry us. I was incensed. Was he for real? Did he not hear us say that we were intending to raise our children Jewish? Wasnâ€™t that the important thing?
We were married in a civil ceremony by a Jewish judge who could perform all the rituals that mattered to me. We could still have the chuppah and the wine and the smashed glass. But the refusal stuck with me all the same. Already I felt the weight of our interfaith union.
Our early married years were uncomplicated by religious concerns. We celebrated holidays with both families, with Christmas dinners and Passover seders alike. But new challenges were on the horizon as we prepared for the birth of our first child.
After our son was born, we planned a Jewish naming ceremony, hung the decorative certificate bearing his Hebrew name on the nursery wall and then spent the next three years mostly teaching him to walk and talk and eat with a spoon. Religion took a back seat to sleep trainingâ€”the only prayer in our house was for a full nightâ€™s rest.
It wasnâ€™t until our second son was born and we enrolled our older child in a Jewish preschool that our interfaith parenting experiment began in earnest. I was delighted as our 3-year-old came home reciting Shabbat prayers, recounting the story of Hanukkah and asking to bake hamantaschenâ€”all cultural hallmarks of my Jewish upbringingâ€”but I also began to worry that my husband would feel left out. These things were not part of his childhood memories. How would he connect with our children and help them to form their Jewish identities when he had not experienced that himself? How could he feel comfortable in a community where he did not share in the collective subconscious?
These are the struggles of many of us who are parenting Jewish children as interfaith couples. Our journey is an ongoing series of tough questions and difficult answers. Often, we have no model to emulate, no map to follow. We are making up the rules as we go along.
I found the answers to those lofty existential questions in a surprising place. While attending an event at our local JCC, I enrolled my children in a program called PJ Library, which sends free Jewish books to children across the United States and Canada each month. Reading the books we receive monthly is such a simple thing, but the impact has been profound.
As my husband started sharing these stories with our sons at bedtime each night, he began to learnâ€”right alongside our childrenâ€”about Jewish holidays and celebrations; Hebrew words and Yiddish phrases; prayers and rituals and traditions. He discovered latkes and matzo balls and yes, hamantaschen. He started teaching our children about tzedakah, about doing a mitzvah and being a menschâ€”concepts so central and important in Jewish parenting. He is proud to be raising Jewish children and he is proud of the role he is playing in their spiritual upbringing.
I donâ€™t mean to suggest that we have solved all our interfaith parenting challenges with a collection of bedtime stories. For example, we recently decided to suspend our attendance at my in-lawsâ€™ Christmas celebrations after our 5-year-old, excited about his burgeoning Jewish identity, expressed confusion about his place there. Needless to say, we were not the most popular family members that year.
However, according to a new participant survey from PJ Library, a majority of families like mine are finding help and support from the program in raising their children grounded in Jewish traditions. Three years and dozens of books later, PJ Library continues to provide my husband with a platform of knowledge, a fine substitute for those roots he lacked having not been raised Jewish. It gives him the vocabulary he needs to play an active role in our childrenâ€™s religious education, and it allows him to feel more comfortable within our synagogue community where he participates confidently and often. We laugh when other members are surprised to find out that my husband is not actually Jewish. We are glad to be forging a path for the growing number of interfaith families in our community, and we are proud to be shaping a more introspective, responsive Judaism for this new era.
Shawna Gale is a blogger, wife and mother of two young boys living in Glastonbury, CT. Her website, www.outandaboutmom.com helps local parents find fun activities to do with their children. Shawna is an active member of her synagogue community and was recently elected to the board of trustees.
By Liat Katz
â€śA Y A M,â€ť She writes.
â€śUm, Maya, I think you wrote your name backwards,â€ť I respond.
â€śNope, itâ€™s just in Hebrew,â€ť the 6-year-old says.
Maya is learning to read and write in English, while also learning Hebrew at our synagogueâ€™s Sunday school. That makes it confusing. And sheâ€™s left-handed too, which makes this backwards-forwards thing even harder.
The whole figuring-out-the-Jewish thing in our modern world has been complicated. Finding a Jewish community that is both warm and accepts our two-mom interfaith family was also difficult, but I think we are starting to find a rhythm.
My wife, Lisa, is not Jewish (she is a recovering Baptist), but is completely on board with raising our kids Jewish. She took time to learn some Hebrew, she helps the kids get to Hebrew school, light candles, says prayers on Shabbat, and seems to be more knowledgeable about Judaism than I am at this point. She also makes the best latkes I have ever tasted.
For our oldest girlâ€™s naming ceremony, we hired a Rabbi who was a humanist, gay, social worker, anarchist, vegan to do the ceremony in our home. Iâ€™m not kidding. Of course he had no problem with the fact that were gay and interfaith. And the ceremony was beautiful. But beyond candle lighting and the occasional high holiday service, we did not have much of a Jewish household after that ceremony.
That was, until a couple of years ago, when we heard that kids absolutely have to start by third grade in Hebrew School to be on the bat mitzvah track. Aviva, our older child, was almost in third grade. And being a child of a Holocaust survivor, I felt compelled to partake in this Jewish tradition for all those that could not. Besides, though I am not very religious, I wanted to have our kids have a sense of belonging to a larger Jewish community.
When I lived in Israel, I could be a part of the Jewish communityâ€”and feel Jewish by virtue of living in a Jewish land, speaking the language, interacting with the people. But here, in the U.S., going to temple seems to be where we need to connect to the Jewish community.
So we started shopping for synagogues to join. We started with the obvious ones for our familyâ€”Reconstructionist. We went to a few services and kidsâ€™ services at a relatively local Reconstructionist synagogue. I looked around: Lots of gay families, check. Interfaith families, check. Even racial diversity (pretty unusual at most synagogues), check. Interesting services with lots of opportunities for activities, check. The only thing missing was, well, warmth. Being Gay-friendly did not make them friendly-friendly. Nobody really spoke to us, looked at us or acknowledged us, or each other, either. Not the place for us.
We checked out Reform synagogues. The communities were nice, but huge. And somehow it wasnâ€™t what I wanted. Why didnâ€™t I like it? The people seemed nice, there were a few other gay families, a bit of diversityâ€¦but I realized it wasnâ€™t like the services I grew up in. The tunes to the songs were different, and the prayers were mostly in English.
So it turned out that this non-traditional family that had babies in a non-traditional way, wanted a synagogue that was moreâ€¦traditional.
Looking online for a Jewish community, I stumbled upon Kehilat Shalom, a small Conservative synagogue that was about 15 miles away from our house. The Rabbi looked nice. And the midweek Hebrew class was held online, which meant we wouldnâ€™t have to drive anywhere after school every week.
I contacted the Rabbi and got a lovely response. We went to a service. No gay people, but the people were warm, asked us genuine questions, and invited us to various groups.
The services were mostly in Hebrew, and the tunes were as I remembered them. The sanctuary was beautiful, and bathed in natural light. I closed my eyes and exhaled. We enrolled our older daughter in Hebrew Schoolâ€”and the mid-week Hebrew school class with a special Skype-type program was so helpful and you know, just like the ancient Israelites had planned.
And as I dropped her off for Sunday classes, I went in to Rabbi Arianâ€™s office to chat. Yes, he is knowledgeable about all things Rabbinic and Halachic, but he is also surprisingly, human. I got to know him and his great wife, Keleigh. And they got to know our family. They invited our family to their house, and we invited them to ours.
Of course, I did panic when we invited the Rabbi over. What do we cook? What plates do we use? We made pizza. Vegetarian pizza. My kids started to play a pretend restaurant game and offered the Rabbi a ham and cheese sandwichâ€”he took it in stride.
And one Fall afternoon, there came a surprising new edition to the litany of endless childhood questions that often makes this mommy feel inadequate. In addition to my daughtersâ€™ questions like: Why donâ€™t we have aâ€¦Christmas tree?â€¦a daddy?â€¦a beach house? they now, also ask me:â€śWhy donâ€™t we have a Sukkah?
As I got to talk with the Rabbi more, I began to understand conceptions of God and faith in a more relatable and fulfilling way. I discovered that maybe I want more than just Jewish culture in my life. And as the Rabbi got to know us and others in our community, he became more interested in LGBTQ issues.
In fact, he recently did a talk entitled, â€śReflections on Ten Years ofÂ LGBT Inclusion in Conservative Judaismâ€ť at synagogue. And after he took a tour of civil rights sites (and the Names Project) in Atlanta, he wrote in a weekly Shabbat email and blog post: â€śThe unspoken but very real question: what if anything is the connection between antisemitism, racism, and prejudice against the LGBT community? What is the role of religion in both creating and fighting prejudice?â€ť
Maya is slowly learning to spell both in Hebrew and English. Aviva continues to connect via computer to her teacher and to class, and now she also connects to Judaism through an overnight camp. And as I connect to a Rabbi, a God, and a community that are both thoughtful and inclusive, I realize that our life is even more diverse and warmly Jewish than I ever expected it could be.
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.
Liat Katz, a clinical social worker, is a graduate of New Directions, a writing program offered by the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis. Her work has been published in Lilith, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, and the narrative medicine websites Pulse and KevinMD. Of herself, she says, â€śI write to make sense of the world I see through the lens of a mom, a clinician, a patient, a wife, and a person just muddling through life.â€ť Liat lives in Rockville, Maryland with her wife, two daughters, four cats, and a bunny.
The phone rang and I heard my dadâ€™s apprehensive voice. â€śHi 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 youâ€™re raising Shira Jewish and we donâ€™t want to offend you by extending the invitation.â€ť
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, â€śWe will be there. Iâ€™m glad you brought this up, since we havenâ€™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 wonâ€™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.â€ť
He and I both seemed relieved that the conversation, albeit brief, finally took place. My daughter is 2 years old and weâ€™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 didnâ€™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 weâ€™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 didnâ€™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 momâ€™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 couldnâ€™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 hadnâ€™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.
By Tara Worthey Segal
I formally converted to Judaism one month after I lost my father and two weeks before getting married.
I hadnâ€™t been raised with much religion. I was baptized Lutheran, but always joked that my parents did that more out of superstition than dogma. They didnâ€™t do much to disabuse me of this notionâ€”we 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 didnâ€™t have much of a religious identity.
My parents said they didnâ€™t 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 Iâ€™d eventually marry. Matt was raised in a conservative Jewish household, and though he wasnâ€™t 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 didnâ€™t 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 Jewishâ€¦ Iâ€™m not sure he understood the necessity. We didnâ€™t 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 wasnâ€™t 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 fatherâ€™s values, as well. From him, I learned that knowledge is liberating. He didnâ€™t have much formal education but he shared with me his love for reading (he gave me his tattered copy of â€śThe Diary of Anne Frankâ€ť 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 devilâ€™s 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 didnâ€™t 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 â€śmay his memory be a blessing.â€ť It doesnâ€™t promise that I will see him again or that he is in a better place. It doesnâ€™t force me to place hope in something that Iâ€™m not sure exists. It allows me, simply, to find joy in the fact that I had him for 27 yearsâ€”and 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 evenâ€”because both of our siblings had married before usâ€”a double mezinke (a dance for parents whose last child is marrying). And as I watched the endless line of wedding guests dance around my husbandâ€™s mother and father and my own mother, and as I saw the mix of grief, pleasure, and bewilderment on my momâ€™s 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 wouldnâ€™t feel genuine to either of us.
Itâ€™s 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 Mournerâ€™s Kaddishâ€”for 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.
By Jared David Berezin
Many years ago I was in a book club and read a collection of essays called Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call For Justice. The book explored how Jewish thought intersects with issues of social justice, and each chapter focused on a different subject: poverty, the environment, health care, human rights, reproductive rights and Israel.
In one chapter, an environmental activist described her time canvassing in a small town in Texas, and how difficult it was to garner local support for her teamâ€™s initiative. One Friday evening as her despondent team gathered around a table for dinner, she had an idea. She asked everyone to pass a cup around the table, and as each person poured a little wine into the cup, they would say one victory they had in the past week, no matter how small. Even having a nice conversation with someone outside the grocery store counted as a victory during those tough times. As the cup went around and filled up with everyoneâ€™s victories, the activist realized to her surprise that they were, in essence, celebrating Shabbat.
Despite the absence of candles, challah or Hebrew prayers, these activists were recognizing the light, sweetness and sustenance in their lives. They were marking the end of a difficult week by taking a moment for reflection.
Inspired by this book, my wife and Iâ€”who are interfaith and unaffiliatedâ€”hosted a participatory Shabbat with some friends a while back. One guest came with her teenage son and daughter, who at the time were not enjoying each otherâ€™s company (to put it lightly!). Tweaking the ritual from Righteous Indignation, as the challah was passed around we asked people to share a moment from the past week that provided sustenance in their lives. When the challah reached the womanâ€™s teenage son, he looked down at the bread and thought about it for a moment. He then told us that what had sustained him over the past week was being able to spend so much time with his sister. We were all taken aback. His motherâ€™s eyes went wide, and his sister turned to him and asked in amazement, â€śReally?!â€ť
It was such a real and honest moment and, I believe, a very sacred one for that family and all of us there. Who wouldnâ€™t want to live in a world where a brother can tell his sister how he truly feels without reservation?
The possibility of these moments is why I keep coming back to Shabbat, even after weeks and sometimes months of letting Friday nights sail by without any acknowledgment. For me and my wife, who was not raised Jewish, Shabbat can be an inclusive way to mark the end of a busy week. It can be an opportunity to create an accessible space for honesty and shared reflection with good people.
But what about when weâ€™re not home on Friday night? Oftentimes my wife and I find ourselves at a concert, a friendâ€™s house or in the car heading off to a weekend adventure. Can a special space be created in these situations? Does every Shabbat need to look, sound and feel the same?
Years back I met with a rabbi and asked him how my wife and I could celebrate Shabbat in a meaningful way outside of the home. He looked me in the eyes and said: â€śFind some light, find some bread and find some sweetness. Then tell each other that you love each other.â€ť
Those beautiful wordsâ€”so simple, so honest, so free of biblical or quorum rulesâ€”provide us with basic ingredients for our Shabbat experiments. Amidst the variable settings and circumstances of any given Friday evening, creating space for love, honesty and unguarded reflection among friends and family can get the weekend going in a positive direction. Whether itâ€™s reading a poem together, reflecting on a victory or struggle from the past week, whether weâ€™re at home or on the road, whether we have the traditional Shabbat accoutrements or not, we can take a moment to find light, sustenance and sweetness around us and within each other.
By Jessica Tobacman
Rosh Hashanahâ€”also known as the â€śbirthday of the worldâ€ťâ€”is fast approaching. Soon weâ€™ll celebrate the worldâ€™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, Iâ€™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, Iâ€™m grateful for the Wendyâ€™s burgers my husband buys so we can sit down together, albeit briefly, and remind ourselves that the holiday isnâ€™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. Iâ€™m fortunate that my husband, who isnâ€™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 â€śhead (rosh) of the year (hashanah),â€ť the Day of Atonement is also about the â€śrosh.â€ť 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 youâ€™re very young, pregnant, elderly or have a medical condition. Indeed, we refrain from eating as a community. In certain prayers, like â€śShâ€™ma Koleinu,â€ť the plural ending of â€śnuâ€ť 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 itâ€™s no wonder weâ€™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 â€śthreeâ€ť 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 â€śUâ€™tâ€™shuvahâ€ť 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 tâ€™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, itâ€™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 atÂ http://www.jessicaleestudio.com/.
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 didnâ€™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 togetherâ€”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 Iâ€™m not sure why it took me months to realize the changes that occurred at my second diagnosis. Now that Iâ€™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. Iâ€™m not sure where I will find myself in the end, but I know one thing for sure: Iâ€™ll be in synagogue next Shabbat!
Sharsheret, Hebrew for â€śchain,â€ť is a national not-for-profit organization that supports young women and families, of all Jewish backgrounds, facing breast cancer at every stageâ€”before, during and after diagnosis.
By Nicole Rodriguez
Whenever I meet someone new, thereâ€™s always an instant connection the moment I find out theyâ€™re Jewish. Itâ€™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, â€śYou can marry anyone you want, but we prefer a nice Jewish boy.â€ť A big emphasis was on the â€śprefer.â€ť But Iâ€™ve dated many people and the religious aspect hasnâ€™t weighed heavily. The one serious relationship I had was with someone who was not Jewishâ€”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.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 someâ€”not allâ€”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 otherâ€™s beliefs, there shouldnâ€™t be anything holding them back from being together. Both parties can carry on the religious traditions important to them, share in each otherâ€™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, â€śAll you need is love.â€ť Now, John, what do you mean by that? Specific love from specific people? Love as long as itâ€™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 isnâ€™t Jewish, it doesnâ€™t mean they canâ€™t still be a great addition to the community. I wonâ€™t lose my Jewish connections and Jewish allegiances, identity and pride when I #ChooseLove. Iâ€™m not choosing love over sharing the same religion. If I can have both, awesome! Iâ€™m hoping for love with someone who will support me for me and let my beliefs inform them as well.
By Zoe Crum
My husband, Erik, and I recently attended â€śLove and Religion,â€ť 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 Jewishâ€”Erik isâ€”and I was raised, as we collectively decided to put it in class, with â€śChristian undertones.â€ť
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 â€śLove and Religionâ€ť and eventually to this blog post!
Through this workshop at the DC JCC, we were lucky enough to meet the wonderful Rabbi Sarah Tasman, former director of InterfaithFamily/DC, and hear about the â€śJewish Food Experience: Beyond the Bagel Program Grants for Interfaith Families.â€ť
I could gush forever about this program, as Iâ€™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 otherâ€™s cultural traditions, we didnâ€™t have to think twice. Of course we were going to host an interfaith veggie Shabbatâ€”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 â€śLove and Religion.â€ť 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.
Making challah was an interesting challenge, especially since I had never tasted it myself. However, from my understanding, itâ€™s a heavily egg-based bread. Luckily, I found a nice and easy recipe from the cookbook â€śBetty Goes Veganâ€ť 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 didnâ€™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 itâ€™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 â€śVegan Pie in the Sky.â€ť
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!