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By Liat Katz
“A Y A M,” She writes.
“Um, Maya, I think you wrote your name backwards,” I respond.
“Nope, it’s just in Hebrew,” the 6-year-old says.
Maya is learning to read and write in English, while also learning Hebrew at our synagogue’s Sunday school. That makes it confusing. And she’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 girl’s naming ceremony, we hired a Rabbi who was a humanist, gay, social worker, anarchist, vegan to do the ceremony in our home. I’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 community—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 family—Reconstructionist. We went to a few services and kids’ 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 wasn’t what I wanted. Why didn’t I like it? The people seemed nice, there were a few other gay families, a bit of diversity…but I realized it wasn’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 more…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 wouldn’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 School—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 Arian’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 sandwich—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 daughters’ questions like: Why don’t we have a…Christmas tree?…a daddy?…a beach house? they now, also ask me:“Why don’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, “Reflections on Ten Years of LGBT Inclusion in Conservative Judaism” 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: “The 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?”
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, “I 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.” Liat lives in Rockville, Maryland with her wife, two daughters, four cats, and a bunny.
By Elizabeth Vocke
My husband jokes that I only married him so I could finally celebrate Christmas. And I admit that I do love Christmas. I love the anticipation and excitement, the coziness of the season, the decorations. I also love Hanukkah, but I think it’s more difficult to create that same sense of excitement, though for the sake of our 8-year-old daughter, we do try.
It’s taken all 11 years of marriage to figure out how to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, and we still don’t have it all figured out. This year will be even more difficult because Hanukkah starts on Christmas Eve. I like to make a big deal out of the first and last nights of Hanukkah, but this year I don’t see that happening.
I vividly remember the first year I decorated our house for Christmas. I enjoyed creating a snow scene using white and blue ornaments in a crystal bowl, plus a beautiful white garland. It didn’t feel religious, just festive, but was definitely meant for Christmas.
My husband walked in and said, “Oh, look, you decorated for Hanukkah!” Well, no, actually. I decorated for your Christmas holiday, dude!
In fact, decorating for Hanukkah was not something I thought Jewish people even did, and it’s only been bit by bit over the years that I’ve started adding Hanukkah items to our holiday decorations.
Fast forward to today and we have a house loaded with Christmas decorations, plus menorahs and dreidels, and I’ve made peace with it all. But we still don’t have all the answers.
We do have annual traditions.
We have a big Hanukkah celebration with my family that is fun and festive and raucous. We host a latkes and hot dogs party for the neighborhood kids (most are not Jewish), and every year I go into my daughter’s class and teach the students about Hanukkah and how to play dreidel. I love these things.
Every year we also drive around looking at decorations on Christmas Eve, watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and enjoy a big Christmas celebration with my husband’s family. I love these things, too.
Yes, our holidays are filled and busy—but fun! And so by now we should have it all figured out, right? Well, no.
Every year we discuss (debate?) if we’re going to church for Christmas Eve with my mother-in-law. My husband is actually the one who doesn’t want to go. Ironic, right? Some years we go, and some we don’t.
Christmas Eve, a night I really love, is often rushed and stressed trying to cram everything in (see above). Hanukkah still sometimes feels anti-climactic, and we’ve been known to forget to light candles a night or two. Hanukkah presents are also often less exciting. Let’s face it—one present just doesn’t compare to a pile. In fact, our daughter tells us that she asks Santa for the big, expensive presents because she figures he’ll bring them to her, and for Hanukkah she’s open to whatever we want to give her. Little does she know.
So, like most things in life, in marriage—and especially an interfaith marriage—we’ll keep trying and tweaking until we get it right. And by that time our daughter may be married with kids of her own!
By Tamara Reese
When my family moved to Pittsburgh, my son was 10 weeks old and my husband was entering into a grueling six-year medical residency. Though we’re not Orthodox, he found us an apartment smack dab in the middle of the eruv—a ritual enclosure some Jewish communities use to allow residents to carry certain objects on Shabbat and holidays, which would otherwise be forbidden. He was hoping that by surrounding ourselves with Jews, I would feel supported in living a Jewish life.
Judaism is my chosen faith. While the conversion process was long and intimidating, it is not nearly as intimidating as raising Jewish children in a Jewish home. My husband grew up a secular Jew and his mother has since passed, so there has never been anyone to show me the ways of brisket braising and Hebrew prayers. And while I studied prayer books and cookbooks, blogs, and literature about how to build a Jewish home, I prayed every night that someone would take my hand and show me the way.
Our first week here we attended a family Shabbat service. I sat in the lobby hushing my fussy newborn and I noticed another woman chasing her 18-month-old daughter through the coat racks. She smiled at me and asked if we were new to the area. Turns out her husband was also in medicine and they were Pittsburgh “transplants” as many call it: people who come here for a job—usually away from family and friends—and end up staying because they love the city.
We developed a friendship and her family invited us to Shabbat dinners, Passover seders and birthday parties. Five weeks after our first meeting, she babysat my not-bottle-taking newborn so that I could have a minor surgical procedure. Two years later, she rushed over to my house when I was in labor with our second son, scooped up my toddler, and grabbed a laundry basket like it was her own home, allowing me to focus on getting to the hospital.
My friend was also a convert and I looked up to her greatly. I admired the Jewish art on her walls and her collection of menorahs. I watched her cook, pray, and mother her Jewish children. I was inspired and hopeful that I could execute Judaism just as effortlessly one day.
Mothering unites us as Jewish women.
As a child, I sang almost before I could speak. I truly believe that it was a gift God bestowed upon me to share with the world. As an adult, I remember walking into my first Shabbat service and hearing the music. So beautiful and so… foreign to me. I wanted nothing more than to find familiarity in that sound. The sound of Jewish music.
After living in Pittsburgh for about two years, I met a woman at the park one day. Our children were very close in age and she and I were equally nine months pregnant. We got to talking about life, about ourselves. We were both Jewish and both in a local MOMs club chapter but had never met. She told me in passing that she and her sister sang in an a capella group and I should come sing for them sometime.
I did and was welcomed into this group, Kol Shira, to sing Jewish music alongside nine other Jewish women, each of us differing in our level of observance but all equally Jewish in the eyes of one another. Through a chance meeting at the park, Jewish song became part of my everyday life—learning it, hearing it, and singing for my children.
Song unites us as Jewish women.
When we welcomed my daughter into the Jewish community, Kol Shira filled the chapel with beautiful music in her honor. And when I gave birth to my fourth child two months ago, these same women hosted the most thoughtful brit milah (ritual circumcision). They walked into my living room that morning and let me cry on their shoulder; they hugged my children; they held my baby; and they brought beautiful food and décor, set it up, served it, and cleaned up every last bit, leaving leftovers in the fridge for my family. These Jewish mothers held my hand because they remembered being the one shaking and sobbing on their son’s eighth day of life.
That morning when we welcomed my beautiful boy into the Jewish community, my home was filled with people—only one of them was related to us by blood. My friends, this community of women, took the all too familiar weight of that day off of my shoulders and spread it around each other and I am forever grateful.
Tradition unites us as Jewish women.
A few years ago, we sang at the Chabad Women’s Convention that was held in Pittsburgh. The message of the conference was “sharing your light” by encouraging other women in their own Judaism. When I think of all of the women who have shared their light with me these past six years in Pittsburgh, I am overcome with emotion. Each one gave me little drops of Judaism, and from those drops my cup runs deep. Just by surrounding myself with women who embrace each other and their faith so effortlessly, I’ve become more modest, more generous, more accepting, and more capable. They have inspired me not only to be a better Jewish mother, wife, and teacher, but showed me how I can share my light.
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.
Tamara Reese, MPH, CHES is a stay-at-home Mama and consultant in the field of Maternal and Child Health. She is a contributing editor to Kveller and her work has been published in academic journals, La Leche League USA, Brain, Child Magazine and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Tamara lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, two boys and ginger-baby daughter. Her passions include child injury prevention, gentle parenting, and breastfeeding advocacy. #YouAreAGoodMama
By Lela Casey
As the only Jewish kid in my small town in Pennsylvania, Christmas was the loneliest time of year. Most of my classmates, and even some of my teachers, were almost entirely unfamiliar with Judaism. Perhaps if I’d been braver, I could have explained to them why I felt uncomfortable singing “Christ the Savior is Born” in music class, or painting Nativity scenes in art or writing notes to Santa in writing class.
But, I was shy kid. And I’d had enough pennies thrown at me and been accused of killing Jesus too many times to speak up. So I laid low, hummed along, asked Santa for a puppy.
Still, the loneliness remained. One of my earliest memories is of driving home with my parents on Christmas Eve. Each time we passed another sparkling house, another lit up Christmas tree, another window full of smiling children, I shrunk a little further into my seat. By the time we got home to our own dark house, I was so heartbroken that I went straight to bed.
To my young soul, it felt like a punishment. It was as if I’d done something wrong to be missing out on all the fun that every other kid I knew got to enjoy.
When I would ask my mom if we could put up a tree or have a special dinner on Christmas, she would get upset. Christmas might seem like an American holiday, but at its heart it was a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Celebrating a man as if he were God would be breaking the first commandment, and perhaps even worse than that, assimilating.
It was difficult, as a kid, to understand what was so terrible about assimilating. What could be bad about getting presents, hanging lights and singing songs? It’s not as if celebrating Christmas would negate being Jewish. It would just be a way to feel part of a world that seemed to include everyone but me.
It wasn’t until college that I met other people who didn’t celebrate Christmas. The first Christmas eve I spent with my Jewish friends was liberating. We ordered Chinese food, watched movies, and reveled in the joy of being together.
I felt a deep sense of belonging and pride and a little bit of confusion to be celebrating Christmas with other people who didn’t celebrate Christmas. Because, really, that’s what we were doing. It may not have been with songs of Jesus or presents from Santa, but there we were, all gathered on the supposed day of Jesus’ birth, having a grand old time.
Was that assimilation? I wasn’t sure. But, whatever it was, it wasn’t lonely.
When I got married to my husband who is not Jewish, my feelings on Christmas were still shaky. By that point I’d experienced several Christmases away from my family—some with my Jewish friends, some with my husband-to-be and his family. Each celebration had been vastly different—but they all included one important element—community. Just being with other people, whether we were eating Chinese food or belting out “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer,” kept Christmas from feeling lonely.
Still, I had difficulty envisioning what Christmas would be like when we had our own kids. Was it important to keep Christmas out of our house completely? Would that alienate my husband? Make my kids feel that same aching loneliness that I felt as a kid?
We have three kids now, and our Christmas traditions have evolved over the years. Some years we go to my in-laws’ house and have a big dinner with family, and some years we stay home and order Chinese food. There’s no talk of Jesus or Santa, but there are presents and laughter and music and it’s never lonely.
It feels sometimes like I’ve copped out—given in to the assimilation that my mother was so fearful of. And, perhaps I have. But, the truth is my kids live in America and have a father who isn’t Jewish. Christmas is not some alien cultural phenomenon that they have to adapt to; it is an integral part of their world, their heritage. Celebrating Christmas is not so much assimilation as it is acknowledgment of the many components of themselves.
I feel confident in the strong Jewish roots I have given my children. They’ve whispered prayers into the Western Wall in Jerusalem, they’ve learned the aleph, bet and stories of Jacob and Isaac in Hebrew School, they’ve helped me clean the house of chametz on Passover and light the menorah on Hanukkah.
My kids are Jewish—and, if one day they chose to take a different path, it won’t be because they enjoyed a joyful night with family at the end of December.
Lela Casey is a mother of three children living in Bucks County, PA. Being raised by a fiery Israeli mother and a gentle farmer in the middle of nowhere lent her a unique perspective on Judaism. She holds degrees from both Penn State University and Rhode Island College. You can find her work on many websites including kveller.com, pjlibrary.com, elephantjournal.com, brainchildmag.com and femininecollective.com.
By Stefani Wiemann
The holiday season is upon us. Christmas music plays in restaurants, Christmas trees are displayed in stores and Santa Clause can be seen in malls. Even as a Jewish mother, I love all of this stuff. I love the holiday season, including all of the decorations, the music and gift-giving madness.
Unfortunately, we have faced some challenging situations at our children’s preschool during this time of year. For example, they have Santa visit the preschool each year in December, which, as a family that identifies as Jewish, we are not comfortable with. They also have a Christmas singalong performance, which they conveniently call a Holiday singalong anytime they are talking to me, but call it a Christmas singalong on their newsletter, calendar and website.
While we have no issue with our kids singing Christmas songs, we chose for our kids to not participate because dressing up like reindeer, elves and Santa feels like too much for us. We simply opt for our children to not attend preschool on those days, in order to avoid our discomfort and our children’s confusion. This year, however, they have added a Polar Express day, in which they are to watch a movie that depicts a boy discovering his belief in Santa, and they also added an activity of writing letters to Santa (they even put a cute mailbox in the classroom that “sends mail” directly to the North Pole).
I would hate for my kid to be THAT kid who ruins Christmas for anyone, by revealing that Santa is not real, so we choose to not tell him that. Instead, we are OK with him thinking that this man exists, with the understanding that he doesn’t visit our home.
Our family is not the only family that doesn’t celebrate Christmas or celebrates more than one holiday. Here are some thoughts I wish teachers would consider during the holiday season:
1. Have empathy when it comes to the underlying meaning of the activities that you choose and have awareness of the different religions represented in your classes. Don’t plan a class activity that implies/expects a belief in a religion that not everyone believes in. Even if you perceive an aspect of the holiday to be secular, such as Santa Clause, doing any activity that is Santa-related implies that the child believes in that character.
2. Try to plan units/lessons that are festive for the season, and not so specific to a religious holiday. There are plenty of winter-themed activities and symbols that are adorable and fun. Who doesn’t love sledding, snowmen and penguins?
3. Don’t feel pressure to make things equal when it comes to religious holiday representation. Anyone who is educated on both holidays can tell you that Christmas and Hanukkah do not hold the same religious significance. In fact, Hanukkah is only considered to be as big a holiday as it has become because it falls in this same season as Christmas. Having an equal number of Christmas and Hanukkah activities may seem like the way to go, but simply toning down the religious specificity will make it easier for kids of all religions including kids who are being brought up with more than one.
This is known as the giving season. Let’s give respect to those around us. It is the greatest gift that one can give.
Jake loves the Torah. He stands up proudly as he carries it in his arms, declaring “I’m doing it independently!” He places the Torah in the ark with great tenderness, stroking its velvety cover before he says goodbye and closes the door.
Jake loves his classmates. He leans in toward his friends and says hello as he peers at them through his thick glasses. Jake doesn’t seem to mind that one classmate is in a wheelchair, or another struggles to sit still during class; he simply loves them. When Jake goes to a separate room for individual tutoring, he asks where his friends are. And he asks to sit next to friends in circle or during prayer services, where he basks in their presence.
Jake loves praying. When he hears the class begin to sing prayers, he rocks back and forth and flaps his hands with a look of pure euphoria on his face. Now that Jake has learned to sing the prayers himself, he joins in with the same enthusiasm as fans cheering at a football game (and often the same volume). Jake understands that we direct our prayers to God, and has remarked: “I love Eloheinu.”
Jake loves Judaism. The joy he feels when studying, praying or celebrating a holiday is palpable. He wears his kippah (small head covering worn in synagogue) with pride. He feels at home in his synagogue and in his religious school. He gleefully uses Yiddish words, saying “I am a little vantz*” after a moment of mischief.
Jake chooses love, and we, his teachers, #ChooseLove, too. We love teaching Jake and watching him learn. We love the challenge of making lessons and materials accessible to him. But most important, we embrace both Jake’s strengths and his special needs, and we love the unique, mischievous, delightful young man that he is becoming.
*A vantz literally means a louse, and is slang for troublemaker.
It started as most modern romances do these days. Girl logs on to a website. Spies a boy. Sends notes back and forth. But it was 2000 when I met Dave, long before dating websites—a time when chat rooms and websites catering to different hobbies and interests were just starting to bring people together.
We corresponded via Internet and phone calls before we ever met in person. I was living in Brooklyn and needed to be in Boston for a work event in May 2001. We thought we should have dinner. Dinner turned into a weekend, which turned into weekend trips between New York City and Boston for quite some time.
Aside from the travel, it all seemed so simple.
And it was, mostly. There came a point in the relationship where we knew we were going to move forward, as in, it looked like I was going to leave New York City and move to Boston to be with Dave. We felt like we needed to tell our parents we had met someone special. That we were serious.
I was nervous.
You see, I was raised Jewish. My mom, my dad, my Orthodox Russian Rabbi great grandfathers, and family as far back as I know of, are all Jewish. And Dave was raised in a different religion.
I know the stories, I’ve seen The Way We Were, Fiddler on the Roof, and Annie Hall. People get disowned, troubles arise … lineages are broken, chaos ensues! I love my dad. I am his first born and I have always wanted to please him. I also knew I loved Dave. And that my Dad loved me.
So I prepared myself mentally and I picked up the phone.
Please answer so I can get this over with.
We start off like any other normal conversation; we laugh a little and check in. Then I let him know that I have something important I want to talk to him about.
“So I know I told you I’ve met someone… but I wanted to let you know that we are… um… moving forward with our relationship.”
“Well I’m sure you must know that I have one big question for you about this man that I need to ask.”
“OK.” Still holding breath, about to pass out.
At this point I’m trying to prepare to help my father understand that, to me, just because Dave isn’t Jewish, that fact doesn’t make me less Jewish or even less likely to raise Jewish children. I’ve always loved the holidays and the culture and the food and I want to make sure that those traditions are carried on. I’m ready to have this conversation with my father.
“OK, Dad…ask it.”
“Well, is he a Red Sox fan? Because that might be a deal breaker for me.”
And with tears in my eyes, I laughed. I laughed and told my father that no, the man I knew I was destined to marry was not a Red Sox fan.
I knew that my father chose love. He chose his love for me because he knew that love is the most important choice. He understood that we make choices in our lives every day and those choices should be made with love.
In my head, I made this conversation much more difficult because the “If you’re a Jew, you marry a Jew” mantra whispered throughout my upbringing. The truth is, by embracing my interfaith relationship, my father actually made me want to keep Judaism in my life more—to carry on the traditions and the culture in my own family. And while I wouldn’t realize it until long after this conversation, he made me want to fight to keep Judaism in my children’s lives no matter how many times we were made to feel unwelcome.
“I thought you were going to ask a different question.”
It has been over five years since my father died. I see him in my children. My Jewish children. When they laugh, when they’re defiant and when they participate in Passover and light the Shabbat candles, and certainly on the day they eventually become Bar Mitzvah. Judaism is strong in my family, because at a critical moment, my father chose love.
To learn more about InterfaithFamily’s #ChooseLove campaign and to tell us how you #ChooseLove, visit interfaithfamily.com/chooselove.
To see how we #ChooseLove, watch this video.