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This morning I put a cross into a drawer. It was a cradle cross that Leacock Presbyterian Church gave my parents when I was born. My mother returned it to me on the day of Shannon’s bridal shower. “I wasn’t sure if you’d want it or not,” she said. I wasn’t sure either. It’s the symbol of a tradition I left behind. If it ever hung over my crib, which was its intent, I don’t remember it. My earliest memory is of being held by my mother and draping a handkerchief over head like it was a tablecloth. There’s a picture of that moment: I was proud of myself, smiling ear-to-ear. That I remember the moment at all might be a result of its having been caught on film. Memory is like that: fluid, permeable, changing over time. Our memories shift to better inform our narratives of who we are and who we want to be.
The foundation of Jewish peoplehood is our historical memory. From the hasidim who believe literally in the revelation at Sinai, to secular Yiddishists who recall the travails of Ashkenaz, or, like most Jews, somewhere in between, we are united by our shared memories. The Hebrew calendar is structured around our stories: we are liberated during Passover, wander the wilderness during Sukkot and receive Torah on Shavuot. The irony of Jewish time is that, although we were among the first peoples to insist upon a linear, rather than a cyclical, view of history, we relive the same events from year to year. Perhaps that’s why, despite our disagreements, we persevere, why we remain one people. It reminds me of Romi Somek’s “A Poem of Bliss”: “We are placed upon a wedding cake/like two dolls, bride and groom./When the knife strikes,/We’ll try to stay on the same piece.”
The sense of foreboding evident in the last lines of Somek’s poem looms large in Jewish memory. The Shoah casts a long shadow over us all, as it rightly should. So too do other tragedies, from the expulsion of our people from Spain in 1492, to the Munich Olympics, to the countless injustices done to men and women long gone to dust. The price of Never Forgetting is Eternal Vigilance, necessary but wearying to the psyche. Watchfulness has engendered in some quarters of the Jewish community a sense of permanent crisis, that the “knife” of Somek’s poem is always poised to strike. We see bogeymen at every turn: the president’s policy towards Israel, Muslim immigration to the West, Iran, assimilation, intermarriage. For some Jews, intermarriage is the most insidious crisis of all, “perpetrated” by its own “victims.”
That attitude toward intermarriage is further exacerbated by nostalgia. Some Jews shield themselves against the anxieties of the present by retreating into sentimentality. Informed by wisps of history, family memory, and pop culture (think Fiddler on the Roof), we have constructed a dreamworld alternative to the present, an eternal shtetl cast always in the golden sunlight of American afternoons. We smile at the women baking challah. We nod at the old men praying in shul. We’re comforted by the singsong strains of Yiddish bubbling forth from homes. But to remember it thus is to do our ancestors a disservice. The shtetlach were nothing like our dreamworld; rather, they were characterized by poverty, wretchedness, superstition and filth. Walk the cramped and muddy streets. Here women served men, for they had no choice. Here bellies growled for want of food. Here the rebbes studied while their people suffered. If you ever hear anyone hearken back to how it was in the Old Country, ask them if they’d really like to visit. They may: There are haredi communities here and in Israel in which one may readily access “the world we have lost.”
American Jews have no need to retreat into fear or sentimentality. We’re thriving. We’re more accepted than we have ever been, anywhere, at any other time in history. That you can no longer identify a Jew by peyot, by curly hair, or by surname, is not a cause for alarm, but for excitement. We’re not disappearing; we’re diversifying. Our contributions to American society speak to our success. We were at the forefront of white support for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, when Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. Now we’re leading the charge into ethical and sustainable foodways through organizations such as Hazon and, in Philadelphia, Cafe Olam.
I’ve written this blog to demonstrate one thing: that we who intermarry are in no way enemies of Judaism or the Jewish people. We are individuals who have fallen in love with other individuals who are not themselves Jewish. Our partners love us, in part, because we’re Jewish; after all, it’s part of who we are. Writing in The Forward, Yoel Finkelman notes that the argument against intermarriage is a difficult one “because it’s hard to muster much moral indignation against a loving, caring couple whose differing religious convictions are an accident of birth.” Finkelman goes on to advocate synagogues’ acceptance of homosexual Jewish couples as an antidote to intermarriage, but his argument is weakened by his previous statement. Finkelman, and all those who rant against intermarriage, should come to a hard stop: it is not ancestry or religion (or sexuality) that matters in a relationship, but love. Embrace loving couples and they will respond.
A Jewish friend of Shannon and I volunteered to teach our families the hora at our wedding party. Consider the image of dozens of non-Jews celebrating by learning a Jewish dance. Our union is but a tiny thread in the grand tapestry of our people’s history. How lovely, and how appropriate, that it is a wedding that will bring Jews and non-Jews together, if only for a moment. We’ll be wed the evening of Saturday, October 26. You’re welcome to dance with us.
I went to Congregation Rodeph Shalom’s Purim celebration this year. (Or last year, by the Hebrew calendar.)
The shul went all out. The theme was “A Night in Persia,” and congregants came dressed in robes, bedecked themselves in scarves and beads, and happily buzzed around the room. Our cantor and one of our rabbis, both female, dressed as Women of the Wall; the other rabbis, both male, wore police costumes, looking like the Village People’s second string. And of course there was drinking. Lots of drinking.
I didn’t dress up. I didn’t schmooze. And I didn’t drink.
When I told a friend about it the next day, she laughed. “I’d expect nothing less of a Reform Jew,” she said, “to know the ‘right way’ to do something and then do the opposite,” playing on the Reform movement’s ideal of informed practice, by which individual congregants educate themselves regarding traditions and then deciding which to follow and to what degree. I laughed, too. In my experience, there are few things Jews enjoy more than knowing what they should do, even when they’re doing the opposite.
For instance, I don’t keep kosher. Now, I am not sitting here with a wad of bacon in my mouth, drooling grease onto the keyboard. I don’t even particularly like pork. But I still haven’t been able to bring myself to quit it altogether. It isn’t that I haven’t thought about it; I have. I didn’t grow up kosher, though, and, more importantly, while I respect halakhah, I have little patience for the way it can devolve into tedium. Consider this recipe for pretzel challah, shared by The Shiksa in the Kitchen. Great recipe. But the real treat is in the comments: If you scroll down, you’ll find two halakhically-minded women arguing over whether or not one can say motzi over pretzel challah for Shabbat, since the bread is boiled rather than baked. It reminds me of the joke about the Jew on the desert island who built two synagogues. Why two? “Nu, one I pray in, the other I won’t set foot in.”
I recently stopped eating pork, though, quietly, assuming it would slip past Shannon’s radar. Of course it didn’t. “You stopped eating pork?” she asked me at a fair we attended a few weeks ago. She just knew. “Does that mean I can’t make it anymore?” I hesitated. “I’ll eat it if you cook it,” I said, “but otherwise, no.” I paused, waiting for an argument to start. Food and foodways are such personal things; they evoke strong responses. “I don’t think I could give up pork,” Shannon said. “Pork and sauerkraut on New Years’, mmm!” (A Pennsylvania Dutch tradition.) And that was it. Shannon accepted the new paradigm.
I think Shannon is so accepting of such sudden changes on my part because she knows how important Judaism is to me, and because of how we’ve learned to accommodate one another. Several years ago I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in which she recounts her family’s sustainable lifestyle. Kingsolver’s clan attempted to reduce their carbon footprint by eating locally, permitting themselves only one “luxury” item, such as coffee or tea. When a family friend visits and asks for bananas, the Kingsolvers explain their philosophy to her. The scene stuck with me for years, and it wasn’t until I converted to Judaism that I realized why: Kingsolver and her family lived their lives as if they mattered, as if individual choices have meaning and consequence. That’s what Judaism has done for me. I think Shannon knows that.
In last week’s parsha, Lekh L’kha, God tells Abraham (then Abram) to decamp for Canaan. “Lekh l’kha” is usually translated as “Go forth,” but it literally means “Go to (or for) you.” Thus “Go forth from your native land might be read as, “Go, for you, from your native land.” “Go,” God tells Abraham, “and I will make of you a great nation, / And I will bless you; / I will make your name great, / And you shall be a blessing.” (Breishit / Genesis 12:1-3.)
Shannon and I, like Sarah and Abraham, are journeying, heading from the safety of the “native lands” of singlehood to the unknown territories of marriage. We find security in our knowledge of one another, even in Shannon’s ability to intuit on my part a change in my attitude towards kashrut. We head forth together, as individuals, but also “for us,” as a couple. And that shall be a blessing.
Shannon practiced saying “Shanah tovah” during the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
“How do you say that thing?” she said.
“What thing?” I replied, all innocence.
“You know, that thing you say that means ‘happy new year.’”
“Oh, that thing.” I told Shannon how to say it and listened as she repeated it. That she wanted know the right thing to say, and how to say it, made me smile.
Communication featured prominently in last week’s Torah portion, Noach, too. Everyone knows about Noah and the Flood, but tucked at the end of the parsha is the story of the tower of Babel. All humankind, possessing the “same language and the same words,” began building “a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name” for themselves. God saw what humankind was up to and concluded, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” God then “confounds” peoples’ speech so that they don’t understand one another. (Breishit / Genesis 11:1-9.)
The tower of Babel is, on its surface, a straightforward explanation as to why people speak many languages rather than one. Having seen humankind’s hubris, God literally descends from the heavens to which the people were building and puts a stop to it. Some of my fellow congregants at Rodeph Shalom were troubled by what they perceived as God’s capriciousness. “Why,” they asked, “would God give us the potential to do something, and then, when we do it, punish us for it? Why would God make it harder for us to understand one another, which leads to endless strife?”
There are deeper theological currents in such questions than I’m qualified to parse, but I don’t think that by “confounding” our speech God was simply “punishing” us. Indeed, absent from the story is any sense of severe judgment, and God is forgiving considering we were building a stairway to his house. “Nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach,” God says. Should we have reached our zenith at the very beginnings of history? If it is true in Judaism that we are God’s partners in the act of creation, and that we use the tools we have to work toward a more perfect world, then I prefer to think of the world’s many languages not as barriers to understanding, but as a nudge to better comprehend one’s fellows, as reason to reach out not with a closed fist, but with an open hand.
As our wedding approaches, Shannon and I are becoming more aware of the ways in which the ceremony will be an act of translation, of one culture speaking to another. The irony of our wedding night is that, of the dozen or so people present, only two will be Jewish: myself and the rabbi. My family members have rarely encountered Jewish people, and the only Jewish event they ever attended was my conversion. Thus Shannon and I, and our friend and officiant, Rabbi Eli Freedman, have determined that our wedding will be not only a ritual we perform for ourselves, but also an opportunity to educate our families about the faithway that informs our lives.
Rabbi Freedman will not only lead the ceremony, but he’ll also narrate it for the benefit of our families. He’ll explain to our mothers and siblings what we’re doing and why. We want our families to understand the symbolism of the event, to know why we’ll circle one another and why I’ll break the glass.
What better way to “translate” Judaism for others than by to invite them to participate? Family is one of the foremost Jewish values, and, to that end, our families have roles to fulfill during the ceremony. My sister and Shannon’s brothers and sister-in-law will hold the poles of the chuppah. Shannon’s mother will read the Irish wedding blessing (which is cultural, not religious). And we’ll remember my father, without naming him, when my mother reads Koholet (Ecclesiastes) 3:1-8, which was read at his funeral service. We’ll emphasize the positive half of each of those verses, “a time to build…a time to laugh…a time to dance,” and not only honor my father, but also invest them with a happier significance.
There are elements in the contemporary Jewish community that see only a tide of darkness, “a time to weep, a time to mourn,” especially in regards to interfaith marriages. To approach it thus is to say, as my fellow congregants did, “Why did God do this to us?” Shannon and I choose to celebrate our marriage as an opportunity for greater understanding. We were given different ways of speech, Jewish and not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t communicate. “Come, let us build a city.”