Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
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I signed up to take an Intro to Judaism class at Sam’s synagogue. When I went to (what I thought was) the first class, I sat amongst a classroom filled with 20 other adults. Everyone was taking the class for various reasons: to re-affirm their faith, learn the basics, teach their children who were going through Hebrew school. Then there was me — I was just curious to learn about Judaism.
Class began and I soon realized that this wasn’t the first class session. The class was trying to come up with a concrete definition of a Jew. Is it one’s actions or faith or name? Are you born a Jew? Are there specific qualities that make someone Jewish? Everyone was referring to specific Torah passages, famous historical rabbis and different articles and writings. Not having read any of the material, I quickly got lost in the conversation, and became more and more frustrated as the class continued.
I talked with the rabbi after that first class to see if he could offer me some guidance. He gave me the syllabus, book list, and articles to read for the next class. He told me that this class could be used to convert to Judaism if I wanted to take that step. In that moment, I felt under attack. I only wanted to feed my curiosity about the religion. I was insulted that the rabbi seemed to take my expression of interest as a chance to proselytize.
I got home that evening and stress-ate an entire 1lb bag of M&Ms. I didn’t want to continue the class because I didn’t feel spiritually ready to have my religious beliefs criticized. After some careful prodding by Sam, I drudgingly forced myself to go to class the following week.
Fast-forward 12 weeks and I love the class! Over the course of the class, I’ve gotten to know the rabbi and his mannerisms, and I now recognize that that first comment was not meant to be demeaning, but only to offer an opportunity to convert if I was so interested. I have made it clear that I do not intend to convert to Judaism, but have used this class to reaffirm my own faith.
There is another Catholic in the class, which I am grateful for, although his mannerisms and occasional off-topic meanderings remind me of my grandfather. The class has dwindled down to a core group of 7 people: 3 who were born and raised Jewish, 2 who converted to Judaism in their adult lives (including the rabbi’s wife), and 2 Catholics. It has been really interesting hearing the different stories and interpretations that everyone brings to the class.
A few class sessions ago, we talked about the different Jewish life cycle events, discussing the symbols and meanings behind the brit milah/baby naming, bar/bat mitzvah, and marriage. The marriage segment of the class turned into a Q&A about our upcoming wedding. The class was curious as to whether we plan to have the standard Jewish symbols and customs at our wedding, such as the chuppah, smashing the glass, etc. Those were easy yes and no questions that Sam and I had previously discussed. Then they asked the why questions. Why are having those specific traditions and customs and how did we come to those conclusions. My answer was to read this blog!
We are about half way finished the course. So far, we have had in-depth conversations about a number of topics, including the afterlife, order of the Shabbat service, Torah, holidays, and history of Judaism. The second half of the class is delving into the history of Judaism. I am consistently doing the weekly readings (sometimes over 300 pages!), answering the study questions and always bringing my own set of questions. This prep work has made class a lot less frustrating and a lot more fascinating!
To follow up with Chris’ philosophical post last week, I thought I would lighten it up a bit and do a post about our wedding plans thus far. It’s funny, we’ve been engaged for a year and a half now so plans have been moving pretty gradually (this has been nice!) and now we’re coming up on 5 months till the big day and everything’s coming together nicely.
As we mentioned in our first post, the wedding is in late June and will be held in my parents’ backyard. My sister had her
People often ask me if there is a theme and the simple answer is…no. The theme is ‘Backyard Wedding’. We will decorate with rustic decor, homemade decorations, handmade table numbers, and other such items. Dinner will be served family style (and kosher style—meaning no pork or shellfish), to go with the ‘laid-back’ theme. Chris and I decided long ago that we wouldn’t have a large wedding party; my sister, Julie, is the maid-of-honor and Chris’s brother, Patrick, the best man. Our niece Ava will be the flower girl and will likely be accompanied by Chris’s sister Erin (Ava’s mom) because Ava will be just shy of 2 years old.
The biggest stress so far in the planning process has been the guest list. We both come from massive families; my dad is one of six children and Chris’s parents’ are one of four and one of five. Between both sides we have about 160 family members to invite, and that’s after doing some serious guest list shaving. Including friends, our final invite list was close to 250. We can fit 220 under the tents, so we’ll have to wait and see!
With love, Dana
Before meeting Sam’s extended family, I had met his parents very briefly for a slice of mid-afternoon pie. I was very nervous about meeting his parents—I think it took me over an hour that day to figure out what to wear! This meeting was so brief, that we didn’t get a chance to talk about much, therefore the topic of faith didn’t come up. I was (and still am) very amazed at how sweet and genuinely nice his parents are! I don’t remember when the topic of faith first came up around his parents, but they knew that I wasn’t Jewish when I attended the Passover Seder.
Sam first invited me to join his family Seder a few months after we started dating. I had only been to one other Seder before, five years prior. The meal was slightly awkward and uncomfortable. I didn’t understand what was being said, nor did I understand the traditions around what was being done. Also, because I was the youngest person there, I had to say some of the prayers, find the Afikomen and open the door for Elijah. I was nervous that the Seder with Sam’s family would be equally awkward and uncomfortable. Sam reassured me that most of his family’s Seder would be in English and that I wouldn’t be the youngest person there.
In the weeks leading up to the Seder, Sam re-emphasized that the youngest people there would be his cousins, who were growing up in interfaith households. Both of his dad’s siblings were in interfaith marriages and their children (Sam’s cousins) celebrate both sets of holidays. This calmed my fears a little, but I still thought it would be awkward and uncomfortable.
The awkwardness started when I arrived empty handed because I was told not to bring anything. Whenever I go to a fancy dinner party, I try to always bring a dish or something. I asked Sam what I should bring. His answer was, “Nothing. There are very specific foods and everyone has a specific dish that they always bring.” This didn’t satisfy me, so I asked Sam repeatedly only to receive the same answer over and over.
On the day of the Seder, I put on my fancy clothes, my best behavior and attended the Seder empty-handed. There were 13 people there (a normal crowd for me), and the topic of my faith wasn’t brought up. We talked a lot about my family and what dish I could eventually bring to future family dinner parties. There was no awkwardness nor discomfort, only really nice people with a lot of funny stories to tell.
We began the prayers and rituals surrounding the meal. After getting used to the way the Haggadah was read (from right to left), I sat back and listened to his Poppop tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. During his story, his little cousin, Jason, started singing and the escape to freedom became a musical! We even Skyped Sam’s sister Diana, living in Israel at the time, so she could chant the Four Questions. After the prayers were said, it was time for the holiday meal.
This particular Seder fell on Good Friday. It is a Catholic ritual to fast and not eat meat on Good Friday. Catholic fasting means eating only one full meal during the course of a day. I had refrained from eating all day, which would allow me to eat the Seder meal. While I was helping to serve the Matzah ball soup, with Sam’s aunts and female cousins, Sam made up a plate of food for me. When I got back to my seat, he had served me a little bit of everything- including the beef brisket. This was the biggest internal conflict of the night: do I eat the meat because it’s on my plate, or should I put it back, risk being rude and interrupting the flow of the meal? I saved the beef brisket for the last thing to eat to prolong my decision-making. I ended up eating the meat, justifying to myself that this was the right thing to do in this particular case.
This Seder meal was not like the one that I had experienced five years prior. It was neither awkward nor uncomfortable. Everything seemed natural and everything somehow magically “fit”. Although this was the first time that I had met his extended family, I remember his Mommom telling me that I fit very well into their family. I think that my response was telling her that my cheeks hurt from laughing & smiling too much!
I still don’t fully understand the symbols and rituals behind the Seder meal, but I have the rest of my life to learn about all of the Jewish customs.
Hi–it’s Chris here. Following a Facebook link early last week, I reach this article which discusses a “Jewish” style of conversation which the author of the study refers to as “cooperative overlapping,” and which I and many other people who are not Jewish–and, I’m sure, a lot of Jews who don’t practice this conversational style–would call interrupting. [Note: I used the quotations because, as the author notes, “Jewish conversational style” is not a very precise term, and it seems to refer more to Eastern European Jews from the general New York area. In fact, I might go as far as to call this harried conversational style more typical of New Yorkers in general than Jews specifically, but I digress.]
Reading this article got me to thinking about our often unthought-of cultural heritage, the unspoken set of assumptions and standard operating procedures that all of us walk around with. In my education classes this is referred to as your “cultural knapsack” to emphasize how pervasive it is; we carry it with us everywhere. I remember the first family Channukah party I attended, and while I would not accuse any member of Dana’s family of practicing the not-so-delicate art of cooperative overlapping, I do recall being overwhelmed by the constant conversation, trying very hard to keep pace–and I thought my large Irish-Italian family could talk!
Conversational style is just one of perhaps a million things that we are coming to learn about one another and our families. Little did I know, for example, that it was “a gentile thing” to eat dinner early! Or that Jews are the true masters of ordering Chinese, and that, at least in Dana’s family your Chinese food is always shared. These small things, whether they are cultural or merely family traditions, are part of what makes this union so exciting. Dana and I are constantly learning new things about one another and our culture and background, and have learned to be more sensitive about insisting that our way is the right way or the only way. In addition to just learning about how the other half lives, we’ve both expanded our horizons by attending multiple religious services of the other person’s faith. But I suppose that’s a blog entry for another time…
By Sam Goodman
Typically, when I tell friends, coworkers, and acquaintances how many siblings Anne has, responses range from “Wow,” to “God bless her mother,” to “Is her family Catholic?”
Luckily for me, I wasn’t introduced to all three brothers and six sisters at once, which would have been overwhelming. I first started meeting her siblings just a few weeks after we started dating. One of Anne’s friends was playing in a jazz band at a bar in Asbury Park, and Chris (second-oldest) and Stephanie (sixth-oldest) were in town. The subject of religion came up fairly quickly, as Chris was a former seminarian, having left high school to pursue a path towards priesthood. Although he has since left the seminary, Chris has a deep faith informed by his theological studies.
Every few weeks I’d meet more of Anne’s siblings. Theresa (the youngest, now 13) came up to see a show at the theater where Anne worked. Dave (the oldest, now 32) stopped by Anne’s apartment for dinner one night. I was on speakerphone when Nicole (eighth-oldest) called Anne to say she’d decided to attend Anne’s alma mater, studying in the same theater program as Anne had.
However, it was Anne’s parents who I was most concerned about meeting. We set up plans to gather at Yards Brewery for a tour and a pint with Chris, Michelle (fifth-oldest), and Anne’s mom and dad. In preparation, I looked up her father’s CV (he’s a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Delaware), read through some of his recent research papers, and in general just tried to gather as much information as possible to feed potential discussions and avoid awkward silences. The outing went well – I bonded with everyone over music, and had plenty to talk about based on the venue and my hobby as a homebrewer.
The topic of my religion didn’t come up with Anne’s parents until a few months later, when I was invited to celebrate Easter with Anne’s family. As it fell during Passover, and I try to keep Kosher (-style) for Passover, Anne worked with her mom to develop a meal that I would be able to eat. While they did have a ham, rolls, and beer, there was also chicken, matzah, vegetables, and corn syrup-free juice. The additional foods – and my declining to drink beer, my normal beverage of choice – spurred quite a few conversations about Jewish dietary restrictions, both during Passover and at other times throughout the year.
Those discussions with Anne’s parents and siblings throughout Easter were all very respectful. I’d been concerned heading into that particular holiday that some of Anne’s family might try to attack my beliefs, and it was a huge relief when their questions were more directed towards gaining insight into the differences between our belief systems. This tolerance of and respect for my rituals and practices has continued as I’ve become closer with Anne’s family. This past Easter, Anne’s father asked me to say the motzi after he led the family in the Catholic grace before the meal.
I’ve enjoyed the process of meeting and getting to know Anne’s family. It took over a year for me to meet the last of her siblings – Laura (the fourth-oldest) currently lives in the Virgin Islands – and I met her over Christmas last year. Spreading out these introductions worked very well, limiting the number of new faces and names I had to remember at each meeting, and giving me the chance to have deeper conversations with her family members.
Last week, we took a road trip to Minnesota to meet some of Anne’s extended family. During this trip, I was able to meet her grandmother, 11 aunts and uncles, and 20 of her first cousins. Unlike the spread-out process of meeting Anne’s siblings, there were a few times during the trip when a few dozen relatives were hanging out at her one of her uncles’ houses. While some faith conversations did come up they all seemed to know that I was Jewish. Even when the topic came up, it was always a curiosity question, never making me uncomfortable. Her family, extended and immediate, is just interested in learning about my beliefs, traditions and lifestyle.
It’s been fun getting to know and share my faith with Anne’s family, and I look forward to continuing the process as I meet more of her relatives.