Recognizing that going to synagogue for the first time can be a challenge, we offer you our booklet, What To Expect At A Synagogue. In it, you will find an overview of what Shabbat is, and how it is celebrated in synagogues. Language is explained, the prayer services are broken down, and many common questions are answered.
Mishkan is a social and spiritual community in Chicago reclaiming Judaism's progressive edge and ecstatic spirit. We believe Judaism is a vehicle for bringing more goodness, more justice and more joy into the world. Mishkan is inspired, down-to-earth Judaism.
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In the end, the wedding went the way it was supposed to. That’s not to say that we didn’t hit a few snags along the way, most of them caused by me. I may have left our room at the hotel a mess prior to Shannon’s arrival. “Do you want the photographer to get pictures of your socks and underwear?” Shannon asked me. I may have forgotten to take the cake to the restaurant at which we had dinner afterwards, but one of Shannon’s brothers was able to get it there. And my best man might have stared in horror as I prepared to iron my tallit by first touching the iron to see how hot it was. In my defense, I had other things on my mind, and Mike’s much better at ironing than I am, anyway.
Our common phrase “mazel tov” is used to mean “congratulations,” but its origin is really astrological, meaning something like, “it was in the stars.” That’s what our wedding day was like; the stars were aligned for us. The weather was beautiful. Family members were all on their best behavior. I managed to keep my awkwardness to a minimum.
Our rings and ketubah.
Shannon and I wanted our ceremony not only to join us in marriage, but also to educate our families regarding the faith that informs our life together. To that end, we began with havdallah (the ceremonial end of Shabbat), and Rabbi Freedman narrated the ceremony throughout, explaining why we circled one another, why I broke the glass, and so on. Our approach seems to have worked; Shannon’s grandmother enjoyed the ceremony so much that she said she needed to find a Jewish man to marry!
Readers of this blog know that the decision to hold a Jewish wedding ceremony was not an easy one for me, but I couldn’t imagine having done it any other way. The picture above, in which Shannon is placing my prayer shawl on me, is symbolic of our relationship and the role Judaism plays in our lives. Although she is not Jewish, it is Shannon who cooks Rosh HaShanah dinner, Shannon who encourages me to become more involved in shul, and Shannon who has chosen to adapt to my lifestyle.
Shannon drapes my tallit on me. Look at how serious I am!
Drama on the bimah!
I wrote this blog in part to share the experiences of one interfaith couple, and I hope it has been interesting and informative for readers. But my motives weren’t completely selfless; it was therapy, too. I learned about life and myself as Shannon and I navigated the wedding planning process and as I narrated our story here. (These are the lessons I learned, and aren’t meant to be instructions for anyone else!):
It is easy to speak, harder to listen, and harder still to find common ground.
It’s important to examine the gap between what one does and what one claims to do.
Individual experience is as important as ideals, policies, beliefs, etc. In other words, life is messy and complicated.
Just as “haters gonna hate,” “lovers gonna love.” (Thanks to Rabbi Freedman and my friend Eugene S. for sharing these nuggets of wisdom.)
Community is an important Jewish value. Shannon and I couldn’t have planned our wedding alone. We’d like to extend our sincere thanks to:
InterfaithFamily for providing us the opportunity to share our story, and, in particular, my managing editor, Lindsey, for her help throughout.
Rabbi Eli Freedman came into my life just as I was beginning to explore the possibility of converting to Judaism. I first met him at a Shabbat dinner when he handed me a beer and said, “The synagogue’s men’s club brewed this.” That’s when I thought, “I’m going to study with this guy.”
Rabbi Freedman, to me, is an embodiment of the notion that Judaism is a lived religion. In addition to his pastoral role at Rodeph Shalom, Rabbi Freedman is involved in various social justice initiatives, particularly P.O.W.E.R. (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild). Rabbi Freedman lives by the words of Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:16.) I’m pleased to share a few words with you from Rabbi Freedman about intermarriage.
Rabbi Freedman at Matt and Shannon's wedding. (Photo by Kirk Hoffman.)
I was touched by the words of Matt Rice, my student, my teacher and my friend. I could not agree more with Matt’s view of intermarriage. I truly believe that the problem is not intermarriage—it is apathy.
I like to call this the “Brandeis Syndrome.” I went to Brandeis University for my undergraduate studies. You may have heard of it—there are a couple Jews there! But I have never before seen so many apathetic young Jews in my life. When I asked my friends why they weren’t involved in Jewish life on campus, their response was usually something along the lines of, “I go to Brandeis; isn’t that Jewish enough?!”
Rabbi Leo Baeck once wrote, “A minority is always compelled to think. That is the blessing of being in the minority.” Just like those Jews at Brandeis who took their Judaism for granted, I find that Jewish/Jewish couples take their Judaism for granted as well. They figure that because they are both Jewish, they need not do anything else and that their family will automatically be a thriving Jewish family. Whereas, interfaith couples are forced to think. Because of this, they often make much more conscious decisions of how Judaism will be practiced in their home and they are much more mindful of their children’s religious upbringing. That is the blessing of being an interfaith couple.
The key to this, however, is that congregations and clergy reach out and help those who want to make educated decisions. As Matt writes, “Embrace loving couples and they will respond.” We must strive to welcome interfaith families into our congregations and give them the tools make Judaism a part of their lives.
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.”
The cradle cross given to my parents when I was born, and the Star of David I wear every day.
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.
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.”
Shannon's kuku, Sephardi herb pie. (Recipe from the Swarthmore Co-op.)
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.
Shannon's apple cake.
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.
Shannon holds our ketubah, designed by Etsy seller Once Upon a Paper.
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.”
A friend of mine led the Torah study that preceded services. We read from the haftarah, Hosea, in which the prophet addresses his unfaithful wife, Gomer. Their troubled marriage is really a metaphor for the relationship between Israel and God.
Here’s a sample of what Hosea says: “Assuredly, / I will take back My new grain in its time / And My new wine in its season, / And I will snatch away My wool and My linen / That serve to cover her nakedness. / Now will I uncover her shame / In the very sight of her lovers, / And none shall save her from Me.” (Hosea 2:11-12, JPS Tanakh.) Hosea goes on to assure Gomer that he will take her back and shower her with love. (So too with God and Israel.)
Grim stuff. It reminded our modern sensibilities of an abusive husband addressing his battered wife. “Okay,” our teacher said, “we understand the psychology of it. So how do we reconstruct this?”
I think about that Torah lesson every time I encounter a practice with which I’m uncomfortable: How do we reconstruct this? How do we maintain the integrity of the tradition while also making it relevant and meaningful? The ketubah, or Jewish wedding contract, is a good case-in-point.
Traditionally, the ketubah was a legal document. It was a contract that stated the obligations of the husband to his bride. The husband promised to work and support his wife, to provide her with food and other necessities, and even to fulfill her conjugal needs. Should the husband prove remiss in his duties, he was required to financially compensate his wife. And that’s it.
The ketubah was a significant development in Jewish marital relations. It was written in Aramaic, the lingua franca at the time it was codified, and thus comprehensible to the parties entering into it. It attempted to provide some security for women, too, by assuring them some material support. But there is no doubting that it is a pre-modern artifact. A traditional ketubah insures a bride for the dowry that she brings to the marriage, “whether in silver, gold, jewelry, clothing, furnishings or bedding” plus an additional amount agreed to by the groom’s family. The insurance is calculated in zuzim, the Jewish currency used in Roman Palestine.
There is power in the age of certain Jewish traditions. Consider the ancient sound of the shofar calling us to repent, or the lighting of the menorah, a reminder of the survival of the Jewish people throughout the ages. But there are some things liberal Jews have trouble connecting with, and the traditional ketubah is one of them. That Shannon and I can’t imagine celebrating our union with a traditional ketubah is only partly related to our status as outsiders in terms of halakha. We know we’re outside the Law. Rather, we find the spirit of the ancient ketubah lacking, too.
So what to do? How do we reconstruct this?
An example of a modern ketubah, courtesy of Gene B., Once Upon a Paper
Shannon and I chose to have a custom ketubah. We reviewed possibilities we found on the Internet and settled (appropriately) on a Reconstructionist-inspired ketubah. We chose the text we did because of its emphasis on community, social justice and tradition. “We promise to honor our community by offering and accepting support, love, and friendship,” it reads. “Our home will be a place of openness and generosity, enriched by Jewish tradition. Together, we will work for peace and justice with empathy and hope, taking action to help heal the world.”
We liked the text so much that we made only one change, adding to the ketubah, after the first sentence quoted above, “We will honor Shabbat, the Jewish holidays, and other family customs. If we are blessed as children, we will raise them as Jews.” Shannon and I have agreed to keep a Jewish home, but we want to make sure that she never feels out of place or excluded, hence “other family customs,” which covers a range of potentialities. (For instance, it is not Shannon’s custom to fast on Yom Kippur.) We engage in reconstruction to bring modern meaning to ancient ways.
The service I attended at Mishkan Shalom included an aufruf, or blessing over the Torah, by a couple soon to be married. (My friend, who led Torah study, and his fiancee.) After that, we threw candy at the couple. As the rabbi prepared to return the Torah to the Ark, she discovered a Hershey’s Kiss in the scroll. (To which there was no damage, I promise.) “There is much sweetness in Torah,” she quipped.
That is what Shannon and I have aimed for in our nontraditional Jewish wedding: to capture the sweetness of custom by actively reconstructing it.
(Special thanks to Gene B., the artist who is designing our ketubah and gave me permission to use an example of his artwork in my post. You can find more of Gene’s work at his shop on Etsy, Once Upon a Paper.)
A Muslim man greeted me with “As-salamu alaykum” on Rosh Hashanah morning. Having seen the kufi-style yarmulke I wore, he acknowledged me as he passed the bench on which Shannon and I sat. “He said ‘hello’ to you,” Shannon told me as I wrested my attention away from my smartphone. “He did?” I said, blinking in surprise. I caught the man’s eye, but reacted too slowly to respond to him.
I thought about that brief interaction during the train ride back to our apartment. I felt badly that I hadn’t replied to the man’s greeting. G. Willow Wilson, writing in her memoir The Butterfly Mosque, notes that it is a grave insult when one Muslim ignores another’s “hello.” I’m not Muslim, of course, but the man who spoke to me thought otherwise. I wondered what the appropriate response might have been. Should I have ignored his mistake and replied, “Wa alaykumu salam”? Should I have smiled and said, “Aleichem shalom?” My concern was further exacerbated when the passenger sitting behind Shannon and I leaned forward and asked, “Hey, man, are you Muslim or Jewish?”
Richard Fletcher, in his book Moorish Spain, describes a piece of art in the Grand Mosque of Cordoba: the crude image of a man who appears to be shrieking in terror. It is only upon consideration that the viewer realizes that the man is not screaming, but praying. Fletcher sees in this image’s ambiguity, in the confusion it evokes in people looking at it, a metaphor for the West.
Echoing Fletcher’s characterization of Western history, my first college professor lectured about the seventeenth century false messiah Sabbetai Zvi. When not engaged in mystical study, Zvi performed bizarre public acts, marrying himself to a Torah scroll and otherwise promoting his messianic aspirations. “Is this the nature of Western history?” my professor mused. “Is Western civilization schizophrenic?”
Teaching about anti-Semitism, the same professor maintained that hatred of the Jews stemmed from our status as the “Eternal Other.” Our people’s mere existence was a provocation, serving as it did as a refutation of the West’s foundational beliefs: namely, that mankind was redeemed by the son of God. Our stubborn refusal to accept Christianity caused doubt among Christians themselves, who then projected their anxieties back onto us in violent ways. According to this argument, anti-Semitism is the result of a process similar to the formation of a pearl, only the product is not a thing of beauty, but a perfect sort of hatred.
Jews are accepted in America as we have been in few other times and places. I believe that will remain true. But some thinkers are less sanguine about the future of world Jewry. Mosaic Magazine recently questioned the future of European Jews, and Tablet ran a review of two new scholarly books on anti-Semitism under the headline “Why Literally Everyone in the World Hates Jews, and What To Do About It.” I mentioned these articles to a friend, who replied that anti-Semitism always increases during difficult economic times. I’m not convinced that there is a “reasonable” explanation for such irrational hatred.
I am not genetically Jewish. (A DNA test that Shannon and I took a few weeks ago revealed in our genes the absence of Ashkenazi ancestry. For more on the genetics of Jewish identity, see Harry Ostrer’s book Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People.) We who count ourselves members of the Tribe know that “Jewishness” is a slippery thing, comprised of, but not singularly defined as, peoplehood, ancestry, ethnicity, culture and religion. I doubt that bigots are so discerning. To anti-Semites, a Jew is a Jew. Perversely, I welcome the equality of status in the Jewish community granted me by bigots but denied me by our own hardliners.
Engaged to Shannon, though, I no longer speak for myself alone. I must consider my partner’s well being in all things. The local news station ran on the morning before Erev Rosh Hashanah a story about a fire at a home in the Philadelphia suburbs. The family was Jewish; the fire was an act of arson that appeared to be “racially” motivated. Coming as this news did amid stories about rising anti-Semitism and the looming crisis in Syria, it made for a bleak beginning to the new year.
The response the Muslim stranger’s greeting provoked in me was less worry over hurt feelings than an existential dread. Lest anyone suspect me of Islamophobia, let me be clear: it is not Muslims I fear, but the potential for confusion and violence inherent in all faiths. I have bound myself to a people who has, for millennia, been the target of the worst travesties of faith. Shannon may not be Jewish, but by marrying me, she, too, will be casting her lot with us. Am I asking too much of her? Is it wrong of me to request of Shannon that she join me on a path I freely chose?
"For a good and sweet year." My minor contribution to our Rosh Hashanah dinner. Shannon prepared the meal.
On Rosh Hashanah we recite the Unetanneh Tokef, a litany of misfortunes that might befall us during the coming year. I wonder if, by naming our fears, we’re trying to rob them of the possibility of coming true.
For those readers who don’t know, “as-salamu alaykum,” and its Hebrew equivalent, “shalom aleichem,” means “peace be upon you.” The appropriate reply inverts the words: “wa alaykumu salam” (in Hebrew, “aleichem shalom”) or, “upon you be peace.” I think there’s something lovely about such a greeting. (It also serves as “goodbye.”) “Shalom aleichem” is a favorite expression of mine, but it’s the sentiment behind it that matters. May we wish peace to friends and strangers alike in the coming year.
I did not expect to emerge from the waters with fully grown peyot and spouting Yiddish. Nor was I unhappy with the aura of the mikveh, quiet and peaceful, reminiscent of the womb of which it is symbolic. Rather, I was unprepared for the mundanity of the instance of conversion, a once-in-a-lifetime moment for which I had not prepared myself. Introspective but self-absorbed and weaned on television dramas and Hollywood blockbusters, I expected the significance of the moment to present itself to me. Having spent over a year studying to become a Jew, it didn’t even occur to me that I should prepare myself for the moment of conversion. I can now say that, in that moment, I lacked sufficient kavannah, which may be translated as “intentionality” or even “mindfulness.”
Contrast my experience at the mikveh with Elijah’s encounter with God. Elijah stood atop the mountain as “the Eternal passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal, but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake, but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire, but the Eternal was not in the fire.” And what then? “A soft murmuring sound,” sometimes translated as “a still, small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12.) God was not in the fire, but in a whisper, and in order to hear a whisper, one must listen.
There is no magic in our rituals. Reciting the motzi over a loaf of challah does not make that bread more sacred than any other. But saying a blessing over food we are about to eat does change our relationship with it. The profundity of a ritual, then, is to be found not in the change it makes in the world, but in ourselves. We cannot, like God, call down wind and fire but, through ritual, through saying a blessing or lighting the candles, we can create the space necessary to listen to that still, small voice and, having heard it, can ourselves go forth to effect change in the world.
Shannon and me at a recent Finnegan family BBQ.
Just as I did not prepare myself for the mikveh, I did not consider the implications of converting to Judaism before I married Shannon. It didn’t occur to me that our different “statuses” might be an issue, or that some people might deny altogether the legitimacy of our (Jewish) union. Indeed, it was only earlier this year, after I had begun to “settle into” my Jewish identity, that I discovered how hotly contested intermarriage is. A conversation begun in Reform Judaism Magazine over whether or not rabbinical students at HUC-JIR should be admitted if they are married to non-Jews continues to provoke responses on both sides of the debate. (IFF founder Ed Case relates some responses here.) I read the editorials that were published, and I read the comments on the editorials, and I began to worry. Was I doing something wrong by planning a Jewish wedding when my partner isn’t Jewish?
A friend told me that no matter how “humane” or “compassionate” the arguments one makes, a wedding ceremony between a Jew and a non-Jew simply cannot be Jewish. And I confess to writing an e-mail to a Reform rabbi who published an editorial condemning intermarriage. I explained to him my relationship with Shannon, much in the way I described it in my first post here. And he responded that, while I am “on the playing field,” Shannon will find herself “increasingly on the sidelines.” I don’t view performing mitzvot as a sport, and I’m not trying to achieve a high score. Nor is Shannon a benchwarmer.
Over the weeks, the editorials and comments about intermarriage continued to pile up. Friends told me not to read them, but I couldn’t help myself. It was like being buffeted by a mighty wind, shaken by an earthquake, or burned with fire.
I had read about the issue. I had talked about it with friends. I had thought about it. And so I did what any good liberal Jew would do: I made up my mind that I would do what I think is right, and to hell with what everyone else thought. As a rabbi and friend of mine has put it, “Haters gonna hate.” I can’t control what some members of our community think.
I intend to approach our wedding with greater kavannah than I did my visit to the mikveh. The debate about intermarriage rages on, but I’ve stopped paying attention to it: God is not in the fire. Now I’m free to listen to the still, small voice.
When I became Jewish, I began seeing homeless people.
I was not unaware of the homeless before I converted to Judaism. When I moved to Philadelphia in 2008, it was the first time I saw people living on the street. I was shocked. I grew up in rural Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There were poor people, certainly, but no obviously homeless people. So I was unprepared when, while walking to the office on my first day of work in the city, a homeless man accosted me. Unnerved, I passed him without responding. He cursed me. “Welcome to Philly, country boy,” I thought, amused by my uncertainty. When I told friends the story, I made it about myself. And thus I began the process of cynically numbing myself to the sight of people begging in the street. Within a few weeks I was so acclimated to city life that I had adopted the standard reaction to the homeless. I didn’t see them. I didn’t hear them. And I certainly didn’t give them any money.
My conversion to Judaism lifted the veil with which I had covered my eyes. A famous verse from Torah reads, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:20.) The verse is usually translated into English as “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” But “tzedek,” meaning justice, may also be translated as “righteousness,” and, less exact, perhaps, but more common, “charity.” Thus righteousness, justice and charity are bound together in one concept. We give to others not necessarily because we like to, or even because we want to, but because we are instructed to. (And the repetition of “tzedek” in the verse, unusual in Torah, is interpreted by the rabbis as an indication of its importance.)
On the day of my beit din, the rabbinical “court” with whom I met prior to my conversion, I confessed to my rabbis that, as a result of my studies, I had once again begun seeing the homeless as people. I at that time had not been able to bring myself to give change to anyone who asked, but just as I had not hardened myself to my fellows at one time, the act of breaking old habits would be a process. I continue to work on it. I think this is the purpose of the mitzvot.
Last year's Rosh HaShanah table. Note the tzedakah box front and center!
Right now you might be wondering: “This is a wedding blog. What does any of this have to do with marriage?”
Jewish values are really universal values. Most people, and all faiths, believe in the importance of charity. And that is something that Shannon and I have in common, despite the fact that she is not Jewish. Tzedakah is the Jewish tradition of charity, and Shannon and I both have embraced it as part of our lives together. We find common ground in the Jewish expression of a universal value.
The last line of our ketubah states, “Together, we will work for peace and justice with empathy and hope, taking action to help heal the world.” We give tzedakah, sometimes in money, sometimes in units of time, as our resources permit. I believe I speak for us both when I say that, as our resources grow, so too will the amounts that we give. To that end, we have a little tzedakah box into which we put change on Shabbat and on holidays. (We inaugurated it during last year’s Rosh HaShanah dinner with 18 cents, 18 being the Jewish symbol for life. Tzedekah is often given in multiples of 18.)
Shannon and I are building our future together with shared values, expressed “Jewishly.”
When Shannon and I fight, I assume the worst. We’re going to break up. We’ll never speak again. We’ll be torn apart by wild dogs. “I just want us to be happy,” I’ll say. “We can’t always be happy,” Shannon responds, ever sensible, ever right. “Sometimes we’re going to fight.”
No love story is entirely happy. Sometimes there are fights. But what are the fights of an interfaith couple in the midst of wedding planning like? They might start with one partner exclaiming, “But I’m not Jewish!” As if that fact were not obvious to the other (possibly male, Jewish and occasionally dense) partner. “I’m not Jewish!” Shannon would shout. “Okay!” I replied, angry and baffled.
Shannon’s exclamations were in response to expectations I put upon her. As I mentioned in my first post here, I’m a recent convert to Judaism. And, like many converts, I feel a particular zeal. Combined with my typically male expectation that Shannon would take the lead in the home, that zeal resulted in certain expectations I forced upon Shannon. I thought, for instance, that Shannon would light the Shabbat candles. Weeks passed; no candles. When I finally mentioned it, Shannon replied, rightly, that’s she’s not Jewish. I am, and I should take the lead in Jewish activities. Shannon was right. (This is not to say that Shannon is any less involved in making a Jewish home. Rather, she supports those events I arrange and excuses herself from those she perceives as onerous, such as Yom Kippur.)
For a long time, when Shannon said, “But I’m not Jewish!” what I heard was “You’re not Jewish,” the personal baggage I carry knowing that traditional Jews will not recognize me as a member of Israel. Shannon doesn’t think that, of course; I was projecting my fears onto her. It took me a long time to realize that and now, I hope, I no longer do it.
How to make sense of such fights, though? With the zeal of a convert, I suggest this interpretation.
The shofar Shannon gave me. Perhaps I'll use it to wake her on Rosh Hashanah?
A few weeks ago we observed Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating the losses of the First and Second Temples. The “Three Weeks,” a mourning period, immediately precede Tisha B’Av. The Three Weeks are known in Hebrew as bein ha-Metzarim, literally “between the narrow straits.” Readers familiar with Torah will recognize in “Metzarim” echoes of Mitzrayim, the biblical name for Egypt. Tisha B’Av and Mitzrayim are symbols of emotional and spiritual constriction. Just as our ancestors experienced the disorientation of slavery and conquest, we, too, have known isolation from one another, from God, and from ourselves.
Jewish weddings traditionally end with the breaking of a glass. The most popular interpretation of this custom is that, even during our happiest moments, we remember the destruction of the Temple. Shannon and I are uncomfortable with expressing such a negative thought during our wedding. Rather, we will recall with the breaking of the glass not only our hope for the (metaphorical) rebuilding of the Temple, but also “the spheres of light” the mystics say shattered when God created the world. Just as performing the mitzvot is supposed to allow God to reenter the world, “rebuilding” the Temple would restore God’s dwelling place on earth. When we break the glass, then, Shannon and I will consecrate our marriage toward the living of righteous lives, with the intention of contributing to the increase of justice in the world. Of course, this being a Jewish marriage, we will begin this “mission” in the home.
Shannon and I are alienated from one another when we argue. We become lost in the “narrow places” of our relationship. Our vision becomes restricted, singular. But we remember the wholeness we search for, and we always make it through, each time a little stronger than before.
A fitting thought to leave you with for the beginning of Elul and the season of repentance.
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