This colorful booklet lists all the ritual items needed for the Passover table. The history and significance of each item on the seder plate is explained, as are the customs that have been handed down through the generations.
JScreen provides convenient, at-home, saliva-based genetic carrier screening with the goal of preventing Jewish genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs disease and Canavan disease. JScreen is a national program and is headquartered at Emory University in Atlanta.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
I have always known December as a time to prepare for Christmas. Now that I am in an interfaith relationship, December is a time for many holiday celebrations. Sam grew up in an interfaith household celebrating Christmas with his mom’s family and Hanukkah with his dad’s family.
Growing up, Sam’s family all picked one day to give their Hanukkah gifts. For example, on the first night his dad gave his gifts, and then on the second night his mom gave out her gifts and so on, as to make the excitement of Hanukkah last. I think I like this idea of gift-giving and would like to continue this tradition as Sam and I start having a family of our own.
This year, we were able to exchange all of our gifts with each other on the first night of Hanukkah.Â Each night thereafter we gathered on Google Hangouts. The image above is his parents (who live in Pennsylvania), his sister, Diana, on the right (at the University of Maryland), his other sister, Stacey, (in Brooklyn) and Sam and I (in New Jersey).
This holiday is unlike all other holidays that I know. All the holidays that I grew up with, we got together as a family for a day or two, but we were hardly ever together celebrating a holiday for many consecutive days. There are 12 days of Christmas and 3 days in the Easter Triduum, but we are never all together celebrating during all of these days. During Hanukkah, each evening, for 8 days, we gathered together to celebrate, by chanting the blessings over our respective menorot. For these consecutive days, we are in touch with each other on a daily basis: wishing Sam’s sister well on her exams and then hearing how well she did on them, hearing of his parent’s quest to find a nice December movie, or his other sister who always has several stories about living above a modeling agency. It is comforting to know that even as adults, my future-in-laws parents still want to hear how my day is going. Somehow his family makes my humdrum day-to-day life more exciting!
Two weekends ago, Sam’s extended family had their Hanukkah party at his aunt’s house and exchanged gifts with everyone in a Pollyanna. In my family, we do a Secret Santa on Christmas Eve. I’m not sure which one I enjoy better, the element of surprise in the Secret Santa is always fun, but then again, there is less stress in knowing who has who in Sam’s family. I love hanging out and talking with his family. The conversations at this year’s Hanukkah party seemed to always circle back to wedding planning. It was so much fun hearing the different proposal stories and how his aunts and uncles met each other!
It’s still a little strange to me, to go into someone’s house during December and not see a Christmas tree. It’s also a little strange having a Nativity scene and a menorah as decorations. I guess I am still getting used to the differences in the December Holidays. Sam and I will have to figure out these holiday traditions when we start having a family of our own, but until then- it’s Christmas with my family and his mom’s family and Hanukkah with this dad’s family!
I got engaged in September, and have already nailed down a date and a place, taken engagement photos (my brother is a photographer and was kind enough to give us this gift), blocked off hotel rooms for guests and are close to figuring out who our rabbi and caterer will be. Oh, and I tried on dresses yesterday. (Never has anything been more fun.) We can sit back and eat bon bons now, right?
Not so fast. Weâre planning on getting married in Bristol, Rhode Island, which means the bulk of our organizing revolves around the Newport area. Newport is a major wedding destination and everything from lodging to photographers book up quickly. (And no, my brother will not be allowed to work on our wedding day!)
Itâs kind of like holiday prepâI realize many of us are overwhelmed with the upcoming Thanksgivukkah mega holiday (Is it here yet???), but of course weâre looking forward to it at the same time. How do you keep things in perspective when you’re stressed out prepping for a holiday that is both celebratory and spiritual? IFF/Chicago director Ari Moffic blogged about stress release during the holidays.
When it comes to wedding planning, I find that what keeps the process fun, exciting and meaningful is the constant reminder of what will be our joy at the end of it all: a day in which we make a lifelong commitment surrounded by our loved ones. Eye on the prize.
A Muslim man greeted me with âAs-salamu alaykumâ 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. âHe said âhelloâ to you,â Shannon told me as I wrested my attention away from my smartphone. âHe did?â I said, blinking in surprise. I caught the manâs 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 hadnât replied to the manâs greeting. G. Willow Wilson, writing in her memoir The Butterfly Mosque, notes that it is a grave insult when one Muslim ignores anotherâs âhello.â Iâm 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, âWa alaykumu salamâ? Should I have smiled and said, âAleichem shalom?â My concern was further exacerbated when the passenger sitting behind Shannon and I leaned forward and asked, âHey, man, are you Muslim or Jewish?â
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 imageâs ambiguity, in the confusion it evokes in people looking at it, a metaphor for the West.
Echoing Fletcherâs 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. âIs this the nature of Western history?â my professor mused. âIs Western civilization schizophrenic?â
Teaching about anti-Semitism, the same professor maintained that hatred of the Jews stemmed from our status as the âEternal Other.â Our peopleâs mere existence was a provocation, serving as it did as a refutation of the Westâs 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 âWhy Literally Everyone in the World Hates Jews, and What To Do About It.â I mentioned these articles to a friend, who replied that anti-Semitism always increases during difficult economic times. Iâm not convinced that there is a âreasonableâ 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 Ostrerâs book Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People.) We who count ourselves members of the Tribe know that âJewishnessâ 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 partnerâs 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 âraciallyâ 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 strangerâs 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, weâre trying to rob them of the possibility of coming true.
For those readers who donât know, âas-salamu alaykum,â and its Hebrew equivalent, âshalom aleichem,â means âpeace be upon you.â The appropriate reply inverts the words: âwa alaykumu salamâ (in Hebrew, âaleichem shalomâ) or, âupon you be peace.â I think thereâs something lovely about such a greeting. (It also serves as âgoodbye.â) “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.
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. âWelcome to Philly, country boy,â 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 didnât see them. I didnât hear them. And I certainly didnât give them any money.
My conversion to Judaism lifted the veil with which I had covered my eyes. A famous verse from Torah reads, âTzedek, tzedek tirdof.â (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:20.) The verse is usually translated into English as âJustice, justice shall you pursue.â But âtzedek,â meaning justice, may also be translated as ârighteousness,â and, less exact, perhaps, but more common, âcharity.â 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 âtzedekâ 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 âcourtâ 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: âThis is a wedding blog. What does any of this have to do with marriage?â
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, âTogether, we will work for peace and justice with empathy and hope, taking action to help heal the world.â 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 yearâs 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 âJewishly.â
When Shannon and I fight, I assume the worst. Weâre going to break up. Weâll never speak again. Weâll be torn apart by wild dogs. âI just want us to be happy,â Iâll say. âWe canât always be happy,â Shannon responds, ever sensible, ever right. âSometimes weâre going to fight.â
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, âBut Iâm not Jewish!â As if that fact were not obvious to the other (possibly male, Jewish and occasionally dense) partner. âIâm not Jewish!â Shannon would shout. âOkay!â I replied, angry and baffled.
Shannonâs exclamations were in response to expectations I put upon her. As I mentioned in my first post here, Iâm 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, thatâs sheâs 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, âBut Iâm not Jewish!â what I heard was âYouâre not Jewish,â the personal baggage I carry knowing that traditional Jews will not recognize me as a member of Israel. Shannon doesnât 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 BâAv, the day commemorating the losses of the First and Second Temples. The âThree Weeks,â a mourning period, immediately precede Tisha BâAv. The Three Weeks are known in Hebrew as bein ha-Metzarim, literally âbetween the narrow straits.â Readers familiar with Torah will recognize in âMetzarimâ echoes of Mitzrayim, the biblical name for Egypt. Tisha BâAv 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 âthe spheres of lightâ the mystics say shattered when God created the world. Just as performing the mitzvot is supposed to allow God to reenter the world, ârebuildingâ the Temple would restore Godâs 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 âmissionâ in the home.
Shannon and I are alienated from one another when we argue. We become lost in the ânarrow placesâ 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.
First, a confession:
Hey there, Mia here, who married Ethan in July and wrote about the wedding planning last spring and summer. I have been meaning to write this final wedding-related post for months. Part of me held off because I was still reeling from the whirlwind events related to the wedding. I also wanted to take some time to let the whole experience sink in so that I could share some meaningful reflection. Truth be told, I think I was subconsciously procrastinating because writing this post, like printing photos for our wedding album, symbolizes the end of wedding-related activities. (But not the marriage!)
So here we go:
Our wedding day was the perfect combination of fun, celebration, solemnity, humor, gratitude, old and new traditions, community, reverence and most of all, love. Donât just take my word for it ~ Ethan and I were humbled by how many of our guests expressed the same observations. At numerous times I was overcome, and had to pause to take a deep breath to prevent myself from sobbing with awe and joy. There was nothing Jewish or gentile about that ~ it was 100% natural and free-flowing.
Two days before the wedding, Ethanâs family hosted a Shabbat dinner at a local schul for his observant family and friends. My immediate family as well as my 16-month-old niece, Jewish aunt and Buddhist uncle also attended. It was interesting observing my relatives who were not familiar with a Shabbat dinner and their thoughtful expressions often seen on anyone who doesnât quite know what to expect next. I remembered how I used to feel that way, and marveled at how far I had come in terms of learning Jewish traditions and practices. However, I realized as the guests were gathering that I was slightly anxious about this dinner setting a âJewish toneâ to the weekend, especially since it prevented me from visiting with out-of-state guests on my side who had arrived in town early. This concern was dispelled when my niece, who loves music, bopped along in her high chair to the sing-song prayers and clapped at the candle lighting. After the final blessing, she clutched a small box of raisins in her tiny fist, raised it high, scrunched her face up in an earnest expression, and, amidst the post-prayer silence, proclaimed loudly her support of the dinner in baby babble. She sounded just like when the cartoon warrior princess from the â80s, She-ra, exclaimed with sword raised, âI have the power!â She was clearly moved by the spirit of the gathering! Everyone loved it.
The Big Day:
The day of the actual wedding, the weather behaved, everyone showed up on time, and neither Ethan nor I got cold feet or tripped walking down the aisle. Despite having participated in seven or eight weddings, I was unprepared for how emotional I would be as I approached him. Here was this amazing man who accepted me 100% for who I was, who was standing before his family and friends to say that he chose me. I am still in awe! Getting married under a huppah didnât faze me at all since I had officiated two interfaith weddings that also used one. In fact, I enjoyed the sense of enclosure it provided, the creation of sacred space, and the more intimate dynamic when friends and family stepped under it to read a blessing to us. We used Ethanâs talit as the canopy, and even though I have never been bat mitzvahed, I appreciated the significance of the talit, and loved that such a special item of his played a role in such a special day of ours. To know that I would recall the feeling of standing under it whenever he wears it for future high holidays, etc., forged my own sense of connection with it. I have a similar feeling when I look at our ketubah that uses interfaith text and hangs proudly in our dining room.
I think it would have been slightly disconcerting for me had we just had one officiant who followed a traditional Jewish wedding service because that was not the tradition in which I was raised. (See our previous post about working with two officiants.) Having two stand with Ethan and me under the chuppah grounded me and really reinforced the communal aspect of the ceremony.
Said ceremony, as outlined in an earlier post, included a mix of Jewish, Celtic, and Native American wedding traditions that many guests said blended beautifully together. I will confess that the only tradition during the entire day that felt slightly foreign to me was dancing the horah; I didnât really know the exact steps, nor did many of my family members and friends, so we just threw ourselves into the circles, grabbed hands, and kept up! Sadly I got separated from my new husband who ended up flanked by his family members, which made me feel like this was âtheir thing.â But I have a terrific photo of Ethan, his step-dad, my brotherâs wife, and my mom all smiling and dancing together in one of the circles, and I love the unity of that moment! Any lingering concerns I had about whether members of EthanÂs side would think the wedding âwasnât Jewish enoughâ were mitigated by the enthusiasm with which they participated in the various celebrations, and the warmth with which they embraced us and me on that day.
Six months later:
So here we are several months later, during which time I attended the fall high holiday services and/or dinners, as well as a traditional Jewish wedding of one of Ethanâs step-sisters, with a slightly different perspective knowing that such rituals would be part of my future for the long term. Iâve come to realize that Ethanâs familyâs traditions can now no longer be seen in black-and-white terms as âtheirs versus mine,â since his family is now my family. Just as how Ethan willingly helps me set up my Christmas decorations, and helped me bake Christmas cookies for a âChristmas Mia-styleâ open house I held for some of his family in mid-December.
As we were preparing for the open house, I quietly contemplated how blending the two December holidays would work for our future kids. Would they fall into the âyours, mine and oursâ mode of thinking, or would Ethan and I be successful in creating a home in which both traditions merge well? (For the record, Christmas was never about celebrating Christâs birth for my family; it is a time of gathering with loved ones, adding light, magic and sparkle to a dark season, and sharing gifts and giving back to the community and those less fortunate to demonstrate your love.) A recent rabbi-rabbi-lev-baesh">Boston Globe feature noted the increasing number of interfaith families in Massachusetts, which is good, but acknowledged that sometimes itâs hard for the kids who feel like they are straddling worlds, which is disheartening. Later that evening, as Ethan and I sat with 10 of his family members in our living room, each of them began sharing aspects of Christmas that they âactually like,â most particularly non-secular songs, food, and made-for-TV movies. Ethanâs step-dad then led everyone in a rousing rendition of âRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.â I got choked up when I looked around the room and realized, âThis is going to work. Both histories and realities can be honored without sacrificing anything.â
That is how I hope Ethan and I will continue to live our lives together and to raise our children: to demonstrate that core values cross faith and traditional divides, and that love, family and community are what matter most, no matter what language, song, or decoration you use to honor them. Am I afraid that members of Ethanâs family will look upon our kids as ânot Jewishâ with some sadness? Yes, and that isnât easy for me. But then I think back to the joy, acceptance and inclusiveness of our most wonderful wedding day, and feel confident that we will be able to make it all work out. To paraphrase She-ra, âWe have the power!â
Mia here…Ethan is at a meeting and our cat Daisy is curled up next to me. This rare quiet time inspired contemplative thoughts about my upcoming marriage to Ethan in an interfaith context. The theme of “in between” came to mind on three different levels, so I thought I would share. If anyone has had any positive experience with them, I welcome your feedback!
Level 1: Kinda sorta a “member of the Tribe” but not really ~
As previously shared, I have been overcome by the love and joy Ethan’s family and friends have exhibited as our relationship progressed, and especially when we became engaged. I have also been similarly touched by and grateful for their acceptance of me as a non-Jewish person, as well as their appreciation of my efforts to learn all I can about Judaism, and my participation in high holidays, Shabbat dinners, etc. I have been dubbed something of a budding resource about Judaism among my non-Jewish friends and coworkers. But beneath it all is the truth that I am not Jewish, and at this time, I don’t intend to convert in the near future. Respect, yes. Participate, yes. Continue to learn, of course. It’s just that I have had a very complicated relationship with organized religion since an early age. I was not raised in a religion because my parents wanted my brother and me to choose our own paths, and that process has been met with a lot of confusion and hostility over the years from many camps (not from anyone in Ethan’s family, thankfully!). I need to get to a place where I can find a good middle ground and not feel in limbo, nor feel defensive about my position (although Ethan keeps reminding me there’s no reason to feel that way ~ I hope he’s right!).
Level 2: What’s in a name?
Despite having issues with patriarchal societies, I decided to take Ethan’s last name when we marry. This decision has made me think about heritage a lot. “My people” were Irish, Scottish, Welsh, German, and French (among a handful of others), with a spectrum of heritage associated with them, whereas Ethan’s family name is Russian and Lithuanian with Jewish heritage. We both gravitate toward the unity a shared name implies, as well as the sense of connection we will have with our children. I can just picture my children’s responses to the ancestry question: “Well, we are (in no particular order) English, Irish, Russian, Welsh, Scottish, Lithuanian, Polish, French, German, Spanish, and Native American. Seriously.” I think I may be one of a very small handful of family members in many recent generations of my family to introduce Jewish heritage to the family tree, and this has made me marvel at the amazing webs we all are weaving for future generations of our families in this age of greater tolerance.
And finally (thank goodness, you say!) Level 3: What’s in a Seder and an Easter Egg?
Ethan and I are looking forward to celebrating our third Passover and Easter together. The former is celebrated to the fullest extent; the latter consists of my display of bunnies, painted eggs, and flowers around the house (nothing about Jesus) and the consumption of jelly beans and Cadbury Cream Eggs (drool…). Last year we hosted a Seder, and I asked Ethan in advance if his family would be startled to see Easter decorations. Instead, they were really interested and asked me what the decorations’ meaning is for me. The answer is the thrill of approaching spring and the renewal and fresh start that implies, and memories of savory brunches on the holiday with my family, with me in a new frilly pastel frock and white Mary Janes. Last year, friends and coworkers asked if I was fully participating in Passover since it was Ethan’s and my first under a shared roof, and I replied that I was except for attending every service and observing the restricted eating because I’m hypoglycemic. Again, I find myself in an “in-between” land where I’m partially blending two traditions that have different meanings for me than they do for people who observe them to the letter. But as I write this, I realize that it’s fun! Ethan makes THE best brisket in the world, and I have come to look forward to the bond that exists around the Seder table, while also counting the days until I can transform our home into a springtime display and honor the cycle of the seasons. Don’t worry, I don’t let the Cadbury eggs get anywhere near the brisket.
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