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Ash Wednesday fell this past week. The holiday marks the beginning of Lent, a period of penance, fasting, and abstinence in the Catholic faith, as well as many other Christian denominations. Ash Wednesday is one of the two days during the liturgical year that Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 observe a fast; the other is Good Friday (which happens to fall on Anne’s birthday this year).
My first introduction to the concept of a Catholic fast was Ash Wednesday two years ago, when Anne and I had been dating for only a few months. She had told me that she was fasting, but had asked me to have dinner with her that night. I thought that was strange, and upon further questioning found out that a Catholic fast means partaking in only one full meal throughout the course of the day. Also, during the Lenten season (between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday, the day before Easter), it is customary to abstain from a pleasurable activity. Among the most common are giving up sweets or Facebook. Alternatively, a Catholic could also consciously perform an action throughout the Lenten season to bring himself or herself closer to God, such as pray more often, forgive more easily, or complain less frequently. Finally, during Fridays in Lent, Catholics do not eat meat. As with kashrut, in which it is considered pareve (neither dairy nor meat), fish is not considered meat for the purposes of the Lenten abstention.
Diana (Sam’s sister), Stacey (Sam’s sister), Anne, and Sam on Yom Kippur 2013
The two most well-known Jewish fast days (Yom Kippur, one of the “high holidays”, and Tisha B’Av, the date commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem) require abstinence from not only food and drink, but also washing, applying perfumes, wearing leather shoes, and engaging in sexual relations. These fasts last 25 hours, and take place from sundown to sundown during the holiday. For those of you who’ve never tried it, it can be really tough to go without anything to eat or drink for a full day!
I bring this up on the Wedding Blog because it is traditional for Ashkenazic Jews to fast from sunrise until after the ceremony on their wedding day. This is because the sins of the bride and groom are forgiven as they begin their new life together. In that way, the wedding functions like Yom Kippur, one of the most holy days in the Jewish calendar. I intend to uphold this tradition during our wedding, fasting from sunrise until our Yichud, a ritual in which the bride and groom are secluded in a private room for about 15 minutes immediately following the conclusion of the wedding ceremony.
Our wedding is less than two weeks after Yom Kippur. Normally I’d be concerned about my ability to endure two fasts in such quick succession, but this is one of the reasons why our ceremony will be over at 4:30pm! In any case, I’m looking forward to a pair of meaningful fasts in the month of October.
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.
We made it through an absolutely amazing weekend of festivities, had a beautiful ceremony and shared in so much love and joy that we are positively bursting.
Now that it is all over I am reflecting on some of the choices we made as a couple and myself as an individual regarding kashrut, Jewish dietary law.
A significant portion of my friends and family keep kosher to one extent or another, so we knew from the start that we had to accommodate that for all meals. We made the simple choice for the reception to go vegetarian because our venue had non-kosher in-house catering. This turned out great since they had superb chefs who were able to come up with three unique, creative and tasty entree options for guests to choose from.
I, however, am a meat lover so we managed to get a kosher caterer for both a Shabbat dinner (for the family that doesn’t travel on the Sabbath) and the rehearsal dinner on Saturday night. It wasn’t easy to find one that was affordable because kosher is such a rare and expensive commodity, but in the end we were very happy with the results and Mia was always willing to accommodate these needs and take on these costs without hesitation or objection. Did I land a good one or what?
This is all by way of leading into the longer term thought processes about what to do as we move forward sharing a home where one of us was brought up keeping kosher and the other most definitely was not.
I have long internally debated how kosher I want to be. Many people over the years have been asked by me about their practices and their reasoning behind it. And in general the most compelling of reasons I’ve received for the practice in the modern era is the tying together of a community. This is important to me, but my community isn’t just Jewish. If I keep too strictly to the rules I start excluding people from my community since I won’t be able to eat in their homes and they won’t be able to bring food into mine. Three quarters of our wedding party would be excluded if I kept to the extremes of kashrut. That’s way further than I could ever go. I want to maintain my identity, but also my flexibility.
It has been years since I’ve kept separate dishes for meat and dairy (though I separate for Passover), since that, to me, is just a silly anachronism. But the other limitations are harder for me to let go, so I’m starting an experiment to see what happens and maybe in a few weeks I’ll have more to say. I decided that for our honeymoon (in France, conveniently enough) I am taking an official kashrut hiatus.
This adventure has already begun as we marked the start of honeymoon with a pre-mini-moon for a night in Phoenix before returning to Boston for a week before leaving for France. That night, at dinner, we were given a pair of complimentary seared scallops (with pancetta in the sauce too). I hadn’t planned on starting yet, but we had declared this night part of the honeymoon so I sat and agonized for a minute or two. And then, for the first time in my life (barring the accidental ham and cheese once when I was 5), I consciously and deliberately chose to eat the flesh of not one, but two un-kosher animals.
I’m not dead yet, but I’m still figuring out how I feel and how this will affect the life Mia and I are now building together. WIsh me luck as the experiment continues.