This beautiful booklet tells the historical roots of Tu Bishvat and Judaism's long-standing sacred connection to trees. You will also find suggestions for activities for young children and ideas for hosting a Tu Bishvat seder.
InterfaithFamily and the Workmen's Circle are celebrating Tu B'Shevat, the Jewish New Year for the trees, and you're invited!
Join us for a FREE afternoon filled with food, music, art projects and social justice.
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.
The following is a guest blog post by the groom’s father, Phil Goodman followed by some additional thoughts from officiant Rabbi Robyn Frisch who is the director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia
Sam's parents, Phil and Pennye
Like many of you I have enjoyed Anne and Sam’s wedding blog, but I have a major bias, I am Sam’s father. By way of introduction, over thirty years ago I entered my own interfaith marriage. I was not overtly active in daily religious practice and neither was my wife. Raised as a Conservative Jew, in my twenties I had become the proverbial twice-a-year-Jew assuming I would become more involved once I had a family. Pennye, raised Catholic, practiced little of any Christian faith. Once engaged we attended many community programs addressing interfaith marriage issues as we knew they would continually be the elephant in the room and it was important for us to have a basis to lean about what we knew would be part of every family decision we would make as a couple. We found a rabbi to perform our wedding ceremony as the Jewish traditions included in our ceremony were important to me and many of our guests, and acceptable to Pennye.
Religion remains an extremely important part of both of our lives. Jointly we’ve explored each other’s beliefs. I am a committed Reform Jew who, with my wife’s full support, has been very active in our large suburban congregation and held many leadership positions. Pennye is a committed Presbyterian with similar leadership positions in her church community. We are very lucky to have found two faith communities that accept both of us and consider both of us as resources when figuring out how interfaith issues affect their congregations. The key is mutual respect.
I frequently find myself in conversations concerning the increase in interfaith marriage in current society. I always ask the naysayers whether they practice their religion the way their parents do. Rarely is the answer “yes.” I then ask why they have any expectation that their children should be any different. When Sam brought Anne into my life I could not be happier for them as a couple. Individually they will figure out how their beliefs and practices will be part of their lives. InterfaithFamily certainly provides resources that were not as readily available to us thirty years ago. Over the past three years I’ve seen how Anne seems to complete Sam and visa versa. Their happiness is all that really matters to me.
Incorporating religious tradition, both Jewish and Catholic, in their ceremony was important to Sam and Anne. I expect that Sam’s upbringing made him cognizant that the beauty of his wedding day would partially rely on the comfort of the clergy participating in an interfaith ceremony. Knowing that our family’s rabbi did not perform interfaith ceremonies, his participation was never considered. (This rabbi was their guest at the wedding and in the following week he extended a congregational membership to Sam and Anne.) Sam and Anne were lucky to have relationships with other clergy who have known them individually since their childhoods, who took the time to get to know both of them over the past year, and who were willing to co-officiate. These personal relationships added to the beauty of the ceremony that seamlessly wove in two religious traditions.
I was honored when Sam and Anne asked that I toast them at their reception. Assuming that the maid of honor and best man would probably offer lighter remarks about the couple, I wanted to be more solemn and personal so I included the following in my speech:
“Following the priestly benediction over our children on Shabbat after we light the candles we ask that God make our sons like Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons, not so ironically for us here today, of Joseph and his Egyptian wife brought from an interfaith Diaspora into the fold by their grandfather, Jacob, becoming the namesakes of two of the tribes of Israel. Sam, wherever life may lead you, may you be like Ephraim and Manasseh, earning and deserving the respect of your peers and prospering by your continued good deeds.
We also ask that God make our daughters like the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Anne, may you be like our matriarchs, the diligent manager of your household and strong protector of your family.”
At the end of the day, the oldest biblical history of our separate religions is the same. The past two thousand years may have led us down different paths, but the desire to make our world a better place and dreams for our children are the same. The reverence and respect that Sam and Anne have shown to their different religious faiths offers us all hope as it has provided us opportunities to learn from and about each other. I don’t deny that our uniqueness is important, but finding a way to weave our separate threads into a tapestry of new traditions that can envelop us all should be our goal.
Rabbi Robyn Frisch shares a few more personal words:
Monsignor Hopkins & Rabbi Frisch co-officiating the wedding
I met Sam and his family 13 years ago when I came to work at the congregation where Sam grew up. The Goodmans have been good family friends since then, and I have always admired the way that Sam’s parents navigated their own interfaith marriage. It has been a true pleasure for me to get to know Sam and Anne together as a couple for the past year. When Lindsey Silken mentioned many months ago that she was looking for a new couple to be wedding bloggers for InterfaithFamily, I knew that Sam and Anne would be perfect! Here is a piece of what I said to them at their wedding ceremony.
“Over the last year I’ve had the joy of getting to know you as a couple and of reading your blogs about your relationship. I’ve been so touched by the respect you have for one another. It’s rare to meet someone in their 20’s who has such a connection to both family and religion – such an awareness of their heritage – as each of you do. You’ve probably both heard me say many times that I hope that when my kids grow up they have as deep a connection to their Judaism as the three Goodman kids (Sam and his sisters) do. Anne, I know that you too respect this about Sam – just as he respects your bonds to Catholicism.
Rather than being scared of each other’s bonds to your religions, you both admire that in one another and you have let this draw you together. Rather than either of you trying to convince the other to believe or to worship the way that you do, you’ve explored each other’s religious traditions to learn what is meaningful to your partner. You’ve accompanied each other for family holidays and for worship – and your families have engaged in “Theology on Tap” sessions, combining both of your loves for learning, for holy scripture, and for a good beer.
Neither of you expects the other to compromise in a way that isn’t sincere; nor do you compromise your own practices or beliefs. Rather, you navigate your own unique path – together.”
Congratulations to Anne and Sam from everyone at InterfaithFamily!
Sam and I were sitting at breakfast this morning reflecting on our wedding, which was a week ago yesterday. We were exchanging our favorite moments and stating what we enjoyed about that special day.
Everything about the day was beautiful. Although the weather on the days before and after was cold and rain-drenched, the day of the wedding had clear, blue skies and temperatures in the low 70’s, which allowed us to take photos outside among the gorgeous fall leaves. Friends and family members from across the country traveled without difficulty, and shared in our joy. Everyone was dressed to the nines and looked stunning. The ceremony was so beautiful that I cried through most of it. Thankfully, Sam was prepared and surreptitiously slipped me a tissue a few minutes into the ceremony.
The ceremony carried additional emotional weight as a result of the items that were owned or created by our relatives. Sam’s tallis was on top of the chuppah, so he wore his deceased Uncle Morrie’s tallis. My brother Dave made the paper for the ceremony programs using some fabric from my maternal grandmother’s wedding dress. My sister Stephanie did the graphic design for the ceremony programs (and all other printed materials). Sam’s sister Diana crocheted all the kippot that the Jewish men wore during the ceremony, and our ketubah was painted by my sister Michelle, as we mentioned in an earlier post.
Sam and I worked really hard to combine both Judaism and Catholicism into the ceremony. Two close family friends, a rabbi and a priest, co-officiated the wedding, and both did a phenomenal job of partnering together and taking the lead on our ceremony. At the beginning of the ceremony, Sam’s sister Stacey explained the Jewish rituals and symbols, and my brother, Chris, explained the Catholic ones. The fathers recited the seven blessings together, and the mothers took part in the unity candle. A cantor friend of ours chanted the shehecheyanu and my sister Laura read from the book of Genesis. Afterwards, many of our family and friends came up to us and said, “I really enjoyed how you blended both religions in the ceremony.”
Anne’s favorite moment fell during the ceremony, when our dads split up the Seven Blessings. Sam’s dad said them in Hebrew, and my dad said the translations in English. My dad is a professor at the local university and his diction is very clear and precise, so he over-enunciated every syllable in each of the blessings. In a very emotional ceremony, these blessings broke the tension and made me laugh.
Aside from watching my parents walk me down the aisle, Sam’s favorite moment was during the hora. After Sam and I went up on the chairs, our parents were also hoisted up on the chairs. Now, we had warned my parents about this dance when we first started planning our wedding. My mom was still scared when four men lifted the legs of her chair up and down, while my dad’s expression was the complete opposite. He had a blast! Every time they hoisted him up, his hands went up, as if he was on a roller coaster. It was a lot of fun to see that much excitement and joy on my dad’s face.
“You guys clearly had thought of every little detail, and I really enjoyed how everything tied together.” Yes, we did have a beer themed wedding. The place cards were beer bottles, the centerpieces were made out of beer bottles, the favors were bottle openers, and we even made our own beer to serve during the reception. My sister Stephanie created a logo for us which was made out of a sheaf of barley, bottle cap, and a hop cone that resembled a heart. This logo was on the invitations, ceremony program, signage, beer labels, and all of the printed material. The logo was even incorporated into a tile mosaic, crafted by my sister Carolyn, which functioned as our guest book. My youngest sister Theresa took this logo and made tags for everything in the hospitality bags for the guests to enjoy at the brunch afterwards. The guests at the brunch also enjoyed oversized Jenga and Kerplunk games built by my brother Andrew. All of the wedding details went off without a hitch thanks to Nicole, another sister, who was the day-of-wedding-coordinator.
“I have been to several weddings before and never have I heard the Best Man or the Maid of Honor’s toast so clearly and so well thought out.” The credit is all theirs. The Maid of Honor went to school for theater management, so speaking clearly in front of a large group of people is second nature to her. The Best Man’s occupation is planning long term medical treatments, so it is quite understandable that his speech had a very distinct beginning, middle, and end.
“Even though I just met you, I feel like I have known you for years.” In some cases, family or friends from one side of the family had gotten to know our “other half” through this blog. In others, it was a reflection of how strangely similar our families are. When I was putting together a slideshow of Sam and I growing up, for the brunch following the wedding, there are some images of my family doing a goofy face and I found images of Sam’s family doing that same goofy face. Our siblings and cousins had a ball dancing with each other, especially to songs such as Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show, and “Cotton Eyed Joe”. It was great seeing everyone on the dance floor having such a good time.
“Keep on blogging.” Many of our guests have been following this blog. There were a few people that I met in person for the first time at the wedding who knew me only through these blogs. Sam and I are both very grateful to Interfaith Family for providing us with this forum for communicating with the world our love for each other in our different faiths. Best of luck to the other couples on this wedding blog; I hope your weddings are as joyous, loving, and fun as ours.
From left: siblings Chris (and his fiancee Katie), Nicole, Theresa, Stephanie, and Dave (and his son Ryder) Keefe, Stacey Goodman, Anne Keefe, Sam and Diana Goodman, Laura, Michelle, Andrew, and Carolyn Keefe
These last few months have been busy with dress fittings, selecting the menu, arranging the seating chart, creating the invitations, ordering the suits, and other wedding plans. Sam and I continually remind ourselves that the wedding is only one day and we should focus on preparing for a marriage. This lifelong commitment to each other begins at the wedding ceremony. With that in mind, we are trying to combine the rituals and symbols of both Judaism and Catholicism in our ceremony.
Sam’s parents (Pennye & Phil) on their wedding day
We specifically chose our priest and rabbi to not only co-officiate the ceremony, but also to guide us along this spiritual journey. The rabbi is someone very dear to Sam and the priest is the presider of my family’s parish. These two special people have been a part of various life cycle events in Sam’s and my life. They know us and our families very well, and we are honored that they will be officiating our marriage ceremony. The rabbi and priest continue to help us in the marriage preparations by proofing our ketubah language, assisting with Diocesan paperwork, and helping us with the order and symbols of the ceremony. In our first meeting with the priest, he gave us words of wisdom to keep in mind, throughout this entire process (and our lives): “Keep your own faith at heart, but do not minimize or trivialize the faith of the other.”
If I were converting to Judaism, or Sam to Catholicism, we would have chosen a specific house of worship for our ceremony, such as a synagogue or church. Because we are not, we decided to have our ceremony in a country club, a “neutral” location. This way, both faiths are equally visible and our guests won’t be uncomfortable in attending a wedding in another house of worship. By having our wedding on a Sunday afternoon, Sam and his family can still go to Shabbat services, and my family can go to early Sunday morning Mass.
Throughout the ceremony, we want to honor each other’s faiths, focusing on the similarities, rather than the differences. We have asked my brother, Chris, and Sam’s sister, Stacey, to help us explain the wedding rituals and symbols in each of our faiths at the start of the ceremony.
There are a few symbols that are used in both religions, such as bread, wine, rings, and most importantly, the vows. Sam and I will say the blessings over the bread and wine in our own respective religions. The priest and rabbi will guide us in exchanging our vows and rings.
We have adapted some rituals and symbols to be more conducive to an interfaith wedding. The chuppah is a symbol unfamiliar to my Catholic family, whereas the unity candle is a symbol unfamiliar to Sam’s Jewish family. We will sign our ketubah during the ceremony rather than before it, honoring the Catholic tradition of the bride and groom not seeing each other beforehand. The traditional Jewish Seven Blessings will be said, with both fathers participating. At the end of the ceremony, we will break the glass. This has many meanings in the Jewish faith, but for the two of us, it will also symbolize the breaking down of barriers between people of different cultures and faiths as our families are now joined together.
By incorporating some Jewish and Catholic wedding rituals in our ceremony, we will signal to our friends and family our intent to continue practicing our religions. We hope that this public declaration of faith will communicate our plans to remain strong in faith while supporting our partner’s religious practice.
My sisters, Michelle (far right) and Carolyn (in blue), with a portrait Michelle painted for our High School
I come from a family of artists. My mom’s grandfather was an amazing painter. My dad’s brother is the cartoonist for Sally Forth. Dave, my brother, runs the Combat Paper Program from the Printmaking Center of NJ. Carolyn, my sister won the 2010 Congressional Art Award and had her artwork displayed in the Nation’s Capitol. And, my other sister, Michelle, has created dozens of pastels, charcoals, and paintings, which are hung in galleries and homes throughout Delaware. My family is very artistically gifted, with each member having his or her own unique style and preferred medium.
Sam and I were discussing our ketubah (marriage contract) artwork and after much thought, we decided to ask Michelle to paint it for us. We looked at hundreds of designs online and most of the ketubot used trees because the Torah is referred to as the tree of life. We are comfortable using this imagery and would also like to incorporate the four seasons. After talking with Michelle she is combining these ideas into two trees of Spring and Summer reflecting the two trees of Fall and Winter to represent the years gone by and the years to come. We asked her to use chalk pastels in bright, bold colors to exude life and energy. Sam and I took what we liked from a lot of different designs and Michelle is combining all of our ideas together to create something uniquely for us.
Finding a scribe that would write interfaith text on a piece of someone else’s art took some research. We found a scribe who belongs to the New York Society of Scribes and happened to be visiting Boston, near where Michelle lives. Michelle met with this scribe and together they picked out the paper that would be conducive for both her chalk pastels and his calligraphy ink. After much discussion, we realized that it would be better logistically for Michelle to do her artwork after he wrote both the Hebrew and English text.
Finding the text for the ketubah was more difficult. We looked at several texts and it was a lot easier to pick out the language we didn’t like, than find something we both agreed upon. Sam wants the language to be more formal, in honoring the traditions of the past, whereas I would like the language to represent us both as equals. After going back and forth on text, nitpicking every word, we think we have finally agreed on some language but would like to get approval from our parents and Rabbi before the scribe begins his work.
Our goal is to get the text to the scribe by the end of this month, so he can create his calligraphy so Michelle has enough time to create her artwork. Our ketubah will be the most valuable piece of artwork in our home; therefore, we are being very diligent in crafting the language and design.
Welcome back. If you remember from our introduction, our wedding date is November 8th of this year! It is 205 days away, but then again, who’s counting?
If you know anything about a wedding, you know it takes careful time and preparation. That is not unique to an inter-faith wedding, but some of the things on the check list are approached with a different perspective.
Let’s start with the reception venue. The reception space is always one of the biggest items on anyone’s wedding check list. We went with a re-done barn, known as The Centennial Barn, which was built in 1898, but renovated in 2010 in order to host events. What is great about this space is that not only is it affordable, but the money spent here actually has a higher purpose. The money goes into the work of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor. A few examples of the Sisters’ community work are to provide haircuts for the homeless, bring art into poverty stricken parts of the city and help young women to make better lives for themselves by helping them to get off the street. Helping others is a big part of who Lisa and I are as individuals and as a couple. Lisa spends many of her hours volunteering as a Merchandise Director for an amateur sports team here in Cincinnati. I work in the nonprofit sector, but also do community outreach mentoring. No matter what faith we fall into, helping others is a tenet for everyone. We didn’t realize reception site picking would end up being a faith-based decision!
The reception choice was easy, but the wedding ceremony would involve a lot more conversation and lot more faith discussions.
One thing to know about Lisa is that she is a grounded individual. She balances my often imaginative personality. We all have our desires as human beings, but Lisa tends to keep it realistic and much more achievable. If she wants something she tends to have fear about putting it out in the world. On the grounds of the Centennial Barn, there is a beautiful chapel, the St. Clare Chapel. When Lisa saw the Chapel, she wanted to get married there. It was comforting to her faith and she knew it would mean a lot to her every-Sunday-church-going family as well. However, we had decided to have a Rabbi marry us… Would the nuns be OK with this decision? Would our Rabbi be OK with this decision? I had to ask myself if I was OK with this decision.
It didn’t take much meditation though. I knew I was OK with it. I always want to provide for Lisa, even if it is just happiness. I knew from some interfaith classes I had attended that it was important to encourage one another’s faith, and getting married in the chapel was a way in which I could support Lisa. Plus, she had agreed to have a Rabbi marry us, which was more important to me than the venue.
The Chapel is not as easy as writing a check either. We needed approval from the Arch Bishop of Cincinnati. So here I was, a Jew, writing a letter to the Arch Bishop and the Nuns trying to convince them to let us get married in a chapel. The letter was not far off from this entry, but I knew at the end of the day that I simply could not buy the space and had to trust in G-d to show us that this space was for our big day. When I got the approval, the Head Sister (Nun) sat me down and said that they prayed (and she admitted–cried) for us because they were so touched by our story and our trust in G-d. We had our wedding day venues!
In order for my marriage to Sam to be recognized in the Catholic Church, I have to request permission from the Diocese for a special dispensation in order to marry a non-Catholic who was never baptized.
This document also requires my signature under this statement: “I reaffirm my faith in Jesus Christ and with God’s help intend to continue living that faith in the Catholic Church. I promise to do all in my power to share the faith I have received with our children by having them baptized and raised as Catholics.”
Crap! While we have discussed it on numerous occasions, Sam and I have yet to decide in which faith to raise our children.
With that in mind, we arranged to meet with Monsignor Hopkins, the priest at my family’s parish, to talk about this special dispensation. We also wanted to discuss Pre-Cana, a Catholic pre-marriage course that discusses spirituality/faith, conflict resolution, careers, finances, intimacy/cohabitation, children, and commitment. In addition, we were looking for advice on how to incorporate both religions into our ceremony.
A few months ago, we had met with Father Hopkins to start talking about these issues. He advised us to hold the ceremony in a “neutral site”, neither a synagogue nor a church. As a result of this discussion, we arranged to hold our ceremony at the country club where our reception will take place.
Last Saturday, we met with Father Hopkins to discuss the dispensation in further details. He gave us some really great advice that I would like to share with you:
- Deciding which religion to raise our children in is a very large, important decision that does not have to be decided right now, as long as we are seriously talking about it.
- Even if we are currently leaning more towards raising our children in one faith or the other, that may change once there is a baby in the picture.
- In talking about children, faith and our lives together, we should not “minimize or trivialize” the other’s religion or beliefs.
- “Everything will be fine as long as your family loves and accepts Sam and his family loves and accepts you.”
We talked about Pre-Cana. I have heard the amazing revelations (and some horror stories) of going through these Pre-Cana classes. I also feared the number of miles that we would put on our cars if we drove down to Delaware every weekend for 6 months to attend these classes. We floated the idea of taking Pre-Cana in New Jersey; however, I wanted to take the courses with a priest that I was comfortable with. Father mentioned that the class is mainly about communication and because our communication with each other is strong and we have started to incorporate the families into our decision making process, he is not requiring us to attend Pre-Cana.
We then discussed how to blend the different Jewish/Catholic symbols and rituals into the ceremony without offending anyone. Father Hopkins gave us some examples of programs from Catholic/Jewish ceremonies in which he officiated, and a list of readings and blessings to consider.
We still have a lot of decisions to make, and we are just about to hit the 8-month mark!
Our wedding blogger Matt Rice recently wrapped up his blog after getting married to his now wife, Shannon. We’re sad to see him leave our blog, but thrilled for his happy union. While we search for a new wedding blogger, I thought I would fill in since I recently got engaged! I have to be upfront though: My fiancé is Jewish, and I am Jewish, so we are not an interfaith couple. Scandalous, I know, but I think there are a lot of pieces of wedding planning that are similar for anyone planning a Jewish wedding—interfaith or not. To some extent, every wedding is the bringing together of two different faiths, and a couple must navigate their families’ differences during the planning process. I hope I can be of help or at least amusement until we find a new blogger—and if you are planning a wedding and are interested in blogging, please email me at email@example.com.
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. We’re 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!)
The couple on a moped. The journey begins!
My fiancé and I found ourselves suddenly going from blissfully engaged to full-on planning our wedding just two weeks after our engagement. Not to say this part isn’t also exciting—from the grins on our faces, it’s clear we are not exactly sweating it. But at the same time, after each item gets checked off the list, there’s another one waiting to be explored just as urgently.
It’s kind of like holiday prep—I realize many of us are overwhelmed with the upcoming Thanksgivukkah mega holiday (Is it here yet???), but of course we’re 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.
But how do you keep your eye on the prize when there is a seemingly endless list of things to do to prepare for your wedding day over the next TEN months? Take a step back. What works for me might not work for you, but simply spending quality time with my fiancé and participating in the planning together is what I find makes it all meaningful. It’s more fun to pick out save the dates or imagine a menu when you’re bouncing ideas off your fiancé. I realize I am lucky in that my fiancé actually wants to be an equal player in this process, which is not often the case. (I’m sorry if that sounds sexist: I do not mean to say this exclusively pertains to men. But often there is one person who is less interested in planning than the other.)
I also know that I’m only two months into wedding planning. I keep hearing that things will get more stressful as it gets closer. But your fiancé is your support. He or she is your partner and your care taker and your source of joy. Whether or not they want to help you pick out flower arrangements–and whether or not you agree on bigger issues like whether or not to have a rabbi officiate the ceremony–lean on that person. I promise everything will seem easier.
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.
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.”
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.