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Intro to Judaism at Temple Akiba
A interactive, comprehensive course in the principles and practices of Judaism in 18 sessions for people interested in conversion, interfaith couples, and those who are born Jewish who want to brush....
November 15 2015 - May 24 2016
10:00 AM - 12:00 pm
5249 Sepulveda Blvd
Culver City, CA 90230

SIJCC Spring Gala
Have you been dying to see inside the historic Paramour Estate? We sure have. Hollywood silent film actors, nuns, and rock stars have all wandered the mansion’s halls since 1923. We were lucky....
May 07 2016
8:00 PM - 11:59 PM
Paramour Estate 1923 Micheltorena St
Los Angeles, CA 90039

Vida Sana: A Weekly Wellness Program
Join us as we launch Vida Sana, a new weekly wellness program that will take place from 3:30-5:30pm every Wednesday, beginning May 11 and ending June 8. To support healthy bodies, minds, and hearts,....
May 11 2016
3:30 pm - 5:30 pm
1153 Valencia Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015

72 Virgins
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Los Angeles, CA
90026 United States
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Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative
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Pasadena, CA
91104 United States
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Adat Chaverim
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Van Nuys, CA
91426 United States
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Ahavat Torah
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Brentwood, CA
90049 United States
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Alpert Jewish Community Center
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Long Beach, CA
90815 United States
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American Jewish University
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Los Angeles, CA
90077 United States
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90064 United States
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Laurel Snyder 04-29-16

boys licking chocolate off their messy facesI remember standing with a few friends after my oldest son was born. We were talking, as new mothers do, about how hard parenting can be, how scary. We were comparing neurotic-helicopter-mom moments, laughing at ourselves.

I shared a story about taking my son to the doctor when he seemed to have a fever. “His temperature is high!” I’d cried to the pediatrician, who only chuckled knowingly and said, “Well, maybe you want to unwrap some of these blankets when he’s indoors.” Of course my son was fine, just overheated.

I blushed telling this story. My friends grinned. They had the same stories, of course.  About cutting food up (choking hazards!) into tiny bits too small for the kids to actually pick up. About perceived rare (thanks, WebMD!) skin conditions that turned out to only be heat rash.

But I remember, in the middle of all the laughter that day, someone said, “Well, who can blame us? It’s the ‘Jewish Mother Thing.’ We’re supposed to be anxious and neurotic!  It’s in our DNA!” The laughter continued, and then we probably all had some coffee, or wine.

As the years have passed (10 of them), I’ve gone back to that moment a lot. Because it turns out that as a parent, I’m not especially neurotic. I’m the mom who often shows up with junky snacks, when other people have baked gluten-free, organic muffins. I’m the mom whose kids shower once a week. My boys walk around the neighborhood unattended, own pocketknives and occasionally we forget to eat dinner.

Do these things mean I’m not a Jewish mother? Of course stereotypes are flawed, inexact, problematic. But when I joined a Jewish Mom group on Facebook and saw the effort other Jewish parents put into the details of summer camp selection, perfect birthday cupcakes and finding the best specialists, I found myself wondering, and feeling a little… different. Outside the norm.

It never occurred to me until I saw so many Jewish Mothers all in one place that I might not be one, in the traditional sense. But of course this is absolutely logical, because I never had a Jewish Mother. My own overworked mom, raised Catholic in California—regularly left me at the library until after the doors were locked (it was fine, I sat and read on the steps). She didn’t make kugel and she didn’t speak in Yiddishisms. I rode public buses and did my homework (or didn’t) without anyone ever looking at it. I survived, and learned, I guess, how to parent a little haphazardly, with spit and tape. I learned how fine things usually are, in the end. I learned to avoid stress whenever possible.

But does this mode of parenting make me somehow less Jewish?

Here’s the thing—I am a Jewish mother. I know I am. Because I’m raising Jewish sons. And maybe what the rising intermarriage rates suggest is that we’re going to see a shift in the “Jewish Mother Thing” in the near future. Maybe the next generation of Jewish mothers, raised themselves by women from a more diverse array of religions, regions and cultures, will be less similar, less careful, a little less neurotic. Because they don’t have this “Jewish Mother” stereotype in their heads.

Or maybe not! Maybe all mothers are anxious sometimes and the “Jewish Mother Thing” is a fiction, a narrative we’ve crafted as a culture, a way of embracing and forgiving ourselves for our neurotic maternal impulses; a myth we perpetuate.

In any case, I want to take a moment today to honor us all.. This week, for Mothers’ Day, I want to say to ALL the Jewish Mothers of the world, Yasher Koach! Good job on your perfectionism, or your relaxed attitude. Good job on the homemade cupcakes, or the Ho-Ho you stuck a candle in at the last minute. Good job on remembering the dental appointment, or forgetting and rescheduling it because you took the kids for a hike that day instead. Good job on raising a diverse world of wonderful Jewish kids who will strengthen and alter and carry on our tradition. I’m proud of us all.


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Rabbi Mychal Copeland 04-28-16

Boy eating chicken legWhen my kids were young, I introduced them to the practice of saying the Hebrew blessing, the motzi, before eating. Thank you, G!d, who brings forth bread from the earth.

My older child instantly connected to not only the routine of the ritual but the theological aspect as well. But a few years ago, my other son started to challenge the idea of G!d (which I write this way, since it is something we question). At a young age, he was already an avowed atheist and didn’t want to thank G!d for our food. I explained that he still needs to stop for a moment and acknowledge what it took for that food to get to his plate.

As a pre-dinner ritual, we started to list all the physical conditions and individuals who made our food possible: the sun, rain, seeds, individuals who plant and harvest under harsh conditions without sufficient pay or job security, the people who process it, those who drive it to the store, the store clerks who sell it to us whom we see as we pay our grocery bill. And me, to make it into dinner.

Motzi is a moment of gratitude so we don’t take for granted the deep blessing of sustenance. I learned this practice many years ago when I helped organize a Passover seder for justice workers in Los Angeles. Included in our haggadah was this prayer as part of the Kiddush ritual:

A toast to those who made this wine!
¡Un saludo a los que hicieron este vino!

Wine bottle with glassTo the holy-oneness of everything whose creation gives us sweet fruit for the mouth, eye and nose to enjoy
Al unidad-sagrado-de-todo quien hizo una creacion que nos da frutas dulces para gozar la boca, los ojos, y el nariz

To those who put passion, dreams and capital into wine and entrepreneurship
A los quienes invertieron su passion, sus suenos, y sus fondos al negocio del vino

To those who plowed the fields
A los quienes araron la tierra

To those who planted the vines
A los sembradores de los vides

To those who tended the vines
A los cultivadores de vides

To those who picked the grapes
Alos quienes sacaron las uvas

To those who fermented the fruit
A los que hicieron el vino

To those who cleaned and maintained the winery
A los limpiadores y cuidadores de la fabrica

To those who bottled the wine
A los que lo pusieron en botellas

To those who loaded and trucked the bottles for delivery
A los que metieron a las botellas en las trocas y que las cargaron

To those who sold the wine
A los que lo vendieron

And to those who served the wine here this evening!
¡Y a los que sirvieron el vino esta noche!

We give you our thanks!
¡Les agradecemos!

This got our family thinking about what we were really trying to accomplish when we said the motzi. We talked about the most important part of that moment: taking time to stop and appreciate our food. But those particular words we say are human-made. Yes, they have survived thousands of years, but they are the expressions of a certain group of rabbis a long time ago. We make these ancient words into idols, enshrining them while depriving us of a creative thought process—the kind of passionate engagement with ideas and words that must have inspired those rabbis to formulate such poetry so long ago.

Liturgist Marsha Falk encourages us to exercise our creativity: “No convention of prayer ought to become completely routine; lest it lose its ability to inspire authentic feeling.” My son would probably agree with her assertion that our traditional opening blessing formula “is an example of a dead metaphor… a greatly overused image that no longer functions to awaken awareness of the greater whole.” (The Book of Blessings, p.xvii)

Greatly influenced by Falk’s ideas, I have been crafting my own prayers for years. So I asked my son what he would want to say instead of the motzi. This is what my young atheist came up with: “Thank you, source of stuff, for the food.” Sometimes he just says, “Thanks for the food,” or even, “Thanks to the universe and science and all that stuff… for the food.”

These days, we take turns saying a blessing at our table so everyone’s interests and concerns are heard. I don’t want to lose the traditional prayer language completely and I want my kids to know those formulations. When we say the motzi in the usual way, I talk to my kids about how I infuse those sacred words and sounds with my own theological understanding of the universe; how we are interconnected with the food, the sources of that food and the people who made it possible for such bounty to reach our plates. To me, that holy process is G!d.

Other nights, our sons offer their favorite renditions. Lately as they start to cook parts of the meal themselves, the son who helps gets to offer his favorite way of blessing the food. But we always stop, appreciate and bless.


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Annakeller 04-27-16

Passover baby bibsA funny thing happened when I had a baby. People in my neighborhood whom I had never spoken to started speaking to me. They had seen me walking around Brooklyn since I myself was a baby. They had spotted me on my bicycle, buying candy and I’m sure some had seen me in my various teenage phases of trying cigarettes and dyeing my hair. Since I live three blocks from my childhood home these same people have now watched me carry my daughter around the neighborhood from the day she was born. Now though, they speak to me.

This week is Passover week and I am shocked to find that in every store I enter with my daughter strapped to me I am asked, “What do you need? What are you looking for?” Sales people pull things off the shelves for me and when I make my final purchase, my cart filled to the brim with potatoes, horseradish, parsley and all of the other Passover delights, the cashier says, “We will deliver it to you by four o’clock, you live on Avenue M., right?” They know me and have known me my whole life, though we have just now exchanged words.

Baby Helen Rose at Passover

Baby Helen Rose’s 1st Passover

The sense of community in my neighborhood during Passover is overwhelming. At night when the first Passover seder begins one can walk down any block and look into people’s windows to see the same table settings, the same Passover plate and the same book we all read from. This year Passover is extra special for my family because my daughter and my twin nephews are new editions to the table and we are passing down the traditions of my family through them.

My significant other, Adrian, had to work which was unfortunate. Being from a Mexican Catholic family he appreciates both food and family. But he joined my mother and me in the morning as we prepared the matzah kugel, marinated the brisket and chopped onions. My daughter watched and squealed.

Our food delivery came at four o’clock as promised and my mother said, “We’ve never gotten delivery from Avenue M.” I just pointed to the baby as if to say “Now it’s a different ball game, Ma.”

It’s been a long time since we’ve had babies at the seder table in Brooklyn. My mother usually does the first seder and my aunt does the second seder in Long Island. But this year I cooked the entire first seder with some help from my mother. I am a new mother and so I wanted to do the cooking. It is an enormous amount of work because a lot of people come to our seder and it made me appreciate my own mother and how hard she worked every holiday.

Anna's Passover tableBecause my daughter is from an interfaith, multi-lingual family we have a special hagaddah for her. That’s the book we read from on Passover. Her book is in Spanish, English and Hebrew. It was special to share the Passover story with my daughter and Adrian so that they can understand what we celebrate and why.

That’s another thing about my neighborhood. My interfaith family has become the latest gossip. Sometimes it’s hard to break the barriers of age-old tradition and make room for new tradition. I understand that when I walk through Midwood with Adrian and my daughter, people stare. People whisper. People can be cruel. But the lesson of Passover is that we should never let ignorance lead us. The only way Moses parted the Red Sea was because he believed in what he was doing and ignored everything negative around him.

My daughter is a light, a path to a new world. There is a Jewish proverb that says, “A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.” It is this light that compels the people in my local grocery stores to speak to me for the first time in 30 years. It is this light that wins over the many losses my family has endured over the years. My daughter and my nephews are new lights who shine at the Passover table and ask for the first time, “Why is this night different from any other?”


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Rabbi Ari Moffic 04-27-16

Boy eating mac_cheeseAs I have admitted before, I see the whole world through an interfaith family lens (see my past blog post HERE). I am so uber-saturated in this work that I am always thinking about the experience of the partner who isn’t Jewish who is connected to someone Jewish and what it means to have interfaith families as full members of congregations. So, when I was on a four-hour flight to meet with the other seven rabbis who direct InterfaithFamily offices around the country, I saw an ad that stopped me in my tracks. It is the new Kraft Macaroni & Cheese ad (which might understandably be torture to watch mid-way through Passover!).

The tag line is, “It’s changed, but it hasn’t.”

What does mac & cheese have to do with supporting interfaith families exploring Jewish life, our tag line at IFF? When interfaith families are truly part of a community doing Jewish (notice I don’t say Jewish community—this will be the subject of my next blog post), will the community and the experience of Judaism change? Will there be anything recognizable about Judaism in the generations to come? Will the recipe have changed so much that it becomes a different thing altogether? To continue the food analogy, will interfaith families be a sweetener and add something healthier for the overall enterprise of Judaism?

I hope that when interfaith families are members and leaders of their communities, everything will change for the better. We will frame liturgy and worship in new ways, cognizant that we need to give meaning because many people there are still learning (yes—this should always be the approach, but interfaith families dictate this approach). We will continue to adapt and change liturgy as it feels outdated and offensive to our diverse communities.This has been the Reform tradition since the beginning. We say what we believe.

Much of prayer is poetry and isn’t literal but is evocative. Our language will change and it should feel palpable. Those who visit a congregation’s website should sense change and it should feel inspiring and positive. We can look to the experience and narratives of those who didn’t grow up with Judaism to enrich the context and lens by which Judaism is now taught and lived.

What do you think? When interfaith families are truly part and parcel of a community, do you sense that their inclusion changes the community over time? Can you point to the changes? Is it so normative at this point that we have a diverse community that we take this fact for granted and have moved past it in some way? As always, more questions than answers and lots of right answers.

 


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Jessie Boatright 04-26-16

Matzah and beansRecently, two important Conservative rabbinic opinions came down that probably rang out strongly with their followers. For the rest of us,the announcement quietly gathered steam until it called out across the masses in the weeks leading up to Passover: the Rabbis declared kitniyot (Hebrew for legumes) as Kosher for Passover

In what felt like overnight to me, a group of Jewish leaders told us Ashkenazis (Jews of German or Eastern European descent) that it was no longer necessary for us to belabor the possibility that a farmer who wasn’t Jewish had mixed wheat in with the lentils, and that as long as we stay away from chametz, legumes are fair game. Much to my surprise, after 20+ years of label reading and black bean-shunning, I feel mixed about an easier Pesach.

I am not a Conservative Jew. I am a Reform-leaning Jew held in the warm embrace of a Reconstructionist community, so I am homing on two bases, neither Conservative. But this seems like a big deal, since I have owned this more “conservative” practice since college. Also, to have such a public overturning of a centuries-old practice feels like a challenge for everyone, Conservative or otherwise.

On one side of my emotional spectrum is the urge to listen. For almost as long as I’ve practiced the ban on kitniyot, I’ve known it to be based more on an abundance of caution than on biblical clarity. I’ve also known it to not be the healthiest choice for my body–I will never forget the time I had to have a blood test during Passover and the doctor’s dismay at my abysmal iron levels (made worse because I was a vegetarian at the time). I assured her they’d bounce back after the holiday, which they predictably did. So enough already–life without the kitniyot ban sure sounds easier, and the argument for it is thin at best.

On the other side, there is a part of avoiding kitniyot that I find adds even more meaning to the eight days of Passover. Perhaps I am too much of a glutton for punishment, but I like how additional rules increase my mindfulness about this time being different. I am not a huge bread eater, so avoiding kitniyot added another layer to the way I paid attention to what I was consuming, which, in turn, made me think even more about the why of the holiday. In incorporating kitniyot into my diet, I feel like I need to find a new way to ensure the same quality of mindfulness I have had in the past several years.

In the middle is the way I hold this change in my role as the Jewishly-raised partner in my interfaith marriage. There is something in this that feels a little funny.  Because our Judaism originated from my background, I often assume the role of leader or teacher. I can get my head around this when we observe Shabbat, fast on Yom Kippur or with almost everything related to Passover. But when a panel of rabbis picks something that I’ve suggested my partner do as a part of being Jewish and says “Oops, not really,” I feel a little like I tricked my family into something unnecessary. I know it is not that cut and dry (Eric assures me it isn’t), but I am reminded that advocating for the Jewish choice for our household comes with some additional responsibility to shine a good light down the Jewish path.

This week, with a little hesitation, I have decided to stop worrying about kitniyot. Halfway through the holiday, it turns out my belly feels better off without an additional layer of forbidding myself kitniyot. I am curious, though – what did you decide to do?


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Jane Larkin 04-23-16

Flying to son's water polo matchAs I gazed out the airplane window on our flight between Dallas and Houston, I thought about my parenting choices. Specifically, my decision to allow my son to skip the first night of Passover for a sporting event. I never thought I’d be that kind of parent. Judaism and its continuation were too important to me.

As the Jewish half of an interfaith couple, I’d always taken the responsibility of Jewish identity building seriously and my husband supported me every step of the way for almost a dozen years. We practiced Shabbat weekly. Celebrated Rosh Hashanah over two days with a dinner, service, tashlich and another meal. Observed Yom Kippur with Kol Nidre dinner followed by services and break fast the next day. Honored Sukkot, Tu BiShvat, Purim, and Hanukkah with holiday foods and festivities. Marked the exodus from Egypt at two Passover seders, one at a friend’s and another at our house.

The marking of Jewish time through holiday celebrations has been a big part of our life, and we found a way to evolve our observances as our son grew from an infant to a toddler to a grade schooler, so they remained relevant and balanced our Jewishness with our secular life. But now that our son was in middle school, and in the early stages of puberty, there seemed to be an increasing amount of flexibility required to live Jewishly and be engaged in the secular, non-Jewish world.

During football season, our Shabbat practice has been modified so we can mark the end of the week and go to the Friday night football game at our son’s school. Our Rosh Hashanah observance has been adapted to minimize the amount of school missed and allow for enough time to complete homework. I’ve gladly modified many of our other rituals and practice so that our son could see that practicing Judaism was compatible with non-Jewish life and his American identity.

From the beginning of our Jewish journey as an interfaith family, my husband and my goal has been to make Judaism fun and relevant so that our son chooses to practice it in adulthood out of love and connection, not obligation. We’ve never wanted him to resent being Jewish. And that’s why we were flying to Houston for the Texas State Age Group Championships for water polo instead of sitting at our friend’s seder table.

Playing water poloOur son has been playing water polo for a year on his school’s sixth grade and under team. Over the past 12 months, he’s improved enough that he is now a starter. This year, the team is undefeated, having won every game in the North Texas League in the fall, winter and spring seasons and every non-league tournament they’ve played. When he was selected by his coach to go with the team to the state tournament, it seemed particularly cruel to make him stay home because it conflicted with Passover. He and his team had worked so hard to get so far. We were not going to make this a Sandy Koufax moment. Instead, I said I’d find a way to adapt our observance.

When we reached our destination, we had a non-traditional holiday meal at a Mediterranean restaurant. I asked that we all eat Passover-friendly food in honor of the holiday even though it meant forgoing the fresh baked pita that looked delicious. While we ate, we each shared our thoughts on freedom.

I can’t say it was the most fulfilling holiday experience, but at least it was a holiday experience. When we return from Houston, we’ll have a traditional seder at home on the fourth night of Passover.

I have no idea if the choices we’re making are showing our son how he can embrace his heritage in a way that is compatible with his secular life or if the message he is getting is that practicing Judaism isn’t that important. Maybe in years to come he will forgo Jewish observance because it doesn’t fit neatly into his schedule, or maybe he will have the tools and creativity to find a way to engage in Jewish ritual even when faced with competing items on his calendar.

As with so many things in parenting, I wish I had a crystal ball that could show me the future. Since I don’t, I need to go with my gut instinct which tells me that making choices that will make our son resent being Jewish is not the answer. I hope my gut is right.


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Annakeller 04-21-16
Baby Helen Rose

My mother with baby Helen Rose Castaneda

Passover is approaching. The stores in my neighborhood have begun the process of taking the chametz (bread) off the shelves and replacing the inventory with matzah or other kosher for Passover items. This is a tradition and it is Jewish law. Because Moses led the Jews in escaping Egypt and the bread did not have enough time to rise by the time they needed to escape, they ate unleavened bread. This is why the shelves are lined with different colored paper at my house. I switch the dishes to have Passover dishes. The night before the Passover seder I burn the bread on my mother’s front lawn. 

My mother hands me the Passover shopping list with a coupon for Cascade soap pods and a white envelope filled with crisp green twenty dollar bills. It’s been a rough month. A few weeks ago my brother’s kids (two twin boys almost 9 months old) got the flu. I was recovering from bronchitis. My mother had an upper respiratory infection. My 6-month-old baby girl Helen Rose had a cold with a fever. Then a relative passed away and my mother slammed her finger in a glass door and almost cut her whole thumb off. She’s having surgery right before the first seder.

But maybe all of this was a sign. This is my first year as a new mother and so as a new mother with my own mother recovering from her hand surgery, I will make the first seder meal alone. I am excited and nervous and as always, I am thinking of my Grandma Rosie.

My grandmother only owned one pot. It was the Russian immigrant in her, the memory of when people were fleeing the Pogroms. She learned what it was to take only what you can carry, that your feet are faster than history when they run toward the future. Every Passover my Grandmother cooked brisket in that pot. She lined her colossal charcoal colored pot with potatoes. They dripped with oil, paprika and onions. They were salted with her tears and the memory of an everlasting childhood. She turned the meat over and when it was ready she brought it to the seder table.

As a child those potatoes were my favorite dish. Flavored with the grease and fat of the brisket and the smokiness of the past. I piled mountains on my plate and pushed aside other delicacies for my simple peasant supper. Because Grandma Rosie only cooked once a year, her fridge usually only contained Ginger Snaps, Canada Dry tonic water and Tanqueray gin. She would sit at the kitchen table and instead of cook she would read the stocks. As a child of the depression she hid money under her mattress and never threw anything away.

When Grandma Rosie passed I found her holiday recipe book in my mother’s kitchen. One of the first recipes has an instruction of “crack 40 eggs.” I thought that was hilarious. It’s like a book if you’re cooking for an army. But I furiously searched those pages for her potatoes asking myself the whole time the pages crinkled beneath my fingers why I had never thought to hold her shaky hands and learn about her yesterdays through food. Why had I not thought to chronicle for my own daughter, named after her, the first steps my Grandmother took to survive in a world filled with Pogroms?

My Grandmother began each Passover holiday with a greasy finger. I understand now why it was this holiday she cooked for. It was the lesson of Passover she wished to pass down. The book we use on Passover is called the Haggadah. It is the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.  It says “We were once slaves in Egypt…” But the lesson is that we can be slaves at any time to anyone, even now. History always repeats itself.

Daddy and baby

My husband Adrian and Helen Rose

My daughter is Jewish on her mother’s side and Mexican Catholic on her father’s side. We speak Spanish at home, English at my mother’s house and most recently we put Hebrew letter magnets on the fridge. The world is changing. She will face many obstacles and I will lead her back to the lessons of the Passover seder. I will teach her the Jewish proverb that says, “I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.”

I’m about to leave the house to finish the rest of the shopping before the big day. I look to my menu I made on white loose-leaf: parsley, hard-boiled eggs, gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, brisket, Grandma’s potatoes.


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Emily Mace 04-14-16

This year, there are several weeks between Easter and Passover, a welcome respite from the springtime quandary many interfaith families face as they balance chocolate bunnies and the afikomen.

My daughter shows off her Easter egg hunt success.

My daughter shows off her Easter egg hunt success

Easter and Passover, in my experience, don’t create the same kind of difficulties as their winter counterparts, Christmas and Hanukkah. The Easter/Passover question fails to inspire the same degree of emotion as questions over the presence or absence of a Christmas tree in an interfaith family’s home. Still, each spring my family finds a new Easter/Passover balance, emerging from the little details of each celebration.

At the first Passover seder I celebrated with my then-boyfriend’s family, I remember the welcome in my future in-laws’ eyes as they told me that they hoped that all participants at their table would feel as if they, too, that very night, had been liberated from bondage. Although I came from a different background and different tradition, a seder in their home became a universal event, open to all who would experience the mystery of moving from suffering to joy.

Through the years, I learned that the seder at my in-laws’ house emphasized Earth Day, springtime, rebirth, reawakening and the joy of a new life, manifested in this world, here and now in this life. My spouse and I carried these themes into our own seder celebrations that welcome both family and friends. Like the wedding couple that breaks the glass as a reminder that even at a time of joy, brokenness remains in the world, each year at the seder my family recalls tikkun olam, Judaism’s message of healing the world’s broken places.

Although I’d been raised in a liberal Episcopalian environment, for me Easter had by then come to mean a springtime celebration of rebirth. Some years I attended Unitarian Universalist Easter services, singing “Lo the Earth Awakes Again” in place of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” and thinking of my much more devout friends who mocked this seemingly watered-down springtime sentiment.

Emily's daughter at Passover

My daughter proudly displays the egg on last year’s seder plate

Passover, though, was anything but watered-down, especially after four cups of wine. It remains my husband’s favorite holiday, and as the better chef in our household, he delights in planning the menu, doing and re-doing the haggadah and making sure that we have to extend our dining room table past its maximum capacity for the celebration to feel complete.

As I’ve experienced Passover with my extended family for the past 14 years, Passover makes a certain kind of sense. Each year, matzah still tastes good for at least the first five days. Matzah brei with smoked salmon and maple syrup, matzah served with leftover Sephardic charoset (a delectably mortar-like concoction of dates, figs, nuts, spices and honey) and matzah granola liberally doused with honey and maple syrup, seem like the foods of heaven for the first few days. The leftover bottles of wine help wash the crumbs down when the matzah starts to lose its once-a-year appeal.

Beyond the food, Passover promotes a message of rebirth and liberation that aligns with both the anticipated return of springtime as well as good solid social justice.

Given all of this, each year I happily ceded the springtime holiday sensibilities to the Jewish half of my interfaith family (something I’ve never quite been able to do in December).

Passover became a rebirth I could sink my heart, and even my teeth, into—at least, until I provided grandchildren for my Easter-celebrating parents.

Once grandchildren came on the scene, suddenly my parents and grandparents wondered about chocolate bunnies, Easter eggs, gifts in pastel wrapping paper and other secularized symbols of the springtime season (and sometimes, even, if we’d be attending church that year).

My childhood celebrations of Easter started pajama-clad as my brother and I hunted for our Easter eggs, finding them in the closet, the dryer, the washing machine or other odd locations. We changed into fancy pastel clothing and drove to church, where the sweet smell of flowers and the triumphant sounds of trumpets and organ greeted us, after which we returned home to a fancy Easter dinner. We ate chocolate bunnies, dyed pastel eggs and I gave all my much-detested jellybeans to my brother in exchange for a few more egg-shaped Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, when my daughters looked forward eagerly to our neighborhood’s egg hunt. Even my husband, who’d initially and understandably balked at the idea of a Christmas tree in his home, wasn’t alarmed at our children participating in what he called a “pagan celebration of springtime,” as out the door they ran, baskets in hand, eggs and chocolate on their minds.

So, I’ve adjusted each year to a new balance between a childhood tradition that has come to mean considerably less, and an adult tradition that has come to mean so much more. My children happily accept Easter gifts when given, and look forward gleefully to matzah right around the corner (they love matzah!).

Still, I wonder, what does your family do when Easter and Passover overlap? Is it a dilemma in your house? If so, how do you handle it?


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Stephanie Zulkoski 04-12-16

Annoyed_WomanI am a lot of things in this diverse world. I am a female, a daughter, granddaughter, sister, fiancé, niece, friend, Catholic, dietitian, animal lover, coffee and chocolate enthusiast… in no particular order. While I identify as many different things, there are many things I am not and won’t try to be. As I continue to grow and navigate through life, I am finding that the way I define and present myself to the world is more important than the way someone else defines me. However, when someone tries to define or label me differently than how I see myself, it can be hurtful.

I have had so many positive experiences over the last several years as one half of an interfaith couple. I have had the opportunity to learn so much about the Jewish faith. I have embraced Jewish traditions and culture and continue to learn ways to incorporate these new traditions into my life. I have been welcomed with open arms into a Jewish family that I will officially be able to call my own family when I say “I do” in an interfaith wedding ceremony six months from now.

Unfortunately, when small, negative experiences occur, they can put a damper on even the most joyful occasions, just like a rain cloud can ruin a beautiful sunny day. These negative moments can linger causing sadness and frustration. I have encountered very few negative opinions in response to my interfaith relationship but that doesn’t mean it hurts less when these situations do arise. My hope is that individuals today can continue to become more open-minded and non-judgmental. As the Catholic half of a Catholic/Jewish interfaith couple, below are some experiences I’d like to avoid repeating in the future.

For starters, please do not call me a “shiksa” if you would like to maintain a friendship with me. Calling me this term will not make me laugh and I will not think it’s funny. The word “shiksa” means “non-Jewish female,” however, other translations for the word include “impure” and “abomination.” This word is not a term of endearment and every definition I have ever read for this word describes it as derogatory. Most definitions even directly indicate that this word should not be used as a label or reference for someone. It is 2016, I am a Catholic woman who fell in love with a Jewish man and there is nothing forbidden about our love. If you are a person who identifies as Jewish who is not aware of the correct definition for the word “shiksa,” please take the time to research the word and then ask yourself if the person you’re referring to would be offended by this.

I am Catholic. I am “of a different faith background” but would prefer not to be called a “non-Jew.” I have read articles about the controversy of the term “non-Jew.” It made me stop and think about my feelings toward this term. I get it. I’m not Jewish and I’m not trying to be. I am marrying someone who identifies as Jewish while I identify as Catholic. To me, this is very concrete. The problem arises when someone else starts identifying me by what I am not rather than what I am. When someone calls me a “non-Jew” it makes me feel like I’m on the outside looking in or excluded from a group. The term “non-Jew” also makes me feel as though the person referring to me as a “non-Jew” feels superior because they are Jewish and I am not. Individuals should be identified as what they are rather than what they are not to avoid hurt feelings or discomfort.

Finally, I have been asked on a number of occasions since my engagement if I plan to convert to Judaism. While I respect the question and a person’s interest in our different faith backgrounds, I don’t feel as though I need to convert to my partner’s religion in order for it to be acceptable to get married. Don’t get me wrong, I love that conversion is an option and that in the future, if I feel conversion is right for me, I can make that decision. On the other hand, I love that intermarriage is accepted by many today and that I can continue to practice my personal religious beliefs while building new traditions with my partner who has personal religious beliefs that are different from my own.

I don’t know what the future holds for my partner and me as we move closer to our wedding day but my hope is for continued acceptance and respect for individuals of different faiths and interfaith couples. We will continue to surround ourselves with friends and family who accept and embrace our different faiths and support us as we build this new life together!


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Rabbi Sarah Tasman 04-12-16

matzah ball soupMy grandma Zelda taught me many things about Judaism and preparing for the Jewish holidays. However, what she did not teach me was her recipes. In fact, in all the years I watched and helped her cook, I don’t ever remember seeing her follow a recipe or consult a cookbook. Whenever she cooked, she did it from memory.

Rabbi Sarah Tasman with Grandma Zelda

Rabbi Sarah Tasman with Grandma Zelda

For her huge fluffy matzah balls, I remember her telling me to mix together the matzah meal, schmaltz (chicken fat) and water. “If it’s too thick,” she said, “add more water. If it’s too wet, add more matzah meal.” There was no recipe to follow, just the steps she had learned from her mother, which were the steps she used her entire life and the same ones she shared with me.

Often she would tell me stories about what it was like growing up strictly kosher or what it was like living in a family of eight children.

Looking back now, I see that my grandmother taught me how to cook from memory. For the most part, if I learn how to cook something once, I can pretty much cook it again without the recipe. I know what “season with salt and pepper to taste” means, and I do not measure exactly how much goes in of this or that ingredient. When I bake a chicken, I don’t usually use a timer since I know how it’s supposed to look and taste when it’s ready. That is how I learned to cook from Grandma Zelda.

More than how or what to cook, much of what I learned from my grandmother was about how to build a Jewish home (even if I don’t follow the rules of keeping kosher in exactly the same way she did). I learned how to let Judaism be a framework for my life, how to follow the seasons and celebrate the holidays and how to make room within that structure for my own personality and creativity. I learned the value of taking the time to prepare for holidays—not just physically cleaning and cooking, but spiritually, too. I learned from her how to gather my family around me and how to make the observance of a holiday meal more meaningful. I learned how to open the door to those who come from other backgrounds and traditions.

This will be our first Passover since my grandmother passed away and my first time hosting Passover in my own home. It feels like an honor, a duty to carry on this tradition and a very large task for which I will need a lot of help. In large part, it’s about the food, but it’s also about the rituals and about the memories.

I know that our Passover seder this year will look and feel different from the Passover meals we used to have at Grandma Zelda’s. It will be the first time not being in her home and the first seder without her. I will think of her every step of the way as I clean my house and prepare for my guests. We will light her Sabbath candles on the first night of Passover, we will fill her Miriam’s cup and I will prepare and teach in her honor. I will cook with my memories, and I will cook from memory, just like she taught me.

This article was reprinted with permission from Jewish Food Experience.


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Hannah Dancing 04-11-16
Ketuba_grandparents

This painting in my grandparents’ home provided inspiration

After our first pre-wedding meeting with Rabbi Frisch, we were giddy with excitement. We walked the 10 blocks home reviewing all the things we had talked about. (Check out my last blog post to see how we chose Rabbi Frisch to officiate.) One detail that stood out was when Rabbi Frisch asked us if we were going to have a ketubah. Amma said something like, “Oh is that the canopy thing that you stand under?” and I said, “No, no, that’s a chuppah!” I thought I was so smart for half a second, until I realized I didn’t know what a ketubah was either.

We learned that the purpose and meaning of the ketubah, like many traditions, has changed over time and still varies from one Jewish community to another. Currently, within our particular community, it is basically a written and signed statement of love and commitment between the couple getting married. You can read InterfaithFamily’s kutabah explanation here.

You should have heard all the ketubah mispronunciations we came up with in the days following our meeting as we discussed whether or not we were going to have one. That week we went to our friends’ house for dinner and brought up the subject with them. They were married two years ago in a Jewish ceremony. They showed us their ketubah and told us the story of searching for just the right one. Not satisfied with anything they could find in the area, or online, their rabbi put them in touch with an Israeli scribe. The result was a stunning, sacred document with thick black Hebrew lettering and gold accents. As an artist and a bride-to-be, I was inspired.

Knowing I am an artist, Rabbi Frisch mentioned that if we did decide to go for it, I could make our ketubah myself, so I set to work researching the various versions and styles and decided it was definitely something I wanted to try my hand at. I loved the circular designs I was finding in my searches. Knowing I was bound to take a lot of liberties adjusting the meaning and language to suit our needs, I wanted to use more traditional colors and motifs to balance out the inevitable modern flair.

As I was familiarizing myself with ketubah art, one particular image made its way into the forefront of my mind; a small painting my grandparents have had hanging in their house for as long as I can remember. The combination of shapes and colors (and the fact that it had a line of Hebrew text below it) was just the inspiration I needed. I also loved that I would be drawing my inspiration from something that tied back to my family, giving the whole project a deeper foundation. I found a photo of the painting I had taken last year, while documenting some of the art and tchotchkes around my grandparents’ house. I collected my paints and inks and began designing our ketubah.

Our DIY ketubah

Our DIY ketubah

I continued to use the original painting as a reference throughout the composition of the piece. In the original, a strange bird sits atop a large golden egg and the whole image is framed by a circle. It occurred to me that a bird sits on an egg to protect and nurture it, so perhaps it could do the same for our promises to each other.

I found a ketubah text that suited us beautifully, and painted it in black ink within a gold circle, meant to represent the egg from the original painting. Among decorative shapes, I painted the same strange bird from my grandparents’ painting, sitting on top of our promises, keeping them safe. I regretted not knowing how to write in Hebrew, but knew I could at least copy a few words. I searched online for a morsel of Jewish wisdom that would add value to our ketubah.

Within seconds, I came across the perfect words: “Shalom Bayit,” or “Peace in the Home,” a Jewish concept referring to domestic harmony. I did my best to copy the words letter for letter, bringing my creative journey to an end. I presented the finished piece to Amma, and we were both excited to welcome it into our ever-evolving vision of our wedding, and our marriage.


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Laurel Snyder 04-07-16

Girl_Easter_BasketAs a kid, I loved Passover and Easter.

Passover meant a big seder, with my grandfather chanting at the end of the table. My cousins and I would scramble around the house, hunting for the afikomen. Then my uncle would play the piano in the basement while we all sang. It was a wonderful holiday.

MatzahPassover also meant skipping my usual PB&J and taking buttered matzah to school, wrapped in aluminum foil. I remember how the butter would melt into shiny globules, and I’d rub them in with my finger. There was something nice about being “The Jewish Kid” in the class, with my special food. I loved the rituals. I liked the hyper-awareness of Passover, the symbolism of the seder plate. Mortar and tears—the sense that everything mattered.

And while we didn’t celebrate Easter religiously at our house, I did get a basket from my (Catholic) mom, filled with jellybeans and chocolate eggs. This was nice, too—that while I got to be “The Jewish Kid” I also didn’t feel totally left out of Easter. Sometimes there was a neighborhood parade and we made Easter hats from cardboard, glue and feathers.

Then came a year when the holidays overlapped. My parents were newly divorced, and not communicating well. My mom did her best with Passover. If memory serves, I took my matzah to school like usual. But then on Sunday morning… I got my Easter basket. Filled with bright jelly beans.

I tore into it, of course, mouth filled with sweetness, until I crunched through a blue candy shell into the crisp goodness of a malted robin’s egg. And suddenly, it hit me. Easter wasn’t Kosher for Passover! I spit the candy out into my hand, confused. What should I do?

For the next few days, my Easter basket sat on top of the fridge, waiting for me. I remember staring up at it, thinking about how it wasn’t fair, that nobody else I knew had to wait to eat her candy. But the truth was, my dad wasn’t there to enforce the rules anymore. It was all me. I had put the basket on top of the fridge, and I felt conflicted, but also firm in my resolve.

Years later, as an adult, the holidays overlapped again, and remembering the basket on the fridge, I did a funny thing. I assembled a Kosher-for-Passover Easter basket for myself. I did a good job, hunted down fruit-gels and made chocolate-covered matzah. The basket looked lovely.

But you know what? It was no good. It didn’t make me happy at all. Staring at that basket of fruit slices and jelly rings didn’t feel the same as waking up to an Easter basket. Not remotely. It felt… wrong.

I think sometimes, in the interfaith community, we seek to smooth the ruffled feelings, to reconcile all our conflicts and contradictions. We want to believe that we’re creating families in which everything can blend, fit and make sense. But here’s the thing—some things are distinct, even mutually exclusive. Some years, choosing to keep Kosher for Passover means not eating Easter candy. And that’s annoying, but also OK. Things don’t have to be easy to matter.

In a way, I feel like I undermined the essence of each holiday in that Eastover Basket I made. For me (and I can only speak for my own experience), Passover is about the restrictions, the rigor. Passover feels powerful because of its deprivation. And for me, Easter baskets are the opposite—about abundance, sheer pleasure.

This is fine! These two holidays don’t have to blend. Each holiday holds a special place in my memory. Easter and Passover can co-exist without merging. And you know what? The truth is that all the most meaningful experiences of my life have included conflict. Every deep relationship I’ve had has been imperfect, particular and occasionally inconvenient. Often, rituals matter most when we have to wait for them, or forego something else. Sometimes, conflict serves a purpose.

When I was a kid, I stared up at my Easter basket on the fridge and thought about both holidays. I owned them both and recognized that they both mattered to me. That year, for the first time, I truly decided to keep Kosher for Passover. It mattered more than it ever had before. And then a few days later, I decided to eat my robin’s eggs.

They were delicious.


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Rabbi Robyn Frisch 04-06-16

cant_eat_this_videoWhen I was growing up, I always looked forward to my family’s Passover seders. One of my favorite parts of the seder was the songs—and not just the songs that were in the haggadah, like “Dayenu,” “Chad Gadya” and “Who Knows One?”  I also loved the silly song parodies we’d sing each year at our seder based on (somewhat) modern songs, like “Take Me Out to the Seder” sung to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame “There’s No Seder Like Our Seder” sung to the tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business and “The Ballad of the Four Sons” sung to the tune of “Clementine.” (You can click here to find the words to these songs and others.)

As corny as these all seem to me now, I can still remember how clever I thought they were when I was young—and how they didn’t cease to amuse me each year.

In recent days, with Passover approaching, some of my friends have posted Passover parodies of pop songs on Facebook, and they’ve reminded me of those parodies we used to sing at our seder when I was young. So, for fun, I thought I’d compile a list of my favorite Passover song parodies. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Although Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez probably didn’t realize it when they composed the song “Let it Go” for the movie Frozen, they had written the perfect phrase to be parodied as a Passover song. And it was parodied—endlessly—in 2014. One of the better videos, in my opinion, was “Let Us Go,” made by members of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.

2. But my favorite Frozen parody by far was Six13’s “Chozen (A Passover Tribute).” It even included an introduction with John Travolta flubbing the name of the group, just as he had mispronounced Idina Menzel’s name when introducing her to sing “Let it Go” at the Oscars.

3. Just as 2014 was the year of the “Let it Go” Passover parody, 2015 was the year of the “Uptown Funk” Passover parody. Aish HaTorah’s “Passover Funk” was a great parody of the Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars hit song.

4. But again, my favorite version of 2015’s most-parodied song for Passover was by Six13. Their “Uptown Passover (An ‘Uptown Funk for Pesach)” put them at the top of my Passover song parody list for the second year in a row.

5. Following up on the success of their 2014 “Let Us Go,” members of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA, did a great job parodying Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” in their 2015 “All About Those Plagues.” Having noted in a blog that I wrote this past December that most Hanukkah pop song parodies that I liked were by all-male groups and that I hoped to see more women and girls coming out with some awesome parodies, I love that the B’nai Shalom videos feature more than just young men. I can relate to the woman who wrote on YouTube about “All About Those Plagues”: “I must congratulate you. I’m so tired of these all-male Orthodox groups having a near-monopoly on Jewish holiday videos… [This video] features a wide diversity of ages, genders and even races. That’s what Judaism is about…”

6. Felicia Sloin’s Video “Batya—Floating in The Reeds” is a fun parody of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep.” And again, it was nice to watch a video featuring a woman.

7. And finally, here’s another video featuring a woman, this one a funny take on the foods that can and can’t be eaten on Passover: Julie Geller’s “U Can’t Eat This,” a parody of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” that you don’t want to miss.

With Passover less than a month away, I’m disappointed that I still haven’t seen any good 2016 Passover pop song parodies. Maybe the Maccabeats (famous for their “Candlelight” parody of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” and many other songs) will release a video before Passover. I can hope… and if they don’t, I’ll just have to watch “U Can’t Eat This” a few more times… or break out signing “Take Me Out to the Seder.”

What’s your favorite Passover song parody?


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Lindsey Silken 04-05-16

CJP Interfaith conversation

“I feel I’m Jewish not just because I’ve chosen Judaism but because Judaism has chosen me.”
–David Gregory, April 5, 2016

You might recognize David Gregory from his time as NBC newsman or as Meet the Press moderator. But he visited Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston Federation–a supporter of InterfaithFamily/Boston and leader in interfaith issues–this morning in the role of author, husband and father. He was joined by Dr. Erica Brown, an extraordinary Jewish author and teacher. Gregory and Brown were interviewed by CJP President Barry Shrage about interfaith relationships and Jewish life.

Brown made a good point early on in the conversation: So often, it’s not Jewish ritual or prayer or the organized Jewish community that puts off people who are not Jewish. To a newcomer, it’s the inside jokes, that “tribalism” about Jewish culture—the very thing that makes many Jews feel pride—that can be so isolating.

Many of us have seen this play out, whether you are the Jewish one, joking about a Jewish stereotype or using insider lingo, or you’re the one hearing it and not quite feeling part of the conversation.

Gregory is in a unique position to speak on the pulse of interfaith relationships having felt like both insider and outsider. He is the product of an interfaith family (he was raised by a Catholic mother and Jewish father) and it was his wife’s strong Protestant faith that inspired him to explore his own faith and religion. After a great deal of religious and spiritual exploration, he said, “I feel more Jewish than I ever have in my life.”

It’s time for Jews to change their thinking, Gregory said. As his wife Beth put it: “I know what you are but what do you believe?”

Unfortunately, he points out, the idea of appreciating Judaism for its vibrancy, community and spirituality is an “elective.” The more powerful conversation on the table is still the endurance of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, so it can be difficult to steer the conversation toward the richness of what Judaism has to offer; the “what you believe” rather than the “what you are.”

Gregory is by no means saying that it is futile to embrace and share the notion that Judaism has a great deal to offer those who are not already engaged, however. He challenged those in the room from Jewish organizations to think about creating inroads to the Jewish community that have authenticity for interfaith couples. Brown also pointed out that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, as every person and couple is unique.

What was most compelling about the conversation was hearing Gregory talk from experience. He does not claim to have the answers for anyone else, but he has been on quite a journey with his personal relationship with Judaism. Its importance has the power to bring him to tears and to propel him forward on this intellectual and heartfelt journey with his family.


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Amy Beth Starr 04-04-16

Springtime in my house rarely means flowers and warmer weather – after all, we do live in Maine and snow is still in the forecast. Instead, spring signifies celebration, as April brings both Roxy’s birthday and my birthday. This year she’s hitting the big NINE, a milestone unto itself as it’s the last year my firstborn stays in the land of single digits, before tweenhood truly hits. My baby girl is growing into this very cool, very independent, sassy, funny and smart 9-year-old.

I, on the other hand, am internally melting down. While we plan a fashion party for the girl, my own birthday, just two weeks after hers, is a big one. The big Four-OH. I’m in denial, of course. Not that I think 40 is an awful age to be, it’s more remembering the picture of 40 I had in my head when I was 9.  I don’t quite feel “old enough” to be celebrating four decades.

I can clearly remember my own mom turning 40, having a party and what a big deal it was. Yet here I am, about to cross that threshold, and my kids will create their own memories of my special day, and my life certainly doesn’t feel like that mental picture I had years ago. But Roxy (and my son, Everett) are truly excited, and she’s already asked me a million times when is it her turn to go up onto the bimah for her birthday – and oh yeah, Mommy – you have to come, too.

Roxy Makes a Wish

Roxy when she was 4, making a wish

The second Friday of each month, Shabbat services at my synagogue are considered a family service, with an earlier start time, family-friendly liturgy instead of the regular prayerbook, participation by the kids in the service and of course – the all-important monthly birthday blessing. Congregants who are celebrating a birthday in that given month are invited up to the bimah to receive a special birthday blessing followed by everyone singing “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew. Roxy has been beside herself for months, waiting on edge ’til it’s her turn, and next Friday she finally gets her wish.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that she’s so concerned about including a Jewish ritual into our birthday celebrations, and in a way it makes me feel great to know that she’s so in tune with her Jewish identity that it’s a given to her that of course we’re going to get birthday blessings. But there’s a piece of me that never would have even considered this. Would I have bothered to go get my own birthday blessing if it wasn’t so important to Roxy? I’m not convinced I even would have thought of it.

Roxy at 9 years old

Roxy at 9 years old

The kids split their time between my house and their dad’s house 50/50, with alternating days during the week and every other weekend – and next weekend – the birthday blessing weekend, they will be with their dad (who is also Jewish). He will take them to services (he wouldn’t dare not do this and suffer the wrath of the 9-year-old).

I will meet them there, because if I don’t show up to get my birthday blessing with Roxy, she’d be devastated. I will hold her hand, I will smile and I will probably tear up, not because it’s so meaningful to me, but because it is to her. I will stand there proudly with my daughter as the congregation chants “Keyn y’he ratzon” (be this God’s will) in response to the rabbi’s recitation of the Ancient Priestly Benediction, blessing us with God’s protection, favor and peace. I will absorb the words and the warmth as a reminder of tradition and community as I stand with her in a long line of history and culture. I will take comfort in knowing that as we celebrate our birthdays, small and big and everything in between, our Judaism connects us in a way that makes us feel so very different and yet the same.

At the end of the service, we’ll enjoy the sweetness of an oneg (post-service) brownie, I will hug and kiss her goodbye and wish them Shabbat shalom and to enjoy their weekend until I see them again Sunday night. I will get in my car and come home to Matt in our now interfaith home, where birthday blessings aren’t a given, and we don’t always think of religion as a way to celebrate the turning of a new age. My secular world and Jewish world continue to collide through the eyes of my children, and I’m grateful in this moment that they are the ones teaching the adults around them, finding the holy in the life moments that we create with each other.


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Jessie Boatright 03-30-16
Ruthie's Purim grogger nestling in with her Easter eggs

Ruthie’s Purim grogger nestling in with her Easter eggs

When we were studying Judaism together as a young couple, it made sense to buy into an “all in” model for a Jewish household. For our future children’s sake, if we were choosing to raise them with a religion, we would stick to just one.  It would be less confusing, and they could be engaged in a specific spiritual community where they could experience a sense of belonging. This would be better for their development, and would empower them to make well-grounded decisions about their spirituality as adults.

It also made sense that we would respect the religious beliefs of family members who were not Jewish by sharing in their celebrations and participating as guests. Guests who were also loving relatives. We would speak openly about their holidays and lovingly about Eric’s personal history celebrating those holidays.

This relatively black and white idea seemed clear when our children were theoretical creatures. Seven-and-a-half years into our very real parenting journey, what I have found is that stepping thoughtfully into the gray area of this proposition not only strengthens our connections to our extended family, but also strengthens our nuclear family connectivity.

The “all in” model assumed we did not let Christian holidays into our home life, but we did celebrate them in our families’ homes. This simple idea is complicated by the 2,000 miles between our home and Eric’s parents’ and sister’s homes.  

On days like Easter Sunday, we can get our heads around the Easter Bunny not coming to our house, and around the impossibility of teleporting to Colorado. But both Eric and I have trouble getting our heads around not doing something to mark a day so important to our heritage and celebrated by our closest family members.

So here’s where we are right now, as of Easter 2016. We don’t celebrate Easter with a visit to church or the corresponding new Easter dresses. We do cherish the Easter eggs we get from Eric’s parents, and the celebrations we share with friends who celebrate the holiday. And as a foursome, we celebrate that it is a day to think about and be with family, and to do something out of the ordinary that celebrates our lives together.  

For us, this year, it was a fancier-than-usual breakfast with all the bells and whistles. Considering this breakfast, I can’t help but think two things. First, I have witnessed as a parent how much children benefit from whatever black and white explanations we can provide for things as complicated as religion. On the other hand, if the gray area between celebrating something “all in” and not doing anything is finding an extra reason to celebrate love and family, there can’t possibly be anything negative about spending quality time in the gray.


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Annakeller 03-30-16
My father and brother

My father and brother

Spring means color. Splashing greens and yellows. Purple tulips cascading over front porches and red robins bustling in the trees. Spring also means Easter for Christians, with blue and violet painted eggs. It means Passover for the Jews. For South Americans and Mexicans it means Semana Santa (the days of Jesus’s crucifixion). For me, it is a season shrouded in black. It is the green/grey eyes of my father, his brown hush puppies scuffling across the carpet. It is the ivory keys of his baby grand piano.

My father loved the spring. He loved it for three reasons. The first is that he could smoke outside again without freezing his fingers off. The second is that he could go fishing and play golf in the same day and still get home in time to practice playing his Chopin. But mostly my father loved Passover. Purim came and went in our neighborhood but Passover was an event to be reckoned with.

Every year my mother would slowly begin changing the dishes from our regular meat and dairy dishes to the “Passover dishes” (because the holiday of Passover has its own dietary laws). This meant that my brother and I would have to carefully carry 10 full cardboard boxes up from the basement. They contained pots, pans, plates, glasses and my grandmother’s heavy black roasting pot. Ancient silverware passed down from our ancestors was in one box along with glasses, cups, a traditional seder plate and a tray for matzah. In another box there was a cup for Elijah (a biblical prophet who makes his presence known in the middle of Passover dinner). One box contained breakfast tools; my Grandma Helen’s eggbeater and my Grandma Rosie’s potato peeler.

When these boxes came up from the basement my mother would begin the preparations for the first seder night and the days to follow. She would make her menu and call the cleaning lady to ask her to come the day before.

My father would sit regally at his piano. He would sneak pieces of matzah from the boxes my mother had put aside and dip them in cream cheese or tuna. Then he would bang out Beethoven on his Steinway or he would ask us to sing.

“Baby Face” was a song I knew all the words to because my grandmother would sing it to me. My father could play that song by heart and make our house sound like a ragtime bar. He also loved musicals and ballads. There was one song called “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” which was first published in 1910 but was popular in the late 1930s. I loved to sing that song sitting next to my father on his piano bench, while my mother changed the dishes and my brother roamed around outside.

My father would start, “Oh, say, let us fly girl” and I would say, “Where dear?” and Pop would smile and say “To the sky dear,” and we would sing for days. Sometimes when Passover would finally arrive we would do the whole duet for the guests while my mother was roasting the brisket and adding cinnamon to the kugel.

My father smoking his Marlborough Reds

My father smoking his Marlboro Reds

And what I remember is the smell of our house during those spring days. Onions, garlic, rosemary and cumin wafted up the stairs and out the front door. There was the metallic hint of chopped liver, the eye-piercing strength of horseradish and the kosher wine fumes mixed with my father’s Aqua Velva after-shave and Marlboro Red tobacco. There was the smell of my mother’s perfume, grassy and effortless, and the musky velvet of my brother’s yarmulke.

Then Passover would emerge. My cousins, my aunt and uncle, my grandmother and family friends would gather around my mother’s seder table to read the story of how the Jews escaped Egypt, how Moses parted the Red Sea so that our people could cross over to the other side.

In Brooklyn, we sing songs and read this story. My father, who was big in every way (he had been an actor and had a voice that bellowed through the walls) would shout this story in Hebrew. Then he would point to me and say, “And now Anna will say the four questions.” It is a Jewish tradition that the youngest person at the seder table asks four questions. And there are so many traditions that accompany this holiday. Elijah the prophet has a cup placed for him in the middle of the Passover seder table. The front door is opened for him and it is said his spirit passes through each house and he drinks from the cup. Elijah’s cup is called the “silent cup” and as a child I would open the door for Elijah and after I closed it I would run back to the table to see if the wine had a ripple in it or if it was less full.

There is also the tradition of the afikomen. This is the middle piece of matzah and each year in my family, in the middle of the service, my uncle hides it and the youngest child has to find it. When it is found, the child can ask for money in exchange for returning the middle matzah. Since I was a girl, my uncle has always hidden the matzah in his inner suit jacket pocket. When he takes his jacket off to eat I steal it.

Last year on Passover I was pregnant with my little Helen Rose. No one knew except for my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law. My father has been gone for over 20 years. His soul went to G-d on August 23, 1994. I was almost 13. My uncle is his older brother. I turned 34 last year and was the youngest at our seder table. When my uncle took his jacket off to begin eating his meal, I stole the afikomen.

I have a Mexican Catholic partner. I am not married. I am Jewish. These three facts do not define who I am. I am much more than that.

Last year as my uncle reached into his jacket pocket to take out the afikomen I held it up with a shaky hand at the other side of the table. My uncle went to Crown Heights Yeshiva, as did my father. We come from a long line of Jewish beliefs, customs, traditions and schools of thought. I desired one thing for the afikomen and it wasn’t money.

“This year,” I began as my uncle sat quietly at the head of the table, “this year I want something in return for the afikomen. But this year I don’t want money. This year Uncle Jeff, I want your blessing. I’m pregnant and the baby is due in October and I’m so happy.”

My Aunt Claire jumped out of her chair. My brother and his wife looked down at the table; they were expecting twins in August. My mother looked at the wall. My cousin Arnold’s mouth fell open. My uncle, who fought in Korea and jumped out of planes, who married my aunt when she was 18 and moved to Long Island and raised a traditional Jewish family, turned to me with his eyes that look so similar to my own father’s and said, “Mazal Tov kid. Congratulations.”

My partner Adrian and I live in a small Brooklyn apartment with our little Helen Rose. We keep the traditions of my family. We go to Rockaway and fish every summer. Adrian smokes Marlboro Reds or Camels. On Passover, my mother’s house still smells like roasted onions. On Rosh Hashanah we eat apples and honey and on Hanukkah we light the menorah. When spring arrives we buy Helen painted eggs and stuffed bunnies. For Christmas we make traditional Mexican holiday food. This year at Helen’s first seder we will place a cup of wine in the middle of the table and when I open the door for the prophet, perhaps my father will walk inside as well. Maybe he’ll steal a piece of matzah, sit at the piano bench and watch the new generation celebrate its new customs and its old ones. Maybe he’ll whisper “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” into Helen’s ear. After all, spring was always his favorite time of year and Passover his favorite holiday.


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Rabbi Keara Stein 03-21-16

Shabbat dinner during LentI had the date on my calendar for weeks: a Shabbat dinner with some of the couples in my “Love and Religion” class. We’ve gotten together several times over meals and I knew that nobody has any eating restrictions besides “kosher style.” Emily was hosting the dinner at her house and had offered to order chicken from Zankou (a favorite LA chicken spot) with all the delicious fixings: hummus, babaganoush and tabbouleh. I was making challah and bringing wine. I knew everyone ate chicken which is perfect for Shabbat, convenient and would be a big hit. I was sure of it.

Then, as the three of us started trading emails to coordinate the menu, one of the guests said, “Chicken is great for me, but my boyfriend is observing Lent—we’ll bring fish.” Oh right. It’s Lent! And Shabbat! And he’s Catholic. This IS an interfaith couples’ Shabbat dinner after all. Now what the heck do I do for Lent?

Shabbat is a time for people to be together and celebrate community. It can be a time for inclusion and joy…and eating. When people feel singled out or excluded it is hard to strengthen relationships and build community, and that’s antithetical to so much of what I aim to create at a Shabbat dinner. I appreciated the participant bringing up her boyfriend’s tradition. I also appreciated her offer to bring something special for him, but it would have detracted from the spirit of the gathering. In order to create the best scenario for community and relationship-building, I realized I needed to learn more about his tradition in order to honor it and make sure everyone felt included.

I reached deep into my religious studies major memory bank to try to remember the rules about Lent—something about Fridays and fish but I have no clue. Are there special prayers? Do they HAVE to eat fish or can we get falafel and call it a day? (Does he even like falafel? It seems to be the go-to vegetarian option for Jewish functions, but is that a normal thing or one of those weird Jewish things that no one else does?)

I realized I need to call in reinforcements. I emailed some colleagues and I posted on Facebook: “Catholic friends, please tell me what you like to eat on Fridays during Lent!” I typed in a search in Pinterest: “Challah and fish recipes.”

I went into the living room to talk with my El Salvadorian, kind-of-Catholic nanny. “Do you know anything about Lent customs?” I asked. “Yes, you don’t eat meat on Fridays,” she said. “But sometimes people eat chicken. Not everyone will eat chicken. Chicken broth is OK for some Catholics, but not everyone. People like to eat fish.”

Oy, what had I gotten myself into? By this point, I had so many different opinions and answers and I just didn’t know what to do. And then I got a text from my InterfaithFamily/LA project manager. “Want me to have my wife call you to talk about Lent?”

Yes! How had it had slipped my mind that her wife is Catholic?

She tells me everything I need to know. Order fish: It’s one of those things that’s not necessary but it’s tradition. And either way, fish is delicious and healthy.
We hang up the phone and I text her. “Any restaurant recommendations for good Catholic fish?”

She responds, “I know of a few places, but there’s not really ‘Catholic fish.’ Catholics eat pretty much anything.”

Except chicken on Shabbat during Lent, apparently. As I kept trying to find a solution that worked for everyone, the emails continued and the couple offered again to bring their own fish. But I’ve been that person who had to bring her own food to gatherings and parties because they were making pork and I kept kosher. I hated being singled out like that and I always felt alienated. As much as she reassured me that they could bring their own food, I did not want her boyfriend to feel left out at this interfaith dinner.

I insisted on serving fish for dinner and, as it turned out, our host said she would rather have fish anyway and would love to cook it for everyone rather than ordering in from a restaurant. It was her first time hosting a Shabbat dinner and thought we were supposed to eat chicken on Shabbat, even though she would have rather eaten fish all along!
Problem solved. We had fish. And I even tried my hand at a fish-shaped challah. Because if you can’t braid your challah into a fish on lent, when can you?

It’s been a few weeks since the dinner and I’m happy to share that it went extremely well. The Catholic partner and his Jewish girlfriend were touched that they were both made to feel so welcome and included. The fish was excellent. And after spending all afternoon Googling “How to braid a challah shaped like a fish,” I let it rise too long and it melted in the oven. So we had flatbread for our Lenten Shabbat dinner and I’m bringing in a better baker to teach us all how to make a proper challah next time.


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Hannah Dancing 03-15-16

Wedding rings on the Torah

In the days after our engagement, we began to imagine our wedding. I had thought about a possible future wedding many times in the past, but the realness of that imagined wedding became heightened by our official engagement. Distant ideas like, “getting married outside might be nice,” were suddenly translated into Google searches for “outdoor wedding venues.” One of the first questions we asked ourselves was, “Who do we want to officiate?” I was actually surprised by how quickly the answer came to me. After flipping through the various options in my mind, I knew a rabbi was the right choice for us. I asked Amma what she thought of the idea, and without skipping a beat, she completely agreed.

Just a couple of years ago I don’t think either of us would have guessed that we would be married by a rabbi. For starters, neither of us is technically Jewish (depending on how you define Jewish). One could argue (and I often do) that I am Jewish because my grandparents are. Whether or not that argument wins, depends on the audience. Because I wasn’t raised Jewish, and whatever lineage I do have is on my father’s side, some would say I’m a far cry, but that has never stopped me from feeling Jewish! And that isn’t the only reason we want a rabbi for our ceremony.

As Amma and I examined our decision, we discovered our desire for a tie to something greater than ourselves to play a meaningful role in our wedding. We may not be religious, but we do feel a strong spiritual connection to humanity, the universe and God. It was clear to us that we wanted the person leading us into our marriage to be someone who is dedicated to that greater spiritual connection.

Sally Jane Priesand, the first woman in the United States to be ordained as a rabbi.

Sally Jane Priesand, the first woman in the United States to be ordained as a rabbi.

Also on a spiritual level, being two women, we felt that our union would be best endorsed and honored by the heart, experience and wisdom of a woman. Reform Judaism has not only been ordaining women and LGBTQ rabbis since the early 1970s but also supporting its followers in the LGBTQ community. This history of equality and acceptance was yet another great reason for us to adopt Judaism into our wedding and our lives.

So we knew we wanted a rabbi, but we still had to find the right one. I didn’t know what I would find when I started my search. Not only had we just moved to Philadelphia, but we also weren’t part of a Jewish community. I went online and Googled “Philadelphia rabbis,” and up popped an ad for InterfaithFamily. I didn’t know what InterfaithFamily was, but it sounded inclusive and open-minded, so I clicked. I liked what the InterfaithFamily community stood for and it seemed like it had grown from a wonderful place of wanting to bring people together. The fact that they had a rabbi referral service was more than I could have dreamed of.

The referral service was exactly what I needed, and my request was handled with care and attention. When I received a response from Rabbi Frisch, it felt like a gift. The questions on the referral form were used to compile a list of potential rabbis who were appropriately matched to our needs. It was fun learning about all these different rabbis. I did an Internet search for each candidate to find out more.

After narrowing the list down to a handful of rabbis who I thought might be a good fit, I sent out initial emails. I felt hopeful as the responses began popping up in my inbox. There were two or three who, through the tone and wording of their emails, felt like they could be “the one.” But over the next week or so, each conversation resulted in a dead end due to various issues, and there I was back at the drawing board, feeling defeated.

Rabbi Frisch must have heard my prayer, because the next morning I received an email from her asking how my search was going. I wrote back describing my fruitless efforts. In my reply I also felt inspired to talk about my strong desire to have a rabbi marry us, and why. Much to my surprise, but true to her generous nature, she offered to be our rabbi. I can’t begin describe my delight. Not only did I already feel like I was getting to know her through the emails we had written back and forth, but I absolutely knew she was a perfect fit for us.

There is something about the way everything worked out that just feels like fate. Since Rabbi Frisch agreed to officiate, we have met in person to chat and get to know each other better. Suffice it to say, we all hit it off wonderfully! We plan on meeting a few more times before the wedding to talk about the ceremony in more detail, and we can’t wait to see her again.


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Stephanie Zulkoski 03-08-16
Crossing one more item off the to-do list! Creating our wedding registry!

Crossing one more item off the to-do list! Creating our wedding registry!

I have planned exactly one party in my lifetime. It was a surprise sweet sixteen birthday party for my best friend during our sophomore year of high school. The party was held in my parents’ basement decorated with balloons and streamers. Party guests successfully pulled off the surprise and spent the rest of the evening gobbling slices of pizza and birthday cake while mingling and listening to the latest tunes playing on my boom box.

Fast forward 12 years to 2016. I am knee deep in planning the biggest party of my life…my wedding! Jarrett and I are approaching our one year engagement anniversary (March 20th) and have been busy wedding planning for nearly 11 months now. We continue checking items off of our to-do list as we move closer to our October 2016 wedding. While our to-do list is much shorter than it was 11 months ago, it’s safe to say I probably looked like a happy deer in headlights last April. I was so excited about our recent engagement but had NO idea where to begin when it came to wedding planning. So I thought it might be helpful to share some planning tips that worked for us. We are by no means professionals when it comes to wedding planning but we’re having a lot of fun figuring it out!

1. Talk Details! Jarrett and I sat down one day and discussed everything we knew about weddings (mostly from the weddings we had recently attended). We brainstormed what we wanted and did not want in our day. We talked seasons: Summer? Too hot. Winter? Too cold. Spring? A spring 2016 wedding would only allow one year of planning which felt too rushed. We also discussed that weddings are very expensive and the additional months of planning would allow us to save more money. We had made our decision. A Fall 2016 wedding would allow a year and a half for all of the planning, decision making and money saving (it also happened to be my favorite season!). We drafted a guest list based on who we knew we would be inviting plus estimated a number for our parents’ guest lists. Our guest estimate totaled 150-200 individuals so we knew we needed a venue that accommodated at least 200.

Finally, while the wedding day is about celebrating us as a couple, we knew the majority of our guests would be traveling to celebrate with us and we did not want our wedding day to be an inconvenience for our friends and family. We knew we wanted a Saturday evening wedding with the ceremony and reception at the same location. So we had determined season, guest count and venue wish list. Then we discussed budget. We listed each wedding vendor we would need for our wedding day (Venue, Caterer, Photographer, DJ, Florist and Officiant). We created a budget range for each potential vendor prior to setting up any appointments. From there, we estimated a total budget range for all wedding vendors plus additional details (wedding dress, invitations, etc). It seemed we had it all planned on scratch paper! Now what?!

2. Get Organized! After our engagement, friends and family members had bought me a number of wedding magazines and I was so excited to start browsing through for inspiration. Over time, I started cutting ideas I liked out of the magazines so I could keep them in a pile and easily access them. I realized I needed somewhere to hold all of our wedding planning resources. I bought a three-ring binder and visited one of my favorite websites, Pinterest, and searched for “Wedding Organization Printables.” I found free print-out dividers and resources for “financials,” “guest list & seating” and “timeline/to-dos.” I knew that everything would be in one place and nothing would get lost. Through each step, I write in the amount we spent and checked it off the to-do list! As we decided on each vendor, I placed signed copies of our contracts in the binder so I could refer back to them when I needed a quick reference or to see when a future payment was due.

I created a wedding binder to stay organized during the planning process!

I created a wedding binder to stay organized during the planning process!

3. Do Your Homework/Be Willing to Be Flexible! I began searching for wedding vendors in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area. I utilized “The Knot” website/app on my phone to search vendors by location. The app made it easy to learn details about different vendors and read reviews from people who had utilized their services. I could even look at samples of vendors’ work (ie: photography/floral arrangements) on “The Knot” app.

First, we chose wedding venues to tour based on those that met our search criteria. We knew we would need a confirmed wedding date and venue selection before being able to book any additional vendors. I made the vendor appointments and Jarrett came along to every meeting to provide his opinion and support. It is helpful to make the decisions together since after all, it is our wedding day! We made a list of questions to ask before each meeting so we would be prepared. The reason I suggest being flexible is because many wedding venues, especially popular ones book up far in advance. We toured a wedding venue in April 2015 and fell in love with it. We knew we wanted to host our wedding there but it was booked through September 2016 for Saturday weddings. This is how we decided on an October wedding date (based on venue availability). If you have your heart set on a specific wedding date, you may need to be flexible with your venue choice. The more time you allow for planning, the more choices you will have!

Wedding websites

Some of the apps and websites I used for wedding planning inspiration and ideas

Other selling points for our venue included the staff; they thoroughly and professionally answered all of our questions and put our worries at ease. We learned that we could have both our ceremony and reception on-site and they even had on-site catering and bar service so we were able to save a few steps. Once we selected our venue, we continued booking our remaining wedding vendors one by one. We carefully read the vendor reviews, made lists of questions and compared prices and availability for our chosen wedding date.

My final planning tip would be to have fun! Many people have told me wedding planning is so stressful and they were happy when it was over. Truthfully, because we gave ourselves a lot of planning time, I have been enjoying this life chapter and may miss it when it all comes to an end because it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We are still seven months away from the big day and there is still so much to do but I am content in what we have been able to accomplish thus far; especially since we’re figuring it out on our own and with the support of one another! Next up on the to-do list: designing invitations and yarmulkas! Stay tuned for more wedding fun.


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Hannah Dancing 02-22-16

Hannah & Amma hands

My name is Hannah, and as one half of an engaged couple, I’m excited to share with you my experience planning our upcoming May wedding. I found InterfaithFamily online when I began searching for a rabbi who was willing to officiate the type of wedding ceremony my partner and I want to have: namely a non-traditional, and somewhat Jewish one!

Let me tell you a little bit about us:

Amma and I met in San Francisco in 2013. When I wasn’t making art, I was working as a cashier in a popular specialty food market, where Amma would often stop to get lunch or that last minute, forgotten grocery item. She lived around the corner from the market, and was what you would call a regular. It wasn’t long before we had noticed each other, and the fast-paced market, with its never-ending checkout line was quickly becoming an insufficient meeting place. At the end of our first date, we made plans to see each other again the next day. We both knew early on that ours was a relationship we wanted to put our all into.

We’ve had fun together since we first met, and still do every day. We also work to understand each other and smooth out the inevitable bumps that arise. We are similar in our beliefs and dreams and in the activities we enjoy, and we can be very different in our approaches to problems and the ways in which we get through daily life. We balance each other out in really meaningful ways that make us both better people.

Some of our differences could be attributed to our respective upbringings. We have really different backgrounds. At this point you may be expecting me to describe our religious differences. Ironically, neither one of us was raised with any religion at all.

(I will explain how we ended up getting involved with InterfaithFamily, and deciding to have a rabbi officiate our wedding in my next post.)

In their early 20s, my parents moved to Vermont to escape mainstream culture and headed into the woods to find peace and organic food. My father was raised Jewish, and though very spiritual, no sooner had he completed his bar mitzvah then he decided he didn’t want any part of organized religion. My mother was raised Catholic, but her spirituality seems to be more centered around interconnectedness. I often hear her say “Isn’t that cosmic?” or use the term “kindred spirits.”

Amma’s mother was actually the daughter of a Hindu Priest, and as the very independent individual that she is, I think it just felt natural for her to discover her own brand of spirituality. Amma’s father grew up Christian (I’m not sure which denomination) and I would venture that his life’s work in science is indicative of his pragmatic and analytic mind, where religion has no place.

So, if only by coincidence, religion has not been an issue for us.  As similar as our backgrounds are in terms of religion, they are equally as different culturally. Amma’s parents are both from developing countries. Both recognized for their brilliance, they took advantage of every opportunity to educate themselves and develop careers that would eventually take them around the world. They have worked so hard to be where they are and to give their children a good life. Their perspective is potent, and they have passed much of it down to Amma and her brother. To come from such humble beginnings and work that hard means you don’t take anything for granted.

My parents were fortunate to be born in the U.S. Even if you’re not wealthy here, you are afforded certain opportunities and privileges that simply don’t exist in the developing world. Life begins on a stronger foundation. Both of my parents are musical and artistic, and because they didn’t have to worry about having a roof over their heads, or getting a good education, they were able to concentrate on more creative ventures and choose a life for themselves that suited their personal interests and beliefs. The culture within our family, not to mention the whole community I grew up in, emphasized creativity and peace, getting along and being physically and spiritually healthy. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but because of their foundation, they had more choice and flexibility in their lives. Not surprisingly, my siblings and I were very much influenced by the priorities of our parents and our community.

Through the lens of Amma’s experience and perspective, I realize how fortunate I truly am. I have also learned that working as hard as her parents had to can produce better results than being privileged from the beginning. There are some extremely positive qualities engrained in Amma that I’m still working on. Strength, clarity and perseverance are just a few of my favorites!

Just over a year ago, on my birthday, we got engaged. Amma knew it would be the best birthday present. She had broken her ankle about a week before, and was still bed-ridden. She somehow (read: Amazon.com) managed to prepare the most perfect “birthday in bed,” complete with pink wrapping paper (my favorite) and daffodils. One of her gifts to me was a pack of origami paper. That was good enough for me, but then she said, “There’s something I want to teach you how to make.” She kept me in suspense as I followed each of the folding directions. I didn’t know until the last fold that we were, in fact, making origami diamond rings! As soon as I realized what they were, we looked at each other with big grins and she said, “Wanna get married?!” I obviously said yes.

We agreed that we wanted to have real rings to symbolize our engagement to each other, and we wanted to pick them out together. As soon as Amma’s ankle had healed, we went to our favorite jewelry shop, Bario Neal, and picked out matching gold bands…well, almost matching. Amma’s has a polished finish and mine is brushed. We hadn’t necessarily set out to get matching rings, but in the end, it turned out we wanted the same thing: a thin gold band with a tiny champagne diamond. Something simple, timeless and low profile.

As an artist, I work with my hands constantly, and I wanted to be able to wear my ring without it getting in the way. Amma doesn’t wear a lot of jewelry, so for her it had to be something that wouldn’t feel foreign on her body. We weren’t sure if we wanted a stone at first, but it felt incomplete without one, so we picked the tiniest diamond available at the shop. It gives the rings just a touch of character and represents the spark between us. Because we do not view our engagement and our wedding as two completely separate notions, we really only wanted the one ring to represent our commitment to each other. Instead of getting a second ring to exchange at our wedding, we plan to exchange the rings we already have, and get them engraved with our initials and the date of our wedding.

Thinking about the idea of rings and picking the right ones turned out to be the first exercise in a long string of challenging decisions. Within the context of planning my own wedding, a lot of big questions have come up. It takes diligence to get to the bottom of your own beliefs and desires. I didn’t fully realize until I began this process myself, that there is an unspoken, pre-written script to wedding planning and the wedding itself. Even after recognizing the presence of this script, it is easy to lose sight of what you and your partner really want. For Amma and me, the marriage is what we are most excited about. The wedding will be a [hopefully] fun celebration of our love and commitment, and the official gateway into our marriage. As we continue planning, we are trying to stay true to ourselves and keep our own desires for the big day in the forefront of our minds, whether they coincide with the script or not.


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Micah Sachs 02-18-16

online dating

When I was single, I spent a lot of time on OKCupid. But when I got Jean’s message, I’d never seen her profile before. My filter was set to see only women up to age 33. I was 37. Jean was 36.

I wasn’t ageist—at least that’s what I tell myself—but I want to have kids. When I did the math in my head—1 year minimum dating + 1 year minimum engagement + 1 year minimum to have a baby—the math got hard. There were other things to be wary of. She was a teacher. I had dated teachers before and was looking for something different. And then, under religion: “Catholic.”

When you’ve spent enough time on dating sites, you know what it means (or what you think it means) when someone who isn’t Jewish mentions their religion. It’s a big, almost political, statement. It means their religion means something to them. It means they knowingly are excluding a significant number of potential suitors who are actively anti-religious, non-religious or uncomfortable with the whole topic. And it probably excludes another not insignificant number of people who are wary of anyone being too serious about anything on OKCupid.

My profile said “Jewish.” But “Jewish” comes with a lot more useful flexibility than “Catholic.” When people write “Jewish,” they could be declaring an important part of their identity. Or, they could be sharing an interesting detail, a conversational topic for late in a good first date. They could be including “Jewish” for other Jews on the site who will only date Jews, as a way to make it through their filter. Occasionally, people write “Jewish” because they’re actually religious. Then again—most of those people are on JDate instead.

I wasn’t against dating someone who wasn’t Jewish. But I want to raise my kids Jewish. “Catholic” signaled a different intention.

But she was cute. She was rock-climbing in one picture. She held a (good) beer in another. There wasn’t a pink Red Sox hat or Macchu Picchu picture in sight. I liked her message to me: It was thoughtful. She had read my profile. She appreciated that I noted that I was aware that my job description sounded “douchy.” (I’m a business strategy consultant for the telecom industry. It does sound douchy.) I liked that. Also, I had recently broken up with somebody—a “perfect on paper” and Jewish, but not so perfect a match in reality, somebody—and was still kind of beat up about it. So I wasn’t looking for anything serious at this point. I figured we could have fun for a little while.

She was late for our first date. Not terribly late, only 15 minutes or so.

“I’m sorry, I’m a time optimist,” she said, a little out of breath. She didn’t seem sorry.

“It’s OK. I used to be a punctuality Nazi,” I said. “But I’ve mellowed.”

On our fourth date, she came over to my apartment.

By this point, I knew I liked her. She was smart. She was funny and self-deprecating but confident. She was a great listener. We always had something to talk about. But she didn’t fit my script. The age, the profession, the religion, a vegetarian to boot. It sounds shallow—and it is. But online dating’s greatest attraction (and no doubt its deepest flaw) is that it offers the promise of enough choice to find someone who actually fits your script. No settling necessary.

Liking her carried another danger, more significant than the risk of going off-script. Permanence. Permanence with somebody who cares enough about their religion that they include it on their online dating profile. Permanence with somebody who may feel strongly about raising her children Catholic, and will probably have better, clearer reasons for doing so than I do for wanting to raise my kids Jewish.

We were lying in bed, smiling at each other.

I asked her the question I knew could end things.

“Soooo…,” I said, turning toward the ceiling. “This Catholic thing. What does it mean for you, in terms of how your kids are raised?”

She sat up. She seemed intrigued, not anxious, about the serious turn the conversation had taken.

I wasn’t sure what answer I wanted to hear.

“Well. When a guy says they’re Jewish on their online profile, I know it usually means he wants to raise his children Jewish. I wouldn’t have sent you a message if I weren’t prepared to do that.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously!” she said. “I go to church because I was raised Catholic. But I would probably be Muslim if I were raised Muslim. Or be Jewish if I were raised Jewish. I just want my children to be raised in a religion. What religion that is is less important.”

This was someone to take seriously. What kind of person thinks a first message on OKCupid all the way through to child-rearing? Or rather, what kind of person actually makes a decision about a major life compromise they’d be willing to make before they hit Send? I knew she was thoughtful, but this was another level.

But this wasn’t just a hurdle cleared, or even just a deep source of potential future conflict addressed early on and head-on. It was a gift, yes—as it is for all Jewish people whose partners are willing to make this compromise. It was also a challenge.

When two Jewish people decide to have a family, this kind of conversation can be put on the backburner. Regardless of whether they send their kids to Hebrew school or whether they observe Shabbat, the parents can be confident their children will identify as Jewish. Two Jewish parents + bagels and lox + appreciation for Woody Allen movies = Jewish upbringing. But when your partner who puts “Catholic” on her OKCupid profile says, “I just want my children to be raised in a religion,” she is laying down a challenge: If you are making me sacrifice sharing my religion with my children, then you better be ready to share yours. Bagels and lox + Woody Allen movies ? Jewish upbringing. This means Hebrew school, bar mitzvahs, weekly Shabbat perhaps, talking to your children about God…

What had I gotten myself into?


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Stephanie Zulkoski 02-04-16

I was raised Catholic. I have received sacraments in the Catholic Church including Baptism, Penance, Holy Communion and Confirmation. While spirituality has always been an important part of my life, it has been a part of me that I have kept more reserved. As I grew through adolescence and into adulthood, the thought of marrying someone of a different religious background never crossed my mind. But after meeting Jarrett and growing closer, our different faiths became a norm in our relationship. We continue to teach each other about our different religious backgrounds and continue to respect each other for these differences… and that is how our relationship works.

Jarrett has been my wedding date to 10 weddings in the last two years. We have watched some of our closest friends and family members marry their significant others in Catholic, Jewish, Christian and non-denominational ceremonies. As each wedding came and went, I found myself thinking about what kind of wedding ceremony I might someday have. It wasn’t until Jarrett and I got engaged in March of 2015 that I realized my thoughts would soon become actions as we prepared to plan our interfaith wedding.

Happy at a wedding

One of my first Jewish Wedding experiences!

When Jarrett and I sat down to begin wedding planning, he expressed to me how important it was to him to be married by a rabbi in a Jewish wedding ceremony. At this point in time, I had been to two Jewish weddings but felt they were truly unique and memorable. I liked that the Jewish ceremonies were personal and intimate with a strong focus on the bride and groom. While I have always felt that Catholic wedding ceremonies are beautiful and meaningful, I had never dreamed of getting married in a Catholic church and this was not a requirement I needed in order to marry my best friend. What mattered to me was what Jarrett felt to be important for our big day. It was special to hear him explain that his Jewish heritage was very important to him and that having a Jewish wedding was something he had always wanted. So it was settled. We would be married by a rabbi in an interfaith wedding ceremony with an emphasis on Jewish traditions. The only problems were, I did not know a lot about Jewish wedding traditions and had no idea where we would find an interfaith rabbi to marry us!

As fate would have it, while working in Philadelphia one day, I had a meeting with a pharmaceutical representative. At the end of the meeting, I asked her if she had plans for the upcoming holiday weekend (Easter). When she responded that she was Jewish and celebrates Passover, I found myself feeling somewhat embarrassed that I hadn’t considered this before asking the question. I apologized then explained that my fiancé is also Jewish and that I celebrate Passover with him and his family. She asked about wedding planning and I explained that we had plans to look for a rabbi to marry us. She excitedly responded that she has a very close friend who just so happens to be a rabbi and the director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. She gave me her friend’s contact information and I reached out to introduce myself. Jarrett and I met with Rabbi Robyn Frisch and knew our search for the right wedding officiant was over before it had really even begun. Rabbi Frisch was kind, easy-going and non-judgmental. We look forward to working with her over the next several months and having her as an essential part of our big day!

During our second meeting with Rabbi Frisch, she provided us with some information to guide our decision-making through the ceremony-planning process. I was relieved to have someone to teach us more about Jewish wedding traditions so I could expand my knowledge and understanding throughout the planning process. Over the next several months, Jarrett and I will be busy making important decisions including designing our chuppah, choosing a ketubah and determining which Jewish wedding traditions to incorporate into our ceremony. As we continue to move closer to our wedding date, we are also looking forward to the opportunity to participate in InterfaithFamily’s “Love and Religion” Workshop which will give Jarrett and I the opportunity to dive deeper into some challenging scenarios that may arise in our future as an interfaith couple. I feel this will help strengthen our bond and allow us to learn even more about each other as we approach marriage. I look forward to sharing our wedding planning experiences as we move closer to saying “I do” in eight short months!

wedding venue

Where we will tie the knot in an interfaith wedding ceremony 8 months from now!


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Emily Golomb 01-26-16

Just married

The wedding was over a month ago, and we had a fantastic honeymoon in the Galapagos Islands and mainland Ecuador. It was an incredible mix of beautiful scenery, wildlife, laid back people and delicious food. It was insanely hard leaving behind 80-degree tropical weather with limitless ocean and volcano views to return to 10-degree gray and dreary weather in Philadelphia. But we did, and we are back with stories to tell.

I have been sick twice in the last two weeks since I got back (it’s been a bad winter) and I am working on making a complete career shift that is both scary and exciting. Back to reality. As it happens, the phrase “the honeymoon is over” feels pretty apropos, but luckily not regarding our relationship.

Over the last two weeks I have returned to my gratefulness practice where I can truly appreciate the unbelievable experiences we had and the opportunities we were given with the wedding.

There was something intangibly special about our wedding. Having everyone we loved in one place cheering us on and celebrating this milestone was a high I will carry with me forever. The photos we have and the trailer video from our videographer are mind blowing and awesome. They capture our love and admiration for each other, which is something I will cherish for many years to come.

First look

The first look

I look forward to watching my wedding video trailer (and the longer one still in progress) when we are at our highest and lowest moments, to remember how we felt on our wedding day. If you are planning a wedding and can splurge for a videographer in your wedding budget, do it. It is something you will have forever, long after the funny stories and fuzzy memories fade. It is something we would not have done because of cost, so having this included in the contest we won was such a blessing. But if I had to do it again, it is something I would spring for.

Our ceremony was exactly what we hoped it would be—intimate and meaningful—and it honored both of our religious backgrounds. Jose’s side loved seeing the Jewish traditions; his older relatives gave us feedback that they were glad they could witness them for the first time. My side adored the Filipino traditions, especially the arras, or exchanging of coins, and the cord and veil ritual, where Jose and I were clothed in a veil and a cord shaped in an infinity sign while we exchanged short promises.

Chord and veil ritual

We chose seven friends and relatives to recite seven blessings to us in English, as a nod to the Jewish tradition of a rabbi reciting the Sheva Brachot, or seven blessings, in Hebrew. We rewrote them to words that made sense for us and it was beautiful to have our loved ones say those words back to us.

We also did a candle lighting ceremony where our parents lit two candles and we used their flames to light our unity candle, as a nod to the Filipino tradition of the parents “lighting the way” for the new couple. We also incorporated the Jewish tradition of saying a blessing and drinking wine, and Jose broke the glass at the end of the ceremony, followed by a huge “Mazel tov!” from the crowd.

Candle lighting ceremony

Drinking the wine

The night before the wedding really set the tone for the weekend. We hosted a ketubah signing ceremony for our immediate families and the wedding party. This was something I thought long and hard about for months during wedding planning. Winning the contest was amazing in so many ways, but it was important to me to still have the intimate ceremony I always dreamed of. At the ketubah signing, we had our rabbi from our synagogue officiate by explaining what the document is and the meaning of it, and then leading us through signing it. We also lit Hanukkah candles for the sixth night of Hanukkah and Shabbat candles, since it was a Friday night.

Jose signing the ketubah

Jose wanted to write his name transliterated in Hebrew, so he used a note card provided by the rabbi!

We were able to accomplish a personal and meaningful feeling at our ceremony, thanks to our outstanding officiant who donated her services for the contest, Jill Magerman. I can’t recommend her highly enough. I feel like she is a part of our little family now.

But not everything went so easily. Two days before our wedding, Jose’s first cousin lost her courageous battle with cancer. It was devastating; she had her entire life before her and young children and a wonderful husband we all adore. We did our best to honor her life at our ceremony and to fill the hole left by her absence with happy memories from the evening. We were not able to be with Jose’s family at her funeral, but we said prayers for her while we were on our honeymoon.

Selfie at the yichudAfter the ceremony, Jose and I took a few moments alone for the Jewish tradition of yichud, or seclusion. It is a chance for us, as a newly married couple, to spend a few cherished moments alone before being showered with love by our family and friends at the reception. It was such a nice break in the day, and gave us a chance to take our first married selfie with our new rings.

The reception was the most fun I have ever had. We hired DJ Deejay, a nightlife and wedding deejay we go to see often, and he played non stop hits. (His slogan when he spins at Silk City Diner is “playing anything you can shake your hips to.”) I danced myself to exhaustion! It was glorious. I remember my face hurt so much from smiling and my voice was sore from singing.

We honored a bunch of traditions at the reception too: the hora (for the Jews), the money dance (for the Filipinos) and the anniversary dance. We did the cake cutting and I smashed cake in Jose’s face (sorry babe). But we did not do a bouquet or garter toss (sorry wedding party), although I did have some awesome friends recreate a bouquet toss of their own, which was hilarious.

The speeches by my parents, Jose’s mom and Uncle Jun, my sister (Maid of Honor) and Jose’s brother (Best Man) left me floored. I was seriously blown away by the power of their words and genuine joy that our families felt for us. And the craziest part was that my sister and Jose’s brother chose the exact same Dr. Seuss quote in their speeches, without planning it:

“We’re all a little weird. And life is a little weird. And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall into mutually satisfying weirdness — and call it love — true love.”

Hold on, are we really that weird?

Ultimately nothing was better than Jose’s poetic vows. I knew he was sentimental and a great orator, but I had no idea he could tug at my heartstrings that hard. Jeez, he had me sobbing! And then smiling. And then laughing. His best line came off the cuff. He planned what he was going to say but then winged it to make it even better. He said, “Before I met you, I was singin’, I was dancin’, I was fine.” [Roar of laughter from the audience.] “Now you’re the music I dance to and the song that I sing.” [More sobbing from me!]

Our first dance was to Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up” which has a very special meaning to us. When we found ourselves playing it daily we knew it had to become our first dance song. Our favorite line is: “I won’t give up on us / Even if the skies get rough / I’m giving you all my love / I’m still looking up.” I can still hear the first few guitar chords playing in my head and it makes me tear up.

My father/daughter dance was also a highlight for me. We chose another Jason Mraz song, “93 Million Miles,” that holds a lot of meaning for me and my dad. Substitute the word “daughter” for “son” and the lyrics are basically a transcript of words he has said to me in the not so distant past. My parents have helped me out of difficult times, and to them I am so grateful. The song goes: “Oh, my my, how beautiful / oh my irrefutable father / He told me, ‘Son, sometimes it may seem dark, but the absence of the light is a necessary part.’” And for my mother who believes in me as I embark on a new career path: “Oh, my my, how beautiful / oh my beautiful mother / She told me, ‘Son, in life you’re gonna go far / If you do it right you’ll love where you are.’”

I think about the lessons my parents have taught me and those lyrics daily. They so beautifully capture the bond we have and the love and respect I have for how well they have raised me and my sister. I will have a lot to live up to when I become a parent!

I am not sure whether our guests noticed but Jose produced the wedding like a show, with acoustic versions of our first dance and other songs teased in at the ceremony and then played in full at the reception. He might have a second career in theater production.

As I settle back into real life, I find myself feeling my name change to my married surname to be very cool and very jarring. I am so happy to take Jose’s last name. Really giddy actually to be that solidly connected to him, but a name is such a huge part of anyone’s identity. And in my yoga teaching and writing I am Emily Golomb. It’s so weird to see my new name, Emily Sabalbaro, on Facebook and in print, and it will certainly take some getting used to. But my favorite part is that it marks the official start of a new chapter. As of December 12, 2015, I am beloved, and my beloved is mine.


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