Saturday, November 28, 2015

Rededicating Ourselves to Being Mensches

Thanksgiving is over and the holiday season is officially in full swing. With Hanukkah around the corner, I’ve been thinking about how my family might add to its celebration this year. 

I recently watched “The Making of a Mensch,” a short film that explores the science of character through the lens of the ancient Jewish practice of Mussar. I had read about Mussar, the ethical and spiritual discipline dating back to the 10th century that provides a framework for being our best selves, and briefly tried practicing it. Seeing “The Making of a Mensch” encouraged me to revisit the teachings on character traits such as humility, gratitude, patience and equanimity to name a few. 

But when in my jammed-packed work and family schedule would I have time to do it? Then an idea came to me as if it were a divine revelation–Hanukkah. Hanukkah is the holiday of rededication. We could revisit the teachings about character development during the holiday and discuss as a family when we lit the candles each night how we could rededicate ourselves to being the best we can be. 

So, this year, my family will add a little Mussar to its Hanukkah observance. As we celebrate the rededication of the Temple to its spiritual purpose after the Maccabees victory over the Seleucids, we will also recommit ourselves to leading lives of purpose, to being mensches.  

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Teaching Hebrew to My Preschooler

Guest post by Rachel Chaput, author of Alef-BetHebrew Letter Primer and Alef-Bet Hebrew Letter Tracing Book. Rachel is a mother and Jewish educator with over 20 years of experience as a Hebrew teacher at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. She and her husband, who is a Jew-by-Choice, are the parents of two young children, and they all love playing soccer and traveling the world together.

It simply did not exist.

That was what I said to myself when I went searching for a board book to help teach the basics of Modern Hebrew to my then preschool-aged son. It was important to my husband and me that we start exposing our children to different languages when they were young because we believed the potential for children to learn new languages was limitless.

Every parent buys ABC books for children to learn the English letters. But what’s the difference between 26 letters, 50 letters, or more. Children don’t know the boundaries of learning, and the boundaries are only set by what we choose to expose them to.

I was surprised to find little available outside of standard textbooks. So I decided to utilize my 20 years of experience as a Hebrew teacher at a large Reform congregation and experience as a mother to write and illustrate a fun and interesting book for young and old alike.

I know what it's like to be a Jewish student in Hebrew school, and I found I could easily relate to the students. Over the years, I have taught children in Kindergarten to 6th grade, children with learning differences, and bar and bat mitzvah students. It is important to me to give back to the community through teaching and I have always been determined to make learning Hebrew fun because learning new languages CAN be fun!

One of my favorite parts of being a Hebrew teacher is when I teach the foundation of the language…the letters. I teach the letters using mnemonics or "memory tricks" using pictures, alliteration, and letter association. If my mnemonic doesn't work for them, I encourage them to create their own. After a while, they stop relying on the mnemonic and just remember the letter and the sound the letter makes. Then they can put the letters and vowels together to form words and those words to form sentences, which make up the prayers they study for their b’nei mitzvahs. The book I wrote is a culmination of what I have taught AND learned from being a Hebrew teacher.

Utilizing my experience in the classroom, I created a fun and engaging resource for the introduction to Hebrew at the preschool and primary grade levels. Studies have shown that young children have incredible early learning skills and are uniquely equipped to learn the building blocks of one or more languages starting at birth. Furthermore, young learners have a natural curiosity about learning that is evident when they engage in learning a new language.

The more I discussed my project; I realized that there were parents and grandparents in Jewish communities across the country who didn't have a sufficient background in Hebrew. These adults embraced the opportunity to learn alongside their children. Furthermore, I discovered that there were many interfaith families and Jewish families like mine with grandparents from another background, who wanted to share the gift of language with the young children in their lives. They hoped to instill a love of language and learning at an early age.

In my house, we cherish the time at night to unwind before bed. We read with our children and have our children read to us. My goal with Alef-Bet is to enable families of all backgrounds to learn Hebrew and spend time together doing it.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Choosing People

In March, I spoke at TempleBeth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. I worked with Rabbi Rachel R. Saphire on the event. During one of our pre-program conversations, she shared a sermon she gave on Yom Kippur 2013 in which she discussed being a child of intermarriage and her Jewish journey. An excerpt of her inspiring words follows and is reprinted with permission.

Whether you see it or not, you've made a choice to be here today. You may be thinking, "I don't have a choice whether or not to observe Yom Kippur. It's what I do. It's what I've always done." You may observe to support your loved one or family. Maybe you're a teenager or child, and your parents said, “You’re coming.” Regardless the reason, you’re here and by being here, you’ve made a choice.
Our Yom Kippur Torah portion comes from Parashat Nitzavim from the Book of Deuteronomy. In a few verses, God puts a big choice before us.

“You stand this day, all of you, before God —[leaders], elders, all the men, women and children of Israel, and even the non-Israelite living among you… to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God…

Surely, this Instruction that I command you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. [This Instruction] is not … beyond the sea - that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the instruction is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity… Choose life — that you and your offspring will live."

I find this text to be symbolic. It is not only about choosing life in the physical sense (preserving our health) but about choosing to Jewishly in a meaningful way. For, the commandment to choose life is given as an instruction to connect to that, which is sacred. Perhaps what’s most important is that this strong charge does not explicitly say how we should choose to live Jewishly in a meaningful way, the text only states that the choice is not far out of reach. What I think this means is that the choice is within each of us. It is upon us to choose for ourselves how we want to express our Jewish identity or connect to the Jewish community. The pathway to choosing Jewish life can be different for each one of us!

The Torah portion also mentions that all of us stand before God on this day–men, women, and children. Even the ger, the one who is not from the Israelite community and is not Jewish stands among us. Today, a ger tzedek often refers to one who makes the choice to convert or join the Jewish community.  We affirmatively call him or her a Jew by Choice. I think the Torah is teaching us that we all can be Jews by Choice! What would it look like if every one of us consciously took hold of our choice to be Jewish? 

I've thought about this question from a young age. I grew up in an interfaith family. My mom was Jewish, and my dad was raised as a Christian. My parents made the decision to raise my twin brother and me as Jews. What did that mean? Culturally, we celebrated Christmas at home. I recall decorating the tree, hanging holiday lights, putting up a stocking, listening to and singing carols, laying out cookies for Santa Claus, eating Christmas Eve dinner, and waking up to open presents. I also remember my mother sharing her strong Jewish identity with us and teaching us to take pride in being Jewish. We celebrated Passover and Chanukah at home and a few times a year, we lit the Shabbat candles.

In my hometown, being Jewish was something different. My brother and I were the only Jewish kids in our grade, and my mom was our school's "Jewish mom." She would go room-to-room teaching about Chanukah and sometimes she even invited the class to our house. All of these practices brought me joy. I knew that I was Jewish, but I also knew my father and his family members were not. To fit in with my classmates, I called myself and considered myself “half-Jewish.” 

Then, something began to change my perspective midway through elementary school. A new kid came to town. He was in the same grade as me, his grandparents lived up the street, and he was Jewish! I made my first Jewish friend. I began to learn about his family and their deeply-rooted Jewish practices. With joy and excitement, their extended family gathered for holidays, including festivals I had never experienced. Their traditions and rituals spanned generations. They went to temple together. Being Jewish even informed the way they ate and the things they discussed. The new-found meaning and beauty that I experienced by having a Jewish friend fascinated me. 

I began to explore my identity and ask questions. Who am I really and what is important to me? If my friend is Jewish, and he goes to temple, why don't I? Can I celebrate the "new" Jewish holidays that his family celebrates? Can I attend religious school, too? Can you help me learn Hebrew? Can we go to services? How about a field trip to the Jewish gift shop? Why do we have a Christmas tree if we’re Jewish? Can we have a youth group just like the Christian kids do? Can I skip my soccer game on Yom Kippur? Can I become Bat Mitzvah even if I’m 17? Can I study with the rabbi more?

My brother and I did form a youth group at our temple and built our sense of Jewish community. I did have a Bat Mitzvah on my 17th birthday. I did find a sense of peace by attending Shabbat services every week if I could–even if it meant skipping the high school football game on Friday night.                                                                     
These choices were my own, ones that I was proud to make and explore. Some choices were different than the ones my brother made, and many were different than the ones my school friends made. But, they were mine and my choices allowed me to explore my passions and the things that were important to me. My choices brought me joy, connection, a sense of purpose, and even the feeling of being known and loved. Even though I was born a Jew, it is for these reasons that I am a Jew by Choice. And it is because of my Jewish journey that I want each of you to have the same opportunity to make your own conscious Jewish choices today, every day, in the year ahead.

In the year ahead, I’d like us to think of ourselves, not as the chosen people (people for whom our destiny is chosen and dictated), but rather as the choosing people. We could choose to create a new Shabbat ritual or read more Jewish books and texts. We could explore the world of Jewish music and act in concrete ways to heal our world. We could visit those who are lonely and in need. We could commit to teaching our children about our individual Jewish interests and share our family's history. We could question and explore our faith. If we could choose to do any of these things (the choices are endless), then, we would not be passive inheritors of our tradition, but rather active participants, consciously acting upon our choice to live Jewishly.

Our Torah portion reminds us that existing is easy, but living demands active participation and choice. Living Jewishly requires more than just existing as a Jew, it requires 365 days of choosing, whatever that looks like.  

Saturday, August 15, 2015

It's Time to Stop the Fear Mongering

I recently read about an Israeli Diaspora Affairs Ministry initiative to strengthen the Jewish identity and connection to Israel of Diaspora Jews. The program, overseen by Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing religious party Jewish Home, aims to fight “the weakening of the Jewish foundations of the family unit” among Jews worldwide.

“The weakening of the Jewish foundations of the family unit,” sounded like code for intermarriage. As I read more, it became clear that the initiative was designed to save Judaism from Jews like me, Jews that intermarry.

Right-wing and right-leaning religious and community leaders in America and Israel, assume that Jews who marry outside the faith are or will soon become distant from their Jewish identity and the State of Israel. They believe that the high rate of intermarriage among Jews in the United States is evidence of an ongoing erosion of Jewish identity.

But the overall rate of intermarriage in the US has remained in the mid-40 percent range for about 30 years. Even with almost half of American Jews marrying outside the faith for approximately three decades, Judaism still stands. It’s clear that something other than endogamy holds the key to our survival.

Community, education, Jewish values, and engagement in Jewish life including ritual practice and spirituality have enabled the Jewish people to survive despite generations of intermixing with other faiths. This is evidenced by the fact that many intermarried Jews have retained some connection to their Judaism and maintained their Jewish identity, even becoming more engaged in the faith.  

Yet rather than acknowledging that intermarriage might not be as bad for the Jews as people think or using lessons learned from Jewishly engaged intermarrieds to bring more interfaith families into the Jewish tent, intermarriage is used as a scapegoat by those seeking to explain loosening Jewish engagement and the disruption that the American Jewish community is experiencing.

But as Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, writes in Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, “the demise of some institutions and the reordering of the value and meaning of others,” the reclassification of Jewish identity, and the rethinking of what it means to belong are not failure. Rather, they are part of survival and evolution.

And Judaism has been surviving and evolving throughout its history. Since ancient times, there have been zealots and reformers. There have been Jews who view assimilation and intermarriage as a sure path to destruction and those that embrace the culture of the majority population without totally giving up their Jewish identity or connection to Judaism. Periods of great tension and transition have produced the creative energy that has led the Jewish people into periods of renewal and growth.

The current state of flux within the Jewish community can, like previous ones, move the Jewish people forward. But to emerge stronger we must recognize that we can’t control the future, we can only influence it. If we are to make Israel and being Jewish relevant to more people, we need ideologies that recognize the richness of diversity, and open and inviting experiences. We need less fear mongering and fewer politics. We need to move away from exclusion, demonization, and the continued promotion of agendas that alienate the very people we hope to connect. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

How do You Identify Someone Who's Jewish?

I recently read about Narrative 4, an initiative that facilitates story exchanges between groups from all over the world. The idea is for people from different backgrounds, cultures, faiths, or other identities to build understanding through storytelling, to make people walk in each other’s shoes. 

People from two different groups pair off, one from each, and share stories that in some way define them. When the pairs gather together hours later, each is responsible for telling their partner's story, taking on the person's persona, and speaking in the first person.

I read how two high schools, a tony private and a poor public school, used Narrative 4 to shatter their student’s stereotypes of each other. Accompanying the essay, were photos of selected partners with quotes from the featured students. I glanced at the pictures and read the quotes. One caught my attention.

“[Y]ou realize, Oh, my God, there are people who don’t have anything like what I have. And you realize you’ve been given an unfair advantage. It’s my responsibility to use that advantage for social justice and to make the world a better place.

Immediately, I thought, “This kid is Jewish. He’s talking about Tikkun Olam."

The concept of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, is talked about a lot in Judaism. You’ll hear both secular and religious Jews talk about the obligation to “make the world a better place.” And the idea is repeated in Jewish texts, liturgy, and music because it is central to Jewish belief. As Joseph Telushkin writes in Jewish Literacy, “Judaism believes that the goal of the Jewish existence is nothing less than ‘to perfect the world under the rule of God’…ethical monotheism is the goal of Judaism and the purpose of the Jewish mission in the world…”

I quickly glanced at the student’s name to see if it gave me any clue if I was right about his Jewish identity. It wasn’t a last name commonly thought of as Jewish. But I knew that didn’t mean he wasn’t Jewish.

It used to be easy to identify who was Jewish by the sound and spelling of a family name, but now more than ever before, Jews come with traditionally non-Jewish last names, reflecting the diversity that is Jewish life in America today, and will be tomorrow. The last name of the former president of my synagogue was McCartney, and as he pointed out in his installation address, he was listed in the temple directory after McCain, McCallister, and McCann, and followed by McCoppin, McCraw, McCurry, and McIntosh to name just a few.

Nowadays, O’Briens are Jewish and Sternbergs are not. Some of the names of the Jewish families in our network include Johnson, O’Connell, O’Donnell, Powers, Shanks, and Ybarra.

More than ever, names can give a false impression of lineage. Professional athletes such as David Eckstein, Trevor Rosenthal, and Ryan Zimmerman sound Jewish, but aren’t, while Jose J. Bautista, Brian de la Puente, Taylor Mays, and Antonio Garay are members of the tribe.

Surnames are no longer the Jewish cultural identifier that they used to be. When we were packing our apartment to move from Connecticut to Ohio, my husband overheard a conversation between our two movers. One of them noticed the mezuzah on our front door and asked the other, “Is Larkin Jewish?” His partner responded, “It can be. It depends if it’s spelled the Jewish way.”  

As far as we know, there is no Jewish spelling of the Irish name Larkin. Larkin descendants were stalwarts of the Christian church in certain areas of Ireland. But through our son, Larkin will join the increasingly diverse list of Jewish surnames in America.

Today, a better indication of our Jewishness is the values we live by, the language we use, and the symbols we display. That's how I knew this young man was Jewish, and that's how others will know that the children of intermarriage who carry non-Jewish sounding names are Jewish too. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Jewish Summer Camp’s X Factor

My son is about to leave for his fourth summer at the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Greene Family Camp. He is eager to leave. He misses his other home and can’t wait to be reunited with his friends from other cities.

I know how Sammy feels. I was a diehard camper too and I’m so happy that he thinks camp is as magical as I did many years ago. But having a deep attachment to camp is not unique to campers attending Jewish institutions.

I spent my summers at a YMCA camp, and as I watch the videos for religious and secular institutions alike I consistently hear children describe what makes their camp standout with the same words I used almost 30 years ago - lasting friendships, great activities and a place to forget your worries. All of these endorsements are of course tied to images of beautiful settings and examples of camp spirit.

But even though there were universal aspects to camp, I always suspected that there was something special about Jewish camp.

As a teen, I envied my fellow youth groupers who spent their summers at the URJ’s Camp Harlem not only because I longed for a Jewish camp experience, but also because their camp connection seemed richer in way that I could not explain.

Now that I’m seeing Jewish camp through adult eyes, I feel that there is truth to my teenage suspicions - there is something special, something different about Jewish camp. Call it an X factor, an indefinable quality that we recognize when we see or experience it, but can’t easily describe.

My husband thinks what makes Jewish camp different is personality and soul. He sees the experience that Sammy is having as one imbued with life and character beyond the rah-rah kind of spirit depicted in shots of color war competitions and heard in the lyrics of official camp anthems.

An acquaintance thinks the uniqueness comes from the experience of being with all Jewish kids, regardless of whether or not their parents are both Jewish, and engaging with Judaism in a way that makes being Jewish cool.

I think the specialness comes from the incredible sense of community that is embodied in the phrase “Welcome to camp” that greets you as your car enters the gates and is repeated continuously by staff and campers alike. Immediately you know that you are part of the larger camp family. You belong.

Curious to get a camper’s perspective, I asked Sammy what he thinks makes camp special. He replied, “It just is. It’s sacred ground.”

Maybe that’s the best description of all. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

My Sacred Journey

In December, I read an essay by Bruce Feiler on the allure of religious pilgrimages at a time when there is a notable decline in participation in organized religion. As the Pew Center has shown in various surveys, attendance at, and membership in religious institutions is down, as is the number of people identifying themselves as religious. Feiler sums up why traditional religious practice has become unappealing.

“So much of religion as it’s been practiced for centuries has been largely passive. People receive faith from their parents; they are herded into institutions they have no role in choosing; they spend much of their spiritual lives sitting inactively in buildings being lectured at from high.”

What makes physical pilgrimages appealing is it that they allow seekers to take control of their spiritual lives, to move from passive participation to active engagement. Feiler writes, “[A] sacred journey gives the pilgrim the chance to experience something both physical and real. And it provides seekers with an opportunity they may never have had: to confront their doubts and decided for themselves what they really believe.”  

Feiler focuses on physical pilgrimages, but his points made me think about my religious journey, a journey that didn’t require travel to far-off places in order to question my beliefs and figure out what I believe. My involvement in an interfaith relationship provided the spark.

Typically, intermarriage is thought to cause people to lose their beliefs and disengage from religious life. But as I write in From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity, instead of threatening my Jewish identity and causing me to disengage from my Jewishness, intermarriage presented an opportunity to deepen my Judaism.  

It forced me to confront my feelings and beliefs about religion, spirituality, and God and think about how they influenced other aspects of my life. It made me a more mindful and deliberate Jew. As I looked to be a good Jewish role model for my husband and son, I often considered when making decisions what it meant to be Jewish in name and deed, and I still do.  

I wasn’t always this thoughtful. I got to this place by looking inside myself and facing my prejudices, stereotypes, and fears, as well as really thinking about what I believed. I had to come to terms with Jesus, make peace with the kippah and its public declaration of Jewishness and get past biases in order to commit to a Jewish education for my son.  

I had to I move outside my comfort zone, and beyond my preconceived notions of faith, Judaism, and Jewish identity, in order to grow. The more I explored, the more comfortable I became with my spirituality, and religious and cultural identities. My interfaith experience made me into an involved and empowered Jew.  

It’s possible that I would have engaged in a similar religious exploration if I had inmarried, but I’m not sure I would have had the same determination, the same sense of purpose to do it. Only when I was faced with a different religious identity or none at all did I see just how important my Jewishness was to me.  

When I met my not Jewish husband, Cameron, I had no idea that our relationship would start a religious journey that would take me to new places spiritually and help me answer the question why be Jewish. Like Feiler's spiritual tourists, questioning led me to clarity and taught me the power of continual exploration.  

Never in my wildest dreams did I consider that intermarriage would lead me down an emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually stimulating path. What makes this counterintuitive Jewish trip sweeter is that I’m able to share my discoveries with my family – Jewish and non-Jewish, immediate and extended.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

What the Challah Cover Teaches Us

A friend, who converted to Judaism before she married her Jewish husband, recently shared with me her Passover experience. Her mother-in-law asked her to buy Manischewitz wine for the Seder. My friend couldn't find Manischewitz when she shopped. So, rather than arrive empty-handed, she bought Baron Herzog, another Kosher for Passover brand. 

While she knew the brand she purchased was different than the one requested, she thought her mother-in-law would appreciate the effort she made to find a good alternative. She was wrong. 

When she gave the wine to her mother-in-law instead of getting a "thank you," her mother-in-law told her, in front of the host and other guests, that she bought the wrong wine. She said the wine wasn't useable. It didn't matter that what my friend brought was Kosher for Passover, what mattered was that the wine was Manischewitz.

Other guests en route to the Seder were called and asked to pick up bottles of the correct wine on the way. The host was told to delay the start of the meal until the "right" wine arrived.

My friend was hurt, angry, and embarrassed by the public shaming. She felt that her mother-in-law was reminding her, again, that she wasn't Jewish enough, that she was a second-class Jew because she wasn't born Jewish. She said the message was clear, "A ‘real' Jew wouldn't have made this mistake." 

Unfortunately, I've heard similar stories from intermarried Jews, non-Jewish parents raising Jewish children and Jews-by-Choice many times before. Rarely do the perpetrators of these negative remarks see how their comments fail to create positive Jewish experiences or familial relationships. They don't consider how their words and action contradict Jewish teachings on loving-kindness, converts, and respect for those who live a Jewish life but are not Jewish. 

In the eyes of Judaism, converts are equal to born Jews. Some scholars even considered them more precious. Midrash Tanhuma B, Lekh Lekha 6 states, "The convert is dearer than the Jews who stood before Mount Sinai" because the one that chooses Judaism accepts "upon himself the kingdom of heaven." Judaism also regards non-Jews who observe certain religious and cultural traditions as "righteous strangers" and believes these geirim toshvim will have a place in the world-to-come. 

Measuring or quantifying Jewishness based on birth, marriage, denominational affiliation, or observance isn't the way to encourage more people to embrace Judaism either as converts or as part of interfaith, multicultural and same-sex couples. If we want to expand the number of people engaging in Jewish life in some way, then we need to be mindful of the lesson of the challah cover. 

On Shabbat, we're told to cover the challah. We do this so that the bread doesn't feel slighted or embarrassed by the attention paid to the wine during the recitation of the Kiddush, which precedes the Motzi (blessing over the bread). We're asked to care about the feelings of a loaf of bread. Why? Because Jewish sages believed that if we learned to treat an inanimate object with great care and consideration we would remember to show even greater concern for other human beings. We would work hard to not use words or actions to embarrass or hurt another individual.  

My friend's experience reminds me that many in the Jewish community forget what the challah cover teaches us about human interaction and our responsibility to be welcoming and inclusive. If we're to expand our Jewish tents and families, maybe it's time we reiterate the lesson.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

This Passover Let Your Creativity Go Wild

If you or your Jewish partner is like me, you remember childhood Passover seders as long and boring affairs. There was no child-friendly Haggadah, toy plagues, or jumping around as everyone sang “Frogs here! Frogs there! Frogs were jumping everywhere.” Maybe there was a kids’ table, which was acknowledged when the youngest was asked to recite the Four Questions.

As an adult, whether you are Jewish or from another background, you may have wondered, why can’t Passover be fun? The answer is; it can be. The holiday can retain its serious and important message and be enjoyable. It just takes a little creativity. 

When my son was a toddler, I thought a lot, about how I wanted him to view Judaism. As an intermarried Jew raising a Jewish child, I wanted him to associate observance with fun and enjoyment, rather than obligation. I didn't want his childhood memories of faith to be the same as my husband's or mine–more serious than fun. 

Because of our early experiences, my husband and I shared the feeling that it was important to make the holidays and Judaism enjoyable in order for our son to develop a strong connection to the Jewish faith. I only needed to look at my extended family to see what a lack of positive religious experiences did to a person’s desire to continue to be observant when they reached adulthood. A Jewish relative, who inmarried, observed the holidays out of obligation and not because he derived any fulfillment from the experience. 

My husband and I believed that by increasing the fun quotient of holidays when our son was young we could make the celebrations more memorable, without diminishing their significance. We felt this was especially important for an interfaith family because by creating positive Jewish experiences year-round, we avoided the need to pack a full year’s worth of Jewish identity building into December. 

So, we spiced up our Passover observance. When our son was a toddler, we read Passover children’s books and sang the holiday songs learned in preschool. We told the story of the Exodus using a Shalom Sesame coloring book. I photocopied the pages and let the kids at our seder color them while the adults read the story. We read Sammy Spider’s First Passover and Dinosaur on Passover instead of reading a traditional Haggadah. We used a child-friendly seder printed from the Internet. As our son grew, we watched the many Passover parodies on YouTube.

We didn’t worry that how we told the Passover story was unconventional. After all, we were simply commanded to tell the story. There was no rule how to tell it. A Haggadah? Not required. A seder the same as a mothers’ or mother-in-laws'? Not necessary. 

So, as you get ready for Passover, think about how you can create happy memories by celebrating the holiday in a slightly different way. Work to nurture your child’s connection to Judaism so that it will be the foundation for observance later in life. Use a less traditional approach to connect members of your family from different backgrounds to the holiday. Remember the words of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the editor of the Mishna (Jewish Oral Law codified about 200 CE.), “For only the lesson enjoyed is the lesson learned.”    

Below are a few suggestions for injecting some creativity into your Passover celebration. Use them or come up with your own.

Introduce nontraditional elements into you ritual. Watch Passover-themed parodies of popular songs. Distribute toy plagues to all guests. Read a children’s book. Draw parallels between the Exodus and contemporary life – political and personal. 

Sing or play contemporary children’s and Jewish Passover music–go beyond Dayenu. Check out The Maccabeats, The Fountainheads, ShirLaLa Passover, and Six13.  

Make matzah pyramids and decorate them gingerbread-house-style.

Tape bubble wrap to the floor. Let kids (and adults) run, jump and stamp to simulate the hail plague.

Do a Passover science experiment–place different types of red liquids/wet ingredients in bowls (water dyed red with food coloring, red paint and strawberry yogurt, etc.). Give each child a straw. Ask them to “part” the Red Seas by blowing into the straw over each bowl. Which liquid is easier to move or part? How does the density of the liquid effect movement? If the Red Sea was a thick liquid how easy or hard would it have been to cross? Would the Israelites have escaped the Egyptians?

Play Passover bingo and other games. See Jewish Holidays in a Box for ideas.

Introduce new foods to the meal. Food is an easy way to honor different backgrounds. Serve a dish that is respectful of Passover dietary rules, but a traditional part of a family member’s or guest’s Easter dinner. Celebrate the ethnic background of those at your table by including Passover dishes from the cultures represented at your seder. Look at the cookbook Entrée to Judaism for ideas. 

Borrow from the Easter bunny. Eggs are a symbol of Passover and Easter. Have an afikomen egg hunt. Break the afikomen into small pieces. Place the pieces inside plastic eggs used for Easter baskets. Hide the afikomen-filled eggs. Have the children search for them. Give out Passover candy as a prize.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What Would Esther Think?

Last month, the winner of the Genesis Prize was announced. The prize, a joint initiative of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Genesis Philanthropic Group, awards an individual $1 million in recognition of great contributions to Jewish culture.

This year’s recipient was actor Michael Douglas, a child of intermarriage, and an intermarried Reform Jew, of patrilineal descent. To many within Judaism, Douglas was the antithesis of the kind of Jew the community should be celebrating. To others, including the selection committee, he was the perfect choice because he was reflective of today’s Jewish community. 

Raised with no formal Jewish education, he embraced his heritage later in life. He went from an unaffiliated and unconnected may-be Jew to a Jewishly engaged intermarried. His journey into Judaism’s tent represented the one that many hoped more would-be, could-be may-be Jews would take. 

Still, Douglas’s selection for such a significant award caused much debate in the Jewish world. As I read op-eds for and against the Genesis Prize winner, I found myself wondering, what would Esther think?

Who’s Esther? She is the brave, beautiful, and intermarried protagonist of the Purim story, the hero who rescues the Jews from genocide and ensures the survival of the Jewish faith. Her tale is in the Book of Esther. But a few things about her are glossed over in the Purim shpiels that retell her story–the intensity of her Jewishness and her marriage. 

Like Douglas, Esther is assimilated and intermarried. She is a classic Jew of the Diaspora, exiled from Israel, cosmopolitan, a Jew of the city. (Note: Interpretation of the Book of Esther varies from one Jewish tradition to another). Being Jewish is part of her identity, but not a terribly important part. Her husband, the not Jewish King Ahasuerus, doesn’t even know she’s a Jew! 

But when her uncle Mordecai, who is one of the king’s ministers, refuses to bow to Haman, another of the king’s advisors, the saliency of Esther’s Jewish identity is tested. Haman, angry at Mordecai, convinces the king to kill all the Jews in Persia. When Esther learns of the decree, she is faced with a choice: remain silent and maintain her highly acculturated lifestyle or reveal her faith and risk losing everything, even her life. Esther makes the courageous choice and tells her husband that she is a Jew. Her action saves the Jewish people. 

Like Douglas, Esther becomes more conscious of her Jewishness later in life. Douglas explores his Jewish heritage after he watches his father Kirk, prepare for his second bar mitzvah at age 83. Esther embraces her Jewish-self when her Jewish identity is challenged. Both fully accept their Jewishness but remain married to their non-Jewish spouses. 

Esther is hailed as a Jewish hero, regardless of what kind of Jew she is (you can bet she didn’t keep kosher). She is called brave and beautiful, not intermarried or assimilated. Her choices are not judged, no one says she did the right thing but. She is remembered for her righteous action, not her interfaith relationship, her level of observance or whether she is halachically Jewish. 

Judaism finds in Esther's story something good, even though, many do not define her marriage or choices as ideal. In the same way, the Genesis committee sees something good in the story of an intermarried, patrilineal Jew, who embraces his Jewish identity later in life and commits to making Judaism more inclusive. 

Unlike Esther’s story, Douglas’s is not yet heroic. But given his platform and prize money, which he plans to use to promote inclusivity in Judaism, and urge the organized Jewish community to expand its tent, his actions have the potential to also be valiant. 

Esther would applaud the Genesis Prize committee’s selection and remind us that Jewish heroes can come from anywhere–even interfaith homes.