C OMFORTABLY J EWISH

CONTENTS

Preface . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . v Acknowledgments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . vii PART one: Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 On the joys of playing guitar badly . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Is this a book for me? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 Why should I care? Why it is good to be Jewish . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 But my mom’s not Jewish. How can I be? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 Leave your guilt at the door: Nobody’s Jewish enough . . . . . . . . . . 8 What about my non-Jewish relatives?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8 How does this book work? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 PART two: What Does a Jewish Identity Look Like? . . . . . . . . 11 Who am I? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 But I don’t feel very Jewish . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12 What does building a Jewish identity look like? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13 Culture versus faith . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14 Having a distinctive cultural identity within a multicultural world . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
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C OMFORTABLY J EWISH PART three: Experiencing Jewishness in the home . . . . . . . . . 19 Playtime . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19 Entering the Jewmosphere: Jewish atmosphere in the home . . . . 22 Learning to feed your Jewish stomach . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25 Oy vey! Fun with Jewish expressions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26 Common Hebrew and Yiddish expressions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31 Important Jewish terms . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32 Shabbat . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34 PART four: Experiencing the Jewish World . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39 Hey, can I borrow a bagel? The Jewish community as a resource . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39 Hooray for bubbes: Learning from the elderly . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42 “Couldn’t you have chosen someone else?” Understanding Jewish suffering. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46 Never Forget! The background of an American Jewish concern over anti-Semitism. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47 A brief history of modern Jewish persecution. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 48 You just MUST go once: Israel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51 A brief history of the land of Israel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53 Note on understanding the current political situation in Israel . . . . . . . 57 Defending the fatherless and the widow: Jewish ethics and social action. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58 PART five: The Heart of Jewish Life: Celebrating the Holidays . . . 63 The value of celebration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 63 But I don’t know what I am doing!!! . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 64 Okay, where do I start? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65 Hanukkah. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65 Passover . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69 Purim . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75
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C OMFORTABLY J EWISH The High Holidays . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77 Sukkot . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81 Shavuot . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 84 PART six: Rites of Passage and Traditions. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89 Bar mitzvah . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 90 Coming of age. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95 Suggested bar mitzvah preparation and activities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98 Other activities to prepare for adulthood . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100 Bris/baby naming . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102 Hey what are we, chopped liver? Affirming non-Jewish parents and relatives . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105 PART seven: Closing Thoughts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109 I didn’t always care about being Jewish: My story . . . . . . . . . . . . 109 I only hope I know what I am talking about: Why I wrote the book . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 117 APPENDIX: Holiday recipes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119 endnotes: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 129 INDEX . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 131

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PART ONE
INTRODUCTION

On the joys of playing the guitar badly I’m not a good guitar player. I have never had any proper lessons, just learned from friends here and there. But I am really glad I do play a bit of guitar. I know how to form chords and strum. I can play easy songs and sing to them. It is a lot of fun. I think of how I’ve approached guitar playing as a way to explain what I am trying to do with this book and being Jewish. While I may not be a professional guitarist or even anything close to it, I feel comfortable picking up a guitar. This is a book about learning to feel comfortable with your Jewishness and how to help your kids feel comfortable with theirs. When I walk into a music store, I don’t understand most of what is going on, but I understand a little. I can pick up a guitar and strum a few chords. It is enough to make me like walking into music stores rather than feel intimidated by them. I hope this book will help you and your children feel good about being connected to, rather than intimidated by, the Jewish world. My goal is to help you understand a bit of what is going on, enough that you and your kids could “pick up a guitar” if you wanted to.
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C OMFORTABLY J EWISH At the risk of stretching my metaphor too far, knowing a bit of guitar also helps me to appreciate other guitarists. When I see someone playing well, though I cannot do what he or she is doing, or even understand it really, I can begin to appreciate it more than when I didn’t know how to play guitar at all. The same is true for the world of music in general. It was once a complete mystery to me, but now I don’t feel like such an outsider. I know as well that if I wanted to get some lessons, I could become better at playing guitar. But for now I am happy where I am. I hope this book will help you and your children get a better appreciation for Jewish people, culture, and religion in a way that is fun, that makes you feel like you know what is going on, and that will give you the opportunity to delve deeper into those things that interest you. The word I like best to describe my aspirations for this book is comfortable. May this be a guide to helping someone become “comfortable” with his or her Jewish heritage. Is this a book for me? So who in particular is this book for? Well, if you are curious enough to have read this far, then you have some interest in the subject, so I don’t want to limit the benefit you might get. But as I write, I am thinking of people who have some degree of Jewish heritage yet are not strongly affiliated with the Jewish community for whatever reasons. Perhaps you are intermarried or your parents were; over 50 percent of Jewish people today are intermarrying. Or maybe you are single or a couple who are not very religious, and it’s just not a priority for you to be involved in the Jewish community. Or maybe you have had a bad experience with the Jewish world and just prefer to keep a little distance. Or perhaps you are Jewish but you find yourself in a church. Maybe you believe in Jesus or your spouse does, but for whatever reason, there you are in church rather than a Jewish congregation. Or perhaps your spouse is Jewish, and
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I NTRODUCTION you would like your kids to understand their Jewish heritage. What you all have in common is that even though you are not strongly involved with the Jewish community, you still care about being Jewish. You may not be sure what that means, but it is who you are. Maybe it’s that strange sense of pride you have in knowing Mark Spitz or Albert Einstein was Jewish. Maybe it’s that you like matzah ball soup, or that you feel weird around Santa Claus, or it may be a conviction that the Holocaust should never be forgotten. But for whatever reason, you know deep down that you are Jewish. And if you have kids, it’s not that you want them to become Orthodox Jews, but you do want them to have some idea of their Jewish heritage, or at least some appreciation for it. My Jewish father rebelled against his family when he married my Gentile (non-Jewish) mother, yet he made her agree to raise us Jewish. My father has since passed away, but it has always perplexed me how he could on one hand marry someone who was not Jewish to the consternation of his whole family, yet at the same time feel strongly about his kids being Jewish. Yet that is part of the paradox of being Jewish, particularly in today’s world. Well, this is a book to help you and your kids feel comfortable about being Jewish. In it, I try to present as wide a variety of ideas as possible, because I know everyone is unique, and different things will resonate with different people. I hope you will find many useful ideas that can work for you. I think the key is to have fun and to make the Jewish experience fun for you and your kids. Because really, that is probably the part you would like to pass on. Now it could be that you want to share the pain you had in having to sit through a four-hour Yom Kippur service you didn’t understand, but I think it is more likely you want your children to enjoy the fun you had at Hanukkah. Or maybe you are that kid, now grown up, who wishes your parents had helped you understand your Jewish heritage. Well, it’s not too late. Although the orientation of this book is toward families, the principles can apply to any Jewish individual as well.
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C OMFORTABLY J EWISH Why should I care? Why it is good to be Jewish Now a question you are probably asking is, “Why should I care if my kids or I are Jewish or feel some connection to our Jewish heritage?” My guess is that if you didn’t have some feeling deep down that it was important, you would not be picking up this book. Well, trust your instincts; there are a lot of good reasons. The first and most obvious reason is simply the sense of continuity and connection with your extended family. Your kids can better relate to and understand their grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. Oftentimes blood relations can be the source of the most strain. It is probably because you are connected to them in a real physical way that they can get under your skin the way they do. But your family is all the family your children will have, and the more they can understand and relate to them, the better. It’s just like if you took your son to watch his brother play football. Naturally you would want to explain to your son something about football so he could understand what he is watching, and understand and relate personally to his brother who was playing. But I think far more than simply an ability to relate to your family is that having a Jewish heritage is an incredible window of opportunity. Jewish history and culture go back four thousand years—about as long as any culture in the world today. The Jewish people, though scattered around the world for the past two thousand years without even a common spoken language (conversational Hebrew is only about one hundred years old), have retained an identity as a distinct people group with a distinctive culture. Even more than that, they are a people whose history forms the background of arguably the world’s most significant book. No matter what you may believe about the Bible, there is no book that has had a greater impact on the world. The entire Christian and Muslim worlds see themselves as connected to the Scriptures written by
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I NTRODUCTION the Jewish people about the Jewish people and their God. If you are a believer in Jesus, you have tremendous reason to care about your child retaining a sense of Jewish identity. Jesus was Jewish, all the first followers of Jesus were Jewish, the original Peter, Paul, and Mary—all Jewish. All the writers of the New Testament except maybe Luke were Jewish. And Paul even called those Jewish followers of Jesus a unique remnant of the nation of Israel,1 stating that God is continuing a work through the nation of Israel, the Jewish people. Jewish people have had a remarkable impact on the modern world as well. Despite numbering less than 1/2 of 1 percent of the world’s population, we make up an incredibly high proportion of people who have impacted the world, be it through Nobel Prize winners, scientists, doctors, political figures, or the arts. From Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine to Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state; from Sigmund Freud to Karl Marx; from Felix Mendelssohn to Paul Simon; from George Burns to Woody Allen. And one can hardly overestimate our current impact on world history and politics, from the horrors of the Holocaust to the conflicts surrounding the nation of Israel. The Jewish people may be a tiny group of people, but we cannot be missed. You and your child are part of that legacy. What an incredible opportunity! Your kids should be able to take pride in it; it will strengthen them and give them a stronger sense of personal identity. At the very least, your family needs to understand what it means to be Jewish because Jewish is who they are. While I don’t think guilt is a good reason, there is a stewardship one has over one’s heritage. I remember what I felt as I walked into the concentration camp at Dachau at age twenty-one. I had never had a personal connection with the Holocaust before that time, but as I was walking through a timeline they had set up of the events, I learned for the first time that the Nazis had invaded Austria in March 1938. I knew my father had left at age six in July 1938. He never spoke about it, but
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C OMFORTABLY J EWISH I pictured what his family faced in those months before they got out. I suddenly felt an intimate connection with my people. This was not done to them; it was done to us. Besides, nobody is in a culture vacuum; your children will pick up some sort of heritage or identity. For many children their identity is formed around modern American culture because they are given nothing else. You have a chance to give your child a far deeper and more profound sense of identity. It is also a chance to imbue that identity with values. Many of us are not that crazy about the values being presented in the materialistic self-centered media-saturated culture we live in. This is an opportunity for your child to see they are connected to something so much more. Now I don’t want to put on rose-colored glasses about the Jewish community and say that everything about Jewish people is wonderful. Like all people groups and cultures, we certainly have our share of warts. But that does not mean that you should abandon your Jewishness. There are enough wonderful things to expose your kids to that make it more than worth it. If there are things you don’t like about Jewish culture, don’t teach them to your children. It’s as simple as that. But my mom’s not Jewish. How can I be? Short answer: It doesn’t matter. The longer answer takes a bit more explaining and really depends on where you are coming from. The place to start is to ask why anyone would ask themselves this question to begin with. Well, the reason is that according to Jewish law (halacha), it’s the mother who determines whether the child is Jewish. So halachically, the child of a Gentile mother and Jewish father is not Jewish. So why don’t I think that matters? Well, I don’t think it matters from a number of angles. Angle number one: The point of this book is not to say who is Jewish or not. It’s to help parents teach their children to understand, appreciate, and experience their Jewish heritage. It really doesn’t matter if your
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I NTRODUCTION mother is Jewish or is an Eskimo. (And if she is an Eskimo, I would recommend reading a book on helping your child understand their Eskimo heritage.) The parental mix of Jewishness is not a factor. If you are reading this book, then helping your child understand their Jewish heritage is important to you, and you are looking for some handles on how to do it. Angle number two: There is not a uniform position across Judaism anyway. The Reform tradition of Judaism already accepts a child as Jewish regardless of which parent is Jewish. And Israel accepts those who want to immigrate with a Jewish father as people of “Jewish descent.” Angle number three: Some would subscribe to the biblical definition: a Jew is a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Perhaps that’s why the Torah has examples of Jews whose mothers were not Jewish. Moses himself married a Midianite, so his kids’ mother was not Jewish. Joseph married an Egyptian. Does that mean Joseph’s kids, Ephraim and Manasseh, are not Jewish somehow? Of course not! Those are two of the most prominent tribes of Israel, and every Shabbat Jewish people around the world pray over their sons, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” I don’t think they are praying their boys will turn into Gentiles. All this to say that in the Torah it didn’t matter if the mother wasn’t Jewish. In general, inheritance and tribe was determined through the father. You might ask why modern Judaism says the mother. Well, it’s a long discussion, but in my opinion, it’s enough to say that Judaism, if nothing else, is very practical, and it’s much easier to know who someone’s mother is than their father. “Okay, but what if my father isn’t Jewish?” Oy vey, listen: It’s the mother by current Jewish law, and the father according to the Torah that determines if someone is Jewish, so you are good either way. But although this doesn’t matter to me, it may matter to you. This may be an issue you will have to face and work through with your child, so it is good for you to think about it for yourself.
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C OMFORTABLY J EWISH Leave your guilt at the door: Nobody’s Jewish enough A point I will make in this book many times is that you shouldn’t look to the Jewish community for approval of you or your child’s Jewishness. The problem is that you can never be Jewish enough in the Jewish world. Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox Jews) call other Orthodox Jews “goyim” (Gentiles) because they think they have conformed to the world and do not keep true Judaism. Orthodox Jews don’t think Conservative Jews are Jewish enough. Israel doesn’t accept or practice Reform Judaism at all. I have not even touched on Reconstructionist Judaism, Messianic Judaism, or secular Judaism. No one can say any more with authority what being a Jew really means. There are so many opinions. Everyone kind of looks to the Orthodox to see people who are doing it “right,” but they only make up a very small part of the Jewish community in the United States, maybe 10 percent, and only 5 percent in Boston, where I live. So while people may say that Orthodox Judaism is true Judaism, most Jews don’t want to practice it, and most don’t think they need to in order to be Jews. Being Jewish is a sense of self-identity. It is a way that one thinks of oneself. It is being part of a heritage that goes back to Abraham. It is being part of a people. This is what you want your child to understand. You may never get approval from the Jewish community, and you shouldn’t try anyway. The bottom line is, you need to be Jewish enough for you. Don’t let someone else define what that is for you. What about my non-Jewish relatives? One of the fears of interfaith couples in particular is that when you value one parent’s heritage, the other parent’s heritage is then devalued. And how do relatives who are not Jewish feel about their children having a Jewish identity? Do they feel slighted? This is a reasonable fear, and undoubtedly it happens frequently. But I don’t think
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I NTRODUCTION it needs to happen. I think children are able to assimilate a greater variety of culture, heritage, and identity than we give them credit for. I think a child can gain from learning both parents’ heritages and families. This is such an important topic that I have devoted an entire chapter to the subject. I think in the traditional Jewish community there can, at times, be a sense of cultural superiority. While needing to be careful when generalizing, for this is not the case with everyone, I do have many Jewish friends who have spoken to me about it, and some even have left the traditional Jewish community because of it. But this need not be the case with your child. This is part of parenting—teaching your children to want to become skilled and knowledgeable about a subject, but not be arrogant toward others who do not have their skill or knowledge. Such a balance will be a challenge that must be met in all areas of life as your child’s character develops. It need not be a problem here. I also think there are a lot of great opportunities for your child to grow and learn by interacting with family in general. Be sure to let your relatives involve your children in those traditions they find meaningful. It may be something ethnic, or it may simply be cooking smores over a campfire on the annual camping trip. Kids soak up experiences, especially those experiences that have a sense of continuity to them, experiences that give them a sense of security in seeing there is a “way” to do them. This is one of the reasons family traditions can be so powerful. So in short, you don’t have to devalue your non-Jewish parent or other relatives. On the contrary, let your children learn from them as well. If you want some specific ideas, see part six of this book. How does this book work? I am the type of person who rarely reads a book cover to cover. I prefer to poke around and read what interests me or find things that may be helpful to me. I have heard it said as well that every book only has eighteen good pages anyway. So best to just find them!
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C OMFORTABLY J EWISH For better or worse, I have written this book with my own attitude in mind. I want you to see this not so much as a book best read cover to cover but as a resource. You can pick it up anywhere, and you will be able to dig right in. It is designed to be practical for you and your family. I have tried to provide the information that you need, knowing that some people who don’t need or want something in particular will just skip over it. For instance in regard to the Jewish holidays, I have included a historical and biblical background for each holiday as well as a section on how it is celebrated. You might just want to skip down to see how it is celebrated, or just skip to the section on suggested activities. That’s okay. A variety of ideas are presented. I know that probably two-thirds of the suggested activities will not work for any given family. It’s my hope, however, that the remaining one-third will work for you. So explore. The table of contents is detailed enough so you can get at what interests you. Here is a basic breakdown of my thinking in dividing the book the way I did. In parts one and two, I try to deal with some of the theoretical questions, like what being Jewish is, why it’s important, and culture versus faith issues. Then in the body of the book, for each section, I tried to both give background and potential activities for you. In general I work from the simplest to implement to the more complex. For example, I begin with creating a Jewish home—simple activities to do with the children, like making decorations for the home, trying different foods, and learning Jewish expressions. Then I begin to deal with experiencing the larger Jewish world, including its thought and ethos. The next section is devoted to the Jewish holidays and the concluding section deals with probably one of the more complex issues—Jewish rites of passage. Finally, I tell you a little bit about myself and my family, and how my Jewishness became important to me. All this to say—I want you and your children to learn to feel comfortable with your Jewishness. And at the risk of repeating myself, have fun!
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