Posted tagged ‘Thanksgiving’

Holidays in Honesdale: Jewish Continuity and Interfaith Inclusivity

December 6, 2013
Photo credit Elizabeth Lucy

Photo credit Elizabeth Lucy

On Saturday, I attended Shabbat services in Honesdale PA, in the foothills of the Pocono mountains, in the same temple where my father became a Bar Mitzvah in 1937. The Delaware and Hudson Canal Company built this white clapboard synagogue with a steeple on the banks of the Lackawaxen River in 1856, in order to serve local Jewish merchants. Each year, more than 50 family members and friends return from across the country for a massive Thanksgiving meal, and to celebrate important rites of passage together at Congregation Beth Israel.

And so this year, as the convergence of Hanukkah and Thankgiving approached, we traveled from at least six different states, through snowy mountain passes, to witness my cousin Nora become a Bat Mitzvah. Nora lives outside Boston, but she is part of the sixth generation of our family to worship in what was once the tiniest temple in America. Throughout Shabbat, throughout a long weekend together that included celebrations of Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, the Bat Mitzvah, and my sister’s wedding, two themes recurred: Jewish continuity, and the inclusion in our family and our Jewish practice of people from across the world, and from across the spectrum of religions.

As always, as we entered the sanctuary, I searched the memorial yahrzeit plaques on the back wall, to find the names of my grandparents. In earlier generations, my family tree included cousins who married each other for lack of Jewish partners, as well as great-aunts and great-uncles who never married, never had children, for the same reason. Going through a box of photos from the last century in my grandmother’s house this week, I came across a photo with this scrawled on the back: “Leon’s Catholic girlfriend”. I adored my great-uncle Leon. He played fiddle, and worked in the family department store in Honesdale, and drew pictures of cats for us when we visited him at Katz Bros. The fact that he remained a bachelor uncle because he could not marry his Catholic sweetheart is poignant.

In the next two generations of my family, there have been a dozen happy interfaith marriages, starting with the wedding of my parents in 1960. Nora’s parents, my cousins Sig and Ruthie, are, like my own parents, Jewish and Episcopalian. I sat with my father and mother, now 89 and 82 and well past their 50th year of marriage, in the temple on Saturday morning. My teenage children sat up in the choir loft, singing with their first and second and third cousins.

Before Nora read from the Torah, we unrolled the scroll and wrapped it around the tiny sanctuary, circumscribing our radically inclusive community. My mother, who shepherded four Jewish children through the Bar and Bat Mitzvah process in the 1970s and 80s, was thrilled to be allowed to touch the parchment for the first time. Then Nora’s 91-year-old grandfather, my very erudite cousin Bill, who has spent most of his lifetime in this little town, devoting himself to Beth Israel, said the priestly blessing over the Bat Mitzvah girl from his wheelchair. There may have been one or two dry eyes in the house, but I couldn’t see them through the mist of my own tears.

In his words to Nora after her Torah reading, my cousin Sig referred to our synagogue as tiny but “huge if judged by the size of its metaphorical tent.” As a family now encompassing Jews and Catholics and Quakers and Episcopalians and Buddhists and humanists, those related by blood and those related by choice, we crammed into the familiar pews. We represent roots reaching from China to Italy, from Japan to Ireland, from Armenia to Colombia. And on Saturday, people with African, Russian, Danish, Polish and Dutch ancestors recited blessings over the Torah.

As a family, we cling to our quirky Classical Reform ways, eschewing yarmulkes and persisting in our love for familiar German tunes played on the organ, as well as incorporating Bach and Paul Simon and anyone else we please into our services. And yet somehow, we have not assimilated out of Jewish existence, through six generations at Beth Israel, and through three generations of being an interfaith family. My siblings and I have each made different decisions about the religious labels of our children, but all of us return to Honesdale, all of us return to Beth Israel, all of us are passing on love for Judaism.

On the night before Nora’s Bat Mitzvah, on the only night of the year that is Hanukkah Shabbat, my parents watched their seven grandchildren (some Jewish, some Catholic, some interfaith) light candles, say blessings, and sing Rock of Ages together. Recently, my Catholic nephew has been asking to learn Hebrew. So my daughter Aimee, who was raised in an interfaith community, with education in both Judaism and Christianity, taught her youngest Jewish and Catholic cousins to play dreidel. And thus she taught my nephew his first four Hebrew letters: nun, gimmel, hay, shin.

My father left Honesdale PA at age 17, but more than 70 years later, he still pays membership dues to Beth Israel. By the end of last week, my brother, the one raising three Catholic kids on the West Coast, had agreed to join the congregation as well. This is kind of crazy given the reality of geography, but also kind of gorgeous, and it makes sense within the context of our family. Our cousin Liza has agreed to be the next president of Beth Israel, and I trust that her creativity and open heart, her love of history and her embrace of all, will keep the congregation vibrant. Even if the Jewish ancestry in our family is but a single drop of holy oil, that drop will burn brightly for all to see, miraculous.

Interfaith Services: On Common Ground

November 29, 2010

This week, I attended a marvelous Community Thanksgiving Interfaith Service, in a Long Island suburb that has been gathering together each year since 1940. A dozen different Christian clergy members and a half-dozen representatives from three different Jewish congregations participated. A combined choir of Jews and Christians sang an elaborate setting of the synagogue favorite, Hiney  Mah Tov (arranged by Iris Levine), and American composer Virgil Thomson‘s poetic arrangement of the 23rd psalm, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need. And together, we sang America the Beautiful.

Townsfolk in yarmulkes and townsfolk in holiday sweaters packed the service. We all felt warm and fuzzy, and progressive, and patriotic, reading prayers and singing songs from both Jewish and Christian traditions, not to mention America the Beautiful.

I loved it. But I also kept thinking that for our family, the service felt strangely familiar. Every week throughout the year, we sing Christian and Jewish songs, and say Christian and Jewish prayers, led by Christian and Jewish clergy, in a community filled with Christians and Jews. Somehow, when a town gathers for this type of service once each year, it’s Norman Rockwell territory. On the other hand, when the Christians and Jews happen to be married to each other and gather every week, we make people nervous.

What’s the difference? At a community interfaith service, whether at Thanksgiving, or at a Freedom Seder in the spring, Jews and Christians come together but very clearly retain their separate identities. In our interfaith families community, a large proportion of the children and a growing number of the adults identify themselves as interfaith: a label that can provoke alarm and concern.

Another difference is that community interfaith services tend to tread carefully and deliberately on the most common ground, avoiding any mention of Jesus, for instance. Christians, understandably, agree to abstain from mentioning Jesus on these annual moments of togetherness, for the sake of making their Jewish neighbors more comfortable. Jews and Christians who are intermarried, and sing and pray together each week, ultimately must wrestle with Jesus rather than avoiding him. That doesn’t mean the Jews convert. It means they become comfortable talking about the historical role of Jesus, and the spiritual role he plays for Christians in our extended families. It means they no longer flinch when his name is mentioned.

Our interfaith community uses the Venn diagram of two interlocking rings to represent the three spaces we teach and explore together. The common ground in the intersection of the two rings is a space that feels good, feels safe. But as interfaith families journeying together, we aim to explore all three spaces: Jewish, interfaith, Christian. Sometimes, venturing away from the center, into the rocky terrain of religious particularities, feels difficult. But just as often, it feels exhilarating.

Thanksgiving, Interfaith Style

November 23, 2009

The Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving were pious Christians, giving thanks to a God they clearly thought of as a Christian God. But they were also thanking the great leader Massasoit and the Wampanoags who helped them to survive the first deadly winter in their new world. Theologians suspect the Pilgrims modeled their Thanksgiving after the harvest festival of Sukkoth in the Jewish Bible. We do know that the Pilgrims had fled Europe in order to gain religious freedom, and that they were inspired by the Jews fleeing Egypt. So while it was created by Christians, and the Wampanoags sat through church services as part of the celebration, Thanksgiving started out with pretty good interfaith credentials.

Nevertheless, many Jewish immigrants took a while to warm up to the idea that they could celebrate this American feast, and some ultra-Orthodox Jews still ignore it. My children have a picture book about a little girl in a tenement on the Lower East Side of New York in the early 20th century, who learns about Thanksgiving in her public school, and then has to use all of her Talmudic rhetorical skills to persuade a rabbinic court to let her celebrate it.

Yesterday, our community of interfaith families met to give thanks together. If you visit us on a Sunday morning, you might encounter any one of three different types of gatherings. Sometimes, we celebrate a Jewish holiday, sometimes, a Christian holiday. And some weeks, we celebrate a theme or value held in common by the two religions: social justice, service to community, joy, mystery, blessing new life, ecology, or in this case, gratitude.

Yesterday, we sang the Dutch Protestant hymn “We Gather Together” and our rabbi, Rabbi Harold White, recounted how he used to sing this hymn in public school as a boy in Connecticut. As a rabbi who has spent his long career in a Jesuit context at Georgetown, Rabbi White is ideally suited to helping the Jewish partners in our community appreciate Christian prayers and songs: this one poses no challenge to Jewish theology.

Rabbi White also gave Christian partners and Jews raised without much religious education a Jewish context for Thanksgiving, mentioning the three harvest thanksgiving holidays in the Jewish calendar: Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkoth. He also read from list of the daily Jewish prayers for thanks—for waking up, for the functioning of our digestive systems, for washing hands, eating, drinking, travelling. Then four community members got up to express gratitude: my teenage daughter read her own quirky list, giving thanks for photographs, sofas, foliage, musicals, and inclusivity. And our Reverend Julia Jarvis’s twin teenage daughters sang a Taylor Swift song, “The Best Day,” about a girl thanking her mother for love and support. All the moms were sniffling.

At the end of this gathering, we broadened out to include the numerous atheists and agnostics in our community, some of whom arrive on purpose at the tail end of the gathering, just in time for the more cerebral adult discussion group. This week, we concluded with a secular song that inspires  appreciation for both nature and humanity, whether or not one believes in a God:

What a Wonderful World

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

The colours of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shakin’ hands, sayin’ “How do you do?”
They’re really saying “I love you”

I hear babies cryin’, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world


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