Nourishing the Roots

Temple Beth Elohim

Tomorrow I am taking my children to our ancestral Jewish homeland—Wayne County, Pennsylvania, where there’s more cows than people. Or at least that’s the tagline we always give it in my family. It seems like an unlikely source of Jewish culture, but my roots on my Jewish side, my father’s side, go very deep there.

My great-grandfather emigrated from Germany to Honesdale, the seat of Wayne County, in 1864. There, he lived peaceably beside German Catholic and Lutheran neighbors. William Jonas Katz and his brothers started peddling from a horse and cart and built this into the Katz Brothers department store, the anchor store on Main Street. As a child, I delighted in “working” at the store on vacations, making ribbons for Christmas packages, or helping my beloved Cousin Nathan put change into the little canisters that went whooshing along the ceiling in vacuum tubes.

Katz Brothers closed after the arrival of big box stores in the strip mall outside town. But for my children, Honesdale still holds the magic of family history. At my grandmother’s house, where we gather as a family even though she’s been gone for 15 years, they love the laundry chute and the slate sidewalks. And they know that the little white building with the steeple downtown, on the bank of the Lackawaxen River, is actually Temple Beth Israel, where my father became a Bar Mitzvah.

My family returns to the temple when we are in Honesdale for Shabbat or lifecycle ceremonies. The memorial yahrtzeit plaques on the back wall bear the names of my grandparents and great-grandparents. We visit the town cemetery at least once a year, and say the mourner’s Kaddish with my father, and place pebbles on the graves. My children listen to their only Jewish grandparent tell stories of their ancestors. And my daughter, who is “only a patrilineal quarter-Jew,” wants to learn the Kaddish so that she can recite it in the cemetery and the temple.

And how could this not be a wondrous thing, and even “good for the Jews”? Who would maintain that she has no right to this knowledge, this gut-level connection to her family history? Who dares to tell her that she somehow does not count in the graveside minyan? I cannot think of anyone who could possibly count more.

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The First Synagogue in the New World

My kids hate museums, or so they claim. My daughter, 15, says she doesn’t like the way the objects are taken out of context, isolated and pinned to white walls like butterfly specimens.

So on our trip to Brazil last month, I only dragged them through one museum: the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue in Recife, commemorating the site where the first synagogue in the Americas was built around 1636. As an interfaith parent, I could not resist the opportunity to weave this thread of Jewish history into our lives.

When we lived in Brazil in the 1990’s, archaeologists had just uncovered evidence of the synagogue’s location—a mikvah, or ritual bath, made of stone. My children were less than four and one when we left the city of Recife after living there for three years.  By the time we returned last month, twelve years had gone by and a museum had grown up around the mikvah, which is now covered with clear plastic so that you can walk over it and peer down in.

The museum chronicles how Jews arrived in northeastern Brazil with the Portuguese explorers and played a key role in the thriving colonial sugarcane plantations in northeastern Brazil under Dutch rule, until the Portuguese regained control of Recife in 1654 and imposed the Inquisition. Some Jews fleeing Recife ended up in New York, where they founded the first congregation in the city, Shearith Israel.

The museum is modest–the mikvah is about all that is left from the original building. A new synagogue now crowns the building, and I felt the deep satisfaction of connecting my children to another synagogue that plays a role, no matter how small, in our family chronicle. For an hour, they absorbed another segment of the entwined histories of Judaism and Christianity. And I was satisfied to inject an hour of thinking about Judaism into our celebration of the boisterous pagan and Catholic Sao Joao (Saint John) festival–two weeks filled with bonfires, fireworks and dancing.

After patiently touring the Synagogue and Museum, my children stepped back out onto the street, beneath a canopy of fluttering Sao Joao flags and lanterns. On the map of Recife, this street is marked the Rua do Bom Jesus: the Street of Good Jesus. But I know, and now my children will never forget, that the first name for this street was the Rua dos Judeus: the Street of Jews.

“So Why Aren’t You a Unitarian?”

I love Unitarians! Some of my best friends are Unitarians! I grew up in New England, where Unitarians are very active, widely respected, part of the cultural norm. When the Unitarian Church in our town studied Judaism each year, my father, the local nice Jewish guy, would put on a Passover seder for them. And I am grateful that what has become the Unitarian Universalist (referred to as “UU”) Association has provided a home for countless wandering interfaith families.

I am aware of the lively debate on whether Unitarians are more “post-Christian” than Christian. I know that the Christian flavor of any given UU congregation varies greatly from church to church. And I also know that interfaith families have brought an active “Jewish UU” subculture to many of these churches. But still, it is a church, and some Jewish parents of interfaith children have trouble getting beyond that. Me, I feel comfortable, even inspired, in many UU churches.

But it is unlikely that a church (or synagogue) of any stripe will ever provide what I have now: an entire community of interfaith families on a journey together, an entire Sunday School filled with interfaith children dedicated to exploring both sides of their heritage. And we are dedicated to delving as deeply as we can into both the Jewish and Christian traditions. So, for instance, our program teaches the Hebrew alphabet and has a rabbi on the staff, which is not likely to happen in a UU Church.

My family is one of over a million interfaith Jewish/non-Jewish families in America now, and that number is growing by 40,000 new families each year. We need all the options to stay open for us. We need Jewish institutions to welcome us. We need churches to notice and try to understand us. And we need to continue to develop new models of how to be true to ourselves and give our children access to their rich inheritance.

A Beer with Barack

Today I claim Barack Obama as a fellow interfaith child. Of course he’s a Christian. He made that choice, and has every right to do so. I waited years to claim him as an interfaith child because I so badly wanted him to be President, and I willingly participated in the liberal media conspiracy to downplay his Muslim roots.

But at this moment, I am filled with nachas (Yiddish for pride in the accomplishment of a relative) because Obama will be drinking beer this evening at the White House with a black professor and a white police officer. I see this inspired gesture as quintessential interfaith, or bicultural, behavior. He sees the conflict from both perspectives, and inserts himself in the middle to become the human bridge between the two.

Of course, race is still the primary identifier in America, and Obama’s status as a mixed-race child trumps his interfaith background. But when you listen to his moving speech in Cairo last month, it is clear that he benefits from his formative experiences with Islam. While he did not know his Muslim biological father, growing up with knowledge of this family connection can have a strong effect on an interfaith child’s identity. Even more important was his experience as a boy in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, with a Muslim stepfather. Obama is both a practicing Christian and someone raised with an intimate knowledge of Islam. I celebrate his interfaithness, and see that the world has already benefitted from it.

As an interfaith child, I am proud to share the “both/and” perspective with many other Americans–children who embody two or more races, immigrants who straddle two cultures, expatriate offspring raised in other countries. All of us see ourselves in Obama. Many of us aspire to use our “both/and” status to become religious bridges, Obama-style. I don’t happen to like beer, which is just as well given the different religious perspectives on alcohol. Anyone want to come over for a root beer?

Perfect Pitch, or Polyrhythms

A fascinating story in today’s Washington Post describes how some Japanese children develop perfect pitch after their parents train them throughout the day, over a period of years. I admire these parents, just as I admire the parents who work hard to instill Jewish identity in their children through daily practice and sacrifice. I certainly admire my own mother, who schlepped us to Hebrew school, came with us to temple, and even tried studying Hebrew, though she never converted to Judaism.

I regret a bit that I did not work with my children to help them develop perfect pitch. It seems like a magical quality. But at the conclusion of the article, an American music professor states that he’s not sure many Americans would want their children to be so specialized at such a young age. He says, “In our culture…we seem to want our children to be well-rounded, involved in a multitude of activities.”

In choosing dual religious training for my children, I decided I wanted them to be well-rounded, even though I knew I was forgoing the benefits of total immersion in one religion. The musical metaphor for their training might be polyrhythms—the simultaneous playing of more than one independent rhythm.

Is it possible to become a musician without perfect pitch? Of course. I suspect American musicians even have some easy, swinging quality they might not have had with more rigid musical training early in childhood. Is it possible to become a good Jew or a good Christian after a childhood straddling both religions? Those who convert later in life often have a zeal, or flair, which comes from the experience of choosing a religion as an adult.

I made my choices for my children, knowing that there would be benefits and drawbacks. I realize they may never have the ability to name the individual notes in a piece of music, as if hearing in a third dimension. And it will be harder for them to develop fluency in Hebrew or the sense of unquestioned belonging in either religion. But if they decide they want to convert to Judaism, or Christianity, they will have a well-rounded religious training on which to build. I don’t have any expectation that they will choose one religion, or not choose. I do expect them to improvise, to swing, and feel music and spirit in their bones, whatever music it may be.

Dreams of Interfaith Camping

My teenager and pre-teen are off at a sleepaway camp founded by Quakers:  it has a lovely weekly ecumenical reflection time outdoors, called “dell.” I have often thought about sending them to a Jewish summer camp to reinforce their knowledge of things Jewish and give them a stronger sense of the Jewish community. But I can’t quite get over the reality that “sending them to Jewish camp” is an overt part of the institutional strategy to get interfaith kids to identify as Jews. Which in the case of my kids, would require them to convert. Jews are not generally known for their missionary zeal, but in the case of interfaith families, there has been some pretty aggressive recruiting going on, and I have tried to protect my children from being exposed to this, at least until adulthood. They are perfectly happy with their interfaith identities.

Meanwhile, interfaith communities–with religious education programs, community service programs, adult discussion groups, holiday celebrations, and even weekly services of music and reflection—are sprouting up around the country. I would love to see an interfaith camp for children and teens evolve as a next step. Interfaith children from across America could meet each other, understand that they are part of a nationwide movement, and explore their interfaith identities without pressure to choose a particular religion. They could celebrate Shabbat and get a taste of communal kibbutz living with other interfaith kids, but also sing “Peace Like A River” and “Dona Nobis Pacem.”

Our interfaith community is often described as a utopian bubble, someplace apart from the “real world.” Interfaith Camp would be a summertime utopian bubble—a safe place out in the woods somewhere for kids to be who they are, without pressure from an adult world obsessed with binary “either/or” labeling.  I wish I had been to such a camp. I still wish I could go. Maybe if we build it, they will come. We could even have a “Family Week” for all ages.  I’m going to grab my ukulele and my watercolor set, and meet you there.

To Be or Not to Be…a Half-Jew

I appreciate the in-your-face “we can call ourselves whatever we want” quality of the half-Jew movement. Many of us have issues with the fact that Jews can’t even agree on who is a Jew, and yet they try to tell us we can’t call ourselves half-Jews.

Traditional Jewish law known as halacha specifies that either you’re a Jew (because your mother was a Jew) or you’re not. Your Jewish father? He’s, uh, chopped liver. But since 1983, Reform Jews have officially accepted either matrilineal or patrineal half-Jews as Jews, as long as they have been “raised Jewish.” The seemingly endless arguments over “Who is a Jew” continue to alienate interfaith families.

Meanwhile, many of us insist that being half-Jewish is a unique and even positive state, despite widespread disapproval. A spunky website called halfJew.org died an untimely death after vicious flaming shut down the comments section. But in the 21st century, it will be hard to ignore half-Jews as we come into our own. By the year 2030, there will be more half-Jewish children than there will be “full-blooded” Jewish children in America. As Robin Margolis, founder of the Half-Jewish Network points out, “If we’re the majority, we’ll decide who’s a Jew.” You can read great blog posts just this month about being half-Jewish at jezebel.com and thefbomb.com.

Personally, while I’m cheering on the half-Jew movement, I usually identify myself as an interfaith child rather than a half-Jew. I like the positive associations of interfaith—of cooperation, of interweaving, and even the possibility that we are talking about faith or spirituality, as well as culture. I don’t like the way “half-Jew” ignores and diminishes my other half. I identify myself as a whole, not as a fractional Jew. And I have common ground with interfaith children who aren’t Jewish at all—whether they’re Muslim/Hindu, or Christian/Buddhist. Finally, I think about my own children, who are only one-quarter Jewish, and the “wrong” patrilineal quarter at that. Our family shares a label, a community, a history now. We’re not a half-Jewish family. We’re an interfaith family.