Posts Tagged ‘community’

Beyond conversion

One of the great sources of chizuk (strength) I have found in my life as a converted Orthodox Jew has been meeting other families where one or both partners are converts to Judaism.  Sometimes they have a Jewish father, like I have, and sometimes they traveled the long and winding road to Judaism without the beacon of their own heritage to guide them.

A friend of ours recently wrote a piece for The Jewish Week entitled “Beyond Conversion: Becoming a Jewish Family,” addressing interfaith marriage from the vantage point of someone who, with his non-Jewish wife, made the journey from an interfaith marriage to a marriage in which both partners are now Jewish, living traditional Jewish lives (in Israel) and rearing their children as fully identified Jews.  The jumping-off point of the article is the new interfaith haggaddah being promoted by high-profile intermarried couple John and Cokie Roberts (Cokie of National Public Radio fame), and their promotion of intermarriage as “the new normal.”  Our friend Harold Berman’s piece, which makes important points about what kind of Judaism is being offered to interfaith couples and the fact that interfaith marriages don’t always end up where they begin, especially when children come along, takes issue with the Roberts’ version of Judaism as a way of life that coexists naturally alongside other faiths in the same household.

When the piece was published, Harold contacted me and provided the link to the Jewish Week‘s page posting his article, but also gave me the “uncut” version, which contained a few points he’d wanted to make but which didn’t make the final edit for publication.  Here was a deleted portion that I found particularly meaningful:

Several years ago, before my wife became Jewish, she taught music to a Harvard undergraduate who had grown up in an interfaith family. One day, as they were talking about her background, the student said wistfully, “It would just be nice to know who I am, to have a clear religious identity.” Not every interfaith child feels this way. But as a community, we should have the confidence that if they immerse in Judaism, their lives will be better.

The times are changing, but not in the way many people think. Orthodox synagogues are burgeoning. Thousands upon thousands of Jews who grew up with little Jewish background have transformed themselves into observant Jews, as have increasing numbers of non-Jews. Intermarried-to-Orthodox families like mine are becoming more and more common, and can be found in virtually any Orthodox synagogue, and among our neighbors in Israel where we live.

And increasing numbers of intermarried families are searching for a substantive Judaism they don’t always find in their temples and JCCs. Just go into any Chabad and you will see them. It’s time for us, as a Jewish community, to expect more of ourselves. The way forward will not be found in a feel-good Judaism, but in a meaningful one.

I felt through much of my childhood and young adulthood the same way that Harvard undergraduate felt, uncertain of my religious identity.  At the age of nine, when I told my parents I wanted to be an Orthodox Jew, they scoffed and said, “You’d hate it.  They’re not allowed to do anything.  You wouldn’t last a week.”  I never spoke of it again, but I continued to think about it, and when I eventually decided to take the plunge and convert, my parents were surprised, but I wasn’t.  It was what I’d always wanted to be.  The interfaith household in which I grew up, which was never truly committed to either Judaism or Christianity, wasn’t enough for me.  I needed more, went out, and found it.

Harold’s point that while there is a strong trend toward assimilation in America, there is also a movement of secular Jews and interfaith couples toward more traditional Jewish practice, is an important one.  Brandeis sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman has noted that in interfaith relationships, the Jewish partners (especially male partners) tend to downplay the importance of their Jewish faith for fear of offending or pressuring their non-Jewish partners, giving rise to a belief by the non-Jewish partner that Judaism is less important to their partner than their own religion is to them.  By taking Judaism seriously, delving into its wisdom, practice, and ritual, families searching for meaning gain a greater appreciation of Judaism’s profound substance, rather than the notion among many non-religious Jews that since Judaism is part of the foundation on which democracy is based, it is nothing more than American liberalism.

I agree with Harold that it is essential that Jews of all stripes welcome interfaith couples into their midst.  By showing interfaith couples that Jews are a people rather than a band of “a few good men,” traditional Jews have the opportunity to provide a window on how Judaism is lived day-to-day, and offers as much learning, meaning, history, community, and spiritual connection to the Divine as anyone could need.  My acceptance by Reform Judaism allowed me to enter the Jewish world from non-halachic, secular Judaism, and the welcome I received by Orthodox Jews in Israel, and later in Newton, Massachusetts, was what allowed me to find my resting place at last.  Not everyone will necessarily gravitate toward Modern Orthodoxy as I did, but knowing that the world of tradition is fulfilling, accessible and welcoming may help other families not content to negotiate their identities to find one they can all share.

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted a recipe.  With the kids home, though, I’ve been thinking of things they can make with me that involve simple chopping, measuring, and mixing.  I’ve also been teaching them that many of the things we tend to buy in stores ready-made can be made more wholesomely, deliciously, and cheaply at home.  I’ve also been thinking of sweet, comforting food in the midst of dealing with some of my more stodgy, anti-kid neighbors who arranged for large boulders to be placed in the middle of the neighborhood park to prevent children from playing there.  My spirit and my soul have needed a good nourishing, and the food that popped into my mind this time was not chocolate, homemade toffee, or ice cream (though those are three great tastes that taste great together).  It was simple, homely granola.

Here’s a recipe my mother gave me ages ago in the first version of her homemade cookbook that has since gone through many editions in my hands.  It’s called “New Granola,” but it’s a golden oldie with me.

5 cups oats

1 cup chopped apple (I chop ¾ cup dried apple)

1 cup coarsely chopped pecans (sweet caramelized pecans work nicely here)

1 cup raisins

¾ cup melted butter

½ cup packed brown sugar

1½ teaspoon cinnamon

While I usually skip this step, you can toast the oats first on a cookie sheet at 350ºF (180ºC) for 10-12 minutes.  Combine the oats with the rest of the ingredients and mix well.  Spread on a cookie sheet and bake at 350ºF (180ºC) for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Store in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator.  Serve with milk or yogurt.  Or just eat it straight out of the container.

Peace, love, and granola, man.

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Kids in shul

Purim’s coming, and it will be one of the few times per year that I actually set foot in shul.

I used to attend shul all the time.  In fact, before the Cap’n and I were married, we used to walk a mile and a half and got to shul half an hour early to attend the rabbi’s pre-Shacharit shiur every Shabbat morning.  Marriage gave us a little less incentive to get up so early for shul, and children made it nearly impossible.  Even if we were to have gotten up, gotten ourselves and the kids dressed, the kids breakfasted, snacks packed, stroller loaded, and the .9 mile walked to shul, the three-hour service with the stern, disapproving looks from some of the older congregants would have driven us away.

This last thing is something that has irritated me for years about shul-going.  When I first began to attend shul in Israel, I was frequently annoyed by the sound (and sometimes the body-slam) of children running and playing in and just outside the shul.  Their parents seemed oblivious of them, only stopping praying to attend to whatever need the child had burst in to convey, and then going back to their davening.  I was put off by their lack of courtesy to other daveners, but kept my mouth shut.  During the many services I sat through with the sound of kid-play in my ears, I realized that the tone the parents (and by extension, the uncomplaining congregants) were setting for the kids was one in which they felt welcome and accepted for what they were—children.  I also learned to tune out the noise and focus on the words in front of me, relegating the laughter and shrieks to a dull background roar.

I haven’t forgotten those lessons, and now that I’m the one with the kids (who usually whisper rather than shriek), I appreciate even more when fellow congregants withhold their scorn and indignation.  Today’s boisterous kids are tomorrow’s docile shul-goers.  (And the doted-upon grandchildren of the scowling sestogenarians.)  This is why the Cap’n and I don’t let it bother us when every fall someone on the shul committee puts out a reminder to the parents of young children to keep them out of shul, please.  I deal with this by choosing a seat in the shul’s plywood extension that goes up just before Rosh Hashana, right near the door.  That way, when I go hear shofar, the kids can come in and stand with me, and when it’s over we can all leave without disturbing the others.  And the Cap’n deals with it by ignoring it completely, putting Bill in his backpack carrier and wearing him to services, with one or more of the Crunch girls standing beside him.  (That said, the Cap’n does remove Bill when his chanting gets louder than the shatz’s.)

A friend of mine took her toddler with her to services last fall (at a different shul) and sat next to one of the shul’s senior members.  She apologized for bringing the child, saying she really wanted to hear some of the High Holiday davening, and acknowledged that the senior member in the past had not approved of bringing young children to shul.  The senior member (now a grandmother) smiled and said, “I made a mistake.”

Amen to that.

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Litter rant

From the time I first set foot in Israel in 1996, I have been mesmerized by the beauty and history of this place.

At the same time, however, I’ve been appalled at how people have chosen to maintain it.  Coming to Israel is like going back in time in many ways, and unfortunately one of those ways is reflected in the amount of trash dumped everywhere and anywhere.  (Remember the Keep Britain Tidy movement?  And the fake Indian crying on American television to get Yanks to stop throwing their garbage out of the windows of moving cars?  Where’s Israel’s weeping King David?  Or Keep Israel Tidy?)

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I came up with a little photo essay.

Bill and I set out one morning last week to make a round of playgrounds, ironically one of the worst places to play or sit and converse with one’s adult peers.  Here’s an overview of the playground.  Pretty nice, no?

This is a particularly sought-after playground because of its zipline (something we never had at playgrounds in the US).  Kids play ball here, swing, climb the structure.  But what is that green stuff on the gravel in the foreground, at the base of the sandbox?  Clover?  Grass?  *Gulp* Weeds?  No, it’s…

Broken glass!  (With some weeds mixed in.)  The popularity of Crocs, which look like great gardening shoes but are very poor shoes for running and climbing, means that kids often kick them off on the swings, or shed them in an attempt to play barefoot.  Fortunately, Efrat’s Emergency Medical Center is located down the road for stitching up tender little feet that get sliced and diced by all the broken glass here.

Parks and playgrounds are supposed to be fun for everyone, and families often choose to bring their dogs with them.  Unfortunately, they don’t always remember to take all their dogs’ belongings with them when they leave…

Bill and I left that park and tooled on down the road to another playground.  On the way, we passed by Efrat’s shopping center, which contains several eateries, among them Burgers Bar.  Of course, one doesn’t actually have to see the Burgers Bar to know it’s in the vicinity; one has only to look in the rosemary shrubs lining the sidewalk for sufficient evidence:

If you look closely, you can see that this scrupulously kosher person also enjoyed a parve dessert after his or her dinner: a lollipop!  B’teiavon.

Efrat is not all litter, I assure you.  This time of year one can spot some hardy roses, blooming rosemary, and I saw the first blooming almond trees yesterday.  (I haven’t yet gotten pictures of them.)

Even the empty lots in Efrat have a loveliness to them.  While overgrown and rocky, one can often spy cyclamen growing out from between the stones.  In the winter (i.e. now) the grass and weeds are green, and wildflowers bloom.  Here’s an empty lot next to another playground:

And on closer inspection, we see the seamier side of this stony, grassy lot:

Trash, trash, and more trash…

When the Cap’n and I were on our program nearly 14 years ago, any tiyul we took was capped off at the end by our being asked to scurry around and pick up the hundred or so water bottles that had been scattered around whatever natural or man-made wonder we’d just visited.  Tourist, immigrant, Sabra–there appears to be no difference between them when it comes to littering.  Some places are much worse than others, but in a yishuv with the amount of civic pride that Efrat boasts, there is no excuse for the littering and vandalism which mar the streets, playgrounds, and open spaces here.

For nearly 2000 years, the Jews languished in exile, praying to return to our land.  For all that time, we were subject to the laws (or lawlessness) that held sway wherever we were.  We lived an existence fraught with denial: to own land, to join professional guilds, to attend universities.  Anything we had could be (and sometimes was) taken from us at any time.

But here we are at last, in our own land, where everything is of, by, and about the Jews.  It’s ours again.  Some would argue that because it’s ours, we have the right to foul it up if we want to.  But I don’t think that’s what people really want.

Like so many things, it’s a question of education.  If parents and teachers were to instill in children’s minds the values of cleanliness, of safety, of beauty, Israel might look different.  Parents should be aware that just because they live in a yishuv packed with religious Jews, many of them immigrants from the West, does not mean that their children will automatically absorb those values; they have to be taught explicitly.

I personally don’t fancy the idea of passing a filthy, garbage-strewn country on to the next generation.  It’s for kids like Bill…

…that we need to teach our children good habits and civic pride.  On our way home from our photo tour, we passed by a parked car with the following sticker in the rear window:

So do we.

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National identity

Ilana-Davita recently had a discussion on her blog of the recent controversy in France (sparked by Switzerland’s ban on minarets) over what constitutes national identity.  This got me thinking about the dozens of discussions I’ve had on this subject, and inspired this post.  (Thanks, Ilana-Davita!)

I know the US has struggled with this for decades, trying to reconcile whether it sees itself as a melting pot (which takes a few generations post-immigration to effect) or as a smörgåsbord, where everyone lives side by side but maintains their own distinct cultural affiliation.

I think one can see both.  Catholics marry Protestants, Jews marry Koreans, and everyone eats pasta.  On the other hand, regional accents and culture often outlast that culture’s hegemony in a given part of the country, giving California a distinctly Hispanic and Italian flavor, the Northeast a cuisine and city names that mirror those of Great Britain, and the Midwest an obvious Germanic influence which has led to the custom of having cookie tables at weddings—besides the meal and the wedding cake—and not only for people with Germanic-sounding last names.

I know the fears that underlie some people’s asking what has happened to America’s national identity.  Some are afraid that the influx of immigrants from countries that do not share the American values of freedom, civil rights, and sense of fair play will erode the nation’s safety, unity, and standing in the world.  Certainly the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, were a slap in the face of freedom, since the attackers  availed themselves of many of the freedoms that America offers that their home countries do not, and used those freedoms to slaughter innocent Americans (as well as foreign nationals).  There is also a sense that attempts at cultural inclusiveness, particularly in public schools, are compromising the quality of education by sidelining Western history and literature, and including subjects and texts which may lack the educational value of the older curriculum.

I don’t really like this argument, and I don’t find I agree with either side wholeheartedly.  I agree that texts by Charles Dickens are much richer sources of English vocabulary than nearly anything else out there, but I also found Chinua Achebe’s simply but beautifully written Things Fall Apart to be as valuable in addressing human themes as anything Camus may have written.  If education is about acquiring cultural knowledge, then the bulk of the texts used in schools should reflect that attitude and introduce all children, no matter their background, to the sources of the values Westerners hold dear.  If, on the other hand, education is about acquiring skills first, and cultural knowledge second, then teachers should feel free to use non-Western texts that foster the teaching of those skills.  It’s a difficult choice to make for educators and curriculum directors, and one that I think has not been addressed successfully at a national level.

I am familiar with some of the arguments in favor of “multi-cultural” education.  The argument that children cannot relate to stories, pictures, and math problems that don’t reflect who they are is one of the main ones.  I’m afraid I’m less sympathetic to these arguments than most, and some of that stems from being Jewish.  Jewish kids don’t go to public school expecting to read Roth, Bellow, and Doctorow.  They don’t expect to encounter word problems in math about doing comparative shopping for tefillin or a set of the Babylonian Talmud.  They go to read Jefferson, Scott Fitzgerald, and learn about the Civil War.  They learn how to be Jewish at home, at synagogue, and—if their families have the desire and the means—at day school.  I think the same should go for kids of other ethnic and religious backgrounds.  (And I definitely think people who want to teach their children Creationism—or, more politically correctly, “intelligent design”—should do so at home and at church.)  Their native languages can be learned at home or privately, their religions from their families, and their own culture’s literature at home or at the library.  No public school is going to be able to take on the mammoth task of teaching every child every other child’s culture, nor should it have to.  Where a non-Western text reflects universal human themes, or a novel or story addresses the question, “What is an American?” it is clearly relevant to the curriculum.

It is true that children growing up in America, Britain, France, China, and the Congo are all going to be citizens of the world.  But it is also true that without a firm foundation in what it means to be a citizen of a country, or of a community, I am not convinced that being a citizen of the world naturally follows.  This too comes from being Jewish.  We had friends in the US who insisted, while living in our largely Jewish Boston suburb, on shlepping their kids to a more culturally diverse neighborhood to go to nursery school.  Their rationale was that while they may be Jewish, they wanted their children to grow up knowing kids from other, non-Jewish backgrounds.  While I understand their desire for their children to know people from other cultural affiliations, I wasn’t sure that that was an essential goal for pre-school-aged children, or justified the gas or time in the car to achieve it.  My attitude is that young children should first be taught who they are, and afterward (from 5th grade or so on) be taught about other people.

At the Crunch family dinner table, we discuss the children’s days, the holidays, the weekly parashah, Jewish history, and Torah values in general.  We also discuss the children’s secular and non-Jewish family, and how they are spending their holiday season.  We talk about Arabs, and their complex society and different religion.  We talk about what it was like to live in a predominantly Christian country as minority Jews.  We are confident that while our children will grow up with a firm identity as Jews, and while they may not see Christians or secular Jews or Japanese on a regular basis, they will not faint dead away when they do see them.

Besides being an issue of national identity, I believe it’s an issue of social cohesion.  America has a culture all its own (just ask the British), and immigrants who make their way there—as well as native-borns—should see that culture reflected in the country’s educational system.  As Daniel Gordis writes in Does the World Need the Jews?, the shared cultural values that Americans have are the glue that holds them together as a nation.  Not only does it establish an understanding of what America is about to its children, it creates a sense of unity and—potentially—peace among the adults who participate in it.  This does not mean that everyone must share the same political ideas, religious beliefs, or Thanksgiving menu.  It should mean, however, that everyone is agreed on what the country’s foundations should be.  In other words (to paraphrase a fascinating discussion in Gordis’s most recent book, Saving Israel), Americans need to decide whether America is diverse, or whether America is about diversity.  The former merely describes America’s cultural make-up; the latter indicates a mission to pursue diversity and make that part of the national agenda.

This is a complicated debate, and I have only given my two cents’ worth here.  What are your thoughts, readers?

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Neighborhood noise

Our neighborhood is not a quiet one.  In addition to the Muslims blasting their prayers from nearby villages at all hours (including 4 AM), we have midnight territorial disputes between cats; several neighbors who play the drums (including one whose drum kit is in his room which faces my daughters’ room across the street); a family with no cellphone reception in their house who sit out on their front steps and carry on loud Hebrew conversations at all hours, as well as have grown children who come and go in cars day and night, talking and laughing loudly outside at 3 AM; and another neighbor who has parakeets who screech all hours of the day, and who himself gets up before 6 AM and sometimes spends 15 minutes starting his van that needs a new muffler, power steering, and probably a dozen other things.  We used to have the avian Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the ivy outside our house at first light and sunset, but I tore that down a few weeks ago.  At least it’s quiet here during those brief periods.

But Sukkot is coming, and that will mean neighborhood noise of another kind altogether.  This new noise will be the sound of families sharing meals in their sukkahs, sometimes mere feet from one another.  It will be the sound of kiddush (with bypassing neighbors calling “Amen!” at its conclusion), singing, bentshing, and conversation.  It will be the clatter of plates, the clinking of glasses and forks.  It will be the rustle of the wind as it stirs the walls, and the whisper of palm fronds overhead.  It will be the sound of people bedding down at night in their sleeping sukkahs, including my reading Little House in the Big Woods to Beans, Peach and Banana by flashlight in their sleeping bags on the balcony, modern-day settlers reading about settlers of long-ago.  It will be the sound of no cars (except the Arab traffic on the Tekoa road and Route 60), no school bells, no garbage trucks, no buses.  Just people and the breeze.


Chag sameach.

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Coping with sadness

Back in July, RivkA of Coffee and Chemo had one of the most insightful posts I’ve ever read.  She said she used to think that there were people with complicated, difficult lives, and people with easy, smooth-going lives.  Nowadays, she still believes that there are two types of people, but the two types are “1. People whose lives are complex and 2. People who you do not know so well.”

I’ve thought about this ever since I read it, and have been thinking about this lately in particular as I’ve learned that a student in the school in which Ilana-Davita teaches committed suicide—the second student to do so in six months.  In addition, the sister of a friend of mine died last week—by all appearances a suicide.

These incidents have a much different effect on the living than surviving someone who has died of illness or sudden accident.  Death always seems to make us take stock of our lives, but suicide seems to create doubt in our minds, to bring guilt to the surface, to make us ask why someone would choose death over life.  We feel betrayed, rejected, abandoned when someone leaves us on purpose.  We blame ourselves for not knowing how the person felt, and try to imagine what we might have done to contribute to the person’s misery and unhappiness, or what we should have done to alleviate his suffering.

And yet.  While a rabbi in my neighborhood commented on Shabbat that the woman’s death last week was a wake-up call to all of us, I learned at the shiva that there was no sign of discontent in her life, that she was in good health, she had a good job, a beautiful loving immediate and extended family, and that she was the sort of person who, when things got beyond her ability to deal with them, would ask for help from others.  Whether she had an unknown source of unhappiness, or whether there is some other explanation, the family may never know.

But this brings me back to RivkA’s point.  We may believe we know the people closest to us, but sometimes we just don’t.  I don’t share every single thought or worry that I have with others, no matter how close they are to me.  And I know there’s plenty that goes on in the minds of my husband and children that I know nothing about.

For someone to be driven to the point where she believes she cannot ask for help, or accept help, and would rather devastate those closest to her than deal with her problems is a very serious point indeed.  We don’t like being unable to understand things, which makes it all the harder to understand how someone could make a decision like that.  What balance of worry, coping skills, and mental stability (or instability) came together in this person to result in something so final and, seemingly, unnecessary?  We see people deal with life-threatening illness, grief, poverty, abuse, and personal disaster every day—why did this person think he couldn’t cope?

I sometimes use literature to help me work through my thoughts.  I love the play Romeo and Juliet, and consider myself very fortunate to have been able to teach it once to a class of bright 10th graders.  It’s one of the few works in the curriculum that I think speaks to kids in their early teens.  But as we know, it involves lots of death, and a double suicide at the end.  I was not insensitive to this when teaching my students, and the day they walked in after having finished the play, I took a few minutes to discuss with them the ending.  How did it come about?  What role did the adults play?  How much of the play’s action was dictated by the youth and impulsiveness of the characters?  What were their alternatives?  What would have happened to them in the long run if they had not married one another secretly?  I finished by making the point—based on my own experience, that of my family and friends, and that of others I have known—that the human spirit can absorb an enormous amount of insult, abuse, disappointment, and heartache, and still recover.  Just because Romeo and Juliet couldn’t see beyond their immediate circumstances does not mean that they would not have had a full life, filled with joy, contentment, and productivity ahead of them.  When a door closes in one place, a door often opens somewhere else; it’s merely a question of finding it.

May the aggrieved be comforted, and may we all live in the knowledge that while we cannot always see the future, it is there waiting for us.

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