Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Christmas Eve Shabbos Dinner

We had the most lovely Friday night dinner recently. We don’t often have the opportunity to attend or host a traditional Shabbat dinner, but this past Friday, we did. My husband was off from work on December 24, so we decided to host a Shabbos dinner. We tried to invite Jewish friends, most of whom were either out of town or had other plans already. Ordinarily, we’d have invited some non-Jewish friends to round out our table, but we figured most of them would be busy that night.

As it turned out, a family we know who are not Jewish asked us Friday morning if we were still having a dinner that night, and we were still looking for guests. When we had trouble finding guests the more traditional way, I had resorted to pleas on my Facebook page for anyone who wanted to come who didn’t have any other plans. As it happened, despite their celebrating Christmas, our friends were very interested in coming to our house for dinner, so we happily welcomed them.

What resulted was a warm, friendly Shabbos table. We had a veritable feast. Given the whole day to cook, and the fact that both my husband and I can and do cook on a pretty equal basis, we were able to make quite a few dishes, from appetizer to dessert. We had homemade challah, cucumber-and-tomato salad, gefilte fish, Moroccan-style salmon, chicken, meatballs, broccoli kugel, roasted potatoes, and homemade brownies. We did candle-lighting before sundown, kiddush (blessing over the wine) and Motzi (blessing over the bread) before the meal, and the Grace After Meals at the end. The entire Shabbat dinner experience, and, all-in-all, quite a successful meal on all counts.

Our non-Jewish friends asked what the significance of the dinner was. Since it was a special night for most Christian or Christian-identifying people in the world, she wanted to know if December 24 specifically was special, or if we were just having a random dinner party, or what. I took tremendous pride in explaining that this was a reasonably traditional Shabbat dinner, something that Jews around the world do every Friday night. To us, what was special wasn’t that it was December 24, it was that it was Friday night. It occurred to me that some might look upon it with awe, that Jews have a special holiday dinner every week.

I felt especially Jewish last Friday, and not in a negative way. I felt like we were doing something so absolutely right, by having a nice Shabbat dinner on Christmas Eve, just like we might have on any given Friday night, whether it was December 24 or April 27 or August 5. On the other hand, the fact that we were having a nice Shabbat dinner on December 24, as opposed to all our neighbors and many of our friends who were celebrating Christmas Eve in whatever traditional way their families have, was a way of acknowledging in a particularly powerful way that we are different.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Very Happy Hannukah

Note: Sorry for the two-month absence. We've been busy 'round these parts, with purchasing and moving into a new house. I'm going to try to get back on track with this blog, as I know some of you have been asking for more and others have been checking back to see if there's anything new. (I appreciate the votes of confidence! Please recommend my blog to your friends!) And so, I jump back in with a seasonally appropriate post, with the intent to continue posting in a more regular fashion!

A few weeks ago, as I’m sure you are all aware, was Hannukah. My older son is four now, and I expect he is beginning to make memories that will stick with him for a good chunk of his life, unlike the previous three years which have undoubtedly already begun to fade. Therefore, I wanted to make sure Hannukah would really make an impression and a good memory. I also wanted Hannukah to be meaningful to my two-year-old, so that even if he doesn’t remember it 10 years from now, he might at least remember it for next year and learn to be excited for it.

To this end, some Jewish Americans go the route of making Hannukah a big snazzy holiday with lots of decorations, lots of big presents, huge family meals, and so on, a la that other winter holiday. The theory is that if Jewish kids have their own big exciting winter holiday, they won’t envy their Christian friends who have all the trappings of a proper Christmas celebration, including a decorated tree, lights all over the exterior of the house, reindeer in the front yard, a huge inflatable Frosty the Snowman, and mega-gifts like LCD TVs and Wiis and this year’s equivalent of Tickle-Me Elmo.

I don’t subscribe to this theory. My feeling is that Jews have enough holidays to celebrate, enough gift-giving times of year, enough major family dinners, enough special traditions, that to inject the commercialized and frankly gaudy “traditions” of the Christmas “season” into an otherwise relatively minor Jewish holiday is just not necessary. Instead, make a big deal over our own holidays, so that by the time Christmas rolls around, the kids know that they have plenty of things to celebrate. Save the big gifts for birthdays or Passover.

I believe that the menorah (channukiah) lit with flickering candles and set in the window as a reminder to all of G-d’s miracles is beautiful and a lovely statement in contrast with the flickering LEDs of a modern string of Christmas lights.

I was gratified to find that my kids participated in and looked forward to the menorah lighting each evening this year. I was pleased with myself for remembering to light candles at home all eight nights. I was happy to be able to put a menorah in a front window of the house, albeit in the upstairs bedroom as opposed to by the front door. (I was amazed to realize that we have no front-facing windows on the first floor!) We lit one menorah in the kitchen so that we could enjoy the candles while we ate dinner. I even made pretty tasty latkes the first night. We lit a second menorah in the spare bedroom upstairs, displayed proudly in the window. The advantage to lighting two menorahs was that two kids + two menorahs means that each got to choose candles every night in a most equitable fashion.

It occurred to me, upon being asked how my Hannukah had been, that my younger son has never actually been exposed to the might of the Christmas “season.” He does not attend daycare, and all of the toddlers he plays with regularly are also Jewish. My older son goes to a non-religious Montessori school and previously to a nonreligious daycare, but Santas and wreaths and Christmas carols are all around for him. (Last year, he very excitedly pointed out a Santa decoration and said, “Look! There’s Samantha!”) This year, though, he didn’t seem to care as much. I feel that his teacher was very sensitive to the fact that not all of her students are Christian or celebrate Christmas. Indeed, my son is not the only one for whom Christmas is not the focus of the months of November and December. The school has a reasonably large Indian component, some of whom are Sikh, others Muslim, and I don’t know what else, presumably Hindu? The owner and administrator of the school are Muslim, from Iran, as well. This multicultural aspect of his school meant that my son wasn’t as inundated as he might have been elsewhere.

We did get them a few presents. Somewhat fortunately, my older son’s birthday is at the end of October, so he was still receiving presents into November, which was close enough to Hannukah that he didn’t feel deprived of gifts. My younger son was born five days before Hannukah two years ago, which puts his birthday near Hannukah every year, so he gets a lot of “This is for your birthday and Hannukah” type stuff. I don’t know how the dynamics of all of this would change if I were to have a non-fall baby, though!

I guess we’ll see how it all goes when they’re 10 and 8, or 16 and 14, instead of impressionable and malleable 4- and 2-year-olds. I can’t make the assumption now that my approach has proven successful, but I was an am very pleased so far with how my kids have taken to their own Jewish traditions and don’t seem to need Christmas to feel fulfilled.

I think having a nice, traditional Thanksgiving helped, too. One big family dinner is really plenty in the space of 6 weeks, in my opinion!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Rosh Hashana Trumps The Bank

We have been trying (so far in vain) to buy a house. It will be the first house we’ll own, and it has to be the right one, obviously. Since we already have kids, it matters how many rooms there are, and where the playroom and office will go, and how is the school, and are there other kids around, and is there a park or playground nearby, is it move-in ready (since we don’t have the capital for a lot of renovation or repairs) and, oh, right, can we afford it?

So we found a nice place, a bank-owned four-bedroom in excellent condition. It didn’t meet all of our needs, but it met most of them, most notably the price and space we were after, so we placed an offer, which was accepted. The bank’s stipulation was that if we wanted them to pay closing costs, we had to go with their financing. We weren’t happy about this, because we felt like we were kind of duped into it. We’ve been working with a broker and agent, with the idea that the broker would handle all the loan stuff, so that we could pass along some of the stress to a professional.

Whatever. The broker and agent said to go ahead and use their financing. (After all, they still get the commission.) Okay. I started working with their loan officer to get all the stuff together that she needed.

And then Rosh Hashana started on Wednesday night. She had said she wanted all my information by Friday so she could start the loan process. They wanted this house gone, which meant closing escrow October 8. Yikes. I wrote her an email asking that the bank respect our very important holiday of Rosh Hashana and wait until Monday to get started. She said of course the bank would respect our religious needs and that Monday would be fine.

(By the way, during most of this, my husband was away in Hong Kong on business, which made the whole thing even more complicated and stressful, but that has nothing to do with the fact that it was Rosh Hashana, so I return to the point…)

My agent had held back our signing of the acceptance of the bank’s terms, that we go with their financing, until we let him know that we were definitely willing to go ahead with this purchase. Apparently the REO side of the bank, the part that owned the house, had no idea what was going on on the financing side of the bank. Though the loan officer had said she would wait until Monday, the REO side was in a huge hurry and wanted our answer by Friday at 3:00. Of course, we were kind of tied up doing the whole Rosh Hashana thing Thursday and Friday. My agent had passed along to the bank that we needed to wait until Monday to sign the agreement, but they were impatient. The Friday deadline came and went, and when I bravely turned on my phone Friday afternoon (big no-no!) at 3:30, I had a message from my agent about this 3:00 P.M. deadline. Oh well.

We said, look, if they don’t want to respect our religious needs, then we don’t want to work with them. We took it as a sign. Why should we work with them if they weren’t willing to work with us? Did one business day really matter that much?

I take a certain amount of satisfaction in noting that, despite the bank’s claim of “two other offers” and their terrible hurry to sell the place, the house is still active on the market two weeks later. They could have been halfway through escrow by now if they had waited that one business day. But, no, too much of a hurry to sit back and wait a very short time for us to come back and say, “Here’s our money; give us our house.”

I also know for sure that we did the right thing in not making this kind of major transaction on one of the holiest days of the year, because we are now finding several other houses that we like better that are in our price range!

Isn’t it great when you have this kind of instant confirmation that you’ve made the right decision?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Hijab for the Hostess

Part of wearing the “uniform” of a religious Jew is that you can’t always wear someone else’s uniform.

Let’s take, by way of example, the recent brouhaha at Disneyland over a Muslim woman wanting to wear her hijab to work as a restaurant hostess and Disney telling her she can’t wear the hijab if she wants to work a front-of-house position. Disney’s dress code is very strict, and the hijab simply didn’t fit with their requirements. The question is, then, who’s wrong? Is the woman wrong for insisting that she work her usual job (which she’s had for several years) while wearing the hijab (which she’s only wanted to wear to work for a few weeks)? Is Disney wrong for telling her she can work a back-of-house position and wear the hijab, or she can take one of their costuming solutions so that her head is covered but her outfit still fits with their dress code? Is Disney wrong for having a dress code that doesn’t allow religious expression such as a hijab?

For religious Jews, similar issues might arise. For example, a man needing to wear a kippah or other head covering might not be able to wear certain uniforms that do not allow a head covering. Or, perhaps his tzitzit get in the way or present a hazard by swinging too close to, say, a stove in a restaurant kitchen. (He could probably just tuck them inside, but bear with me.) Or perhaps a woman wants to be tzniut (dress according to the rules of modesty), but the job she wants requires her to wear pants (which are not permitted for women – more on tzniut in another post).

My feeling is this: If you want to work in a place with a strict dress code, you have to either comply with the dress code or choose not to work there, or work with the company to find you a position where you can make a dress-code modification for religious purposes. Disney was willing to work with the woman mentioned above, to give her a position out of public view so that she could wear what she needed to, but she outright refused, preferring to be sent home without pay. That’s her prerogative, certainly, but we can’t say that Disney didn’t give her other options.

I am not willing to say that having a company-wide dress code violates religious freedom, because it would typically prevent ANY type of religious dress, regardless of which religion. Certainly, religious Jews and Muslims have requirements for their dress that are more obvious than other religions’ traditional garb, but that doesn’t mean that the company is discriminating against only Jews and Muslims. The fact is that any company with a public face needs to present a consistent face to the public, in order to maintain integrity and make the customer feel comfortable. Some companies are willing to make modifications to the dress code to allow a hijab or kippah. Some are not. As these are private companies, it is entirely within their rights to make one decision or the other.

In my opinion, it probably behooves the company to make reasonable accommodations so as not to raise the ire of one religious group or another. It's not clear to me if Disney's offers to design a costume-consistent hijab or to allow her to wear it if she works back-of-house could be considered "reasonable." However, if that's the tack Disney wants to take, then it is Disney's right to do so.

A religious person makes sacrifices in many areas of his or her life in order to live according to the laws of their religion. Religious Jews don’t go out to eat with their coworkers unless it’s at a kosher restaurant. They don’t attend company events on Saturdays or holidays. They take time off without pay if they run out of personal days, vacation days, or PTO before they run out of holidays. Or, they find a job within the Jewish community so that they don’t have to make those kinds of sacrifices, but the trade-off is that many fields or types of jobs are closed to them, or they lose out on a higher income, or they end up with a longer commute. And, frankly, there are some jobs that would not be permitted for reasons totally unrelated to dress code, such as cooking and serving nonkosher food!

An Orthodox Jewish woman would not apply for a job at Hooters, because she can’t wear the uniform (in addition to the whole “serving nonkosher food” problem). A religious Jewish man should not apply for a job at a movie theater that requires one to work on Friday nights or Saturdays, unless he could work with the management to be granted a special schedule.

Anyone strict enough to want to wear the “uniform” of their religion should also be strict enough to realize that sometimes their religious uniform will clash with the uniform of the job they have or want. Then a decision must be made: religious requirements, or job duties? I think, in most cases, G-d trumps a human boss.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The “Uniform”

We took the kids to Legoland on Sunday. We have annual passes, so sometimes when we’re looking for something to do to kill a few hours and tire the kids out, we take them there and make them walk. Well, we make the older one walk. Oddly enough, the younger one usually wants to walk while the older one whines that he (at 45 pounds) wants to sit in the stroller. Older boy is almost 4, and tall, so there’s several rides he can go on. The baby is not yet 2 and there’s less for him to do, but fortunately he’s still in the stage where looking at things is fun, too. So he looks at things, and his brother does the go-carts and helicopters and the big slide, and they’re happy.

We always notice the Jews wherever we go. It’s natural to seek out your own kind. I always realize almost too late that the others might not realize I’m actually one of them. You see, I know they’re Jewish because they’re wearing the “uniform.” The men and boys have kippot and tzitzit, and the women are wearing long skirts and long-sleeved shirts, even in August, and many have head-scarves. When you see a family dressed that way, you know you’re looking at Orthodox Jews.

We specifically noticed on Sunday because our dinner plans were to go to a local Chabad’s weekly summer barbecue. It occurred to us that the tourist-Jews might be interested in a convenient kosher dinner, as Legoland is not even 10 minutes from this particular Chabad.

But, because we don’t wear the “uniform,” the religious Jews would not know to look at us that we are also Jewish, and I couldn’t think of a way to approach them that wouldn’t seem weird to me. In all honesty, it might not seem weird to them to be approached, but I’m not the salesperson type, so it felt weird to me. We were coming up with all sorts of ways to get them to overhear us about the barbecue so that they would ask, like getting in line behind them and speaking loudly about our dinner plans, but we didn’t follow through because we felt silly. It came to the point where I wished we had t-shirts or something to wear that designated us as representatives of Chabad or something, even without the “uniform,” so that we’d have a starting point. In retrospect, “Hi, I thought you might be interested in knowing that there’s a Chabad barbecue not far from here, if you’re looking for an easy dinner” might be a good starting point, but, as mentioned above, I’m just not the type to go up to someone and say that.

Which brings me to WHY we don’t wear the uniform.

When you wear a uniform, it serves to identify you to other members of your group, but it also designates to outsiders that you belong to a particular group, whether it’s private security or Hot Dog On A Stick employees or an army. Thus, whatever you do while wearing that uniform represents your entire group as behaving this way. That’s why most stores have their employees remove their nametags or other uniform pieces when they go on break, and why acting inappropriately while in uniform, even if off duty, can be punishable in some arenas.

Since we do not keep Shabbat and holidays or kosher particularly well yet, if we wore a uniform announcing ourselves as members of the Orthodox Jewish Group, people who are not part of the group might see us do something like go through the McDonald’s Drive-Thru or stop at Starbucks on the way to shul on Saturday morning and think that it’s okay for Orthodox Jews to do that. It would make all Jews look hypocritical, for saying that they don’t do “that,” when here are two Jewish-looking people doing exactly “that.”

Perhaps at some point our level of observance will merit us to don the uniform. Then when we meet others of our kind at Legoland, we can unabashedly advertise the Chabad barbecue. In the meantime, though, we'll remain fairly anonymous to both worlds.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Where's the Beef?

We are not strictly kosher, but we do try to keep to some semblance of the laws. For example, we don’t bring any non-kosher meat into our house and avoid eating meat at all that isn’t kosher. We never eat meat from a non-kosher animal. We never eat non-kosher seafood. But, we do buy things that don’t have a heksher (a mark designating the food as kosher), and we do eat out in restaurants, but we stick to vegetarian/dairy. The goal is to continue moving toward being more kosher, so that at least in our house we only have truly kosher food, but we’re not there yet.

The other day, we had dinner at Souplantation. For the benefit of those who may not know, Souplantation is a buffet-style restaurant that is basically a huge salad bar. They also have several different kinds of soups, some pastas, and a few other hot things such as pizza and baked potatoes. It’s all-you-can-eat, and there’s a lot for us to choose from there, which is why we like to eat there. They clearly mark all items as “Vegetarian” or “Non-vegetarian,” which is very helpful when it comes to foods like cream of mushroom soup, that may or may not be vegetarian depending on the stock they use.

Anyway, back to the other day when we had dinner there. My husband chose a soup that was clearly marked Vegetarian. As he got toward the bottom, he felt like he was tasting beef, and, sure enough, he found bits of ground beef in his soup. Those were not supposed to be there, and if he had known it was there before he started eating, he would have thrown it away. So, he told the manager about it, and the manager was very apologetic and gave us free cookies, which, well, who could argue with cookies? He said that the soup was absolutely supposed to be vegetarian, and it looked like some of the chili that was in the next tureen over probably spilled into this one. They tossed the whole pot of soup! The manager thanked my husband for pointing it out so they could take care of it.

This, then, is the problem with eating out. If you’re ethically/morally vegetarian but not bound by any sort of law, then a problem like that would merely leave a bad taste in your mouth (literally), but you didn’t eat the meat on purpose, so you’ll just know to be careful. But, when you keep kosher, this is exactly the reason you don’t eat in a non-kosher restaurant, even if you only eat vegetarian. You never know what has touched what. For example, you can’t guarantee that only vegetarian soups have ever been cooked or ladled using those particular tureens and utensils. There’s plenty of crossover. According to the laws of kashrut, you can’t eat food that was cooked in a utensil that has been used for treif (non-kosher food). So, vegetarian or not, it’s not actually “kosher” to eat it.

I say this only to point out some of the more “hidden” problems of keeping kosher in a non-Jewish world. The short answer is, of course, to simply not eat in non-kosher restaurants, which is really what we’re supposed to do. We make compromises so that we can be more comfortable living amongst our non-Jewish friends, but it is incidents like these that make us remember why keeping kosher is so much more complicated than just “don’t eat pig.” The “extra” laws are there for a reason. You never know when you’re going to get tripped up like that.

I was telling a Catholic friend about the incident, and he asked if we keep kosher. It was hard for me to say yes, because we don’t really keep kosher, but we still try to make some kind of separation between our eating habits and those of our non-Jewish neighbors. We try to acknowledge that we do have this massive body of laws that we’re sort of only doing some of, but I think it’s a step in the right direction that we can admit that we’re not doing it quite right.

I do think that making some kind of nod toward being different is better than totally ignoring the issue. Even if it makes me look hypocritical, I still think it’s meaningful to do something over nothing.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bend It Like Beckham

There are movies I’ve seen that if they happen to be on TV while I’m channel-browsing, I’ll almost invariably stop to watch. One of these is “The Princess Bride.” Another is “The Fifth Element.” But the one I want to mention specifically today is “Bend It Like Beckham.”

I mention “Bend It Like Beckham” not only because it is a good movie, but also because of the theme. Jessminder is a teenager in modern London who comes from a traditional Indian Sikh family. Part of her upbringing, in addition to attending traditional ceremonies and religious services and respecting her elders, is that she should marry a nice Indian boy and settle down into a traditional Indian marriage. Unlike many girls in her situation, her parents have not arranged a marriage for her but would like her to make a love match that meets their expectations.

We the viewers know that Jess is secretly playing soccer on a local women’s team. Her parents certainly would not approve of this activity. To make matters worse, she has a major crush on her white, Irish coach, Joe, and he seems to reciprocate.

That’s enough information for now. I do enjoy and recommend the movie if you want to rent it or happen to catch it on TV.

I always feel torn when I watch this movie. We’re supposed to root for Jess as she bucks tradition and continues to play soccer, continues to fall in love with Joe, and works to convince her parents that not only should she be allowed to date (and potentially marry) Joe, she should be allowed to travel to California with her friend to attend college there on a soccer scholarship. That much is clear.

I hope by now you understand my point of view well enough to understand why I’m torn. If this movie were about Orthodox Jews instead of Sikhs, I would not want Jess to date Joe. I would want Jess to find a nice Jewish boy to settle down with and live a traditional Jewish life.

There are movies that have a similar theme that deal with Jewish families, but they are usually darker and less forgiving toward the traditional side. Off the top of my head, I can think of “A Price Above Rubies” with Renee Zellweger (of all people), which hardly paints Orthodox Judaism in a positive light.

The point here is that Jews are not the only ones who face this difficulty of assimilation versus traditionalism. Many cultures have found themselves being slowly absorbed by the majority. Some fight it, while others welcome it. Some have enough influence that some of elements of the minority culture become integrated into the majority. See, for example, the way many pagan rituals were absorbed into Roman Christian culture in the early years of the Church.

Unfortunately, many cultures, religions, and languages have been lost to time due to this assimilation/absorption. It is for this reason that traditional Judaism fights so hard to maintain its separateness from the majority. It’s not out of fear or racism. It’s out of self-preservation.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Tomorrow is challah-making day. On the one hand, I love challah-making day, because challah-making is one of MY mitzvot, something I, the wife, am supposed to do. It’s another chance for me to perform a mitzvah and pray for people close to me who could use a little help. Plus, I make a yummy challah (if I do say so myself…). They aren’t pretty, but they’re tasty. Seems to happen with all my food. Tastes great, doesn’t look so great. Ah well, in the end, it gets eaten, and we all remember that it was delicious, but we don’t remember what it looked like. Unless I take a picture. The only reason I don’t always look forward to making challah is that it is a lot of work and can be frustrating, depending on how ambitious I want to be.

Also, there was that one time I opened the bag of whole wheat flour and found moths nesting in it… That wasn’t so fun.

But anyway.

I make challah about once every three to four weeks. It’s fairly time-consuming, although a lot of the time spent is just in the waiting for the first and second rises. It really takes about 10 to 15 minutes to make the dough, then, depending on how ambitious I get about braiding, and how many loaves I plan to make, it can take about half an hour to shape the loaves. In between, it rises. Then goes in the oven.

Somehow, I always manage to forget that they will get much bigger while they bake. You’d think that after enough times making challah (which, while I haven’t been doing it for years, I have made my fair share by now), I would remember that. I always think the loaves look so puny on the sheet pans, but then they come out and they’re these massive golden loaves, and I feel rather proud. Also, did I mention that they taste good?

Bread-making tends to be either a completely mystifying process or something incredibly mundane. To me, it was very mysterious to me how one would go about actually MAKING bread, while at the same time remembering that people have been making bread for millennia, so how hard can it really be? Now that I make challah regularly, I see that it’s really a pretty simple process, and only the ingenuity (or lack thereof) of the baker limits the flavors and shapes of the bread when it comes out of the oven.

Challah is just egg bread, not any different in basic makeup than most other kinds of bread. The challah part is not the recipe (of which there are gazillions) or even the shape (though a 3- or 6-braid is most common and most recognizable). The challah is the “separating,” which is performed just before the dough is divided and shaped. You make a dough, using at least five pounds of flour, you let it rise for a while, and then you take a small handful of dough and separate it from the main body of dough while saying a blessing. THAT is the “challah.” You are then supposed to burn that bit of dough so that it becomes inedible. This represents the part of dough that was set aside for the priests during the days of the Temple.

One thing I’ve learned is that bread-making is very forgiving. As long as you have your initial yeast slurry at the right temperature, your dough will rise. How it tastes and its texture is largely up to your balance of sugar and flour and how long you knead it, then how much work you do with the dough before you’re finished shaping it. Finally, how long and at what temperature you bake it matters as well.

Now that I’m confident in my basic technique and in the recipe I use, I’ve been experimenting a bit. My favorite variation so far is adding za’atar to the top of the challah after doing the egg glaze. It smells SOOOO good while it bakes, and it adds just a bit of flavor. Za’atar is an herb and spice blend that is very common in Middle Eastern cooking. There are many variations, but it almost always contains oregano, sesame seeds, thyme, marjoram, and salt. It’s delicious. You should try it. You can get it from a Middle Eastern store, a kosher store, or online.

And, since I’m sure you’re dying to know, HERE is my challah recipe. Well, not MINE, per se, but the one I use:

Yeast Slurry:
1 cup warm water (around 110 degrees, or feeling only slightly warm to your wrist)
3 packets of dry yeast
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp flour

Dissolve the yeast in the water and mix in sugar and flour. Let sit until it foams. (This is called priming the yeast. If it doesn’t foam within 5 to 10 minutes, your water was too cold or too warm and you need to start over. If your yeast isn’t primed, your bread won’t rise, so don’t bother continuing.) Trust me, you’ll know when it foams. It’s quite dramatic.

2-1/2 cups warm water
¾ cup oil
1-1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
2 tbsp salt
12 – 14 cups of (all-purpose) flour (or about 5 pounds)

- Add water, oil, sugar, eggs, and salt to primed yeast mixture and mix well.
- Gradually add the flour. I usually start by adding 3 or 4 cups then mixing it together well with a wooden spoon before adding more. Then I do 2 cups at a time until it gets hard to mix. Then I do ½ to 1 cup at a time and mix by hand.
- As long as it’s sticky, continue adding flour. I’ve found that if I end up with more than about 13 cups of flour, I like to add another ½ cup of sugar to balance the flour. Otherwise it’s not as sweet. Depending on how dry of a day it is, how packed your flour was as you measured it, and many other factors, the exact amount of flour you’ll end up using can vary a lot. Basically, you’ve added enough when it sticks more to itself than to your hands.
- Knead for about 7 to 10 minutes, until dough is springy but not tough. This takes practice to get just the right feel to it. You want to be able to work with it, but you don’t want it to spring back on itself when you try to shape it. (Note: You’re not shaping it in this step, but the kneading is the most important part to get the right texture.) Make sure all the ingredients are mixed well together.
- Oil the top of the dough and cover with a towel. Let rise for approximately 2 hours, or until it’s about doubled in size. It’s best to keep it in a warmish place. It will rise faster and better.

Separate Challah:
Do this step if you are making challah for the mitzvah and not just for the fun of baking bread (which is a perfectly valid reason to make challah, in my opinion).

Take approximately one ounce of the dough in your hand but don’t pull it away from the dough yet.

Say the following blessing:
Baruch atah hashem elokeinu melech haolam, asher kidishanu bemitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hafrish challah.

Then pull the bit of dough away from the main body of dough and burn it. I usually wrap it in aluminum foil and put it in a hot oven until it’s burned. You shouldn't do this if you are currently cooking other foods in the oven.

Now you’re going to shape the loaves.

Divide the dough into as many pieces as desired. You could make two huge loaves or eight small ones. I recommend doing an even number if you’re going to use them for Shabbos, since you need two whole loaves for Motzi.

Flour your work surface and your hands, and keep some flour handy so you can reapply as needed. From here, you can shape them into whatever shapes please you. I usually go with a simple 3-braid, which is done the same way you’d braid anything else. Divide your dough into three parts, roll each part into a long rope, and braid. It is also traditional to do a 6-braid, which I have yet to master. You can find video on YouTube on how to do a 6-braid, or you can ask your rebbetzin to show you sometime. It’s beautiful when done properly. Do keep in mind that the more you do and re-do your shaping, the more you’re working the dough. After a while, it can get hard to do anything more with, and the texture changes.

Place the loaves on cookie sheets. Keep in mind that they will grow a LOT by the time they’re baked, so leave space. When I do six loaves from this recipe, I do two per sheet and bake them in shifts, since they don’t all fit in my oven.

Leave them to rise for another half-hour to an hour. They’ll get bigger.

Preheat your oven to 350.
Make an egg glaze – take one egg, beat it, and use a brush to glaze the tops of all the loaves. This will make them brown better. One thing that’s fun to do is add a little sugar to the glaze. It further sweetens the challah and makes it a little sparkly. Now is also the time to add other decorations/flavors, such as za’atar, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, etc.

Pop them in the oven for 30 minutes at 350. Remove when big and browned. The exact timing and placement also varies depending on your oven, so this may take a little experimentation also.

Enjoy the smell of bread baking in your home, and especially enjoy EATING the challah! YUM!

Whole Wheat Variation:
I do NOT recommend making the whole dough with only whole wheat flour. If I want to include whole wheat flour, I do the first 4 or 5 cups of flour as whole wheat and use white for the rest.

Adding additional elements to the dough:
I haven’t tried this yet, but you can add chocolate chips, raisins, nuts, dried cranberries, or anything else that might strike your fancy. Just knead it into the dough before you leave it to rise the first time, then follow the recipe as written.

I hope I’ve managed to demystify challah- and bread-making a bit. And think how cool it is to be making something that Jews have been making for thousands of years!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Footloose and Dairy-Free

A good friend of mine is trying to eliminate, among other things, all sources of dairy from her diet. She was soliciting advice for substitutes and alternatives to dairy products, as well as non-dairy versions of her usual recipes. One thing she specifically requested was a recipe using ground beef that was non-dairy, because they were moving in a few days and needed to use up the ground beef in their freezer.

This was surprising to me, because in my own personal context, I would never cook ground beef with dairy to begin with, and I couldn't fathom a world in which you wouldn't know how to make a dish without dairy. It occurred to me then to suggest to her that she invest in a kosher cookbook, because any meat recipe in there would be guaranteed dairy-free. I also told her to look for kosher symbols that indicated that a food was pareve, because, again, guaranteed dairy-free, without having to decipher a long list of ingredients for dairy “code words.”

My father, too, has been dairy-free for quite a while now, and he has found the kosher symbols particularly useful. My father doesn’t keep kosher, and my friend is Christian and thus doesn’t need to keep kosher, and yet, one aspect of kashrut became useful to them for health reasons.

I suppose the thing that struck me most was not knowing how to cook without dairy. I understand that most people very much enjoy dishes that involve both meat and milk products all mixed together, like cheeseburgers, burritos and enchiladas and quesadillas, Egg McMuffins, and so forth. It’s one thing to be used to eating such foods, but quite another not to know how not to eat them. I suppose, the fact that I’m used to mentally rewriting recipes to be kosher (see my bacon post a few weeks ago) makes it easy for me to see a world without dairy. But for someone who has always been able to eat whatever is put in front of her, without having to ask after the ingredients, it must be a big, scary new world.

This dairy-free issue came up with another friend and reader (*wave*) as we were discussing cake recipes. There are degrees of strictness when it comes to keeping kosher, and she is quite a few degrees above my own level of observance. For people at her level, it is almost mandatory to make desserts pareve. One reason is that many strict kosher-keepers will only use dairy products that are chalov yisroel, meaning that a Jew has watched from start to finish to ensure that only kosher milk went into that product. It can be hard to find chalov yisroel products, depending on where you live, and so it’s easier just to avoid the dairy altogether. Another reason is that since typically at least one meal per day will be meat, it is useful to have a dessert that can be served afterward (i.e., not a dairy dessert). (Feel free to let me know if I’m off the mark with what I just said here…)

Anyway, she knows all kinds of dairy substitutes. I made a red velvet cake for myself for my birthday, which involves butter, cream cheese, and buttermilk (among other decadent ingredients). I have no idea how the cake would taste if you substituted margarine, Tofutti, and rice milk and vinegar, respectively, for those ingredients, but I suspect not quite the same. Last week, I made a Paula Deen Mississippi Mud Cake, which was also heavy on the dairy. My friend told me all the substitutions she’d make, and we were discussing whether it would taste as good. I think it would work out.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that Duncan Hines cake mixes are largely non-dairy and kosher pareve, so if you’re into the cake-mix scene and have to go dairy-free, you’re good to go.

I’m not saying it’s easy to be dairy-free. We’re a cheese-loving country (and, heck, I’m a cheese-loving person!), heavy on the dairy products in general, and dairy sneaks into places you’d never think to look for it, like breadcrumbs. You never know when a restaurant might be using a dairy product where you wouldn't expect to see one. Sometimes, even items marked as “non-dairy,” like non-dairy coffee creamers, are not actually 100% non-dairy. But with a little savvy, you can find that dairy is not as necessary as it seems. And if you need to know some good dairy substitutes or non-dairy brands, I know someone you can ask!

Judaism has given a lot to this world, and it’s always exciting to see new ways in which Jewish observance impacts non-Jews in a positive way.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Boys and Girls

Recently, I was invited to a friend’s daughter’s birthday party. The girl was turning 5, and I felt it was only right to get her a toy. Now, as the mother of two boys, I have absolutely NO experience with five-year-old girl toys outside of what I played with when I was 5. And I don’t remember being 5.

See, boys are easy. Buy them a truck, any truck, Tonka is good, and they’re happy for hours. But the “girl toy” section at Toys R Us was absolutely intimidating. There are whole SERIES of toys – Barbie (of course), My Little Pony, Polly Pocket, Littlest Pet Shop, something to do with fruit, Easy-Bake, Cabbage Patch Kids, pink, pink, and pink, and pink – and I was seized with this fear that if I bought a toy from a collection that this girl didn’t already have, then I would be causing further toy-clutter, and maybe she wouldn’t like it. But, BUT, if I got her a toy from a collection she already likes and plays with, maybe she would already HAVE that toy, and then what?! At this point, I decided that this is why G-d invented gift receipts, and I committed to a smallish Polly Pocket toy. I hope she liked it.

My point here, in case you haven’t figured it out, is that boys and girls are different. I don’t care what anybody says. Boys and girls are different, men and women are different, and this conversation is over. I don’t buy for a second the “socialization” aspect, that if you raise a girl and a boy in a vacuum, and let the boy wear pink skirts and barrettes in his long hair, and make the girl wear a three-piece suit and play with trucks, that somehow they will not show the same gender distinctions that my boys show compared with my friends’ girls. (I’m speaking in generalizations here. I fully respect that some women/girls identify more with “boy” things, and vice versa, but stay with me, I’m getting somewhere important.)

I’ll give you an example. My 18-month-old son loves trucks more than anything, except trains. He loves trains more than trucks. He started pointing out every truck we passed on the road long before I ever started pointing them out to him. I bought my sons a toy stroller and baby doll, which they both fully enjoy pushing around, but they do not play with the baby doll and stroller the way their female friends play with the baby doll and stroller. They carry the doll around by its neck and like to throw it. Sometimes one pushes the stroller while the other pushes a walker, and they race. There was the time my older son decided to “nurse” the doll, but that’s not his usual play method. He did have a pink blankie for a very long time – it was his favorite of all (six) of his blankies. So I don’t necessarily feel that I’ve limited them to only “boy” colors or “boy” clothes or “boy” toys. But the day I watched my 18-month-old playing with a little doll carriage from a Polly Pocket set, pushing it around on the floor and making the “brrrrrr” noise that he uses for trucks, well, I was convinced that boys and girls are just DIFFERENT.

I say all this to make the broader point that men and women are also different. This is important. Men and women are different. They have different needs, different interests, and different roles to play. I’m not for a second saying that men and women are not EQUAL. They’re just DIFFERENT.

In the United States today, we have this complex that if men and women are to prove that they are equal (or, more accurately, if women want to prove that they are equal to men), then that means they have to do all the same things. Men should be able to stay home with baby, women should be able to be CEOs and governors and presidents, men should play field hockey and women should play football, men should sew and cook and do laundry and women should be out there trimming trees and fixing roofs.

But this creates a big problem, because women and men are not the same. Did I mention that? Women can’t do all the things that men can, and men can’t do all the things women can. It’s just a fact of life. And the result is that women are expected to do all the “women” things and the “men” things, like have babies and care for them while at the same time working 70-hour weeks. I’m sorry, but it just can’t be done. So if the woman gives up her 70-hour weeks as a high-powered lawyer so that she can stay home and raise a strong, successful child, then she has somehow given in to the misogyny of the ‘50s. But if a woman goes back to her 70-hour weeks as a high-powered lawyer when her baby is six weeks old (or chooses not to have a child so as to focus on her career), then she is somehow a failure as a woman or a mother.

She can’t win. And by extension, men can’t win, either, because they’re expected to be home to care for the kids but also to bring home the brisket. My husband, for example, would like nothing more than to be home to cook dinner for the kids and help put them to bed. But his job, which is by far the larger portion of our combined income, requires him to work fairly long hours, and he is rarely home in time for the kids’ bedtime. The upside is that he doesn’t have to be in to work until around 10:00, so he is able to get the kids ready in the morning and make them breakfast, which many men don’t get to do. So it’s not a total lose-lose.

Judaism recognizes and celebrates the differences between men and women. From the perspective of the feminist outsider, women in traditional Judaism appear somehow inferior. They are “forced” to cover their bodies and hair. They aren’t “allowed” to read Torah or lead prayer services. They have to sit separately, behind a wall or curtain. They’re not educated in Torah study.

But what no one mentions is how traditional Judaism actually views the role of women. In no way does traditional Judaism subjugate women. Women are considered to be more spiritual than men. Men are viewed as having more difficulty controlling their baser instincts and therefore need more structure and more laws in order to get closer to Hashem (G-d). Women, on the other hand, are considered to already have the spirituality to connect to Hashem without being dictated to.

What it boils down to, then, is that women and men are equal but different. Women and men have different roles to play. Just as the head of HR and the IT Director have different roles to play in the company, but one is not inferior to the other, women and men have different responsibilities in life, in marriage, and in the practice of Jewish law, but neither is inferior to the other.

In defining and accepting different roles, we make it far less stressful to decide to play those roles, to take pride in them, and to perform them well. When the IT Director isn’t also trying to draw up the Employee Contract, he has more time to spend being the best IT Director he can be. And when the head of HR doesn’t also have to worry about setting up the new printers, she can be a much more effective HR manager. The same goes for women and men.

I'm not saying that men shouldn't assist in childcare and housekeeping responsibilities, and I'm not saying that women shouldn't work outside the home. Don't get me wrong. I'd be denying my own personal way of life if I said either of those things. But it's my responsibility to light the candles and make the challah, and it's my husband's responsibility to say the daily prayers. I don't want to have to do both! Who has the time?!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Instant Gratification

Today I experienced instant gratification on a whole new level. My brother got me an iPod Touch for my birthday (now that’s a good brother!). Another friend got me an gift certificate. The combination made me think: Kindle eBook! I downloaded the (free) Kindle App from the App Store, went to a blog I frequent, AskMoxie, clicked through to the book NurtureShock which she recommended, and with one click, bought the Kindle version, and with the click of a button on my iPod, I owned the book. (To my chagrin, in my haste, I used my 1-click shopping, which paid for the book with the credit card linked to my account instead of with the gift certificate, but that’s not the point here.)

In the space of LITERALLY three clicks, I had the book. It took maybe one minute. Five if you count how long it took to browse to and download the Kindle App. Maybe less. Oh, and I had to enter a password once.

Before Amazon, before Internet Shopping, we had two options: Drive to the store, browse the physical shelves, pick up the item, peek at the price tag, take it to the cashier, and pay for it using an approved method like, I don’t know, cash, and drive home. And, *gasp*, you might have to go to more than one store to get everything you needed. This was the “instant” method. Alternatively, you could order something from a catalog by mail and expect to wait six to eight weeks to get it, COD or check or money order accepted.

Then, 15 years ago, we got and the Internet Shopping Revolution. Now we just had to browse the virtual shelves for just about anything under the sun, take our credit card from our wallet, type a long string of numbers, enter our address, and, voila, less than a week later, you had your stuff, without even leaving your house.

It’s gotten worse. Now they save your information, so you don’t even have to get up to go find a credit card. You click a button, enter a password, and you’ve paid, like magic! You don’t even take part in the transaction anymore; you don't have to get out of bed. You pick something out, and you get it, just like that.

And now, with books anyway (I don’t suppose they’ve figured out how to email clothes or power tools), we can have it with no wait at all. No hoping the UPS guy will come today; no worrying that FedEx has misrouted your item. Click! There’s the book. Click! Paid for and ordered. Click! I’m reading it in the bathroom!

I was floored. And I’m no technophobe. I love computers; I’ve had one as long as I can remember. I was entering DOS commands before a lot of my friends had learned to type. I was slow on getting into the cell phone revolution, and I’ve only just obtained the iPod Touch, but that was a matter of money, not technophobia or reluctance.

But I was shocked by how easy it was. It didn’t even feel like spending money. I didn’t have to get up and go downstairs, find my purse, fish out my wallet, pick a credit card, come back upstairs, type in all the information, and then download the book. I just had to CLICK. Amazon already knows me! And so does Apple! How very convenient!

But what’s this have to do with the price of brisket in Crown Heights?

Well, for one, you still can’t download kosher brisket to your iPod, and I am now registering my formal complaint on that matter.

But, more to the point, what is this obsession with, this need for, instant gratification? Why do I need to have this book RIGHT NOW? Why should it even be possible? How impatient are we that someone actually thought up this whole system, so that I could have the book I want in three seconds or fewer?

In Judaism, we are taught to work for the sake of the work, not for the reward. We are taught that when we pray, we are to be in the moment, thinking of what we are doing right NOW, not what might come later. When we perform a mitzvah, it is for the sake of G-d and the performance of the deed, not for the sake of a reward we may or may not receive now or in the future. It's not about gratification at all, much less instant gratification. If anything, we might get a reward in the World To Come, which is about as far from instant gratification as I can think of.

Sometimes, maybe it’s worth getting in the car and driving to the store. Enjoy the time out of the house, see the sky, feel the ground beneath your feet, watch the clouds, smell the books, talk to people, oh, and if the book you want is on the shelf, interact with the cashier in order to buy it. And if the book isn’t there, maybe you didn’t need it all that badly, but at least you got some exercise walking the stacks.

If things are too easy, we forget the value in working for them. And the more we can instantly fulfill every whim, the more whims we will need to fulfill, and the faster we will need that fulfillment. This leads us to some amazing things, like the Kindle App for iPod. But it also leads us to recklessness and disregard in our quest to get what we want as fast as we can.

Take a moment just to be. Put down the iPhone when you’ve finished reading this post. That text message can wait, your client won’t notice if it takes three more minutes for you to answer her email, and your kids may as well start learning patience now. Do a mitzvah for the sake of the mitzvah. Here are some ideas for a simple mitzvah you can perform: Say a blessing over kosher food, ritually wash your hands when you wake up in the morning, say the Shema before you go to sleep, light Shabbos candles, give tzedakah, study Torah. If you need instructions on performing any of these mitzvot, or you want more ideas, feel free to leave me a comment, contact your rabbi, or (and I laugh even typing it) Google it.

Hey, the internet isn’t ALL bad.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On Finally Paying It Forward

I was working on a post about traditionalism for yesterday, but then I got a call from my rebbetzin asking if I would take a meal over to a couple in the community who just had a baby.

Flashback to three-and-a-half years ago, when my first son was born. I had a very difficult birth with him, including a c-section with complications, and I was having a really hard time in those early weeks. We lived in suburban Philadelphia, where there is a pretty high concentration of religious Jews. We, quite by chance, lived smack-dab in the middle of a religious community and had easy access to kosher food, a kosher deli inside a regular supermarket, a kosher butcher, and quite a few synagogues. We didn’t exactly consider ourselves part of the community, but we were friendly with a few families and had been to a few Shabbat dinners.

Thus, unbeknownst to me at first, a friend of ours organized members of the community to bring us meals for two weeks after our son was born. Every day, someone would knock on the door, and I’d meet a new person or become reacquainted with someone I’d met casually in the past. I’ll tell you, those meals were fantastic. Anything that saves an almost-bedridden new mother and a new dad working hard to take care of the new baby and his wife from having to cook is absolutely wonderful.

I said to myself, when someone else in the community – or a friend of mine - has a baby, if I’m asked to make a meal, I will wholeheartedly agree. I so wanted to pay it forward!

Then we moved to California, and friends 3000 miles away started having babies. It’s not so practical to take a casserole to a friend when they live on the other side of the country (or, in one case, the world) from you. So we sent gifts and corresponded by email, and I fondly remembered how nice it was that people so kindly brought us meals, and how I hoped that when someone local to me had a baby, maybe I would be able to bring her food.

And finally, this week, I got the call. I don’t actually know this family, but apparently they have come to a few community functions such as the Passover seder. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know them. The point is, they are Jews in Oceanside, they are members of our community, and they just celebrated the birth of a son. We as a community celebrate with them, and we as a community rally to help.

Tomorrow morning, I am going to make a casserole, and I am going to drive it over to their house. I am going to take a couple of challot that I baked last week, and I am going to give them disposable casserole dishes and paper plates and plastic forks so that they don’t have to wash any plates or worry about returning anything. And, if she’s up to it, I’ll sit with the new mom and chat with her and hold the baby for her for a minute (oh, what a hardship!), and keep her company for a while, if she wants.

Because, really, that’s what community is all about, isn’t it? It’s about having a built-in support system so that when you have a simchah (a happy occasion), or, G-d forbid, a difficult time, there are people around you who can cook you a meal, come sit with you for a while, or pray for you or with you.

Anyone care to share a positive experience you’ve had as a result of being part of a community?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

More On Intermarriage

Let’s talk some more about intermarriage! I truly think it is one of the more divisive and serious problems American Judaism faces.

We’ve looked at the compatibility angle, but that isn’t the only one. Let’s look at it from the point of view of inclusion/exclusion.

There are certain aspects of Judaism for which you must be a Jew to participate. For men, this includes being counted in the minyan (quorum of 10 men required for certain prayers and rituals), being called to the Torah for an honor (aliyah), leading blessings such as Kiddush (blessing over the wine) or leading prayers in general, acting as a witness to a marriage, etc. For women, there are fewer, but they include lighting Shabbat and holiday candles and mikvah (which I’ll probably talk about in another post), and the most important of all: a child is only Jewish if his mother is! (Or if the child converts or is converted after birth.)

The problem this creates is one of inclusion/exclusion. If a Jewish couple shows up to synagogue, both members can immediately participate in any or all of the rituals pertinent to their gender, no questions asked. The husband counts in the minyan, may be called for an honor, etc. The wife will participate in lighting holiday candles, making challah, etc. Even if this couple has all of the other problems you can imagine in a marriage, they are both included when they wish to participate in Jewish ritual.

If an intermarried couple shows up to the synagogue, even if they have no other difficulties in their marriage, even if it’s the happiest marriage on the block, they have a fundamental problem. If the husband is not Jewish but the wife is, he can sit in services all he likes, he can don the kippah and tallit, but he does not count in the minyan, he will not be called up to the Torah, and he cannot lead prayers or blessings. If it is the wife who is not Jewish, she may feel less noticeably excluded, but the couple’s children may find they are treated just slightly differently because they are not obligated to follow the laws that their Jewish counterparts are, such as keeping kosher or observing Shabbat.

There are two possible responses to this inclusion/exclusion scenario, depending on the type of person the non-Jewish spouse is and whether he or she is actually interested in Judaism or being Jewish.

If the non-Jewish spouse is inspired by the teachings of Judaism, she or he may make the decision to convert. (I’m switching to the universal “he,” though feel free to fill in “she” wherever applicable.) In this case, once a Gentile has made clear his intention to convert to Judaism, he must be refused three times. If he still insists, then he must live at least one full cycle of holidays (one full year) as a totally mitzvah-observant Jew. Indeed, if he is married, his whole family must live as observant Jews for a full holiday cycle. This is a real commitment. This isn’t just “converting for the in-laws,” or converting for the sake of the children. This is a Jewish soul coming home.

However, what happens far more often is that the non-Jewish spouse feels excluded, feels the mitzvot would be an unnecessary burden, and has no interest in pursuing conversion once he finds out what’s involved. This is where we arrive at the push-pull problem. The Jewish spouse is pushing for more involvement, while the non-Jewish spouse would just as soon go to the movies on Friday evening and sleep in on Saturdays. What often happens, sadly, is that the Jewish spouse is pulled away.

If it is the wife who is not Jewish, this means there is very little chance that her children will convert. Certainly, if the father is persistent in teaching about Judaism to his children and involves them in synagogue-going and other Jewish ritual, the children may decide that they’d like to convert. We can only hope this is what will happen.

If it is the husband who is not Jewish, he may end up pulling his children (or potential children) from their Jewish roots, though they would not need to convert if they were attracted to their Jewish “half.”

(I’d like to insert a note here that you cannot be “half-Jewish.” You either are Jewish or you are not. If one parent is Jewish and the other is not, then you are Jewish if your mother is, and your are not Jewish if your mother is not. Simple.)

I’m not going to argue the point that in some rare cases, “The One” for a Jew is, in fact, a non-Jew with a Jewish soul, who needs that marriage as the impetus/catalyst/eye-opener/introduction for conversion to Judaism. It does happen. But not very often.

I’m also not going to suggest that all Jewish people are marriage material. Jewish people are still people, after all, and there may be plenty of Jews out there who are not “The One.” Don’t go out and marry someone just because they’re Jewish, any more than you’d marry someone just because they’re a Harvard graduate or finding the cure for cancer.

I have a few more things to say on intermarriage, so stay tuned!

By the way, you can follow me on my Facebook page, Jessica on Judaism.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

On Intermarriage

I hope you didn’t miss me too much during my brief hiatus. Lots of things happening lately, and I couldn't think of a good topic to blog on until now.

But enough excuses. Today we have a touchy subject.

One consequence of assimilation is intermarriage. In this context, intermarriage means when a Jewish person marries a person who is not Jewish. I have seen statistics that suggest that up to 50% of married Jews are married to a non-Jew. That’s… a lot.

As American Jews, we are pulled in two directions. On the one hand, we want to fit in, meet a diverse group of people, have friends of all “types.” We champion the freedom to choose, to meet and marry the person of your choice. And yet, we also work toward the preservation of our culture. We are saddened by the decline in synagogue membership, in religious participation, in Jewish education among our children.

Intermarriage is one of the main problems on both sides of the argument.

We feel we should be able to marry whomever we wish. We feel we shouldn’t exclude someone or distance ourselves from them just because they are of a different race or religion or culture or ethnicity. Thus, if Adam wants to marry Christina, and Christina is a lovely young woman with a good education and a wonderful family, we want to wish Adam the best in his new life. And if Adam’s parents or grandparents or community is against his marrying Christina, and we see how in love they are and how great their life together will be, our instinct is to tell his family and his community to stay the heck out of his way and let him marry the woman he loves and make beautiful babies with her. Intermarrying is both a result and a catalyst of assimilation, and if assimilation is the goal, then let the mazal tovs and the well wishes commence.

On the other hand, if Adam marries Christina, their children won’t be Jewish. There’s a good chance that Adam will not continue practicing Judaism. Christina’s parents might not like it if Adam tries to take their grandchildren to synagogue or wants to host a Passover seder. And Adam might hate it every year on Christmas when they travel to Christina’s family’s house and gather ‘round the tree to open presents. And Adam’s parents, who opposed the union from the start? What will they say when Christina doesn’t want to come for Rosh Hashanah dinner and wants to baptize the children?

It’s not that Adam is doing anything wrong by exposing his children to Jewish rituals. And it’s not that Christina is doing anything wrong by immersing her children in Christian practices. The problem is that Adam isn’t Christian and Christina isn’t Jewish.

I would venture to say that intermarriage really isn’t only a Jewish problem. Plenty of other religious traditions, cultural traditions, and ethnic traditions strongly encourage children to marry within their faith, culture, or ethnicity. It’s not xenophobia or racism. It’s not out of desperation to preserve a waning population. It’s because the most successful marriages are based on similarity of worldview, similarity of background. It’s not true, usually, that opposites attract (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s marriage to Maria Shriver notwithstanding).

When Jews speak out against intermarriage, though, because it is a small population rebelling against a large one, it looks like racism. It looks like those poor Jewish children are being isolated, kept from experiencing another world. But when that poor Jewish child escapes his “cage” and goes off to marry a lovely non-Jewish girl, he might find out, too late, that his parents were right. That, or he might simply be lost to Judaism, another victim of assimilation or attrition.

In my own community, I am familiar with quite a few intermarried couples. The main problem that seems to come up is when the Jewish spouse wants to get more involved with Judaism and the non-Jewish spouse wants nothing to do with Judaism. In many of these cases, the Jewish spouse eventually loses the argument, especially if the non-Jewish spouse doesn’t want their children attending services or Hebrew school. I know a few couples where the non-Jewish spouse becomes equally interested in Judaism and even expresses interest in converting. Those are the lucky few, unfortunately.

(That’s not to say that even if you marry within Judaism, life will be smooth sailing. I know plenty of couples where one spouse wants to be more religious than the other. In those cases, there is quite a lot of tension, where one wants to come to services often and the other doesn’t, where one wants to keep kosher or keep Shabbat and the other doesn’t. And the issue can be just as divisive as when one spouse isn’t Jewish. Or more so! But that’s a topic for another time.)

I want to ensure that my boys (and, G-d willing, one day, girls) marry Jews, love Judaism, and bring up lots of Jewish babies. I want to ensure that Judaism continues on into future generations. How can we do this? By exposing them to Jewish ritual throughout the year, by making Judaism an everyday presence in their lives, by saying the Shema at night, lighting Shabbat candles every week, and putting a mezuzah on their door, by giving them a Jewish education, by teaching them to read Hebrew, by helping them to learn the prayers, by giving them opportunities to make Jewish friends, meet Jewish girls (eventually), and by showing them that Judaism is a privilege and not a burden. If only it were as easy as it sounds.