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Weblog Entries for Category: Personal Stories

Finding Your “Spark Moment” with the Jewish Community

I owe my Jewish identity to the Shining Lights. For most of my childhood, I participated in a Jewish youth singing and dancing group. We wore red mock turtlenecks, black skirts, and silk vests with musical notes on them. We sang songs about Jewish holidays and stories. We performed at Jewish Community Centers, Jewish senior centers, synagogues, and Jewish festivals. We sang solos, showed off our jazz hands, and step-ball-changed our way through the Jewish calendar.

The Shining Lights brought together a bunch of Jewish kids from across the Chicagoland area to perform together. Singing and dancing about Jewish themes excited and connected me in a way that Sunday School and Shabbat services never did. It allowed me to continue participating in the Jewish community when Hebrew school was over, my Bat Mitzvah was behind me, and my homework, part-time job, and after school activities conflicted with confirmation classes. Perhaps most importantly, it introduced me to other people who were like me. Performing with the Shining Lights was my “spark moment,” that activity or experience that leaves an impression forever.

In a way, the Big Tent Judaism Concierge is in the business of creating spark moments. Public Space Judaism offers a taste of Jewish culture through food, through an activity, or simply through a meaningful conversation. The taste of charoset (chopped fruit and nut salad) at Passover in the Matzah Aisle or the sampling of hamantaschen (traditional holiday pastries) and wine at Purim Pastry Pairing may provide the spark moment that brings Jewish individuals and families one step closer to exploring other Jewish experiences.

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Gaining a Daughter Rather Than Losing a Son

As the youngest son in my family I didn’t have much trouble with getting engaged to someone who isn’t Jewish, since my older brother had already paved the way for me, forcing my parents to come to terms with the idea when he married his Eastern Orthodox wife. Having been intermarried for nine years now and raising two sons, my brother has closed the book on any concerns or arguments that my parents might have had regarding the issue. My parents have long since dealt with their misgivings and are actively encouraging that their grandchildren be raised with strong influences from their Jewish background and are happy with the results. Therefore, when I brought home a girl who wasn’t Jewish, they didn’t blink or put up any resistance; they just asked when I’m going to propose, and when I finally did they were extremely supportive.

However, it wasn’t like this for my brother. For a long time both he and I were always asked “is she Jewish?” If she wasn’t (which for my brother was rare, making this an even bigger revelation when he did get married) there were many follow-up questions: “okay but it’s not that serious right?” “How will you raise the kids?” “What if she’s turns out to be an anti-Semite?” (Apparently secret anti-Semites often marry Jews only to reveal themselves years later—according to my parents at the time.) Once my parents realized that this time it was, in fact, serious, it was made clear that my brother and sister-in-law’s main concern was how to raise their future kids; input from my parents was important, but secondary. My parents accepted that my sister-in-law and her family were indeed not secret anti-Semites, and the conversations turned to how to proceed with the wedding.

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The Letter that Brought Us All Together

Families are like geodes - those rocks full of crystals. Each member of the family represents its own unique crystal, and when assembled, they form a beautiful stone. Like geodes, families are fragile. Pressure can either bring the crystals closer together and strengthen, or it can create fractures and undermine the integrity of the unit. For my family, the passing of my father-in-law was such an event.

My father-in-law, who we affectionately called “Nonno,” - the Ladino term for Grandfather - was the patriarch of our modern Jewish family. (Ladino is the language of western Sephardim, a mix of Hebrew and Spanish) Born in pre-state Palestine in 1942, my father-in-law had a complex relationship with his heritage, and everyone around him. Diagnosed with stage IIIa lung cancer this past January, Nonno fought and lived bravely. He was meticulous and had an eye for detail. Faced with his mortality, Nonno sought to wrap up the details of life. From the purchase of his final resting place to the details of his burial, Nonno helped to ensure that the bond between his precious crystals would be strengthened when stressed.

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Being an Outsider

With the recent New Year’s celebrations, I found myself thinking back to a different New Year—the Jewish New Year, and an experience I had while in Ukraine several years ago. Growing up in a Russian Jewish household, I always felt like a bit of an outsider, not being part of the Christian-centric society in which I lived and being an immigrant. But I also took great pride in being unique and believe that being able to look at things from the outside gave me a better perspective and allowed me to see things more clearly.

It had never occurred to me that I was also an outsider from the Jewish community. My family had never been very active in the local community and when we did participate we still felt set apart from the rest of the community, being Russian Jews and therefore having our own way of doing things. Not growing up part of a strong Jewish community, I was always excited when I encountered other Jews, not realizing that my lack of involvement, and my Russian background, set me aside from them. The realization came to me over many years, but really became a dominant part of my consciousness while I was living in Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer.

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December 25th: a Day For Everyone

Everyone has their own Christmas story. When I say Christmas story, I am referring to what you do on December 25th. Regardless of your religion, if you live in the United States, the day has its own story for you.

Growing up in Houston, TX Christmas was the day that I spent with my friends who were not celebrating Christmas with their families. We attended a gathering of the same people for the better part of my childhood. As we all got older, the gathering became an opportunity for me to connect with friends and acquaintances that I did not see any other time.

As an adult, the first time I participated in anything for Christmas was with my husband’s family. It was my first opportunity to meet my mother-in-law of blessed memory and her family. Though my mother-in-law had converted to Judaism before my husband was born, Christmas was still a time for her family to get together. Each family member came on Christmas Day to say hello, and to share in the holiday. I remember thinking how much this reminded me of the Rosh Hashanah open house my mother had every year. For many years, even after my mother-in-law passed away, we attended Christmas Day with my husband’s family. My children looked forward to seeing their cousins, to eating macaroni and cheese, and to being part of the bigger family.

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Interfaith, According to My Four Year Old

Today’s guest blog comes from Carin Mrotz. After growing up in sunny South Florida, Carin moved to Minnesota on a dare in 1997 and fell in love with the Twin Cities. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two children and works for Jewish Community Action. She loves biking and live music, and lives in constant pursuit of the perfect fish taco. The blog was originally posted on TCJewfolk.

I remember the time my son told me his father wasn’t Jewish.

He was 4, and it was December, and we were in the car on our way home from preschool. And he said it just like that. “Mom, Dad isn’t Jewish.” Technically, I already knew. We’d been married 8 years by then, it had come up. But we hadn’t discussed it with Henry yet. We planned to, but we were waiting for the right time, for him to be ready to understand.

We were waiting to talk to him about my father, too. To tell him that he had a fifth grandparent, one he’d never meet. My parents divorced when I was a baby and my mother married my stepfather just a few years later. He’s the man I call “Dad,” and he’s the man Henry knows as “Pop Pop,” but I did also have a father, whom I spent winter breaks and summers with, whom I loved very much, and who died when I was 25, long before Henry was born. And I was waiting to explain this extra grandparent who only exists in pictures now, to Henry, not because he didn’t understand death (we’d lost pets by then), but because we hadn’t yet broached the topic of divorce.

I think we must all have these things we wait to explain to our children, until they’re old enough to really understand. I have friends, also an interfaith family, who had explained to their son that Dad was Jewish and Mom wasn’t, only to end up with the misunderstanding that all boys are Jews and all girls are Christians. So we were waiting until it would make sense. But I think, for me, there was something more there. I wasn’t just worried that Henry wouldn’t understand what we were talking about, I was worried that he’d be confused about what it meant about who he is.

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Thanksgivukkah in Cleveland

While a few weeks have passed since Hanukkah, I am just now reflecting on the experience it was this year. For Thanksgiving, as I have done almost every year, I flew to my hometown to spend Thanksgiving with my parents. However, this year was going to be different for several reasons: it was the first time my fiance would experience Thanksgiving with my family; it was also the first time she would experience Hanukkah with my family, or anyone else’s family for that matter, being raised Catholic. But what was most exciting was that it was the first time any of us had experienced, and will ever experience, both holidays at once.

At my parents’ house, Thanksgiving involves inviting over my brother, his wife, his two kids, and my sister-in-law’s family— none of whom are Jewish. This dynamic normally wouldn’t make any difference: for Jewish holidays my brother, my sister-in-law, and their kids come over, but my sister-in-law’s family does not, although there have been exceptions; on secular holidays my sister-in-law’s family comes over en masse. This made me wonder what my family would do this year with the two holidays converging.

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A Certificate for Being Jewish

As written proof of their new status, freshly minted adult Jews-by-Choice receive a nifty little certificate to proudly display, stash in a drawer, recycle, or otherwise do with what they will. When you’re born a Jew (traditionally, only by birth to a Jewish mother), you don’t get such a physical memento of your Jewishness.

But what about those of us somewhere in between? What about people who are considered Jewish by birth in some parts of the Jewish community but not in others? I’m talking about the ever-sticky issue of patrilineal descent (being born to a Jewish father and a mother of a different background). And, as you may already know, I’m also talking about myself: My father was Jewish but my mother was not when I was born (though she now is). They raised me in a Jewish home; affiliated with the Jewish Reform movement (the largest religious body to recognize patrilineal descent), I was taught to believe I was a Jew from birth. But, eventually, a variety of circumstances conspired so that it made sense for me to formally undergo a conversion a couple years ago – despite my strong reservations about doing so.

Because I had been raised Jewish and the Conservative movement rabbi overseeing my conversion had seen me participate actively and knowledgeably in services, the conversion process was rather abbreviated for me. I knew going into my meeting with the Bet Din (a court of three rabbis assembled for various purposes, including to oversee a conversion to Judaism) in the lobby of the mikveh (a Jewish ritual bath, immersion in which is a necessary component of conversion to Judaism) that this would be a tad more casual than the conversion of someone who chose Judaism later in life. We skipped the formal education, and the Bet Din didn’t need me to prove my Jewish knowledge by answering questions about Jewish tradition.

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My American Jewish Family

Elise Passy is JOI’s new Big Tent Judaism Coordinator in Houston. She partners with the Houston Jewish community to create and implement low barrier, welcoming programs that serve all those who might find interest and meaning in Jewish life regardless of affiliation or family structure. We are excited to add her voice to the JOI.org blog. Meet Elise here.

Why am I involved with Big Tent Judaism? Because I am part of an American Jewish family. Growing up in Houston, Texas on the “not Jewish” side of town, I was always one of a few in my class at school. I remember my mother going into my class and explaining about Hanukkah and making latkes for all of the kids in the third grade. I knew I was different. I liked it. I was the kid who taught religious school, who was in the leadership of multiple youth groups. I was deeply involved.

After I graduated high school, my mom, a widow, remarried. My step-father has three kids, and together they had emigrated from South Africa. The American Jewish community was different from what they had known. Blending a family is not easy. My parents were fortunate in that only one of us lived at home full-time.

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I’m not a bigot, am I?

Yesterday, my 19-year-old son and I had this textversation:

Son: What would you and the family say if I was dating a black girl?
Me: Is she nice?
Son: She seems like a sweetheart so far.
Me: That’s the most important thing!

Of course there are many other important aspects to building good relationships, but starting out with two people who are nice to each other isn’t a bad place to begin.

Now let’s get to the real issue: racism. If a Christian parent said to his or her child, “Don’t marry that Jew!” it would be considered racist, and the speaker would be considered a bigot. A bigot is someone who, as a result of their prejudices, treats other people with fear, distrust, hatred, contempt, or intolerance on the basis of a person’s ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, or other characteristics (Wikipedia). Wouldn’t I, then, be considered a bigot if I said, “Don’t marry that Christian!” or “Don’t marry that black girl!” But I don’t think I’m a bigot, am I?

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Two Faiths, Three Weddings

As a non-practicing Russian Jew, when I got engaged to a non-practicing Catholic, I did not foresee any problems. Sure, our heritages are different and we both have our own distinct cultures, but our morals and values are the same, and although we come from different backgrounds we are both more agnostic than anything else. Our wedding ceremony would be simple and secular, and our families get along so there would be no real problems there…

How naïve I was. The first real bump in the road came when my fiancée and I showed my future mother-in-law the venue: a beautiful spot in Central Park. When the question of who would officiate came up we told her it would be a friend of ours. She very calmly explained to us that not having a religious leader present makes the whole thing unofficial and if we are not going to be married in the eyes of the Church, we might as well not be married at all.

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John Propper’s Path to Judaism: Part 2

Welcome to the second of two parts of my interview with John Propper. There are many paths into the Jewish community—some involving conversion, some not—but at only 24 years old, John’s story has already taken many twists and turns. He comes from a Pentecostal family, went to a Catholic college, converted with a Reform rabbi, changed his last name, married into the interfaith family of a nice Jewish girl—and he’ll be a first-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the fall. At the end of Part 1, John discussed how he found a place for himself in the Jewish community—by boldly deciding what kind of place he wanted and making it happen. Now, in Part 2, we pick up with the barriers he encountered along the way:

What barriers to entry did you feel early on—and how did you overcome them?

I have no ethno-cultural memories. My biological family has been rooted to the same region of American soil since before Americans were American. We’ve never been institutionally oppressed, kept out of country clubs, or called slurs. In the cultural privilege lottery, we won the Powerball. Yet a shared heritage of suffering and survival is as formatively Jewish as reciting the Shema [a key Jewish prayer about the unity of God] before bedtime or being embarrassed by Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.”

While I’m thankful I’ve never been subject to that kind of suffering, there’s a piece of me that feels strangely privileged, and oddly out of place, as a middle-class white guy who belonged to the majority until, one day, he decided not to. I learn to listen, and the stories become mine, like the Kaddish [a Jewish prayer used for, among other things, periods of mourning] has become mine, like Torah has become mine. It’s not profound, and there’s no internal angelic choir when it happens—just the sound of time passing. Moments arise when I share as well as listen; my voice accents their [Jews born into the narrative] own.

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John Propper’s Path to Judaism: Part 1

There are many paths into the Jewish community—some involving conversion, some not—but at only 24 years old, John’s Propper’s path has already taken many twists and turns. He comes from a Pentecostal family, went to a Catholic college, converted with a Reform rabbi, changed his last name, married into the interfaith family of a nice Jewish girl—and he’ll be a first-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the fall. John is a good friend of mine. Until now, I’ve been learning his story in bits and pieces. So, to get a more complete picture—and believing readers of this blog would find his journey as interesting as I do—I interviewed him about his story so far. Here is the first half of our conversation. Look for the second part to be posted soon.

What is your family background? What was your life like before you became part of the Jewish community?

For the first 20 years of my life, I lived in northern Georgia, in the foothills. My hometown is small, just over 700 people, many of them farmers. My father was a traveling Pentecostal evangelist. Even much of Christianity was alien to me till I left the Church at 16.

After that, I hopped from church to church, and read about religion enthusiastically. But I never felt comfortable. Eventually my parents divorced, and an opportunity for me to go to college presented itself. I picked someplace far away from my home—West Michigan—and something new—a Catholic school called Aquinas College. It was there, at a shul [synagogue] across the street from my dorm, that I was exposed to Judaism.

The Jewish community sometimes has difficulty articulating enticing, relevant answers to the question of, “Why be Jewish?” Despite no previous connection to the Jewish community, you clearly found your way to some good personal answers to the question. So, for you, “Why be Jewish?”

Community is essential to me. During my undergrad, I spent more time in shul than anywhere else. I converted at the shul. My wife and I met there; we taught there; we were married there. It’s home. That said, community is found in most faiths.

So how about this: As an ideology, Judaism places a unique emphasis on the present. Novelist James Michener once aptly described it as—and I’m paraphrasing here— “a system for organizing life.” There’s an emphasis on contemporary ethics, personal development, and the marking of mundane existence through ritual. Most monotheisms are eternity-minded, always in search of the never-ending or the final or the ultimate. But Judaism emphasizes recognizing the ordinary holiness of each day.

Once you knew you were interested in Judaism, what was your path into the community like?

Once, I sat in a circle of fellow converts. We were asked, “Do you feel as much a part of the wider community as you’d like?” Some said, “Yes,” others, “No.” When asked why I answered, “Yes,” I replied, in effect, “I just made a place for myself.”

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JOI’s New Program Associate David A.M. Wilensky talks Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness

My non-Jewish roommates were confused by the idea that I would “convert” to Judaism. “From what?” Brent asked. It was a fair question. Jon seconded: “Yeah, if you’re not Jewish now, what are you?” There was no easy answer. My first attempt at answering them – I launched into a preamble about my half-baked idea of drawing a distinction between “converting” and “undergoing a conversion” – didn’t help much.

We met during college orientation, so the three of us had known each other for almost five years by the time I decided to undergo a conversion. A regular at Saturday morning services in college, they knew me as the rare college student who rose before noon on Saturday. My extensive collection of what Brent called “esoteric Hebrew t-shirts” (the result of spending high school in a never-ending series of positive Jewish youth events) had long been the butt of good-natured jokes in our circle of friends. In the time they’d known me, I had rarely shut up about Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness.

Without realizing the irony of it, Brent, Jon, and everyone else I knew in college would have placed me squarely in the “very Jewish” column. Yet, I am a patrilineal Jew, meaning my Jewish pedigree comes only from my father’s side. In the Orthodox understanding of Jewish legal tradition, only Jews-by-choice and the offspring of Jewish mothers are considered Jews. But there’s another detail complicating the issue: To be a Jew by birth, your mother must have already been a Jew herself at the time of your birth – and that’s where I ran into trouble: I was a little kid when my mother converted.

Already a regular at services and Sunday school, I remember beaming with pride when she came to the front of our congregation one Friday night for the public portion of her conversion, in which the convert is asked to quote the titular character of the biblical Book of Ruth: “Your people will become my people, and your God will become my God.”

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My Lox and Bagel Made Me Cry

My lox and bagel sandwich made me cry the other day. My almost four-year-old patted my knee and advised me to take a drink of water. But the tears weren’t caused by a bitten tongue, or even by the significant onion slice atop the garlic bagel.

I took a bite and was transported to my grandma’s kitchen circa 1990. I smelled the kugels (sweet noodle pudding) in the oven (made just for me, sans raisins, one to take home for later), saw the big bowl of sugar-laden blueberries next to my plate, and all the lox and bagels I could ever want to eat at the table. Grandma always fed me well.

I visited her a few days before the teary lox and bagel incident. She’s not doing any cooking these days, so it’s up to me to recreate her kugel for my family and introduce the concept of a smoked fish atop cream cheese and bagel to my children (so far, this has not gone over well). She suffered a stroke a few months ago; she has good days and bad days, but even on the good days, I miss the grandma who took such great pains to prepare my favorite meal. Thus, the tears.

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JOI’s New Program Associate Sarah Sechan Looks Forward to Changing the Lexicon

When I was in high school, I had a friend from Hebrew school who frequently approached me to talk about how she was a “bad Jew.” “I don’t know any Hebrew, I’m such a bad Jew,” she said, launching into a conversation about how she didn’t go to synagogue, didn’t keep kosher, and didn’t participate in our synagogue’s youth group. At the time, I recall feeling unsettled by these conversations, though I could never articulate why.

I understood why she approached me with these concerns. I was a very active member of my Conservative synagogue, a frequent Torah reader and service leader, and a board member of my local and regional youth groups. I was, for all intents and purposes, a “Super Jew.”

However, my Jewish identity was often a source of conflict. My mom grew up Lutheran in rural Michigan, and discovered Judaism for the first time as a freshman at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!). Judaism spoke to her in a way that Christianity never did, and my mom underwent an Orthodox conversion shortly after graduating from college. Since then, my mom pursued a career as a cantorial soloist and Jewish educator, met and married my dad, and together raised my siblings and me in a vibrant Jewish home.

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Tot Shabbat Tottering

I went to a tot Shabbat service last Friday. Tot Shabbat is what synagogues usually call a Friday night religious service experience tailored for young children and their parents. There was music and singing; the half-dozen or so couples of parents sat in a circle, clapping and enjoying the singing, quietly observing, or anxiously searching the room for their toddler. The kids did what kids do, mostly run around. Then there was a potluck dinner followed by some unstructured socializing.

I don’t like synagogues. Sorry, but I don’t. I grew up a secular Israeli Jew and I find in religious service little that is of meaning to me. I also did not enjoy this particular tot Shabbat service that much either. People were nice enough, for sure. But there were little things that irked me (like the way Americans pronounce the word Shabbat as if it rhymes with Chabad – Shabbad is here, Shabbad is here… one song went). More significantly perhaps was the possible implication that, since this kind of religious service is the one way of being Jewish that is sanctioned by Jewish institutions, it is also the most authentic, or truest way of being Jewish. Was this the message I want to send to my son?

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Being a “Non”

A hot topic of conversation here in the Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) office is the barrier of language. We often consult with Jewish organizations about language used on their program marketing and websites, identifying the use of Hebrew and Yiddish words or organizational acronyms as potential barriers to participation. But the language barrier goes beyond invitations to programs and events.

Take, for example, The Mothers Circle, a program of education and support for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children within the context of intermarriage/partnership. The question often arises of why not just say participants are “non-Jewish women” raising Jewish children? It would certainly save space on flyers and Facebook posts, so what’s so bad about being a “non?”

A few weeks ago, I faced this very issue. But this time, I was the “non,” and I didn’t like it.

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