christmas decor Pixabay

A holiday season email from a non-Jewish guy came to my Mixed and Matched column:

I love Christmas but my Jewish girlfriend won’t participate with me, and this is our first holiday season together. I’ve told her that Christmas isn’t really religious for me. The tree and Yule log are pagan originally; they have nothing to do with Jesus. Santa and Rudolph are just American holiday symbols like a turkey for Thanksgiving. Christmas is just what we do in America! How can I get through to her so we can have fun together? — Festive Guy

Dear Festive: Let me be frank with you. You are experiencing the myopic understanding of folkloric-Christian America. I don’t fault you for understanding the world through your own cultural upbringing. But I want you to reflect on what you’ve said, and try to see it through Jewish eyes.

Christmas means “Christ Mass” — that is, a religious service for the Christ. This is the origin and the core meaning of this holiday. Even if you don’t believe in what it expresses, it still represents the birth of the Christ. Its meaning remains intact. It’s like how Yom Kippur retains its meaning even though millions of non-Jews don’t observe Yom Kippur.

You mention that the tree and the Yule log are pagan in origin. True. However, Judaism has opposed paganism from the beginning — take a look at the stories in Genesis and Exodus.

Being pagan doesn’t make it OK. Christianity altered and integrated innumerable practices of the cultures it absorbed. Every country, every culture that has been rendered Christian has leftover traditions that have been adapted to a Christian understanding. That assimilation of indigenous peoples’ heritages is not seen as a plus by many Jews.

Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman (and even the Grinch), and so on, are indeed American symbols of stories that derive from Christmas and have little or no religious meaning or connection to Jesus. However, everyone knows that they are a part of this specific holiday and displaying them is a reference to Christmas.

You are right. All these symbols, stories and practices are “what we do in America.” Professionally, I refer to your view as American folkloric Christianity. You engage with Christianity more as folklore, like Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed.

However, unlike those American myths, Christmas is huge. It arrives in September and doesn’t exit until after New Year’s Day. It alters the entire American landscape. It infiltrates sports, government, commerce, media and daily social interaction. It is seen as sacred by many, which supercharges its role.

For you, and most Americans, Christmas is so much a part of the fabric of our culture that it is hard to see. Remember the saying “you can’t see the forest for the trees”? That’s what you are experiencing. It is just so darn hard to see a lifelong practice through the lens another.

For your Jewish girlfriend, Christmas may be the epitome of her otherness. As a Jew, she doesn’t observe this massive holiday. She has different holidays and they are the signposts on her calendar, for her life.

I don’t want to put words into your girlfriend’s mouth, so sit down with her and ask her to explain to you how she feels about Christmas and why. She may not dislike it, but simply does not want to participate in it.

The two of you need to understand one another’s viewpoints. Living in America, she assuredly is familiar with Christmas, but personalize it for her. Are there things you do with your family that are particularly meaningful to you? I have a friend who always chops down his own tree and another who has a Christmas cookie exchange. There will be things that your girlfriend refuses to do, but there may be activities that feel neutral to her.

I don’t know how serious you two are, but this conflict is a signal that if you are thinking about a permanent relationship, you should do some serious talking about what you each want in a partner and in the home you will make with that person. You don’t want to be expecting your first child and realize that you want the baby baptized and she wants a bris.

Posted by admin under Chanukah, Christmas, Intercultural, Mixed & Matched
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A turkey challah

A turkey challah

Rabbi Milder of Beth Emek in Pleasanton sent out this delightful message to his congregants. I simply HAD to share it with you. There are so many great things in it.
1. There’s a lovely blessing to say at your Thanksgiving table. (Below in italics)
2. There’s the delightful learning about the meaning of a word (Hodu) and the way in which Jewish students & scholars love to dig into the root meaning of every letter!
3. There’s the history story about Turkey and India and America.

So whether you go away charmed, humored or touched, enjoy and give thanks for a life so full of good things.

How should Jews celebrate Thanksgiving?

For starters, let’s begin Thanksgiving with Motzi. If you don’t regularly recite this blessing for a meal, this is certainly the occasion that calls for it.

Now, if you would like to add something special, try this Thanksgiving hymn from the book of Psalms, Psalm 100:

Enter into the gates of the Eternal with thanksgiving
And into God’s courts with praise;
Give thanks to God,
And bless God’s holy name.
For the Eternal is good,
God’s kindness endures forever…

The words in Hebrew are particularly fitting for this holiday. “Give thanks to God” is “Hodu lo.”

Now, here is what you need to know to appreciate this accidental double entendre.

The word “hodu”, give thanks, is also the Hebrew word for India, as in the country. I don’t know why. It just is.

When Columbus arrived on these shores, and saw these strange birds running around, thinking he was in India, he dubbed them “Indian chickens,” which is what turkeys were then called. Turn “Indian chicken” into Hebrew, and you get Tarnegol Hodu, which has, over time, been shortened simply to Hodu.

This should not be surprising. After all, Americans name the bird after one Asian country, Turkey; Jews name it after another Asian country, India.

But, in a coincidence that only God could have planned, this etymology yields the magnificent double entendre of the Hebrew “Hodu lo,” which can mean either “Give thanks to God,” or alternatively, “Turkeys for God.”

And that, friends, is how Jews should celebrate Thanksgiving.

Rabbi Larry Milder

Posted by admin under A meaningful life, Holidays, Intercultural, Prayer, Spirituality
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This is Bay Area Jewry: Photo Essays on the Changing Nature of our Community
Lehrhaus Judaica and Building Jewish Bridges present a photo essay exhibition showcasing the range of diversity in our community. The exhibition features 16 intimate portraits of individuals and families from a variety of backgrounds and levels of religious observance — from the North and South Peninsulas, San Francisco, Oakland/Berkeley, Contra Costa, and Marin. The project is a combination of photographs and written profiles, shedding light on the unparalleled Bay Area Jewish community. Each person, couple or family profiled has loved ones who are not Jewish. The reality of Bay Area Jewry is that we are all touched by our non-Jewish family members. We invite you to meet these unique individuals – born Jewish and converts, LGBT Jews, and multicultural Jews all take center stage. Their paths to Judaism and spiritual connections may differ, but they are all Jewish.

Opening Event — Tuesday, June 13, 7-9 pm
Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael

Join us for a reception with refreshments. There will be a tour of the exhibit at 7:15 pm. At 7:45, three of the participants will be in conversation with Dawn Kepler, discussing why they participated and what they hope to communicate to the Jewish community. There will be time to mingle and talk.

The exhibition will be on view June 1 to August 31 at the Osher Marin JCC.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Intercultural, Jews of Color
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Rabbi Milder of Beth Emek in Pleasanton sent this email to his congregation. He summarizes the four Jewish new years and considers the meaning of the Gregorian New Year that is observed on Dec. 31.

Which New Year Is It?

The Mishnah records that there are not one, but actually four new years. The rabbis needed one new year for reckoning the date of festivals (the first of Tishri), one for determining when the reign of a king begins (the first of Nisan), one for calculating to which year new-born animals belonged (the first of Elul, after the summer calving season had ended), and one for calculating the produce of trees (the fifteenth of Shevat). According to Biblical law, it was not permitted to use the produce of trees during their first three years.

The new year observed in the Gregorian calendar (January 1) has little to do with the sacred themes of the Jewish calendar. It has a lot to do with ancient themes of chaos, and the conquest of chaos in the coronation of a supreme deity. That chaos is replicated in the revelry of New Year’s Eve, which comes to a halt when the clock strikes twelve and everyone kisses and sings Auld Lang Syne.

In contrast, the Jewish New Year observed in the dead of winter (Tu Bishvat) is one marked by a sacred and optimistic commitment to the future–the planting of trees. No raucous parties accompany this act, just a sense of wonder in the miracle of nature, and a sense of obligation that was put into words in a famous Midrash from the Talmud: “Just as my ancestors planted for me, so shall I plant for my children.”

Likewise, the new year for the festival cycle, Rosh Hashanah, emphasizes themes of reflection and personal assessment. People talk about making new year’s resolutions on the Gregorian New Year, while Rosh Hashanah is less concerned with making promises to ourselves, and more concerned with examining what we have done with the past year. It’s easy to look forward and ignore the past; it is more difficult to confront oneself and acknowledge our weaknesses.

I enjoy the festive quality of the Gregorian new year, while recognizing that the important work of our lives is not about conquering chaos. It is the steady work of planting for the future, and self-examination, that make our lives a continuous work of art.

Posted by admin under A meaningful life, Intercultural, Jewish Learning
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A damn good question was sent into my Mixed and Matched column in the Jweekly!

Why am I not considered Jewish even though my mother converted to Reform Judaism? My father is Jewish by birth. I’m dating an Orthodox Jewish guy, and his mother has asked me what kind of conversion my mother went through, which is really dumb, because she’s a convert herself. Isn’t it enough that I’ve grown up with a Jewish identity my whole life? How dare people question what I believe? I’m Jewish through my father. Why isn’t that enough? If I were to marry the man I’m dating, his family would accept it only if I reconverted! Why?
— Really Annoyed!

My reply:

Dear Really Annoyed: There are several elements to your question, so let me begin with the halachic ones. For halachic Jews (those whose lives are informed by Jewish law), people are Jewish if they were born of a Jewish mother or if they converted. Therefore, you can’t gain Jewish identity through your born-Jewish father in a traditionally observant Jewish environment. This doesn’t mean that people can’t love you, have you over for dinner, enjoy your company etc., but it does mean that when they are determining whether a person is eligible to marry into their family, your father’s identity does not get you in.

Halachic Jews don’t see your mother’s conversion as authentic because the person who converted her was not authentically a rabbi according to their beliefs. That is, a Reform rabbi does not observe all the mitzvot, so is not really a rabbi and does not have the power to convert your mother.

You say, “How dare people question what I believe?” I’m betting that you question what they believe. Doubting the beliefs of others is a longstanding human practice. I doubt that you are going to be swayed to the views of your boyfriend’s family any more than they will be swayed to yours. I suggest that you don’t bother to go down that black hole, because it is highly unlikely there will be much mind-changing.

You mention that your boyfriend’s mother is herself a convert and had an Orthodox conversion. You feel that logically that would make her more willing to accept your mother’s conversion. But, in fact, that is all the more reason for her to not accept your mother’s conversion. She has taken on a way of life in her adult years that required a great deal of thought, faith and change. She surely did not do it lightly. I would bet that her conviction is strong and that she very much wants her children and her grandchildren to live within the framework of the life she chose.

Where to go from here? You need to talk to your boyfriend and see where he stands. Is he quietly letting his mother do the talking for him and is he not willing to marry you unless you have an Orthodox conversion? (This will not be a reconversion since you never converted. You were born a Jew, a Reform Jew.) If he feels as she does, he needs to stand up and be honest with you. If that is the case, then you should ask what being an Orthodox Jew means to him. Does he see his future married life as one with a kosher home, where the family is shomer Shabbos? Does he expect that you would modify your dress, hairstyle and activities, in order to maintain an Orthodox lifestyle?

If he does, then it’s your decision as to whether you want to live this way. You should certainly meet with an Orthodox rabbi to discuss what would be expected of you both for your conversion and your life as an Orthodox family. If you see beauty in a traditional lifestyle, then go ahead and convert. But you should do this for yourself, not for your boyfriend or his mother.

If on the other hand your boyfriend doesn’t really care about an Orthodox lifestyle and doesn’t intend to keep a kosher home or maintain the practice with which he was raised, then he needs to have a conversation with his mother. He should explain to her that just as she chose her own life direction when she chose to convert to Judaism in a traditional community, so he too is going to make his own choices. If he plans to marry you then he needs to tell her so. She may be angry with him but he is the person with whom she has a conflict, not you.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Conversion, Intercultural, Mixed & Matched
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Serial (Bad) Weddings

Serial (Bad) Weddings

In this comedy sensation from France, we meet Marie and Claude Verneuil who pride themselves on their open-mindedness. But their lifestyle—they are affluent, church-going Catholics—is put to the test after three of their daughters marry men from vastly different ethnic and religious backgrounds. When their fourth daughter announces her engagement to a man from the Ivory Coast, they try to sabotage the interracial wedding, only to discover that the groom’s parents harbor prejudices of their own.

Tuesday, March 8
10:00 am
Century 16 Theatres, 125 Crescent Drive, Pleasant Hill
Tickets and details here.

Stay after for a brief discussion of the film.
Who is happy in a “happy ending”? Can anyone be “too” different? Are there any positives to cultural and religious homogeneity? Why did they change the name of the film for an English speaking audience?

Posted by admin under Couples, Film, Intercultural, Programs archive
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islam-christian symbols

I received an email from a Christian woman who told me this:
I am Christian and my ex-husband is Muslim. I have nowhere to turn for help so I’m writing to you even though neither of us is Jewish. While we were married we raised our ten year old girl to observe both religions. Now that we are divorced he is suddenly taking her to mosque and raising her Muslim. I don’t have any control over what he does with her and we never put anything in writing. How can I insist that he stick with our original plan? I take her to church whenever she is with me, which is most of the time, but she is still being told she is Muslim by my ex and his community.

Please help even though I’m not Jewish.

I am answering you because your situation is not religion specific and can happen to a family of any faith. Let me assure you that most of what you are talking about is not religion at all, it is the consequence of a divorce. Often couples when they split find that their children are the biggest conflict between them. There are one or both of these things happening: your ex-husband may be angry with you and using your daughter as a way to punish you. And/or he may be feeling that he compromised his attachment to his faith tradition when he married you and now he is returning with renewed vigor to his ‘true self’. If he is just acting out of anger, time will soon cool his enthusiasm and if he didn’t care to spend time devoted to religion previously, he probably will return to religious inertia. In which case your best bet is to ignore this and wait. If he is returning to what he has harbored as his true place that is within his spiritual community of Islam, you are faced with deciding whether you want to make this a fight or not. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Am I upset mostly because I feel like he is “winning”?
How strongly do I feel that my daughter should be a Christian? (You weren’t pushing that during your marriage.)
Are you “returning” to your true religious self? And will you feel this way for years to come?
Have you started going to church for YOU or for your daughter?

Finally, the most important question of all, what impact will a tug-of-war have on your daughter? If she feels that her parents are fighting for her loyalty she will be in a terrible position. She must ether choose between you, or pretend to be Christian with you and Muslim with her father. That is a lot for a child to take on.

I can suggest several steps. Go to church on your own when she is with her father. Pay attention to your surroundings and how you feel about them. Is there something about the church experience that you specifically want your daughter to have? If there is, put it in words. For example, I want her to feel like part of a spiritual community. I want her to believe in God and God’s goodness. See if a) there is something there, not just taking her away from Islam, and b) you can identify it. Now, is that special thing something that she will get through being a Muslim? If it is, I suggest you step back and process the idea of your daughter being a different religion that you have chosen. Do nothing, just think and by all means, call me to talk.

I want to remind you that the United States is culturally Christian. We get the Christian holidays off, we all know when Christmas and Easter are. We send chocolates on Valentine’s Day and so on. Your daughter will know about Christianity by default. How you comport yourself will greatly impact how your daughter perceives your religion through you. Can you step back, listen, be supportive and loving and include her in your holidays? See how she reacts. See what she asks you.

Your daughter may choose to be Christian based on your gentle expression of your Christian values. She is only ten and you have many years to work on this. I suggest that the first thing you try is to step back and see how things develop. Be true to your own spirituality and heritage. If you always had Christmas, have Christmas. In fact you could think about inviting your ex to come for dessert – if you are able to create a non-combative environment.

Posted by admin under In their own words, Intercultural, Relationships
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Yes, there are Scottish Jews (from Jewish Tartan)

Yes, there are Scottish Jews (from Jewish Tartan)

I have decided to start sharing some of the comments from individuals who grew up in an interfaith family. I am including those whose mothers converted and who have been hurt by people’s discrediting their Jewish identity based on that and that alone.

All quotes are posted WITH THE PERMISSION of the individual who shared them.

From a young Jewish woman living in the East Bay —
My dad’s family is Jewish but my mom’s family is Southern Baptist. She converted before I was born. They divorced when I was 2-1/2 and I lived with my mom so while I didn’t grow up in say a “100% Jewish or observant home,” I did go to Sunday School, had a bat mitzvah and celebrated Jewish holidays with my dad’s side. My mom wasn’t observant but she didn’t push me in any way towards Christianity.

A main thing I have noticed growing up is people’s need to question my “Jewishness creds.” When it works into a conversation that forces me to offer up that my mom converted, the reply I inevitably get is “oh, so you’re not really Jewish,” or “you’re only half Jewish.” This especially comes up when they learn that I’m Scottish on my mom’s side, not just married to one (even though there are Jews in Scotland!) or that my mom’s family does Christmas.

Why people need to discredit that I am a Jewish person because my mom was born Baptist and converted is not necessary and hurtful. I actually haven’t been to Israel because for such a long time I was told by others that Israeli’s wouldn’t consider me Jewish. I shouldn’t have to defend my Jewishness but there are times when I do simply because my mom converted. I know I’m not alone.

Now I am married to a man who is from a Catholic family. He does not consider himself Catholic and doesn’t feel the need to convert even though he loves the Jewish holidays and is learning to read Hebrew. Neither of us would consider our daughter anything but Jewish and she proudly tells people she is Jewish. Based on my experience, I do wonder if she will have similar comments from people that she is “not really Jewish” or something equally insensitive, whether or not her father ever converts. I naturally don’t want her to be hurt or confused by those comments like I was.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, In their own words, Intercultural
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2 rings small size

I received this inquiry recently:
Some gay friends wanted a “fully multifaith ceremony.” They felt rejected when no rabbi would agree to co-officiate, but Christian clergy would. I’m not sure how to help them address their feelings in the aftermath. — Sympathetic Friend

I answered the question in my monthly Mixed and Matched column for the J-weekly.

Here’s my reply:
Your friends’ desire was to find a rabbi to co-officiate. Any rabbi they spoke with should have first explained that they don’t need a rabbi to have a Jewish wedding.

A Jewish wedding requires four things, according to halachah (Jewish law), and none of them are a rabbi. Many modern couples focus not on the four legal requirements but on the minhag (custom). Most want the chuppah, breaking the glass, dancing the hora — all of which can be incorporated into any wedding. My guess is that your friends wanted a rabbi to represent the Jewish spouse’s heritage simply by his or her presence, and to make the couple feel that Judaism validated their marriage.

Since your friends are gay, the emotional stakes became much higher. From the start it was the rabbi’s responsibility to have a kind conversation that drew out the couple’s longings and needs, before addressing the rabbi’s boundaries. Beginning like this would have allowed the couple to identify aspects of the wedding — special food, music, symbols — that they controlled and could integrate into their ceremony. That would have met their first need for the wedding: representing the Jewish spouse’s heritage.

Second was the need for Judaism to validate their wedding. American rabbis from liberal branches of Judaism are rapidly moving toward embracing same-sex marriage, and your friends told you that they were not rejected as a gay couple. Perhaps the rabbis they spoke with did not clearly affirm the authenticity of their relationship as a beshert (destined) match, something they could have done even if they did not plan to co-officiate at the wedding.

The rabbi could have opened the conversation about boundaries with an I-statement: “Since you have come to me, I must tell you my personal stand on co-officiation and multifaith ceremonies.”

All Jews, rabbis included, have the right and responsibility to study Jewish tradition and their personal values to develop a meaningful relationship with their faith. Just as your friends chose to create a relationship they hope will never be dissolved, the rabbi is in a permanent relationship with tradition/God/ethics that he or she does not desire to dissolve.

If one rabbi could not perform the wedding, so be it. But your friends apparently were turned away by many rabbis. Now they must go beyond the hurt and try to understand: What happened here, and why does Judaism generally seem so unresponsive to a “fully multifaith ceremony”?

First, our understanding of the world is often from an American, not Jewish, viewpoint. As America’s dominant faith and culture, Christianity doesn’t fear the loss of its existence. Not so for Judaism, Zoroastrianism or Native American traditions. Many Jews readily understand the Zoroastrian’s rejection of the dominant religion because we support the underdog. We forget that Judaism is right there with these minority faiths.

Most rabbis are not willing to participate in a ceremony that does not feel Jewish and in fact feels threatening. One rabbi said to me, “I don’t want to be the only Jewish thing at the wedding.”

Second, it is important to understand that religious adherents of a particular faith are making heartfelt decisions based on their own spirituality, not on our personal desires. Mixing in another religious tradition may feel expansive to us, but it may feel disrespectful to those for whom the religion is a way of life. Just as we want rabbis to respect our choices, we need to respect theirs.

This moment of rejection hurt. But now it is time for your friends to move on and grow from the experience.

Spouses will not agree with each other at every turn; they can still love each other. They can love and respect a rabbi while not agreeing. For their own sake, the couple might determine that this experience will open their eyes to how others differ from them, what their boundaries are, where those boundaries can stretch and where they cannot.

You can listen to my podcast on how to find a rabbi here.

Posted by admin under In the News, Intercultural, Jewish Culture, Weddings
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Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret feels solidly set in 1970, the year of its publication. The interfaith issues are, by now, stereotypical – the Christian family that disowns their daughter for marrying a Jew and the distracted Jewish father who has no interest in religion and is usually at work. If you give this book to your child be sure to reread it yourself and be ready to point out how times have changed.

Are you There God Its Me Margaret
Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume


My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, published in 2013 is in every way more up to date. The interfaith issues are also intercultural and Tara’s family has made a choice to raise her Jewish. In fact her mother has converted. But, like all kids, Tara has a mind of her own and wants her religion to be HER choice.

Basmati Bat mitzvah
My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula Freedman

Email me and let me know which books you like at

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Books, Intercultural
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