We finally had our last session of the Interfaith Bible Seminar, so of course it started to snow for the first time since our last attempted meeting, but only a little bit, as a token, to let me know that God has a sense of humor. A dark one. For this session we met at the Methodist church, which shares a building with a Korean Presbyterian congregation, and a Hispanic Evangelical congregation, just to keep things interesting. There were drawings of dreidels and menorahs on the walls, next to the Santas and Christmas trees, which made sense, eventually, when the pastor explained that the church’s nursery school is non-sectarian, and filled with Jewish kids, and a lot of Mandarin speaking families as well, because, Long Island.
The final seminar was led by the Methodist pastor and the cantor from my synagogue, both of whom had the mistaken impression that we prepare for these seminars by reading ahead. I didn’t even know that what was billed as the book of Ezra also included the book of Nehemiah, let alone what was included in these books. It turns out that Ezra is set at the end of the Babylonian exile, as the Jews were returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. Ezra is trying to teach the returning Jews how to be Jewish again, because they are clueless after generations of exile, and the non-Jewish ruler of the area is actually encouraging the Jews to rebuild the Temple, so there’s no anti-Semitism to fight against, which makes the Jews feel weird. We are a people who do better with antagonism, it seems. Acceptance makes us nervous.
The fact is, throughout history walls were built around the Jewish community, by others, to keep us from mingling with the regular people, but that isolation served to keep the Jewish community together. Despite the rise in anti-Semitism over the past two years, we still live in a society that is overwhelmingly accepting of Jews and Judaism, which brings on the fear that assimilation and comfort will lead to the dissipation and disappearance of the Jewish people.
Ezra, who is trying to regenerate Jewish peoplehood after the Babylonian exile, thinks that the big danger is intermarriage. He tells the Jewish men that they have to send away their foreign wives, and the children born of them, in order to purify the Jewish community and return to God. This made my skin crawl. Later, the message is somewhat softened to say, just don’t marry outside of the community in the future, but I had to remind myself all over again that the bible is not a how-to manual, but a how-they-did-it story, and we can learn from them about what not to do.
Of course, behind this fear of intermarriage there is, always, the fear of women. Because women are temptresses who lead good men astray. The pastor said that Christians have long believed that Women are the root of all evil too. Ah, harmony.
So, anyway, if our goal is Jewish continuity, do we try to prevent intermarriage at all costs, or do we welcome fellow travelers into the community? And if we can’t prevent intermarriage, because we live in such a welcoming society, where Jews are not treated as pariahs as they were in generations past, how do we deal with that acceptance?
Growing up in the conservative and orthodox movements, intermarriage was seen as an obviously bad thing. A Shandeh. A shame. But the Reconstructionist and Reform movements were quicker to adapt, and tried to accommodate mixed religion families, since the other option was to lose those Jews altogether. At our Synagogue school we have lots of kids who celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas, and the idea is to give them the education, and the sense of community, and let them decide how to shape their religious lives going forward; whether they choose to be Jewish or Christian, or some mix, is up them. As a result, we have a lot of active families and kids who think being Jewish is sort of cool. Who knew?
My dogs still weren’t invited to the Interfaith Bible Seminar, but I keep trying to raise them with Jewish identities, in my own way. I tried to interest them in the lighting of the Chanukah candles this year, but they are really not fans of fire. And prayer isn’t really their thing either. But family, and community, and ritual, those are big things in their lives. Just ask Ellie how she’d feel if I forgot to give her the traditional chicken treat after her morning walk. A Shandeh!
I want to wish everyone who celebrates Christmas a Merry Christmas, and for everyone else, a happy Chinese-food-and-empty-movie-theaters day! If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.