microwave“I know my husband uses the microwave on Shabbat,” a friend told me, after I shared my story of being in a mixed secular-religious marriage, “but he makes sure to do it while I’m out of the house at shul.”

While this bifurcated approach may work in the short term, where the less observant partner does his or her own thing in private while the more observant one pretends to look the other way, I think it’s a recipe for resentment.

The better solution – and the one that’s worked for my marriage – has paradoxically put the onus more on me: to find secular meaning in traditional Jewish rituals. Then we can share the same religious activities while interpreting their significance differently.

The big three are taharat mishpacha (the laws of family purity), kashrut (keeping kosher) and Shabbat.

Family purity might seem like a deal breaker: why would a now non-observant person like me agree to forgo sex for half of every month until after my wife has visited the ritual bath?

When we were newly married and both religious, it was just what you did. It wasn’t until years later, when I was questioning everything, that we realized that the externally mandated ebbs and flows of menstruation and mikveh enriched our sex life. It gave us a fresh start every month, a moment to anticipate, and a structure that we chose to adhere to even when I no longer believed in the halachic (Jewish legal) imperative.

Keeping kosher is a tougher one. The way I’ve come to understand it, the underlying purpose of the laws of kashrut is less about holiness and more about keeping Jews and gentiles apart. The Torah gives no reason why certain animals are kosher and others aren’t. Rather, it’s a test of faith.

Kashrut has done an excellent job achieving its goal over the years but that mission – particularly in Israel where I live – seems less relevant today. (It has also gotten so mired in politics as to drive people away.)

Still, it’s important to our community and friends and it’s not that hard to keep a kosher home. While traveling or eating out we are more flexible. In any case, my wife Jody is a vegan, which has become a sort of secular kashrut for many people with a modern meaning we can both get behind: not harming animals and inflicting less damage on the planet.

Coming every week without fail, Shabbat is probably the biggest topic of potential friction in a mixed marriage but I love how Jewish tradition marks the weekend as a “day of distinction.” I don’t need Jewish law to tell me that (mostly) turning off electronics for 25 hours brings enormous benefit.

You just have to compare a weekday meal with Friday night.

During the week, the phones are out and, even though we have a “no screens at the table” policy during family dinner, the dopamine demand of each pocket vibration or the hypnotic pull of a far off ding often proves to be too much – even for me.

On a Shabbat at home, though, we can spend hours just talking, eating and having fun together. The kids play card games, while Jody and I catch up on reading. Friends drop by and we spend quality time together. We walk the dog without being plugged into a podcast obsessing over whether Adnan did it or why Bowe walked off his base.

In this respect, I find comfort in the writing of Judith Shulevitz, who described her ambivalent relationship to Shabbat in the book The Sabbath World, or the secular-friendly National Day of Unplugging.

I don’t go to synagogue much anymore and I sit quietly at the table if others want to say the grace after meals, but I wouldn’t give up the peace that a traditional Shabbat provides for anything.

I may pull out my iPad to read one of the dozens of eBooks I’ve downloaded, but at least for now, I’ll do that in private, not because I’m fearful or afraid of offending, but because I’m choosing to.

I’m grateful and don’t take for granted that Jody values my post-modern quest for Jewish authenticity. That’s her part of the compromise, too, and it’s no less significant.

Making a mixed marriage work means moving past the binary and eschewing either-or declarations. It means embracing change and not knowing precisely where you’ll end up. A successful mixed marriage may very well be the truest demonstration of love. I know it is for me.

This piece is the third in a series on mixed marriages. It follows my original column and the second piece that appeared in the Forward. This article also appeared first in the Forward.

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mixed-marriage-forward-1I have a confession to make: I’m in a mixed marriage. But not the kind you usually think of when you hear the term, which conjures up images of countless Tevyes sitting shiva.

These days – and in Israel, in particular – “mixed marriage” refers not so much to two people of different religions, but of different religious outlooks, where one person in the couple is observant and the other is not.

Modern mixed marriages comprise couples where one person discretely starts the air conditioner on Shabbat while the other pretends to look the other way, to full-blown atheists married to ultra-Orthodox believers.

Sometimes a couple knows what they’re getting into.

Shmuel and Devorah were not on the same page religiously when they got married – and they’re still not. Devorah drives on Friday night after dinner to see her mother while Shmuel stays at home. He fasts on Yom Kippur; she has a bagel after he’s left for morning prayers.

In other cases, that’s not the way the relationship started out. When my wife Jody and I first met, we were both newly religious. We were attracted to each other’s passion for Torah and a vision of how we’d raise our children.

A dozen years in, though, I began to change. Observance and belief dropped off as I grappled with finding – or rather reconnecting to – a more authentic version of my secular self.

For many years, I kept our status as a mixed marriage a secret. I didn’t want to confuse the kids who were attending religious schools. And Jody was afraid that our observant friends would stop eating in our home.

Eventually, I began to slowly “come out.”

I soon discovered we’re not alone. Other people in mixed marriages reached out to me, eager to share their own stories.

Penina has been married for nearly 30 years. It started simply, she told me, with writing down notes during Shabbat “I justified it by telling myself that it was a stress reduction technique, a way of silencing the frantic demands bouncing around in my brain to ‘remember this’ or ‘remember that’ for the next 24 hours.”

Later it was the “iPhone in the bathroom” trick. “It’s easier on my middle aged eyes with the large fonts and the brightly lit screen than reading a book,” she explained. But she would never pull out her phone on Shabbat in public – or in front of her husband at home. “He still doesn’t know. We live in a small religious community and it would have a big impact. I don’t know if our marriage would survive.”

So how do people in mixed marriages make it work?

For Miriam, whose husband (but not her community) knows she no longer keeps the Sabbath, it’s all about family rules. “We have an agreement that when one of the boys walks out of the house, I’ll make sure he’s wearing a kippa, even though personally it doesn’t matter to me,” she said. “It’s no different than getting them to clean up their room.”

I asked Miriam if she ever feels trapped – that she can’t drive to the beach or watch a movie on Shabbat if she wants to. “With three little kids, by the end of the week, I’m so exhausted, I just want to chill and spend time with my family at home,” she said.

There is one thing Miriam wants. “A tattoo. But that’s such a secular thing to do. My husband begged me not to, so I said, OK. I really don’t need one.”

For me, the key has been being able to differentiate between “core values” and “external actions.” Because the latter – like everything in life – are always going to change, sometimes radically.

If you get too attached to the outside identity – which includes religious behaviors – that can precipitate a crisis. But if you know going into the marriage that many, maybe even most of the “actions” are going to change, you can focus on the personal qualities that brought you together in the first place.

Jewish writer and philosopher Alain de Botton (“How Proust Can Change Your Life,” and “Religion for Atheists”) was interviewed about the nature of marriage on the public radio program This American Life.

“Many of the hopes you take into a marriage have to die in order for the marriage to continue,” he told host Ira Glass.

De Botton’s point is that, given how complex a marriage is – where you’re looking for a best friend, a co-parent and a compatible sexual partner all in the same person – “we’re not going to be able to get it all right. There will be many areas of misunderstanding and failure [and] you will often be in despair.”

That doesn’t mean your marriage has gone wrong. “It’s a sign that it’s normal and on track,” De Botton said. “A certain amount of sober melancholy [can be] a real asset.”

Jerusalem-based couples counselor Nomi Raz put that in more practical terms. “Dropping expectations and learning how to compromise is essential for a healthy relationship.” And for a mixed marriage, she added, “the one who’s more religious becomes a bit less. The one who’s less observant needs to be more tolerant.”

Jody and I have been able to find a balance between self-actualization and accommodation. We both bend but not to the breaking point. By being honest and respectful, we’ve made it work.

And most important: people still eat in our home.

This piece, a follow up to my original Mixed Marriage column, appeared in the Forward.

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Snub from Cairo

by Brian on September 16, 2016

in In the News,Politics

or-sasson-islam-el-shehabyWhen Egyptian judoka Islam el-Shehaby lost to Or Sasson in the 100-kg judo contest at the recent Rio Olympics, Shehaby demonstrably snubbed his Israeli opponent by refusing to shake hands, as is Olympics protocol (not to mention just plain good manners).

This prompted outrage – not only in Israel, but at the International Olympics Committee, which reprimanded Shehaby, as well as by Egypt, which sent him home.

Shehaby tried to spin the mess he’d created by saying he had “no problem with Jewish people or any other religion or different beliefs.” Rather it was the fact that Sasson was an “Israeli athlete” and not a “friend whom I must greet.”

The slight highlights the gap that frequently exists between official diplomatic relations – Israel and Egypt have a peace treaty, after all – and the sadly less favorable opinions held by many individual citizens.

As Stephen Flatow, whose daughter Alisa was killed in a terrorist bus bombing in 1995, wrote in the Times of Israel, a ceasefire is “much better than gunfire. But a ceasefire is a fragile thing. If it’s not backed by deep, wide-ranging societal support for peace, then it could be broken at any time.”

It goes both ways, of course, and it’s not my intention to make a blanket statement about all Egyptians (or all Israelis for that matter).

Still, the incident in Rio wasn’t entirely surprising to me. Eleven years ago, our family spent a week touring Egypt and had a similar experience.

achmed31Ahmed, our tour guide, clearly didn’t know what to make of us. He definitely realized that something about this typical “American” family was odd.

We showed a surprising amount of interest in Cairo’s Ben-Ezra synagogue, where our kids read the inscriptions in fluent Hebrew. Our strictly vegetarian diet (our way of keeping kosher while on the road) was way off the beaten track in meat loving Egypt.

Most of all, our oldest son’s name was highly unusual.

“Amir – that means ‘prince’ in Arabic,” Ahmed said. “Is that, um, a common name in America?”

We hadn’t concealed the fact that we were Jewish. But we nevertheless decided that we would travel on our U.S. rather than our Israeli passports, and when asked where we were from, we would answer “California” (not entirely untrue since we moved to Israel from the San Francisco Bay Area).

Before our trip, an Egyptian friend – a software developer I have worked with in the past – assured us that Egypt was safe. “Just don’t go around with a big sign reading ‘Hi, I’m an Israeli,’” he said.

We decided to heed his advice.

Together with Ahmed, we climbed the pyramids, ogled the Sphinx, marveled at the mummies in the Egyptian Museum and caught a glimpse of Tahrir Square, which had yet to become famous as an international flashpoint.

Ahmed was knowledgeable, personable, took a real interest in the children and, when he wasn’t smoking like a chimney, demonstrated a casual worldliness that made us feel like maybe we could trust him with our “secret.”

As we crossed the “6th of October” Bridge, commemorating Egypt’s perspective on the Yom Kippur War, Ahmed decried violence of all kinds, stressing there were only losers in conflict. We were ready to open up.

That is, until he addressed the elephant in the room.

“You know, we Egyptians have no problems with American Jews like you,” he said unprompted. “But we really hate Israelis.”

Not “dislike” or “”not fond of,” but “hate.”

We decided we’d remain closeted until the end of the trip.

Upon our return to Israel, though, I was unsettled. I felt we had truly enjoyed each other’s company; that we could have become friends and not just customers given a bit more time. But that would require honesty.

Ahmed had given us his email address; I decided to write to him and “confess.”

“What would you say if I told you we were not only American but Israeli citizens as well?” I wrote.

A full week went by without a reply. I fretted. Maybe he was leading a tour down the Nile without good cell phone coverage, I comforted myself. Or maybe the time was not yet ripe to be so forthcoming.

Finally, a message appeared in my Inbox. The subject line read “Warm regards.” I was momentarily buoyed.

“In answer to your question,” Ahmed wrote, “my feeling for you and your family was very good.” But then he added, “even though you are from Israel.”

My hopes crashed as Ahmed continued. “And even though we got to know each other, this doesn’t change my position.”

But I was not willing to let it end there. I wrote back, attaching several photos from our trip.

This time, Ahmed’s response came the next day.

“The photos are excellent. Your children are beautiful. Greetings to your wife and Happy New Year. I hope it is a peaceful one for all.”

There was a P.S. “Could I use these photos on my website?”

And another P.S. “If you know anyone else coming to Egypt from Israel, please tell them to bring some Israeli cigarettes. I collect them and I’ve always wanted a box with Hebrew on it.”

I wrote about Ahmed originally at The Jerusalem Post.

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dennisprager180Dennis Prager has a radical proposal. In a column published earlier this month in the Jewish Journal, he makes the argument that “if you don’t eat bacon or shellfish because you are a Jew” – even if you eat beef or chicken that hasn’t been slaughtered according to Jewish Law or you eat out in restaurants without a kosher certificate – “you can and should proudly say that you keep kosher.”

Prager is not a rabbi nor is he strictly Orthodox, so his religious “ruling” won’t resonate with many of the people he’d probably like to reach. But the sentiments behind it are worth considering, wherever you are on the Jewish spectrum.

Prager writes that we shouldn’t treat keeping kosher as an all or nothing exercise. He likens it to tzedakah (charity), which is just as much a Torah commandment as keeping kosher.

While the amount one should give to charity can be interpreted in many ways (ten percent is often cited although that’s really just a guideline and there are many nuances), Prager’s point is that even if one’s donations are less than the ideal, you wouldn’t say that the person is “not giving charity” or – even worse – is a “tzedakah desecrator.”

So why do we decry a person who keeps only some “of what Judaism demands regarding kashrut” as not keeping kosher at all? Prager asks.

The same holds true for Shabbat, he adds.

“If a Jew refrains, even at the sacrifice of income, from working on Shabbat [but] turns on lights in the house” why is that person not considered Shomer Shabbat? Prager wonders. “Why would Jewish life want to exclude [Jews from] considering themselves religious” rather than the other way around?

Prager’s comparison with tzedakah is intended to apply ethical reasoning to the realm of ritual. His logic, unfortunately, is flawed. There’s a big difference in Jewish Law between fulfilling a positive commandment like giving charity, and transgressing a negative one like not eating pork, several people pointed out online.

“If I hit the brakes but don’t stop before going through a stop sign, can I [still] tell the officer that I stopped?” asked Meir Liberman on the Jewish Journal website.

Similarly, if someone “keeps only a portion of the civil law, is he an upstanding citizen or a criminal?” queried Eliezer Nadel in the same comments thread.

But if you put aside the Talmudic wrangling and look at the bigger, cultural argument, Prager may be on to something. He just left out four little words: “in my own way.”

A Jew who stays clear of ham but will have a fish sandwich at a McDonald’s is keeping kosher “in his or her own way.” A Jew who doesn’t use electronics on the Sabbath but drives to the mountains to go on a hike with the family is keeping Shabbat “in his or her own way.”

Or as social media activist Laura Ben-David, who regularly writes about Jewish and Israel issues, says, “Someone is religious if they declare themselves to be. That is, they are someone who is committed to that ideal regardless of how well they keep the rules.”

Keeping kosher or Shabbat “in your own way” is not the start of a slippery slope towards heresy. If done right, it’s taking ownership over your Judaism.

Rather than doing everything “because that’s what Jews have always done,” adding the words “in my own way” represents a profoundly mindful approach; a thoughtful reclamation of observance.

“A kid who comes from a home where kosher is not kept at all, and chooses a hot pretzel over a burger at an amusement park, is probably making a greater sacrifice then when I’m careful with cholov yisrael,” explained a commenter from North Carolina in a Facebook response to Prager’s thesis. (“Cholov Yisrael” refers to milk products made under the supervision of an observant Jew.)

Indeed, inconsistency isn’t a sin – it’s the essence of what it means to be human.

We may strive to stick to whatever golden path we have defined for ourselves, but I’ve yet to meet a person who didn’t falter.

And that’s a good thing. It’s honest, authentic, and frankly, a relief from the heaviness that often accompanies stringencies of any kind.

What if we let ourselves off the hook a bit religiously? Those cheese and crackers at the reception didn’t have OU supervision? That’s OK, because I’m steering clear of the shrimp cocktail. I keep kosher “in my own way.”

That vegan restaurant doesn’t have a kashrut license? Make my reservation now! I’m all for patronizing a place that does less harm to animals and the planet as I blaze my own interpretation of kashrut.

Prager may have employed a dicey halachic justification for his bold supposition, but he’s absolutely right about this: the days of binary either-or thinking about religion are over.

As Dana Meilier-Gross wrote in response to Prager’s article, “You accept the level of hypocrisy that works for you.”

This post generated a lot of controversy when it was first posted at The Jerusalem Post.

Dennis Prager addressed the comments his original piece raised in a second column, “Is Kosher All or Nothing?”

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Hatuna Shava logoA radio campaign called Hatuna Shava – a play on the Hebrew for a wedding that is both egalitarian and “worthwhile” – has been running over the past month in Israel. The radio spot urges young couples to get married, but to keep the Israeli Chief Rabbinate out of it.

Hatuna Shava is a collaboration between the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel and the Israel Hofsheet – Be Free Israel – organization.

The campaign aims to build on a growing trend where one out of every five marriages in Israel today now bypasses the rabbinate. That includes not just same sex or mixed faith couples who cannot get married according to Jewish Law, but liberal Orthodox Jews who are fed up with what they see as the corruption and insensitivity of Israel’s religious establishment.

This is not just a theoretical issue for our family. My daughter is getting married in the fall and she and her fiancé have to decide what kind of wedding they want.

Keeping the rabbinate away from the nuptials means the couple won’t be listed as married in the Israeli population registry, and they might miss out on some tax benefits, but any children that come out of the union would be fine. (They wouldn’t be classified as mamzerim – bastards – under halacha.)

Hatuna Shava would like couples getting married to use a non-Orthodox rabbi affiliated with one of the sponsors’ organization. But I’d go one step further. Why bother with a rabbi at all?

My respect for religious leadership in Israel – never particularly high – has been battered in the last month.

First it was the Supreme Rabbinical Court’s rejection of a conversion performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent modern Orthodox rabbi in the U.S., despite protests led by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and backed up by Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

Then there was the revelation that incoming IDF Chief Rabbi Eyal Karim had in the past made disparaging statements against women, gay people and non-Jews.

Karim implied that it is permissible for IDF soldiers to rape non-Jewish women during wartime, that women should not fill combat roles in the army, and that gay people should be treated as “sick or disabled.” Karim has since backtracked, but the damage was done.

A few days later, another army-related religious leader, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, who co-founded and heads the Bnei David pre-military religious academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli, repeatedly referred to gays as “perverts.” While he was roundly condemned by many public figures, 350 rabbis subsequently signed a letter supporting Levinstein.

These kinds of outrageous statements by religious leaders are nothing new – shortly after I first arrived in Israel in 1985, then Minister of the Interior Yitzhak Peretz placed the blame for a horrendous train accident that killed 22 junior high school students on the fact that a movie theater was allowed to remain open on Shabbat.

It’s not my intention to paint every religious leader with the same black brush. There are many rabbis who do excellent work. But every time I hear another inflammatory, racist, homophobic or misogynist statement coming from the religious right, I ask myself, why not abolish the whole institution?

What do we need rabbis for anyway? We don’t actually need them to perform a wedding – for that you just need a couple of witnesses, a ketuba (marriage contract) and a short ceremony involving an object of value (usually a ring).

There are Orthodox synagogues that don’t have a rabbi but rather a ritual committee that decides matters of Jewish practice for the community.

Kashrut doesn’t need rabbis either. The Hashgacha Pratit initiative was spurred by several Jerusalem restaurant owners who were fed up paying money to the Chief Rabbinate for kashrut inspectors who showed up for all of a couple of minutes a month yet still demanded their full payment.

Hashgacha Pratit creates a multi-sided learning compact where a restaurant’s staff is trained in what it takes to keep kosher and then signs a “contract of faith” which requires “total transparency toward the customers.” The responsibility for kashrut rests primarily with the restaurateur and its patrons, rather than outside rabbis. (A recent court ruling prevents Hashgacha Pratit from actually using the word “kosher.”)

Why not extend this do-it-yourself approach to all aspects of Jewish life?

After all, Judaism is supposed to be built as a community of scholars; of serious men and women who study Torah. Why can’t we decide on issues ourselves and jettison the crooked temptations that come with coupling a restaurant’s kashrut to a particular type of lettuce or the sanctity of a wedding to the color of the rabbi’s kippa?

Now, I know that what I’m proposing would probably lead to chaos and anarchy. You’d have two Jews, three synagogues and no one would agree to anything. How could we eat in each other’s homes?

But even if this is a mere thought experiment, the very fact that at least some of you may be nodding your heads in agreement means it’s worth playing out on a small stage – like a wedding without the rabbinate.

As Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti movement in Israel, and one of the backers of Hatuna Shava put it, “young couples are done with declarations and demonstrations. They are simply voting with their rings.”

I first proposed my thought experiment on abolishing the rabbis at The Jerusalem Post.

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Crowdfunded shnitzel without killing coming to your kitchen

August 2, 2016

Shir Friedman calls me a care-nivore. “You’re someone who cares about not harming animals…but you still eat them,” she says with a smile. Friedman wants to change all that. If Friedman’s new company takes off – and judging by the rapid response to their Indiegogo campaign, I have every expectation that it will – I […]

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Electro shock therapy meets the iPhone

August 2, 2016

Over the last three weeks, I’ve been zapping my brain with small jolts of electricity. Does the new Thync device work? Or is it placebo?

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Mixed marriage

June 25, 2016

“Can I ask your advice?” Shraga said on a sunny Shabbat afternoon a couple of weeks ago. “How do you make it work, religiously? You know, being in a mixed marriage?” I was taken aback momentarily. I had never heard my marriage described that way although, on consideration, it was in fact accurate. For years, […]

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“Trading down” – must aliyah always mean a career decline?

June 21, 2016

As I was researching The aliyah premium – how much more does it really cost to live in Israel?, I quickly realized that the only fair way to deal with the wide variances in individual earnings and tax rates was to stick with official and presumably impartial government sources like the Israeli Central Bureau of […]

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Indie rock discoveries at the fringes of Jacob’s Ladder

May 30, 2016

I’m probably the worst person to review the annual Jacob’s Ladder folk music festival that took place last weekend on the grounds of Kibbutz Nof Ginosar on the Sea of Galilee. I’m generally not a big fan of folk unless it’s either prefixed with “indie” or has “rock” appended afterward. As a result, I spend […]

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