A Legitimate Jew


By Deanna Neil

When I visited Israel a few years ago, I met an American Christian woman who had converted and married a right-wing Jew. Together, they had a few kids. She became entrenched in the Jewish community, and obsessed with the idea that her children be recognized as legitimate Jews. She ended up converting multiple times, each time through an increasingly dogmatic Jewish authority. Orthodox comedian and convert Israel Campbell followed a similar path, and he later quipped, “three circumcisions is not a religious covenant, it’s a fetish.”

I wondered: what causes this compulsion to be “official” as a Jew? And how many walk around feeling like they’re not legitimate? And what makes someone Jewish, after all?

A lot of the debate surrounds movements in Judaism, which are Jewish sects that interpret law and obligation differently. It’s a particularly timely discussion in the wake of this past Sunday’s decision – decades in the making – to create a space where men and women can pray together at the Western Wall, a big no-no in Orthodoxy, where genders pray separately. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said flat out that the acceptance was a statement about legitimacy. Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the board of Women of the Wall, said this was an acknowledgement of Jewish diversity. The decision makes space for non-Orthodox Jews at one of Judaism’s holiest and most important historical sites, validating those traditions and their rituals alongside stricter brethren.

(Sidenote: If you’re curious what movement of Judaism might be most accepting of your views, try this quiz for fun.)

Jewish history is long and varied, full of questioners and converts, and changes in both belief and practice – as the “movements” imply – but if you’re unfamiliar with it, the faith can look like a monolith. As a woman who teaches many unaffiliated families, often of mixed religious background, making people feel legitimate is part of my job description. So often these groups are eager to connect with their Jewish identity, but feel hesitant about doing a ritual because “they’re not doing it right.”

I respond: “Is the ritual meaningful? Did you or your family experience something? Then you’re doing it right.” I also point to the long line of assimilated/cross-cultural and humanistic Jews in history and the malleability of Judaism; it’s been around for thousands of years and has picked up traditions from all over. No one has the answer to who is a legitimate Jew.

For example, while ancient Israelites and the priesthood functioned under patrilineal descent, this changed in late antiquity, perhaps as an adoption of Roman custom (ta da! Malleability!) or as a derivative from an obscure law about horse breeding (seriously). Given that matrilineal descent is the Halakhic (by the law) Jewish norm these days and this fact causes considerable craziness within the Jewish community and beyond (note covert from first paragraph), it’s fascinating that we don’t totally know the origin of the law or recognize the many years the Israelite religion functioned without it. The Reform Movement is the only major Jewish denomination that currently recognizes someone born to a Jewish father or mother as being born Jewish.

When Israel’s “right of return” laws were being written, the issue of “who is Jewish” became a matter of governmental policy. Israel was established, in part, to act as a welcoming homeland for all Jews, and in 1950, all Jews were embraced as citizens (the narrative of the Palestinian homeland is a whole other blog post). However, the law did not originally offer a clear definition of who qualified as Jewish.

The issue came to a head in 1969 with the Shalit case, a boy born to an Israeli father of Jewish descent and a Scottish mother of Christian descent, who both considered themselves atheists. In a confusing dispute, brilliantly outlined by Robert Alter in this 1970 article of epic proportions that dances around Israel and Jewish legitimacy, the Shalit boy was granted Jewish “nationality” on his citizenship card in Israel. The decision caused uproar among the Orthodox, due the matrilineal descent issue outlined above. As a political maneuver, such recognitions were from that point forth banned, but as a compromise to the progressives, the laws of return were extended to grandchildren of Jews and even non-Jewish spouses.

In 1988, the Orthodox began fighting the inclusiveness of the law. Had it passed, their challenge would have made Orthodox affiliation the sole criteria for entry to Israel, essentially de-legitimizing a number of converts or families that identify with non-Orthodox denominations. My mom protested this and ended up on the cover of the New York Times, enormous 80s blonde hair and all. And she had more than just moral reasons to protest -my dad was a convert.

Though the challenge to the laws of return did fail (go mom!), Orthodoxy remains the sole recognized denomination for performing conversions and weddings in the country. To clarify: this means that my dad, who converted to Judaism with a Conservative movement Rabbi nearly 30 years ago, would still be allowed to enter Israel as a citizen under the right of return laws, but he would not be allowed to be married or divorced there, as he is not considered a legitimate Jew by the Orthodox rabbinate. Does this all make your head want to explode?

Israeli politics aside, Judaism is more complicated than the other Abrahamic religions in the determination of legitimacy. Islam and Christianity have a belief-based acceptance into the religion, whereas Judaism carries the ethnic and nationhood component. Today, Jews are often defined in a variety of ways, most usually as an ancient nation or people, scattered throughout the world with some common practices. While there is genetic exploration used to identify lineage or uncover diseases, the idea of Jews as a “race” remains problematic.  Some Jews relate as an ethnicity, but as Jews are found in communities all over the world, that ethnicity is usually shaped by the majority culture of its home country.

Which is all to say: if you don’t feel like a good or legitimate or real Jew, it’s not because you aren’t one. The tradition of questioning our place in the faith is almost as old as Judaism itself, and there is no single definition of what a Jew is or is not. The idea of feeling or being seen as illegitimate can create a significant amount of neurosis, especially when it’s tied up with community acceptance, immigration and legalities, and touches upon core issues of self-worth and identity. The good news of these many definitions of what it means to be Jews: you can always be legitimate in some circles. And if you really want to be accepted: you can always fight for your place at the table, er…the wall.

Stay tuned for the follow up blog: A legitimate Rabbi.


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Exodus: Gods and Kings vs. Torah

If you watch the new Exodus movie this Passover, here’s a little chart to help guide you and your family in a comparison between the original text and the cinematic narrative. Click to enlarge. Exodus comparison final

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An Eastside LA Guide to Purim

8:00 pm Megilla reading, followed by light refreshments

Sunday, March 16
9:00 am Morning Services
10:00 am and 4:00 pm Megila Reading
4:00 pm Purim Under the Sea Party

Saturday, March 15 
7:00 pm Purim Shpiel: Gypsy Rose Lee Liebowitz

Saturday March 15
6:30 pm Purim Shpiel

Saturday March 15
8:30pm Back to Shushan: A Purim Bash and Masquerade

Saturday, March 15
6:30 pm Masquerade Ball at Vibiana
Sunday March 16
10:15-11:00 am Family Megillah Reading and Purim Shpiel
11:00 am -3:00 pm Purim Carnival

Sunday, March 16
10:00 am Come as your favorite Purim character and enjoy pizza, drinks, hamentashen, games and prizes. Come join the fun. Please note this year’s celebration and carnival will be held during Religious School from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm.

Sunday, March 16
11:00 am – 3:00 pm Purim Carnival
Wristbands for unlimited rides and games (not including food): $55 per wristband (pre-sale)
by March 7. Contact Sherryl Pinsker (424) 208-8906, spinsker@wbtla.org.

Saturday March 15
6:30 pm Megillah reading

Saturday, March 15
8:00 pm Megillah & Shpiel
9:30pm Adult Carnival

$25 Members, $30 Non-Members, which includes admission and $5 towards food or beverage). Buy your tickets here.

Sunday, March 16
10:00 am Early Childhood Carnival
11:00 am Mini-Megillah
11:30 am Room transforms for Older Kids’ Carnival featuring a performance by the band Moose
$15 Kid Members, $20 Kid Non-Members, adults included. Buy your tickets here.

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An Eastside LA Guide to the High Holidays

Here’s an at-a-glance guide to High Holiday services around the east side of Los Angeles. Please confirm prices, childcare options, and any reservations through the synagogue.

 Adult Services
 Child Programming
Non-Member Prices: $180 per person for all services.

 Adult Services
 Child Programming
 Services held downtown at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center
Non-Member Prices: $275 per person for all services. Single Service tickets are also available for $150-175.
Free for under 30 and residents of Downtown. 

 Adult Services
 Child Programming
Non-Member Prices: $250 per service per adult, or $375 for all; and $25-45 per service per child, or $200 for

 Adult Services
 Childcare/Child Programming
 Services held Downtown at the Founder’s Church of Religious Science
Non-Member Prices: No admission fee. Suggested donation of $350 per adult for all services. 

 Adult Services
 Childcare/Child Programming
Non-Member Prices: $300 per adult for all services and $80 per child for all services. Please contact the synagogue at (626) 798-1161 for reservations. 

 Adult Services
 Childcare/Child Programming
 Family Taslich and Yom Kippur Services
Non-Member Prices: $150 per adult (over 13) for all services. $75 per family for family services.

 Adult Services
 Family Services (toddler-2nd grade)
 Childcare/Child programming
Non-Member Prices: $300 per person for all services. Family services are free.

 Adult Services
Non-Member prices: Reserved seating is $200 per adult, and $100 per child. Non-reserved seating is available
for free, with a suggested donation.

 Adult Services
 Family Services
Non-Member Prices: $350 per person for all services or $125 per person for RH or YK. Please contact the
synagogue regarding childcare options at tickets@temple-sinai.net

 Adult Services
 Family Services (k-8)
 Family Services (preschoolers)
Non-Member Prices: $100 per adult per service. Family services for families with preschoolers are free.


For a few alternative events, check out East Side Jews’ Down to the River tashlich event, and the second day of Rosh Hashanah with the Pico Union Project downtown. 

Happy new year!

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Making it Count

ImageWhat happens when we assign a number to something? Why do we count? To anticipate? To value? To measure?

From the end of Passover until the beginning of Shavuot (49 days, 7 weeks), Jews count the Omer. An Omer is an ancient measuring system, associated with grain. The holiday has evolved in a number of ways:

  • A celebration of Harvest. Probably the original ritual of the holiday was around spring and reaping grain. In temple times, people provided offerings of wheat or barley.
  • A celebration of the Jewish Narrative. The Rabbis link the story of Exodus to Shavuot, by explaining it as the link between freedom and receiving the Torah.
  • A celebration of mindfulness. The Kabbalists or Jewish mystics, created a breakdown of attributes for each day and week as a way of turning inward and improving the self.

We are almost finished with counting the Omer. Only a few weeks left. Look up what day we’re on with the Homer Calendar (as in Homer Simpson). For a daily Omer reflection, check-in on the Meaningful Life Center.

An Homage to Teachers and Learning

The Omer is considered a period of semi-mourning, because thousands of Rabbi Akiba’s students died around the time of the Omer. On Lag B’omer (the 33rd day of the Omer), however, we stop and celebrate another great teacher: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar (the foremost kabbalistic text). This is a time to consider: Who are my teachers? Am I still learning and growing? Did I ever tell my favorite teacher how much I appreciate what they did for my life? Who can I teach? Who is counting on me for education?


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How to Talk to Kids About…


A collection of insights from Jewish educators, rabbis and artists on how to talk to kids about core Jewish lifecycle rituals, from circumcision to shiva (mourning).

Saying it Out Loud

“From brit to b’nai mitzvah to weddings to reciting kaddish (the mourner’s prayer), when you actually stand and say something out loud, there is a different level of accountability that you take on for yourself because you are being witnessed. We see you, you are seen, you are heard and your experience is holy and we’re honoring it. It’s like holding up a mirror, for you to see yourself through other people’s eyes. ”
– Naomi Less, Jewish Ritual Facilitator, Musician, Educator and Director of Education and Training for Storahtelling


“Well, I think the question of circumcision, makes people think about being chosen. Being marked. That opens the question of what does it mean to be chosen? What does it mean to be marked?”
– Jill Soloway, Filmmaker and Los Angeles Community Organizer

Tell them as little as possible, create a diversion. “Look there’s rugelach!”
– Racelle Rosett, author Moving Waters  

“Discussing circumcision is absolutely the most uncomfortable part of the bar bat mitzvah preparation process, especially when talking with a male student. You have to be appropriate but at the same time, be honest. Not evade it. Kids appreciate candor. Usually the easiest way to start talking about circumcision is by introducing the story of Abraham and the commandment to circumcise for the first time. I did have one student recently who pressed me on how the mechanics of circumcision really worked, so I encouraged him to talk to his dad as well as google a diagram of how it worked. Not photos and videos because that would be terrifying.”
– Todd Shotz, founder of Hebrew Helpers

“I find it best to be as honest and open as possible. While you shouldn’t be afraid to discuss the physical nature of Brit Milah, you should stress that this meaningful Jewish ceremony involves so much more than a circumcision – it’s a permanent reminder of your commitment to raise your son as a precious member of the Jewish people.  You should tell your child that this decision was just one of many important decisions you made for him from before he was born and will make for many more years – always keeping his best interests in mind.”
– Gabriel Botnick, Mohel (www.LABritMilah.com)

The Difficult Questions

“My approach to all so-called “difficult” educational questions is to channel the great wisdom of Moshe Greenberg (z”l), the great Bible professor and Jewish educator…First, one should never have to un-teach that which one has already taught.  (We might call this the principle of intellectual honesty.)  Second, one should not answer questions that the student has not asked.  (We might call this the principle of meeting our students where they are.)  These principles guide my approach to everything from the revelation at Sinai to sexuality, and would clearly inform my approach to lifecycle events:  do not misrepresent, and do not overshare.”
 Jacob Cytryn, Director, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin

B’nai Mitzvah

 bat-mitzvah-girl“Every culture, every religion has its moments for monumental rights of passage. There are even secular rituals, like getting a driver’s license or registering to vote. These moments are marking times, where people take on different responsibilities in life. As a bar or bat mitzvah, we ask a young adult to stand up in front of their community, create a ritual space as a leader, and share the ancient narrative of their people. Being ready to conduct that kind of experience takes both inner work and skills—introspection and investigation into family, values and commitment. It is not just about reading Torah in Hebrew.”
– Naomi Less, Jewish Ritual facilitator, musician, educator and Director of Education and Training for Storahtelling

“A bar or bat mitzvah extraordinary because it’s never happened to this kid, and it’s ordinary because the rituals happen every service.”
– Susan Golberg, East Side L.A. Rabbi

This is the beginning ( not the end of ) their Jewish life and choosing the kind of person they want to become. Also, act as if it doesn’t matter to you at all if they have a bar/bat mitzvah. In fact appear exhausted and like you might not even want to bother. Then when they decide to have a bar mitzvah, it’s on them. Remind them that the party is not actually for them but for everyone who helped them to become a good person.
– Racelle Rosett, author Moving Waters  



“The first time that I bring up wedding or marriage is all the way at the beginning of the bar-bat mitzvah preparation process when we’re learning the Hebrew letter chet. It’s because I tell them that the letter looks like a chuppah, and they kids say “what’s that?” And then I pull it up on my computer and show them an image. I explain how it’s open on all sides to be welcoming in your new home, and how it’s reminiscent of Abraham’s tent. I’m also very conscious of not saying bride and groom, just to be sensitive to all kinds of families.”
– Todd Shotz, founder of Hebrew Helpers

Weddings = More food. Lox for sure. A chance to practice the Hora for their bar mitzvah. People held aloft in chairs!”
– Racelle Rosett, author Moving Waters

Joel L. Kushner, Psy.D., Director – Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at HUC referred to advice on how to talk to kids about same-gender relationships from Opening Doors: Lesbian and Gay Parents in Schools, A Project of the Educational Advocacy Committee of the Family Pride Coalition. “Grown-ups create relationships in many ways. Many grown-ups live their lives in couples and take care of one another as a family. Being married is one way to do this. In most places, women cannot marry women and men cannot marry men because there is no law that says they can. But people who love each other can live together, take care of one another and be a family, with or without children.”

Shiva and Mourning

“Shiva is kind of like creating a big hug around the family who has lost someone. By being with them, eating food, and sitting with them, they know that the entire community is trying to wrap themselves around them.”
–       Rabbi Susan Goldberg, East Side L.A. Rabbi

iStock_000002881336XSmall“When talking to a kid ages 2-5 I would say: When a person dies we are very sad. So we want to stay with our family, we want to have people come and visit with us and help us with food and support us with our sadness and help us remember the person who just died. If the kids are older I would bring in different elements.  I would explain that shiva lasts for 7 days and when it ends, it’s a bridge for us to enter back into every day life.”
– Ruthie Shavit, Executive Director of Early Childhood Education at the Silverlake Independent JCC

“My brother decided to bring both of his kids to my mother’s funeral. Not to the cemetery, but to the service. My oldest nephew was 7 and a half and the youngest was about 4. My brother told them that Savta Shuly died and that we wouldn’t see her anymore, but we could look at pictures and she would always be in our hearts. It was just true enough to be true. They stayed quiet for the entire funeral; they got that it was a solemn place. Shiva was in my parents’ house. During the minyan, it was a challenge to keep them quiet because they wanted to watch tv and run around. Kids are so id-driven, and explaining why they can’t have what they want because of this moment of shiva, is like explaining why you can’t have pizza for breakfast. I think it’s important to let the kids know the structure of the day. Say, “There will be a minyan, which is like a shul in the house so we can pray. There will be a Torah in the house. People are going to be in the house all day to talk about Savta Shuly.” At some point my sister-in-law took them out to a museum, which was good. You can’t keep kids in the house like that for 7 days. Kids shouldn’t be forced to mourn with the parents. They’ll process in their own way, they’ll ask a lot of questions, and parents and relatives need to be prepared to answer them…Children can be a great relief in that way, but it’s important that mourners don’t transfer their grief or lash out in their sadness. When it comes to kids, it’s about creating the openness of the conversation, but not necessarily over-sharing.”
– Esther Kustanowitz is a consultant to Jewish non-profits and author of the forthcoming book, Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): A Guide to Loss and What Comes After

“Shiva is a chance to let the loved ones tell stories and remember the happy times of the person who is gone. There will be food. There is often a lot of laughter and, of course, sadness too, but nothing to be afraid of. Often there are cookies.”
 Racelle Rosett, author Moving Waters  

Being in The Club
“Jewish life cycle rituals are designed to make us all feel like we have a club that we belong to, a place to feel welcome and comfortable. At every stage of our lives, we have a big Jewish family who is there for us to say things like “Mazel tov!” and “L’Chaim!” and “What can I get you to eat? You look too skinny…” Judaism gives us rituals to remind us what we’re supposed to do at emotional times – the joyous ones and the not-so-joyous ones…And for all of these moments, there are pages from our Jewish sources to add some meaning: inspiring stories of Jews who have had the same experiences, hopes and fears in generations past; words to live by from the Torah and commentaries; history, philosophy, poetry–something for everyone. At every important moment in life, the club is there, right by your side, saying “Hey, we love you, we’re here for you, and we have this 3,000 year-old tradition to help you thrive in this world. Let’s eat.”
 Dr. Miriam Heller Stern is a Mom, a Dean at AJU, and a Jew who has found joy and comfort in the cycle of Jewish rituals a few times over

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Tree Quotes

“The groves were God’s first temples.” 
–  William Cullen Bryant, A Forest Hymn

“Except during the nine months before he draws his first breath, no man manages his affairs as well as a tree does.” 
–  George Bernard Shaw  


“God is the experience of looking at a tree and saying, “Ah!” 
–  Joseph Campbell    

“Oak trees come out of acorns, no matter how unlikely that seems.  An acorn is just a tree’s way back into the ground.  For another try.  Another trip through.   One life for another.” 
–  Shirley Ann Grau  

 “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” 
–  Ralph Waldo Emerson    

Poem of the Dune Tree

“[The Torah compares humans to trees] because, like humans, trees have the power to grow. And as humans have children, so trees bear fruit. And when a human is hurt, cries of pain are heard throughout the world, so when a tree is chopped down, its cries are heard throughout the world.” – Rashi

Click here to read more Jewish Tree Quotes from NFTY. 

Thanks to Devon Schwartz, 5th grade teacher, pulling these together in honor of our hike.

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