Hey all! My first blog post is here, and it’s a doozy.
A few weeks ago, We Need Diverse Books hosted a Twitter chat on what it’s like to be part of a minority religion in America. Unfortunately, it got co-opted by people who seemed to confuse “minority denomination of majority religion but still very large segment of the general population” with “minority religion,” which kind of ruined the chat for those participating and following along that actually do belong to minority religions. In order to rectify that, Jewish author and chat participant Dahlia Adler rounded up most of the original participants as well as a few new ones for a private conversation (since it clearly didn’t work in a public sphere) and posted that in blog form instead, which, as she puts it, “is a pretty massive expression of what being in a minority religion is in America; being insular and being able to practice in peace tend to go hand in hand.” As a Jew myself, I agreed with a lot of what the four Jews involved in the private chat had to say, and I learned a lot from the two Muslims, Mormon, and Santeria practitioner that also took part, so I thought I’d add on my two cents.
What were your childhood years like from a religious perspective?
I went to a Jewish day school from pre-K through 8th grade, I attended JCC camps during the summer, and most of our family friends were/are Jewish, so even though the Jewish community here is small, it was all I knew–I even accidentally ruined Santa for a girl once because I didn’t know she wasn’t Jewish. Whenever we’d go back to visit family in Toronto, I was always fascinated by the obvious Hebrew lettering on several storefronts and the easily-identifiable Orthodox Jewish families walking to one of the city’s many synagogues on any given Saturday (whereas in my U.S. hometown, there are only six congregations). Because I was surrounded by so much Judaism in my early years, I didn’t truly understand that Jews are in fact a minority until I went to a Jesuit Catholic high school.
My high school did (and still does) pride itself on being interfaith–when I was there, it was about 50% Catholic, at least 25% other Christian, and probably about 7% Jewish (out of around 800 students). I also had classmates who were Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu, so we all learned a lot about each other (in and out of our religion classes), which was really cool–I still miss being surrounded by that level of religious diversity and tolerance.
From a cultural, communal perspective, what’s your favorite thing about your religion?
[I have reactions to multiple sections, so I’m going to copy/paste bits and pieces in a different order than the original.]
“Kaye: A friend on Twitter actually said this first, but I love the optimism inherent in Islam, and the quiet devotion to God. Even when you see something pretty, or something that makes you happy, you praise God.
I also love the communal aspects of holidays, and especially Hajj, the pilgrimage. When I went in 2012, it was like the United Nations. I made friends with three sisters from Kyrgyzstan. If we ever get to Egypt again, we have some people there who made sure we have their address. We bumped into some Japanese Muslims who were super welcoming and friendly. It was so heartening that, even though a lot of people didn’t know English at all, the greeting was universal and a smile was always understood.
Dahlia: Kaye, I love that. I think the idea of the Hajj is so, so cool, and the idea of making friends with people along the way is such a beautiful one and so exactly the kind of thing I think religion is about. I’m actually surprised there aren’t any YAs about a Hajj, because that pretty much sounds like the best road trip story possible.
[at this point the rest of us gently bullied Kaye into writing this book for about an hour, so let’s just move past that].”
YES. This needs to happen. I would so read that book.
And now for the longer one:
“Katherine: Two things. We’re always watching out for each other. You, KK, and I all have very different faith traditions despite [all being Jewish], and we’re still reaching out and sharing common traditions, common experiences, protecting each other when it comes to hurts.
Second thing. Food. Everything is beige.
KK: What Katie said 🙂 (PS potato kugel is being made as I type.) Jewish Geography has saved me more times than I can count. Plus also I would probably not be a sane human being without Shabbos (Sabbath).
Dahlia: My favorite thing is sort of a combination of all these things – the way it sort of crosses boundaries, and how someone in your religion anywhere in the world is like family. It really struck me when I was traveling on my honeymoon how every kosher restaurant or synagogue felt like a Jewish Embassy. Even though the first stop on our trip was Prague, and I’m half-Czech, the city itself didn’t feel like “home,” but the Jewish sites did, and that was amazing to me. Ditto in Istanbul.
Katherine: Dahlia, that happened to me when I was in Ukraine, Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. I felt extremely like an outsider except for when we went to visit Jewish sites. Even in places where there isn’t a Jewish community anymore, like Novi Pazar in southern Serbia near Kosovo, it was such a flood of *home* to step into Jewish spaces. to see Hebrew on stone.”
First, Jewish food is the bomb (more on this topic will be said later). Second, completely agreed with the Jewish Geography around-the-world thing. When I was studying abroad in Ireland, I went to a synagogue service for Kol Nidre (the night before Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance/holiest day of the Jewish year), and while I was sad to have to send over ID in advance and that the service had to be held in a pretty nondescript building with a fence around it and a guard outside, once people started saying “Good Yom Tov” to me and chanting tunes I recognized, I immediately felt at home. It’s amazing to walk into a brand new (to you) synagogue and be able to sing along with the prayers right from the get-go, wherever you are in the world.
What’s your association with how your religion is depicted in the media, and in kids’ books in general? Are there books you’ve seen do it really well? Books that stand out as harmful?
“Katherine: I don’t actually know if any standout as harmful, but there are very few books where Reform Jews interact with Judaism beyond Hanukkah or the Holocaust. Really, books with Jews of any denomination not about the Holocaust are few and far between.”
YES THIS. It reminds me of an article I read on Tablet–of course Holocaust books are important, but we Jews are in fact still here, and there is so much more to us than that time, so books need to reflect that as well.
Five sensory images relating to your religion: GO.
“Katherine: Lit candles, for sure. Fried food. I have a really deep emotional attachment to the Amidah [the holiest prayer included in each of the services]. Can that count? Okay. Thanks 😛
Dahlia: Oh, lit candles is definitely good – I think people definitely have that image because of Chanukah, but we also light two candles for Shabbos every Friday night. (Some people light more – an extra one per kid.)
KK: My family does that. My mom lights ten candles every Friday night. The smell of challah. The stones of the Kotel. The sound of the entire synagogue praying together on Yom Kippur. Shofar blowing. Kaddish. Blessing food before eating.
Dahlia: Various songs are big ones for me. The two we sing before Friday night dinner, especially – “Shalom Aleichem” (lit. “Peace be upon you,” but used to mean “welcome”) and “Eishet Chayil (“Woman of Valor,” which is directly from Proverbs), which is something men sing to their wives, though often you just kinda join in because why not.
KK: SONGS! “HaMalach HaGoel,” which is one of the prayers we say before going to sleep. “Ani Ma’amin,” one of the 13 principles of faith formulated by the Rambam (famous commentator on Torah).”
I highlighted the Jewish ones because I agree with all of them. Lit candles, grape juice, challah, saying blessings over all three of those things, and chanting prayers in Hebrew in shul (synagogue) are such huge parts of my Judaism–doing these things at home on Friday nights is what I associate with the word “family.” And the food! Oh my goodness, the food. Latkes, bourekas, kugel, Grandma’s apricot-mustard beef salami mixed into matzah brei…mmm. I love the songs that were mentioned too, particularly “Shalom Aleichem” and “HaMalach HaGoel” (both of which are directed toward angels–maybe that has something to do with it? I also just really like the tunes), but I’m going to add another to the list–I really like “Avinu Malkeinu,” which is sung on the High Holidays and asks God to treat us with kindness.
“Meagan: I like that candles are almost always a cross over.”
Candles came up in every single person’s answer–in fact, many of the sensory images regarding rituals and feeling at home sounded really similar. There’s got to be a lesson in that somehow, about how people are a lot more alike than we think we are.
What depictions of your religion are you still waiting with bated breath to see?
“Katherine: I’d super like to see a MG [middle grade] with a Bar/Bat/B’nai Mitzvah because that basically sucked up all of my time, social life, energy, and thought in seventh grade. It was a huge part of my life and I never see that reflected anywhere.”
Apparently I’m ending on a sillier note because YES THIS. I went to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah literally almost every weekend for/with my middle school classmates, and because I enjoyed the evening receptions so much I was convinced I was a “party girl”–clearly not true, and not what those personality quizzes I liked to fill out at the time meant! That also meant going to lots and lots of synagogue services, since it is most definitely frowned upon to show up at the party without having gone to see the Bar/Bat Mitzvah kid read from the Torah and lead the morning prayers at shul. I would love to see a similar experience reflected in middle grade lit.
Thank you to Dahlia and all the other participants for making me think about my own experiences and allowing me to learn about others’! Hope you enjoyed this super-long blog post; I’ll see you all next time.