Arielle Angel: Welcome back to On The Nose with Jewish Currents. Our second ever podcast is happening and we all have crazy mic setups. And we’ve decided to combine this mic setup experience with literally all of our domestic partners who are here joining us to really complete the social experiment of this podcast. So we’ve spent quite a lot of time figuring out how microphones work and here we all are. We recently did a conversation about “intermarriage,” there really isn’t a less gross word for it, so this is the one that we will be using. And we talked about a lot of interesting things, for example, what it actually means to pass down a kind of vague, secular Judaism. And the ways that that feels in some ways too close to the white nationalist 14 words that talks about the continuation of the white race and that kind of discomfort. We talked about the difficulty of taking Jewish continuity conversations outside of the the realm of the family and whether that was possible. And we also talked about challenging the continuity framework on its own and embracing the finitude of the entire framework, which is really beautiful and you should read that conversation. It really helped me in thinking through a lot of things. But one of the main responses that we got on Twitter, where we hear all of the complaints about everything that we do, is that we weren’t actually centering the voices of partners and domestic partners who are not Jewish in the conversation. And so we have done that. And here we are. There’s eight of us here. And we’re here with our spouses and domestic flatmates and we’re about to have this conversation. I’m sorry, this is such a bizarre way of introducing this, but we’re still getting used to it. So I guess we will just start with introducing ourselves. Nathan, do you want to take us away?
Nathan Goldman: Yeah. I’m Nathan Goldman. I’m the managing editor of Jewish Currents.
Bridget Bergin: I’m Bridget. I’m married to Nathan.
NG: And I’m Jewish.
BB: I grew up Catholic. I guess I’ve been practicing Judaism for a while now. And I began the formal process of converting at our reformed shul earlier this year.
AA: Cool. Dan and Ari, you guys should go next.
Ari Brostoff: Hi, I’m Ari Brostoff. I’m the culture editor at Jewish Currents.
Daniel Drake: And I’m Daniel Drake, Ari’s Catholic domestic roommate.
AA: I invented that term for this podcast.
AB: It’s good. We should clarify that we are not only not married, but also not a couple. But we do share a home and love each other very much.
DD: We’re what the queers call a found family.
AA: As I said, I’m Arielle Angel, editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents.
Michael McCanne: And I’m Michael McCanne. I’m her partner. I’m technically Jewish, as it was said in the conversation, but I was raised secular. My parents are Buddhists.
Nora Caplan-Bricker: I’m Nora Caplan-Bricker. I’m the web editor of Jewish Currents.
Tom Stackpole: Tom Stackpole. I’m married to Nora. I was sort of raised Protestant, sort of. My mother’s Catholic and we went to a congregational church in Massachusetts once a year-ish around Christmas. So I didn’t really have a religious upbringing to speak of.
NCB: And we are non-practicing secular people who are talking about what it means for our family to be, our household to be, Jewish, as we talked about in that conversation the other week.
AA: Alright, so I think the place to start is just that I know that actually the conversation itself that we had as a staff opened up conversations in our homes after that. And so I thought we could just talk a little bit about what came up in conversation or what were some first impressions of that conversation? Was that sort of like, why are we even having this or whatever? And what were the conversations following that?
TS: I think one of the things that we started talking about is when Nora’s Jewish identity started to matter in our relationship, because it was really a non-factor for the early days, I would say. It wasn’t something we talked about, it wasn’t something I really thought about, I don’t think we really had serious conversations about what your Jewish identity meant, or how you defined it, until we decided to get married, which opens up a whole rabbit hole of stuff about family traditions, and what you want to replicate and what you want to leave behind and what it means to replicate inherited parts of your identity. So, I think one of the things that we started to do is create a timeline of how did we define things at different moments? And to what extent did we even really talk about you being Jewish?
AA: And where was that? What’s the timeline like?
TS: I think it was really around getting married. Because you have to start talking about what does the service look like? And what sort of traditions do we want to draw on? And as non-religious people, we don’t believe in God. And so we’re just skipping that part. But, you know, we started talking about are we starting from scratch? Are we doing a collage of cultural traditions where we mix and match and create some sort of tapestry of inherited traditions? And I think we ended up doing something that is probably pretty down the line of basically having a Jewish-ish ceremony with some elements of Protestantism pulled in.
AA: Who married you?
NCB: So the synagogue that I grew up going to—I will say, I think one of the things has been interesting is that our perception of whether we ever talked about me being Jewish is not the same. I think your perception is that it was essentially out of the frame until we had to figure out whether it factored into an actual wedding. I don’t think that’s exactly how it feels to me. But it’s interesting that that’s how it feels to you. It’s interesting to learn that. But I grew up going to a conservative shul. So that Rabbi could not have married us. And there was no reformed synagogue around when I was a kid, and so there was no obvious rabbi who could marry us. And so we instead asked a sort of lapsed Congregationalist pastor who had actually left the church already and was sort of becoming a folk singer, essentially, but lived in the town that I’m from and had officiated a really incredible memorial service for a family friend who died and we were like, cool, we like her. And so she married us. But she’s not Jewish at all.
AA: Nora, when you hear him say that it didn’t come up until then, you felt like it did come up?
NCB: How do I want to say this? I think that I had some religious education. So I grew up going to synagogue several days a week. So even though I wasn’t doing that by the time we met, when I was in my early 20s, it was still part of the fabric of my life experience, I guess. So it’s not like there was ever a way that I would not be aware of being Jewish. And in fact, I think when I started going home with you, Tom, and meeting your family, which is solidly not a Jewish family, I was really aware of being Jewish actually, more actively probably than at any previous juncture in my life. Because I grew up in a college town, functionally surrounded by Jewish families very similar to my own Jewish family, Jewish families of academics who lived in a college town in New England, which was probably a particular flavor, but it was one I grew up surrounded by. And your family—we’re from the same state, we’re from sort of the same micro-regional culture of being people who grew up in New England, but your family is from a totally different strand of regional microculture than mine. They live near the water, they love boats, they drink gin. My family can’t drink gin. They just literally, physically can’t do it. And that’s probably unfair to my dad, who will say that he likes gin, but the culture is different. And so when I started going home with you, I was like, wow, it’s a totally different world. It made me feel aware of being Jewish, but in what way? I’m not exactly sure. But it made me feel aware of it. So even if it felt like a non-issue to you, I felt aware of it, I guess, is what I would say.
TS: Yeah, that makes sense. I think when I say that it came up around our wedding, I think it was the first time that I saw it as “Oh, this is a thing we have to figure out.” Because a lot of our early conversations were unpacking family dynamics, and figuring out where we came from. And then as a part of that, figuring out what we had in common in terms of shared vision for being in the world. And so I think the wedding brought up stuff of like, oh, well, we have to make decisions about what how we’re going to officially incorporate a religious identity, or part of this cultural identity. As we’re figuring out what our forward-facing family identity is, we need to make some pseudo official decisions about that. Obviously, the fact that you were Jewish came up before we got married. I was aware, I’d heard about it.
NCB: Yeah, so it came up. It became something we actually talked about when we tried to externalize it, I guess, is maybe something I could agree is true.
AA: Could I ask one more question, and then maybe we’ll circulate a little bit? Do you feel like it’s come up since your wedding? Or is that the only time that it came up? Because I know, Nora, in the conversation that we had, you are kind of questioning whether this was even a conversation worth having. You were sort of like “My husband is socioeconomically, racially, education-wise, we are in the same strata, so this is a really easy kind of relationship.” And you were sort of questioning whether that means that this conversation itself is making a mountain out of a molehill, why are we even having it? And so I’m just wondering is that the only time that it came up? Is there a way that even bringing it up raises questions that don’t need to be raised on some level for you guys?
TS: So I think the thing that everyone asks you as soon as you get married, is if you’re gonna have kids or when you’re gonna have kids. And so I think that hypothetical is probably where some of our conversations happen around, what does it mean that we’ve gotten married and we have these two sort of separate traditions? I think, for me, I never expected or I never cared if I married somebody who came from the same general background as me. And so there was never any familial pressure and your family was always very lovely to me in terms of bringing me into the fold. But I do think that if you’re talking about procreating, then I think you end up having to have a conversation about well, is your kid going to be Jewish? And I think that’s where some of those conversations come up.
AA: Well, inquiring minds want to know, Tom, is your kid going to be Jewish? [laughs]
TS: I don’t know! They should choose.
NCB: The dog is Jewish. Cause he’s so anxious. I think it’s also true that just in the process of setting up, before we got married, we lived with roommates, we were a little more transient. In the last few years, not because necessarily of getting married, but in the same sort of time period, we’ve actually moved into our own apartment and started making some of these choices about the things that you just sort of implicitly thought you carried with you about the way you lived and who you were, you then have to start to put them into practice and figure out if I’m going to live in the city in a long term way? Am I going to be part of any Jewish community or cultural community here? Are these things going to be reflected in the home that I make for myself? So I think the conversation has continued to come up in part just because we’re at a phase, I think it’s something about the phase of life where, you know, it was one thing for me in my early 20s to just be like, “I don’t know, I guess I’m Jewish.” And now it feels like I have to decide if that means anything, functionally at all in our lives.
AA: Bridget, why don’t we go to you? Has anything jumped out for you?
BB: Yeah, I was struck, Nora and Tom, by the idea of the ways that one partner’s understanding or memory of events or conversations is different than the other. And one thing that stood out to me and, Nathan, I’ve talked about this before, but he describes himself as constantly fleeing from Judaism, only to be brought back in, and for me, as his partner, it seems like I’ve known him for the most recent half of his life, and he’s been barreling towards Judaism at full force. And ihow I’ve understood it. And I think generally, reading the conversation, I was thinking about the ways that I was feeling a little bit obtuse because it feels Nathan described himself as being defensive and angry about the conversation. And I recognize my relationship with Nathan and my relationship with Judaism as just—I don’t recognize that that much as you know, intermarriage or interfaith. I don’t feel particularly defensive or angry. It doesn’t take up the same kind of space in my mind as it seems to for Nathan. I guess in some ways, kind of thinking of myself, you know, for better or for worse, as a little bit of a serial monotheist. I first took a Jewish theology class to satisfy theology credit at my Catholic College and moved in with Nathan right after college—we’d met in high school—and my entire adult life had a Jewish life. We’ve never had a Christmas tree, we’ve never had an Easter basket, to kind of harken back to the round table that was published. But then in other ways, I was also struck by Nathan described a kind of spiraling before having this conversation, asking why am I Jewish? Why do I care? And reading that, I was struck by the ways that his conflicted relationship with his Jewish identity, in some ways resonated with mine, even though I don’t have an inheritance to that kind of spiraling. As someone who’s been thinking about converting for a while and has just begun to convert, if I’m choosing it, shouldn’t I be able to articulate why? And what Judaism means to me and what our practices and how that manifests and my beliefs. But I can’t in any kind of real way, and I feel conflicted about converting, kind of harking back to this push and pull and fleeing and being brought back in that Nathan had described, because converting, feels very antithetical to the Judaism that I’ve practiced. But yet, it’s the only way for me to stake any kind of claim over my Judaism and not my partner’s. So it feels like something that I, not have to do in order to be Jewish, but it feels like a step, and yet one that goes against the kind of ambivalence and elusiveness and fluidity that has defined my experience of Judaism. You have to choose it and go through steps and rules and process and so that part feels foreign. And yet it is a step.
AA: Nathan, do you want to respond to any of that?
NG: Yeah, I think it’s super interesting, for one thing, that you have a perception—the idea that I overestimate the degree to which my own Jewishness might actually be conflicted, or if not conflicted, that I might be fleeing it as well as pursuing it or something. But what you’re saying also really makes sense to me about the kind of identification with the tension between the available ways of engaging or participating or staking a claim on Jewishness, the tension between that and the kind of Jewishness that you want to claim. It seems like there are more obviously available avenues to elect into different forms of Judaism that are, for example, halachically observant, there’s a clear framework there. Which there’s less so if you’re not, or if you’re not even necessarily attached to a particular movement. I know there’s also political questions around that as they relate to Zionism. What does it mean to convert to Judaism if you’re not a Zionist? Obviously, people do, but it is not the path of least resistance.
BB: It does feel strange to be fighting and working hard to join a community which, as an anti-Zionist, I feel I’m automatically kind of fundamentally at odds with many people in that community about something that’s very important to them. Sorry, I interrupted...
NG: No, totally. And I think it just resonates with a question I think Ari asked in the roundtable around can you convert to secular Judaism? Taking a broad view of secular in a sense of any kinds of non halachic Judaism or Judaism with a different kind of relationship to observance, or even a kind of sense that we don’t even know what this project is.
AA: But in that case, then why should Bridget be any different than the rest of us?
BB: I’ve been thinking a lot, Ari, about that question—can you convert to secular Judaism? Because that introduced an anxiety to me that I hadn’t previously had about the moment and the conversion process. If I will be asked if I believe in a higher power and feeling like I don’t quite know, in the same way that I don’t quite know succinctly or intelligently how to answer, or even honestly how to answer, why I want to convert to Judaism. I also don’t have a clear answer to the non-secular spiritual elements, other than just being drawn to ritual, which in some ways, feels almost like it could be seen as trying on Judaism or being attracted to superficial elements if not backed up by by a specific or declared spiritual belief. And so wanting to avoid that, but also not really quite knowing how I feel about it, I sit in anxiety.
AA: Converting for the jokes...
AB: I was just gonna say [laughs]
AA: Well, I just want to ask you guys one more question before we move on, which is, Nathan, in the conversation you described Judaism as relational in some way, and actually how your relationship with Bridget is actually a way in which you feel like you’re consistently drawn closer to Judaism? Or just for the two of you, how that functions? So I wanted to ask specifically about that.
NG: Yeah, I’ve always said in the conversation that I think, in a lot of ways, I don’t know that my relationship to Judaism and Jewishness would be as central to my life as they are, if not for my relationship with Bridget. And that’s manifested partly through just your developing interest. I remember a conversation we had when we were both in college, at different colleges, when Bridget had been taking classes on Judaism and getting more interested, you kind of saying, oh, maybe being a rabbi was something I should do, which I reacted very badly to, I really did not like that idea for probably a lot of complicated reasons, that’s me fleeing Judaism.
AA: Okay. Saying you didn’t want to be a rabbi, that’s you fleeing Judaism.
NG: But yeah, so that’s an instance in which maybe I’m not pushed away, but we come into an interesting tension over it. I think it’s partly because of part of the tension you’re pointing to, Bridget, around the ways in which if it’s not something you’re born into, there is a kind of necessity to be electing things, even if that feels a little uncomfortable or at odds or something, because I feel like we go to synagogue more often, or have at certain points, we might go because you’ve wanted to, whereas I might have been like “I don’t really want to” or something because I can kind of arrest in a Jewishness that can be continually latent and then just activated at any point. Whereas I feel, for you, that obviously isn’t an option in the same way. And so I feel like it’s pushed me into more active engagement in those ways. But then I think the most core way other than around certain forms of practice, like doing Shabbat stuff and stuff, that I feel I don’t know if I’d do if you weren’t interested in doing it. I feel like it manifests a lot just in conversations we have around ideas around things we’re reading or whatever. And because that’s a primary form of Jewish engagement for both of us, I feel like your interest in stuff has made me more want to go down rabbit holes of stuff. Whereas I couldn’t imagine if not for this relationship, just putting that energy into other spaces, or I don’t know, if it would have, I don’t know, found that particular path.
BB: It seems hard to untangle becoming more Jewish, whatever that means, with coming to political consciousness, or particular political ideologies, and also just intellectual interest development. It all feels very inextricably kind of connected for me. So I don’t know, I wonder how much of it is who we are as people and as a couple? And also how much of it is codependence or having just been together for a long time. And thinking back, because in preparation for this conversation, you had asked me why I told you that you should be a rabbi. And that caused a little bit of soul searching as well. And I think that’s an example of me pushing Judaism in a little bit of an unfair way. Because I knew that it was something that I wanted for myself, and that my relationship with you was the most legible way into that. And so if you were fleeing it, then what am I? And I think my pushing ritual and observance now might be a little bit of a manifestation of that. We also joke that I love Yom Kippur service. And I think that and the choice to convert and declare dogmatically my belief are the last vestiges of my Catholicism.
AA: [to Michael] I think maybe we should talk. I mean you, you should talk.
MM: Oh, I see. Yeah, where to begin? It’s funny listening to Nora and Tom because of this difference of experience. I was struck in the conversation that you felt that I’m not a Jewish partner. And at the same time, I was remarking to my mom, who left the Jewish community a long time ago and sort of discarded her Jewish identity, that I feel quite Jewish in a way that the structure of my life is, or the the days of my life are structured by the Jewish holidays and by events in the Jewish community. And so I also thought Ari’s question resonated with me, which is what is it to convert to secular Judaism?
AA: Because you feel like you just did it?
MM: I feel more Jewish than I would have ever imagined.
AA: Can I share the fact that you told me after the conversation, I complained in the conversation that I was jealous of Nathan and Bridgette on our Zoom Hanukkah candle lightings that they do it together and that I do it alone. And after our conversation, Michael said that he wanted to learn the prayers, which was a very, actually quite shocking thing for me.
MM: Yeah, my non-participation is just because I was not raised with these rituals, so I don’t know their form, and they don’t really have nostalgic resonance with me. And they obviously don’t have a spiritual resonance with me.
AA: But you do also go back and forth between saying that you think they are benign and thinking that religion itself or anything resembling it is...
AA: Malignant. Yeah. You do you do express hostility towards
MM: I’m worried about its possible spread [laughs] as with anything that could be malignant or benign. Yeah, I have a sort of suspicion about religion and religious practices. Reading the conversation you guys had, I thought it was interesting what Josh said about framing Jewishness as an act against Christian hegemony. And as someone who is not religious, who believes very firmly in secularism, I think that there’s a similar distrust of any sort of religious rituals in the same way that someone might be uncomfortable doing Christmas or something like that. And I think that’s a real gray area with religious rituals, because I think there’s a lot of value in it, and in what people variously believe, and being able to participate in that, but I still have a personal discomfort with certain religious observances.
AA: I’ll just say one more thing, which is that I was reflecting a little bit after this conversation. I’ll just say, without talking too much about them, that in the beginning of our relationship, there were a lot of arguments between the two of us about Jewishness, and about whether my expression of Jewishness was found in the world at all, or whether I was the only person who was doing this weird thing and calling it Jewishness. And we can talk about that in another part of this conversation, but the reason I was thinking about that is because one of the really bad fights we had, I was actually functioning in almost exactly the same way as the Jewish establishment and basically saying to Michael, you are actually not Jewish. If there’s a Pew study, you are not counted. You can’t have a conversation with me “as a Jew,” and pretend to be on the same footing as me because you are not. You don’t actually manifest that Jewishness in anything that you do. And I’m kind of in this weird position now of thinking on the one hand, I feel like I’m right about that. And on the other hand, it does replicate those exclusive dynamics, even in a relationship, ostensibly between two Jewish people. And so I don’t know. But it is true that actually now at this point, you do have to contend with Jewishness a lot. You go to a lot of Jewish events.
MM: Every morning, noon and night. [laughs]
AA: Do you have any thoughts about that?
MM: About that argument, specifically? I take your point of the time that engaging with both building Jewish traditions and Jewish culture are what make you Jewish, to some extent. But that leads to the question that you wrestle a lot with—what does it mean to be a non-Zionist, non-religious Jewish person? Where does that leave you in relation to that community?
AA: I don’t wrestle with that question. You wrestle with that question.
AA: I feel like the point of this enterprise is to prove that there is a place, but you often feel that’s not real or something.
MM: Well, I think that is a fight that you want to take up. It’s not a fight that I particularly want to take up. Because I wasn’t raised in this community, because I don’t feel a particular interest to convert them to a particular political position or something.
AA: Cool. Dan, do you want to hop in?
DD: Sure. I’d love to. I think the original question you asked, Arielle, of us, the partners, was following the initial round of conversation, what had come up in our conversations? And funnily enough, I think Ari and I have constantly been talking about a sort of shared affinity for cultural Judaism or a mutual interest in how we both relate to Judaism, or in my case, being a lapsed Catholic, and the proximity that has to Judaism and the extreme distance that has from Judaism. It’s in one way, I think you might agree, a defining thread of our relationship. Which also leads me to—I feel a sort of need to justify being here, because it is not a particularly fraught question whether or not Jewish people are allowed to live next to non-Jewish people. The question of intermarriage doesn’t seem to bear on a roommate relationship. But I think that difference seems to be the precise location where the question becomes interesting, because no, we’re not going to be discussing serious questions of marriage rituals, or how Judaism affects our shared life going forward, or the children we will not have. But instead, it becomes a sort of more casual question of how Judaism ends up being part of my life or our life, regardless. And how I, in some way, live a secular Jewish life, or at the very least live on the border of it such that I’m constantly participating in its rituals and versions of it and enjoying them. And yet, I suppose, also feeling a little bit on the outside of it, somewhat necessarily, and somewhat by choice and some weird distance between those things.
AB: That’s really interesting, because it’s almost like there’s some kind of homology or mirror between secularism and our queerness roommate-ism. There’s some kind of parallel between the limbo of occupying a position of secular Jewishness and the position that we specifically occupy. It’s more specific than just queerness, although that is a useful shorthand for the cultural world in which it takes place. You’ll hear it here first on this podcast, dad, I feel extremely lucky about our relationship and situation, because I think that most people in their 30s either wind up partnering off, or living alone, or living with roommates that they’re not close with. And I think we wound up in this situation after many other living situations that we’ve both been in, briefly with each other, and mostly just with other friends or other people. And I think, largely because of COVID, we did become, in some way, a little bit more domestic partner-y than it might have happened otherwise. Even though we were close friends before, there were ways that our lives became intertwined, or that we had deliberate conversations about living together, that were circumstantial, but did sort of create a new kind of thing that I really value a lot. But what’s interesting about Jewishness in that case, is that it does seem like the last thing that either of our families would ever bother us about is each other’s religious affinities. And that actually is a funny way that queerness operates too. We both have complicated relationships with our families around queer stuff, and trans stuff in my case. My parents used to say “We don’t care who you marry, what gender they are, as long as they’re Jewish,” but I actually think that was before I came out as trans. And now it turns out, shockingly, that they’re a little bit less down for the non-hetero agenda. Now I don’t think they care so much anymore. They just want me to be safe. So I don’t know—sorry to ramble. All that is to say I think one thing all of that does, almost in passing, is it makes Jewishness into a very easy and fun thing in our household because there’s basically no pressure. And also, I think what you, Dan, were calling your philosemitism, which you might want to talk about more, because it also seems to be shared by many members of your own family, also manifests in very funny ways. You having the encyclopedic knowledge of Seinfeld and me being a more casual fan. Which I just was thinking of before because a couple of people referenced it, but the classic iteration of the question of can you convert to secular Judaism? It’s like the dentist who converts for the jokes.
AA: I just want to quickly ask a question of the two of you, because Ari, in the conversation that we had, we were talking about basically what is Jewish continuity outside of the family? And you were talking about how, in queer communities, there was all of this performative rejection of parenthood and how that was sort of a politics of being against reproduction. But actually, it was sort of a misapprehension of the fact that we are constantly doing cultural reproduction, whether or not we’re actually physically procreating, which I thought was really true and really astute. And one of the questions that I have is, in mine and Michael’s situation, or Bridget and Nathan’s situation, there’s a lot of Judaism by osmosis and it’s the same in your situation with Dan, but that relationship itself, that kind of reproduction or engagement with Judaism is not recognized or measured. It’s stripped of its meaning in some way. And I’m just interested in that because it’s actually not that much different than the situations that we’re in, for example, but it’s unrecognized and has no formal unit of measurement. And I just wanted to see if that sparked anything for the two of you or anything that made you think about?
DD: Yeah, I think you can say there’s a Jewish tradition often being reproduced in our house. Certainly on the holidays, Ari celebrates them or observes them and does certain traditions that are largely not unfamiliar, but I don’t know the first thing about what I was supposed to do. Which candle you put in the menorah first? I don’t know.
AB: But you’re also one of those non-Jews who just randomly knows prayers half the time.
AB: I went to enough bar mitzvahs growing up. As Ari was saying, my mom is from a classic Irish Catholic family from the 50s. Seven children grew up on Long Island and her four older siblings all married Jews. And when we moved to Evanston, there’s a fairly large Jewish population there. And all of my best friends were Jewish. And I couldn’t say how that came to be. I think there was a sort of shared sort of dryness that I ended up picking up. I’m sure there would be lots of people that object to Seinfeld being called Jewish culture more than going to shul, but I think there are enough of those objects circulating in our apartment that it feels like a very Jewish apartment. As someone once pointed out, Ari’s menorah above a cabinet, somebody walked into our kitchen once and was like, is that RAS pointing?
AB: Yeah, I think I’m now just seeing that same kind of secular Jewish queer homology again in relation to the question that you’re just asking, Arielle, because I think, sort of famously, those are both big cultural markers of New York, where it’s the only place I’ve lived as an adult. And so I really wanted to live in New York, largely because those are the cultural modes that I feel most comfortable in. And I actually didn’t really come from either. Both because my family is conservative Jews in LA who, while not super observant, live in a very different kind of Jewish world than the one that I do now. And I also think there are some ways in which I adopted what I think of as Jewish ways of thinking, and talking and joking and so on, that are actually like, a little bit foreign to my family. They’re very into it as a mode of cultural representation, but it’s not their native tongue by any means. And as often as not, it’s actually a point of disconnect between me and my family. And so I that is a thing that secular Jewishness holds out the possibility of—it’s a space that, maybe in New York more than in most places, that it’s possible to almost invite yourself into. Which is interesting also. Bridget, what you were saying about the conversion question, that it just seems like a very different model, where, again, there’s not the same kind of pressure. Although I obviously understand why the kind of secular or secular-ish Judaism that you want to practice is requiring the conversion. I don’t know, I feel like there’s some interesting split there.
DD: I still feel on the outside of Judaism, which is fine, like you say, there’s no pressure and I’m not interested in adding more tradition to my life. But if I wanted to become Jewish, I think I would have to pursue Bridget’s route that it is not enough to have an affinity for Jewish cultural objects and Jewish traditions even. I would feel it necessary to take it very seriously. If I actually wanted to be able to say I’m Jewish, it wouldn’t be enough to just be like...
AB: This is literally how I feel about transitioning. It’s the most classic route. I was just a huge fag hag and then I was like, “Ok, come on, we gotta actually convert.”
AA: Thats the question that’s coming up for me in this whole conversation, I think we can open it up now. As Michael has been saying, he’s sort of like “I am more Jewish than most American Jews at this point, just by virtue of living with you,” but that also makes it sound a bit like Judaism is just a hobby or something. On Twitter again, where we learn what the people think, there was someone who’s just like, “I think it’s really interesting that the Jewish Current staff has no ability to define why Judaism is at all meaningful to them, or what it means,” which I think is true. That is true. You heard it here first, we have no idea. But it seems like the thing that’s standing in the way of it just being a hobby that you can absorb through osmosis is the fact that it gets creepy to just like it without being part of it or something [Laughter]. But I don’t know what that means.
TS: Except that it’s also, as we talked about on the conversation, it’s also creepy that the alternative to just liking it is inheriting it. It’s creepy on all sides, because the only thing that separates my Jewishness from the sort of affinity from for cultural objects that Dan was talking about is that my parents are Jewish. So I think that’s where we get back to the sort of central conundrum of the roundtable that we had initially, which is that if you have no ritual in your life, if you are secular, then what is your Jewishness other than an ethnic identity? And if you don’t want the most intimate space of your life to be defined by an ethnic identity, and yet you want it to be somehow defined by Jewishness, then where does that leave you? And maybe this is a useful time to throw in a kind of bastardized quote that came into some of our conversations leading up to this podcast, which is that we were talking about the different ways that we “do” Jewishness or identify our own Jewishness and Arielle quoted Jewish Currents contributor Josh Lambert in saying that everyone’s Jewishness is just what their family does. When people say “I’m Jewish,” they mean “I’m like my family, and my family does this,” and that I think resonated with a lot of us, but definitely resonates with me. I don’t think that my Jewishness has any content whatsoever that isn’t just really idiosyncratic and not universalized well to other Jews who aren’t from my particular tiny clan. And I think that when our readers asked why can’t you say why Jewishness matters to you, the only the thing that I personally feel like I’m grappling with is that obviously, the things I grew up with matter to me to some extent because they formed me, or I can’t escape them, or trying to figure out how to carry them into my life going ahead in a way that feels right to me. But I don’t really know how to disentangle doing that with Jewishness from doing that with “Oh, my parents do this, so I tried to either do this or not do this.”
AA: Nora, thanks so much for that. As Nora said, this came to me from Josh Lambert basically being like “When all of you say Jewishness, what you really mean is my family.” He sent me the source, which was Edwin H. Friedman, from a book called The Myth of the Shiksa. Do with that what you will, and I will just read the little quote that he sent. “What I eventually came to learn was that in any family, but particularly in easily identifiably ethnic families, to the extent the emotional system is intense, members confuse feelings about their ethnicity with feelings about their family. The resulting inability to distinguish one from the other eventually leads to a situation in which reactions in the family relationship system are discussed with the vocabulary of the family’s cultural milieu. I soon came to realize that focus on cultural background was a major way members of many Jewish families avoided focusing on their emotional processes.” So I don’t know. First of all, we have boundaries on this podcast. And I know that we’re not talking about anyone’s families, but I do think there’s this question here, because particularly in a marriage framework, we are assimilating, or not, into the other person’s family. And that’s what makes the sight of Jewishness such an agita in these conversations, so I wanted to name that and throw out this quote.
DD: I’m struck by how it made me think of language acquisition, that there’s a certain degree that your religious tradition is something you learn without any desire or will of your own. It just shows up and is taught to you, it is reproduced in and through you. And then even if you want to get away from it, it is just your your native language. And then to come to it later in life is much harder and requires a lot of effort and study, but you don’t just quite swim in the same waters—and I think Nora is right, that obviously the traditions are gonna be idiosyncratic and different in every family. You can’t just say being Jewish was always when my mom drops the—I don’t know—thing? [laughs] That’s the end of my knowledge here.
AA: Oh, yes, that ancient tradition when my mom drops the thing?
AA: Well, I was trying to think of an example, all I could think of was Christmas stuff happening in my youth. I am, in some way, a fluent Catholic, even though I couldn’t tell you the precise order of the commandments or the books of the Bible. There’s a way that I feel very Catholic, even though I haven’t gone to church in I don’t know how many years and do not observe or care about it. But there’s just a sort of innate environmental sense of it.
TS: Dan, I think that really resonates with my experience of growing up culturally Christian or WASPish. But I think the tension that we have in our relationship over what places some sort of religious identity, whether secular or whatever we interpret that to mean, usually it comes down to what do we want to replicate about our family experience? Which of these things that we’ve decided are attached to some sort of cultural heritage, but maybe are just idiosyncratic things about our specific families of origin? I think that’s often what we end up talking about when we talk about how are we interpreting our cultural heritage as we’re creating a new family unit on our own.
NCB: But I do think some of this gets back to something that our colleague Josh Leifer said in the roundtable that Michael mentioned earlier. Which is that some of what it feels like to “do” Jewishness a lot of the time in the US, is to do it in contradiction to, or in opposition to, the sort of mainstream culture, which is Christian. So a lot of my experience, one of the ways that my Jewishness manifested in my family of origin is that we did the Chinese food and a movie thing on Christmas, because that was something out in the ether that supposedly Jews do, and we were like, “that sounds fun.” And we did it. And we can’t do Chinese food and a movie on Christmas, because Christmas is important to your family. And I think, as it’s turned out, is important to you. You were happy last year when we got the closest thing to a tree that could fit in our tiny apartment, which was some branches stuck in a bucket with a bow on them. But that still seemed really touching to you that we did that. And so I have to give up Chinese food and a movie because it’s not really fair to you to demand that we observe my oppositional absence of Christmas in the place of observing a holiday that you actually grew up with.
TS: It’s been humbling to realize what traditions you can’t escape even if you think you’re rejecting a lot about where you come from. Which is something that I grapple with.
NCB: You like Christmas, you just have to embrace it.
TS: I hate myself for it [laughs]
You just admitted on a podcast that you love Christmas.
DD: Ari loves Christmas!
AB: I love Christmas. But this is a topic for a future podcast. Conflicted feelings about Christmas with the Jewish Currents staff.
MM: I feel like I was cheated out of the Chinese food and the movie tradition. I was looking so forward to converting to that, but I guess it’s not part of your families...
AA: I don’t really like movies.
MM: Or Chinese food...
AA: Or Chinese food that much, I guess [laughs]. No, in fact, we do Christmas, but we’ve compromised because in Michael’s family growing up, because they were Buddhist, they called Christmas “Children’s Day.” I don’t know why [laughs].
MM: Which really, really resembles Christmas in a lot of ways.
AA: But what they did is they had bagels and lox, and what we did with Michael’s brother and his family and young child is get a lot of Russ and Daughters. I was just like no, I’m not doing any of this, don’t get me a present, don’t do anything. But then they, every year, would just get all this smoked fish.
AB: Wait, this is so many twists and turns! So basically Michael’s family has a very particular way of celebrating Christmas Jewishly, but it’s routed through Buddhism?
MM: Well, it’s got a Buddhist name. It’s very “Christmas” and we often have a tree and presents, but part of that tradition was also to have bagels and lox. I don’t know where that came from.
AB: Arielle now has to celebrate it and is mad about it, even though it’s exactly what she would want to be doing.
AA: It’s literally exactly what I would want to be doing.
AA: Arielle wants to celebrate it. When I became an adult, I stopped celebrating Christmas because, for me, Christmas is a holiday for children. The name says it all. But I think that this is Arielle’s dream, whereas my dream would be to go to a movie and eat Chinese food.
Yeah, I get to hang out with my nephew and eat 30 kinds of smoked fish. It’s awesome.
But that ties into the idea that these are more expressions of a particular family tradition than specifically ethnic expressions.
NG: I feel like I have often activated anxiety around that with our relationship. l feel like every Christmas I’m like, do you want to get a Christmas tree? Like really do you want to? It would be great. And you never want to.
BB: You think I have a hidden desire to celebrate Christmas and I don’t. It’s very sweet, [laughs] but I don’t.
NG: Well first of all, I, like Ari, like Christmas, but also my family did Chinese food and a movie, which is a tradition I now don’t do and do miss. Though this last year, because we didn’t see either of our families because of COVID, we actually did do that. Except we watched a movie at home. But I guess it makes me think about a broader thing with your relationship to Judaism. It makes me think if I were adopting a tradition system for my life that was different from my parents, what would I feel about not doing things that I grew up with? And then I project that onto you. I think I would really miss a lot of things, but not celebrating Passover or even Hanukkah or something.
BB: Well, I feel like that’s been a thing that I felt conflicted or uncomfortable about, is that I feel a little bit less pressure to replicate my family’s familiness in our family than I do to replicate your family’s things. And how that has manifested, at least on the surface, or at least in the beginning, was in femininity and domesticity, cooking, acquiring a lot of Judaica, very home-centered things. My father-in-law has a latke recipe that I make every Hanukkah that I think I’ve done—I think one of the first things that I did as a person who knew they wanted to one day convert was, when I visited you in college, I made a big Passover meal with your Jewish roommates. That has felt uncomfortable as like a creepy voyeur, cultural artifact way, but then also uncomfortable because it’s meant wifely-ness or womanliness. There’s so much Jewish home stuff. Obviously Christmas trees exist and we had a rosary, but there just wasn’t as much home gear. Getting married seemed like partly just acquiring a lot of Judaica—beautiful stuff from from people that we love—but the idea is that this is with us forever and this is our family’s things. But it’s lots candlesticks, we have a little key ring that says Shalom.
AA: You guys have a lot of Judaica though. I see in the background of Nathan on Zoom and stuff. I’m just like “Man, they have a lot of Judaica.” We don’t have really any Judaica.
AA: What? You think we do?
MM: Again, a higher percentage than I would have expected in my life.
NG: Arielle, you literally used to make Judaica.
AA: I did. I used to make ketubahs, that was a job that I had, and we didn’t have one at our wedding. Just not something I ever expected to not have.
MM: How much more Judaica could we have?
MM: We could have a lot more Judaica, there’s a lot of things. I bet that you guys, Nathan and Bridget, I bet that you guys have a thing that’s for drizzling honey on apples. Do you have that? You don’t?
NG: We don’t have that.
BB: We don’t have that.
MM: We’re wandering into sponsored content.
AA: I’m just saying people have that!
DD: You guys need to make money off this podcast somehow...
AA: Well, I guess one of the questions that I have is, in the ways that this conversation about family plays out is the experience of the other person’s family, the reduction of everything in the other person’s family to either Jewishness or not Jewishness. This is the source of the difference between us. I will just share that when we were on the Jewish Currents Slack trying to be like, well, their family does this because they’re not Jewish. And then the opposite thing would come in and be like my family does the same thing and I always thought that it was because they were Jewish. Our signals were completely crossed. I feel like there’s something, again, in the same vein of the arbitrariness of this whole exercise. But also the way that the identity part of it feels so strong. This is the ultimate reason why. Nora, I know that you and Tom have different ideas. Tom thinks that your families are the same and you think that your families are different. Maybe I got that wrong?
TS: I wouldn’t quite go that far.
TS: I accurately summarized one argument that way. I do think we have a conversation about whether the differences in our families are reducible, because I have a probably extremely unfair habit of reducing the differences to Jewishness and goyishness as I think I said in the Slack. Sometimes, in a particular mood, I will look at the differences and think that’s accurate. But of course, my family is just one collection of weird and lovable people and your family is a collection of other weird and lovable people and they do really different things. But I do think there’s something about like, my family has a mode of conversation, where we’re very disputative as a family and the mode of conversation in my family is very analytical. And the mode of conversation in your family, as I said the other day, is more narrative, like you guys tell stories, and my family has interpretive arguments. And, to me, that seems to symbolize the whole thing. But I don’t know that’s really fair to say that that has anything to do with the fact that my family is Jewish. It might just be because my father is literally a philosopher. So that’s what we do. We have arguments about what things mean.
AA: That’s our dynamic too. That conflict is one of the main—wouldn’t you say that?
MM: You mean the main difference in our families’ structure?
AA: Yeah, my family is really high conflict and your family is conflict avoidant.
MM: Yeah, definitely. But I don’t know. I guess I would read that as a Jewish, non-Jewish distinction, to some extent. Maybe
DD: I would read that as like a Buddhist distinction, because that’s one of the places where I find a lot of affinity between Catholics and Jews. My mom’s extended family loves a good-lead argument. And I’m often finding myself getting louder and argumentative with WASPs who are like “Oh, calm down!”
AB: Yeah, I think that we’re constantly finding similarities between our moms, even though they’re also very different. But I think we have similar relationships to them in certain ways. It’s just interesting that this might be another place where it’s easier to see sameness, when the stakes are lower in the sense that we’re not actually part of each other’s families of origin. We’ve met each other’s parents, you and my mom have texted about Macy’s, but it goes no further than that.
MM: A cultural alliance based around Macy’s.
DD: There’s no expectation that I get to know them or learn about them.
AB: Yeah, so the affinities, such as for Macy’s, can remain objects of sporadic delight as opposed to anything else.
BB: Yeah, I’ve been hearing more differences between WASP-ness and Catholicism in this conversation, I would say a pattern of similarity or sameness, to some extent, with our families, maybe? You disagree?
NG: What is?
BB: That I tend to think of our families more in terms of similar sets of affinities or ways of thinking about things or approaching things. Although I guess we could say my family may be less conflict avoidant than yours.
NG: Yeah, I definitely see many similarities. But also, to Nora’s point around the differences being reversible, a lot of the people here have experiences of Jewish families that are more conflictual. And I don’t think my family is, though in other ways, I do recognize the ways people think of Jewish families.
AA: So basically, what we’ve learned is Jewishness means nothing, and it’s just a way of avoiding the way that we talk about our families. Right?
BB: But I do think that the one big difference that I felt when we were getting married and speaking to a rabbi and doing premarital counseling?
NG: They do call it that.
BB: That’s it. I think the difference was you were comfortable talking about your family of origin with a stranger and I was not.
NG: That’s very true.
BB: Yeah. And I was like, yeah, and in me even being like, you know... what one could call premarital counseling, that’s literally what it was. Like he was a trained... well, he’s a trained Apple Genius.
AA: Oh right, your rabbi was an Apple Genius.
BB: But he’s also a trained therapist. [laughter] Another sponsorship opportunity here. But yeah, we even had to fill out a survey of our experience of each other that I lied on. I refused to express any conflict or issue in our relationship to the rabbi, and Nathan sang like a canary. I had a little bit of the Corleone don’t let anyone know what you’re thinking, not wanting to talk about my family or our relationship with someone and you were very open to that. I think we chalked that up to a Jewish Catholic divide in the moment.
AA: Okay, I’m going to try something sort of weird for the end of this. If you don’t like it, we don’t have to do it. But because I’m spiraling in terms of thinking that Jewishness is a cipher that means nothing, I may want to ask the non Jewish partners to say something. I’m sorry, I feel like Bridget is actually the person who could probably speak the best to what Jewishness means. The rest of us are in trouble, honestly. But I want to see if there’s something that the partners can say, even if it’s the smallest thing, about a definitive statement that feels like it has value. If we can’t do it, it’s okay to say we can’t do it, but in terms of something that it’s brought into your life. I’m just curious because we talk about this all the time and end up nowhere. So I’d just like to see somebody else flounder. And we can take a minute. But just to think about if there’s some story that you can tell to yourself about what the value is, or even as you’re watching us, as you’re personally thinking about it, or as you’re watching the other person deal with it, what is that about?
DD: It seems to me, and this is a really important place that I think it’s distinct from Catholicism. There’s a kind of positive fatalism that Catholicism very emphatically lacks. There’s this perverse, negative anti-fatalism in Catholicism, where you might not even die, you’ll just live in torment forever. Whereas I grew up in Vermont, and we moved to Evanston when I was eight, and so I met, in Vermont, one Jew and so I had no exposure to it—well, and my uncles—but we moved to Evanston and I met many Jews, including Leon, who became my best friend. I didn’t immediately notice an effective difference or anything, I think it had to be named for me by some sort of fucked up Christian hegemony. But when I discovered the difference, there was a kind of resignation that was celebrated. “Well, it’s important that we just keep this thing going.” And it really felt like an attitude that my mom has sometimes. Like “Oh man, I guess we made rent this month, we’re gonna get through it. All right, come on, kids, let’s go,” and just picking everything up and reproducing, “we’re going on.” “This is it, we’re having fun, aren’t we?” And that seemed like a particularly Jewish attitude or approach to the world.
TS: Somewhat similarly to that, I think the structures for processing and talking about pain and loss are something that I find really useful, and I kind of wish that I had earlier in my life. Some of this being cultural, some of this also being very specific rites around loss and death and a real comfort with sitting with grief that is culturally foreign to me, but that I find really useful. And I think that I have adopted more of that as time has gone on.
BB: The rabbi from whom I took Jewish theology classes at, as I said, my Catholic college, he would always there’s good news and bad news; “the Jews have no Pope and the Jews have no Pope.” And he was teaching about Judaism to largely Catholic students. I have trouble thinking about this outside of the things that people just say, like “Judaism allows for questioning and interpretation.” But that does also feel true for me in that Catholicism does not. And I think that something that’s been a little bit tricky for me is Catholicism is so—and I know that we’re not answering what is Catholicism—but it’s so literal. And Judaism is excessively symbolic, there’s layers and layers of excessive and disputed and multiplicitous symbols. And that feels comforting and that feels nice. But as Catholicism is so literal, it’s also just not a very, at least my experience of it, was not a very textual thing. And I think that part of the way that the excessive symbolism, even outside of the cultural artifacts that we’ve talked about, the close textual attention that Judaism and that Jewish texts broadly interpreted lend itself to, that, to me, has felt distinctly and valuably Jewish. Really diving in, the deconstructionist attention to text seems like a Jewish thing.
MM: I guess that’s me, then.
AA: This is just a whole ploy for me to get Michael to say something good about Judaism.
MM: Building on what Tom and Bridget said, and Dan, that there’s lots of these cultural traditions that really speak to me, like a comfort with grief, a comfort with disagreement and conflict, and also a comfort with pessimism, which was really appealing to me coming from Buddhist parents in California. But, sometimes thinking about this in our relationship and thinking about the importance of the lineage of the Jewish tradition, or trying to find the importance in it, what really speaks to me is this tradition of self othering in exile that the bulk of the tradition comes from a period in exile after the Second Temple was destroyed. And this refusal to assimilate when assimilating meant not only joining the dominant religion, but also becoming an apparatus of the state. So, to me, a lot of the traditions and the point of the endurance, the suffering, and their resistance to pogroms and genocides and things like that speaks to commitment to some kind of identity that’s outside of a state structure, outside of a sort of dominant religious structure. And that is an important tradition to carry on through 1000s of years, even at pain of death.
AA: Well, wow.
AA: Well, thank you all for coming on this weird experience with us. Also, this is a social experiment in another way because it’s so hot in our room without the AC, we’re roasting in here. But yeah, thank you guys for doing this with us even though it’s weird and personal and also a weird way to meet your coworkers’ spouses and also your spouse’s coworkers.
DD: Now I’m really looking forward to the Christmas party this year. [laugher]
AB: I kinda feel like we all just went on vacation together.
AA: I am supposed to tell you to subscribe wherever you get podcasts. And also to leave us a review. I imagine you know how to do that already because that’s something you do in your life as a podcast listener. So do that for us. I obviously know what a podcast is. And that’s it. This has been another episode of On The Nose from Jewish Currents.
End Credits: Can’t get enough Jewish Currents? Keep in touch with us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. And visit JewishCurrents.org to subscribe and see our latest. A very special thanks to Nathan Salzberg for providing us with music from his album “Landwerk No. 2” and to Santiago Helou Quintero for producing this segment. Thanks for listening. That’s all from us.