Questions about cultural identity have recently demanded my urgent attention, raising three young children who are soaking up all of the traditions and cultural cues that my husband and I present. Though my non-Jewish husband and I share a passion for Jesus, I was overwhelmed by the responsibility of transmitting my Jewish heritage without the help of the larger Jewish community.
After reading Garrett Smith’s new book, Comfortably Jewish, I feel like it might come more naturally than I thought. Raised in an intermarried home with a strong affection for Jewish culture, Smith believes, after working with many couples as a counselor and what he calls a “cultural translator,” that Jewish culture and identity don’t have to be linked to organized Judaism or religious understanding. This practical resource book advises intermarried couples, secular Jews unaffiliated with the Jewish community, and Messianic believers in Jesus that filling their children’s lives with Jewish experiences and information is enough to create Jewish identity. Further, this identity can happily co-exist and enrich other parts of the faith and identity of you and your children.
Comfortably Jewish is organized for dabblers. While Smith opens with a light-hearted theoretical chapter on Jewish identity, the bulk of the book is very practical. Smith’s chapter on creating a Jewish home atmosphere unpacks the Jewish mystique into attainable cultural experiences and activities organized around language, food, field trips, home decorations, art and traditions. The section on the holidays is written in such a way that even harried moms like myself who have five minutes to prepare grocery lists and holiday-oriented projects can access a biblical and historical background for the holiday, cultural traditions, and child-friendly ideas in one quick sitting.
For example, the section on Passover, which Smith describes as, “the best known and most beloved of all Jewish holidays,” begins with a basic explanation of the Exodus account. For intermarried or Messianic couples, there is a good explanation of the connections between Passover and the Last Supper, Communion and other New Testament-based ideas derived from the Passover paradigm. Then Smith describes the traditional seder symbolic elements and order with some spiritual insights that can be highlighted for children and adults through the account’s narration. There’s even an appendix of recipes grouped by holiday. But what I loved most about this book was Smith’s real life experiences as a father of young children laced throughout, creatively imparting vision for making each holiday relevant, personal and captivating for children.
Understanding and incorporating Jewish culture involves more than a string of meaningful (and delicious) traditions – it is also a way of thinking about the world. Comfortably Jewish can be used as a conversation springboard for intermarried couples trying to understand each other and their extended families. Smith uses brief histories on modern Jewish persecution and the Land of Israel to account for a cultural preoccupation with anti-Semitism, a penchant for debating politics/ethics and a concern for social action. He also gives intermarried couples language and ideas for how to practically honor and validate non-Jewish spouses’ culture and values so that the non-Jewish side of the family isn’t left feeling like chopped liver. There is also a fantastic chapter on planning life cycle events – weddings, bar mitzvahs, and baby namings that establish Jewish identity. The ideas listed for creating a meaningful coming of age rite were fresh, practical, and meaningful.
Free of “you should” and abounding in “you might want to think about,” Comfortably Jewish invites readers to see their heritage like a pot of chicken soup with matzah balls simmering on the stove – inviting, enticing to the senses, and as comfort food on their own terms. You can have your matzah balls and eat them too.
—Shoshanna Pucci, reviewer
Comfortably Jewish is available through Purple Pomegranate Productions at purplepomegranate.org