Now’s the Perfect Time to Teach Your Non-Jewish Partner All About Judaism

While we're shacked up together thanks to the pandemic, my girlfriend and I have started a Jewish school of sorts.

Relationships have natural milestones — first kiss, first time meeting friends, first fight, and of course, first time you both find yourself in state-mandated quarantine together in a one-bedroom apartment in the midst of a pandemic. I could blame the virus for the warp speed of my relationship, but as lesbians, it seems fitting that only three months after mutually swiping right on Tinder, my girlfriend, Grey, filled her car up with Costco groceries and drove from Brooklyn to Buffalo, NY to ride out this storm together.

And thus, we have found ourselves with the dual tasks of trying to fill our days while also continuing to get to know each other better.

What started as an off-handed joke about how maybe I should convert to Judaism while we are shacked up together, turned into a genuine educational endeavor with Grey teaching me all about her heritage.

A bit of context about us: I am an Italian-American from Buffalo who was raised a C&E (Christmas and Easter mass only) Catholic. I went to a Catholic university, but aside from a theology class titled “Smart, Catholic and Female” about religion and feminism, I didn’t engage with religion at my college. I did, however, have a crush on a rabbi who was a guest speaker in that class, and I was interested in the way that she talked about Judaism, community, and empowerment for women.

Grey is a Brooklyn-born Jew and was raised in a Conservative Jewish household. From the ages of 4-13 she attended Hebrew school and graduated from dipping apples in honey to her bat mitzvah — Grey’s Broadway Bash. After that, like many other Jewish Americans, she only attended temple on Yom Kippur, but always cleared her calendar for any holiday involving her mother’s brisket.

So how do you actually begin to teach somebody about the vast history and culture of an entire religion? We structured our lessons around shared activities that we could do together indoors. I was particularly interested in learning about Grey’s personal experiences. We wanted to share a guide for those in similar situations, and also give some of our own insight into this experience and what we have been learning from each other.

1. Watching Classic Jewish Cinema Together

D: My first memory of learning anything about Judaism was from Rugrats, so naturally we started our lessons with the Passover episode.

G: The Rugrats Passover episode is truly iconic, and aired approximately one week before I was born. So, even more iconic. Alma already did a great job fact checking this very accurate episode. Here are some of my personal reactions and thoughts on this episode. First, babies generally do not wear kippahs. Although, Tommy in a kippah, v cute. Stu grinding that fish for the Passover gefilte fish was jarring and brought back the smells of my Uncle Larry and his homemade gefilte fish. Next, that round Israeli matzah — fancy. I did not know the Pickles were Jewish aristocrats? The blue seder plate, very ‘90s.

D: What does your seder plate look like?

G: Admittedly, I did not know much about my family’s special seder plate until asking my dad a couple of days ago. Our family seder plate is silver, gold, and blue — paying homage to the Cohanim. My family’s last name, Cohen, is translated to priest and we have special ordained tasks during temple ceremonies.

Also on our watch list: Fiddler on the Roof, Hey Arnold, “Harold’s Bar Mitzvah,” 30 Rock, “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah,” Disobedience, Schindler’s List, Blazing Saddles, Yentl, Unorthodox, Funny Girl, The Ten Commandments, Cabaret, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Broad City, Uncut Gems.

2. Observing Shabbat

G: Growing up, we didn’t regularly observe Shabbat, but as I grow older I find myself trying to hold some Jewish traditions while also keeping a routine because I am an adult. Shabbat is a great tradition for that as well as a perfect introduction to share with my non-Jewish girlfriend. An evening without technology felt like a much needed reprieve. To help guide us, we used OneTable’s Shabbat Dinner Guide.

D: One of the things I liked most about Shabbat was the flexibility and inclusivity. We were able to really DIY it with things around the apartment. Notably, as someone who is sober, our guide encouraged drinking a special drink you wouldn’t normally have — which for me was a decadent Dr. Pepper while Grey drank the traditional kosher wine. Also, for my kiddush cup, I was able to use a tin mug from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway that I had never used before!

G: In lieu of proper Shabbat candles, we resorted to pink birthday candles leftover from D’s dog Drake’s 5th birthday. They didn’t last throughout the whole night, but they were a fun way to keep the tradition of lighting the candles. Please note, gluten-free challah, for D the celiac, was hard to find, so we may need to get creative and bake some for future weeks.

D: We are spending so much time looking at screens — me, on Animal Crossing, Grey on The Sims — as a mode of distraction from the anxiety of the news right now. It was really refreshing to put the phones away and enjoy just being together. We plan on observing Shabbat every week while we are here together. Marking the end of the week was also a nice treat considering the fact that all of our days are blurring together.

3. Reliving Your Bat Mitzvah

G: In college, I hosted a special radio show called Grey’s Bat Mitzvah playing songs from… you guessed it… my bat mitzvah. I still have that Spotify playlist.

D: Sadly, I did not attend any bar or bat mitzvahs in my adolescence. Although, I did work one at the Bronx Zoo in my short lived time working as a scavenger hunt leader in NYC. The kippahs had elephants on them! It was fun and nostalgic to revisit the songs from Grey’s bat mitzvah, and it was an excuse to dress up and dance in our apartment.

 4. Discussing Jewish Crushes 

D: Who are your biggest Jewish celeb crushes?

G: Rachel Weisz (duh), Sarah Silverman, Emmy Rossum, young (and old) Barbra Streisand, Lisa Kudrow. Who are yours?

D: You…. 😉 And Winona Rider. Seriously though, what has your experience with Judaism been like as a queer woman?

G: First off, I have been extremely privileged in terms of my family’s acceptance of my queerness, especially my parents. My parents, who let me wear matching tracksuits with my dad, have always been extremely loving and accepting. I do not know if that has to do with them both being educators or our Judaism. However, I do think from my own experience that Jews are generally accepting of the LGBTQ+ community. I have a cousin who is a gay-identifying rabbi at a congregation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and our family and his Jewish community have welcomed him with open arms. There are certainly exceptions, and sects of Judaism that are not accepting. However, there is something to be said about the intersectionalities between the persecution of Jews and the queer community that I find ties both communities together.

 5. Other Ideas For The Coming Weeks

This quarantine and our journey together is just getting started, so here are some other ideas of things we would like to do to keep this going:

  • Meeting the Jewish Parents (Over Facetime of Course)
  • A Yiddish Lesson
  • Explaining Jewish Memes (Thanks to the Alma Instagram for many)
  • Playing Mahjong and Rummikub
  • Cooking Jewish Food (Grey’s mom shared her top secret latke recipe)

So What Did We Learn?

One of our biggest takeaways through this experience is that even though Grey is teaching D. about Judaism, we are also building and sharing new traditions, and in turn, teaching each other. We have both been eager and open to experience this together, with D. excited to learn, Grey excited to teach, and vice versa. We look forward to a long time, hopefully, of sharing faith and tradition with each other in and out of this love lockdown.

Header image design by Grace Yagel

D. Arthur & Grey Cohen

D. Arthur is a fiction and humor writer whose work can be found in Electric Literature, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Slate, and more. She lives in Buffalo, New York, where she is at work on baking gluten-free mandelbread and writing her first novel.

Grey Cohen is a young architecture professional in New York City. She loves her cat Edson, the New York Mets, and pointing out all the Jewish actors in every movie.

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