Holiday movies: Nora’s Will flies you far away

This doesn’t sound like a comedy:
A depressed divorcee commits suicide after elaborately planning the reunion of her sadly fragmented family in the five days following her death. But, the newly released Nora’s Will (also known as Five Days without Nora) has been showered with rave reviews as an entertaining comedy.

How can this be a comedy? Think Woody Allen, except that Nora’s Will was created by hot young Mexican director Mariana Chenillo, who now is in her mid 30s, but wrote and produced this mature look at a dysfunctional family while she still was in her 20s. The Mexican National Fund for the Arts and Culture helped to support her work. Clearly, she is a fan of Woody Allen’s family comedies like Hannah and Her Sisters. Chenillo’s comedy bears the Allen influence right down to the opening and closing titles set in simple white type against a black screen.

Why should you see this strangely cross-cultural comedy? Well, first, this actually is more cross-cultural than you might expect. Nora’s family is Jewish—or, to be more precise, various relatives and associates of the family once were Jewish, or are Jewish converts, or are trying hard to be friends of Jewish culture. Nora’s ex-husband, in fact, now is so brashly anti-religious that he delights in provoking the family’s Jewish friends. (Think Larry David in Woody Allen’s 2009 comedy Whatever Works.) On top of that, the film’s setting is the eve of Passover with the Passover Seder playing a key role in Nora’s elaborate reunion plans. So, American viewers are flying away to Mexico for a Spanish-language comedy (with English subtitles). We are jumping into the heart of a dysfunctional Jewish family in the midst of wildly conflicting expectations about orthodox Passover and funeral customs. Your head will spin just a bit.

Will you laugh?
You certainly will smile. If nothing else, you’ll grin in the final scenes, including the angry old ex-husband on a balcony in the closing moments. While this clearly is a farce, there are dozens of delightfully honest human moments, including the grandchildren who are stuck in this claustrophobic house day after day and simply can’t resist playing near the empty casket awaiting Grandma. No, don’t worry, there’s no tragedy with the casket, but children do wind up acting out favorite movie scenes amid the gloomy setting. You can’t help but smile.

Why haven’t you heard of this film before today? Perhaps you’re not watching recent movie reviews. The LA Times’ esteemed critic Kenneth Turan writes in part: The struggle in this poignant and tremendously appealing film features a man who fights a stubborn rear-guard action against his dead ex-wife’s final wishes and in the process learns more than he anticipates about his family and himself.
Popular author and critic Leonard Maltin raves, too: Indie and foreign films have a tougher time in today’s marketplace, which is why I want to call your attention to an import that’s truly worth seeing—even though you may not have heard about it. … Quiet, original, irreverent, ironic: These are some of the adjectives that describe Mariana Chenillo’s bittersweet comedy about a Jewish family dealing with the suicide of its matriarch on the eve of Passover.

Why see it now? That’s easy. This week, Americans are discovering the first wave of “holiday movies” on the shelves at Target and Wal-Mart, which mostly means home-for-Thanksgiving and snowflake-dusted Christmas movies. This year, you’ll even see a brand-new DVD edition of the granddaddy of contemporary holiday-reunion dramas: Ed Asnwer’s 1976 made-for-TV movie The Gatheringin which a dying, troublesome family patriarch tries to reunite his conflicted family at the holidays. Since Asner’s masterful drama, we’ve seen dozens of Hollywood and made-for-TV knock offs replay this same theme—generally with cloyingly sweet plot twists designed to wring a few tears before the closing credits. Compared with that lot, Nora’s Will is a bracingly refreshing cup of holiday cheer.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Adventure Rabbi joins in Lisa Miller & Rob Bell debate on expanding our spirituality in a ‘God Upgrade’

RABBI JAMIE KORNGOLD, author of “The God Upgrade: Finding Your 21st-Century Spirituality in Judaism’s 5,000-Year-Old Tradition,” reads from the Torah atop a mountain in Colorado. Korngold has drawn a huge following by leading retreats, study groups and worship in wilderness areas.NOW our series really gets interesting!
our national conversation on the future of faith adds Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold, best known as The Adventure Rabbi until the release of  “The God Upgrade: Finding Your 21st-Century Spirituality in Judaism’s 5,000-Year-Old Tradition.”

Related stories:

(Scroll to the end“Recommend” this story via Facebook, please.)


    DAVID: You live and work on the Adventure Rabbi program in Boulder, Colorado, but do you actually have a house of worship there in Boulder?

    JAMIE: We have a congregation, but no big building. There are about 5,000 people who are somehow involved with our programs. We might see them at Rosh Hashanah and then not again for a year. We have 400 people who are quite active and we see all the time. We have three rabbis on staff, but we only have an office space large enough to include one huge conference room where we can teach classes. We can get about 40 people into that space. For our bigger programs we either rent other spaces or we hold the programs outdoors.

    DAVID: This new book, “The God Upgrade,” has been described this way: In your first book, you showed people how to reconnect their faith with the natural world around us. In this second book, you answer an even bigger question: Why bother with faith in the first place? That’s a tall order! You’re trying to sort out the very nature of God and religion in this new book.

    JAMIE: The biggest stumbling block to religion is God. What I discovered in writing my earlier book is that the way I lay out Judaism is really compelling to lots of people. They tell me: “Yes, that’s what I think, too!” But then they go back to their regular synagogue or, in some cases, they’re Christians and they go back to their home church—and they can’t experience religion in the way I’m describing it. For example, their rabbi or minister is up there talking about a God who you pray to and things happen as a direct result of your prayers. And people tell me: “That kind of religion isn’t for me. It doesn’t work for me.”

    DAVID: Let me stop you there. Right away, we’ve focused on the core issue in your new book—the very nature of God. That connects your voice with this red-hot national conversation unfolding around writers like Rob Bell, Lisa Miller and a host of others: Marcus Borg, J. Philip Newell, Barbara Brown Taylor—I could rattle off quite a list here.

    JAMIE: Yes, I’m aware that there is this national conversation going on. And it’s important because it relates to why people are leaving synagogues and churches. Everyone is aware that people are leaving, but most leaders in congregations only want to talk about easy institutional responses. What new things can we do to welcome more people? How can we get more people through the doors? Nobody dares to talk about God. But, I think that, if we don’t come to terms with this piece of the puzzle, then we’re never going to get people back into congregations.

    DAVID: You’re saying some radical things in this book. Among other things, you believe in God as a creator-sustainer-connective force in the cosmos, but you don’t believe that God is sitting up there on a throne dispensing answers to individual prayers. Now, you know the polling data as well as I do, so you know that millions of people disagree with you. The vast majority of Americans tell pollsters they believe in prayer and pray regularly. Are you telling them that they’re wrong?


    JAMIE: I know lots of people who are very content in their religious practice and who firmly believe that if someone is ill, and they say a prayer, then their prayers are efficacious and God will take their prayers into account in some way in deciding what to do with this person. I know lots of people who envision God as consciously making decisions involving individual prayers. And, if I’m describing you right now, then don’t worry. I don’t want to mess with your religion. I say: Go, and be content in your faith. I don’t want to mess with you. God bless you.

    In this book, I’m really trying to respond to people who, when a rabbi says, “I’ll pray for you,” their first reaction is: “Hunh? That’s not what I want.” There are a lot of Jews and Christians out there who feel alienated from our traditions because they feel that the concept of God we’re presenting today forces them to check their rational minds at the door.

    DAVID: But you still pray, don’t you?

    JAMIE: Of course I pray. I do believe that prayer and ritual are efficacious, but I don’t believe that it’s a process of pleading to a god-like figure who is granting individual pleas. I don’t see God sitting up there deciding what will happen next, based on the petitions we’re sending every day. I think prayer is important because it enables us to connect with our communities, with ourselves and with God—but, I don’t see God sitting up there as a conscious interventionist force. So, if I am with my community, then of course I will pray for someone who is sick, but I’m not praying as though God is going to suddenly come down here and heal that person. What our prayers do is cultivate compassion and humility in our communities. They help us all become a community who cares for those who are sick.


    DAVID: This is a tricky point and I want to bring in an illustration that struck me as I was reading your book. You don’t mention Cesar Chavez in your book, but we just published Chavez’s most famous prayer. Lots of readers have visited that prayer page. I know from emails that many readers have printed out that prayer in English and Spanish and have shared it widely. I would say that, if you carefully read Chavez’s prayer, it’s the kind of prayer that you would heartily encourage, right?

    JAMIE: (After we both turn to the prayer online and read it over.) Yes, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s an absolutely beautiful prayer—and one I would encourage people to pray. For me, like this prayer by Chavez, prayer has to do with personal responsibility.

    DAVID: OK, then this is another point of connection. If readers turn to Part 2 of the interview with Lisa Miller, who is a journalist and also an active member in a Jewish congregation, Lisa talks about this very point. She actually criticizes Rob Bell for not taking that seriously enough. Lisa argues that personal responsibility—and the actions we take in our communities—should be central pillars of our faith. You’re making a very similar point, right?

    JAMIE: This is one of the things I love about Judaism—the emphasis on personal responsibility. During Passover, we remember that God came down and liberated the people with an outstretched arm. But, today, there are many people out there who don’t believe that God came down like some scene in a Cecil B. DeMille movie and stretched out an arm to save the Israelites. The Passover holiday resonates with Jews around the world because it celebrates freedom. For many, Passover still resonates that powerful message of freedom, even if they don’t see this unfolding in a literal way. For many, the storytelling tradition we continue at Passover is powerful and the ritual of Passover is still essential, because it makes our lives so much more meaningful. The kind of message that I see in Passover is this: If anyone’s going to free the people who remain in slavery around the world today, then we’ve got to get out there and free those slaves ourselves.

    DAVID: At this point, I know that a lot of our readers are shaking their heads. Many won’t agree with these points you’re making. So, I want to emphasize that this book does not come across as a hit-‘em-over-the-head argument about religion—it’s a plea for discussion. You’re not trying to shatter anyone’s faith. Rather, you’re saying: Millions of men and women don’t believe the traditional teachings in a literal way—so, please, dare to open up your communities and your conversations to let them honestly tell you what they think. Is that a fair way to describe what you’re saying in this book?

    JAMIE: Very much! Yes, this book is a plea for conversation. I don’t need or want people to agree with every bit of my concept of God. I just want there to be room for people to explore what theologians have been exploring over the centuries.


    DAVID: This is risky stuff for a clergyperson to say and to commit to paper. You could get yourself fired in many congregations, right?

    JAMIE: Absolutely. You could get fired for this. I read a chapter of this book to my congregation one night when hundreds of people were sitting there. As I got ready to read this text, I suddenly had this thought: I might have no congregation tomorrow. And, you know, when I read it—the room was silent. Some people were shaking their heads. The whole time, I kept wondering: What are they thinking?

    Then, afterward, people came up to me and said: “The whole time, I was curious what other people were thinking!” People began to ask around, to talk about it with others. Finally, I began to hear from people: “We’re relieved to hear this from you! This is what I think, too, but to hear a rabbi say this!?! Who’d have expected it?” In the end, people told me they felt very reassured by the honesty and openness in what I’m saying.

    DAVID: I know that Rabbi Schulweis would disagree with you on various points you make in this book. Nevertheless, he heartily recommends your book in the Foreword. Why does he do that? I love this section of your book, so let me read from it. In his Foreword, Schulweis writes about “a teacher in a confirmation class who asked how many of the students believed in God. No hands were raised except one young person. Asked how she had come to believe in God, she answered casually, ‘I don’t know. I think it just runs in my family.’” Then, Schulweis concludes, “In our days, God-talk is unheard around the table, in the classroom, or even in the seminary. That theological silence must be broken. Old questions must be renewed, and new answers must be tried.” Finally, he praises you personally for understanding “that we have nothing to fear but rigidity and emptiness itself.”

    I think about that jam-packed meeting hall near Central Park in New York City where hundreds of young men and women from around the world gathered to hear a couple of people—Lisa and Rob—talk about the theology of heaven. To me, that’s the strongest endorsement that these issues truly and deeply matter to people.

    LISA: I hope we can open up honest new discussions. I hope we can argue and debate with each other so that we all can better understand our own thinking, our own faith. I think that a public forum is really an important part of wrapping our heads, hearts and spirits around these concepts. If we sit back in isolation and try to figure this out on our own, we’re not going to get anywhere. But if we can rise to the occasion of honest conversation, then I think we can create a place in religion for all sorts of people who now feel disenfranchised. I want to see everyone in the room.

    Come back on Friday for the final story in our Passover / Holy Week series! As it turns out, the Adventure Rabbi actually tracked down Rob Bell to complete this circle of conversation. On Friday, we’ll tell you what happened when Jamie met Rob.

    NOTE: PHOTOS TODAY are courtesy of photographer Jeff Finkelstein for Adventure Rabbi

    We want our international conversation to continue

    Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

    We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

    Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

    Newsweek’s Lisa Miller, Rob Bell & the Adventure Rabbi talk about God, Heaven, Passover and Holy Week

    Passover starts tonight! And, it’s Holy Week for the world’s 2 billion Christians!
    ReadTheSpirit has an amazing lineup of stories this week criss-crossing between the two traditions and raising the most provocative questions in religion today. Stay tuned all week, because Passover seders are supposed to spark spirited discussions. And Holy Week is the time, each year, when Christians reconsider the central memories of their religious tradition as well.
    (Scroll to the end today for links to more fascinating stories. And, “Recommend” via Facebook, below.)


    FIRST, we are recommending that readers planning ahead for small-group discussions this spring and summer buy equal copies of both Rob Bell’s “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Livedand Lisa Miller’s “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife” from Amazon. Have half your group read one book; half read the other one. You will have no shortage of discussion, we guarantee! Also, invite friends to read our stories this week and, by Friday, those friends will be urging you to get that discussion group organized!

    Who are Rob Bell and Lisa Miller?
    Both are popular authors writing about religion via Harper publishing house. Here’s the most important distinction: Rob Bell is an evangelist; Lisa Miller is a journalist. She’s documenting what Americans actually believe and practice concerning heaven; he’s preaching one particular interpretation of the afterlife. He’s evangelical Christian and has touched off a firestorm for trying to expand evangelical views of heaven. She’s Reform Jewish and is drawing an audience of Americans who want someone to acknowledge that millions of us already have expansive views of the afterlife.

    Want more background? Click here to read the story we published on March 14, when Lisa talked with Rob about heaven in a packed meeting hall near Central Park in New York City.

    IMPORTANT NOTE: There are easy-to-navigate links at the end of today’s story to read all 4 parts in this series.

    Highlights of our new interview with Lisa Miller:

    DAVID: You’re part of the hottest news story emerging in mainline religion this spring. Rob Bell caused a firestorm among conservative evangelicals for expanding the possibility of who gets into heaven. You’re a journalist and you’ve reported on the large numbers of Americans who already think that heaven is a bigger place than clergy have told them in the past. So, you and Rob held a dialogue in New York City. Tell us your impressions of that event.

    LISA: We were ready for a big event—but I was surprised at how big this event turned out to be. We were in a space near Central Park and I arrived an hour early to get ready. I was astonished to see the long line of people waiting to get inside. By the time we started, the place was packed to the rafters.

    DAVID: Who were these folks?

    LISA: Most of them were young evangelical Christians. I would say most of them seemed dissatisfied with the way evangelicals have been talking about God and heaven. These people were looking for something more inclusive and warm than the religion they were given from their parents’ and grandparents’ era. I knew there were a lot of religiously dissatisfied people out there, but I hadn’t fully seen this phenomenon unfold in this way until that night.

    DAVID: What did you want to ask Rob that night? Your viewpoints are similar in some ways—but very different in many respects.

    LISA: My line of questioning that night, based on my own book about heaven, was about how we describe heaven and who gets in. Conservative Christians are angry with Rob Bell because they teach that Jesus is the only way and the only truth. Rob’s new book is saying: Well, yes, that’s true—but not in the way you think. Rob has a very expansive view of heaven. And, he says people don’t really go to hell except hells of their own making.

    DAVID: Don’t you agree that what Rob is saying has been coming from lots of other Christian writers for some time now? Rob’s not the first one to say this.

    LISA: Yes, this controversy is a little bit one sided. The people who are angry about Bell are the people on the most conservative side of the Christian map in America. A lot of people in that cohort are angry because they don’t believe that salvation is this warm and fuzzy story that includes lots of people. For them, salvation is a story about believing in Jesus and believing in certain specific things in the Bible. There are those who do that right and get to go to heaven; and there are those who don’t do it in their specific way—and they don’t get in. They wind up in hell.

    Yes, long before Rob Bell’s new book, others have taken a more expansive view of heaven. I argued that night in New York that his expansive view of heaven is something that’s been talked about in mainstream Protestantism for a long time. More than that, there are mystical views of heaven from the medieval era of Christianity that are much more expansive than what most contemporary, conservative Christians believe.

    In a way, this whole controversy surrounding Bell is a labeling controversy. Conservative evangelicals are mad that Rob Bell calls himself a conservative evangelical—yet he doesn’t believe precisely the same things they do.

    DAVID: I agree with you. What’s more—and we said this in our March 14 story about Rob’s new book: Anyone who isn’t a Christian will find Rob’s new book profoundly Christian. In his book, Rob says that anyone who winds up in his bigger new vision of heaven still gets there because of Jesus. People may not know that this all happens through Jesus, but in Rob’s view of the cosmos, salvation still is all about Jesus.

    LISA: That night in New York, I told Rob that it offends me that he thinks Jesus is still the only mechanism for getting into heaven. This whole thing may be mysterious, as Rob describes it, but he says it still involves Jesus in his view. For me, as a Jew, that means Rob thinks that Jesus is going to get my Jewish relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust into heaven. As a Jew, I don’t want that kind of inclusiveness. I don’t want him to tell me that, whether I know it or not, salvation is all about Jesus. Just as you’re saying, David, people who are not Christian who read his book are going to find that it’s still a very Christian vision—whatever the evangelicals are saying about it.

    Backstage as I was talking to Rob, I actually said to him: You know, Mormons get into trouble with people of other faiths for doing what you’re describing here. They claim they’re helping to get people into heaven on their terms.

    DAVID: What did Rob say to the comparison between his views and the LDS church?

    LISA: He didn’t really respond. To be compared to a Mormon seemed silly to him—not relevant, he said. But to an outsider like myself, it’s the same thing: Mormons are trying to baptize the souls of my relatives who died in the Holocaust. And that’s offensive to me as Jew. Jesus doesn’t have to be the way to heaven for us. That’s a very difficult problem that Rob doesn’t fully untangle in his book. I think he has not sufficiently wrestled with Buddhist or Hindu or Jewish or atheist perspectives on these issues.


    DAVID: He’s inviting people to a huge Christian party in the afterlife that not everyone wants to attend.

    LISA: Exactly, just as you’re saying. In the end, I don’t want to go to Rob Bell’s Christian party. Why can’t I go to my own party? That’s the problem. This cuts to the very issue that comes up a lot these days in interfaith conversation, whether it’s Tony Blair’s or Eboo Patel’s or Karen Armstrong’s version of it. Most of these efforts ignore religion’s exclusivist claims. In the conservative trenches of almost every religion, it’s my way—or the highway. That’s a very difficult issue to discuss because we all want to learn about each other’s faiths and get along. That’s the godly thing to do, right? But in the basements of our faiths are words, creeds and doctrines that say: This is the way, the only way and the other ways don’t work. What do we do with those claims? I don’t have the answer, but I do know that it’s important not to try to bury those claims. Exclusivist claims are so serious that they can make people kill each other.

    DAVID: I agree. I don’t think Rob comes to terms with that enormous challenge. It’s not enough to say: Oh, Jesus makes it all right in the end.

    But, having said all of this, let’s turn now to talk in defense of Rob’s work—and in defense of reading both of your books in a discussion group. I think Rob really is trying to bust open some of the biases that organized religion has accumulated through the years. And, your own work as a journalist—your own new book on heaven—also tries to break open our assumptions about how people regard heaven, right?

    LISA: For people who have been constrained by this very rigid Christian language over the past generation or two, Rob Bell is providing an opening that I think many people are finding very welcome. In my book, I’m also trying to raise some difficult questions about heaven that a lot of people share today.

    Links to 4-Part series on Heaven, Hell, Lisa, Jamie & Rob Bell

    Part 1: Newsweek’s Lisa Miller talks about her encounter with Rob Bell in New York City, talking before a huge audience about their research into heaven and hell.

    Part 2: Newsweek’s Lisa Miller talks about her research on “Heaven” and the transformation taking place in organized religion across America.

    Part 3: The “Adventure Rabbi” Jamie Korngold talks about her call for a “God Upgrade” and the religious transformation that’s pushing millions away from congregations.

    Part 4: Completing the circle, Rabbi Korngold talks about her encounter with Rob Bell in Boulder, Colorado, and how she sees all these voices connecting in a national conversation.

    REMEMBER: Via these links, you can order Rob Bell’s “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Livedand Lisa Miller’s “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife” from Amazon. Reading both books will spark a spirited small group!

    READ OUR 2010 INTERVIEW WITH LISA MILLER: We took an in-depth look at Lisa’s book when the hardback version was published in 2010.

    WHY PUBLISH ABOUT RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY: We recently interviewed Stuart Matlins, a leader in both Jewish and Christian publishing, about how he sees the horizon.

    We want our international conversation to continue

    Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

    We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

    Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

    Story of Shabbat (Sabbath) for the whole family!

    This is not only a book for the whole family—it’s a book for the whole planet! It’s primarily for Jewish readers, but it’s for anyone searching for spiritual solace in the midst our crazy world.

    Why recommend ‘World in One Shabbat’ now?

    We’ve published some heavy-duty reflections on Passover recently, but this festival really is all about families, especially teaching children the stories that shape our spiritual view of the world. Earlier, we published Brenda Rosenberg’s story on creating a peace-themed seder table with children. We know that this is the time of year when millions of men and women are actively buying books about Judaism and Christianity. If you want to give a wonderful gift to your family or friends, this time of year, we’re heartily recommending a “children’s book” by Durga Yael Bernhard, “Around the World in One Shabbat: Jewish People Celebrate the Sabbath Together,” published by Jewish Lights.

    Who is Durga Yael Bernhard and why did she create this book?

    Durga is a Mom and a multi-talented artist, as a painter, a musician and a writer. She’s easy to find online. Here are a few great starting points: To explore her full body of work, visit the main website for her artistic work. But, to really dig into the thinking behind this new “children’s book,” visit Durga’s blog where her early April post describes her thoughts while creating this book.

    You can read the entire April post yourself, but here’s a taste of what she has to say about this new book. Her analysis is so close to the core values of ReadTheSpirit, that we’re sharing just a few lines to whet your appetite for more. She writes in part …

    The recent economic recession has compelled many people to re-examine the rampant materialism and mushrooming debt of our society. As our priorities shift, we strive to spend less and save more; to recycle and replant; to meditate and do yoga; to resist the runaway train of productivity and take a break. Good advice for overworked executives, understaffed police, overburdened judicial systems, sagging bureaucracies, and most of all, busy moms and dads. We all need a rest in order to do a good job.

    Encompassing all these techniques for relaxation and rejuvenation is the Sabbath, the ancient tradition that sets in rhythm a cycle of labor and rest. The Sabbath governs the timing of rest. It sets it apart, protects it, and gives it equal status to our noblest ambitions; in fact, it enables those ambitions. This ancient tradition just might be the key to modern time management. As the silence between notes allows music to breathe, as the space between logs allows fire to ignite; as contemplation allows creativity to flow, so too does the sacred time of rest provide something crucial to our busy human lives.

    Wondering why we put “children’s book” in quotes? Well, perhaps it’s obvious now that we recommend this book for entire families—the very young, of course, but all of us who care about extending these spiritual treasures to each new generation.

    If You’re a Christian Family Preparing for Holy Week

    The plot of this book is as simple as the cover suggests: We circle the globe, page by page, with illustrations and brief stories about Jewish families in various cultures preparing for the Sabbath. The detail at right appears in a two-page spread from South America. The text begins: “In Buenos Aires, Argentina, the sun is already high in the sky when Alicia wakes from her nap. Laughter comes from the kitchen as Alicia’s sister and her friend are kneading challah dough. Papa is home from work early to prepare for the Sabbath … He gets busy helping to wash and clean the house.” This whole family is involved!

    Think about the craziness in many Christian households, preparing for a typical weekend with church services and perhaps a Sunday family dinner. Now, multiply that by 10 for Holy Week and Easter in many households. Bernhard reminds us that famlies around the world face similar challenges—and many regulate their lives through religious traditions that provide the necessary Sabbath time for respite and happiness.

    Over the past decade, the subject of Sabbath has become a popular theme across Christianity. Countless religious leaders and authors have written about the need to recapture the richness of our traditions to save ourselves from destructive anxiety, stress and isolation. We just published a major interview with best-selling author Dr. Meg Meeker, touching on very similar themes from a Christian perspective.

    REMEMBER: You can order a copy of Durga Yael Benrhard’s “Around the World in One Shabbat” from Jewish Lights Publishing now.

    We want our international conversation to continue

    Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

    We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

    Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

    Matlins: Importance of publishing on religious diversity

    For 20 years as a publisher, Stuart Matlins has inspired readers with more than 500 books guiding us along authentic spiritual pathways—often stepping beyond our comfort zones into the larger world beckoning just outside our windows. Based in Woodstock, Vermont, Matlins is celebrated in Jewish communities for his imprint Jewish Lights Publishing, which specializes in the cutting edge of Jewish spirituality. But his loyal readers span the entire spectrum of American religious life through his imprint SkyLight Paths Publishing.

    In preparation for Passover this year, we’ve already recommended “Creating Lively Seders” (for Jewish readers) and “How to be a Perfect Stranger” (for all readers). Today, you’ll meet Stuart and learn why he sees a booming future for anyone who can help people find timeless connections with the world’s religious traditions.


    DAVID: ReadTheSpirit is a small publisher compared with your work over the past two decades, but we both see a huge audience of people seeking spiritual connection. What’s the size of the audience?

    STUART: The audience is big. I don’t know how big—but it’s a strong audience. The question we all are trying to answer is: How do we reach people? That is becoming an ever-larger problem with the reduction in shelf space across the book-publishing industry. In simplistic terms, we can divide the world into two kinds of people: those who read books and those who don’t read books. And in the world of book readers, the vast majority of people used to go into bookstores and browse the shelves.

    In every book we publish, we place a reader-response card. I have looked at close to 100,000 of those cards over the years, and the No. 1 reason people have bought our books is: “Saw it on the shelf.” Not only is it the No. 1 reason but if we were to list the Top 10 reasons people buy our books, “Saw it on the shelf” would be the first 9 reasons, because it’s so far-and-away important in the way people find us. That’s true for all of our imprints and I think it’s the same for all publishers historically. Now, we’re losing the chance for readers to see a new title on the shelf. There are fewer and fewer shelves for books at Barnes and Noble—and we all know about the problems at Borders. Over the past 10 to 15 years, these superstores also diminished the number of independent bookstores so significantly that, when I started SkyLight and Jewish Lights, there were more than 5,000 members in the American Booksellers Association and today the membership is less than 2,000.

    Our question becomes: How do we keep reaching what we know to be a very strong audience out there? We’re working hard to figure out answers along with everyone else in this field of publishing. One of the most important issues is: How do we create experiences like “Saw it on the shelf”? It’s true that Amazon will recommend books to you and that can be useful, but it’s substantially different than when a reader could browse the shelves and see connections that Amazon may not see in our reading.

    DAVID: The reasons people buy our books are changing in dramatic ways! Not too many decades ago, Americans tended to read what their religious denomination provided—from scriptures to small-group study books. When I began reporting on religion for American newspapers 30 years ago, many of the “religion writers” still were confined to a “church page,” compiling news items for “local churches.” Today, it’s as obvious as front-page headlines that religion is a driving force all around the world. Now, whether we’re active in a congregation or not, we all realize that healthy communities depend on appreciating our religious and cultural differences. That’s why we’re so strongly recommending your book, “How to Be a Perfect Stranger.”

    STUART: We first published that back in the 1990s and the immediate response was powerful! What’s interesting now is our growth in foreign editions of the book. I’ve been exhibiting books at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where I meet with acquisition editors from other publishing companies around the world. And this is our most-requested book. But, in the past, they’d say, “That’s interesting. Send me a copy.”

    But, until three years ago, not a single one of those initial expressions of interest resulted in a sale of rights in any other language. We were doing very well with the book in this country. It’s now in its 5th Edition and we’ve sold a lot of copies, but people in other countries didn’t see its significance.

    DAVID: Why weren’t they seeing the importance?

    STUART: I would get these responses saying: “That’s an absolutely fascinating book and we do have people of other faiths in our country, but we never mix. We don’t go to their ceremonies. They don’t come to ours. We don’t intermarry.” That’s what they used to tell me. But, now, something really odd is happening out there. Three years ago, Hodder & Stoughton in the UK acquired the UK language rights to the book, recognizing that they’d want to revise it to reflect traditions in the UK. So, they also acquired our methodology for gathering the information. That book has come out in the UK as “Hats, Mats and Hassocks.” For us, a hassock is something you put your feet up on. A hassock for them is a kneeler.

    Two years ago, a French publisher acquired the French-language rights and then last year a Russian publisher acquired the Russian-language rights. I think we’re seeing two phenomena. One is reflected in the UK where their society is changing. There is more mixing and marrying going on and people are aware of that. In the other two cases, and certainly in the Russian case, it is a realization that, on the one hand, this is a book about religion and, on the other hand, it is a very important business book to have on your shelf if you are making contact in other countries with people form other traditions. In the Russian case, the publisher’s interest in our book is clearly for people engaged in business. In this country, the Staples chain is smart enough to see that point and, back when Staples offered only a dozen or so books in stores, Staples put “How to be a Perfect Stranger” onto the shelves. Staples understood that people need information to do business with people who are not just like them.

    Think of the growth in business between India and the United States. We do business with people in India all the time. And we all realize that good business is more than just transactions. It’s about relationships and trust, so we establish relationships with each other. Then, if someone’s daughter gets married or mother dies or there’s a major holiday—how do you express joy, grief or good wishes with your colleague? Our book provides those answers.

    DAVID: You go a step further than just improving civic relations, though. You’ve got a passion for connecting people with these modern expressions of ancient traditions.


    STUART: In SkyLight Paths, our argument is: We go beyond tolerance. In much of American society, the interest in cross-cultural learning starts with: Learn something about the neighbors so we don’t hit each other. Or, perhaps: What is it about you that I can learn that will benefit me? In “Perfect Stranger,” we do provide the answers you need so that you won’t make a fool out of yourself as you begin to build relationships with other people.

    But there’s something much bigger here than just the goal of learning not to hit each other. And one example of how I experienced this came during a visit my wife and I made to a big historic hotel in San Diego. I went to the spa there and was sitting in the locker rom, when this guy came in and said: “Can I ask you a question?”

    I was suspicious of a stranger coming up to me in a locker room like that, but I said: “Yeah, what’s your question?”

    He said: “I’m the manager of the facility and I saw your name on the schedule today and I just wondered if you’re the author of my favorite book.”

    I was still a little leery and asked him, “What book?” He mentioned “Perfect Stranger;” I was surprised, and I said, “Yes, I’m the person who put that book together. Why is that your favorite book?”

    Then, he said: “That book kept our family together. I grew up Catholic. My wife is Protestant. My brother in law is Jewish. And we’ve got a Hindu in our family, too. This book not only made peace—but it helped us to understand each other. We have you to thank for keeping our family together.”

    We want our international conversation to continue

    Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

    We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

    Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

    Ask an expert what to do at a Passover seder

    This year, 2 billion Christians celebrate Lent and Easter together—and millions of Jewish families observe Passover starting April 18, during what Christians call Holy Week. Christians teach that Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem was to observe Passover, forever linking the two sacred seasons. (Photo above: In an earlier year, Jewish Navy personnel on the USS Nimitz celebrated Passover while in the Arabian Gulf.)
    ALL THIS WEEK AND NEXT, we will report on creative ideas, books, films and provocative voices to help you find new meaning in Passover and Holy Week.

    TODAY, we’ve got help from an expert on an observance that defines Judaism: the Passover seder.


    Biblical scholars disagree on whether Jesus’ Last Supper was an actual seder, but Christianized Seders are widespread at this time of year—and the practice appears to be growing among evangelicals. Sometimes called “baptized” or “Messianic” seders, the traditional Jewish ritual is changed to turn the meal into a remembrance of Jesus’ Last Supper. Leaders of these adapted rituals use them to foster Christian conversion. However, most of the world’s Christians regard that as inappropriate.

    The world’s largest Christian church, the Catholic church, forbids its parishes to Christianize the seder. Catholic leaders encourage their billion-plus followers to visit authentic seders—or to invite a rabbi to lead a model seder to demonstrate the ritual for Christians. Catholic bishops say clearly: Christianized seders “distort both traditions.” And the bishops say: “The primary reason why Christians may celebrate the festival of Passover should be to acknowledge common roots in the history of salvation. Any sense of restaging the Last Supper of the Lord Jesus should be avoided.” (The bishops have posted their instructions within a larger document: Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis of the Roman Catholic Church.)

    Many Jewish clergy and individual families invite non-Jews to model seders—or to their homes for the ritual meals that will be held on April 18 and 19. In the FriendshipAndFaith section of ReadTheSpirit, we are publishing stories about creative ways to enjoy diversity in the midst of the seder.


    Earlier, we published a story recommending “Creating Lively Passover Seders,” published by Stuart Matlins and Jewish Lights Publishing.
    This week, we welcome Stuart back for two more stories. Today, we are recommending Stuart Matlins’ best-selling reference work, “How to Be a Perfect Strranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook,” which has just been released in an updated 5th Edition. Come back later this week for an interview with Stuart about the many ways this book has helped to foster healthier communities around the world. Today, we’re sharing a sample from the popular book.

    Q and A on Passover seder
    for non-Jews
    invited to the meal

    Here are just some of the Questions and Answers included in the seder section of this big reference book …

    What is its significance? Passover commemorates the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt.

    What is the proper greeting to the celebrants? “Happy Passover” or “Happy holiday,” which in Hebrew is “Chag samayach” (hahg sah-MAY-ahk).

    Should one assume children are invited? No. Clarify this with your host.

    If one can’t attend, what should one do? Express regrets. Send flowers or special Passover candy.

    Appropriate attire—men: Ask your host about attire. Some may prefer jacket and tie; others may request more informal attire. A small head covering called a yarmulke (YAHR-mil-kah) or kippah (keep-AH) is required at all Orthodox and most Conservative and Reconstructionist seders and at some Reform seders. If required, your host will provide them for you. Do not openly wear symbols of other faiths, such as a cross.

    Appropriate attire—women: Ask your host about attire. Some may prefer a dress or a skirt and blouse or pants suit. Open-toed shoes and modest jewelry are appropriate. Do not openly wear symbols of other faiths, such as a cross.

    If one decides to give a gift, is a certain type of gift appropriate? Flowers for the seder table or special Passover candy are welcome.

    The ceremony: The Passover seder (SAY-dihr) is a festive dinner at home at which the story of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, is told. Rituals precede and follow the meal. A seder is usually led by the head of the household, although everyone present participates. Seders (including the meal) may take from 90 minutes to more than three hours, depending upon the detail in wihch the story is told and family customs. It is cusotmary to arrive at the time called; this is a dinner, as well as a religious celebration.

    What are the major ritual objects? A seder plate, on which are symbols of various aspects of the Passover story. Matzah (MAH-tzah) or flat, unleavened bread, similar to the bread made by the Jewish people as they fled Egypt.

    What books are read? A Haggadah (hah-GAH-dah), a text in Hebrew and English that tells the Passover story and its meaning for each generation. There are hundreds of different versions of the Haggadah. Many focus on different elements of the holiday or interpret it from their own particular perspective, such as feminism or ecology, but all tell the basic story of the Exodus.

    Will a guest who is not Jewish be expected to do anything other than sit? If asked to do so by the leader, they should read aloud English portions of the Haggadah.

    Is it okay to take pictures? Probably; ask your host.

    Is the meal part of the celebration? Yes. It is usually served after the first part of the ritual portion of the seder.

    Will there be alcoholic beverages? Wine is an integral part of the seder. Other alcoholic beverages may be served prior to or after the seder, depending upon the family’s customs.

    Would it be considered impolite not to eat? Yes, since the meal is central to the celebration.

    Will there be music? Usually there is just singing. Guitar or piano may accompany the singing.

    You can order this remarkable reference work, “How to Be a Perfect Strranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook,” which answers thousands of questions about all the world’s great religious traditions, from SkyLight Paths Publishing.

    Care to read more about Passover?

    Our Festivals and Holidays column reports further on the preparation for Passover and its timeless meaning for Jewish families, plus more helpful web links to Passover resources.

    We want our international conversation to continue

    Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

    We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

    Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

    Passover is coming! Here’s help from Jewish Lights!

    While more than 2 billion Christians around the world are moving through Lent toward Easter, the world’s millions of Jewish families have just finished Purim and are looking ahead to Passover at sunset on Monday April 18.

    “Passover Seders—the ritual meals as Passover begins—are the most-attended Jewish religious events of the year, even more than the high holy days,” says Stuart Matlins, founder and head of Vermont-based Jewish Lights Publishing, the leading producer of inspirational Jewish books for general readers. Along with Matlins’ other imprint, SkyLight Paths Publishing, he has produced more than 500 books in the past quarter of a century.

    In preparation for Passover 2011, Stuart has just released a major revision and expansion of David Arnow’s popular guide to “Creating Lively Passover Seders,” which you can order via Jewish Lights right now.

    “This is a case where the cover of the book explains the purpose quite well,” Stuart says. “Right at the top we say: ‘No more boring Seders!’ And at the bottom we say, ‘A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts and Activities.’”

    Our Jewish readers already understand the value of this publishing news—and may already own a copy of the smaller first edition. You’re wondering: I’ve got that first edition already on the shelf. How different is this second version? Stuart responds simply: “This isn’t a fake second edition. We had to update because the book includes lots of topical references that become dated over time. But we did more than update details. About 25 percent of what was in that first edition isn’t in the book anymore. And, we’ve added even more to replace that. So, this is now a bigger book. It’s been thoroughly revised and expanded. If you enjoyed the first one, you’ll want this new edition.”

    Our non-Jewish readers may be wondering: What’s the point of all this? Isn’t a Seder just a series of short readings? The answer is: Hardly! This confusion arises because every year many non-Jews are invited to authentic Seders—however, millions of Americans have been exposed to “Christianized Seders,” shortened versions of the ritual meal that often radically reshape the conclusion of the ritual meal to point toward Jesus’ Last Supper. Today’s article isn’t the place to debate that controversial policy of Christianizing Passover customs—except to say: Even if you think you know Seder customs, you may not! This book is a fascinating overview of Seder themes.

    What Makes a Truly Engaging Seder?

    A memorable Seder in an observant Jewish home is a lively multi-course dinner full of readings that retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt—along with food-related symbols. For the children who are present, there are activities and songs to awaken their imagination. Then, the heart of the meal is a spirited discussion about the contemporary meaning of Jewish wisdom. The Passover Seder connects the vital dots of Jewish heritage across the millennia—and sends these sacred themes back out into the world through the next Jewish generation.

    “The problem is that there are lots of boring Seders,” Stuart explains. “This should be a very special time to reconnect Jews with all that Judaism has to teach and offer. Unfortunately too many Seders are so boring that people don’t get that wonderful experience. The people planning the Seder very often are not well educated in Judaism and often they don’t really know what to do—other than prepare the food and read through the Passover ritual.

    “The goal is to make the Seder interesting for everyone so that every person at the table becomes a full participant. What we’ve done with this book is provide people lots of choices—including ideas they can use to get people talking about social justice, the history of the Jewish people, great stories, and things you can discuss about your own relationship—or lack thereof—to belief in God.”

    As a major publisher who travels widely promoting Jewish literacy, Stuart finds himself invited to many Seders each year. He and his wife have attended Seders around the world. Especially if they are traveling with younger family members, Stuart admits that he has grown bold in questioning his potential hosts. “I’ve been to Seders that were just deadly in some parts of the world. So, especially if we are traveling with someone, I now ask the host: ‘Let me be candid. Can you tell me what your Seder is like? If it’s boring, I don’t want to subject this young person to it.’”

    That basic challenge faces countless families all around the world as Passover approaches. Stuart’s mission in this book—now newly expanded and updated—is to ensure that fewer and fewer families will have to sheepishly admit: “Sorry, our Seder is pretty boring. We don’t know what else to do.”

    Says Stuart: “Now you have some good ideas.”

    And remember: You can order “Creating Lively Passover Seders” from Jewish Lights right now.

    We want our international conversation to continue

    Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

    We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

    (Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)