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A Reform rabbi, a Conservative rabbi and a 17-year-old Orthodox Yeshiva student sit down to eat Shabbat dinner… Sounds like the beginning of a joke, right?
Well, it’s not.
It was my family last Friday night. We were also joined by my two younger children. In my family, we’ve got a taste of k’lal Yisrael—the whole Jewish community—under one roof. I often tell my younger kids jokingly (well, mostly joking) that if my oldest son goes on to get Orthodox smicha (rabbinic ordination, which many males in his Orthodox community do) then I want one of them to be ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, so we can have rabbis in all four major denominations of Judaism in our immediate family.
I was thrilled to have my oldest son home for a weekend break from his Yeshiva (Orthodox boarding school focused primarily on the study of traditional Jewish texts) and to have my whole family gathered together around our Shabbat dinner table. As I blessed my children after lighting the Shabbat candles, I put my hands on each of their heads and then kissed them, and I thought about how lucky I was to have each of them and how much I love each and every individual in my religiously diverse Jewish family.
Sure, having a very observant Orthodox child (which he has been for two years now) in our family isn’t always easy. I had always assumed that my kids would all live at home until going off to college at the age of 18, but instead my oldest began boarding at an out-of-town Yeshiva this past September, when he was 16-and-a-half, and I miss having him at home. But when he is at home it’s challenging that our level of kashrut (Jewish dietary observance) isn’t as strict as his. While my husband and I will eat fish or vegetables at regular restaurants, he’ll only eat at a kosher restaurant with a hashgacha (kosher certification) that he accepts. His lifestyle’s very different from ours so that, even when he’s not at school, it’s not really possible for him to travel with us unless we were to go to places where predominately Orthodox families travel, so that he can pray, eat and follow laws of modesty in ways that are comfortable to him. But those same lifestyle choices might be uncomfortable for the rest of us.
We make it work. When he’s home, we go to our favorite kosher restaurant. Last December we took our two younger kids out of school a few days early to go away over winter break so that we’d be back in time for our oldest son to come home for his long weekend off that started on December 29.
As I tell the interfaith couples that I work with, and as I’ve come to appreciate in my own life: Being in a relationship means respecting differences, honoring the person you love even when you disagree, compromising where you can, and knowing what issues are non-negotiable for you and for the other person. (For example, my son won’t attend a service where men and women sit together, so I accept that he won’t come to my synagogue when he’s home. And he accepts that, while I’ll wear a long skirt and follow the other laws of dressing modestly while visiting him at school, unlike his classmates’ mothers, I normally wear pants.)
Equally important is working hard not to judge the other person. When my son started to become very observant, my husband and I sat him down and said to him: “We’re very concerned about you being Orthodox, because Orthodoxy is so judgmental.” My son looked us in the eyes and without missing a beat said: “Do you have any idea how judgmental you’ve been of me and of my being Orthodox?” The words stung, because we knew he was right. We weren’t really being as open-minded, tolerant and accepting as we thought we were. Sure, it’s easy to be tolerant of whatever you’re already comfortable with. It’s a lot more challenging to be tolerant when something is outside of your comfort zone.
I often speak to parents whose adult children are in interfaith relationships. I tell them that when our children are young, we can choose how we raise them and what we expose them to. We have all kinds of expectations about what they should be like and what they should do as they grow older. And we think that by what we tell them and with the example we set, we can control how they’ll later lead their lives and the choices they’ll make.
Sometimes this is true. But other times, our children will follow their own paths, and fall in love with someone—or in my son’s case, a way of life—that’s different from what we’d planned. This can be difficult, but ultimately we need to respect and honor our children’s choices. This same advice I give to parents whose kids are in interfaith relationships applies to my own religiously diverse family.
Being in a family with intra-faith differences, like being in an interfaith family, has its challenges. But just like being in an interfaith family, it also has its blessings. The bottom line is that I love my wonderful, crazy family with all of our intra-faith diversity. It isn’t always easy, but it’s my family, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Being from an interfaith family has influenced my life in myriad ways, most especially in my choice to focus my rabbinate on working with other interfaith families. I’ve written about my own upbringing and my parents several times over my tenure at InterfaithFamily, hoping that my own experiences might resonate with our readers. Yet, so far, everything I have shared has been in my voice and from my perspective. So, in honor of Mother’s Day and to honor my mother, I interviewed her to finally shine some light on her perspective.
I asked her a variety of questions about her early life and meeting my dad and then about how they made decisions about religion as they had children. While we have had many conversations throughout my life touching on similar topics, I have never sat down with my mother and asked her what it was like for her to be in an interfaith family, especially long before it was as accepted as it is now.
My mom is a special woman; quiet and thoughtful, passionate yet relaxed. I am the Jew, the rabbi, the human being I am because of her and my dad. I hope you enjoy a piece of her story.
Some background: My mother, Kathy, was one of five children born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts in a very Polish Catholic family. When she was 18, she packed her bags and headed to college, the first in her family to attend, where she met my father Richard, a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey. They were married by a justice of the peace in 1972 in Boston.
Me: When you were dating, did you ever have conversations about how you were from different backgrounds/religions?
Mom: We didn’t really have a big conversation. Neither of us were particularly active in our religions. I grew up in a pretty Catholic family. My grandmother lived with us and was from Poland. The church was her life. She grew flowers and every day brought them to put on the alter—it was within walking distance from the house. I never personally felt that connection even though, as a child, I attended every Sunday.
Richard’s family wasn’t particularly religious either. He wasn’t practicing Judaism when I met him. So obviously, we were more concerned about what our parents would think as opposed to what we were going to do together.
Me: When you did decide to get married, how did your family react?
Mom: There were certain members of my family, some aunts, who didn’t think it was right. My grandmother, who lived with us, wasn’t supportive. They didn’t come to our wedding. It stung not having them at my wedding, but it didn’t disturb me for any length of time. But my parents and my sisters and brother were all on board after talking it through. It was just the way my parents were. They were very accepting and compromising and after having a conversation, my father said, “It’s your life, you make the decision.” And after that there were no repercussions.
Me: Did you know any other people who were also marrying someone from a different religion?
Mom: We went to college in Boston and there were a lot of people from the New York/New Jersey area and Massachusetts. So we were meeting different people all the time. My roommate, who was Catholic, met a Jewish guy from New Jersey and they were also married, a little after we were married. A couple of other people we knew in a similar situation also married. There didn’t seem to be a barrier. It was kind of exciting to meet someone who was different. And religion never seemed to be a problem. It was the end of the ’60s: These old barriers were meant to be broken.
Me: What was the conversation about who was going to officiate at your wedding?
Mom: We wanted a Justice of the Peace because it would just make it easier. Neither of us were connected to a synagogue or church and we felt that would be the easiest and cleanest. It wouldn’t be favoring one over the other. We didn’t care. We really didn’t take religion into account at that point.
Me: In the first years of your marriage, before you had children, did you have any connection to religion?
Mom: For the first 10 years of our marriage, before we had children, we were a-religious. We might have gone to a family friend’s house for Passover once, or Christmas at my parent’s house, but never at our home. Because my upbringing was pretty rote (learn the Catechism, study the prayers, follow whatever you needed to do), it didn’t feel relevant to my life at all. Judaism seemed interesting to me.
Me: When you were planning to have children, did you have any conversations about religion?
Mom: Recognizing we had two families each with different religions, we thought, we’ll wait until our child is old enough to choose. It lasted for a little while, but it was naïve to think that a child was going to grow up without a religion and suddenly pick one. When you were a baby, we thought that us teaching you would be enough.
Me: When did we start having any religion in our lives?
Mom: Well you know this story, Jillian. You had a friend named Julie, who was Jewish. She invited you go to her Hebrew School class and you came home and asked. You knew your dad’s family was Jewish and mine was Catholic. We did explain this to you, that one family celebrated certain things and the other family celebrated other things. We wanted you to experience the world, so we said yes to you going to Hebrew School. But this came as a surprise to us. We were cringing that now we would have to deal with this issue.
So you went, loved it and asked if you could go again. And we thought, uh oh, this is the beginning. So we went to the temple to check it out and we spoke to a few people and were told we had to join, even though we were not eager to join. But we joined, so you could go to Hebrew School.
It was a Reform synagogue, so there was never a problem with me not being Jewish. They were eager to have us and they welcomed us wholeheartedly.
Me: What was your experience at synagogue?
Mom: It was like deer in the headlights! When do I stand or sit, what do I do? It was just a totally foreign way of having a religion as opposed to Catholicism. I was confused but learning as I went along. I felt welcome, everyone was very nice. We met a lot of older members of the synagogue who were thrilled we were there, and we are still friends with them now. It was a great community to be a part of. After learning more about Judaism, talking with people, listening to the Rabbi, I realized that this is a whole different animal than Catholicism. It was more about finding meaning, things you could bring into your life. It wasn’t about memorizing; it was about thinking and challenging yourself. When I caught onto that, I thought, this is interesting to be a part of. It was a better religious experience for me than I had as a child.
Me: The question I can’t believe I don’t know the answer to: If someone were to ask you now what religion you are, what would you say?
Mom: I would say I’m Jewish, just to make it easier. I never converted, so I know I’m not technically Jewish. But from a view of the world, a philosophy, I am.
My mom’s story might be a bit like yours. Perhaps you related to a few things she said, remembered feeling similarly or maybe your story is vastly different. Whichever the case, telling and listening to stories is such a wonderfully and necessary human thing to do. We learn from each other, we gain perspective, we feel connected and less alone when we take the time to listen and learn about each other.
Finally, I want to thank my mother, Kathy Cameron, for being open with me, allowing me to make her story public and for being the best mom a girl could ask for. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.
Want to honor someone special this Mother’s Day? Make a donation to InterfaithFamily in their honor.
The extreme weather conditions and the long dark nights of the winter months can be harsh for many of us. But from Thanksgiving until around Valentine’s Day, it’s also a popular time when couples get engaged. It can also be a time when couples who are getting married in the spring and summertime are knee-deep in wedding planning. Whether you’re dating, engaged, already married, considering or expecting children, winter can be a good time to hunker down, get cozy and talk about your vision for your partnership.
There have been many articles in recent years about questions for interfaith couples to discuss before getting married, like this one. Sometimes, interfaith or intercultural couples have more considerations. For example, if both partners come from very different cultural or religious families there is a lot to learn. If one is religious and the other isn’t, if one has a large family and the other doesn’t, or if one has a very tight knit family and the other doesn’t—any of these things can be an adjustment for both partners. There will need to be negotiation around which side of the family you celebrate which holidays with and about making sure everyone feels included, especially if both are religious, have strong cultural ties or close families. But let me be clear, these discussions are good for all couples. For every couple, there are family dynamics and personalities to navigate.
I often suggest to couples I work with that they create a vision for themselves—a vision for your life together, for the home you want to create, for the family you build together. If you’ve never considered creating a vision before, here are some questions to consider. Each partner should write down their own responses before sharing with the other partner.
Questions to Define Your Interfaith Family Vision:
Once each partner has had a chance to think about these questions for themselves, they should discuss with their partner. If you dread these kinds of big conversations or decision making, make this fun by doing it over your favorite meal or as a special date. Bring openness and curiosity to the process. You may surprise yourself or your partner. Be realistic about what your life looks like now but how it may look different in the future. If you’ve dropped a lot of your religious practices during your dating years but want your child to have a bar or bat mitzvah down the road, think about what that really means—likely getting back into your observance or joining a congregation and providing an education for your kids. If you’re partner has agreed to raise children in a faith different from their own, talk about what entails.
If you find this brings up more issues or your think you might need some help, consider taking the Love and Religion Workshop through InterfaithFamily, doing an Imago Therapy couples workshop or retreat or finding a couples counselor or coach. Any of these resources will give you more tools for your relationship and help in creating your interfaith family vision.
For the past eight-and-a-half years, I’ve been the rabbi of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai (TMKC). It’s a small community with a close-knit group of congregants. During our Friday night Shabbat service each week, we have Simcha Time: when people are invited to come up to the bimah and share about birthdays, anniversaries and other good news.
Dottie Bricker, a TMKC congregant, is an amazing woman with a very strong Jewish background and connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. Dottie grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home. As a young girl, Dottie spoke only Yiddish at home – she didn’t even learn English until she went to kindergarten. Dottie comes to services regularly and often comes to the bima to kvell about her four grandchildren.
Dottie is, in every way, the consummate Jewish grandmother. She bursts with love and pride when she speaks about each of her four grandchildren, all of whom call her “Bubba.” Though she’s a Jewish grandmother, not all four of Dottie’s grandchildren are Jewish. Here, in her own words, are Dottie’s thoughts about being a grandmother in an interfaith family.
My Journey that Started Twenty-Two Years Ago (by Dottie Bricker)
It was a few days before Hanukkah when my son Howard called and asked if he could bring someone to our party. I said, “Of course.” And he said, “Mom, she’s not Jewish.” I asked, “Is she nice?” And he answered, “Very.”
Howard married Gail a year later. Two years later my Charlie was born, and when he was 3, my Rachel was born. Oh, happy day-I’m the mother of three boys, the grandmother of three boys and now I finally had my little girl!
After Rachel was born, my son called and said that Gail wanted to raise the kids in her Catholic faith. Then he asked me if I would be OK with this. My answer was, “Are you nuts?! I love them the same as the other grandkids. They are the air I breathe. They are my naches.”
When Charlie and Rachel started school, I became very familiar with their school, Our Lady of Good Counsel. When they received awards, I was there at Mass to see them honored. My Charlie’s third grade teacher, Mrs. Yerkes, asked if his Bubba would come to read the story of Hanukkah to his class. I said I would love to. I read the story and taught them to play dreidel. I bought them jelly doughnuts to eat and they had a great time. A few months later, Mrs. Yerkes asked if I would read the story of Passover, and I was happy to go back. I brought matzah for the students to try. They said they liked it, but they liked the jelly doughnuts better.
When Charlie was in fifth grade, he told his teacher about his dad’s small Torah. The teacher asked if he could bring it to school. My Charlie called me and asked if I’d come to school and teach about the Torah. Once again, I said, “Of course.” It was a wonderful experience for me.
My grandkids are now in high school and I have just been retired from my job at Our Lady of Good Counsel. There’s a new “Bubbie” in Mrs. Yerkes’ class.
My grandkids know that if they need Bubba I will be there for them. I have chaperoned school trips, gone to Phillies games with Rachel and even taken Charlie to the Mother-and-Son Dance when Gail was called into work at the last minute.
I like to say that my family is a “blended family.” We learn from each other. It’s special.
They are truly the air I breathe.
Some Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being brought up in a different religious tradition may understandably have a much harder time accepting that reality than Dottie. In my blog post about honoring grandmothers of Jewish kids who aren’t themselves Jewish, I noted that, “Unlike their own sons and daughters, who fell in love with someone Jewish and made the choice to have a Jewish home and raise their children as Jews (whether or not they themselves became Jewish), these grandparents who aren’t Jewish never had a choice—they’re bound by their children’s decisions.” Of course, the same is true for Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in a different religious tradition. It can be difficult to accept your own child’s decision to not raise your grandchild as a Jew.
Ultimately, it’s a parent’s decision how to raise their child. With mutual respect and lots of communication between grandparents and adult children, grandparents can hopefully find ways to share their Jewish traditions with their grandchildren without the parents feeling that the grandparent is “pushing” Judaism on their child. This may be hard, and the grandparent may legitimately feel a sense of loss that their grandchild isn’t Jewish (see my blog on acknowledging the loss of a parent who commits to raise children in a religious tradition other than the one they grew up with-this can be all the more difficult for grandparents who didn’t have the choice to make.) But hopefully, like Dottie, the grandparent will love their grandchildren unconditionally, and describe them as nothing less than “the air I breathe.”
One of the most difficult aspects of pregnancy for me—especially right now in week 36—is the prospect of leaving my other baby: InterfaithFamily. It’s only temporary, I know, but the idea of dropping everything for several weeks has required more than a bit of office nesting (is that a thing?) over the last several months.
I’m not paving new ground here. Mothers- and fathers-to-be go through this process every day. While stepping away from a job where there is no backup—no other person who does the same job you do and can simply fill in for you—makes it all the more difficult, I have something that very few other people have. The IFF family.
I’ve already learned so much from all of our strong, wise parenting writers, especially the new ones, Anna and Anne, who are first-time moms to adorable babies. While my experience will not be from the perspective of an interfaith couple, there are so many big and small decisions to make and questions to work out for all parents before and after having a child. Seeing how our wedding and parenting bloggers approach overwhelming and sometimes incredibly challenging moments with respect, communication and grace is inspiring.
I’m also blessed to work with some of the most compassionate people I know. It doesn’t hurt that many of them are parents (and grandparents!). One lesson I’ve already learned is that everything is easier when you surround yourself with a supportive community. My co-workers have been a constant source of insight and understanding throughout this journey. They have been there to kvell (rejoice) with me and to listen to me vent. From giving me their maternity clothes to decorating onesies to sharing their children’s favorite books, this family has buoyed me for the last nine months.
I have no doubt that the walls of the editorial department will not crumble in my absence, thanks to the several people who are stepping up to help while I’m gone. I hope to return a wiser person with new perspectives to bring to the work we do at IFF, albeit a wee bit less rested. If you have a question while I’m gone? Not to fear: I’ll get back to you in December (wink, wink).
While I’m having a hard time letting go of my work baby, my husband and I are filled with awe and anticipation at meeting and getting to know the baby inside me. Thank you to the extended IFF family, and of course my own friends and family, who share in our simcha (joy). We couldn’t do it without you.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed—and benefited greatly from—the practice of mindfulness meditation. Studying and practicing mindfulness has helped me to be less judgmental (of myself and others), to be more present in the moments that make up my life and to better appreciate the simple beauty in the world around me.
Often, when thinking about a lesson I’ve learned in mindfulness I’ll say to myself, “Judaism teaches this!” I’m struck by how so many of Judaism’s rituals and teachings can help us to lead a more mindful life. Or, as I put it in another blog that I wrote, “my mindfulness practice is fully interwoven with my Jewish spirituality.”
What do I mean by this? Well, for example, when learning about “mindful eating,” I was taught the importance of not just devouring food, but of thinking about where the food comes from and how it got to me, as well as what it looks and smells like and how it tastes when really focusing on it. I remember thinking, Judaism teaches us not to just eat our food mindlessly. We have blessings to recite before and after eating that make us stop and pause, to remind us of the sacred nature of eating and of how lucky we are to have our food. This mindfulness lesson is inherent in Judaism.
As I practiced mindfulness over a long period of time, I became especially grateful for the way in which it affected my parenting, enabling me to become more fully engaged with my children and more aware of special moments spent with them. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much Judaism has to offer when it comes to tools for mindful parenting. Judaism gives us the Shema, a beautiful prayer to say with our children before putting them to sleep, helping to calm their minds and make them feel a sense of connectedness. Judaism gives us Shabbat, a special day to focus on family and rest and to take a break from the hustle and hassles of the rest of the week. And Judaism gives us HaMotzi, a special blessing to recite as we stop and pause before eating.
The wisdom of Judaism in regard to mindful parenting is just one of the reasons that I’m thrilled that InterfaithFamily is offering a free email series called “Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.” This popular email series is for parents (and prospective parents) who want to explore bringing Jewish traditions into their family life. Participants receive eight emails over four weeks (emails are sent on Mondays and Thursdays) about how to bring spirituality and Jewish traditions and practices to their parenting in realistic and meaningful ways.
The emails share ideas, videos, question prompts to discuss with your partner, ideas for family projects and book suggestions around sleeping, eating, playing, praying and more. Essentially, the emails offer lots of ways for parents to bring mindfulness to their parenting, to their own lives and to the lives of their children—it’s mindful parenting through a Jewish lens.
The emails can be read on your own time, whenever works best for you. And there’s specific advice on how to address the topics covered in an interfaith family. There’s no pressure to do things a certain way –just basic information and an opportunity for parents who didn’t grown up Jewish (as well as those who did) to learn about Jewish traditions and practices.
While some parents just want to receive the emails and perhaps choose on their own aspects of Judaism to bring into their family’s life, for those who want to take it a step further, there’s an opportunity for interaction. Once someone starts receiving the emails, they’re invited to join our private Facebook Group for everyone in the “Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” email series, as well as alumni. It’s a place where parents (and prospective parents) in interfaith families can ask questions, share resources, support one another, etc. In each email there are suggested questions for discussion with your partner and the opportunity to respond to me with your answers, or with anything else you may be thinking about. I’m happy to engage in discussion about any of the topics covered (or anything else that comes up in your interfaith family) or to share your thoughts or questions with others who are receiving the email series.
Registration for the email series is always open… so if you click here and register now you’ll start getting the emails in your inbox as soon as the next series begins. And before you know it, you can be raising your child with more Judaism—and more mindfully—than perhaps you’d ever imagined.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in the bathroom lately. Let me explain: We’re potty training our twins. This past weekend I was in the bathroom every 20 minutes begging, pleading, praying for my kiddos to use the potty. We didn’t always leave that room excited and hopeful, but when we did it was amazing. And when there was success, there was even a blessing:
Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who formed the human body with skill creating the body’s many pathways and openings. It is well known before Your throne of glory that if one of them be wrongly opened or closed, it would be impossible to endure and stand before You. Blessed are You, Adonai, who heals all flesh, working wondrously.
I don’t generally recite this traditional “bathroom prayer,” but remembering that the body and its functions are a part of divine creation gives me a little bit more patience for my children as they learn to use their bodies. (For those of you in Jewish-Catholic relationships, there’s no patron saint of potty training, I looked. There have been some moments I could use more entities to pray to.)
For me, potty training is an act of faith. For my twin toddlers, it’s torture—unless they get to watch Daniel Tiger. Hearing Daniel and his friends sing the calm, uplifting tune of, “When you have to go potty, stop and go right away” motivates them and keeps them happy. When I start singing along, their faces light up. The hymnal of Daniel Tiger makes me forget my desperate desire to hear that familiar tinkle and a feeling of connection and joy overcomes the three of us sitting there in the crowded bathroom.
We repeat this ritual over and over, prompted by the ring of a timer. Excitement mingles with fear and anxiety as we all rush into the bathroom hoping for a positive outcome. We mostly know what to expect in there: sit in the same seat as last time, sing the same familiar song, pray to God for what we need and give praise often.
This isn’t the spiritual practice I’m used to, yet the ritual feels strikingly familiar. For most of my adult life I’ve engaged in the spiritual and religious practice of prayer that includes repeated ritual either alone or in a community. When the clock nears 6 pm on Friday or 10 am on Saturday I rush to the synagogue, sometimes with excitement and sometimes with anxiety or reluctance. The rabbi reads the familiar opening prayer that helps the congregation settle in. The cantor sings a song to raise our excitement for joining together in community, and smiles fill the room when a familiar song is shared. We continue in this ritual for an hour or so and then we leave the room and go on with our lives until the next time. Sometimes I leave the room feeling energized and excited, and sometimes I feel sad or dejected. But I know that I will return to that room and that ritual and have another opportunity to try it again and to feel that spiritual connection I so long for.
While the potty training ritual is messier, smellier and quicker, it has all the makings of a spiritual or religious practice. Every time I walk into that room with my toddlers, I hope and pray that we will all leave it excited and successful. I hope and pray that they will feel empowered and “grown up.” In some ways it feels as though my higher power in that ritual is not the god I pray to regularly, but instead, my toddler or sometimes the potty chair that we have all come to worship. My prayers are directed at my little ones as I say, “You can do it! Go pee-pee in the potty!” all the while praying silently, “Please, please, please let her go pee in the potty this time” or “Please God I don’t want to clean up an accident right NEXT to the potty as soon as he stands up.”
These aren’t (usually) the prayers I say in synagogue, but they are prayers. They are the language of my hopes and dreams, motivated by love and gratitude, and sometimes even fear.
Potty training is a hard and confusing task filled with extreme ups and downs. We’re doing our best to muddle our way through and within an hour our moods can swing from wild desperation to joyous celebration. Potty training is an act of faith and the ritual helps us through when it’s hard and lets us celebrate when it’s great. One day my kids will be potty trained and will forget that this was ever something they struggled with. But until that time, I’ll have my prayers, Daniel Tiger and a large canister of Clorox wipes at the ready.
To read more about parenting, check out the InterfaithFamily Parenting Blog.
I remember standing with a few friends after my oldest son was born. We were talking, as new mothers do, about how hard parenting can be, how scary. We were comparing neurotic-helicopter-mom moments, laughing at ourselves.
I shared a story about taking my son to the doctor when he seemed to have a fever. “His temperature is high!” I’d cried to the pediatrician, who only chuckled knowingly and said, “Well, maybe you want to unwrap some of these blankets when he’s indoors.” Of course my son was fine, just overheated.
I blushed telling this story. My friends grinned. They had the same stories, of course. About cutting food up (choking hazards!) into tiny bits too small for the kids to actually pick up. About perceived rare (thanks, WebMD!) skin conditions that turned out to only be heat rash.
But I remember, in the middle of all the laughter that day, someone said, “Well, who can blame us? It’s the ‘Jewish Mother Thing.’ We’re supposed to be anxious and neurotic! It’s in our DNA!” The laughter continued, and then we probably all had some coffee, or wine.
As the years have passed (10 of them), I’ve gone back to that moment a lot. Because it turns out that as a parent, I’m not especially neurotic. I’m the mom who often shows up with junky snacks, when other people have baked gluten-free, organic muffins. I’m the mom whose kids shower once a week. My boys walk around the neighborhood unattended, own pocketknives and occasionally we forget to eat dinner.
Do these things mean I’m not a Jewish mother? Of course stereotypes are flawed, inexact, problematic. But when I joined a Jewish Mom group on Facebook and saw the effort other Jewish parents put into the details of summer camp selection, perfect birthday cupcakes and finding the best specialists, I found myself wondering, and feeling a little… different. Outside the norm.
It never occurred to me until I saw so many Jewish Mothers all in one place that I might not be one, in the traditional sense. But of course this is absolutely logical, because I never had a Jewish Mother. My own overworked mom, raised Catholic in California—regularly left me at the library until after the doors were locked (it was fine, I sat and read on the steps). She didn’t make kugel and she didn’t speak in Yiddishisms. I rode public buses and did my homework (or didn’t) without anyone ever looking at it. I survived, and learned, I guess, how to parent a little haphazardly, with spit and tape. I learned how fine things usually are, in the end. I learned to avoid stress whenever possible.
But does this mode of parenting make me somehow less Jewish?
Here’s the thing—I am a Jewish mother. I know I am. Because I’m raising Jewish sons. And maybe what the rising intermarriage rates suggest is that we’re going to see a shift in the “Jewish Mother Thing” in the near future. Maybe the next generation of Jewish mothers, raised themselves by women from a more diverse array of religions, regions and cultures, will be less similar, less careful, a little less neurotic. Because they don’t have this “Jewish Mother” stereotype in their heads.
Or maybe not! Maybe all mothers are anxious sometimes and the “Jewish Mother Thing” is a fiction, a narrative we’ve crafted as a culture, a way of embracing and forgiving ourselves for our neurotic maternal impulses; a myth we perpetuate.
In any case, I want to take a moment today to honor us all.. This week, for Mothers’ Day, I want to say to ALL the Jewish Mothers of the world, Yasher Koach! Good job on your perfectionism, or your relaxed attitude. Good job on the homemade cupcakes, or the Ho-Ho you stuck a candle in at the last minute. Good job on remembering the dental appointment, or forgetting and rescheduling it because you took the kids for a hike that day instead. Good job on raising a diverse world of wonderful Jewish kids who will strengthen and alter and carry on our tradition. I’m proud of us all.
When my kids were young, I introduced them to the practice of saying the Hebrew blessing, the motzi, before eating. Thank you, God, who brings forth bread from the earth.
My older child instantly connected not only to the routine of the ritual but the theological aspect as well. But a few years ago, my other son started to challenge the idea of God. At a young age, he was already an avowed atheist and didn’t want to thank God for our food. I explained that he still needs to stop for a moment and acknowledge what it took for that food to get to his plate.
As a pre-dinner ritual, we started to list all the physical conditions and individuals who made our food possible: the sun, rain, seeds, individuals who plant and harvest under harsh conditions without sufficient pay or job security, the people who process it, those who drive it to the store, the store clerks who sell it to us whom we see as we pay our grocery bill. And me, to make it into dinner.
Motzi is a moment of gratitude so we don’t take for granted the deep blessing of sustenance. I learned this practice many years ago when I helped organize a Passover seder for Worker Justice (laborers seeking justice) in Los Angeles. Included in our haggadah was this prayer as part of the Kiddush ritual:
A toast to those who made this wine!
To the holy-oneness of everything whose creation gives us sweet fruit for the mouth, eye and nose to enjoy
To those who put passion, dreams and capital into wine and entrepreneurship
To those who plowed the fields
To those who planted the vines
To those who tended the vines
To those who picked the grapes
To those who fermented the fruit
To those who cleaned and maintained the winery
To those who bottled the wine
To those who loaded and trucked the bottles for delivery
To those who sold the wine
And to those who served the wine here this evening!
We give you our thanks!
This got our family thinking about what we were really trying to accomplish when we said the motzi. We talked about the most important part of that moment: taking time to stop and appreciate our food. But those particular words we say are human–made. Yes, they have survived thousands of years, but they are the expressions of a certain group of rabbis a long time ago. We make these ancient words into idols, enshrining them while depriving us of a creative thought process—the kind of passionate engagement with ideas and words that must have inspired those rabbis to formulate such poetry so long ago.
Liturgist Marsha Falk encourages us to exercise our creativity: “No convention of prayer ought to become completely routine; lest it lose its ability to inspire authentic feeling.” My son would probably agree with her assertion that our traditional opening blessing formula “is an example of a dead metaphor… a greatly overused image that no longer functions to awaken awareness of the greater whole.” (The Book of Blessings, p.xvii)
Greatly influenced by Falk’s ideas, I have been crafting my own prayers for years. So I asked my son what he would want to say instead of the motzi. This is what my young atheist came up with: “Thank you, source of stuff, for the food.” Sometimes he says, “Thanks to the universe and science and all that stuff… for the food.”
These days, we take turns saying a blessing at our table so everyone’s interests and concerns are heard. I don’t want to lose the traditional prayer language completely and I want my kids to know those formulations. When we say the motzi in the usual way, I talk to my kids about how I infuse those sacred words and sounds with my own theological understanding of the universe; how we are interconnected with the food, the sources of that food and the people who made it possible for such bounty to reach our plates. To me, that holy process is God.
Other nights, our sons offer their favorite renditions. Lately as they start to cook parts of the meal themselves, the son who helps gets to offer his favorite way of blessing the food. But we always stop, appreciate and bless.
My grandma Zelda taught me many things about Judaism and preparing for the Jewish holidays. However, what she did not teach me was her recipes. In fact, in all the years I watched and helped her cook, I don’t ever remember seeing her follow a recipe or consult a cookbook. Whenever she cooked, she did it from memory.
For her huge fluffy matzah balls, I remember her telling me to mix together the matzah meal, schmaltz (chicken fat) and water. “If it’s too thick,” she said, “add more water. If it’s too wet, add more matzah meal.” There was no recipe to follow, just the steps she had learned from her mother, which were the steps she used her entire life and the same ones she shared with me.
Often she would tell me stories about what it was like growing up strictly kosher or what it was like living in a family of eight children.
Looking back now, I see that my grandmother taught me how to cook from memory. For the most part, if I learn how to cook something once, I can pretty much cook it again without the recipe. I know what “season with salt and pepper to taste” means, and I do not measure exactly how much goes in of this or that ingredient. When I bake a chicken, I don’t usually use a timer since I know how it’s supposed to look and taste when it’s ready. That is how I learned to cook from Grandma Zelda.
More than how or what to cook, much of what I learned from my grandmother was about how to build a Jewish home (even if I don’t follow the rules of keeping kosher in exactly the same way she did). I learned how to let Judaism be a framework for my life, how to follow the seasons and celebrate the holidays and how to make room within that structure for my own personality and creativity. I learned the value of taking the time to prepare for holidays—not just physically cleaning and cooking, but spiritually, too. I learned from her how to gather my family around me and how to make the observance of a holiday meal more meaningful. I learned how to open the door to those who come from other backgrounds and traditions.
This will be our first Passover since my grandmother passed away and my first time hosting Passover in my own home. It feels like an honor, a duty to carry on this tradition and a very large task for which I will need a lot of help. In large part, it’s about the food, but it’s also about the rituals and about the memories.
I know that our Passover seder this year will look and feel different from the Passover meals we used to have at Grandma Zelda’s. It will be the first time not being in her home and the first seder without her. I will think of her every step of the way as I clean my house and prepare for my guests. We will light her Sabbath candles on the first night of Passover, we will fill her Miriam’s cup and I will prepare and teach in her honor. I will cook with my memories, and I will cook from memory, just like she taught me.
This article was reprinted with permission from Jewish Food Experience.