We Met in the Middle

  

Adrian at workAdrian and I met working at a restaurant. Some might call it an “interfaith restaurant.” Tucked away in Cobble Hill, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, La Vara was the restaurant that brought us together. Its menu is based in Southern Spain during La Convivencia. The English translation of the word Convivencia is to “coexist” or “to live together.” The Convivencia took place during the late 1400s in Spain. It is known as Spain’s Golden Age. It was a time when the Jews, the Moors and the Christians sat together, lived together and ate together in peace. La Vara was also a Sephardic newspaper printed in Ladino in Brooklyn from the 1920s to the 1940s.

This is where I met Adrian. He worked in the kitchen and I worked out on the floor. One night after conveying the specials to a couple at the bar I ran past the kitchen and heard the boys in the window begin to tease me about the way I said the specials. That night we were serving suckling pig, squash pancakes (almost like latkes) and a white gazpacho.

“The Jews don’t eat suckling pig,” one clever boy holding a pan and tossing garlic smirked. I could see past him to Adrian quiet and waiting for my comeback.

I stopped inches from the kitchen window and looked the boy right in his eye.

“Actually,” I replied with a smile equally sarcastic, “that’s true. The Jews don’t eat pork. I don’t eat pork. But, when the Jews were in hiding in Spain and the war started they would hide pork in their food so that people would not accuse them of being Jewish.”

Adrian laughed as if to say, “Man she told you!” The boy with the pan wanted to flee but I kept going.

“Also, you’re from Mexico right?” I asked the boy. The whole kitchen staff cheered because there is much pride in being 100 percent Mexican. But the boy with the pan was wary of my next move.

“You know why we serve white gazpacho?” I asked.

This time it was Adrian who approached the window with a question, “why?” he asked, his eyes gleaming.

“We serve white gazpacho,” I began, “because Spain didn’t have tomatoes until after they invaded Mexico, so their gazpacho was made from almonds, that’s why it’s white. It’s known as the original gazpacho of Spain. After they invaded Mexico they brought back tomatoes and made something called Salmorejo, which is more like a tomato gazpacho.”

Adrian stared at me. The boy with the garlic and the pan disappeared. Later I showed Adrian articles I had written about Mexico. They were articles written in Spanish for a Spanish press in Brooklyn. They were about the Virgin of Guadalupe and about why Mexican Americans feel like they don’t belong either in Mexico or the United States. It’s as if they feel they are in the middle. Adrian and I liked being in the middle. It seems that right from the start we were thrown into the middle of everything.

On our first date we walked through Coney Island at three a.m. On our second date we went to the promenade in Brooklyn Heights to see the New York skyline. Every night after work I would ride my bike through Sunset Park and visit Adrian so that we could order tacos. We ate steak tacos on his bedroom floor and listened to music. I wrote and worked at the restaurant with him. After a while I moved in with him. We lived on the border of Sunset Park and Borough Park. Sunset Park is a big Mexican/Catholic neighborhood. Borough Park is an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The middle always had a way of working toward our advantage. On Jewish high holy days we would go shopping in Borough Park. On Catholic holidays it was the Mexican bakery in Sunset Park we would frequent.

A few years later we moved to Midwood, the neighborhood I grew up in. It’s a Jewish neighborhood but we still frequent Sunset Park often. As soon as we painted our new apartment we decided to start a family. It was the right time. I waited tables and bartended through my nine months of pregnancy at La Vara. Adrian stood his post in the kitchen as well.

Our newborn was born on the day that was supposed to be my last shift at La Vara before my maternity leave. My water broke the night before on my day off and I called to let the staff know I wouldn’t be in. Adrian was in the middle of tossing seafood paella when I called him to tell him to leave work.

When our little girl arrived at 2:10 p.m. on a Saturday we had a photo texted to us from the restaurant. It was the whole staff who worked that day huddled together with a sign that read “Welcome to the World!” In that photo there were kitchen staff, servers, bartenders and managers all from different cultures, backgrounds and faiths coming together to wish us well. I always knew it would be fine that our little one would grow up with two faiths but that picture secured my belief. She will be rich in spirit because of her interfaith family; she will be open and understanding and double blessed.

There is a Hebrew proverb that says, “A woman of valor who can find? For her price is far above rubies.” Our little one was born at a peaceful table. She was born celebrating a time when people shared their food, their culture and their faith amicably, willingly and harmoniously.

Baby Helen

 

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Charity Begins At Home, Part 2

  
My son helping to pack snack boxes at the North Texas Food Bank in January.

My son helping to pack snack boxes at the North Texas Food Bank in January.

Last night, my family watched NFL Honors, the National Football League’s awards show that honored players and coaches. Awards such as MVP, Coach of the Year, and Play of the Year were given out. The most prestigious of the honors was the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.

Established in 1970, the Man of the Year Award recognized the player who had a significant impact on his community. In 1999, it was renamed the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for the late Hall of Fame Chicago Bears running back to honor his legacy as a humanitarian. Payton was himself a recipient of the award when he played.

As my husband, son, and I listened to the stories of the finalists, I thought of my last blog on charity. The men considered for the award didn’t begin to serve their communities after they became successful pro football players; they were all raised in families that emphasized giving back–regardless of whether their families had much to give.

The winner, Anquan Boldin of the San Francisco 49ers, was raised in a poor area of Palm Beach County Florida. His family didn’t have much but what they did have, they gave to others. Anquan spoke of learning what it meant to help those in need from his parents. He said his mother always opened their home to people who had nowhere to go and his family shared food with those without so that no one went hungry. He learned that his purpose was not to play football, but to serve the community; football was just a means by which to do that.

Boldin formed a foundation in 2004 with $1 million of his own money with a mission “to expand the educational and life opportunities for underprivileged youth.” It offers a summer enrichment program, provides 300 Thanksgiving meals annually, holiday shopping sprees and academic scholarships for college.

Boldin took the example set for him by his parents to heart, making the task of repairing the world a central part of his life. His actions showed that Tikkun Olam (repair the world) wasn’t just a Jewish thing.

When I speak to parents navigating life as an interfaith couple, I talk about how the concept of Tikkun Olam is shared by many faiths and cultures. I recommend that starting in preschool, through words and actions, adults reinforce to their children that they have a responsibility to make the world a better place. Below are some of the things I suggest that families do to teach charity and show kids that mitzvahs aren’t just something done to fulfill a school or bar mitzvah requirement. If you don’t see something that you’re family does on the list, please share it in the comment section.

Collect tzedakah. Each week, set aside money to donate to a cause. Put it in a tzedakah box. If you don’t have one, make one and let your kids decorate it. We still have the one my son made when he was one-and-a-half and we still contribute money to it each week. Place coins in the box immediately before lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday night. This ensures that your last act of the week is one of charity. Recite the following blessing as you perform the ritual:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kid-shanu b’mitz’votav, v’tzivanu lir’dof tzedek.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot and commands us to pursue justice.

At the end of the year, or when your box is full, let your children select where the money goes. They will feel involved, valued, and will learn that their choices can make a difference. Don’t worry about what you see as the cause’s significance. When my son was a toddler, he regularly chose the Australian Koala Foundation because he could help his favorite animal by planting eucalyptus trees. As he has grown, so have his choices. This year we planted trees in Israel through Jewish National Fund and gave to our local food bank.

Engage in social justice. Children of all ages can participate in community service. Shop together for items for a food, toy, or book drive. Collect items from your house. Deliver donations to a local food pantry or clothing resale shop with your kids. Have older kids stock shelves at a food bank, work with animals, or host a birthday or holiday party for those less fortunate through local organizations. Check out The Birthday Party Project which hosts birthday parties for underprivileged children through partner agencies in Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Ft. Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco.

Care for the environment. Caring for the planet has no age requirement. Do a neighborhood or park cleanup. Pick up trash when you walk the dog. Plant a tree. Buy eco-friendly/reusable products. Compost. Recycle. Bring your own bags.

Visit the sick and the elderly. Stop to see a relative. Deliver meals to homebound seniors. Share part of Shabbat afternoon at a retirement or assisted living facility. Make birthday cards for seniors. Brighten someone’s day.

Volunteer on Christmas. Help others enjoy the holiday. Participate in a Christmas mitzvah project. Many synagogues and Jewish agencies organize volunteers to work on Christmas Eve and Day so Christian employees can spend time with their families.

Welcome the Stranger. Ensure that no one is alone for holidays. Invite newcomers to your community to share a celebration with you. Make a seat at your Shabbat or Seder table, and open your home for Hanukkah, the High Holidays, Christmas or secular holidays.

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From Generation to Generation (or why my New England children are Broncos fans)

  
The Fateful 2016 AFC Championship Game

The Fateful 2016 AFC Championship Game

Every team’s victory is another team’s defeat, and the stakes were high two Sundays ago when the New England Patriots I was raised on played the Denver Broncos, the team that hails from Eric’s hometown.  In the ten years since we moved to Boston, Eric has happily come into the Red Sox fray.  Because of his Sox allegiance, my father innocently assumed that Eric had similarly converted to be a Pats fan.  The morning of the AFC championship game, I overheard a conversation that went like this between Eric and my father:

Dad: So, I guess the conversations between you and your family might get a little heated this evening, disagreeing about who should win.

Eric: Well, it is not such a big deal, since I am a Broncos fan.

Dad, with a perplexed expression on his face: Uh-huh….

A moment of tension, as Dad prepared himself for the inevitably disappointing statement.

Eric: Yeah, we’re rooting for the Broncos.

Dad inhales, unsure if he should butt in about how we raise our kids.

Eric continues: Well, we are raising our kids Jewishly, so I got to pick the football team.

Suddenly, the tension dissipated entirely.  My father chuckled.  

Dad: Fair enough, fair enough.

Choosing a football team is not on par with choosing a religion, at least not in either of our extended families.  But Eric’s choice of the Broncos is symbolic of something that is extremely significant for both of us – Judaism isn’t the only choice we get to make about what kind of family we are.  It is important to us that our children are raised with a mix of traditions that bring them closer to both sides of our extended families.

Rooting for the Broncos has been very special in that regard.  Sunday afternoons and evenings, Eric’s phone is abuzz with calls and texts about the Broncos plays, and for the span of the game the distance between Boston and Denver feels that much shorter.  Colorado is a really magical place, and rooting for the Broncos helps the girls tie their identity to the home of their grandparents, aunt and uncle and cousins that much more.

So tonight, Ruthie can stay up late to root for Peyton Manning.  Hopefully there can be some FaceTime during the game with homebase in her grandparents’ living room.  I will watch the rooting with a smile on my face.  Mum’s the word on who my team will be.

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My Hamsa Started the Interfaith Conversation with My Daughter

  

By Courtney Naliboff

mother_daughter_hamsa

Flying makes me nervous. It never used to, but a few years ago on a bumpy trip back from England, I lost my faith in the Bernoulli principle. I used to pop a Xanax and snooze my way through the anxiety, but now that I’m a parent, I need to stay awake and alert to tend to my daughter on flights.

Without my sedative crutch, I turned to superstition to get me through a cross-country flight to California this winter. I bought a little silver hamsa necklace with an elegant branch and leaf design on the palm. I put it on before we left our island home in Maine for the airport, and haven’t taken it off. If the Evil Eye had any designs on our airplane, we’d be covered.

We got through the flight (Penrose is a much better traveler than I am these days) and landed in the warm embrace of my husband’s extended family, all of whom live in Southern California. His mother’s side is from Guatemala and his father’s side is Italian and German. Dozens of them descended on his childhood home for the holidays, drawn by Penrose’s presence.

She sat on my lap and met relative after relative, warming up slowly to each new person. When she got overwhelmed, she would turn into me and often hold my hamsa in her hand.

“This?” she asked.

“It’s my hamsa,” I answered.

“Ham,” she replied, touching it gently.

Beyond the irony of her abbreviation for the symbol, she began to connect my necklace to the jewelry of others.

Abue ham?” she asked, wondering if her grandmother had a similar necklace.

Abuela doesn’t wear a hamsa; sometimes she wears a cross,” I said. “I wear a hamsa because I’m Jewish. Abue wears a cross sometimes because she’s Catholic.”

“Mommy joosh?”

“That’s right, Mommy’s Jewish.”

“Me joosh?” she asked, pressing a palm to her chest.

“Yes, you’re Jewish too.”

“Daddy joosh?”

“No, Daddy’s not Jewish.”

Although this was Penrose’s second holiday season, and she was enthusiastic about candles, latkes, and matzah balls (and Christmas tree lights and wrapping paper), it hadn’t yet occurred to me to talk to her about our Jewish identity, and how that differed from her father’s side of the family.

As a secular humanist, I haven’t imbued our day-to-day life with Jewish rituals. My husband doesn’t practice any elements of Christianity, and we are planning to celebrate Hanukkah, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah. When we are in Maine for Christmas, we often attend the Lessons and Carols service as musicians and enjoy the quiet evening of storytelling and song, but we’re hoping to avoid the Santa and tree elements of the holiday. We often talked about the fact that Penrose would be the island’s first Jewish child, and my excitement—and anxiety—about that. I wanted to find a way to start explaining to Penrose what it actually meant to be “joosh” other than wearing jewelry. But I wasn’t sure what she would understand at 20 months old.

“To me, being Jewish means that we are connected back thousands of years to strong people who fight for what they believe in,” I said. “We help people and we work to fix the world. We never stop learning. We celebrate holidays that remind us of our freedom. We eat delicious things.”

She nodded and squirmed off my lap to find her abuela. Over time, we’ll continue the conversation. She likes to look in the Union Haggadahs I inherited from my grandfather and pretends to read the prayers out loud. She would be perfectly happy eating latkes every night, and asks to see my hamsa when it’s hidden under a sweater. Every night, especially, for some reason, when she’s singing “Bow wow wow, whose dog are thou?” she runs through the list of Jewish family members.

Even though she might not yet understand what it means, my heart swells with pride when she ends the list with “Me, joosh.” It’s not a question for her anymore—it’s become a part of her story.

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

nabiloff_BiophotoCourtney Naliboff lives on North Haven, an island off of midcoast Maine. There she teaches music, theatre and English, takes her daughter to the beach, plays music and teaches Pilates. Her writing can also be seen in MaineBiz and Working Waterfront.

 

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But WHY Mommy? Why?

  
Amy, Roxy & Everett

Everett, Amy & Roxy

If you’re a parent, there’s always those questions you know your kids are going to ask you at various ages and stages that you mostly want to avoid. Things like “where do babies come from?” “What’s sex?” and “Have you ever tried drugs?” I think over the years I’ve done a pretty good job at either changing the subject or placating them with a vague answer and offering up real facts when necessary. But as they get older, the questions become less about physical body functions and more about real subjects that I honestly don’t know HOW to answer. And a recent conversation with the kids proved more challenging than I thought.

It started innocently enough as the 6 & 8 year old were getting dressed to go to Friday night family services at our synagogue.

Kids: “Hey Mommy? Does Matt go to church?”

Me: “Um, no, not really.”

Kids: “But isn’t he supposed to go to church? Isn’t that like the opposite of temple? Like people who aren’t Jewish who are Christmas go to church, right?” (Yeah, my kids still don’t get the concepts of the names of other religions. Either a mom fail or they haven’t paid attention to half of what I say to them. Or both. Let’s be real though, trying to explain to them the difference between Catholicism and Episcopalians is pretty much next to impossible at this stage. I know my limits.)

Me: “Well yeah. I guess he’s *supposed* to go to church. If you’re part of a religion a lot of times you go to services. But not everybody belongs to a church the way we belong to the temple. Matt doesn’t belong to a church and he doesn’t go. We don’t go to Shabbat services every week either, so that’s OK, right?”

Kids: “Yeah it’s OK, but did he EVER go to church?”

Matt and Amy

Introducing Matt and Amy

Clearly they weren’t letting this go. My brain was spinning trying to figure out how to explain that my Irish Catholic boyfriend grew up with a serious religious education, went to Catholic school, was the head altar boy, represented the church at community functions like funerals and actually hung out with his clergy because it was fun. Matt’s connection to religion growing up very much shaped him, much like how my involvement in my synagogue shaped me. But as an adult? Times change. Views change. Beliefs change. New traditions get formed.

We had a good talk, but the questions kept coming.

Kids: “Does Matt pray to Jesus? Or does he pray to God?”

Oh. Dear. Now they want to talk about prayer?!? It’s a subject that I’m not entirely comfortable with because *I* wrestle with it.

Me: “Uhhhhhh, kind of? I mean, he believes in God. It’s really hard to explain guys.”

Kids: “Well remember that time we went to church for that wedding and everybody kneeled and said prayers to Jesus and then ate those cracker things? Jesus was Jewish. Did you know that mommy? Does Matt know that? Did he do that stuff at church?”

This is seriously so hard to talk about. So the conversation continues, which at times has inspired our own adult conversations about what we each believe, various experiences we had in our lives and how we live now. I recently shared with Matt that one of the things I love about being a Reform Jew is being able to interpret prayer and beliefs to create personal meaning. I never expect him to one day tell me he’s converting, but the longer we’re together, the more he seems to get and appreciate my connection AND the more I understand his own connections – yes, even if he no longer goes to church, sorry kids.

I think with life’s experiences we turn to what we know in looking for answers, healing, serenity and more. My kids are starting to figure this out as they ask me those tough questions and I’m proud of them for wanting to understand and decide things for themselves. As parents we provide these types of tools for our kids; my family and Matt’s family gave us amazing foundations to start with. We may not have grown up attending the same type of services, what we both believe in now might not always mesh up, but the values we both learned along the way match perfectly. So keep the hard questions coming as we all learn more about ourselves in the process.

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Another Snowy Birthday for the Trees

  
New England sun setting on the trees on their birthday eve

The New England sun setting on the trees on their birthday eve

Today is Tu Bishvat, and the trees in New England are dressed in white for the occasion. The snow was late to come this year, but it has announced itself and covered the frozen earth, still new enough to be beautifully iridescent and crisp.

I have written before about the oddity of celebrating the birthday of the trees in a season when it is impossible to imagine planting one. On this side of the planet, the mid-winter holiday presents itself as an opportunity to revisit our commitment to conservation, to healing the world by nurturing the earth.

Of course, just like last year, I am still challenged by what sometimes feels like the impossibility of simultaneously being a model conservationist and a toddler’s mother. We still haven’t conquered the dichotomy of saving water and properly washing our hands after the playground, after the bathroom, after finger painting, before we eat, and whenever a bug is coursing its way through preschool. And now that we are thankfully out of diapers, I am faced with a new challenge of building self-sufficiency and keeping mindful boundaries around water and paper goods.

Yesterday, when I dropped Ruthie and Chaya off at Sunday school, Ruthie’s teacher shared her enthusiasm about celebrating Tu Bishvat with a cake for the trees. Eating a cake doesn’t save water, but it does celebrate our environment. It isn’t planting a tree, but it is something. And every year, we all have a chance to do something, even if we can’t do everything. At 7, I am finally seeing Ruthie embrace a mastery of junior conservationist practices. Her self-motivation reminds me that doing something every year, even through the tough toddler years, can really amount to meaningful practice over time.

So let’s all do something. Eat a cake (I won’t twist your arm, but isn’t it a great idea?). Use the backside of the memo you printed at work to write your grocery list. Cut your shower down by a minute this evening. Or, if nothing else, just notice how you are using resources – be more mindful about the earth today than you were yesterday, and carry it into your week. Because regardless of the season, it is a beautiful day to renew our respect for nature, and nurture a better practice for the future.

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Mysticism and My Newborn

  

 

Adrian with the baby

Adrian checks out the snow with baby Helen Rose

 

I believe in the mystical. Tarot Cards, Ouji boards, even the woman on the corner of Ocean Avenue who stares at me with one blue eye and one gray eye and says “you have a purple aura” when I walk by. Yes, I believe in her too. As I watch my newborn grow and change every day I wonder what magic I will teach her. What mysticism will her father share with her?

The Hebrew word for Pregnancy is Herayon. In Hebrew every letter is paired with a number and the letters in the word Herayon add up to 271. This is because a woman’s pregnancy generally is equal to 271 days. Here is another interesting Kabbalistic fact about Herayon: Har, the first part of the word in Hebrew, means “mountain.” This is because a woman’s belly is shaped like a mountain. I try to explain this to my significant other, Adrian. We compare notes on magic.

The month before my daughter was born I went to the Judaica store in my neighborhood and bought Channa’s book of Prayers for Jewish Women. I was nervous about delivery. I was looking for a magic spell. I called Adrian’s mother on a regular basis. “Señora,” I said, “Is it very, very painful? Is it unbearable?” She did not lie. She said it was. My own mother told me the truth as well and then she added, “But the pain doesn’t matter. In the end you get a baby.”

But I needed magic! I needed the Zohar to whip me up a flying carpet and deliver me from the agony of childbirth. More than this I wanted my newborn delivered into the world safely and with the prayers of both my Jewish background and Adrian’s Catholic background.

I thought of the word Tzirim. The Hebrew word “tzirim” means “contractions” or “labor pains” but there is another literal translation as well. “Tzirim” can also mean “hinges” like, door hinges. This is because a woman is opening a door for her child to exit through during childbirth. The Kabbalah compares contractions to snake bites and when this happens the woman gets ready to push the baby out of the womb and into the world. Snake bites make me nervous. Again, I needed magic.

Adrian is from Puebla, Mexico. In his small village his parents speak a language of the Aztec empire. They speak Spanish but they also speak a language called “Nahuatl.” It is an indigenous language. It is a dying language. It is the Hebrew of Mexico.

The Nahuatl people believe that when a boy is born his umbilical cord should be buried on a battlefield and when a girl is born her umbilical cord should be buried in the field because the cornfield is where tortillas come from.

But the birthing process for both cultures, for both religions is the same. In ancient times Jewish women gave birth in tents surrounded by other women. The same is true for Nahuatl women. In fact, when I spoke on the phone with Adrian’s mother she told me that she had birthed all seven of her children in her house surrounded by her female family members and one witch doctor.

I asked to speak to the witch doctor but I never could get a hold of her. My pregnancy began to take on an artistic form in my head. In my imagination, my giving birth began to look like Frida Kahlo and Amedeo Modigliani had lunch together and then had a painting competition. I saw myself painted slim across a canvas with a dark red background and serpents coming out of my nose. My imagination was winning over my mysticism.

Here is the truth about birth: It hurts. It hurts, but it is the one true visible sorcery. I had been so concerned about what my newborn would learn, how she would grow, what she would believe in. What I didn’t realize is that SHE was pure wizardry. On every contraction I felt the hinges inside swing back and forth. On her long entrance into the world I asked Adrian, “Can you see her head?” he nodded yes. I asked, “Is her hair black?” he nodded yes again. She arrived black haired as the raven, audacious as the eagle and breathtaking as an Aztec monarch.

The Hebrew word for love is ahava, and its numerical value adds up to the number 13. There are other words that add up to the number 13 as well. Zeved, for example, means “to gift” or “to bestow” and its letters add up to 13. To whisper or meditate is Hagah in Hebrew, also a numerical value of 13. Even the number 1 in Hebrew, which is Echad, has a numerical value of 13. Thirteen plus 13 is 26. In Hebrew, the letters in G-d’s name add up to 26. Love is a gift, love is a whisper, love is one and so is magic in any culture or religion.

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I’m Trying to Figure Out How to Raise a Jewish Kid as a Woman Who is Not Jewish

  

By Elizabeth Raphael

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

Mom and newborn

2015 was a year of change for me, facilitated largely by the birth of my lovely dumpling of a daughter in February. Among the normal challenges of being a first-time parent (learning to cobble together a working brain when it has been addled by lack of sleep, perfecting the art of acting casually when your child decides to poop on you in a public place, and so on), I had the additional challenge of being a woman from another faith background raising a Jewish daughter.

A bit of background on me: My religious upbringing can best be described as “vaguely Christian.” I went to a Catholic church a handful of times as a child, but I was never baptized, nor did I undergo confirmation (in fact, I had to do a quick Internet search while writing this article to make sure that “confirmation” was even the right term for the process I was thinking of).

My family celebrated Easter and Christmas, but there was never an emphasis on the religious aspects of the holidays. Though my parents made sure my siblings and I knew the meaning behind the holidays, the days themselves were more about getting together with and showing appreciation for family than going to church or performing any truly religious rituals. As I grew older, my naturally skeptic mind led me on a journey of religious exploration that eventually brought me to a place of agnosticism in my early 20s. It was right around this time that I met my husband, who—you guessed it—happens to be Jewish.

He and I met through a mutual friend in 2007. OK, technically we met on a mutual friend’s MySpace page, but we tend to leave that part out of our official couple story. We quickly bonded over our love of art, our mutual fondness for grunge music, and our uncanny ability to quote “Seinfeld” episodes from start to finish. Eventually we agreed to meet, and sweet amorebloomed.

Through my relationship with him, I got my first real experience with Jewish culture (well, outside of a childhood fondness for the “Rugrats” cartoon from the 90s). His religious education was more thorough than mine; he attended Sunday School regularly as a child and had his bar mitzvah. Despite this, he too had settled into agnosticism as an adult.

However, where things between us differed was in the strong connection he still felt toward his culture. He kept (and still keeps) loosely kosher, not maintaining a separate kitchen but avoiding shellfish and pork and never mixing meat and dairy. Every Hanukkah, he would pull out his menorah and sing the blessings over the phone with his family across the country each night.

What I came to realize is that where my relationship with the Christian holidays was one of somewhat superficial amusement (though fun and lovely in its own way), his relationship with the Jewish holidays and with Judaism in general was something more substantial. His was a relationship of preservation. By maintaining those rituals, he was helping to keep alive an ancient, beautiful, and strong culture that had undergone more than its share of challenges over the years. It was this realization that made the decision to raise our daughter as Jewish a natural choice for both of us.

Since our daughter is still only a wee lass—just 11 months old!—her current relationship with Judaism is at a fairly basic level. Last Purim, we dressed her up and took her to temple, delighted to have an opportunity to put her in the bear costume we bought pretty much when we first found out that I was pregnant. For her Hebrew naming ceremony, we waited until Sukkot and had it under the sukkah with the Sunday School classes in attendance. (I managed to only cry a little bit while reading the blessings.) She delighted in all of the aspects of Hanukkah—especially opening gifts, eating latkes with lots of applesauce on top, and watching the menorah being lit. She may not have fully realized the significance behind such events yet, but by undergoing these experiences, she has already become a part of the culture.

In many ways, I am learning about Judaism alongside my daughter. I know that at some point, her education and her experiences will take her to a different place than me, and there will be complicated questions to answer when we come to them. I am not intimidated by this. We will be different, yes, but not separate. I will find ways to help her grow as a young Jewish woman. Already I have adopted the role of helping her appreciate her culture through cooking. (I’m proud to say I have challah, hamantaschen, babka, and matzah ball soup under my culinary belt.) The older she gets, I will find other ways as well.

I await these challenges, and the Gregorian New Year, with open arms and an open heart.

 

Elizabeth RaphaelElizabeth Raphael is a stay-at-home mom and full-time book nerd. She also makes excellent matzo balls.

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The Ghosts of My Grandmothers or How We Named Our Newborn

  

Anna with her babySome people believe that when a child is born the angel of death and the angel of mercy stand in the room side by side. During the delivery of my baby I watched the monitor as her heart rate dropped and lifted with every contraction. “The cord is wrapped around her neck,” the doctor said, “don’t worry this is very common.”

In Hebrew the Malach Hamavet, the angel of death, is a warning. He is sent by God to show how precious life is. He is the angel who made himself known to David, Samuel and Moses and he was in my delivery room making everybody nervous.

My partner, Adrian, who is originally from Mexico is not afraid of the angel of death. The Catholics in Mexico have a Saint that signifies death; they call her “La Muerte” and she is a good luck charm. Day of the Dead in Mexico celebrates death. People bring food to the graves of the ones who had passed. They actually cook the favorite meals of the deceased and bring them to the cemeteries as a celebration.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry…” Adrian said even though with all his faith in God and the Virgin and even La Muerte I could see fear in his eyes.

How could I not worry? This was my first child. I had carried her for nine months. I had taken all of my vitamins, exercised, eaten right and slept well. I wanted her journey into this world to be safe and harmless. That would be too easy though. Even when my doctor asked me three months before delivery if I had a birth plan, I said “No” and she said, “That doesn’t matter. Anything you plan never goes as planned anyway.”

I did what any Jewish girl from Brooklyn trapped in a room with the Angel of Death would do: I called on the ghosts of my Grandmothers.

Grandma Helen had been a social worker. She was a Barnard Graduate when women were not pushed to go to school. When her son, my uncle, had some trouble she sold her wedding ring to send him into therapy. Grandma Rosie raised four boys, two of her own and two of her sisters’. She read the stocks every day and always had Tanqueray gin and Canada Dry tonic water in her fridge until the day she passed away.

Helen RoseThe greatest thing about being with Adrian is that his beliefs and my beliefs often merge and intertwine. He didn’t think it was at all strange that I had propped up photos of my two Grandmothers in the delivery room. He knew La Muerte was there and she was cunning. I felt the Malach Hamavet and he was filing his nails waiting for my next move.

When the ghosts of Grandma Helen and Grandma Rosie showed up, death packed up his things and left. I pictured my Grandmothers barging in with plaid suitcases and polka dot dresses pulling a cigarette out from Death’s lips and pointing to the door. My Grandmothers basically took over and stood behind the doctor as I pushed for forty minutes. On the last push as the baby came out I saw the cord around her neck. A nurse reached over to take the baby and the doctor smacked the nurse’s hand away and untied the cord from my daughter’s neck faster than I thought was possible. In my heart I knew it was my Grandmother untying that cord. No doctor in his or her right mind would smack a nurse’s hand away. Grandma Rosie would do that.

If my newborn had been born a boy we would have named him David, for my father and Zacharias for Adrian’s grandfather. Because the baby is a girl her name was easy for us to choose: Helen Rose. She took Adrian’s last name to symbolize both of our cultures. She took my two Grandmothers’ names to symbolize strength.

What’s unique about interfaith families is that there is always more than one way to do something. Two faiths offer more choices. Now on the Day of the Dead we won’t only bring traditional Mexican dishes to Adrian’s deceased family members, we will bring plates of food to my Grandmothers as well. On Day of the Dead we will cook for my father, for my grandfathers and for my Uncle Mark. The menu will be a mix of pastrami on rye, borscht, perogis and other favorite dishes of my family.

Baby Helen Rose will witness a coming together of cultures, a mixture of faiths and we will continue to highlight the importance of both as a presence in her life. She will learn the Hebrew prayer for mourning called “Kaddish” and we will light candles in memory of those who have passed on. When she is old enough I will show her photographs of Grandma Helen and Grandma Rosie and explain that these women live on in her. They come back to life once a year on the Day of the Dead. They put down their plaid suitcases and straighten their skirts and like most Jewish women in my family they ask the same question when their ghosts arrive each year: “What time do we eat?”

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Charity Begins at Home

  
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Every day, I open the newspaper or listen to the news, and I am disheartened by what is happening in the world—violence at home and abroad, food shortages, disease, natural disasters, drought and environmental issues. There are days when I just have to tune out because what is good seems to have disappeared.

But recently, two things have restored my faith in humanity. After the devastating storms in Dallas following Christmas, I watched as friends and neighbors mobilized to help complete strangers try to pick up the pieces of their lives. Then in the early hours of Saturday morning, the home of my son’s classmate burned to the ground. The family had built the house and had only moved in two weeks ago during winter break. Thankfully, the family escaped unharmed, but they lost everything. As news of the tragedy spread on the class Facebook page, parents mobilized to help make sure the family’s immediate needs were met.

One family arranged for temporary housing and stocked the kitchen with groceries, and another parent set-up an online sign-up for gift cards, clothing and more. Other parents offered their home as a collection point for donations. I arranged for the school’s resale shop to open on Sunday so my son’s classmate and his brother could get the uniform clothing they needed. Teachers purchased school supplies; the head of school provided a laptop, the school counselor reached out to the family. The senior class purchased items and parents from the community that didn’t know the family whose home was destroyed called to offer help. It was amazing what was accomplished in the span of a few hours.

I told my son when he woke-up on Saturday morning what happened. As I was cooking breakfast, he said, “I want to help James and his family.”

Our son’s Hanukkah gift this past year was gelt or money. Each night he received “Gelt to Get” and “Gelt to Give.” The idea was that he received money that he could spend on himself and received an equal amount that he had to distribute to those in need in any way he chose. The “Gelt to Give” was given in small bills so that he could choose to distribute a little to many people or organizations, or pool it and give a large lump sum.

After watching the news of the tornadoes in Dallas on TV while we were on vacation, my son decided that he wanted to adopt a family and give his gelt to them. As of Saturday, a week after getting home from our trip, we had not identified a way to get the money to a family in the affected area.

After hearing the news about his friend’s house fire, my son changed his tzedakah or charity distribution plan. He was going to use his money to help his classmate. Later that day, I took my son to the grocery store so he could buy a gift card for his friend’s family so that they could buy food. As I watched with pride as my son paid for the gift card with his wad of cash, I thought of the saying, “Charity begins at home.”

The phrase expressed the demands of taking care of one’s family, before caring for others. But for me, it meant something else. It was a reminder that learning to be charitable, learning to be a tzadik or righteous person began at home. As parents, we were primarily responsible for modeling the values and behaviors that we wanted our children to see as important and to embrace. If we wanted our kids to take their responsibility to the world around them seriously, then it was up to us to show them what it meant to help others and our community.

I knew that my husband and I were far from perfect parents. There were many things we had done wrong or could have done better, but teaching our son what it meant to act justly and serve the community was one thing we’d gotten right. Whether it was helping a friend in need, raising money for education and clean water for children in Haiti, volunteering at the local food bank, purchasing prayer books for a synagogue with limited resources or doing a park cleanup, my son’s actions showed that charity did, in fact, begin at home.

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