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By Lindsey Goldstein
Before my husband and I got married, we discussed how we would raise any potential children. These children were very theoretical. something I wasnât sure I wanted. But I began to consider it, since he finally seemed to be the right person to procreate with.
My husband was raised Catholic but hasnât practiced any religion since he left his parentsâ home and I was raised Jewish albeit not entirely religious. I strongly identify myself as Jewish.
Yet despite those differences, our discussions about raising our kids werenât profound. They went something like this:
Me: âHow will we raise our kids with respect to religion?â
Him: âWell, youâre Jewish, so arenât they Jewish by default?â
Of course, he referred to the fact that any child that springs forth from the loins of a Jewish woman is automatically Jewish.
Thatâs fine and good, but Iâve found that kids these days, unless presented with a religious upbringing will often default to being ânothing.â Or as my brotherâs kids say, they are âhalf Jewish.â What does that even mean? Are they sliced down the middle through the navel, one side claiming to be Jewish and the other not? It means nothing. Literally.
Ultimately, my husband and I decided our kids would be educated on Judaism by me and my husband would answer any questions about Catholicism should they arise. He acknowledged that the brunt of our kidsâ formal religious exposure would most likely be Judaism because my parents live 35 minutes away, so we spend the Jewish holidays with themâand unlike him, I practice my religion.
Yet this wasnât a concrete plan. Essentially, we decided any kids we had could figure out for themselves how invested they wanted to be in their religious upbringing and we would simply facilitate their decision. In other words, our decision about how to raise them was pretty wishy-washy.
When my daughter reached school age, we decided to send her to a Jewish school, where she would stay there through kindergarten and then switch to an excellent local public school, one of the draws of our neighborhood.
As I haveÂ previously written, I am so proud that she became extremely interested in her Jewishness to the extent that she taught me things Iâd long forgotten from my Jewish upbringing. In June, she âgraduatedâ from that school and will, as planned, move to a public school.
The struggle confronting me now is how will her Jewishness persevere outside of her current school? I asked her if she would like to have aÂ bat mitzvahÂ and she said yes. I explained to her sheâd have to attend Hebrew school on Sundays to make her goal happen.
Hereâs the thing: When my daughter and I discuss Hebrew school, she forgets about it minutes later. I donât force the issue because I reflect on the fact that I wouldnât have wanted to spend every Sunday in Hebrew school when I was 6. I hear my husband and understand his religion was forced on him thereby destroying any religious intentions in him. I know he feels strongly that we donât do that to our kids. But I remind him that being Jewish isnât an easy path to choose.
Now that we have real children instead of theoretical ones, I realize our decision to not make any decisions for them was misguided. Kids will never choose to study religion if they donât have to.
The path of least resistance is being anything but Jewish. I resented being Jewish for most of my teenage years because I was raised among mostly Christians and I hated being âdifferent.â When I was 18, I lived in a predominantly Catholic country as an exchange student. For that year, I decided to assimilate and not celebrate Jewish holidays or acknowledge my Jewishness. I had a fulfilling year, yet I felt adrift. Even though Iâve never been terribly religious, it turned out I was out of place in a religious context that wasnât my own, and I craved the companionship of people who âget me.â
No matter how religious or not a Jew is, I think there is a foundation of similarity that allows us to relate to another Jew easily. There is a parallel upbringing or set of parents or values that bonds us together.
And I realize now: I want that for my kids. I donât want them to float around in this world incapable of identifying themselves with a community.Â Selfishly, I want that community to be a Jewish one.
Clearly, my husband and I still have some discussion before usâand it wonât be easy to iron out now that our kids are growing up. We should have made concrete decisions about religious upbringing before.
Thatâs why when other interfaith couples say theyâre going to âwing it,â I vehemently tell them not toâbut rather to hammer those details out before they get married, to seek counsel from an outside source if they need an objective perspective.
In the meantime, my daughter will still have a connection to her Jewish school since her brother will matriculate in a month. I am hopeful she will choose to follow through with her desire to have a bat mitzvah and continue to feel at home in the Jewish community as she has for the last several years.
I hope she is ultimately persuaded by my example since she enjoys going to synagogue and celebrating Jewish holidays with me. Of course, I am not upset with my husband for his view on religious upbringingâespecially in light of how he was raised. But, I should have been absolutely forthright with him that my ultimate goal for my kids is as follows: when someone asks them what they are they respond without hesitation, âJewish.â
This article was reprinted with permission fromÂ Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids.Â Follow Kveller on FacebookÂ andÂ sign up for their newsletters here.
Note: All comments on InterfaithFamily are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed.
By Dr. Ruth Nemzoff
Q:Â Recently, our twenty year old daughter called from college to announce that she is bringing home her first serious boyfriend for Rosh Hashanah. He is an A student, the leader of his a cappella group and involved in community service. Before she introduced him to us, she warned us that although he is a great person, he is not Jewish. We had always expected and hoped that she would date only Jewish guys, and we had talked about this ad nauseam before she left for college. The truth is, we were a little hurt that she rebelled against us. She had a strong Jewish education and continued Hebrew lessons throughout high school. We observe Shabbat weekly and celebrate all of the holidays. My daughter has been to Israel and remains an active member of Hillel on her campus.
From my daughterâs perspective, we did not react well. We lectured her on the importance of marrying someone Jewish and of raising Jewish children. She ended up in tears.
What should we do from here?
A:Â First, your daughter was probably not thinking about rebelling against you when she decided to date this young man. Just like we did not follow all of our parents expectations, we canât expect that our children will always obey our dictates. In our pluralistic society, it is unrealistic to expect our children to date only within the Jewish religionâunless, of course, we keep them in a totally Jewish world. The reality is that most Jewish Americans, other than the most Orthodox, send their children to secular colleges where they will meet people of other backgrounds.
Many Jewish parents feel that their commitment and effort in providing a Jewish education has been wasted, if their children choose to date outside the faith. I can assure you, the education is not wasted. Your daughter, no matter who she marries, has the knowledge to create a Jewish home.
Again, in America it is not unusual for young people to use their twenties to focus on their career. For many recent college grads, marriage is a distant plan. Too often, parents leap to the conclusion that the first serious boyfriend is the final âone.â He might be, but unless your daughter is bringing home an engagement ring, it is unlikely. However, because there is the possibility of marriage or a long term relationship, you want to have a good relationship with this young man.
Since she is bringing him home, be welcoming. Try to appreciate the fine person he is, while showing him the best of our culture. If he is here for Shabbat, offer him a yarmulke and explain that the yarmulke is a sign of respect rather than a religious declaration. Explain why we light the candles and why we bless the wine. Whatever customs your family practices, ask him if he would like to join, but donât force him. For example, the children might put their hands on the challah and recite the blessing. He could be included. If you bless the children, bless him too, with his permission.
As for Rosh Hashanah, again explain the customs and the history. It is helpful if you can provide him with reading materials about the holiday, as the service can be long and tedious to those who have no idea whatâs happening. You might also give him permission to walk in and out of the service. Whether you like it or not, many of our synagogues are crowded with young people socializing just outside the sanctuary.
If he is from a family that doesnât practice any religion, he may be receptive and curious about what religion adds to the family. Praise him for any interest or efforts he makes, however clumsily, to participate. Who knows, he might be looking for the community and acceptance that Judaism offers many.
If, however, he is a believer in another religion, you might show some curiosity by asking about his traditions and if he sees any similarities or any differences with Judaism. You are modeling the kind of interest you hope he will reciprocate. Be welcoming but not insisting that he participateâyou are not asking him to convert. After all, itâs a new relationship, and marriage is probably not on their minds right now.
On the other hand, it is possible that he is not open to learning or participating in your familyâs traditions because he is vehemently opposed to religion. You should celebrate as you always do. After all, it is your home. Once the kids have gone back to school, you might tell your daughter how much you enjoyed the young man but wonder how she would feel in the long term being with someone who is not supportive of something that is important to her.
No matter what happens between your daughter and this young man in the future, remember, that your behavior has the potential to make friends or enemies for the Jewish people. And goodness knows we need all the friends we can get.
The latest Jewish Population Survey shows that over 50% of our children are marrying people from other faith backgrounds. Our admonitions against marrying people from other faith backgroundsÂ are not working. However, interfaith marriageÂ does not necessarily mean the end of our people. Interfaith marriageÂ has been around and has been a part of our history from our beginningsâand we are still here. Moreover, most American Jews gave up celebrating Shabbat and keeping Kosher well before the interfaith marriageÂ rate climbed. You might better use your energy to continue to show your children the beauty and value of our traditions than continue your rants against interfaith marriage.
One of the strengths of Judaism has been its ability to adapt over the years. We moved from a sacrificial religion to a non-sacrificial one; from one centered on the temple to thriving in the diaspora. Â Perhaps we need to now focus on how to deal with multiple religions in our extended families. If we can figure out how to live together as families, we can truly be a model of co-existence. Besides, interfaith marriage brings new genes into our pool, which can have some health benefits.
I want to be clear here. I am not necessarily promoting interfaith marriage, but I am saying there can be an âup sideâ to it. It is up to us all to make sure that we increase our numbers by welcoming others, rather than decrease them by pushing our children away. The demographics are clear. Interfaith marriage is on the rise. We need to embrace it. Otherwise, we might be destroyed by it.
This post originally appeared onÂ The American IsraeliteÂ and is reprinted with permission.
Note: All comments on InterfaithFamily are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed.
Itâs a Monday morning in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and my almost 2-year-old daughter and IÂ have a date with my friend and her 10-month-old daughter to go to a read-along at the Brooklyn Public Library. We get downstairs with the stroller, enough snacks to feed a small army and a water bottle. Not to mention diapers, wipes, A & D ointment, cell phone, wallet and keys. Oh, and Duckie, the stuffed animal that is covered in one thin layer of gross because it is trudged across New York by my daughter on every trip we take. Even when I wash Duckie, his yellow is a kind of city yellowâso, basically heâs gray.
The super of my buildingÂ sees me trying to get Helen into the stroller. âYou gonna take an umbrella?â he asks, âItâs supposed to rain like crazy.â
The library is a ten-minute walk from my apartment and it hasnât started raining yet. The umbrella is the one item Iâve forgotten. âNo,â I say, âIâm not afraid of a little rain.”
Famous. Last. Words.
Almost eight blocks from my house, the sky opens. The rain comes down in sheets as if the sky had been holding its breath and someone just reminded it to let go. I am so soaked and Helen (though covered by the stroller top and a blanket) is getting her legs and feet soaked as well. I almost panic.
Midwood is a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. I grew up here and now I live here with my interfaith family. Itâs hard to live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and try to make people understand that my daughter is both Jewish and Mexican Catholic. In Jewish circles I find myself getting defensive. In Catholic circles I donât know how to explain my own take on Judaism. And when strangers hear me speak Spanish and then shout something in Hebrew three seconds later, I am met with baffled looks.
But Midwood means something else too. It means a ton of Honda OdysseyÂ minivans. Once, from my motherâs house to our apartment three blocks away, I counted 11 parked Odyssey minivans. This is because the Jews, like the Mexicans, have big families and the Honda Odyssey seats eight. But, as a driver in New York, I hate being behind an Odyssey. Iâm constantly making cracks about them. I can always see the TVÂ turned on in the back seat of an Odyssey. So many Odyssey minivan drivers drive too slow in themÂ because of all theÂ kids they have in the car. But, itâs my own personal obnoxious joke that I canât stand the Honda Odyssey.
With that being said, as Iâm in a small panic halfway from home and halfway from the library with the rain still pelting down, I see a blue Honda Odyssey turn the corner. A young woman in a traditional wig rolls down her window. âExcuse me!â She shouts from her Odyssey, âDo you need a ride? I have three car seats in the car.â I am wearing jeans (a clear sign I am not an Orthodox Jew, though I am a Jew, but she doesnât know this) and a shirt that has become so obviously see-through.
âAre you sure?â I ask, hesitating as water drips down my face.
âYes!â she says as she leaps out of her Odyssey with a purple umbrella decorated with dogs wearing tutus. She holds the umbrella over our heads as I get Helen out of the stroller. She then holds my daughter and puts her in the car seat. Helen starts to cry a little, but the woman is so gentle and I tell her not to be afraid. I throw the stroller in the trunk and get into the front seat. As soon as the woman closes the âdogs in tutuâ umbrella she says, âIâve never picked up a stranger before! I just couldnât believe you were out here. I just dropped my kids off at camp and saw you. Where are you going?â
I tell her that we are on the way to the library and I find out that she lives on that same block. She points to her house (which is directly across the street from one of my relatives’ apartment building) and on the porch are three mini beach chairs for each of her children. I thank her profusely and as I get Helen out of the car seat, the woman climbs into the trunk of her Odyssey and pulls a pink and white blanket from the back that says, âbaby.”
âPlease take this,â she says, âI have six blankets in this car and the library is freezing.â
This is when I take the opportunity to let her know in Hebrew that I am a Jew. Iâm not sure why I do this. The entire ride, when I spoke to Helen, I spoke in Spanish. It was obvious to the woman that we were a different kind of family than the families usually seen walking through Midwood. But, religion, class or status didnât matter to this woman. So I said, âtodah rabahâ (thank you, in Hebrew). âYou did a real mitzvahâ (good deed).
But, to my surprise the woman wasnât shocked. Her mouth didnât drop open and she didnât shout, âOh my God youâre Jewish!?!â And that was a good lesson for me because her picking me up had nothing to do with my two faiths. She picked me up because she saw I needed help. She saw I was in a panic and she saw that, like herself, I am a mother. And being a mother has nothing to do with being a Jew or a Catholic and it has everything to do with being a Jew and a Catholic. Because two faiths, interfaith or one faith is about respect for the fellow man. And in a world that seems more chaotic every day, itâs nice to know that as Anne Frank once wrote at the age of 13, âIn spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.â Maybe Iâll stop being so judgmental about the Odyssey.
Note: All comments on InterfaithFamily are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed.
By Melissa Henriquez
Every Sunday morning as I practically drag my 6-year old out of bed to go to Hebrew School, Iâm reminded of the final scene in âMy Big Fat Greek Weddingâ when Toulaâs own daughter has turned six and is begrudgingly headed off to âŚ where else?!Â Greek school.
Like Toulaâs daughter and Toula before her, and Toulaâs mother before her (and so on and so forth) my daughter knows she must to go to her own version of Greek School â she just doesnât âwantâ to.
Personally, I began Hebrew School in third grade. Because I wish Iâd started earlier, we enrolled my daughter when she started kindergarten last fall.Â I wanted her to have a better sense of Jewish community than I did growing upÂ and an earlier start to Jewish learning. Since Hebrew School goes from 9:15 a.m.â12:15 p.m.Â every Sunday for all ages, itâs admittedly a hefty time commitment for the short-attention-spanned kindergartnersâbut it is what it is. Fortunately for us, Hebrew School overlaps when my (Catholic) husband normally goes to mass, anyway, so itâs not that my daughter is missing much family timeâand itâs given me precious, special one-on-one time with my 3-year-old son.
Itâs not that she doesnât like Hebrew School once sheâs thereâshe has adorable little friends, they sing, they have music class, they bake and participate in a mini-service. They do art projects and learn their Hebrew letters, colors and numbers. She learns about Jewish customs, history and holidaysâand I love that now she peppers me now with questions about Judaism. Because sheâd learned about Passover and the Jewsâ exodus from Egypt, she asked me if I was a slave because I was Jewish (hoo boy!). I love seeing her little mind work and how she asks me who else in her world is Jewish, as well as who is not (her grandpa, her daddy, 99% of her friends).
But letâs be honest: while being Jewish is something I take deep pride in, it isnât easy by any means. And itâs definitely not easy for a 6-year-old kid who just wants to stay home in her PJs, read, color and ride her bike on Sunday mornings, especially when all of her friends from school are Christian, and only a handful are regular Sunday church-goers.
I know first-hand how hard it can be to be âdifferentââto be one of just a few Jewish kids in my school and the only Jew among my close friends. I remember the pangs of sadness I felt having to miss a huge cheerleading competition in eighth grade that fell on my bat mitzvah day. I desperately wanted to be in two places at once, but could not.
Looking ahead, I know my daughter will face similar situations; itâs inevitable that Jewish life and sports/activities will at some point collide, and Judaism will often need to be the priority, as it was for me. As I grew into adulthood, I came to appreciate the significance of those sacrifices, and I hope she will, too. But whatever she thinks or decides about Judaism as an adult, I want her to at leastÂ understandÂ it, and thatâs why weâre doing this.
This first year of formal religious school has been a real adjustment for our little family, and Iâd be lying if I said we werenât all looking forward to summer break when we will have free Sunday mornings again. But all in all, I wouldnât change a thing. Itâs been a great learning experience and Iâve been thrilled at the beginnings of her Jewish education. And come September, I think our soon-to-be-first-grader will be excited to go back to a familiar school where she has a newfound sense of belonging.
This article was reprinted with permission fromÂ Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids.Â Follow Kveller on FacebookÂ andÂ sign up for their newsletters here.
MelissaÂ HenriquezÂ is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now liveÂ in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (6) and Ben (3).Â By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs atÂ Let There Be LightÂ (est. 2008).Â Melissa’s writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.
Ah, yes, itâs summer at last. Time, maybe, to wind down a little bit and contemplate some bigger-picture lessons that get lost in the shuffle during the school year. We talked toÂ Rabbi Jillian CameronÂ ofÂ NewtonâsÂ InterfaithFamily, which supports interfaith families in embracingÂ Jewish life, about three important Jewish values that kids should absorb as early as possible. Nothing big or daunting, just simple lessons to instill in everyday moments.
Compassion and respect
âWeâre all created in the image of God,â says Cameron. âWeâre each special and unique, but weâre also connected through a larger image of something greater, whether people look or act like us, or are different. Weâre all worthy of respect.â
This can be tough for little kids to grasp: Why does one kid have two moms, and another has a mom and a dad? Why do some kids get to go to summer camp, and others canât afford to go? Kids tend to define themselves by their visibleÂ differences, not by their unseen similarities, so they need some prompting.
Since this concept is abstract, Cameron recommends tying similaritiesÂ to a real-life example through a story, like playing with a friend from a different country.Â âYou have white skin and your friend has dark skin, but you both love âDespicable Me,â right?â The more you can make those connections for your kids now, the less scary differences will be as they get older.
Ah, peace. This can be elusive when your kids are bickering over who ate the last cookie,Â or who gets to sit by the window on the car ride to the beach, or whoâs taller orâŚyou name it.
In this case, Cameron recommends âgoing big.â Instead of beggingÂ your kids not to fight (ha!), try to help them think about peace on a larger scale.
âGet them talking: What does peace look like for you? When do you feel peaceful? Is it when youâre falling asleep? What makes you feel at peace? Is it living in a comfortable home or having toys to play with? How can you help create that for yourself, for your friends and for the whole world?â
Make them part of the big-picture solution, instead of admonishing them. If they realize how important peace is on a bigger scale, they might be more likely to think about how it applies to their own lives, too.
Itâs never too early to teach your kids the importance of charitable giving. While Jewish tradition holds that we should give 10 percent of our income to charity, kids donât need to worry about that. At this stage, itâs more about seeing charity with their own eyes, like visiting a shelter to drop off toys or a soup kitchen and helping out.
Kids benefit from participating in theseÂ hands-on, real-world experiences far more than hearing about them. Offer your child experiences where he or she can see their impact firsthand.
âItâs not just about giving money. Itâs about thinking of how to create a more just world,â Cameron says. âInstead of thinking about helping others in terms of financial giving, think about it as giving back a part of your life. Thereâs action involved in justice; we canât rest on our laurels.â
The earlier your kids see that their actions can make a difference, the easier it will be to make giving back a habit.
Reprinted with permission from JewishBoston.com
I grew up in the same town where I currently reside. I remember going to high school with only a handful of other students who called themselves Jewish. I knew that raising my family in my hometown meant we would have to go to the very small synagogue in the next town over or if we wanted to be part of a larger community, we would need to drive 20 to 30 minutes north or south to more Jewish areas to find that.
It never crossed my mind that we would run into the issue of being the minority in what I thought would be a simple search for a preschool. Admittedly, I was a bit late in my search, thinking that with a baby due at the end of August and the school year starting in early September, I might want to hold off on sending my daughter to preschool to avoid her having too many changes at once. It turned out that she really wanted to go to school, so who was I to keep that from her?
With the limited openings available to those of us who started our search late, I found that there were very few secular schools with openings. There was one within walking distance, but it only had openings for the afternoon session, which I thought may not be ideal for a still-napping toddler. My daughter toured the school with my stepmother and they both absolutely loved it. But I was unable to make it to the tour and was still apprehensive about sending her to school during prime nap time.
My search had to broaden. The Jewish preschools, like the Jewish communities, were quite a drive from my house, so it seemed unlikely for that to work out as we readjust to life with a newborn again. A highly recommended preschool in our area with morning openings just happened to be a Christian preschool. I scheduled a tour and reached out to the InterfaithFamily Facebook group, âRaising a Child with Judaism Participants and Alumni,â to ask whether other parents would send their children to a preschool of a faith other than Judaism and what kinds of questions they would ask on a tour.
The post had some lively discussion and I found that resource very helpful in gathering my thoughts, both before and after the tour. I went into the tour thinking I would be OK with the education if the religious component was strictly value-teaching. When speaking with the director, I asked whether theyâd had students of other faith backgrounds in their school before. The comforting answer was a âYes, weâve had Hindu and Jewish students in our school before.â
We started moving through the motions of a typical day, and while my daughter happily played and worked on a craft with the other children, I asked about prayer time and the Bible stories that they read. It turned out that the Bible stories were sometimes familiar ones like Noahâs ark, but at other times, they pull from specifically Christian liturgy. They also do an annual Christmas pageant and talk about the story of Easter. I left the tour thankful to have had the opportunity to ask those questions, but feeling unsure about the school.
I went home, talked to my husband about it, and thought it over. Yes, even if we chose a secular school, she would be exposed to Christian holidays. We are an interfaith family, so she will be exposed in our own familyâs celebrations as well. However, teachings of Jesus would not be a part of a secular schoolâs curriculum. With that in mind, I scheduled a second tour of the neighborhood school with afternoon openings. My daughter jumped right into all of the activities again, already feeling like this was a familiar place. My husband and I asked lots of questions and they were all answered the way we hoped. It felt right, despite the fact that it would mean missing naps two days a week. We took home the registration paperwork and I got started on it right away, so we would not miss out on the few remaining openings.
In the registration packet, I was thrilled to find a questionnaire on celebrations and holidays. The questions were excellent, with sensitive wording and dug much deeper than I would have expected. The questions included the following:
What special days do you celebrate in your family?
This put my mind at ease. I answered each question thoroughly, probably with more detail than the school is used to, but this was of utmost importance in my preschool search. I want my daughter to understand and appreciate that other families may have different celebrations and beliefs than we do and I want her to be able to share some of our traditions with her new friends. This school will allow for both, and to me, that is the perfect setting for her first few years of schooling.
Insomnia. Itâs awful and Iâve never had it before. Until now.
Part of this has to do with me getting pregnant again shortly after a miscarriage. Another part has to do with the anxiety, fear, loneliness, happiness, joy and gratitude I feel approaching motherhood for the second time. The second time is different, of course. With a toddler at home the exhaustion level of pregnancy is overwhelming. This is how I found myself a few weeks ago at two in the morning with the refrigerator door open asking myself, âWhat else can I eat?â After making my way through a bag of potato chips, a bowl of cherries and the rest of a half-eaten Kit-Kat bar, I get the feeling I should be doing something elseâŚlike meditating.
A long time ago I worked at a yoga studio. I was the desk girl and I would check people in and only occasionally take a yoga class. But, on Wednesday mornings they would have a meditation group and I would go and sit in the middle of the sunny studio and listen to a woman in a long kimono tell me to relax. It was relaxing, though not at first. At first there was total panic. Why couldn’t I turn my brain off? Why did everything else seem more important than just sitting with myself for 30 minutes? Eventually I got better at it. But, at two in the morning I feel a need to sit down with myself again.
My household is a testament to two faiths being able to coexist peacefully and even intertwine and become something even more beautiful than what they already are. A walk through my apartment will reveal the Jewish and Catholic aspects of my familyâs life. There are prayers for the home in Hebrew at the entrance. A mezuzah in the doorframe and a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe protecting my daughterâs bed while she sleeps. At two in the morning I look to all of these objects in order to steady my thoughts.
The Dalai Lama calls Buddhism not a religion but a âscience of the mind.â So on my way back from the fridge I grab a pillow from the couch and sit on it in the lotus position hoping that Buddhism will help me in my Jewish/Catholic home. I want to stay calm. I want my thoughts to stop if only for a minute. I also want to relax so that I can finally get some sleep!
The pillow is uncomfortable. My already growing belly feels smashed. I forget the pillow and sit on the floor. The floor is too hard. My back hurts. Those potato chips were a bad idea. I lie on the floor. The carpet is too itchy, and so on and so forth for the next ten minutes. I exceed Julia Roberts’ performance in Eat, Pray Love. Meditating is hard.
I decide to commit to sitting in a chair for at least ten minutes every day and trying to quiet my mind. I look up mantras and then I realize that I can use any mantra I want. Iâm part of an interfaith family! I can use a prayer, a word or even a saying. I choose something that Iâve been saying before bed since I was a little girl. âShema Yisrael,â the prayer in Hebrew of âHear Oâ Israel.â Traditionally said before one goes to sleep I repeat it over and over again breathing in and out and trying to focus on my breath and the sound of the words.
By 4 oâclock in the morning Iâm still awake. At 6 a.m. I fall asleep. My daughter wakes up at 9:30. But, I keep saying the Shema. Every night when I canât fall asleep I sit upright in a chair, close my eyes and invoke Israelâs name. Every night it gets easier. Some nights it actually puts me to bed.
I think about that prayer and the way I learned it. It was not taught in my house but in my school when I was a child. This gets me thinking about my daughter and my child to come. How beautiful faith in something, anything is. That a prayer so etched in my memory can come to me when I need peace and quiet. It makes me happy that my daughter and my future children will have a plethora of prayers to choose from. There is the Jewish âShema,â there is a Catholic prayer of St. Francis that I love which begins, âLord, make me an instrument of your peaceâŚâ and then there are the Buddhist prayers for loving-kindness or forgiveness.
One night I try a specific meditation in which one is supposed to meditate on a difficult situation one is having and then replace oneself with a saint or a holy being like Gandhi or Mother Teresa. I do this thinking that of course mother Teresa will show up in my mindâs eye. But, as soon as I close my eyes itâs not Mother Teresa at all. Itâs my Grandma Rosie and sheâs holding a bowl of chicken soup. So I say, âGrandma, what are you doing here?â She says, âI heard you couldnât sleep so I made you some soup.â I laugh when I open my eyes.
The next night I make the family my Grandmotherâs chicken soup. I kiss the Hebrew prayer on my wall, I kiss the mezuzah on the doorframe and I kiss Guadalupe. That night I sleep like a baby. Sometimes faith, any faith begins right at the kitchen stove.
Giving your child a Hebrew name is a long-standing tradition in Judaism. Sometimes families have elaborate gatherings as part of a bris while others choose more intimate family ceremonies (we chose the latter). With our siblings and parents together, we could not help but reflect on the long journey to that moment over the last several years. We could not have persevered through it all without the love and support of those closest to us, which is why we asked that they share in this special moment. Thank you to each of these people for your unconditional love, generosity, kind words and most important, hope.
A naming ceremony for an interfaith family does not come without challenges, but we viewed it as an opportunity to foster understanding with those in our family who lovingly participated, and areÂ not Jewish. And in all honesty, my family is not the most religious, so it also served as a nice refresher for them. A family friend who is a doctor and mohel (someone trained in both Jewish law and the surgical hygiene for performing a circumcision) performed the beautiful ceremony. She made sure there was plenty of opportunity to pause and ask questions about the topics we discussed and why certain traditions were important to us. We asked my brother and sister-in-law to be Quinnâs godparents. They will always be a big part of her life and in our absence, they would be there to help guide her through the learning process and discovering Judaism.
Jews of Central or Eastern European descent encourage the celebration of new life by the naming of children to honor loved ones who are no longer with us. Between both of our families, there are many loved ones we wish could have been there to share in the joy of this most wonderful occasion. Jewish tradition also teaches us the importance not to mourn their passing, rather to celebrate their lives. They will live on in our hearts and are never truly gone whenÂ we continue to tell their stories and talk about our special memories of them. Often, we recognize this honor by giving the child an English name that starts with the same letter as a late relative.
It is also customary to give a child a Hebrew name in addition to an English name. We gave Quinn the Hebrew name of Pelia (pay-lee-ah) Davi (dah-vee). Pelia means wonder or miracle and Davi means cherished. Both her arrival into this world and into our arms made her Hebrew name very fitting. She is named after my nana, Paula, and Kimberlyâs nonnie, Domenica. By giving her this name, we are bridging the generations of the past and present and also blending her Jewish and Italian heritage. She will never know where she isÂ going until she knows where she came from. Her great-grandmothers would have loved to have known her. In the years to come, we will be able to share many stories and memories about them with her. We hope she will embody many of the characteristics and qualities we loved about them and carry on their namesake.
We closed this memorable dayÂ by reading this special poem:
âWe didn’t give you the gift of life,
But in our hearts we know. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
The love we feel is deep and real, Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
As if it had been so. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
For us to have each other, Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Is like a dream come true! Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
No, we didn’t give you the gift of life, Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Life gave us the gift of you.â
My middle name is Miriam. I am named after Mark, my motherâs brother who was killed at the young age of 39. My name is a remembrance of him just as my daughterâs name is a reminder of my two Grandmothers, Helen and Rose. Names have great meaning and what someone is named at birth doesnât necessarily determine who they are, but it does hold potential.
One of this monthâs Torah portions just happens to be called âChukat,â meaning âdecree.â It is one of my favorite portions because it is about the death of Miriam (Mosesâs sister) and how the death of a single woman affects an entire people and their future.
When Miriam dies, water becomes scarce. Moses cannot deal with his sisterâs death and sees the people of Israel angered at him and Aaron for bringing them to a barren land. God commands Moses to speak to a rock and ask for water. Saddened by the death of his sister and vexed at his people for their lack of grief, Moses makes a mistake. Instead of speaking to the stone he strikes it. It is an act that does not go unnoticed. Because of this err on Mosesâ part, God refuses to let him lead the Jews into the Promised Land. The death of Miriam means the death of water, purity and a loss of control for a great prophet. Even Moses fears death or is stifled by it. Then, before this Torah portion comes to a close, Aaron dies as well.
The name Miriam in Hebrew means rebelliousâfitting that I should be named after my Uncle Mark, who was the rebel in our family history just as I am. Some of my family members will tell you I am still the rebellious one living with and loving a man from Mexico who was born Catholic, raising our child in an interfaith household. But water followed Miriam everywhere. It followed her through the desert during her peopleâs hardest times. I have chosen to live my life as she lived hersâwith a magical well that never runs dry with room enough for different faiths, cultures and beliefs.
Whatâs funny is that the man I chose to spend my life with is named Adrian andÂ his name is from the Latin root meaning âseaâ or âwater.â My middle name and his first name flow like rivers next to each other, intertwining like our two faiths.
Helen, our almost 2-year-old has a name derived from the Greeks. Who hasnât heard of Helen of Troy? Her name in Greek means âShining Lightâ or âThe Bright One.â This seems appropriate, that two bodies of water can create a spark, something beautiful and different that never fades.
I like the âChukatâ Torah portion because it is not about Judaism specifically; it is about doubt and faith. The Israelites doubt Moses and Aaron and so God is angered. Moses is grieving and loses control, because of this he suffers and dies without being permitted to enter into the Holy Land. It is a lesson not only for Jews but for anyone because it is about having faith in your own journey. The Israelites lose faith because the water disappears after Miriamâs death. Moses loses faith in his people. God is angered most by Mosesâ loss of control. On so long a journey Moses does not trust and strikes the very rock that was to give him and his people sustenance. But I see that rock as a symbol of Miriam. Although she is gone, perhaps her spirit is in that rock, but Moses is too blind to see it. For this, he is punished.
Often it is a challenge to navigate an interfaith household. During certain times of the year it seems as though we have a different holiday every month. Traditions are hard to keep up, or are tweaked so that they can fit both religions and both cultures. Our budget for gifts on holidays has to stretch so that Santa Claus, the Three Kings and a menorah can all fit in the living room. But we try never to strike the stone, to curse the place where the water will naturally flow if given time and care.
Thatâs what Godâs decree is in the âChukatâ portion. He desires that we keep going even when the world seems to rise up against us and deem us rebellious. He asks us to speak to the stone, not strike it so that we may learn from the world how cool water can follow us through the desert when we feel we are making a new, different and enlightening journey toward faith.
In the local stores in my neighborhood it seems that everyone is pushing everyone else aside. People donât say âexcuse meâ anymore. In the kosher bakery I get hit in the eye with a challah bread when one woman reaches past me, past Adrian and over Helenâs stroller. She really socks me one with the golden dough. Then she doesnât say, âIâm sorryâ or even acknowledge my familyâs existence. At least the challah was fresh and warm so it was a soft blow to my right eye, and anyway it smelled good.
We try the Mexican bakery next for Adrian. He loves a traditional âconcha.â A concha is a type of bread shaped like a roll covered in chocolate, vanilla or strawberry sugar and traditionally it is eaten in the morning. It looks a little bit like a shell from the beach and thatâs what concha means in Spanish: âShell.â We have this routine. On Friday mornings before Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts we hit the bakeries. Everyone else in our neighborhood has the same idea. Friday mornings can be overwhelming.
At the Mexican bakery we grab a tray and tongs and pick the bread we like. On the way over to the counter a woman cuts in front of me slamming her tray down on the counter and demanding a bigger plastic bag for her bread. I take a step back. Iâve been hit with enough dough for one day.
On our walk home a cyclist (riding on the sidewalk) nearly runs us all down and yells âWatch it!â No one holds the door for the stroller in our building and when I say, âHi Frank!â to my super, her grunts, curses, spits and stomps up the stairs murmuring, âEverybody wants somethinâ from me all the timeâŚâ
I feel defeated. Why is everyone so rude? I have this thought while stress eating in my kitchen standing up. Helen goes to her crib to take a nap and I decide to look for some spiritual inspiration. I put away my bag of popcorn and salted caramel ice cream.
I Google the word âmitzvah.â In the Yeshiva I attended as a girl the teachers taught us that the word âmitzvahâ means âa good deed.â The plural in Hebrew is âmitzvot,â for many good deeds. But, as I search deeper into the meaning I come to find out that âmitzvahâ actually translates as âcommandment.â So in the Jewish religion it is commanded by God that we complete the task of doing good deeds every day.
This is interesting. What have I been teaching Helen about good deeds?
What have I been teaching her about commandments? Itâs easy to point a finger. Friday at the two bakeries it was so simple for me to become the victim. But, what did I do to help the people around me? Did I do any mitzvot on Friday? What about the rest of the week? What did I do to help anyone besides myself?
I know thatâs a pretty harsh self-judgement. But I wasnât blaming myself. I was merely trying to dig deeper into the similarities of my two-faith household. I understand that a mitzvah is a commandment. In Catholicism there is the belief in âgood works.â This is the same concept. It sounds simple because these teachings from both religions donât involve complicated holidays, recipes or traditions. These ideas and beliefs arise during the everyday. Maybe that is what makes them go unannounced and unnoticed. Maybe thatâs also why they are harder to commit to.
This is a situation in which Adrian and I believe the same thing. Nothing is complicated about doing good deeds out in the world. But how do we teach each other and how do we teach our daughter about the power of mitzvot?
I think that everything begins at home and so I start to think about our apartment building. We live on the fourth floor of a walk-up apartment built in 1927. The stairs arenât just tough to climb, theyâre made of marble. But in my own building my neighbors have done the deed of a mitzvah many times for me. There have been so many nights that Adrian has been at work and Helen and I have to go to the store to bring bags of groceries back. The boy who lives on the first floor always carries the stroller up the stairs for me if heâs around. The superâs son has carried Helen for me. There is a woman named Veronica who lives on the second floor and she’s carried four bags from Whole Foods filled with canned goods up to my apartment. Once, a young girl from the other side of the building (our building has two sides) saw me and helped me. She was 11 years old!
The mitzvah starts at home. The commandment begins in the hallway of our building and spreads far out into the community. A good deed speaks many languages, follows many cultures and faiths. This Friday at the bakery Iâm going to hold the door for someone because maybe I wasnât looking behind me the last time. Maybe I slammed the door in someoneâs face instead of holding it. Maybe the woman who smacked me with a challah bread had plenty of reason to do so. It was like God was saying âWake up! Youâve got a lot of mitzvot to do!â