J-Nesting

My home study is now complete!

A home study is required for all adoptions. Last week, the social worker did the final walk through of my apartment (mind you, this is after a 4 hour interview) to make sure I had enough room for a child (check), indoor plumbing (check) and there are no obvious safety hazards in my home like a wood-chipper in the living room (check). Then the social worker said something incredible: “go forth and buy furniture.”

Until now the baby room has stood completely empty. I thought it would be easier to look at all that open space instead of an empty crib every day. I’m overjoyed to be this close to having a child in my home but….how exactly do I create a Jewish nursery? As someone who chose Judaism as an adult, I’ve never seen one.

I do have a few ideas:

- a framed picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking with Dr. Martin Luthuer King, Jr.  - it’s never too early to start teaching about tzedukah (justice)

- the aleph betthe sooner he/she starts learning those squiggly letters the better

- lots of Jewish books – obviously

- a large Barney with a kippah (skullcap) – what…no?

Clearly, I need some help so I’m turning to you. (Yes, you who are reading this right now.) What belongs in a Jewish nursery? What should a Jewish child see every morning upon opening her/his eyes?

Please give (comment) generously. All advice accepted and appreciated!

The White Cow

When my kids were small they spent a considerable amount of time looking for the white cow.  The white cow was born out of necessity.  We were in the car, and everyone was getting antsy.  To keep the kids entertained, I told them to look for the white cow.  Searching for the white cow became a pastime for many years, and eventually morphed into a family saying for something you have heard about but have never seen.  I saw a white cow at gymnastics today.

I knew that we lived in a conservative Christian area.  I knew that some conservative Christians are very right wing and have some radical ideas, some bigoted ideas.  I had never knowingly run into one before, and, like the white cow, they were just something I had heard of, but never seen. 

Today in the waiting room at gymnastics, one of the other mothers said that Jews want to kill Christians. 

I am letting that stand alone, because it takes a minute to take that in.  She really said that Jews want to kill Christians.  I was playing Angry Birds and enjoying my hour off, and I sucked all the air out of the room and turned and asked for her to refrain from talking like that because I find it offensive.  I then returned to my game.

Eventually, I got up to see what my daughter was doing and she walked over to me.  I could feel the presence of hatred, and I began to scurry over strollers and other parents to escape.  She began to talk to me about what she had said.  Probably not my best moment, but I labeled her behavior and told her to stop speaking to me, to not even be near me.  I have never been so close to that level of hatred and denial in my life.  During our conversation she told me that “the whole thing with Hitler was a media exaggeration.”

She went on to explain that the Talmud tells us it is ok to kill Christians.  When I asked if she had read the Talmud, she told me no, but she had read interpretations.  She knew that those interpretations were accurate.  At this point I was so overwhelmed by the insanity of what was being said, I wanted to make it end.  I wanted to not be near her. 

The level of her ignorance was frightening.  It made me seriously consider that she might attempt to harm me and my children.  She might try and burn a cross in my yard.  We have taken measures to insure our security.

It was a shocking and hard reminder of the choice that I made for myself and my kids.  I have chosen for them to be raised in a religion that many people hate.  I have chosen to put them in a highly concentrated conservative Christian area.  I have made them targets.

I met my first out-spoken anti-Semite today.  I have felt for the first time the hatred some people feel towards Jews.  I hope I can shield my kids from that, but if I can’t I hope I can teach them to be strong and carry on.

Rosh Hashanah Pie Fest

One of the challenges of being an interfaith Jewish family is that at times we find ourselves without a large Jewish family gathering to attend. (Full disclosure: Even with my Irish Catholic upbringing I have long held a fantasy of large, warm, boisterous Jewish family gatherings. I’m not sure where it comes from—movies? books?—but there you go.) A few years ago we were trying to figure out how to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with just the five of us, when our middle child suggested making our favorite pies and inviting a few friends, in keeping with the whole sweet New Year theme. At first she wanted to  make it an anti-cake rally, too, complete with a poster of a cake in a red circle with a line through it (she isn’t too fond of cakes, obviously) but we decided in the end to keep it positive and focus on our love of pies. And thus our first annual Rosh Hashanah Pie Fest was born.

After going to morning services and Tashlich on the shores of Lake Michigan, we turned our kitchen into a veritable pie factory. Along with covering our kitchen in flour, smears of butter, and sugar we churned out a fair number of pies, among them apple, lemon meringue, pumpkin, key lime, cherry and blueberry. I have to admit we cheated on the chocolate French silk, buying it from Bakers Square. The hardest part turned out to be the crust, and I ended up buying pre-made crusts from the grocery store after a few failed attempts. I felt a little guilty about doing this, as my mother was an expert baker, who had learned the art of making pastry crust from her mother, whose own mother was a cook in the Duke of Norfolk’s kitchen (more on that in later blogs). We laid out the pies on tables in our backyard and had about ten people over, most of whom brought even more pies. It was lovely. The kids ran around, laughing and playing (and hyped up on sugar!), a wonderful sound. We ended up sitting around our outdoor fire pit, stuffed with all the different pies and feeling that we had done our part to start the New Year off as sweetly as possible. Every year Pie Fest has grown a little larger, and this year—our fourth—we’re expecting about thirty guests. I’m going to try my hand at the crust once again, this time using a recipe that our cantor suggested. We’ll see how it goes. L’Shana Tova!

Soccer and Sunday School

My kids just walked in the door.  The boys are laughing and retelling stories of their afternoon and laughing some more.  As they grab something to eat, they both agree that they love to go to Religious School.  Assembly was so much fun this week, they tell me.  The Rabbi is hysterical.

Jewish education is part of developing a strong Jewish identity.  I was always uncertain about how the kids would respond to what seemed to me to be “extra” school.  But the Educator does a great job making it fun for everyone.  This is great, because our belief is that unless you are sick, you are going to Religious School.  My husband and I do not generally let the kids miss for social events.

The problem is soccer, which is almost religion in our household.  Our kids play soccer every single day, even in the snow.  They kick the ball in the house, in spite of the fact that I tell them not to kick the ball in the house.  Last winter, our middle son started to play on the local travel team.  The travel team uses fields that are not available on Saturday mornings, so games are generally played on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings.

Can you guess what the conflict is?  Do we as good Jewish parents let our kids miss Religious School to play soccer?  Do we let the one kid who would die on the sword for soccer miss occasionally to do the one thing he truly loves? As the schedules were being determined for the soccer season, we request no practice on Wednesday.  We ask for no games on Sunday mornings.  But this isn’t always feasible.

We agree that it is important for the kids to develop a strong Jewish foundation and going to Religious School is part of creating a Jewish identity, it is also important to consider the whole child.  Right now my kids like to go to Religious School.  They understand the importance of going.  We recognize that “making” them go when they might want to do something else could cause resentment.

Granted it is a slippery slope: miss a day for soccer and another for a play date, what if soccer practices conflict with Wednesday Religious School, everyone is too tired from the week, when does it stop?  We walk a fine line maintaining the importance of obtaining a religious education/identity and living our lives in modern society.  We work hard to keep that balance for our kids.  This Sunday, while our youngest and oldest are in Religious School, our soccer player will be on the soccer pitch stopping goals.  (He promised to study his Hebrew extra hard this week and to get the assignments he will miss so that he will be prepared.)

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year – no – not Christmas and not back to school – but back to Hebrew School.  Remember that amazing Staples commercial from a few years back with the dad dancing through the store while tossing school supplies into the cart with the song playing in the background?  Well that’s how I feel now that it’s back to Hebrew School for my almost 7-year-old first grader.  My family joined a wonderful Reform synagogue in our area last year, just before my son started Kindergarten.  He had been at the JCC for daycare and preschool since he was 10 months old, so on a weekly and daily basis he got all of the loveliness of being at a Jewish school – Shabbat, challah, Jewish holidays, songs, crafts, PJ library books, Shabbat box, etc. I also work at that JCC so we got plenty of opportunities to participate in Jewish activities.   So when he wasn’t going to be getting that from school we felt we needed to step up to the plate and choose a synagogue and choose to send him to Hebrew School on Sunday mornings.

I don’t have particularly strong or happy feelings about my own Hebrew school days and my husband is Episcopalian so his Sunday school was completely different – although probably similar in many ways – holidays, bible stories, music, prayers.  We both wanted our son to enjoy his time at Hebrew School but wasn’t sure that was going to happen based on our own experiences.  Many people I know have said, “Well, I went to Hebrew School, so now my son/daughter is going to go – whether they like it or not”.  In our case, I think the “liking it” factor has definitely gone beyond my son – I actually like it.

I like it because he gets to spend time with other Jewish kids on a weekly basis – solely for the purpose that they are all Jewish and that their families think it’s important to have a Jewish education.  I like it because he gets to learn more about the holidays, prayers and Hebrew than I am able teach him.  I like it because it gives my husband and me another Jewish community to belong to.  I like it because the families there are all Jewish, yet all different in their own way – whether the parents are both Jewish, intermarried, gay, single parents or adoptive parents.  I also like it because our temple invites the parents to join the service every Sunday at 11 am.  I am able to see my son listening to the rabbi, going up on the bimah to lead songs and see his Jewish education in action. 

The best part for me is that I really enjoy the service myself – and I am not one to go to temple on a weekly basis on my own – no regular temple go-er here.  I love the songs and the sign language that the rabbi and cantor teach the kids.  I love connecting to Judaism through music and the absolute best part is the last song of the service.  It’s Tefilat Haderech by Debbie Friedman z”l and the rabbi asks everyone to “hold someone close to you” – and simultaneously all the kids put their arms around their friend’s shoulders and join in singing.  It brings me to tears – almost every time – to see this and to see my son grab his friends swaying in song.  It brings me back to my days at Jewish sleep away camp – which hold a special place in my heart.  It also brings to mind my dad, who passed away 2 years ago, and how proud he would be of me and my husband for choosing this kind of education and Jewish path for our family.

I also have to be honest and say that I also like having two hours to clean the house, go to Trader Joe’s and Target, go to the gym or spend quality time with our 2-year-old son.  I’m not going to lie – its pretty great.  But I mostly look forward to the 11:00 hour when I can be in the sanctuary and be an active participant in the Hebrew school service.

Deciding to Raise Our Children as Jews

When Bryan and I started talking long-term, I blurted out carefully and tactfully broached the subject of whether he’d want to raise any children we might have as Jews. And, since I’m not Jewish and currently have no plans to convert (nor have I been asked or pressured to), I’m sure my question threw Bryan for a loop. He thought for a minute and said, “Well, I never really thought I’d have that option, especially since Bubba and Bear aren’t.” That was the beginning of our faith discussions.

Never having expected an interfaith relationship to become the love of my life, I had never really thought about what religion I’d raise my children. I took it for granted that they’d be raised the same way I was, in the Christian faith. Now, I needed to think about it, seriously, carefully, prayerfully. I realized that it was important to me to raise a child with one religion. But which one? How do you make that call? If you’re going to raise a child in one faith when there are two faiths in the home, the parents have to agree on which faith to instill. I knew Bryan wouldn’t feel comfortable raising a child in only the Christian faith. However, he was quite comfortable raising Baby the same way that Bubba and Bear are being raised (exposed to both Judaism and Christianity). So, it was on me to decide what I was really comfortable with, and what was truly important to me.

After some initial study and lots of talking together, I told Bryan that I thought I wanted to raise our kids Jewish. He was floored. He insisted that I take more time – MUCH more time – to think about it, study more, and really be sure I knew what I was getting into. We found a synagogue and rabbi with whom we felt comfortable (Congregation Beth Israel). We took an Intro to Judaism course at that synagogue. We found InterfaithFamily.com. We read. A LOT. We got engaged and started premarital counseling with both our rabbi and a minister. We studied some more.

Bryan gave me plenty of time for an “out.” I took several more months to study, learn more, and make my decision. As I learned more about Judaism, I realized that the basics of the two faiths were very similar. (Yes, I know that oversimplifies it, but work with me here; this is a blog post, not a thesis… hopefully.)  And it came down to this: I feel very comfortable with the Jewish faith. It’s the basis for my own religion, and the major tenets of being a good person and doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing are the same values I was raised with. Yes, there is the major difference of whether Jesus was or was not the Messiah, but for me, that argument has become less important than the emphasis that both religions place on doing the right thing, acting in the right way, and just in general being a good person.

There really was so much more that went into my thoughts and decisions, but like I said, this is a blog post, and I fear I’ve gone on too long already. I’m happy to answer any specific questions anyone might have (yes, Baby had a Brit Milah ceremony on his 8th day). But, what I hope you’ve gotten from this feeble attempt at explanation is that my decision was entered into willingly, with lots of thought, study, and prayer behind it. I didn’t come to my decision to be any kind of martyr or “give a gift” to the Jewish side of the family, or to disregard my own past or heritage. I simply felt in my heart that it was the right decision for me, for our family, and now, for Baby. It’s not always easy for me or my non-Jewish family (that’s another post altogether), but it’s the right decision for us.

Converting a Corner of My Heart

Someday, when I finally adopt, my child will be converted to Judaism. This is, of course, necessary and halakhic (according to Jewish law) and even joyful but somewhere, beyond the bounds of reason, there is a corner of my heart that rebels against it. The other day I figured out why.

Adoptive parents have already warned me: wherever I am, Wal-Mart or shul (synagogue), with the child by my side or not, and especially if we are a transracial family, people will ask, “is he/she adopted?” And then some will question “what happened to his real mother?” or “didn’t her real family want her?” (As incredible as this sounds, I’ve never talked to any adoptive parent that has not had this type of experience.) Whether this is callousness or simple ignorance, adoptive parents face a struggle to become real, recognized as legitimate parents, attached to their children with a bond every bit as unbreakable as biology.

So I imagine that moment at the mikvah, my child and I entering the water and blessings and Jewishness, and my heart fractures between joy and resentment. I think “but I’m the Jewish Mommy so isn’t my child Jewish too? And if I am why do I need a ritual to confirm this?” Am I not the real mother? Am I not the real Jewish mother?

This is when being a Jew by Choice (JBC) makes things easier. I converted 2 ½ years ago so most of my life has been lived as a non-Jew. Our sages taught that that a convert should never be pointed out in public as a convert, but there are times when it’s right to do so. When Passover rolls around my Jewish friends know I don’t have a family to celebrate with so they invited me to their seders. Several of my friends also serve as simultaneous Yiddish translators at Torah study because they know that I didn’t learn mama loshen (the mother tongue; Yiddish) at my grandmother’s knee. This is a great hesed (act of loving kindness) that speaks to both being a member of the community and being a convert.

The other day, these two threads of thought, my child’s conversion and my experience as a JBC, crossed and that unwilling, hurting corner of my heart healed. By converting my child I am acknowledge that child’s whole life: a non-Jewish origin and her/his Jewish beginning, as my child and as adopted. Going to the mikvah does not submerge any part of his/her identity or mine but allows both embrace who we really are – a great gift that this real Jewish mother can give with all her heart.

The Great Cross-Cultural Interfaith Baby Name Divide

Deciding upon a name for your child can be one of the most fun and most stressful experiences parents-to-be can face during nine months of pregnancy.   Honoring family members, naming after favorite authors or television characters and the age old close-your-eyes-spin-three-times-and-point-to-a-name-in-the-baby-book are all perfectly good methods of deciding on the name of your child.

Even after all those discussions, you have to go through the obligatory fail-safe name rules:

“Nope, can’t use that as the middle name… look what the initials spell.”

“No, that name rhymes with a part of the anatomy I do not want associated with my sweet child.”

“Hannah Hannah Bo Bana… Fi Fy Fo Fanna, Hannah!”

On top of all this, we, as an interfaith couple, have had extra “rules” to follow. 

First, of course, our Jewish child should have a Hebrew name. Per my husband’s Ashkenazi side, the baby cannot be named after a living relative, but should honor a relative that has passed on.  Per my husband’s Sephardic side, we should name after a living relative so that person may enjoy the honor.  Per my husband’s Israeli family, our child should have a modern Israeli name.  Per my husband’s Orthodox family, only traditional names from the Torah are acceptable. 

Wait… what?!

Confused yet?  Then we have to take into account my husband’s particular sensitivity to names since he grew up with a very traditional Israeli name in the United States that turned out to be the name of a Disney character while he was in third grade… a girl Disney character. Poor guy. So since we plan on living in Israel and the United States during the child’s life, the name has to work in both Hebrew in English (sorry: Nimrod, Dudu and Moron are out!). 

Plus, my American family has to be able to pronounce this Hebrew name (not an easy task with Southern accents).

After months of searching, throwing out names, rediscussing names, arguing and maybe just a few pregnancy hormone induced tears, we finally have a name for our child!!  Baruch Hashem!  We happily share the name with our family. Yes, sharing the name before the brit milah is a big no-no, but I think we deserve a break on this one.  What do you know?  They hate it. 

Oy vey, what’s an interfaith family to do?

On how to stop time

Fifteen years ago, when I smashed the glass at my wedding, signaling my signing up to raise my kids as Jews and create Jewish household, I dismissed a bar/bat mitzvah as a possibility.  It was something that would never, ever, ever happen.  I recognize that shows a complete lack of respect for the time/space continuum, but when thoughts of this celebration would enter my head it set off a panic attack.  Denial seemed like a good way to go.

Saturday, we went to our first bat mitzvah.  It was the very first coming of age celebration I had ever been to, in my entire life.   I went with my oldest son, Mac, who will be 13 in 2 years.  In November, we will get the date for his bar mitzvah.  The day that I said would never come is now bearing down on us with all the intensity of a hurricane.

Upon entering we were given a program that listed all the people participating.  When I saw the list, my heart began to beat a bit faster.  Oh no, I have to find friends and family who can read Hebrew to participate.  Where in the world am I going to come up with 7 people to do the aliyot?  These Special Seven have to be able to recite the aliyot in Hebrew, so that rules out… umm… most everyone we know.  Will I be able to find 7 adults that are able and willing to participate?

But, even more daunting than the service is the party that follows.  To listen to the other mothers talk about addressing 180 invitations, planning brunches and dinners for out of town guests, interviewing DJ’s, worrying about center-pieces, sends me running for my happy place.  Not even mentioning the expense associated with this type of event.  Words like mini-wedding make my stomach turn. 

The party we attended was lovely.  They did a very nice job.  It was tasteful, not over the top, the kids had fun and it was a really great party (I took copious notes).  What did my kid do?  Walk out.  It was too stimulating for him.  Not only do I have my own fears about planning and paying for this type of event, I am also beside myself about how he is going to handle it.  He has yet to have a birthday party that didn’t involve at least one tantrum.

As we were leaving, I asked him, do you want a party like that?  “NO! I want to go on a trip, just like Dad did,” was his response.  I let out a small sigh of relief, you might have heard it.  It seems I might be able to avoid the whole “big party” part with Mac, but there will still be out of town guests to entertain and other things to worry about.  Also, Mac is the last one in his class to have a bar mitzvah.  As he goes to more and more of these events, he may change his mind.  I guess we have two years to watch it unfold.

My baby is not a baby, or toddler, or preschooler, or elementary school kid anymore, he is almost a man in the eyes of Jewish law.  The time/space continuum did its thing and now I have to deal with the one thing that I feared the most when I made the decision to raise my children as Jews.  I have procrastinated and now I only have two years to figure out how to stop time.

Sad Event at Baby’s School.

One of the teachers at Baby’s school (aka daycare) was killed in a car accident last weekend. She was much loved at the school and has a daughter who would have moved up to Baby’s class in the next week or so. (That child is safe with her grandma, out of school right now.)

While I’m thankful that Baby is too young to comprehend this loss; my own confusion on how to react has me thinking about his confusion when situations like this–death–arise in the future. Death, unexpected or not, is confusing enough for adults and adults of one faith. How much more so will it be for Baby as he grows, when he’ll be dealing with two faiths? While he’s being raised with a Jewish identity, half of his family is not Jewish. Plus, we live in the Bible Belt, where most people assume you’re like they are and that words like “He/she is safe and at peace with Jesus now” will give you as much comfort as it gives them. How will we help him navigate the well-meant condolences of others, and offer his own? How will we help him understand (far, far in the future, G-d willing) that we’ll sit Shiva for Bubbe and Zayde and Grandma and Grandpa D, but not for Granny and Popi or Grandma and Grandpa G? (Or, wait, will we sit Shiva for Granny and Popi because they’re Daddy’s Mommy and Stepdaddy, even though Granny and Popi aren’t Jewish? See? Confusing!)

Probably people are going to tell me not to worry about these things yet; that there’s lots of time to figure it out, and they’re probably right. I HOPE AND PRAY they’re right. But as time and this blog goes on, you might discover I’m a bit of a planner. And while this is hopefully very long-term planning, it’s still something I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on. How would you/have you handled it in your own families?

(Author’s note: I promise to not post such “downer” topics all the time. This is just something that, sadly, has been on my heart since I found out Monday.)