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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.
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.
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.
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.
Some 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.
The 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?”
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.
Once upon a time, I was a kid growing up in North Jersey in the ‘80s, and I had a pretty clear idea of who I was and who I wanted to be. Even though I was the “token” Jewish kid in the neighborhood, I never struggled with my identity, in part to my parents’ credit for creating a strong Jewish home life, and in part because of my close connection to the Reform synagogue at which I spent countless hours. Whether I was celebrating a Jewish holiday, marching in an Israel celebration parade or singing with the junior choir at Shabbat services, it was clear to everyone around me that this kid was on a path, and that my Jewishness was a huge part of who I was and who I was going to grow up to be.
The story could just end there, with the assumption that I stayed that kid and that I followed that path … and the story wouldn’t be totally wrong.
But it’s also incomplete, and sometimes even I find myself looking over my history and wonder if I’m reading the story of me, or someone else. I’m no longer that ‘80s kid who was so self-assured, and my connection to Jewish life doesn’t always resemble the picture I imagined in my head. And I’m sure by now you’re wondering why.
My name is Amy, I’m a divorced mom of two (mostly) hilarious kids (ages 6 & 8 ½) and well, now I live in Maine. Wait, let me say that again. I’m a divorced mom of two and I live in MAINE.
This place isn’t exactly known as the center of Jewish life in these great United States. And while I’m at it, I should also mention my Irish Catholic boyfriend. So begins my interfaith journey, one that I hope you’ll join me on. I promise to fill in some of the blanks (like, are the kids Jewish? Is their dad Jewish? Yes and yes) on this blog, and to be real with all of you. Because for the first time in my life, identity and belonging isn’t so simple for me—and if it’s not simple for ME, the complexities of raising Jewish kids while trying to navigate this newness? My brain hurts just thinking about it.
So as an introduction, I’ll leave you with this story, because I think it will start developing the Polaroids for you to get the picture. As I type this, I’m looking at my Christmas tree. Yes, MY Christmas tree. I’ve never had a Christmas tree until this very tree that I’m staring at. The idea was absurd as I don’t celebrate Christmas. I’ve never had tree envy: even when my friends would invite me over to decorate theirs. It wasn’t part of who I was and there was no question that I would never, EVER have a tree.
Remember the whole Jewish girl from Jersey thing? Yet for the first time in 39 years, I’ve got a real live one, and I’m totally and completely enthralled with it. I could say it was the boyfriend’s tree since we were putting it in HIS apartment, but I went with him to pick out the perfect one, it was tied to the roof of MY car and I went to the store with him to pick out ornaments. I carefully decorated it, twice (because apparently trees have been known to fall over; I clearly have so much to learn), and added my own special touch: a blinged out Chinese takeout container, because up to this point that’s what Christmas meant to me. After a third tree felling (followed by said tree being attached to the wall), my kids got involved in the action. My Jewish children, who had never touched a Christmas tree let alone decorated one, were about to experience something totally foreign.
The night they came to decorate coincided with the seventh night of Hanukkah and the kids were excited to light the menorah and exchange gifts. All that happened, and it was our normal Jewish life. Until they decided that what they really wanted for Hanukkah was to decorate the tree. By the light of the candles, they carefully chose ornaments and hung them with care … not quietly. Instead, my amazing children, who only cared about making it look special for my boyfriend, decorated the tree while belting out as many Hanukkah songs as they could think of. There are no parenting manuals that tell you what to do, or how to react in a situation like this, so I did the only thing I knew how—I joined in.
I laugh thinking about it now as I look at the tree. My kids singing in Hebrew about dreidels, only wanting to spread love and joy. In that moment, I realized that maybe, just maybe I can make this interfaith thing work. Their excitement was electrifying and for two kids who don’t believe in Santa (I may have come up with some threats if they ruin it for their friends!) well, I think we all found a little magic that night.
So begins this chapter, as I try to figure out how to maintain old traditions and incorporate new ones that I (or the kids) never expected to be part of.