Community Comes Together for Baby’s 1st (Interfaith) Passover


Passover baby bibsA funny thing happened when I had a baby. People in my neighborhood whom I had never spoken to started speaking to me. They had seen me walking around Brooklyn since I myself was a baby. They had spotted me on my bicycle, buying candy and I’m sure some had seen me in my various teenage phases of trying cigarettes and dyeing my hair. Since I live three blocks from my childhood home these same people have now watched me carry my daughter around the neighborhood from the day she was born. Now though, they speak to me.

This week is Passover week and I am shocked to find that in every store I enter with my daughter strapped to me I am asked, “What do you need? What are you looking for?” Sales people pull things off the shelves for me and when I make my final purchase, my cart filled to the brim with potatoes, horseradish, parsley and all of the other Passover delights, the cashier says, “We will deliver it to you by four o’clock, you live on Avenue M., right?” They know me and have known me my whole life, though we have just now exchanged words.

Baby Helen Rose at Passover

Baby Helen Rose’s 1st Passover

The sense of community in my neighborhood during Passover is overwhelming. At night when the first Passover seder begins one can walk down any block and look into people’s windows to see the same table settings, the same Passover plate and the same book we all read from. This year Passover is extra special for my family because my daughter and my twin nephews are new editions to the table and we are passing down the traditions of my family through them.

My significant other, Adrian, had to work which was unfortunate. Being from a Mexican Catholic family he appreciates both food and family. But he joined my mother and me in the morning as we prepared the matzah kugel, marinated the brisket and chopped onions. My daughter watched and squealed.

Our food delivery came at four o’clock as promised and my mother said, “We’ve never gotten delivery from Avenue M.” I just pointed to the baby as if to say “Now it’s a different ball game, Ma.”

It’s been a long time since we’ve had babies at the seder table in Brooklyn. My mother usually does the first seder and my aunt does the second seder in Long Island. But this year I cooked the entire first seder with some help from my mother. I am a new mother and so I wanted to do the cooking. It is an enormous amount of work because a lot of people come to our seder and it made me appreciate my own mother and how hard she worked every holiday.

Anna's Passover tableBecause my daughter is from an interfaith, multi-lingual family we have a special hagaddah for her. That’s the book we read from on Passover. Her book is in Spanish, English and Hebrew. It was special to share the Passover story with my daughter and Adrian so that they can understand what we celebrate and why.

That’s another thing about my neighborhood. My interfaith family has become the latest gossip. Sometimes it’s hard to break the barriers of age-old tradition and make room for new tradition. I understand that when I walk through Midwood with Adrian and my daughter, people stare. People whisper. People can be cruel. But the lesson of Passover is that we should never let ignorance lead us. The only way Moses parted the Red Sea was because he believed in what he was doing and ignored everything negative around him.

My daughter is a light, a path to a new world. There is a Jewish proverb that says, “A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.” It is this light that compels the people in my local grocery stores to speak to me for the first time in 30 years. It is this light that wins over the many losses my family has endured over the years. My daughter and my nephews are new lights who shine at the Passover table and ask for the first time, “Why is this night different from any other?”

Kitniyot at the Table: Why I Can’t Just Breath a Sigh of Relief


Matzah and beansRecently, two important Conservative rabbinic opinions came down that probably rang out strongly with their followers. For the rest of us,the announcement quietly gathered steam until it called out across the masses in the weeks leading up to Passover: the Rabbis declared kitniyot (Hebrew for legumes) as Kosher for Passover

In what felt like overnight to me, a group of Jewish leaders told us Ashkenazis (Jews of German or Eastern European descent) that it was no longer necessary for us to belabor the possibility that a farmer who wasn’t Jewish had mixed wheat in with the lentils, and that as long as we stay away from chametz, legumes are fair game. Much to my surprise, after 20+ years of label reading and black bean-shunning, I feel mixed about an easier Pesach.

I am not a Conservative Jew. I am a Reform-leaning Jew held in the warm embrace of a Reconstructionist community, so I am homing on two bases, neither Conservative. But this seems like a big deal, since I have owned this more “conservative” practice since college. Also, to have such a public overturning of a centuries-old practice feels like a challenge for everyone, Conservative or otherwise.

On one side of my emotional spectrum is the urge to listen. For almost as long as I’ve practiced the ban on kitniyot, I’ve known it to be based more on an abundance of caution than on biblical clarity. I’ve also known it to not be the healthiest choice for my body–I will never forget the time I had to have a blood test during Passover and the doctor’s dismay at my abysmal iron levels (made worse because I was a vegetarian at the time). I assured her they’d bounce back after the holiday, which they predictably did. So enough already–life without the kitniyot ban sure sounds easier, and the argument for it is thin at best.

On the other side, there is a part of avoiding kitniyot that I find adds even more meaning to the eight days of Passover. Perhaps I am too much of a glutton for punishment, but I like how additional rules increase my mindfulness about this time being different. I am not a huge bread eater, so avoiding kitniyot added another layer to the way I paid attention to what I was consuming, which, in turn, made me think even more about the why of the holiday. In incorporating kitniyot into my diet, I feel like I need to find a new way to ensure the same quality of mindfulness I have had in the past several years.

In the middle is the way I hold this change in my role as the Jewishly-raised partner in my interfaith marriage. There is something in this that feels a little funny.  Because our Judaism originated from my background, I often assume the role of leader or teacher. I can get my head around this when we observe Shabbat, fast on Yom Kippur or with almost everything related to Passover. But when a panel of rabbis picks something that I’ve suggested my partner do as a part of being Jewish and says “Oops, not really,” I feel a little like I tricked my family into something unnecessary. I know it is not that cut and dry (Eric assures me it isn’t), but I am reminded that advocating for the Jewish choice for our household comes with some additional responsibility to shine a good light down the Jewish path.

This week, with a little hesitation, I have decided to stop worrying about kitniyot. Halfway through the holiday, it turns out my belly feels better off without an additional layer of forbidding myself kitniyot. I am curious, though – what did you decide to do?

I Never Thought I’d Be That Kind of Parent


Flying to son's water polo matchAs I gazed out the airplane window on our flight between Dallas and Houston, I thought about my parenting choices. Specifically, my decision to allow my son to skip the first night of Passover for a sporting event. I never thought I’d be that kind of parent. Judaism and its continuation were too important to me.

As the Jewish half of an interfaith couple, I’d always taken the responsibility of Jewish identity building seriously and my husband supported me every step of the way for almost a dozen years. We practiced Shabbat weekly. Celebrated Rosh Hashanah over two days with a dinner, service, tashlich and another meal. Observed Yom Kippur with Kol Nidre dinner followed by services and break fast the next day. Honored Sukkot, Tu BiShvat, Purim, and Hanukkah with holiday foods and festivities. Marked the exodus from Egypt at two Passover seders, one at a friend’s and another at our house.

The marking of Jewish time through holiday celebrations has been a big part of our life, and we found a way to evolve our observances as our son grew from an infant to a toddler to a grade schooler, so they remained relevant and balanced our Jewishness with our secular life. But now that our son was in middle school, and in the early stages of puberty, there seemed to be an increasing amount of flexibility required to live Jewishly and be engaged in the secular, non-Jewish world.

During football season, our Shabbat practice has been modified so we can mark the end of the week and go to the Friday night football game at our son’s school. Our Rosh Hashanah observance has been adapted to minimize the amount of school missed and allow for enough time to complete homework. I’ve gladly modified many of our other rituals and practice so that our son could see that practicing Judaism was compatible with non-Jewish life and his American identity.

From the beginning of our Jewish journey as an interfaith family, my husband and my goal has been to make Judaism fun and relevant so that our son chooses to practice it in adulthood out of love and connection, not obligation. We’ve never wanted him to resent being Jewish. And that’s why we were flying to Houston for the Texas State Age Group Championships for water polo instead of sitting at our friend’s seder table.

Playing water poloOur son has been playing water polo for a year on his school’s sixth grade and under team. Over the past 12 months, he’s improved enough that he is now a starter. This year, the team is undefeated, having won every game in the North Texas League in the fall, winter and spring seasons and every non-league tournament they’ve played. When he was selected by his coach to go with the team to the state tournament, it seemed particularly cruel to make him stay home because it conflicted with Passover. He and his team had worked so hard to get so far. We were not going to make this a Sandy Koufax moment. Instead, I said I’d find a way to adapt our observance.

When we reached our destination, we had a non-traditional holiday meal at a Mediterranean restaurant. I asked that we all eat Passover-friendly food in honor of the holiday even though it meant forgoing the fresh baked pita that looked delicious. While we ate, we each shared our thoughts on freedom.

I can’t say it was the most fulfilling holiday experience, but at least it was a holiday experience. When we return from Houston, we’ll have a traditional seder at home on the fourth night of Passover.

I have no idea if the choices we’re making are showing our son how he can embrace his heritage in a way that is compatible with his secular life or if the message he is getting is that practicing Judaism isn’t that important. Maybe in years to come he will forgo Jewish observance because it doesn’t fit neatly into his schedule, or maybe he will have the tools and creativity to find a way to engage in Jewish ritual even when faced with competing items on his calendar.

As with so many things in parenting, I wish I had a crystal ball that could show me the future. Since I don’t, I need to go with my gut instinct which tells me that making choices that will make our son resent being Jewish is not the answer. I hope my gut is right.

My Turn to Make the Passover Meal (with Grandma’s Potatoes)

Baby Helen Rose

My mother with baby Helen Rose Castaneda

Passover is approaching. The stores in my neighborhood have begun the process of taking the chametz (bread) off the shelves and replacing the inventory with matzah or other kosher for Passover items. This is a tradition and it is Jewish law. Because Moses led the Jews in escaping Egypt and the bread did not have enough time to rise by the time they needed to escape, they ate unleavened bread. This is why the shelves are lined with different colored paper at my house. I switch the dishes to have Passover dishes. The night before the Passover seder I burn the bread on my mother’s front lawn. 

My mother hands me the Passover shopping list with a coupon for Cascade soap pods and a white envelope filled with crisp green twenty dollar bills. It’s been a rough month. A few weeks ago my brother’s kids (two twin boys almost 9 months old) got the flu. I was recovering from bronchitis. My mother had an upper respiratory infection. My 6-month-old baby girl Helen Rose had a cold with a fever. Then a relative passed away and my mother slammed her finger in a glass door and almost cut her whole thumb off. She’s having surgery right before the first seder.

But maybe all of this was a sign. This is my first year as a new mother and so as a new mother with my own mother recovering from her hand surgery, I will make the first seder meal alone. I am excited and nervous and as always, I am thinking of my Grandma Rosie.

My grandmother only owned one pot. It was the Russian immigrant in her, the memory of when people were fleeing the Pogroms. She learned what it was to take only what you can carry, that your feet are faster than history when they run toward the future. Every Passover my Grandmother cooked brisket in that pot. She lined her colossal charcoal colored pot with potatoes. They dripped with oil, paprika and onions. They were salted with her tears and the memory of an everlasting childhood. She turned the meat over and when it was ready she brought it to the seder table.

As a child those potatoes were my favorite dish. Flavored with the grease and fat of the brisket and the smokiness of the past. I piled mountains on my plate and pushed aside other delicacies for my simple peasant supper. Because Grandma Rosie only cooked once a year, her fridge usually only contained Ginger Snaps, Canada Dry tonic water and Tanqueray gin. She would sit at the kitchen table and instead of cook she would read the stocks. As a child of the depression she hid money under her mattress and never threw anything away.

When Grandma Rosie passed I found her holiday recipe book in my mother’s kitchen. One of the first recipes has an instruction of “crack 40 eggs.” I thought that was hilarious. It’s like a book if you’re cooking for an army. But I furiously searched those pages for her potatoes asking myself the whole time the pages crinkled beneath my fingers why I had never thought to hold her shaky hands and learn about her yesterdays through food. Why had I not thought to chronicle for my own daughter, named after her, the first steps my Grandmother took to survive in a world filled with Pogroms?

My Grandmother began each Passover holiday with a greasy finger. I understand now why it was this holiday she cooked for. It was the lesson of Passover she wished to pass down. The book we use on Passover is called the Haggadah. It is the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.  It says “We were once slaves in Egypt…” But the lesson is that we can be slaves at any time to anyone, even now. History always repeats itself.

Daddy and baby

My husband Adrian and Helen Rose

My daughter is Jewish on her mother’s side and Mexican Catholic on her father’s side. We speak Spanish at home, English at my mother’s house and most recently we put Hebrew letter magnets on the fridge. The world is changing. She will face many obstacles and I will lead her back to the lessons of the Passover seder. I will teach her the Jewish proverb that says, “I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.”

I’m about to leave the house to finish the rest of the shopping before the big day. I look to my menu I made on white loose-leaf: parsley, hard-boiled eggs, gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, brisket, Grandma’s potatoes.

Our Nonexistent Springtime Dilemma


This year, there are several weeks between Easter and Passover, a welcome respite from the springtime quandary many interfaith families face as they balance chocolate bunnies and the afikomen.

My daughter shows off her Easter egg hunt success.

My daughter shows off her Easter egg hunt success

Easter and Passover, in my experience, don’t create the same kind of difficulties as their winter counterparts, Christmas and Hanukkah. The Easter/Passover question fails to inspire the same degree of emotion as questions over the presence or absence of a Christmas tree in an interfaith family’s home. Still, each spring my family finds a new Easter/Passover balance, emerging from the little details of each celebration.

At the first Passover seder I celebrated with my then-boyfriend’s family, I remember the welcome in my future in-laws’ eyes as they told me that they hoped that all participants at their table would feel as if they, too, that very night, had been liberated from bondage. Although I came from a different background and different tradition, a seder in their home became a universal event, open to all who would experience the mystery of moving from suffering to joy.

Through the years, I learned that the seder at my in-laws’ house emphasized Earth Day, springtime, rebirth, reawakening and the joy of a new life, manifested in this world, here and now in this life. My spouse and I carried these themes into our own seder celebrations that welcome both family and friends. Like the wedding couple that breaks the glass as a reminder that even at a time of joy, brokenness remains in the world, each year at the seder my family recalls tikkun olam, Judaism’s message of healing the world’s broken places.

Although I’d been raised in a liberal Episcopalian environment, for me Easter had by then come to mean a springtime celebration of rebirth. Some years I attended Unitarian Universalist Easter services, singing “Lo the Earth Awakes Again” in place of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” and thinking of my much more devout friends who mocked this seemingly watered-down springtime sentiment.

Emily's daughter at Passover

My daughter proudly displays the egg on last year’s seder plate

Passover, though, was anything but watered-down, especially after four cups of wine. It remains my husband’s favorite holiday, and as the better chef in our household, he delights in planning the menu, doing and re-doing the haggadah and making sure that we have to extend our dining room table past its maximum capacity for the celebration to feel complete.

As I’ve experienced Passover with my extended family for the past 14 years, Passover makes a certain kind of sense. Each year, matzah still tastes good for at least the first five days. Matzah brei with smoked salmon and maple syrup, matzah served with leftover Sephardic charoset (a delectably mortar-like concoction of dates, figs, nuts, spices and honey) and matzah granola liberally doused with honey and maple syrup, seem like the foods of heaven for the first few days. The leftover bottles of wine help wash the crumbs down when the matzah starts to lose its once-a-year appeal.

Beyond the food, Passover promotes a message of rebirth and liberation that aligns with both the anticipated return of springtime as well as good solid social justice.

Given all of this, each year I happily ceded the springtime holiday sensibilities to the Jewish half of my interfaith family (something I’ve never quite been able to do in December).

Passover became a rebirth I could sink my heart, and even my teeth, into—at least, until I provided grandchildren for my Easter-celebrating parents.

Once grandchildren came on the scene, suddenly my parents and grandparents wondered about chocolate bunnies, Easter eggs, gifts in pastel wrapping paper and other secularized symbols of the springtime season (and sometimes, even, if we’d be attending church that year).

My childhood celebrations of Easter started pajama-clad as my brother and I hunted for our Easter eggs, finding them in the closet, the dryer, the washing machine or other odd locations. We changed into fancy pastel clothing and drove to church, where the sweet smell of flowers and the triumphant sounds of trumpets and organ greeted us, after which we returned home to a fancy Easter dinner. We ate chocolate bunnies, dyed pastel eggs and I gave all my much-detested jellybeans to my brother in exchange for a few more egg-shaped Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, when my daughters looked forward eagerly to our neighborhood’s egg hunt. Even my husband, who’d initially and understandably balked at the idea of a Christmas tree in his home, wasn’t alarmed at our children participating in what he called a “pagan celebration of springtime,” as out the door they ran, baskets in hand, eggs and chocolate on their minds.

So, I’ve adjusted each year to a new balance between a childhood tradition that has come to mean considerably less, and an adult tradition that has come to mean so much more. My children happily accept Easter gifts when given, and look forward gleefully to matzah right around the corner (they love matzah!).

Still, I wonder, what does your family do when Easter and Passover overlap? Is it a dilemma in your house? If so, how do you handle it?

Should Birthdays Be Jewish?


Springtime in my house rarely means flowers and warmer weather – after all, we do live in Maine and snow is still in the forecast. Instead, spring signifies celebration, as April brings both Roxy’s birthday and my birthday. This year she’s hitting the big NINE, a milestone unto itself as it’s the last year my firstborn stays in the land of single digits, before tweenhood truly hits. My baby girl is growing into this very cool, very independent, sassy, funny and smart 9-year-old.

I, on the other hand, am internally melting down. While we plan a fashion party for the girl, my own birthday, just two weeks after hers, is a big one. The big Four-OH. I’m in denial, of course. Not that I think 40 is an awful age to be, it’s more remembering the picture of 40 I had in my head when I was 9.  I don’t quite feel “old enough” to be celebrating four decades.

I can clearly remember my own mom turning 40, having a party and what a big deal it was. Yet here I am, about to cross that threshold, and my kids will create their own memories of my special day, and my life certainly doesn’t feel like that mental picture I had years ago. But Roxy (and my son, Everett) are truly excited, and she’s already asked me a million times when is it her turn to go up onto the bimah for her birthday – and oh yeah, Mommy – you have to come, too.

Roxy Makes a Wish

Roxy when she was 4, making a wish

The second Friday of each month, Shabbat services at my synagogue are considered a family service, with an earlier start time, family-friendly liturgy instead of the regular prayerbook, participation by the kids in the service and of course – the all-important monthly birthday blessing. Congregants who are celebrating a birthday in that given month are invited up to the bimah to receive a special birthday blessing followed by everyone singing “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew. Roxy has been beside herself for months, waiting on edge ’til it’s her turn, and next Friday she finally gets her wish.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that she’s so concerned about including a Jewish ritual into our birthday celebrations, and in a way it makes me feel great to know that she’s so in tune with her Jewish identity that it’s a given to her that of course we’re going to get birthday blessings. But there’s a piece of me that never would have even considered this. Would I have bothered to go get my own birthday blessing if it wasn’t so important to Roxy? I’m not convinced I even would have thought of it.

Roxy at 9 years old

Roxy at 9 years old

The kids split their time between my house and their dad’s house 50/50, with alternating days during the week and every other weekend – and next weekend – the birthday blessing weekend, they will be with their dad (who is also Jewish). He will take them to services (he wouldn’t dare not do this and suffer the wrath of the 9-year-old).

I will meet them there, because if I don’t show up to get my birthday blessing with Roxy, she’d be devastated. I will hold her hand, I will smile and I will probably tear up, not because it’s so meaningful to me, but because it is to her. I will stand there proudly with my daughter as the congregation chants “Keyn y’he ratzon” (be this God’s will) in response to the rabbi’s recitation of the Ancient Priestly Benediction, blessing us with God’s protection, favor and peace. I will absorb the words and the warmth as a reminder of tradition and community as I stand with her in a long line of history and culture. I will take comfort in knowing that as we celebrate our birthdays, small and big and everything in between, our Judaism connects us in a way that makes us feel so very different and yet the same.

At the end of the service, we’ll enjoy the sweetness of an oneg (post-service) brownie, I will hug and kiss her goodbye and wish them Shabbat shalom and to enjoy their weekend until I see them again Sunday night. I will get in my car and come home to Matt in our now interfaith home, where birthday blessings aren’t a given, and we don’t always think of religion as a way to celebrate the turning of a new age. My secular world and Jewish world continue to collide through the eyes of my children, and I’m grateful in this moment that they are the ones teaching the adults around them, finding the holy in the life moments that we create with each other.