The Word They’ll Learn the Best


babies playing

First words. What was my own first word? Probably “Mama,” though now my mother doesn’t remember. She does remember my brother’s first word, which was “arrow.” This is because she was constantly driving around the block with him in his car seat trying to put him to sleep. He would see the arrow on the speedometer and my mother would say “arrow” and so he too repeated “arrow.” It was inevitable, he spent most of his time trying to get to sleep in the car.

What will my daughter’s first word be? Adrian and I wonder this often. We speak Spanish and English in our house. Adrian is Mexican Catholic and I am American Jewish and we have Hebrew letters all over the house. There is a Virgin of Guadalupe in our room and the Hebrew alphabet on the fridge. We wonder if little Helen is confused. She has begun to make many noises and just a few weeks ago she was saying “mamamamamamama.” At first we thought it was me she was calling. She’s eight months old now and it’s a bit early for her first words. But I was ecstatic when I heard “Maaaaaa!!!” come out of her mouth. But then, she stopped saying it. Now she’s making noises. We are happy with noises, too.

What we wonder most is what language she will choose. We speak Spanish at home, English at Grandma’s house and Hebrew on holidays. Also, we hope her first word will be something nice. We live in New York and our language here can be, well, special. We really hope her first word doesn’t fly out of her mouth unannounced during rush hour traffic so we, mostly me, have had to tone it down when in her company.

Every Thursday when Adrian goes to work I pile Helen into the Chevy and we go pick up my mother and head off to my sister-in-law’s house. My brother works as well so it’s usually a girl’s day except for my twin nephews, Jacob and Nathan, who are just two-and-a-half months older than Helen. We look to them for what to expect with words. They haven’t started speaking yet either, though they make a lot of different sounds as well.

In the Torah there are two sets of famous twins. First, there are Jacob and Esau. They are the most well known because they are famous for being the “good” twin and the “evil” twin. But, if I am going to make comparisons I’d like to compare my nephews more to Tamar’s twins, who the Torah describes as both being righteous. Tamar’s twins also came early, as did my nephews.

Our Thursdays are spent playing and observing and waiting for words. This week Nathan can stand while holding onto something and he makes a low gurgle and smiles. Jacob can stand, too, but he doesn’t like to get down by himself and he loves to look at books. Helen bangs a plastic donut against her head and is content. It’s a marvel to watch these three cousins interact. Helen and Nathan seem to be the best of friends and Jacob lies in the middle of the play rug and flips the pages in his cloth book. I won’t be surprised if Jacob’s first word is a whole sentence and he one day blurts out, “E equals Mc squared.” Nathan will probably say, “Let’s go Mets!” and I still wonder about Helen. Adrian has started to say “Hola” and wave to her. I have started speaking to the twins in Spanish. They look at me like I have three heads but I think they look at me like that anyway.

I’d like my daughter and my nephews to learn basic Yiddish words as well. Here are a few I’m highlighting that will serve them well on their journeys through life:

1. Feh. Feh is like spitting. It’s when you disapprove or find something gross. If someone asks if you like politics you can say, “Feh.”

2. Plotz. To plotz means to explode. If you are shocked by something then you could just plotz!

The most important word and one used most frequently in my household is…

3. Nu. Nu means, “Hello?” “Well?” “Huh?” When Helen doesn’t want to eat I say, “Nu? When are you going to finish this?”

Now that I’ve added another language to the list I’m worried that Helen will never want to speak. Maybe that’s why my brother said “arrow” for the longest time. He could never get a word in edgewise with my parents always clucking. But, I think the word my daughter and my nephews will learn quickly enough is a word everyone uses with them all the time. In English, “Love” or “I love you.” In Spanish, “Amor” or “Te Amo.” In Hebrew, “Ahava” or “Ani ohevet ata.” In Yiddish, “Oy vey.” Just kidding. In Yiddish, “Ikh libe dikh.”

three babies playing

But You’re Not Really Jewish, Right?


Photograph of Helen Rose by Lizzy Sullivan

“But you’re not really Jewish right?” This has been a question I have been asked since I was big enough to walk. My family celebrates all of the big holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover to name a few. The women in my family don’t wear long skirts and the men don’t wear black hats. But, yes, we ARE Jewish.

“But you’re not really Jewish, right?” is an insulting question. First of all, what does that mean? That’s usually my response: “What does that mean?” And people respond by changing the subject because they know they’ve offended me or they keep asking questions that further insult me. Since I live in a very religious neighborhood, these are a few of the questions I get: “You don’t wear a wig right?” “You don’t keep kosher, right?” (wrong), “It’s so strange that you’re Jewish,” they say, “You don’t look Jewish.” Again, what does that mean?

This year I had a baby with Adrian, my lifelong partner. He is Catholic from Mexico and I am Jewish from Brooklyn. We decided before we had the baby that ours would be an interfaith family. We wanted the beauty of both cultures and both religions to be a part of who our child was and who she would become. She is a Mexican-American-Jewish-Catholic child.

Adrian and I live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The stores are kosher, on Saturday none of the stores are open and on Jewish holidays women in pretty dresses and men in ironed suits walk in the middle of the streets because there are hardly any cars around. Our kitchen is kosher. Adrian eats pork but not in our home. Does this make me less Jewish? Does loving a man from another faith make me less Jewish? Is my daughter less Jewish because she’s also Catholic?

Helen and Adrian

Baby Helen and Adrian in Prospect Park

The challenge so far has been trying to live a balanced life. When our daughter was first born these questions nagged at me. Would someone one day ask my daughter, “But you’re not really Jewish, right?” What would she say? What should I teach her to say? How would I explain to her a double faith? An interfaith? The more these questions loomed over me the more I decided to challenge the ignorance of these interrogations.

I found myself in the lobby of a large synagogue next to my apartment building where I was to inquire about a baby naming for my daughter. This was when my daughter was just 2 months old. The woman who ran the functions at the synagogue was all smiles when I walked in with the baby strapped to me in my ergo carrier. She asked me the baby’s name. “Helen Rose Castañeda,” I said. She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to spell it. I wrote it out in both Hebrew and English.

“Oh, you write in Hebrew,” she said surprised. After all, I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and I was not in a skirt or dressed up at all. I had only gone to inquire. I had not gone to pray. As I filled out the rest of the information on the sheet I realized I had to write Adrian’s name in Hebrew and my daughter’s name. Her Hebrew name is Chaya Rachel but how was I to write “Castaneda” in Hebrew? I sounded it out.

The woman stared at the paper. I was waiting for the question, any question. I was waiting for her to say, “Well that’s interesting,” or “Is this a Jewish name?” I was waiting for the insult. It never came. Instead, before she could speak I said, “Miss, I’d like to tell you, before we begin the process of setting up this baby naming event, that my family is an interfaith family. I am Jewish and my partner is Catholic. We are not married and our daughter is both. Is this going to be a problem?”

Her reaction was not what I expected. She was calm and smiled. She said, “That’s absolutely OK.” There were no insulting questions, no asking if I was really Jewish. We had a beautiful baby naming ceremony at the synagogue and I felt at home. I felt accepted and my family felt accepted. But, I had also for the first time accepted myself.

I am a Jew always in my heart and I live my life according to Jewish law, meaning I treat others with compassion, I speak to G-d, I meditate and I try to do good deeds. I don’t always succeed at all of these laws but I try my best to abide by them. I was born Jewish and I celebrate Judaism. I come from a long line of prophets and strong biblical women. This is what I will teach our daughter who has Jewish and Aztec blood in her. I also understand that people will always question my “Jewishness.” I’ve learned now to respond in a different way. Now, when someone approaches me with the question, “but you’re not really Jewish, right?” my answer is always a flip of my hair and a long laugh.

Congratulations! It’s a …


Pregnancy woman holding bellyThe conversation went something like this:

Amy: So we’re just going to be surprised when I give birth, right? Like when the doctor says, “Congratulations! It’s a ___!!”

Matt: Have you lost your mind? No, we’re not going to be surprised. Isn’t being pregnant at 40 surprise enough for you?

Amy: (laughing) Well, I didn’t know what Roxy and Everett were until they were born. You knew with YOUR son?!

Matt: (laughing) Uhhhhh, yeah I did! I NEED to know. NEED. How else are you supposed to prepare???

And then I sat there overthinking, a skill I’ve mastered, while remembering my previous pregnancies. I remember the panic I felt as a first-time mom-to-be, not totally secure in my decision to “not find out” and continually telling people my standard line of, “Well how many things can you truly be surprised about these days?” But I went with it, even as I started a baby registry with the urging of friends and family who were eager to celebrate with me. I picked out generic yellow and green everything, with frogs and duckies all while telling myself that I didn’t believe in perpetuating traditional gender roles but deep inside longing for pink, or blue, or ruffles or dinosaurs.

My freak out continued as my belly grew, wondering how I was possibly going to get all the things I was going to need as a first-time parent without having a baby shower—our traditional Jewish families didn’t believe in having one, as Jewish culture can dictate superstition for some people. No bringing baby stuff into the house! It’s bad luck!  We settled on the garage as a safe zone as my due date loomed closer. My mom kept assuring me, don’t worry Amy, stuff will just arrive. I didn’t believe her for a minute.

In the meantime, my worry grew, as my Jewish ex-husband and I put a mohel on hold (my gut told me it was a girl but, let’s be real, it was a 50/50 shot in the dark) and discussed plans for a potential baby naming ceremony should we not be planning a bris, and I did my best to go with the flow and embrace tradition. All the while I truly wanted to ignore everything I was taught to believe and just do what I wanted to in order to ease my mind.

But true to my mom’s word, Roxy was born and I became best friends with the UPS guy and I’m pretty sure the recycling truck was tired of picking up boxes. Baby items kept showing up after she was born, and plenty of pink was there among the green and yellow.  Roxy’s naming ceremony happened as close to eight days after her birth as possible, because I was a true believer that if a bris needed to happen in eight days for a boy, I wasn’t going to differentiate. I felt solace in my Judaism and was comforted by my decisions as the weeks went on, certain that at least I fulfilled connections of generations that came before me.

Two years later, I did it again with Everett—this time feeling a little better knowing I had the essentials already in place (and justifying because Roxy still used a lot of it) but still feeling an empty longing while painting his future room my favorite color orange and some jealousy over attending other baby showers knowing I wouldn’t be having one. I kept trying to make peace with tradition and telling myself it’s OK—if it’s a boy, the blue dinosaur onesies will be on my doorstep after this baby is born. I listened to our families and let tradition guide me, and lo and behold, Everett was born, there was plenty of blue, the mohel on hold showed up on day eight and all was right with my world.

Fast forward almost seven years later.

I’m laying on the ultrasound table with nervous anticipation. It’s my third child but it’s been awhile since my days of diapers and bottles. I’m on the edge of a total meltdown and I can hardly look at Matt, afraid if we make eye contact I’m totally going to lose it and start crying because it feels so new.

“So are we finding out?” the ultrasound tech asks us, as she guides the wand across my belly and pictures of the baby appear on the screen. Matt and I lock eyes and I look away quickly and answer before I can change my mind.

“Yes. Yes. Yes. He (pointing at Matt) needs to know.  And I can’t have him know and me not, so let’s do this. Tell us. Tell us.”

The room is silent. In my brain I’m thinking please say it’s a girl. Please. It will be so much easier if it’s a girl. Matt already agreed with me that our child will be raised Jewish, but parameters haven’t been worked out and reconciling my desire to connect to tradition while honoring his beliefs has never been more overwhelming. Come on. Say it. Girl. It needs to be a girl. I’m not sure I’m ready to deal with the reality of boy. Putting the mohel on hold. I don’t know if I can do this. Girl. Girl. Girl.

I’m doing this chant on repeat in my head. Yet in my heart I know what she’s going to say before the words come out. I woke up at 3 a.m. knowing. The definite knowledge of what this baby is. And my gut is rarely wrong.

amy's ultrasound

Amy and Matt’s baby boy

She zooms in and points to the screen.

There it is she says. Congratulations, you’re having a baby boy.

Matt laughs and says, “I knew it.”

So did I my love. So did I.

My heart is overflowing with joy, our perfectly imperfect family is growing, and ladies and gentlemen, we’re having a boy. Everett is beyond thrilled. Roxy whined that she already hassssss a little brother, but it’s OK mommy, I’ll love him anyway. Matt jokes to me about having a “brisk”—doing it on purpose to make me laugh and lighten my worry as I roll my eyes and say “It’s a BRIS!!!!” as he questions me about the food that I tell him people are going to show up with on day eight.

I have no idea how any of this is going to actually happen, or who the mohelim in Maine are or the myriad of questions that we still have unanswered or have yet to discuss. Bring on the blue dinosaurs and bottles. A baby boy. I stare at the printed ultrasound picture, hugging it close to my chest. The unknown has time to wait. Matt grasps my hand and kisses my forehead. I can’t wait to meet you my baby boy.

For more information, check out IFF’s Guide to Birth Ceremonies for Interfaith Families.

The Hardest But Best Job I’ll Ever Have


Mother's Day CardThere are days when my preteen son is angry with me for reasons that neither of us knows. There are days when he’s embarrassed by me because of a comment or action that I’m quite certain no one has seen. There are days when he’s ornery, gloomy, argumentative or grumpy or sometimes all of the above.

And then there are days when the sweet, loving boy with the heart filled with goodness shines through. Days when he is quick with a smile, a hug or an I-love-you and wants to snuggle close or just do something with me. Days like today, when he reminds me that while being his mom is the hardest job I’ll ever have, it’s also the very best job I’ll ever have.


Sending My Daughter to Jewish Preschool Reconnected Me with My Roots


By Rebecca Rolland

preschoolMy daughter Sophie will be 3 this November. My husband Philippe and I have decided to let her start half-day preschool (she’s begged). Still, we’re late starting to look at options. I can’t settle on anything, and as a doctoral student in education, I fear my knowledge of the research—my vise-grip on “how things should be”— has gotten in the way.

Ironically, in the world of parenting and education, it seems as though you can really know too much, or at least can be too critical. Then, I see an ad for a Jewish preschool not far from our home.

My own religious past is complicated. I was raised Protestant because of my father, but my mother’s entire family was Jewish. My maternal grandfather and his brother were the only ones who survived the Holocaust, traveling from Hungary to Ellis Island in the hold of a ship. As both my grandparents died when I was a child, I was never able to ask any more. If I had a story to tell about my past, it would be one of absence and loss, of lacking knowledge—hardly the only story I want to pass down.

“Let’s check it out,” I tell my Catholic-raised husband, who was actually taught by nuns in his early years. We’d decided not to push Sophie towards any faith, but the school looks like a good option, emphasizing respectful interactions, strong routines and a balance of strictness and care. At least that’s what the website says.

In my work, I know the importance of high-quality early education. As decades-long studies have shown, such as the Perry Preschool Study, children who were placed in a “high-quality” program were found to commit less crime, have higher educational attainment and income and need less welfare assistance than a control group.

And yet, I know that a child’s experiences include far more than a single classroom. Developmental psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner, in his “ecological systems theory” developed in 1979, describes how everything in a child’s environment affects her development, ranging from the microsystem, or her immediate surroundings, through the macrosystem, or remote issues such as the national economy, which affect a child’s experiences in surprising ways. Choosing a preschool means choosing a microsystem, where Sophie will have thousands of interactions with teachers and peers over the course of the day.

No pressure, I tell myself.

When I visit the school, I stand in the temple while the children sit in a semicircle singing Shabbat songs. Their voices mix together, high and low, and bring me to tears. The narrative I had about myself, about my past as a source of loss, didn’t have to be the one I passed down. My past—and the culture surrounding it—could be a source of joy, of learning and of life.

Even more, seeing the school in action helps me change my narrative about what Sophie needs, and what I need as well. It’s not about what should work for a child, I concede, but what actually does work, for the child as well as the family. It’s about the values we want to move toward, the history we want to honor and the past we want to bring to light. What resonates for one family might mean nothing to another. In the ecological model, context is everything.

We decide to send Sophie to that school in the fall. My own life comes full circle, in a twist that I couldn’t have predicted. In attending a Jewish preschool, Sophie—blonde and blue-eyed like her father—will have a chance to touch her past through her present, to eat apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, smell sweet spices for Havdalah and play in a sukkah for Sukkot. I never went to temple until college. In helping Sophie know her past, I’m returning to a system of traditions that I, in my own life, have ignored.

The Jewish part of my history has been buried until now, and with it, my story about myself. Without searching for a preschool—and without finding this one—we probably never would have made this decision at all. Not only that: as we light candles for Shabbat, and as we tear into a loaf of challah bread, I’m helping change my story of the past into something sweeter. History can be a chance for celebration, not simply mourning. Those traditions are coming alive for us once again.

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

Rebecca Rolland photoRebecca Givens Rolland is a mother, writer, speech-language pathologist and consultant on parenting and education. She currently lives with her family in Boston.

In Defense of Mother’s Day

My Mom and I on one of our many adventures.

My Mom and I on one of our many adventures

Mother’s Day is coming, in case you haven’t stepped foot in a commercial district recently. With it comes a whole host of emotions. You can hear them in casual conversations and read about them all over the blogosphere. Today, I want to put a stake in the ground in favor. In three strokes, let me try to convince you that Mother’s Day is worthwhile.

Reason # 1: It’s a freebie for most Interfaith couples (or maybe couples of any stripe).  

One reason you likely came to this website is because you are questioning how to make it “work” as an interfaith family. For all the joy of our religious holidays, building any kind of tradition different than the ones you grew up with can bring anxieties, bumps and challenges. Here’s a holiday that doesn’t belong to any religion, at least not in its observance today. It is a bunch of Americans getting together with families or friends and celebrating the mothers in our lives. For most of us, it will be a holiday both you and your partner grew up with, even if you grew up in different corners of the country with entirely dissimilar faith perspectives. So take this gift of a holiday that you hopefully can celebrate equally with all of your families.


Reason # 2: It’s not all about Hallmark.  

I get the sentiment that we shouldn’t orient ourselves (or our spending) to something created by a corporation. Or, I should say, I sort of get it. First, if you don’t like the Hallmark stuff, celebrate the amazing true stories of the women who gave Hallmark the idea—activists Ann Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe. Second, perhaps less inspirationally, I ask you to consider this from my personal history. My mother took advantage of the opportunity to celebrate almost every holiday she could get her hands on. Having grown up that way, well, it’s not all that bad. For those of us who are lucky enough to have the means to afford the basics, is there really a better way to spend your spare change than on a small gesture for someone about whom you care? Is there any danger in heeding the calendar as a reminder to spend time with the person or people whose mothering means a lot in your life?  Maybe Hallmark popularized this holiday, but I hold them harmless. Sometimes we need reminders to do the most basic but important things.

Reason # 3: It takes a village to raise a mother.

Four years ago, my mother passed away just before Mother’s Day. There are no words for the awful of that week. I suspect that the confluence of these two dates will always bring me a little pain. I appreciate there are people who feel all kinds of loss on Mother’s Day. I understand some of it well—anger at losing a cherished relationship and frustration for the things you never had time to share. I also know there are some kinds of loss I can’t entirely understand—loss for unsatisfying relationships with mothers who are alive but aren’t in our lives, bereavement for mothers we never got to know, deep grief for children we didn’t get to parent. I grant all of those grievers license to feel through their Mother’s Days however they need.

My favorite Mother's Day card of 2016

My favorite Mother’s Day card of 2016

But for those of you still open to my treatise, I offer this. My success with my girls is in part due to how I have been mothered through my parenting journey. I cannot celebrate my mother how I wish I could. But I can celebrate mothers I hold most dear. My own list of people to celebrate includes my grandma, the glue of generosity and love that holds my family together; my mother-in-law, who has taken me even closer under her wing since I lost my mom; my mother’s dear friends, who have tried to lessen the pain of not having her around; and my aunt, who upon my insistence can be the grown-up when I fumble through a skinned knee. I applaud my sisters who are mothers, who are both just plain amazing people and are always teaching me new ways to approach motherhood.

There are a lot of other people I want to list, but you get the idea. Mother’s Day is a chance to recognize the hard work of mothering and give a high five to the people whose motherhood you applaud. However it works for you, I hope you have a wonderful Sunday.

A Surprise Announcement (aka a Love Story)


Pregnancy announcement

Once upon a time, Amy, a divorced Jewish girl from Jersey, met Matt, a divorced Irish Catholic boy from Philly, in the unlikely state of Maine. They went on some dates. Amy tried to convince herself Matt was too “nice and normal” and Matt ignored her and made her dinner and bought her flowers.They both realized pretty quickly that they were living a real-life Disney movie and suddenly the two found themselves blissfully in love, minus the talking animals of course.

Matt and Amy knew that they had a partner in each other, to support one another, laugh with, cry with and everything in between. They introduced their children to each other, they met one another’s families.They created a new life for themselves, together, figuring out how to start over in a serious relationship after divorce while already having kids and embracing the chaos, the unknowns, the differences and the sameness. Matt moved into Amy’s house, and to this day, continues to help her create what has become an actual home, reflecting the uniqueness of the kids and adults who live there.

This month, I celebrated my 40th birthday with Matt and my kids by my side. The significance of turning 40 has been huge for me, making me feel like I’m crossing some kind of real grown-up threshold and am caught between not quite feeling old enough to truly be the adult I imagined, while balancing paying a mortgage, organizing the household and parenting. Having Matt in my life to share it with makes the transition smoother, and as I have been reminded numerous times, 40 is the new 20 (without the ability to understand snapchat). So this week, with me settling into this new decade, we decided it was the perfect opportunity to really make things interesting for our family and friends, because that’s how we roll around here.

Using the power of social media, we enjoyed shocking everyone by announcing that we’re expecting this fall, which was as terribly fun to share as it was unexpected news (yes, our immediate families all knew prior to our announcement). And let me tell you—doing this at 40 with a 9-year-old and a 6 1/2-year-old at home is sooooo much harder than it was when I first started the journey of being a mom. I’m exhausted all the time and I somehow blocked out the joys of morning sickness, body aches and maternity jeans (actually, that last one I’m kind of in love with). But I’m feeling pretty good overall, and as my belly grows so does my excitement and nervousness about our expanding family.

Before Matt and I found out we were new parents-to-be, he joked to me one day that if we ever had a kid together I could pick the religion if he could pick the sports teams. A die-hard Philly fan vs. a New York sports fan was going to be hard enough with us living in New England, but there’s truth in laughter and my answer with a smile and a giggle was sure, darling, fair deal—never imagining that at 40 it could ever be reality. Yet here we are, finding ourselves with a child on the way, facing these very real questions about how we’re going to parent and what kind of impact our interfaith relationship will have on our baby on the way.

Roxy & Everett as Big SiblingsOur families have their own opinions and questions, many of which haven’t been vocalized, yet their subtle, careful questions paint a clear picture of uncertainty. Friends have been surprisingly more to the point, with direct questions expecting exact answers. My two kids, with their strong Jewish identities had their own Jewish birth stories, with a community naming ceremony for Roxy and a bris for Everett, both on the eighth day of their lives. Matt’s 10-year-old was baptized in the tradition of his own religious lineage, and it’s all Matt knows when it comes to connecting birth and religion.

We’ve discussed our own connections to these traditions and our journey of figuring out our “what next” has truly begun. What felt abstract about our interfaith relationship before is now “in your face,” and while I feel confident that our communication is strong and that we have the ability to be open and understanding with each other, there’s so much on the table that truly overwhelms me.

Raising a child is hard enough, even when the parents come from similar backgrounds.  Add in divorce, co-parenting and a couple committed to each other who come from different worlds and aren’t engaged (can we please just deal with one major life change at a time?). Welcoming a child into this conglomeration? Well, this 40-year-old pregnant woman and her amazing boyfriend are doing a killer job of navigating, if I do say so myself.

Matt keeps me grounded through it all, with his calm demeanor and his “Stop worrying about everything, of course we’ll figure it out and I just want you to be happy” attitude. And he’s right, I know he’s right. I’m going to trust in him, and in this.

We might not have it all figured out, but this baby is already a blessing. The ride might be bumpy, but the destination will surely be joyous.