How To Teach Love in an Unhappy World

  

20161028_102340

Recently I had an article published on a Jewish site about a dream I had. It was a political piece, and during these rough, media-frenzied times I received a ton of comments, most of them not the loving kind. I am often asked to write pieces about my Jewish experience, my interfaith experience and my everyday experience as a mother. How do I incorporate two faiths in my home when I am Jewish and Adrian, my partner, is Mexican Catholic? What and how do we teach our daughter about our vastly different cultures and faiths?

The first comment I received was harsh: “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever read. Just pure drivel!” I had struck a political nerve. Also, I should mention that I talked a lot about Hitler in my piece, a little about Anne Frank and how my dream was recurring—a real nightmare. But nowhere in my piece did I tell my audience who to vote for, or condemn them for choosing a particular party they feel represents them. What I did question was how to teach my daughter to have loving-kindness and tolerance for the things I don’t believe represent me.

As I scrolled down, I saw there were almost 80 comments. One man said, “Ms. Keller would look great in my oven.” That same man uploaded a picture of a bar of soap from a concentration camp with a Jewish star on it. There were also all sorts of comments about my interfaith relationship. “You have shamed your people and disobeyed the Torah by mating with a goy.” (“Goy” is a term used by Jews to describe people who aren’t Jewish.) One person took my article and posted it on another blog, where people commented again about my family, saying, “I feel bad for your guinea-pig daughter.” Then I got some personal hate-mail emails.

One person wrote: “You neurotic Jews are so hilarious. You preach to us about ‘paranoid style of American politics’ and the scare mongering of Joe McCarthy, but you see Hitler under every bed. LOL.” And, “Before you morally supremacist and narcissistic Jews pontificate about how holy shmoly you are, you should consider a few things.” I had clearly raised some eyebrows. Someone else told me to pack my daughter’s bags full of tacos and burritos and prepare her for her trip south.

Ellen DeGeneres says she never reads anything about herself, good or bad. Now I understand why. It’s easy to get sucked in to all that hate. It’s easy to want to respond to every single person who has something to say. But I believe in freedom of speech; I just don’t believe in stupidity. I also believe in Shakespeare, which is one of the reasons I only replied to one person who had personally stalked me via email to get her point across. I simply replied, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” It’s one of my favorite lines of all time from “Hamlet.”

What bothered me the most wasn’t the blatant anti-Semitism; it wasn’t the insults to my writing. What bothered me were the insults on the blog where my article was re-posted. Those people were talking about my daughter, my beautiful, innocent, carefree 1-year-old daughter. It was a moment of clarity: There are people who love to hate other people. There are people who are so unhappy with their own lives, their own situations and their own senses of self that they have to troll around the Internet to find someone they can hate.

The funny thing about the computer is that it doesn’t have a face. If I had written an article for a class or a conference and people disagreed with it, there would probably be some hand-waving, some discussion, maybe even a healthy debate. Because there is no face on the Internet there is no consequence to what people say. Many of these commenters hide behind fake names. One man’s name was “Bill Kristolnach,” a pun on “Kristallnacht” (the “Night of Broken Glass” when the Nazis shattered everything Jews owned as the Holocaust began) and Bill Kristol, the political analyst.

But the comments about my child threw me for a loop. Is this what she will come up against in school? What will I tell her to do? How should she respond? What if someone tells her to go put tacos and burritos in her backpack because she’s being deported, even though she’s an American citizen? Will she believe them? Will she be scared? What will I tell her to respond if they say she has shamed the Torah? Will she believe in a God who is merciful, who will save her from this hatred? My 11-year-old self would tell her to put her fist through someone’s face. But that’s one of the reasons I was kicked out of an Orthodox yeshiva, and I’m trying not to repeat the past.

What will I say? Because there will be days she won’t understand who she is or where she comes from. There will be days she asks what it means to be Mexican, what it means to be American, what it means to be Catholic and what it means to be Jewish. I hope to continue the traditions of both the Jewish and Catholic holidays in our home in order for her to learn, grow and one day decide who she is and who she will become. That is her choice to make, not mine.

One of my favorite quotes to repeat when I am faced with adversity is by Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

The hateful comments were later deleted from the original site, but a few more personal hate emails did make their way into my inbox. Hate is a good lesson. It teaches us that history really does repeat itself. It gave fuel to my original article and had people reading and thinking. Hate twists and turns itself around to fit in the places where love never existed. There are people who already hate my daughter because of her skin, her two religions, because of me and who I am, because of Adrian and who he is. All we can do in response to hate is to love. We can love and love and love. Then we can also punch a wall and scream into a pillow.

2016-09-10 03.08.19

A Mother’s Jewish Guilt

  
Helen Rose in her Hand Made Birthday Dress from her Abuelita in Mexico

Helen Rose in her Hand Made Birthday Dress from her Abuelita in Mexico

I burned myself last week. Right after Rosh Hashanah I went into the kitchen to pour hot water into a single-cup coffee filter and ended up with a pot of boiling water splashing down the right side of my body. On the week of the Jewish New Year, my 1-year-old daughter, Helen Rose, had a bad head cold and I had a second-degree burn across my chest. Everything would have been fine, except it wasn’t.

A little while later, the blisters that had formed on my breast ruptured while I was trying to carry Helen down four flights of stairs in our apartment building. I was in pain for five days. I walked around the apartment without a shirt on and tried to keep the area clean. Then, one night a few days before Yom Kippur, I noticed a thin red line spreading from my breast to my armpit; I could hardly move my arm.

As a Jew I feel that guilt has played a large role in my life. There are jokes in our community about “Jewish guilt” and “Jewish mothers’ guilt.” So my mind automatically went to that place we tell ourselves not to go: “What did I do? I did something wrong and it’s almost Yom Kippur. I’m paying for something.” Adrian, my Catholic partner, heard my lament.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “It was an accident.”

I asked him if there was such a thing as Catholic guilt, especially in Mexico, where he’s from. I even tried to find the word for “guilt” in Spanish. The only word I could come up with was “culpa.” But culpa doesn’t really mean “guilt”; it means “fault.” It comes from the Latin root “culpa,” also used in the well-known term felix culpa. The phrase means “happy fault.” Catholics believe that Jesus dying on the cross was a felix culpa, because although he died for mankind’s sins, which was bad, the Catholics got to have him as their savior, which was good. So to me it was as if Catholic guilt, if there is such a thing, could never compare to Jewish guilt. For me, guilt is guilt, and there is no happiness involved.

As soon as Adrian got home from work, I rushed to the emergency room carrying all my guilt with me. My burn had become so infected that the doctors at my local hospital transferred me to the burn center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. I cried. Adrian was taking care of the baby, and I felt alone. It turned out I had cellulitis and was to stay at the hospital with an IV until my burn healed. I cried again. Helen’s birthday was two days away and Yom Kippur was the day after her birthday, but I was informed I might have to stay in the hospital for three days.

Hospitals are lonely, but if they do one thing it’s test your faith. They test your faith in God and your faith in other human beings. One of my nurses wore a cross. Another wore a Star of David, and the third wore a heart with the word “Mom” in the middle. I felt that all three of those nurses represented all three parts of my family and myself: Jewish, Catholic and motherly (and fatherly) love. They took great care of me while I thought more about guilt, about the New Year and about the Day of Atonement coming up. I thought about my daughter’s smile and Adrian’s sweet face.

I tried to remember that my wound was nothing. A burn center cares for people who have been truly disfigured by fire. I was lucky to have only been partially burned, and not across my entire body or face.

I thought of my little Helen Rose. How could I have let myself think God was punishing me for something by burning me? I burned my own breast! And it was an accident! Some people sit in the hospital for days, weeks, months. And then some people’s children sit in the hospital. Guilt has nothing to do with it—life happens. Tragedy happens. Sometimes death happens. These things happen to Jews, Catholics, Muslims and every human being on earth. They don’t happen to make us pay; they happen to make us learn.

But Jewish guilt can come in handy sometimes. I dished out the Jewish guilt that was passed down to me to every doctor who came in contact with me. “You know,” I said as the IV dripped, “my daughter’s first birthday is on Monday, and if you don’t fix me I may not be home for it.” I remember one doctor said, “She won’t remember.” I could feel my Jewish ancestors rise up in my blood to reply, “But I’ll remember! And what kind of mother would I be if I missed her birthday because of my burned breast?”

I was released from the hospital on Monday, just in time for Helen’s birthday. I took the kosher cake I had made days before out of the freezer. Our party plans were cancelled, but Adrian, my mother, Helen and I blew out a candle.

The Kosher Aztec Birthday Cake

The Kosher Aztec Birthday Cake

I couldn’t go to synagogue because I wasn’t allowed to leave the house for a week, but I felt I had already atoned. A week later at my follow-up visit at the hospital, a doctor asked, “Why didn’t I see you when you were here? Were you in the burn unit?”

“Yes,” I said, “I was released on Monday, just in time for my daughter’s….”

Before I could finish, he cut me off: “Your daughter’s first birthday? Yes, I know who you are now. There was a lot of talk about you. The staff felt so guilty about keeping you here that they decided it was OK for you to leave a day early.”

Things Toddlers Say At Services

  

Happy singing girlWith the drama of the High Holidays receding into the past, I find myself thinking about the charms and challenges of bringing a toddler to synagogue services.

This past summer, our family moved to a different, nearby suburb, one that’s full of as many synagogues as we could reasonably hope to shop around. With the business of moving, we didn’t attend services very often this summer, saving the serious shul-shopping for a more settled time.

Not attending services, though, has meant that our 3-year-old daughter has virtually forgotten what happens at synagogue. During this time she’s also moved more firmly into the phase of life where every other statement begins with, “Mommy, why?”

Given these two facts, I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened recently at an early-evening outdoor service billed as “family friendly.” We arrived just as the service was starting, and sat on benches at the back of the group as the congregation sang “Bim Bam” over the harmonious strains of a guitar.

That’s when the questions began.

“Mommy, why are we on benches?”

“There aren’t enough chairs right now, honey, but that nice woman over there is bringing more out.”

“Why aren’t there enough chairs?”

I leaned down to whisper to my daughter between phrases of the song. “It’s a busy night, sweetie.” The singing ended; the service began in earnest, and my daughter continued her queries.

“Mommy, who are the people up front?”

“Why are my sister and daddy wearing those hats?”

“What is everyone saying? I don’t know the words to this song.” (We were singing “L’cha Dodi.”)

“Mommy, they said ‘stars!’ I know that word!” This caused particular excitement.

When the service leaders lit the Shabbat candles, I knew the drill.

“Mommy, I know this song,” she said with excitement as the blessings were recited. “Mommy, are there candles up there?” She stood on her tiptoes, trying to peer over the grown-ups to see the candles in front.

At various points, she asked me, “Mommy, why are we sitting outside? When are we going inside?”

On my other side, my 6-year-old asked her own very pressing and important question: “Mommy, when is it time for dessert?” She meant, of course, the oneg, at which she usually made a beeline for cookies after consuming a healthy chunk of challah.

“I don’t know if they do an oneg Shabbat here,” I replied cautiously.

“But I really want dessert,” she explained, as if this would make the appropriate oneg appear.

“I know,” I replied. “We’ll just have to wait and see. Besides, challah is sweet like dessert.”

My daughter answered me with a skeptical glance any teen would envy.

Eventually we came to the Shema, which my daughters both know from bedtime, and their eyes lit up. My youngest asked, “Mommy, how do these people know this song too?”

“It’s a very important Jewish prayer,” I whispered between syllables.

The service became quiet as the congregation entered a moment of silent prayer and meditation. She noticed, and said, not exactly loudly, but not very quietly, “Why is everyone being so quiet?” I leaned down and whispered, “Shhhh. People are praying and thinking about important things, quietly. Please be quiet.”

“I am being quiet,” she stage-whispered. One moment later: “Can we talk louder now?” Me, still whispering: “Not yet, OK?”

And thus the service continued. At one point, I left with both girls to explore the outside of the synagogue, an adventure that was accompanied by a conversation about whether or not there was a playground (and if so, could they play on it), when “dessert” would be, and whether or not the service had moved indoors yet.

I’m an interfaith parent. As an outsider, it’s tough for me to know if this adorable little girl, with a remarkably precise voice, is cute, or is simply annoying to the other worshippers. Part of me wanted to praise my daughter’s constant questioning, her curiosity, her innate sense that “this night is different from (most) other nights,” at least in her recent 3-year-old memory.

By contrast, my oldest sat quietly in her seat (for the most part), standing and sitting. While her better behavior pleased me, I also missed the spontaneous, exuberant ritual dancing she used to burst out with at the slightest strain of music. I had always worried that her expressions of joy would simply be seen as a nuisance, a disruption. Now I wondered about her sister’s incessant questions. Would we be asked to leave? Were people frowning at us? I felt torn between a desire to conform to what I thought was likely appropriate (quiet, seated behavior) and a true delight in my children’s participatory joy.

I asked my husband about this later, and was surprised to learn that he, too, although Jewish, felt uncertainty as an outsider to that particular congregation. His words surprised me. Norms vary between congregations of whatever faith, I realized. Maybe my questions weren’t so much a matter of being Jewish or not, but of simply being a newcomer, learning to breathe, knowing that kids will be kids, and knowing that one day we may well miss those days when they asked every question and danced to each note of music.

Engaging Children in Ritual Life

  

Non-Orthodox institutional Judaism seems to suffer from a lack of young families – and, more importantly, young people. We might see a handful of families with pre-school aged youngsters at the first Friday “family service,” but at most Shabbat services at Sam’s synagogue, there are rarely young children other than Jack in attendance. I know Jack is not the only infant at the synagogue, because we see other babies his age at “bagels and blocks” program on Sunday mornings. In a congregation of about 300 families, why are so few young children engaged in ritual life at the synagogue?

Jack's first synagogue outing in February. He has been to *almost* every Friday night service, since.

Jack’s first synagogue outing in February. He has been to *almost* every Friday night service, since.

This was mirrored when we attended Rosh Hashanah at Sam’s parents’ synagogue earlier this month. Upon arriving, I noticed that Jack was the only baby, and practically the only child, in services. We sat as a family (of 4 generations!), during the early Rosh Hashanah service, and – as babies do – Jack fussed a little. While wandering the halls trying to calm him down, I found the children in classrooms and playgroups. It was surprising to me to see children not sitting with their parents during one of the most important holidays of the Jewish liturgical year. I learned that youngsters of all ages attend the family service, later in the day, which is much shorter and geared to children, whereas the other services are for adults only. Even during Friday night services at our local synagogue, Jack is by far the youngest one in attendance.

This is drastically different than what I am used to. Whether or not it is a major holiday, it seems like families with young children are always present at Catholic churches. During mass, little children read books, color, and play quietly in the pews. If the babies/toddlers/children have outbursts, their parents take them into the lobby, calm them down, and then bring them right back into the mass. During the most important day of the Catholic liturgical year, the entire church is full of families. Just last Sunday, at the end of the mass, the priest addressed the moms, calming their fears about bringing their youngsters. He said that children at mass are anything but distracting, saying “let the children come to me.”

Are children welcome your place of worship? If our experiences at our synagogue match what you’ve seen, how can we shift institutional Judaism to welcome young children and families, ensuring our faith’s continuity for the next generation?

My Husband: The Not Jewish, Jewish Parent

  
Jane's son Sammy and husband Cameron.

Jane’s son Sammy and husband Cameron.

The email had arrived a week before I was to travel to Houston to speak to a congregation about intermarriage and creating a Jewish home as an interfaith couple. It said that the following week, instead of regular Sunday school, there would be a program for sixth-grade students and their parents related to b’nai mitzvah and those children whose bar or bat mitzvah was in the fall of 2017 would pick their Torah portion.

Great, I thought, another pre-bar mitzvah project or meeting that I would miss due to work or a speaking engagement. Once again my not Jewish husband would be called upon to be the religious school, no, the Jewish parent. I was annoyed and disappointed that I wouldn’t get to be part of this activity with my son. I was grateful that my husband who has always been supportive of and involved in creating our Jewish home was willing to step in.

Because I wasn’t going to be at the program, I wanted my husband and son to know what to expect and to prepare them with any information they needed. I told one of our rabbis that my husband and son were coming without me. She said, “Jane, Cameron will be fine. In fact, he probably knows more than many of the Jewish parents who will be in the room. Just make sure he and Sammy know how many aliyahs you want or need. If you don’t have a big family with a lot of people to honor, Sammy only needs three.” (An aliyah is the honor of reciting the blessings over the Torah at the bimah before the Torah is read. During bar or bat mitzvah services, it is common for the bar mitzvah child to give these honors to family.) I passed the information on to my husband and son – three aliyahs.

I knew my rabbi was right. My husband would be fine. My son would be fine. In fact, my son was glad I wasn’t going to be there. He wanted to feel like he was in control of as much of the bar mitzvah planning as possible. My absence made him feel independent.

Still, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to be present when my son picked his Torah portion. I felt like I was missing out, not getting to be fully involved in the process, and that I was somehow falling down on the job of Jewish parent. At the same time, I smiled at the irony of the situation–the Jewish mom busy with other things leaving her child’s not Jewish dad in charge of making sure their son got to religious school and became a bar mitzvah.

As I spoke to the assembled parents at the congregation in Houston on the morning of the Torah portion picking, my watch vibrated, and a text from my husband came through. “Three aliyahs, right?” I apologized to the audience for the distraction and shared that my husband was helping my son pick his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah as I spoke to them. I said, “You don’t get a better example of life as an interfaith family living Jewishly than that! Sometimes the Jewish parent is the Jewish parent, and sometimes the parent from another background fills the role of Jewish parent.”

When I got home in the evening, I looked at the materials on the Torah portion and requirements for b’nai mitzvah students that my son received. His Torah portion was from Parsha Noach (Noah). He chose the first part of the chapter, where God tells Noah that the earth is corrupt and lawless, and instructs Noah to build an ark because he is going to flood the earth in order to destroy all that lives that is unclean. I turned to my son, “Did the kid pick the portion, or the portion pick the kid? What a perfect piece for my child who wants to be an engineer that designs and builds ships with water purification systems so he can repair our waterways!”

“It was the most interesting part to me,” my son responded. “That’s why I picked it.” My rabbi was right. My son was fine, and my husband did a great job.

I’ve written many times, about how lucky I feel to have a spouse who is so engaged and supportive of our family’s Jewish journey. I went to sleep that night feeling incredibly grateful once again for all that my husband does to make this Jewish thing happen and for the sweet ironies that are part of life as an interfaith family.