Listening to Christian Spirituals at the Jewish Cemetery

  

Elm Bank DewyOn my mom’s birthday last week, I left the house to go to the cemetery first thing. Being there, walking in the always slightly-moist, lush grass in front of her monument can provide a moment of peace on special days. But getting there feels brutally
un-special—sitting in my “mom car” driving the same roads I drive to get groceries. Over the last four years, I have searched for ways to make the entire round-trip special, or at least to propel me out of the day-to-day and into a more contemplative brain space. I have found it these last few trips, and it is not by traveling the three miles to her grave in a silent meditative walk. It is in pumping up the volume on deeply emotional music that makes me feel closer to my mom. Quite often, this has me driving into the Jewish cemetery with the windows closed but the speakers past 11 playing Christian spiritual music.

My parents both nurtured not just a love of music but a necessity for it—recognition that everything is better with a soundtrack and that music is one of our greatest art forms. I associate my mom with music that is soul-full. Her taste was eclectic, but her everyday soundtrack was full of songs that have something to say, music with beautiful harmonies and powerful lyrics.

There were many songs she loved. My sister listens to “Child of Mine” by Carole King. I get teary eyed at her favorite Eva Cassidy songs, and get out my anger at missing her with a good Adele tune. My husband Eric always associates “Hey Ya!” with her (doesn’t fit the same bill, but it does evoke some feeling!). When she was sick, she had a loop of music she liked to play that I still listen to sometimes—gorgeous songs sung by her Cantor Jodi Sufrin, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Corrine Bailey Ray, Alison Kraus and a few great others.

Among other genres, she always had a soft spot for gospel music and spirituals. I can think of two reasons why. One, it is so strongly in the wheelhouse of soul-full. After all, it is the original soul music. It is hard to listen to a great piece of gospel music and not feel it. Second, as much as my mom was fulfilled by and committed to her Judaism, she carried an appreciation for the surety that Christianity offers about heaven and the end of life. So much Christian spiritual and gospel music is about the promise of a good and peaceful heaven. While Judaism is open to the possibility of that heaven, it never feels like a universally held sure thing. In both, she and I share(d) a feeling that even if a song is about a God a little different from yours, it can still evoke your own connection to the universe and whatever God is yours.

So these days when I head to the cemetery I leave my house and listen to “Child of Mine” or maybe Alison Kraus’ “The Lucky One.” If I’m feeling emotionally fortified, I’ll put on Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” which turns me into the driver beside you that is ugly crying in her car. But as I approach the cemetery, I’ll be playing Joan Baez’s “Amazing Grace,” one of mom’s favorites around the time she passed away. It helps me feel closer to her and it probably keeps me crying. On the way out of the cemetery, I imagine her sending me out with a song like Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Go in Grace.” These songs’ reminders about the strength of the human spirit and the presence of something greater than all of us helps me keep her near and approach the rest of the day, moving into what ever else is on the rest of the soundtrack.

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.

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?

Choosing to Celebrate Love on Easter Sunday

  
Ruthie's Purim grogger nestling in with her Easter eggs

Ruthie’s Purim grogger nestling in with her Easter eggs

When we were studying Judaism together as a young couple, it made sense to buy into an “all in” model for a Jewish household. For our future children’s sake, if we were choosing to raise them with a religion, we would stick to just one.  It would be less confusing, and they could be engaged in a specific spiritual community where they could experience a sense of belonging. This would be better for their development, and would empower them to make well-grounded decisions about their spirituality as adults.

It also made sense that we would respect the religious beliefs of family members who were not Jewish by sharing in their celebrations and participating as guests. Guests who were also loving relatives. We would speak openly about their holidays and lovingly about Eric’s personal history celebrating those holidays.

This relatively black and white idea seemed clear when our children were theoretical creatures. Seven-and-a-half years into our very real parenting journey, what I have found is that stepping thoughtfully into the gray area of this proposition not only strengthens our connections to our extended family, but also strengthens our nuclear family connectivity.

The “all in” model assumed we did not let Christian holidays into our home life, but we did celebrate them in our families’ homes. This simple idea is complicated by the 2,000 miles between our home and Eric’s parents’ and sister’s homes.  

On days like Easter Sunday, we can get our heads around the Easter Bunny not coming to our house, and around the impossibility of teleporting to Colorado. But both Eric and I have trouble getting our heads around not doing something to mark a day so important to our heritage and celebrated by our closest family members.

So here’s where we are right now, as of Easter 2016. We don’t celebrate Easter with a visit to church or the corresponding new Easter dresses. We do cherish the Easter eggs we get from Eric’s parents, and the celebrations we share with friends who celebrate the holiday. And as a foursome, we celebrate that it is a day to think about and be with family, and to do something out of the ordinary that celebrates our lives together.  

For us, this year, it was a fancier-than-usual breakfast with all the bells and whistles. Considering this breakfast, I can’t help but think two things. First, I have witnessed as a parent how much children benefit from whatever black and white explanations we can provide for things as complicated as religion. On the other hand, if the gray area between celebrating something “all in” and not doing anything is finding an extra reason to celebrate love and family, there can’t possibly be anything negative about spending quality time in the gray.

From Generation to Generation (or why my New England children are Broncos fans)

  
The Fateful 2016 AFC Championship Game

The Fateful 2016 AFC Championship Game

Every team’s victory is another team’s defeat, and the stakes were high two Sundays ago when the New England Patriots I was raised on played the Denver Broncos, the team that hails from Eric’s hometown.  In the ten years since we moved to Boston, Eric has happily come into the Red Sox fray.  Because of his Sox allegiance, my father innocently assumed that Eric had similarly converted to be a Pats fan.  The morning of the AFC championship game, I overheard a conversation that went like this between Eric and my father:

Dad: So, I guess the conversations between you and your family might get a little heated this evening, disagreeing about who should win.

Eric: Well, it is not such a big deal, since I am a Broncos fan.

Dad, with a perplexed expression on his face: Uh-huh….

A moment of tension, as Dad prepared himself for the inevitably disappointing statement.

Eric: Yeah, we’re rooting for the Broncos.

Dad inhales, unsure if he should butt in about how we raise our kids.

Eric continues: Well, we are raising our kids Jewishly, so I got to pick the football team.

Suddenly, the tension dissipated entirely.  My father chuckled.  

Dad: Fair enough, fair enough.

Choosing a football team is not on par with choosing a religion, at least not in either of our extended families.  But Eric’s choice of the Broncos is symbolic of something that is extremely significant for both of us – Judaism isn’t the only choice we get to make about what kind of family we are.  It is important to us that our children are raised with a mix of traditions that bring them closer to both sides of our extended families.

Rooting for the Broncos has been very special in that regard.  Sunday afternoons and evenings, Eric’s phone is abuzz with calls and texts about the Broncos plays, and for the span of the game the distance between Boston and Denver feels that much shorter.  Colorado is a really magical place, and rooting for the Broncos helps the girls tie their identity to the home of their grandparents, aunt and uncle and cousins that much more.

So tonight, Ruthie can stay up late to root for Peyton Manning.  Hopefully there can be some FaceTime during the game with homebase in her grandparents’ living room.  I will watch the rooting with a smile on my face.  Mum’s the word on who my team will be.

Another Snowy Birthday for the Trees

  
New England sun setting on the trees on their birthday eve

The New England sun setting on the trees on their birthday eve

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.

Reflections on Hanukkah 2015

  

FullSizeRenderEight nights of wax have hardened on the little menorah that has traveled with me for more 25 years of Hanukkah celebrations. It looks as if the last scrap of wrapping paper is finally in the recycling bin, and for what feels like the first time in eight days, I have found a moment of stillness. As I remember this year’s celebration of miracles, I am thinking about some of the modern miracles and gifts we have enjoyed since we recited our first blessings nine days ago. Here are just a few things I am thankful for this year…

1.  I am thankful for the miracle of 8 mornings. So much about life feels especially precious and fragile these last few weeks, and I am so grateful for the days I have had to wake up with my family and discover what the day holds.

2.  I am thankful that even though we are not fully unpacked from this summer’s move, we found two menorahs to put in the window of our new home to light each night.

3.  I am thankful for two little girls that have adopted those menorahs as their own, one for each, and for the miracle of hearing centuries-old blessings pouring out in their sweet voices.

4.  I am thankful that my husband has spent the last 16 years perfecting his latke-making skills, and for the gift of the perfect homemade latke (crisp on the outside, warm and gooey inside) from his griddle on my plate.

5.  I am thankful for the gift of my family’s annual Hanukkah party, and not only for the good fortune we have to exchange gifts with one another, but for the miracle of the warmth and love I feel in their company.

6.  I am thankful for the friends and family, new and old, who helped make every day of this year’s celebration a special occasion.

7.  I am thankful the blessings that my family who is not Jewish calls to wish us a Happy Hanukkah, and that they will share a Christmas greeting call with my Jewish father in 11 days.

8.  I am thankful that through the miracle of air travel and the gift of a vacation, we can celebrate Christmas with Eric’s family next week….and

9.  I sure am thankful for the gift of 11 days to recover from Hanukkah and rebuild my energy to share in some Christmas cheer.

Happiest, happy holidays!

 

Owning Shabbat (Part 1)

  
A few of the girls' creations

A few of the girls’ creations

This week, Ruthie came home from Sunday School with Shabbat.  In a box.  With a combination of resources from Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the creativity of her religious school principal, the box was filled with Shabbat crafts, ritual items, and ideas for making Shabbat a crafty family affair.

I imagined a calm and civilized Shabbat craft session after school next Friday before Shabbat begins.  However, as I watched Ruthie and Chaya exuberantly dive into the box before I even got a chance to take my coat off, I decided to let them take control of both timing and crafting.  They made quick work of decorating challah covers, painting a decorative kiddush cup, and rolling beeswax candles.  Ruthie raided the spice drawer and returned from the kitchen with a sweet smelling Havdalah spice bag.  Impressed by their efforts but a little disappointed by the lack of available teaching moments in their artistic frenzy, I crossed my fingers that their Shabbat enthusiasm would last the whole six days between Sunday morning and Friday dinner time.

So far, so good.  Every time a new visitor has come to our house, Ruthie has sprinted into the dining room, returning with a pile of challah covers to show off to our guest.  I have caught Chaya singing “Bim Bam” quietly in the regular litany of songs she sings when no one else appears to be listening.  They are excited for Shabbat.

I also have a new hope for the items from the box.  The craft projects engaged the girls in thinking about Shabbat – What are the ritual items?  Do the kinds of candles we use need to be special in some way?  What is different about Shabbat dinner and Havdalah?  In this way, the box accomplished what it was supposed to, I think, teaching more about Shabbat through age appropriate activities.

The results of the activities mean something more.  Now, when we set the Shabbat table, the girls will physically own the space.  The dishes may be ones Eric and I acquired long before they were born, and we may assign drinking glasses based on breakability and appetite.  But the challah cover they see, hopefully covering the challah they have baked, will be theirs.  The candles we light together were rolled between their own fingers.  In these very concrete ways, often the ones most obvious for children their age to grasp, the holiday requires, and engages, something from everyone around the table.  Because of this, I can’t wait to set it this Friday!

Thank You, InterfaithFamily

  
A Snapshot of the beautiful Ketubah (wedding contract) my mother made for our wedding

A Snapshot of the beautiful Ketubah (wedding contract) my mother made for our wedding

This week, InterfaithFamily is celebrating its important work and the leadership provided by InterfaithFamily Founder Ed Case and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston President Barry Shrage in making it possible for more of us to #ChooseLove without needing to decide between love and a Jewish life. Leading up to Thursday’s celebration, I hope you have had a chance to read IFF’s own Liz Polay-Wettengel’s “An Open Letter to Judaism from an Interfaith Family” on Medium this week, as well as Molly Tolsky’s great response on Kveller. In her essay, Liz Polay-Wettengel speaks some honest and difficult truths about her family’s path to, with, and outside of Judaism as an Interfaith family. Molly Tolsky underscores the importance of Liz’s piece, and shares her own experience, one that rings true to so many of us, of how often Interfaith couples are whole-heartedly raising their famililes Jewishly, even while there are those in our community who still decry “the problem” of their couplehood.

I am lucky that my family’s story is not filled with the denials, closed doors or simple no’s described in these two pieces. A huge reason for this is based in a single exchange I had with InterfaithFamily, with Ed Case specifically, eleven years ago.

When Eric and I were engaged in Los Angeles in 2004, we knew we wanted to be married by a rabbi. We also knew we wanted opportunities for members of both of our families to be involved and engaged in the wedding ceremony. We had taken an Introduction to Judaism class together and had shul-shopped a bit, but we didn’t have one rabbi we knew we wanted to marry us. My parents lived in Newton, where IFF’s founding and national office is located, and they knew a little about Ed Case and IFF. They encouraged us to check out the IFF website, and I was happy when I first poked around to find a link about “Seeking a Rabbi.”

I emailed the IFF general email with a request for some ideas about rabbis in Los Angeles who would be open to marrying us. Ed Case quickly wrote back with a list of potential clergy, at least a dozen long. We started working our way through the list, setting up interviews, and eventually found a perfect fit – a wonderful rabbi named Allen Freehling with whom we both easily connected.

A list of names in an email might not sound like much, but when I compare it to the stories my peers shared this week, I am reminded of our great fortune. Wedding planning is a huge endeavor, and the process lays a foundation for your identity as a couple. If the very first step in this process is to encounter a set of “no’s,” it can derail both your planning and your spirit. Because IFF had actively engaged in assembling lists just like the one Ed Case emailed to me, we had a long list of Yeses to send us down a path that encouraged both our pursuit of Judaism and our identity as an Interfaith family.

This week, I am thankful that IFF was available to Eric and me to support our establishment as a family. Every week, I am grateful for the resources of this organization and the communities it creates to continue this support. I hope you find it helpful to you in some small or large way, too. If you are anywhere near Boston on Thursday, I’ll look out for you at IFF’s #ChooseLove celebration.

Resolving to Practice

  

IMG_0257Tashlich, the Jewish New Year practice of symbolically casting our sins off into the water, was not something I knew much about growing up.  It is a practice I have come to enjoy as an adult, however. There is something both powerful and relieving about the physical opportunity to throw away your digressions, even in the form of breadcrumbs.  It is also a nice tradition to embark on as a family; to take a walk around a river or lake; to be in nature together and enjoy the early fall weather as we observe the holiday with an activity that everyone can participate in in some way.  This year’s journey to the Charles River has me thinking a lot about the act of practice and how a new focus on that concept can be a guide to successful resolutions and growth in the new year.

After Rosh Hashanah services this year, I rallied my girls and my extended family to take a walk to the river for Tashlich.  We stood by the water and lined up, bits of crackers in each of our hands.

I was glad to have something for Chaya to do that would be marginally spiritual but mostly just a chance to be with family and throw some things – always a winner for my three year old.  But for Ruthie I had high hopes.  She had this monumental first year of sunday school and four weeks into first grade, she is making mental leaps and bounds of which I am in daily awe.  I got ahead of myself imagining how she’d talk about being a better listener; a nicer friend; a more caring big sister.  I even went so far as to think about how cute those things would sound right here in my blog.

“Throw a piece of cracker in the water, sweetie, and say something you want to do better next year,” I encouraged her.

“I want to be a better reader!” she said, throwing her first crumbs.

Not quite what I had in mind, so I tried again.

“Something you don’t do so well now, that you are hoping to change,” I suggested.

“I want to ride my bike without training wheels!” Another crumb in the water.

I smiled at her aspirations, and I thought about stopping her.  Going deeper than I had planned into the concept of sin, or even suggesting to her something I thought she could improve.

Then I remembered the old adage about parenting being a marathon, and not a sprint and that really doing something from the heart takes practice.  This year, when I talked about doing things better, Ruthie thought about her skills.  Next year, she may interpret my instructions differently.  Or she may not – at least not yet.  We don’t do our traditions, we practice them.  She has to practice Tashlich, and my hope is she’ll have the chance to practice it for a long time.  

On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, I stopped myself from getting in my own, and I let her name a few more skill building hopes.  Then I took my turn alongside and threw in crumbs for less screen time during family time, for being a more patient parent, for appreciating the people I love more and a few more things.

Since that day, though, I have been pondering the idea of practice.  Because it doesn’t just apply to Rosh Hashanah, or to our spiritual beliefs.  We can’t change overnight, and luckily we usually get more than one chance to try to do things better.  So whether it is Tashlich or how I manage my low energy reserve at bedtime, I am going to try to remember that learning something different takes practice.  If the universe allows it, I will get another year at the river.  In the interim, I am not going to be better, I am going to practice being better – right alongside Ruthie as she sheds those training wheels, too.