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Giving your child a Hebrew name is a long-standing tradition in Judaism. Sometimes families have elaborate gatherings as part of a bris while others choose more intimate family ceremonies (we chose the latter). With our siblings and parents together, we could not help but reflect on the long journey to that moment over the last several years. We could not have persevered through it all without the love and support of those closest to us, which is why we asked that they share in this special moment. Thank you to each of these people for your unconditional love, generosity, kind words and most important, hope.
A naming ceremony for an interfaith family does not come without challenges, but we viewed it as an opportunity to foster understanding with those in our family who lovingly participated, and are not Jewish. And in all honesty, my family is not the most religious, so it also served as a nice refresher for them. A family friend who is a doctor and mohel (someone trained in both Jewish law and the surgical hygiene for performing a circumcision) performed the beautiful ceremony. She made sure there was plenty of opportunity to pause and ask questions about the topics we discussed and why certain traditions were important to us. We asked my brother and sister-in-law to be Quinn’s godparents. They will always be a big part of her life and in our absence, they would be there to help guide her through the learning process and discovering Judaism.
Jews of Central or Eastern European descent encourage the celebration of new life by the naming of children to honor loved ones who are no longer with us. Between both of our families, there are many loved ones we wish could have been there to share in the joy of this most wonderful occasion. Jewish tradition also teaches us the importance not to mourn their passing, rather to celebrate their lives. They will live on in our hearts and are never truly gone when we continue to tell their stories and talk about our special memories of them. Often, we recognize this honor by giving the child an English name that starts with the same letter as a late relative.
It is also customary to give a child a Hebrew name in addition to an English name. We gave Quinn the Hebrew name of Pelia (pay-lee-ah) Davi (dah-vee). Pelia means wonder or miracle and Davi means cherished. Both her arrival into this world and into our arms made her Hebrew name very fitting. She is named after my nana, Paula, and Kimberly’s nonnie, Domenica. By giving her this name, we are bridging the generations of the past and present and also blending her Jewish and Italian heritage. She will never know where she is going until she knows where she came from. Her great-grandmothers would have loved to have known her. In the years to come, we will be able to share many stories and memories about them with her. We hope she will embody many of the characteristics and qualities we loved about them and carry on their namesake.
We closed this memorable day by reading this special poem:
“We didn’t give you the gift of life,
But in our hearts we know.
The love we feel is deep and real,
As if it had been so.
For us to have each other,
Is like a dream come true!
No, we didn’t give you the gift of life,
Life gave us the gift of you.”
The doctor calls Adrian and me saying, “Congratulations! You’re pregnant!” Adrian hugs me and we lift Helen up and kiss her little 16-month-old cheeks. “Helen! Helen!” we cry, “Helen you are going to have a little brother or sister!” Helen pushes our faces away not exactly understanding and gallops into the bedroom in search of her favorite stuffed animal, Senor Buho (Mr. Owl). Adrian and I are elated and we head out to our local kosher grocery store in search of kosher meat to cook as a celebration. Of course Adrian wants pork, but our home is kosher so celebrating is limited to all other delicacies.
On the Avenue, I feel lightness in my step and I whisper to Helen all day about how we are going to welcome a little bean into the family. I do everything right: I get my prenatal vitamins, buy Omega-3, stock the refrigerator with fruits and vegetables, rest and drink tea. I am five, maybe seven, weeks pregnant. That’s when everything goes wrong.
One morning, I wake up early and see blood. It’s not a lot and it’s not bright red, but I call the doctor anyway. “Don’t worry,” she assures me, “it’s normal.” Adrian also tells me not to worry, but I worry all day. I worry so much that by the evening, I’ve sweat through my clothes. Helen senses something is wrong and puts her head on my knee while I’m sitting on the couch. This calms me down a little, but only a little.
The next day I start to make promises. “Hashem, God, if you make everything OK I will be the best person in the universe this year. I will do good deeds and feed the poor and work harder and pray more,” I pray. Adrian thinks this is foolish and I ask him why he doesn’t pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is known to help in times of worry and distress.
“Bebe,” he says in a serious tone, “that’s not how God and the saints work.” I laugh because even with our interfaith family, I obviously think I can trick myself into convincing God of something.
I do everything right. And then, everything goes wrong.
The next day, I wake up and there is a lot of blood. It’s not brown, but it’s red. My body feels heavy like it’s losing something. “Bebe,” Adrian says, “call the doctor.” The doctor tells me to go the hospital right away. I rush to Manhattan and am attended to at Beth Israel/Mount Sinai with the thought, “This is a place of miracles.” I am shaking in my seat in the waiting room and I clutch a small pink book called “Tefillas Channah” meaning Prayers of Channah (my Hebrew name). When I am finally called in, the doctor does an examination and tells me she’s sorry—I have had a miscarriage. She adds, “But it was very early, which is good.”
Loss of any kind is letting something go when you were never ready to part with it. “Bebe,” I say to Adrian on the phone, “I have some bad news.” I bleed for days. The doctor tells me this is normal, but it doesn’t feel normal. I have not cracked my Hebrew prayer book to defy my God the way I feel he has defied me. I realize that these thoughts are irrational, but this grief is overwhelming.
After one week on the couch, my daughter brings me a book. It is a book about animals and I flip the pages for her. “Bubbles!” she shouts and I laugh. There is a miracle before me that I haven’t been able to pay attention to. By far, Helen is the grandest miracle that has been gifted to me. Over a year ago, Adrian and I, out of fear for her life, decided to put Helen on formula when she had dropped down to 4 pounds. I prayed to God then. Now, Helen is in the 90th percentile for height, walks, babbles, speaks some words in Spanish and English, points to the Virgin of Guadalupe before bed and I sing her the prayer of Israel in Hebrew at night. As I get up to get the bubbles, my body feels like it has been crouching in a cave.
“Bebe,” Adrian says a week into his own grief, “we will try again.”
I reach for my Hebrew prayer book to try to find the right words for what I’m feeling. Somewhere in the middle of the book, I find it: “And so I come before you, Hashem, Eternal who reigns over rulers, and I cast my supplication before You. My eyes dependently look toward You until You will be gracious to me and hear my plea and grant me sons and daughters.” I look at Helen as she plays on the rug and I understand that I have been granted a miracle. With the two faiths that shine brightly through my house, I will be granted another one when the time is right.
Four months ago, I gave birth to a baby girl. After a long labor and unexpected C-section, there was only one thing that mattered to my husband and me: that our baby was delivered safely into the world and was perfectly healthy. Not that I was expecting anything different. She was in the good hands of doctors I trusted and my husband and I did genetic testing before I got pregnant.
Genetic testing seems to fall under the category of undiscussed maternity issues, like breastfeeding difficulties and post-partum recovery. I was only aware of its importance because of my work with InterfaithFamily and some of the pieces we’ve published.
Before we got married, my husband was having a routine blood test and asked his doctor to throw in a Tay Sachs panel. There are multiple strains of Tay Sachs along with several other genetic diseases that are common among Jews as well as various other ethnicities. There was one uncommon disease that my husband turned out to be a carrier for, and that’s where our experience with genetic counseling began.
When it comes to genetic diseases, both partners would need to be carriers of the same disease for there even to be a risk of passing it on to their offspring. If I tested negative, we were in the clear for that disease. What we learned along the way is that some of these diseases are pretty darn horrible. I won’t get into specifics, but I can see how knowing ahead of time that you could potentially pass one of these diseases on would be very scary. In my opinion, getting educated about your risk ahead of time is the first responsible thing you can do for your future child.
I opted to have a full blood test with a comprehensive panel of testing to make sure we were casting the net wide for all possible diseases. I wasn’t a carrier for the disease my husband was, but I was a carrier for a different, more common one. This meant he had to be tested again, this time for that specific disease. Luckily we had no overlap, and it was a huge relief that we could start making babies worry-free! At the same time, it was a cumbersome process which ended up being very costly and time intensive. I wished that:
a. More people were talking about their experiences and offering advice; b. Health insurance would cover the costs, even though we were not already pregnant; and c. That the counselor working with us had more knowledge of the way the health insurance system worked and could have helped guide us through the process in a less costly way (sometimes testing for a broad panel of diseases can cost less than just checking for a couple specific ones).
A great option for interfaith couples considering having kids someday is JScreen, an organization that can screen you for more than 100 diseases and only requires a saliva sample (via a “spit kit”) which can be sent by mail. If you find that you are a carrier for a disease, they’ll set you up with a genetic counselor so you can understand what it means.
Jewish genetic diseases are not only of importance to Jewish-Jewish couples. Because so many other ethnicities carry genetic diseases, including Tay Sachs, it’s not just Jews who are at risk.
While it can be nerve wracking to go through this process, it will either afford you peace of mind to go into your pregnancy unburdened or give you a chance to learn about your options while they’re all on the table.
I feel blessed to have a happy, healthy baby girl and I’m grateful to have been able to rule out certain life-threatening diseases from the long list of things new parents have to worry about.
Before Jack was born, I thought I prepared as much as I could for his bris. With the help of my mother-in-law, Pennye, we compiled a list of invitees, researched kosher caterers, and created to-do lists. Pennye bought paper goods, readied the room with tables and folding chairs, and lots of gauze pads. She also explained the ceremony to my parents so they would know what to expect. (I also had to do some research myself, as I had never been to a bris before.)
Once Jack was born, we were able to set a date for the bris (which takes place on a baby’s eighth day), and she and Sam created the order of the ceremony, finalized the details with the mohel, and gathered RSVPs. Everything was prepared, except me. Nothing could have fully prepared me for that day.
I wasn’t mentally prepared to be one of the centers of attention just three days after coming home from the hospital after giving birth. My brain was mush after a week of not sleeping and trying to adjust to this new lifestyle. All I could think of was whatever Jack required at the moment. Why is he crying and how do I make him stop his crying? Is he hungry? Why is he not eating? Should I swaddle him? Rock him? Change his diaper? There was minimal spare room in my brain to make small talk with the 60+ guests during the bris.
I also wasn’t spiritually ready to hear the mohel (the Hebrew word for someone who performs a ritual circumcision) explain that our son was to be raised Jewish. Part of me knew that our son was to be raised Jewish. I had even said these words out loud. Sam and I had discussed this at length. We came to the conclusion that Jack was to be Jewish and I was comfortable with that decision. But, when the mohel started talking about how this ceremony physically marks Jack as a Jew, for first time it finally sunk in. Our child will not be Catholic; he will not be receiving the sacraments (baptism, first holy communion, etc.). He will not share my spiritual journey or that of my parents. Rather, Jack will be on a similar spiritual path as Sam, one that, despite many discussions and much private study, is still somewhat foreign to me.
Finally, I wasn’t emotionally prepared to hear those painful screams of my first born, as the mohel performed the physical act of Jack’s circumcision. At that moment, I had escaped to the darkness of my bedroom, and was convulsing in tears, wanting it to end. I wanted to comfort him. I wanted to hold him, feed him and tell him that I would protect him from all the harm and dangers in the world. I wanted to create a protective bubble around him, so that he would never ever get hurt again. Instead, the experience made me feel alone and helpless. My body felt like a wreck after the birth, my mind was mush, and now my heart was breaking.
After the mohel finished, Sam brought Jack to me so I could feed him. The three of us shared a quiet moment together before I wiped my tears away, mustered up a smile and brought Jack back to the party, where he was passed around and photographed like a prized possession. I spent the rest of the party making small talk with whatever space was left in my brain.
Looking back, the ceremony was beautiful. Sam’s extended family was there to celebrate, including Jack’s great grandmother, great grandfather and great-great aunt. Jack’s namesake’s daughter spoke wonderfully of her father and wished all of Uncle Jack’s best qualities to be passed on to little Jack. My parents and some of my siblings were in attendance, supporting our decision to raise Jack as a Jew. We even honored both sets of parents during the ceremony. It was wonderful to have everyone here upholding the oldest Jewish tradition, and I have no regrets about our decision to do so, though I wish I could have been more prepared.
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.
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.
By Hila Ratzabi
He’s not even 3 months old, but already three people have commented on my newborn’s name: “That’s not very Jewish!” And if our experience is anything like the one described by Keren McGinity in her blog post on what counts as a Jewish name, we can look forward to a lifetime of judgment.
As McGinity notes, people make a lot of assumptions about a person’s Jewish identity based on their name. This often comes to the forefront when you’re part of an interfaith family, where names can reflect a variety of identities. My baby’s first name is Emilio, and he has his dad’s last name, which is also “not very Jewish” (unsurprisingly, because my husband isn’t Jewish). Yet I am Jewish, and according to traditional understandings of Jewish identity, the mother passes down religious identity, so my son is also Jewish.
Even so, I don’t believe being a Jewish mother gives my family a free pass: If you choose to raise your child as Jewish, it doesn’t matter which of the parents is Jewish. I believe that behavior trumps bloodline. It shouldn’t be taken as a given that having one Jewish parent, or even two Jewish parents, automatically guarantees you Jewishly-engaged children—that takes active commitment on the part of both parents. In our case, I made clear on our third date that should we ever get married and have kids, that we would raise them Jewish, not just in name but in practice.
So why does it make me uncomfortable when people comment on my son’s “not so Jewish” name? Maybe I’m already sensitive to judgment of intermarried couples; the notion that intermarriage is a threat to Jewish continuity is still prevalent, though waning. My son’s supposedly non-Jewish name brands him as “other.” But what makes a Jewish name, really? Haven’t Jews always been a global people, influencing other cultures while absorbing their flavor? While many Jewish names traditionally come from Hebrew, others represent the intermingling of languages in the places where Jews found themselves (and even Hebrew substantially borrowed from other ancient languages!).
Another assumption people tend to make is that Jews are white and predominantly Ashkenazi. Organizations like Jews in All Hues and the Jewish Multiracial Network exist in order to shatter that stereotype. In fact, I’m not totally Ashkenazi, even though I’m quite light-skinned. While my mother is Ashkenazi, my father’s family has both Yemenite and Sephardic lineages, and I am Israeli. My father’s mother spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), and while we searched for baby names, we came across some very “exotic”-sounding Ladino names, many with Spanish influences.
So far, it’s been other Jews who have commented on my son’s “not so Jewish” name. But for the general (white) population, I expect a different issue to emerge. To non-Jews, my son’s name reads not as “non-Jewish,” but as Hispanic. In this way he is doubly “othered”: not Jewish enough for the Jewish community, and not white enough for everyone else.
What will my son’s experience be like as a minority within a minority? Neither my husband nor myself share this distinction with our son. Each of us comes from our own minority community (Jewish for me, Mexican for him), but neither of us is both.
Our son’s name is the surface others will have to look beneath in order to discover the multiple layers of identity hidden there. After all, his middle name, Maor, is Hebrew, but one wouldn’t know that until probing further.
While I worry that Emilio will have trouble being accepted in Jewish communities, I appreciate the fact that people will need to make an effort to change their assumptions about who counts as Jewish. They will have to look below the surface and meet the person behind the name.
Hopefully we will raise our son to wear his Jewish identity proudly, so when people say, “That’s not a Jewish name,” he’ll be able to reply with confidence, “Actually, yes it is.”
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Hila Ratzabi’s nonfiction has appeared in the Forward, Zeek, Freerange Nonfiction, and other venues. Her poetry has been published in Narrative, Alaska Quarterly Review, Linebreak, and other journals, and in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and lives in Philadelphia where she founded the Red Sofa Salon & Poetry Workshop.
I believe in the mystical. Tarot Cards, Ouji boards, even the woman on the corner of Ocean Avenue who stares at me with one blue eye and one gray eye and says “you have a purple aura” when I walk by. Yes, I believe in her too. As I watch my newborn grow and change every day I wonder what magic I will teach her. What mysticism will her father share with her?
The Hebrew word for Pregnancy is Herayon. In Hebrew every letter is paired with a number and the letters in the word Herayon add up to 271. This is because a woman’s pregnancy generally is equal to 271 days. Here is another interesting Kabbalistic fact about Herayon: Har, the first part of the word in Hebrew, means “mountain.” This is because a woman’s belly is shaped like a mountain. I try to explain this to my significant other, Adrian. We compare notes on magic.
The month before my daughter was born I went to the Judaica store in my neighborhood and bought Channa’s book of Prayers for Jewish Women. I was nervous about delivery. I was looking for a magic spell. I called Adrian’s mother on a regular basis. “Señora,” I said, “Is it very, very painful? Is it unbearable?” She did not lie. She said it was. My own mother told me the truth as well and then she added, “But the pain doesn’t matter. In the end you get a baby.”
But I needed magic! I needed the Zohar to whip me up a flying carpet and deliver me from the agony of childbirth. More than this I wanted my newborn delivered into the world safely and with the prayers of both my Jewish background and Adrian’s Catholic background.
I thought of the word Tzirim. The Hebrew word “tzirim” means “contractions” or “labor pains” but there is another literal translation as well. “Tzirim” can also mean “hinges” like, door hinges. This is because a woman is opening a door for her child to exit through during childbirth. The Kabbalah compares contractions to snake bites and when this happens the woman gets ready to push the baby out of the womb and into the world. Snake bites make me nervous. Again, I needed magic.
Adrian is from Puebla, Mexico. In his small village his parents speak a language of the Aztec empire. They speak Spanish but they also speak a language called “Nahuatl.” It is an indigenous language. It is a dying language. It is the Hebrew of Mexico.
The Nahuatl people believe that when a boy is born his umbilical cord should be buried on a battlefield and when a girl is born her umbilical cord should be buried in the field because the cornfield is where tortillas come from.
But the birthing process for both cultures, for both religions is the same. In ancient times Jewish women gave birth in tents surrounded by other women. The same is true for Nahuatl women. In fact, when I spoke on the phone with Adrian’s mother she told me that she had birthed all seven of her children in her house surrounded by her female family members and one witch doctor.
I asked to speak to the witch doctor but I never could get a hold of her. My pregnancy began to take on an artistic form in my head. In my imagination, my giving birth began to look like Frida Kahlo and Amedeo Modigliani had lunch together and then had a painting competition. I saw myself painted slim across a canvas with a dark red background and serpents coming out of my nose. My imagination was winning over my mysticism.
Here is the truth about birth: It hurts. It hurts, but it is the one true visible sorcery. I had been so concerned about what my newborn would learn, how she would grow, what she would believe in. What I didn’t realize is that SHE was pure wizardry. On every contraction I felt the hinges inside swing back and forth. On her long entrance into the world I asked Adrian, “Can you see her head?” he nodded yes. I asked, “Is her hair black?” he nodded yes again. She arrived black haired as the raven, audacious as the eagle and breathtaking as an Aztec monarch.
The Hebrew word for love is ahava, and its numerical value adds up to the number 13. There are other words that add up to the number 13 as well. Zeved, for example, means “to gift” or “to bestow” and its letters add up to 13. To whisper or meditate is Hagah in Hebrew, also a numerical value of 13. Even the number 1 in Hebrew, which is Echad, has a numerical value of 13. Thirteen plus 13 is 26. In Hebrew, the letters in G-d’s name add up to 26. Love is a gift, love is a whisper, love is one and so is magic in any culture or religion.
Some people believe that when a child is born the angel of death and the angel of mercy stand in the room side by side. During the delivery of my baby I watched the monitor as her heart rate dropped and lifted with every contraction. “The cord is wrapped around her neck,” the doctor said, “don’t worry this is very common.”
In Hebrew the Malach Hamavet, the angel of death, is a warning. He is sent by God to show how precious life is. He is the angel who made himself known to David, Samuel and Moses and he was in my delivery room making everybody nervous.
My partner, Adrian, who is originally from Mexico is not afraid of the angel of death. The Catholics in Mexico have a Saint that signifies death; they call her “La Muerte” and she is a good luck charm. Day of the Dead in Mexico celebrates death. People bring food to the graves of the ones who had passed. They actually cook the favorite meals of the deceased and bring them to the cemeteries as a celebration.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry…” Adrian said even though with all his faith in God and the Virgin and even La Muerte I could see fear in his eyes.
How could I not worry? This was my first child. I had carried her for nine months. I had taken all of my vitamins, exercised, eaten right and slept well. I wanted her journey into this world to be safe and harmless. That would be too easy though. Even when my doctor asked me three months before delivery if I had a birth plan, I said “No” and she said, “That doesn’t matter. Anything you plan never goes as planned anyway.”
I did what any Jewish girl from Brooklyn trapped in a room with the Angel of Death would do: I called on the ghosts of my Grandmothers.
Grandma Helen had been a social worker. She was a Barnard Graduate when women were not pushed to go to school. When her son, my uncle, had some trouble she sold her wedding ring to send him into therapy. Grandma Rosie raised four boys, two of her own and two of her sisters’. She read the stocks every day and always had Tanqueray gin and Canada Dry tonic water in her fridge until the day she passed away.
The greatest thing about being with Adrian is that his beliefs and my beliefs often merge and intertwine. He didn’t think it was at all strange that I had propped up photos of my two Grandmothers in the delivery room. He knew La Muerte was there and she was cunning. I felt the Malach Hamavet and he was filing his nails waiting for my next move.
When the ghosts of Grandma Helen and Grandma Rosie showed up, death packed up his things and left. I pictured my Grandmothers barging in with plaid suitcases and polka dot dresses pulling a cigarette out from Death’s lips and pointing to the door. My Grandmothers basically took over and stood behind the doctor as I pushed for forty minutes. On the last push as the baby came out I saw the cord around her neck. A nurse reached over to take the baby and the doctor smacked the nurse’s hand away and untied the cord from my daughter’s neck faster than I thought was possible. In my heart I knew it was my Grandmother untying that cord. No doctor in his or her right mind would smack a nurse’s hand away. Grandma Rosie would do that.
If my newborn had been born a boy we would have named him David, for my father and Zacharias for Adrian’s grandfather. Because the baby is a girl her name was easy for us to choose: Helen Rose. She took Adrian’s last name to symbolize both of our cultures. She took my two Grandmothers’ names to symbolize strength.
What’s unique about interfaith families is that there is always more than one way to do something. Two faiths offer more choices. Now on the Day of the Dead we won’t only bring traditional Mexican dishes to Adrian’s deceased family members, we will bring plates of food to my Grandmothers as well. On Day of the Dead we will cook for my father, for my grandfathers and for my Uncle Mark. The menu will be a mix of pastrami on rye, borscht, perogis and other favorite dishes of my family.
Baby Helen Rose will witness a coming together of cultures, a mixture of faiths and we will continue to highlight the importance of both as a presence in her life. She will learn the Hebrew prayer for mourning called “Kaddish” and we will light candles in memory of those who have passed on. When she is old enough I will show her photographs of Grandma Helen and Grandma Rosie and explain that these women live on in her. They come back to life once a year on the Day of the Dead. They put down their plaid suitcases and straighten their skirts and like most Jewish women in my family they ask the same question when their ghosts arrive each year: “What time do we eat?”