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Making friends as a grown-up isn’t always easy. When I look at my “mom” friends, we’re mostly bonded through our kids. We spend countless hours at cheerleading, football or any of the myriad extra-curricular activities our kids are involved in, and our friendship is based on the relationships of our children with one another. But sometimes, I feel the need to step out of the comfort zone, try to meet people based on interests *I* have, because even though I’m momming 24/7, there needs to be a chance for ME to connect with, well, me, even when doing the mom thing.
So I decided to bring my 1-year-old to a Sukkot event, knowing full well he wouldn’t be able to participate in making a sukkah out of pretzels, but with the hope that maybe, after five years of living in Maine and still feeling slightly isolated and disconnected Jewishly, that I’d meet some other moms and families. I felt awkward walking into a situation where I knew no one except the group leader (who greeted me warmly), but I was determined to enjoy this new experience and bond over the commonality we all shared. After all, I was walking into a Jewish event, the kids were Jewish, I was Jewish, we were there to celebrate a Jewish holidayâAND we were all clearly parents of small children. I was encouraged; I had hope; let the bonding and mom-friending begin!
Except I left friendless. And feeling even more disconnected than before. It wasn’t a failure of lack of effort. I think I introduced myself to almost every grown-up there, and there had to be at least 30 people between adults and kids. I tried to strike up conversations as I followed my blond-haired blue-eyed toddler around with his monster-like walking (a new trick for his first birthday!). The conversations usually went like this: “Hi, I’m Amy! This is Finn!” (as he would carefully saunter up to a new grown-up to check them out). Said grown-up would respond with their name and ask me if he went to the daycare at the JCC. In my head I responded, “Is that a requirement to talk to me?” but I was there to make friends, right? So instead I gave my canned response, “He’s on the waiting list,” which is a truth, but I wasn’t going to tell them it was because when I was looking for daycare I couldn’t find a place that DIDN’T have a waiting list and it’s possible he’s on a few at this point. The conversation would end each time, almost as if it was a prerequisite for him to be there in order to communicate with me.Â Talk about frustrating.
I wanted to scream at all of them, “If you only knew! If you only knew anything about me! If you only knew my own Jewish connections, my own history, that on Yom Kippur the other day I stood in front of my congregation and chanted Torah, would I be acceptable to talk to then?” I looked around at the group, self-conscious of my blonde toddler in the mix of all the brown-haired kids, with biblical and Hebrew names. Is this what it’s going to be like for him as he grows up? My Jewish, Irish child who has interfaith parents? My Finnian, fitting in with standard white-bread Maine, but not so much in the Jewish community? I found myself surrounded by talk of day school that apparently most children in attendance go to, this rabbi, that rabbi, kids calling their parents eema and abba (Hebrew for mom and dad). And Finn? Oblivious to it all, walking around the sukkah like he owned it, waving and laughing at the kids who mostly ignored him, and picking up brightly colored leaves that had fallen to the ground.
Making mom friends is hard, but I didn’t think being Jewish was also hard. I walked away from the experience wondering if it’s always been like this, that certain status was placed upon you by how you connect Jewishly. And the reality is that in some communities, it truly is. I realized that I used to be one of the “elite” as someone who not only was actively involved in the Jewish community but also WORKED in the Jewish community. I took it for granted that it WAS easy because I was in the mix. But I’m no longer in the mix. And I’m no longer in a Jewish-Jewish family. I’ve now experienced the harshness of being judged based on perceived participation in the organized Jewish community with my blonde-haired kid, and it makes me sad.
As I tucked him into bed when we got home and pulled the green glowstick from the event out of his clenched hand, I wiped schmutz off his face, kissed him and said laila tov (goodnight). If that’s not connecting Jewishly, I don’t know what is. We have a long road ahead of us and I’m just starting to discover howÂ this whole being Jewish thing won’t always be easy, but I’m confident that Finn will grow up knowing whoâand whatâhe is.
This yearâs Rosh Hashanah became the beginning of a challenging New Year. Approaching the middle of my third trimester with a two-year-old at home I refused to cook. I spent the Wednesday afternoon before the festivities with my feet up while blowing bubbles for my daughter. There was only one small tantrum that occurred in the kitchen when I said âchickenâ and my daughter said âcookieâ and then when I pulled out a cutlet there were a few kicks and screams and âcookie, cookie, cookie!â demands. Other than that, things seemed to be going my way.
We had Rosh Hashanah dinner at my motherâs house and my daughter and nephews played until they exhausted themselves and then we all went to bed. The real Rosh Hashanah tradition begins in the morning when my mother and I walk one mile to our Orthodox synagogue every year. This is purely tradition. We are not Orthodox and I have been running an interfaith household with my Mexican/Catholic partner since before our first daughter was born. But the walking to the synagogue where my father prayed and where we went to visit my grandmother as children, because she lives half a block away, is the tradition I have kept because it is most important to me. It is also important for me to share that tradition with my own daughter and the new baby girl on the way.
It was so humid for our walk in the morning that my mother and I had to stop every few blocks. (AtÂ 72, my mother is in better shape than her pregnant daughter.) We huffed and puffed and made it in time to hear the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn that the rabbi blows into every year. And every year he says the same thingâthat no one can hear the shofar in the streets without trembling. I always tremble when he says this because it is such a unique image and I imagine the olden days when perhaps this was true.
It is always the walk to synagogue with my mother that matters on the High Holy Day. Of course we pray and we listen to the rabbiâs sermon, but when we walk, we share memories. We wonder and are in awe of how we both made it so far with so much heartache. We look at my daughter and marvel how a baby so Jewish and so Catholic at the same time can be so blessed.
Our walk home this year is what changes things. On our way back to the house, my mother tells me she is excited because she will be going with my nephews to synagogue on Friday morning. At first, I think my brother will be bringing them to our synagogue. He doesnât live too far away but he would have to drive them over. But then my mother assures me that he is not driving, in fact SHE is driving to their house in the morning and going to a new synagogue in my brotherâs neighborhood. I stop walking and have to sit down.
During my most challenging times of trying to balance two cultures and two religions in my own home and trying to give my daughter the gift of both beautiful worlds, I have never broken my own traditions to do so. I have never told my mother I was not going to synagogue with her. I have never missed a Passover seder. So it shocked me when my mother decided to do something she has never done before on our most important holiday. It also shocked me that I hadnât been invited. I was stunned.
The next morning was a beautiful day in Brooklyn. It was what Rosh Hashanah is made of. The neighborhood was green and the sky was a piercing blue. There was no humidity. The sidewalks had cooled off and the Orthodox women in my neighborhood shuffled by in their best dresses. Lilac, burgundy, opal and sea foam green were the colors of the dayâs fabric. I walked out of my house without my mother. At first, I thought that I should try a new synagogue. Next door to our apartment, where I held a baby naming for my daughter, they had a service. When I walked in and the woman asked if I needed help I told her I had forgotten something at home and I walked back out onto the street.
I took the long walk to synagogue alone. When I approached my seat inside, the rabbi had just brought out the torah and everyone stood. Rosh Hashanah signifies a new beginning. It is the day God opens a new page and decides whether or not we will be forgiven for our past sins. It is a joyous holiday celebrated by the tradition of eating apples dipped in honey for the desire for a sweet year to come. It is on this day that I can always hear my father singing, even though he has been gone for so long. It is on this day that I thank God for the opportunities I have, for a family I have made with two faiths. But it was never in my mind that on this day, I would sit without my mother when she is still alive and well. It was never in my mind that I would miss someone. It never occurred to me that the matriarch of my own childhood family would be the first one to truly break tradition, to unravel it like a typewriter ribbonâas if at the last minute she decided to change the story.
Numbers are a big deal in Judaism. Hebrew is an ancient language, but numerology is hidden in every letter of scripture. This is something I learned very early on: Numbers matter. Our time on this earthâour nights and our days are numbered. So it wasnât surprising that I grew up on 23rdÂ street in Brooklyn and my father died on August 23. I was 12-and-a-half years old.Â By Jewish law, I was a woman. But by losing a father at such a young age, a part of me remained fixed in timeâalways a little girl.
This year marks 23 yearsÂ since my father died and I still havenât set foot in the cemetery since childhood. This has nothing to do with numbers. This has to do with the fact that my father, a Brooklyn boy through and through, was buried in New Jersey of all placesâParamus, New Jersey. If I know one thing about the spirit, itâs that my fatherâs spirit wouldnât be caught dead in Jersey. Heâs not really there.
The dead live in our hearts. They live with us throughout our numbered days. Sometimes they ride the trainÂ or the bus with us. They help us cross the street on particularly tired days. We canât see them, but they are around.
In Jewish tradition, my family believes that after death our souls go back to God. My husbandâs family of Mexican Catholic tradition believes that the dead hover around all the time, just in case you need them. Once a year on Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), Adrianâs family travels to the cemetery to leave the favorite foods of the deceased. I believe in all of that, but I also believe that my father still sometimes likes to visit my motherâs living room and sit in his big blue chair.
So this year, as my mother got dressed in her usual Sunday cemetery garb, she called to ask me the same question sheâs been asking me for 23 years, âAre you coming with us to the cemetery today?â
My father was crematedâthat is unheard of in Judaism. He sits on a shelf in a small jar behind a stone that says his name in both Hebrew and English. On the day he died, one of the neighbors remarked, âThereâs Big Dave in a little jar.â Iâm not sure my husbandâs take on cremation and Iâm nervous about asking him, but as it turns out, our two religions and cultures have more in common when it comes to death and dying than I would have suspected.
In Adrianâs village, when someone dies, the family stays up all night because they believe that the spirit of the person is still in the house. Then he informs me that the body must be buried within a 24-hour period. This is true in Judaism as well! Adrian alsoÂ tells me that people are cremated in Mexico, but thoseÂ people are usually from a bigger city whereas he is from a smaller village setting.
What Adrian canât comprehend is that almost my whole family is buried in the Paramus cemetery and there is an empty lot next to my father that belongs to my mother whenever sheâs ready to join him (hopefully no time soon). He says thatâs the strangest thing heâs ever heard. I try to explain to him that itâs kind of like owning real estate and he refuses to believe me.
But, both of our religions have a high respect for the dead. We both have special prayers. Both of our families wear black when someone dies. We both cry. Both of our families visit the dead once or twice a year. Except for me.
I talk to my father every day. And she may not know that I know this, but my mother talks to him every day too. There is a picture of my father in my living room holding me as a newborn. His face is close to my face and I have just been born. In that photo, my father is happy. He owns a house. He has a son and his daughter has just been born. Heâs happily married. He goes to the theater once a week. He eats dinner out. He waters the lawn. In the photo next to him is a picture of Adrian and our little one, Helen Rose. In the photo, she has just been born and Adrian holds her in the exact pose as the photo of my father and me. Adrian is happy. His first child has just been born. He has a new apartment. He sees his friends and brothers once a week. He eats dinner out. He waters his plants.
Itâs been 23 years since my fatherâs death. So much has happened without him, though it feels as though he were here just yesterday. In Kabbalistic terms the number 23 signifies a kingdom. Usually it refers to an inner kingdom. As a Jewish girl from Brooklyn who started a life with a Catholic boy from Mexico, I feel as though my choice to create an interfaith family has kept my inner kingdom and my familyâs inner kingdom intact. The choice to give my daughter a vast knowledge of who she is breaks tradition and yet holds it in place forever.
I never visit the cemetery on the anniversary of my fatherâs death. Itâs clear heâs still among usâŠin his own way.
Itâs been two weeks of vacation for my family in upstate New York. Nothing but fun, sun, relaxing walks by the lake, fishing and QuinceaĂ±era Barbie. WaitâŠwhat!? Hereâs how QuinceaĂ±era Barbie came into my life.
My daughter Helen Rose is American, Mexican, Jewish and Catholic. The question from my Jewish-American side of the family is always, âAre you going to give her a bat mitzvah when she turns 12?â And the question from Adrianâs Catholic-Mexican side of the family is always, âAre you going to give her a QuinceaĂ±era when she turns 15?â
Both of these ceremonies celebrate the move from girlhood to adulthood. At a bat mitzvah, a girl may read a portion from the Torah in synagogue and then have a big party or sometimes, itâs just a big party. At a QuinceaĂ±era, there is a traditional dance that the girl does with a childhood doll. When the dance ends, the girl must give the doll away and then she is considered a woman. That dance usually takes place during a big party. Mostly, I believe these questions are brought up from both families because itâs a hint that we should start saving money now, even though my daughter is just 2Â years old.
I hadnât given much thought to bat mitzvahs or QuinceaĂ±eras. Iâve been enjoying the part of my daughterâs childhood where every moment and every new discovery feels like one big party. She finds bugs and runs through outdoor sprinklers on our vacation. She chases birds and learns new words in both Spanish and English: boat, burro, cook and hola. But, one day it starts to rain and so instead of having our usual barbecue by the water, we take her to a Barnes and Noble in town so that she can run through the kids’ section.
Her first choice in toys when we get there is a train set thatâs been set up in the corner. But she quickly tires of the train set after she realizes there are other toys in the store. She reaches for Peppa Pig, Elmo, Cookie Monster and Big Bird. She brings each toy over to me. She smiles and then runs to get another one. Finally, I spot her holding a large cardboard box with a doll inside. The dollâs skin is the same cinnamon tint as my daughterâs. The doll is wearing a long purple gown and at the bottom of the plastic that encases her, it says, in shiny silver letters, “QUINCEAĂERA BARBIE.” Oh help me.
I never had a Barbie. I didnât really want one. My brother was older than I was and he had G.I. Joes and all kinds of science toys so I veered more toward those. The only time I played with a Barbie was when I was at someoneâs house for a play date. Once, at my friend Avivaâs house, I took her favorite Barbie and shoved its head into her parents’ whirlpool (a machine used to make the bath into a jacuzziâŠit was the ’80s) in the bathtub. Iâm pretty sure I broke the whirlpool when Barbie came out but her head stayed in. Her father spent two hours trying to shave Barbieâs hair off to get her golden locks to break free from the whirlpool.
But there was my daughter, on a rainy afternoon, holding QuinceaĂ±era Barbie and waving her in my face. And there was QuinceaĂ±era Barbie with a glazed look in her eyes as if to say, âRemember me?â She had also plucked two other Barbie dolls from the shelfâBallet Wishes Barbie and 2016 Birthday Wishes Barbie. But, QuinceaĂ±era Barbie towered over those two petite Barbie dolls and claimed her moment.
As my daughter ran off to get another doll, I wondered why there was no Bat Mitzvah Barbie. I imagined what she would look likeâcomplete with her Torah scroll and equally shiny dress. As soon as my thoughts began to wander, I looked up everything having to do with Barbie dolls. What I found out shocked and surprised me.
Ruth Handler, who was the Jewish daughter of Polish immigrants, invented the Barbie doll. She actually thought of the idea after she saw her daughter playing with paper dolls. As I read up on her, I found out how she became one of the most successful business women in history. I then thought of the hilarity of my own situation. Barbie, even the QuinceaĂ±era Barbie, is Jewish! Sheâs not only Jewish but sheâs interfaithâan interfaith Barbie! Her original creator is a Jewish woman named Ruth Handler and her identity in her current costume is that of a Catholic Latina girl about to enter womanhood! Iâve now become obsessed with the idea that any Barbie doll sold on the shelf of a toy store today is part Jewish.
I didnât purchase QuinceaĂ±era Barbie only because my daughter doesnât really know how to play with her yet. However, I do know that when my daughter is older and has questions about her two faiths, I will use QuinceaĂ±era Barbie as a model of something that incorporates a rich history of Judaism, Catholicism and invention. After all, as an interfaith child of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, reinvention is something we are very familiar with.
By Lindsey Goldstein
Before my husband and I got married, we discussed how we would raise any potential children. These children were very theoretical. something I wasnât sure I wanted. But I began to consider it, since he finally seemed to be the right person to procreate with.
My husband was raised Catholic but hasnât practiced any religion since he left his parentsâ home and I was raised Jewish albeit not entirely religious. I strongly identify myself as Jewish.
Yet despite those differences, our discussions about raising our kids werenât profound. They went something like this:
Me: âHow will we raise our kids with respect to religion?â
Him: âWell, youâre Jewish, so arenât they Jewish by default?â
Of course, he referred to the fact that any child that springs forth from the loins of a Jewish woman is automatically Jewish.
Thatâs fine and good, but Iâve found that kids these days, unless presented with a religious upbringing will often default to being ânothing.â Or as my brotherâs kids say, they are âhalf Jewish.â What does that even mean? Are they sliced down the middle through the navel, one side claiming to be Jewish and the other not? It means nothing. Literally.
Ultimately, my husband and I decided our kids would be educated on Judaism by me and my husband would answer any questions about Catholicism should they arise. He acknowledged that the brunt of our kidsâ formal religious exposure would most likely be Judaism because my parents live 35 minutes away, so we spend the Jewish holidays with themâand unlike him, I practice my religion.
Yet this wasnât a concrete plan. Essentially, we decided any kids we had could figure out for themselves how invested they wanted to be in their religious upbringing and we would simply facilitate their decision. In other words, our decision about how to raise them was pretty wishy-washy.
When my daughter reached school age, we decided to send her to a Jewish school, where she would stay there through kindergarten and then switch to an excellent local public school, one of the draws of our neighborhood.
As I haveÂ previously written, I am so proud that she became extremely interested in her Jewishness to the extent that she taught me things Iâd long forgotten from my Jewish upbringing. In June, she âgraduatedâ from that school and will, as planned, move to a public school.
The struggle confronting me now is how will her Jewishness persevere outside of her current school? I asked her if she would like to have aÂ bat mitzvahÂ and she said yes. I explained to her sheâd have to attend Hebrew school on Sundays to make her goal happen.
Hereâs the thing: When my daughter and I discuss Hebrew school, she forgets about it minutes later. I donât force the issue because I reflect on the fact that I wouldnât have wanted to spend every Sunday in Hebrew school when I was 6. I hear my husband and understand his religion was forced on him thereby destroying any religious intentions in him. I know he feels strongly that we donât do that to our kids. But I remind him that being Jewish isnât an easy path to choose.
Now that we have real children instead of theoretical ones, I realize our decision to not make any decisions for them was misguided. Kids will never choose to study religion if they donât have to.
The path of least resistance is being anything but Jewish. I resented being Jewish for most of my teenage years because I was raised among mostly Christians and I hated being âdifferent.â When I was 18, I lived in a predominantly Catholic country as an exchange student. For that year, I decided to assimilate and not celebrate Jewish holidays or acknowledge my Jewishness. I had a fulfilling year, yet I felt adrift. Even though Iâve never been terribly religious, it turned out I was out of place in a religious context that wasnât my own, and I craved the companionship of people who âget me.â
No matter how religious or not a Jew is, I think there is a foundation of similarity that allows us to relate to another Jew easily. There is a parallel upbringing or set of parents or values that bonds us together.
And I realize now: I want that for my kids. I donât want them to float around in this world incapable of identifying themselves with a community.Â Selfishly, I want that community to be a Jewish one.
Clearly, my husband and I still have some discussion before usâand it wonât be easy to iron out now that our kids are growing up. We should have made concrete decisions about religious upbringing before.
Thatâs why when other interfaith couples say theyâre going to âwing it,â I vehemently tell them not toâbut rather to hammer those details out before they get married, to seek counsel from an outside source if they need an objective perspective.
In the meantime, my daughter will still have a connection to her Jewish school since her brother will matriculate in a month. I am hopeful she will choose to follow through with her desire to have a bat mitzvah and continue to feel at home in the Jewish community as she has for the last several years.
I hope she is ultimately persuaded by my example since she enjoys going to synagogue and celebrating Jewish holidays with me. Of course, I am not upset with my husband for his view on religious upbringingâespecially in light of how he was raised. But, I should have been absolutely forthright with him that my ultimate goal for my kids is as follows: when someone asks them what they are they respond without hesitation, âJewish.â
This article was reprinted with permission fromÂ Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids.Â Follow Kveller on FacebookÂ andÂ sign up for their newsletters here.
By Dr. Ruth Nemzoff
Q:Â Recently, our twenty year old daughter called from college to announce that she is bringing home her first serious boyfriend for Rosh Hashanah. He is an A student, the leader of his a cappella group and involved in community service. Before she introduced him to us, she warned us that although he is a great person, he is not Jewish. We had always expected and hoped that she would date only Jewish guys, and we had talked about this ad nauseam before she left for college. The truth is, we were a little hurt that she rebelled against us. She had a strong Jewish education and continued Hebrew lessons throughout high school. We observe Shabbat weekly and celebrate all of the holidays. My daughter has been to Israel and remains an active member of Hillel on her campus.
From my daughterâs perspective, we did not react well. We lectured her on the importance of marrying someone Jewish and of raising Jewish children. She ended up in tears.
What should we do from here?
A:Â First, your daughter was probably not thinking about rebelling against you when she decided to date this young man. Just like we did not follow all of our parents expectations, we canât expect that our children will always obey our dictates. In our pluralistic society, it is unrealistic to expect our children to date only within the Jewish religionâunless, of course, we keep them in a totally Jewish world. The reality is that most Jewish Americans, other than the most Orthodox, send their children to secular colleges where they will meet people of other backgrounds.
Many Jewish parents feel that their commitment and effort in providing a Jewish education has been wasted, if their children choose to date outside the faith. I can assure you, the education is not wasted. Your daughter, no matter who she marries, has the knowledge to create a Jewish home.
Again, in America it is not unusual for young people to use their twenties to focus on their career. For many recent college grads, marriage is a distant plan. Too often, parents leap to the conclusion that the first serious boyfriend is the final âone.â He might be, but unless your daughter is bringing home an engagement ring, it is unlikely. However, because there is the possibility of marriage or a long term relationship, you want to have a good relationship with this young man.
Since she is bringing him home, be welcoming. Try to appreciate the fine person he is, while showing him the best of our culture. If he is here for Shabbat, offer him a yarmulke and explain that the yarmulke is a sign of respect rather than a religious declaration. Explain why we light the candles and why we bless the wine. Whatever customs your family practices, ask him if he would like to join, but donât force him. For example, the children might put their hands on the challah and recite the blessing. He could be included. If you bless the children, bless him too, with his permission.
As for Rosh Hashanah, again explain the customs and the history. It is helpful if you can provide him with reading materials about the holiday, as the service can be long and tedious to those who have no idea whatâs happening. You might also give him permission to walk in and out of the service. Whether you like it or not, many of our synagogues are crowded with young people socializing just outside the sanctuary.
If he is from a family that doesnât practice any religion, he may be receptive and curious about what religion adds to the family. Praise him for any interest or efforts he makes, however clumsily, to participate. Who knows, he might be looking for the community and acceptance that Judaism offers many.
If, however, he is a believer in another religion, you might show some curiosity by asking about his traditions and if he sees any similarities or any differences with Judaism. You are modeling the kind of interest you hope he will reciprocate. Be welcoming but not insisting that he participateâyou are not asking him to convert. After all, itâs a new relationship, and marriage is probably not on their minds right now.
On the other hand, it is possible that he is not open to learning or participating in your familyâs traditions because he is vehemently opposed to religion. You should celebrate as you always do. After all, it is your home. Once the kids have gone back to school, you might tell your daughter how much you enjoyed the young man but wonder how she would feel in the long term being with someone who is not supportive of something that is important to her.
No matter what happens between your daughter and this young man in the future, remember, that your behavior has the potential to make friends or enemies for the Jewish people. And goodness knows we need all the friends we can get.
The latest Jewish Population Survey shows that over 50% of our children are marrying people from other faith backgrounds. Our admonitions against marrying people from other faith backgroundsÂ are not working. However, interfaith marriageÂ does not necessarily mean the end of our people. Interfaith marriageÂ has been around and has been a part of our history from our beginningsâand we are still here. Moreover, most American Jews gave up celebrating Shabbat and keeping Kosher well before the interfaith marriageÂ rate climbed. You might better use your energy to continue to show your children the beauty and value of our traditions than continue your rants against interfaith marriage.
One of the strengths of Judaism has been its ability to adapt over the years. We moved from a sacrificial religion to a non-sacrificial one; from one centered on the temple to thriving in the diaspora. Â Perhaps we need to now focus on how to deal with multiple religions in our extended families. If we can figure out how to live together as families, we can truly be a model of co-existence. Besides, interfaith marriage brings new genes into our pool, which can have some health benefits.
I want to be clear here. I am not necessarily promoting interfaith marriage, but I am saying there can be an âup sideâ to it. It is up to us all to make sure that we increase our numbers by welcoming others, rather than decrease them by pushing our children away. The demographics are clear. Interfaith marriage is on the rise. We need to embrace it. Otherwise, we might be destroyed by it.
This post originally appeared onÂ The American IsraeliteÂ and is reprinted with permission.
Itâs a Monday morning in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and my almost 2-year-old daughter and IÂ have a date with my friend and her 10-month-old daughter to go to a read-along at the Brooklyn Public Library. We get downstairs with the stroller, enough snacks to feed a small army and a water bottle. Not to mention diapers, wipes, A & D ointment, cell phone, wallet and keys. Oh, and Duckie, the stuffed animal that is covered in one thin layer of gross because it is trudged across New York by my daughter on every trip we take. Even when I wash Duckie, his yellow is a kind of city yellowâso, basically heâs gray.
The super of my buildingÂ sees me trying to get Helen into the stroller. âYou gonna take an umbrella?â he asks, âItâs supposed to rain like crazy.â
The library is a ten-minute walk from my apartment and it hasnât started raining yet. The umbrella is the one item Iâve forgotten. âNo,â I say, âIâm not afraid of a little rain.”
Famous. Last. Words.
Almost eight blocks from my house, the sky opens. The rain comes down in sheets as if the sky had been holding its breath and someone just reminded it to let go. I am so soaked and Helen (though covered by the stroller top and a blanket) is getting her legs and feet soaked as well. I almost panic.
Midwood is a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. I grew up here and now I live here with my interfaith family. Itâs hard to live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and try to make people understand that my daughter is both Jewish and Mexican Catholic. In Jewish circles I find myself getting defensive. In Catholic circles I donât know how to explain my own take on Judaism. And when strangers hear me speak Spanish and then shout something in Hebrew three seconds later, I am met with baffled looks.
But Midwood means something else too. It means a ton of Honda OdysseyÂ minivans. Once, from my motherâs house to our apartment three blocks away, I counted 11 parked Odyssey minivans. This is because the Jews, like the Mexicans, have big families and the Honda Odyssey seats eight. But, as a driver in New York, I hate being behind an Odyssey. Iâm constantly making cracks about them. I can always see the TVÂ turned on in the back seat of an Odyssey. So many Odyssey minivan drivers drive too slow in themÂ because of all theÂ kids they have in the car. But, itâs my own personal obnoxious joke that I canât stand the Honda Odyssey.
With that being said, as Iâm in a small panic halfway from home and halfway from the library with the rain still pelting down, I see a blue Honda Odyssey turn the corner. A young woman in a traditional wig rolls down her window. âExcuse me!â She shouts from her Odyssey, âDo you need a ride? I have three car seats in the car.â I am wearing jeans (a clear sign I am not an Orthodox Jew, though I am a Jew, but she doesnât know this) and a shirt that has become so obviously see-through.
âAre you sure?â I ask, hesitating as water drips down my face.
âYes!â she says as she leaps out of her Odyssey with a purple umbrella decorated with dogs wearing tutus. She holds the umbrella over our heads as I get Helen out of the stroller. She then holds my daughter and puts her in the car seat. Helen starts to cry a little, but the woman is so gentle and I tell her not to be afraid. I throw the stroller in the trunk and get into the front seat. As soon as the woman closes the âdogs in tutuâ umbrella she says, âIâve never picked up a stranger before! I just couldnât believe you were out here. I just dropped my kids off at camp and saw you. Where are you going?â
I tell her that we are on the way to the library and I find out that she lives on that same block. She points to her house (which is directly across the street from one of my relatives’ apartment building) and on the porch are three mini beach chairs for each of her children. I thank her profusely and as I get Helen out of the car seat, the woman climbs into the trunk of her Odyssey and pulls a pink and white blanket from the back that says, âbaby.”
âPlease take this,â she says, âI have six blankets in this car and the library is freezing.â
This is when I take the opportunity to let her know in Hebrew that I am a Jew. Iâm not sure why I do this. The entire ride, when I spoke to Helen, I spoke in Spanish. It was obvious to the woman that we were a different kind of family than the families usually seen walking through Midwood. But, religion, class or status didnât matter to this woman. So I said, âtodah rabahâ (thank you, in Hebrew). âYou did a real mitzvahâ (good deed).
But, to my surprise the woman wasnât shocked. Her mouth didnât drop open and she didnât shout, âOh my God youâre Jewish!?!â And that was a good lesson for me because her picking me up had nothing to do with my two faiths. She picked me up because she saw I needed help. She saw I was in a panic and she saw that, like herself, I am a mother. And being a mother has nothing to do with being a Jew or a Catholic and it has everything to do with being a Jew and a Catholic. Because two faiths, interfaith or one faith is about respect for the fellow man. And in a world that seems more chaotic every day, itâs nice to know that as Anne Frank once wrote at the age of 13, âIn spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.â Maybe Iâll stop being so judgmental about the Odyssey.
Ah, yes, itâs summer at last. Time, maybe, to wind down a little bit and contemplate some bigger-picture lessons that get lost in the shuffle during the school year. We talked toÂ Rabbi Jillian CameronÂ ofÂ NewtonâsÂ InterfaithFamily, which supports interfaith families in embracingÂ Jewish life, about three important Jewish values that kids should absorb as early as possible. Nothing big or daunting, just simple lessons to instill in everyday moments.
Compassion and respect
âWeâre all created in the image of God,â says Cameron. âWeâre each special and unique, but weâre also connected through a larger image of something greater, whether people look or act like us, or are different. Weâre all worthy of respect.â
This can be tough for little kids to grasp: Why does one kid have two moms, and another has a mom and a dad? Why do some kids get to go to summer camp, and others canât afford to go? Kids tend to define themselves by their visibleÂ differences, not by their unseen similarities, so they need some prompting.
Since this concept is abstract, Cameron recommends tying similaritiesÂ to a real-life example through a story, like playing with a friend from a different country.Â âYou have white skin and your friend has dark skin, but you both love âDespicable Me,â right?â The more you can make those connections for your kids now, the less scary differences will be as they get older.
Ah, peace. This can be elusive when your kids are bickering over who ate the last cookie,Â or who gets to sit by the window on the car ride to the beach, or whoâs taller orâŠyou name it.
In this case, Cameron recommends âgoing big.â Instead of beggingÂ your kids not to fight (ha!), try to help them think about peace on a larger scale.
âGet them talking: What does peace look like for you? When do you feel peaceful? Is it when youâre falling asleep? What makes you feel at peace? Is it living in a comfortable home or having toys to play with? How can you help create that for yourself, for your friends and for the whole world?â
Make them part of the big-picture solution, instead of admonishing them. If they realize how important peace is on a bigger scale, they might be more likely to think about how it applies to their own lives, too.
Itâs never too early to teach your kids the importance of charitable giving. While Jewish tradition holds that we should give 10 percent of our income to charity, kids donât need to worry about that. At this stage, itâs more about seeing charity with their own eyes, like visiting a shelter to drop off toys or a soup kitchen and helping out.
Kids benefit from participating in theseÂ hands-on, real-world experiences far more than hearing about them. Offer your child experiences where he or she can see their impact firsthand.
âItâs not just about giving money. Itâs about thinking of how to create a more just world,â Cameron says. âInstead of thinking about helping others in terms of financial giving, think about it as giving back a part of your life. Thereâs action involved in justice; we canât rest on our laurels.â
The earlier your kids see that their actions can make a difference, the easier it will be to make giving back a habit.
Reprinted with permission from JewishBoston.com
Insomnia. Itâs awful and Iâve never had it before. Until now.
Part of this has to do with me getting pregnant again shortly after a miscarriage. Another part has to do with the anxiety, fear, loneliness, happiness, joy and gratitude I feel approaching motherhood for the second time. The second time is different, of course. With a toddler at home the exhaustion level of pregnancy is overwhelming. This is how I found myself a few weeks ago at two in the morning with the refrigerator door open asking myself, âWhat else can I eat?â After making my way through a bag of potato chips, a bowl of cherries and the rest of a half-eaten Kit-Kat bar, I get the feeling I should be doing something elseâŠlike meditating.
A long time ago I worked at a yoga studio. I was the desk girl and I would check people in and only occasionally take a yoga class. But, on Wednesday mornings they would have a meditation group and I would go and sit in the middle of the sunny studio and listen to a woman in a long kimono tell me to relax. It was relaxing, though not at first. At first there was total panic. Why couldn’t I turn my brain off? Why did everything else seem more important than just sitting with myself for 30 minutes? Eventually I got better at it. But, at two in the morning I feel a need to sit down with myself again.
My household is a testament to two faiths being able to coexist peacefully and even intertwine and become something even more beautiful than what they already are. A walk through my apartment will reveal the Jewish and Catholic aspects of my familyâs life. There are prayers for the home in Hebrew at the entrance. A mezuzah in the doorframe and a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe protecting my daughterâs bed while she sleeps. At two in the morning I look to all of these objects in order to steady my thoughts.
The Dalai Lama calls Buddhism not a religion but a âscience of the mind.â So on my way back from the fridge I grab a pillow from the couch and sit on it in the lotus position hoping that Buddhism will help me in my Jewish/Catholic home. I want to stay calm. I want my thoughts to stop if only for a minute. I also want to relax so that I can finally get some sleep!
The pillow is uncomfortable. My already growing belly feels smashed. I forget the pillow and sit on the floor. The floor is too hard. My back hurts. Those potato chips were a bad idea. I lie on the floor. The carpet is too itchy, and so on and so forth for the next ten minutes. I exceed Julia Roberts’ performance in Eat, Pray Love. Meditating is hard.
I decide to commit to sitting in a chair for at least ten minutes every day and trying to quiet my mind. I look up mantras and then I realize that I can use any mantra I want. Iâm part of an interfaith family! I can use a prayer, a word or even a saying. I choose something that Iâve been saying before bed since I was a little girl. âShema Yisrael,â the prayer in Hebrew of âHear Oâ Israel.â Traditionally said before one goes to sleep I repeat it over and over again breathing in and out and trying to focus on my breath and the sound of the words.
By 4 oâclock in the morning Iâm still awake. At 6 a.m. I fall asleep. My daughter wakes up at 9:30. But, I keep saying the Shema. Every night when I canât fall asleep I sit upright in a chair, close my eyes and invoke Israelâs name. Every night it gets easier. Some nights it actually puts me to bed.
I think about that prayer and the way I learned it. It was not taught in my house but in my school when I was a child. This gets me thinking about my daughter and my child to come. How beautiful faith in something, anything is. That a prayer so etched in my memory can come to me when I need peace and quiet. It makes me happy that my daughter and my future children will have a plethora of prayers to choose from. There is the Jewish âShema,â there is a Catholic prayer of St. Francis that I love which begins, âLord, make me an instrument of your peaceâŠâ and then there are the Buddhist prayers for loving-kindness or forgiveness.
One night I try a specific meditation in which one is supposed to meditate on a difficult situation one is having and then replace oneself with a saint or a holy being like Gandhi or Mother Teresa. I do this thinking that of course mother Teresa will show up in my mindâs eye. But, as soon as I close my eyes itâs not Mother Teresa at all. Itâs my Grandma Rosie and sheâs holding a bowl of chicken soup. So I say, âGrandma, what are you doing here?â She says, âI heard you couldnât sleep so I made you some soup.â I laugh when I open my eyes.
The next night I make the family my Grandmotherâs chicken soup. I kiss the Hebrew prayer on my wall, I kiss the mezuzah on the doorframe and I kiss Guadalupe. That night I sleep like a baby. Sometimes faith, any faith begins right at the kitchen stove.
My middle name is Miriam. I am named after Mark, my motherâs brother who was killed at the young age of 39. My name is a remembrance of him just as my daughterâs name is a reminder of my two Grandmothers, Helen and Rose. Names have great meaning and what someone is named at birth doesnât necessarily determine who they are, but it does hold potential.
One of this monthâs Torah portions just happens to be called âChukat,â meaning âdecree.â It is one of my favorite portions because it is about the death of Miriam (Mosesâs sister) and how the death of a single woman affects an entire people and their future.
When Miriam dies, water becomes scarce. Moses cannot deal with his sisterâs death and sees the people of Israel angered at him and Aaron for bringing them to a barren land. God commands Moses to speak to a rock and ask for water. Saddened by the death of his sister and vexed at his people for their lack of grief, Moses makes a mistake. Instead of speaking to the stone he strikes it. It is an act that does not go unnoticed. Because of this err on Mosesâ part, God refuses to let him lead the Jews into the Promised Land. The death of Miriam means the death of water, purity and a loss of control for a great prophet. Even Moses fears death or is stifled by it. Then, before this Torah portion comes to a close, Aaron dies as well.
The name Miriam in Hebrew means rebelliousâfitting that I should be named after my Uncle Mark, who was the rebel in our family history just as I am. Some of my family members will tell you I am still the rebellious one living with and loving a man from Mexico who was born Catholic, raising our child in an interfaith household. But water followed Miriam everywhere. It followed her through the desert during her peopleâs hardest times. I have chosen to live my life as she lived hersâwith a magical well that never runs dry with room enough for different faiths, cultures and beliefs.
Whatâs funny is that the man I chose to spend my life with is named Adrian andÂ his name is from the Latin root meaning âseaâ or âwater.â My middle name and his first name flow like rivers next to each other, intertwining like our two faiths.
Helen, our almost 2-year-old has a name derived from the Greeks. Who hasnât heard of Helen of Troy? Her name in Greek means âShining Lightâ or âThe Bright One.â This seems appropriate, that two bodies of water can create a spark, something beautiful and different that never fades.
I like the âChukatâ Torah portion because it is not about Judaism specifically; it is about doubt and faith. The Israelites doubt Moses and Aaron and so God is angered. Moses is grieving and loses control, because of this he suffers and dies without being permitted to enter into the Holy Land. It is a lesson not only for Jews but for anyone because it is about having faith in your own journey. The Israelites lose faith because the water disappears after Miriamâs death. Moses loses faith in his people. God is angered most by Mosesâ loss of control. On so long a journey Moses does not trust and strikes the very rock that was to give him and his people sustenance. But I see that rock as a symbol of Miriam. Although she is gone, perhaps her spirit is in that rock, but Moses is too blind to see it. For this, he is punished.
Often it is a challenge to navigate an interfaith household. During certain times of the year it seems as though we have a different holiday every month. Traditions are hard to keep up, or are tweaked so that they can fit both religions and both cultures. Our budget for gifts on holidays has to stretch so that Santa Claus, the Three Kings and a menorah can all fit in the living room. But we try never to strike the stone, to curse the place where the water will naturally flow if given time and care.
Thatâs what Godâs decree is in the âChukatâ portion. He desires that we keep going even when the world seems to rise up against us and deem us rebellious. He asks us to speak to the stone, not strike it so that we may learn from the world how cool water can follow us through the desert when we feel we are making a new, different and enlightening journey toward faith.