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You just spent several hours or days in the hospital giving birth to your child or, in our case, several months going through your whirlwind adoption. But the moment you have long awaited is here: You are finally home. You left the house as two, but returned with three. For those of us as first time parents, the panic and paranoia is just setting in. As you slowly learn how to care for the newest member of your family, you begin to contemplate the next stages of life. How will we raise them? Jewish? Catholic? Both? Neither?
Or maybe you’ve already contemplated these questions. Kimberly and I had this discussion long before that first moment of staring into our baby daughterâ€™s big brown eyes. We thought it was important to talk openly about these topics early in our marriage. Too many people wait until game time to have the discussion and make decisions which can lead to poor decision making and being short sighted. Our wedding day was not about different religious upbringings, but was a celebration of love that including a â€świnkâ€ť to religious heritage. We were not married by a rabbi or priest. In fact, one of my best friends in the world got ordained and performed the ceremony that we wrote. It was special to have someone who truly knew and loved us both bring our marriage to fruition. At the end I stepped on the covered glass while everyone shouted, â€śMazel Tov!â€ť
So much like our marriage, we wanted our daughter to have some religious structure and affiliation in her life, but not necessarily be the driving factor that determined her day-to-day activities. We wanted to make sure our home was a healthy balance between knowing where you came from (even more important with adoption) and havingÂ different faiths represented.
One of the first religious rituals weÂ experienced as parents was the naming ceremony of our daughter while observing a long standing tradition of choosing names that begin with the letter of a loved one no longer with us. Quinnâ€™s Hebrew name is Pelia Davi (meaning beautiful gift). The â€śPâ€ť is for my grandmother, Paula, and the â€śDâ€ť is for Kimberly’s grandmother, Dominicaâ€”a blend of the old world and the new by bringing two different backgrounds together in the name of loving and caring for the next generation.
Since we were comingÂ from different backgrounds and experiencing life with a Reform religious involvement, we wanted a celebration that similarly mirrored our life: one that was about the love for our new child with a nod to the Jewish heritage she would now be entering. The gathering was intentionally small and consisted of our parents, siblings and our twin niece and nephew. It was important to give Quinn a Hebrew name to follow tradition, honor loved ones and give her a Jewish identity when she is called to the bimah. While this was Quinn’s introduction into her newly minted life as a Maccabee, it was our first introduction as a family into a religious celebration that will set the tone for years to come.
Long ago, we decided that Quinn would be raised Jewish, but we would also continue to observe all holidays from our religious backgrounds. She will go to temple and eventually go on to become a bat mitzvah. When she is old enough she can decide for herself if we put her on the right path and will have the opportunity toÂ choose otherwise.
My wife Kimberly didnâ€™t stop being Catholic the day we got married or the day our daughter was born. That part of her life will never leave her whether she ever steps foot in a church again. She has so many fond memories of her childhood that centered around CatholicÂ celebrations that we cannot ignore (nor should we ignore) them. Those experiences helped shape the person she is today and I wouldnâ€™t change that for anything. She has happily chosen to raise our daughter as Jewish as we forge a new path for our family that represents a true blend. We want to provide a warm and loving home that celebrates her parentsâ€™ individuality. But those differences are what brings us together and keeps us together.
These decisions and discussions came relatively easy to us. We have an open, honest and loving relationship that allows us to tackle what seems like, at times, daunting tasks. If you are starting your marriage or just entering parenthood, this is an opportunity, not a roadblock. Talk to your spouse about what is important to you and keep an open mind.Â Be prepared to compromise and show empathy by putting yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if they said it was their way or nothing? That open dialogue will serve you wellâ€”not just today but throughout the rest of your marriage. Our daughter is a precious gift and we want to give her the gift of love in return. Our love for each other and for our daughter will always preside over any religious celebration.
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We each have our own story about when we saw, held or heard our children for the first time and we all arrived in those moments in different ways. I was born on Fatherâ€™s Day in 1980 as the first child in my family, so it was only fitting that I became a father under similar circumstances. However, my road to fatherhood is somewhat more unique than the â€śtraditionalâ€ť path after several unsuccessful years of trying to start a family, and included a mad dash to the finish line.
As a proud member of an interfaith marriage, I was raised in a Reform Jewish home and my wife Kimberly went to Catholic school from kindergarten through college. As it turned out, the first Jewish person she befriended, she wound up marrying. After recently celebrating our eighth wedding anniversary this May, our views on starting a family and the religious structure in the home have held up through the years.
While our individual religious upbringings shaped us throughout our lives, it was and continues to be LOVE that blankets our home and builds our family. This marriage is a 50/50 partnership: Everyone is equal and no person or circumstance is more important than another. We have always celebrated both Jewish and Catholic holidays from Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah to Easter and Christmas, and our house is perpetually adorned with decorations for all seasons. It is important to us that we show our children (and the world) that we stand together committed to LOVE as the dominant component in our lives and that religion is a cultural component that helps us observe our heritage and remember the past.
After Kimberly and I tried to have a child both naturally and through several clinical procedures, she suggested we explore growing our family through adoption. But I didnâ€™t know the first thing about adoption. So, the journey began much like any research starts today in the digital world, with a Google search for â€śadoption.â€ť
We came across a local organization that advocates for adoption and they were providing an educational workshop in the coming days. After some hesitation, mostly on my part (this was a big step into uncharted waters), we attended the workshop and were blown away with the new world we uncovered. Within a couple days of leaving the workshop we knew this path was the one we belonged on. We found our adoption agency and started the lengthy process. Over the course of the following year, we received communication about potential birth moms but none of the opportunities panned out.
On my 35thÂ birthday, I was with my brother playing in a charity golf outing when I received a call early in the morning. â€śThere is a healthy baby girl born a few days ago and the birth mom wants to meet you,â€ť said the social worker on the other end of the line. My stomach dropped and my mind frozeâ€”you know that feeling you get when going down the big hill of a roller coaster? Yeah, that feelingâ€¦times 100. I called Kimberly and told her the amazing news and we set up a time and place to meet our potential birth mom later that week. Although this was the call we had been waiting to get for over a year, it still felt like we were not prepared to hear it.
We had a four-hour lunch with our birth mom after which she looked at her social worker and said, â€śCan I tell them?â€ť With a quick nod from the social worker, she looked back at us and said, â€śI want you guys to be her parents!â€ť The words we had longed to hear finally overwhelmed us and we all embraced in a tearful hug. After all the ups and downs, crying, heartache and disappointment, we had finally arrived. It was worth every second and I wouldnâ€™t trade it for anything in the world.
Our daughter was brought into what is referred to as cradle care (temporary loving care between hospital and home by two of the kindest souls we have ever known) and we were able to visit with her as often as we wanted. I remember seeing her for the first time, holding her in my arms and looking at Kimberly. Nothing else in the world mattered at that moment: She was ours and we were a family, finally. The day before she was set to come home was, ironically, Fatherâ€™s Day 2015. We spent the entire day with her as I celebrated my first Fatherâ€™s Day as a new dad. What a special gift, both for us as a family and me for my first time on the other side of the equation.
Becoming a parent through the gift of adoption has enriched my life in more ways than I can recount. It is the ultimate endowment of selflessness and personal sacrifice on our birth momâ€™s part. It was not about the journey but the destination as our paths crossed in the end and she made the brave decision for our daughter to have the life she wanted, but could not provide. She put the needs of our daughter over those of her own. Kimberly, Quinn and I are forever grateful.
Over the last two years as I watched my daughter grow into a toddler, the time has flown. I often think about my first Fatherâ€™s Day and the day we brought her home. We went from the phone call to her arrival in exactly seven days. The moments were so surreal, like I was watching a movie but this was my life. Together we decided that Quinn would be raised in a Jewish environment but always observe EVERY holiday. In a time when the world is so cruel and intolerant of different faiths, genders, cultural backgrounds and sexual orientation, it is important now more than ever to experience different aspects of life. She will know the stories and traditions of our ancestors as we light the Hanukkah menorah and read the four questions on Passover. She will know that while dad went to temple, mom had different experiences in her life and we celebrate those too when we gather for Easter dinner and open presents under our Christmas tree.
Our house and Quinnâ€™s life will always be about love, trust and respect. Religion will be thereÂ to teach her history and provide cultural structure. A friend once told me that when your kids grow up, they donâ€™t look back and say, â€śI wish I was a different religion or celebrated different holidays.â€ť They look back and say, â€śI wish my parents got along better.â€ť LOVE will forever bind us by how we became a family and the way in which we grow as a family. I am blessed to be married to the most kind, caring and loving woman in the world who is the most amazing mother I have ever known. I am blessed to be a father and my unique story of how we arrived here only makes it that much more special.
Happy Fatherâ€™s Day to all the great dads who paved the road before and all the great dads who will surely come after.
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In a class I teach to engaged and recently married young couples, I talk about the importance of finding time to recharge, refresh and reconnect with one another. We discuss this not in the context of â€śdate night,â€ť but rather in the context of Shabbat.
I like to point out that Shabbat is a state of mind, as much as it is a ritual. While the rituals of going to services or having Shabbat dinner at home can help us achieve Shabbat’s goals of rest, relaxation, and mindful connection, our lives don’t always lend themselves to Shabbat’s prescribed timetable or observances. Especially for families and parents, finding Shabbat during Shabbat can be hard.
Two weeks ago, I planned to take a little time for myself on a Shabbat afternoon. I was looking forward to practicing yoga and then treating myself to a facial at a local spa. My family’s spring schedule had been crazy, and I thought I had picked a time when things were beginning to wind down as the school year neared its end. I dropped my son at water polo practice and drove to my yoga class. My son was going with a friend to watch the varsity team from his school play in the state water polo tournament after practice, so I had several hours free to indulge in some relaxation.
As I laid down on my yoga mat and closed my eyes, my Apple watch started to vibrate on my wrist. I opened my eyes to see who was calling me. I hoped I could dismiss the call. It was the mom who was taking my son to the water polo tournament. I got up, walked out of the studio, and took the call. The parent said everything was OK; she was just picking up lunch for the boys and wanted to find out if my son liked his bread toasted and the sandwich heated. I said he would eat it either way and she should get what was easiest.
I hung up and went back to my mat. About 25 minutes later as I was finally mentally focused on my practice, my watch vibrated again. A text from my son appeared, “We’re up 3-1.” For the remainder of the class, game updates repeatedly distracted me.
I left class hopeful that my spa time would help me find that Shabbat feeling. As I was changing into my robe before my treatment, I received a text from my friend with an update on when she and the boys would return from the game. “I think we should be back at my house by 2 p.m. depending on the end of the last afternoon game. I will text when we are on the way.” Yikes! My appointment would not end until 2 p.m.
Knowing that I might be late to pick up my son occupied my thoughts during the facial. Rather than relaxing during my treatment, I kept thinking, â€śHurry up!â€ť and â€śAre we almost done?â€ť When the facial ended and I returned to the locker room to change, I had 32 new texts. Texts from my friend and other parents about pickup logistics. Texts from my son with game updates. A text from another parent from my son’s team asking if I, as the team parent for the sixth-grade team, could send out an email sharing the news that the varsity team made the finals and would be playing at 6 p.m. for the championship and encouraging the younger boys to attend. I took a deep breath andâ€¦laughed. My plan to find Shabbat was foiled. On this Saturday, Shabbat was nowhere to be found.
For parents, the logistical responsibilities of parenthood can make finding Shabbat impossible sometimes. Itâ€™s because Shabbat can be so elusive, especially once you become a parent, that I teach my young couples that sometimes you must expand your idea of what Shabbat is and when it happens. If they get in the practice of identifying Shabbat moments pre-children, hopefully, they will have an easier time savoring them once they enter the craziness of parenthood.
A Shabbat moment can be a peaceful walk with your dog in the morning before work. It can be an enjoyable family dinner on a Sunday night that has no distractions. It can be a Thursday morning yoga class. It can be a morning cup of coffee sipped slowly while reading the paper.
Thatâ€™s how I found Shabbat on Friday morning. School ended on Thursday so I didnâ€™t need to rush out of the house to get my son to school and I could go into work a little later. I stood at the island in my kitchen sipping a cup of coffee as I finished reading several sections of the previous Sundayâ€™s New York Times. As I drank my Joe, I savored the flavor and the time, 7:30 a.m. Usually, I was gulping my coffee as I wove through traffic to get my son to school by 7:45. But this morning, I could drink my coffee and read in a quiet house. I took a deep breath and smiled. A little Shabbat to start my day.
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Up until recently, I thought the hardest part of navigating life as an interfaith family was determining the religious identity of the home. After all, that’s where 99.9 percent of the angst within the Jewish community lies and therefore, almost 100 percent of the community’s engagement efforts are focused. The idea that many in the Jewish community adhere to is to get couples to a decision point, and hopefully, have them choose Judaism, and then nurture the Jewish choices of couples in a way that helps them to create a “Jewish home.”
But in my recent experience working with other interfaith families in my community of Dallas, Iâ€™ve realized that our intense focus on the religious choices of young couples and families has us all but ignoring the challenges and struggles of older couples and families. Especially for the couples that have actively chosen to the be part of the Jewish community, raise Jewish children and/or affiliate with a synagogue or other Jewish spiritual group such as a minyan, we figure that they’ve got this. The religion decision has been made; the family is Jewishly active; our work is done. Not so much.
For my husband and me, our sonâ€™s upcoming bar mitzvah has suddenly brought up big religious questions that have, at times, left me feeling a similar uncertainty I experienced in the early part of our relationship. In the months since I wrote about this somewhat surprising experience in my blog post,Â I’ve made peace with the uncertainty because we’ve seemed to have settled some of the questions. My husband will not convert before the big day and to date, feels 100 percent included in the process. How he will feel the day of the event or post-ceremony is impossible to predict, but I look forward to hearing what he expresses.
We’ve navigated the disquiet on our own. I’ve occasionally mentioned my uneasiness or questions to a close friend, but have otherwise not spoken to anyone about it. I know that I could have raised the issues with a clergy member at my synagogue or the rabbi officiating at my son’s bar mitzvah, but I haven’t felt like we needed professional guidance. However, I have been thinking about how nice it might have been to have a forum to share our questions and experiences with other interfaith couples in the same life stage as us and hear from intermarried couples who recently celebrated a bâ€™nai mitzvah, about their experiences. Essentially, I’d like to know if is this uncertainty is unique to my relationship or if other couples like my husband and me have had similar questions.
Iâ€™ve also had my eyes opened to the lack of professional support for older couples and families. I serve as the engagement director at my synagogue where I work with the interfaith dating and interfaith married couples. I recently organized a panel discussion for interfaith couples that are struggling with the religion decision. It consisted of two newly married couples who worked through the issue of religion in the home and a couple with elementary and middle school age children who have also worked through challenges of religious identity. The program was well attended by the target audienceâ€”dating, engaged or married young adult couples.
There were also several empty nesters. I wondered what these partners, who raised Jewish children in the context of an interfaith home, were doing at the program. They had Jewishly identifying college students or adult kids. They could be on the panel.
As I listened to the discussion during the question and answer period, I heard two of the empty nest couples say, â€śJust because you make a decision doesnâ€™t mean that religious issues go away. The issues just change.” I thought, â€śOf course, they do.â€ť I wrote about how dynamic the religious life of an interfaith family is in my bookÂ From Generation to Generation, pointing out that religious identity is often referred to as a journey for a reasonâ€”because it evolves as we age and move through different stages of life. How did I forget my words?
One couple shared that they are thinking about religion in the context of end-of-life issues. Another partner, a dedicated synagogue volunteer, mentioned that she is reconnecting with her Christianity now that one son is in college and the other has graduated, and she is struggling with how to incorporate her renewed interest in her faith into her marriage and Jewish family. A man admitted that, after 30 years of marriage and synagogue membership, he and his wife from another background â€śstill havenâ€™t figured it out.â€ť Everyone said that they would appreciate a group for couples like themselves to talk about the religious issues that they are navigating in their lives.
For me, their request was a call to action. Iâ€™m now helping these partners form a small group. Iâ€™m in the process of reaching out to over 100 other interfaith couples in our congregation who are in a similar life stage to see if they are experiencing these challenges and if they would be interested in being part of a small group with their peers who are navigating a similar road.
My personal experiences have always been my best material for writing and supporting other interfaith couples and families. Based on my need for community right now, I’m already thinking about how my congregation can create a forum for interfaith couples navigating the b’nai mitzvah cycle to connect with each other, discuss issues and find support through shared experience.
Focusing on young couples and families, and the choice of a religious identity for a home are absolutely critical for facilitating healthy religious discussions and engaging those who are intermarried in Jewish life. But we can’t be myopic and assume that once an interfaith couple makes a religion decision that our work is done. We must provide support for our couples, families and children through the various stages of life, just as we do for those who are intermarried because the religious identity of a home is a journey, not a destination.
Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday because it is mostly about storytelling. Every year, my family sits around the Passover table and tells the story of how the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt by blindly following Moses across the Red Sea. The story is about freedom, faith and most of all, food. We eat matzah (unleavened bread) to symbolize the unleavened bread the Jews took with them on their long journey through the desert. We clean our houses and get rid of every last trace of bread. Then, my mother calls me 68 times about the Passover menu. In my head, I picture all the Jewish mothers in Egypt during Mosesâ€™ time asking, â€śChicken, brisket or both?â€ť But what Iâ€™ve always loved the most about Passover at my motherâ€™s house was the kidsâ€™ table. It is the table I was always a part of until only recently. Now, thereâ€™s a new kidsâ€™ table and its guests include my daughter Helen and her two cousins (my brotherâ€™s boys), Jacob and Nathan.
I didnâ€™t realize this phenomenon about the kidsâ€™ table until I brought over my half of the Passover menu in aluminum pans an hour before the seder. Adrian, my significant other who grew up in Mexico as a Catholic, pointed it out when he carried our daughter into my motherâ€™s house. â€śMy Mom used to do that at Christmas,â€ť Adrian remarked when he saw one long table in my motherâ€™s living room and the mini table at the end set with three kiddie plastic plates and spoons. Adrian comes from a family of seven kids and he loved my motherâ€™s rendition of a kidâ€™s table, which made him nostalgic. His family is scattered across the globe and his one dream is to have everyone go back to Mexico to sit at his motherâ€™s table on a big Catholic holiday. But this year, Adrian was part of the Passover festivities even though he couldnâ€™t totally grasp matzah.
â€śIt tastes like paper,â€ť he said.
â€śYes,â€ť I replied, â€śthatâ€™s the point. We suffered in Egypt and then we suffered with matzah.â€ť
The kidsâ€™ table signified so much to me this year. For the first time in maybe 50 years, my uncle missed the Passover seder because heâ€™s sick and my aunt couldnâ€™t come either. My cousins were also absent. Usually, our Passover table is set for 15-18 people, but this year, it dwindled down to seven adults and three kids. This made me afraid because my brother was in charge of running the seder and I was in charge of half the cookingâ€”it made me realize that the original Passover kidsâ€™ table was now the adultsâ€™ table.
My mother is getting older and I am trying to balance old traditions with new interfaith beliefs. Adrian and I are trying to show Helen that two cultures and two faiths can coexist and we are trying to do this by example. But sometimes, I still feel like a kid. Sometimes we donâ€™t have all the answers and there are times that even when I make 22 chicken legs, the guests only eat the brisket. â€śI told you so,â€ť I hear my Jewish ancestors whisper.
My nephews, who are twin boys, came in like a hurricane. They love Helen and arrived shouting â€śHelen, Helen, Helen!â€ť When they saw my mother, who always brings them the challah bread and chicken noodle soup, they began to shout, â€śChallah, challah, challah!â€ť But on Passover, we canâ€™t eat challah or noodle soup, so they learned instead to shout, â€śMatzah, matzah, matzah!â€ť And then continued with, â€śAdi! Adi! Adi!â€ť for Adrian, their favorite uncle.
I marveled at the kidsâ€™ table for its differences and its similarities. This year, as my nephews speak English, Helen answers in Spanish. â€śNo se,â€ť she says, which means, â€śI donâ€™t know,â€ť and the boys laugh. But they look just as my brother and I had once looked. The only difference is that this Passover, like all future Passovers, there will be room for more than one faith. Adrian sits at the table and is reminded of Catholic holidays in Mexico, I sit at the table and am reminded of my father and how he, too, loved a good story.
The traditional Jewish four questions, to be asked by the youngest child at the table, are sung by everyone, in Hebrew. â€śWhy is this night different from any other night?â€ť begin the questions. I laugh because I want to look up at God and say, â€śSeriously?â€ť But instead, I think of a proverb appropriate for this Passover from the New Testament: â€śGet rid of the old leaven of sin so that you may be a new batch of dough â€“ as you really are.â€ť (Bible, I Corinthians 5:7) This quote gives me hope for the future and urges me to shed my old skin and step into my new real one of woman, mother and two-faith-household-builder.
The doctor calls Adrian and me saying, â€śCongratulations! Youâ€™re pregnant!â€ť Adrian hugs me and we lift Helen up and kiss her little 16-month-old cheeks. â€śHelen! Helen!â€ť we cry, â€śHelen you are going to have a little brother or sister!â€ť 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. Thatâ€™s when everything goes wrong.
One morning, I wake up early and see blood. Itâ€™s not a lot and itâ€™s not bright red, but I call the doctor anyway. â€śDonâ€™t worry,â€ť she assures me, â€śitâ€™s normal.â€ť Adrian also tells me not to worry, but I worry all day. I worry so much that by the evening, Iâ€™ve sweat through my clothes. Helen senses something is wrong and puts her head on my knee while Iâ€™m sitting on the couch. This calms me down a little, but only a little.
The next day I start to make promises. â€śHashem, 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,â€ť I pray. Adrian thinks this is foolish and I ask him why he doesnâ€™t pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is known to help in times of worry and distress.
â€śBebe,â€ť he says in a serious tone, â€śthatâ€™s not how God and the saints work.â€ť 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. Itâ€™s not brown, but itâ€™s red. My body feels heavy like itâ€™s losing something. â€śBebe,â€ť Adrian says, â€ścall the doctor.â€ť 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, Â â€śThis is a place of miracles.â€ť I am shaking in my seat in the waiting room and I clutch a small pink book called â€śTefillas Channahâ€ť meaning Prayers of Channah (my Hebrew name). When I am finally called in, the doctor does an examination and tells me sheâ€™s sorryâ€”I have had a miscarriage. She adds, â€śBut it was very early, which is good.â€ť
Loss of any kind is letting something go when you were never ready to part with it. â€śBebe,â€ť I say to Adrian on the phone, â€śI have some bad news.â€ť I bleed for days. The doctor tells me this is normal, but it doesnâ€™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. â€śBubbles!â€ť she shouts and I laugh. There is a miracle before me that I havenâ€™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 90thÂ 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.
â€śBebe,â€ť Adrian says a week into his own grief, â€śwe will try again.â€ť
I reach for my Hebrew prayer book to try to find the right words for what Iâ€™m feeling. Somewhere in the middle of the book, I find it: â€śAnd so I come before you, Hashem, EternalÂ 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.â€ť 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.
Iâ€™ve been married for 14 years and with my husband who is not Jewish for 16. Iâ€™ve always wanted to believe that in that time my mom and stepfather have grown in their willingness to learn about, and be accepting of all kinds of differences introduced into our family through marriages, children and my siblingsâ€™ and my friendships. But repeatedly, Iâ€™ve realized that their tolerance doesnâ€™t extend much beyond my husband and sister-in-law who is not Jewish.
My parents seem to inhabit this not-really-open space on the openness spectrumâ€“they think that every race, creed, sexual and gender identity should have equal rights, equal opportunity and the full protection of the law. They just don’t want anyone who is not white, Jewish and straight in their circle of family and friends, or too close to their children and grandchildren. They’ve had to accommodate some Christians because of intermarriage in our immediate and extended family, but that seemed like as much as they were willing to tolerate.
I remember when my mother figured out that my friend Andy who is married to Greg was a man. Andy and Greg were very dear friends of my husband and mine. Our son adored them; they were like uncles to him. “Oh,” my mother said during a phone call. “Andy isn’t a woman?” A long pause followed, and I knew she was concerned that our son spent time with them and loved them so much. Even though intellectually she understood that being gay wasnâ€™t a choice or a communicable disease, she worried that Andy and Gregâ€™s sexual identity might somehow influence our sonâ€™s sexuality.
So, it wasnâ€™t surprising that from the time my stepsisterâ€™s twin boys were born that they were worried about one of the children. One of the boys was a fitful infant and grew into an angry toddler who clung to his mother. From a very early age, he loved everything traditionally associated with girls: girlsâ€™ dress-up clothing, princesses, Barbie, sewing, makeup and more. His friends were all girls. He liked pink. He invited only girls to his birthday parties. He was very athletic but had no interest in sports. He made my parents, who were the paragons of heteronormativity, nervous.
Having worked with transgender individuals through my job at my synagogue, I thought that my nephew might be transgender. I knew it was one possibility my stepsister was exploring with the therapist he saw for various behavioral issues. Then my mother confirmed what I already knew when I was on the phone with her and asked how was a recent visit with the boys.
“E is happier than I’ve ever seen him. They have let him grow his hair long. He wears bright pink hi-tops and a pink hat with his name embroidered in purple, and he answered the door the other day in a dress and full makeup” she said. “Claire told him that when kids change schools that sometimes they adopt different identities. He will go to a new school for third grade in the fall, and he is excited about the move.”
I said I was so glad to hear this news and it was great that he was being allowed and encouraged to embrace his true self. I was also interested to hear how my parents were dealing with the situation.
When I was seriously dating, engaged and even throughout my marriage to my husband, my parents didnâ€™t do anything that might help them navigate intermarriage in their family. They didnâ€™t take a class, didn’t speak with clergy, didn’t read any books and they didnâ€™t join a support group. They pretty much did everything that professionals who work with interfaith couples and their families tell parents whose children are in an interfaith relationship not to do. I hoped that my mother and stepfather learned from the experience of my intermarriage. I hoped they handled this situation differently for my stepsisterâ€™s (she needed all of our support) and for my nephewâ€™s (he needed love and acceptance) sake.
*Note: My 8-year-old nephew has not yet adopted the â€śsheâ€ť pronoun or changed names. My family is supporting this transition and is taking cues from my stepsister and her child. Currently, the childâ€™s pronoun is â€śheâ€ť and he is using his given name.
I asked my mother how she and my stepfather were dealing with the situation during a phone call. â€śIt’s hard, but we are trying to be as supportive as possible. Weâ€™re reading a lot of books and articles. Jack (my stepfather) has spoken to his therapist. Weâ€™re trying to learn as much as we can. We love this child. We want him to be happy.â€ť
I hung up the phone. Maybe my parents did learn from the negative approach they took when I introduced someone different into the family through marriage. Or maybe it’s harder to react negatively with a young grandchild than it is with an adult child. Whatever the case, there was growth.
I sent my mom a text, “I’m proud of how you’re handling this.” Maybe this new attitude of acceptance will even extend beyond our family. Maybe this time, my parents are learning the importance of #ChoosingLove. That is my hope.
We are so excited forÂ Mark and Priscilla’s recent baby news! After Max’s birth, this generous interfaith couple pledged to donate 99% of their Facebook shares to charitable causes.Â
By Joanna C. ValenteÂ
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla ChanÂ justÂ announced some pretty big news: Theyâ€™re going to be parents againâ€“making theirÂ 15-month-old daughter Max a big sister-to-be. Of course, the Facebook CEO made the announcement on his Facebook (because where else would he?).
The 32-year-oldÂ shared the happy news alongside childhood photos of himself and his wife, which makes the whole thing feel even sweeter (and also makes you feel old, because doesnâ€™t it feel like yesterday when you were just a kid yourself?). His post, while full of happiness and joy, isÂ also marked by his honesty and candidness about his fatherhoodâ€“as he admits why he had hoped their second child to be a girl:
â€śPriscilla and I are happy to share weâ€™re expecting another baby girl! After our difficult experience having Max, we werenâ€™t sure what to expect or whether weâ€™d be able to have another child. When Priscilla and I first found out she was pregnant again, our first hope was that the child would be healthy.
My next hope was that it would be a girl.Â I cannot think of a greater gift than having a sister and Iâ€™m so happy Max and our new child will have each other.
I grew up with three sisters and they taught me to learn from smart, strong women.Â They werenâ€™t just my sisters but some of my best friends. Theyâ€™ve gone on to write books, excel at performance, music, sports, cooking and their careers. They showed me how to compete and still laugh together afterwards.â€ť
He goes on to say how Priscilla grew up with two sisters herself, and how valuable this was to who she has become:
â€śPriscilla grew up with two sisters and they taught her the importance of family, caring for others and hard work. They supported each other as first generation college students and in their careers in medicine and business. They have so many inside jokes â€” the kind only siblings can understand.â€ť
Part of the reason why the coupleâ€™s announcement is so striking is the fact that Chan has been upfront about her fertility and pregnancy struggles in the past, including multiple miscarriages,Â statingÂ previously:
â€śItâ€™s a lonely experience. Most people donâ€™t discuss miscarriages because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you.â€ť
In another post, Chan said:
â€śThere are really dark moments where you think youâ€™re alone. And when we realized that we werenâ€™t and that there were other people traveling along the same road with you.Â I think having that, knowing that youâ€™re not alone, was incredibly important for us. And we wanted others to know that they werenâ€™t alone, either.â€ť
Mazel tov to the growing family! We hope the pregnancy goes smoothly.
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.
Joanna Valente is the Editorial Assistant atÂ Kveller. She is the author ofÂ Sirs & Madams,Â The Gods Are Dead, Xenos, andÂ MarysÂ of the Sea, andÂ received her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College.Â You can follow herÂ @joannasaidÂ on Twitter, @joannacvalente on Instagram, orÂ email her atÂ firstname.lastname@example.org.
Itâ€™s Purim again and Iâ€™m afraid to leave the house. During Purim, my neighborhood is like being inside a disco ball at Studio 54 in 1976â€”only there are a lot more Jews and no sign of Bianca Jagger riding a white horse. When I was growing up, Purim was not one of the major holidays celebrated by my family. In the Yeshiva I attended we got to dress up, but there were only four biblical characters we could choose from: Esther, Mordechai, King Achashverosh or Haman. In first grade, I got so bored with dressing up as Esther that my mother hung two pieces of oak tag off my shoulders and I went as a castle. Nowadays, itâ€™s different. Kids go as all sorts of things.
When Adrian and I decided to finally leave the house with our now 16-month-old daughter Helen, it was because we had a craving for quesadillas and grapefruit sodaâ€”not because we were delivering Shalach Manot (the bags of wine and food that are customary to gift to friends and neighbors on Purim).
Our car was inconveniently parked three blocks away in my motherâ€™s driveway. I say inconveniently because anything goes on Purim in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Again, it reminds me of Laura Luft’s famous quote, â€śStudio 54 made Halloween in Hollywood look like a PTA meeting.â€ť The same can be said about Midwood on Purim.
Adrian thinks itâ€™s hilarious. He grew up in Mexico in a small Catholic village and as weâ€™re walking to the car, he says to me, â€śYou know, in my town thereâ€™s a guy whose name is Purim.â€ť I absolutely donâ€™t believe him and tell him to stop mocking my people. He says, â€śIâ€™m so serious!â€ť Then he laughs and yells, â€śFeliz Purim!â€ť to a boy running past us while wearing a donkey mask and roller skates.
Where were these costumes when I was a kid and what will our daughter want to dress up as when she gets older?
This year, when Purim wasnâ€™t so visible because everyone was in synagogue for the Sabbath, my brother and his wife invited us to join their synagogueâ€™s Purim celebration. I paused at my brotherâ€™s invitation because Adrian had to work, it was 20 degrees outside and when I took Helen last year, it was the weirdest Purim party I had ever been to. Also, as much as I think Purim is strange in my own neighborhood, it was ten times more zany in their neighborhood of Bay Ridge.
I remember that there was a big screen TV with videos of the Purim story for kids at last yearâ€™s Bay Ridge Purim celebration. The kids ran around singing songs and getting their faces painted. I also remember wrapping the fruit roll ups that they had around my fingers and pretended to have long nails like I did when I was 10 years old. No one found that as hilarious as I did and then I had a huge stomachache when I got home. Come to think of it, maybe I just made Purim weird in Bay Ridge.
This year, I opted out of Purim even though Iâ€™m trying hard to have my interfaith family celebrate every holiday. I knew I wouldnâ€™t be able to resist the fruit roll ups, but also, the only costume I had for Helen was a sad and tired monkey costume that she already wore for Halloween. Yes, Iâ€™m that parent that never wants my child to wear the same costume twice.
Before we reach the car, a group of teenage boys dressed as giant cows and rabbits cross the street toward us. One of them looks defiant and drunk. It reminds me of another thing about Purimâ€”everyone gets completely blitzed and runs around the neighborhood like itâ€™s a ’70s disco party. This boy looks at me, then he looks at Adrian and finally looks at my Helen in the stroller. I can see judgement on his face and I feel that heâ€™s thinking: Who are we? Why are we in Midwood? What are we doing on this block on this day? Donâ€™t we know itâ€™s Purim? He, more likely, could have been thinking, â€śMan I shouldnâ€™t have done that last shot of tequila.â€ť But the look, whatever it said, meant something. I felt uncomfortable as this giant boy child dressed as a floppy bunny looked at me and then at my family. I felt as if I had to explain that I grew up in this neighborhood, went to a Yeshiva, but found a different path and that I love my family, our differences, our two cultures and our two religions. I felt I wanted to say all of this to a 15-year-old boy in a rabbit costume. Why? Because of that look.
I have been getting that look long before I had an interfaith family. I got that look when I wore jeans on Sabbath and smoked cigarettes behind my parentsâ€™ house on the High Holy Days. I know that look well. The look has nothing to do with the person giving it and everything to do with the person getting it. I feared that look for a long time. I fear it now for my Helen Rose. She will get that look. She may get it in more ways that I received it. Maybe this is what I realize as the teenagers prance past us. With all our colorful cultural and religious differences as a family, how will I protect Helen from the look? My eyes meet the look and lock on it as if on a dare. I’m 14 years old again. The one boy who catches my eye turns away from me and I hear myself say as if for the first time, â€śChag Sameachâ€ť (Joyous Festival) and then, â€śFeliz Purim.â€ť
In my previous blog post, I wrote about why choosing love did not mean choosing conversion for me; but for us, choosing love also meant choosing to raise our children Jewish. We didnâ€™t know, initially, what that would look like, especially since we knew (well, I knew) that I wanted to keep celebrating Christmas. (According to my spouse, this makes my children interfaith by default, even if we tell them that they are Jewish.)
Right around the time when bomb threats to JCCs started becoming more frequent, we enrolled our 3-year-old and 7-year-old in Jewish religious school. We chose a wonderful synagogue whose children’s programs we already enjoy, and whose building doubles as my youngest’s non-religious preschool during the week. The thought that she could be evacuated for a bomb or some other emergency is on my mind every time I read of yet another wave of threats.
Our timing for enrolling them has everything to do with identity and with the current political climate of communities under threat. In order to know where youâ€™re goingâ€”what choices youâ€™ll make, what values will ground your actions, the ways you will choose to fight for those values in the world we live inâ€”you need to know who you are. This is true for both adults and children, albeit in different ways. For myself, my desire to stand against religious bigotry means emphasizing the voices of light and love closer to the tradition which raised me. For my children, and for my husband and I on their behalf, that means finally making good on the promises my spouse and I made to each other: to raise them Jewish.
Weâ€™ve dabbled in and out of what that means, but with the kids asking to come to church with me, Jewish cemeteries being desecrated and JCCs receiving repeated bomb threats, I finally told my husband that the time had come to stop beating around the bush and enroll them in Jewish religious education. (He might remember the exact order of events differently, and thatâ€™s OK.)
We had resisted putting our kids into Jewish religious education. It costs money, which is admittedly no small stumbling block. Itâ€™s tough to add one more commitment to a weekend already studded with lessons, activities and play dates.
Our daughters have been attending for about a month, and so far, they love it. Itâ€™s amazing what starts to happen when you combine eager, interested children with access to friendly, open education that touches their minds and their spirits.
The school meets on Sunday mornings for two hours and what my kids learn there pepper their play and their song outside of the synagogue. My eldest, 7, has the tune of â€śMa Tovuâ€ť down pat, but chooses to sing it in the child-friendly rhyme the cantor created for the childrenâ€™s service during the morning. The mnemonic seems to work, if one doesnâ€™t mind oneâ€™s child singing (to the tune of â€śRose, Rose, Will I ever see thee wed?â€ť), â€śMy toeâ€™s blue / Dropped a hammer on my shoeâ€ť Â as a way of working toward â€śMa Tovu.â€ť
EveryÂ week approximately 50 children, ranging from preschoolers to teenagers, gather to sing, pray and learn. The morning begins with a service in the main sanctuary with kids sprawled throughout. Some parents drop their kids off and go run errands; a fewÂ sit with their children for the Sunday morning havdalah service that closes Shabbat (a few hours late, but no one is counting).
A young girl, maybe aÂ young teenager, passes out spice jars full of sweet-smelling cinnamon sticks. A dad, whom my husband tells me is converting to Judaism and learning along with his children, carries the havdalah candle around the synagogue. His face is alight and alive with joy. I think back to my recent blog post and feel a pang of some complicated emotion I canâ€™t quite name.
As the dad walks around the sanctuary, all the children stretch their fingers out to the candle as the light reflects off their fingernails. Itâ€™s clear that many of them have seen plenty of movies where powerful superheroes or evil emperors wiggle their fingers and power shoots out of their hands. Here itâ€™s the opposite. We wiggle our fingers and bring the empowered peace of Shabbat back into ourselves to carry into the coming week.
After their morning lessons, the kids return to the sanctuary for abbreviated, child-friendly morning prayers. My husband and I peek in the doors. Our daughters are sharing a chair up front. The cantor asks the kids what they are thankful for. â€śSisters!â€ť calls out my older daughter; â€śOwls,â€ť her sister says. No mater the complexities, Iâ€™m glad to be there, with my kids and my spouse, singing hymns and choosing love.