Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This colorful booklet will give all the basics about this holiday which combines elements of Halloween, Mardi Gras and the secular new year. It is a holiday not only for children who know immediately that anything with a costume will be fun, but for adults too.
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
This is an interactive, fun, and low-key workshop for couples who are dating, engaged or recently married. The sessions will give you a chance to ask questions about faith, to think about where you are as an adult with your own spirituality and to talk through what's important to you and your partner.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
When my Catholic husband and I decided to participate in a dual baby-naming/baptism ceremony for our firstborn, it was not warmly accepted by my Jewish parents. The ceremony, while wonderful for the three of us starting our journey as a dual-faith family, was fraught with tension. So when we had two more children, we didn’t invite my parents to these baby-naming/baptism ceremonies.
Fast-forward seven years later, and we were again embarking on a religious milestone as my oldest was about to take his First Communion through the dual-faith Sunday school we enrolled in. The First Communion ceremony was to be officiated by both a priest and a rabbi. The service itself, while being a Catholic ceremony, weaved in elements of Judaism, including Jewish prayers and stories.
In the time between the two sacraments, my mom had died from cancer and my dad and I were forging our own relationship in the absence of the strong force that was my mother. We started having more conversations about the religious education we were giving our children. While I knew he didn’t agree or believe we could educate our children in both religions, my dad was less likely to escalate his opposing views into full-on arguments. And while we weren’t necessarily getting to common ground, we were at least talking. Additionally, my dad had started visiting us more often. During these visits, he often came with us to our Sunday school’s adult-education sessions.
I remember at one of our sessions, we had a Humanist rabbi speak with us. He spoke quite honestly about how the Jewish faith is resistant to interfaith couples unless the couple is willing to raise their children solely as Jewish. This lit a fire in my dad, and he was quite upset that there is a whole interfaith community that wants their children to have a Jewish identity but the Jewish religion is turning us away. This frustration was the catalyst for us to begin talking more about the challenges we were facing as a dual-faith family.
My dad started sending me articles he found in the Jewish Journal about Jewish acceptance of interfaith families. He even went so far as to send in an op-ed piece explaining his views on why Judaism should be more open to accepting dual-faith families who wished to raise their children in both religions.
Sam’s First Communion class with their rabbi (left) and priest (right)
I felt like we were moving in a good direction, but I was not expecting to invite him to the First Communion ceremony. My husband, however, was adamant that we should include him. He felt this was an important event in our son’s life and that all of his family should be there; it would be my dad’s prerogative to refuse to come, but it was our responsibility to make sure he knew he was welcome.
After much trepidation, I finally asked my dad to come. I was surprised by the angry reaction I got. He told me that I was trying to make him feel guilty and forcing him to come. I explained to him that he was an important part of our family and welcome at the ceremony, regardless of whether he decided to come. My dad calmed down and told me he would think about it.
The night before Sam’s First Communion, my dad and I had some time to talk. He told me that growing up in the late ’40s and ’50s, there was much anti-Semitism in the U.S. While there was a good-sized Jewish population in his town, it was very segregated. The Jewish kids stuck together and were told not to walk alone for fear of being harassed by the Catholic kids. Understanding this was very insightful for me and made me see things differently. His apprehension wasn’t entirely a religious issue; it was also based on negative experiences he faced as a child. This cultivated his protection of the Jewish religion, as well as his fear and disbelief in understanding how the two religions could meld together.
The next day was the ceremony. It was sensitive and inclusive of both religions. Sam was proud of himself and thrilled to have his family in attendance. My dad didn’t say much about the ceremony itself, just that he was glad he was there for Sam. I knew he still wasn’t comfortable, but the fact that he attended the service was certainly a positive step.
Sheri and Jim with their children Rachel (left), Sarah (middle) & Sam (right) at Sarah’s First Communion
This set my dad up for the next First Communion, which came one year later for my daughter, Sarah. At Sarah’s ceremony, the rabbi had a scheduling conflict, so the Jewish parents led the Jewish prayers and stories. No one wanted to say the Yevarechecha (priestly blessing), so I asked my dad if he would do it. He agreed and came up to recite the prayer with the priest, who repeated each line in English. I joked with my dad that he had probably never said a prayer with a priest before.
It was special to have my family at this celebration and even participating. I know that we are still not in the same place, and likely won’t ever be exactly on the same page, but I think we have come a long way. We have one more First Communion coming up next spring, and my son is starting to prepare for his bar mitzvah next summer. We are continuing on our interfaith journey, and I now feel much more positive and hopeful about the path that lies ahead.
Jack is concerned about being the only Jewish kid on the block
“Thirty miles north of Lakewood” is usually what we say when we talk about where we live. Lakewood, NJ, is the largest pocket of Orthodoxy around us, and many Orthodox Jews know someone (or rarely have more than two degrees of separation from someone) who lives in Lakewood.
Thirty miles north of Lakewood is a Catholic pocket of New Jersey. We live within walking distance of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The priests at this church are known throughout the dioceses of Philadelphia and Trenton. Our entire neighborhood is Catholic. We’ve sat with our next-door neighbors at church. The neighbors’ kids go to the St. Mary’s school. There is a family on our block that has been going to St. Mary’s for two generations. I see schoolchildren walking to and from school, from our front porch. Unfortunately when Jack becomes of school age, he will not attend St. Mary’s school, because we are raising him Jewish. I often wonder what it would be like for him, being the only Jewish kid on the block in a very Catholic neighborhood.
Will Jack be able to use this as a way to strengthen his own faith? Will his neighborhood peers question his faith? We would like Jack to have the freedom to struggle or wrestle with his own faith; after all, he is a child of Israel (Gen. 32:28). We would love for him to be able to explain why he believes what he believes, and why he observes Jewish rituals. This may be the first experience that some of the neighborhood kids have with Judaism, which puts a lot of pressure on Jack and me—the Catholic mom who is raising her son Jewish.
Because Jack will probably be the only Jewish kid on the block, will this cause scheduling and other conflicts? Jack won’t attend the Catholic school down the street; he won’t be in classes with the neighborhood kids or part of the same school-based extra-curricular activities. He will probably have different days off of school than the neighborhood kids. Will this cause him to be excluded? Will it make him feel “different?” And will that cause a rift in playgroups or will his friends be interested in learning about his school and his activities?
Thirty miles north of Lakewood there will be a small Jewish boy growing up in a Catholic neighborhood. It’s not the first time, but it is for us.
On my mom’s birthday last week, I left the house to go to the cemetery first thing. Being there, walking in the always slightly-moist, lush grass in front of her monument can provide a moment of peace on special days. But getting there feels brutally
un-special—sitting in my “mom car” driving the same roads I drive to get groceries. Over the last four years, I have searched for ways to make the entire round-trip special, or at least to propel me out of the day-to-day and into a more contemplative brain space. I have found it these last few trips, and it is not by traveling the three miles to her grave in a silent meditative walk. It is in pumping up the volume on deeply emotional music that makes me feel closer to my mom. Quite often, this has me driving into the Jewish cemetery with the windows closed but the speakers past 11 playing Christian spiritual music.
My parents both nurtured not just a love of music but a necessity for it—recognition that everything is better with a soundtrack and that music is one of our greatest art forms. I associate my mom with music that is soul-full. Her taste was eclectic, but her everyday soundtrack was full of songs that have something to say, music with beautiful harmonies and powerful lyrics.
There were many songs she loved. My sister listens to “Child of Mine” by Carole King. I get teary eyed at her favorite Eva Cassidy songs, and get out my anger at missing her with a good Adele tune. My husband Eric always associates “Hey Ya!” with her (doesn’t fit the same bill, but it does evoke some feeling!). When she was sick, she had a loop of music she liked to play that I still listen to sometimes—gorgeous songs sung by her Cantor Jodi Sufrin, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Corrine Bailey Ray, Alison Kraus and a few great others.
Among other genres, she always had a soft spot for gospel music and spirituals. I can think of two reasons why.One, it is so strongly in the wheelhouse of soul-full. After all, it is the original soul music. It is hard to listen to a great piece of gospel music and not feel it. Second, as much as my mom was fulfilled by and committed to her Judaism, she carried an appreciation for the surety that Christianity offers about heaven and the end of life. So much Christian spiritual and gospel music is about the promise of a good and peaceful heaven. While Judaism is open to the possibility of that heaven, it never feels like a universally held sure thing. In both, she and I share(d) a feeling that even if a song is about a God a little different from yours, it can still evoke your own connection to the universe and whatever God is yours.
So these days when I head to the cemetery I leave my house and listen to “Child of Mine” or maybe Alison Kraus’ “The Lucky One.” If I’m feeling emotionally fortified, I’ll put on Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” which turns me into the driver beside you that is ugly crying in her car. But as I approach the cemetery, I’ll be playing Joan Baez’s “Amazing Grace,” one of mom’s favorites around the time she passed away. It helps me feel closer to her and it probably keeps me crying. On the way out of the cemetery, I imagine her sending me out with a song like Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Go in Grace.” These songs’ reminders about the strength of the human spirit and the presence of something greater than all of us helps me keep her near and approach the rest of the day, moving into what ever else is on the rest of the soundtrack.
Growing up, my mother’s house was kosher. We had dishes for dairy and dishes for meat and we never mixed milk with meat. This goes back to the teachings of the Torah where it states on three separate occasions that a baby goat is not to be cooked in it’s mother’s milk. But our house was kosher mainly because my mother wanted my brother and me to fit in at the Orthodox Yeshiva we went to even though we weren’t Orthodox.
This plan fell through more than once. Most of my friends’ parents knew that my own parents weren’t religious. When we had sleepovers it was I who would have to travel to my peers’ houses because our house wasn’t “kosher enough.” But my mother’s efforts weren’t in vain. When Adrian and I moved into our apartment a few years ago it was my Grandmother’s dishes I unpacked from a cardboard box labeled “Grandma Rosie’s Dairy Dishes.”
There were teacups with pink roses and a tan trim on them wrapped in bubble wrap. There was a cake plate lined in gold and a blue glass candy dish I remembered reaching into as a child to pull out sticky black licorice squares. These dishes had made their debut in my Grandmother’s apartment then later at my mother’s house and finally were gifted to me. They held memories of Friday morning pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches. They also held the responsibility of staying kosher.
For my nephew’s first birthday party this past Sunday, the Star Wars cake I made followed the kosher rules. But the kosher rules also brought up concerns for our daughter Helen’s quickly approaching birthday in October. My brother and his wife ordered from a kosher catering company and had traditional Brooklyn/Jewish food. There were pastrami sandwiches, pickles, coleslaw and chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting in addition to the cake I baked. As with any Jewish event there was more than enough food. Adrian and I talked about having a Mexican/Jewish themed birthday for Helen to honor the Jewish side of my family and the Mexican Catholic side of Adrian’s family.
Helen in her non-kosher piglet onesie
I started to get excited thinking about Helen’s birthday. We began saving empty cans of jalapeño peppers for floral arrangements and I bought a pack of Mexican Lotería cards (a traditional Mexican board game similar to bingo) to make into crafty invitations. I obsessed over Pinterest cake ideas and thought that getting balloons that say “uno” instead of “1” would be a cute idea.
Then, in the middle of my excitement, I remembered how much Adrian loves to eat meat and how steak tacos are usually accompanied by fresh cream and cheese. I thought of Adrian’s favorite Mexican dishes that involve chicken and cheese and pork. Then I panicked.
We keep a kosher home but when we eat out we don’t eat kosher. But how was I to explain to him that Helen’s birthday had to follow kosher rules? My family is kosher but his family will also be there. Part of me felt I was being unfair. Part of being kosher sometimes makes it seem like I am making Judaism seem more important than Catholicism, and that’s not fair. But, how do you bend a rule that can’t be broken because of tradition or belief or just out of respect for other family members?
I waited until Adrian got home from work.
“Bebe,” I said, “I’m worried about Helen’s birthday. Maybe we shouldn’t even have a party this year.” I couldn’t believe I was considering cancelling my daughter’s first birthday party so that I wouldn’t have to have an argument about steak enchiladas.
“Why?” Adrian asked, “I thought you wanted to do a big thing the way your brother did.”
“Well, I did, but I’m worried about the food.” I started to bite my nails.
“Stop biting your nails. What about the food?” he said.
“It has to be, well, it’s going to have to be, I mean because of my family we are going to have to have kosher Mexican food.”
Adrian thought for a while before he answered, “What does that entail?”
He knew some of the kosher rules but I reminded him that aside from the meat being kosher we couldn’t mix milk with meat.
“You want meat at the party?” he asked.
“I thought you wanted meat at the party,” I said.
“Why don’t we just do all dairy?” he said.
“What?” I couldn’t believe it. Adrian is a carnivore through and through and I assumed he would want to have something with steak at Helen’s party.
“I mean we can just do cheese enchiladas, guacamole, salsa, chips and have everything be dairy, no meat.”
“I thought you wanted meat!” I yelled in shock.
“I do, but dairy is so much easier!” he shouted back.
Part of the challenge of being in an interfaith relationship is trying never to offend the other person. I was so afraid I would offend Adrian by not having traditional Mexican cuisine at our daughter’s birthday that I looked past the other options in Mexican cooking. Mexico has a wide variety of seasoning and spices and I was looking only at having a kosher party as being a problem and not a bridge between two cultures and traditions. Anyway, Helen’s first birthday is about celebrating the birth of new traditions as well as old. We want to bestow on her a life rich with flavor; a life where the menu has both chicken noodle soup and pozole.
Our son will become a bar mitzvah in about a year, and I imagine that this will be the first in a series of posts about our family’s interfaith bar mitzvah journey. Since he is our oldest and only child, the bar mitzvah and its planning are new territories.
Neither my husband nor I have ever planned a bar mitzvah. For my bat mitzvah, I was responsible for learning my Torah and Haftorah portions, and writing my speech. My husband grew up in an Episcopal home. But more than the planning, it’s that for the first time in 14 years we’re confronting big religious questions, and I feel that same uncertainty that I felt in the early part of my relationship with my husband.
It’s strange to feel this way because for the last dozen years, it has been relatively smooth sailing in the Larkin’s interfaith and Jewish home. Sure we’ve had issues with some extended family members (mostly my Jewish ones) and some challenges around Christmas, acceptance in non-Reform segments of Judaism and dealing with prejudice, but we haven’t had the difficulties that some mixed faith couples have to navigate. Mostly, our decision to have a singularly Jewish home, made before we were engaged, has guided our choices and parenting.
Maybe it’s the significance of the Jewish coming-of-age ritual that makes the questions we must address seem bigger than before. Maybe the questions themselves are more significant. Whatever the case, they weigh heavy on my mind.
Over the years, my husband has said on numerous occasions that if he decides to convert it will be around our son’s bar mitzvah. What always felt like a far off decision point is now upon us. I have never asked my husband to convert, and I don’t care if he does or not, but I understand the weight such a decision has at this moment in our lives.
There are rituals and traditions that my husband will be able to participate in if he does choose to convert before our son’s big day that he would not be able to be fully a part of if he doesn’t convert. For example, he will be able to hold the Torah. I get teary thinking about passing the Torah to my husband and then watching my husband pass it to our son during the service.
I wonder how my husband will feel if he doesn’t formally choose Judaism before the bar mitzvah. Will he feel excluded because he can’t fully participate in the service? Will he be angry and will his anger change how he engages in our Jewish life going forward? Will he regret that he didn’t convert before the bar mitzvah after he experiences the power of the tradition as a parent rather than a spectator?
I suggested that it was time for my husband to talk to one of our rabbis. He agreed but said he would wait until we find out which one will work with our son. Apparently, he is not yet ready to deal with these questions either, and I know that he will be more willing to discuss them with a clergyperson. Sometimes when a spouses poses a question, we feel there is an agenda. When a third party asks the same question, it is just a question.
I’m also concerned about how our Christian family members will participate in the service. I know our synagogue’s clergy are all experienced in working with interfaith families. I know they work to craft as inclusive an experience as possible. But I wonder if some family who are not Jewish will feel hurt, ostracized, excluded or left out? How will we make them feel a part of and the significance of the moment? I already sense a gap.
These are just some of the questions circulating in my mind. I’d feel much better if I knew the answers and could see the outcomes. Instead, I need to navigate these uncertain waters, work with my husband to make thoughtful choices, and let this part of our family’s story unfold. That’s a lot easier said than done.
Before Jack was born, I thought I prepared as much as I could for his bris. With the help of my mother-in-law, Pennye, we compiled a list of invitees, researched kosher caterers, and created to-do lists. Pennye bought paper goods, readied the room with tables and folding chairs, and lots of gauze pads. She also explained the ceremony to my parents so they would know what to expect. (I also had to do some research myself, as I had never been to a bris before.)
Once Jack was born, we were able to set a date for the bris (which takes place on a baby’s eighth day), and she and Sam created the order of the ceremony, finalized the details with the mohel, and gathered RSVPs. Everything was prepared, except me. Nothing could have fully prepared me for that day.
I wasn’t mentally prepared to be one of the centers of attention just three days after coming home from the hospital after giving birth. My brain was mush after a week of not sleeping and trying to adjust to this new lifestyle. All I could think of was whatever Jack required at the moment. Why is he crying and how do I make him stop his crying? Is he hungry? Why is he not eating? Should I swaddle him? Rock him? Change his diaper? There was minimal spare room in my brain to make small talk with the 60+ guests during the bris.
I also wasn’t spiritually ready to hear the mohel (the Hebrew word for someone who performs a ritual circumcision) explain that our son was to be raised Jewish. Part of me knew that our son was to be raised Jewish. I had even said these words out loud. Sam and I had discussed this at length. We came to the conclusion that Jack was to be Jewish and I was comfortable with that decision. But, when the mohel started talking about how this ceremony physically marks Jack as a Jew, for first time it finally sunk in. Our child will not be Catholic; he will not be receiving the sacraments (baptism, first holy communion, etc.). He will not share my spiritual journey or that of my parents. Rather, Jack will be on a similar spiritual path as Sam, one that, despite many discussions and much private study, is still somewhat foreign to me.
Finally, I wasn’t emotionally prepared to hear those painful screams of my first born, as the mohel performed the physical act of Jack’s circumcision. At that moment, I had escaped to the darkness of my bedroom, and was convulsing in tears, wanting it to end. I wanted to comfort him. I wanted to hold him, feed him and tell him that I would protect him from all the harm and dangers in the world. I wanted to create a protective bubble around him, so that he would never ever get hurt again. Instead, the experience made me feel alone and helpless. My body felt like a wreck after the birth, my mind was mush, and now my heart was breaking.
After the mohel finished, Sam brought Jack to me so I could feed him. The three of us shared a quiet moment together before I wiped my tears away, mustered up a smile and brought Jack back to the party, where he was passed around and photographed like a prized possession. I spent the rest of the party making small talk with whatever space was left in my brain.
Looking back, the ceremony was beautiful. Sam’s extended family was there to celebrate, including Jack’s great grandmother, great grandfather and great-great aunt. Jack’s namesake’s daughter spoke wonderfully of her father and wished all of Uncle Jack’s best qualities to be passed on to little Jack. My parents and some of my siblings were in attendance, supporting our decision to raise Jack as a Jew. We even honored both sets of parents during the ceremony. It was wonderful to have everyone here upholding the oldest Jewish tradition, and I have no regrets about our decision to do so, though I wish I could have been more prepared.
When I was a child there were two books I wanted desperately to hear before bedtime. The first was Goodnight Fred. This was a favorite because the grandmother in the book comes out of the telephone to visit Fred and Arthur, her grandsons. I, too, thought my grandmother lived in the telephone and could come out and visit whenever she pleased.
Then there was The Clown of God. This book, written by Tomie De Paola, is about an Italian boy named Giovanni who juggles. He juggles for food and a place to sleep. He spends his whole life juggling and has one fancy trick called “the sun in the heavens,” in which he juggles colorful balls. The last ball he throws into the air is gold like the sun. Then one day he drops the sun in the heavens and he stops juggling. He goes from door to door begging for bread as he once had done as a child. Now that he’s an old man, people don’t care about him. The book is filled with Catholic references. By the end of Giovanni’s journey he ends up at a church for a big religious festival. He has fallen asleep in the church and when he wakes there is a big procession for the statue of the Madonna and her child.
When everyone leaves, Giovanni notices that the Madonna’s son is frowning. So, Giovanni puts on his clown makeup and does his most famous juggling trick in front of the statue. As he throws up the golden ball he shouts, “For you sweet child for you!” Then he drops dead in front of the statue. Two monks run in and find him lying dead on the floor. One of the monks looks at the statue in shock. The statue of the boy in the mother’s lap is smiling and holding the golden ball.
It isn’t surprising that I chose to build my life with a man from Mexico who grew up poor, Catholic and happy. I pretty much looked all my life for Giovanni and found him in Adrian. Instead of juggling, Adrian cooks. He also knows how to enjoy the simple things in life. We have a roof over our heads and we have food in our bellies. We have work. We have a healthy baby girl. These are not small things.
As a child I did not grow up poor. I didn’t grow up Catholic either. I grew up Jewish and most of the time I was happy. I expected more because I was given more as a child. I grew up with big dreams and high hopes and plans. I planned everything. I planned what shoes I was going to wear with what shirt. I planned what job I would have, how much money I would make and whom I was going to marry. I planned to have a baby no later than 25 years of age. I planned to own a house and a summer house by 30. I planned to keep in touch with all of my closest friends from nursery school, first grade, camp, junior high, high school and work. Sometimes, God has other plans. Actually, all of the time God has other plans.
I am 35 years old. Adrian and I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Midwood, Brooklyn. Helen Rose, our little one, wakes up every morning smiling at us from her crib. In our apartment there is a hamsah hanging in our kitchen and a Virgin of Guadalupe in our bedroom. There is a menorah in the living room and a prayer to Jesus in Adrian’s wallet. Good Night Fred and The Clown of God are a part of Helen’s library. These are our riches.
Life surprises me. Growing up Jewish I wish I could say that my most inspirational book was A Tale of Two Seders or Snow in Jerusalem. This is not the case. The book that most inspired me while I was tucked in under my puffy quilt with my Scottie dog wallpaper was The Clown of God. On my journey through Judaism this makes sense. When I began working in restaurants I was most inspired by the kitchen workers, most of whom had left their own countries in search of a better life. In school, I am most inspired by the students who hold down two jobs and have families or the students whose first language isn’t English but are getting an education and getting A’s in every class. I am inspired by the human capacity to overcome struggle.
I feel that people often tend to see goodness as a religious quality. But goodness is a human quality. Goodness is often compared to gold. It is this quality I wish to pass on to my daughter. Having an interfaith family is challenging. It challenges me every day to be more open and aware. It makes me ask questions and urges me to listen. It stops me from making plans and lets life lead me.
My favorite page in Tomie De Paola’s Clown of God is when Giovanni is still a young man and he makes his money juggling. One day he runs into two monks on the way to town. He shares his food with them and they begin to chat:
“Our founder, Brother Francis, says that everything sings of the glory of God. Why, even your juggling,” said one of the brothers.
“That’s well and good for men like you, but I only juggle to make people laugh and applaud,” Giovanni said.
“It’s the same thing,” the brothers said. “If you give happiness to people, you give glory to God as well.”
I wonder if my mother knew while she read me that book that it would take two faiths, not one, to convince me of God and God’s many beautiful and unexpected plans.
Growing up in a small, rural town in northern New Jersey in the ’80s, I never had perfect attendance in school. Not because I was sick or because my family took vacations outside the school calendar, but rather because every fall, I needed to take two days off in observance of the Jewish holidays.
Unlike my friends who grew up in one of the predominantly Jewish parts of our state—where schools are closed for the High Holidays—I was one of about six Jewish families in our entire school district. So for us, school was definitely open and the High Holidays were considered excused absences (but still counted as absences), which meant I’d never have perfect attendance.
Of course, what I share today as a sore spot of my youth seems beyond frivolous now at 36 and a married mother of two. But at the time, it really bothered me. I already knew I was “different” from the other kids.
Sometimes I really loved being unique. For example, my bat mitzvah was the first one my friends who weren’t Jewish had ever been to—it was their inaugural exposure to Judaism and, not surprisingly, it was happily met with rave reviews. After all, what’s not to love? There’s the party and the fancy dresses and the DJ and the neon necklaces and Shirley Temples.
Yet, other than the fact that I missed some school days each fall, or that I attended Hebrew School and had a bat mitzvah (whereas they all went to CCD at the same Catholic church and had confirmations), my religion remained a very personal thing for most of my childhood. It wasn’t until I was getting ready to look at colleges that I realized finding a school with a large Jewish population was going to be really important to me.
I didn’t want to be the only Jewish kid on the block anymore.
And so I accepted an offer from American University in our nation’s capital—affectionately dubbed “Gay Jew” (or at least it was called that when I attended, 1997-2001!). At American, I found myself part of the crowd—religion often came up in conversation (as did politics, internship opportunities and study abroad plans). Suddenly, being Jewish bonded me to others. And later my freshman year, I even dated an NJB (Nice Jewish Boy) for a few months.
I finally felt like I belonged at AU, like I was among my people. And though the university didn’t close for the High Holidays, many professors canceled class, either for their own observances or because they recognized many students would be going home to their families. Instead of being singled out at American, I felt accepted, not having to explain at length why I couldn’t present a group project on Rosh Hashanah. It was just understood.
I didn’t realize just how much that understanding meant to me until I entered the working world in D.C. after graduation. I was naive and didn’t know how things like vacation time/PTO worked–or that they’d vary depending on company. I [wrongly] assumed that I’d be able to take my religious holidays off as personal days, no big deal.
So you can imagine I was none too happy when I learned I’d have to take PTO for the Jewish holidays, as at this particular company, sick, vacation, personal and religious holidays all fell in one PTO bucket. It didn’t seem fair to me when I’d be perfectly willing to work Christmas Day and Christmas Eve—which were considered company holidays.
It was a poignant reminder that, once again, I was back to being in the minority—even in a culturally, religiously, ethnically diverse city like Washington, I still had to “explain” myself.
Years later, when my husband (who isn’t Jewish) and I moved to Kalamazoo for his job, I told my parents, “GREAT. I’ll be the only Jew in Kalamazoo!” And it sure felt that way for a while. My one Jewish friend here was my friend Dana in Chicago, two hours away. But then my husband introduced me to his new colleague, Emily—and said, half-kidding, “She’s Jewish and has curly hair, too; you’ll be best friends!”
And he was right. She is one of my best friends, to this day.
When the ad agency I worked for was acquired by a global marketing firm a couple years ago, one of the best changes to come out of the acquisition was that now religious holidays are counted as personal days, versus PTO. Though I’m still the only Jew in our Kalamazoo office, I no longer feel “alone,” or like I have to explain myself, knowing this is an across-the-board policy.
Which brings me to present day. Our 5-year-old daughter Maya is really into the Jewish holidays, traditional foods and singing the songs I’ve taught her. She can begin Hebrew school this coming fall, and I’m excited to begin her formal Jewish education—but I know how small the Jewish community is here in Kalamazoo. It’s just a tad bit larger than my hometown community was, and I worry about how she’ll feel, being one of just a few Jewish kids in her elementary school.
While I’ve always been proud of who I am and love our faith and its teachings, I remember that hard-to-explain, nagging feeling of not belonging growing up… and it plagues me. Though I know as parents, we shouldn’t project our emotions onto our kids, it’s hard not to when experience is tainting how we feel. Fortunately, the synagogue we will be joining has a lot of young families and even some interfaith families like ours—so I am sure we will get some guidance from those who have gone before us. But it’s hard living in a community where we really are a minority.
It’s my hope that I can instill in her that being “different” is what makes her special—what makes her (and our family) interesting and unique. We might have to explain ourselves to some people, especially living here in the Midwest in a city without many Jewish families, but that’s OK. Who knows, maybe she’ll find her place in college, just like her mama did.
Melissa Henriquez is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now live in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (5) and Ben (2). By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs at Let There Be Light (est. 2008). Melissa’s writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.
Like many parents, for me this time of year signifies both an overwhelming sense of relief (Yesss! No more homework or projects!) and stress (What am I going to do with Roxy and Everett all summer?!?). This year has presented unique challenges for my family because I now work from home and can’t possibly spend my days on the beach with the kids while juggling conference calls and Google Adwords, no matter how much I want to, nor can I physically run around with them at more than six months pregnant. Roxy wants to do “tween” things with her girlfriends and at 9 years old her focus is on nails, music and learning the latest dance craze. Everett at 6-and-a-half prefers to spend his days dreaming up new ways to make his sister crazy by setting up Lego booby traps around the house and playing pranks on her while idolizing every move she makes. The realization of needing summer activities came way too late, and suddenly school was ending and panic set in.
In my perfect world, this would have been the ideal summer for them to both start camp. Overnight camp. JEWISH overnight camp. And I felt like it would have been an uphill battle that only I understood. Their dad thought they were too young for overnight camp. The kids were apprehensive about going away where they didn’t know anyone. My bank account laughed at me after talking to the Reform Jewish camp director and learning how much it would really cost me to send them. We talked about scholarships. I researched it online. I considered asking family for help. But in the end, it was not to be, because the kids had scheduling conflicts with local and family activities that made the discussion a moot point. Yet I ached inside, saddened to know yet another summer would go by without a Jewish camping experience.
Their dad and I finally worked out a plan for the summer and two weeks ago they started camp at our local town recreation center. They are loving their first camp experience, are there with both established and new friends and come home at the end of the day happy and exhausted. They love going on field trips and having action-packed days, but I know in my heart something is missing. My Jewish kids in Maine are completely disconnected to Jewish life now that school is over. Hebrew school doesn’t start up until the fall. There are no holidays to celebrate. With the chaos of living in two houses, I’ll admit that Shabbat just doesn’t happen in our house every week. And when I go on Facebook I feel a twinge of jealousy when friends post pictures of their own happy campers being dropped off at a URJ overnight camp, and status updates of “I got my first letter in the mail from my camper!” because I’m wishing so deeply that Roxy and Everett were part of this tradition.
Everett and Roxy reading a PJ Library book
To add insult to injury, the kids have been obsessed with a book Everett received recently from PJ Library called No Baths at Camp!, which basically follows a child through each day of a Jewish camp experience through the beauty of Shabbat. They are enthralled by this book and the activities presented and take turns reading it to each other, carefully pronouncing the Hebrew words and reveling in the excitement of the Shabbat description presented. I take comfort as they absorb the experience through the words on the pages, yet desperately wish they could be there in person. We talk about it each time using words like “Next summer you’ll get to do this” and “One day you’ll help camp get ready for Shabbat” and “Do you think you’d be good at Israeli dancing?” I long for them to be part of Jewish overnight camp because I know how much of an impact it can have on identity and connection, especially after years of working professionally in the Jewish community. But who knows if I’m going to be able to financially pull it off next summer either. It’s already looking doubtful.
The funny thing is, I never went to camp. I revolted against the idea as a kid, preferring to spend my days on the Jersey shore not recognizing what a precious gift camp could be for me until I was in high school and involved in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and by then it was too late. I was old enough to be a counselor but too old to have created lasting friendships established over years of camp attendance. The majority of my Jewish friends understood this and as we entered adulthood and I recognized what a significant impact Jewish camping had on their lives, I promised myself that when I had children they wouldn’t miss out like I did. Except here I am, a mom of two camp-aged kids with a third on the way and I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen for them. I find this reality painful, especially living in Maine, where they are “the” Jewish kids at camp.
I cried one night when they were at their dad’s house, feeling like I’m failing them. My boyfriend, who isn’t Jewish, comforted me and agreed that if I couldn’t make it happen this summer that next summer was a must, and how good it would be for both of them. To have him truly get why it was so important to me for them to be there means so much, because I know that when it comes time for this baby to be of camp age, there won’t be a question, just love and support. He groans along with me when No Baths at Camp inevitably makes it’s way into the living room, and I catch him laughing listening to them try to pronounce the counselor’s name with an Israeli accent. Matt still doesn’t have a clue about this whole Jewish thing, but he knows that having a connection to Jewish life is pretty important to me and the kids and has made it clear he’ll help me navigate these types of hurdles when and as best he can.
The book is tucked away on the shelf for the time being and this summer I will embrace their first camp joys as well as I can, even if it’s not what I want most for them. Summer is already going by faster than I’d like it to, and before I know it we’ll be preparing backpacks for the first day of fourth and second grade while welcoming this baby into our family. Today I will look at this as a Shecheyanu moment, a thankfulness for new things, growth for all of us and an ever-evolving connection to our faith. It might not be a Jewish overnight camp, but Roxy and Everett have started along their own camp journey, one that will change over time, and maybe just maybe include some Israeli dancing.
I was in the seventh grade when my father died. I had already been asked to leave an Orthodox yeshiva in the fifth grade because I had been a “behavior problem.” I was on my second life at a private school in Brooklyn Heights. Brooklyn Heights is one of the oldest, richest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Truman Capote, Henry Miller and W.H. Auden all lived there. I was not from there, I was not rich and I knew no one. But my school was there and I made my first set of friends who weren’t Jewish.
When my father died I’m not sure that anyone in my new school knew our Jewish customs for mourning. For example, we covered our mirrors to erase vanity. We sat on the floor because when death is upon us the living should not be comfortable. The belief is that we should be uncomfortable because by getting used to discomfort one can learn to go on. We left our doors open for neighbors, friends and family to visit for seven days. This is a period called “shiva” and this word in Hebrew also means “seven.” The traditional mourning period after someone dies lasts for seven days and we call this “sitting shiva.”
I had one friend from this Brooklyn Heights private school who did come to my house to sit shiva. Her name was Liz. She didn’t live near me but she didn’t live in Brooklyn Heights either. Her father drove her to my house and when she got out of the car she looked lost and confused. She was not Jewish but she knew it would mean a lot to me if she came to visit. I can’t remember what we said to each other that day. I only remember that she showed up.
A few months ago Liz texted me to tell me that she’s pregnant with a baby girl, her first. Her due date is October 23 and my baby Helen’s due date this past year was October 24. Liz came over to meet Helen. Over the years we have kept in touch and fallen out of touch and then got back in touch again. Life and its winding roads have kept us close in spirit but not always in body. When Liz met Helen for the first time it was as if my past was meeting my present.
Here’s another strange coincidence. Liz recently moved back to Brooklyn from L.A. and she bought an apartment just three blocks away from where I live. Without knowing it, we have been living back to back for a while. Helen and I went over to drop off some clothes and play with Liz’s dog, Wally. While we were visiting, Liz took out a book I had written for her in the eighth grade. It was an English assignment to write a short book about someone you admire and I had chosen to write about Liz.
Liz read the book out loud to me while sitting pregnant on her couch. Helen chewed a stuffed animal and listened, too. The book was about how we used to hang out in the bathroom and how many times Liz had dyed her hair and how much I admired her for being a good friend. I didn’t recall writing that book. What I did recall was how very lost I felt in the eighth grade.
I felt I had never been Jewish enough for yeshiva, but I wasn’t not Jewish enough for private school in high class Brooklyn Heights. I never felt pretty. I never felt special and I never felt God listened to what I had to say. I felt that God had betrayed me, taken away my father, made my mother unreachable and my brother disappear.
God has a funny way of showing up. This past Sunday was Liz’s baby shower. I attended with Helen and saw four or five people I haven’t seen since the sixth grade. Many of the guests heard me speaking Spanish to Helen and asked where I was from. I told them our backstory. I explained that Helen is Jewish from my family and Mexican Catholic from her Papi’s family. After the shower I went to my mother’s house to visit and watched her coo over the baby.
Helen and Grandma
The Jewish mourning period lasts for seven days but the mourning period for a parent that dies lasts for a year. This is Jewish law. What Jewish law does not say is that sometimes we mourn for a lifetime. Sometimes we mourn the dead for years and then we mourn ourselves. We mourn who we were and more so who we weren’t or who we didn’t know how to be. When my father died and Liz came up on my porch to sit shiva that was the seed that stayed in my heart. A girl from outside of my religion and culture came to visit during a crucial time in my life. I was 12 1/2 on my mother’s porch that day. Today I am 35. Today I understand that compassion is not one religion and neither is God.
This afternoon on my way to work I stopped inside a church. It is a small church very near the famous Brooklyn Heights. I stopped in to meditate and ask for guidance. Though I pray in synagogue I often find that churches have a much more calming effect on my spirit. There was a woman in the church praying and I took a seat in the back. She was the only other person there and I don’t think she felt me come in. Sometimes I say a Hebrew prayer, sometimes a Buddhist prayer, but today I closed my eyes and began the Prayer of St. Francis. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” As my eyes were closed I could hear the woman begin to cry. Her crying turned into sobs. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love…” I opened my eyes and the woman was lying on the floor faced down. She had thrown herself in front of a statue of Mary and was crying into her own arms.I wanted to hug her, to reach down and say, “Miss, is there anything I can do?” But, my 12 1/2-year-old self was already lying on the ground with her… “Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith…”
Then I began the Hebrew prayer called Shemah Yisrael, (Hear, O Israel), which I usually sing when I feel sadness, just as I sang it every night before bed as a child. The second verse came to me immediately: “Two thousand years is a very long exile. The time has come for it to end…”