Should Birthdays Be Jewish?


Springtime in my house rarely means flowers and warmer weather – after all, we do live in Maine and snow is still in the forecast. Instead, spring signifies celebration, as April brings both Roxy’s birthday and my birthday. This year she’s hitting the big NINE, a milestone unto itself as it’s the last year my firstborn stays in the land of single digits, before tweenhood truly hits. My baby girl is growing into this very cool, very independent, sassy, funny and smart 9-year-old.

I, on the other hand, am internally melting down. While we plan a fashion party for the girl, my own birthday, just two weeks after hers, is a big one. The big Four-OH. I’m in denial, of course. Not that I think 40 is an awful age to be, it’s more remembering the picture of 40 I had in my head when I was 9.  I don’t quite feel “old enough” to be celebrating four decades.

I can clearly remember my own mom turning 40, having a party and what a big deal it was. Yet here I am, about to cross that threshold, and my kids will create their own memories of my special day, and my life certainly doesn’t feel like that mental picture I had years ago. But Roxy (and my son, Everett) are truly excited, and she’s already asked me a million times when is it her turn to go up onto the bimah for her birthday – and oh yeah, Mommy – you have to come, too.

Roxy Makes a Wish

Roxy when she was 4, making a wish

The second Friday of each month, Shabbat services at my synagogue are considered a family service, with an earlier start time, family-friendly liturgy instead of the regular prayerbook, participation by the kids in the service and of course – the all-important monthly birthday blessing. Congregants who are celebrating a birthday in that given month are invited up to the bimah to receive a special birthday blessing followed by everyone singing “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew. Roxy has been beside herself for months, waiting on edge ’til it’s her turn, and next Friday she finally gets her wish.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that she’s so concerned about including a Jewish ritual into our birthday celebrations, and in a way it makes me feel great to know that she’s so in tune with her Jewish identity that it’s a given to her that of course we’re going to get birthday blessings. But there’s a piece of me that never would have even considered this. Would I have bothered to go get my own birthday blessing if it wasn’t so important to Roxy? I’m not convinced I even would have thought of it.

Roxy at 9 years old

Roxy at 9 years old

The kids split their time between my house and their dad’s house 50/50, with alternating days during the week and every other weekend – and next weekend – the birthday blessing weekend, they will be with their dad (who is also Jewish). He will take them to services (he wouldn’t dare not do this and suffer the wrath of the 9-year-old).

I will meet them there, because if I don’t show up to get my birthday blessing with Roxy, she’d be devastated. I will hold her hand, I will smile and I will probably tear up, not because it’s so meaningful to me, but because it is to her. I will stand there proudly with my daughter as the congregation chants “Keyn y’he ratzon” (be this God’s will) in response to the rabbi’s recitation of the Ancient Priestly Benediction, blessing us with God’s protection, favor and peace. I will absorb the words and the warmth as a reminder of tradition and community as I stand with her in a long line of history and culture. I will take comfort in knowing that as we celebrate our birthdays, small and big and everything in between, our Judaism connects us in a way that makes us feel so very different and yet the same.

At the end of the service, we’ll enjoy the sweetness of an oneg (post-service) brownie, I will hug and kiss her goodbye and wish them Shabbat shalom and to enjoy their weekend until I see them again Sunday night. I will get in my car and come home to Matt in our now interfaith home, where birthday blessings aren’t a given, and we don’t always think of religion as a way to celebrate the turning of a new age. My secular world and Jewish world continue to collide through the eyes of my children, and I’m grateful in this moment that they are the ones teaching the adults around them, finding the holy in the life moments that we create with each other.


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Choosing to Celebrate Love on Easter Sunday

Ruthie's Purim grogger nestling in with her Easter eggs

Ruthie’s Purim grogger nestling in with her Easter eggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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My Dad, Elijah and the Afikomen

My father and brother

My father and brother

Spring means color. Splashing greens and yellows. Purple tulips cascading over front porches and red robins bustling in the trees. Spring also means Easter for Christians, with blue and violet painted eggs. It means Passover for the Jews. For South Americans and Mexicans it means Semana Santa (the days of Jesus’s crucifixion). For me, it is a season shrouded in black. It is the green/grey eyes of my father, his brown hush puppies scuffling across the carpet. It is the ivory keys of his baby grand piano.

My father loved the spring. He loved it for three reasons. The first is that he could smoke outside again without freezing his fingers off. The second is that he could go fishing and play golf in the same day and still get home in time to practice playing his Chopin. But mostly my father loved Passover. Purim came and went in our neighborhood but Passover was an event to be reckoned with.

Every year my mother would slowly begin changing the dishes from our regular meat and dairy dishes to the “Passover dishes” (because the holiday of Passover has its own dietary laws). This meant that my brother and I would have to carefully carry 10 full cardboard boxes up from the basement. They contained pots, pans, plates, glasses and my grandmother’s heavy black roasting pot. Ancient silverware passed down from our ancestors was in one box along with glasses, cups, a traditional seder plate and a tray for matzah. In another box there was a cup for Elijah (a biblical prophet who makes his presence known in the middle of Passover dinner). One box contained breakfast tools; my Grandma Helen’s eggbeater and my Grandma Rosie’s potato peeler.

When these boxes came up from the basement my mother would begin the preparations for the first seder night and the days to follow. She would make her menu and call the cleaning lady to ask her to come the day before.

My father would sit regally at his piano. He would sneak pieces of matzah from the boxes my mother had put aside and dip them in cream cheese or tuna. Then he would bang out Beethoven on his Steinway or he would ask us to sing.

“Baby Face” was a song I knew all the words to because my grandmother would sing it to me. My father could play that song by heart and make our house sound like a ragtime bar. He also loved musicals and ballads. There was one song called “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” which was first published in 1910 but was popular in the late 1930s. I loved to sing that song sitting next to my father on his piano bench, while my mother changed the dishes and my brother roamed around outside.

My father would start, “Oh, say, let us fly girl” and I would say, “Where dear?” and Pop would smile and say “To the sky dear,” and we would sing for days. Sometimes when Passover would finally arrive we would do the whole duet for the guests while my mother was roasting the brisket and adding cinnamon to the kugel.

My father smoking his Marlborough Reds

My father smoking his Marlboro Reds

And what I remember is the smell of our house during those spring days. Onions, garlic, rosemary and cumin wafted up the stairs and out the front door. There was the metallic hint of chopped liver, the eye-piercing strength of horseradish and the kosher wine fumes mixed with my father’s Aqua Velva after-shave and Marlboro Red tobacco. There was the smell of my mother’s perfume, grassy and effortless, and the musky velvet of my brother’s yarmulke.

Then Passover would emerge. My cousins, my aunt and uncle, my grandmother and family friends would gather around my mother’s seder table to read the story of how the Jews escaped Egypt, how Moses parted the Red Sea so that our people could cross over to the other side.

In Brooklyn, we sing songs and read this story. My father, who was big in every way (he had been an actor and had a voice that bellowed through the walls) would shout this story in Hebrew. Then he would point to me and say, “And now Anna will say the four questions.” It is a Jewish tradition that the youngest person at the seder table asks four questions. And there are so many traditions that accompany this holiday. Elijah the prophet has a cup placed for him in the middle of the Passover seder table. The front door is opened for him and it is said his spirit passes through each house and he drinks from the cup. Elijah’s cup is called the “silent cup” and as a child I would open the door for Elijah and after I closed it I would run back to the table to see if the wine had a ripple in it or if it was less full.

There is also the tradition of the afikomen. This is the middle piece of matzah and each year in my family, in the middle of the service, my uncle hides it and the youngest child has to find it. When it is found, the child can ask for money in exchange for returning the middle matzah. Since I was a girl, my uncle has always hidden the matzah in his inner suit jacket pocket. When he takes his jacket off to eat I steal it.

Last year on Passover I was pregnant with my little Helen Rose. No one knew except for my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law. My father has been gone for over 20 years. His soul went to G-d on August 23, 1994. I was almost 13. My uncle is his older brother. I turned 34 last year and was the youngest at our seder table. When my uncle took his jacket off to begin eating his meal, I stole the afikomen.

I have a Mexican Catholic partner. I am not married. I am Jewish. These three facts do not define who I am. I am much more than that.

Last year as my uncle reached into his jacket pocket to take out the afikomen I held it up with a shaky hand at the other side of the table. My uncle went to Crown Heights Yeshiva, as did my father. We come from a long line of Jewish beliefs, customs, traditions and schools of thought. I desired one thing for the afikomen and it wasn’t money.

“This year,” I began as my uncle sat quietly at the head of the table, “this year I want something in return for the afikomen. But this year I don’t want money. This year Uncle Jeff, I want your blessing. I’m pregnant and the baby is due in October and I’m so happy.

My Aunt Claire jumped out of her chair. My brother and his wife looked down at the table; they were expecting twins in August. My mother looked at the wall. My cousin Arnold’s mouth fell open. My uncle, who fought in Korea and jumped out of planes, who married my aunt when she was 18 and moved to Long Island and raised a traditional Jewish family, turned to me with his eyes that look so similar to my own father’s and said, “Mazal Tov kid. Congratulations.”

My partner Adrian and I live in a small Brooklyn apartment with our little Helen Rose. We keep the traditions of my family. We go to Rockaway and fish every summer. Adrian smokes Marlboro Reds or Camels. On Passover, my mother’s house still smells like roasted onions. On Rosh Hashanah we eat apples and honey and on Hanukkah we light the menorah. When spring arrives we buy Helen painted eggs and stuffed bunnies. For Christmas we make traditional Mexican holiday food. This year at Helen’s first seder we will place a cup of wine in the middle of the table and when I open the door for the prophet, perhaps my father will walk inside as well. Maybe he’ll steal a piece of matzah, sit at the piano bench and watch the new generation celebrate its new customs and its old ones. Maybe he’ll whisper “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” into Helen’s ear. After all, spring was always his favorite time of year and Passover his favorite holiday.


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Purim and My Mexican American Jewish Newborn


A Purim Carousel in Brooklyn

Purim in my neighborhood is an extravaganza. Limousines crowd the streets and rabbles of teenagers run in and out of houses dressed up as the main characters in the Purim story.

A quick summary for those who are not familiar: There is Vashti, who is dethroned by the King Ahasuerus. Then Esther becomes the new Queen after she wins a beauty contest, which she doesn’t even dress up for (she’s THAT beautiful). Mordechai is her cousin (probably equally beautiful) and he figures out that some people are trying to kill the king. Then Haman (the evil one in the story) gets promoted to be the head official by the king, but he hates the Jewish people. Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman and then in turn Haman makes it his life goal to destroy the Jewish people. Mordechai asks Esther for help. She invites the King and Haman to a banquet and when they attend she invites them to a second banquet. At the second banquet she asks the King to have mercy on her people and accuses Haman of his wrongdoings. Haman is then sentenced to death on the very same gallows he had himself made to kill the Jewish people.

The more daring ones in my neighborhood dress as Haman. The more beautiful dress as Esther. Occasionally, a Vashti costume will be thrown into the mix. But most popular are Mordechai and the King.

My partner Adrian and I live three blocks away from my mother with our newborn girl, Helen Rose. Last year, we remembered to call my mother on Purim to heed the warning: “Listen Ma, remember if the doorbell rings don’t answer it. It’s just the kids who like to dance around everyone’s living room to celebrate Purim.”

My mother ignored us as usual.

“Holy cow!” The phone call came from her at 9 p.m. She yelled over the tooting of horns and the rattling of groggers. “The doorbell rang and I thought it was you guys,” she screamed. “Next thing I know there’s about twenty Orthodox Jewish boys dressed as biblical characters dancing around my living room! I gotta go before someone breaks something.” She hung up.

That’s how Purim goes in Midwood, Brooklyn.

Adrian, who is Mexican-Catholic, asks me, “Is it like Halloween?”

I laugh, “Well sort of but we really put Halloween to shame.” And we do. Forget about goblins and ghouls. We make hamantaschen, triangle-shaped cookies that symbolize Haman’s death. (Haman wore a hat shaped like a triangle.)

“Well, what did you wear for your first Purim?” Adrian enquires. I laugh again and think back.

The first official Purim I celebrated was at the Orthodox Yeshiva I attended as a girl. It was first grade and every girl wanted to go as Esther. It’s like the newest Disney character but she’s thousands of years old. I wanted to be different and I hated wearing dresses even though I had to wear one to school every day. Here was my chance to break out! Instead of going to school dressed as Esther like every other girl I went dressed as the castle.

My mother walked me to The Variety Store on Avenue M and Mr. Miller showed me where the colorful oak tag was. I bought two pieces of hot pink oak tag and punched holes in the top of each piece. Then I used string to tie the pieces together and put them over my head. I drew windows and a door and that was it. I was the castle. It was funny but not as funny as Stephen, a boy in my class, who dressed up as Vashti the banished Queen. I think I saw him on Ru Paul’s Drag Race a few years ago.

“We’re not dressing Helen as a castle,” Adrian says.

 “No kidding,” I answer.

Baby Helen celebrates Purim

Baby’s first Purim!

Traditionally speaking, the kids in my neighborhood usually only dress up as characters from the Purim story. I suppose we could put Helen in something different and I suggest this to Adrian.

“How about a piece of challah bread?” he asks.

 “What?” I say pretending not to hear him.

 “Challah bread,” he continues, “It’s kosher, it’s traditional and it’s my favorite!”

“Yeah, because that’s not embarrassing at all,” I add.

Adrian smiles, lifts up the baby and says, “Challah por favor!”

Trying to explain Purim is not easy. For starters G-d’s name is not mentioned once in the entire book. Does this mean G-d is not present? It actually means the opposite, that G-d is ALWAYS present and for this reason Esther and Mordechai are able to save the Jewish people. Also, there’s the part about the Megillah. The Megillah is the scroll of Esther and tells the Purim story. This scroll is read on the evening Purim begins as well as the next morning. In Midwood, young Orthodox Jewish boys of about 10 and 12 years old stop people on the street to ask:

“Are you Jewish?”

 On my walk to my mother’s house every year I answer, “Yes.”

 Then the boys say, “Have you heard the Megillah this year?”

Because I do not attend synagogue on Purim I say no and they ask to read the entire scroll of Esther to me standing on the corner of East 23rd Street and Avenue M.

The scroll of Esther can take some time and there is even a Jewish saying, “It’s like he read the whole Megillah,” referring to how long something can take. But, every year I say, “Yes, boys, please read.”

And this is the most beautiful part of Purim. That two boys who are 10 and 12 years old know it is a good deed to read the story of Esther to a wandering Jew on the streets of Brooklyn. And because they are Yeshiva boys they speed read their Hebrew out loud as if to prove the “whole Megillah” saying wrong.

This year I can’t wait to take the baby on a walk through the streets of Midwood during Purim. I wonder what those boys will say. “Is she Jewish?”

 “Yes,” I will answer.

 “Has she heard the Megillah this year?”

 And because she does not attend synagogue with her mother on Purim I will say no and they will ask to read the entire scroll of Esther to her. Then they will ask, “What will you dress her up as?” and I will smile and say, “Challah bread, we were thinking challah bread…or a hamantaschen cookie.”

Happy Purim, everyone! From the Mexican-American-Jewish-Newborn and her family.


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Bernie Sanders: American Jew, Not the Other Way Around


Bernie CookieAs my son and I watched coverage of Super Tuesday, I mentioned that regardless of whether or not Bernie Sanders got the Democratic nomination or won any states on this big voting day, he made history as the first Jewish presidential candidate to win a primary. As the results rolled in, I amended my comment, “He’s the first Jewish presidential candidate to win more than one primary. That’s cool.”

My 11-year-old responded in a sarcastic voice, “Of course, no one knows Bernie is Jewish.”

I was surprised by my son’s remark. In his younger, pre-tween days, he would have thought that a serious presidential contender who was Jewish was “awesome” and would probably have been pro-Bernie just because he was Jewish.

Now, on the cusp of teen-hood, he was more discerning and shrewd and often offered sharp analysis of situations and events–all good things. But his comment made me wonder if he was bothered by the fact that Sanders didn’t wear his Jewishness on his sleeve.

“Does it bother you that Bernie doesn’t talk about his Jewish identity more?” I asked.

“No,” my son said.

I wasn’t convinced. “Do you think that because he doesn’t talk about being Jewish on the campaign trail that his Jewish identity isn’t important to him?” I probed.

“No. I’m proud to be Jewish, but I don’t talk about being Jewish all the time at school. But still, everyone knows I’m Jewish and if they have questions about Judaism or Jewish rituals they ask me.”

“Ok, well, maybe Bernie feels the same way,” I suggested. “My guess is that he is proud to be Jewish and would acknowledge he’s Jewish if asked, but feels he doesn’t need to talk about his Jewishness all the time. My sense is that he wants to talk about the issues facing our country and not about his faith or religious identity.”

My son didn’t respond. As I watched him think about what I said, I felt that while he agreed with it, there was something that bothered him about Sanders’ minimal display of his religious identity, but he couldn’t put into words what rubbed him.

It is likely that there are other Jews who, like my son, want Sanders to identify more strongly as a Jewish American. And there are probably many, who like me, are OK with Senator Sanders’ seeming choice to identify as an American Jew.

It was 56 years ago that a Democratic presidential candidate named John F. Kennedy asked the nation to see him as an American Catholic, not a Catholic American. In September 1960, at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was high, Kennedy delivered a major speech to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston on the issue of his religion. An excerpt follows. You can read the full transcript here.

“While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election: the spread of Communist influence…the humiliating treatment of our president and vice president by those who no longer respect our power; the hungry children I saw in West Virginia; the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills; the families forced to give up their farms; an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space. These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers. But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured…So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in…I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office…But let me stress again that these are my views. For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic…”

For me, the fact that Bernie’s religious identity is a non-issue is as historic as his primary wins. Unlike Kennedy, Bernie can talk about the issues and not his religion. And that signals that even though there have been recent incidences of anti-Semitism and there are still country clubs and other organizations that excluded us, Jews have achieved the kind of acceptance that our ancestors who fled religious persecution in Eastern Europe, Russia and other areas of the world dreamed of.

After our conversation, I shared Kennedy’s speech with my son. After reading it, he said it gave the religious identity issue more context and he understood how it laid the groundwork for a candidate like Sanders. He said it didn’t bother him that Bernie didn’t speak about his Jewishness more often and he saw why it’s important to celebrate the success of this Democratic candidate for president, who also happens to be Jewish.


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My Catholic Boyfriend Moves In

Matt and Amy

The day Matt met Amy’s kids

In post-divorce life, it occurred to me that it had been over 13 years since the last time I went on a date. Not only did I have no idea what I was doing in this new life, but the rules had changed. Online dating was the norm, and as a busy mom of two who still didn’t have a very large network here in Maine, it was the reality of meeting people and getting back out there. I fully intended to find love in my life again with a significant other and didn’t rule out the possibility that one day maybe I’d even remarry, but in the meantime I wanted to have FUN, boost my confidence a little and learn about myself in the process.

I signed up for myriad online dating sites, and even allowed my mom to convince me to join JDate, knowing that the prospects of meeting a Jewish man where I live were pretty slim, and even laughable when my 100 percent match on the site was my ex-husband. After my Jewish/Jewish marriage ended, I wasn’t focused on finding a lifelong mate – and honestly never thought twice about interfaith dating. After all, most of my past boyfriends weren’t Jewish, and besides, I didn’t want to close myself off to the possibility of meeting someone great who might not share in my religious beliefs.

So my dating adventure began. It was sometimes downright disastrous and funny, often thought provoking, and even yielded a handful of friendships. Some of these dates turned into short-lived relationships; others etched their way into my heart and stuck around for a long time. But through it all there was one constant: My children come first and they will not be part of my dating life.

It’s not that the kids were clueless and thought that Mommy sat home every night that they weren’t with me. (I share residency with their dad 50/50 so the idea of having time to go out was new to ME too!) But their concept of mommy having a boyfriend was that I loved listening to Adam Levine sing on the radio. Roxy, being almost 9, was a little more intuitive, realizing that just maybe I was going on dates and was sometimes even brave enough to ask me about it. Everett’s 6 and cares more about playing Legos and avoiding girls with cooties, so with him it was a non-issue. My answers to Roxy were always vague, even when I was in a relationship with someone, because I had no intention of crossing that line. I didn’t want the kids to feel threatened that my affection was going elsewhere, I didn’t want them to be freaked out that there could be another male figure in their lives knowing they were still dealing with the aftermath of divorce, and quite honestly, they are the center of my universe. No man was going to be remotely part of their lives unless I knew he was “the one” and not going anywhere for a long, long time. My separate dating life remained that way and it was perfect.

Until the day I met Matt.

There’s that whole cliché of when you meet your person, your future, your soulmate and you just KNOW. There’s no explanation, there’s no magic formula and sometimes it just happens. Usually when you least expect it. In Yiddish there’s a term for this, called finding your “bashert.” And when I met Matt, well, just like that the rules changed. Because I knew. And he knew. But we’ve both been there, done that, so there’s no rush for something sparkly on my ring finger, even with the knowing.

Everett with ice cream

Everett with his giant ice cream

We treaded carefully with the kids – both with his son and my two kids. I told them he existed, and their questions were: Does he make you happy and treat you nice? My thoughtful children made their first meeting easy and fun, as we joined friends at a major league baseball game. Everett conned Matt into buying him a giant ice cream and Roxy wormed her way into being his bestie. Relief and easy banter between the three of them over the months since has become the norm, with all three kids getting to know one another, Matt meeting my family, the kids and I meeting his family, and daily life has gone on without missing a beat. They accept each other fully and the kids don’t even think twice about Matt not sharing the same faith.

It’s more than I could have hoped for, finding a love like this and learning what makes us family. We made the decision that over the next few weeks, Matt will be moving in, because the reality is that being together, in the same place, just makes sense. It wasn’t an easy decision to come to, because first and foremost this is where THEY live. I sat them down and talked to them about it last week, letting them know about this new plan. I was nervous to tell them, but shouldn’t have been as they simultaneously cheered and when I asked if they had any questions about this new living arrangement, their only concern was: Please tell me he’s bringing his TV because it’s bigger. We can get more channels now, right?!? Oh my cable-deprived children will be quite all right with this transition, but as I look around my house, I’ve come to some realizations.

As I write this post, today is two years since I bought this house, built from the ground up with decisions made by me AND the kids on what color the roof should be, what kind of countertops, what flooring. I made this house happen somehow on my own, one of the scariest, bravest things I’ve ever done. Yet up until this point it has never felt truly like home. We live here, it has our stuff in it, but the thought of Matt moving in and us decorating and rearranging furniture truly excites me. Being able to share in the process with someone is special and turning this space into warmth and family and comfort? I have no words to describe what that means to me. I’m ready for this next phase but also know there’s going to be plenty of questions and discussions as we start this part of the journey.

Some of my many pieces of Judaica

Some of my many pieces of Judaica

I have always had a Jewish house. The kids and I are Jewish and I worked professionally in the Jewish community for a long time, so I guess it makes sense. There’s a mezuzah on the front door. There’s a whole shelf in the living room filled with Jewish ritual objects, from menorahs to Kiddush cups to Havdalah sets. I have a pile of artwork, some in Hebrew that I still haven’t gotten around to hanging up. There are wall hangings and wooden camels brought back from trips to Israel. There are yarmulkes and Siddurs (prayer books) on bookshelves in several rooms. There’s no question when you walk in that Jews live here. And I never questioned it before now.

I can’t think of even one of my friends of another faith, especially here in Maine, who have homes that I’d walk into and immediately be able to identify them as Christian. I don’t know many people who keep crosses on their walls or Buddhist altars in their mudrooms. Yet I have a Jewish house, one that my Irish Catholic boyfriend will soon move into. I know that we will find a balance with his comfort zone, and that come December, where the Christmas tree will go. My Jewish home will morph into something that will reflect all of us, with each of us adding pieces of ourselves to the blank canvas of the rooms and walls that surround us.

Matt and I might not share the same religion, but I’m hopeful that as we continue to grow as a couple, the one thing people will notice when they walk into my house a month from now, six months from now, is that it’s really a home, filled with joy and love and understanding.


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Do We Need an Interfaith Community?


Family walking

Where do Jewish-Christian interfaith families turn to find a community of like-minded souls? A church and a synagogue? A third-space option such as Unitarian Universalism, or an interfaith Sunday school that includes both traditions? What about muddling through without religious community, either due to living largely secular, busy lives or an inability to find out what might work best?

These questions have been on my mind lately as my family has participated in a tiny, fledgling interfaith group in Chicago’s North Shore. The group started enthusiastically last summer with a planning meeting and several families, only to see attendance decline over the course of the fall.

What happened to the initial enthusiasm? The group met monthly, alternating between a local synagogue and Episcopal church, both of which congregations had histories of friendliness to intermarried couples and families. We gathered for an hour once a month, with crafts for our children and conversation about holidays for the parents.

The idea—to learn about holidays based on the liturgical years of Judaism and Christianity—seemed promising at the start. Holidays offer one of the easiest entrees into an unfamiliar religious community, so the topic held promise.

Yet over the course of the fall, participation drifted away. My family attended eagerly at first, but at the second meeting, and then the third, my children wondered where we were going. Who would we see? Which church was this again, and had they been there before? Why couldn’t they stay with their parents, and why did they have to go off and do crafts with a babysitter they couldn’t remember? I sympathized with their questions: Even with nametags, I didn’t feel confident that I remembered the other participants from month to month.

One afternoon in December, both of my kids had colds and felt exhausted from their swimming lessons earlier that Sunday morning. My husband wanted to stay home and cheer on his favorite football team in their run for the playoffs, and knowing how he felt about his team, didn’t want to drag him away from the important event.

As it turned out, only one family attended that afternoon, a new family looking for an interfaith community. No one else, except the clergy, were in attendance to greet or welcome them.

What had happened? The group started with perhaps a conflicting set of goals. Would the group offer a “third option” for interfaith families along the model of The Interfaith Union School in Chicago or Washington, D.C.,’s Interfaith Families Project? What would be the role of the two clergy who offered so generously of their time? Certainly, they each welcomed all the families to their own congregations, a Reform Jewish congregation and a liberal Episcopalian parish.

The success of groups like this require families like mine to think about these questions, even if obliquely. What kind of interfaith community do we want? Do we want a third space option through which our children can learn about both traditions? And wouldn’t this option be convenient: we hardly have the time or clarity to set down roots in one congregation in one tradition, much less in a third?

For families already involved in other congregations in the area, the idea that they could also find both time and emotional energy to invest in a new “third space” option alongside other religious commitments boggled my mind. If any family can find time for possibly three religious groups, plus the myriad other activities with which modern family life consumes itself—from work to school, friends, sports, extra-curricular activities and other options unexplored—my family wasn’t one of them.

In fact, my family’s consistent participation in organized religion remains a question mark. While our daughters dance on Saturday mornings and swim on Sundays, what sometimes seems to be a slippery slide into being religious “nones” dances around the edges of our schedule. As much as we love our children, we parents long to do other things with our mornings: visit museums, go on bike rides when the weather warms, and as we make this list, finding religious community slips farther down on the list. Our dance steps falter and we crash headlong against the difficulty of doing even most of what we would like to do, much less doing it all.

I don’t know what will happen to this particular fledgling interfaith religious community. So many variables come into play as each family decides what to do with their own lives, schedules and priorities: to participate in religious community, or not participate at all? How to fit in what can seem like just one more activity, one more commitment among the many deserving possibilities that need our time?

No one family’s answer will fit for all, but perhaps, with luck and effort, enough similarities will emerge and a way forward will coalesce for a critical mass of interfaith parents and children.

How has your interfaith family answered the challenge of religious community in a busy world?


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Healing the World is Our Every Day


Last Spring, I had the privilege of representing my synagogue at a remarkable social justice conference organized by the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, called Consultation on Conscience. Highlights included three days of world leaders, Jewish and not, educating the attendees about social justice issues, workshops on making a difference in our communities, luncheons for idea sharing between congregations and lobbying on Capitol Hill.

I flew to Washington, DC, without the kids, explaining that mommy was going to be learning about different ways to help people with a whole bunch of others from synagogues around the country. They didn’t flinch knowing I’d be away for half a week, because by now, my kids have figured out that their mom’s DNA is made up of living tikkun olam, “healing the world” – and that it was going to make me happy to be able to teach them what I learned and hopefully as a family put it into action. Little did they know how much of an impact this conference would have on all of us, almost a year later, or what we’d ALL learn by doing.

Roxy doing tikkun olam

Roxy learning about the environment during tikkun olam program

I came home energized, with a renewed passion for social justice, which is what these types of events are supposed to do. There was an expectation that in return for my attendance at the conference, I would implement some kind of program or event at my synagogue. What has followed throughout the summer and into the school year has been a comprehensive three-pronged tikkun olam program once a month in place of regular Hebrew school classes involving education, action and advocacy for grades 1-6.

I’m so proud to watch it grow each month, as we explore topics together as families that the kids themselves asked to work on; things like hunger and homelessness, animal welfare and the environment. These topics are explored a step further by looking at them with a Jewish lens, and what Judaism teaches us about how to react, question and more. What makes this truly unique is that we’re doing this specifically as a FAMILY program, at a Reform congregation where the membership here in Maine is probably at least 60% interfaith families (it truly may be higher), and EVERYONE participates.

It’s a special thing to see parents and children (as young as 6 to 12 years old) discussing difficult issues, trying to come up with solutions, learning together and recognizing that no matter if Dad is Jewish and Mom is not, or Grandma and Grandpa take the kids to Hebrew school because neither parent feels closely connected – that there’s a place for everyone at the table because we’re all in this world together. We remove politics from the picture and let the kids be the stars of the show. Their voices are heard loudly and clearly as we give the kids the chance to speak their minds and be heard, in a world where adults often tell kids how they should feel or what they should think. While the Jewish concepts bring us together, it’s the issues the kids care about deeply that unite us.

Everett gardening

Everett learning about environment during tikkun olam program

After a recent monthly program that they were particularly excited about, Roxy and Everett (my kids) asked me if Matt (my boyfriend who is not Jewish) knew what tikkun olam was. And I had to answer them honestly and say no (at which point they freaked out at me and thought it was crazy) because it occurred to me that not once over the course of our relationship have I explained to him what’s become a pretty central concept in our family. It’s not like he doesn’t know that I go to my synagogue every couple weeks and work on putting together the activities for these programs. It’s not like he doesn’t know that I’m involved in planning this stuff. It’s not like he doesn’t know that volunteering and helping others is something the kids and I do. It’s not like he doesn’t know any of these things about me or the kids. But I’ve never said to him the words tikkun olam, and I’m not quite sure why.

The kids seem to create their own separations between what is their “Jewish” life and what is their “secular” life, knowing that often times things bleed together. I have a harder time creating a separation, because so much of my life is formed by my Jewish identity, yet when it comes to my relationship, the kids think it’s clear cut. Sometimes I still think I’m living in a weird gray area where I wish I didn’t have to explain things – to him OR to the kids. In those moments I step back and remind myself of what happens during those programs, when the families are coming together from different backgrounds and religions and are still one cohesive unit. And I remind myself, this is truly what family is: learning with and about one another as we grow together. Tikkun olam isn’t always just healing the giant world, it’s also healing our OWN worlds as we find ways to explain ourselves one another.


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Jewish Mourning: A Lesson for My Newborn



When I was 8 years old I had a good friend who lived around the corner from me. His name was Nachshon. We took the same school bus to school and at the Orthodox Yeshiva we attended we were in the same class. I went to his house often after school to play video games or just to hang out. He rarely came to my house. My family was not religious enough for his family even though we had a kosher home and my parents tried hard to educate us in Judaism. My parents were liberals. They had been actors and met on stage. They believed in finding out about oneself both inside and outside of the religion. For this reason the Jewish community at my Yeshiva rejected many of my parents’ beliefs and therefore my brother and I were rejected as well, though in a subtler manner.

I was allowed into Nachshon’s home where the rules of kosher/non-kosher, religious and non-religious were in tact and could not be stirred. He was, however, not allowed into my own home. At 8 years of age I didn’t care. He had a Nintendo and my brother and I did not. He had better toys, better games and carpeting in his basement. He had what I didn’t have, or so it seemed.

Then something happened to Nachshon, or rather something happened to his father. One day Nachshon didn’t show up to school. In the middle of Torah study that morning our teacher told us all to put on our coats, we were going somewhere. Once outside we boarded a yellow bus. The bus twisted and turned through the sooty Brooklyn streets until we were close to my own neighborhood. We ended up in front of Nachshon’s residence.

I had been to his house many times before but never with my whole class. There were twenty of us: the girls dressed in long skirts and long sleeved shirts, the boys with yarmulkes, black pants and white shirts. We looked like a sea of exclamation points shuffling through the small doorway. The house was dark and the mirrors had been covered with black fabric. There were low boxes on the floor in the living room for the family members to sit on. It was then I realized what we were doing there. We went, as a class to sit shiva. Shiva is the traditional Jewish mourning period. It usually lasts for seven days and family members sit on the floor or on low boxes, they cover their mirrors and in my neighborhood they leave the door open for visitors to come and go. It is a “mitzvah,” a good deed to sit shiva. As a child it is terrifying.

Nachshon looked small in his own home surrounded by guests from all over the neighborhood. His father had been sick for a long time. No one knew any of the details. He died of some kind of cancer and now the closest family members sat around the living room on low boxes reciting his name and weeping.

That year I stopped going to Nachshon’s house to play. He didn’t speak to me in school. I heard that his mother wanted him to hang around only very religious Orthodox Jewish boys and girls. I was not in that category. The next year I was kicked out of the Yeshiva and I didn’t see him again for a long time. Then one day something happened to me, or rather something happened to my father.

I saw Nachshon again four-and-a-half years later at a shiva for my own father. He showed up on the front porch with sad eyes, dressed in a black suit, his yarmulke a patch of crimson velvet on his head.

“I’m so sorry about your father,” he said. It was the first time he had ever been to my house. Death had brought him there. Death, sympathy and compassion had overcome my “not Jewish enough” family. Though he came on his own. There was no school bus, no long skirts following his lead. He came alone. It was the last time I ever saw him. I felt as if his presence was an apology.

Today I have a newborn. She is Jewish by her mother, Mexican-Catholic by her father. I wonder what she will feel as she grows up in the neighborhood I grew up in. Her father speaks a different language and her mother wears rock t-shirts every day of the week. Does this make her less Jewish? Will parents be afraid to send their children to our house? How will this make her feel? What will I say when she says “Why?”

I will tell her I lost a very close friend a long time ago because of fear and judgment. I will tell her something broke between us because the community that surrounded us did not know how to bind us closer together in a time of mourning and instead shifted us apart.

I would like my daughter to grow up understanding the customs of each religion. The way Catholics and Jews deal with death is of equal importance. But more than this I want her to make her own decisions about religion and I want her to be able to turn to spirituality in times of great distress. I want her to have courage the way Nachshon had when he defied the community and walked up on my front porch to pay his respects. I will explain to my daughter one day that in that one fixed moment in time we were who we were as Jews but more so as resplendent human spirits.



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Yes, My Kid Is Jewish, Even Though His Name Doesn’t Sound Like It


By Hila Ratzabi

Hila's baby naming


He’s not even 3 months old, but already three people have commented on my newborn’s name: “That’s not very Jewish!” And if our experience is anything like the one described by Keren McGinity in her blog post on what counts as a Jewish name, we can look forward to a lifetime of judgment.

As McGinity notes, people make a lot of assumptions about a person’s Jewish identity based on their name. This often comes to the forefront when you’re part of an interfaith family, where names can reflect a variety of identities. My baby’s first name is Emilio, and he has his dad’s last name, which is also “not very Jewish” (unsurprisingly, because my husband isn’t Jewish). Yet I am Jewish, and according to traditional understandings of Jewish identity, the mother passes down religious identity, so my son is also Jewish.

Even so, I don’t believe being a Jewish mother gives my family a free pass: If you choose to raise your child as Jewish, it doesn’t matter which of the parents is Jewish. I believe that behavior trumps bloodline. It shouldn’t be taken as a given that having one Jewish parent, or even two Jewish parents, automatically guarantees you Jewishly-engaged children—that takes active commitment on the part of both parents. In our case, I made clear on our third date that should we ever get married and have kids, that we would raise them Jewish, not just in name but in practice.

So why does it make me uncomfortable when people comment on my son’s “not so Jewish” name? Maybe I’m already sensitive to judgment of intermarried couples; the notion that intermarriage is a threat to Jewish continuity is still prevalent, though waning. My son’s supposedly non-Jewish name brands him as “other.” But what makes a Jewish name, really? Haven’t Jews always been a global people, influencing other cultures while absorbing their flavor? While many Jewish names traditionally come from Hebrew, others represent the intermingling of languages in the places where Jews found themselves (and even Hebrew substantially borrowed from other ancient languages!).

Another assumption people tend to make is that Jews are white and predominantly Ashkenazi. Organizations like Jews in All Hues and the Jewish Multiracial Network exist in order to shatter that stereotype. In fact, I’m not totally Ashkenazi, even though I’m quite light-skinned. While my mother is Ashkenazi, my father’s family has both Yemenite and Sephardic lineages, and I am Israeli. My father’s mother spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), and while we searched for baby names, we came across some very “exotic”-sounding Ladino names, many with Spanish influences.

So far, it’s been other Jews who have commented on my son’s “not so Jewish” name. But for the general (white) population, I expect a different issue to emerge. To non-Jews, my son’s name reads not as “non-Jewish,” but as Hispanic. In this way he is doubly “othered”: not Jewish enough for the Jewish community, and not white enough for everyone else.

What will my son’s experience be like as a minority within a minority? Neither my husband nor myself share this distinction with our son. Each of us comes from our own minority community (Jewish for me, Mexican for him), but neither of us is both.

Our son’s name is the surface others will have to look beneath in order to discover the multiple layers of identity hidden there. After all, his middle name, Maor, is Hebrew, but one wouldn’t know that until probing further.

While I worry that Emilio will have trouble being accepted in Jewish communities, I appreciate the fact that people will need to make an effort to change their assumptions about who counts as Jewish. They will have to look below the surface and meet the person behind the name.

Hopefully we will raise our son to wear his Jewish identity proudly, so when people say, “That’s not a Jewish name,” he’ll be able to reply with confidence, “Actually, yes it is.”

This article was reprinted with permission from, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

hila-sqrd1Hila Ratzabi’s nonfiction has appeared in the Forward, Zeek, Freerange Nonfiction, and other venues. Her poetry has been published in Narrative, Alaska Quarterly Review, Linebreak, and other journals, and in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and lives in Philadelphia where she founded the Red Sofa Salon & Poetry Workshop.


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