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

  

IMG_0759

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 Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

hila-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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We Met in the Middle

  

Adrian at workAdrian and I met working at a restaurant. Some might call it an “interfaith restaurant.” Tucked away in Cobble Hill, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, La Vara was the restaurant that brought us together. Its menu is based in Southern Spain during La Convivencia. The English translation of the word Convivencia is to “coexist” or “to live together.” The Convivencia took place during the late 1400s in Spain. It is known as Spain’s Golden Age. It was a time when the Jews, the Moors and the Christians sat together, lived together and ate together in peace. La Vara was also a Sephardic newspaper printed in Ladino in Brooklyn from the 1920s to the 1940s.

This is where I met Adrian. He worked in the kitchen and I worked out on the floor. One night after conveying the specials to a couple at the bar I ran past the kitchen and heard the boys in the window begin to tease me about the way I said the specials. That night we were serving suckling pig, squash pancakes (almost like latkes) and a white gazpacho.

“The Jews don’t eat suckling pig,” one clever boy holding a pan and tossing garlic smirked. I could see past him to Adrian quiet and waiting for my comeback.

I stopped inches from the kitchen window and looked the boy right in his eye.

“Actually,” I replied with a smile equally sarcastic, “that’s true. The Jews don’t eat pork. I don’t eat pork. But, when the Jews were in hiding in Spain and the war started they would hide pork in their food so that people would not accuse them of being Jewish.”

Adrian laughed as if to say, “Man she told you!” The boy with the pan wanted to flee but I kept going.

“Also, you’re from Mexico right?” I asked the boy. The whole kitchen staff cheered because there is much pride in being 100 percent Mexican. But the boy with the pan was wary of my next move.

“You know why we serve white gazpacho?” I asked.

This time it was Adrian who approached the window with a question, “why?” he asked, his eyes gleaming.

“We serve white gazpacho,” I began, “because Spain didn’t have tomatoes until after they invaded Mexico, so their gazpacho was made from almonds, that’s why it’s white. It’s known as the original gazpacho of Spain. After they invaded Mexico they brought back tomatoes and made something called Salmorejo, which is more like a tomato gazpacho.”

Adrian stared at me. The boy with the garlic and the pan disappeared. Later I showed Adrian articles I had written about Mexico. They were articles written in Spanish for a Spanish press in Brooklyn. They were about the Virgin of Guadalupe and about why Mexican Americans feel like they don’t belong either in Mexico or the United States. It’s as if they feel they are in the middle. Adrian and I liked being in the middle. It seems that right from the start we were thrown into the middle of everything.

On our first date we walked through Coney Island at three a.m. On our second date we went to the promenade in Brooklyn Heights to see the New York skyline. Every night after work I would ride my bike through Sunset Park and visit Adrian so that we could order tacos. We ate steak tacos on his bedroom floor and listened to music. I wrote and worked at the restaurant with him. After a while I moved in with him. We lived on the border of Sunset Park and Borough Park. Sunset Park is a big Mexican/Catholic neighborhood. Borough Park is an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The middle always had a way of working toward our advantage. On Jewish high holy days we would go shopping in Borough Park. On Catholic holidays it was the Mexican bakery in Sunset Park we would frequent.

A few years later we moved to Midwood, the neighborhood I grew up in. It’s a Jewish neighborhood but we still frequent Sunset Park often. As soon as we painted our new apartment we decided to start a family. It was the right time. I waited tables and bartended through my nine months of pregnancy at La Vara. Adrian stood his post in the kitchen as well.

Our newborn was born on the day that was supposed to be my last shift at La Vara before my maternity leave. My water broke the night before on my day off and I called to let the staff know I wouldn’t be in. Adrian was in the middle of tossing seafood paella when I called him to tell him to leave work.

When our little girl arrived at 2:10 p.m. on a Saturday we had a photo texted to us from the restaurant. It was the whole staff who worked that day huddled together with a sign that read “Welcome to the World!” In that photo there were kitchen staff, servers, bartenders and managers all from different cultures, backgrounds and faiths coming together to wish us well. I always knew it would be fine that our little one would grow up with two faiths but that picture secured my belief. She will be rich in spirit because of her interfaith family; she will be open and understanding and double blessed.

There is a Hebrew proverb that says, “A woman of valor who can find? For her price is far above rubies.” Our little one was born at a peaceful table. She was born celebrating a time when people shared their food, their culture and their faith amicably, willingly and harmoniously.

Baby Helen

 

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Charity Begins At Home, Part 2

  
My son helping to pack snack boxes at the North Texas Food Bank in January.

My son helping to pack snack boxes at the North Texas Food Bank in January.

Last night, my family watched NFL Honors, the National Football League’s awards show that honored players and coaches. Awards such as MVP, Coach of the Year, and Play of the Year were given out. The most prestigious of the honors was the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.

Established in 1970, the Man of the Year Award recognized the player who had a significant impact on his community. In 1999, it was renamed the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for the late Hall of Fame Chicago Bears running back to honor his legacy as a humanitarian. Payton was himself a recipient of the award when he played.

As my husband, son, and I listened to the stories of the finalists, I thought of my last blog on charity. The men considered for the award didn’t begin to serve their communities after they became successful pro football players; they were all raised in families that emphasized giving back–regardless of whether their families had much to give.

The winner, Anquan Boldin of the San Francisco 49ers, was raised in a poor area of Palm Beach County Florida. His family didn’t have much but what they did have, they gave to others. Anquan spoke of learning what it meant to help those in need from his parents. He said his mother always opened their home to people who had nowhere to go and his family shared food with those without so that no one went hungry. He learned that his purpose was not to play football, but to serve the community; football was just a means by which to do that.

Boldin formed a foundation in 2004 with $1 million of his own money with a mission “to expand the educational and life opportunities for underprivileged youth.” It offers a summer enrichment program, provides 300 Thanksgiving meals annually, holiday shopping sprees and academic scholarships for college.

Boldin took the example set for him by his parents to heart, making the task of repairing the world a central part of his life. His actions showed that Tikkun Olam (repair the world) wasn’t just a Jewish thing.

When I speak to parents navigating life as an interfaith couple, I talk about how the concept of Tikkun Olam is shared by many faiths and cultures. I recommend that starting in preschool, through words and actions, adults reinforce to their children that they have a responsibility to make the world a better place. Below are some of the things I suggest that families do to teach charity and show kids that mitzvahs aren’t just something done to fulfill a school or bar mitzvah requirement. If you don’t see something that you’re family does on the list, please share it in the comment section.

Collect tzedakah. Each week, set aside money to donate to a cause. Put it in a tzedakah box. If you don’t have one, make one and let your kids decorate it. We still have the one my son made when he was one-and-a-half and we still contribute money to it each week. Place coins in the box immediately before lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday night. This ensures that your last act of the week is one of charity. Recite the following blessing as you perform the ritual:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kid-shanu b’mitz’votav, v’tzivanu lir’dof tzedek.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot and commands us to pursue justice.

At the end of the year, or when your box is full, let your children select where the money goes. They will feel involved, valued, and will learn that their choices can make a difference. Don’t worry about what you see as the cause’s significance. When my son was a toddler, he regularly chose the Australian Koala Foundation because he could help his favorite animal by planting eucalyptus trees. As he has grown, so have his choices. This year we planted trees in Israel through Jewish National Fund and gave to our local food bank.

Engage in social justice. Children of all ages can participate in community service. Shop together for items for a food, toy, or book drive. Collect items from your house. Deliver donations to a local food pantry or clothing resale shop with your kids. Have older kids stock shelves at a food bank, work with animals, or host a birthday or holiday party for those less fortunate through local organizations. Check out The Birthday Party Project which hosts birthday parties for underprivileged children through partner agencies in Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Ft. Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco.

Care for the environment. Caring for the planet has no age requirement. Do a neighborhood or park cleanup. Pick up trash when you walk the dog. Plant a tree. Buy eco-friendly/reusable products. Compost. Recycle. Bring your own bags.

Visit the sick and the elderly. Stop to see a relative. Deliver meals to homebound seniors. Share part of Shabbat afternoon at a retirement or assisted living facility. Make birthday cards for seniors. Brighten someone’s day.

Volunteer on Christmas. Help others enjoy the holiday. Participate in a Christmas mitzvah project. Many synagogues and Jewish agencies organize volunteers to work on Christmas Eve and Day so Christian employees can spend time with their families.

Welcome the Stranger. Ensure that no one is alone for holidays. Invite newcomers to your community to share a celebration with you. Make a seat at your Shabbat or Seder table, and open your home for Hanukkah, the High Holidays, Christmas or secular holidays.

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From Generation to Generation (or why my New England children are Broncos fans)

  
The Fateful 2016 AFC Championship Game

The Fateful 2016 AFC Championship Game

Every team’s victory is another team’s defeat, and the stakes were high two Sundays ago when the New England Patriots I was raised on played the Denver Broncos, the team that hails from Eric’s hometown.  In the ten years since we moved to Boston, Eric has happily come into the Red Sox fray.  Because of his Sox allegiance, my father innocently assumed that Eric had similarly converted to be a Pats fan.  The morning of the AFC championship game, I overheard a conversation that went like this between Eric and my father:

Dad: So, I guess the conversations between you and your family might get a little heated this evening, disagreeing about who should win.

Eric: Well, it is not such a big deal, since I am a Broncos fan.

Dad, with a perplexed expression on his face: Uh-huh….

A moment of tension, as Dad prepared himself for the inevitably disappointing statement.

Eric: Yeah, we’re rooting for the Broncos.

Dad inhales, unsure if he should butt in about how we raise our kids.

Eric continues: Well, we are raising our kids Jewishly, so I got to pick the football team.

Suddenly, the tension dissipated entirely.  My father chuckled.  

Dad: Fair enough, fair enough.

Choosing a football team is not on par with choosing a religion, at least not in either of our extended families.  But Eric’s choice of the Broncos is symbolic of something that is extremely significant for both of us – Judaism isn’t the only choice we get to make about what kind of family we are.  It is important to us that our children are raised with a mix of traditions that bring them closer to both sides of our extended families.

Rooting for the Broncos has been very special in that regard.  Sunday afternoons and evenings, Eric’s phone is abuzz with calls and texts about the Broncos plays, and for the span of the game the distance between Boston and Denver feels that much shorter.  Colorado is a really magical place, and rooting for the Broncos helps the girls tie their identity to the home of their grandparents, aunt and uncle and cousins that much more.

So tonight, Ruthie can stay up late to root for Peyton Manning.  Hopefully there can be some FaceTime during the game with homebase in her grandparents’ living room.  I will watch the rooting with a smile on my face.  Mum’s the word on who my team will be.

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My Hamsa Started the Interfaith Conversation with My Daughter

  

By Courtney Naliboff

mother_daughter_hamsa

Flying makes me nervous. It never used to, but a few years ago on a bumpy trip back from England, I lost my faith in the Bernoulli principle. I used to pop a Xanax and snooze my way through the anxiety, but now that I’m a parent, I need to stay awake and alert to tend to my daughter on flights.

Without my sedative crutch, I turned to superstition to get me through a cross-country flight to California this winter. I bought a little silver hamsa necklace with an elegant branch and leaf design on the palm. I put it on before we left our island home in Maine for the airport, and haven’t taken it off. If the Evil Eye had any designs on our airplane, we’d be covered.

We got through the flight (Penrose is a much better traveler than I am these days) and landed in the warm embrace of my husband’s extended family, all of whom live in Southern California. His mother’s side is from Guatemala and his father’s side is Italian and German. Dozens of them descended on his childhood home for the holidays, drawn by Penrose’s presence.

She sat on my lap and met relative after relative, warming up slowly to each new person. When she got overwhelmed, she would turn into me and often hold my hamsa in her hand.

“This?” she asked.

“It’s my hamsa,” I answered.

“Ham,” she replied, touching it gently.

Beyond the irony of her abbreviation for the symbol, she began to connect my necklace to the jewelry of others.

Abue ham?” she asked, wondering if her grandmother had a similar necklace.

Abuela doesn’t wear a hamsa; sometimes she wears a cross,” I said. “I wear a hamsa because I’m Jewish. Abue wears a cross sometimes because she’s Catholic.”

“Mommy joosh?”

“That’s right, Mommy’s Jewish.”

“Me joosh?” she asked, pressing a palm to her chest.

“Yes, you’re Jewish too.”

“Daddy joosh?”

“No, Daddy’s not Jewish.”

Although this was Penrose’s second holiday season, and she was enthusiastic about candles, latkes, and matzah balls (and Christmas tree lights and wrapping paper), it hadn’t yet occurred to me to talk to her about our Jewish identity, and how that differed from her father’s side of the family.

As a secular humanist, I haven’t imbued our day-to-day life with Jewish rituals. My husband doesn’t practice any elements of Christianity, and we are planning to celebrate Hanukkah, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah. When we are in Maine for Christmas, we often attend the Lessons and Carols service as musicians and enjoy the quiet evening of storytelling and song, but we’re hoping to avoid the Santa and tree elements of the holiday. We often talked about the fact that Penrose would be the island’s first Jewish child, and my excitement—and anxiety—about that. I wanted to find a way to start explaining to Penrose what it actually meant to be “joosh” other than wearing jewelry. But I wasn’t sure what she would understand at 20 months old.

“To me, being Jewish means that we are connected back thousands of years to strong people who fight for what they believe in,” I said. “We help people and we work to fix the world. We never stop learning. We celebrate holidays that remind us of our freedom. We eat delicious things.”

She nodded and squirmed off my lap to find her abuela. Over time, we’ll continue the conversation. She likes to look in the Union Haggadahs I inherited from my grandfather and pretends to read the prayers out loud. She would be perfectly happy eating latkes every night, and asks to see my hamsa when it’s hidden under a sweater. Every night, especially, for some reason, when she’s singing “Bow wow wow, whose dog are thou?” she runs through the list of Jewish family members.

Even though she might not yet understand what it means, my heart swells with pride when she ends the list with “Me, joosh.” It’s not a question for her anymore—it’s become a part of her story.

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

nabiloff_BiophotoCourtney Naliboff lives on North Haven, an island off of midcoast Maine. There she teaches music, theatre and English, takes her daughter to the beach, plays music and teaches Pilates. Her writing can also be seen in MaineBiz and Working Waterfront.

 

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