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Non-Orthodox institutional Judaism seems to suffer from a lack of young families â and, more importantly, young people. We might see a handful of families with pre-school aged youngsters at the firstÂ FridayÂ “family service,â but at most Shabbat services at Samâs synagogue, there are rarely young children other than Jack in attendance. I know Jack is not the only infant at the synagogue, because we see other babies his age at “bagels and blocks” programÂ on SundayÂ mornings.Â In a congregation of about 300 families, why are so few young children engaged in ritual life at the synagogue?
This was mirrored when we attended Rosh Hashanah at Sam’s parentsâ synagogue earlier this month.Â Upon arriving, I noticed that JackÂ was the only baby, and practically the only child, in services.Â We sat as a family (of 4 generations!), during the early Rosh Hashanah service, and – as babies do – Jack fussed a little. While wandering the halls trying to calm him down, I found the children in classrooms and playgroups. It was surprising to me to see children not sitting with their parents during one of the most important holidays of the Jewish liturgical year.Â I learned that youngsters of all ages attend the family service, later in the day, which isÂ much shorter and geared to children, whereas the other services are for adults only.Â Even duringÂ FridayÂ nightÂ services at our local synagogue, Jack is by far the youngest one in attendance.
This is drastically different than what I am used to. Whether or not it is a major holiday, it seems like familiesÂ with young children are always present at Catholic churches.Â During mass, little children read books, color, and play quietly in the pews. If the babies/toddlers/children have outbursts, their parents take them into the lobby, calm them down, and then bring them right back into the mass.Â During the most important day of the Catholic liturgical year, the entire church is full of families.Â Just last Sunday, at the end of the mass, the priest addressed the moms, calming their fears about bringing their youngsters. He said that children at mass areÂ anything but distracting,Â saying “let the children come to me.”
Are children welcome your place of worship? If our experiences at our synagogueÂ match what youâve seen, how can we shift institutional Judaism to welcome young children and families, ensuring our faithâs continuity for the next generation?
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The email had arrived a week before I was to travel to Houston to speak to a congregation about intermarriage and creating a Jewish home as an interfaith couple. It said that the following week, instead of regular Sunday school, there would be a program for sixth-grade students and their parents related to b’nai mitzvah and those children whose bar or bat mitzvah was in the fall of 2017 would pick their Torah portion.
Great, I thought, another pre-bar mitzvah project or meeting that I would miss due to work or a speaking engagement. Once again my not Jewish husband would be called upon to be the religious school, no, the Jewish parent. I was annoyed and disappointed that I wouldnât get to be part of this activity with my son. I was grateful that my husband who has always been supportive of and involved in creating our Jewish home was willing to step in.
Because I wasnât going to be at the program, I wanted my husband and son to know what to expect and to prepare them with any information they needed. I told one of our rabbis that my husband and son were coming without me. She said, “Jane, Cameron will be fine. In fact, he probably knows more than many of the Jewish parents who will be in the room. Just make sure he and Sammy know how many aliyahs you want or need. If you donât have a big family with a lot of people to honor, Sammy only needs three.â (An aliyah is the honor of reciting the blessings over the Torah at the bimah before the Torah is read. During bar or bat mitzvah services, it is common for the bar mitzvah child to give these honors to family.) I passed the information on to my husband and son – three aliyahs.
I knew my rabbi was right. My husband would be fine. My son would be fine. In fact, my son was glad I wasnât going to be there. He wanted to feel like he was in control of as much of the bar mitzvah planning as possible. My absence made him feel independent.
Still, I couldnât believe I wasnât going to be present when my son picked his Torah portion. I felt like I was missing out, not getting to be fully involved in the process, and that I was somehow falling down on the job of Jewish parent. At the same time, I smiled at the irony of the situationâthe Jewish mom busy with other things leaving her childâs not Jewish dad in charge of making sure their son got to religious school and became a bar mitzvah.
As I spoke to the assembled parents at the congregation in Houston on the morning of the Torah portion picking, my watch vibrated, and a text from my husband came through. “Three aliyahs, right?” I apologized to the audience for the distraction and shared that my husband was helping my son pick his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah as I spoke to them. I said, âYou donât get a better example of life as an interfaith family living Jewishly than that! Sometimes the Jewish parent is the Jewish parent, and sometimes the parent from another background fills the role of Jewish parent.â
When I got home in the evening, I looked at the materials on the Torah portion and requirements for bânai mitzvah students that my son received. His Torah portion was from Parsha Noach (Noah). He chose the first part of the chapter, where God tells Noah that the earth is corrupt and lawless, and instructs Noah to build an ark because he is going to flood the earth in order to destroy all that lives that is unclean. I turned to my son, âDid the kid pick the portion, or the portion pick the kid? What a perfect piece for my child who wants to be an engineer that designs and builds ships with water purification systems so he can repair our waterways!â
“It was the most interesting part to me,” my son responded. “That’s why I picked it.” My rabbi was right. My son was fine, and my husband did a great job.
I’ve written many times, about how lucky I feel to have a spouse who is so engaged and supportive of our familyâs Jewish journey. I went to sleep that night feeling incredibly grateful once again for all that my husband does to make this Jewish thing happen and for the sweet ironies that are part of life as an interfaith family.
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Our family has had a hard few weeks. Every day we open the news to a different headline about hatred and anger. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world has gone bonkers. To top it off, my significant other, Adrian, recently receivedÂ a phone call from Mexico informing him thatÂ his mother is ill. Her diabetes has taken a turn for the worse, and her doctor told her she could no longer eat tortillas, a staple food in Mexico. Adrian came home from work one night and put his head in his hands, defeated. âI think my father feels very alone,â he said.
The next day I found out that my motherâs favorite cousin died from complications from Alzheimerâs disease. He had been living in a care facility where his wife would go three times a day to bring him food, company, laughter and a lot of love. My mother came home from work one day and put her head in her hands, defeated. âI think Tommyâs death has finally hit me,â she said.
My almost 1-year-old daughter, Helen, does not understand death and sickness yet. She has just begun learning how to live, how to crawl, how to hold onto something and pull herself up, how to grab onto the coffee table and take one step at a time.
With Rosh Hashanah right around the corner, we leave the house daily with lists of ingredients to buy for honey cake. I want her first Jewish New Year to be a joyous one full of hope. But there is some despair in our home right now.
Adrian checks his phone for messages about his mother. He calls Mexico. He meets with his brothers to discuss how much money they need to send back to Mexico for his mother to see a good doctor.
I sit in my motherâs kitchen trying to scrawl out a letter to Tommyâs wife, searching for words to explain my sympathy.
I want to pray. It is important to me that my daughter learns to pray, and because we are an interfaith family, it is important that both Adrian and I teach her how we both pray, especially because we pray so differently. But Adrian does not feel like praying lately. His statue of The Virgin of Guadalupe rests dusty on the bureau. I take this as an opportunity to learn that sometimes we as human beings donât have the will to pray. Sometimes praying means admitting something is wrong, and Adrian doesnât want there to be anything seriously wrong with his mother.
In Judaism it seems there is a prayer for everything. There is a prayer for death, life, sadness, forgiveness, women, men and children. There are prayers before going to bed, before eating lunch, after eating lunch and a prayer upon waking up in the morning. Adrian has different prayers, and because I didnât grow up Catholic like him, I donât know many of them. I assume they are similar to Jewish prayers, but I canât be sure.
Iâve been trying to teach Helen a few Jewish prayers. Because Adrian has beenÂ feeling so down, I looked up a prayer that Helen and I could recite for him and his mother. After coming across prayers similar to those in Judaism, I found a prayer to Guadalupe that begins, âOur Lady of Guadalupe, mystical roseâŚ.â I liked that because Helenâs middle name is Rose. I sat down on the floor with Helen and began to recite the prayer, even though itâs not a Jewish prayer. Then we added a Hebrew prayer for cousin Tommy.
âThis is for Papi,â I said to Helen, âand for Abuela (Grandma) to get better. And we will say one for cousin Tommyâs family too.â
Helen was silent; Iâm not sure she understood, but comprehension will come later. For now itâs important for me to keep up with my own traditions, as well as Adrianâs, even when he canât. Iâm sure he would do the same for me.
Sometimes Adrian and I donât understand each otherâs faiths. For him, Judaism has a lot of rules and complex meanings to these rules. For me, as a Jew, I donât bow down to idols. But I can enter into a realm of understanding and ask his saints to care for him just as I can ask Hashem, my God, at the same time to care for him.
Our goal as an interfaith family is to bring just that: faith. How do people survive bombings, terror, heartache and grief? We survive by faith. Helen has two faiths. She will learn, and is learning, two faiths. At times these two faiths can be difficult to maneuver, but their deep messages are the same: Have compassion. Be a good person. Help others. Do good work in the world. And our two faiths teach us that when our significant other comes home defeated, we can be the strength they need to keep going. Our two faiths teach us to watch our child and learn from her as well. She teaches us how to live, how to crawl, how to hold onto something so we can pull ourselves up and how to hold onto a coffee table, a chair, a bench, something, anything, so that we can take our steps slowly and one at a time until we are able to walk.
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I recently discovered the secret to motivating my son to go to religious school. I stumbled upon it. Hours after Hebrew school last Tuesday while we were eating dinner, my son spilled the beans.
âI had a really bad sinus headache at school this afternoon and felt crummy. I almost went to Nurse Julie to ask her to call you and tell you that I couldn’t go to Hebrew and that I needed to go home. But I was really looking forward to seeing Josh, so I decided to deal with it.”
Wow! Impressive. Typically, an ailment would not need to be that bad to ask for a Hebrew school pass. But knowing that he would see Josh, his best friend from camp, trumped a headache and the pain that is known by Jewish children everywhere as Religious School. The bonds of friendship formed at Jewish summer camp were more powerful than I thought. Jewish summer camp was the gift that kept on giving.
Study after study has shown the power of Jewish camp on creating strong Jewish identities in participants. The Greenbook, published by the Jewish Funders Network to inform the conversation of the role of Jewish camp in fostering Jewish identity says,
âSimply put: Jewish camp works to help create a more vibrant Jewish future. Those who experienced summers at Jewish overnight camp are far more likely as adults to be engaged in the Jewish community. The 2011 Camp Works study compared adults who participated in Jewish overnight camp as children to Jewish adults who did not have a Jewish camp experience. The study found that those who attended Jewish camp areâŚ55% more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel, 37% more likely to light Shabbat candles regularly, 21% more likely to feel that being Jewish is very important to them.â
What the study does not say is that camp can motivate your children to want to go to Hebrew school, but apparently, it does that too! If it is possible to love camp more than I already do, I do.
When my son returned from camp, I suspected that this summer had been different from the previous four. The connections to friends seemed deeper. After all, he had now been with, for the most part, the same group of boys for five years. And he had discovered three years ago, that several of his camp friends lived in Dallas and went to our synagogue. Summer plus seeing each other twice a week at temple had created a tight bond between these boys.
There is a case to be made for sending your child to any camp, Jewish, secular, near, or far. When a kid is at a camp that is the right fit for him or her, camp is magical. As someone who spent summers at a YMCA camp and now sees Jewish summer camp, I feel there is something uniquely magically about Jewish camp, something that creates a deeper community connection. And I could not be happier that we chose a regional camp rather than sending our son to one farther away because shared year-round experiences, including religious school, enhances the community connection. Something made clear to me last Tuesday night.
Jewish camp and the community connection it creates are getting my son to Hebrew school without complaint. Thatâs a benefit of the Jewish camp experience that any parent who has driven Hebrew school carpool can cheer.
Sam and I have been together for almost five years, but Jewish memorial services and sitting shiva are still a new ritual for me. Â Attending memorial services and shiva are a completely different experience with Jack.
The first time I went to sit shiva with Sam, was about a year and a half ago. I had several questions for Sam, “What do I wear? Do we bring anything? Will I have to say anything?” I forced Sam to stop at a kosher bakery on the way, because I come from a family that never goes anywhere without food. From the moment we walked in the door, without knocking or ringing the doorbell, I felt very awkward. The prayers were in Hebrew, and someÂ Yiddish, and I didn’t know what to say to the family. I had only met this gentleman once before, very briefly at our wedding. I couldn’t contribute to the stories or memories of him, so I just sat there quietly and listened. Little did I know, that these stories would hold a dear place in my heart, as we would name our first born after this gentleman- Great Uncle Jack.
Because our Jack is still very young, we have not taken him to many shiva calls or memorial services. As much as we would like to be there for the family, we feel that some things would be inappropriate to take Jack to, at his young age. Because Jack is so loud and very active, I stay home while Sam pays our respects. We don’t want to draw attention with an infant, when the focus should be on the grieving family and memories of the deceased.
This rule flew out the window when a dear friend of the synagogue passed away. Sam would normally leave work for an hour or so to attend the daytime service, but this time, he had an important meeting that he could not miss. This family was close to us and we wanted to be present for them. So I packed up my very active and very loud 8-month old and a plethora of quiet toys and headed to the synagogue.
Throughout the service, Jack wanted to play. The toys kept him occupied until he wantedÂ to talk and sing along. We normally take Jack to Friday night services, so he is used to the noise, people, and music. Friday night services are a much more joyous occasion, so I don’t mind when Jack sings or talks along; however, I thought it was inappropriate for him to talk and sing during the memorial service. I stepped out into the hall with Jack a few times, as to not completely disrupt the service with his cooing and babble. Afterwards, we gave our condolences briefly to the family and left before a full on baby-meltdown occurred.
We joined the family for shiva that evening. Again, Jack wanted to explore and sing throughout the prayer service. It was difficult to keep him (relatively) quiet in a living room full of friends and family. Afterwards, other members of the synagogue came up to us and said, “Jack is such a great reminder of L’dor V’dor (generation to generation),” “Don’t try to hush him, he is exercising his voice and may his voice always be heard,” “There’s nothing sweeter than hearing baby babble at services, the noise is more beautiful than the cantor’s singing” (sorry, Cantor).Â To those of you who said those wonderful things, thank you!
I think I get so caught up in him trying to sit quietly that I forget that babies will be babies. They will talk, cry, fuss and babble. To me, it feels like Jack is a disturbance; but to others, this sweet and beautiful noise is a reminder of the next generation. This reminder of the next generation wasÂ very poignant as we went with little Jack to Great Uncle Jack’s unveilingÂ yesterday.
Two years ago, when we were a parenting blogging staff of two and our children were mere babes, our Editorial Director Lindsey Silken got married. At the time, we attempted to provide some well wishes and advice on weddings and marriage. Sometime very soon, our wonderful editor, who now juggles a large blogging staff on top of her many other InterfaithFamily hats, is having a baby. We figure it is time to put together a new list of (unsolicited) advice. This time, on the very thing we write about most often – parenting.
We are now a blogging team of five+Â parents. As those of you who are parents know well, two parents means two different opinions about what is best, and with more than two parents, opinions increase exponentially. So even though we may not always have the same advice, weâve done our best to put together a few things weâve learned so far.
Congratulations Lindsey! Â We hope this helps you and hopefully a few others visiting the blog as they begin their own parenting journeys.
Thoughts on parenting a newborn:
1. Read all you can (or want to!) before the baby is due, after you have the baby, and as the baby grows up. Reading the parenting books and how to books, you’ll get a sense that every baby is different and what things worked for them. It’s great to have a repertoire of what has worked for parents in the past (one of us even used them for checklists of things to try in tough moments).
2. If a book or article does not suit your style, makes you nervous, angry or just seems like something youâd never do, stop reading it! Parenting at all stages means striking a balance between what works for your child and what works for you. Â
3. If you give birth in a hospital, get the most out of your stay. Ask every nurse their opinion, and especially get them to do a demo for you and your partner on how to swaddle (they invented it, after all). Get some sleep – if you need to send your baby to the nursery so you can sleep for an hour or two, it doesnât make you a bad parent. Take any freebies you can get, as the hospital blankets and baby kimonos are the best.
4. Sign-up for a class! Mommy and me classes arenât just for Baby Silken – theyâre for you, too. Youâll meet other moms, have adult conversations and get some great everyday baby care advice. At a bare minimum, signing up for a class will ensure you get out of the house, too. You and baby may even make life long friends, as some of us have been lucky enough to do.
5. You need a break from baby sometimes. If you are at your wit’s end, step away fromÂ the baby. A little crying never hurt a baby. As long as they are not in pain or unsafe, take a break to take care of yourself. Always remember the airplane rule – put on your own oxygen mask before helping the person next to you.
6. Even if you are not at your witâs end, now that you have a little one that is totally dependent on you, you need to carve out some time for yourself. Taking 30 minutes, an afternoon, or an evening off does not mean that you don’t love your child. It is good for the soul to step away, even when it feels hard.
7. Try, amid the dirty diapers, adorable smiles, sleepless nights, and precious cuddles, to remember to write milestones in the baby book. It can be hard to remember, but youâll likely be glad you did.
8. If you donât remember to write anything down, you and your child will be ok!
Ideas to take with you throughout the parenting journey:
1. Listen to your instincts and trust yourself. No matter what a book, other parent, or passerby may tell you, the only experts on your child are you, your partner, and your child themselves. Â Trust your gut, and also your expertise.
2. Enjoy every moment. People say that it goes by too fast and it does. Soak up every moment because after the moment is gone you will wonder if they really were that small. In doing so, we can live in the present and not keep waiting for them to sit up or crawl or walk or move onto the next developmental milestone.
3. When your child goes from sleeping through the night to waking up – again – at all hours, you’ll often hear that “this, too, shall pass.” It’s all right, though, if you really wish whatever stage you’re currently in would pass sooner rather than later! It is lovely to enjoy every moment, and weâll likely all be nostalgic for every moment when our kids are grown. But if you donât enjoy a given moment, thatâs ok. That, too, will probably pass. Â Â
4. Try not to be too hard on yourself. Everyone has an opinion, but when it comes down to it (and this is advice I’d do well to remember far more often than I do!), the species has survived for thousands of years, despite everyone’s opinions on this or that method of parenting. In the long run, your child will likely be just fine, no matter if you have a c-section or an unmedicated birth, nurse or use formula, and on and on. What matters in the end is your love for your child, and your ability to pass on good core values, all of which
our interfaith traditions have in spades.
5. Becoming a parent is a hugely powerful experience. You think you know love because of your deep feelings for your spouse, but the love you feel for your child when the nurse or doctor puts him or her in your arms is unlike any love you have ever felt before. It is a intense, beautiful, awesome feeling; one that gives you a greater appreciation for Lily Potter and the sacrifice she made for Harry. And youâll realize that in an instant you would do the same for the little one in your arms.
Lindsey, given your maturity, wisdom, and all of the time youâve spent reading and editing our posts, we know you are already a great mother. Â Enjoy the journey. Â
Wishing you all the best,
Jessie, Jane, Emily, Anna and Anne
My daughter, Helen Rose Castaneda, wakes up one day at 10-and-a-half months old, pulls herself up in her crib and says âhola!â at the top of her lungs. âHola, hola, hola!â This makes sense because Adrian and I speak to Helen mainly in Spanish at home.
She says âholaâ for an entire day and then stops saying it. Was this her first word? Does it count if she says it but then stops saying it? I ask myself these questions and think it incredible that I grew up speaking one language at home (English), yet my daughter understands two. My brother and I later learned Hebrew in school and I learned to speak, read and understand Spanish at 18. But Helen Rose understands two tongues, and I find this fitting for a household where two seems to be a theme.
There are two religions in our home: Jewish and Mexican Catholic. I say Mexican Catholic as opposed to just Catholic because Mexican culture is deeply tied to its Catholicism, and the culture itself is rich with colorful history. But one of the things I love most about Mexican Catholicism is the belief in the Virgin of Guadalupe. Guadalupe is like the Virgin Mary and is thought of as the mother of Mexico.
When Adrian and I decided to build an interfaith family and raise Helen believing in both Judaism and Catholicism, it was Guadalupe who swayed me. I like that Helen can look up in her room and see a statue of not only a religious icon but also a female religious icon instilling in her at a young age that women are powerful.
This brings me to my current dilemma. My family belongs to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. This means that women and men are separated when they pray. What is the reason for this? At 5 years old, I turned to my mother one Rosh Hashanah in synagogue and asked, âMa, why are the men in jail?â My mother said she knew I would be fine in life after that question because I was seeing that the men were separated, not the women. Then I had friends who werenât Jewish when I was growing up say they thought it was sexist and horrible that women and men were separated. It wasnât until recently as an adult that I asked what the deeper meaning for this separation was.
As it turns out, the reason is not so obvious. Many Jews will tell you the separation between men and women at synagogue is because the focus in synagogue should be on God and not on the opposite sex. Though that is a valid reason, itâs not the whole truth.
According to some scholars, the reason women and men are separated is that the soul of a woman and the soul of a man, though equal, are different. It is because of this basic difference that women and men need their own space to pray and to become in tune with their natural and true selves. It is more of a spiritual reason than a sexist reason.
Iâm not sure if I agree with the rules, but I respect them in my own synagogue. It feels important to me that I have the right answers to the questions my daughter might ask me one day. I think about the Virgin of Guadalupe and how men fall to their knees before her. In some Mexican towns, men tattoo Guadalupe on their backs as a form of protection so no one will ever stab them from behind. I think of how Guadalupe is the mother figure and then I think about Judaism again.
âWho are the strongest women in Judaism?â Helen might ask me. I think about my answer to the question that doesnât exist yet because my daughter is too young to form a sentence, let alone ask a question. But within my interfaith partnership, I find myself increasingly aware of the differences between the way Adrian and I grew up, and I find myself asking my own questions in order to answer my daughterâs future questions.
So, who are the strongest women in Judaism? The answer I came up with is similar to Mexicoâs Virgin of Guadalupe. The strongest women are our mothers. They are not glorified saints, but they are saints. Our grandmothersâthey too hold the wisdom of decades.Â Guadalupe appears to the poor, the needy and the hungry. Our mother figures are there for us when we need them most.
I will tell Helen my thoughts on the separation of the sexes in synagogue. I will say that even though a curtain separates us, or a wall or a door, the belief is that our prayers are just as important. We will sit in synagogue on the womenâs side this year with Rachel, Sarah, Rebekah and with the Virgin of Guadalupe.
This past year was our first year with both girls in Sunday school. We had a steady rhythm of Sunday mornings at Temple and monthly Shabbats with other families with young children. It was a nice addition toÂ our school year schedule. Without planning it, though, along with taking the summer off from school, we accidentally took the summer off from Temple.
I say accidentally because it wasnât planned, and I didnât even think about it as a thing we were doing. Over the course of the summer, though, when I bumped into âTemple friends,â I felt a pang of longing for a community that is becoming a big part of our lives. This community is special because we all chose the congregationÂ as a pathÂ to explore common values, and, for the families in our religious school cohort, we all chose it to help us raise our kids with those values.
Like any group of Jewish people Iâve ever been a part of, we donât all agree on every element of practice. And like my own family, we werenât all raised Jewishly. Also, the way we practice is not always parallel with the way we were raised, Jewish or otherwise. But we have all agreed to try to figure things out together, and to shepherd a Jewish identity for our children.
Another piece of this longing I felt is because while we didnât take the summer off from being Jewish, as we welcomed the relaxing pace of summer, we also let loose on Shabbat. Late nights out or traveling replaced the ritual more than we might have preferred, but for better or worse for a few weeks we traded it for other adventures.
I love the loosening of schedules and predictability in the summer. I savor the long days and the opportunity to lengthen our mornings and evenings. I also appreciate the time to be together as a family away from our local communities. But I also miss some of the touchstones that ground our family – things like knowing we will be home for Shabbat, and even more so now, knowing weâll see some friendly faces on Sunday morning.
So while we stumble our way to get back to school, I am also looking forward to getting back to synagogue. I look forward to seeing old friends, to meeting new ones, and to the rhythm that practiceÂ helps put in our lives.
We had been planning our vacation to upstate New York for six months. The hotels book up by the end of August, so we made the reservation well in advance. Adrian, my significant other, got his freshwater fishing license, and we ordered our daughter a ton of new summer clothes. Everything was packed, even Grandma, who was accompanying us on the trip because she loves New York and offered to babysit in an attempt to let Adrian and me have some time alone on our vacation.
But plans never work. Not for me, at least. I look at the entire scope of my life and can say that almost anything I planned went awry. I had planned to have a Jewish wedding with a Jewish husband. But when I fell in love, it was with Adrian, a devout Catholic from Mexico. We arenât married, we have a beautiful daughter and nothing went as planned. But still we planned our trip.
The first night at the hotel, our daughter, Helen, seemed different. I couldnât put my finger on it, but something in her personality had shifted. We attributed it to the fact that she had been in the car for five hours with only a few short breaks in between. We also put her to sleep in a Pack ânâ Play instead of a crib, because itâs all we had and Helen wonât sleep with us. We went to sleep and the next dayâour first official vacation dayâwe went to the lake.
Adrian packed his fishing gear into the car. I planned what food we would eat, what toys Helen would play with and what bathing suits everyone would wear for the photos I planned to take. We propped up a tent with a blanket for Helen. Adrian went off to fish. Grandma and I stayed and played with the baby. At one point I took Helen into the water and she started to fuss. This was also unlike her. Helen loves the water, and sheâs not usually fussy when it comes to trying new things. But I just thought she was over-stimulated. Iâd kept her out of the sun and covered, and I couldnât think of what could be bothering her. So I took her out of the water and we spent the afternoon playing and napping.
When we finally got back to the hotel, Helen had a fever and was crying. I noticed that her eyes looked sick. I did what any new mother with a sick baby in a strange town would do: I freaked out! I took her clothes off and left just her diaper. I washed her with a warm washcloth. I hugged her, I kissed her, I told her everything was my fault and I cried.
This is when being in an interfaith family comes into play. Sometimes interfaith also means inter-culture. Helen is from two distinct and beautiful cultures: Jewish and Mexican. Whereas I was raised to panic and have high anxiety, Adrian grew up in a village where, when a child was sick, you waited before you panicked. I had already gone out to buy Tylenol; Adrian said no Tylenol. I had already gone out to buy canned chicken-noodle soup because I didnât have a kitchen to make soup in; Adrian said chamomile tea. I was taking Helenâs temperature with the thermometer every five seconds; Adrian just felt her back. I was taking the babyâs clothes off; Adrian said to let her sweat it out and cover her.
So we called the doctor in Brooklyn. I have the best pediatrician in the world, or at least Iâd like to think so. Adrian and I have been taking Helen to Tribeca Pediatrics in Boerum Hill since she was two days old. Theyâre a good fit for us because they understand our religious and cultural differences and look at each child as an individual. They know Adrianâs concerns about modern medicine and my concerns as a Jewish mother who wants to make everything better with food.
They told us to watch the fever and that Tylenol wasnât necessary, unless Helen couldnât sleep. They said the fever would most likely be gone by Saturday. Saturday came, and a full-body rash came with it. The fever was not down; it was up and down. We called the doctor again. âGive it one more day,â was the advice from the other end of the phone. Apparently the rash was a reaction to the virus, and thereâs no medicine to give a child for a virus. According to Tribeca Pediatricsâand the wise mothers of Mexicoâthe baby has to fight it.
Adrian did what any father would do when he saw the rash: He freaked out! It was then my turn to assure him that the rash was part of the process. Helen was also getting her big teeth in the back, and in addition to the fever and rash, she was teething like crazy. By Sunday she had no fever and the rash was going away. We went back to the lake. I bought her a teething ring and Adrian bought her a lamb chop, which he cooked on the grill and let cool. She chomped on the lamb-chop bone the whole day, and I think it was better than any teething ring ever made. She was smiling and happy and was her own self again! We planned the rest of the week and then threw the list of plans in the garbage and said, âLetâs just play it by ear.â
Before I signed the contract for the place where we would have our son’s bar mitzvah, I needed a rough idea of the size of our group so I could let the venue know the number of people we would guarantee. I started a spreadsheet with names of family, friends, and acquaintances: anyone I could think of that we possibly wanted to invite.
I wasn’t concerned that the list was big. It’s a destination bar mitzvah, and the destination isn’t a beach in the Caribbean or the mountains of Colorado or lakeside in Maine; it’s our son’s Jewish overnight camp outside of Waco, TX. An incredibly special place for our family, especially our son, but not a location where most people will be eager to travel. Except for our son’s camp friends who would jump at the chance to spend a weekend at camp, I assume that 40-50 percent of those invited will send regrets.
My family accounted for 20 people. My husband’s extended family is large, and we see all of the cousins in the summer and on Christmas Eve when we visit Vermont. These family members know our son, know he is being raised Jewish and I thought they should be invited to the bar mitzvah. I added 50 people to the list.
By the time I was done, I was at just under 300 people. I reviewed the list with my son. I told him it was preliminary; it would be refined and tweaked over the next year. With a few minor comments, such as, âBy the time I have my bar mitzvah I will probably want to invite some girls,â he was OK with what I put together.
Then I went over the list with my husband. “We don’t need to invite my family. Just my parents, sister, her boyfriend and son,” he said.
What?!? The bar mitzvah was a significant milestone in our life. I wanted to invite the entire world to be part of our simcha (joy)! I wanted our family to be part of it. I explained this to my husband.
âTheyâre not going to come,â he said.
âSo what? We can invite them so that they feel included,â I responded.
âThey wonât know what a bar mitzvah is.â
âSammy and I are not the first Jews your family has ever met. They have heard of bar mitzvahs, and if they havenât, they know Jewish people to ask.â
âThey will think that we are asking for gifts.â
“That’s ridiculous. People don’t assume they’re invited to a wedding just so the marrying couple can get a gift. Guests know the hosts want them to be part of the celebration. Plus, we’re going to encourage people to make a donation to a cause Sammy chooses in lieu of gifts.”
âI donât want to invite them.â
Exasperated by my husbandâs response, I said, âIâm calling your parents!â I assumed theyâd be more reasonable.
They weren’t. My in-laws’ response was similar. My mother-in-law said she “didn’t even know how to think” of a bar mitzvah. I said to think of it like a wedding. I thought that would help. After all, all of the family members in question were invited to our wedding reception. Still, my mother-in-law insisted on just the immediate family.
I contrasted my husband and his parentsâ response to my motherâs. While I was trying to convince my husband and in-laws to include more family, I was telling my mom she couldn’t invite her network of friends in New Jersey.
“I just want a few,” she said. Yeah right, I thought. “I’ll pay for them. I’ll pay for Friday night dinner.”
My answer: None of the grandparents were inviting friends. This event was about family and the people who knew our son well.
I wonder if the difference in approach to celebrating is religious. Certainly, a joyous celebration is a big part of Jewish ritual and culture from blessing the wine on Shabbat to raucous Purim parties to shouts of L’chaim and dancing the hora. But these things aren’t part of Christian celebrations.
Maybe it’s cultural. My husband is a New Englander, and I’m from the less genteel New York Metro area. The difference is probably a combination of both.
I grudgingly accepted my husband and in-laws’ little family guest list. My son did not. He reminded me that the bar mitzvah was about him, and he wanted to invite his Vermont cousins. I put them back on the list in a “maybe” column.
With plenty of planning ahead, we’ll see if father or son wins the battle of the guest list.