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I burned myself last week. Right after Rosh Hashanah I went into the kitchen to pour hot water into a single-cup coffee filter and ended up with a pot of boiling water splashing down the right side of my body. On the week of the Jewish New Year, my 1-year-old daughter, Helen Rose, had a bad head cold and I had a second-degree burn across my chest. Everything would have been fine, except it wasn’t.
A little while later, the blisters that had formed on my breast ruptured while I was trying to carry Helen down four flights of stairs in our apartment building. I was in pain for five days. I walked around the apartment without a shirt on and tried to keep the area clean. Then, one night a few days before Yom Kippur, I noticed a thin red line spreading from my breast to my armpit; I could hardly move my arm.
As a Jew I feel that guilt has played a large role in my life. There are jokes in our community about “Jewish guilt” and “Jewish mothers’ guilt.” So my mind automatically went to that place we tell ourselves not to go: “What did I do? I did something wrong and it’s almost Yom Kippur. I’m paying for something.” Adrian, my Catholic partner, heard my lament.
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “It was an accident.”
I asked him if there was such a thing as Catholic guilt, especially in Mexico, where he’s from. I even tried to find the word for “guilt” in Spanish. The only word I could come up with was “culpa.” But culpa doesn’t really mean “guilt”; it means “fault.” It comes from the Latin root “culpa,” also used in the well-known term felix culpa. The phrase means “happy fault.” Catholics believe that Jesus dying on the cross was a felix culpa, because although he died for mankind’s sins, which was bad, the Catholics got to have him as their savior, which was good. So to me it was as if Catholic guilt, if there is such a thing, could never compare to Jewish guilt. For me, guilt is guilt, and there is no happiness involved.
As soon as Adrian got home from work, I rushed to the emergency room carrying all my guilt with me. My burn had become so infected that the doctors at my local hospital transferred me to the burn center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. I cried. Adrian was taking care of the baby, and I felt alone. It turned out I had cellulitis and was to stay at the hospital with an IV until my burn healed. I cried again. Helen’s birthday was two days away and Yom Kippur was the day after her birthday, but I was informed I might have to stay in the hospital for three days.
Hospitals are lonely, but if they do one thing it’s test your faith. They test your faith in God and your faith in other human beings. One of my nurses wore a cross. Another wore a Star of David, and the third wore a heart with the word “Mom” in the middle. I felt that all three of those nurses represented all three parts of my family and myself: Jewish, Catholic and motherly (and fatherly) love. They took great care of me while I thought more about guilt, about the New Year and about the Day of Atonement coming up. I thought about my daughter’s smile and Adrian’s sweet face.
I tried to remember that my wound was nothing. A burn center cares for people who have been truly disfigured by fire. I was lucky to have only been partially burned, and not across my entire body or face.
I thought of my little Helen Rose. How could I have let myself think God was punishing me for something by burning me? I burned my own breast! And it was an accident! Some people sit in the hospital for days, weeks, months. And then some people’s children sit in the hospital. Guilt has nothing to do with it—life happens. Tragedy happens. Sometimes death happens. These things happen to Jews, Catholics, Muslims and every human being on earth. They don’t happen to make us pay; they happen to make us learn.
But Jewish guilt can come in handy sometimes. I dished out the Jewish guilt that was passed down to me to every doctor who came in contact with me. “You know,” I said as the IV dripped, “my daughter’s first birthday is on Monday, and if you don’t fix me I may not be home for it.” I remember one doctor said, “She won’t remember.” I could feel my Jewish ancestors rise up in my blood to reply, “But I’ll remember! And what kind of mother would I be if I missed her birthday because of my burned breast?”
I was released from the hospital on Monday, just in time for Helen’s birthday. I took the kosher cake I had made days before out of the freezer. Our party plans were cancelled, but Adrian, my mother, Helen and I blew out a candle.
I couldn’t go to synagogue because I wasn’t allowed to leave the house for a week, but I felt I had already atoned. A week later at my follow-up visit at the hospital, a doctor asked, “Why didn’t I see you when you were here? Were you in the burn unit?”
“Yes,” I said, “I was released on Monday, just in time for my daughter’s….”
Before I could finish, he cut me off: “Your daughter’s first birthday? Yes, I know who you are now. There was a lot of talk about you. The staff felt so guilty about keeping you here that they decided it was OK for you to leave a day early.”
If you’ve read some of my blogs related to Sukkot and Tu Bishvat or articles in the InterfaithFamily article archive, you know that the environment is an issue that my family and I care deeply about. We have an organic vegetable garden, use earth-friendly cleaning products and buy local meats and produce whenever possible. We keep our house warm in the summer and cool in the winter, and support environmental organizations such as Jewish National Fund. I drive a small hybrid car and like any good tree-hugger, my favorite shoes are an old pair of Birkenstock sandals that I occasionally wear with socks in the winter.
Given our passion for the environment, you can imagine how excited we were when we learned that the family mitzvah project for our son Sammy’s religious school class was a park clean up at White Rock Lake. White Rock Lake is the Central Park of Dallas.
The morning of the event, we grabbed our yard gloves and bug spray, and headed to our synagogue to meet our group. Before we left for the park, one of our rabbis led us in a discussion about our responsibility as Jews for caring for the earth. After discussing some Jewish texts, she asked the kids to share what they would do if they saw trash on the ground. They all said that they would pick it up and throw it away.
Then she asked if they would pick up the trash if it were gooey and dirty. Most children still said yes because they would have a nabber-grabber or plastic bag with them to use to grab the sticky garbage. These kids were not going to admit easily that there were times that they might not pick up trash. The rabbi then asked what they would do if they didn’t have nabber-grabbers or bags.
Knowing that there is often a contrast between what people say about themselves and actual behavior, the rabbi shared a story about herself. She talked about how when she walks her dog in her neighborhood she often sees garbage along the side of the road. She tries always to pick it up, but sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she walks past the sticky Gatorade bottle even though she knows she shouldn’t.
After her story, we headed to the park. I parked my Prius next to my rabbi’s. As we were walking to get our cleanup instructions and materials, I told her that I was also guilty of not always picking up the trash I see when I walk our dog.
I explained that while I have the best intentions if the dog hasn’t gone to the bathroom, I worry that I won’t have enough bags to clean up his waste. I tell myself that I’ll pick up the garbage after he goes when we’re on our way home, but often we don’t walk the same way. I feel bad when I do this, but I do it anyway.
Admitting my own lapses in environmental stewardship was easier after hearing someone that has moral authority admit that they make the same mistake. As I confessed, my rabbi nodded in understanding and I realized that others shared the moral dilemmas of dog walking.
As we worked to clean up the park, I thought about the morning’s discussion. I knew I could and should do more to live my earth-loving values and picking up trash when walking the dog was an easy way to do it. I resolved to increase the frequency of my trash pick up.
Later in the day, I shared my resolution with Sammy. I thought it was a good opportunity to model the concept of teshuva, repentance. I even explained the action I would take to meet my goal of increased garbage pick up: bring more bags to ensure that I had enough for garbage and poop.
Sammy thought my plan was good but asked if I was going to separate recyclables. “It’s better to recycle if you can,” he said. And what about dog waste that other owners neglected to pick up, he asked, “Are you going to clean up that too?”
Walking the dog was becoming more morally complicated by the minute. I thought this must be why people walk by garbage and dog poop–there are too many ethical decisions to consider.
But I didn’t want too many moral choices to stop me from fulfilling my responsibility to be a shomrei adamah, guardian of the earth. So, I decided to keep it simple. Separate trash from recyclables when possible; otherwise place it all in the trash and pick up dog waste if I had enough bags. Focus on maximizing the amount of garbage I pick up.
Three weeks into the implementation of my resolution, I’m happy to report that I have increased the frequency of trash pickup when I walk our dog. I’m not perfect, but my goal is improvement not perfection. And that is exactly what Judaism asks of us.
It doesn’t ask us to be perfect; it simply asks us to commit and work to change our behavior in order to live more responsible and humane lives. As we move from the season of atonement into the season of rejoicing, my trash pick plan is, in a small way, helping me to do that. And that’s worth celebrating.