Helen Turns 2 in English, Spanish and Hebrew

  

I can’t believe my first baby girl is already 2! In the beginning of this journey into parenthood I can remember the wise women of the synagogue next door to our apartment shouting, “Enjoy this time! It goes so fast,” as Adrian and I whisked Helen off to the park, to doctor’s appointments, to family functions and to the market. There was something the knowing eyes of those women told me that only a look can convey. Now, two weeks after Helen’s birthday, I understand what they meant.

Adrian and I wanted Helen to have a birthday that represented our family and who she is. For three nights before the big day I stayed up until two a.m. drinking coffee and making mini piñatas. I found a link on YouTube to a very organized young woman who seemed to know her way around a hot glue gun and party paper. Because of the recent damage done to Adrian’s village in Mexico, I also wanted to make the Mexican/Catholic tradition more visible this year so that he would feel included.

The one major event my American Jewish family and Adrian’s Mexican Catholic family have in common is that we love to party! We also love to decorate and cook and we love the element of surprise. I’ve also hated the color pink since I was a child but once I had Helen all of that changed. I was the toddler with the black converse sneakers, black jeans and black t-shirt. My daughter has become everything rainbow and butterflies have to offer. This too may change, but I doubt it.

Our menu was a mix of American and Mexican and so was our guest list! I made a cheese spread, a vegetable platter and fruit for the kids. I scoured Pinterest for ideas of how to make the snacks kid-friendly and I ended up spending over 45 minutes trying to get a red bell pepper and four slices of cucumber look like a train car. The cake was tres leches with Peppa Pig on the top. But the night before Helen’s big day was probably the most special for us as a couple.

As soon as Helen went to sleep, Adrian and I started moving furniture and blowing up balloons. We wanted Helen to wake up to a living room filled with piñatas and balloons. As we decorated, we spoke about how amazing the decision to start our interfaith family was. We remembered thinking that it was going to be hard to balance two religions, two traditions and two vastly different cultures. But then we laughed while we wrapped Helen’s gifts, which were: An Abby Caddaby doll, giant Hebrew flashcards and a book in Spanish and English. What could be difficult about real love?

We hung up most of the balloons but let three loose so that Helen could play with them in the morning. As soon as she woke up she walked into the living room and said, “buuubuuu.” That’s her version of “balloon.” I think that’s because in Spanish the word balloon is “globo” and she mixes the sounds. She loved the balloons and the gift-wrapping more that the actual gifts. She did yell, “Abbyyyyy” a few times before she threw the Sesame Street doll on the floor and went after the balloons again.

That day we ran around Brooklyn getting the last few odds and ends for the party. Finally, at six o’clock the guests began to arrive. My mother was the first, of course. She couldn’t wait to give Helen her gift. Because Adrian’s mom is in Mexico, my mother fills in for her and bought Helen two gifts, one from Grandma and one from Abuela. Then my nephews trudged up the stairs of the apartment and I could hear my sister-in-law and my brother behind them. Finally, Adrian’s brothers came, all four of them!

Our apartment is a small one-bedroom but people are always surprised at how many guests we can squeeze into such an intimate space. As I brought out the snacks and Adrian began making his cheese enchiladas, I looked around at our diverse living room. There was happiness and celebration all around and Helen was so surprised.

After we ate and opened gifts it was time to cut the Peppa Pig cake. My nephews love chocolate cake but this cake was filled with strawberries, peaches, cream, condensed milk and vanilla cake. Tres leches cake is traditional in Mexico and when it’s done right it tastes like a sugary cloud. We turned off the lights and first played “las mañanitas” on the stereo. This is a traditional Mexican birthday song. Then we sang Happy Birthday in English.

My nephews were shocked when they saw that the cake wasn’t chocolate and even more shocked when they tasted how delicious it was. They are just three months older than Helen and they love her. They ran around after the cake cutting singing, “Helen Rose, Helen Rose, Helen Rose.” And I wonder what Helen wished for when she blew out her candle. Was it a pony? Was it candy and ice cream? Or was it my wish? That our house, no matter where we live, will always be filled with two religions and love that knows no limits.

Why I Never Visit My Father’s Grave

  

Numbers are a big deal in Judaism. Hebrew is an ancient language, but numerology is hidden in every letter of scripture. This is something I learned very early on: Numbers matter. Our time on this earth—our nights and our days are numbered. So it wasn’t surprising that I grew up on 23rd street in Brooklyn and my father died on August 23. I was 12-and-a-half years old. By Jewish law, I was a woman. But by losing a father at such a young age, a part of me remained fixed in time—always a little girl.

This year marks 23 years since my father died and I still haven’t set foot in the cemetery since childhood. This has nothing to do with numbers. This has to do with the fact that my father, a Brooklyn boy through and through, was buried in New Jersey of all places—Paramus, New Jersey. If I know one thing about the spirit, it’s that my father’s spirit wouldn’t be caught dead in Jersey. He’s not really there.

The dead live in our hearts. They live with us throughout our numbered days. Sometimes they ride the train or the bus with us. They help us cross the street on particularly tired days. We can’t see them, but they are around.

In Jewish tradition, my family believes that after death our souls go back to God. My husband’s family of Mexican Catholic tradition believes that the dead hover around all the time, just in case you need them. Once a year on Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), Adrian’s family travels to the cemetery to leave the favorite foods of the deceased. I believe in all of that, but I also believe that my father still sometimes likes to visit my mother’s living room and sit in his big blue chair.

So this year, as my mother got dressed in her usual Sunday cemetery garb, she called to ask me the same question she’s been asking me for 23 years, “Are you coming with us to the cemetery today?”

My father was cremated—that is unheard of in Judaism. He sits on a shelf in a small jar behind a stone that says his name in both Hebrew and English. On the day he died, one of the neighbors remarked, “There’s Big Dave in a little jar.” I’m not sure my husband’s take on cremation and I’m nervous about asking him, but as it turns out, our two religions and cultures have more in common when it comes to death and dying than I would have suspected.

In Adrian’s village, when someone dies, the family stays up all night because they believe that the spirit of the person is still in the house. Then he informs me that the body must be buried within a 24-hour period. This is true in Judaism as well! Adrian also tells me that people are cremated in Mexico, but those people are usually from a bigger city whereas he is from a smaller village setting.

What Adrian can’t comprehend is that almost my whole family is buried in the Paramus cemetery and there is an empty lot next to my father that belongs to my mother whenever she’s ready to join him (hopefully no time soon). He says that’s the strangest thing he’s ever heard. I try to explain to him that it’s kind of like owning real estate and he refuses to believe me.

But, both of our religions have a high respect for the dead. We both have special prayers. Both of our families wear black when someone dies. We both cry. Both of our families visit the dead once or twice a year. Except for me.

I talk to my father every day. And she may not know that I know this, but my mother talks to him every day too. There is a picture of my father in my living room holding me as a newborn. His face is close to my face and I have just been born. In that photo, my father is happy. He owns a house. He has a son and his daughter has just been born. He’s happily married. He goes to the theater once a week. He eats dinner out. He waters the lawn. In the photo next to him is a picture of Adrian and our little one, Helen Rose. In the photo, she has just been born and Adrian holds her in the exact pose as the photo of my father and me. Adrian is happy. His first child has just been born. He has a new apartment. He sees his friends and brothers once a week. He eats dinner out. He waters his plants.

It’s been 23 years since my father’s death. So much has happened without him, though it feels as though he were here just yesterday. In Kabbalistic terms the number 23 signifies a kingdom. Usually it refers to an inner kingdom. As a Jewish girl from Brooklyn who started a life with a Catholic boy from Mexico, I feel as though my choice to create an interfaith family has kept my inner kingdom and my family’s inner kingdom intact. The choice to give my daughter a vast knowledge of who she is breaks tradition and yet holds it in place forever.

I never visit the cemetery on the anniversary of my father’s death. It’s clear he’s still among us…in his own way.

Charting a New Course

  

We live in a world filled with hate. It seems as each new day dawns, we are reminded of this very concept. Charlottesville, Paris, London, France, Spain, the list continues to grow. Even my beloved alma mater, The Ohio State University, a college with a diverse student population of nearly 60,000 is not immune. Can it really be that we have ushered in a new era where it has not only become popular but acceptable to preach hate and bigotry while encouraging violence at targeted groups? This seemingly commonplace behavior has captivated headlines on a daily basis and often includes attacks on various groups including women, LGBT, minorities and Jews.

America is the land of opportunity. A great country founded on the basic principal of speaking out and rebelling against tyrants forcing their ideologies. Each of us is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. People love to hide behind the First Amendment as a reason to spout vulgar insults and racial epithets. It has been uplifting to see many Americans coming together to rally against hate. But it’s important to remember that freedom OF speech is not freedom FROM speech. Do I support or encourage the Ku Klux Klan and its supporters gathering in arms, bearing torches and shouting references to Hitler along with chants echoing through the night, “Jews will not replace us!”? Of course not, but while we, as equal rights supporters stand unified against hate, we don’t encourage violence to solve violence. The hateful actions of these people are deplorable and do not embody the principles this nation was founded on.

As relatively new parents, this is continuously a topic of discussion in our house. Today, we live in a community only a few miles from where I experienced first-hand that hate is not limited to racially divided cities or foreign countries calling for war against the West. I was maybe only 10 years old when our baseball team traveled out to a wealthy suburb on the east side of Cleveland. (For those who don’t know me, I grew up in a predominately Jewish community that was well known for its religious concentration.) I was raised in a Reform Jewish household and became a bar mitzvah. I have been blessed to be married to the most wonderful, kind and loving Catholic woman in the world (although not very religious herself). My life experiences both as a Jew and being in an interfaith marriage have allowed me to view this anecdote differently as I got older.

We arrived for the game on a sunny afternoon and began to warm up. It didn’t take long before we could hear the undertones and whispers coming from the home team dugout. “F-ing (expletive) Jews. Why don’t you go home back where you came from?” These were phrases that, while familiar with, I had not experienced them directly, especially as a young boy. I was raised in an environment to be conscious of the fact that the world did not always like Jews and anti-Semitism was a very real thing. Now to experience it first hand was a little jarring. As the game went on there were similar remarks being made under their breathe. Later in the game, on a close play, I slid into second base and was involved in a little scuffle while colliding with the other player trying to tag me out. The play ended and through the cloud of settling dirt, I heard, “Go home you stupid k___ (derogatory word for Jews that sounds like “kite”).”

These awful words still ring in my ears more than 25 years later. My perspective on the world has evolved over the years—from a young Jewish man to a husband and father, raising my own family, in an interfaith marriage. The world is a cruel place; people are cruel; children are cruel. The events of the recent past can be avoided, but it has to start now. Hate is a learned behavior—it is taught to our youth at a very tender and impressionable age. We breed hate as we pass on our distaste for one culture, religion or ethnic group. Information is so readily available today and can be accessed, at our fingertips, within a moment’s notice. Hate groups are using this to unify and unite their cause with propaganda and recruit new soldiers to fight in the battle.

Today does not feel like the world I grew up in. It is fueled by violence and hate, almost as if we have taken a step back in our progression as a society. This is not the world I want my daughter to grow up in. Not a place where she has to be afraid or embarrassed that her last name is known as a common Jewish name. Not a place where she is afraid to walk into a synagogue. Not a place where she cannot be proud of who she is and the heritage she carries with her. We have to do our part, speak out when you see an injustice being committed. I believe that good can and will prevail over evil. However, it starts with us as individuals. The words we use in our homes, the way we speak to colleagues, the way we greet strangers. We CAN make a difference and chart a new course.

Quincineara Barbie

  

It’s been two weeks of vacation for my family in upstate New York. Nothing but fun, sun, relaxing walks by the lake, fishing and Quinceañera Barbie. Wait…what!? Here’s how Quinceañera Barbie came into my life.

My daughter Helen Rose is American, Mexican, Jewish and Catholic. The question from my Jewish-American side of the family is always, “Are you going to give her a bat mitzvah when she turns 12?” And the question from Adrian’s Catholic-Mexican side of the family is always, “Are you going to give her a Quinceañera when she turns 15?”

Both of these ceremonies celebrate the move from girlhood to adulthood. At a bat mitzvah, a girl may read a portion from the Torah in synagogue and then have a big party or sometimes, it’s just a big party. At a Quinceañera, there is a traditional dance that the girl does with a childhood doll. When the dance ends, the girl must give the doll away and then she is considered a woman. That dance usually takes place during a big party. Mostly, I believe these questions are brought up from both families because it’s a hint that we should start saving money now, even though my daughter is just 2 years old.

I hadn’t given much thought to bat mitzvahs or Quinceañeras. I’ve been enjoying the part of my daughter’s childhood where every moment and every new discovery feels like one big party. She finds bugs and runs through outdoor sprinklers on our vacation. She chases birds and learns new words in both Spanish and English: boat, burro, cook and hola. But, one day it starts to rain and so instead of having our usual barbecue by the water, we take her to a Barnes and Noble in town so that she can run through the kids’ section.

Her first choice in toys when we get there is a train set that’s been set up in the corner. But she quickly tires of the train set after she realizes there are other toys in the store. She reaches for Peppa Pig, Elmo, Cookie Monster and Big Bird. She brings each toy over to me. She smiles and then runs to get another one. Finally, I spot her holding a large cardboard box with a doll inside. The doll’s skin is the same cinnamon tint as my daughter’s. The doll is wearing a long purple gown and at the bottom of the plastic that encases her, it says, in shiny silver letters, “QUINCEAĂ‘ERA BARBIE.” Oh help me.

I never had a Barbie. I didn’t really want one. My brother was older than I was and he had G.I. Joes and all kinds of science toys so I veered more toward those. The only time I played with a Barbie was when I was at someone’s house for a play date. Once, at my friend Aviva’s house, I took her favorite Barbie and shoved its head into her parents’ whirlpool (a machine used to make the bath into a jacuzzi…it was the ’80s) in the bathtub. I’m pretty sure I broke the whirlpool when Barbie came out but her head stayed in. Her father spent two hours trying to shave Barbie’s hair off to get her golden locks to break free from the whirlpool.

But there was my daughter, on a rainy afternoon, holding Quinceañera Barbie and waving her in my face. And there was Quinceañera Barbie with a glazed look in her eyes as if to say, “Remember me?” She had also plucked two other Barbie dolls from the shelf—Ballet Wishes Barbie and 2016 Birthday Wishes Barbie. But, Quinceañera Barbie towered over those two petite Barbie dolls and claimed her moment.

As my daughter ran off to get another doll, I wondered why there was no Bat Mitzvah Barbie. I imagined what she would look like—complete with her Torah scroll and equally shiny dress. As soon as my thoughts began to wander, I looked up everything having to do with Barbie dolls. What I found out shocked and surprised me.

Ruth Handler, who was the Jewish daughter of Polish immigrants, invented the Barbie doll. She actually thought of the idea after she saw her daughter playing with paper dolls. As I read up on her, I found out how she became one of the most successful business women in history. I then thought of the hilarity of my own situation. Barbie, even the Quinceañera Barbie, is Jewish! She’s not only Jewish but she’s interfaith—an interfaith Barbie! Her original creator is a Jewish woman named Ruth Handler and her identity in her current costume is that of a Catholic Latina girl about to enter womanhood! I’ve now become obsessed with the idea that any Barbie doll sold on the shelf of a toy store today is part Jewish.

I didn’t purchase Quinceañera Barbie only because my daughter doesn’t really know how to play with her yet. However, I do know that when my daughter is older and has questions about her two faiths, I will use Quinceañera Barbie as a model of something that incorporates a rich history of Judaism, Catholicism and invention. After all, as an interfaith child of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, reinvention is something we are very familiar with.

I Wish We’d Had “The Religion Talk” Before Having Kids

  

By Lindsey Goldstein

I Wish We’d Had “The Religion Talk” Before Having Kids

Before my husband and I got married, we discussed how we would raise any potential children. These children were very theoretical. something I wasn’t sure I wanted. But I began to consider it, since he finally seemed to be the right person to procreate with.

My husband was raised Catholic but hasn’t practiced any religion since he left his parents’ home and I was raised Jewish albeit not entirely religious. I strongly identify myself as Jewish.

Yet despite those differences, our discussions about raising our kids weren’t profound. They went something like this:

Me: “How will we raise our kids with respect to religion?”

Him: “Well, you’re Jewish, so aren’t they Jewish by default?”

Of course, he referred to the fact that any child that springs forth from the loins of a Jewish woman is automatically Jewish.

That’s fine and good, but I’ve found that kids these days, unless presented with a religious upbringing will often default to being “nothing.” Or as my brother’s kids say, they are “half Jewish.” What does that even mean? Are they sliced down the middle through the navel, one side claiming to be Jewish and the other not? It means nothing. Literally.

Ultimately, my husband and I decided our kids would be educated on Judaism by me and my husband would answer any questions about Catholicism should they arise. He acknowledged that the brunt of our kids’ formal religious exposure would most likely be Judaism because my parents live 35 minutes away, so we spend the Jewish holidays with them—and unlike him, I practice my religion.

Yet this wasn’t a concrete plan. Essentially, we decided any kids we had could figure out for themselves how invested they wanted to be in their religious upbringing and we would simply facilitate their decision. In other words, our decision about how to raise them was pretty wishy-washy.

When my daughter reached school age, we decided to send her to a Jewish school, where she would stay there through kindergarten and then switch to an excellent local public school, one of the draws of our neighborhood.

As I have previously written, I am so proud that she became extremely interested in her Jewishness to the extent that she taught me things I’d long forgotten from my Jewish upbringing. In June, she “graduated” from that school and will, as planned, move to a public school.

The struggle confronting me now is how will her Jewishness persevere outside of her current school? I asked her if she would like to have a bat mitzvah and she said yes. I explained to her she’d have to attend Hebrew school on Sundays to make her goal happen.

Here’s the thing: When my daughter and I discuss Hebrew school, she forgets about it minutes later. I don’t force the issue because I reflect on the fact that I wouldn’t have wanted to spend every Sunday in Hebrew school when I was 6. I hear my husband and understand his religion was forced on him thereby destroying any religious intentions in him. I know he feels strongly that we don’t do that to our kids. But I remind him that being Jewish isn’t an easy path to choose.

Now that we have real children instead of theoretical ones, I realize our decision to not make any decisions for them was misguided. Kids will never choose to study religion if they don’t have to.

The path of least resistance is being anything but Jewish. I resented being Jewish for most of my teenage years because I was raised among mostly Christians and I hated being “different.” When I was 18, I lived in a predominantly Catholic country as an exchange student. For that year, I decided to assimilate and not celebrate Jewish holidays or acknowledge my Jewishness. I had a fulfilling year, yet I felt adrift. Even though I’ve never been terribly religious, it turned out I was out of place in a religious context that wasn’t my own, and I craved the companionship of people who “get me.”

No matter how religious or not a Jew is, I think there is a foundation of similarity that allows us to relate to another Jew easily. There is a parallel upbringing or set of parents or values that bonds us together.

And I realize now: I want that for my kids. I don’t want them to float around in this world incapable of identifying themselves with a community. Selfishly, I want that community to be a Jewish one.

Clearly, my husband and I still have some discussion before us—and it won’t be easy to iron out now that our kids are growing up. We should have made concrete decisions about religious upbringing before.

That’s why when other interfaith couples say they’re going to “wing it,” I vehemently tell them not to—but rather to hammer those details out before they get married, to seek counsel from an outside source if they need an objective perspective.

In the meantime, my daughter will still have a connection to her Jewish school since her brother will matriculate in a month. I am hopeful she will choose to follow through with her desire to have a bat mitzvah and continue to feel at home in the Jewish community as she has for the last several years.

I hope she is ultimately persuaded by my example since she enjoys going to synagogue and celebrating Jewish holidays with me. Of course, I am not upset with my husband for his view on religious upbringing—especially in light of how he was raised. But, I should have been absolutely forthright with him that my ultimate goal for my kids is as follows: when someone asks them what they are they respond without hesitation, “Jewish.”

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.

When I Panicked and a Stranger Stepped in to Help

  

It’s a Monday morning in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and my almost 2-year-old daughter and I have a date with my friend and her 10-month-old daughter to go to a read-along at the Brooklyn Public Library. We get downstairs with the stroller, enough snacks to feed a small army and a water bottle. Not to mention diapers, wipes, A & D ointment, cell phone, wallet and keys. Oh, and Duckie, the stuffed animal that is covered in one thin layer of gross because it is trudged across New York by my daughter on every trip we take. Even when I wash Duckie, his yellow is a kind of city yellow—so, basically he’s gray.

The super of my building sees me trying to get Helen into the stroller. “You gonna take an umbrella?” he asks, “It’s supposed to rain like crazy.”

The library is a ten-minute walk from my apartment and it hasn’t started raining yet. The umbrella is the one item I’ve forgotten. “No,” I say, “I’m not afraid of a little rain.”

Famous. Last. Words.

Almost eight blocks from my house, the sky opens. The rain comes down in sheets as if the sky had been holding its breath and someone just reminded it to let go. I am so soaked and Helen (though covered by the stroller top and a blanket) is getting her legs and feet soaked as well. I almost panic.

Midwood is a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. I grew up here and now I live here with my interfaith family. It’s hard to live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and try to make people understand that my daughter is both Jewish and Mexican Catholic. In Jewish circles I find myself getting defensive. In Catholic circles I don’t know how to explain my own take on Judaism. And when strangers hear me speak Spanish and then shout something in Hebrew three seconds later, I am met with baffled looks.

But Midwood means something else too. It means a ton of Honda Odyssey minivans. Once, from my mother’s house to our apartment three blocks away, I counted 11 parked Odyssey minivans. This is because the Jews, like the Mexicans, have big families and the Honda Odyssey seats eight. But, as a driver in New York, I hate being behind an Odyssey. I’m constantly making cracks about them. I can always see the TV turned on in the back seat of an Odyssey. So many Odyssey minivan drivers drive too slow in them because of all the kids they have in the car. But, it’s my own personal obnoxious joke that I can’t stand the Honda Odyssey.

With that being said, as I’m in a small panic halfway from home and halfway from the library with the rain still pelting down, I see a blue Honda Odyssey turn the corner. A young woman in a traditional wig rolls down her window. “Excuse me!” She shouts from her Odyssey, “Do you need a ride? I have three car seats in the car.” I am wearing jeans (a clear sign I am not an Orthodox Jew, though I am a Jew, but she doesn’t know this) and a shirt that has become so obviously see-through.

“Are you sure?” I ask, hesitating as water drips down my face.

“Yes!” she says as she leaps out of her Odyssey with a purple umbrella decorated with dogs wearing tutus. She holds the umbrella over our heads as I get Helen out of the stroller. She then holds my daughter and puts her in the car seat. Helen starts to cry a little, but the woman is so gentle and I tell her not to be afraid. I throw the stroller in the trunk and get into the front seat. As soon as the woman closes the “dogs in tutu” umbrella she says, “I’ve never picked up a stranger before! I just couldn’t believe you were out here. I just dropped my kids off at camp and saw you. Where are you going?”

I tell her that we are on the way to the library and I find out that she lives on that same block. She points to her house (which is directly across the street from one of my relatives’ apartment building) and on the porch are three mini beach chairs for each of her children. I thank her profusely and as I get Helen out of the car seat, the woman climbs into the trunk of her Odyssey and pulls a pink and white blanket from the back that says, “baby.”

“Please take this,” she says, “I have six blankets in this car and the library is freezing.”

This is when I take the opportunity to let her know in Hebrew that I am a Jew. I’m not sure why I do this. The entire ride, when I spoke to Helen, I spoke in Spanish. It was obvious to the woman that we were a different kind of family than the families usually seen walking through Midwood. But, religion, class or status didn’t matter to this woman. So I said, “todah rabah” (thank you, in Hebrew). “You did a real mitzvah” (good deed).

But, to my surprise the woman wasn’t shocked. Her mouth didn’t drop open and she didn’t shout, “Oh my God you’re Jewish!?!” And that was a good lesson for me because her picking me up had nothing to do with my two faiths. She picked me up because she saw I needed help. She saw I was in a panic and she saw that, like herself, I am a mother. And being a mother has nothing to do with being a Jew or a Catholic and it has everything to do with being a Jew and a Catholic. Because two faiths, interfaith or one faith is about respect for the fellow man. And in a world that seems more chaotic every day, it’s nice to know that as Anne Frank once wrote at the age of 13, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Maybe I’ll stop being so judgmental about the Odyssey.

Bringing Some Dharma to My Jewish-Catholic Household

  

Insomnia. It’s awful and I’ve never had it before. Until now.

Part of this has to do with me getting pregnant again shortly after a miscarriage. Another part has to do with the anxiety, fear, loneliness, happiness, joy and gratitude I feel approaching motherhood for the second time. The second time is different, of course. With a toddler at home the exhaustion level of pregnancy is overwhelming. This is how I found myself a few weeks ago at two in the morning with the refrigerator door open asking myself, “What else can I eat?” After making my way through a bag of potato chips, a bowl of cherries and the rest of a half-eaten Kit-Kat bar, I get the feeling I should be doing something else…like meditating.

A long time ago I worked at a yoga studio. I was the desk girl and I would check people in and only occasionally take a yoga class. But, on Wednesday mornings they would have a meditation group and I would go and sit in the middle of the sunny studio and listen to a woman in a long kimono tell me to relax. It was relaxing, though not at first. At first there was total panic. Why couldn’t I turn my brain off? Why did everything else seem more important than just sitting with myself for 30 minutes? Eventually I got better at it. But, at two in the morning I feel a need to sit down with myself again.

My household is a testament to two faiths being able to coexist peacefully and even intertwine and become something even more beautiful than what they already are. A walk through my apartment will reveal the Jewish and Catholic aspects of my family’s life. There are prayers for the home in Hebrew at the entrance. A mezuzah in the doorframe and a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe protecting my daughter’s bed while she sleeps. At two in the morning I look to all of these objects in order to steady my thoughts.

The Dalai Lama calls Buddhism not a religion but a “science of the mind.” So on my way back from the fridge I grab a pillow from the couch and sit on it in the lotus position hoping that Buddhism will help me in my Jewish/Catholic home. I want to stay calm. I want my thoughts to stop if only for a minute. I also want to relax so that I can finally get some sleep!

The pillow is uncomfortable. My already growing belly feels smashed. I forget the pillow and sit on the floor. The floor is too hard. My back hurts. Those potato chips were a bad idea. I lie on the floor. The carpet is too itchy, and so on and so forth for the next ten minutes. I exceed Julia Roberts’ performance in Eat, Pray Love. Meditating is hard.

I decide to commit to sitting in a chair for at least ten minutes every day and trying to quiet my mind. I look up mantras and then I realize that I can use any mantra I want. I’m part of an interfaith family! I can use a prayer, a word or even a saying. I choose something that I’ve been saying before bed since I was a little girl. “Shema Yisrael,” the prayer in Hebrew of “Hear O’ Israel.” Traditionally said before one goes to sleep I repeat it over and over again breathing in and out and trying to focus on my breath and the sound of the words.

By 4 o’clock in the morning I’m still awake. At 6 a.m. I fall asleep. My daughter wakes up at 9:30. But, I keep saying the Shema. Every night when I can’t fall asleep I sit upright in a chair, close my eyes and invoke Israel’s name. Every night it gets easier. Some nights it actually puts me to bed.

I think about that prayer and the way I learned it. It was not taught in my house but in my school when I was a child. This gets me thinking about my daughter and my child to come. How beautiful faith in something, anything is. That a prayer so etched in my memory can come to me when I need peace and quiet. It makes me happy that my daughter and my future children will have a plethora of prayers to choose from. There is the Jewish “Shema,” there is a Catholic prayer of St. Francis that I love which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” and then there are the Buddhist prayers for loving-kindness or forgiveness.

One night I try a specific meditation in which one is supposed to meditate on a difficult situation one is having and then replace oneself with a saint or a holy being like Gandhi or Mother Teresa. I do this thinking that of course mother Teresa will show up in my mind’s eye. But, as soon as I close my eyes it’s not Mother Teresa at all. It’s my Grandma Rosie and she’s holding a bowl of chicken soup. So I say, “Grandma, what are you doing here?” She says, “I heard you couldn’t sleep so I made you some soup.” I laugh when I open my eyes.

The next night I make the family my Grandmother’s chicken soup. I kiss the Hebrew prayer on my wall, I kiss the mezuzah on the doorframe and I kiss Guadalupe. That night I sleep like a baby. Sometimes faith, any faith begins right at the kitchen stove.

What’s in a Name: My Favorite Torah Portion

  

My middle name is Miriam. I am named after Mark, my mother’s brother who was killed at the young age of 39. My name is a remembrance of him just as my daughter’s name is a reminder of my two Grandmothers, Helen and Rose. Names have great meaning and what someone is named at birth doesn’t necessarily determine who they are, but it does hold potential.

One of this month’s Torah portions just happens to be called “Chukat,” meaning “decree.” It is one of my favorite portions because it is about the death of Miriam (Moses’s sister) and how the death of a single woman affects an entire people and their future.

When Miriam dies, water becomes scarce. Moses cannot deal with his sister’s death and sees the people of Israel angered at him and Aaron for bringing them to a barren land. God commands Moses to speak to a rock and ask for water. Saddened by the death of his sister and vexed at his people for their lack of grief, Moses makes a mistake. Instead of speaking to the stone he strikes it. It is an act that does not go unnoticed. Because of this err on Moses’ part, God refuses to let him lead the Jews into the Promised Land. The death of Miriam means the death of water, purity and a loss of control for a great prophet. Even Moses fears death or is stifled by it. Then, before this Torah portion comes to a close, Aaron dies as well.

The name Miriam in Hebrew means rebellious—fitting that I should be named after my Uncle Mark, who was the rebel in our family history just as I am. Some of my family members will tell you I am still the rebellious one living with and loving a man from Mexico who was born Catholic, raising our child in an interfaith household. But water followed Miriam everywhere. It followed her through the desert during her people’s hardest times. I have chosen to live my life as she lived hers—with a magical well that never runs dry with room enough for different faiths, cultures and beliefs.

What’s funny is that the man I chose to spend my life with is named Adrian and his name is from the Latin root meaning “sea” or “water.” My middle name and his first name flow like rivers next to each other, intertwining like our two faiths.

Helen, our almost 2-year-old has a name derived from the Greeks. Who hasn’t heard of Helen of Troy? Her name in Greek means “Shining Light” or “The Bright One.” This seems appropriate, that two bodies of water can create a spark, something beautiful and different that never fades.

I like the “Chukat” Torah portion because it is not about Judaism specifically; it is about doubt and faith. The Israelites doubt Moses and Aaron and so God is angered. Moses is grieving and loses control, because of this he suffers and dies without being permitted to enter into the Holy Land. It is a lesson not only for Jews but for anyone because it is about having faith in your own journey. The Israelites lose faith because the water disappears after Miriam’s death. Moses loses faith in his people. God is angered most by Moses’ loss of control. On so long a journey Moses does not trust and strikes the very rock that was to give him and his people sustenance. But I see that rock as a symbol of Miriam. Although she is gone, perhaps her spirit is in that rock, but Moses is too blind to see it. For this, he is punished.

Often it is a challenge to navigate an interfaith household. During certain times of the year it seems as though we have a different holiday every month. Traditions are hard to keep up, or are tweaked so that they can fit both religions and both cultures. Our budget for gifts on holidays has to stretch so that Santa Claus, the Three Kings and a menorah can all fit in the living room. But we try never to strike the stone, to curse the place where the water will naturally flow if given time and care.

That’s what God’s decree is in the “Chukat” portion. He desires that we keep going even when the world seems to rise up against us and deem us rebellious. He asks us to speak to the stone, not strike it so that we may learn from the world how cool water can follow us through the desert when we feel we are making a new, different and enlightening journey toward faith.

How To Do a Mitzvah

  
Helen at the bakery

Helen in front of the neighborhood bakery

In the local stores in my neighborhood it seems that everyone is pushing everyone else aside. People don’t say “excuse me” anymore. In the kosher bakery I get hit in the eye with a challah bread when one woman reaches past me, past Adrian and over Helen’s stroller. She really socks me one with the golden dough. Then she doesn’t say, “I’m sorry” or even acknowledge my family’s existence. At least the challah was fresh and warm so it was a soft blow to my right eye, and anyway it smelled good.

We try the Mexican bakery next for Adrian. He loves a traditional “concha.” A concha is a type of bread shaped like a roll covered in chocolate, vanilla or strawberry sugar and traditionally it is eaten in the morning. It looks a little bit like a shell from the beach and that’s what concha means in Spanish: “Shell.” We have this routine. On Friday mornings before Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts we hit the bakeries. Everyone else in our neighborhood has the same idea. Friday mornings can be overwhelming.

At the Mexican bakery we grab a tray and tongs and pick the bread we like. On the way over to the counter a woman cuts in front of me slamming her tray down on the counter and demanding a bigger plastic bag for her bread. I take a step back. I’ve been hit with enough dough for one day.

On our walk home a cyclist (riding on the sidewalk) nearly runs us all down and yells “Watch it!” No one holds the door for the stroller in our building and when I say, “Hi Frank!” to my super, her grunts, curses, spits and stomps up the stairs murmuring, “Everybody wants somethin’ from me all the time…”

I feel defeated. Why is everyone so rude? I have this thought while stress eating in my kitchen standing up. Helen goes to her crib to take a nap and I decide to look for some spiritual inspiration. I put away my bag of popcorn and salted caramel ice cream.

I Google the word “mitzvah.” In the Yeshiva I attended as a girl the teachers taught us that the word “mitzvah” means “a good deed.” The plural in Hebrew is “mitzvot,” for many good deeds. But, as I search deeper into the meaning I come to find out that “mitzvah” actually translates as “commandment.” So in the Jewish religion it is commanded by God that we complete the task of doing good deeds every day.

Helen waits

Helen waiting in front of the bakery

This is interesting. What have I been teaching Helen about good deeds?

What have I been teaching her about commandments? It’s easy to point a finger. Friday at the two bakeries it was so simple for me to become the victim. But, what did I do to help the people around me? Did I do any mitzvot on Friday? What about the rest of the week? What did I do to help anyone besides myself?

I know that’s a pretty harsh self-judgement. But I wasn’t blaming myself. I was merely trying to dig deeper into the similarities of my two-faith household. I understand that a mitzvah is a commandment. In Catholicism there is the belief in “good works.” This is the same concept. It sounds simple because these teachings from both religions don’t involve complicated holidays, recipes or traditions. These ideas and beliefs arise during the everyday. Maybe that is what makes them go unannounced and unnoticed. Maybe that’s also why they are harder to commit to.

This is a situation in which Adrian and I believe the same thing. Nothing is complicated about doing good deeds out in the world. But how do we teach each other and how do we teach our daughter about the power of mitzvot?

I think that everything begins at home and so I start to think about our apartment building. We live on the fourth floor of a walk-up apartment built in 1927. The stairs aren’t just tough to climb, they’re made of marble. But in my own building my neighbors have done the deed of a mitzvah many times for me. There have been so many nights that Adrian has been at work and Helen and I have to go to the store to bring bags of groceries back. The boy who lives on the first floor always carries the stroller up the stairs for me if he’s around. The super’s son has carried Helen for me. There is a woman named Veronica who lives on the second floor and she’s carried four bags from Whole Foods filled with canned goods up to my apartment. Once, a young girl from the other side of the building (our building has two sides) saw me and helped me. She was 11 years old!

The mitzvah starts at home. The commandment begins in the hallway of our building and spreads far out into the community. A good deed speaks many languages, follows many cultures and faiths. This Friday at the bakery I’m going to hold the door for someone because maybe I wasn’t looking behind me the last time. Maybe I slammed the door in someone’s face instead of holding it. Maybe the woman who smacked me with a challah bread had plenty of reason to do so. It was like God was saying “Wake up! You’ve got a lot of mitzvot to do!”

Now What?

  

Quinn at PassoverYou just spent several hours or days in the hospital giving birth to your child or, in our case, several months going through your whirlwind adoption. But the moment you have long awaited is here: You are finally home. You left the house as two, but returned with three. For those of us as first time parents, the panic and paranoia is just setting in. As you slowly learn how to care for the newest member of your family, you begin to contemplate the next stages of life. How will we raise them? Jewish? Catholic? Both? Neither?

Or maybe you’ve already contemplated these questions. Kimberly and I had this discussion long before that first moment of staring into our baby daughter’s big brown eyes. We thought it was important to talk openly about these topics early in our marriage. Too many people wait until game time to have the discussion and make decisions which can lead to poor decision making and being short sighted. Our wedding day was not about different religious upbringings, but was a celebration of love that including a “wink” to religious heritage. We were not married by a rabbi or priest. In fact, one of my best friends in the world got ordained and performed the ceremony that we wrote. It was special to have someone who truly knew and loved us both bring our marriage to fruition. At the end I stepped on the covered glass while everyone shouted, “Mazel Tov!”

So much like our marriage, we wanted our daughter to have some religious structure and affiliation in her life, but not necessarily be the driving factor that determined her day-to-day activities. We wanted to make sure our home was a healthy balance between knowing where you came from (even more important with adoption) and having different faiths represented.

One of the first religious rituals we experienced as parents was the naming ceremony of our daughter while observing a long standing tradition of choosing names that begin with the letter of a loved one no longer with us. Quinn’s Hebrew name is Pelia Davi (meaning beautiful gift). The “P” is for my grandmother, Paula, and the “D” is for Kimberly’s grandmother, Dominica—a blend of the old world and the new by bringing two different backgrounds together in the name of loving and caring for the next generation.

Since we were coming from different backgrounds and experiencing life with a Reform religious involvement, we wanted a celebration that similarly mirrored our life: one that was about the love for our new child with a nod to the Jewish heritage she would now be entering. The gathering was intentionally small and consisted of our parents, siblings and our twin niece and nephew. It was important to give Quinn a Hebrew name to follow tradition, honor loved ones and give her a Jewish identity when she is called to the bimah. While this was Quinn’s introduction into her newly minted life as a Maccabee, it was our first introduction as a family into a religious celebration that will set the tone for years to come.

Long ago, we decided that Quinn would be raised Jewish, but we would also continue to observe all holidays from our religious backgrounds. She will go to temple and eventually go on to become a bat mitzvah. When she is old enough she can decide for herself if we put her on the right path and will have the opportunity to choose otherwise.

My wife Kimberly didn’t stop being Catholic the day we got married or the day our daughter was born. That part of her life will never leave her whether she ever steps foot in a church again. She has so many fond memories of her childhood that centered around Catholic celebrations that we cannot ignore (nor should we ignore) them. Those experiences helped shape the person she is today and I wouldn’t change that for anything. She has happily chosen to raise our daughter as Jewish as we forge a new path for our family that represents a true blend. We want to provide a warm and loving home that celebrates her parents’ individuality. But those differences are what brings us together and keeps us together.

These decisions and discussions came relatively easy to us. We have an open, honest and loving relationship that allows us to tackle what seems like, at times, daunting tasks. If you are starting your marriage or just entering parenthood, this is an opportunity, not a roadblock. Talk to your spouse about what is important to you and keep an open mind. Be prepared to compromise and show empathy by putting yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if they said it was their way or nothing? That open dialogue will serve you well—not just today but throughout the rest of your marriage. Our daughter is a precious gift and we want to give her the gift of love in return. Our love for each other and for our daughter will always preside over any religious celebration.