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In my previous blog post, I wrote about why choosing love did not mean choosing conversion for me; but for us, choosing love also meant choosing to raise our children Jewish. We didnât know, initially, what that would look like, especially since we knew (well, I knew) that I wanted to keep celebrating Christmas. (According to my spouse, this makes my children interfaith by default, even if we tell them that they are Jewish.)
Right around the time when bomb threats to JCCs started becoming more frequent, we enrolled our 3-year-old and 7-year-old in Jewish religious school. We chose a wonderful synagogue whose children’s programs we already enjoy, and whose building doubles as my youngest’s non-religious preschool during the week. The thought that she could be evacuated for a bomb or some other emergency is on my mind every time I read of yet another wave of threats.
Our timing for enrolling them has everything to do with identity and with the current political climate of communities under threat. In order to know where youâre goingâwhat choices youâll make, what values will ground your actions, the ways you will choose to fight for those values in the world we live inâyou need to know who you are. This is true for both adults and children, albeit in different ways. For myself, my desire to stand against religious bigotry means emphasizing the voices of light and love closer to the tradition which raised me. For my children, and for my husband and I on their behalf, that means finally making good on the promises my spouse and I made to each other: to raise them Jewish.
Weâve dabbled in and out of what that means, but with the kids asking to come to church with me, Jewish cemeteries being desecrated and JCCs receiving repeated bomb threats, I finally told my husband that the time had come to stop beating around the bush and enroll them in Jewish religious education. (He might remember the exact order of events differently, and thatâs OK.)
We had resisted putting our kids into Jewish religious education. It costs money, which is admittedly no small stumbling block. Itâs tough to add one more commitment to a weekend already studded with lessons, activities and play dates.
Our daughters have been attending for about a month, and so far, they love it. Itâs amazing what starts to happen when you combine eager, interested children with access to friendly, open education that touches their minds and their spirits.
The school meets on Sunday mornings for two hours and what my kids learn there pepper their play and their song outside of the synagogue. My eldest, 7, has the tune of âMa Tovuâ down pat, but chooses to sing it in the child-friendly rhyme the cantor created for the childrenâs service during the morning. The mnemonic seems to work, if one doesnât mind oneâs child singing (to the tune of âRose, Rose, Will I ever see thee wed?â), âMy toeâs blue / Dropped a hammer on my shoeâ Â as a way of working toward âMa Tovu.â
EveryÂ week approximately 50 children, ranging from preschoolers to teenagers, gather to sing, pray and learn. The morning begins with a service in the main sanctuary with kids sprawled throughout. Some parents drop their kids off and go run errands; a fewÂ sit with their children for the Sunday morning havdalah service that closes Shabbat (a few hours late, but no one is counting).
A young girl, maybe aÂ young teenager, passes out spice jars full of sweet-smelling cinnamon sticks. A dad, whom my husband tells me is converting to Judaism and learning along with his children, carries the havdalah candle around the synagogue. His face is alight and alive with joy. I think back to my recent blog post and feel a pang of some complicated emotion I canât quite name.
As the dad walks around the sanctuary, all the children stretch their fingers out to the candle as the light reflects off their fingernails. Itâs clear that many of them have seen plenty of movies where powerful superheroes or evil emperors wiggle their fingers and power shoots out of their hands. Here itâs the opposite. We wiggle our fingers and bring the empowered peace of Shabbat back into ourselves to carry into the coming week.
After their morning lessons, the kids return to the sanctuary for abbreviated, child-friendly morning prayers. My husband and I peek in the doors. Our daughters are sharing a chair up front. The cantor asks the kids what they are thankful for. âSisters!â calls out my older daughter; âOwls,â her sister says. No mater the complexities, Iâm glad to be there, with my kids and my spouse, singing hymns and choosing love.
Although I am the half that’s not Jewish in an interfaith marriage, my husband never put conversion on the tableânot until I brought the question up on my own, three years after we got married.
Shortly after my husband and I first started dating, Ben brought me to Friday night Shabbat services at a large Reform synagogue in Boston. A cantor with a guitar led the congregation in a wordless melody at the beginning of the service, and as the service progressed into as-yet-unfamiliar Hebrew phrases, I appreciated his help guiding me through the prayer book, not all of which offered transliterations of the Hebrew. Afterwards, we drank small cups of Manischewitz and ate tiny chunks of challah at the oneg. He led me excitedly past cases of shimmering, evocative Judaica: menorahs, kiddush cups, haggadot with messages such as the feminist haggadot or Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb (a vegetarian Passover classic). Afterwards, we went out to dinner at a Thai restaurant, holding hands across a table and talking about religion.
Conversion wasnât on the table that night, and it wasnât even on the table when we became engaged, and then married. The only thing truly on the table that night, and in the nights since, was our desire to choose each other, and by doing so, to choose love.
Five years after that first date, three years into our marriage, though, I almost converted to Judaism. Iâd attended a friendâs conversion ceremony, and during the joyous celebration of her joining the People of Israel, I found myself unexpectedly and profoundly moved by the experience. She converted in a Reconstructionist synagogue, and in keeping with the vision of Reconstructionismâs founder, Mordecai Kaplan, of Judaism as a religious civilization, the congregation emphasized a joyful spiritual approach that offered no insult to the modern intellect.
When my friend stood on the bimah and received her Jewish name and held the Torah in her arms, my mind flashed forward to times when Iâd seen babies dedicated in the synagogue, being welcomed into the Jewish people. I realized, in a flash, what it might mean to hold my own child, and welcome her into the Jewish people, when I myself was not Jewish. There, in that room, with the resonant Hebrew prayers resounding throughout, it seemed that perhaps the covenant could extend to me as well.
I returned home and bought books about conversion, about Jewish ritual, about interfaith families. I listened to all of the major prayers on YouTube, and wondered how long it would take to do formal morning and evening prayers. I whispered the Shema to myself, imagining that my Jewish husband would look at me as if I were âgoing frum,â a somewhat pejorative way of referring to becoming overly observant.
A few days before Valentineâs Day, I couldnât keep my curiosity in any longer. I wrote Ben a letter, explaining, in convoluted, circular words, how drawn I felt to Judaism at that moment and how much I appreciated many aspects of his religion. I gave the letter to him at breakfast on a Saturday, and the question of conversion now glimmered there between our held hands, right there on the table. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes.
That afternoon, we went on a hike in the mountains near our home, holding hands, marveling in the wonder of the world we live in, and wondering what it might be like to have a religiously united family.
A few weeks later, I found myself in New York on a Friday night, and decided to attend services at a historic synagogue on Fifth Avenue. I had never been in a synagogue that so closely resembled a cathedral before: soaring ceilings, gilded walls covered in elaborate mosaics, and at the back, a Star-of-David âroseâ window and a very impressive organ. A professional choir, accompanied by the organ, sang the prayers, while the well-dressed and equally well-heeled congregation listened in aesthetic appreciation of the musicâs beauty. I left feeling confused, out of place, wondering what had happened to that initial inspiration.
In the end, this âcrisis of faith,â so to speak, lasted for a few months. I talked with my friend who had converted, with other friends, with my parents. All were supportive, but cautious, not wanting me to confuse one moment of inspiration with making the right choice for both myself and my husband.
I found myself coming back to several facts from which I couldnât escape: Unlike some converts to Judaism, including my friend, I donât (so far as I know) have Jewish relatives somewhere on the less-well-known branches on my family tree, other than my husbandâs family. In addition, although I appreciate Jewish religion and culture, my own understandings of religious culture, if Iâm honest with myself, were shaped in the liberal, liturgical church in which I was raised.
It wasnât an easy choice, mind you. I struggled with how to choose loving my spouse (and eventually, God willing, our children), with choosing a religion, and with being true to myself.Â I’d made religious choices for a significant otherÂ once beforeâchoices I came to regretâand in the end, wasn’t willing to do that again, no matter how well-intentioned a similar choice might have been, this time around.
Throughout it all, my Jewish spouseÂ stood steadfastly with me, choosing to love me every day, even if that meant we would remain an interfaith family. We knew, in the end, as the words on our ketubah had suggested, that we could choose love by letting each other be ourselves.
I have not posted here in a little while. In part, because the business of life has caught up with me, and, in part, because in the midst of huge changes in this country, inspiration is not coming as quickly. But I canât miss a chance to embrace this Valentineâs Day. Â
You may call it a Hallmark holiday, or a day reserved for lovebirds, but as you may have read before, I disagree. Valentineâs Day is a day you can chose to dread or relish, or anything in-between. This year, as February 14 approaches I am hoping we can use it as a reminder that we all can actively #ChooseLove, and see if we can find some joy and maybe even understanding.
Remember when you were in elementary school, and had to spend all afternoon the day before Valentineâs Day making sure you had a card for every other kid in your class? Or remember last year, when you stayed up late finishing your childâs class cards? The Valentineâs Day of early childhood isnât just about your romantic partner, itâs about your friends (and maybe some kids who arenât really friends at all). It might be about buying things–cards, stickers, candy–but it is also about performing a gesture of caring for the people around you.
We are living in a time of tremendous divides in our country and our communities. Be it politics, faith, country of origin or some other line that separates one from another, this is a great time to #ChooseLove. You can choose whatever you want for your February 14: a hot date with your partner, a boycott of the Hallmark store, a giant candy heart to share or not to share, but Iâd encourage you to think of it as a chance to try to see your friends, neighbors, colleagues or the strangers in your life with love. Â
Just like writing Valentineâs cards for your classmates, it is easier to do this for some people than others. But I believe that the act of trying to extend love can bring us closer together, or, at the very least, warm our hearts just a bit more than the day before Valentineâs or the day after. So will you try it with me? Â
This interfaith holiday season has been trickier than I thought. If there is a lot of planning, cooking and gift buying for one holiday, then the two holiday celebrating seems impossible. My family celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. But, we are not just a Jewish/Catholic home. We are a Brooklyn Jewish and Mexican Catholic household. This means a few things. First it means that I had to decorate with two faiths in mind, cook with two faiths in mind and buy gifts with two faiths in mind. What it also means is that I messed up a lot of traditions, which I now know I need to fix for next year. Itâs hard trying to get everything right and Iâve been so concerned about teaching Helen, our 1-year-old, about our different traditions that I forgot to relax and pay attention.
Here are a few examples of the way I historically ruined part of the holidays. Apparently in Mexico, Christmas is a big deal but itâs something called âLas Posadasâ thatâs an even bigger deal. The âPosadasâ begin on December 16Â and end on December 24Â (Christmas Eve). In Mexico it means a party every night from the 16th to the 24th and a re-enactment of Mary and Josephâs trip to Bethlehem in search of lodging. Although I heard Adrian mention the âPosadasâ I assumed this tradition was on Christmas day. On Christmas Eve while Adrian was at work, I was making a traditional Mexican punch to surprise him with and while reading the recipe I read the story of the âPosadasâ and realized I HAD MISSED THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE MEXICAN CATHOLIC HOLIDAY! Great.
That was mess-up number one. Hereâs something else. Hanukkah began the same night as Christmas Eve this year. I was supposed to make tamales (a tradition in Mexico on Christmas) and latkes. Out of my concern for how to make the tamale recipe perfect, I FORGOT TO MAKE THE LATKES. Great.
That was mess-up number two. It gets better. Little did I know that tamales take almost four hours to make! The recipe said one to two hours. But, ask anyone from Mexico and they will laugh if you say one hour. I found this out later. I had told Adrian not to eat at work, so he got home at midnight when I thought the tamales would be ready and we ended up waiting until 2:30 a.m. when they were finally ready and we were so tired that we ate one each and went to bed.
That was mess-up number three. On Christmas day we went to my brotherâs house with the baby. My brother has twin boys and he and his wife threw a Hanukkah party. My mother brought the latkes to that party and we all lit the menorah and had a great time. Then Adrian, Helen and I went to Adrianâs friendâs house and saw their tree and their baby Jesus statue. Helen had a great day. But, when we got home I had another recipe I had yet to make and I was so exhausted that when I went to put something in the blender I forgot to put the top on and green tomatillo sauce splattered all over the kitchen (and my mother who had come over to watch the baby while Adrian and I made dinner).
That felt like mess-up number four thousand. I was upset. First I couldnât believe I had missed the week celebration before Christmas. Then I couldnât believe how bad my recipes were. But both Hanukkah and Christmas are celebrations of miracles. I waited for one. And in a moment of frustration I thought of the Hanukkah story.
The Hanukkah story is about not having enough of something, or thinking one doesnât have enough of something. On Hanukkah the Jews celebrate the small band of Jews who defeated the Greeks during the time of the secondÂ Temple. When the Greeks made all of the oil in the holy temple impure, the Jews found a little bit of oil left. But, the oil they found was only enough to last for one day. And then a miracle occurred and the little oil they had come across ended up lasting for eight days. Hanukkah is the celebration of light.
Christmas too is a celebration of light. The lesson of Hanukkah is that sometimes in great darkness a miracle can happen. The birth of Christ teaches this same lesson. A lot of the challenges my family faces during the holidays has to do with teaching our daughter to respect and understand both of our religions and cultures. It is about starting new traditions and sticking to them so that when she grows up she can feel the love of both faiths and choose her own path. But another challenge is the need for others to take our beliefs seriously. At the Jewish homes we go into we have a need for people to take us seriously and the same goes for the Catholic homes.
Adrian and I visited two of his friends’ homes during the holidays. Both friends have children. At the first house his friendâs daughter who is 7 years old ran to greet us at the door and took Helen out of my arms so she could carry her to her toys and play with her. At the second home, the other friendâs daughter is Helenâs exact age. They played with dolls, stuffed animals and books. At my brotherâs house my nephews are a few months older than Helen. They all ran around laughing and opening their Hanukkah presents. These are the real miracles of light. Children have no inhibitions, no preconceived notions. They want to play and explore. They want to love and be loved. Sometimes out of total darkness they appear. They are the rare oil, the spark that lights the whole Beit HaMikdash (The Holy Temple).
This past summer, our family moved to a different, nearbyÂ suburb, one thatâs full of as many synagogues as we could reasonably hope to shop around. With the business of moving, we didnât attend services very often this summer, saving the serious shul-shopping for a more settled time.
Not attending services, though, has meant that our 3-year-old daughter has virtuallyÂ forgotten what happens at synagogue. During this time sheâs alsoÂ moved more firmly into the phase of life where every other statement begins with, âMommy, why?â
Given these two facts, I shouldnât have been surprised by what happened recently at an early-evening outdoor service billed as âfamily friendly.â We arrived just as the service was starting, and sat onÂ benches at the back of the group as the congregation sang âBim Bamâ over the harmonious strains of a guitar.
Thatâs when the questions began.
âMommy, why are we on benches?â
âThere arenât enough chairs right now, honey, but that nice woman over there is bringing more out.â
âWhy arenât there enough chairs?â
I leaned down to whisper to my daughter between phrases of the song. âItâs a busy night, sweetie.â The singing ended; the service began in earnest, and my daughter continued her queries.
âMommy, who are the people up front?â
âWhy are my sister and daddy wearing those hats?â
âWhat is everyone saying? I donât know the words to this song.â (We were singing âLâcha Dodi.â)
âMommy, they said âstars!â I know that word!â This caused particular excitement.
When the service leaders lit the Shabbat candles, I knew the drill.
âMommy, I know this song,â she said with excitement as the blessings were recited. âMommy, are there candles up there?â She stood on her tiptoes, trying to peer over the grown-ups to see the candles in front.
At various points, she asked me, âMommy, whyÂ are we sittingÂ outside? When are we going inside?â
On my other side, my 6-year-old asked her own very pressing and important question: âMommy, when is it time for dessert?â She meant, of course, the oneg, at which she usually made a beeline for cookies after consuming a healthy chunk of challah.
âI donât know if they do an oneg Shabbat here,â I replied cautiously.
âBut I really want dessert,â she explained, as if this would make the appropriate oneg appear.
âI know,â I replied. âWeâll just have to wait and see. Besides, challah is sweet like dessert.â
My daughter answered me with a skeptical glance any teen would envy.
Eventually we came to the Shema, which my daughters both know from bedtime, and their eyes lit up. My youngest asked, âMommy, how do these people know this song too?â
âItâs a very important Jewish prayer,â I whispered between syllables.
The service became quiet as the congregation entered a moment of silent prayer and meditation. She noticed, and said, not exactly loudly, but not very quietly, âWhy is everyone being so quiet?â I leaned down and whispered, âShhhh. People are praying and thinking about important things, quietly. Please be quiet.â
âI am being quiet,â she stage-whispered. One moment later: âCan we talk louder now?â Me, still whispering: âNot yet, OK?â
And thus the service continued. At one point, I left with both girls to explore the outside of the synagogue, an adventure that was accompanied by a conversation about whether or not there was a playground (and if so, could they play on it), when âdessertâ would be, and whether or not the service had moved indoors yet.
Iâm an interfaith parent. As an outsider, itâs tough for me to know if this adorable little girl, with aÂ remarkably precise voice, is cute, or is simply annoying to the other worshippers. Part of me wanted to praise my daughterâs constant questioning, her curiosity, her innate sense that âthis night is different from (most) other nights,â at least in her recent 3-year-old memory.
By contrast, my oldest sat quietly in her seat (for the most part), standing and sitting. While her better behavior pleased me, I also missed the spontaneous, exuberant ritual dancing she used to burst out with at the slightest strain of music. I had alwaysÂ worried that her expressions of joy would simply be seen as a nuisance, a disruption. Now I wondered about her sisterâs incessant questions. Would we be asked to leave? Were people frowning at us?Â I feltÂ torn between a desire to conform to what I thought was likely appropriateÂ (quiet, seated behavior) and a true delight in my childrenâs participatoryÂ joy.
I asked my husband about this later, and was surprised to learn that he, too, although Jewish, felt uncertainty as an outsider to that particular congregation. His words surprised me. Norms vary between congregations of whatever faith, I realized. Maybe my questions werenât so much a matter of being Jewish or not, but of simply being a newcomer, learning to breathe, knowing that kids will be kids, and knowing that one day we may well miss those days when they asked every question and danced to each note of music.
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?
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
By Sheri Kupres
When my Catholic husband and I decided to participate in a dual baby-naming/baptism ceremony for our firstborn, it was not warmly accepted by my Jewish parents. The ceremony, while wonderful for the three of us starting our journey as a dual-faith family, was fraught with tension. So when we had two more children, we didnât invite my parents to these baby-naming/baptism ceremonies.
Fast-forward seven years later, and we were again embarking on a religious milestone as my oldest was about to take his First Communion through the dual-faith Sunday school we enrolled in. The First Communion ceremony was to be officiated by both a priest and a rabbi. The service itself, while being a Catholic ceremony, weaved in elements of Judaism, including Jewish prayers and stories.
In the time between the two sacraments, my mom had died from cancer and my dad and I were forging our own relationship in the absence of the strong force that was my mother. We started having more conversations about the religious education we were giving our children. While I knew he didnât agree or believe we could educate our children in both religions, my dad was less likely to escalate his opposing views into full-on arguments. And while we werenât necessarily getting to common ground, we were at least talking. Additionally, my dad had started visiting us more often. During these visits, he often came with us to our Sunday schoolâs adult-education sessions.
I remember at one of our sessions, we had a Humanist rabbi speak with us. He spoke quite honestly about how the Jewish faith is resistant to interfaith couples unless the couple is willing to raise their children solely as Jewish. This lit a fire in my dad, and he was quite upset that there is a whole interfaith community that wants their children to have a Jewish identity but the Jewish religion is turning us away. This frustration was the catalyst for us to begin talking more about the challenges we were facing as a dual-faith family.
My dad started sending me articles he found in the Jewish Journal about Jewish acceptance of interfaith families. He even went so far as to send in an op-ed piece explaining his views on why Judaism should be more open to accepting dual-faith families who wished to raise their children in both religions.
I felt like we were moving in a good direction, but I was not expecting to invite him to the First Communion ceremony. My husband, however, was adamant that we should include him. He felt this was an important event in our sonâs life and that all of his family should be there; it would be my dadâs prerogative to refuse to come, but it was our responsibility to make sure he knew he was welcome.
After much trepidation, I finally asked my dad to come. I was surprised by the angry reaction I got. He told me that I was trying to make him feel guilty and forcing him to come. I explained to him that he was an important part of our family and welcome at the ceremony, regardless of whether he decided to come. My dad calmed down and told me he would think about it.
A few days later, he called back and said he would come. I was glad, but after our experience with the baby naming/baptism, I was also apprehensive.
The night before Samâs First Communion, my dad and I had some time to talk. He told me that growing up in the late ’40s and ’50s, there was much anti-Semitism in the U.S. While there was a good-sized Jewish population in his town, it was very segregated. The Jewish kids stuck together and were told not to walk alone for fear of being harassed by the Catholic kids. Understanding this was very insightful for me and made me see things differently. His apprehension wasnât entirely a religious issue; it was also based on negative experiences he faced as a child. This cultivated his protection of the Jewish religion, as well as his fear and disbelief in understanding how the two religions could meld together.
The next day was the ceremony. It was sensitive and inclusive of both religions. Sam was proud of himself and thrilled to have his family in attendance. My dad didnât say much about the ceremony itself, just that he was glad he was there for Sam. I knew he still wasnât comfortable, but the fact that he attended the service was certainly a positive step.
This set my dad up for the next First Communion, which came one year later for my daughter, Sarah. At Sarahâs ceremony, the rabbi had a scheduling conflict, so the Jewish parents led the Jewish prayers and stories. No one wanted to say the Yevarechecha (priestly blessing), so I asked my dad if he would do it. He agreed and came up to recite the prayer with the priest, who repeated each line in English. I joked with my dad that he had probably never said a prayer with a priest before.
It was special to have my family at this celebration and even participating. I know that we are still not in the same place, and likely wonât ever be exactly on the same page, but I think we have come a long way. We have one more First Communion coming up next spring, and my son is starting to prepare for his bar mitzvah next summer. We are continuing on our interfaith journey, and I now feel much more positive and hopeful about the path that lies ahead.
Like many parents, for me this time ofÂ year signifies both an overwhelming sense of relief (Yesss! No more homework orÂ projects!) and stress (What am I going to do with Roxy and Everett all summer?!?). This year has presented unique challenges for my family because I now work from home and can’t possibly spend my days on the beach with the kids while juggling conference calls and Google Adwords, no matter how much I want to, nor can I physically run around with them at more than six months pregnant. Roxy wants to do “tween” things with her girlfriends and at 9 years old her focus is on nails, music and learning the latest dance craze. Everett at 6-and-a-half prefers to spend his days dreaming up new ways to make his sister crazy by setting up Lego booby traps around the house and playing pranks on her while idolizing every move she makes. The realization of needing summer activities came way too late, and suddenly school was ending and panic set in.
In my perfect world, this would have been the ideal summer for them to both start camp. Overnight camp. JEWISH overnight camp. And I felt like it would have been an uphill battle that only I understood. Their dad thought they were too young for overnight camp. The kids were apprehensive about going away where they didn’t know anyone. My bank account laughed at me after talking to the Reform Jewish camp director and learning how much it would really cost me to send them. We talked about scholarships. I researched it online. I considered asking family for help. But in the end, it was not to be, because the kids had scheduling conflicts with local and family activities that made the discussion a moot point. Yet I ached inside, saddened to know yet another summer would go by without a Jewish camping experience.
Their dad and I finally worked out a plan for the summer and two weeks ago they started camp at our local town recreation center. They are loving their first camp experience, are there with both established and new friends and come home at the end of the day happy and exhausted. They love going on field trips and having action-packed days, but I know in my heart something is missing. My Jewish kids in Maine are completely disconnected to Jewish life now that school is over. Hebrew school doesn’t start up until the fall. There are no holidays to celebrate. With the chaos of living in two houses, I’ll admit that Shabbat just doesn’t happen in our house every week. And when I go on Facebook I feel a twinge of jealousy when friends postÂ pictures of their own happy campers being dropped off at a URJ overnight camp, and status updates of “I got my first letter in the mail from my camper!” because I’m wishing so deeply that Roxy and Everett were part of this tradition.
To add insult to injury, the kids have been obsessed with a book Everett received recently from PJ Library called No Baths at Camp!, which basically follows a child through each day of a Jewish camp experience through the beauty of Shabbat. They are enthralled by this book and the activities presented and take turns reading it to each other, carefully pronouncing the Hebrew words and reveling in the excitement of the Shabbat description presented. I take comfort as they absorb the experience through the words on the pages, yet desperately wish they could be there in person. We talk about it each time using words like “Next summer you’ll get to do this” and “One day you’ll help camp get ready for Shabbat” and “Do you think you’d be good at Israeli dancing?” I long for them to be part of Jewish overnight camp because I know how much of an impact it can have on identity and connection, especially after years of working professionally in the Jewish community. But who knows if I’m going to be able to financially pull it off next summer either. It’s already looking doubtful.
The funny thing is, I never went to camp. I revolted against the idea as a kid, preferring to spend my days on the Jersey shore not recognizing what a precious gift camp could be for me until I was in high school and involved in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and by then it was too late. I was old enough to be a counselor but too old to have created lasting friendships established over years of camp attendance. The majority of my Jewish friends understood this and as we entered adulthood and I recognized what a significant impact Jewish camping had on their lives, I promised myself that when I had children they wouldn’t miss out like I did. Except here I am, a mom of two camp-aged kids with a third on the way and I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen for them. I find this reality painful, especially living in Maine, where they are “the” Jewish kids at camp.
I cried one night when they were at their dad’s house, feeling like I’m failing them. My boyfriend, who isn’t Jewish, comforted me and agreed that if I couldn’t make it happen this summer that next summer was a must, and how good it would be for both of them. To have him truly get why it was so important to me for them to be there means so much, because I know that when it comes time for this baby to be of camp age, there won’t be a question, just love and support. He groans along with me when No Baths at CampÂ inevitably makes it’s way into the living room, and I catch him laughing listening to them try to pronounce the counselor’s name with an Israeli accent. Matt still doesn’t have a clue about this whole Jewish thing, but he knows that having a connection to Jewish life is pretty important to me and the kids and has made it clear he’ll help me navigate these types of hurdles when and as best he can.
The book is tucked away on the shelf for the time being and this summer I will embrace their first camp joys as well as I can, even if it’s not what I want most for them. Summer is already going by faster than I’d like it to, and before I know it we’ll be preparing backpacks for the first day of fourth and second grade while welcoming this baby into our family. Today I will look at this as a Shecheyanu moment, a thankfulness for new things, growth for all of us and an ever-evolving connection to our faith. It might not be a Jewish overnight camp, but Roxy and Everett have started along their own camp journey, one that will changeÂ over time, and maybe just maybe include some Israeli dancing.
Amy: So weâre just going to be surprised when I give birth, right? Like when the doctor says,Â âCongratulations! Itâs a ___!!â
Matt: Have you lost your mind? No, weâre not going to be surprised. Isnât being pregnant at 40 surprise enough for you?
Amy: (laughing) Well, I didnât know what Roxy and Everett were until they were born. You knew with YOUR son?!
Matt: (laughing) Uhhhhh, yeah I did! I NEED to know. NEED. How else are you supposed to prepare???
And then I sat there overthinking, a skill Iâve mastered, while remembering my previous pregnancies. I remember the panic I felt as a first-time mom-to-be, not totally secure in my decision to ânot find outâ and continually telling people my standard line of, âWell how many things can you truly be surprised about these days?â But I went with it, even as I started a baby registry with the urging of friends and family who were eager to celebrate with me. I picked out generic yellow and green everything, with frogs and duckies all while telling myself that I didnât believe in perpetuating traditional gender roles but deep inside longing for pink, or blue, or ruffles or dinosaurs.
My freak out continued as my belly grew, wondering how I was possibly going to get all the things I was going to need as a first-time parent without having a babyÂ showerâour traditionalÂ Jewish families didnât believe in having one, as Jewish culture can dictate superstition for some people. No bringing baby stuff into the house! Itâs bad luck!Â We settled on the garage as a safe zone as my due date loomed closer. My mom kept assuring me, donât worry Amy, stuff will just arrive. I didnât believe her for a minute.
In the meantime, my worry grew, as my Jewish ex-husband and I put a mohel on hold (my gut told me it was a girl but, letâs be real, it was a 50/50 shot in the dark) and discussed plans for a potential baby naming ceremony should we not be planning a bris, and I did my best to go with the flow and embrace tradition. All the while I truly wantedÂ to ignore everything I was taught to believe and just do what I wanted to in order to ease my mind.
But true to my momâs word, Roxy was born and I became best friends with the UPS guy and Iâm pretty sure the recycling truck was tired of picking up boxes. Baby items kept showing up after she was born, and plenty of pink was there among the green and yellow.Â Roxyâs naming ceremony happened as close to eight days after her birth as possible, because I was a true believer thatÂ if a bris needed to happen in eight days for a boy, I wasnât going to differentiate. I felt solace in my Judaism and was comforted by my decisions as the weeks went on, certain that at least I fulfilled connections of generations that came before me.
Two years later, I did it again withÂ EverettâthisÂ time feeling a little better knowing I had the essentials already in place (and justifying because Roxy still used a lot of it) but still feeling an empty longing while painting his future room my favorite color orange and some jealousy over attending other baby showers knowing I wouldnât be having one. I kept trying to make peace with tradition and telling myself itâsÂ OKâif itâs a boy, the blue dinosaur onesies will be on my doorstep after this baby is born. I listened to our families and let tradition guide me, and lo and behold, Everett was born, there was plenty of blue, the mohel on hold showed up on day eight and all was right with my world.
Fast forward almost seven years later.
Iâm laying on the ultrasound table with nervous anticipation. Itâs my third child but itâs been awhile since my days of diapers and bottles. Iâm on the edge of a total meltdown and I can hardly look at Matt, afraid if we make eye contact Iâm totally going to lose it and start crying because it feels so new.
âSo are we finding out?â the ultrasound tech asks us, as she guides the wand across my belly and pictures of the baby appear on the screen. Matt and I lock eyes and I look away quickly and answer before I can change my mind.
âYes. Yes. Yes. He (pointing at Matt) needs to know.Â And I canât have him know and me not, so letâs do this. Tell us. Tell us.â
The room is silent. In my brain Iâm thinking please say itâs a girl. Please. It will be so much easier if itâs a girl. Matt already agreed with me that our child will be raised Jewish, but parameters havenât been worked out and reconciling my desire to connect to tradition while honoring his beliefs has never been more overwhelming. Come on. Say it. Girl. It needs to be a girl. Iâm not sure Iâm ready to deal with the reality of boy. Putting the mohel on hold. I donât know if I can do this. Girl. Girl. Girl.
Iâm doing this chant on repeat in my head. Yet in my heart I know what sheâs going to say before the words come out. I woke up at 3 a.m. knowing. The definite knowledge of what this baby is. And my gut is rarely wrong.
She zooms in and points to the screen.
There it is she says. Congratulations, youâre having a baby boy.
MattÂ laughs and says, “I knew it.”
So did I my love. So did I.
My heart is overflowing with joy, our perfectly imperfect family is growing, and ladies and gentlemen, weâre having a boy. Everett is beyond thrilled. Roxy whined that she already hassssss a little brother, but itâs OK mommy, Iâll love him anyway. Matt jokes to me about having aÂ âbriskââdoingÂ it on purpose to make me laugh and lighten my worry as I roll my eyes and say âItâs a BRIS!!!!â as he questions me about the food that I tell him people are going to show up with on day eight.
I have no idea how any of this is going to actually happen, or who the mohelim in Maine are or the myriad of questions that we still have unanswered or have yet to discuss. Bring on the blue dinosaurs and bottles. A baby boy. I stare at the printed ultrasound picture, hugging it close to my chest. The unknown has time to wait. Matt grasps my hand and kisses my forehead. I canât wait to meet you my baby boy.
For more information, check out IFF’sÂ Guide to Birth Ceremonies for Interfaith Families.