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Being stuck in a car for three hours with my mother, Adrian (my significant other) and our baby girl, Helen Rose, is just part of the beauty of Thanksgiving. I should note that being born and raised in Mexico, Adrian doesn’t know a lot about our American holiday, so I began by explaining that sitting in traffic is not just a rite of passage, but also a tradition. I should also explain that he hates turkey and can’t stand the way I drive. But no one else wanted to drive, so our holiday began with a two-hour traffic delay through Staten Island on our way to New Jersey.
Here is something else: The last time Adrian met my cousins, uncle and aunt was at Helen’s baby naming, when we were consumed with being new parents as she was then only two months old. So this was going to be a new rite of passage. Meeting family can be nerve-wracking, especially since I have a very Jewish family. Almost everyone in my family has gone to yeshiva, keeps kosher and lives following Jewish law, and some even live or have lived in Israel.
Helen, Adrian and I follow different rules and laws within our interfaith family. Some we make up along the way as we try to find our place in both a Jewish and Mexican-Catholic culture. We make sure to keep both faiths present in our household so that nothing is lost for Helen. Both religions and traditions live and speak through her. And as she grows she will decide what to keep.
We eventually made it to New Jersey. There were 23 people at my cousin’s house, not including babies. It felt like a new year. I remember lonely Thanksgivings working in restaurants. I remember Thanksgivings without my father, without my grandparents and without hope. This year felt so different and alive.
Adrian was nervous but excited, and Helen looks so much like him that people kept commenting that they seemed like twins. My baby cousins (now grown and almost all engaged) said I looked happier than they’ve ever seen me. Also, when we first arrived, my cousin saved us some mini hot dogs from the appetizers they had passed around, and Helen ate almost three of them. My nephews, just two-and-a-half months older than Helen, were there as well, and they all played and ran around chasing the two dogs.
At one point my cousin’s father made a speech about my baby cousin’s recent engagement. During his speech he talked about living a Jewish life and passing down Jewish traditions. I thought about this deeply. I asked myself, what from my culture, my tradition and my religion do I want to pass to my daughter?
As a child I had a lot of trouble in school. Sent to an Orthodox yeshiva at a young age, I learned how to fit into a black-hat community while wearing jeans and swearing on weekends. I was taught that there was only one way to do something. I was taught that God was almighty, all-knowing and pissed off all or most of the time.
It wasn’t always bad though. I learned Hebrew and spirituality. Later on in my life when I picked up a book by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan called “Meditation and the Bible,” I could follow the deep meaning of the Torah. When I returned to the Judaica store to purchase another book by the same rabbi, I could answer the religious boy behind the counter who asked me what I thought about Rabbi Kaplan’s observations.
Sometimes it feels as though Adrian, Helen and I are walking through a biblical desert. We have our own beliefs; our traditions and obstacles rise up from the sand all the time. How we react to those obstacles is an integral part of our spiritual growth.
My cousin turned to me mid-meal and asked if it was hard for Adrian to be at the Thanksgiving feast with us. It was hard for him, but not because of a difference in religion. It’s hard because his family is a million miles away. It’s hard because his mother is sick. It’s hard because his brothers are not united and his sister just broke up with her boyfriend and doesn’t know what to do. It’s hard in a lot of different, normal ways. But it’s also easy. It’s easy for him to smile when Helen smiles. To laugh when she chases one of my cousin’s dogs all over the house. It’s easy because there’s food on the table, a roof over our heads and a warm bed to sleep in when we get home. It’s easy because so many people do not have these simple luxuries.
What about the Jewish tradition do I want to pass down to our daughter? Gratitude. Love. Life. Traditions new and old.
After we said our thank yous and goodbyes, we drove back to our little apartment in Brooklyn, where I put Helen to bed and unpacked the blue-and-white menorah for the Hanukkah holiday to come. Then I opened the package containing our matching family Christmas pajamas and set them aside in a special holiday drawer.
Thanksgiving came about when the pilgrims and Native Americans sat down at a table to eat and celebrate together. That’s one story, anyway. What were they celebrating if not their differences, their two ways of living, their double faiths?
The other day, Ruthie and I were talking about one of her favorite topics—her cousins. She ticked off each one’s name, and talked about something special about them, or what they did the last time they were together. Then she started talking about some friends who are like family—she often brings up this topic of what to call her friends who are like family but who aren’t blood relatives. In speaking about two sisters in particular from a family that we often celebrate Jewish holidays with, she changed the subject a little bit.
“So,” she asked me, “which one of their parents wasn’t Jewish when they met, the mom or the dad?”
“Actually,” I told her, “they both were Jewish when they met.”
“Oh,” she said, and kept talking.
This was not a monumental question to her, but it gave me pause. Neither good nor bad, but it gave me pause. To her, the question was completely logical. First of all, there was no judgment in it. It wasn’t good or bad if they were or weren’t Jewish, it was just a normal question to her about families.
In Ruthie’s Jewish family (my side), most of the pairings in my generation are interfaith. In fact, of my three siblings and six first cousins, only one person has married someone from a Jewish background. This does not stand in the way of our lighting Hanukkah candles together or sharing the Passover seder. What’s more, an openness to mixed faith couplings has brought seven fantastic people into our family, seven more adults who nurture and support our foursome.
Because of this, Ruthie really hasn’t been exposed to the idea that being Jewish necessitates having two Jewish parents. It is just not part of how she understands her identity. While I spend time every month blogging about navigating a somewhat new path in embracing multiple forms of Jewish identity, Ruthie thinks our family is completely ordinary within our religious community.
When she asked the question, my mind started embracing the 21st century outlook for interfaith families. I went to an exciting place: That maybe because of the work of community leaders, generous rabbis, individual families who choose love and acceptance and, of course, InterfaithFamily, our girls won’t ever know to feel different. They will know that we are Jewish through our actions. As they grow up they will understand that they have a choice about spirituality and connection to a religious community. If we are successful, the girls will understand that our goal as parents was to show them our choice, in the hopes that they’ll love it, but also in the hopes that they understand the benefits of choosing to make space for these connections in their adult lives.
Another interpretation might be that Ruthie is 6. I wasn’t raised in an interfaith family myself, so for all I know every 6-year-old thinks that all families must be like their own, religiously or otherwise. Perhaps 6-year-olds with interfaith parents have been asking this question for generations; I have just never encountered their stories.
So, earth shattering or not, I have a new inspiration. To hold onto the kernel of celebration that I felt in that moment. To hold onto the idea that I can raise my girls in an environment where their Jewish identity is about our actions, and not about a rule that would prohibit the loving home Eric and I have created as a couple. To create a place where they can relish the heritage they carry on through the multiple traditions from both sides of their families, but also firmly choose a path of spirituality and connection that is personally fulfilling to them. And, ideally, to imagine a time that feels not that far off when being interfaith will be an important part of how we understand, respect and love our extended family, but won’t be a significant facet of our Jewishness.