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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 earthâ€”our nights and our days are numbered. So it wasnâ€™t surprising that I grew up on 23rdÂ street in Brooklyn and my father died on August 23. I was 12-and-a-half years old.Â By Jewish law, I was a woman. But by losing a father at such a young age, a part of me remained fixed in timeâ€”always a little girl.
This year marks 23 yearsÂ since my father died and I still havenâ€™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 placesâ€”Paramus, New Jersey. If I know one thing about the spirit, itâ€™s that my fatherâ€™s spirit wouldnâ€™t be caught dead in Jersey. Heâ€™s not really there.
The dead live in our hearts. They live with us throughout our numbered days. Sometimes they ride the trainÂ or the bus with us. They help us cross the street on particularly tired days. We canâ€™t see them, but they are around.
In Jewish tradition, my family believes that after death our souls go back to God. My husbandâ€™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), Adrianâ€™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 motherâ€™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 sheâ€™s been asking me for 23 years, â€śAre you coming with us to the cemetery today?â€ť
My father was crematedâ€”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, â€śThereâ€™s Big Dave in a little jar.â€ť Iâ€™m not sure my husbandâ€™s take on cremation and Iâ€™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 Adrianâ€™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 alsoÂ tells me that people are cremated in Mexico, but thoseÂ people are usually from a bigger city whereas he is from a smaller village setting.
What Adrian canâ€™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 sheâ€™s ready to join him (hopefully no time soon). He says thatâ€™s the strangest thing heâ€™s ever heard. I try to explain to him that itâ€™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. Heâ€™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.
Itâ€™s been 23 years since my fatherâ€™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 familyâ€™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 fatherâ€™s death. Itâ€™s clear heâ€™s still among usâ€¦in his own way.
By Dr. Ruth Nemzoff
Q:Â Recently, our twenty year old daughter called from college to announce that she is bringing home her first serious boyfriend for Rosh Hashanah. He is an A student, the leader of his a cappella group and involved in community service. Before she introduced him to us, she warned us that although he is a great person, he is not Jewish. We had always expected and hoped that she would date only Jewish guys, and we had talked about this ad nauseam before she left for college. The truth is, we were a little hurt that she rebelled against us. She had a strong Jewish education and continued Hebrew lessons throughout high school. We observe Shabbat weekly and celebrate all of the holidays. My daughter has been to Israel and remains an active member of Hillel on her campus.
From my daughterâ€™s perspective, we did not react well. We lectured her on the importance of marrying someone Jewish and of raising Jewish children. She ended up in tears.
What should we do from here?
A:Â First, your daughter was probably not thinking about rebelling against you when she decided to date this young man. Just like we did not follow all of our parents expectations, we canâ€™t expect that our children will always obey our dictates. In our pluralistic society, it is unrealistic to expect our children to date only within the Jewish religionâ€”unless, of course, we keep them in a totally Jewish world. The reality is that most Jewish Americans, other than the most Orthodox, send their children to secular colleges where they will meet people of other backgrounds.
Many Jewish parents feel that their commitment and effort in providing a Jewish education has been wasted, if their children choose to date outside the faith. I can assure you, the education is not wasted. Your daughter, no matter who she marries, has the knowledge to create a Jewish home.
Again, in America it is not unusual for young people to use their twenties to focus on their career. For many recent college grads, marriage is a distant plan. Too often, parents leap to the conclusion that the first serious boyfriend is the final â€śone.â€ť He might be, but unless your daughter is bringing home an engagement ring, it is unlikely. However, because there is the possibility of marriage or a long term relationship, you want to have a good relationship with this young man.
Since she is bringing him home, be welcoming. Try to appreciate the fine person he is, while showing him the best of our culture. If he is here for Shabbat, offer him a yarmulke and explain that the yarmulke is a sign of respect rather than a religious declaration. Explain why we light the candles and why we bless the wine. Whatever customs your family practices, ask him if he would like to join, but donâ€™t force him. For example, the children might put their hands on the challah and recite the blessing. He could be included. If you bless the children, bless him too, with his permission.
As for Rosh Hashanah, again explain the customs and the history. It is helpful if you can provide him with reading materials about the holiday, as the service can be long and tedious to those who have no idea whatâ€™s happening. You might also give him permission to walk in and out of the service. Whether you like it or not, many of our synagogues are crowded with young people socializing just outside the sanctuary.
If he is from a family that doesnâ€™t practice any religion, he may be receptive and curious about what religion adds to the family. Praise him for any interest or efforts he makes, however clumsily, to participate. Who knows, he might be looking for the community and acceptance that Judaism offers many.
If, however, he is a believer in another religion, you might show some curiosity by asking about his traditions and if he sees any similarities or any differences with Judaism. You are modeling the kind of interest you hope he will reciprocate. Be welcoming but not insisting that he participateâ€”you are not asking him to convert. After all, itâ€™s a new relationship, and marriage is probably not on their minds right now.
On the other hand, it is possible that he is not open to learning or participating in your familyâ€™s traditions because he is vehemently opposed to religion. You should celebrate as you always do. After all, it is your home. Once the kids have gone back to school, you might tell your daughter how much you enjoyed the young man but wonder how she would feel in the long term being with someone who is not supportive of something that is important to her.
No matter what happens between your daughter and this young man in the future, remember, that your behavior has the potential to make friends or enemies for the Jewish people. And goodness knows we need all the friends we can get.
The latest Jewish Population Survey shows that over 50% of our children are marrying people from other faith backgrounds. Our admonitions against marrying people from other faith backgroundsÂ are not working. However, interfaith marriageÂ does not necessarily mean the end of our people. Interfaith marriageÂ has been around and has been a part of our history from our beginningsâ€”and we are still here. Moreover, most American Jews gave up celebrating Shabbat and keeping Kosher well before the interfaith marriageÂ rate climbed. You might better use your energy to continue to show your children the beauty and value of our traditions than continue your rants against interfaith marriage.
One of the strengths of Judaism has been its ability to adapt over the years. We moved from a sacrificial religion to a non-sacrificial one; from one centered on the temple to thriving in the diaspora. Â Perhaps we need to now focus on how to deal with multiple religions in our extended families. If we can figure out how to live together as families, we can truly be a model of co-existence. Besides, interfaith marriage brings new genes into our pool, which can have some health benefits.
I want to be clear here. I am not necessarily promoting interfaith marriage, but I am saying there can be an â€śup sideâ€ť to it. It is up to us all to make sure that we increase our numbers by welcoming others, rather than decrease them by pushing our children away. The demographics are clear. Interfaith marriage is on the rise. We need to embrace it. Otherwise, we might be destroyed by it.
This post originally appeared onÂ The American IsraeliteÂ and is reprinted with permission.
We each have our own story about when we saw, held or heard our children for the first time and we all arrived in those moments in different ways. I was born on Fatherâ€™s Day in 1980 as the first child in my family, so it was only fitting that I became a father under similar circumstances. However, my road to fatherhood is somewhat more unique than the â€śtraditionalâ€ť path after several unsuccessful years of trying to start a family, and included a mad dash to the finish line.
As a proud member of an interfaith marriage, I was raised in a Reform Jewish home and my wife Kimberly went to Catholic school from kindergarten through college. As it turned out, the first Jewish person she befriended, she wound up marrying. After recently celebrating our eighth wedding anniversary this May, our views on starting a family and the religious structure in the home have held up through the years.
While our individual religious upbringings shaped us throughout our lives, it was and continues to be LOVE that blankets our home and builds our family. This marriage is a 50/50 partnership: Everyone is equal and no person or circumstance is more important than another. We have always celebrated both Jewish and Catholic holidays from Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah to Easter and Christmas, and our house is perpetually adorned with decorations for all seasons. It is important to us that we show our children (and the world) that we stand together committed to LOVE as the dominant component in our lives and that religion is a cultural component that helps us observe our heritage and remember the past.
After Kimberly and I tried to have a child both naturally and through several clinical procedures, she suggested we explore growing our family through adoption. But I didnâ€™t know the first thing about adoption. So, the journey began much like any research starts today in the digital world, with a Google search for â€śadoption.â€ť
We came across a local organization that advocates for adoption and they were providing an educational workshop in the coming days. After some hesitation, mostly on my part (this was a big step into uncharted waters), we attended the workshop and were blown away with the new world we uncovered. Within a couple days of leaving the workshop we knew this path was the one we belonged on. We found our adoption agency and started the lengthy process. Over the course of the following year, we received communication about potential birth moms but none of the opportunities panned out.
On my 35thÂ birthday, I was with my brother playing in a charity golf outing when I received a call early in the morning. â€śThere is a healthy baby girl born a few days ago and the birth mom wants to meet you,â€ť said the social worker on the other end of the line. My stomach dropped and my mind frozeâ€”you know that feeling you get when going down the big hill of a roller coaster? Yeah, that feelingâ€¦times 100. I called Kimberly and told her the amazing news and we set up a time and place to meet our potential birth mom later that week. Although this was the call we had been waiting to get for over a year, it still felt like we were not prepared to hear it.
We had a four-hour lunch with our birth mom after which she looked at her social worker and said, â€śCan I tell them?â€ť With a quick nod from the social worker, she looked back at us and said, â€śI want you guys to be her parents!â€ť The words we had longed to hear finally overwhelmed us and we all embraced in a tearful hug. After all the ups and downs, crying, heartache and disappointment, we had finally arrived. It was worth every second and I wouldnâ€™t trade it for anything in the world.
Our daughter was brought into what is referred to as cradle care (temporary loving care between hospital and home by two of the kindest souls we have ever known) and we were able to visit with her as often as we wanted. I remember seeing her for the first time, holding her in my arms and looking at Kimberly. Nothing else in the world mattered at that moment: She was ours and we were a family, finally. The day before she was set to come home was, ironically, Fatherâ€™s Day 2015. We spent the entire day with her as I celebrated my first Fatherâ€™s Day as a new dad. What a special gift, both for us as a family and me for my first time on the other side of the equation.
Becoming a parent through the gift of adoption has enriched my life in more ways than I can recount. It is the ultimate endowment of selflessness and personal sacrifice on our birth momâ€™s part. It was not about the journey but the destination as our paths crossed in the end and she made the brave decision for our daughter to have the life she wanted, but could not provide. She put the needs of our daughter over those of her own. Kimberly, Quinn and I are forever grateful.
Over the last two years as I watched my daughter grow into a toddler, the time has flown. I often think about my first Fatherâ€™s Day and the day we brought her home. We went from the phone call to her arrival in exactly seven days. The moments were so surreal, like I was watching a movie but this was my life. Together we decided that Quinn would be raised in a Jewish environment but always observe EVERY holiday. In a time when the world is so cruel and intolerant of different faiths, genders, cultural backgrounds and sexual orientation, it is important now more than ever to experience different aspects of life. She will know the stories and traditions of our ancestors as we light the Hanukkah menorah and read the four questions on Passover. She will know that while dad went to temple, mom had different experiences in her life and we celebrate those too when we gather for Easter dinner and open presents under our Christmas tree.
Our house and Quinnâ€™s life will always be about love, trust and respect. Religion will be thereÂ to teach her history and provide cultural structure. A friend once told me that when your kids grow up, they donâ€™t look back and say, â€śI wish I was a different religion or celebrated different holidays.â€ť They look back and say, â€śI wish my parents got along better.â€ť LOVE will forever bind us by how we became a family and the way in which we grow as a family. I am blessed to be married to the most kind, caring and loving woman in the world who is the most amazing mother I have ever known. I am blessed to be a father and my unique story of how we arrived here only makes it that much more special.
Happy Fatherâ€™s Day to all the great dads who paved the road before and all the great dads who will surely come after.
By Judy Mollen Walters
My 22-year-old daughter is seriously involved with a wonderful guy. Heâ€™s smart, funny, kind, and they just click. He lives in England, so they only get to visit every eight weeks or so, and have been flying back and forth to each otherâ€™s countries since they met while my daughter was on a semester abroad trip a couple of years ago. Video chats and texting and phone calls have been their lifelines. Iâ€™ve spent time with them together, observing them, and they are very much in love.
Last week, I bumped into an acquaintance at the grocery store. I hadnâ€™t seen her in a year or soâ€”her children and my younger daughter had been in the same high school class. We chit chatted a bit, catching up on how the kids were all doing, adjusting to their first year of college. Then she asked me about my older daughter. How was she doing, what was she up to? I told her about my daughterâ€™s graduate school work and how hard it is but how she is excelling. Her next question was, â€śIs she seeing anyone special?â€ť
â€śYes,â€ť I responded enthusiastically. I told her all about the lovely boyfriend with the charming British accent and the incredible commitment each of them have made to keeping their relationship alive. She leaned down then (I am short!) and whispered, â€śBut is he Jewish?â€ť
This was a Jewish woman with a Catholic husband who had raised three kids with both traditionsâ€”bâ€™nai mitzvot for her children one year, communions the next. The question she asked was not made in light or silliness or fun. It was dead serious.
â€śNo,â€ť I said, feeling uncomfortable.
â€śThatâ€™s OK,â€ť she said, â€śsince heâ€™s a great guy.â€ť
I turned the conversation back to her children and her life and left the grocery store quite disillusioned. But not shocked. Or even surprised. Because the fact is, Iâ€™ve been getting this question from Jewish friendsâ€”even if they had married someone of another faith or donâ€™t care about being Jewish personallyâ€”for the entire two-plus years my daughter and her boyfriend have been dating. It is often the first question out of their mouthsâ€”before â€śDo you like him?â€ť or â€śWhat does he do for a living?â€ť or even, â€śHow do you feel about him living in England?â€ť
Then there is the inevitable pitying look they give meâ€”as though I somehow screwed up in raising my daughter. As though my life is going to be terrible if my daughter marries this man who may be her beshert. And that feeling hurts.
So Iâ€™ve asked myself the question a dozen times, maybe moreâ€”am I uncomfortable if my daughter marries someone who’s not Jewish? Iâ€™m strongly Reform Jewish. I love the holidays and look forward every year to making Passover for 16 people with all of the classic dishes and a simple, short Haggadah. I enjoy toasting the Jewish New Year and take the days of awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur very seriously. I enjoy lighting the candles and making latkes at Hanukkah and giving the children in my life gifts. I feel very Jewish. I use Jewish values in my everyday life and let them guide me when I feel I need guidance. Those values inform how I treat others, how I think about the world, and how I choose my political affiliations.
My husband is Jewish. We raised our children in a very purposeful, Jewish way. They started Hebrew school at the age of 3 because we wanted them to learn that Hebrew school was part of everyday life. They attended a private Jewish preschool where holidays were celebrated. When they attended public school, I fought for the school to stop bringing Santa Claus into their winter holiday partyâ€”and won. They were bat mitzvahed and my older daughter chose to go to Hebrew high school at our synagogue until her high school graduation. She actively participated in the temple youth group and spent a semester in Israel her Junior year of high school.
So we did everything we could to instill a love of Judaism in our girlsâ€™ hearts. We think we were successful.
But were we? Because now my daughter is seriously involved with a man who is not Jewish.
And people are questioning her choice.
And they are making me uncomfortable.
And all they seem to care about is whether he is Jewish.
And thatâ€™s not all I care about, but I get it.
And I wish they would stop asking.
Because in the end, what I want for my daughter is a lifetime of happiness with whomever she marries, Jewish, Christian, Muslimâ€¦I want her to feel Jewish in her spirit and heart and know who she is and what she stands for. But I also want her to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and atone at Yom Kippur and get excited about the Passover seder she might make for her own family. I want her to think and act Jewishly. I want my grandchildren to embrace Judaism, in whatever form, just like she did.
Can she do that with a non-Jewish husband? I like to think so.
But when these people keep asking, first thing, â€śIs he Jewish?â€ť I feel like I failed. Maybe I did. But, then again, maybe I didnâ€™t.
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.
Judy Mollen Walters is the author of five novels, A MILLION ORDINARY DAYS (March, 2017), START AT THE BEGINNING (2016), THE PLACE TO SAY GOODBYE (2015), THE OPPOSITE OF NORMAL (2014), and CHILD OF MINE (2013). She is also an essayist whose articles ave been published on the Washington Post, The Huffington Post, SheKnows, and ScaryMommy. She can be reached via her web site at judymollenwalters.com.
By Lindsey Goldstein
The other day my daughter said to me, â€śMommy, youâ€™re not the most special person in this family.â€ť It was a pointed remark, out of nowhere.
I raised an eyebrow and said, â€śIs that so? Then who is?â€ť Of course, I already knew the answer.
â€śWell, I am. You see, none of the rest of you daven [pray].â€ť Without even a hint of humor she continued, â€śNone of you know Hashem the way I do. I daven every day.â€ť I tried very hard not to laugh because I could see she was being very serious and knew my laughter might hurt her feelings.
I was raised in a Reform Jewish family, going to synagogue twice a year on the High Holidays. We observed Passover with a seder at home. Initially, we celebrated Hanukkah until one day, when I was about 5 or 6, my mom asked me if I would rather get eight gifts once a year or gifts all year-round. Since that was a no brainer, Hanukkah morphed into just lighting the candles to observe and maybe making latkes. As an adult, I didnâ€™t do anything to celebrate the holiday. That is, until we started having children.
My husband was raised Catholic, and I mean very Catholic. Mass was mandatory seven days a week in his household. Nowadays he observes nothing. Catholicism overload soured him on it, and he hasnâ€™t expressed much interest in religion of any other kind. When we decided to get married, we talked about how we would raise our kids. My husband seemed skittish about flat-out raising our kids as Jews, but he admitted that â€śsince they come out of you, doesnâ€™t that make them Jewish by default?â€ť We agreed that thatâ€™s Jewish law, but I have felt as though â€śby defaultâ€ť is what weâ€™ve deferred to.
That is, until we decided to send our daughter to a Jewish preschool and kindergarten. Itâ€™s Chabad-affiliated, so Judaic studies are part of their everyday teaching. Now that my daughterâ€™s in kindergarten, they study the Torah for an hour a day. The result? She has become a bit of a super Jew.
I have gotten used to conversations such as the following:
My daughter: â€śMommy, whoâ€™s Elvis Presley?â€ť
Me: â€śOh, just the King of Rock and Roll.â€ť
My daughter (with an admonishing tone): â€śMommy. Thereâ€™s only one King: Hashem.â€ť
Once in a while, my husband seems nervous that heâ€™s the odd man out. But I assure him that a lot of the knowledge she possesses far surpasses mine as well. I consider her a refresher course for me since she comes home from school on a regular basis and lectures me about the meaning of Purim or the true reason we celebrate Hanukkah, things Iâ€™d long forgotten about.
Lately, she lives by some sort of code of ethics that she believes will ensure her a place â€śin the new world.â€ť I find it a bit worrying that she gives death any thought, but she tells me that as long as Hashem is happy with her, sheâ€™ll be able to advance to the new world. What is this new world? No idea. I think sheâ€™s referring to when the Messiah comes and carts us all off to Eden or something like that. See? Iâ€™m not the one with the vast knowledge of Hashemâ€™s wheeling and dealing. When my beloved dog passed away recently, my daughter patted me on the back and said, â€śI know youâ€™re sad, Mommy. But donâ€™t worry. Iâ€™m sure Hashem will bring Zooey to the new world. Youâ€™ll see her again.â€ť
Admittedly, Iâ€™ve used my daughterâ€™s relationship with Hashem to my advantage a time or two. If she misbehaves or whines, I have asked her if she thinks Hashem would approve of her behavior. Maybe not the best parenting tactic, but she will stop and think about it, so maybe not all bad?
The other day my husband asked me, â€śDo you think Lilah is taking this Hashem thing too far?â€ť And the answer is that her devotion makes me proud. I like hearing her identify herself as a Jew. At the very least, she will have some sort of a foundation of Judaism going forward that I may not have been able to provide for her due to my lack of Jewish knowledge. And I also think sheâ€™s 5 and deeply impressionable. I related an anecdote to my husband to give him some context for her obsession with Hashem.
When I was slightly older than Lilah, I was obsessed with Adam Ant. He was my Hashem. I told everyone Iâ€™d marry him when I grew up. I listened to his music every day on cassette tapes, wore t-shirts with his image emblazoned across, and hung posters of him on my walls. My brother made me a 20- dollar bet that my feelings for Mr. Ant would change in time. By the following year the posters of Adam Ant were replaced with posters of Patrick Swayze. And I was 20 dollars poorer.
And though I love the fact that right now, my daughter is in love with her Jewishness, I donâ€™t know what her future holds. For now, I am tickled by the fact that when she thought I wasnâ€™t listening, she was consoling her sobbing 1-year-old brother with the following utterance: â€śYou donâ€™t have to cry. Donâ€™t worry. Youâ€™re a Jew, too.
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.
â€śBut youâ€™re not really Jewish right?â€ť This has been a question I have been asked since I was big enough to walk. My family celebrates all of the big holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover to name a few. The women in my family donâ€™t wear long skirts and the men donâ€™t wear black hats. But, yes, we ARE Jewish.
â€śBut youâ€™re not really Jewish, right?â€ť is an insulting question. First of all, what does that mean? Thatâ€™s usually my response: â€śWhat does that mean?â€ť And people respond by changing the subject because they know theyâ€™ve offended me or they keep asking questions that further insult me. Since I live in a very religious neighborhood, these are a few of the questions I get: â€śYou donâ€™t wear a wig right?â€ť â€śYou donâ€™t keep kosher, right?â€ť (wrong), â€śItâ€™s so strange that youâ€™re Jewish,â€ť they say, â€śYou donâ€™t look Jewish.â€ť Again, what does that mean?
This year I had a baby with Adrian, my lifelong partner. He is Catholic from Mexico and I am Jewish from Brooklyn. We decided before we had the baby that ours would be an interfaith family. We wanted the beauty of both cultures and both religions to be a part of who our child was and who she would become. She is a Mexican-American-Jewish-Catholic child.
Adrian and I live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The stores are kosher, on Saturday none of the stores are open and on Jewish holidays women in pretty dresses and men in ironed suits walk in the middle of the streets because there are hardly any cars around. Our kitchen is kosher. Adrian eats pork but not in our home. Does this make me less Jewish? Does loving a man from another faith make me less Jewish? Is my daughter less Jewish because sheâ€™s also Catholic?
The challenge so far has been trying to live a balanced life. When our daughter was first born these questions nagged at me. Would someone one day ask my daughter, â€śBut youâ€™re not really Jewish, right?â€ť What would she say? What should I teach her to say? How would I explain to her a double faith? An interfaith? The more these questions loomed over me the more I decided to challenge the ignorance of these interrogations.
I found myself in the lobby of a large synagogue next to my apartment building where I was to inquire about a baby naming for my daughter. This was when my daughter was just 2 months old. The woman who ran the functions at the synagogue was all smiles when I walked in with the baby strapped to me in my ergo carrier. She asked me the babyâ€™s name. â€śHelen Rose CastaĂ±eda,â€ť I said. She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to spell it. I wrote it out in both Hebrew and English.
â€śOh, you write in Hebrew,â€ť she said surprised. After all, I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and I was not in a skirt or dressed up at all. I had only gone to inquire. I had not gone to pray. As I filled out the rest of the information on the sheet I realized I had to write Adrianâ€™s name in Hebrew and my daughterâ€™s name. Her Hebrew name is Chaya Rachel but how was I to write â€śCastanedaâ€ť in Hebrew? I sounded it out.
The woman stared at the paper. I was waiting for the question, any question. I was waiting for her to say, â€śWell thatâ€™s interesting,â€ť or â€śIs this a Jewish name?â€ť I was waiting for the insult. It never came. Instead, before she could speak I said, â€śMiss, Iâ€™d like to tell you, before we begin the process of setting up this baby naming event, that my family is an interfaith family. I am Jewish and my partner is Catholic. We are not married and our daughter is both. Is this going to be a problem?â€ť
Her reaction was not what I expected. She was calm and smiled. She said, â€śThatâ€™s absolutely OK.â€ť There were no insulting questions, no asking if I was really Jewish. We had a beautiful baby naming ceremony at the synagogue and I felt at home. I felt accepted and my family felt accepted. But, I had also for the first time accepted myself.
I am a Jew always in my heart and I live my life according to Jewish law, meaning I treat others with compassion, I speak to G-d, I meditate and I try to do good deeds. I donâ€™t always succeed at all of these laws but I try my best to abide by them. I was born Jewish and I celebrate Judaism. I come from a long line of prophets and strong biblical women. This is what I will teach our daughter who has Jewish and Aztec blood in her. I also understand that people will always question my â€śJewishness.â€ť Iâ€™ve learned now to respond in a different way. Now, when someone approaches me with the question, â€śbut youâ€™re not really Jewish, right?â€ť my answer is always a flip of my hair and a long laugh.
My Jewish husband and I (a Unitarian Universalist) might not have known what we were getting into when we decided to raise our kids Jewishâ€”but keep celebrating Christmasâ€”my favorite holiday. That was ten years ago. Fast forward five years, to this past January. We took our then-4-year-old daughter to a Tu Bishvat celebration. On the drive there, she kept proclaiming, “It’s the New Year for Christmas trees! I love Christmas trees!” Once we parked the car, we earnestly encouraged our daughter not to mention Christmas trees while at the event, which would involve planting a small bit of greenery (which turned out to be parsley for the seder plate). She didn’t quite understand why people wouldn’t want to hear about Christmas trees (theyâ€™re pretty, and come with presents: What could be wrong with that?), but she trusted us and didn’t mention the possibly offensive greenery.
I’ve since realized that, at the still-tender age of now-5 years old, our daughter is still learning what â€śreligionâ€ť is, or to be more precise, what religions are. She knows what holidays are, and her memory is now good enough that she can recall many dazzling and exciting details about both of the upcoming exciting winter holidays:Â Hanukkah (lighting the menorah! Presents! The dreidel!) and Christmas (Santa! More presents! A pretty tree!).
But in her life, these two holidays are part of whatâ€™s still a continuous cycle of celebrations, which in our secular-religious American culture involves everything from Thanksgiving, Halloween and Martin Luther King Jr., Day to St. Patrick’s Day, July 4th and Columbus Day.Â That list doesn’t even include Easter and Christmas, or Passover, the High Holy Days and Hanukkah, but they too belong on her exciting list of yearly liturgical celebrations.
As the not Jewish spouse in our family, I shareâ€”but feel ambivalent aboutâ€”our older daughterâ€™s excitement about Christmas, which she proclaims as happily as she does her Jewish identity. I donâ€™t really want her to want to sit on Santaâ€™s lap, but I know she wants him to bring her presents, just as she wants a present each night when we light our menorah. Iâ€™d like to honor the promise I made to my husband before we got married that weâ€™d raise our children in theÂ Jewish tradition, but I donâ€™t think I understood how childrenâ€™s own expectations and perspectives about, say, something as pervasive as Christmas, might put an interesting twist on those well-meant decisions. As she gets older (and as her toddler sister grows, too), I know my husband and I will somehow help our children figure out why they shouldnâ€™t mention the Christmas tree at a Tu Bishvat celebration. They will eventually learn that holidays can be secular, national or religious events and that they have different and distinct traditions of origin.
For now, Iâ€™m just glad that our daughter is eager to celebrate both traditions. Popular winter holiday books for interfaith children promote this â€śmore the merrierâ€ť perspective on the winter holidays. In Blintzes for Blitzen, by Elise Okrend, a hungry reindeer enjoys a tasty Jewish treat during a break in Santaâ€™s annual rounds. In My Two Holidays, by Danielle Novack, a confused schoolboy learns that although his friends celebrate one holiday, he gets to celebrate two. The more the merrier.
Neither book offers a clear perspective on what it means to celebrate two holidays: two distinct religious traditions practiced by one family. Nor do I believe that should be the primary goal of these books. My daughters, even our toddler, experience the wonder and joy of light in a dark time of the year. If they choose to celebrate either holiday, follow either tradition, in their adult years, it will likely be in part because of memories from childhood. If celebrating two holidays creates strong and hopefully happy, memories, then more is merrier indeed. Understanding that these two holidays are from two traditions will come as they each grow older and learn more about the world into which they were born. For now, I look only for the wonder in their eyes.
Emily R. Mace lives outside Chicago, IL, where she is the director of the Harvard Square Library and the co-parent of two young daughters. Follow her on Twitter @lemilym.