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Making friends as a grown-up isn’t always easy. When I look at my “mom” friends, we’re mostly bonded through our kids. We spend countless hours at cheerleading, football or any of the myriad extra-curricular activities our kids are involved in, and our friendship is based on the relationships of our children with one another. But sometimes, I feel the need to step out of the comfort zone, try to meet people based on interests *I* have, because even though I’m momming 24/7, there needs to be a chance for ME to connect with, well, me, even when doing the mom thing.
So I decided to bring my 1-year-old to a Sukkot event, knowing full well he wouldn’t be able to participate in making a sukkah out of pretzels, but with the hope that maybe, after five years of living in Maine and still feeling slightly isolated and disconnected Jewishly, that I’d meet some other moms and families. I felt awkward walking into a situation where I knew no one except the group leader (who greeted me warmly), but I was determined to enjoy this new experience and bond over the commonality we all shared. After all, I was walking into a Jewish event, the kids were Jewish, I was Jewish, we were there to celebrate a Jewish holidayâAND we were all clearly parents of small children. I was encouraged; I had hope; let the bonding and mom-friending begin!
Except I left friendless. And feeling even more disconnected than before. It wasn’t a failure of lack of effort. I think I introduced myself to almost every grown-up there, and there had to be at least 30 people between adults and kids. I tried to strike up conversations as I followed my blond-haired blue-eyed toddler around with his monster-like walking (a new trick for his first birthday!). The conversations usually went like this: “Hi, I’m Amy! This is Finn!” (as he would carefully saunter up to a new grown-up to check them out). Said grown-up would respond with their name and ask me if he went to the daycare at the JCC. In my head I responded, “Is that a requirement to talk to me?” but I was there to make friends, right? So instead I gave my canned response, “He’s on the waiting list,” which is a truth, but I wasn’t going to tell them it was because when I was looking for daycare I couldn’t find a place that DIDN’T have a waiting list and it’s possible he’s on a few at this point. The conversation would end each time, almost as if it was a prerequisite for him to be there in order to communicate with me.Â Talk about frustrating.
I wanted to scream at all of them, “If you only knew! If you only knew anything about me! If you only knew my own Jewish connections, my own history, that on Yom Kippur the other day I stood in front of my congregation and chanted Torah, would I be acceptable to talk to then?” I looked around at the group, self-conscious of my blonde toddler in the mix of all the brown-haired kids, with biblical and Hebrew names. Is this what it’s going to be like for him as he grows up? My Jewish, Irish child who has interfaith parents? My Finnian, fitting in with standard white-bread Maine, but not so much in the Jewish community? I found myself surrounded by talk of day school that apparently most children in attendance go to, this rabbi, that rabbi, kids calling their parents eema and abba (Hebrew for mom and dad). And Finn? Oblivious to it all, walking around the sukkah like he owned it, waving and laughing at the kids who mostly ignored him, and picking up brightly colored leaves that had fallen to the ground.
Making mom friends is hard, but I didn’t think being Jewish was also hard. I walked away from the experience wondering if it’s always been like this, that certain status was placed upon you by how you connect Jewishly. And the reality is that in some communities, it truly is. I realized that I used to be one of the “elite” as someone who not only was actively involved in the Jewish community but also WORKED in the Jewish community. I took it for granted that it WAS easy because I was in the mix. But I’m no longer in the mix. And I’m no longer in a Jewish-Jewish family. I’ve now experienced the harshness of being judged based on perceived participation in the organized Jewish community with my blonde-haired kid, and it makes me sad.
As I tucked him into bed when we got home and pulled the green glowstick from the event out of his clenched hand, I wiped schmutz off his face, kissed him and said laila tov (goodnight). If that’s not connecting Jewishly, I don’t know what is. We have a long road ahead of us and I’m just starting to discover howÂ this whole being Jewish thing won’t always be easy, but I’m confident that Finn will grow up knowing whoâand whatâhe is.
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.
Springtime in my house rarely means flowers and warmer weather â after all, we do live in Maine and snow is still in the forecast. Instead, spring signifies celebration, as April brings both Roxyâs birthday and my birthday. This year sheâs hitting the big NINE, a milestone unto itself as itâs the last year my firstborn stays in the land of single digits, before tweenhood truly hits. My baby girl is growing into this very cool, very independent, sassy, funny and smart 9-year-old.
I, on the other hand, am internally melting down. While we plan a fashion party for the girl, my own birthday, just two weeks after hers, is a big one. The big Four-OH. Iâm in denial, of course. Not that I think 40 is an awful age to be, itâs more remembering the picture of 40 I had in my head when I was 9. Â I don’t quite feel “old enough” to be celebratingÂ four decades.
I can clearly remember my own mom turning 40, having a party and what a big deal it was. Yet here I am, about to cross that threshold, and my kids will create their own memories of my special day, and my life certainly doesnât feel like that mental picture I had years ago. But Roxy (and my son, Everett) are truly excited, and sheâs already asked me a million times when is it her turn to go up onto the bimah for her birthday â and oh yeah, Mommy â you have to come, too.
The second Friday of each month, Shabbat services at my synagogue are considered a family service, with an earlier start time, family-friendly liturgy instead of the regular prayerbook, participation by the kids in the service and of course â the all-important monthly birthday blessing. Congregants who are celebrating a birthday in that given month are invited up to the bimah to receive a special birthday blessing followed by everyone singing âHappy Birthdayâ in Hebrew. Roxy has been beside herself for months, waiting on edge ’til itâs her turn, and next Friday she finally gets her wish.
I guess it shouldnât surprise me that sheâs so concerned about including a Jewish ritual into our birthday celebrations, and in a way it makes me feel great to know that sheâs so in tune with her Jewish identity that itâs a given to her that of course weâre going to get birthday blessings. But thereâs a piece of me that never would have even considered this. Would I have bothered to go get my own birthday blessing if it wasnât so important to Roxy? Iâm not convinced I even would have thought of it.
The kids split their time between my house and their dadâs house 50/50, with alternating days during the week and every other weekend â and next weekend â the birthday blessing weekend, they will be with their dad (who is also Jewish). He will take them to services (he wouldnât dare not do this and suffer the wrath of the 9-year-old).
I will meet them there, because if I donât show up to get my birthday blessing with Roxy, sheâd be devastated. I will hold her hand, I will smile and I will probably tear up, not because itâs so meaningful to me, but because it is to her. I will stand there proudly with my daughter as the congregation chants âKeyn yâhe ratzonâ (be this Godâs will) in response to the rabbiâs recitation of the Ancient Priestly Benediction, blessing us with Godâs protection, favor and peace. I will absorb the words and the warmth as a reminder of tradition and community as I stand with her in a long line of history and culture. I will take comfort in knowing that as we celebrate our birthdays, small and big and everything in between, our Judaism connects us in a way that makes us feel so very different and yet the same.
At the end of the service, weâll enjoy the sweetness of an oneg (post-service) brownie, I will hug and kiss her goodbye and wish them Shabbat shalom and to enjoy their weekend until I see them again Sunday night. I will get in my car and come home to Matt in our now interfaith home, where birthday blessings arenât a given, and we donât always think of religion as a way to celebrate the turning of a new age. My secular world and Jewish world continue to collide through the eyes of my children, and Iâm grateful in this moment that they are the ones teaching the adults around them, finding the holy in the life moments that we create with each other.
If youâre a parent, thereâs always those questions you know your kids are going to ask you at various ages and stages that you mostly want to avoid. Things like âwhere do babies come from?â âWhatâs sex?â and âHave you ever tried drugs?â I think over the years Iâve done a pretty good job at either changing the subject or placating them with a vague answer and offering up real facts when necessary. But as they get older, the questions become less about physical body functions and more about real subjects that I honestly donât know HOW to answer. And a recent conversation with the kids proved more challenging than I thought.
It started innocently enough as the 6 & 8 year old were getting dressed to go to Friday night family services at our synagogue.
Kids: âHey Mommy? Does Matt go to church?â
Me: âUm, no, not really.â
Kids: âBut isnât he supposed to go to church? Isnât that like the opposite of temple? Like people who arenât Jewish who are Christmas go to church, right?â (Yeah, my kids still donât get the concepts of the names of other religions. Either a mom fail or they havenât paid attention to half of what I say to them. Or both. Letâs be real though, trying to explain to them the difference between Catholicism and Episcopalians is pretty much next to impossible at this stage. I know my limits.)
Me: âWell yeah. I guess heâs *supposed* to go to church. If youâre part of a religion a lot of times you go to services. But not everybody belongs to a church the way we belong to the temple. Matt doesnât belong to a church and he doesnât go. We donât go to Shabbat services every week either, so thatâs OK, right?â
Kids: âYeah itâs OK, but did he EVER go to church?â
Clearly they werenât letting this go. My brain was spinning trying to figure out how to explain that my Irish Catholic boyfriend grew up with a serious religious education, went to Catholic school, was the head altar boy, represented the church at community functions like funerals and actually hung out with his clergy because it was fun. Mattâs connection to religion growing up very much shaped him, much like how my involvement in my synagogue shaped me. But as an adult? Times change. Views change. Beliefs change. New traditions get formed.
We had a good talk, but the questions kept coming.
Kids: âDoes Matt pray to Jesus? Or does he pray to God?â
Oh. Dear. Now they want to talk about prayer?!? Itâs a subject that Iâm not entirely comfortable with because *I* wrestle with it.
Me: âUhhhhhh, kind of? I mean, he believes in God. Itâs really hard to explain guys.â
Kids: âWell remember that time we went to church for that wedding and everybody kneeled and said prayers to Jesus and then ate those cracker things? Jesus was Jewish. Did you know that mommy? Does Matt know that? Did he do that stuff at church?â
This is seriously so hard to talk about. So the conversation continues, which at times has inspired our own adult conversations about what we each believe, various experiences we had in our lives and how we live now. I recently shared with Matt that one of the things I love about being a Reform Jew is being able to interpret prayer and beliefs to create personal meaning. I never expect him to one day tell me heâs converting, but the longer weâre together, the more he seems to get and appreciate my connection AND the more I understand his own connections â yes, even if he no longer goes to church, sorry kids.
I think with lifeâs experiences we turn to what we know in looking for answers, healing, serenity and more. My kids are starting to figure this out as they ask me those tough questions and Iâm proud of them for wanting to understand and decide things for themselves. As parents we provide these types of tools for our kids; my family and Mattâs family gave us amazing foundations to start with. We may not have grown up attending the same type of services, what we both believe in now might not always mesh up, but the values we both learned along the way match perfectly. So keep the hard questions coming as we all learn more about ourselves in the process.
Once upon a time, I was a kid growing up in North Jersey in the â80s, and I had a pretty clear idea of who I was and who I wanted to be. Even though I was the âtokenâ Jewish kid in the neighborhood, I never struggled with my identity, in part to my parentsâ credit for creating a strong Jewish home life, and in part because of my close connection to the Reform synagogue at which I spent countless hours. Whether I was celebrating a Jewish holiday, marching in an Israel celebration parade or singing with the junior choir at Shabbat services, it was clear to everyone around me that this kid was on a path, and that my Jewishness was a huge part of who I was and who I was going to grow up to be.
The story could just end there, with the assumption that I stayed that kid and that I followed that path âŚ and the story wouldnât be totally wrong.
But itâs also incomplete, and sometimes even I find myself looking over my history and wonder if Iâm reading the story of me, or someone else. Iâm no longer that â80s kid who was so self-assured, and my connection to Jewish life doesnât always resemble the picture I imagined in my head. And Iâm sure by now youâre wondering why.
My name is Amy, Iâm a divorced mom of two (mostly) hilarious kids (ages 6 & 8 Â˝) and well, now I live in Maine. Wait, let me say that again. Iâm a divorced mom of two and I live in MAINE.
This place isnât exactly known as the center of Jewish life in these great United States. And while Iâm at it, I should also mention my Irish Catholic boyfriend. So begins my interfaith journey, one that I hope youâll join me on. I promise to fill in some of the blanks (like, are the kids Jewish? Is their dad Jewish? Yes and yes) on this blog, and to be real with all of you. Because for the first time in my life, identity and belonging isnât so simple for meâand if itâs not simple for ME, the complexities of raising Jewish kids while trying to navigate this newness? My brain hurts just thinking about it.
So as an introduction, Iâll leave you with this story, because I think it will start developing the Polaroids for you to get the picture. As I type this, Iâm looking at my Christmas tree. Yes, MY Christmas tree. Iâve never had a Christmas tree until this very tree that Iâm staring at. The idea was absurd as I donât celebrate Christmas. Iâve never had tree envy: even when my friends would invite me over to decorate theirs. It wasnât part of who I was and there was no question that I would never, EVER have a tree.
Remember the whole Jewish girl from Jersey thing? Yet for the first time in 39 years, Iâve got a real live one, and Iâm totally and completely enthralled with it. I could say it was the boyfriendâs tree since we were putting it in HIS apartment, but I went with him to pick out the perfect one, it was tied to the roof of MY car and I went to the store with him to pick out ornaments. I carefully decorated it, twice (because apparently trees have been known to fall over; I clearly have so much to learn), and added my own special touch: a blinged out Chinese takeout container, because up to this point thatâs what Christmas meant to me. After a third tree felling (followed by said tree being attached to the wall), my kids got involved in the action. My Jewish children, who had never touched a Christmas tree let alone decorated one, were about to experience something totally foreign.
The night they came to decorate coincided with the seventh night of Hanukkah and the kids were excited to light the menorah and exchange gifts. All that happened, and it was our normal Jewish life. Until they decided that what they really wanted for Hanukkah was to decorate the tree. By the light of the candles, they carefully chose ornaments and hung them with care âŚ not quietly. Instead, my amazing children, who only cared about making it look special for my boyfriend, decorated the tree while belting out as many Hanukkah songs as they could think of. There are no parenting manuals that tell you what to do, or how to react in a situation like this, so I did the only thing I knew howâI joined in.
I laugh thinking about it now as I look at the tree. My kids singing in Hebrew about dreidels, only wanting to spread love and joy. In that moment, I realized that maybe, just maybe I can make this interfaith thing work. Their excitement was electrifying and for two kids who donât believe in Santa (I may have come up with some threats if they ruin it for their friends!) well, I think we all found a little magic that night.
So begins this chapter, as I try to figure out how to maintain old traditions and incorporate new ones that I (or the kids) never expected to be part of.