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I canâ€™t believe my first baby girl is already 2! In the beginning of this journey into parenthood I can remember the wise women of the synagogue next door to our apartment shouting, â€śEnjoy this time! It goes so fast,â€ť as Adrian and I whisked Helen off to the park, to doctorâ€™s appointments, to family functions and to the market. There was something the knowing eyes of those women told me that only a look can convey. Now, two weeks after Helenâ€™s birthday, I understand what they meant.
Adrian and I wanted Helen to have a birthday that represented our family and who she is. For three nights before the big day I stayed up until two a.m. drinking coffee and making mini piĂ±atas. I found a link on YouTube to a very organized young woman who seemed to know her way around a hot glue gun and party paper. Because of the recent damage done to Adrianâ€™s village in Mexico, I also wanted to make the Mexican/Catholic tradition more visible this year so that he would feel included.
The one major event my American Jewish family and Adrianâ€™s Mexican Catholic family have in common is that we love to party! We also love to decorate and cook and we love the element of surprise. Iâ€™ve also hated the color pink since I was a child but once I had Helen all of that changed. I was the toddler with the black converse sneakers, black jeans and black t-shirt. My daughter has become everything rainbow and butterflies have to offer. This too may change, but I doubt it.
Our menu was a mix of American and Mexican and so was our guest list! I made a cheese spread, a vegetable platter and fruit for the kids. I scoured Pinterest for ideas of how to make the snacks kid-friendly and I ended up spending over 45 minutes trying to get a red bell pepper and four slices of cucumber look like a train car. The cake was tres leches with Peppa Pig on the top. But the night before Helenâ€™s big day was probably the most special for us as a couple.
As soon as Helen went to sleep, Adrian and I started moving furniture and blowing up balloons. We wanted Helen to wake up to a living room filled with piĂ±atas and balloons. As we decorated, we spoke about how amazing the decision to start our interfaith family was. We remembered thinking that it was going to be hard to balance two religions, two traditions and two vastly different cultures. But then we laughed while we wrapped Helenâ€™s gifts, which were: An Abby Caddaby doll, giant Hebrew flashcards and a book in Spanish and English. What could be difficult about real love?
We hung up most of the balloons but let three loose so that Helen could play with them in the morning. As soon as she woke up she walked into the living room and said, â€śbuuubuuu.â€ť Thatâ€™s her version of â€śballoon.â€ť I think thatâ€™s because in Spanish the word balloon is â€śgloboâ€ť and she mixes the sounds. She loved the balloons and the gift-wrapping more that the actual gifts. She did yell, â€śAbbyyyyyâ€ť a few times before she threw the Sesame Street doll on the floor and went after the balloons again.
That day we ran around Brooklyn getting the last few odds and ends for the party. Finally, at six oâ€™clock the guests began to arrive. My mother was the first, of course. She couldnâ€™t wait to give Helen her gift. Because Adrianâ€™s mom is in Mexico, my mother fills in for her and bought Helen two gifts, one from Grandma and one from Abuela. Then my nephews trudged up the stairs of the apartment and I could hear my sister-in-law and my brother behind them. Finally, Adrianâ€™s brothers came, all four of them!
Our apartment is a small one-bedroom but people are always surprised at how many guests we can squeeze into such an intimate space. As I brought out the snacks and Adrian began making his cheese enchiladas, I looked around at our diverse living room. There was happiness and celebration all around and Helen was so surprised.
After we ate and opened gifts it was time to cut the Peppa Pig cake. My nephews love chocolate cake but this cake was filled with strawberries, peaches, cream, condensed milk and vanilla cake. Tres leches cake is traditional in Mexico and when itâ€™s done right it tastes like a sugary cloud. We turned off the lights and first played â€ślas maĂ±anitasâ€ť on the stereo. This is a traditional Mexican birthday song. Then we sang Happy Birthday in English.
My nephews were shocked when they saw that the cake wasnâ€™t chocolate and even more shocked when they tasted how delicious it was. They are just three months older than Helen and they love her. They ran around after the cake cutting singing, â€śHelen Rose, Helen Rose, Helen Rose.â€ť And I wonder what Helen wished for when she blew out her candle. Was it a pony? Was it candy and ice cream? Or was it my wish? That our house, no matter where we live, will always be filled with two religions and love that knows no limits.
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.
Giving your child a Hebrew name is a long-standing tradition in Judaism. Sometimes families have elaborate gatherings as part of a bris while others choose more intimate family ceremonies (we chose the latter). With our siblings and parents together, we could not help but reflect on the long journey to that moment over the last several years. We could not have persevered through it all without the love and support of those closest to us, which is why we asked that they share in this special moment. Thank you to each of these people for your unconditional love, generosity, kind words and most important, hope.
A naming ceremony for an interfaith family does not come without challenges, but we viewed it as an opportunity to foster understanding with those in our family who lovingly participated, and areÂ not Jewish. And in all honesty, my family is not the most religious, so it also served as a nice refresher for them. A family friend who is a doctor and mohel (someone trained in both Jewish law and the surgical hygiene for performing a circumcision) performed the beautiful ceremony. She made sure there was plenty of opportunity to pause and ask questions about the topics we discussed and why certain traditions were important to us. We asked my brother and sister-in-law to be Quinnâ€™s godparents. They will always be a big part of her life and in our absence, they would be there to help guide her through the learning process and discovering Judaism.
Jews of Central or Eastern European descent encourage the celebration of new life by the naming of children to honor loved ones who are no longer with us. Between both of our families, there are many loved ones we wish could have been there to share in the joy of this most wonderful occasion. Jewish tradition also teaches us the importance not to mourn their passing, rather to celebrate their lives. They will live on in our hearts and are never truly gone whenÂ we continue to tell their stories and talk about our special memories of them. Often, we recognize this honor by giving the child an English name that starts with the same letter as a late relative.
It is also customary to give a child a Hebrew name in addition to an English name. We gave Quinn the Hebrew name of Pelia (pay-lee-ah) Davi (dah-vee). Pelia means wonder or miracle and Davi means cherished. Both her arrival into this world and into our arms made her Hebrew name very fitting. She is named after my nana, Paula, and Kimberlyâ€™s nonnie, Domenica. By giving her this name, we are bridging the generations of the past and present and also blending her Jewish and Italian heritage. She will never know where she isÂ going until she knows where she came from. Her great-grandmothers would have loved to have known her. In the years to come, we will be able to share many stories and memories about them with her. We hope she will embody many of the characteristics and qualities we loved about them and carry on their namesake.
We closed this memorable dayÂ by reading this special poem:
â€śWe didn’t give you the gift of life,
But in our hearts we know. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
The love we feel is deep and real, Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
As if it had been so. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
For us to have each other, Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Is like a dream come true! Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
No, we didn’t give you the gift of life, Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Life gave us the gift of you.â€ť
Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday because it is mostly about storytelling. Every year, my family sits around the Passover table and tells the story of how the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt by blindly following Moses across the Red Sea. The story is about freedom, faith and most of all, food. We eat matzah (unleavened bread) to symbolize the unleavened bread the Jews took with them on their long journey through the desert. We clean our houses and get rid of every last trace of bread. Then, my mother calls me 68 times about the Passover menu. In my head, I picture all the Jewish mothers in Egypt during Mosesâ€™ time asking, â€śChicken, brisket or both?â€ť But what Iâ€™ve always loved the most about Passover at my motherâ€™s house was the kidsâ€™ table. It is the table I was always a part of until only recently. Now, thereâ€™s a new kidsâ€™ table and its guests include my daughter Helen and her two cousins (my brotherâ€™s boys), Jacob and Nathan.
I didnâ€™t realize this phenomenon about the kidsâ€™ table until I brought over my half of the Passover menu in aluminum pans an hour before the seder. Adrian, my significant other who grew up in Mexico as a Catholic, pointed it out when he carried our daughter into my motherâ€™s house. â€śMy Mom used to do that at Christmas,â€ť Adrian remarked when he saw one long table in my motherâ€™s living room and the mini table at the end set with three kiddie plastic plates and spoons. Adrian comes from a family of seven kids and he loved my motherâ€™s rendition of a kidâ€™s table, which made him nostalgic. His family is scattered across the globe and his one dream is to have everyone go back to Mexico to sit at his motherâ€™s table on a big Catholic holiday. But this year, Adrian was part of the Passover festivities even though he couldnâ€™t totally grasp matzah.
â€śIt tastes like paper,â€ť he said.
â€śYes,â€ť I replied, â€śthatâ€™s the point. We suffered in Egypt and then we suffered with matzah.â€ť
The kidsâ€™ table signified so much to me this year. For the first time in maybe 50 years, my uncle missed the Passover seder because heâ€™s sick and my aunt couldnâ€™t come either. My cousins were also absent. Usually, our Passover table is set for 15-18 people, but this year, it dwindled down to seven adults and three kids. This made me afraid because my brother was in charge of running the seder and I was in charge of half the cookingâ€”it made me realize that the original Passover kidsâ€™ table was now the adultsâ€™ table.
My mother is getting older and I am trying to balance old traditions with new interfaith beliefs. Adrian and I are trying to show Helen that two cultures and two faiths can coexist and we are trying to do this by example. But sometimes, I still feel like a kid. Sometimes we donâ€™t have all the answers and there are times that even when I make 22 chicken legs, the guests only eat the brisket. â€śI told you so,â€ť I hear my Jewish ancestors whisper.
My nephews, who are twin boys, came in like a hurricane. They love Helen and arrived shouting â€śHelen, Helen, Helen!â€ť When they saw my mother, who always brings them the challah bread and chicken noodle soup, they began to shout, â€śChallah, challah, challah!â€ť But on Passover, we canâ€™t eat challah or noodle soup, so they learned instead to shout, â€śMatzah, matzah, matzah!â€ť And then continued with, â€śAdi! Adi! Adi!â€ť for Adrian, their favorite uncle.
I marveled at the kidsâ€™ table for its differences and its similarities. This year, as my nephews speak English, Helen answers in Spanish. â€śNo se,â€ť she says, which means, â€śI donâ€™t know,â€ť and the boys laugh. But they look just as my brother and I had once looked. The only difference is that this Passover, like all future Passovers, there will be room for more than one faith. Adrian sits at the table and is reminded of Catholic holidays in Mexico, I sit at the table and am reminded of my father and how he, too, loved a good story.
The traditional Jewish four questions, to be asked by the youngest child at the table, are sung by everyone, in Hebrew. â€śWhy is this night different from any other night?â€ť begin the questions. I laugh because I want to look up at God and say, â€śSeriously?â€ť But instead, I think of a proverb appropriate for this Passover from the New Testament: â€śGet rid of the old leaven of sin so that you may be a new batch of dough â€“ as you really are.â€ť (Bible, I Corinthians 5:7) This quote gives me hope for the future and urges me to shed my old skin and step into my new real one of woman, mother and two-faith-household-builder.
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 didnâ€™t 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 didnâ€™t 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 werenâ€™t 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 schoolâ€™s 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 sonâ€™s life and that all of his family should be there; it would be my dadâ€™s 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 Samâ€™s 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 wasnâ€™t 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 didnâ€™t say much about the ceremony itself, just that he was glad he was there for Sam. I knew he still wasnâ€™t 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 Sarahâ€™s 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 wonâ€™t 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.
Our son will become a bar mitzvah in about a year, and I imagine that this will be the first in a series of posts about our family’s interfaith bar mitzvah journey. Since he is our oldest and only child, the bar mitzvah and its planning are new territories.
Neither my husband nor I have ever planned a bar mitzvah. For my bat mitzvah, I was responsible for learning my Torah and Haftorah portions, and writing my speech. My husband grew up in an Episcopal home. But more than the planning, it’s that for the first time in 14 years we’re confronting big religious questions, and I feel that same uncertainty that I felt in the early part of my relationship with my husband.
Itâ€™s strange to feel this way because for the last dozen years, it has been relatively smooth sailing in the Larkinâ€™s interfaith and Jewish home. Sure we’ve had issues with some extended family members (mostly my Jewish ones) and some challenges around Christmas, acceptance in non-Reform segments of Judaism and dealing with prejudice, but we haven’t had the difficulties that some mixed faith couples have to navigate. Mostly, our decision to have a singularly Jewish home, made before we were engaged, has guided our choices and parenting.
Maybe it’s the significance of the Jewish coming-of-age ritual that makes the questions we must address seem bigger than before. Maybe the questions themselves are more significant. Whatever the case, they weigh heavy on my mind.
Over the years, my husband has said on numerous occasions that if he decides to convert it will be around our son’s bar mitzvah. What always felt like a far off decision point is now upon us. I have never asked my husband to convert, and I don’t care if he does or not, but I understand the weight such a decision has at this moment in our lives.
There are rituals and traditions that my husband will be able to participate in if he does choose to convert before our son’s big day that he would not be able to be fully a part of if he doesn’t convert. For example, he will be able to hold the Torah. I get teary thinking about passing the Torah to my husband and then watching my husband pass it to our son during the service.
I wonder how my husband will feel if he doesn’t formally choose Judaism before the bar mitzvah. Will he feel excluded because he can’t fully participate in the service? Will he be angry and will his anger change how he engages in our Jewish life going forward? Will he regret that he didn’t convert before the bar mitzvah after he experiences the power of the tradition as a parent rather than a spectator?
I suggested that it was time for my husband to talk to one of our rabbis. He agreed but said he would wait until we find out which one will work with our son. Apparently, he is not yet ready to deal with these questions either, and I know that he will be more willing to discuss them with a clergyperson. Sometimes when a spouses poses a question, we feel there is an agenda. When a third party asks the same question, it is just a question.
I’m also concerned about how our Christian family members will participate in the service. I know our synagogue’s clergy are all experienced in working with interfaith families. I know they work to craft as inclusive an experience as possible. But I wonder if some family who are not Jewish will feel hurt, ostracized, excluded or left out? How will we make them feel a part of and the significance of the moment? I already sense a gap.
These are just some of the questions circulating in my mind. Iâ€™d feel much better if I knew the answers and could see the outcomes. Instead, I need to navigate these uncertain waters, work with my husband to make thoughtful choices, and let this part of our family’s story unfold. That’s a lot easier said than done.
Before Jack was born, IÂ thoughtÂ I prepared as much as I could for his bris. With the help of my mother-in-law, Pennye, we compiled a list of invitees, researched kosher caterers, and created to-do lists.Â Pennye bought paper goods, readied the room with tables and folding chairs, and lots of gauze pads. She alsoÂ explained the ceremony to my parents so they would know what to expect. (I also had to do some research myself, as I had never been to a bris before.)
Once Jack was born, we were able to set a date for the bris (which takes place on a baby’s eighth day), and she and Sam created the order of the ceremony, finalized the details with the mohel, and gathered RSVPs.Â Everything was prepared, except me. Nothing could have fully prepared me for that day.
I wasn’t mentally prepared to be one of the centers of attention just three days after coming home from the hospital after giving birth. My brain was mush after a week of not sleeping and trying to adjust to this new lifestyle. All I could think of was whatever Jack required at the moment. Why is he crying and how do I make him stop his crying?Â Is he hungry? Why is he not eating? Should I swaddle him? Rock him? Change his diaper? There was minimal spare room in my brain to make small talk with the 60+ guests during the bris.
I also wasn’t spiritually ready to hear the mohel (the Hebrew word for someone who performs a ritual circumcision) explain that our son was to be raised Jewish. Part of meÂ knewÂ that our son was to be raised Jewish. I had even said these words out loud. Sam and I had discussed this at length. We came to the conclusion that Jack was to be Jewish and I was comfortable with that decision. But, when the mohel started talking about how this ceremony physically marks Jack as a Jew, forÂ first time it finally sunk in. Our child will not be Catholic; he will not be receiving the sacraments (baptism, first holy communion, etc.). He will not share my spiritual journey or that of my parents. Rather, Jack will be on a similar spiritual path as Sam, one that, despite many discussions and much private study, is still somewhat foreign to me.
Finally, I wasn’t emotionally prepared to hear those painful screams of my first born, as the mohel performed the physical act of Jack’s circumcision. At that moment, I had escaped to the darkness of my bedroom, and was convulsing in tears, wanting it to end. I wanted to comfort him. I wanted to hold him, feed him and tell him that I would protect him from all the harm and dangers in the world. I wanted to create a protective bubble around him, so that he would never ever get hurt again. Instead, the experience made me feel alone and helpless.Â My body felt like a wreck after the birth, my mind was mush, and now my heart was breaking.
After the mohel finished, Sam brought Jack to me so I could feed him. The three of us shared a quiet moment together before I wiped my tears away, mustered up a smile and brought Jack back to the party, where he was passed around and photographed like a prized possession. I spent the rest of the party making small talk with whatever space was left in my brain.
Looking back, the ceremony was beautiful. Sam’s extended family was there to celebrate, including Jack’s great grandmother, great grandfather and great-great aunt.Â Jack’s namesake’s daughter spoke wonderfully of her father and wished all of Uncle Jack’s best qualities to be passed on to little Jack.Â My parents and some of my siblings were in attendance, supporting our decision to raise Jack as a Jew.Â We even honored both sets of parents during the ceremony. It was wonderful to have everyone here upholding the oldest Jewish tradition, and I have no regrets about our decision to do so, though I wish I could have been more prepared.
Passover is approaching. The stores in my neighborhood have begun the process of taking the chametz (bread) off the shelves and replacing the inventory with matzah or other kosher for Passover items. This is a tradition and it is Jewish law. Because Moses led the Jews in escaping Egypt and the bread did not have enough time to rise by the time they needed to escape, they ate unleavened bread. This is why the shelves are lined with different colored paper at my house. I switch the dishes to have Passover dishes. The night before the Passover seder I burn the bread on my motherâ€™s front lawn.Â
My mother hands me the Passover shopping list with a coupon for Cascade soap pods and a white envelope filled with crisp green twenty dollar bills. Itâ€™s been a rough month. A few weeks ago my brotherâ€™s kids (two twin boys almost 9 months old) got the flu. I was recovering from bronchitis. My mother had an upper respiratory infection. My 6-month-old baby girl Helen Rose had a cold with a fever. Then a relative passed away and my mother slammed her finger in a glass door and almost cut her whole thumb off. Sheâ€™s having surgery right before the first seder.
But maybe all of this was a sign. This is my first year as a new mother and so as a new mother with my own mother recovering from her hand surgery, I will make the first seder meal alone. I am excited and nervous and as always, I am thinking of my Grandma Rosie.
My grandmother only owned one pot. It was the Russian immigrant in her, the memory of when people were fleeing the Pogroms. She learned what it was to take only what you can carry, that your feet are faster than history when they run toward the future. Every Passover my Grandmother cooked brisket in that pot. She lined her colossal charcoal colored pot with potatoes. They dripped with oil, paprika and onions. They were salted with her tears and the memory of an everlasting childhood. She turned the meat over and when it was ready she brought it to the seder table.
As a child those potatoes were my favorite dish. Flavored with the grease and fat of the brisket and the smokiness of the past. I piled mountains on my plate and pushed aside other delicacies for my simple peasant supper. Because Grandma Rosie only cooked once a year, her fridge usually only contained Ginger Snaps, Canada Dry tonic water and Tanqueray gin. She would sit at the kitchen table and instead of cook she would read the stocks. As a child of the depression she hid money under her mattress and never threw anything away.
When Grandma Rosie passed I found her holiday recipe book in my motherâ€™s kitchen. One of the first recipes has an instruction of â€ścrack 40 eggs.â€ťÂ I thought that was hilarious. Itâ€™s like a book if youâ€™re cooking for an army. But I furiously searched those pages for her potatoes asking myself the whole time the pages crinkled beneath my fingers why I had never thought to hold her shaky hands and learn about her yesterdays through food. Why had I not thought to chronicle for my own daughter, named after her, the first steps my Grandmother took to survive in a world filled with Pogroms?
My Grandmother began each Passover holiday with a greasy finger. I understand now why it was this holiday she cooked for. It was the lesson of Passover she wished to pass down. The book we use on Passover is called the Haggadah. It is the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.Â It says â€śWe were once slaves in Egyptâ€¦â€ť But the lesson is that we can be slaves at any time to anyone, even now. History always repeats itself.
My daughter is Jewish on her motherâ€™s side and Mexican Catholic on her fatherâ€™s side. We speak Spanish at home, English at my motherâ€™s house and most recently we put Hebrew letter magnets on the fridge. The world is changing. She will face many obstacles and I will lead her back to the lessons of the Passover seder. I will teach her the Jewish proverb that says, â€śI ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.â€ť
Iâ€™m about to leave the house to finish the rest of the shopping before the big day. I look to my menu I made on white loose-leaf: parsley, hard-boiled eggs, gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, brisket, Grandmaâ€™s potatoes.
With not quite 12 days between Hanukkah and Christmas this year (depending on just how you count), I thought I would dedicate this post to that persistently ambitious Christmas carol (which also has more than one Hanukkah-themed version). In no particular order, here are some memorable moments from this Decemberâ€™s interfaith holiday season:
1. Â Learning and sharing holiday baking traditions always crowns my list, from my spouseâ€™s excellent latkes to Christmas cookies to the gingerbread people my spouseâ€™s family favored at this time of year, and chuckling at his always-remarkable excitement over indulging in my familyâ€™s Christmas morning tradition of having pigs-in-blankets for breakfast.
2. Â Learning and re-learning with my children the story of Hanukkah, from the Maccabees to the hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), from dreidel to gelt, and learning and re-learning, how to share the stories of Christmas with them as well.
3. Â Making a list, or two or three, and checking them at least twice, to make sure we have a good balance of gifts to spread across eight nights and one festive morning.
4. Â Making sure that list of gifts includes opportunities to remind our children that the holiday season is as much about giving as getting (and this year, giving each daughter a tzedakah box as an opportunity to think about giving).
5. Â Baking “just one more batch” of cookies after we’ve already made four, this time chocolate peppermint buttons, because I am a compulsive holiday baker who likes nothing more than giving away platefuls of cookies.
6. Â Answering the persistent queries from my childrenâ€™s great-grandparents about what to send their great-grandchildren, and do they have to send gifts for Hanukkah, or is it all right to give them a Christmas gift, too, since they know weâ€™re raising our kids Jewish? (Answer: gifts are always welcome, and we love you no matter how you figure this one out).
7. Â Soothing my 6-year-old daughterâ€™s tears as she mourns the eighth-night end of Hanukkah, by reminding her of all of the many holidays and festive days that weâ€™ll enjoy between now and next December.
8. Â Worrying that hegemonic Christmas is overtaking Hanukkah in our homeâ€™s holiday decorations, as this year we brought Christmas-themed dishes onto our holiday table, and asking my Jewish spouse for what feels like the 50th time if he is sure he is OK with the Christmas-themed dinnerware, and all of the other Christmas-y things that have festooned our house, like the bough of pretend holly which now winds up our staircase, and gives great joy to our daughter who shares the plantâ€™s name?
9. Â Smiling as he reassures me that he really likes the new dishes, because the bowls have holly on them and the plates have a cute little village that reminds us of a favorite place where we once lived.
10. Â Laughing with my spouse as I tell him that I think it would be fun to have special Passover plates too, not because I want us to be particularly frum, but because I enjoy holiday dishes, and wouldnâ€™t it be fun to mark Passover with special dishes too (and throw a bit of kashrut into the mix without even meaning to)?
11. Continuing to read Hanukkah books to my daughters many nights after all nine candles have long since burned down to their holders, and smiling at my spouse over our elder daughterâ€™s head as she insists on singing the song â€śHanukkah O Hanukkahâ€ť all by herself.
12. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as Christmas Eve approaches, and realizing that somehow, again, Iâ€™ll have made it through another festive and yet frenetic holiday season.
Wishing all of you a happy, festive and joyful holiday season!
When I was pregnant with our first daughter, my husbandÂ and I were living in the mountains of North Carolina. We spent the first several months of my pregnancy worrying that weâ€™d need to bring in a mohel from who-knows-where, if we happened to have a baby boy. Would we have to ask someone to drive in from Atlanta, three hours away? Or perhaps Charlotte, a mere two-and-a-half?
When we found out that the baby would be a girl, we breathed a sigh of relief on that score, at least. Understanding what happened at a baby naming, though, seemed much more complicated than the task assigned to a mohel.
I had dozens of questions for my husband, though, about baby namings for Jewish girls. What happens at them? Did it require synagogue membership, or a rabbi? Were there set prayers or actions to follow? The lack of clear guidance on what to do in such a ceremony baffled me, given my greater familiarity with baptism and the UU baby-welcoming tradition which often feature a rose in addition to water. Our nearest localÂ Jewish community at the time consisted of a dozen wonderful retirees led byÂ a retired cantor and an active layman who servedÂ as the groupâ€™s unofficial rabbi. We attended Friday night services sporadically in the fellowship hall of the local Catholic church. The Jewish community had just celebrated a milestone by purchasing a Torah, housing it in an ark-on-wheels in the priestâ€™s personal study.
When Laurel was born several months later, the community was thrilled to host her baby naming. I seemed to think that a naming needed to happen soon after a babyâ€™s birth, so we scheduled ours for a few weeks after she was born, despite her somewhat premature arrival. Relatives from both sides of the family poured in from across the country to celebrate the arrival of their first grandchild, first great-niece, and newest second cousin once-removed (etc).
We held her baby naming during one of the Friday night services. It happened to be the 99th birthday of the communityâ€™s oldest member, and everyoneâ€™s eyes were alight with wonder at this dual celebration of someone at the very start of their life, and someone else whose life had lasted for a remarkably long time, and who remained quite spry besides.
The ceremony opened with an affirmation of our choice to raise Laurel in the Jewish tradition (see, I didnâ€™t think I was mistaken), as well as our identity as an interfaith family. In the ceremony, we expressed our desire to welcome Laurel into the covenant and the revelation of the Torah. The congregation said the Shehecheyanu, and Ben and I said a Brachah for bringing her into the covenant. We wrapped Laurel in her grandmotherâ€™s tallit as Lâ€™Dor vâ€™Dor (From Generation to Generation) was read. There was not a dry eye in the room, from Laurelâ€™s Catholic great-grandparents and Jewish grandparents on her fatherâ€™s side to her Episcopalian grandparents on her motherâ€™s side.
After the formal blessings, we brought out one of our menorahs, a brass, silver, and bronze affair with arms that could be arranged in a row, or in a circle. We arranged the arms in a circle, and relatives from all sides of the family read pre-assigned passages from the Hebrew Bible about light coming into the world, as if to emphasize the new light that shines with the birth of any baby.
Several years later, our second daughter was born, even more premature than the first. We didnâ€™t hold a baby naming ceremony for her until almost six months after she was born. We were not yet affiliated with any synagogue in the area, so we held Hollyâ€™s naming at home, and conducted the ceremony ourselves. It hadn’t occurred to me that a rabbi could come to our home to do the ceremony, but my Jewish other-half assured me that really, we could just do it ourselves – say words and prayers that would enter her into the wider Jewish community of the covenant. Relatives who lived far away â€śattendedâ€ť via Skype, and one set of maternal grandparents sent a pre-recorded video to play during the ceremony. Instead of meeting in a Catholic churchâ€™s fellowship hall, we met in our living room, guests scattered on couches and folding chairs.
Iâ€™m somewhat embarrassed to say that we changed very little of the first ceremony for the second. Iâ€™ll never forget when Laurel quickly rushed through her own words of welcome to her still-new sisterâ€”â€śI-love-you-Holly-Iâ€™m-so-glad-youâ€™re-my-sisterâ€ťâ€”in front of her assembled relatives. The mainÂ difference was that we asked each guest to say a few words of welcome to Holly as they lit a tea light, rather than the pre-arranged readings using the menorah. We also chose a version of L’Dor v’Dor taken from the Unitarian Universalist hymnal.
Looking back on it, I am glad we held the ceremonies in the way that we did. Both ceremonies upheld our decision to give our children a Jewish identity, and I did not feel too strange about not doing something ritualisticÂ to include each baby in Unitarian Universalism. After all, it was difficult enough to coordinate the schedules of so many scattered relatives for one ceremony, that I cannot imagine how we might have tried to fit in a second baby-welcoming ceremony in another tradition as well!
As someone with an enduring academic interest in ritual, it feels right that we held ceremonies for welcoming our children. If learning about Jewish baby-naming ceremonies taught me anything about ritual, they gave me an appreciation for the flexibility of tradition. Our ceremonies reminded me of the ways in which something (like religion or ritual) that can seem hallowed by time can actually be quite ad-hoc, adapted to the moment, while still feeling like something time-honored.