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A funny thing happened when I had a baby. People in my neighborhood whom I had never spoken to started speaking to me. They had seen me walking around Brooklyn since I myself was a baby. They had spotted me on my bicycle, buying candy and I’m sure some had seen me in my various teenage phases of trying cigarettes and dyeing my hair. Since I live three blocks from my childhood home these same people have now watched me carry my daughter around the neighborhood from the day she was born. Now though, they speak to me.
This week is Passover week and I am shocked to find that in every store I enter with my daughter strapped to me I am asked, “What do you need? What are you looking for?” Sales people pull things off the shelves for me and when I make my final purchase, my cart filled to the brim with potatoes, horseradish, parsley and all of the other Passover delights, the cashier says, “We will deliver it to you by four o’clock, you live on Avenue M., right?” They know me and have known me my whole life, though we have just now exchanged words.
The sense of community in my neighborhood during Passover is overwhelming. At night when the first Passover seder begins one can walk down any block and look into people’s windows to see the same table settings, the same Passover plate and the same book we all read from. This year Passover is extra special for my family because my daughter and my twin nephews are new editions to the table and we are passing down the traditions of my family through them.
My significant other, Adrian, had to work which was unfortunate. Being from a Mexican Catholic family he appreciates both food and family. But he joined my mother and me in the morning as we prepared the matzah kugel, marinated the brisket and chopped onions. My daughter watched and squealed.
Our food delivery came at four o’clock as promised and my mother said, “We’ve never gotten delivery from Avenue M.” I just pointed to the baby as if to say “Now it’s a different ball game, Ma.”
It’s been a long time since we’ve had babies at the seder table in Brooklyn. My mother usually does the first seder and my aunt does the second seder in Long Island. But this year I cooked the entire first seder with some help from my mother. I am a new mother and so I wanted to do the cooking. It is an enormous amount of work because a lot of people come to our seder and it made me appreciate my own mother and how hard she worked every holiday.
Because my daughter is from an interfaith, multi-lingual family we have a special hagaddah for her. That’s the book we read from on Passover. Her book is in Spanish, English and Hebrew. It was special to share the Passover story with my daughter and Adrian so that they can understand what we celebrate and why.
That’s another thing about my neighborhood. My interfaith family has become the latest gossip. Sometimes it’s hard to break the barriers of age-old tradition and make room for new tradition. I understand that when I walk through Midwood with Adrian and my daughter, people stare. People whisper. People can be cruel. But the lesson of Passover is that we should never let ignorance lead us. The only way Moses parted the Red Sea was because he believed in what he was doing and ignored everything negative around him.
My daughter is a light, a path to a new world. There is a Jewish proverb that says, “A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.” It is this light that compels the people in my local grocery stores to speak to me for the first time in 30 years. It is this light that wins over the many losses my family has endured over the years. My daughter and my nephews are new lights who shine at the Passover table and ask for the first time, “Why is this night different from any other?”
When we were studying Judaism together as a young couple, it made sense to buy into an “all in” model for a Jewish household. For our future children’s sake, if we were choosing to raise them with a religion, we would stick to just one. It would be less confusing, and they could be engaged in a specific spiritual community where they could experience a sense of belonging. This would be better for their development, and would empower them to make well-grounded decisions about their spirituality as adults.
It also made sense that we would respect the religious beliefs of family members who were not Jewish by sharing in their celebrations and participating as guests. Guests who were also loving relatives. We would speak openly about their holidays and lovingly about Eric’s personal history celebrating those holidays.
This relatively black and white idea seemed clear when our children were theoretical creatures. Seven-and-a-half years into our very real parenting journey, what I have found is that stepping thoughtfully into the gray area of this proposition not only strengthens our connections to our extended family, but also strengthens our nuclear family connectivity.
The “all in” model assumed we did not let Christian holidays into our home life, but we did celebrate them in our families’ homes. This simple idea is complicated by the 2,000 miles between our home and Eric’s parents’ and sister’s homes.
On days like Easter Sunday, we can get our heads around the Easter Bunny not coming to our house, and around the impossibility of teleporting to Colorado. But both Eric and I have trouble getting our heads around not doing something to mark a day so important to our heritage and celebrated by our closest family members.
So here’s where we are right now, as of Easter 2016. We don’t celebrate Easter with a visit to church or the corresponding new Easter dresses. We do cherish the Easter eggs we get from Eric’s parents, and the celebrations we share with friends who celebrate the holiday. And as a foursome, we celebrate that it is a day to think about and be with family, and to do something out of the ordinary that celebrates our lives together.
For us, this year, it was a fancier-than-usual breakfast with all the bells and whistles. Considering this breakfast, I can’t help but think two things. First, I have witnessed as a parent how much children benefit from whatever black and white explanations we can provide for things as complicated as religion. On the other hand, if the gray area between celebrating something “all in” and not doing anything is finding an extra reason to celebrate love and family, there can’t possibly be anything negative about spending quality time in the gray.
In post-divorce life, it occurred to me that it had been over 13 years since the last time I went on a date. Not only did I have no idea what I was doing in this new life, but the rules had changed. Online dating was the norm, and as a busy mom of two who still didn’t have a very large network here in Maine, it was the reality of meeting people and getting back out there. I fully intended to find love in my life again with a significant other and didn’t rule out the possibility that one day maybe I’d even remarry, but in the meantime I wanted to have FUN, boost my confidence a little and learn about myself in the process.
I signed up for myriad online dating sites, and even allowed my mom to convince me to join JDate, knowing that the prospects of meeting a Jewish man where I live were pretty slim, and even laughable when my 100 percent match on the site was my ex-husband. After my Jewish/Jewish marriage ended, I wasn’t focused on finding a lifelong mate – and honestly never thought twice about interfaith dating. After all, most of my past boyfriends weren’t Jewish, and besides, I didn’t want to close myself off to the possibility of meeting someone great who might not share in my religious beliefs.
So my dating adventure began. It was sometimes downright disastrous and funny, often thought provoking, and even yielded a handful of friendships. Some of these dates turned into short-lived relationships; others etched their way into my heart and stuck around for a long time. But through it all there was one constant: My children come first and they will not be part of my dating life.
It’s not that the kids were clueless and thought that Mommy sat home every night that they weren’t with me. (I share residency with their dad 50/50 so the idea of having time to go out was new to ME too!) But their concept of mommy having a boyfriend was that I loved listening to Adam Levine sing on the radio. Roxy, being almost 9, was a little more intuitive, realizing that just maybe I was going on dates and was sometimes even brave enough to ask me about it. Everett’s 6 and cares more about playing Legos and avoiding girls with cooties, so with him it was a non-issue. My answers to Roxy were always vague, even when I was in a relationship with someone, because I had no intention of crossing that line. I didn’t want the kids to feel threatened that my affection was going elsewhere, I didn’t want them to be freaked out that there could be another male figure in their lives knowing they were still dealing with the aftermath of divorce, and quite honestly, they are the center of my universe. No man was going to be remotely part of their lives unless I knew he was “the one” and not going anywhere for a long, long time. My separate dating life remained that way and it was perfect.
Until the day I met Matt.
There’s that whole cliché of when you meet your person, your future, your soulmate and you just KNOW. There’s no explanation, there’s no magic formula and sometimes it just happens. Usually when you least expect it. In Yiddish there’s a term for this, called finding your “bashert.” And when I met Matt, well, just like that the rules changed. Because I knew. And he knew. But we’ve both been there, done that, so there’s no rush for something sparkly on my ring finger, even with the knowing.
We treaded carefully with the kids – both with his son and my two kids. I told them he existed, and their questions were: Does he make you happy and treat you nice? My thoughtful children made their first meeting easy and fun, as we joined friends at a major league baseball game. Everett conned Matt into buying him a giant ice cream and Roxy wormed her way into being his bestie. Relief and easy banter between the three of them over the months since has become the norm, with all three kids getting to know one another, Matt meeting my family, the kids and I meeting his family, and daily life has gone on without missing a beat. They accept each other fully and the kids don’t even think twice about Matt not sharing the same faith.
It’s more than I could have hoped for, finding a love like this and learning what makes us family. We made the decision that over the next few weeks, Matt will be moving in, because the reality is that being together, in the same place, just makes sense. It wasn’t an easy decision to come to, because first and foremost this is where THEY live. I sat them down and talked to them about it last week, letting them know about this new plan. I was nervous to tell them, but shouldn’t have been as they simultaneously cheered and when I asked if they had any questions about this new living arrangement, their only concern was: Please tell me he’s bringing his TV because it’s bigger. We can get more channels now, right?!? Oh my cable-deprived children will be quite all right with this transition, but as I look around my house, I’ve come to some realizations.
As I write this post, today is two years since I bought this house, built from the ground up with decisions made by me AND the kids on what color the roof should be, what kind of countertops, what flooring. I made this house happen somehow on my own, one of the scariest, bravest things I’ve ever done. Yet up until this point it has never felt truly like home. We live here, it has our stuff in it, but the thought of Matt moving in and us decorating and rearranging furniture truly excites me. Being able to share in the process with someone is special and turning this space into warmth and family and comfort? I have no words to describe what that means to me. I’m ready for this next phase but also know there’s going to be plenty of questions and discussions as we start this part of the journey.
I have always had a Jewish house. The kids and I are Jewish and I worked professionally in the Jewish community for a long time, so I guess it makes sense. There’s a mezuzah on the front door. There’s a whole shelf in the living room filled with Jewish ritual objects, from menorahs to Kiddush cups to Havdalah sets. I have a pile of artwork, some in Hebrew that I still haven’t gotten around to hanging up. There are wall hangings and wooden camels brought back from trips to Israel. There are yarmulkes and Siddurs (prayer books) on bookshelves in several rooms. There’s no question when you walk in that Jews live here. And I never questioned it before now.
I can’t think of even one of my friends of another faith, especially here in Maine, who have homes that I’d walk into and immediately be able to identify them as Christian. I don’t know many people who keep crosses on their walls or Buddhist altars in their mudrooms. Yet I have a Jewish house, one that my Irish Catholic boyfriend will soon move into. I know that we will find a balance with his comfort zone, and that come December, where the Christmas tree will go. My Jewish home will morph into something that will reflect all of us, with each of us adding pieces of ourselves to the blank canvas of the rooms and walls that surround us.
Matt and I might not share the same religion, but I’m hopeful that as we continue to grow as a couple, the one thing people will notice when they walk into my house a month from now, six months from now, is that it’s really a home, filled with joy and love and understanding.
Where do Jewish-Christian interfaith families turn to find a community of like-minded souls? A church and a synagogue? A third-space option such as Unitarian Universalism, or an interfaith Sunday school that includes both traditions? What about muddling through without religious community, either due to living largely secular, busy lives or an inability to find out what might work best?
These questions have been on my mind lately as my family has participated in a tiny, fledgling interfaith group in Chicago’s North Shore. The group started enthusiastically last summer with a planning meeting and several families, only to see attendance decline over the course of the fall.
What happened to the initial enthusiasm? The group met monthly, alternating between a local synagogue and Episcopal church, both of which congregations had histories of friendliness to intermarried couples and families. We gathered for an hour once a month, with crafts for our children and conversation about holidays for the parents.
The idea—to learn about holidays based on the liturgical years of Judaism and Christianity—seemed promising at the start. Holidays offer one of the easiest entrees into an unfamiliar religious community, so the topic held promise.
Yet over the course of the fall, participation drifted away. My family attended eagerly at first, but at the second meeting, and then the third, my children wondered where we were going. Who would we see? Which church was this again, and had they been there before? Why couldn’t they stay with their parents, and why did they have to go off and do crafts with a babysitter they couldn’t remember? I sympathized with their questions: Even with nametags, I didn’t feel confident that I remembered the other participants from month to month.
One afternoon in December, both of my kids had colds and felt exhausted from their swimming lessons earlier that Sunday morning. My husband wanted to stay home and cheer on his favorite football team in their run for the playoffs, and knowing how he felt about his team, didn’t want to drag him away from the important event.
As it turned out, only one family attended that afternoon, a new family looking for an interfaith community. No one else, except the clergy, were in attendance to greet or welcome them.
What had happened? The group started with perhaps a conflicting set of goals. Would the group offer a “third option” for interfaith families along the model of The Interfaith Union School in Chicago or Washington, D.C.,’s Interfaith Families Project? What would be the role of the two clergy who offered so generously of their time? Certainly, they each welcomed all the families to their own congregations, a Reform Jewish congregation and a liberal Episcopalian parish.
The success of groups like this require families like mine to think about these questions, even if obliquely. What kind of interfaith community do we want? Do we want a third space option through which our children can learn about both traditions? And wouldn’t this option be convenient: we hardly have the time or clarity to set down roots in one congregation in one tradition, much less in a third?
For families already involved in other congregations in the area, the idea that they could also find both time and emotional energy to invest in a new “third space” option alongside other religious commitments boggled my mind. If any family can find time for possibly three religious groups, plus the myriad other activities with which modern family life consumes itself—from work to school, friends, sports, extra-curricular activities and other options unexplored—my family wasn’t one of them.
In fact, my family’s consistent participation in organized religion remains a question mark. While our daughters dance on Saturday mornings and swim on Sundays, what sometimes seems to be a slippery slide into being religious “nones” dances around the edges of our schedule. As much as we love our children, we parents long to do other things with our mornings: visit museums, go on bike rides when the weather warms, and as we make this list, finding religious community slips farther down on the list. Our dance steps falter and we crash headlong against the difficulty of doing even most of what we would like to do, much less doing it all.
I don’t know what will happen to this particular fledgling interfaith religious community. So many variables come into play as each family decides what to do with their own lives, schedules and priorities: to participate in religious community, or not participate at all? How to fit in what can seem like just one more activity, one more commitment among the many deserving possibilities that need our time?
No one family’s answer will fit for all, but perhaps, with luck and effort, enough similarities will emerge and a way forward will coalesce for a critical mass of interfaith parents and children.
How has your interfaith family answered the challenge of religious community in a busy world?
Last Spring, I had the privilege of representing my synagogue at a remarkable social justice conference organized by the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, called Consultation on Conscience. Highlights included three days of world leaders, Jewish and not, educating the attendees about social justice issues, workshops on making a difference in our communities, luncheons for idea sharing between congregations and lobbying on Capitol Hill.
I flew to Washington, DC, without the kids, explaining that mommy was going to be learning about different ways to help people with a whole bunch of others from synagogues around the country. They didn’t flinch knowing I’d be away for half a week, because by now, my kids have figured out that their mom’s DNA is made up of living tikkun olam, “healing the world” – and that it was going to make me happy to be able to teach them what I learned and hopefully as a family put it into action. Little did they know how much of an impact this conference would have on all of us, almost a year later, or what we’d ALL learn by doing.
I came home energized, with a renewed passion for social justice, which is what these types of events are supposed to do. There was an expectation that in return for my attendance at the conference, I would implement some kind of program or event at my synagogue. What has followed throughout the summer and into the school year has been a comprehensive three-pronged tikkun olam program once a month in place of regular Hebrew school classes involving education, action and advocacy for grades 1-6.
I’m so proud to watch it grow each month, as we explore topics together as families that the kids themselves asked to work on; things like hunger and homelessness, animal welfare and the environment. These topics are explored a step further by looking at them with a Jewish lens, and what Judaism teaches us about how to react, question and more. What makes this truly unique is that we’re doing this specifically as a FAMILY program, at a Reform congregation where the membership here in Maine is probably at least 60% interfaith families (it truly may be higher), and EVERYONE participates.
It’s a special thing to see parents and children (as young as 6 to 12 years old) discussing difficult issues, trying to come up with solutions, learning together and recognizing that no matter if Dad is Jewish and Mom is not, or Grandma and Grandpa take the kids to Hebrew school because neither parent feels closely connected – that there’s a place for everyone at the table because we’re all in this world together. We remove politics from the picture and let the kids be the stars of the show. Their voices are heard loudly and clearly as we give the kids the chance to speak their minds and be heard, in a world where adults often tell kids how they should feel or what they should think. While the Jewish concepts bring us together, it’s the issues the kids care about deeply that unite us.
After a recent monthly program that they were particularly excited about, Roxy and Everett (my kids) asked me if Matt (my boyfriend who is not Jewish) knew what tikkun olam was. And I had to answer them honestly and say no (at which point they freaked out at me and thought it was crazy) because it occurred to me that not once over the course of our relationship have I explained to him what’s become a pretty central concept in our family. It’s not like he doesn’t know that I go to my synagogue every couple weeks and work on putting together the activities for these programs. It’s not like he doesn’t know that I’m involved in planning this stuff. It’s not like he doesn’t know that volunteering and helping others is something the kids and I do. It’s not like he doesn’t know any of these things about me or the kids. But I’ve never said to him the words tikkun olam, and I’m not quite sure why.
The kids seem to create their own separations between what is their “Jewish” life and what is their “secular” life, knowing that often times things bleed together. I have a harder time creating a separation, because so much of my life is formed by my Jewish identity, yet when it comes to my relationship, the kids think it’s clear cut. Sometimes I still think I’m living in a weird gray area where I wish I didn’t have to explain things – to him OR to the kids. In those moments I step back and remind myself of what happens during those programs, when the families are coming together from different backgrounds and religions and are still one cohesive unit. And I remind myself, this is truly what family is: learning with and about one another as we grow together. Tikkun olam isn’t always just healing the giant world, it’s also healing our OWN worlds as we find ways to explain ourselves one another.
Some people believe that when a child is born the angel of death and the angel of mercy stand in the room side by side. During the delivery of my baby I watched the monitor as her heart rate dropped and lifted with every contraction. “The cord is wrapped around her neck,” the doctor said, “don’t worry this is very common.”
In Hebrew the Malach Hamavet, the angel of death, is a warning. He is sent by God to show how precious life is. He is the angel who made himself known to David, Samuel and Moses and he was in my delivery room making everybody nervous.
My partner, Adrian, who is originally from Mexico is not afraid of the angel of death. The Catholics in Mexico have a Saint that signifies death; they call her “La Muerte” and she is a good luck charm. Day of the Dead in Mexico celebrates death. People bring food to the graves of the ones who had passed. They actually cook the favorite meals of the deceased and bring them to the cemeteries as a celebration.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry…” Adrian said even though with all his faith in God and the Virgin and even La Muerte I could see fear in his eyes.
How could I not worry? This was my first child. I had carried her for nine months. I had taken all of my vitamins, exercised, eaten right and slept well. I wanted her journey into this world to be safe and harmless. That would be too easy though. Even when my doctor asked me three months before delivery if I had a birth plan, I said “No” and she said, “That doesn’t matter. Anything you plan never goes as planned anyway.”
I did what any Jewish girl from Brooklyn trapped in a room with the Angel of Death would do: I called on the ghosts of my Grandmothers.
Grandma Helen had been a social worker. She was a Barnard Graduate when women were not pushed to go to school. When her son, my uncle, had some trouble she sold her wedding ring to send him into therapy. Grandma Rosie raised four boys, two of her own and two of her sisters’. She read the stocks every day and always had Tanqueray gin and Canada Dry tonic water in her fridge until the day she passed away.
The greatest thing about being with Adrian is that his beliefs and my beliefs often merge and intertwine. He didn’t think it was at all strange that I had propped up photos of my two Grandmothers in the delivery room. He knew La Muerte was there and she was cunning. I felt the Malach Hamavet and he was filing his nails waiting for my next move.
When the ghosts of Grandma Helen and Grandma Rosie showed up, death packed up his things and left. I pictured my Grandmothers barging in with plaid suitcases and polka dot dresses pulling a cigarette out from Death’s lips and pointing to the door. My Grandmothers basically took over and stood behind the doctor as I pushed for forty minutes. On the last push as the baby came out I saw the cord around her neck. A nurse reached over to take the baby and the doctor smacked the nurse’s hand away and untied the cord from my daughter’s neck faster than I thought was possible. In my heart I knew it was my Grandmother untying that cord. No doctor in his or her right mind would smack a nurse’s hand away. Grandma Rosie would do that.
If my newborn had been born a boy we would have named him David, for my father and Zacharias for Adrian’s grandfather. Because the baby is a girl her name was easy for us to choose: Helen Rose. She took Adrian’s last name to symbolize both of our cultures. She took my two Grandmothers’ names to symbolize strength.
What’s unique about interfaith families is that there is always more than one way to do something. Two faiths offer more choices. Now on the Day of the Dead we won’t only bring traditional Mexican dishes to Adrian’s deceased family members, we will bring plates of food to my Grandmothers as well. On Day of the Dead we will cook for my father, for my grandfathers and for my Uncle Mark. The menu will be a mix of pastrami on rye, borscht, perogis and other favorite dishes of my family.
Baby Helen Rose will witness a coming together of cultures, a mixture of faiths and we will continue to highlight the importance of both as a presence in her life. She will learn the Hebrew prayer for mourning called “Kaddish” and we will light candles in memory of those who have passed on. When she is old enough I will show her photographs of Grandma Helen and Grandma Rosie and explain that these women live on in her. They come back to life once a year on the Day of the Dead. They put down their plaid suitcases and straighten their skirts and like most Jewish women in my family they ask the same question when their ghosts arrive each year: “What time do we eat?”
I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. My parents were liberals who met in the theatre where they had been professional actors. My father was a Brooklyn boy, born and raised in Crown Heights. My mother, a Baltimore native who said she always wanted to marry a Brooklyn boy, and so she did. They moved to Midwood, a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. They wanted to be close to my Grandmother and to buy a house and to teach their children my brother and I the importance of our Jewish heritage. My father wanted us to always remember where we came from.
My parents were not religious but we celebrated every High Holy day. Every year it is a tradition to walk with my mother one mile to the Orthodox synagogue that is around the corner from where my Grandmother used to live. The walk to synagogue has always been part of my tradition with my mother. Our synagogue separates men on one side and women on the other. I never saw myself as less than anyone else, although I know there is much debate about a woman’s role in Judaism. I always knew I was a Jew. I knew inside my heart what that meant and I spent a lot of my childhood defending my differences to those from more devout households.
We were not a religious household by any means. My father drove on Saturdays; my mother got her hair done on Friday nights. We were traditional Jews who knew all the stories from the Torah, but I wore jeans and my brother played electric guitar and learned every AC/DC song by heart to play on his Gibson SG (the same guitar Angus Young had). My friends would often invite me over on Shabbat so that I could turn on their electronic appliances for them, something they were not permitted to do on the Sabbath.
Fast-forward to today, and my life partner, Adrian, is Catholic. He was born in a small village in Mexico and left his home to work at 13. He came to the United States at 15, and when he left his village, his mother tied a scapular around his neck that had been blessed by the local priest for guidance, safety and luck. He has never taken it off.
When times are difficult Adrian directs his prayers to the spiritual mother of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe. She is well known for having appeared to a poor village man named Juan Diego. No one would believe Juan Diego when he said the Virgin appeared to him but Guadalupe urged him to go back and convince the village people. When he returned to the village, and a crowd formed around him, he opened his cloak and 100 red roses fell out. There, on the inside of the cloak was an apparition of Guadalupe. The great Basilica in Mexico City was built where the Virgin is said to have revealed herself.
As a Jew and a deep believer in Kabbalah and all things mystical, the stories of the Torah and the stories from the Bible are the lessons I would like to pass down to the next generation. It is the message of each of these stories that make the traditions of both religions so rich. On the 12th of December Catholics from Mexico celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe’s birthday. Here in Brooklyn we light Hanukkah candles. Both traditions celebrate life.
Adrian and I recently had our first child, a baby girl. She already hears the coos of Spanish, English and Hebrew echoed throughout our household. At two months old she has already witnessed her mother burn Christmas cookies, light the menorah in the wrong direction and forget to buy half the ingredients to make tamales on a trip back from the grocery store. But, in all the chaos she is witnessing traditions new and old. Our baby is named after my two Grandmothers and we recently had a baby naming ceremony for her at the East Midwood Jewish Center. It was an incredible day because my family was meeting my partner’s family for the first time. We were all there together from different cultures and religions celebrating this new and precious life.
I have always wanted children and I was always worried about it never being the “right time.” It was never the perfect situation, there was never enough money or the right job or the Jewish boy I was “supposed” to marry. Finally one day after having been with Adrian for three years I stopped waiting for the “right moment” to have a child. We just decided to have one. We talked about our different cultures and religions. We talked about what our child would grow up learning about and believing in. One night we said, “she will learn from both of us and the biggest lesson she will learn is love and respect.” Those are the two basic themes of any religion.
Delivering a baby was the most spiritual journey of my life so far. Both Adrian and my mother were in the delivery room and when the baby came out we all burst into tears. Adrian ran around the table to hug my mother, the baby was on my chest for skin-to-skin and in that moment I thought of a quote I had heard as a girl in Yeshiva. It was a quote from the Talmud: “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers ‘grow, grow.” That’s what we were put on earth to do. I’d like my daughter to grow to ask questions and not always do something because it’s the way it’s been done for centuries.
I’d like her to respect and love and admire where both her parents come from so that she can respect, love and admire herself. So that she can know that there is never just one faith – but to have faith in something, in anything will catapult her toward her dreams and whomever she wants to be.
Tashlich, the Jewish New Year practice of symbolically casting our sins off into the water, was not something I knew much about growing up. It is a practice I have come to enjoy as an adult, however. There is something both powerful and relieving about the physical opportunity to throw away your digressions, even in the form of breadcrumbs. It is also a nice tradition to embark on as a family; to take a walk around a river or lake; to be in nature together and enjoy the early fall weather as we observe the holiday with an activity that everyone can participate in in some way. This year’s journey to the Charles River has me thinking a lot about the act of practice and how a new focus on that concept can be a guide to successful resolutions and growth in the new year.
After Rosh Hashanah services this year, I rallied my girls and my extended family to take a walk to the river for Tashlich. We stood by the water and lined up, bits of crackers in each of our hands.
I was glad to have something for Chaya to do that would be marginally spiritual but mostly just a chance to be with family and throw some things – always a winner for my three year old. But for Ruthie I had high hopes. She had this monumental first year of sunday school and four weeks into first grade, she is making mental leaps and bounds of which I am in daily awe. I got ahead of myself imagining how she’d talk about being a better listener; a nicer friend; a more caring big sister. I even went so far as to think about how cute those things would sound right here in my blog.
“Throw a piece of cracker in the water, sweetie, and say something you want to do better next year,” I encouraged her.
“I want to be a better reader!” she said, throwing her first crumbs.
Not quite what I had in mind, so I tried again.
“Something you don’t do so well now, that you are hoping to change,” I suggested.
“I want to ride my bike without training wheels!” Another crumb in the water.
I smiled at her aspirations, and I thought about stopping her. Going deeper than I had planned into the concept of sin, or even suggesting to her something I thought she could improve.
Then I remembered the old adage about parenting being a marathon, and not a sprint and that really doing something from the heart takes practice. This year, when I talked about doing things better, Ruthie thought about her skills. Next year, she may interpret my instructions differently. Or she may not – at least not yet. We don’t do our traditions, we practice them. She has to practice Tashlich, and my hope is she’ll have the chance to practice it for a long time.
On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, I stopped myself from getting in my own, and I let her name a few more skill building hopes. Then I took my turn alongside and threw in crumbs for less screen time during family time, for being a more patient parent, for appreciating the people I love more and a few more things.
Since that day, though, I have been pondering the idea of practice. Because it doesn’t just apply to Rosh Hashanah, or to our spiritual beliefs. We can’t change overnight, and luckily we usually get more than one chance to try to do things better. So whether it is Tashlich or how I manage my low energy reserve at bedtime, I am going to try to remember that learning something different takes practice. If the universe allows it, I will get another year at the river. In the interim, I am not going to be better, I am going to practice being better – right alongside Ruthie as she sheds those training wheels, too.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that I didn’t know yet what I would do for Yom Kippur. In the end, the Books of Life and Death helped me answer that question. Just before Yom Kippur, a beloved relative in my husband’s family passed away after a brief illness. On Erev Yom Kippur, we found ourselves driving the short distance from the Chicago suburbs to the Milwaukee suburbs for the funeral and interment ceremony of Ben’s great-aunt Elaine.
Elaine, already in her eighties, became ill a few weeks ago with a blood disorder. Doctors told her that she had two to four weeks to live. Just days before Rosh Hashanah when the Days of Awe would begin, sealing all lives in the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the years to come, phones across the country rang as Ben’s family shared this sad news.
Elaine and her sister Pauline had hosted Ben’s and my rehearsal dinner: As always, Elaine baked cookies and desserts by the hundreds, bringing them on the plane to the celebration. Her sister Pauline, always the artist, made delightful tissue-paper flower decorations for the rehearsal dinner tables, decorations that still brighten our home more than ten years later.
My in-laws purchased emergency plane tickets and visited Elaine in her hospital room. With over a week remaining until she eventually passed away, she talked vigorously, offered advice and stories, and, knowing the end was near, ate chocolate of every variety at nearly every meal.
Although I could not know for sure, to me it seemed that Elaine had done what so few of us have the courage or opportunity to attempt: She had chosen that this would be the end of her life. She rejected invasive, intrusive treatments that might cure a body that was already into its eighties, and a mind which must have missed the presence of her husband Al, who passed just over two-and-a-half years ago.
I did not know Elaine very well, although I often felt I knew her through her baking, her generosity and warmth, and the stories I’ve heard through the years. My encounters with her were always studded with humor, welcome, compassion and joy. Before I first met Elaine, my future mother-in-law (herself a convert to Judaism) told me that Elaine “taught [her] how to be Jewish.” Living in the same city, Elaine welcomed Karen lovingly as a new member of the family and of the Jewish people.
This effusive welcome greeted me the first time I met Elaine, who enfolded me in a bear hug before passing the plate of Hanukkah cookies, insisting I eat some. Elaine always brought desserts to funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and any other gatherings at which food offered welcome in ways that went beyond words. I remember especially her mandelbrot and her crescent cookies dusted with powdered sugar, and my surprise when I learned that she received “her” cheesecake recipe from my mother-in-law!
Elaine’s funeral service at her synagogue was filled with the sounds of tears and occasional laughter as her sister, daughter and son offered eulogies. Already set up for High Holiday services, the chapel had been closed off from the large hall outside, where chairs already stood in rows waiting for that evening’s Kol Nidre service.
At the graveside interment, friends and relatives carried her plain wooden casket with a Jewish star engraved on top to the open grave on a beautiful, warm-but-not-hot fall day. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves in the trees, and the sky glowed that bright blue that only happens when the darker days of fall hover just around the corner. After a prayer and the Kaddish, everyone present helped to shovel soil back into the grave until the hole was filled and Elaine lay at rest next to her husband. I couldn’t help but feel that Elaine would be happy to be near him again.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I thought to myself, searching for words to describe the symmetry, and finding I could only use those which were most familiar.
As the stunning blue sky of the day before Yom Kippur waned toward the darkness of night, Ben and I drove home, our thoughts on the year that had just passed and the one just starting. He hummed Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire,” a folk song inspired by the High Holiday liturgy. It’s a powerful song even after the Days of Awe have closed and when a beloved person hasn’t, herself, chosen “by brave assent” that this could be her time.
If Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, of making amends for the sins of the past year, I feel that all of us who knew Elaine received a special blessing over these last few weeks. As she lay in the hospital and then in hospice, holding tenaciously onto life even as it slipped from her grasp, she found time to make peace, again, for the hundredth time, with every one who came to visit. For each person, she offered a final message, shared one more story, and once again made the people in her life feel welcome. I was not there in her final moments, but I am comforted by the hope that she found atonement (or “at-one-ment” as I’ve heard it be called) with her life as she had lived it, a life which was, by all accounts, beautifully lived.
Rest in peace, Elaine. May your memory be always for a blessing, and may those whose lives you touched be inscribed this year in the Book of Life.
One of the biggest challenges for me as an interfaith spouse and parent has been learning to think ahead about holidays that aren’t part of my own internal calendar. I’m used to many things that return with fall’s cooler temperatures: school schedules, extra-curricular activities, busy lives. Pumpkins, squash, and apples appear at stores and farmers’ markets, and, as a lover of sweater-weather, I look forward to cooler temperatures.
What I’m not used to anticipating is a major holiday season right at this major turning point in the year. This forgetfulness remains regrettably true even after more than a decade of having an interfaith partner. I still forget that he might take a day off on Rosh Hashanah (and I’m still surprised when he, despite being Jewish from birth, forgets to think ahead about it, too).
Eventually, I get used to the rhythm of fall. School starts, schedules become chaotic, but by the time Halloween and Thanksgiving roll around, the “new” schedule is old-hat, and I’m good and ready to begin planning for the craziness of December. It’s not easy, but I’m used to the idea of thinking about a Thanksgiving menu or winter holiday shopping on top of all the regular chaos.
The New Year, though—the Jewish New Year—surprises me every time. It’s getting better. I’m learning to think ahead. I know, for example, that we’ll have time this Sunday to watch the football game and bake a round loaf of challah in the process.
My first daughter was born around the time of Rosh Hashanah. That year, I ate apples and honey while still in the recovery room. Now that she’s turning six, she knows that the return of fall means not just school starting again, but also her birthday, which comes with cake—and apples and honey. She’s already planning to bring apples and honey in to share with her classmates, so perhaps planning ahead for Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays won’t be such a jolt to her internal calendar as it remains for mine.
Perhaps it’s the double whammy of the new school year and a child’s birthday to plan (often baking a cake at home, as well as healthier treats for her classmates at school, not to mention planning a party) that makes fitting in a major holiday season that much more challenging to remember, to plan for.
Somehow, we find a way to get it done. It feels haphazard, but somehow, our daughter has a party, has her cake, has her treats for her friends—both for Rosh Hashanah and her birthday. We look for, and usually choose, child-friendly Rosh Hashanah services to attend. We remember to check our stock of apples and honey. My spouse forgets which apple-and-honey cake he’s baked in the past, so he looks through cookbooks and websites, trying to choose one, but eventually he does, and the cake is delicious, sweet, subtly spiced, another taste of fall.
I’m ready for fall, for a birthday, for Rosh Hashanah—but I’m still not sure what we’ll do for Yom Kippur this year. By the time the Day of Atonement rolls around 10 days later, I’m sure we’ll have that figured out, as well.
Has anyone else had this trouble gearing up for the holidays because they did not grow up with them, or just because they always seem to occur before we’ve come out of our summer haze?