The Ghosts of My Grandmothers or How We Named Our Newborn

  

Anna with her babySome 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.

Helen RoseThe 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?”

Our Jewish Catholic Mexican American Newborn

  
Newborn's foot

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” -Lau Tzu

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.

Anna and Adrian with their newborn

Resolving to Practice

  

IMG_0257Tashlich, 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.

Grief in the Days of Awe

  

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, Karen, and Pauline

Elaine, left, with my mother-in-law Karen, center, and Elaine’s sister Pauline, next to the tissue paper flowers they created for my rehearsal dinner.

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.

Learning to Think Ahead about Holidays

  

apples and honeyOne 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?

#100TrueSleepers: What it means to number our days as a family

  
Scenes from #100TrueSleepers

Scenes from #100TrueSleepers

In mid-April, I joined an army of Instagramers around the world on a journey called The 100 Day Project. The project was a “celebration of process that encourages everyone to participate in 100 days of making.” To participate, you simply committed to do one thing every day for 100 days, and then to post a picture of that thing on social media.  After learning about the project from a college classmate (#100spotsforsitting), I launched #100TrueSleepers, a photo journal of what sleep really looks like in my house.

My project, inspired by my interest in one of the biggest themes from my parenting life, uncovered some deeper revelations about how big 100 days can really be. This week, most of us will transition from the long days of summer into the excitement of September and the introspective spirit of the High Holidays. At this important moment, I wanted to share some reflections from my project to encourage us all (myself included) to pay attention to at least one small thing everyday, as a reminder of how our children, and we as parents, grow every single day, whether we notice it or not.

Two things about sleep have intrigued me ever since I became a mother. First, I love to watch my girls sleep. It is not that I prefer it to when they are awake, it is just that I love seeing the peace of a day well lived on their faces. The second is a dialogue I’ve always wanted to explore in a more public fashion – that bedtime parenting can be really tough. My kids have never been easy sleepers, and I sometimes wonder if the popularity of sleep training and related techniques makes us less inclined to be honest about what really happens in our homes on the path from dinnertime to dreamland. I launched #100TrueSleepers as the intersection of these two ideas.

During the course of 100 days, my photos narrated drawn out bedtimes, moments of frustration, and how much of a superhero Eric is for saving the bedtime hour most nights. I also got to share some great shots of my girls holding hands asleep, looking completely peaceful, and entirely beautiful.

During the process of showing up every day to take my pictures, I discovered a third and powerful thing. As I captured my girls’ sleeping moments, I also paid closer attention to the space of each day. I often heard a certain line in my head as I posted the pictures, a psalm I came to understand from Barbara Myerhoff’s Number Our Days, a fantastic book I studied in college:

“So teach the number of our days, so that we shall acquire a heart of wisdom.”

                            Psalms Chapter 90, Verse 12

This idea, that wisdom is gained in the counting of individual days, gained more and more resonance as my 100 days accumulated.

Often, the way I track time is driven by milestones and deadlines, and not by individual days. The theme of a week or a month is a project deadline, a new school year, our weekend away – major events that we plan for, and build up to. By picking a way to significantly note each day, I began to understand how much all of those milestones can be attributed to one 24 hour period, or three, or even 100. Taking that moment to catalog each photo, I also could take note of the magic of that day, and even in what had changed from one, or two, or 10 days ago.

Some amazing but smaller things happened in those 100 days – the girls changed how they liked to sleep, where they slept, and which lovies were the best sleeping companions. I was able to count the number of nights I missed entire evenings with my family (8), the nights we all slept away from home (22) and the night the girls put themselves to sleep all by themselves (Night #100).

Some big milestones happened for each girl – Ruthie lost her first two teeth and learned how to read her sister bedtime stories on her own. Chaya grew out of her nap AND her pacifier. And some big and unexpected things happened, too. Eric’s Nana passed away, a huge loss. And we moved out of our condo, the first place both girls called home, and into a new house, something we never would have predicted on Day One.

I finished my 100 Day Project about a month ago, and I decided to take a break from the every day of it. The project was a lot of fun, and has given me pause – to look more closely at how the days add up into the story of our journey as a family. It is a wonderful reminder to take into the new year.

The Day My Mom Told Me to #ChooseLove

  
My beautiful Mom dancing at my brother's wedding

Mom dancing at my brother’s wedding

My parents and extended family have always supported my own interfaith family. There are many ways they have said or shown this to me.  When I think about when I knew it would be OK for me to bring home a partner who wasn’t Jewish, I always remember one specific conversation. I can’t remember exactly when this happened, but if I had to guess I would say it was during my Hebrew school confirmation year. The class curriculum, about understanding our Jewish identity as emerging adults, would have been an easy opener to summon up the courage to ask how my parents felt about me dating people who weren’t Jewish.

My mom knew her answer right away.

“I want you to find someone you love,” she said, “and if you really love each other, then you can figure out the rest.”

My mom was a clinical psychologist. Outside of her practice, she was a great friend, an excellent advice giver, and shared the role (with my dad) of #1 life advisor to our extended family. In other words, she had the inside track on a lot of relationships.

Wearing her many hats, my mom had seen successful marriages of all stripes, and she had witnessed the pain of marriages that ended in separation and divorce. She had seen same-faith and interfaith couples who thrived, and couples who had struggled to make their relationships work, regardless of religion.

My mom wanted her three children to find love, the kind that sustains life’s ebbs and flows and would encircle her future grandchildren (who were always in her plans, I suspect) with love and stability. She wanted to be sure that no matter who we ended up with, she and my dad would be a closely connected part of our lives. And more than anything in her life, she wanted to protect her children from pain.

She wasn’t saying “Being Jewish doesn’t matter,” nor was she saying “Your partner’s religion, and their family’s religion, don’t matter.” What she was saying was that she wanted us to learn how to love, and how to be loved. When she said we’d figure out the rest, she really did expect that. My parents always modeled a kind of loving partnership where being married meant you worked through things, not around them. When we had partners, we would need to figure “it” out, whatever it was.

Ultimately, my parents wanted us to be happy. I believe my mom was concerned that if she put limitations on our choice of partners, we might not endeavor on a truly full exploration of what we wanted in a partner. It was most important to her that we learn how to both love and “figure things out,” with either a Jewish person or a person who was not Jewish. My mom understood that religion was important, but not necessarily the magic key to a successful marriage.

I am thankful that my parents opened the door for me to find my right match, and gave me confidence that they would support my relationship based on its merits. This week would have been my mom’s 67th birthday. As my dad, sister, brother and I celebrate her and remember how much we miss her, I am lucky to have my husband and his family watch over me and hold my hand. On her birthday, I will pause and thank my mom for the ways she embraced my husband, and for not missing a beat in telling me to #ChooseLove first, with faith that the rest would follow.

chooseloveThere are many ways we all #ChooseLove in our lives. See the gallery and share your story!

Planning for a First Shavuot

  

Cheese blintzes

Despite being part of a Jewish family for the past decade, I have never celebrated Shavuot. After the excitement of Passover, it’s never been a holiday that I’ve experienced. I am, admittedly, embarrassed to say this. However, in the spirit of blogging about my interfaith family, I announced to the family that this year, we should do something differently! I promptly looked at Ben for suggestions. He said, “Well, let’s see,” and walked over to the bookshelves, coming back with a big stack of Jewish cookbooks. Laurel grinned in excitement and fascination, and I could see her thinking, “Yay, another holiday! More good food to eat! This is so exciting!”

For any holiday, my husband (a self-confessed foodie) usually thinks first of the foods one eats for the holiday. I’ve lost track of the number of times he’s explained that, for him at least, “Jewish holidays are all about food!” This fact is, I expect, a major link to tradition for him as a modern Jewish person. I have learned not to start with “what do we do at the holiday?” but with “what do we eat?

To my delight, though, one of our favorite cookbooks (Olive Trees and Honey, a vegetarian cookbook with recipes from around the Jewish world) described not just the foods of Shavuot, but the other practices and traditions as well. As we prepare to celebrate our first Shavuot, I expect we’ll be thinking about the three things this book mentioned: first, sweet dairy foods, second, the Torah, and third, the Book of Ruth. I don’t know if we will go to a synagogue or celebrate at home, but I know we’ll be focusing on these three things.

First, sweet cheesy foods, which in my husband’s culinary lexicon apparently means blintzes. For a second embarrassing admission, I have to admit I’ve never eaten a blintz. My friend Scott in college loved them, and piled them onto his plate whenever the dining hall served them. To me, those dining hall blintzes looked like they were swimming in water, or grease, or something else even less desirable, and they therefore lost much of their appetizing appeal. Ben, however, swears that all I need to do is make a crepe and put a sweet cheese filling in it, and we’ll be set. After all, I can make a crepe-like pancake, and since I can make a mac ’n’ cheese sauce, I can probably make a cheese filling. Shavuot part 1, check!

For Shavuot part 2, staying up all night reading Torah and studying, I doubt we’ll stay up all night. There are bedtimes to observe, after all, with cranky-child consequences. But I do think we’ll take the opportunity to tell our children—likely while eating our blintzes!—the story of Moses receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, seven weeks after leaving Egypt at Passover. We’ll show them our various paperback and hardback translations of the Torah. I wonder what questions Laurel will ask, in her entertaining 5-year-old way. Will she ask what a sacred text is? (Will that even be the language we use?) How will we answer? Will we talk about sacred texts beyond the Torah or the Hebrew Bible? About writing and literature as hallowed activities for the transmission of human knowledge, emotion and experience? Or will those questions come later? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Finally, there’s the book of Ruth. If ever there were a story to celebrate in an interfaith family, this would be it. The story has a personal connection for me because my grandmother’s name is Ruth, and it’s my middle name as well. I love that the Hebrew Bible includes a story of a woman choosing to live a Jewish life with a Jewish family. I love that even in a religious tradition that’s passed down from generation to generation, the tradition itself preserves a tale of an outsider choosing to become an insider. Ben and I already mentioned the story to Laurel when we first described Shavuot with the stack of cookbooks. We’ll tell it to her again on Shavuot (probably over blintzes). As the years go by, I expect that both of our children will find many layers of meaning in this story of extended families, the relationships we choose for reasons of love, and the traditions around which we consciously choose to shape our lives.

Make Shabbat the New Family Dinner

  

shabbat_tableSeveral months ago, I read Jennifer Senior’s All Joy No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Senior’s book is one of the few that examines the effects of children on their parents. How does parenthood affect our marriage, our work, our lifestyle, and our happiness?

Much of the book resonated with me, especially the chapter about the lengths parents go to develop their children so they can compete for spots at top colleges or athletic scholarships. Senior writes how this concerted cultivation has resulted in overscheduling and excessive parental involvement and contributed to the decline of real family activities such as meals.

One mother explains to Senior that, “homework has replaced the family dinner.” The reason for dinner’s displacement is that kids “tell you stuff” when you sit and create something together, and many parents don’t cook anymore. Given the amount of time they spend schlepping kids to activities it’s easier to do takeout. Senior wonders if the time spent in family study hall might not “be more restorative and better spent” doing things that create family bonds, “the stuff of customs and stories and affectionate memories.”

When I read this, the first thing I thought of was Shabbat. Shabbat is all about restoration, connection, rituals, stories, and creating warm memories. On Friday evenings, we give thanks for time together and the food we eat, we remember through stories–Jewish and personal–our connection to community and heritage, we take a break.

But even though Shabbat is a simple solution to the problem Senior describes and only requires a once a week commitment, many of us still struggle to do it. We’re busy with work and after school activities. We don’t have time to set a nice table or cook a meal. Our children would rather attend a high school football game or professional sporting event. I can relate.

When my son Sammy was in preschool, Shabbat was magical. On Friday afternoons, he and I baked challah. In the evenings, we gathered as a family, sat at a nicely set table, and said the prayers. Following the blessing for boys, my husband and I each whispered a special message in our son’s ear, and we shared with each other our favorite part of the week.

But as my son has grown, my family’s once magical Shabbat has lost some of its glow. We no longer sit down for a family dinner every week. When we do, our once carefully set table now looks like the one we eat at every weeknight: papers and magazines are pushed to a corner, and nondescript placemats and napkins decorate the surface. Our challah is store-bought, and my family who is starving and a little grumpy, requests the fast version of the blessings.

Because our Shabbat practice no longer seems special, it would be easy for us to surrender to our hectic schedule, to say we can’t celebrate, to abandon our flawed observance. But each week, we find ourselves trying to honor our ritual in some way.

During football season, if Sammy’s school is playing at home, we light the candles and bless the challah before we go as a family to the game. In the spring, if we have tickets to see our local minor league baseball team on a Friday night, we wish each other “Shabbat Shalom” as we enjoy America’s pastime.

But it’s when we do enjoy a real Shabbat dinner, even a thrown together one, that we remember the power of this ancient ritual. Over long discussions of the week’s Torah portion that encourage us to talk about life, politics, history, sports, and other subjects, we reconnect. During after dinner walks or family board games or while sitting by a fire, we relax.

Whether spent at the dinner table or the ballpark, these few hours help us to recharge, bond and create memories. That’s the magic of Shabbat.

At the end of the chapter on concerted cultivation, Senior suggests that parents make dinner the new family dinner. I love the idea but know that in my home, family dinner isn’t going to happen every weeknight. But I can make family time happen on Shabbat.

So, stop saying, “You can’t,” or “You’re too busy.” Find a way to celebrate Shabbat. You might just find that it becomes your new family dinner even if dinner is a hot dog at the ballpark.

Baby Namings and the Flexibility of Tradition

  

When I was pregnant with our first daughter, my husband and I were living in the mountains of North Carolina. We spent the first several months of my pregnancy worrying that we’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 local Jewish community at the time consisted of a dozen wonderful retirees led by a retired cantor and an active layman who served as the group’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 priest’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 baby’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).

baby-naming

At the baby naming ceremony for our first daughter

We held her baby naming during one of the Friday night services. It happened to be the 99th birthday of the community’s oldest member, and everyone’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 didn’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 grandmother’s tallit as L’Dor v’Dor (From Generation to Generation) was read. There was not a dry eye in the room, from Laurel’s Catholic great-grandparents and Jewish grandparents on her father’s side to her Episcopalian grandparents on her mother’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 didn’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 Holly’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 “attended” via Skype, and one set of maternal grandparents sent a pre-recorded video to play during the ceremony. Instead of meeting in a Catholic church’s fellowship hall, we met in our living room, guests scattered on couches and folding chairs.

second-baby-naming

We had the baby naming ceremony for our second daughter at our home.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that we changed very little of the first ceremony for the second. I’ll never forget when Laurel quickly rushed through her own words of welcome to her still-new sister—“I-love-you-Holly-I’m-so-glad-you’re-my-sister”—in front of her assembled relatives. The main 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 ritualistic 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.