Why I Never Visit My Father’s Grave

  

Numbers are a big deal in Judaism. Hebrew is an ancient language, but numerology is hidden in every letter of scripture. This is something I learned very early on: Numbers matter. Our time on this earth—our nights and our days are numbered. So it wasn’t surprising that I grew up on 23rd street in Brooklyn and my father died on August 23. I was 12-and-a-half years old. By Jewish law, I was a woman. But by losing a father at such a young age, a part of me remained fixed in time—always a little girl.

This year marks 23 years since my father died and I still haven’t set foot in the cemetery since childhood. This has nothing to do with numbers. This has to do with the fact that my father, a Brooklyn boy through and through, was buried in New Jersey of all places—Paramus, New Jersey. If I know one thing about the spirit, it’s that my father’s spirit wouldn’t be caught dead in Jersey. He’s not really there.

The dead live in our hearts. They live with us throughout our numbered days. Sometimes they ride the train or the bus with us. They help us cross the street on particularly tired days. We can’t see them, but they are around.

In Jewish tradition, my family believes that after death our souls go back to God. My husband’s family of Mexican Catholic tradition believes that the dead hover around all the time, just in case you need them. Once a year on Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), Adrian’s family travels to the cemetery to leave the favorite foods of the deceased. I believe in all of that, but I also believe that my father still sometimes likes to visit my mother’s living room and sit in his big blue chair.

So this year, as my mother got dressed in her usual Sunday cemetery garb, she called to ask me the same question she’s been asking me for 23 years, “Are you coming with us to the cemetery today?”

My father was cremated—that is unheard of in Judaism. He sits on a shelf in a small jar behind a stone that says his name in both Hebrew and English. On the day he died, one of the neighbors remarked, “There’s Big Dave in a little jar.” I’m not sure my husband’s take on cremation and I’m nervous about asking him, but as it turns out, our two religions and cultures have more in common when it comes to death and dying than I would have suspected.

In Adrian’s village, when someone dies, the family stays up all night because they believe that the spirit of the person is still in the house. Then he informs me that the body must be buried within a 24-hour period. This is true in Judaism as well! Adrian also tells me that people are cremated in Mexico, but those people are usually from a bigger city whereas he is from a smaller village setting.

What Adrian can’t comprehend is that almost my whole family is buried in the Paramus cemetery and there is an empty lot next to my father that belongs to my mother whenever she’s ready to join him (hopefully no time soon). He says that’s the strangest thing he’s ever heard. I try to explain to him that it’s kind of like owning real estate and he refuses to believe me.

But, both of our religions have a high respect for the dead. We both have special prayers. Both of our families wear black when someone dies. We both cry. Both of our families visit the dead once or twice a year. Except for me.

I talk to my father every day. And she may not know that I know this, but my mother talks to him every day too. There is a picture of my father in my living room holding me as a newborn. His face is close to my face and I have just been born. In that photo, my father is happy. He owns a house. He has a son and his daughter has just been born. He’s happily married. He goes to the theater once a week. He eats dinner out. He waters the lawn. In the photo next to him is a picture of Adrian and our little one, Helen Rose. In the photo, she has just been born and Adrian holds her in the exact pose as the photo of my father and me. Adrian is happy. His first child has just been born. He has a new apartment. He sees his friends and brothers once a week. He eats dinner out. He waters his plants.

It’s been 23 years since my father’s death. So much has happened without him, though it feels as though he were here just yesterday. In Kabbalistic terms the number 23 signifies a kingdom. Usually it refers to an inner kingdom. As a Jewish girl from Brooklyn who started a life with a Catholic boy from Mexico, I feel as though my choice to create an interfaith family has kept my inner kingdom and my family’s inner kingdom intact. The choice to give my daughter a vast knowledge of who she is breaks tradition and yet holds it in place forever.

I never visit the cemetery on the anniversary of my father’s death. It’s clear he’s still among us…in his own way.

Sending My Daughter to Jewish Preschool Reconnected Me with My Roots

  

By Rebecca Rolland

preschoolMy daughter Sophie will be 3 this November. My husband Philippe and I have decided to let her start half-day preschool (she’s begged). Still, we’re late starting to look at options. I can’t settle on anything, and as a doctoral student in education, I fear my knowledge of the research—my vise-grip on “how things should be”— has gotten in the way.

Ironically, in the world of parenting and education, it seems as though you can really know too much, or at least can be too critical. Then, I see an ad for a Jewish preschool not far from our home.

My own religious past is complicated. I was raised Protestant because of my father, but my mother’s entire family was Jewish. My maternal grandfather and his brother were the only ones who survived the Holocaust, traveling from Hungary to Ellis Island in the hold of a ship. As both my grandparents died when I was a child, I was never able to ask any more. If I had a story to tell about my past, it would be one of absence and loss, of lacking knowledge—hardly the only story I want to pass down.

“Let’s check it out,” I tell my Catholic-raised husband, who was actually taught by nuns in his early years. We’d decided not to push Sophie towards any faith, but the school looks like a good option, emphasizing respectful interactions, strong routines and a balance of strictness and care. At least that’s what the website says.

In my work, I know the importance of high-quality early education. As decades-long studies have shown, such as the Perry Preschool Study, children who were placed in a “high-quality” program were found to commit less crime, have higher educational attainment and income and need less welfare assistance than a control group.

And yet, I know that a child’s experiences include far more than a single classroom. Developmental psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner, in his “ecological systems theory” developed in 1979, describes how everything in a child’s environment affects her development, ranging from the microsystem, or her immediate surroundings, through the macrosystem, or remote issues such as the national economy, which affect a child’s experiences in surprising ways. Choosing a preschool means choosing a microsystem, where Sophie will have thousands of interactions with teachers and peers over the course of the day.

No pressure, I tell myself.

When I visit the school, I stand in the temple while the children sit in a semicircle singing Shabbat songs. Their voices mix together, high and low, and bring me to tears. The narrative I had about myself, about my past as a source of loss, didn’t have to be the one I passed down. My past—and the culture surrounding it—could be a source of joy, of learning and of life.

Even more, seeing the school in action helps me change my narrative about what Sophie needs, and what I need as well. It’s not about what should work for a child, I concede, but what actually does work, for the child as well as the family. It’s about the values we want to move toward, the history we want to honor and the past we want to bring to light. What resonates for one family might mean nothing to another. In the ecological model, context is everything.

We decide to send Sophie to that school in the fall. My own life comes full circle, in a twist that I couldn’t have predicted. In attending a Jewish preschool, Sophie—blonde and blue-eyed like her father—will have a chance to touch her past through her present, to eat apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, smell sweet spices for Havdalah and play in a sukkah for Sukkot. I never went to temple until college. In helping Sophie know her past, I’m returning to a system of traditions that I, in my own life, have ignored.

The Jewish part of my history has been buried until now, and with it, my story about myself. Without searching for a preschool—and without finding this one—we probably never would have made this decision at all. Not only that: as we light candles for Shabbat, and as we tear into a loaf of challah bread, I’m helping change my story of the past into something sweeter. History can be a chance for celebration, not simply mourning. Those traditions are coming alive for us once again.

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

Rebecca Rolland photoRebecca Givens Rolland is a mother, writer, speech-language pathologist and consultant on parenting and education. She currently lives with her family in Boston.

Meet the Stretelech

  

My children believe in Christmas elves. And leprechauns.  They also believe that there are little elves who live in our backyard. Last year when spring came, the elves moved in to our pine tree and set up a mini Adirondack chair, a white picket fence, and a miniature watering can outside. And they nailed a small 12-inch door into the tree trunk. Last weekend, while everyone was taking a nap, they left a little note on the counter announcing they were back and leading the kids on a scavenger hunt around the yard. These are our stretelech, Yiddish for magical little people.

My husband discovered the stories of stretelech at the Conference of  American Jewish Educators conference after seeing David Arfa speak. Later he asked his Yiddish-speaking grandmother about them. She confirmed that as a child she was scared of the shtretelech. Like many fairy tale creatures over the past century, they have morphed from evil trolls into mischievous pranksters.

So who are these little Jewish elves? Apparently they live outside for most of the year, but relocate behind our stoves during the winter. Children are excellent at spotting stretelech in the woods, but adults have trouble identifying their tracks. Some stories identify them as musicians. Others as shoemakers.  One Yiddish folk teller says the Elves and the Shoemaker story about the poor shoemaker who wakes one morning to find that someone has mysteriously made a pair of exquisite shoes, is a stretelech tale.

One of the things I really loved as a kid were fairy tale creatures. I remember chasing the end of a rainbow with a very real belief that there would be a pot of gold, guarded by a mischievous little leprechaun.  And even though I never really believed in Christmas elves, I loved the idea of tiny people making toys and singing Christmas carols. So I was excited to learn about the stretelech, and since there is so little known about them, I could make their story whatever I wanted. I read (in the Encyclopedia Britannica) that Jewish fairy tales are “conspicuously absent” from Jewish legends, “because fairies, elves, and the like are foreign to the Jewish imagination, which prefers to populate the otherworld with angels and demons subservient to God.” Well! This just isn’t true, not when I know there are a group of stretelech who live in my backyard.

For a picture of what a stretelech might look like, click here. Otherwise, you’ll have to search for one on your own.

Introduction and December, Y’all!

  

Shalom, y’all! I’m Warren, and I’m going to be contributing to the Parenting blog here at InterfaithFamily. I’m the Jewish partner in my marriage — my wife was raised in a church-every-Sunday Episcopalian home — but I’m also the product of an interfaith marriage: my mother was raised as a Conservative Jew, and my father as a Baptist.

My wife, Moira, and I are expecting our first child in February (yay!). Added to this fun and exciting mix is the fact that I’m also a Reform Jewish camping professional. Jewish camp was a huge part of my life growing up, and continues to be, both personally and professionally. I’ve always intended for my children to be Jewish, but because of my family background, my spouse’s religion was never a huge concern.

I’ve been fortunate enough to marry a wonderful woman who’s agreed to join me in raising Jewish children, even though that’s not her faith. We were a long time in coming to these decisions, obviously, just like I’m sure most of you were. So, that’s a little about me & mine — looking forward to the conversation!

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The “December Dilemma” has never been a dilemma for me (though I learned a few years ago that it was an issue for my Jewish mother at first). My parents were always very clear that we were a Jewish household and we celebrated Christmas for my father. Moira and I anticipate doing much the same with our child(ren) in the future. I know we’ll create our own ChristmaHannumas traditions just as my parents did. Their compromise is delicious: latkes & fried chicken.

No, this year my December dilemma is my in-laws’ Christmas traditions in my house. Due to Moira’s pregnancy, for the first time in our relationship (10+ years), we won’t be traveling to either her parent’s home or mine for Christmas. Instead, we’re hosting her parents and siblings for Christmas in our otherwise Jewish home.
I’ve celebrated Christmas with them four or five times, but this will be the first time we host Christmas at all, and that makes me a little nervous.

One of the things I think Moira & I have done well over the years is to identify parts of Jewish traditions that we really enjoy and embrace. So while Shabbat in our home looks a lot like Shabbat at my parents’ home, it’s also importantly different and “ours.” Similarly with Pesach (Passover) & the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), Chanukah, etc.

However, because we’ve always traveled for Christmas, we’ve never developed a set of Christmas traditions. And while I like my in-laws a lot, their Christmas traditions are very different from the ones I grew up with, since theirs is a Christian home and mine was a Jewish one. And, as I mentioned before, trying to meet their expectations of what Christmas “should be” in our home makes me nervous.

What’s Christmas like for you all with your non-Jewish family?