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By Courtney Naliboff
Flying makes me nervous. It never used to, but a few years ago on a bumpy trip back from England, I lost my faith in the Bernoulli principle. I used to pop a Xanax and snooze my way through the anxiety, but now that Iâ€™m a parent, I need to stay awake and alert to tend to my daughter on flights.
Without my sedative crutch, I turned to superstition to get me through a cross-country flight to California this winter. I bought a little silver hamsa necklace with an elegant branch and leaf design on the palm. I put it on before we left our island home in Maine for the airport, and havenâ€™t taken it off. If the Evil Eye had any designs on our airplane, weâ€™d be covered.
We got through the flight (Penrose is a much better traveler than I am these days) and landed in the warm embrace of my husbandâ€™s extended family, all of whom live in Southern California. His motherâ€™s side is from Guatemala and his fatherâ€™s side is Italian and German. Dozens of them descended on his childhood home for the holidays, drawn by Penroseâ€™s presence.
She sat on my lap and met relative after relative, warming up slowly to each new person. When she got overwhelmed, she would turn into me and often hold my hamsa in her hand.
â€śThis?â€ť she asked.
â€śItâ€™s my hamsa,â€ť I answered.
â€śHam,â€ť she replied, touching it gently.
Beyond the irony of her abbreviation for the symbol, she began to connect my necklace to the jewelry of others.
â€śAbue ham?â€ť she asked, wondering if her grandmother had a similar necklace.
â€śAbuela doesnâ€™t wear a hamsa; sometimes she wears a cross,â€ť I said. â€śI wear a hamsa because Iâ€™m Jewish. Abue wears a cross sometimes because sheâ€™s Catholic.â€ť
â€śThatâ€™s right, Mommyâ€™s Jewish.â€ť
â€śMe joosh?â€ť she asked, pressing a palm to her chest.
â€śYes, youâ€™re Jewish too.â€ť
â€śNo, Daddyâ€™s not Jewish.â€ť
Although this was Penroseâ€™s second holiday season, and she was enthusiastic about candles, latkes, and matzah balls (and Christmas tree lights and wrapping paper), it hadnâ€™t yet occurred to me to talk to her about our Jewish identity, and how that differed from her fatherâ€™s side of the family.
As a secular humanist, I havenâ€™t imbued our day-to-day life with Jewish rituals. My husband doesnâ€™t practice any elements of Christianity, and we are planning to celebrate Hanukkah, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah. When we are in Maine for Christmas, we often attend the Lessons and Carols service as musicians and enjoy the quiet evening of storytelling and song, but weâ€™re hoping to avoid the Santa and tree elements of the holiday. We often talked about the fact that Penrose would be the islandâ€™s first Jewish child, and my excitementâ€”and anxietyâ€”about that. I wanted to find a way to start explaining to Penrose what it actually meant to be â€śjooshâ€ť other than wearing jewelry. But I wasnâ€™t sure what she would understand at 20 months old.
â€śTo me, being Jewish means that we are connected back thousands of years to strong people who fight for what they believe in,â€ť I said. â€śWe help people and we work to fix the world. We never stop learning. We celebrate holidays that remind us of our freedom. We eat delicious things.â€ť
She nodded and squirmed off my lap to find her abuela. Over time, weâ€™ll continue the conversation. She likes to look in the Union Haggadahs I inherited from my grandfather and pretends to read the prayers out loud. She would be perfectly happy eating latkes every night, and asks to see my hamsa when itâ€™s hidden under a sweater. Every night, especially, for some reason, when sheâ€™s singing â€śBow wow wow, whose dog are thou?â€ť she runs through the list of Jewish family members.
Even though she might not yet understand what it means, my heart swells with pride when she ends the list with â€śMe, joosh.â€ť Itâ€™s not a question for her anymoreâ€”itâ€™s become a part of her story.
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.
Courtney Naliboff lives on North Haven, an island off of midcoast Maine. There she teaches music, theatre and English, takes her daughter to the beach, plays music and teaches Pilates. Her writing can also be seen in MaineBiz and Working Waterfront.