Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This booklet explains the history of Hanukkah, the symbolism and significance of lighting candles for eight nights, the blessings that accompany the lighting of the candles, the holiday's foods, the game of dreidels, and more!
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
My son (right) with his best camp friend in the dining hall this summer at URJ Greene Family Camp.
I recently discovered the secret to motivating my son to go to religious school. I stumbled upon it. Hours after Hebrew school last Tuesday while we were eating dinner, my son spilled the beans.
“I had a really bad sinus headache at school this afternoon and felt crummy. I almost went to Nurse Julie to ask her to call you and tell you that I couldn’t go to Hebrew and that I needed to go home. But I was really looking forward to seeing Josh, so I decided to deal with it.”
Wow! Impressive. Typically, an ailment would not need to be that bad to ask for a Hebrew school pass. But knowing that he would see Josh, his best friend from camp, trumped a headache and the pain that is known by Jewish children everywhere as Religious School. The bonds of friendship formed at Jewish summer camp were more powerful than I thought. Jewish summer camp was the gift that kept on giving.
Study after study has shown the power of Jewish camp on creating strong Jewish identities in participants. The Greenbook, published by the Jewish Funders Network to inform the conversation of the role of Jewish camp in fostering Jewish identity says,
“Simply put: Jewish camp works to help create a more vibrant Jewish future. Those who experienced summers at Jewish overnight camp are far more likely as adults to be engaged in the Jewish community. The 2011 Camp Works study compared adults who participated in Jewish overnight camp as children to Jewish adults who did not have a Jewish camp experience. The study found that those who attended Jewish camp are…55% more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel, 37% more likely to light Shabbat candles regularly, 21% more likely to feel that being Jewish is very important to them.”
What the study does not say is that camp can motivate your children to want to go to Hebrew school, but apparently, it does that too! If it is possible to love camp more than I already do, I do.
When my son returned from camp, I suspected that this summer had been different from the previous four. The connections to friends seemed deeper. After all, he had now been with, for the most part, the same group of boys for five years. And he had discovered three years ago, that several of his camp friends lived in Dallas and went to our synagogue. Summer plus seeing each other twice a week at temple had created a tight bond between these boys.
There is a case to be made for sending your child to any camp, Jewish, secular, near, or far. When a kid is at a camp that is the right fit for him or her, camp is magical. As someone who spent summers at a YMCA camp and now sees Jewish summer camp, I feel there is something uniquely magically about Jewish camp, something that creates a deeper community connection. And I could not be happier that we chose a regional camp rather than sending our son to one farther away because shared year-round experiences, including religious school, enhances the community connection. Something made clear to me last Tuesday night.
Jewish camp and the community connection it creates are getting my son to Hebrew school without complaint. That’s a benefit of the Jewish camp experience that any parent who has driven Hebrew school carpool can cheer.
I was in the seventh grade when my father died. I had already been asked to leave an Orthodox yeshiva in the fifth grade because I had been a “behavior problem.” I was on my second life at a private school in Brooklyn Heights. Brooklyn Heights is one of the oldest, richest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Truman Capote, Henry Miller and W.H. Auden all lived there. I was not from there, I was not rich and I knew no one. But my school was there and I made my first set of friends who weren’t Jewish.
When my father died I’m not sure that anyone in my new school knew our Jewish customs for mourning. For example, we covered our mirrors to erase vanity. We sat on the floor because when death is upon us the living should not be comfortable. The belief is that we should be uncomfortable because by getting used to discomfort one can learn to go on. We left our doors open for neighbors, friends and family to visit for seven days. This is a period called “shiva” and this word in Hebrew also means “seven.” The traditional mourning period after someone dies lasts for seven days and we call this “sitting shiva.”
I had one friend from this Brooklyn Heights private school who did come to my house to sit shiva. Her name was Liz. She didn’t live near me but she didn’t live in Brooklyn Heights either. Her father drove her to my house and when she got out of the car she looked lost and confused. She was not Jewish but she knew it would mean a lot to me if she came to visit. I can’t remember what we said to each other that day. I only remember that she showed up.
A few months ago Liz texted me to tell me that she’s pregnant with a baby girl, her first. Her due date is October 23 and my baby Helen’s due date this past year was October 24. Liz came over to meet Helen. Over the years we have kept in touch and fallen out of touch and then got back in touch again. Life and its winding roads have kept us close in spirit but not always in body. When Liz met Helen for the first time it was as if my past was meeting my present.
Here’s another strange coincidence. Liz recently moved back to Brooklyn from L.A. and she bought an apartment just three blocks away from where I live. Without knowing it, we have been living back to back for a while. Helen and I went over to drop off some clothes and play with Liz’s dog, Wally. While we were visiting, Liz took out a book I had written for her in the eighth grade. It was an English assignment to write a short book about someone you admire and I had chosen to write about Liz.
Liz read the book out loud to me while sitting pregnant on her couch. Helen chewed a stuffed animal and listened, too. The book was about how we used to hang out in the bathroom and how many times Liz had dyed her hair and how much I admired her for being a good friend. I didn’t recall writing that book. What I did recall was how very lost I felt in the eighth grade.
I felt I had never been Jewish enough for yeshiva, but I wasn’t not Jewish enough for private school in high class Brooklyn Heights. I never felt pretty. I never felt special and I never felt God listened to what I had to say. I felt that God had betrayed me, taken away my father, made my mother unreachable and my brother disappear.
God has a funny way of showing up. This past Sunday was Liz’s baby shower. I attended with Helen and saw four or five people I haven’t seen since the sixth grade. Many of the guests heard me speaking Spanish to Helen and asked where I was from. I told them our backstory. I explained that Helen is Jewish from my family and Mexican Catholic from her Papi’s family. After the shower I went to my mother’s house to visit and watched her coo over the baby.
Helen and Grandma
The Jewish mourning period lasts for seven days but the mourning period for a parent that dies lasts for a year. This is Jewish law. What Jewish law does not say is that sometimes we mourn for a lifetime. Sometimes we mourn the dead for years and then we mourn ourselves. We mourn who we were and more so who we weren’t or who we didn’t know how to be. When my father died and Liz came up on my porch to sit shiva that was the seed that stayed in my heart. A girl from outside of my religion and culture came to visit during a crucial time in my life. I was 12 1/2 on my mother’s porch that day. Today I am 35. Today I understand that compassion is not one religion and neither is God.
This afternoon on my way to work I stopped inside a church. It is a small church very near the famous Brooklyn Heights. I stopped in to meditate and ask for guidance. Though I pray in synagogue I often find that churches have a much more calming effect on my spirit. There was a woman in the church praying and I took a seat in the back. She was the only other person there and I don’t think she felt me come in. Sometimes I say a Hebrew prayer, sometimes a Buddhist prayer, but today I closed my eyes and began the Prayer of St. Francis. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” As my eyes were closed I could hear the woman begin to cry. Her crying turned into sobs. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love…” I opened my eyes and the woman was lying on the floor faced down. She had thrown herself in front of a statue of Mary and was crying into her own arms.I wanted to hug her, to reach down and say, “Miss, is there anything I can do?” But, my 12 1/2-year-old self was already lying on the ground with her… “Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith…”
Then I began the Hebrew prayer called Shemah Yisrael, (Hear, O Israel), which I usually sing when I feel sadness, just as I sang it every night before bed as a child. The second verse came to me immediately: “Two thousand years is a very long exile. The time has come for it to end…”
Sam’s baby naming ceremony (Sheri and Sam are the mother/baby on the right)
Thirteen years ago I married a Catholic man from Chicago. I was raised as a Conservative Jew north of Boston. We met through mutual friends when I moved to Chicago. Prior to getting married, my husband and I agreed that we would pass along both of our religious beliefs to our children; we both had strong ties to our religious traditions and wanted to share these with our family. We had joined an interfaith couples group, based in Chicago, to help us discuss and navigate issues that come along with building a dual-faith family. We weren’t sure how this would all turn out but we were committed to this plan.
While we have achieved a lot over the past 13 years, it has been a long road filled with challenges, doubt, guilt as well as learning, joy and celebrations.
When my husband and I decided to marry, my family was less than thrilled. They had always wanted me to marry someone Jewish and I know they felt they had failed when I chose someone outside of my religion. My husband’s family is not very religious and didn’t pose any objections to our interfaith union.
During our wedding planning, the interfaith couples group provided resources. Through these resources, we were able to create a wedding ceremony which incorporated both Jewish and Catholic prayers and traditions and reflected our decision to celebrate both of our faiths. We originally wanted to have both a priest and a rabbico-officiate at our wedding, but when the rabbi couldn’t be at the ceremony until 30 minutes after sundown, my mother put her foot down and was insistent that our ceremony start right at sundown. In actuality, I know that she was uncomfortable having a priest at the wedding and knew we wouldn’t have the priest if we didn’t have a rabbi. She was right—we couldn’t find another rabbi.
We ended up having my uncle and a good friend of my husband’s family officiate at the service. We had a very beautiful and personal wedding and still achieved our goal of incorporating both of our religions.In hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing.
The wedding planning gave us our first taste of the challenges we were about to experience as we embarked on this dual-faith path. This became obvious after we had our first child, Sam, nearly a year later. We decided to welcome Sam into our lives and into our faith communities through a baby naming/baptism ceremony where Sam would receive his Hebrew name and be baptized. There would be a rabbi and a priest officiating. Again, the interfaith network in the Chicago area provided us the resources to participate in such a ceremony.
Our excitement to take this first big step to being a dual faith family was overshadowed by my parents’ outspoken objections. My parents viewed this as a solely Catholic ritual despite the fact that Sam would also receive his Hebrew name. Their reasoning was that a baptism in the Catholic faith is a much more important event than a baby naming is in the Jewish religion; the two didn’t hold equal weight. They couldn’t see that we were participating in the ceremony as a way to have Sam welcomed into both of our religions. They could only see that my son was being baptized by a priest.
I tried having the officiating rabbi speak to them before the ceremony but that proved unsuccessful. They were struggling to understand what we were trying to do and didn’t think that it was even possible to give a child both religions. They thought that the children would be confused and I think they feared that because Catholicism is the more prominent religion in our country, my children would naturally gravitate toward that and wouldn’t identify with Judaism at all. At that point, I wasn’t yet confident about how this would all turn out either, so my arguments were less than compelling.
We had planned on giving my son a Hebrew name after my grandfather but my parents refused to let us do this as they felt it would be an insult to my grandfather (in their eyes—giving Sam a Hebrew name at a Catholic ceremony). So, two days before, we changed the Hebrew name we had picked for him.
Needless to say, there was definite trepidation going into the weekend of the ceremony. My parents were coming to stay with us for the weekend and I was extremely nervous about how this was going to go. My one saving grace was that my brother came in as well, so I had some support on my side. My brother had also married someone Catholic and they had just had their first child shortly after we had Sam. He wasn’t sure at that point how he was going to raise his children, and while he has since made a different choice than ours, I knew he understood that we were trying to do the best for our family.
Sheri’s niece with Sam for his baptism
Despite all the chaos, the ceremony was wonderful. It was so warm and welcoming with a strong emphasis on making family from both religions feel welcome and recognized. The clergy talked about how lucky these children were to be raised in the very best of our two faiths and traditions, and my husband I agreed wholeheartedly.
I was so proud of our decision to be a part of this rite. Naively, I thought for sure that witnessing this would soften my parents’ opposition. It did not and I was crushed. We made it through the celebration back at our house where I had a cake that only said “Congratulations” with no religious symbols or references. And I cringed every time my husband’s family unknowingly referred to the ceremony as a baptism. I knew my parents had noticed, too.
That evening was tense and we had words. We each gave our points of view and couldn’t see eye to eye. My parents left the next day on a sour note and I felt very guilty that I wasn’t pleasing them and for pursuing a path that they disagreed with. I didn’t know how to appease them and still follow my belief that providing a dual-faith family for our children was the right choice.
We have since had two more children: Sarah who is 10 and our youngest, Rachel, is 7. We had baby naming/baptism ceremonies for both girls and we didn’t invite my parents to either of these celebrations. We wanted these moments to be happy and special without the tension that we had experienced at Sam’s ceremony.
In the end, I realized that I couldn’t appease them. This was going to be a journey that we were both going to go on. Our paths will not be the same—they may split, join, cross, and maybe sometimes converge. It will be a journey with hills and valleys filled with more hard times and more joys but we will all have to learn and grow at our own pace. I hope that somehow we will come to an understanding, even if we never agree.
InterfaithFamily provides many helpful resources and connections. Click these links to learn more about interfaith weddings, parenting, holidays and more. Read more of our blogs, too.
For the past two years, my daughter and I have been taking Mommy and Me classes at the local JCC. We took art, music and gardening. We loved all of it. We had fun and we made friends. It was fantastic.
Every week, I heard other moms talking about taking their kids to Shabbat service on Friday mornings. Not growing up with any religious practice, just the word Shabbat has always felt a little uncomfortable to me, so for the longest time I didn’t go. We made other plans on Friday mornings. But one day, at the beginning of the school year, a friend asked me to meet her there. I reluctantly agreed to go, assuming I’d feel uncomfortable and fake.
We spent 30 minutes singing “Bim Bam” and other adorable preschool Shabbat songs with the school. My daughter Billie LOVED it. I didn’t feel intimidated. This was a program for toddlers, after all. Sure, there was some Hebrew, but it was lovely. After the service, we went with a few other parents and kiddos to the family programming. It included story time, snack (challah, of course), play time and music time. None of this material was religious in nature. At the end of the 90 minutes of fun, we said the prayer, lit pretend candles, blessed the challah, and went home for a nap. It was fantastic! I promised Billie we’d go back the next week.
I wasn’t raised with any religion in my house. My parents are both Jewish, but we didn’t go to synagogue. I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. I’ve been happy my entire life being (what we referred to in my family growing up as) a culinary Jew. We grew up eating latkes and matzah ball soup. We ordered Chinese food on Christmas. Once in a while on Hanukkah, we lit a menorah. My dad exposed us to the great Jewish comedians—we traveled to whatever distant movie theater in central Florida was showing the latest Woody Allen movie. That was a cultural experience for us.
When I went to college, I was selected to attend the Birthright trip. It was really a fantastic experience. I knew almost nothing about Israel at the time. For the first time I felt a real connection with my people. As we were exposed to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and learned about Israel’s history, I slowly felt prouder of my heritage. On Friday nights, we did a small Shabbat service. The Hebrew parts of the service were a little intimidating, since I really hadn’t experienced anything like it before. The Shabbat elevators made no sense to me. I anxiously waited for Saturday night, so we could resume our regularly scheduled programming.
After graduation, I worked for Hillel at the University of Central Florida. I was the Program Director and it was my job to help students plan events for the year. I loved it. It was a great job. We planned holiday parties and social events. Part of that was planning Shabbat services. This was the one area where I felt uncomfortable. I felt like a fraud. I didn’t know the first thing about what was required or how to help the students. I leaned heavily on the student who volunteered for the job of coordinating services every Friday night. I followed her lead.
After my job with Hillel ended, I started a family. Since I married some who isn’t Jewish, we celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. We have added latkes to the menu for Christmas dinner. Both families are happy with us. I think we are doing a pretty good job of blending our non-religious, cultural holidays together.
It’s been about eight months of regular Friday morning Shabbats, and now I’m getting ready to go back to work. As the weeks counted down, I got choked up every Friday morning. I loved hearing the kids sing and whisper. I loved the feeling of togetherness and love. I loved the sense of ending the week and starting new and fresh again.
I will miss lots of things about my time at home with my sweet girl. But the thing I will miss the most, without a doubt, is taking her to Shabbat every Friday morning. She’ll still be at the JCC and she’ll get to go. Once she’s used to school, and can tolerate me coming and going, there’s no doubt I’m coming to join her for the service. I’m thrilled that she won’t be as uncomfortable with Hebrew and Shabbat as I was growing up.
I might not unplug or go to synagogue every Saturday, and that’s OK. I don’t light candles or say a prayer. It doesn’t matter. I finally understand the meaning of Shabbat for me. It’s about taking the time to pause and reflect. It’s about joy and peace. It’s about connecting in some small way. It’s about love.
Samantha Taylor is a wife and mother of three from the Orlando area. Before the birth of her third child, she was the associate editor for three lifestyle publications in central Florida. Samantha was recently named Volunteer of the Year for the JCC of Greater Orlando and is a graduate of the Bornstein Leadership Program through the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando. In her spare time she enjoys visiting with family and friends, rooting for the Gators, and watching her longtime pal Mayim Bialik on The Big Bang Theory.
First words. What was my own first word? Probably “Mama,” though now my mother doesn’t remember. She does remember my brother’s first word, which was “arrow.” This is because she was constantly driving around the block with him in his car seat trying to put him to sleep. He would see the arrow on the speedometer and my mother would say “arrow” and so he too repeated “arrow.” It was inevitable, he spent most of his time trying to get to sleep in the car.
What will my daughter’s first word be? Adrian and I wonder this often. We speak Spanish and English in our house. Adrian is Mexican Catholic and I am American Jewish and we have Hebrew letters all over the house. There is a Virgin of Guadalupe in our room and the Hebrew alphabet on the fridge. We wonder if little Helen is confused. She has begun to make many noises and just a few weeks ago she was saying “mamamamamamama.” At first we thought it was me she was calling. She’s eight months old now and it’s a bit early for her first words. But I was ecstatic when I heard “Maaaaaa!!!” come out of her mouth. But then, she stopped saying it. Now she’s making noises. We are happy with noises, too.
What we wonder most is what language she will choose. We speak Spanish at home, English at Grandma’s house and Hebrew on holidays. Also, we hope her first word will be something nice. We live in New York and our language here can be, well, special. We really hope her first word doesn’t fly out of her mouth unannounced during rush hour traffic so we, mostly me, have had to tone it down when in her company.
Every Thursday when Adrian goes to work I pile Helen into the Chevy and we go pick up my mother and head off to my sister-in-law’s house. My brother works as well so it’s usually a girl’s day except for my twin nephews, Jacob and Nathan, who are just two-and-a-half months older than Helen. We look to them for what to expect with words. They haven’t started speaking yet either, though they make a lot of different sounds as well.
In the Torah there are two sets of famous twins. First, there are Jacob and Esau. They are the most well known because they are famous for being the “good” twin and the “evil” twin. But, if I am going to make comparisons I’d like to compare my nephews more to Tamar’s twins, who the Torah describes as both being righteous. Tamar’s twins also came early, as did my nephews.
Our Thursdays are spent playing and observing and waiting for words. This week Nathan can stand while holding onto something and he makes a low gurgle and smiles. Jacob can stand, too, but he doesn’t like to get down by himself and he loves to look at books. Helen bangs a plastic donut against her head and is content. It’s a marvel to watch these three cousins interact. Helen and Nathan seem to be the best of friends and Jacob lies in the middle of the play rug and flips the pages in his cloth book. I won’t be surprised if Jacob’s first word is a whole sentence and he one day blurts out, “E equals Mc squared.” Nathan will probably say, “Let’s go Mets!” and I still wonder about Helen. Adrian has started to say “Hola” and wave to her. I have started speaking to the twins in Spanish. They look at me like I have three heads but I think they look at me like that anyway.
I’d like my daughter and my nephews to learn basic Yiddish words as well. Here are a few I’m highlighting that will serve them well on their journeys through life:
1.Feh. Feh is like spitting. It’s when you disapprove or find something gross. If someone asks if you like politics you can say, “Feh.”
2. Plotz. To plotz means to explode. If you are shocked by something then you could just plotz!
The most important word and one used most frequently in my household is…
3. Nu. Nu means, “Hello?” “Well?” “Huh?” When Helen doesn’t want to eat I say, “Nu? When are you going to finish this?”
Now that I’ve added another language to the list I’m worried that Helen will never want to speak. Maybe that’s why my brother said “arrow” for the longest time. He could never get a word in edgewise with my parents always clucking. But, I think the word my daughter and my nephews will learn quickly enough is a word everyone uses with them all the time. In English, “Love” or “I love you.” In Spanish, “Amor” or “Te Amo.” In Hebrew, “Ahava” or “Ani ohevet ata.” In Yiddish, “Oy vey.” Just kidding. In Yiddish, “Ikh libe dikh.”
“But you’re not really Jewish right?” This has been a question I have been asked since I was big enough to walk. My family celebrates all of the big holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover to name a few. The women in my family don’t wear long skirts and the men don’t wear black hats. But, yes, we ARE Jewish.
“But you’re not really Jewish, right?” is an insulting question. First of all, what does that mean? That’s usually my response: “What does that mean?” And people respond by changing the subject because they know they’ve offended me or they keep asking questions that further insult me. Since I live in a very religious neighborhood, these are a few of the questions I get: “You don’t wear a wig right?” “You don’t keep kosher, right?” (wrong), “It’s so strange that you’re Jewish,” they say, “You don’t look Jewish.” Again, what does that mean?
This year I had a baby with Adrian, my lifelong partner. He is Catholic from Mexico and I am Jewish from Brooklyn. We decided before we had the baby that ours would be an interfaith family. We wanted the beauty of both cultures and both religions to be a part of who our child was and who she would become. She is a Mexican-American-Jewish-Catholic child.
Adrian and I live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The stores are kosher, on Saturday none of the stores are open and on Jewish holidays women in pretty dresses and men in ironed suits walk in the middle of the streets because there are hardly any cars around. Our kitchen is kosher. Adrian eats pork but not in our home. Does this make me less Jewish? Does loving a man from another faith make me less Jewish? Is my daughter less Jewish because she’s also Catholic?
Baby Helen and Adrian in Prospect Park
The challenge so far has been trying to live a balanced life. When our daughter was first born these questions nagged at me. Would someone one day ask my daughter, “But you’re not really Jewish, right?” What would she say? What should I teach her to say? How would I explain to her a double faith? An interfaith? The more these questions loomed over me the more I decided to challenge the ignorance of these interrogations.
I found myself in the lobby of a large synagogue next to my apartment building where I was to inquire about a baby naming for my daughter. This was when my daughter was just 2 months old. The woman who ran the functions at the synagogue was all smiles when I walked in with the baby strapped to me in my ergo carrier. She asked me the baby’s name. “Helen Rose Castañeda,” I said. She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to spell it. I wrote it out in both Hebrew and English.
“Oh, you write in Hebrew,” she said surprised. After all, I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and I was not in a skirt or dressed up at all. I had only gone to inquire. I had not gone to pray. As I filled out the rest of the information on the sheet I realized I had to write Adrian’s name in Hebrew and my daughter’s name. Her Hebrew name is Chaya Rachel but how was I to write “Castaneda” in Hebrew? I sounded it out.
The woman stared at the paper. I was waiting for the question, any question. I was waiting for her to say, “Well that’s interesting,” or “Is this a Jewish name?” I was waiting for the insult. It never came. Instead, before she could speak I said, “Miss, I’d like to tell you, before we begin the process of setting up this baby naming event, that my family is an interfaith family. I am Jewish and my partner is Catholic. We are not married and our daughter is both. Is this going to be a problem?”
Her reaction was not what I expected. She was calm and smiled. She said, “That’s absolutely OK.” There were no insulting questions, no asking if I was really Jewish. We had a beautiful baby naming ceremony at the synagogue and I felt at home. I felt accepted and my family felt accepted. But, I had also for the first time accepted myself.
I am a Jew always in my heart and I live my life according to Jewish law, meaning I treat others with compassion, I speak to G-d, I meditate and I try to do good deeds. I don’t always succeed at all of these laws but I try my best to abide by them. I was born Jewish and I celebrate Judaism. I come from a long line of prophets and strong biblical women. This is what I will teach our daughter who has Jewish and Aztec blood in her. I also understand that people will always question my “Jewishness.” I’ve learned now to respond in a different way. Now, when someone approaches me with the question, “but you’re not really Jewish, right?” my answer is always a flip of my hair and a long laugh.
Adrian and I met working at a restaurant. Some might call it an “interfaith restaurant.” Tucked away in Cobble Hill, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, La Vara was the restaurant that brought us together. Its menu is based in Southern Spain during La Convivencia. The English translation of the word Convivencia is to “coexist” or “to live together.” The Convivencia took place during the late 1400s in Spain. It is known as Spain’s Golden Age. It was a time when the Jews, the Moors and the Christians sat together, lived together and ate together in peace. La Vara was also a Sephardic newspaper printed in Ladino in Brooklyn from the 1920s to the 1940s.
This is where I met Adrian. He worked in the kitchen and I worked out on the floor. One night after conveying the specials to a couple at the bar I ran past the kitchen and heard the boys in the window begin to tease me about the way I said the specials. That night we were serving suckling pig, squash pancakes (almost like latkes) and a white gazpacho.
“The Jews don’t eat suckling pig,” one clever boy holding a pan and tossing garlic smirked. I could see past him to Adrian quiet and waiting for my comeback.
I stopped inches from the kitchen window and looked the boy right in his eye.
“Actually,” I replied with a smile equally sarcastic, “that’s true. The Jews don’t eat pork. I don’t eat pork. But, when the Jews were in hiding in Spain and the war started they would hide pork in their food so that people would not accuse them of being Jewish.”
Adrian laughed as if to say, “Man she told you!” The boy with the pan wanted to flee but I kept going.
“Also, you’re from Mexico right?” I asked the boy. The whole kitchen staff cheered because there is much pride in being 100 percent Mexican. But the boy with the pan was wary of my next move.
“You know why we serve white gazpacho?” I asked.
This time it was Adrian who approached the window with a question, “why?” he asked, his eyes gleaming.
“We serve white gazpacho,” I began, “because Spain didn’t have tomatoes until after they invaded Mexico, so their gazpacho was made from almonds, that’s why it’s white. It’s known as the original gazpacho of Spain. After they invaded Mexico they brought back tomatoes and made something called Salmorejo, which is more like a tomato gazpacho.”
Adrian stared at me. The boy with the garlic and the pan disappeared. Later I showed Adrian articles I had written about Mexico. They were articles written in Spanish for a Spanish press in Brooklyn. They were about the Virgin of Guadalupe and about why Mexican Americans feel like they don’t belong either in Mexico or the United States. It’s as if they feel they are in the middle. Adrian and I liked being in the middle. It seems that right from the start we were thrown into the middle of everything.
On our first date we walked through Coney Island at three a.m. On our second date we went to the promenade in Brooklyn Heights to see the New York skyline. Every night after work I would ride my bike through Sunset Park and visit Adrian so that we could order tacos. We ate steak tacos on his bedroom floor and listened to music. I wrote and worked at the restaurant with him. After a while I moved in with him. We lived on the border of Sunset Park and Borough Park. Sunset Park is a big Mexican/Catholic neighborhood. Borough Park is an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The middle always had a way of working toward our advantage. On Jewish high holy days we would go shopping in Borough Park. On Catholic holidays it was the Mexican bakery in Sunset Park we would frequent.
A few years later we moved to Midwood, the neighborhood I grew up in. It’s a Jewish neighborhood but we still frequent Sunset Park often. As soon as we painted our new apartment we decided to start a family. It was the right time. I waited tables and bartended through my nine months of pregnancy at La Vara. Adrian stood his post in the kitchen as well.
Our newborn was born on the day that was supposed to be my last shift at La Vara before my maternity leave. My water broke the night before on my day off and I called to let the staff know I wouldn’t be in. Adrian was in the middle of tossing seafood paella when I called him to tell him to leave work.
When our little girl arrived at 2:10 p.m. on a Saturday we had a photo texted to us from the restaurant. It was the whole staff who worked that day huddled together with a sign that read “Welcome to the World!” In that photo there were kitchen staff, servers, bartenders and managers all from different cultures, backgrounds and faiths coming together to wish us well. I always knew it would be fine that our little one would grow up with two faiths but that picture secured my belief. She will be rich in spirit because of her interfaith family; she will be open and understanding and double blessed.
There is a Hebrew proverb that says, “A woman of valor who can find? For her price is far above rubies.” Our little one was born at a peaceful table. She was born celebrating a time when people shared their food, their culture and their faith amicably, willingly and harmoniously.
I believe in the mystical. Tarot Cards, Ouji boards, even the woman on the corner of Ocean Avenue who stares at me with one blue eye and one gray eye and says “you have a purple aura” when I walk by. Yes, I believe in her too. As I watch my newborn grow and change every day I wonder what magic I will teach her. What mysticism will her father share with her?
The Hebrew word for Pregnancy is Herayon. In Hebrew every letter is paired with a number and the letters in the word Herayon add up to 271. This is because a woman’s pregnancy generally is equal to 271 days. Here is another interesting Kabbalistic fact about Herayon: Har, the first part of the word in Hebrew, means “mountain.” This is because a woman’s belly is shaped like a mountain. I try to explain this to my significant other, Adrian. We compare notes on magic.
The month before my daughter was born I went to the Judaica store in my neighborhood and bought Channa’s book of Prayers for Jewish Women. I was nervous about delivery. I was looking for a magic spell. I called Adrian’s mother on a regular basis. “Señora,” I said, “Is it very, very painful? Is it unbearable?” She did not lie. She said it was. My own mother told me the truth as well and then she added, “But the pain doesn’t matter. In the end you get a baby.”
But I needed magic! I needed the Zohar to whip me up a flying carpet and deliver me from the agony of childbirth. More than this I wanted my newborn delivered into the world safely and with the prayers of both my Jewish background and Adrian’s Catholic background.
I thought of the word Tzirim. The Hebrew word “tzirim” means “contractions” or “labor pains” but there is another literal translation as well. “Tzirim” can also mean “hinges” like, door hinges. This is because a woman is opening a door for her child to exit through during childbirth. The Kabbalah compares contractions to snake bites and when this happens the woman gets ready to push the baby out of the womb and into the world. Snake bites make me nervous. Again, I needed magic.
Adrian is from Puebla, Mexico. In his small village his parents speak a language of the Aztec empire. They speak Spanish but they also speak a language called “Nahuatl.” It is an indigenous language. It is a dying language. It is the Hebrew of Mexico.
The Nahuatl people believe that when a boy is born his umbilical cord should be buried on a battlefield and when a girl is born her umbilical cord should be buried in the field because the cornfield is where tortillas come from.
But the birthing process for both cultures, for both religions is the same. In ancient times Jewish women gave birth in tents surrounded by other women. The same is true for Nahuatl women. In fact, when I spoke on the phone with Adrian’s mother she told me that she had birthed all seven of her children in her house surrounded by her female family members and one witch doctor.
I asked to speak to the witch doctor but I never could get a hold of her. My pregnancy began to take on an artistic form in my head. In my imagination, my giving birth began to look like Frida Kahlo and Amedeo Modigliani had lunch together and then had a painting competition. I saw myself painted slim across a canvas with a dark red background and serpents coming out of my nose. My imagination was winning over my mysticism.
Here is the truth about birth: It hurts. It hurts, but it is the one true visible sorcery. I had been so concerned about what my newborn would learn, how she would grow, what she would believe in. What I didn’t realize is that SHE was pure wizardry. On every contraction I felt the hinges inside swing back and forth. On her long entrance into the world I asked Adrian, “Can you see her head?” he nodded yes. I asked, “Is her hair black?” he nodded yes again. She arrived black haired as the raven, audacious as the eagle and breathtaking as an Aztec monarch.
The Hebrew word for love is ahava, and its numerical value adds up to the number 13. There are other words that add up to the number 13 as well. Zeved, for example, means “to gift” or “to bestow” and its letters add up to 13. To whisper or meditate is Hagah in Hebrew, also a numerical value of 13. Even the number 1 in Hebrew, which is Echad, has a numerical value of 13. Thirteen plus 13 is 26. In Hebrew, the letters in G-d’s name add up to 26. Love is a gift, love is a whisper, love is one and so is magic in any culture or religion.
Or at least, this is what my six-year-old daughter Laurel would have me believe. This week, I opened up her teacher’s monthly newsletter, scanning, as usual, for mentions of my own child. The final page usually includes what Laurel calls “jokes,” except they’re actually words “out of the mouths of babes” which sound funny to adult ears, but often mean more than they say.
This particular snippet of conversation went as follows:
Classmate: “I speak English, Chinese and Spanish.”
Laurel: “I speak English and Chinese and Spanish and Christian. And I speak Jewish too.”
I laughed, of course, when I read it, and Laurel chuckled, too. She meant “Hebrew,” of course, and “Christian” isn’t really a language. Yet even as the children in her class oppose English to their lessons in Spanish and Chinese, Laurel knows as an interfaith child that Jewish can be contrasted with Christian, and Judaism has a language which is not English.
Out of the mouths of babes, indeed. Religious studies scholar Susan Friend Harding, for example, argues in her book The Book of Jerry Falwell, that the way words are used in fundamentalist Christian culture is key to understanding that culture itself. Or, to put it another way, culture functions like a language, and finding one’s way through an unfamiliar culture is much like learning to speak, write, or understand a new language.
As she gets a little bit older each month, I find it fascinating to see how Laurel learns her way around patterns of tradition and observance. She does indeed “speak Jewish.” I hear her speaking Hebrew when we say blessings for Shabbat. I hear her adorable mispronunciations and as she follows her parents’ guidance through the words of the Shema, revealing her growing familiarity with the language of Judaism. Even her younger sister Holly, at almost 28 months, tries to say the prayers, which usually results in some very cute utterances.
She’s learning, too – I think – that churches and synagogues refer to similar types of places, but are not quite the same. One belongs to the “language” of Judaism, and the other to the “language” of Christianity. We, her parents, still dance nervously around the linguistic content of some of these religions: Ben remains as uncomfortable telling the stories of yet another Jewish holiday that exists because of some long-ago military triumph as I am answering her questions about Jesus – or even Santa Claus. In both cases, we try to treat the topics historically, and to say why Jews or Christians view these things as important. These conversations form one part of our daughters’ cultural knowledge and understanding, and one part of the “languages” they’re learning.
When I first wrote for this blog, Laurel at 5 was only beginning to understand what religion or holidays meant, much less that they could come from different backgrounds: Jewish, Christian, national, or secular, or something else entirely. What a difference a year makes, and as little Holly gets older, too, she’ll grow in her understanding of the “languages” present in our family.
Just last night, Laurel came into Holly’s room as I was putting her to bed. “I want to sing the Shema to my sister,” Laurel said, and she did, beautifully, her sister listening as the language of Judaism washed over her. This morning, the Shema is stuck in Laurel’s mind. She sang it repeatedly, joyfully throughout breakfast, and I have no doubt she’ll bring the language of Judaism with her to school today.
What “languages” do your children speak? With what traditions, knowledges, and practices must they become familiar, in order to speak, think or act in the traditions of your family?
There are times in life when we’re in the zone. We’re so involved in performing or participating in an activity that we get lost in the experience. Other times, we’re more of a participant-observer. We’re engaged in the action or event, but we have enough distance from what is happening that we can study or reflect on what is going on at the moment.
I had a participant-observer experience at the PassoverSeder we attended this year. We celebrated the first night of the holiday at our friend’s house. We met this family when we first moved to Dallas. The wife and I were in a Mommy & Me class together at the JCC. We were kindred spirits and both intermarried Jewish women raising Jewish children with the support of our not Jewish husbands. We became close friends quickly and navigated the joys and challenges of intermarriage and observed holidays together.
Over the years, our families had celebrated Passover with each other so many times that we had a holiday routine. We read a Haggadah for young families. The adults and kids ate at separate tables. The same friends and family filled the seats. But this year there were several changes to our typical ritual. We graduated to a Haggadah for families with elementary and middle school age children. The adults and kids sat together at one long table in my friend’s living room. There were new faces seated among the usual suspects.
Maybe those changes made me listen more carefully and observe more closely, or maybe I was simply more attentive on that particular evening. Whatever the reason for my heightened awareness, I saw several things that made this Passover different from others. I noticed that a regular Seder attendee, who brought her new boyfriend, was more relaxed and contented than she was in years past. I noted the good behavior of a usually mischievous young guest. I marveled at my husband’s and my friend’s husband’s Hebrew skills.
It was this last observation that grabbed me the most. How had I not noticed before how well both of these men pronounced and enunciated Hebrew words? Was this facility with Hebrew new or had it been there for a while, and I missed it?
After more than a decade of living a Jewish life, I knew that my husband and my friend’s husband could recite, in Hebrew, most of the Friday evening Shabbat blessings. And I knew my husband had participated in Havdalah enough times that he could sing the prayers. But the Hebrew words that were part of their assigned Haggadah readings weren’t familiar. Yes, there was transliteration. But transliteration was a pronunciation, not enunciation, tool. These guys pronounced the Hebrew clearly and crisply with the right emphasis.
Maybe the language skills of my husband and my friend’s husband stood out to me because of how different they were from many of the Jewish guests. Both husbands read the transliterated Hebrew with confidence. Many of the Jewish participants read the Hebrew hesitantly, mispronouncing words and using incorrect articulation. Several times during the Haggadah reading, these guests acknowledged that they had not done much Jewishly since their bar or bat mitzvah.
The scenario demonstrated how repeated exposure to Hebrew and frequent involvement in Jewish life can positively affect Jewish fluency regardless of someone’s religious background. It also highlighted why the usual rhetoric about intermarrieds—they are less likely to raise Jewish children or associate themselves with Jewish practice—isn’t universally true. Rather, it illustrated how a focus on engaging interfaith families benefits Judaism.
As the children at our Seder recited the Four Questions, a fifth question came to mind. Ma Nishtantah? Why are Jewishly active interfaith families different from other Jewish families? The answer: regular engagement with Judaism.