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.

When I Panicked and a Stranger Stepped in to Help

  

It’s a Monday morning in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and my almost 2-year-old daughter and I have a date with my friend and her 10-month-old daughter to go to a read-along at the Brooklyn Public Library. We get downstairs with the stroller, enough snacks to feed a small army and a water bottle. Not to mention diapers, wipes, A & D ointment, cell phone, wallet and keys. Oh, and Duckie, the stuffed animal that is covered in one thin layer of gross because it is trudged across New York by my daughter on every trip we take. Even when I wash Duckie, his yellow is a kind of city yellow—so, basically he’s gray.

The super of my building sees me trying to get Helen into the stroller. “You gonna take an umbrella?” he asks, “It’s supposed to rain like crazy.”

The library is a ten-minute walk from my apartment and it hasn’t started raining yet. The umbrella is the one item I’ve forgotten. “No,” I say, “I’m not afraid of a little rain.”

Famous. Last. Words.

Almost eight blocks from my house, the sky opens. The rain comes down in sheets as if the sky had been holding its breath and someone just reminded it to let go. I am so soaked and Helen (though covered by the stroller top and a blanket) is getting her legs and feet soaked as well. I almost panic.

Midwood is a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. I grew up here and now I live here with my interfaith family. It’s hard to live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and try to make people understand that my daughter is both Jewish and Mexican Catholic. In Jewish circles I find myself getting defensive. In Catholic circles I don’t know how to explain my own take on Judaism. And when strangers hear me speak Spanish and then shout something in Hebrew three seconds later, I am met with baffled looks.

But Midwood means something else too. It means a ton of Honda Odyssey minivans. Once, from my mother’s house to our apartment three blocks away, I counted 11 parked Odyssey minivans. This is because the Jews, like the Mexicans, have big families and the Honda Odyssey seats eight. But, as a driver in New York, I hate being behind an Odyssey. I’m constantly making cracks about them. I can always see the TV turned on in the back seat of an Odyssey. So many Odyssey minivan drivers drive too slow in them because of all the kids they have in the car. But, it’s my own personal obnoxious joke that I can’t stand the Honda Odyssey.

With that being said, as I’m in a small panic halfway from home and halfway from the library with the rain still pelting down, I see a blue Honda Odyssey turn the corner. A young woman in a traditional wig rolls down her window. “Excuse me!” She shouts from her Odyssey, “Do you need a ride? I have three car seats in the car.” I am wearing jeans (a clear sign I am not an Orthodox Jew, though I am a Jew, but she doesn’t know this) and a shirt that has become so obviously see-through.

“Are you sure?” I ask, hesitating as water drips down my face.

“Yes!” she says as she leaps out of her Odyssey with a purple umbrella decorated with dogs wearing tutus. She holds the umbrella over our heads as I get Helen out of the stroller. She then holds my daughter and puts her in the car seat. Helen starts to cry a little, but the woman is so gentle and I tell her not to be afraid. I throw the stroller in the trunk and get into the front seat. As soon as the woman closes the “dogs in tutu” umbrella she says, “I’ve never picked up a stranger before! I just couldn’t believe you were out here. I just dropped my kids off at camp and saw you. Where are you going?”

I tell her that we are on the way to the library and I find out that she lives on that same block. She points to her house (which is directly across the street from one of my relatives’ apartment building) and on the porch are three mini beach chairs for each of her children. I thank her profusely and as I get Helen out of the car seat, the woman climbs into the trunk of her Odyssey and pulls a pink and white blanket from the back that says, “baby.”

“Please take this,” she says, “I have six blankets in this car and the library is freezing.”

This is when I take the opportunity to let her know in Hebrew that I am a Jew. I’m not sure why I do this. The entire ride, when I spoke to Helen, I spoke in Spanish. It was obvious to the woman that we were a different kind of family than the families usually seen walking through Midwood. But, religion, class or status didn’t matter to this woman. So I said, “todah rabah” (thank you, in Hebrew). “You did a real mitzvah” (good deed).

But, to my surprise the woman wasn’t shocked. Her mouth didn’t drop open and she didn’t shout, “Oh my God you’re Jewish!?!” And that was a good lesson for me because her picking me up had nothing to do with my two faiths. She picked me up because she saw I needed help. She saw I was in a panic and she saw that, like herself, I am a mother. And being a mother has nothing to do with being a Jew or a Catholic and it has everything to do with being a Jew and a Catholic. Because two faiths, interfaith or one faith is about respect for the fellow man. And in a world that seems more chaotic every day, it’s nice to know that as Anne Frank once wrote at the age of 13, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Maybe I’ll stop being so judgmental about the Odyssey.

Bringing Some Dharma to My Jewish-Catholic Household

  

Insomnia. It’s awful and I’ve never had it before. Until now.

Part of this has to do with me getting pregnant again shortly after a miscarriage. Another part has to do with the anxiety, fear, loneliness, happiness, joy and gratitude I feel approaching motherhood for the second time. The second time is different, of course. With a toddler at home the exhaustion level of pregnancy is overwhelming. This is how I found myself a few weeks ago at two in the morning with the refrigerator door open asking myself, “What else can I eat?” After making my way through a bag of potato chips, a bowl of cherries and the rest of a half-eaten Kit-Kat bar, I get the feeling I should be doing something else…like meditating.

A long time ago I worked at a yoga studio. I was the desk girl and I would check people in and only occasionally take a yoga class. But, on Wednesday mornings they would have a meditation group and I would go and sit in the middle of the sunny studio and listen to a woman in a long kimono tell me to relax. It was relaxing, though not at first. At first there was total panic. Why couldn’t I turn my brain off? Why did everything else seem more important than just sitting with myself for 30 minutes? Eventually I got better at it. But, at two in the morning I feel a need to sit down with myself again.

My household is a testament to two faiths being able to coexist peacefully and even intertwine and become something even more beautiful than what they already are. A walk through my apartment will reveal the Jewish and Catholic aspects of my family’s life. There are prayers for the home in Hebrew at the entrance. A mezuzah in the doorframe and a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe protecting my daughter’s bed while she sleeps. At two in the morning I look to all of these objects in order to steady my thoughts.

The Dalai Lama calls Buddhism not a religion but a “science of the mind.” So on my way back from the fridge I grab a pillow from the couch and sit on it in the lotus position hoping that Buddhism will help me in my Jewish/Catholic home. I want to stay calm. I want my thoughts to stop if only for a minute. I also want to relax so that I can finally get some sleep!

The pillow is uncomfortable. My already growing belly feels smashed. I forget the pillow and sit on the floor. The floor is too hard. My back hurts. Those potato chips were a bad idea. I lie on the floor. The carpet is too itchy, and so on and so forth for the next ten minutes. I exceed Julia Roberts’ performance in Eat, Pray Love. Meditating is hard.

I decide to commit to sitting in a chair for at least ten minutes every day and trying to quiet my mind. I look up mantras and then I realize that I can use any mantra I want. I’m part of an interfaith family! I can use a prayer, a word or even a saying. I choose something that I’ve been saying before bed since I was a little girl. “Shema Yisrael,” the prayer in Hebrew of “Hear O’ Israel.” Traditionally said before one goes to sleep I repeat it over and over again breathing in and out and trying to focus on my breath and the sound of the words.

By 4 o’clock in the morning I’m still awake. At 6 a.m. I fall asleep. My daughter wakes up at 9:30. But, I keep saying the Shema. Every night when I can’t fall asleep I sit upright in a chair, close my eyes and invoke Israel’s name. Every night it gets easier. Some nights it actually puts me to bed.

I think about that prayer and the way I learned it. It was not taught in my house but in my school when I was a child. This gets me thinking about my daughter and my child to come. How beautiful faith in something, anything is. That a prayer so etched in my memory can come to me when I need peace and quiet. It makes me happy that my daughter and my future children will have a plethora of prayers to choose from. There is the Jewish “Shema,” there is a Catholic prayer of St. Francis that I love which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” and then there are the Buddhist prayers for loving-kindness or forgiveness.

One night I try a specific meditation in which one is supposed to meditate on a difficult situation one is having and then replace oneself with a saint or a holy being like Gandhi or Mother Teresa. I do this thinking that of course mother Teresa will show up in my mind’s eye. But, as soon as I close my eyes it’s not Mother Teresa at all. It’s my Grandma Rosie and she’s holding a bowl of chicken soup. So I say, “Grandma, what are you doing here?” She says, “I heard you couldn’t sleep so I made you some soup.” I laugh when I open my eyes.

The next night I make the family my Grandmother’s chicken soup. I kiss the Hebrew prayer on my wall, I kiss the mezuzah on the doorframe and I kiss Guadalupe. That night I sleep like a baby. Sometimes faith, any faith begins right at the kitchen stove.

The Kids’ Table

  

Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday because it is mostly about storytelling. Every year, my family sits around the Passover table and tells the story of how the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt by blindly following Moses across the Red Sea. The story is about freedom, faith and most of all, food. We eat matzah (unleavened bread) to symbolize the unleavened bread the Jews took with them on their long journey through the desert. We clean our houses and get rid of every last trace of bread. Then, my mother calls me 68 times about the Passover menu. In my head, I picture all the Jewish mothers in Egypt during Moses’ time asking, “Chicken, brisket or both?” But what I’ve always loved the most about Passover at my mother’s house was the kids’ table. It is the table I was always a part of until only recently. Now, there’s a new kids’ table and its guests include my daughter Helen and her two cousins (my brother’s boys), Jacob and Nathan.

I didn’t realize this phenomenon about the kids’ table until I brought over my half of the Passover menu in aluminum pans an hour before the seder. Adrian, my significant other who grew up in Mexico as a Catholic, pointed it out when he carried our daughter into my mother’s house. “My Mom used to do that at Christmas,” Adrian remarked when he saw one long table in my mother’s living room and the mini table at the end set with three kiddie plastic plates and spoons. Adrian comes from a family of seven kids and he loved my mother’s rendition of a kid’s table, which made him nostalgic. His family is scattered across the globe and his one dream is to have everyone go back to Mexico to sit at his mother’s table on a big Catholic holiday. But this year, Adrian was part of the Passover festivities even though he couldn’t totally grasp matzah.

“It tastes like paper,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied, “that’s the point. We suffered in Egypt and then we suffered with matzah.”

The kids’ table signified so much to me this year. For the first time in maybe 50 years, my uncle missed the Passover seder because he’s sick and my aunt couldn’t come either. My cousins were also absent. Usually, our Passover table is set for 15-18 people, but this year, it dwindled down to seven adults and three kids. This made me afraid because my brother was in charge of running the seder and I was in charge of half the cooking—it made me realize that the original Passover kids’ table was now the adults’ table.

My mother is getting older and I am trying to balance old traditions with new interfaith beliefs. Adrian and I are trying to show Helen that two cultures and two faiths can coexist and we are trying to do this by example. But sometimes, I still feel like a kid. Sometimes we don’t have all the answers and there are times that even when I make 22 chicken legs, the guests only eat the brisket. “I told you so,” I hear my Jewish ancestors whisper.

My nephews, who are twin boys, came in like a hurricane. They love Helen and arrived shouting “Helen, Helen, Helen!” When they saw my mother, who always brings them the challah bread and chicken noodle soup, they began to shout, “Challah, challah, challah!” But on Passover, we can’t eat challah or noodle soup, so they learned instead to shout, “Matzah, matzah, matzah!” And then continued with, “Adi! Adi! Adi!” for Adrian, their favorite uncle.

I marveled at the kids’ table for its differences and its similarities. This year, as my nephews speak English, Helen answers in Spanish. “No se,” she says, which means, “I don’t know,” and the boys laugh. But they look just as my brother and I had once looked. The only difference is that this Passover, like all future Passovers, there will be room for more than one faith. Adrian sits at the table and is reminded of Catholic holidays in Mexico, I sit at the table and am reminded of my father and how he, too, loved a good story.

The traditional Jewish four questions, to be asked by the youngest child at the table, are sung by everyone, in Hebrew. “Why is this night different from any other night?” begin the questions. I laugh because I want to look up at God and say, “Seriously?” But instead, I think of a proverb appropriate for this Passover from the New Testament: “Get rid of the old leaven of sin so that you may be a new batch of dough – as you really are.” (Bible, I Corinthians 5:7) This quote gives me hope for the future and urges me to shed my old skin and step into my new real one of woman, mother and two-faith-household-builder.

Loss and Gain

  

The doctor calls Adrian and me saying, “Congratulations! You’re pregnant!” Adrian hugs me and we lift Helen up and kiss her little 16-month-old cheeks. “Helen! Helen!” we cry, “Helen you are going to have a little brother or sister!” Helen pushes our faces away not exactly understanding and gallops into the bedroom in search of her favorite stuffed animal, Senor Buho (Mr. Owl). Adrian and I are elated and we head out to our local kosher grocery store in search of kosher meat to cook as a celebration. Of course Adrian wants pork, but our home is kosher so celebrating is limited to all other delicacies.

On the Avenue, I feel lightness in my step and I whisper to Helen all day about how we are going to welcome a little bean into the family. I do everything right: I get my prenatal vitamins, buy Omega-3, stock the refrigerator with fruits and vegetables, rest and drink tea. I am five, maybe seven, weeks pregnant. That’s when everything goes wrong.

One morning, I wake up early and see blood. It’s not a lot and it’s not bright red, but I call the doctor anyway. “Don’t worry,” she assures me, “it’s normal.” Adrian also tells me not to worry, but I worry all day. I worry so much that by the evening, I’ve sweat through my clothes. Helen senses something is wrong and puts her head on my knee while I’m sitting on the couch. This calms me down a little, but only a little.

The next day I start to make promises. “Hashem, God, if you make everything OK I will be the best person in the universe this year. I will do good deeds and feed the poor and work harder and pray more,” I pray. Adrian thinks this is foolish and I ask him why he doesn’t pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is known to help in times of worry and distress.

“Bebe,” he says in a serious tone, “that’s not how God and the saints work.” I laugh because even with our interfaith family, I obviously think I can trick myself into convincing God of something.

I do everything right. And then, everything goes wrong.

The next day, I wake up and there is a lot of blood. It’s not brown, but it’s red. My body feels heavy like it’s losing something. “Bebe,” Adrian says, “call the doctor.” The doctor tells me to go the hospital right away. I rush to Manhattan and am attended to at Beth Israel/Mount Sinai with the thought,  “This is a place of miracles.” I am shaking in my seat in the waiting room and I clutch a small pink book called “Tefillas Channah” meaning Prayers of Channah (my Hebrew name). When I am finally called in, the doctor does an examination and tells me she’s sorry—I have had a miscarriage. She adds, “But it was very early, which is good.”

Loss of any kind is letting something go when you were never ready to part with it. “Bebe,” I say to Adrian on the phone, “I have some bad news.” I bleed for days. The doctor tells me this is normal, but it doesn’t feel normal. I have not cracked my Hebrew prayer book to defy my God the way I feel he has defied me. I realize that these thoughts are irrational, but this grief is overwhelming.

After one week on the couch, my daughter brings me a book. It is a book about animals and I flip the pages for her. “Bubbles!” she shouts and I laugh. There is a miracle before me that I haven’t been able to pay attention to. By far, Helen is the grandest miracle that has been gifted to me. Over a year ago, Adrian and I, out of fear for her life, decided to put Helen on formula when she had dropped down to 4 pounds. I prayed to God then. Now, Helen is in the 90th percentile for height, walks, babbles, speaks some words in Spanish and English, points to the Virgin of Guadalupe before bed and I sing her the prayer of Israel in Hebrew at night. As I get up to get the bubbles, my body feels like it has been crouching in a cave.

Helen and her Book

“Bebe,” Adrian says a week into his own grief, “we will try again.”

I reach for my Hebrew prayer book to try to find the right words for what I’m feeling. Somewhere in the middle of the book, I find it: “And so I come before you, Hashem, Eternal who reigns over rulers, and I cast my supplication before You. My eyes dependently look toward You until You will be gracious to me and hear my plea and grant me sons and daughters.” I look at Helen as she plays on the rug and I understand that I have been granted a miracle. With the two faiths that shine brightly through my house, I will be granted another one when the time is right.

Helen Rose Castaneda

Why Send Your Kid To Jewish Summer Camp? Because It Gets Him To Hebrew School

  
My son (right) with his best friend from camp in the dining hall of URJ Greene Family Camp this summer.

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.

Mourning, Friendship and the Future

  
Liz and baby Helen

Baby Helen meets Liz

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

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…”

Celebrating Two Faiths Without My Parents’ Blessing

  

By Sheri Kupres

Baby naming ceremony

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 rabbi co-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.

Baby naming ceremonyThe 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.

Baby naming

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.

This Is What I’ll Miss Doing with My Daughter When I Go Back to Work

  

By Samantha Taylor

Little girl holding candleFor 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.

Mom holding little girlIt’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.

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.

Samantha TaylorSamantha 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.

The Word They’ll Learn the Best

  

babies playing

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 otcha.” In Yiddish, “Oy vey.” Just kidding. In Yiddish, “Ikh libe dikh.”

three babies playing