1 Family, 4 New Year Celebrations, 0 Resolutions

  

By Jessica Melwani

Today, my family is ringing in the New Year for the fourth time in 2017.

In January, we reveled with champagne and caviar.

In February, we received homemade turnip cakes and lai see—festive, cash-filled red envelopes customary for the Chinese New Year—from my husband’s 97-year-old Chinese nanny, who also raised my Indian mother-in-law in Hong Kong and is now our surrogate grandmother.

In September, we ate apples and honey, and cheered as my 2-year-old greeted my parents with a joyous, “Shana tova,” a phrase he brought home from his Jewish nursery school.

And finally, today we celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. We are marking the triumph of good over evil in spiritual lore, the unofficial start of another new year. We’ll say puja, or prayers, around the house—particularly in my home office, to appeal for a prosperous year. And we’ll accept my mother-in-law’s annual delivery—an aromatic, seven-vegetable curry—along with her challenge to guess the mystery produce, which typically ranges from run-of-the-mill potatoes to exotic (but easily identifiable) lotus root.

Until this year, it never even occurred to me that four celebrations to observe one phenomenon—the passage of time—could be considered, well, a lot. And it’s kind of confusing to boot, especially for my 5-year-old, whose birthday just happens to fall on January 1st.

It took a while to convince Baby New Year that the noisemakers and fireworks from the rest of the world didn’t herald the auspicious occasion of his birth. I thought we were good once he accepted that, but this year’s multiple New Year celebrations threw him for a loop.

Admittedly, when he asked how there could be four new years in a single one, I went about the discussion all wrong. I started explaining the scientific concept of time—how it takes the earth 365 days to orbit the sun, and how different cultures developed their own calendars to mark each day’s passage thousands of years ago. That didn’t go over so well.

“But doesn’t the earth orbit the sun at the same speed everywhere in the world? Why would people end up with different calendars and different New Years?” he asked.

Ummm, did I just get schooled in astronomy by a 5-year-old?

Clearly, I was incapable of delivering a cogent, scientific argument to a kindergartener and needed to consider the emotional case—what our various New Year celebrations meant to me, personally—before I could convince him they weren’t all redundant to his “double special day” on January 1st.

So, for the first time in a while, I paused to really think. I stopped packing lunches and paying bills and punching away at emails on my phone to sit down and reflect on how lucky my family is to usher in four new beginnings over the same 365-day period.

I’ve given up on as many New Year’s resolutions as I’ve made, every year another failed attempt at meeting some arbitrary metric: lose five pounds, meditate for 10 minutes a day, keep my inbox at zero. But what if having a New Year’s celebration every few months meant we didn’t have to make resolutions at all anymore?

What if we took the start of each cultural calendar year as an opportunity to set smaller goals and take stock of all the little victories we’d ordinarily overlook?

What if I spent some time during the Rosh Hashanah school break talking to my kids about what we’d done over the past couple of weeks to be kind, and what we could do in the days before Diwali to be even more thoughtful or caring?

What if, during Diwali, we considered all the new and interesting experiences we’d had since Rosh Hashanah, and brainstormed other cool things we wanted to try before New Year’s Day?

And what if, on January 1st (after blowing out my son’s birthday candles, of course), we considered what we’d done since Diwali to make ourselves proud, and what we could maybe try harder at before collecting our little red envelopes for Chinese New Year?

What if these four calendars—my family’s multicultural forcing mechanism—reminded us to be both grateful and excited for all the small things we experience every day?

In the course of our busy lives, we too rarely take the time to reflect on the mini-milestones of the recent past or contemplate those that lie just within reach. But I’ve got four opportunities on my 2018 calendar to help me do just that, and I plan to use this new approach to explain the relationship between them to my kids.

How lucky for me that those opportunities just happen to involve bubbly champagne, crispy turnip cakes, sweet apples and fragrant curry.

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.

We Made Our Bris Inclusive. Here’s How.

  
Sarah and her husband with their new baby

Photo by Melissa Naclerio, Modern Birdcage Photography

At just nine weeks pregnant, my doctor ran a blood test and we waited on the results, full of anticipation. When they came back, we found out our baby was a healthy baby boy! Seeing is believing for me, so I waited until the anatomy scan to be sure we needed to start preparing for a boy. Sure enough, the blood test didn’t lie.

Our first baby was a girl, so after the birth, there was no rush to pull off a Jewish lifecycle event. We had done a simchat bat (also called a brit bat) celebration for her (a Jewish naming ceremony for a baby girl), but it was almost two months after she was born, so we had already started to settle into a routine and we were somewhat rested. This time would be very different. This boy would have a bris on his eighth day of life, no matter when that would fall. For my Type A personality, it was going to be tricky to relinquish control.

Sarah with her babyI started planning right away, months ahead of time. I figured we wouldn’t have many attendees with the last minute nature of it, so I planned on holding it at home, unlike the simchat bat. The one detail I needed to really research was finding the right mohel or mohelet (the person trained to perform the ritual circumcision).

Because the majority of our family and friends are Christian, I wanted to be sure we found a mohel who had experience in interfaith settings. We needed someone who could explain the tradition well because for most people in the room, this would be their first experience with it. It was also important that some of our guests who were not Jewish could take part in ceremonial honors.

A few of the mohalim we reached out to required that the sandek (the person who holds the baby during the circumcision) be a Jewish male. I started making a list of all the Jewish men we knew, realizing that if one was not available on the eighth day, we would have to move on to the next. Of course, the majority of the list was out of state. My cousin seemed like the best fit, but if baby decided to arrive later than expected, my cousin would be away at college and I would have to fly another relative or friend in, or end up with someone we didn’t know well to hold the baby during his circumcision. This was not ideal and rather stressful.

I kept looking and reached out to a local JCC group of moms to see who they had used. One name kept coming up and it was a local mohelet. I reached out and she allowed anyone, Jewish or not Jewish, male or female, to serve as sandek, kvatter, and kvatterin (messengers who carry the baby from the parent to the mohel). She also fit the bill as far as my other requests were concerned: no nerve block injection, no restraining board, and a ceremony conducted in both Hebrew and English. I was really hopeful she would be available on the right day, but found a backup mohel who had similar policies. His only difference was that the sandek had to be Jewish, but not necessarily a Jewish male. We could make that happen if needed.

Baby boy was born 12 days late and within hours of his birth, I reached out to my top choice mohelet. Luckily, she was available. As I had imagined, we had very few Jewish attendees and no male Jews. We were able to honor loved ones, regardless of religious affiliation and they enjoyed being able to take part in such a momentous occasion. We named the baby for my deceased grandfather, while my grandmother held him. It was a really beautiful ritual and we were so pleased with the mohelet and the ceremony she performed.

After she left, we ate a meal with our guests and we kept hearing how much everyone enjoyed the ceremony. Most came up to tell us they had never been to a bris and didn’t know what to expect. I had been most anxious about it being strange and foreign to our guests, so I was relieved at the comments about it being a beautiful occasion. One of my aunts put it best when she said that she had her sons circumcised at the hospital and after witnessing this bris, she wished her boys could have been in loving arms, surrounded by loved ones, the way our boy was.

Though it was quite a process to find the right mohelet for this bris, I am so thankful we found one who could cater to our unique wishes. She gave us and our guests a memorable and connected occasion as we celebrated this new light in our lives.

Planning a Jewish lifecycle event and looking for an interfaith-friendly officiant? We can help.

Helen Turns 2 in English, Spanish and Hebrew

  

I can’t believe my first baby girl is already 2! In the beginning of this journey into parenthood I can remember the wise women of the synagogue next door to our apartment shouting, “Enjoy this time! It goes so fast,” as Adrian and I whisked Helen off to the park, to doctor’s appointments, to family functions and to the market. There was something the knowing eyes of those women told me that only a look can convey. Now, two weeks after Helen’s birthday, I understand what they meant.

Adrian and I wanted Helen to have a birthday that represented our family and who she is. For three nights before the big day I stayed up until two a.m. drinking coffee and making mini piñatas. I found a link on YouTube to a very organized young woman who seemed to know her way around a hot glue gun and party paper. Because of the recent damage done to Adrian’s village in Mexico, I also wanted to make the Mexican/Catholic tradition more visible this year so that he would feel included.

The one major event my American Jewish family and Adrian’s Mexican Catholic family have in common is that we love to party! We also love to decorate and cook and we love the element of surprise. I’ve also hated the color pink since I was a child but once I had Helen all of that changed. I was the toddler with the black converse sneakers, black jeans and black t-shirt. My daughter has become everything rainbow and butterflies have to offer. This too may change, but I doubt it.

Our menu was a mix of American and Mexican and so was our guest list! I made a cheese spread, a vegetable platter and fruit for the kids. I scoured Pinterest for ideas of how to make the snacks kid-friendly and I ended up spending over 45 minutes trying to get a red bell pepper and four slices of cucumber look like a train car. The cake was tres leches with Peppa Pig on the top. But the night before Helen’s big day was probably the most special for us as a couple.

As soon as Helen went to sleep, Adrian and I started moving furniture and blowing up balloons. We wanted Helen to wake up to a living room filled with piñatas and balloons. As we decorated, we spoke about how amazing the decision to start our interfaith family was. We remembered thinking that it was going to be hard to balance two religions, two traditions and two vastly different cultures. But then we laughed while we wrapped Helen’s gifts, which were: An Abby Caddaby doll, giant Hebrew flashcards and a book in Spanish and English. What could be difficult about real love?

We hung up most of the balloons but let three loose so that Helen could play with them in the morning. As soon as she woke up she walked into the living room and said, “buuubuuu.” That’s her version of “balloon.” I think that’s because in Spanish the word balloon is “globo” and she mixes the sounds. She loved the balloons and the gift-wrapping more that the actual gifts. She did yell, “Abbyyyyy” a few times before she threw the Sesame Street doll on the floor and went after the balloons again.

That day we ran around Brooklyn getting the last few odds and ends for the party. Finally, at six o’clock the guests began to arrive. My mother was the first, of course. She couldn’t wait to give Helen her gift. Because Adrian’s mom is in Mexico, my mother fills in for her and bought Helen two gifts, one from Grandma and one from Abuela. Then my nephews trudged up the stairs of the apartment and I could hear my sister-in-law and my brother behind them. Finally, Adrian’s brothers came, all four of them!

Our apartment is a small one-bedroom but people are always surprised at how many guests we can squeeze into such an intimate space. As I brought out the snacks and Adrian began making his cheese enchiladas, I looked around at our diverse living room. There was happiness and celebration all around and Helen was so surprised.

After we ate and opened gifts it was time to cut the Peppa Pig cake. My nephews love chocolate cake but this cake was filled with strawberries, peaches, cream, condensed milk and vanilla cake. Tres leches cake is traditional in Mexico and when it’s done right it tastes like a sugary cloud. We turned off the lights and first played “las mañanitas” on the stereo. This is a traditional Mexican birthday song. Then we sang Happy Birthday in English.

My nephews were shocked when they saw that the cake wasn’t chocolate and even more shocked when they tasted how delicious it was. They are just three months older than Helen and they love her. They ran around after the cake cutting singing, “Helen Rose, Helen Rose, Helen Rose.” And I wonder what Helen wished for when she blew out her candle. Was it a pony? Was it candy and ice cream? Or was it my wish? That our house, no matter where we live, will always be filled with two religions and love that knows no limits.

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.

Charting a New Course

  

We live in a world filled with hate. It seems as each new day dawns, we are reminded of this very concept. Charlottesville, Paris, London, France, Spain, the list continues to grow. Even my beloved alma mater, The Ohio State University, a college with a diverse student population of nearly 60,000 is not immune. Can it really be that we have ushered in a new era where it has not only become popular but acceptable to preach hate and bigotry while encouraging violence at targeted groups? This seemingly commonplace behavior has captivated headlines on a daily basis and often includes attacks on various groups including women, LGBT, minorities and Jews.

America is the land of opportunity. A great country founded on the basic principal of speaking out and rebelling against tyrants forcing their ideologies. Each of us is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. People love to hide behind the First Amendment as a reason to spout vulgar insults and racial epithets. It has been uplifting to see many Americans coming together to rally against hate. But it’s important to remember that freedom OF speech is not freedom FROM speech. Do I support or encourage the Ku Klux Klan and its supporters gathering in arms, bearing torches and shouting references to Hitler along with chants echoing through the night, “Jews will not replace us!”? Of course not, but while we, as equal rights supporters stand unified against hate, we don’t encourage violence to solve violence. The hateful actions of these people are deplorable and do not embody the principles this nation was founded on.

As relatively new parents, this is continuously a topic of discussion in our house. Today, we live in a community only a few miles from where I experienced first-hand that hate is not limited to racially divided cities or foreign countries calling for war against the West. I was maybe only 10 years old when our baseball team traveled out to a wealthy suburb on the east side of Cleveland. (For those who don’t know me, I grew up in a predominately Jewish community that was well known for its religious concentration.) I was raised in a Reform Jewish household and became a bar mitzvah. I have been blessed to be married to the most wonderful, kind and loving Catholic woman in the world (although not very religious herself). My life experiences both as a Jew and being in an interfaith marriage have allowed me to view this anecdote differently as I got older.

We arrived for the game on a sunny afternoon and began to warm up. It didn’t take long before we could hear the undertones and whispers coming from the home team dugout. “F-ing (expletive) Jews. Why don’t you go home back where you came from?” These were phrases that, while familiar with, I had not experienced them directly, especially as a young boy. I was raised in an environment to be conscious of the fact that the world did not always like Jews and anti-Semitism was a very real thing. Now to experience it first hand was a little jarring. As the game went on there were similar remarks being made under their breathe. Later in the game, on a close play, I slid into second base and was involved in a little scuffle while colliding with the other player trying to tag me out. The play ended and through the cloud of settling dirt, I heard, “Go home you stupid k___ (derogatory word for Jews that sounds like “kite”).”

These awful words still ring in my ears more than 25 years later. My perspective on the world has evolved over the years—from a young Jewish man to a husband and father, raising my own family, in an interfaith marriage. The world is a cruel place; people are cruel; children are cruel. The events of the recent past can be avoided, but it has to start now. Hate is a learned behavior—it is taught to our youth at a very tender and impressionable age. We breed hate as we pass on our distaste for one culture, religion or ethnic group. Information is so readily available today and can be accessed, at our fingertips, within a moment’s notice. Hate groups are using this to unify and unite their cause with propaganda and recruit new soldiers to fight in the battle.

Today does not feel like the world I grew up in. It is fueled by violence and hate, almost as if we have taken a step back in our progression as a society. This is not the world I want my daughter to grow up in. Not a place where she has to be afraid or embarrassed that her last name is known as a common Jewish name. Not a place where she is afraid to walk into a synagogue. Not a place where she cannot be proud of who she is and the heritage she carries with her. We have to do our part, speak out when you see an injustice being committed. I believe that good can and will prevail over evil. However, it starts with us as individuals. The words we use in our homes, the way we speak to colleagues, the way we greet strangers. We CAN make a difference and chart a new course.

I Wish We’d Had “The Religion Talk” Before Having Kids

  

By Lindsey Goldstein

I Wish We’d Had “The Religion Talk” Before Having Kids

Before my husband and I got married, we discussed how we would raise any potential children. These children were very theoretical. something I wasn’t sure I wanted. But I began to consider it, since he finally seemed to be the right person to procreate with.

My husband was raised Catholic but hasn’t practiced any religion since he left his parents’ home and I was raised Jewish albeit not entirely religious. I strongly identify myself as Jewish.

Yet despite those differences, our discussions about raising our kids weren’t profound. They went something like this:

Me: “How will we raise our kids with respect to religion?”

Him: “Well, you’re Jewish, so aren’t they Jewish by default?”

Of course, he referred to the fact that any child that springs forth from the loins of a Jewish woman is automatically Jewish.

That’s fine and good, but I’ve found that kids these days, unless presented with a religious upbringing will often default to being “nothing.” Or as my brother’s kids say, they are “half Jewish.” What does that even mean? Are they sliced down the middle through the navel, one side claiming to be Jewish and the other not? It means nothing. Literally.

Ultimately, my husband and I decided our kids would be educated on Judaism by me and my husband would answer any questions about Catholicism should they arise. He acknowledged that the brunt of our kids’ formal religious exposure would most likely be Judaism because my parents live 35 minutes away, so we spend the Jewish holidays with them—and unlike him, I practice my religion.

Yet this wasn’t a concrete plan. Essentially, we decided any kids we had could figure out for themselves how invested they wanted to be in their religious upbringing and we would simply facilitate their decision. In other words, our decision about how to raise them was pretty wishy-washy.

When my daughter reached school age, we decided to send her to a Jewish school, where she would stay there through kindergarten and then switch to an excellent local public school, one of the draws of our neighborhood.

As I have previously written, I am so proud that she became extremely interested in her Jewishness to the extent that she taught me things I’d long forgotten from my Jewish upbringing. In June, she “graduated” from that school and will, as planned, move to a public school.

The struggle confronting me now is how will her Jewishness persevere outside of her current school? I asked her if she would like to have a bat mitzvah and she said yes. I explained to her she’d have to attend Hebrew school on Sundays to make her goal happen.

Here’s the thing: When my daughter and I discuss Hebrew school, she forgets about it minutes later. I don’t force the issue because I reflect on the fact that I wouldn’t have wanted to spend every Sunday in Hebrew school when I was 6. I hear my husband and understand his religion was forced on him thereby destroying any religious intentions in him. I know he feels strongly that we don’t do that to our kids. But I remind him that being Jewish isn’t an easy path to choose.

Now that we have real children instead of theoretical ones, I realize our decision to not make any decisions for them was misguided. Kids will never choose to study religion if they don’t have to.

The path of least resistance is being anything but Jewish. I resented being Jewish for most of my teenage years because I was raised among mostly Christians and I hated being “different.” When I was 18, I lived in a predominantly Catholic country as an exchange student. For that year, I decided to assimilate and not celebrate Jewish holidays or acknowledge my Jewishness. I had a fulfilling year, yet I felt adrift. Even though I’ve never been terribly religious, it turned out I was out of place in a religious context that wasn’t my own, and I craved the companionship of people who “get me.”

No matter how religious or not a Jew is, I think there is a foundation of similarity that allows us to relate to another Jew easily. There is a parallel upbringing or set of parents or values that bonds us together.

And I realize now: I want that for my kids. I don’t want them to float around in this world incapable of identifying themselves with a community. Selfishly, I want that community to be a Jewish one.

Clearly, my husband and I still have some discussion before us—and it won’t be easy to iron out now that our kids are growing up. We should have made concrete decisions about religious upbringing before.

That’s why when other interfaith couples say they’re going to “wing it,” I vehemently tell them not to—but rather to hammer those details out before they get married, to seek counsel from an outside source if they need an objective perspective.

In the meantime, my daughter will still have a connection to her Jewish school since her brother will matriculate in a month. I am hopeful she will choose to follow through with her desire to have a bat mitzvah and continue to feel at home in the Jewish community as she has for the last several years.

I hope she is ultimately persuaded by my example since she enjoys going to synagogue and celebrating Jewish holidays with me. Of course, I am not upset with my husband for his view on religious upbringing—especially in light of how he was raised. But, I should have been absolutely forthright with him that my ultimate goal for my kids is as follows: when someone asks them what they are they respond without hesitation, “Jewish.”

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.

My Kid’s Love/Hate Relationship with Hebrew School

  

By Melissa Henriquez

Leaving for school

Every Sunday morning as I practically drag my 6-year old out of bed to go to Hebrew School, I’m reminded of the final scene in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” when Toula’s own daughter has turned six and is begrudgingly headed off to … where else?! Greek school.

Like Toula’s daughter and Toula before her, and Toula’s mother before her (and so on and so forth) my daughter knows she must to go to her own version of Greek School — she just doesn’t “want” to.

Personally, I began Hebrew School in third grade. Because I wish I’d started earlier, we enrolled my daughter when she started kindergarten last fall. I wanted her to have a better sense of Jewish community than I did growing up and an earlier start to Jewish learning. Since Hebrew School goes from 9:15 a.m.–12:15 p.m. every Sunday for all ages, it’s admittedly a hefty time commitment for the short-attention-spanned kindergartners–but it is what it is. Fortunately for us, Hebrew School overlaps when my (Catholic) husband normally goes to mass, anyway, so it’s not that my daughter is missing much family time–and it’s given me precious, special one-on-one time with my 3-year-old son.

It’s not that she doesn’t like Hebrew School once she’s there–she has adorable little friends, they sing, they have music class, they bake and participate in a mini-service. They do art projects and learn their Hebrew letters, colors and numbers. She learns about Jewish customs, history and holidays–and I love that now she peppers me now with questions about Judaism. Because she’d learned about Passover and the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, she asked me if I was a slave because I was Jewish (hoo boy!). I love seeing her little mind work and how she asks me who else in her world is Jewish, as well as who is not (her grandpa, her daddy, 99% of her friends).

But let’s be honest: while being Jewish is something I take deep pride in, it isn’t easy by any means. And it’s definitely not easy for a 6-year-old kid who just wants to stay home in her PJs, read, color and ride her bike on Sunday mornings, especially when all of her friends from school are Christian, and only a handful are regular Sunday church-goers.

I know first-hand how hard it can be to be “different”–to be one of just a few Jewish kids in my school and the only Jew among my close friends. I remember the pangs of sadness I felt having to miss a huge cheerleading competition in eighth grade that fell on my bat mitzvah day. I desperately wanted to be in two places at once, but could not.

Looking ahead, I know my daughter will face similar situations; it’s inevitable that Jewish life and sports/activities will at some point collide, and Judaism will often need to be the priority, as it was for me. As I grew into adulthood, I came to appreciate the significance of those sacrifices, and I hope she will, too. But whatever she thinks or decides about Judaism as an adult, I want her to at least understand it, and that’s why we’re doing this.

This first year of formal religious school has been a real adjustment for our little family, and I’d be lying if I said we weren’t all looking forward to summer break when we will have free Sunday mornings again. But all in all, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s been a great learning experience and I’ve been thrilled at the beginnings of her Jewish education. And come September, I think our soon-to-be-first-grader will be excited to go back to a familiar school where she has a newfound sense of belonging.

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.

headshotMelissa Henriquez is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now live in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (6) and Ben (3).  By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs at Let There Be Light (est. 2008). Melissa’s writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.

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.

Naming Our Past, Present & Future

  
Baby naming ceremony

Quinn receiving her Hebrew name

Giving your child a Hebrew name is a long-standing tradition in Judaism. Sometimes families have elaborate gatherings as part of a bris while others choose more intimate family ceremonies (we chose the latter). With our siblings and parents together, we could not help but reflect on the long journey to that moment over the last several years. We could not have persevered through it all without the love and support of those closest to us, which is why we asked that they share in this special moment. Thank you to each of these people for your unconditional love, generosity, kind words and most important, hope.

A naming ceremony for an interfaith family does not come without challenges, but we viewed it as an opportunity to foster understanding with those in our family who lovingly participated, and are not Jewish. And in all honesty, my family is not the most religious, so it also served as a nice refresher for them. A family friend who is a doctor and mohel (someone trained in both Jewish law and the surgical hygiene for performing a circumcision) performed the beautiful ceremony. She made sure there was plenty of opportunity to pause and ask questions about the topics we discussed and why certain traditions were important to us. We asked my brother and sister-in-law to be Quinn’s godparents. They will always be a big part of her life and in our absence, they would be there to help guide her through the learning process and discovering Judaism.

Jews of Central or Eastern European descent encourage the celebration of new life by the naming of children to honor loved ones who are no longer with us. Between both of our families, there are many loved ones we wish could have been there to share in the joy of this most wonderful occasion. Jewish tradition also teaches us the importance not to mourn their passing, rather to celebrate their lives. They will live on in our hearts and are never truly gone when we continue to tell their stories and talk about our special memories of them. Often, we recognize this honor by giving the child an English name that starts with the same letter as a late relative.

It is also customary to give a child a Hebrew name in addition to an English name. We gave Quinn the Hebrew name of Pelia (pay-lee-ah) Davi (dah-vee). Pelia means wonder or miracle and Davi means cherished. Both her arrival into this world and into our arms made her Hebrew name very fitting. She is named after my nana, Paula, and Kimberly’s nonnie, Domenica. By giving her this name, we are bridging the generations of the past and present and also blending her Jewish and Italian heritage. She will never know where she is going until she knows where she came from. Her great-grandmothers would have loved to have known her. In the years to come, we will be able to share many stories and memories about them with her. We hope she will embody many of the characteristics and qualities we loved about them and carry on their namesake.

We closed this memorable day by reading this special poem:

“We didn’t give you the gift of life,

But in our hearts we know.                                                                                          

The love we feel is deep and real,                                                                               

As if it had been so.                                                                                                     

For us to have each other,                                                                                         

Is like a dream come true!                                                                                           

No, we didn’t give you the gift of life,                                                                           

Life gave us the gift of you.”

-Unknown

What’s in a Name: My Favorite Torah Portion

  

My middle name is Miriam. I am named after Mark, my mother’s brother who was killed at the young age of 39. My name is a remembrance of him just as my daughter’s name is a reminder of my two Grandmothers, Helen and Rose. Names have great meaning and what someone is named at birth doesn’t necessarily determine who they are, but it does hold potential.

One of this month’s Torah portions just happens to be called “Chukat,” meaning “decree.” It is one of my favorite portions because it is about the death of Miriam (Moses’s sister) and how the death of a single woman affects an entire people and their future.

When Miriam dies, water becomes scarce. Moses cannot deal with his sister’s death and sees the people of Israel angered at him and Aaron for bringing them to a barren land. God commands Moses to speak to a rock and ask for water. Saddened by the death of his sister and vexed at his people for their lack of grief, Moses makes a mistake. Instead of speaking to the stone he strikes it. It is an act that does not go unnoticed. Because of this err on Moses’ part, God refuses to let him lead the Jews into the Promised Land. The death of Miriam means the death of water, purity and a loss of control for a great prophet. Even Moses fears death or is stifled by it. Then, before this Torah portion comes to a close, Aaron dies as well.

The name Miriam in Hebrew means rebellious—fitting that I should be named after my Uncle Mark, who was the rebel in our family history just as I am. Some of my family members will tell you I am still the rebellious one living with and loving a man from Mexico who was born Catholic, raising our child in an interfaith household. But water followed Miriam everywhere. It followed her through the desert during her people’s hardest times. I have chosen to live my life as she lived hers—with a magical well that never runs dry with room enough for different faiths, cultures and beliefs.

What’s funny is that the man I chose to spend my life with is named Adrian and his name is from the Latin root meaning “sea” or “water.” My middle name and his first name flow like rivers next to each other, intertwining like our two faiths.

Helen, our almost 2-year-old has a name derived from the Greeks. Who hasn’t heard of Helen of Troy? Her name in Greek means “Shining Light” or “The Bright One.” This seems appropriate, that two bodies of water can create a spark, something beautiful and different that never fades.

I like the “Chukat” Torah portion because it is not about Judaism specifically; it is about doubt and faith. The Israelites doubt Moses and Aaron and so God is angered. Moses is grieving and loses control, because of this he suffers and dies without being permitted to enter into the Holy Land. It is a lesson not only for Jews but for anyone because it is about having faith in your own journey. The Israelites lose faith because the water disappears after Miriam’s death. Moses loses faith in his people. God is angered most by Moses’ loss of control. On so long a journey Moses does not trust and strikes the very rock that was to give him and his people sustenance. But I see that rock as a symbol of Miriam. Although she is gone, perhaps her spirit is in that rock, but Moses is too blind to see it. For this, he is punished.

Often it is a challenge to navigate an interfaith household. During certain times of the year it seems as though we have a different holiday every month. Traditions are hard to keep up, or are tweaked so that they can fit both religions and both cultures. Our budget for gifts on holidays has to stretch so that Santa Claus, the Three Kings and a menorah can all fit in the living room. But we try never to strike the stone, to curse the place where the water will naturally flow if given time and care.

That’s what God’s decree is in the “Chukat” portion. He desires that we keep going even when the world seems to rise up against us and deem us rebellious. He asks us to speak to the stone, not strike it so that we may learn from the world how cool water can follow us through the desert when we feel we are making a new, different and enlightening journey toward faith.