How To Do a Mitzvah

  
Helen at the bakery

Helen in front of the neighborhood bakery

In the local stores in my neighborhood it seems that everyone is pushing everyone else aside. People don’t say “excuse me” anymore. In the kosher bakery I get hit in the eye with a challah bread when one woman reaches past me, past Adrian and over Helen’s stroller. She really socks me one with the golden dough. Then she doesn’t say, “I’m sorry” or even acknowledge my family’s existence. At least the challah was fresh and warm so it was a soft blow to my right eye, and anyway it smelled good.

We try the Mexican bakery next for Adrian. He loves a traditional “concha.” A concha is a type of bread shaped like a roll covered in chocolate, vanilla or strawberry sugar and traditionally it is eaten in the morning. It looks a little bit like a shell from the beach and that’s what concha means in Spanish: “Shell.” We have this routine. On Friday mornings before Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts we hit the bakeries. Everyone else in our neighborhood has the same idea. Friday mornings can be overwhelming.

At the Mexican bakery we grab a tray and tongs and pick the bread we like. On the way over to the counter a woman cuts in front of me slamming her tray down on the counter and demanding a bigger plastic bag for her bread. I take a step back. I’ve been hit with enough dough for one day.

On our walk home a cyclist (riding on the sidewalk) nearly runs us all down and yells “Watch it!” No one holds the door for the stroller in our building and when I say, “Hi Frank!” to my super, her grunts, curses, spits and stomps up the stairs murmuring, “Everybody wants somethin’ from me all the time…”

I feel defeated. Why is everyone so rude? I have this thought while stress eating in my kitchen standing up. Helen goes to her crib to take a nap and I decide to look for some spiritual inspiration. I put away my bag of popcorn and salted caramel ice cream.

I Google the word “mitzvah.” In the Yeshiva I attended as a girl the teachers taught us that the word “mitzvah” means “a good deed.” The plural in Hebrew is “mitzvot,” for many good deeds. But, as I search deeper into the meaning I come to find out that “mitzvah” actually translates as “commandment.” So in the Jewish religion it is commanded by God that we complete the task of doing good deeds every day.

Helen waits

Helen waiting in front of the bakery

This is interesting. What have I been teaching Helen about good deeds?

What have I been teaching her about commandments? It’s easy to point a finger. Friday at the two bakeries it was so simple for me to become the victim. But, what did I do to help the people around me? Did I do any mitzvot on Friday? What about the rest of the week? What did I do to help anyone besides myself?

I know that’s a pretty harsh self-judgement. But I wasn’t blaming myself. I was merely trying to dig deeper into the similarities of my two-faith household. I understand that a mitzvah is a commandment. In Catholicism there is the belief in “good works.” This is the same concept. It sounds simple because these teachings from both religions don’t involve complicated holidays, recipes or traditions. These ideas and beliefs arise during the everyday. Maybe that is what makes them go unannounced and unnoticed. Maybe that’s also why they are harder to commit to.

This is a situation in which Adrian and I believe the same thing. Nothing is complicated about doing good deeds out in the world. But how do we teach each other and how do we teach our daughter about the power of mitzvot?

I think that everything begins at home and so I start to think about our apartment building. We live on the fourth floor of a walk-up apartment built in 1927. The stairs aren’t just tough to climb, they’re made of marble. But in my own building my neighbors have done the deed of a mitzvah many times for me. There have been so many nights that Adrian has been at work and Helen and I have to go to the store to bring bags of groceries back. The boy who lives on the first floor always carries the stroller up the stairs for me if he’s around. The super’s son has carried Helen for me. There is a woman named Veronica who lives on the second floor and she’s carried four bags from Whole Foods filled with canned goods up to my apartment. Once, a young girl from the other side of the building (our building has two sides) saw me and helped me. She was 11 years old!

The mitzvah starts at home. The commandment begins in the hallway of our building and spreads far out into the community. A good deed speaks many languages, follows many cultures and faiths. This Friday at the bakery I’m going to hold the door for someone because maybe I wasn’t looking behind me the last time. Maybe I slammed the door in someone’s face instead of holding it. Maybe the woman who smacked me with a challah bread had plenty of reason to do so. It was like God was saying “Wake up! You’ve got a lot of mitzvot to do!”

How We Met…Our Baby

  

By Craig Cohen

Craig with his family

We each have our own story about when we saw, held or heard our children for the first time and we all arrived in those moments in different ways. I was born on Father’s Day in 1980 as the first child in my family, so it was only fitting that I became a father under similar circumstances. However, my road to fatherhood is somewhat more unique than the “traditional” path after several unsuccessful years of trying to start a family, and included a mad dash to the finish line.

As a proud member of an interfaith marriage, I was raised in a Reform Jewish home and my wife Kimberly went to Catholic school from kindergarten through college. As it turned out, the first Jewish person she befriended, she wound up marrying. After recently celebrating our eighth wedding anniversary this May, our views on starting a family and the religious structure in the home have held up through the years.

While our individual religious upbringings shaped us throughout our lives, it was and continues to be LOVE that blankets our home and builds our family. This marriage is a 50/50 partnership: Everyone is equal and no person or circumstance is more important than another. We have always celebrated both Jewish and Catholic holidays from Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah to Easter and Christmas, and our house is perpetually adorned with decorations for all seasons. It is important to us that we show our children (and the world) that we stand together committed to LOVE as the dominant component in our lives and that religion is a cultural component that helps us observe our heritage and remember the past.

After Kimberly and I tried to have a child both naturally and through several clinical procedures, she suggested we explore growing our family through adoption. But I didn’t know the first thing about adoption. So, the journey began much like any research starts today in the digital world, with a Google search for “adoption.”

We came across a local organization that advocates for adoption and they were providing an educational workshop in the coming days. After some hesitation, mostly on my part (this was a big step into uncharted waters), we attended the workshop and were blown away with the new world we uncovered. Within a couple days of leaving the workshop we knew this path was the one we belonged on. We found our adoption agency and started the lengthy process. Over the course of the following year, we received communication about potential birth moms but none of the opportunities panned out.

First picture of baby

The first photo Craig and Kimberly saw of their baby

On my 35th birthday, I was with my brother playing in a charity golf outing when I received a call early in the morning. “There is a healthy baby girl born a few days ago and the birth mom wants to meet you,” said the social worker on the other end of the line. My stomach dropped and my mind froze—you know that feeling you get when going down the big hill of a roller coaster? Yeah, that feeling…times 100. I called Kimberly and told her the amazing news and we set up a time and place to meet our potential birth mom later that week. Although this was the call we had been waiting to get for over a year, it still felt like we were not prepared to hear it.

We had a four-hour lunch with our birth mom after which she looked at her social worker and said, “Can I tell them?” With a quick nod from the social worker, she looked back at us and said, “I want you guys to be her parents!” The words we had longed to hear finally overwhelmed us and we all embraced in a tearful hug. After all the ups and downs, crying, heartache and disappointment, we had finally arrived. It was worth every second and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

Our daughter was brought into what is referred to as cradle care (temporary loving care between hospital and home by two of the kindest souls we have ever known) and we were able to visit with her as often as we wanted. I remember seeing her for the first time, holding her in my arms and looking at Kimberly. Nothing else in the world mattered at that moment: She was ours and we were a family, finally. The day before she was set to come home was, ironically, Father’s Day 2015. We spent the entire day with her as I celebrated my first Father’s Day as a new dad. What a special gift, both for us as a family and me for my first time on the other side of the equation.

Becoming a parent through the gift of adoption has enriched my life in more ways than I can recount. It is the ultimate endowment of selflessness and personal sacrifice on our birth mom’s part. It was not about the journey but the destination as our paths crossed in the end and she made the brave decision for our daughter to have the life she wanted, but could not provide. She put the needs of our daughter over those of her own. Kimberly, Quinn and I are forever grateful.

Over the last two years as I watched my daughter grow into a toddler, the time has flown. I often think about my first Father’s Day and the day we brought her home. We went from the phone call to her arrival in exactly seven days. The moments were so surreal, like I was watching a movie but this was my life. Together we decided that Quinn would be raised in a Jewish environment but always observe EVERY holiday. In a time when the world is so cruel and intolerant of different faiths, genders, cultural backgrounds and sexual orientation, it is important now more than ever to experience different aspects of life. She will know the stories and traditions of our ancestors as we light the Hanukkah menorah and read the four questions on Passover. She will know that while dad went to temple, mom had different experiences in her life and we celebrate those too when we gather for Easter dinner and open presents under our Christmas tree.

Our house and Quinn’s life will always be about love, trust and respect. Religion will be there to teach her history and provide cultural structure. A friend once told me that when your kids grow up, they don’t look back and say, “I wish I was a different religion or celebrated different holidays.” They look back and say, “I wish my parents got along better.” LOVE will forever bind us by how we became a family and the way in which we grow as a family. I am blessed to be married to the most kind, caring and loving woman in the world who is the most amazing mother I have ever known. I am blessed to be a father and my unique story of how we arrived here only makes it that much more special.

Happy Father’s Day to all the great dads who paved the road before and all the great dads who will surely come after.

Avoiding “That Look” on Purim

  

Kids dressed up for Purim

It’s Purim again and I’m afraid to leave the house. During Purim, my neighborhood is like being inside a disco ball at Studio 54 in 1976—only there are a lot more Jews and no sign of Bianca Jagger riding a white horse. When I was growing up, Purim was not one of the major holidays celebrated by my family. In the Yeshiva I attended we got to dress up, but there were only four biblical characters we could choose from: Esther, Mordechai, King Achashverosh or Haman. In first grade, I got so bored with dressing up as Esther that my mother hung two pieces of oak tag off my shoulders and I went as a castle. Nowadays, it’s different. Kids go as all sorts of things.

When Adrian and I decided to finally leave the house with our now 16-month-old daughter Helen, it was because we had a craving for quesadillas and grapefruit soda—not because we were delivering Shalach Manot (the bags of wine and food that are customary to gift to friends and neighbors on Purim).

Our car was inconveniently parked three blocks away in my mother’s driveway. I say inconveniently because anything goes on Purim in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Again, it reminds me of Laura Luft’s famous quote, “Studio 54 made Halloween in Hollywood look like a PTA meeting.” The same can be said about Midwood on Purim.

Adrian thinks it’s hilarious. He grew up in Mexico in a small Catholic village and as we’re walking to the car, he says to me, “You know, in my town there’s a guy whose name is Purim.” I absolutely don’t believe him and tell him to stop mocking my people. He says, “I’m so serious!” Then he laughs and yells, “Feliz Purim!” to a boy running past us while wearing a donkey mask and roller skates.

Where were these costumes when I was a kid and what will our daughter want to dress up as when she gets older?

This year, when Purim wasn’t so visible because everyone was in synagogue for the Sabbath, my brother and his wife invited us to join their synagogue’s Purim celebration. I paused at my brother’s invitation because Adrian had to work, it was 20 degrees outside and when I took Helen last year, it was the weirdest Purim party I had ever been to. Also, as much as I think Purim is strange in my own neighborhood, it was ten times more zany in their neighborhood of Bay Ridge.

I remember that there was a big screen TV with videos of the Purim story for kids at last year’s Bay Ridge Purim celebration. The kids ran around singing songs and getting their faces painted. I also remember wrapping the fruit roll ups that they had around my fingers and pretended to have long nails like I did when I was 10 years old. No one found that as hilarious as I did and then I had a huge stomachache when I got home. Come to think of it, maybe I just made Purim weird in Bay Ridge.

This year, I opted out of Purim even though I’m trying hard to have my interfaith family celebrate every holiday. I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist the fruit roll ups, but also, the only costume I had for Helen was a sad and tired monkey costume that she already wore for Halloween. Yes, I’m that parent that never wants my child to wear the same costume twice.

Before we reach the car, a group of teenage boys dressed as giant cows and rabbits cross the street toward us. One of them looks defiant and drunk. It reminds me of another thing about Purim—everyone gets completely blitzed and runs around the neighborhood like it’s a ’70s disco party. This boy looks at me, then he looks at Adrian and finally looks at my Helen in the stroller. I can see judgement on his face and I feel that he’s thinking: Who are we? Why are we in Midwood? What are we doing on this block on this day? Don’t we know it’s Purim? He, more likely, could have been thinking, “Man I shouldn’t have done that last shot of tequila.” But the look, whatever it said, meant something. I felt uncomfortable as this giant boy child dressed as a floppy bunny looked at me and then at my family. I felt as if I had to explain that I grew up in this neighborhood, went to a Yeshiva, but found a different path and that I love my family, our differences, our two cultures and our two religions. I felt I wanted to say all of this to a 15-year-old boy in a rabbit costume. Why? Because of that look.

I have been getting that look long before I had an interfaith family. I got that look when I wore jeans on Sabbath and smoked cigarettes behind my parents’ house on the High Holy Days. I know that look well. The look has nothing to do with the person giving it and everything to do with the person getting it. I feared that look for a long time. I fear it now for my Helen Rose. She will get that look. She may get it in more ways that I received it. Maybe this is what I realize as the teenagers prance past us. With all our colorful cultural and religious differences as a family, how will I protect Helen from the look? My eyes meet the look and lock on it as if on a dare. I’m 14 years old again. The one boy who catches my eye turns away from me and I hear myself say as if for the first time, “Chag Sameach” (Joyous Festival) and then, “Feliz Purim.”

Two Faiths and Powerful Women

  

My daughter, Helen Rose Castaneda, wakes up one day at 10-and-a-half months old, pulls herself up in her crib and says “hola!” at the top of her lungs. “Hola, hola, hola!” This makes sense because Adrian and I speak to Helen mainly in Spanish at home.

She says “hola” for an entire day and then stops saying it. Was this her first word? Does it count if she says it but then stops saying it? I ask myself these questions and think it incredible that I grew up speaking one language at home (English), yet my daughter understands two. My brother and I later learned Hebrew in school and I learned to speak, read and understand Spanish at 18. But Helen Rose understands two tongues, and I find this fitting for a household where two seems to be a theme.

There are two religions in our home: Jewish and Mexican Catholic. I say Mexican Catholic as opposed to just Catholic because Mexican culture is deeply tied to its Catholicism, and the culture itself is rich with colorful history. But one of the things I love most about Mexican Catholicism is the belief in the Virgin of Guadalupe. Guadalupe is like the Virgin Mary and is thought of as the mother of Mexico.

When Adrian and I decided to build an interfaith family and raise Helen believing in both Judaism and Catholicism, it was Guadalupe who swayed me. I like that Helen can look up in her room and see a statue of not only a religious icon but also a female religious icon instilling in her at a young age that women are powerful.

This brings me to my current dilemma. My family belongs to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. This means that women and men are separated when they pray. What is the reason for this? At 5 years old, I turned to my mother one Rosh Hashanah in synagogue and asked, “Ma, why are the men in jail?” My mother said she knew I would be fine in life after that question because I was seeing that the men were separated, not the women. Then I had friends who weren’t Jewish when I was growing up say they thought it was sexist and horrible that women and men were separated. It wasn’t until recently as an adult that I asked what the deeper meaning for this separation was.

As it turns out, the reason is not so obvious. Many Jews will tell you the separation between men and women at synagogue is because the focus in synagogue should be on God and not on the opposite sex. Though that is a valid reason, it’s not the whole truth.

According to some scholars, the reason women and men are separated is that the soul of a woman and the soul of a man, though equal, are different. It is because of this basic difference that women and men need their own space to pray and to become in tune with their natural and true selves. It is more of a spiritual reason than a sexist reason.

I’m not sure if I agree with the rules, but I respect them in my own synagogue. It feels important to me that I have the right answers to the questions my daughter might ask me one day. I think about the Virgin of Guadalupe and how men fall to their knees before her. In some Mexican towns, men tattoo Guadalupe on their backs as a form of protection so no one will ever stab them from behind. I think of how Guadalupe is the mother figure and then I think about Judaism again.

“Who are the strongest women in Judaism?” Helen might ask me. I think about my answer to the question that doesn’t exist yet because my daughter is too young to form a sentence, let alone ask a question. But within my interfaith partnership, I find myself increasingly aware of the differences between the way Adrian and I grew up, and I find myself asking my own questions in order to answer my daughter’s future questions.

So, who are the strongest women in Judaism? The answer I came up with is similar to Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe. The strongest women are our mothers. They are not glorified saints, but they are saints. Our grandmothers—they too hold the wisdom of decades. Guadalupe appears to the poor, the needy and the hungry. Our mother figures are there for us when we need them most.

I will tell Helen my thoughts on the separation of the sexes in synagogue. I will say that even though a curtain separates us, or a wall or a door, the belief is that our prayers are just as important. We will sit in synagogue on the women’s side this year with Rachel, Sarah, Rebekah and with the Virgin of Guadalupe.

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