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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 andÂ lai seeâ€”festive, cash-filled red envelopes customary for the Chinese New Yearâ€”from my husbandâ€™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, â€śShana tova,â€ť 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. Weâ€™ll sayÂ puja,Â or prayers, around the houseâ€”particularly in my home office, to appeal for a prosperous year. And weâ€™ll accept my mother-in-lawâ€™s annual deliveryâ€”an aromatic, seven-vegetable curryâ€”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 phenomenonâ€”the passage of timeâ€”could be considered, well, a lot. And itâ€™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 didnâ€™t herald the auspicious occasion of his birth. I thought we were good once he accepted that, but this yearâ€™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 timeâ€”how it takes the earth 365 days to orbit the sun, and how different cultures developed their own calendars to mark each dayâ€™s passage thousands of years ago. That didnâ€™t go over so well.
â€śBut doesnâ€™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?â€ť 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 caseâ€”what our various New Year celebrations meant to me, personallyâ€”before I could convince him they werenâ€™t all redundant to his â€śdouble special dayâ€ť 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.
Iâ€™ve given up on as many New Yearâ€™s resolutions as Iâ€™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 Yearâ€™s celebration every few months meant we didnâ€™tÂ haveÂ 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 weâ€™d ordinarily overlook?
What if I spent some time during the Rosh Hashanah school break talking to my kids about what weâ€™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 weâ€™d had since Rosh Hashanah, and brainstormed other cool things we wanted to try before New Yearâ€™s Day?
And what if, on January 1st (after blowing out my sonâ€™s birthday candles, of course), we considered what weâ€™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 calendarsâ€”my familyâ€™s multicultural forcing mechanismâ€”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 Iâ€™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 fromÂ Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids.Â Follow Kveller on FacebookÂ andÂ sign up for their newsletters here.
I canâ€™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, â€śEnjoy this time! It goes so fast,â€ť as Adrian and I whisked Helen off to the park, to doctorâ€™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 Helenâ€™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 piĂ±atas. 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 Adrianâ€™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 Adrianâ€™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. Iâ€™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 Helenâ€™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 piĂ±atas 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 Helenâ€™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, â€śbuuubuuu.â€ť Thatâ€™s her version of â€śballoon.â€ť I think thatâ€™s because in Spanish the word balloon is â€śgloboâ€ť and she mixes the sounds. She loved the balloons and the gift-wrapping more that the actual gifts. She did yell, â€śAbbyyyyyâ€ť 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 oâ€™clock the guests began to arrive. My mother was the first, of course. She couldnâ€™t wait to give Helen her gift. Because Adrianâ€™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, Adrianâ€™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 itâ€™s done right it tastes like a sugary cloud. We turned off the lights and first played â€ślas maĂ±anitasâ€ť 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 wasnâ€™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, â€śHelen Rose, Helen Rose, Helen Rose.â€ť 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.
A few weeks ago my family had a hard day. It seemed that both my Jewish and my husbandâ€™s Mexican/Catholic faith were being tested. A 7.1 earthquake shook Mexico. The epicenter of the quake was in Puebla where my husband, Adrian, is from and where his immediate family still lives. We were at the laundromat with Helen, our 2-year-old. All of a sudden breaking news of the quake flashed across the two flat screens above us.
Both Mexico City and the small, unknown villages of Puebla suffered. What was even more striking was the undeniable factor that the same earth shook on the same date in 1985 when 10,000 people were killed in Mexico City. Adrian grabbed his phone immediately. But then, so had the rest of the world. There was no connection to his village and the phones seemed dead or the lines were all busy. We grabbed our laundry from the dryer, put it in the trunk of the car and drove home to fold it.
The 19th of September this year also marked one day before the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. I wondered how we would be able to celebrate in the wake of such a tragedy.
As the day moved on, Adrian kept getting Facebook updates from friends in his town who had some access to the internet via their phones. Photos started being uploaded of demolished buildings. Another mutual friend of ours who was in Mexico City said 46 buildings had collapsed and there was chaos on the streets. Adrian went somewhere deep inside of himself with worry. I tried to play with Helen in the living room and not say too much. There was nothing to say, there was only waiting.
News came from Adrianâ€™s brother that the church in their village had collapsed. The front was cracked down the middle and still standing but everything inside had fallen. Adrian started to cry. His mother went to that church every Sunday, every holiday and at every opportunity she had. He still hadnâ€™t heard from her. I wondered what it would be like if my synagogue fell down, the same one I had been going to since I was a child. I couldnâ€™t imagine the feeling. He went into the bedroom and prayed to his Virgin of Guadalupe.
At 6 oâ€™clock Adrianâ€™s sister got through to him. That was mostly due to the iPhone he had sent to her a year ago. She said that the town was a mess but that luckily the family was OK. However, a lot of the neighbors were left homeless and there were huge cracks in the earth. One wall in his motherâ€™s house was cracked and the stove had fallen killing three live turkeys that had been running around the kitchen. I could see the relief on Adrianâ€™s face even before he hung up with his sister. I could see his sadness but also his faith, that unshakable faith when you believe in something hard enough that it changes the outcome of your worst fears.
We found out later that one girl in the village had been rushed to the hospital after a house collapsed on her. We also heard later on about how money from the government was not reaching the pueblos and that people were forced to rebuild without help. Then someone in the village started a donation page and raised enough money for bottled water and supplies.
The next night was Rosh Hashanah. Adrian was still reeling from the destruction of his village and he had to work so he didnâ€™t join Helen and me at the table in my motherâ€™s house. But, my brother said a special prayer for his family and he was present even in his grief. Adrian was actually happy to go to work so that he could take his mind off of things.
As the Jewish New Year progressed I looked at Helen. I remember when Adrian and I decided that she would be of two faiths. It was way before she was born. We said that whatever she wanted to be, she would be part of both of us. So far she eats my motherâ€™s chicken soup, jalapeĂ±os, challah and tacos. She smiles like her mother and looks like her father. She says â€śhello,â€ť â€śholaâ€ť and â€śshalom.â€ť
When Helen was just a year old I received an angry email from an irate woman asking me how I could raise my daughter in an interfaith household. She accused me of being a â€śbad Jewâ€ť and told me I was making my daughter into a â€śguinea pig.â€ť The email had me in tears. I couldnâ€™t believe someone would say such a thing. It took me weeks to realize that a voice like that is not a voice of strength but a voice of true weakness, full of misunderstandings. After the earthquake happened I thought about that womanâ€™s email and how absurd it was. After all, Helen goes to the synagogue I went to when I was a child and she will help rebuild the church that her abuela cherishes. We have already asked when we can make a donation in her name.
This year on Yom Kippur I will wear black, say the Kaddish (the mournerâ€™s prayer) for my father and for the people of Mexico who suffered during the earthquake. I will teach my daughter a Jewish prayer and a Catholic prayer. I will teach her that being part of an interfaith family does not make you less of one thing but more of both. After all, we have work to do. There are synagogues that need renovations and churches that are waiting to be rebuilt.
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 earthâ€”our nights and our days are numbered. So it wasnâ€™t surprising that I grew up on 23rdÂ street in Brooklyn and my father died on August 23. I was 12-and-a-half years old.Â By Jewish law, I was a woman. But by losing a father at such a young age, a part of me remained fixed in timeâ€”always a little girl.
This year marks 23 yearsÂ since my father died and I still havenâ€™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 placesâ€”Paramus, New Jersey. If I know one thing about the spirit, itâ€™s that my fatherâ€™s spirit wouldnâ€™t be caught dead in Jersey. Heâ€™s not really there.
The dead live in our hearts. They live with us throughout our numbered days. Sometimes they ride the trainÂ or the bus with us. They help us cross the street on particularly tired days. We canâ€™t see them, but they are around.
In Jewish tradition, my family believes that after death our souls go back to God. My husbandâ€™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), Adrianâ€™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 motherâ€™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 sheâ€™s been asking me for 23 years, â€śAre you coming with us to the cemetery today?â€ť
My father was crematedâ€”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, â€śThereâ€™s Big Dave in a little jar.â€ť Iâ€™m not sure my husbandâ€™s take on cremation and Iâ€™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 Adrianâ€™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 alsoÂ tells me that people are cremated in Mexico, but thoseÂ people are usually from a bigger city whereas he is from a smaller village setting.
What Adrian canâ€™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 sheâ€™s ready to join him (hopefully no time soon). He says thatâ€™s the strangest thing heâ€™s ever heard. I try to explain to him that itâ€™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. Heâ€™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.
Itâ€™s been 23 years since my fatherâ€™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 familyâ€™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 fatherâ€™s death. Itâ€™s clear heâ€™s still among usâ€¦in his own way.
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 seeminglyÂ 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 itâ€™s important to remember that freedom OF speech is not freedom FROM speech. Do I support or encourage the Ku Klux KlanÂ 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 donâ€™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 onlyÂ 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 marriageÂ 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 didnâ€™t take long before we could hear the undertones and whispers coming from the home team dugout. â€śF-ing (expletive) Jews. Why donâ€™t you go home back where you came from?â€ť 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, â€śGo home you stupid k___ (derogatory word for Jews that sounds like â€śkiteâ€ť).â€ť
These awful words still ring in my ears more than 25 years later. My perspective on the world has evolved over the yearsâ€”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 behaviorâ€”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 momentâ€™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.
Itâ€™s been two weeks of vacation for my family in upstate New York. Nothing but fun, sun, relaxing walks by the lake, fishing and QuinceaĂ±era Barbie. Waitâ€¦what!? Hereâ€™s how QuinceaĂ±era Barbie came into my life.
My daughter Helen Rose is American, Mexican, Jewish and Catholic. The question from my Jewish-American side of the family is always, â€śAre you going to give her a bat mitzvah when she turns 12?â€ť And the question from Adrianâ€™s Catholic-Mexican side of the family is always, â€śAre you going to give her a QuinceaĂ±era when she turns 15?â€ť
Both of these ceremonies celebrate the move from girlhood to adulthood. At a bat mitzvah, a girl may read a portion from the Torah in synagogue and then have a big party or sometimes, itâ€™s just a big party. At a QuinceaĂ±era, there is a traditional dance that the girl does with a childhood doll. When the dance ends, the girl must give the doll away and then she is considered a woman. That dance usually takes place during a big party. Mostly, I believe these questions are brought up from both families because itâ€™s a hint that we should start saving money now, even though my daughter is just 2Â years old.
I hadnâ€™t given much thought to bat mitzvahs or QuinceaĂ±eras. Iâ€™ve been enjoying the part of my daughterâ€™s childhood where every moment and every new discovery feels like one big party. She finds bugs and runs through outdoor sprinklers on our vacation. She chases birds and learns new words in both Spanish and English: boat, burro, cook and hola. But, one day it starts to rain and so instead of having our usual barbecue by the water, we take her to a Barnes and Noble in town so that she can run through the kids’ section.
Her first choice in toys when we get there is a train set thatâ€™s been set up in the corner. But she quickly tires of the train set after she realizes there are other toys in the store. She reaches for Peppa Pig, Elmo, Cookie Monster and Big Bird. She brings each toy over to me. She smiles and then runs to get another one. Finally, I spot her holding a large cardboard box with a doll inside. The dollâ€™s skin is the same cinnamon tint as my daughterâ€™s. The doll is wearing a long purple gown and at the bottom of the plastic that encases her, it says, in shiny silver letters, “QUINCEAĂ‘ERA BARBIE.” Oh help me.
I never had a Barbie. I didnâ€™t really want one. My brother was older than I was and he had G.I. Joes and all kinds of science toys so I veered more toward those. The only time I played with a Barbie was when I was at someoneâ€™s house for a play date. Once, at my friend Avivaâ€™s house, I took her favorite Barbie and shoved its head into her parents’ whirlpool (a machine used to make the bath into a jacuzziâ€¦it was the ’80s) in the bathtub. Iâ€™m pretty sure I broke the whirlpool when Barbie came out but her head stayed in. Her father spent two hours trying to shave Barbieâ€™s hair off to get her golden locks to break free from the whirlpool.
But there was my daughter, on a rainy afternoon, holding QuinceaĂ±era Barbie and waving her in my face. And there was QuinceaĂ±era Barbie with a glazed look in her eyes as if to say, â€śRemember me?â€ť She had also plucked two other Barbie dolls from the shelfâ€”Ballet Wishes Barbie and 2016 Birthday Wishes Barbie. But, QuinceaĂ±era Barbie towered over those two petite Barbie dolls and claimed her moment.
As my daughter ran off to get another doll, I wondered why there was no Bat Mitzvah Barbie. I imagined what she would look likeâ€”complete with her Torah scroll and equally shiny dress. As soon as my thoughts began to wander, I looked up everything having to do with Barbie dolls. What I found out shocked and surprised me.
Ruth Handler, who was the Jewish daughter of Polish immigrants, invented the Barbie doll. She actually thought of the idea after she saw her daughter playing with paper dolls. As I read up on her, I found out how she became one of the most successful business women in history. I then thought of the hilarity of my own situation. Barbie, even the QuinceaĂ±era Barbie, is Jewish! Sheâ€™s not only Jewish but sheâ€™s interfaithâ€”an interfaith Barbie! Her original creator is a Jewish woman named Ruth Handler and her identity in her current costume is that of a Catholic Latina girl about to enter womanhood! Iâ€™ve now become obsessed with the idea that any Barbie doll sold on the shelf of a toy store today is part Jewish.
I didnâ€™t purchase QuinceaĂ±era Barbie only because my daughter doesnâ€™t really know how to play with her yet. However, I do know that when my daughter is older and has questions about her two faiths, I will use QuinceaĂ±era Barbie as a model of something that incorporates a rich history of Judaism, Catholicism and invention. After all, as an interfaith child of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, reinvention is something we are very familiar with.
By Lindsey Goldstein
Before my husband and I got married, we discussed how we would raise any potential children. These children were very theoretical. something I wasnâ€™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 hasnâ€™t practiced any religion since he left his parentsâ€™ 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 werenâ€™t profound. They went something like this:
Me: â€śHow will we raise our kids with respect to religion?â€ť
Him: â€śWell, youâ€™re Jewish, so arenâ€™t they Jewish by default?â€ť
Of course, he referred to the fact that any child that springs forth from the loins of a Jewish woman is automatically Jewish.
Thatâ€™s fine and good, but Iâ€™ve found that kids these days, unless presented with a religious upbringing will often default to being â€śnothing.â€ť Or as my brotherâ€™s kids say, they are â€śhalf Jewish.â€ť 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 kidsâ€™ formal religious exposure would most likely be Judaism because my parents live 35 minutes away, so we spend the Jewish holidays with themâ€”and unlike him, I practice my religion.
Yet this wasnâ€™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 haveÂ previously written, I am so proud that she became extremely interested in her Jewishness to the extent that she taught me things Iâ€™d long forgotten from my Jewish upbringing. In June, she â€śgraduatedâ€ť 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 aÂ bat mitzvahÂ and she said yes. I explained to her sheâ€™d have to attend Hebrew school on Sundays to make her goal happen.
Hereâ€™s the thing: When my daughter and I discuss Hebrew school, she forgets about it minutes later. I donâ€™t force the issue because I reflect on the fact that I wouldnâ€™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 donâ€™t do that to our kids. But I remind him that being Jewish isnâ€™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 donâ€™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 â€śdifferent.â€ť 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 Iâ€™ve never been terribly religious, it turned out I was out of place in a religious context that wasnâ€™t my own, and I craved the companionship of people who â€śget me.â€ť
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 donâ€™t want them to float around in this world incapable of identifying themselves with a community.Â Selfishly, I want that community to be a Jewish one.
Clearly, my husband and I still have some discussion before usâ€”and it wonâ€™t be easy to iron out now that our kids are growing up. We should have made concrete decisions about religious upbringing before.
Thatâ€™s why when other interfaith couples say theyâ€™re going to â€świng it,â€ť I vehemently tell them not toâ€”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 upbringingâ€”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, â€śJewish.â€ť
This article was reprinted with permission fromÂ Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids.Â Follow Kveller on FacebookÂ andÂ sign up for their newsletters here.
Itâ€™s a Monday morning in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and my almost 2-year-old daughter and IÂ 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 yellowâ€”so, basically heâ€™s gray.
The super of my buildingÂ sees me trying to get Helen into the stroller. â€śYou gonna take an umbrella?â€ť he asks, â€śItâ€™s supposed to rain like crazy.â€ť
The library is a ten-minute walk from my apartment and it hasnâ€™t started raining yet. The umbrella is the one item Iâ€™ve forgotten. â€śNo,â€ť I say, â€śIâ€™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. Itâ€™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 donâ€™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 OdysseyÂ minivans. Once, from my motherâ€™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. Iâ€™m constantly making cracks about them. I can always see the TVÂ turned on in the back seat of an Odyssey. So many Odyssey minivan drivers drive too slow in themÂ because of all theÂ kids they have in the car. But, itâ€™s my own personal obnoxious joke that I canâ€™t stand the Honda Odyssey.
With that being said, as Iâ€™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. â€śExcuse me!â€ť She shouts from her Odyssey, â€śDo you need a ride? I have three car seats in the car.â€ť I am wearing jeans (a clear sign I am not an Orthodox Jew, though I am a Jew, but she doesnâ€™t know this) and a shirt that has become so obviously see-through.
â€śAre you sure?â€ť I ask, hesitating as water drips down my face.
â€śYes!â€ť 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 â€śdogs in tutuâ€ť umbrella she says, â€śIâ€™ve never picked up a stranger before! I just couldnâ€™t believe you were out here. I just dropped my kids off at camp and saw you. Where are you going?â€ť
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, â€śbaby.”
â€śPlease take this,â€ť she says, â€śI have six blankets in this car and the library is freezing.â€ť
This is when I take the opportunity to let her know in Hebrew that I am a Jew. Iâ€™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 didnâ€™t matter to this woman. So I said, â€śtodah rabahâ€ť (thank you, in Hebrew). â€śYou did a real mitzvahâ€ť (good deed).
But, to my surprise the woman wasnâ€™t shocked. Her mouth didnâ€™t drop open and she didnâ€™t shout, â€śOh my God youâ€™re Jewish!?!â€ť 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, itâ€™s nice to know that as Anne Frank once wrote at the age of 13, â€śIn spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.â€ť Maybe Iâ€™ll stop being so judgmental about the Odyssey.
Insomnia. Itâ€™s awful and Iâ€™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, â€śWhat else can I eat?â€ť 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 elseâ€¦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 familyâ€™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 daughterâ€™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 â€śscience of the mind.â€ť 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. Iâ€™m part of an interfaith family! I can use a prayer, a word or even a saying. I choose something that Iâ€™ve been saying before bed since I was a little girl. â€śShema Yisrael,â€ť the prayer in Hebrew of â€śHear Oâ€™ Israel.â€ť 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 oâ€™clock in the morning Iâ€™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 canâ€™t fall asleep I sit upright in a chair, close my eyes and invoke Israelâ€™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 â€śShema,â€ť there is a Catholic prayer of St. Francis that I love which begins, â€śLord, make me an instrument of your peaceâ€¦â€ť 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 mindâ€™s eye. But, as soon as I close my eyes itâ€™s not Mother Teresa at all. Itâ€™s my Grandma Rosie and sheâ€™s holding a bowl of chicken soup. So I say, â€śGrandma, what are you doing here?â€ť She says, â€śI heard you couldnâ€™t sleep so I made you some soup.â€ť I laugh when I open my eyes.
The next night I make the family my Grandmotherâ€™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.
My middle name is Miriam. I am named after Mark, my motherâ€™s brother who was killed at the young age of 39. My name is a remembrance of him just as my daughterâ€™s name is a reminder of my two Grandmothers, Helen and Rose. Names have great meaning and what someone is named at birth doesnâ€™t necessarily determine who they are, but it does hold potential.
One of this monthâ€™s Torah portions just happens to be called â€śChukat,â€ť meaning â€śdecree.â€ť It is one of my favorite portions because it is about the death of Miriam (Mosesâ€™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 sisterâ€™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 Mosesâ€™ 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 rebelliousâ€”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 peopleâ€™s hardest times. I have chosen to live my life as she lived hersâ€”with a magical well that never runs dry with room enough for different faiths, cultures and beliefs.
Whatâ€™s funny is that the man I chose to spend my life with is named Adrian andÂ his name is from the Latin root meaning â€śseaâ€ť or â€śwater.â€ť 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 hasnâ€™t heard of Helen of Troy? Her name in Greek means â€śShining Lightâ€ť or â€śThe Bright One.â€ť This seems appropriate, that two bodies of water can create a spark, something beautiful and different that never fades.
I like the â€śChukatâ€ť 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 Miriamâ€™s death. Moses loses faith in his people. God is angered most by Mosesâ€™ 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.
Thatâ€™s what Godâ€™s decree is in the â€śChukatâ€ť 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.