Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This booklet explains the history of Hanukkah, the symbolism and significance of lighting candles for eight nights, the blessings that accompany the lighting of the candles, the holiday's foods, the game of dreidels, and more!
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
Being stuck in a car for three hours with my mother, Adrian (my significant other) and our baby girl, Helen Rose, is just part of the beauty of Thanksgiving. I should note that being born and raised in Mexico, Adrian doesn’t know a lot about our American holiday, so I began by explaining that sitting in traffic is not just a rite of passage, but also a tradition. I should also explain that he hates turkey and can’t stand the way I drive. But no one else wanted to drive, so our holiday began with a two-hour traffic delay through Staten Island on our way to New Jersey.
Here is something else: The last time Adrian met my cousins, uncle and aunt was at Helen’s baby naming, when we were consumed with being new parents as she was then only two months old. So this was going to be a new rite of passage. Meeting family can be nerve-wracking, especially since I have a very Jewish family. Almost everyone in my family has gone to yeshiva, keeps kosher and lives following Jewish law, and some even live or have lived in Israel.
Helen, Adrian and I follow different rules and laws within our interfaith family. Some we make up along the way as we try to find our place in both a Jewish and Mexican-Catholic culture. We make sure to keep both faiths present in our household so that nothing is lost for Helen. Both religions and traditions live and speak through her. And as she grows she will decide what to keep.
We eventually made it to New Jersey. There were 23 people at my cousin’s house, not including babies. It felt like a new year. I remember lonely Thanksgivings working in restaurants. I remember Thanksgivings without my father, without my grandparents and without hope. This year felt so different and alive.
Adrian was nervous but excited, and Helen looks so much like him that people kept commenting that they seemed like twins. My baby cousins (now grown and almost all engaged) said I looked happier than they’ve ever seen me. Also, when we first arrived, my cousin saved us some mini hot dogs from the appetizers they had passed around, and Helen ate almost three of them. My nephews, just two-and-a-half months older than Helen, were there as well, and they all played and ran around chasing the two dogs.
At one point my cousin’s father made a speech about my baby cousin’s recent engagement. During his speech he talked about living a Jewish life and passing down Jewish traditions. I thought about this deeply. I asked myself, what from my culture, my tradition and my religion do I want to pass to my daughter?
As a child I had a lot of trouble in school. Sent to an Orthodox yeshiva at a young age, I learned how to fit into a black-hat community while wearing jeans and swearing on weekends. I was taught that there was only one way to do something. I was taught that God was almighty, all-knowing and pissed off all or most of the time.
It wasn’t always bad though. I learned Hebrew and spirituality. Later on in my life when I picked up a book by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan called “Meditation and the Bible,” I could follow the deep meaning of the Torah. When I returned to the Judaica store to purchase another book by the same rabbi, I could answer the religious boy behind the counter who asked me what I thought about Rabbi Kaplan’s observations.
Sometimes it feels as though Adrian, Helen and I are walking through a biblical desert. We have our own beliefs; our traditions and obstacles rise up from the sand all the time. How we react to those obstacles is an integral part of our spiritual growth.
My cousin turned to me mid-meal and asked if it was hard for Adrian to be at the Thanksgiving feast with us. It was hard for him, but not because of a difference in religion. It’s hard because his family is a million miles away. It’s hard because his mother is sick. It’s hard because his brothers are not united and his sister just broke up with her boyfriend and doesn’t know what to do. It’s hard in a lot of different, normal ways. But it’s also easy. It’s easy for him to smile when Helen smiles. To laugh when she chases one of my cousin’s dogs all over the house. It’s easy because there’s food on the table, a roof over our heads and a warm bed to sleep in when we get home. It’s easy because so many people do not have these simple luxuries.
What about the Jewish tradition do I want to pass down to our daughter? Gratitude. Love. Life. Traditions new and old.
After we said our thank yous and goodbyes, we drove back to our little apartment in Brooklyn, where I put Helen to bed and unpacked the blue-and-white menorah for the Hanukkah holiday to come. Then I opened the package containing our matching family Christmas pajamas and set them aside in a special holiday drawer.
Thanksgiving came about when the pilgrims and Native Americans sat down at a table to eat and celebrate together. That’s one story, anyway. What were they celebrating if not their differences, their two ways of living, their double faiths?
I met my friend Tracie at an interfaith moms event at my synagogue. She was friendly, and we bonded over her husband and in-laws being from the same part of New Jersey as me. Tracie immediately got involved and eventually joined the interfaith moms’ leadership team.
Tracie was raised Christian but was raising Jewish children with her husband. Actually, in many ways, Tracie was raising Jewish children on her own in a house that she shared with her Jewish husband. Her husband Bob’s connection to Judaism ebbed and flowed. There were times where he taught Sunday school and then there were times when he completely disengaged and even argued that it would be easier to let the kids be Christian.
Tracie let Bob wrestle with his Judaism even when his wrestling was hurtful to her. During these times, she never reneged on her commitment to create a Jewish home. In fact, she doubled down on Jewish engagement for herself and her children – adult Jewish learning and lay leadership for her; Jewish preschool, religious school and summer camp for the boys.
One of the things that always struck me about Tracie was her embrace of Judaism, its traditions, and teachings, and her resolve to make them a part of her and her family’s life. Tracie, a voracious reader and an eager participant in various Jewish learning courses, was so knowledgeable about Judaism that people were surprised to learn that she wasn’t Jewish.
One day, I asked her if she had ever considered converting. She said, “Why do I need to convert to become something that I already feel I am?” She wasn’t offended by my question, and as many conversations go with Tracie, we had a great discussion about identity, boundaries, norms and more. I assumed she would continue living as a ger toshav, a person from a different religious background who accepts and observes the Noahide Laws (the seven commandments which are said to apply to people who are not Jewish), and certain other Jewish religious and cultural traditions.
The other day, I ran into Tracie in the halls of our temple after not seeing her for a while. She was leaving a pre-bar mitzvah meeting with one of our rabbis and her son who is preparing for his bar mitzvah in December. We hugged. It was so good to see her. She looked happy and sounded excited about her son’s upcoming milestone.
As we talked, she said, “I need to schedule some time to speak to you. I’m ready. I’m ready to make it official.” I knew what she was talking about. “It” was Judaism. I was surprised but not shocked, and really, just excited.
One of the beautiful parts of my job as the director of community engagement at my synagogue is that I oversee conversion and get to share in the journey of those interested in choosing Judaism. The experience is even more meaningful when I get to walk the path to an “official” Jewish identity with a friend or someone I’ve known for years because of their involvement in our community.
In these situations, I’m reminded of the gift an open, welcoming and inclusive Jewish community is because it allows those from other backgrounds to explore Judaism in their own way and at their own pace with no pressure to convert. The willingness to patiently nurture Jewishness in everyone, not just Jews, enables many ger toshavs to take their place among the Jewish people when it is right for them, rather than for a communal leader, spouse or future in-law. I’m so glad to be part of this kind of community and to be able in my professional life to be part of these journeys to Judaism.
Recently I had an article published on a Jewish site about a dream I had. It was a political piece, and during these rough, media-frenzied times I received a ton of comments, most of them not the loving kind. I am often asked to write pieces about my Jewish experience, my interfaith experience and my everyday experience as a mother. How do I incorporate two faiths in my home when I am Jewish and Adrian, my partner, is Mexican Catholic? What and how do we teach our daughter about our vastly different cultures and faiths?
The first comment I received was harsh: “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever read. Just pure drivel!” I had struck a political nerve. Also, I should mention that I talked a lot about Hitler in my piece, a little about Anne Frank and how my dream was recurring—a real nightmare. But nowhere in my piece did I tell my audience who to vote for, or condemn them for choosing a particular party they feel represents them. What I did question was how to teach my daughter to have loving-kindness and tolerance for the things I don’t believe represent me.
As I scrolled down, I saw there were almost 80 comments. One man said, “Ms. Keller would look great in my oven.” That same man uploaded a picture of a bar of soap from a concentration camp with a Jewish star on it. There were also all sorts of comments about my interfaith relationship. “You have shamed your people and disobeyed the Torah by mating with a goy.” (“Goy” is a term used by Jews to describe people who aren’t Jewish.) One person took my article and posted it on another blog, where people commented again about my family, saying, “I feel bad for your guinea-pig daughter.” Then I got some personal hate-mail emails.
One person wrote: “You neurotic Jews are so hilarious. You preach to us about ‘paranoid style of American politics’ and the scare mongering of Joe McCarthy, but you see Hitler under every bed. LOL.” And, “Before you morally supremacist and narcissistic Jews pontificate about how holy shmoly you are, you should consider a few things.” I had clearly raised some eyebrows. Someone else told me to pack my daughter’s bags full of tacos and burritos and prepare her for her trip south.
Ellen DeGeneres says she never reads anything about herself, good or bad. Now I understand why. It’s easy to get sucked in to all that hate. It’s easy to want to respond to every single person who has something to say. But I believe in freedom of speech; I just don’t believe in stupidity. I also believe in Shakespeare, which is one of the reasons I only replied to one person who had personally stalked me via email to get her point across. I simply replied, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” It’s one of my favorite lines of all time from “Hamlet.”
What bothered me the most wasn’t the blatant anti-Semitism; it wasn’t the insults to my writing. What bothered me were the insults on the blog where my article was re-posted. Those people were talking about my daughter, my beautiful, innocent, carefree 1-year-old daughter. It was a moment of clarity: There are people who love to hate other people. There are people who are so unhappy with their own lives, their own situations and their own senses of self that they have to troll around the Internet to find someone they can hate.
The funny thing about the computer is that it doesn’t have a face. If I had written an article for a class or a conference and people disagreed with it, there would probably be some hand-waving, some discussion, maybe even a healthy debate. Because there is no face on the Internet there is no consequence to what people say. Many of these commenters hide behind fake names. One man’s name was “Bill Kristolnach,” a pun on “Kristallnacht” (the “Night of Broken Glass” when the Nazis shattered everything Jews owned as the Holocaust began) and Bill Kristol, the political analyst.
But the comments about my child threw me for a loop. Is this what she will come up against in school? What will I tell her to do? How should she respond? What if someone tells her to go put tacos and burritos in her backpack because she’s being deported, even though she’s an American citizen? Will she believe them? Will she be scared? What will I tell her to respond if they say she has shamed the Torah? Will she believe in a God who is merciful, who will save her from this hatred? My 11-year-old self would tell her to put her fist through someone’s face. But that’s one of the reasons I was kicked out of an Orthodox yeshiva, and I’m trying not to repeat the past.
What will I say? Because there will be days she won’t understand who she is or where she comes from. There will be days she asks what it means to be Mexican, what it means to be American, what it means to be Catholic and what it means to be Jewish. I hope to continue the traditions of both the Jewish and Catholic holidays in our home in order for her to learn, grow and one day decide who she is and who she will become. That is her choice to make, not mine.
One of my favorite quotes to repeat when I am faced with adversity is by Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
The hateful comments were later deleted from the original site, but a few more personal hate emails did make their way into my inbox. Hate is a good lesson. It teaches us that history really does repeat itself. It gave fuel to my original article and had people reading and thinking. Hate twists and turns itself around to fit in the places where love never existed. There are people who already hate my daughter because of her skin, her two religions, because of me and who I am, because of Adrian and who he is. All we can do in response to hate is to love. We can love and love and love. Then we can also punch a wall and scream into a pillow.
The email had arrived a week before I was to travel to Houston to speak to a congregation about intermarriage and creating a Jewish home as an interfaith couple. It said that the following week, instead of regular Sunday school, there would be a program for sixth-grade students and their parents related to b’nai mitzvah and those children whose bar or bat mitzvah was in the fall of 2017 would pick their Torah portion.
Great, I thought, another pre-bar mitzvah project or meeting that I would miss due to work or a speaking engagement. Once again my not Jewish husband would be called upon to be the religious school, no, the Jewish parent. I was annoyed and disappointed that I wouldn’t get to be part of this activity with my son. I was grateful that my husband who has always been supportive of and involved in creating our Jewish home was willing to step in.
Because I wasn’t going to be at the program, I wanted my husband and son to know what to expect and to prepare them with any information they needed. I told one of our rabbis that my husband and son were coming without me. She said, “Jane, Cameron will be fine. In fact, he probably knows more than many of the Jewish parents who will be in the room. Just make sure he and Sammy know how many aliyahs you want or need. If you don’t have a big family with a lot of people to honor, Sammy only needs three.” (An aliyah is the honor of reciting the blessings over the Torah at the bimah before the Torah is read. During bar or bat mitzvah services, it is common for the bar mitzvah child to give these honors to family.) I passed the information on to my husband and son – three aliyahs.
I knew my rabbi was right. My husband would be fine. My son would be fine. In fact, my son was glad I wasn’t going to be there. He wanted to feel like he was in control of as much of the bar mitzvah planning as possible. My absence made him feel independent.
Still, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to be present when my son picked his Torah portion. I felt like I was missing out, not getting to be fully involved in the process, and that I was somehow falling down on the job of Jewish parent. At the same time, I smiled at the irony of the situation–the Jewish mom busy with other things leaving her child’s not Jewish dad in charge of making sure their son got to religious school and became a bar mitzvah.
As I spoke to the assembled parents at the congregation in Houston on the morning of the Torah portion picking, my watch vibrated, and a text from my husband came through. “Three aliyahs, right?” I apologized to the audience for the distraction and shared that my husband was helping my son pick his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah as I spoke to them. I said, “You don’t get a better example of life as an interfaith family living Jewishly than that! Sometimes the Jewish parent is the Jewish parent, and sometimes the parent from another background fills the role of Jewish parent.”
When I got home in the evening, I looked at the materials on the Torah portion and requirements for b’nai mitzvah students that my son received. His Torah portion was from Parsha Noach (Noah). He chose the first part of the chapter, where God tells Noah that the earth is corrupt and lawless, and instructs Noah to build an ark because he is going to flood the earth in order to destroy all that lives that is unclean. I turned to my son, “Did the kid pick the portion, or the portion pick the kid? What a perfect piece for my child who wants to be an engineer that designs and builds ships with water purification systems so he can repair our waterways!”
“It was the most interesting part to me,” my son responded. “That’s why I picked it.” My rabbi was right. My son was fine, and my husband did a great job.
I’ve written many times, about how lucky I feel to have a spouse who is so engaged and supportive of our family’s Jewish journey. I went to sleep that night feeling incredibly grateful once again for all that my husband does to make this Jewish thing happen and for the sweet ironies that are part of life as an interfaith family.
Our family has had a hard few weeks. Every day we open the news to a different headline about hatred and anger. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world has gone bonkers. To top it off, my significant other, Adrian, recently received a phone call from Mexico informing him that his mother is ill. Her diabetes has taken a turn for the worse, and her doctor told her she could no longer eat tortillas, a staple food in Mexico. Adrian came home from work one night and put his head in his hands, defeated. “I think my father feels very alone,” he said.
The next day I found out that my mother’s favorite cousin died from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He had been living in a care facility where his wife would go three times a day to bring him food, company, laughter and a lot of love. My mother came home from work one day and put her head in her hands, defeated. “I think Tommy’s death has finally hit me,” she said.
My almost 1-year-old daughter, Helen, does not understand death and sickness yet. She has just begun learning how to live, how to crawl, how to hold onto something and pull herself up, how to grab onto the coffee table and take one step at a time.
With Rosh Hashanah right around the corner, we leave the house daily with lists of ingredients to buy for honey cake. I want her first Jewish New Year to be a joyous one full of hope. But there is some despair in our home right now.
Adrian checks his phone for messages about his mother. He calls Mexico. He meets with his brothers to discuss how much money they need to send back to Mexico for his mother to see a good doctor.
I sit in my mother’s kitchen trying to scrawl out a letter to Tommy’s wife, searching for words to explain my sympathy.
I want to pray. It is important to me that my daughter learns to pray, and because we are an interfaith family, it is important that both Adrian and I teach her how we both pray, especially because we pray so differently. But Adrian does not feel like praying lately. His statue of The Virgin of Guadalupe rests dusty on the bureau. I take this as an opportunity to learn that sometimes we as human beings don’t have the will to pray. Sometimes praying means admitting something is wrong, and Adrian doesn’t want there to be anything seriously wrong with his mother.
In Judaism it seems there is a prayer for everything. There is a prayer for death, life, sadness, forgiveness, women, men and children. There are prayers before going to bed, before eating lunch, after eating lunch and a prayer upon waking up in the morning. Adrian has different prayers, and because I didn’t grow up Catholic like him, I don’t know many of them. I assume they are similar to Jewish prayers, but I can’t be sure.
I’ve been trying to teach Helen a few Jewish prayers. Because Adrian has been feeling so down, I looked up a prayer that Helen and I could recite for him and his mother. After coming across prayers similar to those in Judaism, I found a prayer to Guadalupe that begins, “Our Lady of Guadalupe, mystical rose….” I liked that because Helen’s middle name is Rose. I sat down on the floor with Helen and began to recite the prayer, even though it’s not a Jewish prayer. Then we added a Hebrew prayer for cousin Tommy.
“This is for Papi,” I said to Helen, “and for Abuela (Grandma) to get better. And we will say one for cousin Tommy’s family too.”
Helen was silent; I’m not sure she understood, but comprehension will come later. For now it’s important for me to keep up with my own traditions, as well as Adrian’s, even when he can’t. I’m sure he would do the same for me.
Sometimes Adrian and I don’t understand each other’s faiths. For him, Judaism has a lot of rules and complex meanings to these rules. For me, as a Jew, I don’t bow down to idols. But I can enter into a realm of understanding and ask his saints to care for him just as I can ask Hashem, my God, at the same time to care for him.
Our goal as an interfaith family is to bring just that: faith. How do people survive bombings, terror, heartache and grief? We survive by faith. Helen has two faiths. She will learn, and is learning, two faiths. At times these two faiths can be difficult to maneuver, but their deep messages are the same: Have compassion. Be a good person. Help others. Do good work in the world. And our two faiths teach us that when our significant other comes home defeated, we can be the strength they need to keep going. Our two faiths teach us to watch our child and learn from her as well. She teaches us how to live, how to crawl, how to hold onto something so we can pull ourselves up and how to hold onto a coffee table, a chair, a bench, something, anything, so that we can take our steps slowly and one at a time until we are able to walk.
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.
We had been planning our vacation to upstate New York for six months. The hotels book up by the end of August, so we made the reservation well in advance. Adrian, my significant other, got his freshwater fishing license, and we ordered our daughter a ton of new summer clothes. Everything was packed, even Grandma, who was accompanying us on the trip because she loves New York and offered to babysit in an attempt to let Adrian and me have some time alone on our vacation.
But plans never work. Not for me, at least. I look at the entire scope of my life and can say that almost anything I planned went awry. I had planned to have a Jewish wedding with a Jewish husband. But when I fell in love, it was with Adrian, a devout Catholic from Mexico. We aren’t married, we have a beautiful daughter and nothing went as planned. But still we planned our trip.
The first night at the hotel, our daughter, Helen, seemed different. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something in her personality had shifted. We attributed it to the fact that she had been in the car for five hours with only a few short breaks in between. We also put her to sleep in a Pack ‘n’ Play instead of a crib, because it’s all we had and Helen won’t sleep with us. We went to sleep and the next day—our first official vacation day—we went to the lake.
Adrian packed his fishing gear into the car. I planned what food we would eat, what toys Helen would play with and what bathing suits everyone would wear for the photos I planned to take. We propped up a tent with a blanket for Helen. Adrian went off to fish. Grandma and I stayed and played with the baby. At one point I took Helen into the water and she started to fuss. This was also unlike her. Helen loves the water, and she’s not usually fussy when it comes to trying new things. But I just thought she was over-stimulated. I’d kept her out of the sun and covered, and I couldn’t think of what could be bothering her. So I took her out of the water and we spent the afternoon playing and napping.
When we finally got back to the hotel, Helen had a fever and was crying. I noticed that her eyes looked sick. I did what any new mother with a sick baby in a strange town would do: I freaked out! I took her clothes off and left just her diaper. I washed her with a warm washcloth. I hugged her, I kissed her, I told her everything was my fault and I cried.
This is when being in an interfaith family comes into play. Sometimes interfaith also means inter-culture. Helen is from two distinct and beautiful cultures: Jewish and Mexican. Whereas I was raised to panic and have high anxiety, Adrian grew up in a village where, when a child was sick, you waited before you panicked. I had already gone out to buy Tylenol; Adrian said no Tylenol. I had already gone out to buy canned chicken-noodle soup because I didn’t have a kitchen to make soup in; Adrian said chamomile tea. I was taking Helen’s temperature with the thermometer every five seconds; Adrian just felt her back. I was taking the baby’s clothes off; Adrian said to let her sweat it out and cover her.
So we called the doctor in Brooklyn. I have the best pediatrician in the world, or at least I’d like to think so. Adrian and I have been taking Helen to Tribeca Pediatrics in Boerum Hill since she was two days old. They’re a good fit for us because they understand our religious and cultural differences and look at each child as an individual. They know Adrian’s concerns about modern medicine and my concerns as a Jewish mother who wants to make everything better with food.
They told us to watch the fever and that Tylenol wasn’t necessary, unless Helen couldn’t sleep. They said the fever would most likely be gone by Saturday. Saturday came, and a full-body rash came with it. The fever was not down; it was up and down. We called the doctor again. “Give it one more day,” was the advice from the other end of the phone. Apparently the rash was a reaction to the virus, and there’s no medicine to give a child for a virus. According to Tribeca Pediatrics—and the wise mothers of Mexico—the baby has to fight it.
Adrian did what any father would do when he saw the rash: He freaked out! It was then my turn to assure him that the rash was part of the process. Helen was also getting her big teeth in the back, and in addition to the fever and rash, she was teething like crazy. By Sunday she had no fever and the rash was going away. We went back to the lake. I bought her a teething ring and Adrian bought her a lamb chop, which he cooked on the grill and let cool. She chomped on the lamb-chop bone the whole day, and I think it was better than any teething ring ever made. She was smiling and happy and was her own self again! We planned the rest of the week and then threw the list of plans in the garbage and said, “Let’s just play it by ear.”
Growing up, my mother’s house was kosher. We had dishes for dairy and dishes for meat and we never mixed milk with meat. This goes back to the teachings of the Torah where it states on three separate occasions that a baby goat is not to be cooked in it’s mother’s milk. But our house was kosher mainly because my mother wanted my brother and me to fit in at the Orthodox Yeshiva we went to even though we weren’t Orthodox.
This plan fell through more than once. Most of my friends’ parents knew that my own parents weren’t religious. When we had sleepovers it was I who would have to travel to my peers’ houses because our house wasn’t “kosher enough.” But my mother’s efforts weren’t in vain. When Adrian and I moved into our apartment a few years ago it was my Grandmother’s dishes I unpacked from a cardboard box labeled “Grandma Rosie’s Dairy Dishes.”
There were teacups with pink roses and a tan trim on them wrapped in bubble wrap. There was a cake plate lined in gold and a blue glass candy dish I remembered reaching into as a child to pull out sticky black licorice squares. These dishes had made their debut in my Grandmother’s apartment then later at my mother’s house and finally were gifted to me. They held memories of Friday morning pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches. They also held the responsibility of staying kosher.
For my nephew’s first birthday party this past Sunday, the Star Wars cake I made followed the kosher rules. But the kosher rules also brought up concerns for our daughter Helen’s quickly approaching birthday in October. My brother and his wife ordered from a kosher catering company and had traditional Brooklyn/Jewish food. There were pastrami sandwiches, pickles, coleslaw and chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting in addition to the cake I baked. As with any Jewish event there was more than enough food. Adrian and I talked about having a Mexican/Jewish themed birthday for Helen to honor the Jewish side of my family and the Mexican Catholic side of Adrian’s family.
Helen in her non-kosher piglet onesie
I started to get excited thinking about Helen’s birthday. We began saving empty cans of jalapeño peppers for floral arrangements and I bought a pack of Mexican Lotería cards (a traditional Mexican board game similar to bingo) to make into crafty invitations. I obsessed over Pinterest cake ideas and thought that getting balloons that say “uno” instead of “1” would be a cute idea.
Then, in the middle of my excitement, I remembered how much Adrian loves to eat meat and how steak tacos are usually accompanied by fresh cream and cheese. I thought of Adrian’s favorite Mexican dishes that involve chicken and cheese and pork. Then I panicked.
We keep a kosher home but when we eat out we don’t eat kosher. But how was I to explain to him that Helen’s birthday had to follow kosher rules? My family is kosher but his family will also be there. Part of me felt I was being unfair. Part of being kosher sometimes makes it seem like I am making Judaism seem more important than Catholicism, and that’s not fair. But, how do you bend a rule that can’t be broken because of tradition or belief or just out of respect for other family members?
I waited until Adrian got home from work.
“Bebe,” I said, “I’m worried about Helen’s birthday. Maybe we shouldn’t even have a party this year.” I couldn’t believe I was considering cancelling my daughter’s first birthday party so that I wouldn’t have to have an argument about steak enchiladas.
“Why?” Adrian asked, “I thought you wanted to do a big thing the way your brother did.”
“Well, I did, but I’m worried about the food.” I started to bite my nails.
“Stop biting your nails. What about the food?” he said.
“It has to be, well, it’s going to have to be, I mean because of my family we are going to have to have kosher Mexican food.”
Adrian thought for a while before he answered, “What does that entail?”
He knew some of the kosher rules but I reminded him that aside from the meat being kosher we couldn’t mix milk with meat.
“You want meat at the party?” he asked.
“I thought you wanted meat at the party,” I said.
“Why don’t we just do all dairy?” he said.
“What?” I couldn’t believe it. Adrian is a carnivore through and through and I assumed he would want to have something with steak at Helen’s party.
“I mean we can just do cheese enchiladas, guacamole, salsa, chips and have everything be dairy, no meat.”
“I thought you wanted meat!” I yelled in shock.
“I do, but dairy is so much easier!” he shouted back.
Part of the challenge of being in an interfaith relationship is trying never to offend the other person. I was so afraid I would offend Adrian by not having traditional Mexican cuisine at our daughter’s birthday that I looked past the other options in Mexican cooking. Mexico has a wide variety of seasoning and spices and I was looking only at having a kosher party as being a problem and not a bridge between two cultures and traditions. Anyway, Helen’s first birthday is about celebrating the birth of new traditions as well as old. We want to bestow on her a life rich with flavor; a life where the menu has both chicken noodle soup and pozole.
When I was a child there were two books I wanted desperately to hear before bedtime. The first was Goodnight Fred. This was a favorite because the grandmother in the book comes out of the telephone to visit Fred and Arthur, her grandsons. I, too, thought my grandmother lived in the telephone and could come out and visit whenever she pleased.
Then there was The Clown of God. This book, written by Tomie De Paola, is about an Italian boy named Giovanni who juggles. He juggles for food and a place to sleep. He spends his whole life juggling and has one fancy trick called “the sun in the heavens,” in which he juggles colorful balls. The last ball he throws into the air is gold like the sun. Then one day he drops the sun in the heavens and he stops juggling. He goes from door to door begging for bread as he once had done as a child. Now that he’s an old man, people don’t care about him. The book is filled with Catholic references. By the end of Giovanni’s journey he ends up at a church for a big religious festival. He has fallen asleep in the church and when he wakes there is a big procession for the statue of the Madonna and her child.
When everyone leaves, Giovanni notices that the Madonna’s son is frowning. So, Giovanni puts on his clown makeup and does his most famous juggling trick in front of the statue. As he throws up the golden ball he shouts, “For you sweet child for you!” Then he drops dead in front of the statue. Two monks run in and find him lying dead on the floor. One of the monks looks at the statue in shock. The statue of the boy in the mother’s lap is smiling and holding the golden ball.
It isn’t surprising that I chose to build my life with a man from Mexico who grew up poor, Catholic and happy. I pretty much looked all my life for Giovanni and found him in Adrian. Instead of juggling, Adrian cooks. He also knows how to enjoy the simple things in life. We have a roof over our heads and we have food in our bellies. We have work. We have a healthy baby girl. These are not small things.
As a child I did not grow up poor. I didn’t grow up Catholic either. I grew up Jewish and most of the time I was happy. I expected more because I was given more as a child. I grew up with big dreams and high hopes and plans. I planned everything. I planned what shoes I was going to wear with what shirt. I planned what job I would have, how much money I would make and whom I was going to marry. I planned to have a baby no later than 25 years of age. I planned to own a house and a summer house by 30. I planned to keep in touch with all of my closest friends from nursery school, first grade, camp, junior high, high school and work. Sometimes, God has other plans. Actually, all of the time God has other plans.
I am 35 years old. Adrian and I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Midwood, Brooklyn. Helen Rose, our little one, wakes up every morning smiling at us from her crib. In our apartment there is a hamsah hanging in our kitchen and a Virgin of Guadalupe in our bedroom. There is a menorah in the living room and a prayer to Jesus in Adrian’s wallet. Good Night Fred and The Clown of God are a part of Helen’s library. These are our riches.
Life surprises me. Growing up Jewish I wish I could say that my most inspirational book was A Tale of Two Seders or Snow in Jerusalem. This is not the case. The book that most inspired me while I was tucked in under my puffy quilt with my Scottie dog wallpaper was The Clown of God. On my journey through Judaism this makes sense. When I began working in restaurants I was most inspired by the kitchen workers, most of whom had left their own countries in search of a better life. In school, I am most inspired by the students who hold down two jobs and have families or the students whose first language isn’t English but are getting an education and getting A’s in every class. I am inspired by the human capacity to overcome struggle.
I feel that people often tend to see goodness as a religious quality. But goodness is a human quality. Goodness is often compared to gold. It is this quality I wish to pass on to my daughter. Having an interfaith family is challenging. It challenges me every day to be more open and aware. It makes me ask questions and urges me to listen. It stops me from making plans and lets life lead me.
My favorite page in Tomie De Paola’s Clown of God is when Giovanni is still a young man and he makes his money juggling. One day he runs into two monks on the way to town. He shares his food with them and they begin to chat:
“Our founder, Brother Francis, says that everything sings of the glory of God. Why, even your juggling,” said one of the brothers.
“That’s well and good for men like you, but I only juggle to make people laugh and applaud,” Giovanni said.
“It’s the same thing,” the brothers said. “If you give happiness to people, you give glory to God as well.”
I wonder if my mother knew while she read me that book that it would take two faiths, not one, to convince me of God and God’s many beautiful and unexpected plans.
Growing up in a small, rural town in northern New Jersey in the ’80s, I never had perfect attendance in school. Not because I was sick or because my family took vacations outside the school calendar, but rather because every fall, I needed to take two days off in observance of the Jewish holidays.
Unlike my friends who grew up in one of the predominantly Jewish parts of our state—where schools are closed for the High Holidays—I was one of about six Jewish families in our entire school district. So for us, school was definitely open and the High Holidays were considered excused absences (but still counted as absences), which meant I’d never have perfect attendance.
Of course, what I share today as a sore spot of my youth seems beyond frivolous now at 36 and a married mother of two. But at the time, it really bothered me. I already knew I was “different” from the other kids.
Sometimes I really loved being unique. For example, my bat mitzvah was the first one my friends who weren’t Jewish had ever been to—it was their inaugural exposure to Judaism and, not surprisingly, it was happily met with rave reviews. After all, what’s not to love? There’s the party and the fancy dresses and the DJ and the neon necklaces and Shirley Temples.
Yet, other than the fact that I missed some school days each fall, or that I attended Hebrew School and had a bat mitzvah (whereas they all went to CCD at the same Catholic church and had confirmations), my religion remained a very personal thing for most of my childhood. It wasn’t until I was getting ready to look at colleges that I realized finding a school with a large Jewish population was going to be really important to me.
I didn’t want to be the only Jewish kid on the block anymore.
And so I accepted an offer from American University in our nation’s capital—affectionately dubbed “Gay Jew” (or at least it was called that when I attended, 1997-2001!). At American, I found myself part of the crowd—religion often came up in conversation (as did politics, internship opportunities and study abroad plans). Suddenly, being Jewish bonded me to others. And later my freshman year, I even dated an NJB (Nice Jewish Boy) for a few months.
I finally felt like I belonged at AU, like I was among my people. And though the university didn’t close for the High Holidays, many professors canceled class, either for their own observances or because they recognized many students would be going home to their families. Instead of being singled out at American, I felt accepted, not having to explain at length why I couldn’t present a group project on Rosh Hashanah. It was just understood.
I didn’t realize just how much that understanding meant to me until I entered the working world in D.C. after graduation. I was naive and didn’t know how things like vacation time/PTO worked–or that they’d vary depending on company. I [wrongly] assumed that I’d be able to take my religious holidays off as personal days, no big deal.
So you can imagine I was none too happy when I learned I’d have to take PTO for the Jewish holidays, as at this particular company, sick, vacation, personal and religious holidays all fell in one PTO bucket. It didn’t seem fair to me when I’d be perfectly willing to work Christmas Day and Christmas Eve—which were considered company holidays.
It was a poignant reminder that, once again, I was back to being in the minority—even in a culturally, religiously, ethnically diverse city like Washington, I still had to “explain” myself.
Years later, when my husband (who isn’t Jewish) and I moved to Kalamazoo for his job, I told my parents, “GREAT. I’ll be the only Jew in Kalamazoo!” And it sure felt that way for a while. My one Jewish friend here was my friend Dana in Chicago, two hours away. But then my husband introduced me to his new colleague, Emily—and said, half-kidding, “She’s Jewish and has curly hair, too; you’ll be best friends!”
And he was right. She is one of my best friends, to this day.
When the ad agency I worked for was acquired by a global marketing firm a couple years ago, one of the best changes to come out of the acquisition was that now religious holidays are counted as personal days, versus PTO. Though I’m still the only Jew in our Kalamazoo office, I no longer feel “alone,” or like I have to explain myself, knowing this is an across-the-board policy.
Which brings me to present day. Our 5-year-old daughter Maya is really into the Jewish holidays, traditional foods and singing the songs I’ve taught her. She can begin Hebrew school this coming fall, and I’m excited to begin her formal Jewish education—but I know how small the Jewish community is here in Kalamazoo. It’s just a tad bit larger than my hometown community was, and I worry about how she’ll feel, being one of just a few Jewish kids in her elementary school.
While I’ve always been proud of who I am and love our faith and its teachings, I remember that hard-to-explain, nagging feeling of not belonging growing up… and it plagues me. Though I know as parents, we shouldn’t project our emotions onto our kids, it’s hard not to when experience is tainting how we feel. Fortunately, the synagogue we will be joining has a lot of young families and even some interfaith families like ours—so I am sure we will get some guidance from those who have gone before us. But it’s hard living in a community where we really are a minority.
It’s my hope that I can instill in her that being “different” is what makes her special—what makes her (and our family) interesting and unique. We might have to explain ourselves to some people, especially living here in the Midwest in a city without many Jewish families, but that’s OK. Who knows, maybe she’ll find her place in college, just like her mama did.
Melissa 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 (5) and Ben (2). 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.