The Religious Identity of an Interfaith Home is a Journey, Not a Destination

  

Religious Identity is a Journey. Mother and three kids hiking through a dense forest. Kids are aged 6 and 10.

Up until recently, I thought the hardest part of navigating life as an interfaith family was determining the religious identity of the home. After all, that’s where 99.9 percent of the angst within the Jewish community lies and therefore, almost 100 percent of the community’s engagement efforts are focused. The idea that many in the Jewish community adhere to is to get couples to a decision point, and hopefully, have them choose Judaism, and then nurture the Jewish choices of couples in a way that helps them to create a “Jewish home.”

But in my recent experience working with other interfaith families in my community of Dallas, I’ve realized that our intense focus on the religious choices of young couples and families has us all but ignoring the challenges and struggles of older couples and families. Especially for the couples that have actively chosen to the be part of the Jewish community, raise Jewish children and/or affiliate with a synagogue or other Jewish spiritual group such as a minyan, we figure that they’ve got this. The religion decision has been made; the family is Jewishly active; our work is done. Not so much.

For my husband and me, our son’s upcoming bar mitzvah has suddenly brought up big religious questions that have, at times, left me feeling a similar uncertainty I experienced in the early part of our relationship. In the months since I wrote about this somewhat surprising experience in my blog post, I’ve made peace with the uncertainty because we’ve seemed to have settled some of the questions. My husband will not convert before the big day and to date, feels 100 percent included in the process. How he will feel the day of the event or post-ceremony is impossible to predict, but I look forward to hearing what he expresses.

We’ve navigated the disquiet on our own. I’ve occasionally mentioned my uneasiness or questions to a close friend, but have otherwise not spoken to anyone about it. I know that I could have raised the issues with a clergy member at my synagogue or the rabbi officiating at my son’s bar mitzvah, but I haven’t felt like we needed professional guidance. However, I have been thinking about how nice it might have been to have a forum to share our questions and experiences with other interfaith couples in the same life stage as us and hear from intermarried couples who recently celebrated a b’nai mitzvah, about their experiences. Essentially, I’d like to know if is this uncertainty is unique to my relationship or if other couples like my husband and me have had similar questions.

I’ve also had my eyes opened to the lack of professional support for older couples and families. I serve as the engagement director at my synagogue where I work with the interfaith dating and interfaith married couples. I recently organized a panel discussion for interfaith couples that are struggling with the religion decision. It consisted of two newly married couples who worked through the issue of religion in the home and a couple with elementary and middle school age children who have also worked through challenges of religious identity. The program was well attended by the target audience—dating, engaged or married young adult couples.

There were also several empty nesters. I wondered what these partners, who raised Jewish children in the context of an interfaith home, were doing at the program. They had Jewishly identifying college students or adult kids. They could be on the panel.

As I listened to the discussion during the question and answer period, I heard two of the empty nest couples say, “Just because you make a decision doesn’t mean that religious issues go away. The issues just change.” I thought, “Of course, they do.” I wrote about how dynamic the religious life of an interfaith family is in my book From Generation to Generation, pointing out that religious identity is often referred to as a journey for a reason—because it evolves as we age and move through different stages of life. How did I forget my words?

One couple shared that they are thinking about religion in the context of end-of-life issues. Another partner, a dedicated synagogue volunteer, mentioned that she is reconnecting with her Christianity now that one son is in college and the other has graduated, and she is struggling with how to incorporate her renewed interest in her faith into her marriage and Jewish family. A man admitted that, after 30 years of marriage and synagogue membership, he and his wife from another background “still haven’t figured it out.” Everyone said that they would appreciate a group for couples like themselves to talk about the religious issues that they are navigating in their lives.

For me, their request was a call to action. I’m now helping these partners form a small group. I’m in the process of reaching out to over 100 other interfaith couples in our congregation who are in a similar life stage to see if they are experiencing these challenges and if they would be interested in being part of a small group with their peers who are navigating a similar road.

My personal experiences have always been my best material for writing and supporting other interfaith couples and families. Based on my need for community right now, I’m already thinking about how my congregation can create a forum for interfaith couples navigating the b’nai mitzvah cycle to connect with each other, discuss issues and find support through shared experience.

Focusing on young couples and families, and the choice of a religious identity for a home are absolutely critical for facilitating healthy religious discussions and engaging those who are intermarried in Jewish life. But we can’t be myopic and assume that once an interfaith couple makes a religion decision that our work is done. We must provide support for our couples, families and children through the various stages of life, just as we do for those who are intermarried because the religious identity of a home is a journey, not a destination.

The Kids’ Table

  

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

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

“It tastes like paper,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoiding “That Look” on Purim

  

Kids dressed up for Purim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Thank-You Note to My Mother-In-Law

  

Christmas gift

My mother-in-law’s email about Christmas gifts for her was simple: “Have composed an extensive ‘Wish List’ on Amazon for those who might be looking for ideas!” When I logged onto her list, I found her typical requests for puzzles and small housewares mixed in with requests for items such as “a picture of the three Dallas people” (that would be my family).

As I scrolled through her requests deciding what to purchase, I came across one item that puzzled me: “Jewish prayer book like in the temple.” I wondered why my mother-in-law wanted a copy of Mishkan T’filah; the prayer book my Reform synagogue used. I knew she loved to talk religion with me and I knew she was very spiritual but I was curious as to why she wanted a Jewish prayer book. My best guess was that she wanted to familiarize herself with some of the prayers before my son’s bar mitzvah in October.

I purchased a copy of the prayer book at my congregation’s gift shop, wrapped it and shipped it to my in-laws in Vermont so it would arrive well before Christmas and our arrival at their home for the holiday. I was eager for my mother-in-law to open the gift and to find out the reason for her very Jewish Christmas request.

On Christmas Day, I watched as my mother-in-law unwrapped the prayer book. Her eyes lit up, and she said, “Oh, I’m so happy to get this!” I couldn’t contain my curiosity any longer, and I asked her why she wanted a copy of the prayer book we use in our Dallas synagogue.

“Well, whenever we’ve gone to services with you I’ve always noticed how similar the liturgy is to our Episcopal church. I’ve enjoyed the services and wanted to read more of the prayers,” she answered.

I smiled. My mother-in-law’s generosity of spirit when it comes to religion never ceases to amaze me. Her openness to and curiosity about Judaism was present from the moment I met her. She always accepted my Jewishness and my husband and my decision to raise our son Jewish. She was involved in our Jewish life and educated herself about Judaism. She celebrated Shabbat and Hanukkah, participated in our son’s bris and will be a part of his bar mitzvah. She has never said, “No,” or “I won’t” or even “I’m not comfortable” to any Jewish thing we asked her to do.

I know I hit the jackpot in the in-law lottery. I know I’m lucky. Not all parents or in-laws of intermarried children are willing to bridge the religious divide or be so accepting.

About a week after we arrived home from our Christmas visit, I received an email from my mother-in-law with the subject line “Your Gift.”

Dear Jane, Want you to know I spent all yesterday dipping into your prayer book and being vastly impressed both with the lyricism of the prayers and the frequency of the liturgical elements exactly matching some of our Christian customs and events–perhaps if one studied all religions one would find common themes like that. I’ve got to dig out my “Judaism for Dummies,” and I’m trying to figure out some of the Hebrew–I make up my own pronunciation, of course, but it’s like I’m beginning to understand it a bit! Especially liked the Kaddish prayers and the post-Shabbat resolutions. Was talking with my friend Kathy at church today, and she wants to come over to the house to examine it, too. Thank you so much for adding depth to my spirituality!

The appreciation is all mine. Thank you for choosing love, for being a powerful example of how parents can navigate their relationship with intermarried or interdating children, and for modeling how to welcome and embrace the stranger.

The Miracle of Light

  

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This interfaith holiday season has been trickier than I thought. If there is a lot of planning, cooking and gift buying for one holiday, then the two holiday celebrating seems impossible. My family celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. But, we are not just a Jewish/Catholic home. We are a Brooklyn Jewish and Mexican Catholic household. This means a few things. First it means that I had to decorate with two faiths in mind, cook with two faiths in mind and buy gifts with two faiths in mind. What it also means is that I messed up a lot of traditions, which I now know I need to fix for next year. It’s hard trying to get everything right and I’ve been so concerned about teaching Helen, our 1-year-old, about our different traditions that I forgot to relax and pay attention.

Here are a few examples of the way I historically ruined part of the holidays. Apparently in Mexico, Christmas is a big deal but it’s something called “Las Posadas” that’s an even bigger deal. The “Posadas” begin on December 16 and end on December 24 (Christmas Eve). In Mexico it means a party every night from the 16th to the 24th and a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem in search of lodging. Although I heard Adrian mention the “Posadas” I assumed this tradition was on Christmas day. On Christmas Eve while Adrian was at work, I was making a traditional Mexican punch to surprise him with and while reading the recipe I read the story of the “Posadas” and realized I HAD MISSED THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE MEXICAN CATHOLIC HOLIDAY! Great.

That was mess-up number one. Here’s something else. Hanukkah began the same night as Christmas Eve this year. I was supposed to make tamales (a tradition in Mexico on Christmas) and latkes. Out of my concern for how to make the tamale recipe perfect, I FORGOT TO MAKE THE LATKES. Great.

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That was mess-up number two. It gets better. Little did I know that tamales take almost four hours to make! The recipe said one to two hours. But, ask anyone from Mexico and they will laugh if you say one hour. I found this out later. I had told Adrian not to eat at work, so he got home at midnight when I thought the tamales would be ready and we ended up waiting until 2:30 a.m. when they were finally ready and we were so tired that we ate one each and went to bed.

That was mess-up number three. On Christmas day we went to my brother’s house with the baby. My brother has twin boys and he and his wife threw a Hanukkah party. My mother brought the latkes to that party and we all lit the menorah and had a great time. Then Adrian, Helen and I went to Adrian’s friend’s house and saw their tree and their baby Jesus statue. Helen had a great day. But, when we got home I had another recipe I had yet to make and I was so exhausted that when I went to put something in the blender I forgot to put the top on and green tomatillo sauce splattered all over the kitchen (and my mother who had come over to watch the baby while Adrian and I made dinner).

That felt like mess-up number four thousand. I was upset. First I couldn’t believe I had missed the week celebration before Christmas. Then I couldn’t believe how bad my recipes were. But both Hanukkah and Christmas are celebrations of miracles. I waited for one. And in a moment of frustration I thought of the Hanukkah story.

The Hanukkah story is about not having enough of something, or thinking one doesn’t have enough of something. On Hanukkah the Jews celebrate the small band of Jews who defeated the Greeks during the time of the second Temple. When the Greeks made all of the oil in the holy temple impure, the Jews found a little bit of oil left. But, the oil they found was only enough to last for one day. And then a miracle occurred and the little oil they had come across ended up lasting for eight days. Hanukkah is the celebration of light.

Helen during the holidaysChristmas too is a celebration of light. The lesson of Hanukkah is that sometimes in great darkness a miracle can happen. The birth of Christ teaches this same lesson. A lot of the challenges my family faces during the holidays has to do with teaching our daughter to respect and understand both of our religions and cultures. It is about starting new traditions and sticking to them so that when she grows up she can feel the love of both faiths and choose her own path. But another challenge is the need for others to take our beliefs seriously. At the Jewish homes we go into we have a need for people to take us seriously and the same goes for the Catholic homes.

Adrian and I visited two of his friends’ homes during the holidays. Both friends have children. At the first house his friend’s daughter who is 7 years old ran to greet us at the door and took Helen out of my arms so she could carry her to her toys and play with her. At the second home, the other friend’s daughter is Helen’s exact age. They played with dolls, stuffed animals and books. At my brother’s house my nephews are a few months older than Helen. They all ran around laughing and opening their Hanukkah presents. These are the real miracles of light. Children have no inhibitions, no preconceived notions. They want to play and explore. They want to love and be loved. Sometimes out of total darkness they appear. They are the rare oil, the spark that lights the whole Beit HaMikdash (The Holy Temple).

 

To Tree or Not To Tree

  

stocking stuffers

The dual holiday extravaganza this season is more work than I thought it would be. But, it’s important for me to keep the traditions from both my own family and Adrian’s family in order for our daughter Helen to grow up understanding and respecting her two faiths: Jewish on my side and Mexican Catholic on Adrian’s side. Also, Helen is 14 months old now and this Hanukkah/Christmas is really starting to come alive. This year both holidays fall on the same day! It feels like Moses and Jesus are somewhere eating latkes and drinking eggnog together.

From the beginning of my organization of the holidays, decorations were the first thing on my list. As far as decorations go, the question on my family’s minds was, “To tree or not to tree?” I’ve wanted a Christmas tree since I was a little girl in Hebrew school. When I was 12 I bought a plastic one from Rite Aid and hid it in the garage. I decorated it with colored balls and candy canes and I would go out into the garage to stare at it. But this year because of our interfaith family, and our new traditions that include our old traditions combined into one big tradition, I was curious to know if Adrian wanted a tree.

At first he did. We set a date to go look for one. But, after a few days he decided against it. We are being quite thrifty right now and he decided we didn’t need to spend money on a tree. “Next year,” he said. But, what he doesn’t know is that on Saturday when he goes to work at the restaurant at night, Helen and I will sneak out to buy a tree. It will be cheaper then because Saturday is Christmas eve so the tree people are looking to sell the rest of what they have for a lower price. I can’t wait to see Adrian’s face when he walks in and sees the tree. This might be a new tradition I’ve invented. Maybe every year Helen and I will sneak out to surprise her Papi! And of course, my 12-year-old self really wants that tree too.

I raided the aisles at Amazing Savings last week. I bought something called “Hanukah Tinsel.” Who knew something like this even existed! It’s tinsel but it’s blue and white with dreidels hanging off of it. Then I bought stockings with our family’s initials and filled them with Hanukkah gelt. Usually Hanukkah gelt is money, but I filled them with big plastic dreidels that have jelly beans inside. That’s my idea of Hanukkah gelt. Our apartment looks like the beginning of a crazy bat mitzvah/quinciñera/Christmas/Hanukkah party. Obviously, I’m more excited about this than anyone else in my family.

Our gift bags are also outrageous. We have gifts from Santa, Mami, Papi and Grandma. Then we have Hanukkah gifts. There’s one bag with Santa on it and he’s looking at another gift bag with a menorah on it, almost as if he’s remarking to himself “Now that’s a great idea to light my sleigh.” In my mind I see Santa climbing down chimneys holding a menorah and having a plate of latkes by the tree. In our Brooklyn apartment Santa has to come through the fire escape. But, he’ll get here somehow. I just hope no one calls the cops on him.

Hanukkah/Christmas tinsel

 

Today when Adrian goes to work Helen and I have to start shopping for the food on our Hanukkah/Christmas menu. In Mexico, a tradition on Christmas is a drink called “Ponche.” This is like a warm fruit punch that can be made with or without alcohol. Adrian likes it without alcohol. It has Mexican fruits, apples, raisins and sugar cane in it. Helen and I will go to the Mexican markets in the Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn and look around for these fruits and ingredients. We also need a bag of jalapeño and serrano chili peppers. Then we might make tamales or another traditional dish called “Pipian Verde” which is a pumpkin seed sauce.

For Hanukkah I always make plain potato latkes and zucchini latkes. And of course I have to make applesauce to go with it! In my family when I was growing up, Hanukkah was never one of the biggest holidays that we celebrated. But now that Adrian and I have Helen, I think it will become a bigger holiday than it was for me. I’m grateful that our two holidays coincided this year. To me it is a symbol that the world is changing and we are united even in our differences. I know that the holidays coinciding have to do with the 13 months of the Jewish calendar, but nevertheless I take it as my own personal and familial symbol.

Our apartment looks bright and festive. Also, this year I learned to knit and everyone is getting a Hanukkah/Christmas scarf! And there’s just one more thing I forgot to mention. In light of us trying to save money this holiday, I made homemade ornaments both as gifts and for our tree that we have yet to buy. They aren’t finished yet but they are in the shapes of elephants, reindeer, dreidels, menorahs, candy canes and of course, hearts. One special ornament is a circle with Helen’s hand print in it. That one symbolizes our two faiths as a circle, a meeting point, a never-ending sphere of understanding, communication and love. Two faiths, two holidays, one meeting point, one love.

a stocking and a dreidel

Everywhere You Go There’s Always Someone or Something Jewish

  
Digging into some fish and chips, a meal with Jewish roots.

Digging into some fish and chips, a meal with Jewish roots.

A week before Thanksgiving, I stood in the doorway of a building on Skulagata, a street in Reykjavik, Iceland, with my husband and son looking out at the North Atlantic and trying to find shelter from the blustery wind that was making the 30-degree evening feel much colder. We were waiting for our tour guide to pick us up for our search for the Northern Lights. Other tourists were waiting to be picked up by other tour operators. I started talking to a young American woman who was traveling alone. Our conversation turned to the election. I mentioned that I was concerned about some of the president-elect’s choices for advisors because of their association with the alt-right movement.

“My son and I are Jewish,” I said.

“Me too,” the woman said.

We talked for a few more minutes and then our guide arrived. The woman and I wished each other good luck in finding the Northern Lights and safe travels. As we drove out of the city, I smiled and started quietly humming the opening lines of Rabbi Larry Milder’s famous Jewish tune:

Wherever you go,
There’s always someone Jewish.
You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew.
So when you’re not home, and you’re somewhere kind of newish,
The odds are, don’t look far, ‘cause they’re Jewish, too.

Milder was right; even in Iceland, which has a permanent Jewish population of about 100 people, it wasn’t hard to stumble across a fellow tribe member. After Iceland, we traveled to London, with a Jewish population of 172,000. I can’t say if we met any Jewish Londoners, but we did see a few Hasidic Jews snapping photos of Buckingham Palace as we walked back to our flat one evening, and we took in some Jewish history.

We walked through biblical times at the British Museum, which has a large collection of archaeological material and ancient art from Mesopotamia, Iran, the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel), Anatolia (Turkey), Arabia and Central Asia and the Caucasus. Highlights of the collection include Assyrian reliefs, treasure from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the Oxus Treasure, Phoenician ivories and the library of cuneiform tablets from Nineveh. Items from Ur, Abraham’s home which he left for Canaan, and Nineveh, mentioned in Genesis 10:10-12 as the home of Nimrod and again in the Book of Jonah, brought the stories of the Torah to life.

The Assyrian Flood Tablet, which tells the story of a plan by the gods to destroy the world using a great flood, was startlingly similar to the story of Noah. Utu-napishtim, a character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, was warned in secret by the god Ea that humankind would be destroyed and told to build a huge boat to ensure the survival of humans and animals. Birds were released from the ark before it landed safely.

This item was of particular interest to us because Noah is my son’s Torah portion for his bar mitzvah. It was cool to look at his parsha written not in Hebrew, but in cuneiform! And versions of this familiar story existed at least 1,000 years before the Assyrian tablet. This object sparked a conversation about how Judaism developed and evolved from and in response to other ancient societies, and how the writers of the Torah made important stories from other cultures part of Jewish literature.

From the Bible, we jumped in Jewish time to the 17th century and the Spanish Inquisition by way of lunch at Kerbisher & Malt, a fish-and-chips restaurant. We learned that fish and chips have Jewish roots—Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition introduced the crispy, light fish to the British. Typically, street vendors sold the fish from large trays hung from their necks. In the 1800s, fish shops, or “fish warehouses,” were serving fish with bread or baked potatoes.

Encounters with other Jews and discoveries of Jewish connections are intriguing because they remind us that we are part of something bigger, that our family extends beyond our family tree to include a community we feel connected to but do not know personally. This bond created between Jews by shared history and experience is called peoplehood. And it’s best learned through engagement in Jewish life.

Gratitude, Love and Life

  
Helen Rose "No Limits"

Helen Rose “No Limits”

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.

La Familia

La Familia

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?

Mama and Baby

Mama and Baby

The Gift Of An Inclusive and Welcoming Community

  

Heart-shape for the sun.

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.

How To Teach Love in an Unhappy World

  

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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.

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