My Favorite Interfaith Children’s Book

  

Juggler book

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.

Anna and family

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.

I Was the Only Jewish Kid on the Block & Worry My Kid Will Be, Too

  

By Melissa Henriquez

Children in schoolGrowing 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.

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

MelissaHenriquez_02Melissa 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.

Summer Camp (Parent) Blues

  

Kids diving from a dockLike many parents, for me this time of year signifies both an overwhelming sense of relief (Yesss! No more homework or projects!) and stress (What am I going to do with Roxy and Everett all summer?!?). This year has presented unique challenges for my family because I now work from home and can’t possibly spend my days on the beach with the kids while juggling conference calls and Google Adwords, no matter how much I want to, nor can I physically run around with them at more than six months pregnant. Roxy wants to do “tween” things with her girlfriends and at 9 years old her focus is on nails, music and learning the latest dance craze. Everett at 6-and-a-half prefers to spend his days dreaming up new ways to make his sister crazy by setting up Lego booby traps around the house and playing pranks on her while idolizing every move she makes. The realization of needing summer activities came way too late, and suddenly school was ending and panic set in.

In my perfect world, this would have been the ideal summer for them to both start camp. Overnight camp. JEWISH overnight camp. And I felt like it would have been an uphill battle that only I understood. Their dad thought they were too young for overnight camp. The kids were apprehensive about going away where they didn’t know anyone. My bank account laughed at me after talking to the Reform Jewish camp director and learning how much it would really cost me to send them. We talked about scholarships. I researched it online. I considered asking family for help. But in the end, it was not to be, because the kids had scheduling conflicts with local and family activities that made the discussion a moot point. Yet I ached inside, saddened to know yet another summer would go by without a Jewish camping experience.

Their dad and I finally worked out a plan for the summer and two weeks ago they started camp at our local town recreation center. They are loving their first camp experience, are there with both established and new friends and come home at the end of the day happy and exhausted. They love going on field trips and having action-packed days, but I know in my heart something is missing. My Jewish kids in Maine are completely disconnected to Jewish life now that school is over. Hebrew school doesn’t start up until the fall. There are no holidays to celebrate. With the chaos of living in two houses, I’ll admit that Shabbat just doesn’t happen in our house every week. And when I go on Facebook I feel a twinge of jealousy when friends post pictures of their own happy campers being dropped off at a URJ overnight camp, and status updates of “I got my first letter in the mail from my camper!” because I’m wishing so deeply that Roxy and Everett were part of this tradition.

Two kids reading

Everett and Roxy reading a PJ Library book

To add insult to injury, the kids have been obsessed with a book Everett received recently from PJ Library called No Baths at Camp!, which basically follows a child through each day of a Jewish camp experience through the beauty of Shabbat. They are enthralled by this book and the activities presented and take turns reading it to each other, carefully pronouncing the Hebrew words and reveling in the excitement of the Shabbat description presented. I take comfort as they absorb the experience through the words on the pages, yet desperately wish they could be there in person. We talk about it each time using words like “Next summer you’ll get to do this” and “One day you’ll help camp get ready for Shabbat” and “Do you think you’d be good at Israeli dancing?” I long for them to be part of Jewish overnight camp because I know how much of an impact it can have on identity and connection, especially after years of working professionally in the Jewish community. But who knows if I’m going to be able to financially pull it off next summer either. It’s already looking doubtful.

The funny thing is, I never went to camp. I revolted against the idea as a kid, preferring to spend my days on the Jersey shore not recognizing what a precious gift camp could be for me until I was in high school and involved in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and by then it was too late. I was old enough to be a counselor but too old to have created lasting friendships established over years of camp attendance. The majority of my Jewish friends understood this and as we entered adulthood and I recognized what a significant impact Jewish camping had on their lives, I promised myself that when I had children they wouldn’t miss out like I did. Except here I am, a mom of two camp-aged kids with a third on the way and I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen for them. I find this reality painful, especially living in Maine, where they are “the” Jewish kids at camp.

I cried one night when they were at their dad’s house, feeling like I’m failing them. My boyfriend, who isn’t Jewish, comforted me and agreed that if I couldn’t make it happen this summer that next summer was a must, and how good it would be for both of them. To have him truly get why it was so important to me for them to be there means so much, because I know that when it comes time for this baby to be of camp age, there won’t be a question, just love and support. He groans along with me when No Baths at Camp inevitably makes it’s way into the living room, and I catch him laughing listening to them try to pronounce the counselor’s name with an Israeli accent. Matt still doesn’t have a clue about this whole Jewish thing, but he knows that having a connection to Jewish life is pretty important to me and the kids and has made it clear he’ll help me navigate these types of hurdles when and as best he can.

The book is tucked away on the shelf for the time being and this summer I will embrace their first camp joys as well as I can, even if it’s not what I want most for them. Summer is already going by faster than I’d like it to, and before I know it we’ll be preparing backpacks for the first day of fourth and second grade while welcoming this baby into our family. Today I will look at this as a Shecheyanu moment, a thankfulness for new things, growth for all of us and an ever-evolving connection to our faith. It might not be a Jewish overnight camp, but Roxy and Everett have started along their own camp journey, one that will change over time, and maybe just maybe include some Israeli dancing.

Celebrating Two Faiths Without My Parents’ Blessing

  

By Sheri Kupres

Baby naming ceremony

Sam’s baby naming ceremony (Sheri and Sam are the mother/baby on the right)

Thirteen years ago I married a Catholic man from Chicago. I was raised as a Conservative Jew north of Boston. We met through mutual friends when I moved to Chicago. Prior to getting married, my husband and I agreed that we would pass along both of our religious beliefs to our children; we both had strong ties to our religious traditions and wanted to share these with our family. We had joined an interfaith couples group, based in Chicago, to help us discuss and navigate issues that come along with building a dual-faith family. We weren’t sure how this would all turn out but we were committed to this plan.

While we have achieved a lot over the past 13 years, it has been a long road filled with challenges, doubt, guilt as well as learning, joy and celebrations.

When my husband and I decided to marry, my family was less than thrilled. They had always wanted me to marry someone Jewish and I know they felt they had failed when I chose someone outside of my religion. My husband’s family is not very religious and didn’t pose any objections to our interfaith union.

During our wedding planning, the interfaith couples group provided resources. Through these resources, we were able to create a wedding ceremony which incorporated both Jewish and Catholic prayers and traditions and reflected our decision to celebrate both of our faiths. We originally wanted to have both a priest and a rabbi co-officiate at our wedding, but when the rabbi couldn’t be at the ceremony until 30 minutes after sundown, my mother put her foot down and was insistent that our ceremony start right at sundown. In actuality, I know that she was uncomfortable having a priest at the wedding and knew we wouldn’t have the priest if we didn’t have a rabbi. She was right—we couldn’t find another rabbi.

We ended up having my uncle and a good friend of my husband’s family officiate at the service. We had a very beautiful and personal wedding and still achieved our goal of incorporating both of our religions. In hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Baby naming ceremonyThe wedding planning gave us our first taste of the challenges we were about to experience as we embarked on this dual-faith path. This became obvious after we had our first child, Sam, nearly a year later. We decided to welcome Sam into our lives and into our faith communities through a baby naming/baptism ceremony where Sam would receive his Hebrew name and be baptized. There would be a rabbi and a priest officiating. Again, the interfaith network in the Chicago area provided us the resources to participate in such a ceremony.

Our excitement to take this first big step to being a dual faith family was overshadowed by my parents’ outspoken objections. My parents viewed this as a solely Catholic ritual despite the fact that Sam would also receive his Hebrew name. Their reasoning was that a baptism in the Catholic faith is a much more important event than a baby naming is in the Jewish religion; the two didn’t hold equal weight. They couldn’t see that we were participating in the ceremony as a way to have Sam welcomed into both of our religions. They could only see that my son was being baptized by a priest. 

I tried having the officiating rabbi speak to them before the ceremony but that proved unsuccessful. They were struggling to understand what we were trying to do and didn’t think that it was even possible to give a child both religions. They thought that the children would be confused and I think they feared that because Catholicism is the more prominent religion in our country, my children would naturally gravitate toward that and wouldn’t identify with Judaism at all. At that point, I wasn’t yet confident about how this would all turn out either, so my arguments were less than compelling.

We had planned on giving my son a Hebrew name after my grandfather but my parents refused to let us do this as they felt it would be an insult to my grandfather (in their eyes—giving Sam a Hebrew name at a Catholic ceremony). So, two days before, we changed the Hebrew name we had picked for him.

Needless to say, there was definite trepidation going into the weekend of the ceremony. My parents were coming to stay with us for the weekend and I was extremely nervous about how this was going to go. My one saving grace was that my brother came in as well, so I had some support on my side. My brother had also married someone Catholic and they had just had their first child shortly after we had Sam. He wasn’t sure at that point how he was going to raise his children, and while he has since made a different choice than ours, I knew he understood that we were trying to do the best for our family.

Baby naming

Sheri’s niece with Sam for his baptism

Despite all the chaos, the ceremony was wonderful. It was so warm and welcoming with a strong emphasis on making family from both religions feel welcome and recognized. The clergy talked about how lucky these children were to be raised in the very best of our two faiths and traditions, and my husband I agreed wholeheartedly.

I was so proud of our decision to be a part of this rite. Naively, I thought for sure that witnessing this would soften my parents’ opposition. It did not and I was crushed. We made it through the celebration back at our house where I had a cake that only said “Congratulations” with no religious symbols or references. And I cringed every time my husband’s family unknowingly referred to the ceremony as a baptism. I knew my parents had noticed, too.

That evening was tense and we had words. We each gave our points of view and couldn’t see eye to eye.  My parents left the next day on a sour note and I felt very guilty that I wasn’t pleasing them and for pursuing a path that they disagreed with. I didn’t know how to appease them and still follow my belief that providing a dual-faith family for our children was the right choice. 

We have since had two more children: Sarah who is 10 and our youngest, Rachel, is 7.  We had baby naming/baptism ceremonies for both girls and we didn’t invite my parents to either of these celebrations. We wanted these moments to be happy and special without the tension that we had experienced at Sam’s ceremony.

In the end, I realized that I couldn’t appease them. This was going to be a journey that we were both going to go on. Our paths will not be the same—they may split, join, cross, and maybe sometimes converge. It will be a journey with hills and valleys filled with more hard times and more joys but we will all have to learn and grow at our own pace. I hope that somehow we will come to an understanding, even if we never agree.

InterfaithFamily provides many helpful resources and connections. Click these links to learn more about interfaith weddings, parenting, holidays and more. Read more of our blogs, too.

Choosing a Religion for Baby Jack

  

Hello again. Anne and Sam here. You may remember us from the InterfaithFamily Wedding Blog. A few years have passed and we have a 5-month-old son, Jack. As new parents we may not know how to handle teething or potty training yet, but we would like to share some of our experiences with you, especially those having to do with raising a child in an interfaith household.

Sam is Jewish and I am Catholic. Growing up, religion has been a very important aspect in both of our families and our faith will continue to be at the core of our growing family.

When we were planning our wedding, the topic of children came up frequently in conversation. We decided that our future children would practice only one religion. We thought it would be very confusing to send children to Hebrew school and Catholic school, believing in Catholicism on Sunday and Judaism on Shabbat. The question was which religion should we choose?

When I got pregnant, the conversations about religion became more frequent. We came to the conclusion we would raise our children as Jews. Below are some factors that fed into our decision.

Despite choosing Judaism for our children, I will still practice Catholicism. My religion will not be hidden or kept a secret from our children. Sam and our children will be able to celebrate the Catholic holidays with my family and me, but Catholicism will be my religion, not the religion of the household.

I will be able to keep my Catholic faith while maintaining a Jewish home and teaching our children about Judaism. I feel as though I don’t have to believe all aspects of the religion in order to keep a Jewish home. I can practice the cultural aspects of Judaism by cooking traditional holiday foods, hanging mezuzot, building a sukkah, lighting the Hanukkah candles, reading from the book of Esther during Purim, keeping leaven out of the home during Passover and celebrating other Jewish holidays, all while staying true to my beliefs.

It is much easier for me to teach our children about Judaism than for Sam to teach them Catholicism. Since Catholicism is partly rooted in Jewish scriptures, I believe in most of the teachings of the Torah, as it is the first five books of the Catholic bible. By raising our children as Jews, we can embrace the similarities of our religions by teaching our children the stories and traditions that we both believe in.

Sam is more active at his synagogue than I am at my church. Sam is very active with the synagogue’s Men’s Club, frequently reads from the Torah, has established a tight-knit, faith-based community within his synagogue and will become the Chairman of the Rituals and Practices Committee. Unfortunately we do not have these same strong ties with my local church.

When we found out that we were going to have a boy, there was a certain level of tradition that we wanted to uphold. Jack is our first-born. Sam is the first-born in his family; Sam’s dad is the first-born and Sam’s paternal grandfather is the first-born in his family. We wanted to ensure the future patriarch of the Goodman family continues to be Jewish.

Should you have any questions regarding how we came to this conclusion, or any other topic related to raising children in an interfaith household, feel free to ask away! We’ll be happy to address your questions in future blog posts.

Ugandans Nurture Jewish Identity at my Son’s Camp

  
Sammy with Jewish camp counselors from Uganda

Sammy with his Jewish camp counselors from Uganda

Last week my family hosted some of the international staff from my son’s Jewish camp before they went to camp for training. We have done this for the past four summers and it’s been a wonderful experience. Most of the staffers are Israeli, and we have built lasting relationships with them, giving us the opportunity to one day visit each of them in Israel.

This year, camp participated in a program with other Reform camps to bring young adult members of the Ugandan Jewish community to Jewish summer camps throughout the U.S. Most people’s reaction when I mentioned that camp would have Ugandan and Israeli staff this year said, “There are Jews in Uganda?” Yes, there are Ugandan Jews.

About a week before the international staff arrived, I received an email from one of the assistant camp directors asking if my family would host the Ugandan, rather than the Israeli, counselors. “Of the families who can host next week, you immediately jumped to mind as someone who could provide the most hospitable experience for these two new staff members.” How could I say no? Plus, it seemed like an amazing opportunity to learn and enable our entire family to experience the diversity of the global Jewish community.

Most Jews in Uganda are members of the Abayudaya (“People of Judah”), a 100-year-old community of nearly 2,000 Jews who live mostly in villages in Eastern Uganda. Unlike Ethiopian Jews, who are descendants of Israelite tribes that settled in Ethiopia, Ugandan Jews trace their Jewish origins to the turn of the 20th century and two powerful leaders, Joswa Kate Mugema, an influential Buganda chief, and Semei Kakungulu, who was selected by the British to be a Christian missionary.

Mugema and his tribe were dissident Protestants who were devoted to the Bible and adopted many Jewish traditions. They recognized Saturday as the Sabbath, violently opposed any sign of idol worship and forbade the eating or pork. Kakungulu, bitterly disillusioned by the British authorities, cooperated with the Mugema tribe, helping to spread its faith. During this period, Kakungulu was drawn to the teachings of the Old Testament and in 1919 he and his community began practicing Judaism.

When Idi Amin Dada rose to power in the early 1970s, he banned Jewish practice and many Jews were forced to convert to other religions. After the fall of Amin in 1979, the remaining members of the Abayudaya gathered to rebuild the Jewish tradition. Today, there are seven Jewish communities in Uganda and members try to come together as often as possible to interact, connect, worship and learn.

Our guests told us that Conservative rabbis in the early part of the 21st century began to come to Uganda to supervise the “conversion” of Uganda’s Jews. Some in the global Jewish community did not see the Abayudaya as Jewish since they didn’t have a biological link to Israel. While the rabbis viewed the ritual they were performing as a conversion, the community saw it as an “affirmation” of its Jewish faith. Our visitors told us, “Many people, especially in Israel, still do not accept us as Jews.”

I told them that they were not the only Jews with this problem. I explained patrilineal descent and how the Reform movement accepts as a Jew anyone raised Jewish with one Jewish parent but that many non-Reform traditions and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel do not accept this definition of “Who is a Jew.” We also discussed how those who convert to Judaism through a non-Orthodox tradition are also not considered Jewish according to some denominations and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. I emphasized that they would meet many campers this summer who, like themselves, are not accepted as Jews by parts of the world Jewish community, and who, like them, feel strongly that their religious identity is Jewish.

The discussion made me think about how these two groups of Jewish outsiders would spend the summer nurturing each others’ Jewish growth. I smiled as I thought about the richness outsiders bring to the Jewish tradition and how we outsiders are slowly becoming insiders thanks to the efforts of those, including InterfaithFamily, who believe that Judaism’s tent is big, and its doors wide open.

The Word They’ll Learn the Best

  

babies playing

First words. What was my own first word? Probably “Mama,” though now my mother doesn’t remember. She does remember my brother’s first word, which was “arrow.” This is because she was constantly driving around the block with him in his car seat trying to put him to sleep. He would see the arrow on the speedometer and my mother would say “arrow” and so he too repeated “arrow.” It was inevitable, he spent most of his time trying to get to sleep in the car.

What will my daughter’s first word be? Adrian and I wonder this often. We speak Spanish and English in our house. Adrian is Mexican Catholic and I am American Jewish and we have Hebrew letters all over the house. There is a Virgin of Guadalupe in our room and the Hebrew alphabet on the fridge. We wonder if little Helen is confused. She has begun to make many noises and just a few weeks ago she was saying “mamamamamamama.” At first we thought it was me she was calling. She’s eight months old now and it’s a bit early for her first words. But I was ecstatic when I heard “Maaaaaa!!!” come out of her mouth. But then, she stopped saying it. Now she’s making noises. We are happy with noises, too.

What we wonder most is what language she will choose. We speak Spanish at home, English at Grandma’s house and Hebrew on holidays. Also, we hope her first word will be something nice. We live in New York and our language here can be, well, special. We really hope her first word doesn’t fly out of her mouth unannounced during rush hour traffic so we, mostly me, have had to tone it down when in her company.

Every Thursday when Adrian goes to work I pile Helen into the Chevy and we go pick up my mother and head off to my sister-in-law’s house. My brother works as well so it’s usually a girl’s day except for my twin nephews, Jacob and Nathan, who are just two-and-a-half months older than Helen. We look to them for what to expect with words. They haven’t started speaking yet either, though they make a lot of different sounds as well.

In the Torah there are two sets of famous twins. First, there are Jacob and Esau. They are the most well known because they are famous for being the “good” twin and the “evil” twin. But, if I am going to make comparisons I’d like to compare my nephews more to Tamar’s twins, who the Torah describes as both being righteous. Tamar’s twins also came early, as did my nephews.

Our Thursdays are spent playing and observing and waiting for words. This week Nathan can stand while holding onto something and he makes a low gurgle and smiles. Jacob can stand, too, but he doesn’t like to get down by himself and he loves to look at books. Helen bangs a plastic donut against her head and is content. It’s a marvel to watch these three cousins interact. Helen and Nathan seem to be the best of friends and Jacob lies in the middle of the play rug and flips the pages in his cloth book. I won’t be surprised if Jacob’s first word is a whole sentence and he one day blurts out, “E equals Mc squared.” Nathan will probably say, “Let’s go Mets!” and I still wonder about Helen. Adrian has started to say “Hola” and wave to her. I have started speaking to the twins in Spanish. They look at me like I have three heads but I think they look at me like that anyway.

I’d like my daughter and my nephews to learn basic Yiddish words as well. Here are a few I’m highlighting that will serve them well on their journeys through life:

1. Feh. Feh is like spitting. It’s when you disapprove or find something gross. If someone asks if you like politics you can say, “Feh.”

2. Plotz. To plotz means to explode. If you are shocked by something then you could just plotz!

The most important word and one used most frequently in my household is…

3. Nu. Nu means, “Hello?” “Well?” “Huh?” When Helen doesn’t want to eat I say, “Nu? When are you going to finish this?”

Now that I’ve added another language to the list I’m worried that Helen will never want to speak. Maybe that’s why my brother said “arrow” for the longest time. He could never get a word in edgewise with my parents always clucking. But, I think the word my daughter and my nephews will learn quickly enough is a word everyone uses with them all the time. In English, “Love” or “I love you.” In Spanish, “Amor” or “Te Amo.” In Hebrew, “Ahava” or “Ani ohevet ata.” In Yiddish, “Oy vey.” Just kidding. In Yiddish, “Ikh libe dikh.”

three babies playing

But You’re Not Really Jewish, Right?

  
helen2_2-1024x683

Photograph of Helen Rose by Lizzy Sullivan

“But you’re not really Jewish right?” This has been a question I have been asked since I was big enough to walk. My family celebrates all of the big holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover to name a few. The women in my family don’t wear long skirts and the men don’t wear black hats. But, yes, we ARE Jewish.

“But you’re not really Jewish, right?” is an insulting question. First of all, what does that mean? That’s usually my response: “What does that mean?” And people respond by changing the subject because they know they’ve offended me or they keep asking questions that further insult me. Since I live in a very religious neighborhood, these are a few of the questions I get: “You don’t wear a wig right?” “You don’t keep kosher, right?” (wrong), “It’s so strange that you’re Jewish,” they say, “You don’t look Jewish.” Again, what does that mean?

This year I had a baby with Adrian, my lifelong partner. He is Catholic from Mexico and I am Jewish from Brooklyn. We decided before we had the baby that ours would be an interfaith family. We wanted the beauty of both cultures and both religions to be a part of who our child was and who she would become. She is a Mexican-American-Jewish-Catholic child.

Adrian and I live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The stores are kosher, on Saturday none of the stores are open and on Jewish holidays women in pretty dresses and men in ironed suits walk in the middle of the streets because there are hardly any cars around. Our kitchen is kosher. Adrian eats pork but not in our home. Does this make me less Jewish? Does loving a man from another faith make me less Jewish? Is my daughter less Jewish because she’s also Catholic?

Helen and Adrian

Baby Helen and Adrian in Prospect Park

The challenge so far has been trying to live a balanced life. When our daughter was first born these questions nagged at me. Would someone one day ask my daughter, “But you’re not really Jewish, right?” What would she say? What should I teach her to say? How would I explain to her a double faith? An interfaith? The more these questions loomed over me the more I decided to challenge the ignorance of these interrogations.

I found myself in the lobby of a large synagogue next to my apartment building where I was to inquire about a baby naming for my daughter. This was when my daughter was just 2 months old. The woman who ran the functions at the synagogue was all smiles when I walked in with the baby strapped to me in my ergo carrier. She asked me the baby’s name. “Helen Rose Castañeda,” I said. She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to spell it. I wrote it out in both Hebrew and English.

“Oh, you write in Hebrew,” she said surprised. After all, I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and I was not in a skirt or dressed up at all. I had only gone to inquire. I had not gone to pray. As I filled out the rest of the information on the sheet I realized I had to write Adrian’s name in Hebrew and my daughter’s name. Her Hebrew name is Chaya Rachel but how was I to write “Castaneda” in Hebrew? I sounded it out.

The woman stared at the paper. I was waiting for the question, any question. I was waiting for her to say, “Well that’s interesting,” or “Is this a Jewish name?” I was waiting for the insult. It never came. Instead, before she could speak I said, “Miss, I’d like to tell you, before we begin the process of setting up this baby naming event, that my family is an interfaith family. I am Jewish and my partner is Catholic. We are not married and our daughter is both. Is this going to be a problem?”

Her reaction was not what I expected. She was calm and smiled. She said, “That’s absolutely OK.” There were no insulting questions, no asking if I was really Jewish. We had a beautiful baby naming ceremony at the synagogue and I felt at home. I felt accepted and my family felt accepted. But, I had also for the first time accepted myself.

I am a Jew always in my heart and I live my life according to Jewish law, meaning I treat others with compassion, I speak to G-d, I meditate and I try to do good deeds. I don’t always succeed at all of these laws but I try my best to abide by them. I was born Jewish and I celebrate Judaism. I come from a long line of prophets and strong biblical women. This is what I will teach our daughter who has Jewish and Aztec blood in her. I also understand that people will always question my “Jewishness.” I’ve learned now to respond in a different way. Now, when someone approaches me with the question, “but you’re not really Jewish, right?” my answer is always a flip of my hair and a long laugh.

I Never Thought I’d Be That Kind of Parent

  

Flying to son's water polo matchAs I gazed out the airplane window on our flight between Dallas and Houston, I thought about my parenting choices. Specifically, my decision to allow my son to skip the first night of Passover for a sporting event. I never thought I’d be that kind of parent. Judaism and its continuation were too important to me.

As the Jewish half of an interfaith couple, I’d always taken the responsibility of Jewish identity building seriously and my husband supported me every step of the way for almost a dozen years. We practiced Shabbat weekly. Celebrated Rosh Hashanah over two days with a dinner, service, tashlich and another meal. Observed Yom Kippur with Kol Nidre dinner followed by services and break fast the next day. Honored Sukkot, Tu BiShvat, Purim, and Hanukkah with holiday foods and festivities. Marked the exodus from Egypt at two Passover seders, one at a friend’s and another at our house.

The marking of Jewish time through holiday celebrations has been a big part of our life, and we found a way to evolve our observances as our son grew from an infant to a toddler to a grade schooler, so they remained relevant and balanced our Jewishness with our secular life. But now that our son was in middle school, and in the early stages of puberty, there seemed to be an increasing amount of flexibility required to live Jewishly and be engaged in the secular, non-Jewish world.

During football season, our Shabbat practice has been modified so we can mark the end of the week and go to the Friday night football game at our son’s school. Our Rosh Hashanah observance has been adapted to minimize the amount of school missed and allow for enough time to complete homework. I’ve gladly modified many of our other rituals and practice so that our son could see that practicing Judaism was compatible with non-Jewish life and his American identity.

From the beginning of our Jewish journey as an interfaith family, my husband and my goal has been to make Judaism fun and relevant so that our son chooses to practice it in adulthood out of love and connection, not obligation. We’ve never wanted him to resent being Jewish. And that’s why we were flying to Houston for the Texas State Age Group Championships for water polo instead of sitting at our friend’s seder table.

Playing water poloOur son has been playing water polo for a year on his school’s sixth grade and under team. Over the past 12 months, he’s improved enough that he is now a starter. This year, the team is undefeated, having won every game in the North Texas League in the fall, winter and spring seasons and every non-league tournament they’ve played. When he was selected by his coach to go with the team to the state tournament, it seemed particularly cruel to make him stay home because it conflicted with Passover. He and his team had worked so hard to get so far. We were not going to make this a Sandy Koufax moment. Instead, I said I’d find a way to adapt our observance.

When we reached our destination, we had a non-traditional holiday meal at a Mediterranean restaurant. I asked that we all eat Passover-friendly food in honor of the holiday even though it meant forgoing the fresh baked pita that looked delicious. While we ate, we each shared our thoughts on freedom.

I can’t say it was the most fulfilling holiday experience, but at least it was a holiday experience. When we return from Houston, we’ll have a traditional seder at home on the fourth night of Passover.

I have no idea if the choices we’re making are showing our son how he can embrace his heritage in a way that is compatible with his secular life or if the message he is getting is that practicing Judaism isn’t that important. Maybe in years to come he will forgo Jewish observance because it doesn’t fit neatly into his schedule, or maybe he will have the tools and creativity to find a way to engage in Jewish ritual even when faced with competing items on his calendar.

As with so many things in parenting, I wish I had a crystal ball that could show me the future. Since I don’t, I need to go with my gut instinct which tells me that making choices that will make our son resent being Jewish is not the answer. I hope my gut is right.

My Dad, Elijah and the Afikomen

  
My father and brother

My father and brother

Spring means color. Splashing greens and yellows. Purple tulips cascading over front porches and red robins bustling in the trees. Spring also means Easter for Christians, with blue and violet painted eggs. It means Passover for the Jews. For South Americans and Mexicans it means Semana Santa (the days of Jesus’s crucifixion). For me, it is a season shrouded in black. It is the green/grey eyes of my father, his brown hush puppies scuffling across the carpet. It is the ivory keys of his baby grand piano.

My father loved the spring. He loved it for three reasons. The first is that he could smoke outside again without freezing his fingers off. The second is that he could go fishing and play golf in the same day and still get home in time to practice playing his Chopin. But mostly my father loved Passover. Purim came and went in our neighborhood but Passover was an event to be reckoned with.

Every year my mother would slowly begin changing the dishes from our regular meat and dairy dishes to the “Passover dishes” (because the holiday of Passover has its own dietary laws). This meant that my brother and I would have to carefully carry 10 full cardboard boxes up from the basement. They contained pots, pans, plates, glasses and my grandmother’s heavy black roasting pot. Ancient silverware passed down from our ancestors was in one box along with glasses, cups, a traditional seder plate and a tray for matzah. In another box there was a cup for Elijah (a biblical prophet who makes his presence known in the middle of Passover dinner). One box contained breakfast tools; my Grandma Helen’s eggbeater and my Grandma Rosie’s potato peeler.

When these boxes came up from the basement my mother would begin the preparations for the first seder night and the days to follow. She would make her menu and call the cleaning lady to ask her to come the day before.

My father would sit regally at his piano. He would sneak pieces of matzah from the boxes my mother had put aside and dip them in cream cheese or tuna. Then he would bang out Beethoven on his Steinway or he would ask us to sing.

“Baby Face” was a song I knew all the words to because my grandmother would sing it to me. My father could play that song by heart and make our house sound like a ragtime bar. He also loved musicals and ballads. There was one song called “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” which was first published in 1910 but was popular in the late 1930s. I loved to sing that song sitting next to my father on his piano bench, while my mother changed the dishes and my brother roamed around outside.

My father would start, “Oh, say, let us fly girl” and I would say, “Where dear?” and Pop would smile and say “To the sky dear,” and we would sing for days. Sometimes when Passover would finally arrive we would do the whole duet for the guests while my mother was roasting the brisket and adding cinnamon to the kugel.

My father smoking his Marlborough Reds

My father smoking his Marlboro Reds

And what I remember is the smell of our house during those spring days. Onions, garlic, rosemary and cumin wafted up the stairs and out the front door. There was the metallic hint of chopped liver, the eye-piercing strength of horseradish and the kosher wine fumes mixed with my father’s Aqua Velva after-shave and Marlboro Red tobacco. There was the smell of my mother’s perfume, grassy and effortless, and the musky velvet of my brother’s yarmulke.

Then Passover would emerge. My cousins, my aunt and uncle, my grandmother and family friends would gather around my mother’s seder table to read the story of how the Jews escaped Egypt, how Moses parted the Red Sea so that our people could cross over to the other side.

In Brooklyn, we sing songs and read this story. My father, who was big in every way (he had been an actor and had a voice that bellowed through the walls) would shout this story in Hebrew. Then he would point to me and say, “And now Anna will say the four questions.” It is a Jewish tradition that the youngest person at the seder table asks four questions. And there are so many traditions that accompany this holiday. Elijah the prophet has a cup placed for him in the middle of the Passover seder table. The front door is opened for him and it is said his spirit passes through each house and he drinks from the cup. Elijah’s cup is called the “silent cup” and as a child I would open the door for Elijah and after I closed it I would run back to the table to see if the wine had a ripple in it or if it was less full.

There is also the tradition of the afikomen. This is the middle piece of matzah and each year in my family, in the middle of the service, my uncle hides it and the youngest child has to find it. When it is found, the child can ask for money in exchange for returning the middle matzah. Since I was a girl, my uncle has always hidden the matzah in his inner suit jacket pocket. When he takes his jacket off to eat I steal it.

Last year on Passover I was pregnant with my little Helen Rose. No one knew except for my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law. My father has been gone for over 20 years. His soul went to G-d on August 23, 1994. I was almost 13. My uncle is his older brother. I turned 34 last year and was the youngest at our seder table. When my uncle took his jacket off to begin eating his meal, I stole the afikomen.

I have a Mexican Catholic partner. I am not married. I am Jewish. These three facts do not define who I am. I am much more than that.

Last year as my uncle reached into his jacket pocket to take out the afikomen I held it up with a shaky hand at the other side of the table. My uncle went to Crown Heights Yeshiva, as did my father. We come from a long line of Jewish beliefs, customs, traditions and schools of thought. I desired one thing for the afikomen and it wasn’t money.

“This year,” I began as my uncle sat quietly at the head of the table, “this year I want something in return for the afikomen. But this year I don’t want money. This year Uncle Jeff, I want your blessing. I’m pregnant and the baby is due in October and I’m so happy.

My Aunt Claire jumped out of her chair. My brother and his wife looked down at the table; they were expecting twins in August. My mother looked at the wall. My cousin Arnold’s mouth fell open. My uncle, who fought in Korea and jumped out of planes, who married my aunt when she was 18 and moved to Long Island and raised a traditional Jewish family, turned to me with his eyes that look so similar to my own father’s and said, “Mazal Tov kid. Congratulations.”

My partner Adrian and I live in a small Brooklyn apartment with our little Helen Rose. We keep the traditions of my family. We go to Rockaway and fish every summer. Adrian smokes Marlboro Reds or Camels. On Passover, my mother’s house still smells like roasted onions. On Rosh Hashanah we eat apples and honey and on Hanukkah we light the menorah. When spring arrives we buy Helen painted eggs and stuffed bunnies. For Christmas we make traditional Mexican holiday food. This year at Helen’s first seder we will place a cup of wine in the middle of the table and when I open the door for the prophet, perhaps my father will walk inside as well. Maybe he’ll steal a piece of matzah, sit at the piano bench and watch the new generation celebrate its new customs and its old ones. Maybe he’ll whisper “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” into Helen’s ear. After all, spring was always his favorite time of year and Passover his favorite holiday.