Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This colorful booklet will give all the basics about this holiday which combines elements of Halloween, Mardi Gras and the secular new year. It is a holiday not only for children who know immediately that anything with a costume will be fun, but for adults too.
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
This is an interactive, fun, and low-key workshop for couples who are dating, engaged or recently married. The sessions will give you a chance to ask questions about faith, to think about where you are as an adult with your own spirituality and to talk through what's important to you and your partner.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
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.
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 parshawritten 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.
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.
Our family has had a hard few weeks. Every day we open the news to a different headline about hatred and anger. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world has gone bonkers. To top it off, my significant other, Adrian, recently received a phone call from Mexico informing him that his mother is ill. Her diabetes has taken a turn for the worse, and her doctor told her she could no longer eat tortillas, a staple food in Mexico. Adrian came home from work one night and put his head in his hands, defeated. “I think my father feels very alone,” he said.
The next day I found out that my mother’s favorite cousin died from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He had been living in a care facility where his wife would go three times a day to bring him food, company, laughter and a lot of love. My mother came home from work one day and put her head in her hands, defeated. “I think Tommy’s death has finally hit me,” she said.
My almost 1-year-old daughter, Helen, does not understand death and sickness yet. She has just begun learning how to live, how to crawl, how to hold onto something and pull herself up, how to grab onto the coffee table and take one step at a time.
With Rosh Hashanah right around the corner, we leave the house daily with lists of ingredients to buy for honey cake. I want her first Jewish New Year to be a joyous one full of hope. But there is some despair in our home right now.
Adrian checks his phone for messages about his mother. He calls Mexico. He meets with his brothers to discuss how much money they need to send back to Mexico for his mother to see a good doctor.
I sit in my mother’s kitchen trying to scrawl out a letter to Tommy’s wife, searching for words to explain my sympathy.
I want to pray. It is important to me that my daughter learns to pray, and because we are an interfaith family, it is important that both Adrian and I teach her how we both pray, especially because we pray so differently. But Adrian does not feel like praying lately. His statue of The Virgin of Guadalupe rests dusty on the bureau. I take this as an opportunity to learn that sometimes we as human beings don’t have the will to pray. Sometimes praying means admitting something is wrong, and Adrian doesn’t want there to be anything seriously wrong with his mother.
In Judaism it seems there is a prayer for everything. There is a prayer for death, life, sadness, forgiveness, women, men and children. There are prayers before going to bed, before eating lunch, after eating lunch and a prayer upon waking up in the morning. Adrian has different prayers, and because I didn’t grow up Catholic like him, I don’t know many of them. I assume they are similar to Jewish prayers, but I can’t be sure.
I’ve been trying to teach Helen a few Jewish prayers. Because Adrian has been feeling so down, I looked up a prayer that Helen and I could recite for him and his mother. After coming across prayers similar to those in Judaism, I found a prayer to Guadalupe that begins, “Our Lady of Guadalupe, mystical rose….” I liked that because Helen’s middle name is Rose. I sat down on the floor with Helen and began to recite the prayer, even though it’s not a Jewish prayer. Then we added a Hebrew prayer for cousin Tommy.
“This is for Papi,” I said to Helen, “and for Abuela (Grandma) to get better. And we will say one for cousin Tommy’s family too.”
Helen was silent; I’m not sure she understood, but comprehension will come later. For now it’s important for me to keep up with my own traditions, as well as Adrian’s, even when he can’t. I’m sure he would do the same for me.
Sometimes Adrian and I don’t understand each other’s faiths. For him, Judaism has a lot of rules and complex meanings to these rules. For me, as a Jew, I don’t bow down to idols. But I can enter into a realm of understanding and ask his saints to care for him just as I can ask Hashem, my God, at the same time to care for him.
Our goal as an interfaith family is to bring just that: faith. How do people survive bombings, terror, heartache and grief? We survive by faith. Helen has two faiths. She will learn, and is learning, two faiths. At times these two faiths can be difficult to maneuver, but their deep messages are the same: Have compassion. Be a good person. Help others. Do good work in the world. And our two faiths teach us that when our significant other comes home defeated, we can be the strength they need to keep going. Our two faiths teach us to watch our child and learn from her as well. She teaches us how to live, how to crawl, how to hold onto something so we can pull ourselves up and how to hold onto a coffee table, a chair, a bench, something, anything, so that we can take our steps slowly and one at a time until we are able to walk.
My daughter, Helen Rose Castaneda, wakes up one day at 10-and-a-half months old, pulls herself up in her crib and says “hola!” at the top of her lungs. “Hola, hola, hola!” This makes sense because Adrian and I speak to Helen mainly in Spanish at home.
She says “hola” for an entire day and then stops saying it. Was this her first word? Does it count if she says it but then stops saying it? I ask myself these questions and think it incredible that I grew up speaking one language at home (English), yet my daughter understands two. My brother and I later learned Hebrew in school and I learned to speak, read and understand Spanish at 18. But Helen Rose understands two tongues, and I find this fitting for a household where two seems to be a theme.
There are two religions in our home: Jewish and Mexican Catholic. I say Mexican Catholic as opposed to just Catholic because Mexican culture is deeply tied to its Catholicism, and the culture itself is rich with colorful history. But one of the things I love most about Mexican Catholicism is the belief in the Virgin of Guadalupe. Guadalupe is like the Virgin Mary and is thought of as the mother of Mexico.
When Adrian and I decided to build an interfaith family and raise Helen believing in both Judaism and Catholicism, it was Guadalupe who swayed me. I like that Helen can look up in her room and see a statue of not only a religious icon but also a female religious icon instilling in her at a young age that women are powerful.
This brings me to my current dilemma. My family belongs to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. This means that women and men are separated when they pray. What is the reason for this? At 5 years old, I turned to my mother one Rosh Hashanah in synagogue and asked, “Ma, why are the men in jail?” My mother said she knew I would be fine in life after that question because I was seeing that the men were separated, not the women. Then I had friends who weren’t Jewish when I was growing up say they thought it was sexist and horrible that women and men were separated. It wasn’t until recently as an adult that I asked what the deeper meaning for this separation was.
As it turns out, the reason is not so obvious. Many Jews will tell you the separation between men and women at synagogue is because the focus in synagogue should be on God and not on the opposite sex. Though that is a valid reason, it’s not the whole truth.
According to some scholars, the reason women and men are separated is that the soul of a woman and the soul of a man, though equal, are different. It is because of this basic difference that women and men need their own space to pray and to become in tune with their natural and true selves. It is more of a spiritual reason than a sexist reason.
I’m not sure if I agree with the rules, but I respect them in my own synagogue. It feels important to me that I have the right answers to the questions my daughter might ask me one day. I think about the Virgin of Guadalupe and how men fall to their knees before her. In some Mexican towns, men tattoo Guadalupe on their backs as a form of protection so no one will ever stab them from behind. I think of how Guadalupe is the mother figure and then I think about Judaism again.
“Who are the strongest women in Judaism?” Helen might ask me. I think about my answer to the question that doesn’t exist yet because my daughter is too young to form a sentence, let alone ask a question. But within my interfaith partnership, I find myself increasingly aware of the differences between the way Adrian and I grew up, and I find myself asking my own questions in order to answer my daughter’s future questions.
So, who are the strongest women in Judaism? The answer I came up with is similar to Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe. The strongest women are our mothers. They are not glorified saints, but they are saints. Our grandmothers—they too hold the wisdom of decades. Guadalupe appears to the poor, the needy and the hungry. Our mother figures are there for us when we need them most.
I will tell Helen my thoughts on the separation of the sexes in synagogue. I will say that even though a curtain separates us, or a wall or a door, the belief is that our prayers are just as important. We will sit in synagogue on the women’s side this year with Rachel, Sarah, Rebekah and with the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Ruthie and one of our Temple buddies during a special visit this summer in Maine
This past year was our first year with both girls in Sunday school. We had a steady rhythm of Sunday mornings at Temple and monthly Shabbats with other families with young children. It was a nice addition to our school year schedule. Without planning it, though, along with taking the summer off from school, we accidentally took the summer off from Temple.
I say accidentally because it wasn’t planned, and I didn’t even think about it as a thing we were doing. Over the course of the summer, though, when I bumped into “Temple friends,” I felt a pang of longing for a community that is becoming a big part of our lives. This community is special because we all chose the congregation as a path to explore common values, and, for the families in our religious school cohort, we all chose it to help us raise our kids with those values.
Like any group of Jewish people I’ve ever been a part of, we don’t all agree on every element of practice. And like my own family, we weren’t all raised Jewishly. Also, the way we practice is not always parallel with the way we were raised, Jewish or otherwise. But we have all agreed to try to figure things out together, and to shepherd a Jewish identity for our children.
Another piece of this longing I felt is because while we didn’t take the summer off from being Jewish, as we welcomed the relaxing pace of summer, we also let loose on Shabbat. Late nights out or traveling replaced the ritual more than we might have preferred, but for better or worse for a few weeks we traded it for other adventures.
I love the loosening of schedules and predictability in the summer. I savor the long days and the opportunity to lengthen our mornings and evenings. I also appreciate the time to be together as a family away from our local communities. But I also miss some of the touchstones that ground our family – things like knowing we will be home for Shabbat, and even more so now, knowing we’ll see some friendly faces on Sunday morning.
So while we stumble our way to get back to school, I am also looking forward to getting back to synagogue. I look forward to seeing old friends, to meeting new ones, and to the rhythm that practice helps put in our lives.
When my Catholic husband and I decided to participate in a dual baby-naming/baptism ceremony for our firstborn, it was not warmly accepted by my Jewish parents. The ceremony, while wonderful for the three of us starting our journey as a dual-faith family, was fraught with tension. So when we had two more children, we didn’t invite my parents to these baby-naming/baptism ceremonies.
Fast-forward seven years later, and we were again embarking on a religious milestone as my oldest was about to take his First Communion through the dual-faith Sunday school we enrolled in. The First Communion ceremony was to be officiated by both a priest and a rabbi. The service itself, while being a Catholic ceremony, weaved in elements of Judaism, including Jewish prayers and stories.
In the time between the two sacraments, my mom had died from cancer and my dad and I were forging our own relationship in the absence of the strong force that was my mother. We started having more conversations about the religious education we were giving our children. While I knew he didn’t agree or believe we could educate our children in both religions, my dad was less likely to escalate his opposing views into full-on arguments. And while we weren’t necessarily getting to common ground, we were at least talking. Additionally, my dad had started visiting us more often. During these visits, he often came with us to our Sunday school’s adult-education sessions.
I remember at one of our sessions, we had a Humanist rabbi speak with us. He spoke quite honestly about how the Jewish faith is resistant to interfaith couples unless the couple is willing to raise their children solely as Jewish. This lit a fire in my dad, and he was quite upset that there is a whole interfaith community that wants their children to have a Jewish identity but the Jewish religion is turning us away. This frustration was the catalyst for us to begin talking more about the challenges we were facing as a dual-faith family.
My dad started sending me articles he found in the Jewish Journal about Jewish acceptance of interfaith families. He even went so far as to send in an op-ed piece explaining his views on why Judaism should be more open to accepting dual-faith families who wished to raise their children in both religions.
Sam’s First Communion class with their rabbi (left) and priest (right)
I felt like we were moving in a good direction, but I was not expecting to invite him to the First Communion ceremony. My husband, however, was adamant that we should include him. He felt this was an important event in our son’s life and that all of his family should be there; it would be my dad’s prerogative to refuse to come, but it was our responsibility to make sure he knew he was welcome.
After much trepidation, I finally asked my dad to come. I was surprised by the angry reaction I got. He told me that I was trying to make him feel guilty and forcing him to come. I explained to him that he was an important part of our family and welcome at the ceremony, regardless of whether he decided to come. My dad calmed down and told me he would think about it.
The night before Sam’s First Communion, my dad and I had some time to talk. He told me that growing up in the late ’40s and ’50s, there was much anti-Semitism in the U.S. While there was a good-sized Jewish population in his town, it was very segregated. The Jewish kids stuck together and were told not to walk alone for fear of being harassed by the Catholic kids. Understanding this was very insightful for me and made me see things differently. His apprehension wasn’t entirely a religious issue; it was also based on negative experiences he faced as a child. This cultivated his protection of the Jewish religion, as well as his fear and disbelief in understanding how the two religions could meld together.
The next day was the ceremony. It was sensitive and inclusive of both religions. Sam was proud of himself and thrilled to have his family in attendance. My dad didn’t say much about the ceremony itself, just that he was glad he was there for Sam. I knew he still wasn’t comfortable, but the fact that he attended the service was certainly a positive step.
Sheri and Jim with their children Rachel (left), Sarah (middle) & Sam (right) at Sarah’s First Communion
This set my dad up for the next First Communion, which came one year later for my daughter, Sarah. At Sarah’s ceremony, the rabbi had a scheduling conflict, so the Jewish parents led the Jewish prayers and stories. No one wanted to say the Yevarechecha (priestly blessing), so I asked my dad if he would do it. He agreed and came up to recite the prayer with the priest, who repeated each line in English. I joked with my dad that he had probably never said a prayer with a priest before.
It was special to have my family at this celebration and even participating. I know that we are still not in the same place, and likely won’t ever be exactly on the same page, but I think we have come a long way. We have one more First Communion coming up next spring, and my son is starting to prepare for his bar mitzvah next summer. We are continuing on our interfaith journey, and I now feel much more positive and hopeful about the path that lies ahead.
On my mom’s birthday last week, I left the house to go to the cemetery first thing. Being there, walking in the always slightly-moist, lush grass in front of her monument can provide a moment of peace on special days. But getting there feels brutally
un-special—sitting in my “mom car” driving the same roads I drive to get groceries. Over the last four years, I have searched for ways to make the entire round-trip special, or at least to propel me out of the day-to-day and into a more contemplative brain space. I have found it these last few trips, and it is not by traveling the three miles to her grave in a silent meditative walk. It is in pumping up the volume on deeply emotional music that makes me feel closer to my mom. Quite often, this has me driving into the Jewish cemetery with the windows closed but the speakers past 11 playing Christian spiritual music.
My parents both nurtured not just a love of music but a necessity for it—recognition that everything is better with a soundtrack and that music is one of our greatest art forms. I associate my mom with music that is soul-full. Her taste was eclectic, but her everyday soundtrack was full of songs that have something to say, music with beautiful harmonies and powerful lyrics.
There were many songs she loved. My sister listens to “Child of Mine” by Carole King. I get teary eyed at her favorite Eva Cassidy songs, and get out my anger at missing her with a good Adele tune. My husband Eric always associates “Hey Ya!” with her (doesn’t fit the same bill, but it does evoke some feeling!). When she was sick, she had a loop of music she liked to play that I still listen to sometimes—gorgeous songs sung by her Cantor Jodi Sufrin, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Corrine Bailey Ray, Alison Kraus and a few great others.
Among other genres, she always had a soft spot for gospel music and spirituals. I can think of two reasons why.One, it is so strongly in the wheelhouse of soul-full. After all, it is the original soul music. It is hard to listen to a great piece of gospel music and not feel it. Second, as much as my mom was fulfilled by and committed to her Judaism, she carried an appreciation for the surety that Christianity offers about heaven and the end of life. So much Christian spiritual and gospel music is about the promise of a good and peaceful heaven. While Judaism is open to the possibility of that heaven, it never feels like a universally held sure thing. In both, she and I share(d) a feeling that even if a song is about a God a little different from yours, it can still evoke your own connection to the universe and whatever God is yours.
So these days when I head to the cemetery I leave my house and listen to “Child of Mine” or maybe Alison Kraus’ “The Lucky One.” If I’m feeling emotionally fortified, I’ll put on Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” which turns me into the driver beside you that is ugly crying in her car. But as I approach the cemetery, I’ll be playing Joan Baez’s “Amazing Grace,” one of mom’s favorites around the time she passed away. It helps me feel closer to her and it probably keeps me crying. On the way out of the cemetery, I imagine her sending me out with a song like Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Go in Grace.” These songs’ reminders about the strength of the human spirit and the presence of something greater than all of us helps me keep her near and approach the rest of the day, moving into what ever else is on the rest of the soundtrack.
When I was a child there were two books I wanted desperately to hear before bedtime. The first was Goodnight Fred. This was a favorite because the grandmother in the book comes out of the telephone to visit Fred and Arthur, her grandsons. I, too, thought my grandmother lived in the telephone and could come out and visit whenever she pleased.
Then there was The Clown of God. This book, written by Tomie De Paola, is about an Italian boy named Giovanni who juggles. He juggles for food and a place to sleep. He spends his whole life juggling and has one fancy trick called “the sun in the heavens,” in which he juggles colorful balls. The last ball he throws into the air is gold like the sun. Then one day he drops the sun in the heavens and he stops juggling. He goes from door to door begging for bread as he once had done as a child. Now that he’s an old man, people don’t care about him. The book is filled with Catholic references. By the end of Giovanni’s journey he ends up at a church for a big religious festival. He has fallen asleep in the church and when he wakes there is a big procession for the statue of the Madonna and her child.
When everyone leaves, Giovanni notices that the Madonna’s son is frowning. So, Giovanni puts on his clown makeup and does his most famous juggling trick in front of the statue. As he throws up the golden ball he shouts, “For you sweet child for you!” Then he drops dead in front of the statue. Two monks run in and find him lying dead on the floor. One of the monks looks at the statue in shock. The statue of the boy in the mother’s lap is smiling and holding the golden ball.
It isn’t surprising that I chose to build my life with a man from Mexico who grew up poor, Catholic and happy. I pretty much looked all my life for Giovanni and found him in Adrian. Instead of juggling, Adrian cooks. He also knows how to enjoy the simple things in life. We have a roof over our heads and we have food in our bellies. We have work. We have a healthy baby girl. These are not small things.
As a child I did not grow up poor. I didn’t grow up Catholic either. I grew up Jewish and most of the time I was happy. I expected more because I was given more as a child. I grew up with big dreams and high hopes and plans. I planned everything. I planned what shoes I was going to wear with what shirt. I planned what job I would have, how much money I would make and whom I was going to marry. I planned to have a baby no later than 25 years of age. I planned to own a house and a summer house by 30. I planned to keep in touch with all of my closest friends from nursery school, first grade, camp, junior high, high school and work. Sometimes, God has other plans. Actually, all of the time God has other plans.
I am 35 years old. Adrian and I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Midwood, Brooklyn. Helen Rose, our little one, wakes up every morning smiling at us from her crib. In our apartment there is a hamsah hanging in our kitchen and a Virgin of Guadalupe in our bedroom. There is a menorah in the living room and a prayer to Jesus in Adrian’s wallet. Good Night Fred and The Clown of God are a part of Helen’s library. These are our riches.
Life surprises me. Growing up Jewish I wish I could say that my most inspirational book was A Tale of Two Seders or Snow in Jerusalem. This is not the case. The book that most inspired me while I was tucked in under my puffy quilt with my Scottie dog wallpaper was The Clown of God. On my journey through Judaism this makes sense. When I began working in restaurants I was most inspired by the kitchen workers, most of whom had left their own countries in search of a better life. In school, I am most inspired by the students who hold down two jobs and have families or the students whose first language isn’t English but are getting an education and getting A’s in every class. I am inspired by the human capacity to overcome struggle.
I feel that people often tend to see goodness as a religious quality. But goodness is a human quality. Goodness is often compared to gold. It is this quality I wish to pass on to my daughter. Having an interfaith family is challenging. It challenges me every day to be more open and aware. It makes me ask questions and urges me to listen. It stops me from making plans and lets life lead me.
My favorite page in Tomie De Paola’s Clown of God is when Giovanni is still a young man and he makes his money juggling. One day he runs into two monks on the way to town. He shares his food with them and they begin to chat:
“Our founder, Brother Francis, says that everything sings of the glory of God. Why, even your juggling,” said one of the brothers.
“That’s well and good for men like you, but I only juggle to make people laugh and applaud,” Giovanni said.
“It’s the same thing,” the brothers said. “If you give happiness to people, you give glory to God as well.”
I wonder if my mother knew while she read me that book that it would take two faiths, not one, to convince me of God and God’s many beautiful and unexpected plans.
Growing up in a small, rural town in northern New Jersey in the ’80s, I never had perfect attendance in school. Not because I was sick or because my family took vacations outside the school calendar, but rather because every fall, I needed to take two days off in observance of the Jewish holidays.
Unlike my friends who grew up in one of the predominantly Jewish parts of our state—where schools are closed for the High Holidays—I was one of about six Jewish families in our entire school district. So for us, school was definitely open and the High Holidays were considered excused absences (but still counted as absences), which meant I’d never have perfect attendance.
Of course, what I share today as a sore spot of my youth seems beyond frivolous now at 36 and a married mother of two. But at the time, it really bothered me. I already knew I was “different” from the other kids.
Sometimes I really loved being unique. For example, my bat mitzvah was the first one my friends who weren’t Jewish had ever been to—it was their inaugural exposure to Judaism and, not surprisingly, it was happily met with rave reviews. After all, what’s not to love? There’s the party and the fancy dresses and the DJ and the neon necklaces and Shirley Temples.
Yet, other than the fact that I missed some school days each fall, or that I attended Hebrew School and had a bat mitzvah (whereas they all went to CCD at the same Catholic church and had confirmations), my religion remained a very personal thing for most of my childhood. It wasn’t until I was getting ready to look at colleges that I realized finding a school with a large Jewish population was going to be really important to me.
I didn’t want to be the only Jewish kid on the block anymore.
And so I accepted an offer from American University in our nation’s capital—affectionately dubbed “Gay Jew” (or at least it was called that when I attended, 1997-2001!). At American, I found myself part of the crowd—religion often came up in conversation (as did politics, internship opportunities and study abroad plans). Suddenly, being Jewish bonded me to others. And later my freshman year, I even dated an NJB (Nice Jewish Boy) for a few months.
I finally felt like I belonged at AU, like I was among my people. And though the university didn’t close for the High Holidays, many professors canceled class, either for their own observances or because they recognized many students would be going home to their families. Instead of being singled out at American, I felt accepted, not having to explain at length why I couldn’t present a group project on Rosh Hashanah. It was just understood.
I didn’t realize just how much that understanding meant to me until I entered the working world in D.C. after graduation. I was naive and didn’t know how things like vacation time/PTO worked–or that they’d vary depending on company. I [wrongly] assumed that I’d be able to take my religious holidays off as personal days, no big deal.
So you can imagine I was none too happy when I learned I’d have to take PTO for the Jewish holidays, as at this particular company, sick, vacation, personal and religious holidays all fell in one PTO bucket. It didn’t seem fair to me when I’d be perfectly willing to work Christmas Day and Christmas Eve—which were considered company holidays.
It was a poignant reminder that, once again, I was back to being in the minority—even in a culturally, religiously, ethnically diverse city like Washington, I still had to “explain” myself.
Years later, when my husband (who isn’t Jewish) and I moved to Kalamazoo for his job, I told my parents, “GREAT. I’ll be the only Jew in Kalamazoo!” And it sure felt that way for a while. My one Jewish friend here was my friend Dana in Chicago, two hours away. But then my husband introduced me to his new colleague, Emily—and said, half-kidding, “She’s Jewish and has curly hair, too; you’ll be best friends!”
And he was right. She is one of my best friends, to this day.
When the ad agency I worked for was acquired by a global marketing firm a couple years ago, one of the best changes to come out of the acquisition was that now religious holidays are counted as personal days, versus PTO. Though I’m still the only Jew in our Kalamazoo office, I no longer feel “alone,” or like I have to explain myself, knowing this is an across-the-board policy.
Which brings me to present day. Our 5-year-old daughter Maya is really into the Jewish holidays, traditional foods and singing the songs I’ve taught her. She can begin Hebrew school this coming fall, and I’m excited to begin her formal Jewish education—but I know how small the Jewish community is here in Kalamazoo. It’s just a tad bit larger than my hometown community was, and I worry about how she’ll feel, being one of just a few Jewish kids in her elementary school.
While I’ve always been proud of who I am and love our faith and its teachings, I remember that hard-to-explain, nagging feeling of not belonging growing up… and it plagues me. Though I know as parents, we shouldn’t project our emotions onto our kids, it’s hard not to when experience is tainting how we feel. Fortunately, the synagogue we will be joining has a lot of young families and even some interfaith families like ours—so I am sure we will get some guidance from those who have gone before us. But it’s hard living in a community where we really are a minority.
It’s my hope that I can instill in her that being “different” is what makes her special—what makes her (and our family) interesting and unique. We might have to explain ourselves to some people, especially living here in the Midwest in a city without many Jewish families, but that’s OK. Who knows, maybe she’ll find her place in college, just like her mama did.
Melissa Henriquez is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now live in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (5) and Ben (2). By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs at Let There Be Light (est. 2008). Melissa’s writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.