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Itâ€™s a Monday morning in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and my almost 2-year-old daughter and IÂ have a date with my friend and her 10-month-old daughter to go to a read-along at the Brooklyn Public Library. We get downstairs with the stroller, enough snacks to feed a small army and a water bottle. Not to mention diapers, wipes, A & D ointment, cell phone, wallet and keys. Oh, and Duckie, the stuffed animal that is covered in one thin layer of gross because it is trudged across New York by my daughter on every trip we take. Even when I wash Duckie, his yellow is a kind of city yellowâ€”so, basically heâ€™s gray.
The super of my buildingÂ sees me trying to get Helen into the stroller. â€śYou gonna take an umbrella?â€ť he asks, â€śItâ€™s supposed to rain like crazy.â€ť
The library is a ten-minute walk from my apartment and it hasnâ€™t started raining yet. The umbrella is the one item Iâ€™ve forgotten. â€śNo,â€ť I say, â€śIâ€™m not afraid of a little rain.”
Famous. Last. Words.
Almost eight blocks from my house, the sky opens. The rain comes down in sheets as if the sky had been holding its breath and someone just reminded it to let go. I am so soaked and Helen (though covered by the stroller top and a blanket) is getting her legs and feet soaked as well. I almost panic.
Midwood is a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. I grew up here and now I live here with my interfaith family. Itâ€™s hard to live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and try to make people understand that my daughter is both Jewish and Mexican Catholic. In Jewish circles I find myself getting defensive. In Catholic circles I donâ€™t know how to explain my own take on Judaism. And when strangers hear me speak Spanish and then shout something in Hebrew three seconds later, I am met with baffled looks.
But Midwood means something else too. It means a ton of Honda OdysseyÂ minivans. Once, from my motherâ€™s house to our apartment three blocks away, I counted 11 parked Odyssey minivans. This is because the Jews, like the Mexicans, have big families and the Honda Odyssey seats eight. But, as a driver in New York, I hate being behind an Odyssey. Iâ€™m constantly making cracks about them. I can always see the TVÂ turned on in the back seat of an Odyssey. So many Odyssey minivan drivers drive too slow in themÂ because of all theÂ kids they have in the car. But, itâ€™s my own personal obnoxious joke that I canâ€™t stand the Honda Odyssey.
With that being said, as Iâ€™m in a small panic halfway from home and halfway from the library with the rain still pelting down, I see a blue Honda Odyssey turn the corner. A young woman in a traditional wig rolls down her window. â€śExcuse me!â€ť She shouts from her Odyssey, â€śDo you need a ride? I have three car seats in the car.â€ť I am wearing jeans (a clear sign I am not an Orthodox Jew, though I am a Jew, but she doesnâ€™t know this) and a shirt that has become so obviously see-through.
â€śAre you sure?â€ť I ask, hesitating as water drips down my face.
â€śYes!â€ť she says as she leaps out of her Odyssey with a purple umbrella decorated with dogs wearing tutus. She holds the umbrella over our heads as I get Helen out of the stroller. She then holds my daughter and puts her in the car seat. Helen starts to cry a little, but the woman is so gentle and I tell her not to be afraid. I throw the stroller in the trunk and get into the front seat. As soon as the woman closes the â€śdogs in tutuâ€ť umbrella she says, â€śIâ€™ve never picked up a stranger before! I just couldnâ€™t believe you were out here. I just dropped my kids off at camp and saw you. Where are you going?â€ť
I tell her that we are on the way to the library and I find out that she lives on that same block. She points to her house (which is directly across the street from one of my relatives’ apartment building) and on the porch are three mini beach chairs for each of her children. I thank her profusely and as I get Helen out of the car seat, the woman climbs into the trunk of her Odyssey and pulls a pink and white blanket from the back that says, â€śbaby.”
â€śPlease take this,â€ť she says, â€śI have six blankets in this car and the library is freezing.â€ť
This is when I take the opportunity to let her know in Hebrew that I am a Jew. Iâ€™m not sure why I do this. The entire ride, when I spoke to Helen, I spoke in Spanish. It was obvious to the woman that we were a different kind of family than the families usually seen walking through Midwood. But, religion, class or status didnâ€™t matter to this woman. So I said, â€śtodah rabahâ€ť (thank you, in Hebrew). â€śYou did a real mitzvahâ€ť (good deed).
But, to my surprise the woman wasnâ€™t shocked. Her mouth didnâ€™t drop open and she didnâ€™t shout, â€śOh my God youâ€™re Jewish!?!â€ť And that was a good lesson for me because her picking me up had nothing to do with my two faiths. She picked me up because she saw I needed help. She saw I was in a panic and she saw that, like herself, I am a mother. And being a mother has nothing to do with being a Jew or a Catholic and it has everything to do with being a Jew and a Catholic. Because two faiths, interfaith or one faith is about respect for the fellow man. And in a world that seems more chaotic every day, itâ€™s nice to know that as Anne Frank once wrote at the age of 13, â€śIn spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.â€ť Maybe Iâ€™ll stop being so judgmental about the Odyssey.
Iâ€™ve been married for 14 years and with my husband who is not Jewish for 16. Iâ€™ve always wanted to believe that in that time my mom and stepfather have grown in their willingness to learn about, and be accepting of all kinds of differences introduced into our family through marriages, children and my siblingsâ€™ and my friendships. But repeatedly, Iâ€™ve realized that their tolerance doesnâ€™t extend much beyond my husband and sister-in-law who is not Jewish.
My parents seem to inhabit this not-really-open space on the openness spectrumâ€“they think that every race, creed, sexual and gender identity should have equal rights, equal opportunity and the full protection of the law. They just don’t want anyone who is not white, Jewish and straight in their circle of family and friends, or too close to their children and grandchildren. They’ve had to accommodate some Christians because of intermarriage in our immediate and extended family, but that seemed like as much as they were willing to tolerate.
I remember when my mother figured out that my friend Andy who is married to Greg was a man. Andy and Greg were very dear friends of my husband and mine. Our son adored them; they were like uncles to him. “Oh,” my mother said during a phone call. “Andy isn’t a woman?” A long pause followed, and I knew she was concerned that our son spent time with them and loved them so much. Even though intellectually she understood that being gay wasnâ€™t a choice or a communicable disease, she worried that Andy and Gregâ€™s sexual identity might somehow influence our sonâ€™s sexuality.
So, it wasnâ€™t surprising that from the time my stepsisterâ€™s twin boys were born that they were worried about one of the children. One of the boys was a fitful infant and grew into an angry toddler who clung to his mother. From a very early age, he loved everything traditionally associated with girls: girlsâ€™ dress-up clothing, princesses, Barbie, sewing, makeup and more. His friends were all girls. He liked pink. He invited only girls to his birthday parties. He was very athletic but had no interest in sports. He made my parents, who were the paragons of heteronormativity, nervous.
Having worked with transgender individuals through my job at my synagogue, I thought that my nephew might be transgender. I knew it was one possibility my stepsister was exploring with the therapist he saw for various behavioral issues. Then my mother confirmed what I already knew when I was on the phone with her and asked how was a recent visit with the boys.
“E is happier than I’ve ever seen him. They have let him grow his hair long. He wears bright pink hi-tops and a pink hat with his name embroidered in purple, and he answered the door the other day in a dress and full makeup” she said. “Claire told him that when kids change schools that sometimes they adopt different identities. He will go to a new school for third grade in the fall, and he is excited about the move.”
I said I was so glad to hear this news and it was great that he was being allowed and encouraged to embrace his true self. I was also interested to hear how my parents were dealing with the situation.
When I was seriously dating, engaged and even throughout my marriage to my husband, my parents didnâ€™t do anything that might help them navigate intermarriage in their family. They didnâ€™t take a class, didn’t speak with clergy, didn’t read any books and they didnâ€™t join a support group. They pretty much did everything that professionals who work with interfaith couples and their families tell parents whose children are in an interfaith relationship not to do. I hoped that my mother and stepfather learned from the experience of my intermarriage. I hoped they handled this situation differently for my stepsisterâ€™s (she needed all of our support) and for my nephewâ€™s (he needed love and acceptance) sake.
*Note: My 8-year-old nephew has not yet adopted the â€śsheâ€ť pronoun or changed names. My family is supporting this transition and is taking cues from my stepsister and her child. Currently, the childâ€™s pronoun is â€śheâ€ť and he is using his given name.
I asked my mother how she and my stepfather were dealing with the situation during a phone call. â€śIt’s hard, but we are trying to be as supportive as possible. Weâ€™re reading a lot of books and articles. Jack (my stepfather) has spoken to his therapist. Weâ€™re trying to learn as much as we can. We love this child. We want him to be happy.â€ť
I hung up the phone. Maybe my parents did learn from the negative approach they took when I introduced someone different into the family through marriage. Or maybe it’s harder to react negatively with a young grandchild than it is with an adult child. Whatever the case, there was growth.
I sent my mom a text, “I’m proud of how you’re handling this.” Maybe this new attitude of acceptance will even extend beyond our family. Maybe this time, my parents are learning the importance of #ChoosingLove. That is my hope.