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A few weeks ago my family had a hard day. It seemed that both my Jewish and my husbandâ€™s Mexican/Catholic faith were being tested. A 7.1 earthquake shook Mexico. The epicenter of the quake was in Puebla where my husband, Adrian, is from and where his immediate family still lives. We were at the laundromat with Helen, our 2-year-old. All of a sudden breaking news of the quake flashed across the two flat screens above us.
Both Mexico City and the small, unknown villages of Puebla suffered. What was even more striking was the undeniable factor that the same earth shook on the same date in 1985 when 10,000 people were killed in Mexico City. Adrian grabbed his phone immediately. But then, so had the rest of the world. There was no connection to his village and the phones seemed dead or the lines were all busy. We grabbed our laundry from the dryer, put it in the trunk of the car and drove home to fold it.
The 19th of September this year also marked one day before the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. I wondered how we would be able to celebrate in the wake of such a tragedy.
As the day moved on, Adrian kept getting Facebook updates from friends in his town who had some access to the internet via their phones. Photos started being uploaded of demolished buildings. Another mutual friend of ours who was in Mexico City said 46 buildings had collapsed and there was chaos on the streets. Adrian went somewhere deep inside of himself with worry. I tried to play with Helen in the living room and not say too much. There was nothing to say, there was only waiting.
News came from Adrianâ€™s brother that the church in their village had collapsed. The front was cracked down the middle and still standing but everything inside had fallen. Adrian started to cry. His mother went to that church every Sunday, every holiday and at every opportunity she had. He still hadnâ€™t heard from her. I wondered what it would be like if my synagogue fell down, the same one I had been going to since I was a child. I couldnâ€™t imagine the feeling. He went into the bedroom and prayed to his Virgin of Guadalupe.
At 6 oâ€™clock Adrianâ€™s sister got through to him. That was mostly due to the iPhone he had sent to her a year ago. She said that the town was a mess but that luckily the family was OK. However, a lot of the neighbors were left homeless and there were huge cracks in the earth. One wall in his motherâ€™s house was cracked and the stove had fallen killing three live turkeys that had been running around the kitchen. I could see the relief on Adrianâ€™s face even before he hung up with his sister. I could see his sadness but also his faith, that unshakable faith when you believe in something hard enough that it changes the outcome of your worst fears.
We found out later that one girl in the village had been rushed to the hospital after a house collapsed on her. We also heard later on about how money from the government was not reaching the pueblos and that people were forced to rebuild without help. Then someone in the village started a donation page and raised enough money for bottled water and supplies.
The next night was Rosh Hashanah. Adrian was still reeling from the destruction of his village and he had to work so he didnâ€™t join Helen and me at the table in my motherâ€™s house. But, my brother said a special prayer for his family and he was present even in his grief. Adrian was actually happy to go to work so that he could take his mind off of things.
As the Jewish New Year progressed I looked at Helen. I remember when Adrian and I decided that she would be of two faiths. It was way before she was born. We said that whatever she wanted to be, she would be part of both of us. So far she eats my motherâ€™s chicken soup, jalapeĂ±os, challah and tacos. She smiles like her mother and looks like her father. She says â€śhello,â€ť â€śholaâ€ť and â€śshalom.â€ť
When Helen was just a year old I received an angry email from an irate woman asking me how I could raise my daughter in an interfaith household. She accused me of being a â€śbad Jewâ€ť and told me I was making my daughter into a â€śguinea pig.â€ť The email had me in tears. I couldnâ€™t believe someone would say such a thing. It took me weeks to realize that a voice like that is not a voice of strength but a voice of true weakness, full of misunderstandings. After the earthquake happened I thought about that womanâ€™s email and how absurd it was. After all, Helen goes to the synagogue I went to when I was a child and she will help rebuild the church that her abuela cherishes. We have already asked when we can make a donation in her name.
This year on Yom Kippur I will wear black, say the Kaddish (the mournerâ€™s prayer) for my father and for the people of Mexico who suffered during the earthquake. I will teach my daughter a Jewish prayer and a Catholic prayer. I will teach her that being part of an interfaith family does not make you less of one thing but more of both. After all, we have work to do. There are synagogues that need renovations and churches that are waiting to be rebuilt.
Some people believe that when a child is born the angel of death and the angel of mercy stand in the room side by side. During the delivery of my baby I watched the monitor as her heart rate dropped and lifted with every contraction. â€śThe cord is wrapped around her neck,â€ť the doctor said, â€śdonâ€™t worry this is very common.â€ť
In Hebrew the Malach Hamavet, the angel of death, is a warning. He is sent by God to show how precious life is. He is the angel who made himself known to David, Samuel and Moses and he was in my delivery room making everybody nervous.
My partner, Adrian, who is originally from Mexico is not afraid of the angel of death. The Catholics in Mexico have a Saint that signifies death; they call her â€śLa Muerteâ€ť and she is a good luck charm. Day of the Dead in Mexico celebrates death. People bring food to the graves of the ones who had passed. They actually cook the favorite meals of the deceased and bring them to the cemeteries as a celebration.
â€śDonâ€™t worry, donâ€™t worryâ€¦â€ť Adrian said even though with all his faith in God and the Virgin and even La Muerte I could see fear in his eyes.
How could I not worry? This was my first child. I had carried her for nine months. I had taken all of my vitamins, exercised, eaten right and slept well. I wanted her journey into this world to be safe and harmless. That would be too easy though. Even when my doctor asked me three months before delivery if I had a birth plan, I said â€śNoâ€ť and she said, â€śThat doesnâ€™t matter. Anything you plan never goes as planned anyway.â€ť
I did what any Jewish girl from Brooklyn trapped in a room with the Angel of Death would do: I called on the ghosts of my Grandmothers.
Grandma Helen had been a social worker. She was a Barnard Graduate when women were not pushed to go to school. When her son, my uncle, had some trouble she sold her wedding ring to send him into therapy. Grandma Rosie raised four boys, two of her own and two of her sisters’. She read the stocks every day and always had Tanqueray gin and Canada Dry tonic water in her fridge until the day she passed away.
The greatest thing about being with Adrian is that his beliefs and my beliefs often merge and intertwine. He didnâ€™t think it was at all strange that I had propped up photos of my two Grandmothers in the delivery room. He knew La Muerte was there and she was cunning. I felt the Malach Hamavet and he was filing his nails waiting for my next move.
When the ghosts of Grandma Helen and Grandma Rosie showed up, death packed up his things and left. I pictured my Grandmothers barging in with plaid suitcases and polka dot dresses pulling a cigarette out from Death’s lips and pointing to the door. My Grandmothers basically took over and stood behind the doctor as I pushed for forty minutes. On the last push as the baby came out I saw the cord around her neck. A nurse reached over to take the baby and the doctor smacked the nurse’s hand away and untied the cord from my daughterâ€™s neck faster than I thought was possible. In my heart I knew it was my Grandmother untying that cord. No doctor in his or her right mind would smack a nurseâ€™s hand away. Grandma Rosie would do that.
If my newborn had been born a boy we would have named him David, for my father and Zacharias for Adrianâ€™s grandfather. Because the baby is a girl her name was easy for us to choose: Helen Rose. She took Adrianâ€™s last name to symbolize both of our cultures. She took my two Grandmothers’ names to symbolize strength.
Whatâ€™s unique about interfaith families is that there is always more than one way to do something. Two faiths offer more choices. Now on the Day of the Dead we wonâ€™t only bring traditional Mexican dishes to Adrianâ€™s deceased family members, we will bring plates of food to my Grandmothers as well. On Day of the Dead we will cook for my father, for my grandfathers and for my Uncle Mark. The menu will be a mix of pastrami on rye, borscht, perogis and other favorite dishes of my family.
Baby Helen Rose will witness a coming together of cultures, a mixture of faiths and we will continue to highlight the importance of both as a presence in her life. She will learn the Hebrew prayer for mourning called â€śKaddishâ€ť and we will light candles in memory of those who have passed on. When she is old enough I will show her photographs of Grandma Helen and Grandma Rosie and explain that these women live on in her. They come back to life once a year on the Day of the Dead. They put down their plaid suitcases and straighten their skirts and like most Jewish women in my family they ask the same question when their ghosts arrive each year: â€śWhat time do we eat?â€ť
I have a talkative family. Mostly, our everyday conversations are about routine topics such as schedules, work, food, sports, and updates on family and friends, but there are moments when we have rich conversations about meatier subjects such as ethics, history, faith and fate.
These thoughtful discussions are never planned, they happen organically. But while the timing of them is unpredictable, I have noticed that they tend to take place in three locations: in the car, around the Shabbat table, and in nature.
Maybe these conversations happen in these spots because we are relaxed, our minds are cleared of to-do lists, and our hands and eyes are freed from electronics. Or maybe the settings put us in a contemplative mood. Whatever the cause, I cherish these opportunities to connect with my family, and especially my son Sammy who is about to enter his preteen years officially.
In these magical moments, my husband and I get to hear our sonâ€™s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes weâ€™re discussing, we weave in details about history, Judaism, books, science and other relevant topics. Because our son is present and engaged in these conversations, he absorbs and is more receptive to the information being presented.
On a walk in the Vermont woods during our recent summer vacation, the subjects of life and death came-up. I pointed out a nurse log on the side of the path. A nurse log is a decomposing tree trunk that provides the moisture and nutrients necessary for the growth of new plants. We learned about them last summer during a hike in Alaska.
As we looked at the log, Sammy said that all living things, including people, are like nurse logs. He explained his theory of what happens when people die and are buried. He said that as the bodies decay, nutrients are added to the soil, the enriched soil nourishes the growth of new life in the form of plants.
I thought his idea was quite logical, in line with Sammyâ€™s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, â€śBut the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a personâ€™s soul?â€ť
I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind â€“ our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one wayâ€“a tangible wayâ€“to think about living on, but that wasnâ€™t what he was talking about. His thoughts were metaphysical in nature.
He said he believed that when the body decays part of its soul moves into the plant that grows from the soil that has been nourished during decomposition. When an animal eats the plant, it absorbs the soul. In this way, the soul moves up the food chain eventually reaching another person.
My husband and I listened intently while Sammy shared his ideas. We were fascinated by how he easily his mind moved between rational and mystical thinking, and how he interwove concrete and abstract concepts.
I shared with him that the idea that the soul moves through different realms after death is present in Judaism. â€śReally?â€ť He said.
â€śReally. Some Jews believe that when they recite the Kaddish for a loved one who has died, it lifts the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to another moving it ever higher each year that the Mournerâ€™s Prayer is said.”
â€śWow. Thatâ€™s pretty cool,â€ť Sammy replied. He then added, â€śDonâ€™t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now weâ€™re talking about the soul.â€ť
My husband and I do love these conversations as much as Sammy. They are unlike our everyday parent-child interactions. There is no nagging, admonishing, reminding or repeating. We appreciate these small opportunities to build connection and family intimacy because, in our hyperscheduled, too-busy-for-downtime lives these moments arenâ€™t always easy to find.