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This week we marked my mom’s birthday. She would have been 65, and had she not died last year, we would have had a wonderful celebration. Instead, we moved through the traditions we are trying to create in her memory: a lobster dinner (very un-kosher, but something she loved), a trip to the cemetery, a visit to one of her favorite places, lots of hugs, and a little time for introspection.
Grandpa, my girls and me at Halibut Point, one of mom's favorite places
One of the things I have always believed Judaism “does best” is mourning. The prescriptive rituals provide a structured way to traverse one of life’s most painfully unbounded times. When I was first mourning my mother, these rules gave me things to do even though I felt completely rudderless. When I observed her first yahrtzeit this May, I found comfort, and a connection to her, as I performed the same rituals I had watched her do for her father throughout my childhood – lighting the candle, standing for her in the synagogue, visiting her grave.
I have thought a lot about these rituals, and as I learn to anticipate the ebbs and flows of grief, they markedly fall short when it comes to her birthday. The yahrtzeit date represents the death itself. It is a day that had no meaning before she died, and now represents the beginning of loss.
Mom’s birthday is a whole other ball of wax. As far as I know, Judiaism doesn’t put much weight on a birthday. But my mom loved celebrations, and relished any chance she got to celebrate anything. Birthdays are very special in our family because of her. Two of her birthdays have passed since she died, and I am surprised by the things that get to me. I am especially caught off guard by how much I grieve the things I don’t do, like not buying her a present, or not having to decide what kind of cake to get. And on this day more than most, I miss her beaming smile when that cake would come out, and the joke she would surely make about getting older, or getting cake stains on her shirt, or something else silly from the year that just passed.
I recently discovered Renee Septimus’ blog about the job of a grandparent on the Jewish parenting website Kveller. It seemed fortuitous to discover her posts the week of Mom’s birthday, as it felt like something Mom could have written herself. It reminded me of the loss for Ruthie and me as a mother-daughter unit without a Jewish Grandma. I hope to return to Renee’s blog to glean a few more echoes of what my mom might have said to me. And in honor of her birthday, I want to share a piece of what I read at Mom’s funeral, to give you a glimpse of the kind of grandmother she was for us:
I have counted my blessings every day for the last three-and-a-half years to have experienced life with my mom as a Grandma. In so many ways this felt like the role she had been most meant to play her whole life. Mom was herself as a grandmother – fun, creative, full of life, honest, and real. She was exceptionally devoted to Ruthie, and from the day she was born Mom re-arranged her crafting efforts, her shopping expenses, her plans, and really her whole life around the smallest member of our clan. The dividends were huge – I think of Mom as Ruthie’s favorite friend, the person who knew the most about her and with whom she shared the greatest delight.
But even more than what Mom gave to Ruthie, Mom was an incredible grandmother to Eric and me. Mom recognized a huge part of her role as a grandmother as a shift in how she should mother me. She was gentle and kind and most of all reassuring. She supported every choice we made (or didn’t make). She made it clear that the most important thing we had to do was to love our daughter unconditionally…and that the rest would follow. She never made me feel pressured or even capable of making a mistake (with the exception, perhaps, of my letting Ruthie choose non-matching outfits), and always reminded me that motherhood is hard work, and that taking care of myself was not just a nicety but a necessity. I have endless gratitude for the ways in which she made it possible for me to be a mother, and feel that without question the greatest unfairness of Mom’s premature passing was all of the grandparenting she is not going get to do, both for the grandchildren to come in the future and for my brother and sisters.
One of many beautiful pictures of my mom
While Judaism may not mark the birthdays of those that have passed, I was raised to believe that one of the ways you live on after death is in the memories of those left behind. So there may be no rituals prescribed for these days, but the memories arise in full swing, perhaps allowing Mom to live just a little bit more.
I get weekly emails from my synagogue, and, a few weeks ago, I noticed that there was a little paragraph tucked in between notices from the Sisterhood and requests for coat donations. A bar/bat mitzvah meeting for parents of kids fourth thru sixth grade. It took me a minute, but I realized quickly that it meant me. My daughter is in fourth grade. It’s that time already? Really? Wasn’t it a week ago that I was pregnant with her and couldn’t fathom how she’d be able to have any kind of clear religious identity with a Jewish father and me? Wasn’t it just the other day that I realized that while she was self identifying as Jewish the way she considered herself Irish but because I hadn’t converted, according to our synagogue, technically, she wasn’t Jewish? I didn’t think she’d really remember the mikveh, she was only five or six, but I remember it so vividly. And suddenly – we’re there already. A bat mitzvah.
And the more I thought about it, the more emotional I got. Which isn’t surprising, I cry at pretty much every milestone. Dance recitals, preschool graduations, her first real report card. But a bat mitzvah seems like it’s so important. Not only because she’s the first in my husband’s family, of her generation, to read from the Torah. Not only because my family will come, of course they’ll come, but won’t have the foggiest idea what we’ll be doing. But also because the bat mitzvah has so much meaning attached to it. It’s coming right when I’m starting to realize that this baby girl, this tiny little baby of mine isn’t always going to be mine. She’s her own person – and that’s terrifying and wonderful and, yeah, I’m welling up with tears as I’m writing. I’m going to be in so much trouble with this…
That’s what the bat mitzvah is – it’s a public acknowledgement that we’re Jewish, and that Jessica is Jewish. That she’s responsible for herself now, that she’s going to take ownership of her own religious identity in a way that I’ve been worrying about since before she was born. What will her religious identity be? She’s Jewish, yes, but not only Jewish. She’s inherited a rich family tradition dating back thousands of years. She’s also the product of my side of the family, a family filled with people who have no strong tie to any organized religion but a very strong and heartfelt connection to God.
She’s all intellectual questioning rules and ritual on the one hand, and on the other, she’s got a sincere and absolute relationship with God that, as far as I can see, she’s never doubted. She blends both of us, the Jewish side from her father, and the spiritual intensity from me. She’s got an extra dash of drama and wonder and intensity that’s all her own. And it makes me cry. I’m not sure if I’m crying because I’m grieving the loss of the little girl who’s growing up so fast, or if I’m crying because I’m so incredibly proud of the woman she’ll be.
When she was born, my husband picked out her Hebrew name. It means “beautiful celebration.” That’s what she’s always been for us, a celebration of love and life and so much joy. And on her bat mitzvah, she’ll stand in front of our friends and family, and she’ll read from the Torah. She’ll be exactly who she is. And that’s amazing to me.
When our second child, a boy, was born, my (Jewish) husband was adamant that he be circumcised. Everyone has their own baggage, and I’m far from exempt from that. I grew up without a dad; I was dead certain that I wanted my children to have an active, involved and dedicated father. I didn’t want them to have just one parent, so it was vital to me to respect him as a parent. This was his son as much as he was mine, and it was that absolute for him. He would be circumcised.
It’s one thing to blithely agree to something and then realize how incredibly hard it’s going to be. Like daycare – of course, my kids would go to daycare and I’d work full time, right up until I actually HAD a child and the thought of leaving them for eight to nine hours a day was devastating. It was the same situation with the circumcision. Yeah, sure, we can do that, right up until I’ve got this tiny little boy – AND YOU WANT TO CUT OFF HIS LITTLE PENIS?!?! And if I was struggling with the concept, explaining it to my non-Jewish family was even harder. The whole idea of having a party where we’d cut off the tip of his penis and then have bagels was beyond their comprehension.
But cut it off we did. I reminded myself over and over again that this was my husband’s child as much as mine. That I had to respect Marc’s traditions and his right to make decisions for our child if I truly wanted him to be an equal parent with me.
First let me back up. My son was a challenging baby. To this day, six years later, I know of no other child who was as miserable as my little baby was for the first several months. Colic and reflux were a part of it, but part of it was just who he was, he doesn’t like change – and the whole concept of starting his life here just made him furious. He cried all the livelong day, unless he was nursing. Or in the swing – he loved his swing. But mostly he cried and nursed. He only slept when I held him, and only stopped crying when he nursed. He was horrified if anyone other than me tried to hold him, screamed unmercifully if people looked at him for too long, and being the center of attention made him nuts.
So I was a wreck on the day he was going to be circumcised. To put it mildly. I was an experienced mom, he was my second baby, and I’d had literally decades of childcare behind me – but I was worn out, sleep deprived, and out of mind with confusion and frustration and this overwhelming love for this boy child. Voluntarily hurting him (and that’s the only way I could see this) was so hard. So incredibly hard. My mother, sister, stepfather and cousin had all come early to our house. We lived in a second floor apartment, and it was literally the hottest day of the summer so far that year. We had no air conditioner, and the apartment was wall to wall people. I couldn’t stop crying. The baby couldn’t stop crying (because the mohel didn’t want me to nurse for the two hours before the ceremony, and he was furious at the thought of a pacifier).
All of my husband’s female relatives assured me that I shouldn’t be there, the mothers never watch. But I couldn’t NOT be there. This was my child. This was my baby, and if I was going to allow this to happen to him, I couldn’t let him do it without me there to support him. So I sat in the room just off of the dining room, where everyone had gathered. My father-in-law held the baby, and my poor confused stepfather gave him little bits of a sweet wine and it was over super fast. They handed him back to me immediately, and he stopped crying the instant I touched him. He nursed gratefully and went immediately back to sleep.
The man who performed the circumcision passed away a few months ago. It wasn’t that I knew him well, I had never met him before and only saw him a few times since then. But he was there, on one of the most challenging and painful and ultimately rewarding days of my life. You know how sometimes you bond to your baby the first time you meet them, and sometimes it takes a bit? I loved my baby from the beginning, but on the day that he was circumcised, I knew absolutely and without question that I was his mother and he was my son, and that when he hurt, I felt it more than I could have imagined. It was the beginnings of a relationship that, to this day, continues to shock and amaze me, to teach me and stretch me and astound me. Rest in Peace, Stuart Jaffee, and thank you for your part in my son’s life.
That being said – when we found out that our next baby was a girl, the first thing I thought in the ultrasound room was thank God we don’t have to have her circumcised.
Sometimes I think what will be written on my headstone when I die is She had a lot of faith. As Roman Catholic raising Jewish children, I spend a lot of my time in houses of worship—three hours in the synagogue on Saturdays and an hour at Mass on Sundays—preparing for and celebrating holidays, and talking about God and religion with my friends and family.
The truth is I love it. I love being Catholic and I love that my family is Jewish. I am by no means a religious expert or theologian. I have studied Judaism for the past twelve years since I met my husband and as much as I have learned, I do feel like I have barely scratched the surface. Once when I was talking with a (Jewish) friend, trying to understand the differences between the Jewish denominations, he finally said the different denominations are about five minutes old in the span of Judaism, and I should not worry about the difference between a Conservative Jew and a Reconstructionist Jew. He told me to study the Jewish holidays, interpret them for my family, and all will be well.
I am sure some would take exception to that advice, but it has worked for me all these years. I cannot expound on all facets of Jewish religion, tradition, and customs, but I have found my way living a Jewish life with my family. I am grateful for all of my teachers along the way, my children’s preschool, their Jewish summer camp, our synagogue, great friends, and resources on Interfaithfamily.com. And I cannot forget the secretary at my church who recommended the mohel we used for my son’s brit milah (circumcision).
My son is eight years old and my daughter is six. I am happy to share that they are thriving in all aspects of their humanity, they are healthy, they are socially agreeable, and self-identify as Jews. They know I am not Jewish and love me anyway. Last year when William was seven and Sarah was five, we took them to our local mikveh to be officially converted. Of course some lines of Judaism recognize patrilineal descent, but it was important to us to have them officially converted for their Jewish legitimacy to be recognized by most modern denominations.
On the appointed day, William and Sarah went through the ritual immersion for Jewish conversion at the Community Mikveh in Wilmette, Illinois. One at a time, they entered the small holy pool and immersed their whole bodies under the water three times. After each immersion, a prayer was said by the beit din (rabbinic court officiating the ritual) blessing them into the Jewish religion.
William and Sarah loved the experience. My husband and I prepared them for it in advance. The mikveh is a special place. The water is the most special water you will ever feel on your skin. You will be sealed with God’s grace in a very special way. Enjoy it; savor it because it will be a long time before you can go into a mikveh again.
Enjoy it they did. Sarah went first and made us promise she can come back again one day. William dunked himself at least six times. He treaded water. He swam around. He stayed in as long as he could.
The following day was Friday. At our Shabbat dinner, we all made toasts to how wonderful it is to be Jewish and what a remarkable week it had been. Our Shabbat Shaloms , l’chaims and special Shabbat blessings felt extra special and authentic. It was then when I realized that I really am the only non-Jew in our house. I also realized my work to raise Jewish children was not over. It had just begun.
Where am I? Somewhere between adoption and something else. I don’t know what just yet. But as I pause here wondering which way to go, I’ve had some time to think and most of that thinking has been about the question I asked in my last post, “who am I if I’m not a mother?”
As a person that is not married and has no children I spend a lot of time sitting in the pew watching traditional families (married couples with kids) on their way up to the bimah – baby namings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and wedding blessings (aufruf), wedding anniversaries. Jewish ritual greets traditionals at every turn ready to teach how Torah can speak to them at that particular time in their lives, affirming their place in the community and marking it with congregational celebration.
But what if these events don’t happen in your life? Then who are you? Who am I? I don’t find it surprising that a loss of identity is an outcome of infertility and/or failed adoption because so much of Jewish life is structured by these milestones in traditional family life.
“I love my church and I hate my church” a friend who is struggling with infertility tells me. She sighs and adds, “everything is centered around the kids so I’m an outsider when I most need my community.” The Jewish community is no different.
That’s not to say that I’m not happy for all these families. I am. But couldn’t we be more inclusive? Aren’t there transitions that occur in adult life aside from marriage and kids that cry out for engagement in Jewish learning, ritual and celebration?
What if we had a ritual marking the entery into adult life after college or a program of study at the turning of 40 years old (which is a time of deep soul searching for some)? Or for retirees that are adjusting from work to retirement and wondering how to re-imagine their lives? I don’t mean just a class or an aliyah but a full program of study culminating a unique and appropriately sacramental recognition. Wouldn’t ceremonial and educational opportunities like these add to the richness of our congregations and to the lives of those that participate?
As our community continues to change maybe we need to think about re-structuring or simply adding more milestones on the Jewish pathway through life - after all Judaism has something to say every Jew wherever they may be.
As I pulled into the parking lot at the temple, I was amused by the fact that my van, which is being held together by duct tape, string, paper clips and prayer, was parked next to a new Porsche. The juxtaposition of the two vehicles seemed to represent how I felt about going into my son’s Bar Mitzvah meeting. I was a little nervous and didn’t feel like I fit in.
I walked in, saw familiar faces, said some hellos, got my folder, sat down and whipped out my knitting. I knit when I am nervous. The meeting started right on time (odd, I know). The Rabbi asked us to introduce ourselves and tell a story about our experience with Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. I have no story. The only story I have is the one I am telling you all right now. Knit, knit, knit. I messed up the introduction. Knit, knit, knit.
The Rabbi begins to go over everything. He talks about how each ceremony is structured to fit the needs of each child and their family. I am still knitting, but it is slowing. I am starting to feel calmer, or maybe the magnitude of the whole event is just so overwhelming that I am in shock, hard to tell. More talking. Eventually, there is a need for some paper shuffling and I put my knitting away. I am starting to think this is doable. Planning is something I am good at.
Just as the calm is beginning to settle in, the dates are handed out. I am not sure what I expected, but what was printed on that green index card was a shocker for me. I think I expected that the Bar Mitzvah date would be within a few weeks of my son’s birthday, not almost three months later. I am sure that the fact that an actual date makes all of this real also contributed. I was shell-shocked by the information on the card.
I could have requested a date. I didn’t do that. I just figured they would give us the right date. It is two years from now, so really, I don’t have anything scheduled. When I got the date, all the days that would have been bad flooded my mind. The anniversary of my father’s death is in the same month as Mac’s bar mitzvah, but it never occurred to me to request it to not be on that date, it was so far away from Mac’s birthday.
While driving home I called a friend and freaked out a bit. She listened to me go on, and then calmly reminded me that this is G-d’s party and that what will be will be. The people that are important will be there. That this is about more than just dates and the potential for blizzards to cause havoc with travel plans. That in the end, it will be ok, Mac will do great, and everyone who needs to be there will be there. The people that love him will come.
I asked her to remind me of this over the next two years when I am having some sort of cosmic meltdown. I also am laying in a goodly supply of yarn, just in case.
When my husband and I told our kids last weekend that we were going to attend a wedding, they were mildly interested. “Whose?” asked our 12-year-old, barely looking up from the book she was reading. But when we answered with two men’s names, she perked up. “Really? That’s so cool!” Yep, we said, it IS really cool. It was super cool for us, because it was a Jewish wedding in a synagogue close to our home and filled with neighbors, friends and various members of the community.
More than two hundred people gathered to celebrate the marriage of two men who have been devoted to each other for 21 years. They walked down the aisle together, they stood beneath the chuppah together, and best of all, they each broke a glass together! The rabbi did a wonderful job of honoring their relationship and talking about their commitment to each other as a model that any couple–gay or straight–could aspire to.
I have to say it was one of the most joyful events I have ever attended. At one point almost every single person was on the floor dancing while an amazing band played away. There was a couple next to us who appeared to be in their 70s, and my friend and I just jumped gleefully up and down. “This is so fun!” I shouted over the thump of the music. But it was not only fun, it felt liberating, because we all recognized that we were participating in an important event. My favorite moment came when both men danced with their mothers while a friend crooned Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
A sister of one of the grooms delivered the best line of the evening in her toast: “Here’s to the day when we won’t be celebrating a gay wedding, we’ll just be celebrating a wedding.”
Since moving back to Atlanta, my husband and I have been running around like madmen buying furniture, reconnecting with old friends, traveling to see family, settling into our jobs and new house and preparing for the kid-to-be.
Hectic is the theme of our life right now. Between CPR classes, baby showers, doctor appointments and pediatrician interviews, this tiny little baby in my belly has already squarely established himself as center of our attention. But we’re okay with that… he’s just so darn cute.
This morning was no different as it was our first meeting with a rabbi of a local synagogue to discuss joining the temple and his views on intermarriage and conversion. We’ve attended services at this synagogue a few times and both felt very comfortable, not an easy task for a family quite like ours.
After the usual formalities, our discussions varied from homosexuality and Hebrew school philosophies to Israeli politics and what makes someone Jewish. It was not exactly what I expected, but I enjoyed the conversation immensely. He shared personal stories of his own interfaith family (he is married to a Jew-by-choice) and inquired about our experience. His views on intermarriage and conversion meshed well with our own and his questions for us even made us stop and think about issues we’ve never considered… Again, not an easy task when it comes to two people who have had nearly 10 years to discuss everything under the sun (and believe me we both are known to be quite the talkers).
The rabbi, of course, asked me why I haven’t considered conversion and listened without judgment or interruption as I explained my personal decision not to convert. Yes, my conversion would make everything easier and on the practical level makes complete sense. I mean, I already live in a Jewish household, keep kosher, celebrate Jewish holidays, attend synagogue, know Hebrew and even lived in Israel for a year. Come on, it is all right there!
But I’m not looking for easy. I’m not looking for practicality when it comes to my spiritual needs. I’m looking for a relationship with G-d. My own faith fulfills that need and until it doesn’t and until I find I am fulfilled by Judaism, I have no plans to convert. He accepted my reasoning under the caveat that the discussion, not only for conversion purposes, but for the overall role of religion and spirituality in our lives between us as a couple, our families, our community and internally never be over. As a true believer in the art of good communication and continued personally growth, I fully agreed. I don’t expect us to know the answers to every hurdle we may face as a family and I want someone in our religious community I can trust to help us navigate the path ahead.
I hope we have found a home temple where we both feel comfortable, where my husband and our children can grow in their Judaism, where we can find a community of acceptance and support and leaders who guide us to better ourselves as a family.
Having a baby has flipped our world upside down in hundreds of ways already and I can’t wait to see what this little guy has in store for us next. He is making us better and opening our eyes to our greater potential every single day.
Before leaving us with a firm handshake, another date to discuss a mohel, a few booklets and a membership packet, the rabbi said he hoped he’d see us in services very soon. I think he just may.
According to the Talmud, when the Israelites lived in the wilderness the miracle of manna (bread) was given every morning at dawn and every morning a dew rose and encased the manna, protecting it until it could be harvested. Without this protection the Israelites would have starved.
I always assumed that miracles were large, cinematic and powerful – creation, falling Pharaohs, splitting seas and the like. But the thought that miracles must be nurtured immediately resonated with me. It reminded me of adoption.
Adoption is all about nurturing hope, protecting it even when it seems entirely unreasonable. Sometimes adoption feels like waiting in a train station where occasionally there is a shout “all aboard the baby train, platform 3!” Gathering my heart and a stomach full of butterflies (the best and only appropriate luggage for this type of journey), I run to meet my destiny but every time, thus far, only emptiness waits at the top of the stairs when I arrive.
In my last blog post I said I had just finished my home study which is true but not accurate. This is my second home study. The first adoption, an international program, is “on-hold” as the adoption agency would term it – I call it closed because I don’t believe it will ever bring me a child. After a year, I accepted the inevitable, cried my tears, and moved on.
So I started over with a domestic adoption program and today….they called me. I was between meetings at the time and so had to speak in hushed tones in a hallway but it was THE CALL. I will soon meet two boys, brothers, available for adoption. Maybe as soon as this week-end.
Talking to the amazingly calm social worker (I was anything but calm!), I realized how much has gone into protecting the miracle of this moment: all the ordinary days, making yet another call to the agency, reading one more book on adoption, buying a crib, storing sippy cups in a drawer and just continuing to imagine a child calling me “Mommy.” But today… at least for today… I can see the miracle
From Tel Aviv to Atlanta: After our goodbyes were said, a few tears, a 12 hour flight and 16 hour unexpected roadtrip down the Eastern seaboard, my husband, baby and I are officially ex-expats. The move from Israel back to the United States was a little tougher on me physically than I expected. Sometimes I do forget I have to slow down a bit more than usual as I have hit my final trimester, but we are finally settling in nicely. With cars purchased, house rented and boxes unpacked, we are now focusing on everything we have to do to prepare for our son.
Besides the usual, like the bi-monthly prenatal appointments, showers, birthing classes and decorating the nursery, we are beginning to research mohels to perform the circumsicion, a rabbi to perform the conversion and local synagogues to find the perfect fit for our growing interfaith family (in the middle of the High Holidays mind you!). There is a lot to do in the next three months, but I think we’re up for the challenge.
I have already noticed little differences with being pregnant in the States than in Israel. Because the birth rate in Israel is higher than in the U.S., I would see pregnant women everywhere and now I feel as if I rarely see another pregnant woman on any given day. In Israel, my OB was very dependent on technology and genetic testing to track the progress of my pregnancy. I had an ultrasound and a blood or genetic test at nearly every appointment while in Israel, while my new OB in the States will only perform one ultrasound and will rely primarily on tracking my symptoms, weight and growth for the rest of my pregnancy.
Oh and of course, Americans are far more aware of personal space than Israelis so the belly rubbing and uninvited advice from strangers has slowed quite a bit since moving back. I have to tell you, I actually kind of miss it!
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