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Making friends as a grown-up isn’t always easy. When I look at my “mom” friends, we’re mostly bonded through our kids. We spend countless hours at cheerleading, football or any of the myriad extra-curricular activities our kids are involved in, and our friendship is based on the relationships of our children with one another. But sometimes, I feel the need to step out of the comfort zone, try to meet people based on interests *I* have, because even though I’m momming 24/7, there needs to be a chance for ME to connect with, well, me, even when doing the mom thing.
So I decided to bring my 1-year-old to a Sukkot event, knowing full well he wouldn’t be able to participate in making a sukkah out of pretzels, but with the hope that maybe, after five years of living in Maine and still feeling slightly isolated and disconnected Jewishly, that I’d meet some other moms and families. I felt awkward walking into a situation where I knew no one except the group leader (who greeted me warmly), but I was determined to enjoy this new experience and bond over the commonality we all shared. After all, I was walking into a Jewish event, the kids were Jewish, I was Jewish, we were there to celebrate a Jewish holidayâAND we were all clearly parents of small children. I was encouraged; I had hope; let the bonding and mom-friending begin!
Except I left friendless. And feeling even more disconnected than before. It wasn’t a failure of lack of effort. I think I introduced myself to almost every grown-up there, and there had to be at least 30 people between adults and kids. I tried to strike up conversations as I followed my blond-haired blue-eyed toddler around with his monster-like walking (a new trick for his first birthday!). The conversations usually went like this: “Hi, I’m Amy! This is Finn!” (as he would carefully saunter up to a new grown-up to check them out). Said grown-up would respond with their name and ask me if he went to the daycare at the JCC. In my head I responded, “Is that a requirement to talk to me?” but I was there to make friends, right? So instead I gave my canned response, “He’s on the waiting list,” which is a truth, but I wasn’t going to tell them it was because when I was looking for daycare I couldn’t find a place that DIDN’T have a waiting list and it’s possible he’s on a few at this point. The conversation would end each time, almost as if it was a prerequisite for him to be there in order to communicate with me.Â Talk about frustrating.
I wanted to scream at all of them, “If you only knew! If you only knew anything about me! If you only knew my own Jewish connections, my own history, that on Yom Kippur the other day I stood in front of my congregation and chanted Torah, would I be acceptable to talk to then?” I looked around at the group, self-conscious of my blonde toddler in the mix of all the brown-haired kids, with biblical and Hebrew names. Is this what it’s going to be like for him as he grows up? My Jewish, Irish child who has interfaith parents? My Finnian, fitting in with standard white-bread Maine, but not so much in the Jewish community? I found myself surrounded by talk of day school that apparently most children in attendance go to, this rabbi, that rabbi, kids calling their parents eema and abba (Hebrew for mom and dad). And Finn? Oblivious to it all, walking around the sukkah like he owned it, waving and laughing at the kids who mostly ignored him, and picking up brightly colored leaves that had fallen to the ground.
Making mom friends is hard, but I didn’t think being Jewish was also hard. I walked away from the experience wondering if it’s always been like this, that certain status was placed upon you by how you connect Jewishly. And the reality is that in some communities, it truly is. I realized that I used to be one of the “elite” as someone who not only was actively involved in the Jewish community but also WORKED in the Jewish community. I took it for granted that it WAS easy because I was in the mix. But I’m no longer in the mix. And I’m no longer in a Jewish-Jewish family. I’ve now experienced the harshness of being judged based on perceived participation in the organized Jewish community with my blonde-haired kid, and it makes me sad.
As I tucked him into bed when we got home and pulled the green glowstick from the event out of his clenched hand, I wiped schmutz off his face, kissed him and said laila tov (goodnight). If that’s not connecting Jewishly, I don’t know what is. We have a long road ahead of us and I’m just starting to discover howÂ this whole being Jewish thing won’t always be easy, but I’m confident that Finn will grow up knowing whoâand whatâhe is.
I type this while holding a squirmy, feverish 3-month-old in my lap. Shh, shh, shh, I tell him. It’s OK, just relax and rest bubbeleh. I rub his back and pull him closer, patting his head, whispering, “Just lay your keppe down on mommy’s shoulder.”
He has no idea what I’m really saying, but the words must be soothing because slowly he’s settling down and snuggling in as I type with one hand. I can feel his stuffy nose breathing against my neck and my arm is falling asleep but I hesitate to lay him down, knowing he doesn’t feel good. I’m talking to him quietly, telling him maybe we will FaceTime with Bubbie and Gramps later after he rests. Go schluffy, I say. It will make you feel better. Let’s move this wet schmatte off your face (as he lays his head on a particularly drool-covered burp cloth) and you’ll feel better in a little while.
Suddenly I’m channeling all of my great-grandparents. Did I always throw this many Yiddish words into the middle of everyday conversations? Last time I checked, I’m a 40-year-old from New Jersey, living in Maine and I can’t speak conversational Hebrew, let alone Yiddish. In the last ten minutes, I used five Yiddish words and didn’t think twice about it. And apparently my older children, ages 7 and 9, have either never noticed, don’t care or they are just so used to hearing random Yiddish words they don’t know any different. My boyfriend who is not Jewish (and father of said 3-month-old), has never once questioned me as to what I’m talking about, and until recently, I never considered how weird some of the things I say must sound.
A Lutheran friend of mine (who recently revealed to me that she’s learned of some Jewish roots in her family and is doing research to learn more, and asks me questions as her resident Jewish friend), went in on a group gift for the baby. They had a custom onesie made for him with the word “tuchas” (which means butt) and an arrow on the behind, because she knew I’d find it funny. Of course I did chuckle, andÂ a few weeks ago while sitting in the waiting room during my daughter’s cheer practice, it led to a whole conversation about Yiddish words. The “cheer moms” started quizzing me, looking up Yiddish on Google to see a. how much I really knew and b. how many words I actually use in conversation. In a room full of mostly straight-outta-Mainers, we all had a good laugh at the strangeness of it all, and the realization of how much Yiddish I use truly emerged.
Yet the strangeness has sat with me, making me feel even more different living in a place not known for diversity. I’ve caught myself changing my language to fit social situations, almost unconsciously. I’ve never been one to worry about “fitting in” as I’d rather just be me, but I’m coming to the realization that my version of being me incorporates my Jewishness as a given. So when I throw Yiddish into a conversation, I have this unrealistic expectation that the people I spend time with just get it. My reality doesn’t exactly match up in a world where the dying language of my ancestors has either become standard dialogue for the rest of the population (helllloooo Cawfee Tawk!), or a symbol of what connects me–and my children–to the past.
The baby is stirring, as he burps and spits up on my shoulder. Time to go clean up the schmutz, as I take solace in the words and pass on yet another tradition in my blended Jewish family.
Like many parents, for me this time ofÂ year signifies both an overwhelming sense of relief (Yesss! No more homework orÂ projects!) and stress (What am I going to do with Roxy and Everett all summer?!?). This year has presented unique challenges for my family because I now work from home and can’t possibly spend my days on the beach with the kids while juggling conference calls and Google Adwords, no matter how much I want to, nor can I physically run around with them at more than six months pregnant. Roxy wants to do “tween” things with her girlfriends and at 9 years old her focus is on nails, music and learning the latest dance craze. Everett at 6-and-a-half prefers to spend his days dreaming up new ways to make his sister crazy by setting up Lego booby traps around the house and playing pranks on her while idolizing every move she makes. The realization of needing summer activities came way too late, and suddenly school was ending and panic set in.
In my perfect world, this would have been the ideal summer for them to both start camp. Overnight camp. JEWISH overnight camp. And I felt like it would have been an uphill battle that only I understood. Their dad thought they were too young for overnight camp. The kids were apprehensive about going away where they didn’t know anyone. My bank account laughed at me after talking to the Reform Jewish camp director and learning how much it would really cost me to send them. We talked about scholarships. I researched it online. I considered asking family for help. But in the end, it was not to be, because the kids had scheduling conflicts with local and family activities that made the discussion a moot point. Yet I ached inside, saddened to know yet another summer would go by without a Jewish camping experience.
Their dad and I finally worked out a plan for the summer and two weeks ago they started camp at our local town recreation center. They are loving their first camp experience, are there with both established and new friends and come home at the end of the day happy and exhausted. They love going on field trips and having action-packed days, but I know in my heart something is missing. My Jewish kids in Maine are completely disconnected to Jewish life now that school is over. Hebrew school doesn’t start up until the fall. There are no holidays to celebrate. With the chaos of living in two houses, I’ll admit that Shabbat just doesn’t happen in our house every week. And when I go on Facebook I feel a twinge of jealousy when friends postÂ pictures of their own happy campers being dropped off at a URJ overnight camp, and status updates of “I got my first letter in the mail from my camper!” because I’m wishing so deeply that Roxy and Everett were part of this tradition.
To add insult to injury, the kids have been obsessed with a book Everett received recently from PJ Library called No Baths at Camp!, which basically follows a child through each day of a Jewish camp experience through the beauty of Shabbat. They are enthralled by this book and the activities presented and take turns reading it to each other, carefully pronouncing the Hebrew words and reveling in the excitement of the Shabbat description presented. I take comfort as they absorb the experience through the words on the pages, yet desperately wish they could be there in person. We talk about it each time using words like “Next summer you’ll get to do this” and “One day you’ll help camp get ready for Shabbat” and “Do you think you’d be good at Israeli dancing?” I long for them to be part of Jewish overnight camp because I know how much of an impact it can have on identity and connection, especially after years of working professionally in the Jewish community. But who knows if I’m going to be able to financially pull it off next summer either. It’s already looking doubtful.
The funny thing is, I never went to camp. I revolted against the idea as a kid, preferring to spend my days on the Jersey shore not recognizing what a precious gift camp could be for me until I was in high school and involved in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and by then it was too late. I was old enough to be a counselor but too old to have created lasting friendships established over years of camp attendance. The majority of my Jewish friends understood this and as we entered adulthood and I recognized what a significant impact Jewish camping had on their lives, I promised myself that when I had children they wouldn’t miss out like I did. Except here I am, a mom of two camp-aged kids with a third on the way and I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen for them. I find this reality painful, especially living in Maine, where they are “the” Jewish kids at camp.
I cried one night when they were at their dad’s house, feeling like I’m failing them. My boyfriend, who isn’t Jewish, comforted me and agreed that if I couldn’t make it happen this summer that next summer was a must, and how good it would be for both of them. To have him truly get why it was so important to me for them to be there means so much, because I know that when it comes time for this baby to be of camp age, there won’t be a question, just love and support. He groans along with me when No Baths at CampÂ inevitably makes it’s way into the living room, and I catch him laughing listening to them try to pronounce the counselor’s name with an Israeli accent. Matt still doesn’t have a clue about this whole Jewish thing, but he knows that having a connection to Jewish life is pretty important to me and the kids and has made it clear he’ll help me navigate these types of hurdles when and as best he can.
The book is tucked away on the shelf for the time being and this summer I will embrace their first camp joys as well as I can, even if it’s not what I want most for them. Summer is already going by faster than I’d like it to, and before I know it we’ll be preparing backpacks for the first day of fourth and second grade while welcoming this baby into our family. Today I will look at this as a Shecheyanu moment, a thankfulness for new things, growth for all of us and an ever-evolving connection to our faith. It might not be a Jewish overnight camp, but Roxy and Everett have started along their own camp journey, one that will changeÂ over time, and maybe just maybe include some Israeli dancing.
Amy: So weâre just going to be surprised when I give birth, right? Like when the doctor says,Â âCongratulations! Itâs a ___!!â
Matt: Have you lost your mind? No, weâre not going to be surprised. Isnât being pregnant at 40 surprise enough for you?
Amy: (laughing) Well, I didnât know what Roxy and Everett were until they were born. You knew with YOUR son?!
Matt: (laughing) Uhhhhh, yeah I did! I NEED to know. NEED. How else are you supposed to prepare???
And then I sat there overthinking, a skill Iâve mastered, while remembering my previous pregnancies. I remember the panic I felt as a first-time mom-to-be, not totally secure in my decision to ânot find outâ and continually telling people my standard line of, âWell how many things can you truly be surprised about these days?â But I went with it, even as I started a baby registry with the urging of friends and family who were eager to celebrate with me. I picked out generic yellow and green everything, with frogs and duckies all while telling myself that I didnât believe in perpetuating traditional gender roles but deep inside longing for pink, or blue, or ruffles or dinosaurs.
My freak out continued as my belly grew, wondering how I was possibly going to get all the things I was going to need as a first-time parent without having a babyÂ showerâour traditionalÂ Jewish families didnât believe in having one, as Jewish culture can dictate superstition for some people. No bringing baby stuff into the house! Itâs bad luck!Â We settled on the garage as a safe zone as my due date loomed closer. My mom kept assuring me, donât worry Amy, stuff will just arrive. I didnât believe her for a minute.
In the meantime, my worry grew, as my Jewish ex-husband and I put a mohel on hold (my gut told me it was a girl but, letâs be real, it was a 50/50 shot in the dark) and discussed plans for a potential baby naming ceremony should we not be planning a bris, and I did my best to go with the flow and embrace tradition. All the while I truly wantedÂ to ignore everything I was taught to believe and just do what I wanted to in order to ease my mind.
But true to my momâs word, Roxy was born and I became best friends with the UPS guy and Iâm pretty sure the recycling truck was tired of picking up boxes. Baby items kept showing up after she was born, and plenty of pink was there among the green and yellow.Â Roxyâs naming ceremony happened as close to eight days after her birth as possible, because I was a true believer thatÂ if a bris needed to happen in eight days for a boy, I wasnât going to differentiate. I felt solace in my Judaism and was comforted by my decisions as the weeks went on, certain that at least I fulfilled connections of generations that came before me.
Two years later, I did it again withÂ EverettâthisÂ time feeling a little better knowing I had the essentials already in place (and justifying because Roxy still used a lot of it) but still feeling an empty longing while painting his future room my favorite color orange and some jealousy over attending other baby showers knowing I wouldnât be having one. I kept trying to make peace with tradition and telling myself itâsÂ OKâif itâs a boy, the blue dinosaur onesies will be on my doorstep after this baby is born. I listened to our families and let tradition guide me, and lo and behold, Everett was born, there was plenty of blue, the mohel on hold showed up on day eight and all was right with my world.
Fast forward almost seven years later.
Iâm laying on the ultrasound table with nervous anticipation. Itâs my third child but itâs been awhile since my days of diapers and bottles. Iâm on the edge of a total meltdown and I can hardly look at Matt, afraid if we make eye contact Iâm totally going to lose it and start crying because it feels so new.
âSo are we finding out?â the ultrasound tech asks us, as she guides the wand across my belly and pictures of the baby appear on the screen. Matt and I lock eyes and I look away quickly and answer before I can change my mind.
âYes. Yes. Yes. He (pointing at Matt) needs to know.Â And I canât have him know and me not, so letâs do this. Tell us. Tell us.â
The room is silent. In my brain Iâm thinking please say itâs a girl. Please. It will be so much easier if itâs a girl. Matt already agreed with me that our child will be raised Jewish, but parameters havenât been worked out and reconciling my desire to connect to tradition while honoring his beliefs has never been more overwhelming. Come on. Say it. Girl. It needs to be a girl. Iâm not sure Iâm ready to deal with the reality of boy. Putting the mohel on hold. I donât know if I can do this. Girl. Girl. Girl.
Iâm doing this chant on repeat in my head. Yet in my heart I know what sheâs going to say before the words come out. I woke up at 3 a.m. knowing. The definite knowledge of what this baby is. And my gut is rarely wrong.
She zooms in and points to the screen.
There it is she says. Congratulations, youâre having a baby boy.
MattÂ laughs and says, “I knew it.”
So did I my love. So did I.
My heart is overflowing with joy, our perfectly imperfect family is growing, and ladies and gentlemen, weâre having a boy. Everett is beyond thrilled. Roxy whined that she already hassssss a little brother, but itâs OK mommy, Iâll love him anyway. Matt jokes to me about having aÂ âbriskââdoingÂ it on purpose to make me laugh and lighten my worry as I roll my eyes and say âItâs a BRIS!!!!â as he questions me about the food that I tell him people are going to show up with on day eight.
I have no idea how any of this is going to actually happen, or who the mohelim in Maine are or the myriad of questions that we still have unanswered or have yet to discuss. Bring on the blue dinosaurs and bottles. A baby boy. I stare at the printed ultrasound picture, hugging it close to my chest. The unknown has time to wait. Matt grasps my hand and kisses my forehead. I canât wait to meet you my baby boy.
For more information, check out IFF’sÂ Guide to Birth Ceremonies for Interfaith Families.
Once upon a time, Amy, a divorced Jewish girl from Jersey, met Matt, a divorced Irish Catholic boy from Philly, in the unlikely state of Maine. They went on some dates. Amy tried to convince herself Matt was too ânice and normalâ and Matt ignored her and made her dinner and bought her flowers.They both realized pretty quickly that they were living a real-life Disney movie and suddenly the two found themselves blissfully in love, minus the talking animals of course.
Matt and Amy knew that they had a partner in each other, to support one another, laugh with, cry with and everything in between.Â They introduced their children to each other, they met one anotherâs families.They created a new life for themselves, together, figuring out how to start over in a serious relationship after divorce while already having kids and embracing the chaos, the unknowns, the differences and the sameness. Matt moved into Amyâs house, and to this day, continues to help her create what has become an actual home, reflecting the uniqueness of the kids and adults who live there.
This month, I celebrated my 40th birthday with Matt and my kids by my side. The significance of turning 40 has been huge for me, making me feel like Iâm crossing some kind of real grown-up threshold and am caught between not quite feeling old enough to truly be the adult I imagined, while balancing paying a mortgage, organizing the household and parenting. Having Matt in my life to share it with makes the transition smoother, and as I have been reminded numerous times, 40 is the new 20 (without the ability to understand snapchat). So this week, with me settling into this new decade, we decided it was the perfect opportunity to really make things interesting for our family and friends, because thatâs how we roll around here.
Using the power of social media, we enjoyed shocking everyone by announcing that weâre expecting this fall, which was as terribly fun to share as it was unexpected news (yes, our immediate families all knew prior to our announcement). And let me tell youâdoing this at 40 with a 9-year-old and a 6 1/2-year-old at home is sooooo much harder than it was when I first started the journey of being a mom. Iâm exhausted all the time and I somehow blocked out the joys of morning sickness, body aches and maternity jeans (actually, that last one Iâm kind of in love with). But Iâm feeling pretty good overall, and as my belly grows so does my excitement and nervousness about our expanding family.
Before Matt and I found out we were new parents-to-be, he joked to me one day thatÂ if we ever had a kid together I could pick the religion if he could pick the sports teams. A die-hard Philly fan vs. a New York sports fan was going to be hard enough with us living in New England, but thereâs truth in laughter and my answer with a smile and a giggle was sure, darling, fair dealânever imagining that at 40 it could ever be reality. Yet here we are, finding ourselves with a child on the way, facing these very real questions about how weâre going to parent and what kind of impact our interfaith relationship will have on our baby on the way.
Our families have their own opinions and questions, many of which havenât been vocalized, yet their subtle, careful questions paint a clear picture of uncertainty. Friends have been surprisingly more to the point, with direct questions expecting exact answers. My two kids, with their strong Jewish identities had their own Jewish birth stories, with a community naming ceremony for Roxy and a bris for Everett, both on the eighthÂ day of their lives. Mattâs 10-year-old was baptized in the tradition of his own religious lineage, and itâs all Matt knows when it comes to connecting birth and religion.
Weâve discussed our own connections to these traditions and our journey of figuring out our âwhat nextâ has truly begun. What felt abstract about our interfaith relationship before is now âin your face,â and while I feel confident that our communication is strong and that we have the ability to be open and understanding with each other, thereâs so much on the table that truly overwhelms me.
Raising a child is hard enough, even when the parents come from similar backgrounds.Â Add in divorce, co-parenting and a couple committed to each other who come from different worlds and arenât engaged (can we please just deal with one major life change at a time?). Welcoming a child into this conglomeration? Well, this 40-year-old pregnant woman and her amazing boyfriend are doing a killer job of navigating, if I do say so myself.
Matt keeps me grounded through it all, with his calm demeanor and his âStop worrying about everything, of course weâll figure it out and I just want you to be happyâ attitude. And heâs right, I know heâs right. Iâm going to trust in him, and in this.
We might not have it all figured out, but this baby is already a blessing. The ride might be bumpy, but the destination will surely be joyous.
Last Spring, I had the privilege of representing my synagogue at a remarkable social justice conference organized by the Reform Movementâs Religious Action Center, called Consultation on Conscience. Highlights included three days of world leaders, Jewish and not, educating the attendees about social justice issues, workshops on making a difference in our communities, luncheons for idea sharing between congregations and lobbying on Capitol Hill.
I flew to Washington, DC, without the kids, explaining that mommy was going to be learning about different ways to help people with a whole bunch of others from synagogues around the country. They didnât flinch knowing Iâd be away for half a week, because by now, my kids have figured out that their momâs DNA is made up of living tikkun olam, âhealing the worldâ â and that it was going to make me happy to be able to teach them what I learned and hopefully as a family put it into action. Little did they know how much of an impact this conference would have on all of us, almost a year later, or what weâd ALL learn by doing.
I came home energized, with a renewed passion for social justice, which is what these types of events are supposed to do. There was an expectation that in return for my attendance at the conference, I would implement some kind of program or event at my synagogue. What has followed throughout the summer and into the school year has been a comprehensive three-pronged tikkun olam program once a month in place of regular Hebrew school classes involving education, action and advocacy for grades 1-6.
Iâm so proud to watch it grow each month, as we explore topics together as families that the kids themselves asked to work on; things like hunger and homelessness, animal welfare and the environment. These topics are explored a step further by looking at them with a Jewish lens, and what Judaism teaches us about how to react, question and more. What makes this truly unique is that weâre doing this specifically as a FAMILY program, at a Reform congregation where the membership here in Maine is probably at least 60% interfaith families (it truly may be higher), and EVERYONE participates.
Itâs a special thing to see parents and children (as young as 6 to 12 years old) discussing difficult issues, trying to come up with solutions, learning together and recognizing that no matter if Dad is Jewish and Mom is not, or Grandma and Grandpa take the kids to Hebrew school because neither parent feels closely connected â that thereâs a place for everyone at the table because weâre all in this world together. We remove politics from the picture and let the kids be the stars of the show. Their voices are heard loudly and clearly as we give the kids the chance to speak their minds and be heard, in a world where adults often tell kids how they should feel or what they should think. While the Jewish concepts bring us together, itâs the issues the kids care about deeply that unite us.
After a recent monthly program that they were particularly excited about, Roxy and Everett (my kids) asked me if Matt (my boyfriend who is not Jewish) knew what tikkun olam was. And I had to answer them honestly and say no (at which point they freaked out at me and thought it was crazy) because it occurred to me that not once over the course of our relationship have I explained to him whatâs become a pretty central concept in our family. Itâs not like he doesnât know that I go to my synagogue every couple weeks and work on putting together the activities for these programs. Itâs not like he doesnât know that Iâm involved in planning this stuff. Itâs not like he doesnât know that volunteering and helping others is something the kids and I do. Itâs not like he doesnât know any of these things about me or the kids. But Iâve never said to him the words tikkun olam, and Iâm not quite sure why.
The kids seem to create their own separations between what is their âJewishâ life and what is their âsecularâ life, knowing that often times things bleed together. I have a harder time creating a separation, because so much of my life is formed by my Jewish identity, yet when it comes to my relationship, the kids think itâs clear cut. Sometimes I still think Iâm living in a weird gray area where I wish I didnât have to explain things â to him OR to the kids. In those moments I step back and remind myself of what happens during those programs, when the families are coming together from different backgrounds and religions and are still one cohesive unit. And I remind myself, this is truly what family is: learning with and about one another as we grow together. Tikkun olam isnât always just healing the giant world, itâs also healing our OWN worlds as we find ways to explain ourselves one another.
If youâre a parent, thereâs always those questions you know your kids are going to ask you at various ages and stages that you mostly want to avoid. Things like âwhere do babies come from?â âWhatâs sex?â and âHave you ever tried drugs?â I think over the years Iâve done a pretty good job at either changing the subject or placating them with a vague answer and offering up real facts when necessary. But as they get older, the questions become less about physical body functions and more about real subjects that I honestly donât know HOW to answer. And a recent conversation with the kids proved more challenging than I thought.
It started innocently enough as the 6 & 8 year old were getting dressed to go to Friday night family services at our synagogue.
Kids: âHey Mommy? Does Matt go to church?â
Me: âUm, no, not really.â
Kids: âBut isnât he supposed to go to church? Isnât that like the opposite of temple? Like people who arenât Jewish who are Christmas go to church, right?â (Yeah, my kids still donât get the concepts of the names of other religions. Either a mom fail or they havenât paid attention to half of what I say to them. Or both. Letâs be real though, trying to explain to them the difference between Catholicism and Episcopalians is pretty much next to impossible at this stage. I know my limits.)
Me: âWell yeah. I guess heâs *supposed* to go to church. If youâre part of a religion a lot of times you go to services. But not everybody belongs to a church the way we belong to the temple. Matt doesnât belong to a church and he doesnât go. We donât go to Shabbat services every week either, so thatâs OK, right?â
Kids: âYeah itâs OK, but did he EVER go to church?â
Clearly they werenât letting this go. My brain was spinning trying to figure out how to explain that my Irish Catholic boyfriend grew up with a serious religious education, went to Catholic school, was the head altar boy, represented the church at community functions like funerals and actually hung out with his clergy because it was fun. Mattâs connection to religion growing up very much shaped him, much like how my involvement in my synagogue shaped me. But as an adult? Times change. Views change. Beliefs change. New traditions get formed.
We had a good talk, but the questions kept coming.
Kids: âDoes Matt pray to Jesus? Or does he pray to God?â
Oh. Dear. Now they want to talk about prayer?!? Itâs a subject that Iâm not entirely comfortable with because *I* wrestle with it.
Me: âUhhhhhh, kind of? I mean, he believes in God. Itâs really hard to explain guys.â
Kids: âWell remember that time we went to church for that wedding and everybody kneeled and said prayers to Jesus and then ate those cracker things? Jesus was Jewish. Did you know that mommy? Does Matt know that? Did he do that stuff at church?â
This is seriously so hard to talk about. So the conversation continues, which at times has inspired our own adult conversations about what we each believe, various experiences we had in our lives and how we live now. I recently shared with Matt that one of the things I love about being a Reform Jew is being able to interpret prayer and beliefs to create personal meaning. I never expect him to one day tell me heâs converting, but the longer weâre together, the more he seems to get and appreciate my connection AND the more I understand his own connections â yes, even if he no longer goes to church, sorry kids.
I think with lifeâs experiences we turn to what we know in looking for answers, healing, serenity and more. My kids are starting to figure this out as they ask me those tough questions and Iâm proud of them for wanting to understand and decide things for themselves. As parents we provide these types of tools for our kids; my family and Mattâs family gave us amazing foundations to start with. We may not have grown up attending the same type of services, what we both believe in now might not always mesh up, but the values we both learned along the way match perfectly. So keep the hard questions coming as we all learn more about ourselves in the process.
Once upon a time, I was a kid growing up in North Jersey in the â80s, and I had a pretty clear idea of who I was and who I wanted to be. Even though I was the âtokenâ Jewish kid in the neighborhood, I never struggled with my identity, in part to my parentsâ credit for creating a strong Jewish home life, and in part because of my close connection to the Reform synagogue at which I spent countless hours. Whether I was celebrating a Jewish holiday, marching in an Israel celebration parade or singing with the junior choir at Shabbat services, it was clear to everyone around me that this kid was on a path, and that my Jewishness was a huge part of who I was and who I was going to grow up to be.
The story could just end there, with the assumption that I stayed that kid and that I followed that path âŚ and the story wouldnât be totally wrong.
But itâs also incomplete, and sometimes even I find myself looking over my history and wonder if Iâm reading the story of me, or someone else. Iâm no longer that â80s kid who was so self-assured, and my connection to Jewish life doesnât always resemble the picture I imagined in my head. And Iâm sure by now youâre wondering why.
My name is Amy, Iâm a divorced mom of two (mostly) hilarious kids (ages 6 & 8 Â˝) and well, now I live in Maine. Wait, let me say that again. Iâm a divorced mom of two and I live in MAINE.
This place isnât exactly known as the center of Jewish life in these great United States. And while Iâm at it, I should also mention my Irish Catholic boyfriend. So begins my interfaith journey, one that I hope youâll join me on. I promise to fill in some of the blanks (like, are the kids Jewish? Is their dad Jewish? Yes and yes) on this blog, and to be real with all of you. Because for the first time in my life, identity and belonging isnât so simple for meâand if itâs not simple for ME, the complexities of raising Jewish kids while trying to navigate this newness? My brain hurts just thinking about it.
So as an introduction, Iâll leave you with this story, because I think it will start developing the Polaroids for you to get the picture. As I type this, Iâm looking at my Christmas tree. Yes, MY Christmas tree. Iâve never had a Christmas tree until this very tree that Iâm staring at. The idea was absurd as I donât celebrate Christmas. Iâve never had tree envy: even when my friends would invite me over to decorate theirs. It wasnât part of who I was and there was no question that I would never, EVER have a tree.
Remember the whole Jewish girl from Jersey thing? Yet for the first time in 39 years, Iâve got a real live one, and Iâm totally and completely enthralled with it. I could say it was the boyfriendâs tree since we were putting it in HIS apartment, but I went with him to pick out the perfect one, it was tied to the roof of MY car and I went to the store with him to pick out ornaments. I carefully decorated it, twice (because apparently trees have been known to fall over; I clearly have so much to learn), and added my own special touch: a blinged out Chinese takeout container, because up to this point thatâs what Christmas meant to me. After a third tree felling (followed by said tree being attached to the wall), my kids got involved in the action. My Jewish children, who had never touched a Christmas tree let alone decorated one, were about to experience something totally foreign.
The night they came to decorate coincided with the seventh night of Hanukkah and the kids were excited to light the menorah and exchange gifts. All that happened, and it was our normal Jewish life. Until they decided that what they really wanted for Hanukkah was to decorate the tree. By the light of the candles, they carefully chose ornaments and hung them with care âŚ not quietly. Instead, my amazing children, who only cared about making it look special for my boyfriend, decorated the tree while belting out as many Hanukkah songs as they could think of. There are no parenting manuals that tell you what to do, or how to react in a situation like this, so I did the only thing I knew howâI joined in.
I laugh thinking about it now as I look at the tree. My kids singing in Hebrew about dreidels, only wanting to spread love and joy. In that moment, I realized that maybe, just maybe I can make this interfaith thing work. Their excitement was electrifying and for two kids who donât believe in Santa (I may have come up with some threats if they ruin it for their friends!) well, I think we all found a little magic that night.
So begins this chapter, as I try to figure out how to maintain old traditions and incorporate new ones that I (or the kids) never expected to be part of.
The night before I left for my family vacation, I paid a shiva call to a friend who had just lost her sister. Â In the middle of my visit, a rabbi friend-of-the-family led those present through the first nightâs shiva minyan. Â Before we began the Mournerâs Kaddish, the rabbi explained that this night was a very special Shabbat. Â It was Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. Â After the somber observance of Tisha BâAv, Shabbat Nachamu begins seven weeks of consolation, of shifting from mourning to comfort as we clear our minds and prepare for the New Year. Â It was a beautiful frame to put around this heartbreaking time, and gave those of us present a sense of purpose in being with my friendâs family in that moment. Â It also fortified me as I prepared for my annual trip to the Maine lakes, a trip that my Mom organized for 29 years, including 2012, the year she, like my friendâs sister, lost her life to cancer.
When I arrived at the lake, I sensed so many things that were missing, so many things to mourn. Â The plastic bins she packed neatly with games and crafts were missing, replaced by a mish-mash of last-minute items I had thrown into canvas bags. Â There was an empty seat around the campfire, and no easel set up on the dock, waiting for a sunset to paint. Â When I think of my mom in Maine, I see her smiling in the oversized neon green and blue plaid shirt she inherited from an old high school friend of mine, and her laughter echoes off of the lake. Â There are so many ways in which she is not there, and I mourn them all each year that I go up without her.
But this year I carried the rabbiâs words about Shabbat Nachamu with me, and tried not to look back quite so much. Â There were consolations and small comforts all around me if I opened my eyes to the present. Â The beauty and tranquility of the lake are gifts that live on. Â My Dad, siblings, and our kids and partners are still a family: a family that treks hours through weekend summer traffic to be together, to cook hot dogs on an open flame and then to find a new stone to overturn – a new farm to visit, or a new craft project to undertake. Â I can see a paintable sunset and relish it, even if I canât paint it like my mom could. Â My nephew, whose entire life began after my Mom died, is making his way fiercely in the world and reminding me of how much of life remains for all of us to discover.
And then I found another new joy that surprised me. My girls are becoming friends. Â Not in the way itâs been, where I can get Ruthie to distract Chaya with a book while I change my shirt, or where the girls sit beside each other at the table but interact on separate mental planes. A real friendship is blossoming between them, one which is uniquely theirs, and in which I am only a supporting character. Â While we were on vacation, they created their own games together, skipping rocks in the pond side-by-side and enlisting my sister and me for hours of âbeauty salonâ activities. Â They sought each other out to try new jokes and held hands in the backseat of the car. Â And there was nothing as consoling as this friendship, which has to be one of parenthoodâs greatest gifts.
One of my favorite Jewish notions is that of sacred continuity – that we must remember our past in order to best be in the present and plan for a better future. Â Shabbat Nachamu is a bridge from a recollection of loss to an appreciation of what is around us. During my week on the lake, I made a small pilgrimage over that bridge. And with the New Year approaching, I will carry the clarity I found in Maine and continue to seek out consolation and joy.