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My middle name is Miriam. I am named after Mark, my mother’s brother who was killed at the young age of 39. My name is a remembrance of him just as my daughter’s name is a reminder of my two Grandmothers, Helen and Rose. Names have great meaning and what someone is named at birth doesn’t necessarily determine who they are, but it does hold potential.
One of this month’s Torah portions just happens to be called “Chukat,” meaning “decree.” It is one of my favorite portions because it is about the death of Miriam (Moses’s sister) and how the death of a single woman affects an entire people and their future.
When Miriam dies, water becomes scarce. Moses cannot deal with his sister’s death and sees the people of Israel angered at him and Aaron for bringing them to a barren land. God commands Moses to speak to a rock and ask for water. Saddened by the death of his sister and vexed at his people for their lack of grief, Moses makes a mistake. Instead of speaking to the stone he strikes it. It is an act that does not go unnoticed. Because of this err on Moses’ part, God refuses to let him lead the Jews into the Promised Land. The death of Miriam means the death of water, purity and a loss of control for a great prophet. Even Moses fears death or is stifled by it. Then, before this Torah portion comes to a close, Aaron dies as well.
The name Miriam in Hebrew means rebellious—fitting that I should be named after my Uncle Mark, who was the rebel in our family history just as I am. Some of my family members will tell you I am still the rebellious one living with and loving a man from Mexico who was born Catholic, raising our child in an interfaith household. But water followed Miriam everywhere. It followed her through the desert during her people’s hardest times. I have chosen to live my life as she lived hers—with a magical well that never runs dry with room enough for different faiths, cultures and beliefs.
What’s funny is that the man I chose to spend my life with is named Adrian and his name is from the Latin root meaning “sea” or “water.” My middle name and his first name flow like rivers next to each other, intertwining like our two faiths.
Helen, our almost 2-year-old has a name derived from the Greeks. Who hasn’t heard of Helen of Troy? Her name in Greek means “Shining Light” or “The Bright One.” This seems appropriate, that two bodies of water can create a spark, something beautiful and different that never fades.
I like the “Chukat” Torah portion because it is not about Judaism specifically; it is about doubt and faith. The Israelites doubt Moses and Aaron and so God is angered. Moses is grieving and loses control, because of this he suffers and dies without being permitted to enter into the Holy Land. It is a lesson not only for Jews but for anyone because it is about having faith in your own journey. The Israelites lose faith because the water disappears after Miriam’s death. Moses loses faith in his people. God is angered most by Moses’ loss of control. On so long a journey Moses does not trust and strikes the very rock that was to give him and his people sustenance. But I see that rock as a symbol of Miriam. Although she is gone, perhaps her spirit is in that rock, but Moses is too blind to see it. For this, he is punished.
Often it is a challenge to navigate an interfaith household. During certain times of the year it seems as though we have a different holiday every month. Traditions are hard to keep up, or are tweaked so that they can fit both religions and both cultures. Our budget for gifts on holidays has to stretch so that Santa Claus, the Three Kings and a menorah can all fit in the living room. But we try never to strike the stone, to curse the place where the water will naturally flow if given time and care.
That’s what God’s decree is in the “Chukat” portion. He desires that we keep going even when the world seems to rise up against us and deem us rebellious. He asks us to speak to the stone, not strike it so that we may learn from the world how cool water can follow us through the desert when we feel we are making a new, different and enlightening journey toward faith.
In the local stores in my neighborhood it seems that everyone is pushing everyone else aside. People don’t say “excuse me” anymore. In the kosher bakery I get hit in the eye with a challah bread when one woman reaches past me, past Adrian and over Helen’s stroller. She really socks me one with the golden dough. Then she doesn’t say, “I’m sorry” or even acknowledge my family’s existence. At least the challah was fresh and warm so it was a soft blow to my right eye, and anyway it smelled good.
We try the Mexican bakery next for Adrian. He loves a traditional “concha.” A concha is a type of bread shaped like a roll covered in chocolate, vanilla or strawberry sugar and traditionally it is eaten in the morning. It looks a little bit like a shell from the beach and that’s what concha means in Spanish: “Shell.” We have this routine. On Friday mornings before Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts we hit the bakeries. Everyone else in our neighborhood has the same idea. Friday mornings can be overwhelming.
At the Mexican bakery we grab a tray and tongs and pick the bread we like. On the way over to the counter a woman cuts in front of me slamming her tray down on the counter and demanding a bigger plastic bag for her bread. I take a step back. I’ve been hit with enough dough for one day.
On our walk home a cyclist (riding on the sidewalk) nearly runs us all down and yells “Watch it!” No one holds the door for the stroller in our building and when I say, “Hi Frank!” to my super, her grunts, curses, spits and stomps up the stairs murmuring, “Everybody wants somethin’ from me all the time…”
I feel defeated. Why is everyone so rude? I have this thought while stress eating in my kitchen standing up. Helen goes to her crib to take a nap and I decide to look for some spiritual inspiration. I put away my bag of popcorn and salted caramel ice cream.
I Google the word “mitzvah.” In the Yeshiva I attended as a girl the teachers taught us that the word “mitzvah” means “a good deed.” The plural in Hebrew is “mitzvot,” for many good deeds. But, as I search deeper into the meaning I come to find out that “mitzvah” actually translates as “commandment.” So in the Jewish religion it is commanded by God that we complete the task of doing good deeds every day.
This is interesting. What have I been teaching Helen about good deeds?
What have I been teaching her about commandments? It’s easy to point a finger. Friday at the two bakeries it was so simple for me to become the victim. But, what did I do to help the people around me? Did I do any mitzvot on Friday? What about the rest of the week? What did I do to help anyone besides myself?
I know that’s a pretty harsh self-judgement. But I wasn’t blaming myself. I was merely trying to dig deeper into the similarities of my two-faith household. I understand that a mitzvah is a commandment. In Catholicism there is the belief in “good works.” This is the same concept. It sounds simple because these teachings from both religions don’t involve complicated holidays, recipes or traditions. These ideas and beliefs arise during the everyday. Maybe that is what makes them go unannounced and unnoticed. Maybe that’s also why they are harder to commit to.
This is a situation in which Adrian and I believe the same thing. Nothing is complicated about doing good deeds out in the world. But how do we teach each other and how do we teach our daughter about the power of mitzvot?
I think that everything begins at home and so I start to think about our apartment building. We live on the fourth floor of a walk-up apartment built in 1927. The stairs aren’t just tough to climb, they’re made of marble. But in my own building my neighbors have done the deed of a mitzvah many times for me. There have been so many nights that Adrian has been at work and Helen and I have to go to the store to bring bags of groceries back. The boy who lives on the first floor always carries the stroller up the stairs for me if he’s around. The super’s son has carried Helen for me. There is a woman named Veronica who lives on the second floor and she’s carried four bags from Whole Foods filled with canned goods up to my apartment. Once, a young girl from the other side of the building (our building has two sides) saw me and helped me. She was 11 years old!
The mitzvah starts at home. The commandment begins in the hallway of our building and spreads far out into the community. A good deed speaks many languages, follows many cultures and faiths. This Friday at the bakery I’m going to hold the door for someone because maybe I wasn’t looking behind me the last time. Maybe I slammed the door in someone’s face instead of holding it. Maybe the woman who smacked me with a challah bread had plenty of reason to do so. It was like God was saying “Wake up! You’ve got a lot of mitzvot to do!”
It’s Purim again and I’m afraid to leave the house. During Purim, my neighborhood is like being inside a disco ball at Studio 54 in 1976—only there are a lot more Jews and no sign of Bianca Jagger riding a white horse. When I was growing up, Purim was not one of the major holidays celebrated by my family. In the Yeshiva I attended we got to dress up, but there were only four biblical characters we could choose from: Esther, Mordechai, King Achashverosh or Haman. In first grade, I got so bored with dressing up as Esther that my mother hung two pieces of oak tag off my shoulders and I went as a castle. Nowadays, it’s different. Kids go as all sorts of things.
When Adrian and I decided to finally leave the house with our now 16-month-old daughter Helen, it was because we had a craving for quesadillas and grapefruit soda—not because we were delivering Shalach Manot (the bags of wine and food that are customary to gift to friends and neighbors on Purim).
Our car was inconveniently parked three blocks away in my mother’s driveway. I say inconveniently because anything goes on Purim in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Again, it reminds me of Laura Luft’s famous quote, “Studio 54 made Halloween in Hollywood look like a PTA meeting.” The same can be said about Midwood on Purim.
Adrian thinks it’s hilarious. He grew up in Mexico in a small Catholic village and as we’re walking to the car, he says to me, “You know, in my town there’s a guy whose name is Purim.” I absolutely don’t believe him and tell him to stop mocking my people. He says, “I’m so serious!” Then he laughs and yells, “Feliz Purim!” to a boy running past us while wearing a donkey mask and roller skates.
Where were these costumes when I was a kid and what will our daughter want to dress up as when she gets older?
This year, when Purim wasn’t so visible because everyone was in synagogue for the Sabbath, my brother and his wife invited us to join their synagogue’s Purim celebration. I paused at my brother’s invitation because Adrian had to work, it was 20 degrees outside and when I took Helen last year, it was the weirdest Purim party I had ever been to. Also, as much as I think Purim is strange in my own neighborhood, it was ten times more zany in their neighborhood of Bay Ridge.
I remember that there was a big screen TV with videos of the Purim story for kids at last year’s Bay Ridge Purim celebration. The kids ran around singing songs and getting their faces painted. I also remember wrapping the fruit roll ups that they had around my fingers and pretended to have long nails like I did when I was 10 years old. No one found that as hilarious as I did and then I had a huge stomachache when I got home. Come to think of it, maybe I just made Purim weird in Bay Ridge.
This year, I opted out of Purim even though I’m trying hard to have my interfaith family celebrate every holiday. I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist the fruit roll ups, but also, the only costume I had for Helen was a sad and tired monkey costume that she already wore for Halloween. Yes, I’m that parent that never wants my child to wear the same costume twice.
Before we reach the car, a group of teenage boys dressed as giant cows and rabbits cross the street toward us. One of them looks defiant and drunk. It reminds me of another thing about Purim—everyone gets completely blitzed and runs around the neighborhood like it’s a ’70s disco party. This boy looks at me, then he looks at Adrian and finally looks at my Helen in the stroller. I can see judgement on his face and I feel that he’s thinking: Who are we? Why are we in Midwood? What are we doing on this block on this day? Don’t we know it’s Purim? He, more likely, could have been thinking, “Man I shouldn’t have done that last shot of tequila.” But the look, whatever it said, meant something. I felt uncomfortable as this giant boy child dressed as a floppy bunny looked at me and then at my family. I felt as if I had to explain that I grew up in this neighborhood, went to a Yeshiva, but found a different path and that I love my family, our differences, our two cultures and our two religions. I felt I wanted to say all of this to a 15-year-old boy in a rabbit costume. Why? Because of that look.
I have been getting that look long before I had an interfaith family. I got that look when I wore jeans on Sabbath and smoked cigarettes behind my parents’ house on the High Holy Days. I know that look well. The look has nothing to do with the person giving it and everything to do with the person getting it. I feared that look for a long time. I fear it now for my Helen Rose. She will get that look. She may get it in more ways that I received it. Maybe this is what I realize as the teenagers prance past us. With all our colorful cultural and religious differences as a family, how will I protect Helen from the look? My eyes meet the look and lock on it as if on a dare. I’m 14 years old again. The one boy who catches my eye turns away from me and I hear myself say as if for the first time, “Chag Sameach” (Joyous Festival) and then, “Feliz Purim.”
It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m sitting in my car at 8 a.m. listening to a Jack Kornfield meditation talk called “Inner Strength and Kindness.” Did I mention that I’m also crying? Winter is never kind in New York and it’s been a rough month. I’ve been so busy and stressed lately that the only time I get to feel in touch with myself is in the front seat of my car. Last week, I sat in the front seat eating a box of donut holes and listening to Led Zeppelin. So, Jack Kornfield and a cup of coffee is an improvement.
I’m trying to decompress. I’m trying to get centered, which is what my religion and my culture often help me do. But, I’m crying on Valentine’s Day for no apparent reason. My Jewish family growing up didn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, but my significant other Adrian and our 15-month-old daughter Helen celebrate it. Adrian is Mexican-Catholic and he loves anything with red roses. His Virgin of Guadalupe is known to appear to people surrounded by roses, so Valentine’s Day is a big deal for him. I still have the first rose he ever gave me. I dried it and now it lives between the pages of an Octavio Paz poetry book on our shelf.
I left Adrian and Helen cards and little stuffed animals with hearts all over them. I even left my mother a card and a stuffed Valentine’s Day Snoopy doll at her house, which is three blocks away from us. Maybe that’s the problem—I can’t sit still. I’m so concerned with everyone having gifts for a holiday that I don’t celebrate and about Helen having the best of both Judaism and Catholicism, that I forget the world I come from. In the middle of trying to fit two religions into every crevice of our lives, I forget my own spirituality. I forget the main reason those two religions and those two cultures exist in our lives.
In the front seat of my car as I meditate and cry, my yogic “monkey-mind” shows me a few things. First, I remember a conversation I had about a piece of literature in which a “many colored coat” is mentioned. Of course, this was a piece of writing about the story of Joseph. Joseph in the Old Testament has two dreams. In both dreams, Joseph’s brothers bow down to him. When Joseph tells his brothers about these dreams, they grow angry. They end up selling Joseph to some merchants and then they dip his coat in goat’s blood to make their father believe that wild animals killed him.
My thoughts are interrupted by Jack Kornfield’s calm voice asking me to breathe. I go back to my breath, but I can’t stop picturing Joseph and how upset he probably was that his brothers sold him for 20 bucks and some cigarettes. What I think about, though, is the fact that I can remember this story. I was probably no older than 5 or 6 years old when I heard it. I also remember that Joseph becomes a powerful leader and meets his brothers again in Egypt, but they do not recognize him. They bow down to him just as he had predicted in his dream. Joseph ends up playing tricks on his brothers to test their wicked ways, but he ends up forgiving them. After all, the story of Joseph is a story of forgiveness. In the moment that Joseph forgives his brothers, he also forgives himself.
With this memory, Valentine’s Day becomes something else for me. It becomes a day of not only love for my diverse, ever changing and challenging family, but a day of love for myself. I can forgive myself for not knowing how to be perfect all the time. I can forgive myself for not celebrating one holiday that’s not even really a holiday. I can forgive myself for escaping because, sometimes, moms need to escape.
My thoughts turn to a Catholic altar in the Mexico City Cathedral called “The Altar of Forgiveness.” The story goes that a famous painter was accused of a crime and while he was in jail, he painted the most breathtaking picture of the Virgin Mary. It was so beautiful that God forgave him and the altar was built. I think of the old Jewish tale of Joseph and his forgiveness. Then, I go back to the meditation talk and Jack Kornfield quotes Nisargadatta Maharaj when he says, “Wisdom says I am nothing; love says I am everything. Between the two, my life flows.” I cry some more. I breathe some more. I turn off Jack Kornfield. I turn on Led Zeppelin and I drive.
Recently I had an article published on a Jewish site about a dream I had. It was a political piece, and during these rough, media-frenzied times I received a ton of comments, most of them not the loving kind. I am often asked to write pieces about my Jewish experience, my interfaith experience and my everyday experience as a mother. How do I incorporate two faiths in my home when I am Jewish and Adrian, my partner, is Mexican Catholic? What and how do we teach our daughter about our vastly different cultures and faiths?
The first comment I received was harsh: “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever read. Just pure drivel!” I had struck a political nerve. Also, I should mention that I talked a lot about Hitler in my piece, a little about Anne Frank and how my dream was recurring—a real nightmare. But nowhere in my piece did I tell my audience who to vote for, or condemn them for choosing a particular party they feel represents them. What I did question was how to teach my daughter to have loving-kindness and tolerance for the things I don’t believe represent me.
As I scrolled down, I saw there were almost 80 comments. One man said, “Ms. Keller would look great in my oven.” That same man uploaded a picture of a bar of soap from a concentration camp with a Jewish star on it. There were also all sorts of comments about my interfaith relationship. “You have shamed your people and disobeyed the Torah by mating with a goy.” (“Goy” is a term used by Jews to describe people who aren’t Jewish.) One person took my article and posted it on another blog, where people commented again about my family, saying, “I feel bad for your guinea-pig daughter.” Then I got some personal hate-mail emails.
One person wrote: “You neurotic Jews are so hilarious. You preach to us about ‘paranoid style of American politics’ and the scare mongering of Joe McCarthy, but you see Hitler under every bed. LOL.” And, “Before you morally supremacist and narcissistic Jews pontificate about how holy shmoly you are, you should consider a few things.” I had clearly raised some eyebrows. Someone else told me to pack my daughter’s bags full of tacos and burritos and prepare her for her trip south.
Ellen DeGeneres says she never reads anything about herself, good or bad. Now I understand why. It’s easy to get sucked in to all that hate. It’s easy to want to respond to every single person who has something to say. But I believe in freedom of speech; I just don’t believe in stupidity. I also believe in Shakespeare, which is one of the reasons I only replied to one person who had personally stalked me via email to get her point across. I simply replied, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” It’s one of my favorite lines of all time from “Hamlet.”
What bothered me the most wasn’t the blatant anti-Semitism; it wasn’t the insults to my writing. What bothered me were the insults on the blog where my article was re-posted. Those people were talking about my daughter, my beautiful, innocent, carefree 1-year-old daughter. It was a moment of clarity: There are people who love to hate other people. There are people who are so unhappy with their own lives, their own situations and their own senses of self that they have to troll around the Internet to find someone they can hate.
The funny thing about the computer is that it doesn’t have a face. If I had written an article for a class or a conference and people disagreed with it, there would probably be some hand-waving, some discussion, maybe even a healthy debate. Because there is no face on the Internet there is no consequence to what people say. Many of these commenters hide behind fake names. One man’s name was “Bill Kristolnach,” a pun on “Kristallnacht” (the “Night of Broken Glass” when the Nazis shattered everything Jews owned as the Holocaust began) and Bill Kristol, the political analyst.
But the comments about my child threw me for a loop. Is this what she will come up against in school? What will I tell her to do? How should she respond? What if someone tells her to go put tacos and burritos in her backpack because she’s being deported, even though she’s an American citizen? Will she believe them? Will she be scared? What will I tell her to respond if they say she has shamed the Torah? Will she believe in a God who is merciful, who will save her from this hatred? My 11-year-old self would tell her to put her fist through someone’s face. But that’s one of the reasons I was kicked out of an Orthodox yeshiva, and I’m trying not to repeat the past.
What will I say? Because there will be days she won’t understand who she is or where she comes from. There will be days she asks what it means to be Mexican, what it means to be American, what it means to be Catholic and what it means to be Jewish. I hope to continue the traditions of both the Jewish and Catholic holidays in our home in order for her to learn, grow and one day decide who she is and who she will become. That is her choice to make, not mine.
One of my favorite quotes to repeat when I am faced with adversity is by Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
The hateful comments were later deleted from the original site, but a few more personal hate emails did make their way into my inbox. Hate is a good lesson. It teaches us that history really does repeat itself. It gave fuel to my original article and had people reading and thinking. Hate twists and turns itself around to fit in the places where love never existed. There are people who already hate my daughter because of her skin, her two religions, because of me and who I am, because of Adrian and who he is. All we can do in response to hate is to love. We can love and love and love. Then we can also punch a wall and scream into a pillow.
Growing up, my mother’s house was kosher. We had dishes for dairy and dishes for meat and we never mixed milk with meat. This goes back to the teachings of the Torah where it states on three separate occasions that a baby goat is not to be cooked in it’s mother’s milk. But our house was kosher mainly because my mother wanted my brother and me to fit in at the Orthodox Yeshiva we went to even though we weren’t Orthodox.
This plan fell through more than once. Most of my friends’ parents knew that my own parents weren’t religious. When we had sleepovers it was I who would have to travel to my peers’ houses because our house wasn’t “kosher enough.” But my mother’s efforts weren’t in vain. When Adrian and I moved into our apartment a few years ago it was my Grandmother’s dishes I unpacked from a cardboard box labeled “Grandma Rosie’s Dairy Dishes.”
There were teacups with pink roses and a tan trim on them wrapped in bubble wrap. There was a cake plate lined in gold and a blue glass candy dish I remembered reaching into as a child to pull out sticky black licorice squares. These dishes had made their debut in my Grandmother’s apartment then later at my mother’s house and finally were gifted to me. They held memories of Friday morning pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches. They also held the responsibility of staying kosher.
For my nephew’s first birthday party this past Sunday, the Star Wars cake I made followed the kosher rules. But the kosher rules also brought up concerns for our daughter Helen’s quickly approaching birthday in October. My brother and his wife ordered from a kosher catering company and had traditional Brooklyn/Jewish food. There were pastrami sandwiches, pickles, coleslaw and chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting in addition to the cake I baked. As with any Jewish event there was more than enough food. Adrian and I talked about having a Mexican/Jewish themed birthday for Helen to honor the Jewish side of my family and the Mexican Catholic side of Adrian’s family.
I started to get excited thinking about Helen’s birthday. We began saving empty cans of jalapeño peppers for floral arrangements and I bought a pack of Mexican Lotería cards (a traditional Mexican board game similar to bingo) to make into crafty invitations. I obsessed over Pinterest cake ideas and thought that getting balloons that say “uno” instead of “1” would be a cute idea.
Then, in the middle of my excitement, I remembered how much Adrian loves to eat meat and how steak tacos are usually accompanied by fresh cream and cheese. I thought of Adrian’s favorite Mexican dishes that involve chicken and cheese and pork. Then I panicked.
We keep a kosher home but when we eat out we don’t eat kosher. But how was I to explain to him that Helen’s birthday had to follow kosher rules? My family is kosher but his family will also be there. Part of me felt I was being unfair. Part of being kosher sometimes makes it seem like I am making Judaism seem more important than Catholicism, and that’s not fair. But, how do you bend a rule that can’t be broken because of tradition or belief or just out of respect for other family members?
I waited until Adrian got home from work.
“Bebe,” I said, “I’m worried about Helen’s birthday. Maybe we shouldn’t even have a party this year.” I couldn’t believe I was considering cancelling my daughter’s first birthday party so that I wouldn’t have to have an argument about steak enchiladas.
“Why?” Adrian asked, “I thought you wanted to do a big thing the way your brother did.”
“Well, I did, but I’m worried about the food.” I started to bite my nails.
“Stop biting your nails. What about the food?” he said.
“It has to be, well, it’s going to have to be, I mean because of my family we are going to have to have kosher Mexican food.”
Adrian thought for a while before he answered, “What does that entail?”
He knew some of the kosher rules but I reminded him that aside from the meat being kosher we couldn’t mix milk with meat.
“You want meat at the party?” he asked.
“I thought you wanted meat at the party,” I said.
“Why don’t we just do all dairy?” he said.
“What?” I couldn’t believe it. Adrian is a carnivore through and through and I assumed he would want to have something with steak at Helen’s party.
“I mean we can just do cheese enchiladas, guacamole, salsa, chips and have everything be dairy, no meat.”
“I thought you wanted meat!” I yelled in shock.
“I do, but dairy is so much easier!” he shouted back.
Part of the challenge of being in an interfaith relationship is trying never to offend the other person. I was so afraid I would offend Adrian by not having traditional Mexican cuisine at our daughter’s birthday that I looked past the other options in Mexican cooking. Mexico has a wide variety of seasoning and spices and I was looking only at having a kosher party as being a problem and not a bridge between two cultures and traditions. Anyway, Helen’s first birthday is about celebrating the birth of new traditions as well as old. We want to bestow on her a life rich with flavor; a life where the menu has both chicken noodle soup and pozole.
I was in the seventh grade when my father died. I had already been asked to leave an Orthodox yeshiva in the fifth grade because I had been a “behavior problem.” I was on my second life at a private school in Brooklyn Heights. Brooklyn Heights is one of the oldest, richest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Truman Capote, Henry Miller and W.H. Auden all lived there. I was not from there, I was not rich and I knew no one. But my school was there and I made my first set of friends who weren’t Jewish.
When my father died I’m not sure that anyone in my new school knew our Jewish customs for mourning. For example, we covered our mirrors to erase vanity. We sat on the floor because when death is upon us the living should not be comfortable. The belief is that we should be uncomfortable because by getting used to discomfort one can learn to go on. We left our doors open for neighbors, friends and family to visit for seven days. This is a period called “shiva” and this word in Hebrew also means “seven.” The traditional mourning period after someone dies lasts for seven days and we call this “sitting shiva.”
I had one friend from this Brooklyn Heights private school who did come to my house to sit shiva. Her name was Liz. She didn’t live near me but she didn’t live in Brooklyn Heights either. Her father drove her to my house and when she got out of the car she looked lost and confused. She was not Jewish but she knew it would mean a lot to me if she came to visit. I can’t remember what we said to each other that day. I only remember that she showed up.
A few months ago Liz texted me to tell me that she’s pregnant with a baby girl, her first. Her due date is October 23 and my baby Helen’s due date this past year was October 24. Liz came over to meet Helen. Over the years we have kept in touch and fallen out of touch and then got back in touch again. Life and its winding roads have kept us close in spirit but not always in body. When Liz met Helen for the first time it was as if my past was meeting my present.
Here’s another strange coincidence. Liz recently moved back to Brooklyn from L.A. and she bought an apartment just three blocks away from where I live. Without knowing it, we have been living back to back for a while. Helen and I went over to drop off some clothes and play with Liz’s dog, Wally. While we were visiting, Liz took out a book I had written for her in the eighth grade. It was an English assignment to write a short book about someone you admire and I had chosen to write about Liz.
Liz read the book out loud to me while sitting pregnant on her couch. Helen chewed a stuffed animal and listened, too. The book was about how we used to hang out in the bathroom and how many times Liz had dyed her hair and how much I admired her for being a good friend. I didn’t recall writing that book. What I did recall was how very lost I felt in the eighth grade.
I felt I had never been Jewish enough for yeshiva, but I wasn’t not Jewish enough for private school in high class Brooklyn Heights. I never felt pretty. I never felt special and I never felt God listened to what I had to say. I felt that God had betrayed me, taken away my father, made my mother unreachable and my brother disappear.
God has a funny way of showing up. This past Sunday was Liz’s baby shower. I attended with Helen and saw four or five people I haven’t seen since the sixth grade. Many of the guests heard me speaking Spanish to Helen and asked where I was from. I told them our backstory. I explained that Helen is Jewish from my family and Mexican Catholic from her Papi’s family. After the shower I went to my mother’s house to visit and watched her coo over the baby.
The Jewish mourning period lasts for seven days but the mourning period for a parent that dies lasts for a year. This is Jewish law. What Jewish law does not say is that sometimes we mourn for a lifetime. Sometimes we mourn the dead for years and then we mourn ourselves. We mourn who we were and more so who we weren’t or who we didn’t know how to be. When my father died and Liz came up on my porch to sit shiva that was the seed that stayed in my heart. A girl from outside of my religion and culture came to visit during a crucial time in my life. I was 12 1/2 on my mother’s porch that day. Today I am 35. Today I understand that compassion is not one religion and neither is God.
This afternoon on my way to work I stopped inside a church. It is a small church very near the famous Brooklyn Heights. I stopped in to meditate and ask for guidance. Though I pray in synagogue I often find that churches have a much more calming effect on my spirit. There was a woman in the church praying and I took a seat in the back. She was the only other person there and I don’t think she felt me come in. Sometimes I say a Hebrew prayer, sometimes a Buddhist prayer, but today I closed my eyes and began the Prayer of St. Francis. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” As my eyes were closed I could hear the woman begin to cry. Her crying turned into sobs. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love…” I opened my eyes and the woman was lying on the floor faced down. She had thrown herself in front of a statue of Mary and was crying into her own arms.I wanted to hug her, to reach down and say, “Miss, is there anything I can do?” But, my 12 1/2-year-old self was already lying on the ground with her… “Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith…”
Then I began the Hebrew prayer called Shemah Yisrael, (Hear, O Israel), which I usually sing when I feel sadness, just as I sang it every night before bed as a child. The second verse came to me immediately: “Two thousand years is a very long exile. The time has come for it to end…”
First words. What was my own first word? Probably “Mama,” though now my mother doesn’t remember. She does remember my brother’s first word, which was “arrow.” This is because she was constantly driving around the block with him in his car seat trying to put him to sleep. He would see the arrow on the speedometer and my mother would say “arrow” and so he too repeated “arrow.” It was inevitable, he spent most of his time trying to get to sleep in the car.
What will my daughter’s first word be? Adrian and I wonder this often. We speak Spanish and English in our house. Adrian is Mexican Catholic and I am American Jewish and we have Hebrew letters all over the house. There is a Virgin of Guadalupe in our room and the Hebrew alphabet on the fridge. We wonder if little Helen is confused. She has begun to make many noises and just a few weeks ago she was saying “mamamamamamama.” At first we thought it was me she was calling. She’s eight months old now and it’s a bit early for her first words. But I was ecstatic when I heard “Maaaaaa!!!” come out of her mouth. But then, she stopped saying it. Now she’s making noises. We are happy with noises, too.
What we wonder most is what language she will choose. We speak Spanish at home, English at Grandma’s house and Hebrew on holidays. Also, we hope her first word will be something nice. We live in New York and our language here can be, well, special. We really hope her first word doesn’t fly out of her mouth unannounced during rush hour traffic so we, mostly me, have had to tone it down when in her company.
Every Thursday when Adrian goes to work I pile Helen into the Chevy and we go pick up my mother and head off to my sister-in-law’s house. My brother works as well so it’s usually a girl’s day except for my twin nephews, Jacob and Nathan, who are just two-and-a-half months older than Helen. We look to them for what to expect with words. They haven’t started speaking yet either, though they make a lot of different sounds as well.
In the Torah there are two sets of famous twins. First, there are Jacob and Esau. They are the most well known because they are famous for being the “good” twin and the “evil” twin. But, if I am going to make comparisons I’d like to compare my nephews more to Tamar’s twins, who the Torah describes as both being righteous. Tamar’s twins also came early, as did my nephews.
Our Thursdays are spent playing and observing and waiting for words. This week Nathan can stand while holding onto something and he makes a low gurgle and smiles. Jacob can stand, too, but he doesn’t like to get down by himself and he loves to look at books. Helen bangs a plastic donut against her head and is content. It’s a marvel to watch these three cousins interact. Helen and Nathan seem to be the best of friends and Jacob lies in the middle of the play rug and flips the pages in his cloth book. I won’t be surprised if Jacob’s first word is a whole sentence and he one day blurts out, “E equals Mc squared.” Nathan will probably say, “Let’s go Mets!” and I still wonder about Helen. Adrian has started to say “Hola” and wave to her. I have started speaking to the twins in Spanish. They look at me like I have three heads but I think they look at me like that anyway.
I’d like my daughter and my nephews to learn basic Yiddish words as well. Here are a few I’m highlighting that will serve them well on their journeys through life:
1. Feh. Feh is like spitting. It’s when you disapprove or find something gross. If someone asks if you like politics you can say, “Feh.”
2. Plotz. To plotz means to explode. If you are shocked by something then you could just plotz!
The most important word and one used most frequently in my household is…
3. Nu. Nu means, “Hello?” “Well?” “Huh?” When Helen doesn’t want to eat I say, “Nu? When are you going to finish this?”
Now that I’ve added another language to the list I’m worried that Helen will never want to speak. Maybe that’s why my brother said “arrow” for the longest time. He could never get a word in edgewise with my parents always clucking. But, I think the word my daughter and my nephews will learn quickly enough is a word everyone uses with them all the time. In English, “Love” or “I love you.” In Spanish, “Amor” or “Te Amo.” In Hebrew, “Ahava” or “ani ohevet otcha.” In Yiddish, “Oy vey.” Just kidding. In Yiddish, “Ikh libe dikh.”
“But you’re not really Jewish right?” This has been a question I have been asked since I was big enough to walk. My family celebrates all of the big holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover to name a few. The women in my family don’t wear long skirts and the men don’t wear black hats. But, yes, we ARE Jewish.
“But you’re not really Jewish, right?” is an insulting question. First of all, what does that mean? That’s usually my response: “What does that mean?” And people respond by changing the subject because they know they’ve offended me or they keep asking questions that further insult me. Since I live in a very religious neighborhood, these are a few of the questions I get: “You don’t wear a wig right?” “You don’t keep kosher, right?” (wrong), “It’s so strange that you’re Jewish,” they say, “You don’t look Jewish.” Again, what does that mean?
This year I had a baby with Adrian, my lifelong partner. He is Catholic from Mexico and I am Jewish from Brooklyn. We decided before we had the baby that ours would be an interfaith family. We wanted the beauty of both cultures and both religions to be a part of who our child was and who she would become. She is a Mexican-American-Jewish-Catholic child.
Adrian and I live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The stores are kosher, on Saturday none of the stores are open and on Jewish holidays women in pretty dresses and men in ironed suits walk in the middle of the streets because there are hardly any cars around. Our kitchen is kosher. Adrian eats pork but not in our home. Does this make me less Jewish? Does loving a man from another faith make me less Jewish? Is my daughter less Jewish because she’s also Catholic?
The challenge so far has been trying to live a balanced life. When our daughter was first born these questions nagged at me. Would someone one day ask my daughter, “But you’re not really Jewish, right?” What would she say? What should I teach her to say? How would I explain to her a double faith? An interfaith? The more these questions loomed over me the more I decided to challenge the ignorance of these interrogations.
I found myself in the lobby of a large synagogue next to my apartment building where I was to inquire about a baby naming for my daughter. This was when my daughter was just 2 months old. The woman who ran the functions at the synagogue was all smiles when I walked in with the baby strapped to me in my ergo carrier. She asked me the baby’s name. “Helen Rose Castañeda,” I said. She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to spell it. I wrote it out in both Hebrew and English.
“Oh, you write in Hebrew,” she said surprised. After all, I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and I was not in a skirt or dressed up at all. I had only gone to inquire. I had not gone to pray. As I filled out the rest of the information on the sheet I realized I had to write Adrian’s name in Hebrew and my daughter’s name. Her Hebrew name is Chaya Rachel but how was I to write “Castaneda” in Hebrew? I sounded it out.
The woman stared at the paper. I was waiting for the question, any question. I was waiting for her to say, “Well that’s interesting,” or “Is this a Jewish name?” I was waiting for the insult. It never came. Instead, before she could speak I said, “Miss, I’d like to tell you, before we begin the process of setting up this baby naming event, that my family is an interfaith family. I am Jewish and my partner is Catholic. We are not married and our daughter is both. Is this going to be a problem?”
Her reaction was not what I expected. She was calm and smiled. She said, “That’s absolutely OK.” There were no insulting questions, no asking if I was really Jewish. We had a beautiful baby naming ceremony at the synagogue and I felt at home. I felt accepted and my family felt accepted. But, I had also for the first time accepted myself.
I am a Jew always in my heart and I live my life according to Jewish law, meaning I treat others with compassion, I speak to G-d, I meditate and I try to do good deeds. I don’t always succeed at all of these laws but I try my best to abide by them. I was born Jewish and I celebrate Judaism. I come from a long line of prophets and strong biblical women. This is what I will teach our daughter who has Jewish and Aztec blood in her. I also understand that people will always question my “Jewishness.” I’ve learned now to respond in a different way. Now, when someone approaches me with the question, “but you’re not really Jewish, right?” my answer is always a flip of my hair and a long laugh.
Spring means color. Splashing greens and yellows. Purple tulips cascading over front porches and red robins bustling in the trees. Spring also means Easter for Christians, with blue and violet painted eggs. It means Passover for the Jews. For South Americans and Mexicans it means Semana Santa (the days of Jesus’s crucifixion). For me, it is a season shrouded in black. It is the green/grey eyes of my father, his brown hush puppies scuffling across the carpet. It is the ivory keys of his baby grand piano.
My father loved the spring. He loved it for three reasons. The first is that he could smoke outside again without freezing his fingers off. The second is that he could go fishing and play golf in the same day and still get home in time to practice playing his Chopin. But mostly my father loved Passover. Purim came and went in our neighborhood but Passover was an event to be reckoned with.
Every year my mother would slowly begin changing the dishes from our regular meat and dairy dishes to the “Passover dishes” (because the holiday of Passover has its own dietary laws). This meant that my brother and I would have to carefully carry 10 full cardboard boxes up from the basement. They contained pots, pans, plates, glasses and my grandmother’s heavy black roasting pot. Ancient silverware passed down from our ancestors was in one box along with glasses, cups, a traditional seder plate and a tray for matzah. In another box there was a cup for Elijah (a biblical prophet who makes his presence known in the middle of Passover dinner). One box contained breakfast tools; my Grandma Helen’s eggbeater and my Grandma Rosie’s potato peeler.
When these boxes came up from the basement my mother would begin the preparations for the first seder night and the days to follow. She would make her menu and call the cleaning lady to ask her to come the day before.
My father would sit regally at his piano. He would sneak pieces of matzah from the boxes my mother had put aside and dip them in cream cheese or tuna. Then he would bang out Beethoven on his Steinway or he would ask us to sing.
“Baby Face” was a song I knew all the words to because my grandmother would sing it to me. My father could play that song by heart and make our house sound like a ragtime bar. He also loved musicals and ballads. There was one song called “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” which was first published in 1910 but was popular in the late 1930s. I loved to sing that song sitting next to my father on his piano bench, while my mother changed the dishes and my brother roamed around outside.
My father would start, “Oh, say, let us fly girl” and I would say, “Where dear?” and Pop would smile and say “To the sky dear,” and we would sing for days. Sometimes when Passover would finally arrive we would do the whole duet for the guests while my mother was roasting the brisket and adding cinnamon to the kugel.
And what I remember is the smell of our house during those spring days. Onions, garlic, rosemary and cumin wafted up the stairs and out the front door. There was the metallic hint of chopped liver, the eye-piercing strength of horseradish and the kosher wine fumes mixed with my father’s Aqua Velva after-shave and Marlboro Red tobacco. There was the smell of my mother’s perfume, grassy and effortless, and the musky velvet of my brother’s yarmulke.
Then Passover would emerge. My cousins, my aunt and uncle, my grandmother and family friends would gather around my mother’s seder table to read the story of how the Jews escaped Egypt, how Moses parted the Red Sea so that our people could cross over to the other side.
In Brooklyn, we sing songs and read this story. My father, who was big in every way (he had been an actor and had a voice that bellowed through the walls) would shout this story in Hebrew. Then he would point to me and say, “And now Anna will say the four questions.” It is a Jewish tradition that the youngest person at the seder table asks four questions. And there are so many traditions that accompany this holiday. Elijah the prophet has a cup placed for him in the middle of the Passover seder table. The front door is opened for him and it is said his spirit passes through each house and he drinks from the cup. Elijah’s cup is called the “silent cup” and as a child I would open the door for Elijah and after I closed it I would run back to the table to see if the wine had a ripple in it or if it was less full.
There is also the tradition of the afikomen. This is the middle piece of matzah and each year in my family, in the middle of the service, my uncle hides it and the youngest child has to find it. When it is found, the child can ask for money in exchange for returning the middle matzah. Since I was a girl, my uncle has always hidden the matzah in his inner suit jacket pocket. When he takes his jacket off to eat I steal it.
Last year on Passover I was pregnant with my little Helen Rose. No one knew except for my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law. My father has been gone for over 20 years. His soul went to G-d on August 23, 1994. I was almost 13. My uncle is his older brother. I turned 34 last year and was the youngest at our seder table. When my uncle took his jacket off to begin eating his meal, I stole the afikomen.
I have a Mexican Catholic partner. I am not married. I am Jewish. These three facts do not define who I am. I am much more than that.
Last year as my uncle reached into his jacket pocket to take out the afikomen I held it up with a shaky hand at the other side of the table. My uncle went to Crown Heights Yeshiva, as did my father. We come from a long line of Jewish beliefs, customs, traditions and schools of thought. I desired one thing for the afikomen and it wasn’t money.
“This year,” I began as my uncle sat quietly at the head of the table, “this year I want something in return for the afikomen. But this year I don’t want money. This year Uncle Jeff, I want your blessing. I’m pregnant and the baby is due in October and I’m so happy.”
My Aunt Claire jumped out of her chair. My brother and his wife looked down at the table; they were expecting twins in August. My mother looked at the wall. My cousin Arnold’s mouth fell open. My uncle, who fought in Korea and jumped out of planes, who married my aunt when she was 18 and moved to Long Island and raised a traditional Jewish family, turned to me with his eyes that look so similar to my own father’s and said, “Mazal Tov kid. Congratulations.”
My partner Adrian and I live in a small Brooklyn apartment with our little Helen Rose. We keep the traditions of my family. We go to Rockaway and fish every summer. Adrian smokes Marlboro Reds or Camels. On Passover, my mother’s house still smells like roasted onions. On Rosh Hashanah we eat apples and honey and on Hanukkah we light the menorah. When spring arrives we buy Helen painted eggs and stuffed bunnies. For Christmas we make traditional Mexican holiday food. This year at Helen’s first seder we will place a cup of wine in the middle of the table and when I open the door for the prophet, perhaps my father will walk inside as well. Maybe he’ll steal a piece of matzah, sit at the piano bench and watch the new generation celebrate its new customs and its old ones. Maybe he’ll whisper “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” into Helen’s ear. After all, spring was always his favorite time of year and Passover his favorite holiday.