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Itâ€™s a Monday morning in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and my almost 2-year-old daughter and IÂ have a date with my friend and her 10-month-old daughter to go to a read-along at the Brooklyn Public Library. We get downstairs with the stroller, enough snacks to feed a small army and a water bottle. Not to mention diapers, wipes, A & D ointment, cell phone, wallet and keys. Oh, and Duckie, the stuffed animal that is covered in one thin layer of gross because it is trudged across New York by my daughter on every trip we take. Even when I wash Duckie, his yellow is a kind of city yellowâ€”so, basically heâ€™s gray.
The super of my buildingÂ sees me trying to get Helen into the stroller. â€śYou gonna take an umbrella?â€ť he asks, â€śItâ€™s supposed to rain like crazy.â€ť
The library is a ten-minute walk from my apartment and it hasnâ€™t started raining yet. The umbrella is the one item Iâ€™ve forgotten. â€śNo,â€ť I say, â€śIâ€™m not afraid of a little rain.”
Famous. Last. Words.
Almost eight blocks from my house, the sky opens. The rain comes down in sheets as if the sky had been holding its breath and someone just reminded it to let go. I am so soaked and Helen (though covered by the stroller top and a blanket) is getting her legs and feet soaked as well. I almost panic.
Midwood is a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. I grew up here and now I live here with my interfaith family. Itâ€™s hard to live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and try to make people understand that my daughter is both Jewish and Mexican Catholic. In Jewish circles I find myself getting defensive. In Catholic circles I donâ€™t know how to explain my own take on Judaism. And when strangers hear me speak Spanish and then shout something in Hebrew three seconds later, I am met with baffled looks.
But Midwood means something else too. It means a ton of Honda OdysseyÂ minivans. Once, from my motherâ€™s house to our apartment three blocks away, I counted 11 parked Odyssey minivans. This is because the Jews, like the Mexicans, have big families and the Honda Odyssey seats eight. But, as a driver in New York, I hate being behind an Odyssey. Iâ€™m constantly making cracks about them. I can always see the TVÂ turned on in the back seat of an Odyssey. So many Odyssey minivan drivers drive too slow in themÂ because of all theÂ kids they have in the car. But, itâ€™s my own personal obnoxious joke that I canâ€™t stand the Honda Odyssey.
With that being said, as Iâ€™m in a small panic halfway from home and halfway from the library with the rain still pelting down, I see a blue Honda Odyssey turn the corner. A young woman in a traditional wig rolls down her window. â€śExcuse me!â€ť She shouts from her Odyssey, â€śDo you need a ride? I have three car seats in the car.â€ť I am wearing jeans (a clear sign I am not an Orthodox Jew, though I am a Jew, but she doesnâ€™t know this) and a shirt that has become so obviously see-through.
â€śAre you sure?â€ť I ask, hesitating as water drips down my face.
â€śYes!â€ť she says as she leaps out of her Odyssey with a purple umbrella decorated with dogs wearing tutus. She holds the umbrella over our heads as I get Helen out of the stroller. She then holds my daughter and puts her in the car seat. Helen starts to cry a little, but the woman is so gentle and I tell her not to be afraid. I throw the stroller in the trunk and get into the front seat. As soon as the woman closes the â€śdogs in tutuâ€ť umbrella she says, â€śIâ€™ve never picked up a stranger before! I just couldnâ€™t believe you were out here. I just dropped my kids off at camp and saw you. Where are you going?â€ť
I tell her that we are on the way to the library and I find out that she lives on that same block. She points to her house (which is directly across the street from one of my relatives’ apartment building) and on the porch are three mini beach chairs for each of her children. I thank her profusely and as I get Helen out of the car seat, the woman climbs into the trunk of her Odyssey and pulls a pink and white blanket from the back that says, â€śbaby.”
â€śPlease take this,â€ť she says, â€śI have six blankets in this car and the library is freezing.â€ť
This is when I take the opportunity to let her know in Hebrew that I am a Jew. Iâ€™m not sure why I do this. The entire ride, when I spoke to Helen, I spoke in Spanish. It was obvious to the woman that we were a different kind of family than the families usually seen walking through Midwood. But, religion, class or status didnâ€™t matter to this woman. So I said, â€śtodah rabahâ€ť (thank you, in Hebrew). â€śYou did a real mitzvahâ€ť (good deed).
But, to my surprise the woman wasnâ€™t shocked. Her mouth didnâ€™t drop open and she didnâ€™t shout, â€śOh my God youâ€™re Jewish!?!â€ť And that was a good lesson for me because her picking me up had nothing to do with my two faiths. She picked me up because she saw I needed help. She saw I was in a panic and she saw that, like herself, I am a mother. And being a mother has nothing to do with being a Jew or a Catholic and it has everything to do with being a Jew and a Catholic. Because two faiths, interfaith or one faith is about respect for the fellow man. And in a world that seems more chaotic every day, itâ€™s nice to know that as Anne Frank once wrote at the age of 13, â€śIn spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.â€ť Maybe Iâ€™ll stop being so judgmental about the Odyssey.
Itâ€™s Purim again and Iâ€™m afraid to leave the house. During Purim, my neighborhood is like being inside a disco ball at Studio 54 in 1976â€”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, itâ€™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 sodaâ€”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 motherâ€™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, â€śStudio 54 made Halloween in Hollywood look like a PTA meeting.â€ť The same can be said about Midwood on Purim.
Adrian thinks itâ€™s hilarious. He grew up in Mexico in a small Catholic village and as weâ€™re walking to the car, he says to me, â€śYou know, in my town thereâ€™s a guy whose name is Purim.â€ť I absolutely donâ€™t believe him and tell him to stop mocking my people. He says, â€śIâ€™m so serious!â€ť Then he laughs and yells, â€śFeliz Purim!â€ť 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 wasnâ€™t so visible because everyone was in synagogue for the Sabbath, my brother and his wife invited us to join their synagogueâ€™s Purim celebration. I paused at my brotherâ€™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 yearâ€™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 Iâ€™m trying hard to have my interfaith family celebrate every holiday. I knew I wouldnâ€™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, Iâ€™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 Purimâ€”everyone gets completely blitzed and runs around the neighborhood like itâ€™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 heâ€™s thinking: Who are we? Why are we in Midwood? What are we doing on this block on this day? Donâ€™t we know itâ€™s Purim? He, more likely, could have been thinking, â€śMan I shouldnâ€™t have done that last shot of tequila.â€ť 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 parentsâ€™ 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, â€śChag Sameachâ€ť (Joyous Festival) and then, â€śFeliz Purim.â€ť