When I Panicked and a Stranger Stepped in to Help

  

It’s a Monday morning in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and my almost 2-year-old daughter and I 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 yellow—so, basically he’s gray.

The super of my building sees me trying to get Helen into the stroller. “You gonna take an umbrella?” he asks, “It’s supposed to rain like crazy.”

The library is a ten-minute walk from my apartment and it hasn’t started raining yet. The umbrella is the one item I’ve forgotten. “No,” I say, “I’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. It’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 don’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 Odyssey minivans. Once, from my mother’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. I’m constantly making cracks about them. I can always see the TV turned on in the back seat of an Odyssey. So many Odyssey minivan drivers drive too slow in them because of all the kids they have in the car. But, it’s my own personal obnoxious joke that I can’t stand the Honda Odyssey.

With that being said, as I’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. “Excuse me!” She shouts from her Odyssey, “Do you need a ride? I have three car seats in the car.” I am wearing jeans (a clear sign I am not an Orthodox Jew, though I am a Jew, but she doesn’t know this) and a shirt that has become so obviously see-through.

“Are you sure?” I ask, hesitating as water drips down my face.

“Yes!” 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 “dogs in tutu” umbrella she says, “I’ve never picked up a stranger before! I just couldn’t believe you were out here. I just dropped my kids off at camp and saw you. Where are you going?”

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, “baby.”

“Please take this,” she says, “I have six blankets in this car and the library is freezing.”

This is when I take the opportunity to let her know in Hebrew that I am a Jew. I’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 didn’t matter to this woman. So I said, “todah rabah” (thank you, in Hebrew). “You did a real mitzvah” (good deed).

But, to my surprise the woman wasn’t shocked. Her mouth didn’t drop open and she didn’t shout, “Oh my God you’re Jewish!?!” 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, it’s nice to know that as Anne Frank once wrote at the age of 13, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Maybe I’ll stop being so judgmental about the Odyssey.

How To Do a Mitzvah

  
Helen at the bakery

Helen in front of the neighborhood bakery

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.

Helen waits

Helen waiting in front of the bakery

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!”

Charity Begins At Home, Part 2

  
My son helping to pack snack boxes at the North Texas Food Bank in January.

My son helping to pack snack boxes at the North Texas Food Bank in January.

Last night, my family watched NFL Honors, the National Football League’s awards show that honored players and coaches. Awards such as MVP, Coach of the Year, and Play of the Year were given out. The most prestigious of the honors was the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.

Established in 1970, the Man of the Year Award recognized the player who had a significant impact on his community. In 1999, it was renamed the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for the late Hall of Fame Chicago Bears running back to honor his legacy as a humanitarian. Payton was himself a recipient of the award when he played.

As my husband, son, and I listened to the stories of the finalists, I thought of my last blog on charity. The men considered for the award didn’t begin to serve their communities after they became successful pro football players; they were all raised in families that emphasized giving back–regardless of whether their families had much to give.

The winner, Anquan Boldin of the San Francisco 49ers, was raised in a poor area of Palm Beach County Florida. His family didn’t have much but what they did have, they gave to others. Anquan spoke of learning what it meant to help those in need from his parents. He said his mother always opened their home to people who had nowhere to go and his family shared food with those without so that no one went hungry. He learned that his purpose was not to play football, but to serve the community; football was just a means by which to do that.

Boldin formed a foundation in 2004 with $1 million of his own money with a mission “to expand the educational and life opportunities for underprivileged youth.” It offers a summer enrichment program, provides 300 Thanksgiving meals annually, holiday shopping sprees and academic scholarships for college.

Boldin took the example set for him by his parents to heart, making the task of repairing the world a central part of his life. His actions showed that Tikkun Olam (repair the world) wasn’t just a Jewish thing.

When I speak to parents navigating life as an interfaith couple, I talk about how the concept of Tikkun Olam is shared by many faiths and cultures. I recommend that starting in preschool, through words and actions, adults reinforce to their children that they have a responsibility to make the world a better place. Below are some of the things I suggest that families do to teach charity and show kids that mitzvahs aren’t just something done to fulfill a school or bar mitzvah requirement. If you don’t see something that you’re family does on the list, please share it in the comment section.

Collect tzedakah. Each week, set aside money to donate to a cause. Put it in a tzedakah box. If you don’t have one, make one and let your kids decorate it. We still have the one my son made when he was one-and-a-half and we still contribute money to it each week. Place coins in the box immediately before lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday night. This ensures that your last act of the week is one of charity. Recite the following blessing as you perform the ritual:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kid-shanu b’mitz’votav, v’tzivanu lir’dof tzedek.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot and commands us to pursue justice.

At the end of the year, or when your box is full, let your children select where the money goes. They will feel involved, valued, and will learn that their choices can make a difference. Don’t worry about what you see as the cause’s significance. When my son was a toddler, he regularly chose the Australian Koala Foundation because he could help his favorite animal by planting eucalyptus trees. As he has grown, so have his choices. This year we planted trees in Israel through Jewish National Fund and gave to our local food bank.

Engage in social justice. Children of all ages can participate in community service. Shop together for items for a food, toy, or book drive. Collect items from your house. Deliver donations to a local food pantry or clothing resale shop with your kids. Have older kids stock shelves at a food bank, work with animals, or host a birthday or holiday party for those less fortunate through local organizations. Check out The Birthday Party Project which hosts birthday parties for underprivileged children through partner agencies in Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Ft. Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco.

Care for the environment. Caring for the planet has no age requirement. Do a neighborhood or park cleanup. Pick up trash when you walk the dog. Plant a tree. Buy eco-friendly/reusable products. Compost. Recycle. Bring your own bags.

Visit the sick and the elderly. Stop to see a relative. Deliver meals to homebound seniors. Share part of Shabbat afternoon at a retirement or assisted living facility. Make birthday cards for seniors. Brighten someone’s day.

Volunteer on Christmas. Help others enjoy the holiday. Participate in a Christmas mitzvah project. Many synagogues and Jewish agencies organize volunteers to work on Christmas Eve and Day so Christian employees can spend time with their families.

Welcome the Stranger. Ensure that no one is alone for holidays. Invite newcomers to your community to share a celebration with you. Make a seat at your Shabbat or Seder table, and open your home for Hanukkah, the High Holidays, Christmas or secular holidays.

Honoring my Promise to my Grandfather

  

Sammy and I with my 96-year-old grandfather in October. We had a special visit.

About a month ago, I visited my 96-year-old grandfather at his skilled nursing facility in New Jersey while in the area for a family event. It was Shabbat morning, my favorite time to go see him.

My grandfather and I have always been very close. As the oldest grandchild and the only girl, we share a special bond that is different from the one he has with my brother and male cousins. I make it a point to spend time with him whenever I go east to see my family, and I always bring Sammy.

It is important to me to visit with him, even though I am not certain that he knows me or that Sammy is his great-grandson. My grandfather has dementia. On some visits, he does not seem to connect our smiling faces to any name or person that he can recall, but is just happy to have some visitors. On others, I can see that he recognizes me when I walk over.

But even with the uncertainty of his response, I still go and I still bring Sammy. I do not do this out of obligation, or because Jews are commanded to visit the sick. The mitzvah Bikur Cholim, a concept I learned from my grandfather when I was a young child, and he took me to visit his infirmed and elderly parents, tells us to be with someone who is ill because the presence of a loving and kind person is a gift that can lighten the burden of illness.

No, I do not perform this mitzvah because I am told to. I go to visit him because I love him, and I have a deep desire for him to know Sammy as best he can and for Sammy to know him, even though the man he will know is not the vibrant grandparent I remember. But I want Sammy to have some connection to the person he hears about in stories and sees in pictures.

I also go with Sammy because I want my grandfather to hear about my son’s life and our home, our Jewish home. See, I made a promise to my grandfather 12 years ago when Cameron and I became engaged that my children would be raised as Jews, even though Cameron was not one. I remember the conversation.

“Janey, will your children be raised Jewish?” my grandfather asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Cameron and I have agreed to have a Jewish home and raise our children as Jews.”

“Oh, okay. Is he going to convert?”

“No, I didn’t ask him to.”

“Okay. Well maybe one day he’ll decide to,” my grandfather said.

“Maybe.”

I understood my grandfather’s questions and his hopes. He was the oldest son of observant Jewish immigrants from Hungary. His father was a chazzan, a cantor, who grew-up at the Great Synagogue, also known as the Dohany Street Synagogue, in Budapest on the Pest side of the Danube. Judaism was a central part of his upbringing and identity, and Jewish continuity was important to him, especially given that intermarriage was widespread in my family.

He watched his son, my uncle; marry a woman who was not Jewish; as well as several of his brothers’ children. With my engagement, another generation was continuing the pattern. While some of my intermarried relatives raised children within Judaism, others had no connection to Jewish practice or community, or any other religion either.

As someone who was a young adult during World War II and the Holocaust, my grandfather understood that every Jewish child was precious to the community, and he did not want our family’s connection to the faith to disappear. He wanted some assurance that someone would pass on our tradition.

I know that he was glad to hear that Cameron and I would have a Jewish home, but I think that while he hoped for the best, he believed, like others in my family that our promise was empty and that little action would be taken to fulfill our commitment. Unfortunately, shortly after Cameron and I were married, my grandfather’s mental health began to decline. By the time Sammy was born, he had been moved from assisted living to the nursing facility’s memory unit.

He has never been able to experience or appreciate the central role Judaism has in our home. Yet, regardless of my grandfather’s mental state, I still want him to know that Cameron and I have kept our promise.

When we visit with him, I talk about the many things he and I have done together, and about my synagogue involvement and holiday rituals. I share with him Cameron’s commitment to and engagement in our Jewish home.

Sammy sings him Jewish holiday songs in Hebrew and tells him about his Jewish day school. He talks to him about his Jewish summer camp and his kippah collection that his not Jewish grandmother has crocheted for him. And because Sammy loves sports as much as my grandfather once did, especially tennis, he talks sports too.

I do not know if any of this means anything to my grandfather, but it is important to me that I demonstrate that I have honored the commitment I made to him, and show him, in whatever way possible, that his hope for a Jewish future is being realized through Sammy. So we will keep visiting, I will keep talking, and Sammy will keep singing Jewish songs.

My grandfather and me at my second birthday.