What’s in a Name: My Favorite Torah Portion

  

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.

The Kids’ Table

  

Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday because it is mostly about storytelling. Every year, my family sits around the Passover table and tells the story of how the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt by blindly following Moses across the Red Sea. The story is about freedom, faith and most of all, food. We eat matzah (unleavened bread) to symbolize the unleavened bread the Jews took with them on their long journey through the desert. We clean our houses and get rid of every last trace of bread. Then, my mother calls me 68 times about the Passover menu. In my head, I picture all the Jewish mothers in Egypt during Moses’ time asking, “Chicken, brisket or both?” But what I’ve always loved the most about Passover at my mother’s house was the kids’ table. It is the table I was always a part of until only recently. Now, there’s a new kids’ table and its guests include my daughter Helen and her two cousins (my brother’s boys), Jacob and Nathan.

I didn’t realize this phenomenon about the kids’ table until I brought over my half of the Passover menu in aluminum pans an hour before the seder. Adrian, my significant other who grew up in Mexico as a Catholic, pointed it out when he carried our daughter into my mother’s house. “My Mom used to do that at Christmas,” Adrian remarked when he saw one long table in my mother’s living room and the mini table at the end set with three kiddie plastic plates and spoons. Adrian comes from a family of seven kids and he loved my mother’s rendition of a kid’s table, which made him nostalgic. His family is scattered across the globe and his one dream is to have everyone go back to Mexico to sit at his mother’s table on a big Catholic holiday. But this year, Adrian was part of the Passover festivities even though he couldn’t totally grasp matzah.

“It tastes like paper,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied, “that’s the point. We suffered in Egypt and then we suffered with matzah.”

The kids’ table signified so much to me this year. For the first time in maybe 50 years, my uncle missed the Passover seder because he’s sick and my aunt couldn’t come either. My cousins were also absent. Usually, our Passover table is set for 15-18 people, but this year, it dwindled down to seven adults and three kids. This made me afraid because my brother was in charge of running the seder and I was in charge of half the cooking—it made me realize that the original Passover kids’ table was now the adults’ table.

My mother is getting older and I am trying to balance old traditions with new interfaith beliefs. Adrian and I are trying to show Helen that two cultures and two faiths can coexist and we are trying to do this by example. But sometimes, I still feel like a kid. Sometimes we don’t have all the answers and there are times that even when I make 22 chicken legs, the guests only eat the brisket. “I told you so,” I hear my Jewish ancestors whisper.

My nephews, who are twin boys, came in like a hurricane. They love Helen and arrived shouting “Helen, Helen, Helen!” When they saw my mother, who always brings them the challah bread and chicken noodle soup, they began to shout, “Challah, challah, challah!” But on Passover, we can’t eat challah or noodle soup, so they learned instead to shout, “Matzah, matzah, matzah!” And then continued with, “Adi! Adi! Adi!” for Adrian, their favorite uncle.

I marveled at the kids’ table for its differences and its similarities. This year, as my nephews speak English, Helen answers in Spanish. “No se,” she says, which means, “I don’t know,” and the boys laugh. But they look just as my brother and I had once looked. The only difference is that this Passover, like all future Passovers, there will be room for more than one faith. Adrian sits at the table and is reminded of Catholic holidays in Mexico, I sit at the table and am reminded of my father and how he, too, loved a good story.

The traditional Jewish four questions, to be asked by the youngest child at the table, are sung by everyone, in Hebrew. “Why is this night different from any other night?” begin the questions. I laugh because I want to look up at God and say, “Seriously?” But instead, I think of a proverb appropriate for this Passover from the New Testament: “Get rid of the old leaven of sin so that you may be a new batch of dough – as you really are.” (Bible, I Corinthians 5:7) This quote gives me hope for the future and urges me to shed my old skin and step into my new real one of woman, mother and two-faith-household-builder.

Strolling on Shavuot and San Antonio of Padua

  

Mother strolling with baby

There was a painting that hung in the living room of our house when I was a child. My father’s good friend Mike painted it. Mike was an artist who had his art studio in New York and his apartment in Brooklyn. He also had a German Shepherd named “Renny” who sat on the floor of the studio while Mike painted. I’m not sure if the painting that hung in our house was a gift or if my father bought it. It was enormous. It seemed enormous when I was a child. From close up the image in the frame looked like watercolors of black, red, and gold with a hint of green. But, from far away Moses appeared with the Ten Commandments over his head looking down at the Jewish people from Mount Sinai as they bowed down to a Golden calf.

I had learned this story in school. Moses was so angry that his people were praying to an idol that he held the Ten Commandments above his head and threw them down and so they broke in half. This is what hung in our living room and above the Passover table every year when we invited our family and had to pull the big table out of the garage to fit everyone at the feast. Moses stood in a fit of rage at the top of a mountain and I learned every day that God was angry.

This was discouraging.

It was especially discouraging when in school the teachers asked us to “count the Omer.” The “Omer” are the days after Passover leading up to the holiday “Shavuot” in which the Jews celebrate the day God gave them the Torah. Shavuot is said to be a marriage between the Jewish people and God as it is a re-acceptance of the Torah, similar to a renewal of marriage vows.

The Omer lasts for 49 days and they must be counted and a prayer must be said. But, if a prayer is not said and you miss a day of counting you cannot say the prayers after that day, you must listen to someone else say them. In my house of liberal artists and unorthodox traditions I could never remember if I had counted the Omer, if I had missed a day, or if I had said the prayer right or not at all. What stuck with me more were the colors in Mike’s painting, that blood red of Moses’s cloak and the piercing gold of the calf.

In my house Shavuot was not a big holiday, hence the reason I couldn’t remember to count the Omer. My parents would have to sign a pink card that said I had counted it and I lost the pink card. I think my teachers had to give me five different pink cards. Charles Cohen found one of my cards in his box of Lemon Heads and returned it to me on the school bus one day. I hated math and I didn’t like to count. I didn’t want to believe at such a young age that our days were numbered. Besides, I already knew. There had been death in my family and Moses hung in my living room as a constant reminder of wrath and indignation.

Today my daughter is eight months old. Again, I count. I count her toes, her fingers and her months. She already has a life of her own, a personality of her own. She already has a different life experience than my own. For starters, Moses does not hang in our living room. That painting is still at my mother’s house somewhere in the attic. Here we have a menorah for Hanukkah, a chamsa for luck and a Virgin of Guadalupe for protection. My daughter is Jewish. My daughter is Catholic. My daughter is Mexican-American-Ashkenazi-Aztec. God is not angry. God is loving. It took me a long time to understand that.

Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary on the day of San Antonio of Padua

This year on Shavuot Jews walk the streets in my neighborhood all night. It is traditional to stay up all night learning the Torah and walking. In Mexico they celebrate the festival of San Antonio of Padua. Adrian, my partner, sends money home for the festivities. San Antonio in Mexico is known as the “Saint of the Whole World.” He is best known for finding lost things. He also helps people find husbands or wives, helps women have babies and he helps the poor. The Jews in Midwood walked the streets praying and the Mexicans in Puebla walked the streets praying on the same day this year. My daughter hears Spanish and Hebrew and English and grows up knowing that God is a tapestry of colors like Joseph’s coat.

The Jews were wanderers for many years in the desert. They were seekers. I’d like to think this is still the case. The Aztecs were warriors and one of the most advanced cultures in science and technology of their time. Walking the streets of Brooklyn is sometimes like being at the Smithsonian Museum. So many different faces tell so many different stories.

I walk Helen down the street in her stroller on Shavuot, on the day of San Antonio of Padua. I imagine Moses walking beside us holding the Ten Commandments. Moses who exists in both the Catholic and the Jewish traditions. He does not look angry walking beside us. He looks serene. He understands my daughter’s mixed faith, race and religion. He stands beside us to teach us the lesson he himself learned as a child: that fire is stronger than gold.

As a baby Moses was tested by the Pharaoh. Since Moses had been found by the Egyptians in a basket floating down the river, the Pharaoh was superstitious that Moses might be a threat to him when he grew up. The Pharaoh had two bowls set in front of Moses to test him to see if he liked jewels and riches. A bowl of gold coins and a bowl of fire were set in front of baby Moses. Just as Moses crawled toward the bowl of gold an Angel swooped down and moved him to the bowl of fire. He burned his hand and stuck his fingers in his mouth to soothe the burn. Because of this Moses had a speech impediment and later on in his life it was God who would speak through Moses so that the people would listen. The Pharaoh was satisfied that Moses would not try to steal his throne after this incident.

What I never understood about the painting in my mother’s living room was the significance of the golden calf. All I saw was a mix of rage in color. It was not only that the Jewish people were bowing down to an idol that was not their God, it was that the idol was made of gold. Gold was the very thing the Angel had moved Moses away from as a child. Gold made the Pharaoh jealous. Gold took precedence over religion and faith. Gold was the reason Hernan Cortez murdered and defeated the Aztec empire. The Aztec Empire was known as the “City of Gold” much like Jerusalem. Everyone in every faith and every religion has at some point been tempted by gold.

Shavuot and the Festival of San Antonio of Padua both teach us the lesson of staying humble. The riches, the real gold are in our families, our traditions and what we teach our future generations. We want to reach for the bowl of shiny coins. We believe this is where our happiness lies. The Angel swoops down every time to burn our hands so that our speech is stifled in order to hear a higher power. We must be silent in order to listen. Not just one but many faiths teach us this lesson.

Moses walks beside my daughter’s stroller and we meet San Antonio along the way. Perhaps a long time ago San Antonio helped Moses to find the Torah again and Moses helped San Antonio feed the poor.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

  

ball-87867_1280Last year, in the “Community Voices” section of my local paper there was a column written by a woman about the proliferation of yard signs in her neighborhood proclaiming “God lives here!” She said that often the behavior of her neighbors displaying these signs was far from divine.

Recently, I recalled this column as I noticed the “He is Risen!” crosses beginning to appear in my neighbors’ yards. I knew many of these people held close their belief in Jesus and acted as he did–they reached out to families new to the area, they befriended the friendless and cared for the weak. But others, behaved in ways that weren’t really in line with Jesus’s actions.

They argued with each other about the cutting down of dead bushes between properties, escalating the fight to the point where lawsuits were threatened. They disregarded neighborhood speed limits and drove at dangerously high speeds when children were leaving for school in the morning. They failed to clean up after their pets but got angry when others left their dog’s waste in the park. They fought about who should and should not have access to neighborhood common areas and green spaces.

But residents with crosses on their lawns weren’t the only ones acting in ways that were inconsistent with their religion’s values. A number of people with mezuzahs on their doors behaved similarly. Neither Jesus nor Moses would have been particularly proud.

While I was bemoaning the unneighborly behavior, I remembered other actions by neighbors that were the embodiment of shared religious values. There was the family that invited a neighbor for dinner when her husband was out of town. A man who found at the gym a water bottle that belonged to a woman from down the street and returned it to her. A young woman who moved in with an older, single woman to care for her. A mom who found a neighbor’s dog that had gotten out and ensured that the pup got home safely. A teen who retrieved my son’s basketball from the pond in our park.

Tattooed and ghoulish looking, and dressed in dark clothes, the teenager appeared to be an unlikely savior. Yet, he turned out to be the personification of loving-kindness.

As my son and I struggled to find a way to get his ball that was moving further towards the middle of the lake, the teen approached with a friend. Our dog went up to them hoping to get a pat. We said hello and returned to trying to get the ball. Suddenly, the male teen walked into the cold, murky pond toward the ball. It was then that we noticed his shoes on the bank and his rolled-up pants. He grabbed the basketball and returned it to my son.

For a moment, we were speechless. My son and I thanked him over and over, and asked if there was something we could do to show our appreciation. The only thing the teen wanted in return was to pet our dog for a minute. Then he and his friend walked away. I was certain we had just encountered Elijah.

According to Jewish legend, the prophet Elijah, who is destined to wander the earth as a heavenly messenger, appears to individuals in many guises. He arrives to guard the sick and newborn and to help the hopeless dressed as a beggar, scoundrel, peasant and now, possibly, a goth teenager. He reminds us not to judge someone’s godliness by his or her appearance or a symbol on a lawn or door. Rather, he shows us that a person’s goodness and adherence to the principles of their faith is revealed through deeds.

After lamenting the ungodly behavior of her neighbors, the writer of the “Community Voices” essay, said that God did live in her neighborhood through the right actions performed by some of the area’s residents. She said, “Deeds outrank yard signs.” The encounter with the would-be Elijah provided a similar reminder for my son and me–actions trump dress.

This Passover, when you open your door for Elijah, think about how you and your family can walk in the prophet’s ways. Then do it, because actions speak louder than words.

Be Courageous

  

Number_the_Stars_book_coverAn email from the family in charge of leading the discussion for the next fourth-grade book club landed in my inbox. It said the selection for this month’s meeting was Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. An appropriate choice since we were about to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Some parents were hesitant to let their kids read about the Holocaust. I was not. My son Sammy already knew about the horrors of World War II. He had been introduced to this part of Jewish history when he was in Kindergarten at a Jewish Day School. At the time, I thought six was too young for the lesson, but it was taught whether parents approved or not. Even though Sammy knew about the Holocaust, I was glad the book was about heroes and survival, rather than labor camps and gas chambers.

Number the Stars tells the story of the evacuation of the Jews from Nazi-held Denmark during World War II. On September 29, 1943, word spread throughout the country that Jews were to be detained and then relocated to extermination camps. Within hours, the Danes including average citizens, resistance fighters, and police arranged boats to take 7,000 Jews to Sweden. Lowry fictionalizes this true-story and brings it to life through 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen, whose family harbors her best friend, Ellen Rosen, on the eve of the round-up and smuggles Ellen’s family out of the country.

My son loved the story, as did the other kids. As the children eagerly talked about the book, the adult discussion leader asked them if they thought it was possible for a holocaust to happen again.

All the kids agreed that it was possible for a holocaust-like tragedy to happen if a “mad man” came to power, but all felt it was not probable. They said that the United States would never allow it. They believed that the President would protect Jews in the US from such evil and would ensure that our country came to the aid of others if it happened elsewhere in the world.

As the children spoke, the parents sitting on the outer edge of the circle exchanged glances and began to whisper. Should we tell them that the US didn’t help the Jews during the war? Should we make them aware of recent genocides and how little America did to stop them? We decided we should.

We told the kids that mass killings didn’t end with the Holocaust, they were still happening today. We told them that the response of America and her allies to these atrocities in countries such as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, Myanmar and the Central African Republic was anemic. We said that rescuing the Jews targeted by Nazi Germany was not a priority for the US during World War II. We explained that the US government greatly restricted the number of Jews it allowed to immigrate here during the war and sent those fleeing the Nazis by ship back to Europe.

We didn’t want to scare the kids. But we also didn’t want them looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. We wanted them to understand that the actions of the Danish were truly heroic and that they exemplified the ideal of human decency. Under the leadership of King Christian X, they acted with courage and integrity to save almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark. Their heroism was mesmerizing.

After book club, I asked Sammy if the discussion changed how he felt about the US. He said no, it just highlighted the mistakes our government made and showed that it didn’t always act with a conscience. Then I asked him if it changed how he felt about being Jewish. He paused. After a moment, he said it did, but in a good way.

“It made me realize that as a Jew, I have a responsibility to act with decency, treat others kindly and with dignity, and not discriminate. As a Jew, I have a responsibility to be courageous.”

Over the next few weeks, we will be reminded of these responsibilities when we celebrate Purim and Passover. Hopefully, we will take the lessons to heart and when faced with a crisis act like Esther and Moses, Christian X and the Danes, the Johansens and Rosens. Hopefully, we will be courageous.