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“Thirty miles north of Lakewood” is usually what we say when we talk about where we live. Lakewood, NJ, is the largest pocket of Orthodoxy around us, and many Orthodox Jews know someone (or rarely have more than two degrees of separation from someone) who lives in Lakewood.
Thirty miles north of Lakewood is a Catholic pocket of New Jersey. We live within walking distance of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The priests at this church are known throughout the dioceses of Philadelphia and Trenton. Our entire neighborhood is Catholic. We’ve sat with our next-door neighbors at church. The neighbors’ kids go to the St. Mary’s school. There is a family on our block that has been going to St. Mary’s for two generations. I see schoolchildren walking to and from school, from our front porch. Unfortunately when Jack becomes of school age, he will not attend St. Mary’s school, because we are raising him Jewish. I often wonder what it would be like for him, being the only Jewish kid on the block in a very Catholic neighborhood.
Will Jack be able to use this as a way to strengthen his own faith? Will his neighborhood peers question his faith? We would like Jack to have the freedom to struggle or wrestle with his own faith; after all, he is a child of Israel (Gen. 32:28). We would love for him to be able to explain why he believes what he believes, and why he observes Jewish rituals. This may be the first experience that some of the neighborhood kids have with Judaism, which puts a lot of pressure on Jack and me—the Catholic mom who is raising her son Jewish.
Because Jack will probably be the only Jewish kid on the block, will this cause scheduling and other conflicts? Jack won’t attend the Catholic school down the street; he won’t be in classes with the neighborhood kids or part of the same school-based extra-curricular activities. He will probably have different days off of school than the neighborhood kids. Will this cause him to be excluded? Will it make him feel “different?” And will that cause a rift in playgroups or will his friends be interested in learning about his school and his activities?
Thirty miles north of Lakewood there will be a small Jewish boy growing up in a Catholic neighborhood. It’s not the first time, but it is for us.
Purim in my neighborhood is an extravaganza. Limousines crowd the streets and rabbles of teenagers run in and out of houses dressed up as the main characters in the Purim story.
A quick summary for those who are not familiar: There is Vashti, who is dethroned by the King Ahasuerus. Then Esther becomes the new Queen after she wins a beauty contest, which she doesn’t even dress up for (she’s THAT beautiful). Mordechai is her cousin (probably equally beautiful) and he figures out that some people are trying to kill the king. Then Haman (the evil one in the story) gets promoted to be the head official by the king, but he hates the Jewish people. Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman and then in turn Haman makes it his life goal to destroy the Jewish people. Mordechai asks Esther for help. She invites the King and Haman to a banquet and when they attend she invites them to a second banquet. At the second banquet she asks the King to have mercy on her people and accuses Haman of his wrongdoings. Haman is then sentenced to death on the very same gallows he had himself made to kill the Jewish people.
The more daring ones in my neighborhood dress as Haman. The more beautiful dress as Esther. Occasionally, a Vashti costume will be thrown into the mix. But most popular are Mordechai and the King.
My partner Adrian and I live three blocks away from my mother with our newborn girl, Helen Rose. Last year, we remembered to call my mother on Purim to heed the warning: “Listen Ma, remember if the doorbell rings don’t answer it. It’s just the kids who like to dance around everyone’s living room to celebrate Purim.”
My mother ignored us as usual.
“Holy cow!” The phone call came from her at 9 p.m. She yelled over the tooting of horns and the rattling of groggers. “The doorbell rang and I thought it was you guys,” she screamed. “Next thing I know there’s about twenty Orthodox Jewish boys dressed as biblical characters dancing around my living room! I gotta go before someone breaks something.” She hung up.
That’s how Purim goes in Midwood, Brooklyn.
Adrian, who is Mexican-Catholic, asks me, “Is it like Halloween?”
I laugh, “Well sort of but we really put Halloween to shame.” And we do. Forget about goblins and ghouls. We make hamantaschen, triangle-shaped cookies that symbolize Haman’s death. (Haman wore a hat shaped like a triangle.)
“Well, what did you wear for your first Purim?” Adrian enquires. I laugh again and think back.
The first official Purim I celebrated was at the Orthodox Yeshiva I attended as a girl. It was first grade and every girl wanted to go as Esther. It’s like the newest Disney character but she’s thousands of years old. I wanted to be different and I hated wearing dresses even though I had to wear one to school every day. Here was my chance to break out! Instead of going to school dressed as Esther like every other girl I went dressed as the castle.
My mother walked me to The Variety Store on Avenue M and Mr. Miller showed me where the colorful oak tag was. I bought two pieces of hot pink oak tag and punched holes in the top of each piece. Then I used string to tie the pieces together and put them over my head. I drew windows and a door and that was it. I was the castle. It was funny but not as funny as Stephen, a boy in my class, who dressed up as Vashti the banished Queen. I think I saw him on Ru Paul’s Drag Race a few years ago.
“We’re not dressing Helen as a castle,” Adrian says.
“No kidding,” I answer.
Traditionally speaking, the kids in my neighborhood usually only dress up as characters from the Purim story. I suppose we could put Helen in something different and I suggest this to Adrian.
“How about a piece of challah bread?” he asks.
“What?” I say pretending not to hear him.
“Challah bread,” he continues, “It’s kosher, it’s traditional and it’s my favorite!”
“Yeah, because that’s not embarrassing at all,” I add.
Adrian smiles, lifts up the baby and says, “Challah por favor!”
Trying to explain Purim is not easy. For starters G-d’s name is not mentioned once in the entire book. Does this mean G-d is not present? It actually means the opposite, that G-d is ALWAYS present and for this reason Esther and Mordechai are able to save the Jewish people. Also, there’s the part about the Megillah. The Megillah is the scroll of Esther and tells the Purim story. This scroll is read on the evening Purim begins as well as the next morning. In Midwood, young Orthodox Jewish boys of about 10 and 12 years old stop people on the street to ask:
“Are you Jewish?”
On my walk to my mother’s house every year I answer, “Yes.”
Then the boys say, “Have you heard the Megillah this year?”
Because I do not attend synagogue on Purim I say no and they ask to read the entire scroll of Esther to me standing on the corner of East 23rd Street and Avenue M.
The scroll of Esther can take some time and there is even a Jewish saying, “It’s like he read the whole Megillah,” referring to how long something can take. But, every year I say, “Yes, boys, please read.”
And this is the most beautiful part of Purim. That two boys who are 10 and 12 years old know it is a good deed to read the story of Esther to a wandering Jew on the streets of Brooklyn. And because they are Yeshiva boys they speed read their Hebrew out loud as if to prove the “whole Megillah” saying wrong.
This year I can’t wait to take the baby on a walk through the streets of Midwood during Purim. I wonder what those boys will say. “Is she Jewish?”
“Yes,” I will answer.
“Has she heard the Megillah this year?”
And because she does not attend synagogue with her mother on Purim I will say no and they will ask to read the entire scroll of Esther to her. Then they will ask, “What will you dress her up as?” and I will smile and say, “Challah bread, we were thinking challah bread…or a hamantaschen cookie.”
Happy Purim, everyone! From the Mexican-American-Jewish-Newborn and her family.
I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. My parents were liberals who met in the theatre where they had been professional actors. My father was a Brooklyn boy, born and raised in Crown Heights. My mother, a Baltimore native who said she always wanted to marry a Brooklyn boy, and so she did. They moved to Midwood, a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. They wanted to be close to my Grandmother and to buy a house and to teach their children my brother and I the importance of our Jewish heritage. My father wanted us to always remember where we came from.
My parents were not religious but we celebrated every High Holy day. Every year it is a tradition to walk with my mother one mile to the Orthodox synagogue that is around the corner from where my Grandmother used to live. The walk to synagogue has always been part of my tradition with my mother. Our synagogue separates men on one side and women on the other. I never saw myself as less than anyone else, although I know there is much debate about a woman’s role in Judaism. I always knew I was a Jew. I knew inside my heart what that meant and I spent a lot of my childhood defending my differences to those from more devout households.
We were not a religious household by any means. My father drove on Saturdays; my mother got her hair done on Friday nights. We were traditional Jews who knew all the stories from the Torah, but I wore jeans and my brother played electric guitar and learned every AC/DC song by heart to play on his Gibson SG (the same guitar Angus Young had). My friends would often invite me over on Shabbat so that I could turn on their electronic appliances for them, something they were not permitted to do on the Sabbath.
Fast-forward to today, and my life partner, Adrian, is Catholic. He was born in a small village in Mexico and left his home to work at 13. He came to the United States at 15, and when he left his village, his mother tied a scapular around his neck that had been blessed by the local priest for guidance, safety and luck. He has never taken it off.
When times are difficult Adrian directs his prayers to the spiritual mother of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe. She is well known for having appeared to a poor village man named Juan Diego. No one would believe Juan Diego when he said the Virgin appeared to him but Guadalupe urged him to go back and convince the village people. When he returned to the village, and a crowd formed around him, he opened his cloak and 100 red roses fell out. There, on the inside of the cloak was an apparition of Guadalupe. The great Basilica in Mexico City was built where the Virgin is said to have revealed herself.
As a Jew and a deep believer in Kabbalah and all things mystical, the stories of the Torah and the stories from the Bible are the lessons I would like to pass down to the next generation. It is the message of each of these stories that make the traditions of both religions so rich. On the 12th of December Catholics from Mexico celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe’s birthday. Here in Brooklyn we light Hanukkah candles. Both traditions celebrate life.
Adrian and I recently had our first child, a baby girl. She already hears the coos of Spanish, English and Hebrew echoed throughout our household. At two months old she has already witnessed her mother burn Christmas cookies, light the menorah in the wrong direction and forget to buy half the ingredients to make tamales on a trip back from the grocery store. But, in all the chaos she is witnessing traditions new and old. Our baby is named after my two Grandmothers and we recently had a baby naming ceremony for her at the East Midwood Jewish Center. It was an incredible day because my family was meeting my partner’s family for the first time. We were all there together from different cultures and religions celebrating this new and precious life.
I have always wanted children and I was always worried about it never being the “right time.” It was never the perfect situation, there was never enough money or the right job or the Jewish boy I was “supposed” to marry. Finally one day after having been with Adrian for three years I stopped waiting for the “right moment” to have a child. We just decided to have one. We talked about our different cultures and religions. We talked about what our child would grow up learning about and believing in. One night we said, “she will learn from both of us and the biggest lesson she will learn is love and respect.” Those are the two basic themes of any religion.
Delivering a baby was the most spiritual journey of my life so far. Both Adrian and my mother were in the delivery room and when the baby came out we all burst into tears. Adrian ran around the table to hug my mother, the baby was on my chest for skin-to-skin and in that moment I thought of a quote I had heard as a girl in Yeshiva. It was a quote from the Talmud: “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers ‘grow, grow.” That’s what we were put on earth to do. I’d like my daughter to grow to ask questions and not always do something because it’s the way it’s been done for centuries.
I’d like her to respect and love and admire where both her parents come from so that she can respect, love and admire herself. So that she can know that there is never just one faith – but to have faith in something, in anything will catapult her toward her dreams and whomever she wants to be.