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.

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!”

Avoiding “That Look” on Purim

  

Kids dressed up for Purim

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.”

Celebrating a Holiday That’s Not My Own

  

Valentine's design

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.

KindnessIn 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.

Our Attempt at Planning a Family Vacation and Baby’s First Fever

  

Anna Keller Family Vaca Grandma and HelenWe had been planning our vacation to upstate New York for six months. The hotels book up by the end of August, so we made the reservation well in advance. Adrian, my significant other, got his freshwater fishing license, and we ordered our daughter a ton of new summer clothes. Everything was packed, even Grandma, who was accompanying us on the trip because she loves New York and offered to babysit in an attempt to let Adrian and me have some time alone on our vacation.

But plans never work. Not for me, at least. I look at the entire scope of my life and can say that almost anything I planned went awry. I had planned to have a Jewish wedding with a Jewish husband. But when I fell in love, it was with Adrian, a devout Catholic from Mexico. We aren’t married, we have a beautiful daughter and nothing went as planned. But still we planned our trip.

The first night at the hotel, our daughter, Helen, seemed different. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something in her personality had shifted. We attributed it to the fact that she had been in the car for five hours with only a few short breaks in between. We also put her to sleep in a Pack ‘n’ Play instead of a crib, because it’s all we had and Helen won’t sleep with us. We went to sleep and the next day—our first official vacation day—we went to the lake.

Adrian packed his fishing gear into the car. I planned what food we would eat, what toys Helen would play with and what bathing suits everyone would wear for the photos I planned to take. We propped up a tent with a blanket for Helen. Adrian went off to fish. Grandma and I stayed and played with the baby. At one point I took Helen into the water and she started to fuss. This was also unlike her. Helen loves the water, and she’s not usually fussy when it comes to trying new things. But I just thought she was over-stimulated. I’d kept her out of the sun and covered, and I couldn’t think of what could be bothering her. So I took her out of the water and we spent the afternoon playing and napping.

When we finally got back to the hotel, Helen had a fever and was crying. I noticed that her eyes looked sick. I did what any new mother with a sick baby in a strange town would do: I freaked out! I took her clothes off and left just her diaper. I washed her with a warm washcloth. I hugged her, I kissed her, I told her everything was my fault and I cried.

This is when being in an interfaith family comes into play. Sometimes interfaith also means inter-culture. Helen is from two distinct and beautiful cultures: Jewish and Mexican. Whereas I was raised to panic and have high anxiety, Adrian grew up in a village where, when a child was sick, you waited before you panicked. I had already gone out to buy Tylenol; Adrian said no Tylenol. I had already gone out to buy canned chicken-noodle soup because I didn’t have a kitchen to make soup in; Adrian said chamomile tea. I was taking Helen’s temperature with the thermometer every five seconds; Adrian just felt her back. I was taking the baby’s clothes off; Adrian said to let her sweat it out and cover her.

So we called the doctor in Brooklyn. I have the best pediatrician in the world, or at least I’d like to think so. Adrian and I have been taking Helen to Tribeca Pediatrics in Boerum Hill since she was two days old. They’re a good fit for us because they understand our religious and cultural differences and look at each child as an individual. They know Adrian’s concerns about modern medicine and my concerns as a Jewish mother who wants to make everything better with food.Anna Keller Family Vaca Papi Adrian and Helen

They told us to watch the fever and that Tylenol wasn’t necessary, unless Helen couldn’t sleep. They said the fever would most likely be gone by Saturday. Saturday came, and a full-body rash came with it. The fever was not down; it was up and down. We called the doctor again. “Give it one more day,” was the advice from the other end of the phone. Apparently the rash was a reaction to the virus, and there’s no medicine to give a child for a virus. According to Tribeca Pediatrics—and the wise mothers of Mexico—the baby has to fight it.

Adrian did what any father would do when he saw the rash: He freaked out! It was then my turn to assure him that the rash was part of the process. Helen was also getting her big teeth in the back, and in addition to the fever and rash, she was teething like crazy. By Sunday she had no fever and the rash was going away. We went back to the lake. I bought her a teething ring and Adrian bought her a lamb chop, which he cooked on the grill and let cool. She chomped on the lamb-chop bone the whole day, and I think it was better than any teething ring ever made. She was smiling and happy and was her own self again! We planned the rest of the week and then threw the list of plans in the garbage and said, “Let’s just play it by ear.”

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.

The Word They’ll Learn the Best

  

babies playing

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.”

three babies playing

But You’re Not Really Jewish, Right?

  
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Photograph of Helen Rose by Lizzy Sullivan

“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?

Helen and Adrian

Baby Helen and Adrian in Prospect Park

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.

Community Comes Together for Baby’s 1st (Interfaith) Passover

  

Passover baby bibsA funny thing happened when I had a baby. People in my neighborhood whom I had never spoken to started speaking to me. They had seen me walking around Brooklyn since I myself was a baby. They had spotted me on my bicycle, buying candy and I’m sure some had seen me in my various teenage phases of trying cigarettes and dyeing my hair. Since I live three blocks from my childhood home these same people have now watched me carry my daughter around the neighborhood from the day she was born. Now though, they speak to me.

This week is Passover week and I am shocked to find that in every store I enter with my daughter strapped to me I am asked, “What do you need? What are you looking for?” Sales people pull things off the shelves for me and when I make my final purchase, my cart filled to the brim with potatoes, horseradish, parsley and all of the other Passover delights, the cashier says, “We will deliver it to you by four o’clock, you live on Avenue M., right?” They know me and have known me my whole life, though we have just now exchanged words.

Baby Helen Rose at Passover

Baby Helen Rose’s 1st Passover

The sense of community in my neighborhood during Passover is overwhelming. At night when the first Passover seder begins one can walk down any block and look into people’s windows to see the same table settings, the same Passover plate and the same book we all read from. This year Passover is extra special for my family because my daughter and my twin nephews are new editions to the table and we are passing down the traditions of my family through them.

My significant other, Adrian, had to work which was unfortunate. Being from a Mexican Catholic family he appreciates both food and family. But he joined my mother and me in the morning as we prepared the matzah kugel, marinated the brisket and chopped onions. My daughter watched and squealed.

Our food delivery came at four o’clock as promised and my mother said, “We’ve never gotten delivery from Avenue M.” I just pointed to the baby as if to say “Now it’s a different ball game, Ma.”

It’s been a long time since we’ve had babies at the seder table in Brooklyn. My mother usually does the first seder and my aunt does the second seder in Long Island. But this year I cooked the entire first seder with some help from my mother. I am a new mother and so I wanted to do the cooking. It is an enormous amount of work because a lot of people come to our seder and it made me appreciate my own mother and how hard she worked every holiday.

Anna's Passover tableBecause my daughter is from an interfaith, multi-lingual family we have a special hagaddah for her. That’s the book we read from on Passover. Her book is in Spanish, English and Hebrew. It was special to share the Passover story with my daughter and Adrian so that they can understand what we celebrate and why.

That’s another thing about my neighborhood. My interfaith family has become the latest gossip. Sometimes it’s hard to break the barriers of age-old tradition and make room for new tradition. I understand that when I walk through Midwood with Adrian and my daughter, people stare. People whisper. People can be cruel. But the lesson of Passover is that we should never let ignorance lead us. The only way Moses parted the Red Sea was because he believed in what he was doing and ignored everything negative around him.

My daughter is a light, a path to a new world. There is a Jewish proverb that says, “A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.” It is this light that compels the people in my local grocery stores to speak to me for the first time in 30 years. It is this light that wins over the many losses my family has endured over the years. My daughter and my nephews are new lights who shine at the Passover table and ask for the first time, “Why is this night different from any other?”

We Met in the Middle

  

Adrian at workAdrian and I met working at a restaurant. Some might call it an “interfaith restaurant.” Tucked away in Cobble Hill, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, La Vara was the restaurant that brought us together. Its menu is based in Southern Spain during La Convivencia. The English translation of the word Convivencia is to “coexist” or “to live together.” The Convivencia took place during the late 1400s in Spain. It is known as Spain’s Golden Age. It was a time when the Jews, the Moors and the Christians sat together, lived together and ate together in peace. La Vara was also a Sephardic newspaper printed in Ladino in Brooklyn from the 1920s to the 1940s.

This is where I met Adrian. He worked in the kitchen and I worked out on the floor. One night after conveying the specials to a couple at the bar I ran past the kitchen and heard the boys in the window begin to tease me about the way I said the specials. That night we were serving suckling pig, squash pancakes (almost like latkes) and a white gazpacho.

“The Jews don’t eat suckling pig,” one clever boy holding a pan and tossing garlic smirked. I could see past him to Adrian quiet and waiting for my comeback.

I stopped inches from the kitchen window and looked the boy right in his eye.

“Actually,” I replied with a smile equally sarcastic, “that’s true. The Jews don’t eat pork. I don’t eat pork. But, when the Jews were in hiding in Spain and the war started they would hide pork in their food so that people would not accuse them of being Jewish.”

Adrian laughed as if to say, “Man she told you!” The boy with the pan wanted to flee but I kept going.

“Also, you’re from Mexico right?” I asked the boy. The whole kitchen staff cheered because there is much pride in being 100 percent Mexican. But the boy with the pan was wary of my next move.

“You know why we serve white gazpacho?” I asked.

This time it was Adrian who approached the window with a question, “why?” he asked, his eyes gleaming.

“We serve white gazpacho,” I began, “because Spain didn’t have tomatoes until after they invaded Mexico, so their gazpacho was made from almonds, that’s why it’s white. It’s known as the original gazpacho of Spain. After they invaded Mexico they brought back tomatoes and made something called Salmorejo, which is more like a tomato gazpacho.”

Adrian stared at me. The boy with the garlic and the pan disappeared. Later I showed Adrian articles I had written about Mexico. They were articles written in Spanish for a Spanish press in Brooklyn. They were about the Virgin of Guadalupe and about why Mexican Americans feel like they don’t belong either in Mexico or the United States. It’s as if they feel they are in the middle. Adrian and I liked being in the middle. It seems that right from the start we were thrown into the middle of everything.

On our first date we walked through Coney Island at three a.m. On our second date we went to the promenade in Brooklyn Heights to see the New York skyline. Every night after work I would ride my bike through Sunset Park and visit Adrian so that we could order tacos. We ate steak tacos on his bedroom floor and listened to music. I wrote and worked at the restaurant with him. After a while I moved in with him. We lived on the border of Sunset Park and Borough Park. Sunset Park is a big Mexican/Catholic neighborhood. Borough Park is an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The middle always had a way of working toward our advantage. On Jewish high holy days we would go shopping in Borough Park. On Catholic holidays it was the Mexican bakery in Sunset Park we would frequent.

A few years later we moved to Midwood, the neighborhood I grew up in. It’s a Jewish neighborhood but we still frequent Sunset Park often. As soon as we painted our new apartment we decided to start a family. It was the right time. I waited tables and bartended through my nine months of pregnancy at La Vara. Adrian stood his post in the kitchen as well.

Our newborn was born on the day that was supposed to be my last shift at La Vara before my maternity leave. My water broke the night before on my day off and I called to let the staff know I wouldn’t be in. Adrian was in the middle of tossing seafood paella when I called him to tell him to leave work.

When our little girl arrived at 2:10 p.m. on a Saturday we had a photo texted to us from the restaurant. It was the whole staff who worked that day huddled together with a sign that read “Welcome to the World!” In that photo there were kitchen staff, servers, bartenders and managers all from different cultures, backgrounds and faiths coming together to wish us well. I always knew it would be fine that our little one would grow up with two faiths but that picture secured my belief. She will be rich in spirit because of her interfaith family; she will be open and understanding and double blessed.

There is a Hebrew proverb that says, “A woman of valor who can find? For her price is far above rubies.” Our little one was born at a peaceful table. She was born celebrating a time when people shared their food, their culture and their faith amicably, willingly and harmoniously.

Baby Helen