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Numbers are a big deal in Judaism. Hebrew is an ancient language, but numerology is hidden in every letter of scripture. This is something I learned very early on: Numbers matter. Our time on this earthâour nights and our days are numbered. So it wasnât surprising that I grew up on 23rdÂ street in Brooklyn and my father died on August 23. I was 12-and-a-half years old.Â By Jewish law, I was a woman. But by losing a father at such a young age, a part of me remained fixed in timeâalways a little girl.
This year marks 23 yearsÂ since my father died and I still havenât set foot in the cemetery since childhood. This has nothing to do with numbers. This has to do with the fact that my father, a Brooklyn boy through and through, was buried in New Jersey of all placesâParamus, New Jersey. If I know one thing about the spirit, itâs that my fatherâs spirit wouldnât be caught dead in Jersey. Heâs not really there.
The dead live in our hearts. They live with us throughout our numbered days. Sometimes they ride the trainÂ or the bus with us. They help us cross the street on particularly tired days. We canât see them, but they are around.
In Jewish tradition, my family believes that after death our souls go back to God. My husbandâs family of Mexican Catholic tradition believes that the dead hover around all the time, just in case you need them. Once a year on Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), Adrianâs family travels to the cemetery to leave the favorite foods of the deceased. I believe in all of that, but I also believe that my father still sometimes likes to visit my motherâs living room and sit in his big blue chair.
So this year, as my mother got dressed in her usual Sunday cemetery garb, she called to ask me the same question sheâs been asking me for 23 years, âAre you coming with us to the cemetery today?â
My father was crematedâthat is unheard of in Judaism. He sits on a shelf in a small jar behind a stone that says his name in both Hebrew and English. On the day he died, one of the neighbors remarked, âThereâs Big Dave in a little jar.â Iâm not sure my husbandâs take on cremation and Iâm nervous about asking him, but as it turns out, our two religions and cultures have more in common when it comes to death and dying than I would have suspected.
In Adrianâs village, when someone dies, the family stays up all night because they believe that the spirit of the person is still in the house. Then he informs me that the body must be buried within a 24-hour period. This is true in Judaism as well! Adrian alsoÂ tells me that people are cremated in Mexico, but thoseÂ people are usually from a bigger city whereas he is from a smaller village setting.
What Adrian canât comprehend is that almost my whole family is buried in the Paramus cemetery and there is an empty lot next to my father that belongs to my mother whenever sheâs ready to join him (hopefully no time soon). He says thatâs the strangest thing heâs ever heard. I try to explain to him that itâs kind of like owning real estate and he refuses to believe me.
But, both of our religions have a high respect for the dead. We both have special prayers. Both of our families wear black when someone dies. We both cry. Both of our families visit the dead once or twice a year. Except for me.
I talk to my father every day. And she may not know that I know this, but my mother talks to him every day too. There is a picture of my father in my living room holding me as a newborn. His face is close to my face and I have just been born. In that photo, my father is happy. He owns a house. He has a son and his daughter has just been born. Heâs happily married. He goes to the theater once a week. He eats dinner out. He waters the lawn. In the photo next to him is a picture of Adrian and our little one, Helen Rose. In the photo, she has just been born and Adrian holds her in the exact pose as the photo of my father and me. Adrian is happy. His first child has just been born. He has a new apartment. He sees his friends and brothers once a week. He eats dinner out. He waters his plants.
Itâs been 23 years since my fatherâs death. So much has happened without him, though it feels as though he were here just yesterday. In Kabbalistic terms the number 23 signifies a kingdom. Usually it refers to an inner kingdom. As a Jewish girl from Brooklyn who started a life with a Catholic boy from Mexico, I feel as though my choice to create an interfaith family has kept my inner kingdom and my familyâs inner kingdom intact. The choice to give my daughter a vast knowledge of who she is breaks tradition and yet holds it in place forever.
I never visit the cemetery on the anniversary of my fatherâs death. Itâs clear heâs still among usâŠin his own way.
I type this while holding a squirmy, feverish 3-month-old in my lap. Shh, shh, shh, I tell him. It’s OK, just relax and rest bubbeleh. I rub his back and pull him closer, patting his head, whispering, “Just lay your keppe down on mommy’s shoulder.”
He has no idea what I’m really saying, but the words must be soothing because slowly he’s settling down and snuggling in as I type with one hand. I can feel his stuffy nose breathing against my neck and my arm is falling asleep but I hesitate to lay him down, knowing he doesn’t feel good. I’m talking to him quietly, telling him maybe we will FaceTime with Bubbie and Gramps later after he rests. Go schluffy, I say. It will make you feel better. Let’s move this wet schmatte off your face (as he lays his head on a particularly drool-covered burp cloth) and you’ll feel better in a little while.
Suddenly I’m channeling all of my great-grandparents. Did I always throw this many Yiddish words into the middle of everyday conversations? Last time I checked, I’m a 40-year-old from New Jersey, living in Maine and I can’t speak conversational Hebrew, let alone Yiddish. In the last ten minutes, I used five Yiddish words and didn’t think twice about it. And apparently my older children, ages 7 and 9, have either never noticed, don’t care or they are just so used to hearing random Yiddish words they don’t know any different. My boyfriend who is not Jewish (and father of said 3-month-old), has never once questioned me as to what I’m talking about, and until recently, I never considered how weird some of the things I say must sound.
A Lutheran friend of mine (who recently revealed to me that she’s learned of some Jewish roots in her family and is doing research to learn more, and asks me questions as her resident Jewish friend), went in on a group gift for the baby. They had a custom onesie made for him with the word “tuchas” (which means butt) and an arrow on the behind, because she knew I’d find it funny. Of course I did chuckle, andÂ a few weeks ago while sitting in the waiting room during my daughter’s cheer practice, it led to a whole conversation about Yiddish words. The “cheer moms” started quizzing me, looking up Yiddish on Google to see a. how much I really knew and b. how many words I actually use in conversation. In a room full of mostly straight-outta-Mainers, we all had a good laugh at the strangeness of it all, and the realization of how much Yiddish I use truly emerged.
Yet the strangeness has sat with me, making me feel even more different living in a place not known for diversity. I’ve caught myself changing my language to fit social situations, almost unconsciously. I’ve never been one to worry about “fitting in” as I’d rather just be me, but I’m coming to the realization that my version of being me incorporates my Jewishness as a given. So when I throw Yiddish into a conversation, I have this unrealistic expectation that the people I spend time with just get it. My reality doesn’t exactly match up in a world where the dying language of my ancestors has either become standard dialogue for the rest of the population (helllloooo Cawfee Tawk!), or a symbol of what connects me–and my children–to the past.
The baby is stirring, as he burps and spits up on my shoulder. Time to go clean up the schmutz, as I take solace in the words and pass on yet another tradition in my blended Jewish family.
Two years ago, when we were a parenting blogging staff of two and our children were mere babes, our Editorial Director Lindsey Silken got married. At the time, we attempted to provide some well wishes and advice on weddings and marriage. Sometime very soon, our wonderful editor, who now juggles a large blogging staff on top of her many other InterfaithFamily hats, is having a baby. We figure it is time to put together a new list of (unsolicited) advice. This time, on the very thing we write about most often – parenting.
We are now a blogging team of five+Â parents. As those of you who are parents know well, two parents means two different opinions about what is best, and with more than two parents, opinions increase exponentially. So even though we may not always have the same advice, weâve done our best to put together a few things weâve learned so far.
Congratulations Lindsey! Â We hope this helps you and hopefully a few others visiting the blog as they begin their own parenting journeys.
Thoughts on parenting a newborn:
1. Read all you can (or want to!) before the baby is due, after you have the baby, and as the baby grows up. Reading the parenting books and how to books, you’ll get a sense that every baby is different and what things worked for them. It’s great to have a repertoire of what has worked for parents in the past (one of us even used them for checklists of things to try in tough moments).
2. If a book or article does not suit your style, makes you nervous, angry or just seems like something youâd never do, stop reading it! Parenting at all stages means striking a balance between what works for your child and what works for you. Â
3. If you give birth in a hospital, get the most out of your stay. Ask every nurse their opinion, and especially get them to do a demo for you and your partner on how to swaddle (they invented it, after all). Get some sleep – if you need to send your baby to the nursery so you can sleep for an hour or two, it doesnât make you a bad parent. Take any freebies you can get, as the hospital blankets and baby kimonos are the best.
4. Sign-up for a class! Mommy and me classes arenât just for Baby Silken – theyâre for you, too. Youâll meet other moms, have adult conversations and get some great everyday baby care advice. At a bare minimum, signing up for a class will ensure you get out of the house, too. You and baby may even make life long friends, as some of us have been lucky enough to do.
5. You need a break from baby sometimes. If you are at your wit’s end, step away fromÂ the baby. A little crying never hurt a baby. As long as they are not in pain or unsafe, take a break to take care of yourself. Always remember the airplane rule – put on your own oxygen mask before helping the person next to you.
6. Even if you are not at your witâs end, now that you have a little one that is totally dependent on you, you need to carve out some time for yourself. Taking 30 minutes, an afternoon, or an evening off does not mean that you don’t love your child. It is good for the soul to step away, even when it feels hard.
7. Try, amid the dirty diapers, adorable smiles, sleepless nights, and precious cuddles, to remember to write milestones in the baby book. It can be hard to remember, but youâll likely be glad you did.
8. If you donât remember to write anything down, you and your child will be ok!
Ideas to take with you throughout the parenting journey:
1. Listen to your instincts and trust yourself. No matter what a book, other parent, or passerby may tell you, the only experts on your child are you, your partner, and your child themselves. Â Trust your gut, and also your expertise.
2. Enjoy every moment. People say that it goes by too fast and it does. Soak up every moment because after the moment is gone you will wonder if they really were that small. In doing so, we can live in the present and not keep waiting for them to sit up or crawl or walk or move onto the next developmental milestone.
3. When your child goes from sleeping through the night to waking up – again – at all hours, you’ll often hear that “this, too, shall pass.” It’s all right, though, if you really wish whatever stage you’re currently in would pass sooner rather than later! It is lovely to enjoy every moment, and weâll likely all be nostalgic for every moment when our kids are grown. But if you donât enjoy a given moment, thatâs ok. That, too, will probably pass. Â Â
4. Try not to be too hard on yourself. Everyone has an opinion, but when it comes down to it (and this is advice I’d do well to remember far more often than I do!), the species has survived for thousands of years, despite everyone’s opinions on this or that method of parenting. In the long run, your child will likely be just fine, no matter if you have a c-section or an unmedicated birth, nurse or use formula, and on and on. What matters in the end is your love for your child, and your ability to pass on good core values, all of which
our interfaith traditions have in spades.
5. Becoming a parent is a hugely powerful experience. You think you know love because of your deep feelings for your spouse, but the love you feel for your child when the nurse or doctor puts him or her in your arms is unlike any love you have ever felt before. It is a intense, beautiful, awesome feeling; one that gives you a greater appreciation for Lily Potter and the sacrifice she made for Harry. And youâll realize that in an instant you would do the same for the little one in your arms.
Lindsey, given your maturity, wisdom, and all of the time youâve spent reading and editing our posts, we know you are already a great mother. Â Enjoy the journey. Â
Wishing you all the best,
Jessie, Jane, Emily, Anna and Anne
Passover is approaching. The stores in my neighborhood have begun the process of taking the chametz (bread) off the shelves and replacing the inventory with matzah or other kosher for Passover items. This is a tradition and it is Jewish law. Because Moses led the Jews in escaping Egypt and the bread did not have enough time to rise by the time they needed to escape, they ate unleavened bread. This is why the shelves are lined with different colored paper at my house. I switch the dishes to have Passover dishes. The night before the Passover seder I burn the bread on my motherâs front lawn.Â
My mother hands me the Passover shopping list with a coupon for Cascade soap pods and a white envelope filled with crisp green twenty dollar bills. Itâs been a rough month. A few weeks ago my brotherâs kids (two twin boys almost 9 months old) got the flu. I was recovering from bronchitis. My mother had an upper respiratory infection. My 6-month-old baby girl Helen Rose had a cold with a fever. Then a relative passed away and my mother slammed her finger in a glass door and almost cut her whole thumb off. Sheâs having surgery right before the first seder.
But maybe all of this was a sign. This is my first year as a new mother and so as a new mother with my own mother recovering from her hand surgery, I will make the first seder meal alone. I am excited and nervous and as always, I am thinking of my Grandma Rosie.
My grandmother only owned one pot. It was the Russian immigrant in her, the memory of when people were fleeing the Pogroms. She learned what it was to take only what you can carry, that your feet are faster than history when they run toward the future. Every Passover my Grandmother cooked brisket in that pot. She lined her colossal charcoal colored pot with potatoes. They dripped with oil, paprika and onions. They were salted with her tears and the memory of an everlasting childhood. She turned the meat over and when it was ready she brought it to the seder table.
As a child those potatoes were my favorite dish. Flavored with the grease and fat of the brisket and the smokiness of the past. I piled mountains on my plate and pushed aside other delicacies for my simple peasant supper. Because Grandma Rosie only cooked once a year, her fridge usually only contained Ginger Snaps, Canada Dry tonic water and Tanqueray gin. She would sit at the kitchen table and instead of cook she would read the stocks. As a child of the depression she hid money under her mattress and never threw anything away.
When Grandma Rosie passed I found her holiday recipe book in my motherâs kitchen. One of the first recipes has an instruction of âcrack 40 eggs.âÂ I thought that was hilarious. Itâs like a book if youâre cooking for an army. But I furiously searched those pages for her potatoes asking myself the whole time the pages crinkled beneath my fingers why I had never thought to hold her shaky hands and learn about her yesterdays through food. Why had I not thought to chronicle for my own daughter, named after her, the first steps my Grandmother took to survive in a world filled with Pogroms?
My Grandmother began each Passover holiday with a greasy finger. I understand now why it was this holiday she cooked for. It was the lesson of Passover she wished to pass down. The book we use on Passover is called the Haggadah. It is the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.Â It says âWe were once slaves in EgyptâŠâ But the lesson is that we can be slaves at any time to anyone, even now. History always repeats itself.
My daughter is Jewish on her motherâs side and Mexican Catholic on her fatherâs side. We speak Spanish at home, English at my motherâs house and most recently we put Hebrew letter magnets on the fridge. The world is changing. She will face many obstacles and I will lead her back to the lessons of the Passover seder. I will teach her the Jewish proverb that says, âI ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.â
Iâm about to leave the house to finish the rest of the shopping before the big day. I look to my menu I made on white loose-leaf: parsley, hard-boiled eggs, gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, brisket, Grandmaâs potatoes.
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 doesnât even dress up for (sheâs 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 heedÂ the warning: âListen Ma, remember if the doorbell rings donât answer it. Itâs just the kids who like to dance around everyoneâs living room to celebrate Purim.â
My mother ignored us as usual.
âHoly cow!â The phone call came from her at 9 p.m. She yelled over the tooting of horns and the rattling of groggers. âThe doorbell rang and I thought it was you guys,â she screamed. âNext thing I know thereâs about twenty Orthodox Jewish boys dressed as biblical characters dancing around my living room! I gotta go before someone breaks something.â She hung up.
Thatâs how Purim goes in Midwood, Brooklyn.
Adrian, who is Mexican-Catholic, asks me, âIs it like Halloween?â
I laugh, âWell sort of but we really put Halloween to shame.â And we do. Forget about goblins and ghouls. We make hamantaschen, triangle-shaped cookies thatÂ symbolize Hamanâs death. (Haman wore a hat shaped like a triangle.)
âWell, what did you wear for your first Purim?â 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. Itâs like the newest Disney character but sheâs 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 tagÂ 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 Paulâs Drag Race a few years ago.
âWeâre not dressing Helen as a castle,â Adrian says.
Â âNo kidding,â 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.
âHow about a piece of challah bread?â he asks.
Â âWhat?â I say pretending not to hear him.
Â âChallah bread,â he continues, âItâs kosher, itâs traditional and itâs my favorite!â
âYeah, because thatâs not embarrassing at all,â I add.
Adrian smiles, lifts up the baby and says, âChallah por favor!â
Trying to explain Purim is not easy. For starters G-dâs name is not mentioned once in the entire book.Â 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, thereâs 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:
âAre you Jewish?â
Â On my walk to my motherâs house every year I answer, âYes.â
Â Then the boys say, âHave you heard the Megillah this year?â
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, âItâs like he read the whole Megillah,â referring to how long something can take. But, every year I say, âYes, boys, please read.â
And this is the most beautiful part of Purim. That two boys who are 10Â and 12Â 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 âwhole Megillahâ saying wrong.
This year I canât wait to take the baby on a walk through the streets of Midwood during Purim. I wonder what those boys will say. âIs she Jewish?â
Â âYes,â I will answer.
Â âHas she heard the Megillah this year?â
Â 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, âWhat will you dress her up as?â and I will smile and say, âChallah bread, we were thinking challah breadâŠor a hamantaschen cookie.â
Happy Purim, everyone! From the Mexican-American-Jewish-Newborn and her family.
When I was 8 years old I had a good friend who lived around the corner from me. His name was Nachshon. We took the same school bus to school and at the Orthodox Yeshiva we attended we were in the same class. I went to his house often after school to play video games or just to hang out. He rarely came to my house. My family was not religious enough for his family even though we had a kosher home and my parents tried hard to educate us in Judaism. My parents were liberals. They had been actors and met on stage. They believed in finding out about oneself both inside and outside of the religion. For this reason the Jewish community at my Yeshiva rejected many of my parentsâ beliefs and therefore my brother and I were rejected as well, though in a subtler manner.
I was allowed into Nachshonâs home where the rules of kosher/non-kosher, religious and non-religious were in tact and could not be stirred. He was, however, not allowed into my own home. At 8 years of age I didnât care. He had a Nintendo and my brother and I did not. He had better toys, better games and carpeting in his basement. He had what I didnât have, or so it seemed.
Then something happened to Nachshon, or rather something happened to his father. One day Nachshon didnât show up to school. In the middle of Torah study that morning our teacher told us all to put on our coats, we were going somewhere. Once outside we boarded a yellow bus. The bus twisted and turned through the sooty Brooklyn streets until we were close to my own neighborhood. We ended up in front of Nachshonâs residence.
I had been to his house many times before but never with my whole class. There were twenty of us: the girls dressed in long skirts and long sleeved shirts, the boys with yarmulkes, black pants and white shirts. We looked like a sea of exclamation points shuffling through the small doorway. The house was dark and the mirrors had been covered with black fabric. There were low boxes on the floor in the living room for the family members to sit on. It was then I realized what we were doing there. We went, as a class to sit shiva. Shiva is the traditional Jewish mourning period. It usually lasts for seven days and family members sit on the floor or on low boxes, they cover their mirrors and in my neighborhood they leave the door open for visitors to come and go. It is a âmitzvah,â a good deed to sit shiva. As a child it is terrifying.
Nachshon looked small in his own home surrounded by guests from all over the neighborhood. His father had been sick for a long time. No one knew any of the details. He died of some kind of cancer and now the closest family members sat around the living room on low boxes reciting his name and weeping.
That year I stopped going to Nachshonâs house to play. He didnât speak to me in school. I heard that his mother wanted him to hang around only very religious Orthodox Jewish boys and girls. I was not in that category. The next year I was kicked out of the Yeshiva and I didnât see him again for a long time. Then one day something happened to me, or rather something happened to my father.
I saw Nachshon again four-and-a-half years later at a shiva for my own father. He showed up on the front porch with sad eyes, dressed in a black suit, his yarmulke a patch of crimson velvet on his head.
âIâm so sorry about your father,â he said. It was the first time he had ever been to my house. Death had brought him there. Death, sympathy and compassion had overcome my ânot Jewish enoughâ family. Though he came on his own. There was no school bus, no long skirts following his lead. He came alone. It was the last time I ever saw him. I felt as if his presence was an apology.
Today I have a newborn. She is Jewish by her mother, Mexican-Catholic by her father. I wonder what she will feel as she grows up in the neighborhood I grew up in. Her father speaks a different language and her mother wears rock t-shirts every day of the week. Does this make her less Jewish? Will parents be afraid to send their children to our house? How will this make her feel? What will I say when she says âWhy?â
I will tell her I lost a very close friend a long time ago because of fear and judgment. I will tell her something broke between us because the community that surrounded us did not know how to bind us closer together in a time of mourning and instead shifted us apart.
I would like my daughter to grow up understanding the customs of each religion. The way Catholics and Jews deal with death is of equal importance. But more than this I want her to make her own decisions about religion and I want her to be able to turn to spirituality in times of great distress. I want her to have courage the way Nachshon had when he defied the community and walked up on my front porch to pay his respects. I will explain to my daughter one day that in that one fixed moment in time we were who we were as Jews but more so as resplendent human spirits.
Adrian and I met working at a restaurant. Some might call it an âinterfaith restaurant.â 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 âcoexistâ or âto live together.â 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.
âThe Jews donât eat suckling pig,â 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.
âActually,â I replied with a smile equally sarcastic, âthatâs true. The Jews donât eat pork. I donât 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, âMan she told you!â The boy with the pan wanted to flee but I kept going.
âAlso, youâre from Mexico right?â 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.
âYou know why we serve white gazpacho?â I asked.
This time it was Adrian who approached the window with a question, âwhy?â he asked, his eyes gleaming.
âWe serve white gazpacho,â I began, âbecause Spain didnât have tomatoes until after they invaded Mexico, so their gazpacho was made from almonds, thatâs why itâs white. Itâs 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.â
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 donât belong either in Mexico or the United States. Itâs 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. Itâs 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 wouldnât 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 âWelcome to the World!â 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, âA woman of valor who can find? For her price is far above rubies.â 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.
I believe in the mystical. Tarot Cards, Ouji boards, even the woman on the corner of Ocean Avenue who stares at me with one blue eye and one gray eye and says âyou have a purple auraâ when I walk by. Yes, I believe in her too. As I watch my newborn grow and change every day I wonder what magic I will teach her. What mysticism will her father share with her?
The Hebrew word for Pregnancy is Herayon. In Hebrew every letter is paired with a number and the letters in the word Herayon add up to 271. This is because a womanâs pregnancy generally is equal to 271 days. Here is another interesting Kabbalistic fact about Herayon: Har, the first part of the word in Hebrew, means âmountain.â This is because a womanâs belly is shaped like a mountain. I try to explain this to my significant other, Adrian. We compare notes on magic.
The month before my daughter was born I went to the Judaica store in my neighborhood and bought Channaâs book of Prayers for Jewish Women. I was nervous about delivery. I was looking for a magic spell. I called Adrianâs mother on a regular basis. âSeĂ±ora,â I said, âIs it very, very painful? Is it unbearable?â She did not lie. She said it was. My own mother told me the truth as well and then she added, âBut the pain doesnât matter. In the end you get a baby.â
But I needed magic! I needed the Zohar to whip me up a flying carpet and deliver me from the agony of childbirth. More than this I wanted my newborn delivered into the world safely and with the prayers of both my Jewish background and Adrianâs Catholic background.
I thought of the word Tzirim. The Hebrew word âtzirimâ means âcontractionsâ or âlabor painsâ but there is another literal translation as well. âTzirimâ can also mean âhingesâ like, door hinges. This is because a woman is opening a door for her child to exit through during childbirth. The Kabbalah compares contractions to snake bites and when this happens the woman gets ready to push the baby out of the womb and into the world. Snake bites make me nervous. Again, I needed magic.
Adrian is from Puebla, Mexico. In his small village his parents speak a language of the Aztec empire. They speak Spanish but they also speak a language called âNahuatl.â It is an indigenous language. It is a dying language. It is the Hebrew of Mexico.
The Nahuatl people believe that when a boy is born his umbilical cord should be buried on a battlefield and when a girl is born her umbilical cord should be buried in the field because the cornfield is where tortillas come from.
But the birthing process for both cultures, for both religions is the same. In ancient times Jewish women gave birth in tents surrounded by other women. The same is true for Nahuatl women. In fact, when I spoke on the phone with Adrianâs mother she told me that she had birthed all seven of her children in her house surrounded by her female family members and one witch doctor.
I asked to speak to the witch doctor but I never could get a hold of her. My pregnancy began to take on an artistic form in my head. In my imagination, my giving birth began to look like Frida Kahlo and Amedeo Modigliani had lunch together and then had a painting competition. I saw myself painted slim across a canvas with a dark red background and serpents coming out of my nose. My imagination was winning over my mysticism.
Here is the truth about birth: It hurts. It hurts, but it is the one true visible sorcery. I had been so concerned about what my newborn would learn, how she would grow, what she would believe in. What I didnât realize is that SHE was pure wizardry. On every contraction I felt the hinges inside swing back and forth. On her long entrance into the world I asked Adrian, âCan you see her head?â he nodded yes. I asked, âIs her hair black?â he nodded yes again. She arrived black haired as the raven, audacious as the eagle and breathtaking as an Aztec monarch.
The Hebrew word for love is ahava, andÂ its numerical value adds up to the number 13. There are other words that add up to the number 13 as well. Zeved, for example, means âto giftâ or âto bestowâ and its letters add up to 13. To whisper or meditate is Hagah in Hebrew, also a numerical value of 13. Even the number 1 in Hebrew, which is Echad, has a numerical value of 13. Thirteen plus 13 is 26. In Hebrew, the letters in G-dâs name add up to 26. Love is a gift, love is a whisper, love is one and so is magic in any culture or religion.
My mother lives three blocks away from me. Her house is filled with artwork. There is a statue of Moses and the Ten commandments on her piano, she has a ceramic dreidel collection in the living room and her Sabbath candlesticks sit on a high shelf in her dining room. Naturally, this December I decided it would be a good idea to bring my newborn to my mothers house and spread some interfaith cheer by attempting to make Christmas cookies while my mother was in New York at the theatre. My plan was simple: I would leave a plate for her when she got home. I was making Christmas tree, reindeer and candy cane shaped sugar cookies.
Why didnât I bake them at my own house? Well, my mother has more space, more bowls, more dishes and I thought it would be a nice adventure for my newborn daughter. âWeâre going to Grandmaâs house to bake Christmas cookies!â I told the baby who promptly drooled and went to sleep.
Mistake #1: My mother does not have a crib in her house but she does have a playpen, which I thought would have been sufficient to put the baby in for a nap. Newborns sleep a lot and so I thought I would just put a sheet on the bottom of the playpen and my sweet little girl could nap and I could make my dough and have a cup of tea and maybe read a book. Hahahaha, WRONG!
Hereâs a play by play of what REALLY happens when you try to make cookie dough with a newborn: The babyâs diaper is dirty and she needs a change. Once thatâs done sheâs hungry. Feeding takes about 10 minutes. Then (miraculously) she doesnât want to sleep so she coos and plays for almost an hour. Then she is over stimulated and starts to cry. I walk the baby around in my arms for 10 minutes and she starts to fall asleep. Finally I put the baby down in the playpen. She startles, cries, but then she somehow manages to fall asleep.
I run at top speed to the kitchen and start throwing flour, sugar, eggs, baking soda, butter and vanilla into a bowl. The second I start kneading the dough the baby starts crying. My hands are covered in dough. I canât turn the water on to wash. The baby is screaming. I try to get my elbows to the faucet to turn the water on and the front of my shirt falls in the sink and gets drenched in a bowl of milk that was left in there from earlier that day. Now I have dough on my hands, milk on my shirt and a screaming baby who hates the playpen idea.
When I finally get cleaned up and refrigerate my cookie dough I run to the baby. Another diaper change! Also, the baby is looking at me like I must have been insane to put her in such an uncomfortable contraption. After the diaper change she falls asleep on me for two hours. I have to sit still so she can sleep and all I can think about is how Iâm going to roll the dough when itâs ready. She wakes up and yet another diaper change, then another feeding.
Mistake #2: Christmas cookies usually take about 40 minutes and as a new mother I thought that it would be a simple task. WRONG! Forty minutes in new mommy time translates to six to eight hours.
I decide to hold the baby while making the cookies. I face the baby forward in my left arm so she can see everything Iâm doing. I also decide maybe I should put some bowls in the dishwasher so I have more room on the counter to roll the dough. While attempting to move the bag of flour it slips from my hand, rips open and covers the baby and me in white powder. My daughter looks like a mini Charlie Chaplin without the mustache. I just look crazy.
Mistake #3: If you think you are going to make exact Christmas shapes in the dough while holding your newborn, think again. Rolling the dough with one hand is hard enough but putting the cookie cutters in the dough and then trying to lift out the shapes is near impossible. The reindeer come out looking like pugs with mohawks. The candy cane shapes look like sad broken worms and the Christmas trees look like women wearing housecoats. In other words, I have basically made my Christmas trees look like me and all the other Jewish women in my neighborhood.
My newborn tires of my cookie cut outs quickly. She cries and I hear myself say âJust one more batch of disfigured reindeer! Just one more!â She cries louder. She needs another diaper change, or sheâs hungry, or sheâs tired or she just wants to go home.
By the time we get cleaned up and ready to go I leave a plate of cookies for my mother. We get back to our house and wait for Adrian a.k.a. Papi to get home! When he arrives he asks why Iâm covered in flour. I had a chance to change the baby but was too tired to change myself. I tell him it was a long day. He takes the baby. At midnight he tells me he thinks the baby has a rash on her stomach. I panic. I lift up her onesie to have a look. Right next to her belly button I see the rash. But, itâs not a rash at all; right there on her little belly is a sandy crystal smear of white DominoÂ sugar.
I may have been the only one who knew what those Christmas cookies were supposed to look like but Adrian was so happy that I put in the effort. We even put a plate out on Christmas day when all of his brothers came over to celebrate with us and the baby. Upon seeing the cracked and somewhat disheveled cookies, his brothers reached politely for a taste and Adrian said with a smile, “Anna made them for us!” Next year I’ll make sure to bake in our own home and find a time when Adrian is home to hold the baby while I bake.
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 womanâs 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 Guadalupeâs birthday. Here in Brooklyn we light Hanukkah candles. Both traditions celebrate life.
AdrianÂ 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 partnerâs 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 âright time.â It was never the perfect situation, there was never enough money or the right job or the Jewish boy I was âsupposedâ to marry. Finally one day after having been with Adrian for three years I stopped waiting for the âright momentâ 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, âshe will learn from both of us and the biggest lesson she will learn is love and respect.â 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: âEvery blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers âgrow, grow.â Thatâs what we were put on earth to do. Iâd like my daughter to grow to ask questions and not always do something because itâs the way itâs been done for centuries.
Iâd 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.