Bringing Some Dharma to My Jewish-Catholic Household

  

Insomnia. It’s awful and I’ve never had it before. Until now.

Part of this has to do with me getting pregnant again shortly after a miscarriage. Another part has to do with the anxiety, fear, loneliness, happiness, joy and gratitude I feel approaching motherhood for the second time. The second time is different, of course. With a toddler at home the exhaustion level of pregnancy is overwhelming. This is how I found myself a few weeks ago at two in the morning with the refrigerator door open asking myself, “What else can I eat?” After making my way through a bag of potato chips, a bowl of cherries and the rest of a half-eaten Kit-Kat bar, I get the feeling I should be doing something else…like meditating.

A long time ago I worked at a yoga studio. I was the desk girl and I would check people in and only occasionally take a yoga class. But, on Wednesday mornings they would have a meditation group and I would go and sit in the middle of the sunny studio and listen to a woman in a long kimono tell me to relax. It was relaxing, though not at first. At first there was total panic. Why couldn’t I turn my brain off? Why did everything else seem more important than just sitting with myself for 30 minutes? Eventually I got better at it. But, at two in the morning I feel a need to sit down with myself again.

My household is a testament to two faiths being able to coexist peacefully and even intertwine and become something even more beautiful than what they already are. A walk through my apartment will reveal the Jewish and Catholic aspects of my family’s life. There are prayers for the home in Hebrew at the entrance. A mezuzah in the doorframe and a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe protecting my daughter’s bed while she sleeps. At two in the morning I look to all of these objects in order to steady my thoughts.

The Dalai Lama calls Buddhism not a religion but a “science of the mind.” So on my way back from the fridge I grab a pillow from the couch and sit on it in the lotus position hoping that Buddhism will help me in my Jewish/Catholic home. I want to stay calm. I want my thoughts to stop if only for a minute. I also want to relax so that I can finally get some sleep!

The pillow is uncomfortable. My already growing belly feels smashed. I forget the pillow and sit on the floor. The floor is too hard. My back hurts. Those potato chips were a bad idea. I lie on the floor. The carpet is too itchy, and so on and so forth for the next ten minutes. I exceed Julia Roberts’ performance in Eat, Pray Love. Meditating is hard.

I decide to commit to sitting in a chair for at least ten minutes every day and trying to quiet my mind. I look up mantras and then I realize that I can use any mantra I want. I’m part of an interfaith family! I can use a prayer, a word or even a saying. I choose something that I’ve been saying before bed since I was a little girl. “Shema Yisrael,” the prayer in Hebrew of “Hear O’ Israel.” Traditionally said before one goes to sleep I repeat it over and over again breathing in and out and trying to focus on my breath and the sound of the words.

By 4 o’clock in the morning I’m still awake. At 6 a.m. I fall asleep. My daughter wakes up at 9:30. But, I keep saying the Shema. Every night when I can’t fall asleep I sit upright in a chair, close my eyes and invoke Israel’s name. Every night it gets easier. Some nights it actually puts me to bed.

I think about that prayer and the way I learned it. It was not taught in my house but in my school when I was a child. This gets me thinking about my daughter and my child to come. How beautiful faith in something, anything is. That a prayer so etched in my memory can come to me when I need peace and quiet. It makes me happy that my daughter and my future children will have a plethora of prayers to choose from. There is the Jewish “Shema,” there is a Catholic prayer of St. Francis that I love which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” and then there are the Buddhist prayers for loving-kindness or forgiveness.

One night I try a specific meditation in which one is supposed to meditate on a difficult situation one is having and then replace oneself with a saint or a holy being like Gandhi or Mother Teresa. I do this thinking that of course mother Teresa will show up in my mind’s eye. But, as soon as I close my eyes it’s not Mother Teresa at all. It’s my Grandma Rosie and she’s holding a bowl of chicken soup. So I say, “Grandma, what are you doing here?” She says, “I heard you couldn’t sleep so I made you some soup.” I laugh when I open my eyes.

The next night I make the family my Grandmother’s chicken soup. I kiss the Hebrew prayer on my wall, I kiss the mezuzah on the doorframe and I kiss Guadalupe. That night I sleep like a baby. Sometimes faith, any faith begins right at the kitchen stove.

My Dad, Elijah and the Afikomen

  
My father and brother

My father and brother

Spring means color. Splashing greens and yellows. Purple tulips cascading over front porches and red robins bustling in the trees. Spring also means Easter for Christians, with blue and violet painted eggs. It means Passover for the Jews. For South Americans and Mexicans it means Semana Santa (the days of Jesus’s crucifixion). For me, it is a season shrouded in black. It is the green/grey eyes of my father, his brown hush puppies scuffling across the carpet. It is the ivory keys of his baby grand piano.

My father loved the spring. He loved it for three reasons. The first is that he could smoke outside again without freezing his fingers off. The second is that he could go fishing and play golf in the same day and still get home in time to practice playing his Chopin. But mostly my father loved Passover. Purim came and went in our neighborhood but Passover was an event to be reckoned with.

Every year my mother would slowly begin changing the dishes from our regular meat and dairy dishes to the “Passover dishes” (because the holiday of Passover has its own dietary laws). This meant that my brother and I would have to carefully carry 10 full cardboard boxes up from the basement. They contained pots, pans, plates, glasses and my grandmother’s heavy black roasting pot. Ancient silverware passed down from our ancestors was in one box along with glasses, cups, a traditional seder plate and a tray for matzah. In another box there was a cup for Elijah (a biblical prophet who makes his presence known in the middle of Passover dinner). One box contained breakfast tools; my Grandma Helen’s eggbeater and my Grandma Rosie’s potato peeler.

When these boxes came up from the basement my mother would begin the preparations for the first seder night and the days to follow. She would make her menu and call the cleaning lady to ask her to come the day before.

My father would sit regally at his piano. He would sneak pieces of matzah from the boxes my mother had put aside and dip them in cream cheese or tuna. Then he would bang out Beethoven on his Steinway or he would ask us to sing.

“Baby Face” was a song I knew all the words to because my grandmother would sing it to me. My father could play that song by heart and make our house sound like a ragtime bar. He also loved musicals and ballads. There was one song called “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” which was first published in 1910 but was popular in the late 1930s. I loved to sing that song sitting next to my father on his piano bench, while my mother changed the dishes and my brother roamed around outside.

My father would start, “Oh, say, let us fly girl” and I would say, “Where dear?” and Pop would smile and say “To the sky dear,” and we would sing for days. Sometimes when Passover would finally arrive we would do the whole duet for the guests while my mother was roasting the brisket and adding cinnamon to the kugel.

My father smoking his Marlborough Reds

My father smoking his Marlboro Reds

And what I remember is the smell of our house during those spring days. Onions, garlic, rosemary and cumin wafted up the stairs and out the front door. There was the metallic hint of chopped liver, the eye-piercing strength of horseradish and the kosher wine fumes mixed with my father’s Aqua Velva after-shave and Marlboro Red tobacco. There was the smell of my mother’s perfume, grassy and effortless, and the musky velvet of my brother’s yarmulke.

Then Passover would emerge. My cousins, my aunt and uncle, my grandmother and family friends would gather around my mother’s seder table to read the story of how the Jews escaped Egypt, how Moses parted the Red Sea so that our people could cross over to the other side.

In Brooklyn, we sing songs and read this story. My father, who was big in every way (he had been an actor and had a voice that bellowed through the walls) would shout this story in Hebrew. Then he would point to me and say, “And now Anna will say the four questions.” It is a Jewish tradition that the youngest person at the seder table asks four questions. And there are so many traditions that accompany this holiday. Elijah the prophet has a cup placed for him in the middle of the Passover seder table. The front door is opened for him and it is said his spirit passes through each house and he drinks from the cup. Elijah’s cup is called the “silent cup” and as a child I would open the door for Elijah and after I closed it I would run back to the table to see if the wine had a ripple in it or if it was less full.

There is also the tradition of the afikomen. This is the middle piece of matzah and each year in my family, in the middle of the service, my uncle hides it and the youngest child has to find it. When it is found, the child can ask for money in exchange for returning the middle matzah. Since I was a girl, my uncle has always hidden the matzah in his inner suit jacket pocket. When he takes his jacket off to eat I steal it.

Last year on Passover I was pregnant with my little Helen Rose. No one knew except for my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law. My father has been gone for over 20 years. His soul went to G-d on August 23, 1994. I was almost 13. My uncle is his older brother. I turned 34 last year and was the youngest at our seder table. When my uncle took his jacket off to begin eating his meal, I stole the afikomen.

I have a Mexican Catholic partner. I am not married. I am Jewish. These three facts do not define who I am. I am much more than that.

Last year as my uncle reached into his jacket pocket to take out the afikomen I held it up with a shaky hand at the other side of the table. My uncle went to Crown Heights Yeshiva, as did my father. We come from a long line of Jewish beliefs, customs, traditions and schools of thought. I desired one thing for the afikomen and it wasn’t money.

“This year,” I began as my uncle sat quietly at the head of the table, “this year I want something in return for the afikomen. But this year I don’t want money. This year Uncle Jeff, I want your blessing. I’m pregnant and the baby is due in October and I’m so happy.

My Aunt Claire jumped out of her chair. My brother and his wife looked down at the table; they were expecting twins in August. My mother looked at the wall. My cousin Arnold’s mouth fell open. My uncle, who fought in Korea and jumped out of planes, who married my aunt when she was 18 and moved to Long Island and raised a traditional Jewish family, turned to me with his eyes that look so similar to my own father’s and said, “Mazal Tov kid. Congratulations.”

My partner Adrian and I live in a small Brooklyn apartment with our little Helen Rose. We keep the traditions of my family. We go to Rockaway and fish every summer. Adrian smokes Marlboro Reds or Camels. On Passover, my mother’s house still smells like roasted onions. On Rosh Hashanah we eat apples and honey and on Hanukkah we light the menorah. When spring arrives we buy Helen painted eggs and stuffed bunnies. For Christmas we make traditional Mexican holiday food. This year at Helen’s first seder we will place a cup of wine in the middle of the table and when I open the door for the prophet, perhaps my father will walk inside as well. Maybe he’ll steal a piece of matzah, sit at the piano bench and watch the new generation celebrate its new customs and its old ones. Maybe he’ll whisper “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” into Helen’s ear. After all, spring was always his favorite time of year and Passover his favorite holiday.