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Itâ€™s a Monday morning in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and my almost 2-year-old daughter and IÂ have a date with my friend and her 10-month-old daughter to go to a read-along at the Brooklyn Public Library. We get downstairs with the stroller, enough snacks to feed a small army and a water bottle. Not to mention diapers, wipes, A & D ointment, cell phone, wallet and keys. Oh, and Duckie, the stuffed animal that is covered in one thin layer of gross because it is trudged across New York by my daughter on every trip we take. Even when I wash Duckie, his yellow is a kind of city yellowâ€”so, basically heâ€™s gray.
The super of my buildingÂ sees me trying to get Helen into the stroller. â€śYou gonna take an umbrella?â€ť he asks, â€śItâ€™s supposed to rain like crazy.â€ť
The library is a ten-minute walk from my apartment and it hasnâ€™t started raining yet. The umbrella is the one item Iâ€™ve forgotten. â€śNo,â€ť I say, â€śIâ€™m not afraid of a little rain.”
Famous. Last. Words.
Almost eight blocks from my house, the sky opens. The rain comes down in sheets as if the sky had been holding its breath and someone just reminded it to let go. I am so soaked and Helen (though covered by the stroller top and a blanket) is getting her legs and feet soaked as well. I almost panic.
Midwood is a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. I grew up here and now I live here with my interfaith family. Itâ€™s hard to live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and try to make people understand that my daughter is both Jewish and Mexican Catholic. In Jewish circles I find myself getting defensive. In Catholic circles I donâ€™t know how to explain my own take on Judaism. And when strangers hear me speak Spanish and then shout something in Hebrew three seconds later, I am met with baffled looks.
But Midwood means something else too. It means a ton of Honda OdysseyÂ minivans. Once, from my motherâ€™s house to our apartment three blocks away, I counted 11 parked Odyssey minivans. This is because the Jews, like the Mexicans, have big families and the Honda Odyssey seats eight. But, as a driver in New York, I hate being behind an Odyssey. Iâ€™m constantly making cracks about them. I can always see the TVÂ turned on in the back seat of an Odyssey. So many Odyssey minivan drivers drive too slow in themÂ because of all theÂ kids they have in the car. But, itâ€™s my own personal obnoxious joke that I canâ€™t stand the Honda Odyssey.
With that being said, as Iâ€™m in a small panic halfway from home and halfway from the library with the rain still pelting down, I see a blue Honda Odyssey turn the corner. A young woman in a traditional wig rolls down her window. â€śExcuse me!â€ť She shouts from her Odyssey, â€śDo you need a ride? I have three car seats in the car.â€ť I am wearing jeans (a clear sign I am not an Orthodox Jew, though I am a Jew, but she doesnâ€™t know this) and a shirt that has become so obviously see-through.
â€śAre you sure?â€ť I ask, hesitating as water drips down my face.
â€śYes!â€ť she says as she leaps out of her Odyssey with a purple umbrella decorated with dogs wearing tutus. She holds the umbrella over our heads as I get Helen out of the stroller. She then holds my daughter and puts her in the car seat. Helen starts to cry a little, but the woman is so gentle and I tell her not to be afraid. I throw the stroller in the trunk and get into the front seat. As soon as the woman closes the â€śdogs in tutuâ€ť umbrella she says, â€śIâ€™ve never picked up a stranger before! I just couldnâ€™t believe you were out here. I just dropped my kids off at camp and saw you. Where are you going?â€ť
I tell her that we are on the way to the library and I find out that she lives on that same block. She points to her house (which is directly across the street from one of my relatives’ apartment building) and on the porch are three mini beach chairs for each of her children. I thank her profusely and as I get Helen out of the car seat, the woman climbs into the trunk of her Odyssey and pulls a pink and white blanket from the back that says, â€śbaby.”
â€śPlease take this,â€ť she says, â€śI have six blankets in this car and the library is freezing.â€ť
This is when I take the opportunity to let her know in Hebrew that I am a Jew. Iâ€™m not sure why I do this. The entire ride, when I spoke to Helen, I spoke in Spanish. It was obvious to the woman that we were a different kind of family than the families usually seen walking through Midwood. But, religion, class or status didnâ€™t matter to this woman. So I said, â€śtodah rabahâ€ť (thank you, in Hebrew). â€śYou did a real mitzvahâ€ť (good deed).
But, to my surprise the woman wasnâ€™t shocked. Her mouth didnâ€™t drop open and she didnâ€™t shout, â€śOh my God youâ€™re Jewish!?!â€ť And that was a good lesson for me because her picking me up had nothing to do with my two faiths. She picked me up because she saw I needed help. She saw I was in a panic and she saw that, like herself, I am a mother. And being a mother has nothing to do with being a Jew or a Catholic and it has everything to do with being a Jew and a Catholic. Because two faiths, interfaith or one faith is about respect for the fellow man. And in a world that seems more chaotic every day, itâ€™s nice to know that as Anne Frank once wrote at the age of 13, â€śIn spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.â€ť Maybe Iâ€™ll stop being so judgmental about the Odyssey.
Insomnia. Itâ€™s awful and Iâ€™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, â€śWhat else can I eat?â€ť 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 elseâ€¦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 familyâ€™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 daughterâ€™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 â€śscience of the mind.â€ť 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. Iâ€™m part of an interfaith family! I can use a prayer, a word or even a saying. I choose something that Iâ€™ve been saying before bed since I was a little girl. â€śShema Yisrael,â€ť the prayer in Hebrew of â€śHear Oâ€™ Israel.â€ť 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 oâ€™clock in the morning Iâ€™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 canâ€™t fall asleep I sit upright in a chair, close my eyes and invoke Israelâ€™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 â€śShema,â€ť there is a Catholic prayer of St. Francis that I love which begins, â€śLord, make me an instrument of your peaceâ€¦â€ť 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 mindâ€™s eye. But, as soon as I close my eyes itâ€™s not Mother Teresa at all. Itâ€™s my Grandma Rosie and sheâ€™s holding a bowl of chicken soup. So I say, â€śGrandma, what are you doing here?â€ť She says, â€śI heard you couldnâ€™t sleep so I made you some soup.â€ť I laugh when I open my eyes.
The next night I make the family my Grandmotherâ€™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.
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 Jesusâ€™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 â€śPassover dishesâ€ť (because the holiday of Passover has its own dietary laws). This meant that my brother and I would have to carefully carry 10Â full cardboard boxes up from the basement. They contained pots, pans, plates, glasses and my grandmotherâ€™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 prophetÂ who makes his presence known in the middle of Passover dinner). One box contained breakfast tools; my Grandma Helenâ€™s eggbeater and my Grandma Rosieâ€™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.
â€śBaby Faceâ€ť 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 â€śCome Josephine in My Flying Machineâ€ť 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, â€śOh, say, let us fly girlâ€ť and I would say, â€śWhere dear?â€ť and Pop would smile and say â€śTo the sky dear,â€ť 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.
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 fatherâ€™s Aqua Velva after-shave and Marlboro Red tobacco. There was the smell of my motherâ€™s perfume, grassy and effortless, and the musky velvet of my brotherâ€™s yarmulke.
Then Passover would emerge. My cousins, my aunt and uncle, my grandmother and family friends would gather around my motherâ€™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, â€śAnd now Anna will say the four questions.â€ť 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. Elijahâ€™s cup is called the â€śsilent cupâ€ť and as a child I would open the door for Elijah and after I closedÂ itÂ 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 andÂ 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,Â 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 wasnâ€™t money.
â€śThis year,â€ť I began as my uncle sat quietly at the head of the table, â€śthis year I want something in return for the afikomen. But this year I donâ€™t want money. This year Uncle Jeff, I want your blessing. Iâ€™m pregnant and the baby is due in October and Iâ€™m so happy.â€ť
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 Arnoldâ€™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 fatherâ€™s and said, â€śMazal Tov kid. Congratulations.â€ť
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 motherâ€™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 Helenâ€™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 heâ€™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 heâ€™ll whisper â€śCome Josephine in My Flying Machineâ€ť into Helenâ€™s ear. After all, spring was always his favorite time of year and Passover his favorite holiday.