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!”

Now What?

  

Quinn at PassoverYou just spent several hours or days in the hospital giving birth to your child or, in our case, several months going through your whirlwind adoption. But the moment you have long awaited is here: You are finally home. You left the house as two, but returned with three. For those of us as first time parents, the panic and paranoia is just setting in. As you slowly learn how to care for the newest member of your family, you begin to contemplate the next stages of life. How will we raise them? Jewish? Catholic? Both? Neither?

Or maybe you’ve already contemplated these questions. Kimberly and I had this discussion long before that first moment of staring into our baby daughter’s big brown eyes. We thought it was important to talk openly about these topics early in our marriage. Too many people wait until game time to have the discussion and make decisions which can lead to poor decision making and being short sighted. Our wedding day was not about different religious upbringings, but was a celebration of love that including a “wink” to religious heritage. We were not married by a rabbi or priest. In fact, one of my best friends in the world got ordained and performed the ceremony that we wrote. It was special to have someone who truly knew and loved us both bring our marriage to fruition. At the end I stepped on the covered glass while everyone shouted, “Mazel Tov!”

So much like our marriage, we wanted our daughter to have some religious structure and affiliation in her life, but not necessarily be the driving factor that determined her day-to-day activities. We wanted to make sure our home was a healthy balance between knowing where you came from (even more important with adoption) and having different faiths represented.

One of the first religious rituals we experienced as parents was the naming ceremony of our daughter while observing a long standing tradition of choosing names that begin with the letter of a loved one no longer with us. Quinn’s Hebrew name is Pelia Davi (meaning beautiful gift). The “P” is for my grandmother, Paula, and the “D” is for Kimberly’s grandmother, Dominica—a blend of the old world and the new by bringing two different backgrounds together in the name of loving and caring for the next generation.

Since we were coming from different backgrounds and experiencing life with a Reform religious involvement, we wanted a celebration that similarly mirrored our life: one that was about the love for our new child with a nod to the Jewish heritage she would now be entering. The gathering was intentionally small and consisted of our parents, siblings and our twin niece and nephew. It was important to give Quinn a Hebrew name to follow tradition, honor loved ones and give her a Jewish identity when she is called to the bimah. While this was Quinn’s introduction into her newly minted life as a Maccabee, it was our first introduction as a family into a religious celebration that will set the tone for years to come.

Long ago, we decided that Quinn would be raised Jewish, but we would also continue to observe all holidays from our religious backgrounds. She will go to temple and eventually go on to become a bat mitzvah. When she is old enough she can decide for herself if we put her on the right path and will have the opportunity to choose otherwise.

My wife Kimberly didn’t stop being Catholic the day we got married or the day our daughter was born. That part of her life will never leave her whether she ever steps foot in a church again. She has so many fond memories of her childhood that centered around Catholic celebrations that we cannot ignore (nor should we ignore) them. Those experiences helped shape the person she is today and I wouldn’t change that for anything. She has happily chosen to raise our daughter as Jewish as we forge a new path for our family that represents a true blend. We want to provide a warm and loving home that celebrates her parents’ individuality. But those differences are what brings us together and keeps us together.

These decisions and discussions came relatively easy to us. We have an open, honest and loving relationship that allows us to tackle what seems like, at times, daunting tasks. If you are starting your marriage or just entering parenthood, this is an opportunity, not a roadblock. Talk to your spouse about what is important to you and keep an open mind. Be prepared to compromise and show empathy by putting yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if they said it was their way or nothing? That open dialogue will serve you well—not just today but throughout the rest of your marriage. Our daughter is a precious gift and we want to give her the gift of love in return. Our love for each other and for our daughter will always preside over any religious celebration.

How We Met…Our Baby

  

By Craig Cohen

Craig with his family

We each have our own story about when we saw, held or heard our children for the first time and we all arrived in those moments in different ways. I was born on Father’s Day in 1980 as the first child in my family, so it was only fitting that I became a father under similar circumstances. However, my road to fatherhood is somewhat more unique than the “traditional” path after several unsuccessful years of trying to start a family, and included a mad dash to the finish line.

As a proud member of an interfaith marriage, I was raised in a Reform Jewish home and my wife Kimberly went to Catholic school from kindergarten through college. As it turned out, the first Jewish person she befriended, she wound up marrying. After recently celebrating our eighth wedding anniversary this May, our views on starting a family and the religious structure in the home have held up through the years.

While our individual religious upbringings shaped us throughout our lives, it was and continues to be LOVE that blankets our home and builds our family. This marriage is a 50/50 partnership: Everyone is equal and no person or circumstance is more important than another. We have always celebrated both Jewish and Catholic holidays from Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah to Easter and Christmas, and our house is perpetually adorned with decorations for all seasons. It is important to us that we show our children (and the world) that we stand together committed to LOVE as the dominant component in our lives and that religion is a cultural component that helps us observe our heritage and remember the past.

After Kimberly and I tried to have a child both naturally and through several clinical procedures, she suggested we explore growing our family through adoption. But I didn’t know the first thing about adoption. So, the journey began much like any research starts today in the digital world, with a Google search for “adoption.”

We came across a local organization that advocates for adoption and they were providing an educational workshop in the coming days. After some hesitation, mostly on my part (this was a big step into uncharted waters), we attended the workshop and were blown away with the new world we uncovered. Within a couple days of leaving the workshop we knew this path was the one we belonged on. We found our adoption agency and started the lengthy process. Over the course of the following year, we received communication about potential birth moms but none of the opportunities panned out.

First picture of baby

The first photo Craig and Kimberly saw of their baby

On my 35th birthday, I was with my brother playing in a charity golf outing when I received a call early in the morning. “There is a healthy baby girl born a few days ago and the birth mom wants to meet you,” said the social worker on the other end of the line. My stomach dropped and my mind froze—you know that feeling you get when going down the big hill of a roller coaster? Yeah, that feeling…times 100. I called Kimberly and told her the amazing news and we set up a time and place to meet our potential birth mom later that week. Although this was the call we had been waiting to get for over a year, it still felt like we were not prepared to hear it.

We had a four-hour lunch with our birth mom after which she looked at her social worker and said, “Can I tell them?” With a quick nod from the social worker, she looked back at us and said, “I want you guys to be her parents!” The words we had longed to hear finally overwhelmed us and we all embraced in a tearful hug. After all the ups and downs, crying, heartache and disappointment, we had finally arrived. It was worth every second and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

Our daughter was brought into what is referred to as cradle care (temporary loving care between hospital and home by two of the kindest souls we have ever known) and we were able to visit with her as often as we wanted. I remember seeing her for the first time, holding her in my arms and looking at Kimberly. Nothing else in the world mattered at that moment: She was ours and we were a family, finally. The day before she was set to come home was, ironically, Father’s Day 2015. We spent the entire day with her as I celebrated my first Father’s Day as a new dad. What a special gift, both for us as a family and me for my first time on the other side of the equation.

Becoming a parent through the gift of adoption has enriched my life in more ways than I can recount. It is the ultimate endowment of selflessness and personal sacrifice on our birth mom’s part. It was not about the journey but the destination as our paths crossed in the end and she made the brave decision for our daughter to have the life she wanted, but could not provide. She put the needs of our daughter over those of her own. Kimberly, Quinn and I are forever grateful.

Over the last two years as I watched my daughter grow into a toddler, the time has flown. I often think about my first Father’s Day and the day we brought her home. We went from the phone call to her arrival in exactly seven days. The moments were so surreal, like I was watching a movie but this was my life. Together we decided that Quinn would be raised in a Jewish environment but always observe EVERY holiday. In a time when the world is so cruel and intolerant of different faiths, genders, cultural backgrounds and sexual orientation, it is important now more than ever to experience different aspects of life. She will know the stories and traditions of our ancestors as we light the Hanukkah menorah and read the four questions on Passover. She will know that while dad went to temple, mom had different experiences in her life and we celebrate those too when we gather for Easter dinner and open presents under our Christmas tree.

Our house and Quinn’s life will always be about love, trust and respect. Religion will be there to teach her history and provide cultural structure. A friend once told me that when your kids grow up, they don’t look back and say, “I wish I was a different religion or celebrated different holidays.” They look back and say, “I wish my parents got along better.” LOVE will forever bind us by how we became a family and the way in which we grow as a family. I am blessed to be married to the most kind, caring and loving woman in the world who is the most amazing mother I have ever known. I am blessed to be a father and my unique story of how we arrived here only makes it that much more special.

Happy Father’s Day to all the great dads who paved the road before and all the great dads who will surely come after.

Finding Shabbat When It Feels Like Shabbat is Nowhere to be Found

  

Woman having coffee and reading newspaper. Taking a quiet moment.

In a class I teach to engaged and recently married young couples, I talk about the importance of finding time to recharge, refresh and reconnect with one another. We discuss this not in the context of “date night,” but rather in the context of Shabbat.

I like to point out that Shabbat is a state of mind, as much as it is a ritual. While the rituals of going to services or having Shabbat dinner at home can help us achieve Shabbat’s goals of rest, relaxation, and mindful connection, our lives don’t always lend themselves to Shabbat’s prescribed timetable or observances. Especially for families and parents, finding Shabbat during Shabbat can be hard.

Two weeks ago, I planned to take a little time for myself on a Shabbat afternoon. I was looking forward to practicing yoga and then treating myself to a facial at a local spa. My family’s spring schedule had been crazy, and I thought I had picked a time when things were beginning to wind down as the school year neared its end. I dropped my son at water polo practice and drove to my yoga class. My son was going with a friend to watch the varsity team from his school play in the state water polo tournament after practice, so I had several hours free to indulge in some relaxation.

As I laid down on my yoga mat and closed my eyes, my Apple watch started to vibrate on my wrist. I opened my eyes to see who was calling me. I hoped I could dismiss the call. It was the mom who was taking my son to the water polo tournament. I got up, walked out of the studio, and took the call. The parent said everything was OK; she was just picking up lunch for the boys and wanted to find out if my son liked his bread toasted and the sandwich heated. I said he would eat it either way and she should get what was easiest.

I hung up and went back to my mat. About 25 minutes later as I was finally mentally focused on my practice, my watch vibrated again. A text from my son appeared, “We’re up 3-1.” For the remainder of the class, game updates repeatedly distracted me.

I left class hopeful that my spa time would help me find that Shabbat feeling. As I was changing into my robe before my treatment, I received a text from my friend with an update on when she and the boys would return from the game. “I think we should be back at my house by 2 p.m. depending on the end of the last afternoon game. I will text when we are on the way.” Yikes! My appointment would not end until 2 p.m.

Knowing that I might be late to pick up my son occupied my thoughts during the facial. Rather than relaxing during my treatment, I kept thinking, “Hurry up!” and “Are we almost done?” When the facial ended and I returned to the locker room to change, I had 32 new texts. Texts from my friend and other parents about pickup logistics. Texts from my son with game updates. A text from another parent from my son’s team asking if I, as the team parent for the sixth-grade team, could send out an email sharing the news that the varsity team made the finals and would be playing at 6 p.m. for the championship and encouraging the younger boys to attend. I took a deep breath and…laughed. My plan to find Shabbat was foiled. On this Saturday, Shabbat was nowhere to be found.

For parents, the logistical responsibilities of parenthood can make finding Shabbat impossible sometimes. It’s because Shabbat can be so elusive, especially once you become a parent, that I teach my young couples that sometimes you must expand your idea of what Shabbat is and when it happens. If they get in the practice of identifying Shabbat moments pre-children, hopefully, they will have an easier time savoring them once they enter the craziness of parenthood.

A Shabbat moment can be a peaceful walk with your dog in the morning before work. It can be an enjoyable family dinner on a Sunday night that has no distractions. It can be a Thursday morning yoga class. It can be a morning cup of coffee sipped slowly while reading the paper.

That’s how I found Shabbat on Friday morning. School ended on Thursday so I didn’t need to rush out of the house to get my son to school and I could go into work a little later. I stood at the island in my kitchen sipping a cup of coffee as I finished reading several sections of the previous Sunday’s New York Times. As I drank my Joe, I savored the flavor and the time, 7:30 a.m. Usually, I was gulping my coffee as I wove through traffic to get my son to school by 7:45. But this morning, I could drink my coffee and read in a quiet house. I took a deep breath and smiled. A little Shabbat to start my day.

The Religious Identity of an Interfaith Home is a Journey, Not a Destination

  

Religious Identity is a Journey. Mother and three kids hiking through a dense forest. Kids are aged 6 and 10.

Up until recently, I thought the hardest part of navigating life as an interfaith family was determining the religious identity of the home. After all, that’s where 99.9 percent of the angst within the Jewish community lies and therefore, almost 100 percent of the community’s engagement efforts are focused. The idea that many in the Jewish community adhere to is to get couples to a decision point, and hopefully, have them choose Judaism, and then nurture the Jewish choices of couples in a way that helps them to create a “Jewish home.”

But in my recent experience working with other interfaith families in my community of Dallas, I’ve realized that our intense focus on the religious choices of young couples and families has us all but ignoring the challenges and struggles of older couples and families. Especially for the couples that have actively chosen to the be part of the Jewish community, raise Jewish children and/or affiliate with a synagogue or other Jewish spiritual group such as a minyan, we figure that they’ve got this. The religion decision has been made; the family is Jewishly active; our work is done. Not so much.

For my husband and me, our son’s upcoming bar mitzvah has suddenly brought up big religious questions that have, at times, left me feeling a similar uncertainty I experienced in the early part of our relationship. In the months since I wrote about this somewhat surprising experience in my blog post, I’ve made peace with the uncertainty because we’ve seemed to have settled some of the questions. My husband will not convert before the big day and to date, feels 100 percent included in the process. How he will feel the day of the event or post-ceremony is impossible to predict, but I look forward to hearing what he expresses.

We’ve navigated the disquiet on our own. I’ve occasionally mentioned my uneasiness or questions to a close friend, but have otherwise not spoken to anyone about it. I know that I could have raised the issues with a clergy member at my synagogue or the rabbi officiating at my son’s bar mitzvah, but I haven’t felt like we needed professional guidance. However, I have been thinking about how nice it might have been to have a forum to share our questions and experiences with other interfaith couples in the same life stage as us and hear from intermarried couples who recently celebrated a b’nai mitzvah, about their experiences. Essentially, I’d like to know if is this uncertainty is unique to my relationship or if other couples like my husband and me have had similar questions.

I’ve also had my eyes opened to the lack of professional support for older couples and families. I serve as the engagement director at my synagogue where I work with the interfaith dating and interfaith married couples. I recently organized a panel discussion for interfaith couples that are struggling with the religion decision. It consisted of two newly married couples who worked through the issue of religion in the home and a couple with elementary and middle school age children who have also worked through challenges of religious identity. The program was well attended by the target audience—dating, engaged or married young adult couples.

There were also several empty nesters. I wondered what these partners, who raised Jewish children in the context of an interfaith home, were doing at the program. They had Jewishly identifying college students or adult kids. They could be on the panel.

As I listened to the discussion during the question and answer period, I heard two of the empty nest couples say, “Just because you make a decision doesn’t mean that religious issues go away. The issues just change.” I thought, “Of course, they do.” I wrote about how dynamic the religious life of an interfaith family is in my book From Generation to Generation, pointing out that religious identity is often referred to as a journey for a reason—because it evolves as we age and move through different stages of life. How did I forget my words?

One couple shared that they are thinking about religion in the context of end-of-life issues. Another partner, a dedicated synagogue volunteer, mentioned that she is reconnecting with her Christianity now that one son is in college and the other has graduated, and she is struggling with how to incorporate her renewed interest in her faith into her marriage and Jewish family. A man admitted that, after 30 years of marriage and synagogue membership, he and his wife from another background “still haven’t figured it out.” Everyone said that they would appreciate a group for couples like themselves to talk about the religious issues that they are navigating in their lives.

For me, their request was a call to action. I’m now helping these partners form a small group. I’m in the process of reaching out to over 100 other interfaith couples in our congregation who are in a similar life stage to see if they are experiencing these challenges and if they would be interested in being part of a small group with their peers who are navigating a similar road.

My personal experiences have always been my best material for writing and supporting other interfaith couples and families. Based on my need for community right now, I’m already thinking about how my congregation can create a forum for interfaith couples navigating the b’nai mitzvah cycle to connect with each other, discuss issues and find support through shared experience.

Focusing on young couples and families, and the choice of a religious identity for a home are absolutely critical for facilitating healthy religious discussions and engaging those who are intermarried in Jewish life. But we can’t be myopic and assume that once an interfaith couple makes a religion decision that our work is done. We must provide support for our couples, families and children through the various stages of life, just as we do for those who are intermarried because the religious identity of a home is a journey, not a destination.

The Kids’ Table

  

Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday because it is mostly about storytelling. Every year, my family sits around the Passover table and tells the story of how the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt by blindly following Moses across the Red Sea. The story is about freedom, faith and most of all, food. We eat matzah (unleavened bread) to symbolize the unleavened bread the Jews took with them on their long journey through the desert. We clean our houses and get rid of every last trace of bread. Then, my mother calls me 68 times about the Passover menu. In my head, I picture all the Jewish mothers in Egypt during Moses’ time asking, “Chicken, brisket or both?” But what I’ve always loved the most about Passover at my mother’s house was the kids’ table. It is the table I was always a part of until only recently. Now, there’s a new kids’ table and its guests include my daughter Helen and her two cousins (my brother’s boys), Jacob and Nathan.

I didn’t realize this phenomenon about the kids’ table until I brought over my half of the Passover menu in aluminum pans an hour before the seder. Adrian, my significant other who grew up in Mexico as a Catholic, pointed it out when he carried our daughter into my mother’s house. “My Mom used to do that at Christmas,” Adrian remarked when he saw one long table in my mother’s living room and the mini table at the end set with three kiddie plastic plates and spoons. Adrian comes from a family of seven kids and he loved my mother’s rendition of a kid’s table, which made him nostalgic. His family is scattered across the globe and his one dream is to have everyone go back to Mexico to sit at his mother’s table on a big Catholic holiday. But this year, Adrian was part of the Passover festivities even though he couldn’t totally grasp matzah.

“It tastes like paper,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied, “that’s the point. We suffered in Egypt and then we suffered with matzah.”

The kids’ table signified so much to me this year. For the first time in maybe 50 years, my uncle missed the Passover seder because he’s sick and my aunt couldn’t come either. My cousins were also absent. Usually, our Passover table is set for 15-18 people, but this year, it dwindled down to seven adults and three kids. This made me afraid because my brother was in charge of running the seder and I was in charge of half the cooking—it made me realize that the original Passover kids’ table was now the adults’ table.

My mother is getting older and I am trying to balance old traditions with new interfaith beliefs. Adrian and I are trying to show Helen that two cultures and two faiths can coexist and we are trying to do this by example. But sometimes, I still feel like a kid. Sometimes we don’t have all the answers and there are times that even when I make 22 chicken legs, the guests only eat the brisket. “I told you so,” I hear my Jewish ancestors whisper.

My nephews, who are twin boys, came in like a hurricane. They love Helen and arrived shouting “Helen, Helen, Helen!” When they saw my mother, who always brings them the challah bread and chicken noodle soup, they began to shout, “Challah, challah, challah!” But on Passover, we can’t eat challah or noodle soup, so they learned instead to shout, “Matzah, matzah, matzah!” And then continued with, “Adi! Adi! Adi!” for Adrian, their favorite uncle.

I marveled at the kids’ table for its differences and its similarities. This year, as my nephews speak English, Helen answers in Spanish. “No se,” she says, which means, “I don’t know,” and the boys laugh. But they look just as my brother and I had once looked. The only difference is that this Passover, like all future Passovers, there will be room for more than one faith. Adrian sits at the table and is reminded of Catholic holidays in Mexico, I sit at the table and am reminded of my father and how he, too, loved a good story.

The traditional Jewish four questions, to be asked by the youngest child at the table, are sung by everyone, in Hebrew. “Why is this night different from any other night?” begin the questions. I laugh because I want to look up at God and say, “Seriously?” But instead, I think of a proverb appropriate for this Passover from the New Testament: “Get rid of the old leaven of sin so that you may be a new batch of dough – as you really are.” (Bible, I Corinthians 5:7) This quote gives me hope for the future and urges me to shed my old skin and step into my new real one of woman, mother and two-faith-household-builder.

Starting Religious School and Keeping Promises

  

In my previous blog post, I wrote about why choosing love did not mean choosing conversion for me; but for us, choosing love also meant choosing to raise our children Jewish. We didn’t know, initially, what that would look like, especially since we knew (well, I knew) that I wanted to keep celebrating Christmas. (According to my spouse, this makes my children interfaith by default, even if we tell them that they are Jewish.)

Right around the time when bomb threats to JCCs started becoming more frequent, we enrolled our 3-year-old and 7-year-old in Jewish religious school. We chose a wonderful synagogue whose children’s programs we already enjoy, and whose building doubles as my youngest’s non-religious preschool during the week. The thought that she could be evacuated for a bomb or some other emergency is on my mind every time I read of yet another wave of threats.

Our timing for enrolling them has everything to do with identity and with the current political climate of communities under threat. In order to know where you’re going—what choices you’ll make, what values will ground your actions, the ways you will choose to fight for those values in the world we live in—you need to know who you are. This is true for both adults and children, albeit in different ways. For myself, my desire to stand against religious bigotry means emphasizing the voices of light and love closer to the tradition which raised me. For my children, and for my husband and I on their behalf, that means finally making good on the promises my spouse and I made to each other: to raise them Jewish.

We’ve dabbled in and out of what that means, but with the kids asking to come to church with me, Jewish cemeteries being desecrated and JCCs receiving repeated bomb threats, I finally told my husband that the time had come to stop beating around the bush and enroll them in Jewish religious education. (He might remember the exact order of events differently, and that’s OK.)

We had resisted putting our kids into Jewish religious education. It costs money, which is admittedly no small stumbling block. It’s tough to add one more commitment to a weekend already studded with lessons, activities and play dates.

Our daughters have been attending for about a month, and so far, they love it. It’s amazing what starts to happen when you combine eager, interested children with access to friendly, open education that touches their minds and their spirits.

The school meets on Sunday mornings for two hours and what my kids learn there pepper their play and their song outside of the synagogue. My eldest, 7, has the tune of “Ma Tovu” down pat, but chooses to sing it in the child-friendly rhyme the cantor created for the children’s service during the morning. The mnemonic seems to work, if one doesn’t mind one’s child singing (to the tune of “Rose, Rose, Will I ever see thee wed?”), “My toe’s blue / Dropped a hammer on my shoe”  as a way of working toward “Ma Tovu.”

Every week approximately 50 children, ranging from preschoolers to teenagers, gather to sing, pray and learn. The morning begins with a service in the main sanctuary with kids sprawled throughout. Some parents drop their kids off and go run errands; a few sit with their children for the Sunday morning havdalah service that closes Shabbat (a few hours late, but no one is counting).

A young girl, maybe a young teenager, passes out spice jars full of sweet-smelling cinnamon sticks. A dad, whom my husband tells me is converting to Judaism and learning along with his children, carries the havdalah candle around the synagogue. His face is alight and alive with joy. I think back to my recent blog post and feel a pang of some complicated emotion I can’t quite name.

As the dad walks around the sanctuary, all the children stretch their fingers out to the candle as the light reflects off their fingernails. It’s clear that many of them have seen plenty of movies where powerful superheroes or evil emperors wiggle their fingers and power shoots out of their hands. Here it’s the opposite. We wiggle our fingers and bring the empowered peace of Shabbat back into ourselves to carry into the coming week.

After their morning lessons, the kids return to the sanctuary for abbreviated, child-friendly morning prayers. My husband and I peek in the doors. Our daughters are sharing a chair up front. The cantor asks the kids what they are thankful for. “Sisters!” calls out my older daughter; “Owls,” her sister says. No mater the complexities, I’m glad to be there, with my kids and my spouse, singing hymns and choosing love.

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.

Make the Most of this Valentine’s Day

  

Valentine's giftsI have not posted here in a little while. In part, because the business of life has caught up with me, and, in part, because in the midst of huge changes in this country, inspiration is not coming as quickly. But I can’t miss a chance to embrace this Valentine’s Day.  

You may call it a Hallmark holiday, or a day reserved for lovebirds, but as you may have read before, I disagree. Valentine’s Day is a day you can chose to dread or relish, or anything in-between. This year, as February 14 approaches I am hoping we can use it as a reminder that we all can actively #ChooseLove, and see if we can find some joy and maybe even understanding.

Remember when you were in elementary school, and had to spend all afternoon the day before Valentine’s Day making sure you had a card for every other kid in your class? Or remember last year, when you stayed up late finishing your child’s class cards? The Valentine’s Day of early childhood isn’t just about your romantic partner, it’s about your friends (and maybe some kids who aren’t really friends at all). It might be about buying things–cards, stickers, candy–but it is also about performing a gesture of caring for the people around you.

We are living in a time of tremendous divides in our country and our communities. Be it politics, faith, country of origin or some other line that separates one from another, this is a great time to #ChooseLove. You can choose whatever you want for your February 14: a hot date with your partner, a boycott of the Hallmark store, a giant candy heart to share or not to share, but I’d encourage you to think of it as a chance to try to see your friends, neighbors, colleagues or the strangers in your life with love.  

Just like writing Valentine’s cards for your classmates, it is easier to do this for some people than others. But I believe that the act of trying to extend love can bring us closer together, or, at the very least, warm our hearts just a bit more than the day before Valentine’s or the day after. So will you try it with me?  

My Daughter Is Super Proud of Her Jewish Identity & It’s Amazing to Watch

  

By Lindsey Goldstein

happy child

The other day my daughter said to me, “Mommy, you’re not the most special person in this family.” It was a pointed remark, out of nowhere.

I raised an eyebrow and said, “Is that so? Then who is?” Of course, I already knew the answer.

“Well, I am. You see, none of the rest of you daven [pray].” Without even a hint of humor she continued, “None of you know Hashem the way I do. I daven every day.” I tried very hard not to laugh because I could see she was being very serious and knew my laughter might hurt her feelings.

I was raised in a Reform Jewish family, going to synagogue twice a year on the High Holidays. We observed Passover with a seder at home. Initially, we celebrated Hanukkah until one day, when I was about 5 or 6, my mom asked me if I would rather get eight gifts once a year or gifts all year-round. Since that was a no brainer, Hanukkah morphed into just lighting the candles to observe and maybe making latkes. As an adult, I didn’t do anything to celebrate the holiday. That is, until we started having children.

My husband was raised Catholic, and I mean very Catholic. Mass was mandatory seven days a week in his household. Nowadays he observes nothing. Catholicism overload soured him on it, and he hasn’t expressed much interest in religion of any other kind. When we decided to get married, we talked about how we would raise our kids. My husband seemed skittish about flat-out raising our kids as Jews, but he admitted that “since they come out of you, doesn’t that make them Jewish by default?” We agreed that that’s Jewish law, but I have felt as though “by default” is what we’ve deferred to.

That is, until we decided to send our daughter to a Jewish preschool and kindergarten. It’s Chabad-affiliated, so Judaic studies are part of their everyday teaching. Now that my daughter’s in kindergarten, they study the Torah for an hour a day. The result? She has become a bit of a super Jew.

I have gotten used to conversations such as the following:

My daughter: “Mommy, who’s Elvis Presley?”

Me: “Oh, just the King of Rock and Roll.”

My daughter (with an admonishing tone): “Mommy. There’s only one King: Hashem.”

Once in a while, my husband seems nervous that he’s the odd man out. But I assure him that a lot of the knowledge she possesses far surpasses mine as well. I consider her a refresher course for me since she comes home from school on a regular basis and lectures me about the meaning of Purim or the true reason we celebrate Hanukkah, things I’d long forgotten about.

Lately, she lives by some sort of code of ethics that she believes will ensure her a place “in the new world.” I find it a bit worrying that she gives death any thought, but she tells me that as long as Hashem is happy with her, she’ll be able to advance to the new world. What is this new world? No idea. I think she’s referring to when the Messiah comes and carts us all off to Eden or something like that. See? I’m not the one with the vast knowledge of Hashem’s wheeling and dealing. When my beloved dog passed away recently, my daughter patted me on the back and said, “I know you’re sad, Mommy. But don’t worry. I’m sure Hashem will bring Zooey to the new world. You’ll see her again.”

Admittedly, I’ve used my daughter’s relationship with Hashem to my advantage a time or two. If she misbehaves or whines, I have asked her if she thinks Hashem would approve of her behavior. Maybe not the best parenting tactic, but she will stop and think about it, so maybe not all bad?

The other day my husband asked me, “Do you think Lilah is taking this Hashem thing too far?” And the answer is that her devotion makes me proud. I like hearing her identify herself as a Jew. At the very least, she will have some sort of a foundation of Judaism going forward that I may not have been able to provide for her due to my lack of Jewish knowledge. And I also think she’s 5 and deeply impressionable. I related an anecdote to my husband to give him some context for her obsession with Hashem.

When I was slightly older than Lilah, I was obsessed with Adam Ant. He was my Hashem. I told everyone I’d marry him when I grew up. I listened to his music every day on cassette tapes, wore t-shirts with his image emblazoned across, and hung posters of him on my walls. My brother made me a 20- dollar bet that my feelings for Mr. Ant would change in time. By the following year the posters of Adam Ant were replaced with posters of Patrick Swayze. And I was 20 dollars poorer.

And though I love the fact that right now, my daughter is in love with her Jewishness, I don’t know what her future holds. For now, I am tickled by the fact that when she thought I wasn’t listening, she was consoling her sobbing 1-year-old brother with the following utterance: “You don’t have to cry. Don’t worry. You’re a Jew, too.

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

headshotWhen Lindsey Goldstein is not kvelling about her daughter, she writes essays, works on a YA novel, and is a physical therapist and a mother of two kids. She lives in Redondo Beach CA.