Blessing

In Hebrew, a blessing is a Brachah.  We say a Brachah before we light Shabbat candles, and before we eat or drink anything.  There is a Brachah for when we see a rainbow, hear thunder or smell something particularly delicious to the senses.  We even say a Brachah after using the bathroom.

What is the point of the Brachah or blessing, anyway?  The first word in a Bracha, Baruch, is related to Brechah, or spring (as in water source).  By saying a Brachah, we acknowledge that G-d is the source of everything in our lives.  It’s a way of saying thank you.

Every night at bedtime, part of the routine with my son is to pray for the people we care about.  The last part of the prayer is to tell G-d we’re thankful.  I say thank you for all of our live’s “Blessings”, whether it’s an invitation for a Shabbat meal, some hand me downs from a friend or the opportunity to do a Mitzvah.  One day soon, my son will add to our list.

This post is part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.

Cleaning

Passover requires an intense amount of cleaning.  I have read numerous articles about how it really should only take a few hours of cleaning.  Dirt isn’t Chametz.

Chametz can make it’s way around the house though.  The office is upstairs, a plate of crackers and a coffee while working on the computer.  A snack downstairs while watching a little TV.  The living room is connected to both the dining room and the kitchen.

I also have a very cute, very adorable little 18 month old son, who manages to get food every where.  He munches on a cracker and sets it down for later.  He finds it and then mashes it up (sound familiar?)

I need many hours to clean the house of Chametz because there are so many areas to clean.  I also have the regular every day stuff to do too.  It isn’t like life gets put on hold while Passover cleaning takes place.  There are dinners to make, laundry to clean and put away, bathrooms sadly, do not clean themselves.

I used to do a full on Spring cleaning when I did my Passover cleaning.  It just seemed to make sense.  That was B.K.  Before Kids.  Now that I have my adorable son, I’ve limited the cleaning to actual Chametz only.  But it still takes me a few weeks, working a few hours hear and there, until it’s all done.

How do you plan the Chametz Detox in your house?  How long does it take?

This post is part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.

Purim, Revealing the Hidden

One of the themes of Purim has to do with the hidden becoming revealed.  Esther hid her identity as a Jew within Achashverosh’s castle.  When the time was right not only did she reveal her true self, but she revealed Haman’s evil plot to destroy the Jews.  All the coincidences within the story of Esther all come together in the end and reveal a rich and interesting story.  G-d’s name is not mentioned at all in the Megillah (Scroll) of Esther, but is hidden within Esther’s name itself, which means Hidden.

My husband and I celebrated Purim with a local Jewish organization.  I dressed up as Time Flies (I had wings and clocks) and my husband dressed up as Father Time.  Father Time was a priest with clock picture on his chest.  We felt this was funny on a few levels, since my husband isn’t Jewish.  I think he appreciated being dressed up as a character that is distinctly not Jewish.  He could be his non-Jewish self openly when all through the year he feels like he has to downplay and maybe hide the fact he isn’t Jewish.

We had agreed that our son would be raised in an entirely Jewish environment and my husband isn’t/wasn’t very religious so it didn’t seem like a big deal.  It does mean though that he gets submerged and swallowed with Jewishness.  Kosher food, Shabbat meals, Jewish holidays… he’s surrounded all the time.

We celebrate Purim by hiding behind masks and pretending to be what we aren’t (or briefly live a fantasy of who we would like to be), just as Esther pretended she wasn’t Jewish.  My husband got to enjoy the party being openly non-Jewish.

I Don’t Like Purim

My first exposure to Purim came when my husband and I brought our then two year old daughter to the synagogue he attended through his childhood.  I had her dressed as a fairy, and she was so stinking cute, waving her little wand and clutching her tiara.  The rabbi jumped out from behind something and roared at her – he was dressed in a giant gorilla costume.  He was delighted and happy, everyone laughed.  My toddler was distinctly not amused, she was terrified.  I was even less amused – I was just furious.

Fast forward a few years, and Purim didn’t really get any better.  When my second child was born, Purim was a disaster.  He wasn’t a fan of crowds anyway, and taking him to the Megillah reading, with all the noisemakers – he screamed louder than any of them.  I’d pull him out of the service, but we could still hear the loud noisemakers and every time Haman’s name was read, not only would his name be drowned out, the noise of the noisemakers was drowned out as well, by the hysterical sobbing of a terrified boy.

The more I read about the Purim story, the less impressed I was.  Queen Esther seems to be held up as a pinnacle of bravery.  But she really didn’t do much more than be pretty and do as she was told.  On the upside, discussion of it did inspire a lot of conversation around here about the role of women and generations of learned Torah scholars interpreting the story to highlight the qualities that were most conducive to keeping women in a submissive position in society.  Esther was the king’s wife, not because she was smart or brave, but because she was beautiful.  And she saved the Jewish people not because she knew it had to be done, not because she independently made the decision to risk her own safety by appearing before the king without being summoned, but because she listened to the male head of her family and did as she was told.

And I don’t like hamentaschen.  Prune filled cookies are confusing to me, I’d much rather a nice chocolate chip cookie :-)

Bat Mitzvah

I get weekly emails from my synagogue, and, a few weeks ago, I noticed that there was a little paragraph tucked in between notices from the Sisterhood and requests for coat donations.  A bar/bat mitzvah meeting for parents of kids fourth thru sixth grade. It took me a minute, but I realized quickly that it meant me.  My daughter is in fourth grade.  It’s that time already?  Really?  Wasn’t it a week ago that I was pregnant with her and couldn’t fathom how she’d be able to have any kind of clear religious identity with a Jewish father and me?    Wasn’t it just the other day that I realized that while she was self identifying as Jewish the way she considered herself Irish but because I hadn’t converted, according to our synagogue, technically, she wasn’t Jewish? I didn’t think she’d really remember the mikveh, she was only five or six, but I remember it so vividly.  And suddenly – we’re there already.  A bat mitzvah.

And the more I thought about it, the more emotional I got.  Which isn’t surprising, I cry at pretty much every milestone.  Dance recitals, preschool graduations, her first real report card.  But a bat mitzvah seems like it’s so important.  Not only because she’s the first in my husband’s family, of her generation, to read from the Torah.  Not only because my family will come, of course they’ll come, but won’t have the foggiest idea what we’ll be doing.  But also because the bat mitzvah has so much meaning attached to it.  It’s coming right when I’m starting to realize that this baby girl, this tiny little baby of mine isn’t always going to be mine.  She’s her own person – and that’s terrifying and wonderful and, yeah, I’m welling up with tears as I’m writing.  I’m going to be in so much trouble with this…

That’s what the bat mitzvah is – it’s a public acknowledgement that we’re Jewish, and that Jessica is Jewish.  That she’s responsible for herself now, that she’s going to take ownership of her own religious identity in a way that I’ve been worrying about since before she was born.  What will her religious identity be?  She’s Jewish, yes, but not only Jewish.  She’s inherited a rich family tradition dating back thousands of years.  She’s also the product of my side of the family, a family filled with people who have no strong tie to any organized religion but a very strong and heartfelt connection to God.

She’s all intellectual questioning rules and ritual on the one hand, and on the other, she’s got a sincere and absolute relationship with God that, as far as I can see, she’s never doubted.  She blends both of us, the Jewish side from her father, and the spiritual intensity from me.  She’s got an extra dash of drama and wonder and intensity that’s all her own.  And it makes me cry.   I’m not sure if I’m crying because I’m grieving the loss of the little girl who’s growing up so fast, or if I’m crying because I’m so incredibly proud of the woman she’ll be.

When she was born, my husband picked out her Hebrew name.  It means “beautiful celebration.”   That’s what she’s always been for us, a celebration of love and life and so much joy.  And on her bat mitzvah, she’ll stand in front of our friends and family, and she’ll read from the Torah.  She’ll be exactly who she is.  And that’s amazing to me.

Why I still celebrate Christmas

I’m Jewish, and pretty happy about it.  I converted about four years ago, with our oldest two children.  But, yeah, I still celebrate Christmas.  I don’t celebrate it as the birth of Christ, but it’s still a tremendously meaningful and important holiday for me.  I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite holiday of the year – there’s too much other stress going on for that.  December is decidedly a challenging month for my husband and I.  Between the number of Jewish people who write articles that I can’t stop myself from reading that assure me that a tree has no place in a Jewish home, and worrying about whether or not people are judging me for putting up the tree anyway.  It’s celebrating a holiday that while it has never been particularly Christian to me – it is a Christian holiday to many people.  And either way, it is most definitely not Jewish.  It’s a hard month for my husband, who didn’t grow up  celebrating Christmas, but not celebrating it is almost a part of his Jewish identity – so it’s never an easy time of year.

But celebrate it we do, enthusiastically.  I’ve got stocking hung by the chimney with care, and a tree that’s lopsided, with way too many lights on it, and ornaments that are well loved and not particularly coordinated.  I’ve got pictures of all of my babies with Santa Claus, and tinsel and candy canes EVERYWHERE.  So why do I celebrate?  Why do I insist on participating in holiday that everyone keeps telling me is all about rampant consumerism and materialism?  If I strip away the Christian connotations to it, what exactly is Christmas all about?  And why exactly do I insist every year that we celebrate it?

I celebrate it because it’s wrapped up in some of my favorite memories from my childhood.  Caroling with my cousins, singing songs to my sister at night before we fell asleep.  Every Christmas Eve, my little sister would beg to sleep in my bed with me, and I’d tell her stories about Santa and swear that I could see Rudolph’s nose in the sky.  Baking Christmas cookies with my baby cousins, and taking my nieces and nephews out at night to look for the prettiest Christmas lights.  My mother has this one song – Mary’s Boy Child, and it’s this odd sort of Jamaican Christmas carol, and every time it comes on the radio, she’d turn it up as loud as it could go and rock out.  My mother doesn’t rock out as a rule, and watching her chair dance in the car while we drove anywhere in December was (and is) kind of awesome.

I celebrate it because I love the anticipation of Christmas Day.  I love that my kids talk about Santa Claus (despite the fact that both the older ones know it’s just a myth).  When I was a kid, I loved that sense, all month long, that we were building up to this one day when magically, just because, we’d wake up and find that someone had brought us presents, just because.  It’s not about the gifts, exactly.  Looking back, I don’t remember any specific Christmas gift that I ever got that made a huge impression.  What I remember is the magic, the excitement and the joy of it all.  I want that for my kids.

I celebrate it because I’m still my mother’s daughter.  And I’m raising her grandchildren.  Having a child convert to a different religion isn’t easy, and my mother supported me and stood beside me every step of the way.  I’ve never doubted her love or commitment, and I can’t imagine how hurt and disappointed she’d be if I didn’t give my kids the same opportunity to love Christmas as she gave me.  I won’t do that to her.  I won’t do that to her grandchildren.  It’s not that she wants them to not be Jewish, she loves listening to my two year old lisp out the Shabbat blessings, and makes sure that she’s a part of our holiday traditions as well.  She just wants to know that my family still a part of her family, celebrating her favorite holidays and traditions.  Like sleeping over at Grammy’s house on the night before Thanksgiving, and trekking up to Maine every year to camp at Hermit Island – celebrating Christmas, for my mother, is about spending time with her kids, and her grandchildren.  Passing along those traditions.  I’m not willing to tell them that it’s not their holiday just because they’re Jewish.  Yes, my children are observant Jewish kids but they’re also a part of my extended non-Jewish family as well.  Christmas is part of what they inherit from my side of the family, along with a crappy sense of direction and a gift for sarcasm.

I celebrate it because I believe in peace on earth and goodwill towards men.  And having a day to celebrate that is lovely to me.  I celebrate it because I feel a little closer to everyone else on earth during this time of year – it seems to me that it’s the one time when we all try a little harder to be nicer, a little harder to appreciate the blessings we have.   We don’t always succeed, and we aren’t all on the same page, but I sincerely think that the world is an amazing and beautiful and blessed place.  On Christmas, I think we all feel that way.

It’s not about the shopping or the wrapping or the stress.  And for me, it’s not about celebrating the birth of the Messiah.  It’s about joy and peace – it’s closer to a celebration that we’re coming into the light.  It’s no accident that the Solstice is on the twenty-first – we are literally getting a little more light, just a bit, every day.  I think it’s also an important theme of Hanukkah, that each night, we light just one more candle.  I think that’s worth celebrating.  I think having a day to stop and just celebrate the magic, celebrate the beauty of family and friends, to eat candy canes and drink eggnog, to watch your kids open presents and be absolutely delighted is awesome.  Christmas isn’t perfect, and it’s nowhere near as simple and as easy as it used to be for me, but it’s still an integral part of my year.  And my life.  I don’t want to miss it.  Being Jewish has added so much to my life, so much meaning and resonance, it’s given my kids a framework to build a spiritual life upon.  It’s given me Shabbat dinner, and Passover Seders and a community that I love.  But I still love Christmas.

Introduction

My name is Melissa, and I’m absolutely thrilled to be contributing to the InterfaithFamily parenting blog.  This is my tenth Christmas/Hanukkah season with Marc, and I find that as it approaches, it’s the first one that I’m relaxed and happy about in a long time.  I grew up in a distinctly non-Jewish household, we were nominally Catholic and probably closer to a New Age Pagan sort of belief system.  My husband Marc was literally the first Jewish person I’d ever met.  I converted to Judaism four years ago.  At that point, Marc and I had been married for seven years.  My oldest two children, Jessica (9) and Sam (6), went to the mikveh with me, and Julianna, my baby, was born two and half years ago.  Even though we’re officially not an interfaith family, we still sometimes struggle with a lot of cultural issues, as we’re both coming from such completely different backgrounds.

We celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, and I’m perfectly content about it, for the first time in years.  We also do Easter/Passover, but somehow, that’s never really been an issue.  Passover is a much more significant event – Easter is reduced to nothing more than a fun party at Grammy’s house.

But in years past, I’ve really agonized over what we do in December.  Marc and I were always guaranteed at least one killer battle, whereupon we would argue and debate and theorize for hours over whether or not he was celebrating Christmas with the “right” frame of mind (I never thought he was, he – correctly, I now realize – is entitled to be angst ridden in his own way, as long as we are unified as a family).  The most important thing for me is that we do it together.   We’re Jewish together, as a family, we celebrate Christmas together, as a family.

Christmas was, for me, a way of asserting my own impact on the kids.  A way to say to them that yes, we’re Jewish, but that’s not all that we are, and you don’t have to lose out on my traditions because of it.  It was an identity thing for me.  I wanted desperately for Judaism to be an addition to my life, to their life.  Not to have it represent loss.

Because we are Jewish – and I love that.  I feel at home with Judaic spirituality, it makes utter and complete sense to me.  I love Shabbat, I love the holidays and the everyday holiness.  I love the blessings over tiny events, and the sense of appreciation and gratitude.  I love the community.  I really love the community.  I love that my kids are so welcomed and adored and comfortable at the synagogue.

But I also love my own traditions.  My own memories of beautiful Christmas trees and hot cocoa and candy canes – and I think my kids deserve that.  I don’t pretend that ALL kids deserve it, if you don’t celebrate Christmas because you feel it’s a Christian holiday and as a non-Christian it’s not your day, that’s completely understandable.  But for me, Christmas was never particularly a Christian holiday.  If there was any religious significance to it, it was always more Pagan, with the tree and the candles and the light in the darkness kind of thing.  Which translates nicely (for me, at least) with Hanukkah.  I think my kids get to celebrate Christmas because they’re my kids.  Because they are my mother’s grandchildren.  And it’s as much a part of who they are as Hanukkah candles, latkes and dreidels.

In the end, my kids will make up their own minds about religion and spirituality and what traditions they want to continue and what they’ll let slide.  I chose to raise them within a religious community that is theirs by inheritance – half  their family is Jewish – and took the extra steps to convert them so that nobody would question their Jewish identity.  I converted myself, due in no small part to my conviction that if my family was Jewish, then I was as well.   But celebrating Christmas may well be what makes it possible for me to embrace raising my children in a culture that still feels alien to me, to teach them songs in a language that makes no sense to me, and to learn to make challah and make sure I’ve got Shabbat candles for Friday.

And in the end, my kids’ Jewish identity is going to rely a lot more on the challah recipe that I’m perfecting, the years of religious education I make them go to, the Shabbat dinner every Friday night, and the fact that we simply are Jewish.  The conflict was just between Marc and I, and I suppose, the greater culture at large, that insists that being Jewish means NOT celebrating Christmas, and insisting that you can’t participate in Christmas unless you believe that Jesus is the Son of God.   My kids know they’re Jewish, and they know what that means.  They don’t agonize over it; their Jewish identity is as obvious to them and as undeniable as the fact that they’ve all got brown eyes.  It’s not up for debate, it simply is.  They also know that they celebrate Christmas because it’s the tradition I grew up with, the one that half their extended family celebrates, and that it’s a holiday like Fourth of July or Thanksgiving.  Not a religious one, but one that we celebrate enthusiastically.

Bring on the candy canes, and this week, I’m lighting the endless number of menorahs the kids have made and stringing the Christmas lights and hanging stocking.  I couldn’t be happier.

Private Practice

I am going to admit to something that I would not normally cop to in such a public forum.  I watch Private Practice.  It is a guilty pleasure.  In the show, Cooper (Jewish) is married to Charlotte (Christian).  They are pregnant with triplets, and the topic of what religion to raise the kids comes up.  It is discussed for 2 minutes (which we all know in tvland is a deep heartfelt discussion) and they decide to expose the kids to both and let them decide.

My television still works.  I did throw everything I thing I could reach from my nest of blankets at it though.  My husband is so glad I was too tired to knit, so I was not armed with pointy sticks.  All I had near me were old magazines and papers, not a good weapon to be found.  That will teach me to clean.  I was disgusted.  Really?  We will let the children decided.

My poor family had to listen to me yell at Cooper and Charlotte and tell them that they are massive wimps.  Make a decision (there may have been more colorful language here, but this is a family blog).  Seriously, you are the adults and you can’t decide so you abdicate the decision to your children?  After I calmed down a bit, my kids asked me why I feel so strongly about this. (They were not watching with us, but came down when they heard the ruckus.)

First, one reason they gave for doing both was that the kids would be denied the other parents religion.  Ok, I can see that is a very scary prospect.  Seriously, I almost didn’t get married because of that.  I understand.  But, in reality, you can still celebrate and expose your kids to both, without identifying them as both (or really nothing).

My kids very strongly identify as Jews.  Yet, they happily go to see my family every year for Christmas.  They know it isn’t their holiday, but that does not mean you cannot enjoy it.  Just like we invite Christian friends to have latkes and share in a Passover Seder.

But, the real reason it irritated me so much is that by raising the kids as both, you raise them as nothing.  You put your child in the position that you found yourself in, having to choose one parent over the other.  Imagine how that must feel?  Life is hard enough without having to choose which religion you want to practice, while potentially alienating one of your parents.  That is why the parents need to choose.  Best if you do this before you get married, because really if you can’t agree it will become a deal breaker.

My husband pointed out to me as we wrestled with this decision, that you cannot be a Jewish Christian.  They are separate religions.  In order to do one of them well, you cannot be the other.  I am not advocating one way or the other, but I am saying CHOOSE.  When the rabbi told me that he didn’t care what decision we made just that we made one, the reality of this situation was brought home to me.

The statement that people make of “I will let the kids choose,” tells me that they recognize that a choice needs to be made.  But, for some probably highly logical reason, the adults in the family did not want to make it.  We make thousands of decisions during our kid’s lives that have immeasurable impact on their development.  Some right, some wrong, many without so much as a second thought, I would like to encourage everyone to make this choice for their kids.  Let them have an identity.

It was ugly at my house as all of this went down.  When the child that the couple already had said, “I like being both, double the holidays, double the presents.” I had to turn the television off.

Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah Come Light the…Christmas Tree?

Saturday morning my family and I were at a children’s Shabbat service. Halfway through the service, our youth director asked the children to think of something they were excited to experience in the coming week. My son Oliver perked up and shot me an excited look, then reached his arm high into the air. I knew what was coming. We were going to cut down our Christmas tree the next day, and Oliver had been talking about it incessantly all week long. He is a child who hides his face and refuses to talk in Shabbat services, but Christmas trees could bring him out of his shell. I began sinking farther down in my seat and wishing this wasn’t happening.

Sure enough, the youth director called on Oliver first. “I’m excited to get our Christmas tree tomorrow!” he practically shouted. To the youth director’s credit, and probably in recognition of the number of interfaith families who are members of our synagogue, she asked Oliver whether or not we were going to cut the tree ourselves or buy it pre-cut. Oliver had no idea, but that didn’t stop him from saying we would buy it pre-cut. Then she said, “Sounds fun!” and moved on to the next child, who expressed his excitement for Hanukkah starting in a week. Which got Oliver excited, too. Hanukkah AND Christmas were so close? Amazing!

It was a nice moment, because she didn’t shoot him down or ignore his excitement. She did what a good youth director does and engaged him in conversation. Oliver was pleased that he participated. And I felt relieved and thankful for a youth director who understands interfaith families and excited little kids.

The episode reminded me of a Hanukkah/Christmas book called, “Light the Lights” by Margaret Moorman. I like it because it explores how both holidays use light during the darkest time of the year, and many of the sweetest interactions are about talking to your neighbors and observing your community as it prepares for the holidays. I especially like that you can’t tell which parent is the “Jewish” parent and which one is the “Christian” parent. Instead, both parents are equally participating and enjoying the holidays. It’s available at Amazon.com for under $10, and is part of the growing canon of books exploring both holidays.

My Girls Are 100% Jewish

So I’m at Thanksgiving last night with my husband’s family and religion somehow came up (does it come up as much with families that are all one religion, or do I just notice it more being from an interfaith family?).  I was discussing how my daughters actually like going to temple (have no idea what I’m doing right there) and my husband’s uncle mentioned that they are half-Jewish.  That got the hairs on the back of my neck to rise like a disturbed cat.  I don’t know about you, but my kids aren’t “half” anything.  They have a Jewish mother and a Catholic father but they aren’t half Catholic; they are 100% Jewish.  I didn’t even know how to respond without offending him (and more importantly my mother-in-law) and to top it off my mother was sitting right there too but thankfully it either went over her head, she didn’t hear it, or the filter between her brain and mouth was working (it doesn’t always work) and she kept quiet.  If she did hear I can’t wait to see if she comments next time we are together without my husband around, that’ll be a hoot.

It bothers me that I didn’t know how to respond.  I am so grateful that my mother-in-law is cool (or at least an academy award winning actress) about my girls being brought up Jewish and no one else from my husband’s family has ever said anything negative about it, but the 50-50 comments bother me.  Is there a way to address it or do I just let it go, knowing that my girls view everything correctly and that it will all get sorted out as they get older?