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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.
Shortly before the inauguration in mid-January, I was contacted by a Chicago Tribune reporter about a story he was working on related to prayer. I worked with him on a Passover-Easter story in the past. This time, he was looking for various faith perspectives on the question: Should we pray for bad people?
The idea for the story came to the reporter after hearing Fidel Castroâ€™s name included in the list of names read during a memorial prayer at his mainline Episcopal church. He was surprised to hear Castroâ€™s name since he was not generally thought of as a good guy. He asked his priest if anyone questioned the inclusion of Castro. The priest said no one did, but people had asked if prayers would be offered for the new president.
The reporter posed this question to me: â€śShould we pray for bad people or bad leaders?â€ť My first response was that bad was subjective. Who decided who was and was not bad? Bad to one person may not be bad to another. Assuming the debate over the definition of bad was settled, I continued my answer based on my Reform Jewish beliefs and rituals.
In the Ten Commandments, we are commanded to respect or honor our mothers and fathers, which can be extended to our elders and even leaders. We are not commanded to love them or even like them. One way to respect and honor them is through prayer.
I gave the example of the prayer for our country which was read at my synagogue during Shabbat morning services. It was recited regardless of whom was in office and to which party they belonged. It prayed for our leaders to have patience and wisdom and that they would help to make our country an example of justice and compassion. The prayer was said when those in government made decisions we agreed with, but also when they enacted policies which we opposed.
I was intrigued by the question and my thoughts returned to it throughout the day. I decided to pose the same question to my 12-year-old son preparing for his bar mitzvah and my husband who was raised Episcopal, but has been questioning the concept of the divine for years, during our regular Friday Shabbat dinner. Both strongly felt that prayers should be said for bad people.
They said that offering a prayer was a rebuke and it was a way to show that goodness and righteousness triumphed over evil. Neither suggested that prayers should be offered to â€śsave a personâ€™s soul.â€ť
The consensus of the respondents from across faiths in the Chicago Tribune article was also to pray for bad people or leaders. You can read the responses here.
Iâ€™m curious to hear what others in the InterfaithFamily community think. Please join the conversation. Share your thoughts in the comments section.
I was in the seventh grade when my father died. I had already been asked to leave an Orthodox yeshiva in the fifth grade because I had been a â€śbehavior problem.â€ť I was on my second life at a private school in Brooklyn Heights. Brooklyn Heights is one of the oldest, richest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Truman Capote, Henry Miller and W.H. Auden all lived there. I was not from there, I was not rich and I knew no one. But my school was there and I made my first set of friends who werenâ€™t Jewish.
When my father died Iâ€™m not sure that anyone in my new school knew our Jewish customs for mourning. For example, we covered our mirrors to erase vanity. We sat on the floor because when death is upon us the living should not be comfortable. The belief is that we should be uncomfortable because by getting used to discomfort one can learn to go on. We left our doors open for neighbors, friends and family to visit for seven days. This is a period called â€śshivaâ€ť and this word in Hebrew also means â€śseven.â€ť The traditional mourning period after someone dies lasts for seven days and we call this â€śsitting shiva.â€ť
I had one friend from this Brooklyn Heights private school who did come to my house to sit shiva. Her name was Liz. She didnâ€™t live near me but she didnâ€™t live in Brooklyn Heights either. Her father drove her to my house and when she got out of the car she looked lost and confused. She was not Jewish but she knew it would mean a lot to me if she came to visit. I canâ€™t remember what we said to each other that day. I only remember that she showed up.
A few months ago Liz texted me to tell me that sheâ€™s pregnant with a baby girl, her first. Her due date is October 23Â and my baby Helenâ€™s due date this past year was October 24. Liz came over to meet Helen. Over the years we have kept in touch and fallen out of touch and then got back in touch again. Life and its winding roads have kept us close in spirit but not always in body. When Liz met Helen for the first time it was as if my past was meeting my present.
Hereâ€™s another strange coincidence. Liz recently moved back to Brooklyn from L.A. and she bought an apartment just three blocks away from where I live. Without knowing it, we have been living back to back for a while. Helen and I went over to drop off some clothes and play with Liz’s dog, Wally. While we were visiting, Liz took out a book I had written for her in the eighth grade. It was an English assignment to write a short book about someone you admire and I had chosen to write about Liz.
Liz read the book out loud to me while sitting pregnant on her couch. Helen chewed a stuffed animal and listened, too. The book was about how we used to hang out in the bathroom and how many times Liz had dyed her hair and how much I admired her for being a good friend. I didnâ€™t recall writing that book. What I did recall was how very lost I felt in the eighth grade.
I felt I had never been Jewish enough for yeshiva, but I wasnâ€™t not Jewish enough for private school in high class Brooklyn Heights. I never felt pretty. I never felt special and I never felt God listened to what I had to say. I felt that God had betrayed me, taken away my father, made my mother unreachable and my brother disappear.
God has a funny way of showing up. This past Sunday was Lizâ€™s baby shower. I attended with Helen and saw four or five people I havenâ€™t seen since the sixth grade. Many of the guests heard me speaking Spanish to Helen and asked where I was from. I told them our backstory. I explained that Helen is Jewish from my family and Mexican Catholic from her Papiâ€™s family. After the shower I went to my motherâ€™s house to visit and watched her coo over the baby.
The Jewish mourning period lasts for seven days but the mourning period for a parent that dies lasts for a year. This is Jewish law. What Jewish law does not say is that sometimes we mourn for a lifetime. Sometimes we mourn the dead for years and then we mourn ourselves. We mourn who we were and more so who we werenâ€™t or who we didnâ€™t know how to be. When my father died and Liz came up on my porch to sit shiva that was the seed that stayed in my heart. A girl from outside of my religion and culture came to visit during a crucial time in my life. I was 12 1/2 Â on my motherâ€™s porch that day. Today I am 35. Today I understand that compassion is not one religion and neither is God.
This afternoon on my way to work I stopped inside a church. It is a small church very near the famous Brooklyn Heights. I stopped in to meditate and ask for guidance. Though I pray in synagogue I often find that churches have a much more calming effect on my spirit. There was a woman in the church praying and I took a seat in the back. She was the only other person there and I donâ€™t think she felt me come in. Sometimes I say a Hebrew prayer, sometimes a Buddhist prayer, but today I closed my eyes and began the Prayer of St. Francis. â€śLord, make me an instrument of your peace.â€ť As my eyes were closed I could hear the woman begin to cry. Her crying turned into sobs. â€śWhere there is hatred, let me sow loveâ€¦â€ť I opened my eyes and the woman was lying on the floor faced down. She had thrown herself in front of a statue of Mary and was crying into her own arms.I wanted to hug her, to reach down and say, â€śMiss, is there anything I can do?â€ť But, myÂ 12 1/2-year-old self was already lying on the ground with her… â€śWhere there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faithâ€¦â€ť
Then I began the Hebrew prayer called Shemah Yisrael, (Hear, O Israel), which I usually sing when I feel sadness, just as I sang it every night before bed as a child.Â The second verse came to me immediately: â€śTwo thousand years is a very long exile. The time has come for it to endâ€¦â€ť
At bedtime recently, 5-year-old Laurel was having trouble settling towards sleep, not unsurprising given that itâ€™s still light out at her bedtime. Looking for a change of pace that might help her feel sleepy, I started to sing theÂ Shema, as my husband and I often do during her bedtime songs. She listened quietly, laying her head in my lap instead of putting the sheet over her head and declaring she had become a bouncing tent, as sheâ€™d been doing not too many minutes before that. (InterfaithFamily has a great booklet about saying the Shema as a kids’ bedtime ritual. Check it out here.)
When I finished singing the quiet words about Godâ€™s onnness, she asked, â€śSing me another Jewish song, Mommy,â€ť and I did, choosingÂ Oseh shalom, which is one of my favorite tunes to sing her before sleep.Â I love the melody, and the soothing message about peace that it conveys. Sometimes I get a little bit too into the song, my head nestled against her ear, and she tells me, â€śSing more quietly, Mommy; youâ€™re too loud!â€ť
As is almost usual, she started talking halfway through the song. â€śMommy? Mommy?â€ť
“â€¦ shalom aleinuâ€¦” I continue, pausing to say, â€śbe quiet, sweetie, Iâ€™m singing!â€ť
Eventually, my voice quieted as the song ended. â€śWhat did you want to ask?â€ť
â€śHow do you know Jewish songs, Mommy?â€ť
I chuckled. â€śIâ€™ve learned them by singing them many times, honey,â€ť I explained, â€śthe same way you learned the songs for your classâ€™s Spring Sing.â€ť
â€śOh,â€ť she said. Sheâ€™d recently memorized â€śTwinkle Twinkle Little Starâ€ť in Chinese for the Spring Sing, so I thought she might understand my own learning of songs I didnâ€™t grow up with as a similar process.
As usual, though, I wasnâ€™t prepared for her follow-up question: â€śDo you know any Christian songs, Mommy?”
I deliberated before answering. Previous readers of my blog entries will know that Iâ€™m now a Unitarian Universalist, and was raised in a liberal Episcopalian household. In answer, I could have recalled songs I sang decades in the childrenâ€™s choir at in the church of my childhood, songs like â€śHere I Am, Lord,â€ť which is about answering Godâ€™s call to serve people in the world. But I can just imagine myself getting caught up in theological difficulties as I sing it: whoâ€™s doing the sending? Is it Jesus, or God the Father? What if theyâ€™re the same? With that level of chatter going on in the back of my mind, itâ€™s easier to choose other songs to sing, like â€śPuff the Magic Dragonâ€ť or â€śMy Favorite Things.â€ť
In the end, I replied, â€śChristmas songs are Christian,â€ť which garnered an un-illuminated â€śohâ€ť from Laurel and a serious query as to whether there are other Christian songs.
â€śWell, there are,â€ť I told her, â€śbut I donâ€™t remember them very well.â€ť Bedtime is probably not the right time to explain that in addition to not remembering them very well, I am not sure I want to sing traditional Christian songs. At bedtime I usually fall back on the kinds of songs my parents sang to me when I wasnâ€™t quite ready to sleep yet: songs from musicals from my mom, and folk songs from the 1960s from my dad. Now I wonder that the melancholy of so many folk songs did not keep me up at night (shouldnâ€™t I have been bothered by â€śWhere Have All The Flowers Goneâ€ť?)
Laurelâ€™s innate sense of fairness suggests to her that I ought to sing Christian songs to her to balance the Jewish songs sheâ€™s already learning. She knows I am not Jewish and that we therefore have an interfaith home. She wants â€śnot Jewishâ€ť to have an â€śis somethingâ€ť attached to it, and I take her request for â€śChristian songsâ€ť as a request for my background and heritage to be hers, as well. If I am to be true to us as an interfaith family, I also need to be true to the complexities of what my husband and I both bring to our interfaith childrensâ€™ lives.
Next time, when Laurel asks me to sing a “Christian” song, Iâ€™ll realize that sheâ€™s asking aboutÂ my background, and Iâ€™ll be better prepared to sing a different song â€“ not necessarily a Christian song â€“ but a song to which I can bring as much joy as I bring toÂ Oseh shalom. As she grows older, too, I hope that my repertoire of songs Iâ€™ve learned as an adult, especially including the Jewish songs that are so important to Laurel, will continue to expand. Maybe, once again, sheâ€™ll ask me to sing â€śjust a little quieter, Mommy, and not right in my ear.â€ť
Interested in attending a “Goodnight, Sleep Tight” session in Chicago with InterfaithFamily/Chicago’s Director? Contact Rabbi Ari Moffic (arim at interfaithfamily dot com) for more information.
I did not intend to write a blog on the recent Supreme Court decision on ceremonial prayer. I actually planned to write about the amazing Jewish teens and young adults who babysit our son Sammy and are a powerful influence on him. But then I opened the Sunday paper and read about Town of Greece v. Galloway.
Last week, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that opening prayers at town council meetings in a suburb of Rochester, New York do not violate the Constitution even if the prayers were predominately Christian. As I read, I thought that starting governmental sessions with a prayer that often stressed Christianity sounded like something that happened in Bible Belt Texas, not Upstate New York.
In Dallas, which is sometimes referred to as the buckle of the Bible Belt, religion in public life is common, so common, in fact, that it is easy to find examples of the religious mixing with the secular on a daily basis. Business meetings often begin with a prayer and offices conduct Bible study at lunch. City sports leagues run clinics that teach baseball skills and the Christian Bible, dance schools help children learn to praise Jesus through ballet, cheerleaders at public high schools print Bible verses on spirit banners used for athletic events, and billboards advertise Christ-centered talent preparation for models and actors. If you live in a less overtly religious region of the country, you may think that these examples of life in the Bible Belt sound unbelievable, and before moving here, I would have too, but I assure you, they are real.Â Â
The hyper-religious culture in the part of the country I live in sparked my interest in the Town of Greece case. As I continued reading, I came across excerpts of Justice Anthony Kennedyâ€™s majority opinion. He noted that there was no reason to view ceremonial invocations as an endorsement by the state of any particular religion unless actions that are more blatant were present. He suggested that offended adults could either not participate in the prayer portion of a meeting or remain quiet while the religious message was delivered. Kennedy wrote, â€śOur tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.â€ť
After reading this quote, I wondered how many adults were actually firm enough in their own beliefs and educated enough about other faiths to appreciate different religious voices, and not feel excluded or disrespected. I know from my own Jewish journey that I have only really strengthened and defined my beliefs since meeting my husband, becoming a parent, and engaging in adult education. I am sure that 15 years ago if I was in a government or business meeting, or in a public school setting that began with a prayer of any kind that I would have felt uncomfortable and like I was an outsider.Â
The blurring of the lines between church and state challenges many of us, including those of us with strong religious identities, and who believe in a wall of separation between church and state. So, how do we prepare ourselves to confront these situations and more importantly, how do we prepare our children who will not only face these scenarios as adults, but may have to deal with them at school? How do we raise children to be the kind of adults Kennedy assumes exist in America â€“ adults that are confident in their beliefs and religious identities, yet value diverse religious perspectives? How do we ensure that our children and we are strong enough to speak-up when religion in pubic life becomes exclusionary or proselytism? How do we do this in the context of intermarriage?
Raising children in an interfaith home presents both challenges and opportunities with respect to these questions. Maybe children who are raised in interfaith homes and intermarried adults can more easily appreciate a variety of religious ideas. Maybe children of intermarriage have beliefs that are less firm or weaker faith identities, or maybe they have stronger ones because our families are forced to think and act more consciously about religion. Maybe they are no different from children from inmarried homes â€“ they are as connected or disconnected as their parents.
As I consider these questions, I think about the current emphasis in progressive Judaism on engagement. We are told that Jewish engagement now is imperative so we can guarantee a Jewish future. But in light of the increasing incursions of the religious into secular life as demonstrated by the Town of Greece decision, engaging with Judaism through ritual, education, camps, community groups, and social networks is not just of Jewish importance, but it is of practical importance. Engagement builds our knowledge base and identity muscle. If both are weak, how can we expect to confront religion in public life in a rational and productive way? If we know who we are, what we care about, and what are our core beliefs then it is easier to handle these public encounters with faith with pride, dignity, and resolve.
All of the ways we choose to engage with religion will help prepare our families and children for life in the not always secular world. Town of Greece v. Galloway gives all of the subjects we discuss in this space and actions such as lighting Shabbat candles, participating in Jewish education, attending Jewish summer camp, being active in a synagogue or Jewish community, and discussing with our children our beliefs and those of our not Jewish partners and extended families significance beyond Jewish continuity.
Three weeks ago, I read Jodi S. Rosenfeldâ€™s post about peeking through her fingers at her kids during candle lighting instead of focusing on her own prayerful moment with a twinge of envy.Â Rosenfeld’s urge to peek is certainly one I’ve had, too. And recently, itâ€™s the kind of challenge Iâ€™ve longed for in contrast to whatâ€™s been going on at our Shabbat table. For weeks, Ruthie refused to participate in our blessings, sometimes trying to sing (or yell) over our prayers. The only way to welcome Shabbat to our table without protest was to allow her to retreat to her room during prayer time, which broke my heart a little bit. Getting her back to the table required that I stop trying to model the rituals exactly how Eric and I defined them, but instead adapt them so that she felt like a full participant.
Shabbat has always been a special time for our family. It adds a transition into our lives from week to weekend, it reminds us of how nice a family dinner can be, and it creates â€śan eventâ€ť even when the agenda is staying in for the night. Ruthie has always enjoyed the singing and the candles and the food, and her little sister Chaya lights up when I strike the match to begin our celebration.
But in spite of all of the loveliness of Shabbat, Friday nights are hard, and they have become harder since Ruthie started a (wonderful) all-day elementary school program. She is exhausted from a full week of school. Her sister is starving (Chaya is usually ravenous, but it always feels a little worse on Fridays). Often we are running around because Eric or I stayed a little too late at work, trying to wrap things up for the weekend. Our house is usually at its most tired, too, so we are sometimes washing dishes to set the table or moving piles of papers around to clear off our dining space.
In this environment of exhaustion, a couple of months ago Ruthie decided she didnâ€™t want to do Shabbat. When I asked her why, I didnâ€™t get very far at first. â€śBecause it’s stupid.â€ť â€śBecause I donâ€™t like the prayers.â€ť â€śBecause I am hungry.â€ť
And then, finally, an answer I could work with:
â€śI donâ€™t want to be Jewish, Mommy.â€ť
Ouch. That hurt. But I didnâ€™t want to let on just yet.
â€śBecause I donâ€™t understand the prayers. We donâ€™t say them in English, and I donâ€™t know what weâ€™re saying.â€ť
â€śCould we try doing Shabbat again if we said the prayers in English?â€ť
â€śSure,â€ť she agreed.
I remembered that last Passover InterfaithFamily had turned me onto Gateways, a fantastic organization that provides resources for children with special educational needs to engage in Jewish Learning. Turns out, their resources are great for people of all abilities and ages. Their blessing sheets, complete with visual supports, are exactly what we needed to meet Ruthieâ€™s request.
Two weeks ago, I printed out copies of the Gateways blessings for us to use during prayers. With these, we started a new ritual, where Ruthie reads the blessings in English before we chant the prayers in Hebrew. Her enthusiasm has grown, as she leads the blessings with great pride. For now, the protests are over, and I can focus on trying not to peek again.