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Our family has had a hard few weeks. Every day we open the news to a different headline about hatred and anger. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world has gone bonkers. To top it off, my significant other, Adrian, recently receivedÂ a phone call from Mexico informing him thatÂ his mother is ill. Her diabetes has taken a turn for the worse, and her doctor told her she could no longer eat tortillas, a staple food in Mexico. Adrian came home from work one night and put his head in his hands, defeated. â€śI think my father feels very alone,â€ť he said.
The next day I found out that my motherâ€™s favorite cousin died from complications from Alzheimerâ€™s disease. He had been living in a care facility where his wife would go three times a day to bring him food, company, laughter and a lot of love. My mother came home from work one day and put her head in her hands, defeated. â€śI think Tommyâ€™s death has finally hit me,â€ť she said.
My almost 1-year-old daughter, Helen, does not understand death and sickness yet. She has just begun learning how to live, how to crawl, how to hold onto something and pull herself up, how to grab onto the coffee table and take one step at a time.
With Rosh Hashanah right around the corner, we leave the house daily with lists of ingredients to buy for honey cake. I want her first Jewish New Year to be a joyous one full of hope. But there is some despair in our home right now.
Adrian checks his phone for messages about his mother. He calls Mexico. He meets with his brothers to discuss how much money they need to send back to Mexico for his mother to see a good doctor.
I sit in my motherâ€™s kitchen trying to scrawl out a letter to Tommyâ€™s wife, searching for words to explain my sympathy.
I want to pray. It is important to me that my daughter learns to pray, and because we are an interfaith family, it is important that both Adrian and I teach her how we both pray, especially because we pray so differently. But Adrian does not feel like praying lately. His statue of The Virgin of Guadalupe rests dusty on the bureau. I take this as an opportunity to learn that sometimes we as human beings donâ€™t have the will to pray. Sometimes praying means admitting something is wrong, and Adrian doesnâ€™t want there to be anything seriously wrong with his mother.
In Judaism it seems there is a prayer for everything. There is a prayer for death, life, sadness, forgiveness, women, men and children. There are prayers before going to bed, before eating lunch, after eating lunch and a prayer upon waking up in the morning. Adrian has different prayers, and because I didnâ€™t grow up Catholic like him, I donâ€™t know many of them. I assume they are similar to Jewish prayers, but I canâ€™t be sure.
Iâ€™ve been trying to teach Helen a few Jewish prayers. Because Adrian has beenÂ feeling so down, I looked up a prayer that Helen and I could recite for him and his mother. After coming across prayers similar to those in Judaism, I found a prayer to Guadalupe that begins, â€śOur Lady of Guadalupe, mystical roseâ€¦.â€ť I liked that because Helenâ€™s middle name is Rose. I sat down on the floor with Helen and began to recite the prayer, even though itâ€™s not a Jewish prayer. Then we added a Hebrew prayer for cousin Tommy.
â€śThis is for Papi,â€ť I said to Helen, â€śand for Abuela (Grandma) to get better. And we will say one for cousin Tommyâ€™s family too.â€ť
Helen was silent; Iâ€™m not sure she understood, but comprehension will come later. For now itâ€™s important for me to keep up with my own traditions, as well as Adrianâ€™s, even when he canâ€™t. Iâ€™m sure he would do the same for me.
Sometimes Adrian and I donâ€™t understand each otherâ€™s faiths. For him, Judaism has a lot of rules and complex meanings to these rules. For me, as a Jew, I donâ€™t bow down to idols. But I can enter into a realm of understanding and ask his saints to care for him just as I can ask Hashem, my God, at the same time to care for him.
Our goal as an interfaith family is to bring just that: faith. How do people survive bombings, terror, heartache and grief? We survive by faith. Helen has two faiths. She will learn, and is learning, two faiths. At times these two faiths can be difficult to maneuver, but their deep messages are the same: Have compassion. Be a good person. Help others. Do good work in the world. And our two faiths teach us that when our significant other comes home defeated, we can be the strength they need to keep going. Our two faiths teach us to watch our child and learn from her as well. She teaches us how to live, how to crawl, how to hold onto something so we can pull ourselves up and how to hold onto a coffee table, a chair, a bench, something, anything, so that we can take our steps slowly and one at a time until we are able to walk.
I arrived at the Dallas Arboretum at 8:30 am on an early fall Saturday. The lush gardens were quiet in the pre-opening hours. I breathed in the crisped air on the walk to the building where I would be spending the next eight hours.
As I approached the location of my congregationâ€™s Womenâ€™s Retreat, the stillness of the setting was broken by the buzz of female voices. A friend, who happened to be standing by the door, greeted me with a warm embrace and â€śShabbat Shalom.â€ť
As I scanned the hallway and refreshment area, I saw old friends and acquaintances, mixed with many strangers. I saw born Jews and new Jews, those in the process of becoming Jewish and women not Jewish but connected to the faith through a spouse or partner. I saw 20-somethings and 80-somethings, and every age in between. It was truly a group representative of the diversity of my synagogue.
As I worked my way through the crowd to the coffee, greeting people along the way, I could feel myself begin to relax. Like many of my mom friends who were in attendance, there was much coordination involved to get here; from clearing Cameronâ€™s calendar several weeks before the event so that he could be with Sammy, to preparing breakfast before I left, walking and feeding the dog, and going over the logistics of homework that needed to be completed.
Tearing away from these duties as commander in chief of the household was never easy. But the opportunity to spend eight hours with women I love, and make connections with others that I did not know, was too good to pass up.
After coffee and conversation, our group of 80-plus women came together for a non-traditional Shabbat morning service that incorporated yoga and poetry with standard pieces of liturgy. During our worship, we stretched, we sang, we danced, and we listened. We moved, and were moved physically and spiritually.
At one point in the service, our female cantor said, â€śI have a Shabbat gift for you.â€ť She asked us to close our eyes and she began to play a subtle melody on her acoustic guitar. She then began to sing â€śMay I Suggestâ€ť by the singer-songwriter Susan Werner.
May I suggest
Cantor Nirenâ€™s beautiful voice sang the lyrics that deeply touched us, and as the music faded away, the only sound that was heard was women sniffling, as many of us had been moved to tears. The song inspired presence and reflection, and was a lyrical present. But as the day went on, I began to feel that this moment was part of a larger gift called connection.
The song and retreat were, in a way, just vehicles of goodwill that enabled us to be in the right frame of mind to receive this more meaningful gift. In an ideal world, taking the time to foster relationships like this would happen regularly and organically, without such grand preparation of the body and mind. But the reality of our daily lives often makes this difficult, if not impossible. So, it becomes necessary to physically and mentally separate from our everyday distractions in order to nurture our souls.
When we do this, we are able to draw closer to others, and reconnect with our better selves. After a day of talking, walking, dancing, praying, and actively engaging, I felt energized and rejuvenated, not tired. I understood why we are so often advised to take time for ourselves.
After my â€śme-dayâ€ť spent with many wonderful women, I was refreshed and would be returning home a calmer, more patient and clearheaded wife and mother. This was a gift for me, and for Cameron and Sammy.
As I left the arboretum with a spring in my step, I called Cameron and Sammy to check in. Sammy answered the phone. â€śHi buddy!â€ť I said. â€śHow was the day with Daddy?â€ť
â€śHi, Mommy. Our day has been great! Daddy and I went to brunch, then we took Brady (our dog) to the park and then we went to Daddyâ€™s office. While he worked, I did my homework. Then we went home to get some jackets and now we are on our way to the state fair,â€ť Sammy said.
â€śWow, sounds like youâ€™ve been busy. Do you want to meet for dinner?â€ť
â€śWell, we really want to go to the fair. Is it okay if Daddy and I do that?â€ť
â€śOf course. Iâ€™ll see you at home later.â€ť
Cameron and Sammy arrived home about 9:30 pm. Sammy walked in and said, â€śThis was one of the best days ever! Daddy and I had so much fun!â€ť
Seeing Sammyâ€™s excitement, I realized that a relaxed parent and spouse were not the only gift Cameron and Sammy received from my participation in the retreat. They were able to deepen their bond by spending the day together. Extended father-son time was rare given the demands of Cameronâ€™s job. Being able to connect with each other one-on-one was a wonderful opportunity.
I know the clergy and lay leaders who organized the Womenâ€™s Retreat saw it as a way to bring the women of our congregation into relationship with one another. I do not know if they realized how the programâ€™s benefit would extend beyond the participants. But hearing from Sammy and Cameron about what a fun day they had together made me see that the retreat was a gift that kept on giving.