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“But you’re not really Jewish right?” This has been a question I have been asked since I was big enough to walk. My family celebrates all of the big holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover to name a few. The women in my family don’t wear long skirts and the men don’t wear black hats. But, yes, we ARE Jewish.
“But you’re not really Jewish, right?” is an insulting question. First of all, what does that mean? That’s usually my response: “What does that mean?” And people respond by changing the subject because they know they’ve offended me or they keep asking questions that further insult me. Since I live in a very religious neighborhood, these are a few of the questions I get: “You don’t wear a wig right?” “You don’t keep kosher, right?” (wrong), “It’s so strange that you’re Jewish,” they say, “You don’t look Jewish.” Again, what does that mean?
This year I had a baby with Adrian, my lifelong partner. He is Catholic from Mexico and I am Jewish from Brooklyn. We decided before we had the baby that ours would be an interfaith family. We wanted the beauty of both cultures and both religions to be a part of who our child was and who she would become. She is a Mexican-American-Jewish-Catholic child.
Adrian and I live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The stores are kosher, on Saturday none of the stores are open and on Jewish holidays women in pretty dresses and men in ironed suits walk in the middle of the streets because there are hardly any cars around. Our kitchen is kosher. Adrian eats pork but not in our home. Does this make me less Jewish? Does loving a man from another faith make me less Jewish? Is my daughter less Jewish because she’s also Catholic?
The challenge so far has been trying to live a balanced life. When our daughter was first born these questions nagged at me. Would someone one day ask my daughter, “But you’re not really Jewish, right?” What would she say? What should I teach her to say? How would I explain to her a double faith? An interfaith? The more these questions loomed over me the more I decided to challenge the ignorance of these interrogations.
I found myself in the lobby of a large synagogue next to my apartment building where I was to inquire about a baby naming for my daughter. This was when my daughter was just 2 months old. The woman who ran the functions at the synagogue was all smiles when I walked in with the baby strapped to me in my ergo carrier. She asked me the baby’s name. “Helen Rose Castañeda,” I said. She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to spell it. I wrote it out in both Hebrew and English.
“Oh, you write in Hebrew,” she said surprised. After all, I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and I was not in a skirt or dressed up at all. I had only gone to inquire. I had not gone to pray. As I filled out the rest of the information on the sheet I realized I had to write Adrian’s name in Hebrew and my daughter’s name. Her Hebrew name is Chaya Rachel but how was I to write “Castaneda” in Hebrew? I sounded it out.
The woman stared at the paper. I was waiting for the question, any question. I was waiting for her to say, “Well that’s interesting,” or “Is this a Jewish name?” I was waiting for the insult. It never came. Instead, before she could speak I said, “Miss, I’d like to tell you, before we begin the process of setting up this baby naming event, that my family is an interfaith family. I am Jewish and my partner is Catholic. We are not married and our daughter is both. Is this going to be a problem?”
Her reaction was not what I expected. She was calm and smiled. She said, “That’s absolutely OK.” There were no insulting questions, no asking if I was really Jewish. We had a beautiful baby naming ceremony at the synagogue and I felt at home. I felt accepted and my family felt accepted. But, I had also for the first time accepted myself.
I am a Jew always in my heart and I live my life according to Jewish law, meaning I treat others with compassion, I speak to G-d, I meditate and I try to do good deeds. I don’t always succeed at all of these laws but I try my best to abide by them. I was born Jewish and I celebrate Judaism. I come from a long line of prophets and strong biblical women. This is what I will teach our daughter who has Jewish and Aztec blood in her. I also understand that people will always question my “Jewishness.” I’ve learned now to respond in a different way. Now, when someone approaches me with the question, “but you’re not really Jewish, right?” my answer is always a flip of my hair and a long laugh.
By Rebecca Rolland
My daughter Sophie will be 3 this November. My husband Philippe and I have decided to let her start half-day preschool (she’s begged). Still, we’re late starting to look at options. I can’t settle on anything, and as a doctoral student in education, I fear my knowledge of the research—my vise-grip on “how things should be”— has gotten in the way.
Ironically, in the world of parenting and education, it seems as though you can really know too much, or at least can be too critical. Then, I see an ad for a Jewish preschool not far from our home.
My own religious past is complicated. I was raised Protestant because of my father, but my mother’s entire family was Jewish. My maternal grandfather and his brother were the only ones who survived the Holocaust, traveling from Hungary to Ellis Island in the hold of a ship. As both my grandparents died when I was a child, I was never able to ask any more. If I had a story to tell about my past, it would be one of absence and loss, of lacking knowledge—hardly the only story I want to pass down.
“Let’s check it out,” I tell my Catholic-raised husband, who was actually taught by nuns in his early years. We’d decided not to push Sophie towards any faith, but the school looks like a good option, emphasizing respectful interactions, strong routines and a balance of strictness and care. At least that’s what the website says.
In my work, I know the importance of high-quality early education. As decades-long studies have shown, such as the Perry Preschool Study, children who were placed in a “high-quality” program were found to commit less crime, have higher educational attainment and income and need less welfare assistance than a control group.
And yet, I know that a child’s experiences include far more than a single classroom. Developmental psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner, in his “ecological systems theory” developed in 1979, describes how everything in a child’s environment affects her development, ranging from the microsystem, or her immediate surroundings, through the macrosystem, or remote issues such as the national economy, which affect a child’s experiences in surprising ways. Choosing a preschool means choosing a microsystem, where Sophie will have thousands of interactions with teachers and peers over the course of the day.
No pressure, I tell myself.
When I visit the school, I stand in the temple while the children sit in a semicircle singing Shabbat songs. Their voices mix together, high and low, and bring me to tears. The narrative I had about myself, about my past as a source of loss, didn’t have to be the one I passed down. My past—and the culture surrounding it—could be a source of joy, of learning and of life.
Even more, seeing the school in action helps me change my narrative about what Sophie needs, and what I need as well. It’s not about what should work for a child, I concede, but what actually does work, for the child as well as the family. It’s about the values we want to move toward, the history we want to honor and the past we want to bring to light. What resonates for one family might mean nothing to another. In the ecological model, context is everything.
We decide to send Sophie to that school in the fall. My own life comes full circle, in a twist that I couldn’t have predicted. In attending a Jewish preschool, Sophie—blonde and blue-eyed like her father—will have a chance to touch her past through her present, to eat apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, smell sweet spices for Havdalah and play in a sukkah for Sukkot. I never went to temple until college. In helping Sophie know her past, I’m returning to a system of traditions that I, in my own life, have ignored.
The Jewish part of my history has been buried until now, and with it, my story about myself. Without searching for a preschool—and without finding this one—we probably never would have made this decision at all. Not only that: as we light candles for Shabbat, and as we tear into a loaf of challah bread, I’m helping change my story of the past into something sweeter. History can be a chance for celebration, not simply mourning. Those traditions are coming alive for us once again.
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.
One of the biggest challenges for me as an interfaith spouse and parent has been learning to think ahead about holidays that aren’t part of my own internal calendar. I’m used to many things that return with fall’s cooler temperatures: school schedules, extra-curricular activities, busy lives. Pumpkins, squash, and apples appear at stores and farmers’ markets, and, as a lover of sweater-weather, I look forward to cooler temperatures.
What I’m not used to anticipating is a major holiday season right at this major turning point in the year. This forgetfulness remains regrettably true even after more than a decade of having an interfaith partner. I still forget that he might take a day off on Rosh Hashanah (and I’m still surprised when he, despite being Jewish from birth, forgets to think ahead about it, too).
Eventually, I get used to the rhythm of fall. School starts, schedules become chaotic, but by the time Halloween and Thanksgiving roll around, the “new” schedule is old-hat, and I’m good and ready to begin planning for the craziness of December. It’s not easy, but I’m used to the idea of thinking about a Thanksgiving menu or winter holiday shopping on top of all the regular chaos.
The New Year, though—the Jewish New Year—surprises me every time. It’s getting better. I’m learning to think ahead. I know, for example, that we’ll have time this Sunday to watch the football game and bake a round loaf of challah in the process.
My first daughter was born around the time of Rosh Hashanah. That year, I ate apples and honey while still in the recovery room. Now that she’s turning six, she knows that the return of fall means not just school starting again, but also her birthday, which comes with cake—and apples and honey. She’s already planning to bring apples and honey in to share with her classmates, so perhaps planning ahead for Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays won’t be such a jolt to her internal calendar as it remains for mine.
Perhaps it’s the double whammy of the new school year and a child’s birthday to plan (often baking a cake at home, as well as healthier treats for her classmates at school, not to mention planning a party) that makes fitting in a major holiday season that much more challenging to remember, to plan for.
Somehow, we find a way to get it done. It feels haphazard, but somehow, our daughter has a party, has her cake, has her treats for her friends—both for Rosh Hashanah and her birthday. We look for, and usually choose, child-friendly Rosh Hashanah services to attend. We remember to check our stock of apples and honey. My spouse forgets which apple-and-honey cake he’s baked in the past, so he looks through cookbooks and websites, trying to choose one, but eventually he does, and the cake is delicious, sweet, subtly spiced, another taste of fall.
I’m ready for fall, for a birthday, for Rosh Hashanah—but I’m still not sure what we’ll do for Yom Kippur this year. By the time the Day of Atonement rolls around 10 days later, I’m sure we’ll have that figured out, as well.
Has anyone else had this trouble gearing up for the holidays because they did not grow up with them, or just because they always seem to occur before we’ve come out of our summer haze?
Recently, my family and I attended a “Sunday in the Park with Bagels” event sponsored by Big Tent Judaism, which appeared to be a consortium of Reconstructionist and Reform Jewish organizations, including InterfaithFamily.
I didn’t research the event beforehand and didn’t know what to really expect. Bagels were a great selling point, of course! But I thought it would just be few families camped out on blankets, eating bagels. I learned about the event from the IFF/Chicago’s Facebook group, and knowing how my family feels about bagels at any time of day, I knew it would be something we’d enjoy, particularly in a park on a nice sunny morning. I had no idea that we’d be a part of a very well-attended and well-thought-out morning of Jewish education and, yes, bagels.
When we arrived, we found more than a dozen tents, each hosted by a local Jewish organization and featuring a food and a craft activity based on a moment in the Jewish liturgical year.
The first table we visited was Rosh Hashanah, and Laurel jumped at the chance to decorate an apple with stickers and crayons, as well as stringing beads on it to make a necklace. We didn’t follow a regular order from table-to-table, as Laurel spent considerable time decorating her apple, and 2-year-old Holly preferred to wander much more speedily from table-to-table in search of games and, preferably, food.
Both children eagerly rolled blue paper around two toilet paper rolls, topped with silver tin-foil points, to make their own tiny Torahs. We found the promised bagels at the Shavuot table, where Rabbi Ari wore a paper crown with green leaves. She helpfully explained that the leaves were a reference to the idea that Mount Sinai had actually been a desert oasis. Both kids ate the bagels with relief and delight! Laurel made a crown, while Holly determinedly stuffed bean bags directly into the goal point of the bean-bag-toss game.
Nearby, we saw representatives wearing gold paper crowns on their heads, and guessed correctly that we’d found Purim. Holly focused on the hamantaschen at the table, while Laurel skillfully decorated the front and back of an appropriately abrasively noisy wooden gregor. We somehow avoided Sukkot, which offered falling-down sukkahs made of graham crackers and melting green icing (in a summery and sugary rendition of a Jewish gingerbread house).
By the time we worked our meandering way to the Shabbat table, I found myself fully in the arts-and-crafts mode, too. At the Shabbat table, the craft consisted of using permanent markers to decorate a challah cover, and I wanted to help little Holly not get permanent marker all over the wrong places (such as her clothes). I grabbed a cut-out of a challah, placed it on the center of the cover, and traced it. Holly scribbled big black lines along the bottom. I grabbed a candlestick and placed it just above and to the left of the challah, and traced it. I was about to trace a Jewish star when I decided it would be really strange not to add the second customary Shabbat candlestick to my challah cover, so I traced a second candlestick as well, and drew a couple of free-hand flames on each. Holly scribbled gleeful blue lines all over the orange challah in the center. When we finished, we all enjoyed a slice of challah to cap the experience.
Working side-by-side with my children, I found an open and accessible entry point into the Jewish childhood I never had, but which my children are clearly enjoying. This version of Judaism centered on food and crafts rather than Torah, Talmud and ritual observance. Certainly, the emphasis came in part from the types of Jewish organizations sponsoring the event, but the end result emphasized Judaism as something accessible and fun for the whole family, even for family members of a different faith. Some of the crafts my kids made, like the challah cover or the gregor, will likely serve a ritual purpose in our home. The crafts allowed even the youngest of children a way to enjoy the Jewish environment.
Even more so, food is the great equalizer. By eating together, people cement their shared allegiance. That morning, it wasn’t the food of kosher laws that brought people together, but the simple act of eating foods in a Jewish context—from the menorah dripped with too much icing and sprinkles to the off-season hamentaschen (Purim cookie). Food transcended both age and artistic ability: Everyone, of whatever age or background could enjoy a slice of challah or an icing-dipped graham cracker. No wonder the tote bag said “We ‘heart’ Jewish food!”
By now hopefully you’ve had a moment to read about Jane Larkin’s Rosh Hashanah parties, which I plan to crash if I am ever in Texas for the Jewish New Year. This year my family started a new Rosh Hashanah tradition, too, although we hardly invented it; it was just new to us. At a family program at Ruthie’s Sunday School, the Rabbi taught us about the Sephardic tradition of the Rosh Hashanah Seder (which you can read about here on InterfaithFamily). I had never heard about this tradition, but figured it was worth a whirl. It was not only fun, but it brought with it a great chance to explore our hopes for the New Year in a new way. And it had the added bonus of being a very tasty addition to the celebration, as well.
The Rosh Hashanah seder is a seder of word plays, so the order is a series of foods that you eat, each of which has a word play that expresses our hopes for the New Year. For example, the Hebrew, or Aramaic, word for beet is related to the Hebrew word for beat, so when we eat it we can think about beating our swords into plowshares, or beating a path to free ourselves from our enemies. They are word plays that force a chuckle or a smile but also beautifully represent hopes for a sweet, peaceful and fulfilling year.
The spirit of the Rosh Hashanah seder is lovely, and the eats are good (more details on what we ate at the end of this piece). But it also offered something else to my family. As a parent of young kids, it is hard to find space to connect to the holiday. I derive joy and spiritual connection from watching my girls discover their Judaism, but sometimes it is hard to find time to remember my own Judaism. My time in the synagogue is a mix of reading, reflection, and making sure Chaya is coloring only on her coloring sheet, and not the synagogue furniture. The chance to extend the day’s observance to the intimate setting of our own home, where my kids can vacillate between the table and playspace, gives us all another inlet for observance. So our first Rosh Hashanah seder was a wonderful addition, and hopefully the first of many.
And in case this all sounds nice, but like too much to coordinate, here’s a shortcut to our seder:
Here’s what we ate:
When Sammy was little, everything about being Jewish and celebrating Jewish holidays was “awesome.” His love of all things Jewish stemmed, in part, from his loving and joyful experience at the preschool at our synagogue. It also came from a conscience effort made by me and Cameron to make religious engagement enjoyable.
As I wrote in Rosh Hashanah Party for the New Year, Cameron and I felt that when we were children faith was more serious than fun. We believed that this more formal approach to religion was one reason many in our generation were less religiously engaged as adults. In my own family, I had siblings and relatives–inmarried and intermarried–who celebrated Jewish holidays because they felt obligated to; not because they found them meaningful or fulfilling.
We wanted Sammy to have a different relationship with faith. We wanted him to see the joy in Judaism, so we tried to create fun and memorable celebrations. These holiday observances had a strong community component in order to help nurture Sammy’s connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.
When Sammy was in preschool, we decided to host a Jewish New Year party. We created a carnival-like atmosphere in our backyard for Sammy and our friends’ families to enjoy. We had games and holiday crafts and apple and honey-themed treats.
We had an apple beanbag toss, a kid-safe version of bobbing for apples using Nabber Grabbers, and a Pin the Apple in the Tree game. There were Rosh Hashanah-themed coloring pages, a Design Your Own Apple Tree craft, and apple-shaped cookies to decorate. It was a lot of work, but it was, in the words of my then-preschooler, “awesome.” Our friends and their kids also loved it; so much so, that we decided to make it an annual event.
After several years of our Rosh Hashanah backyard carnival, Sammy and his friends outgrew the crafts and games. Our party had become too babyish. When Sammy told me this, I was a little shocked. He was still my little boy. Wasn’t it just yesterday that he stopped wearing diapers? How could he be too old for coloring pages and the beanbag toss?
However, the fact was that he stopped wearing diapers four years earlier, and sports were now much cooler than Pin the Apple in the Tree. Sammy asked if we could replace the little kids stuff with gaga. Gaga is an Israeli variation of dodgeball that is played in an octagonal or hexagonal shaped pit and is popular at US Jewish summer camps and day schools.
So, in order to maintain the awesomeness of our Rosh Hashanah party, we turned our backyard into a gaga pit. Doing it was a real sign of Cameron’s love for me and Sammy. Cameron derives much pleasure from working in the yard, and he sacrificed his grass for his Jewish family. I could tell that it took a lot of emotional energy for him to remain calm as he watched the lawn disappear inside the large space we used for the pit.
Once we established gaga as the party activity, I thought we had found a way for the tradition to grow with the kids, but Sammy and his friends were one step ahead of us on the coolness ladder. Last year we were told that gaga was out (Cameron was thrilled!), and choose your own adventure (or activity) was in. We adapted again.
We moved the party to a park in our neighborhood and invited our friends for coffee, juice and sweet (in honor of the New Year) breakfast treats. Some families brought their dogs and others brought balls. The kids played Frisbee, basketball, baseball and other games they invented; the adults spent time catching up.
The celebration was…awesome, and it was about what it has always been about: sharing the holiday with our community, creating happy Jewish memories for our family and friends, and helping Sammy and his friends learn to associate observance with fun and enjoyment, rather than simply obligation.
When we host our annual Jewish New Year celebration this weekend, it will again follow the freedom-to-do-what-you-want model, and I imagine that we will stick with this format for a while now that Sammy is moving into the tween years. But then again, it might change. If I’ve become hip to anything over the past few years, it’s that we must evolve to remain awesome. Just as we sometimes need to rethink our celebrations in order to keep them relevant to the next generation.
This year, we won the lottery. The school lottery. We were among the lucky few to win a coveted public pre-kindergarten slot for Ruthie, at one of our first choice schools, no less. This means that last week we celebrated Ruthie’s last day of preschool, and with excitement and a twinge of nostalgia we will become an elementary school family in less than a week.
When I went to line up our fall calendars, I was faced with my first big school decision. Hopefully you have already realized that Rosh Hashanah comes very early this year. On Ruthie’s second day at her new school. Transitions are not easy at four years old, and after months of preparing for school, of trying to get her excited about her new classroom, her school uniform and making new friends, it feels like an unfair jolt to her system to go through the routine for her first day only to break it up by pulling her out on her second. And I have thought a great deal about the possibility of dropping her off at school on the way to synagogue that day – of not mentioning the holiday in the spirit of structure during a transitional time. After all, she’s nowhere near
As torn as I feel about breaking up her routine, however, she will miss that second day of school. Rosh Hashanah is important, as both a holiday and a time for our family to be together. Ultimately the observance and chance for reflection is more important than the bedtime difficulty the disruption will likely inspire. And in full disclosure, the thing that pushed me over the edge on this decision is the experience of navigating the holiday with my husband, and our annual holiday frustration.
Eric is very committed to raising the girls Jewishly, and began experimenting with observing the high holidays long before we were officially making a home together (like the year he secretly tried out fasting and didn’t tell me until the grumpy 3-o’clock hour rolled around). But for years we have hit a snafu in September. In the weeks before the holidays, we talk about our plans for them. Eric looks forward to services and family meals and the like. When the actual day of the holiday approaches, however, he realizes he has key a deadline the day after Rosh Hashanah, or an essential meeting the day of Yom Kippur, and he forgot about the conflicting dates. He scrambles last minute for what to do, sometimes giving his boss poor warning of his need to miss work and other times missing synagogue.
I inevitably get irked, disappointed, and say something unfair.
I used to blame his forgetting the date on his not caring about the holiday, or just not getting how important it was. Over time, though, I’ve come to understand that that’s not the story. It is a classic situation where the big things – whether or not we want to celebrate a holiday together – aren’t what’s tripping us up – it’s the little things. The little thing here is that for over 30 years Eric didn’t have to stay on top of an ever-changing lunar calendar to figure out when his holidays were. He didn’t need to step out of “regular” life every fall for the holidays. His forgetting was never that he didn’t want to, it was just that he never cultivated the habit. If we were going to be Jewish together, I needed to help him – to let him know as soon as I saw the dates, and to remind him once or twice (or thrice).
As an American Jew, the high holidays have always felt a little more sacred to me because even though “regular” life is going on all around us, we are required to stop and do something different. It is a profound time to sit in the quiet space of silent prayer in the synagogue, or by the water outside, and think about being Jewish, about how to be better people, and about the miracle of God. I was never going to win a perfect attendance award at school, but I was going to get a few extra days with family, and a few extra shots at reflecting on how to be a better me. So I don’t want Ruthie to have a year without that, even if she’s not old enough to truly get teshuvah (repentance). And I look forward to hanging that paper shofar up on refrigerator next to her first school art project.