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A week before Thanksgiving, I stood in the doorway of a building on Skulagata, a street in Reykjavik, Iceland, with my husband and son looking out at the North Atlantic and trying to find shelter from the blustery wind that was making the 30-degree evening feel much colder. We were waiting for our tour guide to pick us up for our search for the Northern Lights. Other tourists were waiting to be picked up by other tour operators. I started talking to a young American woman who was traveling alone. Our conversation turned to the election. I mentioned that I was concerned about some of the president-elect’s choices for advisors because of their association with the alt-right movement.
“My son and I are Jewish,” I said.
“Me too,” the woman said.
We talked for a few more minutes and then our guide arrived. The woman and I wished each other good luck in finding the Northern Lights and safe travels. As we drove out of the city, I smiled and started quietly humming the opening lines of Rabbi Larry Milder’s famous Jewish tune:
Wherever you go,
Milder was right; even in Iceland, which has a permanent Jewish population of about 100 people, it wasn’t hard to stumble across a fellow tribe member. After Iceland, we traveled to London, with a Jewish population of 172,000. I can’t say if we met any Jewish Londoners, but we did see a few Hasidic Jews snapping photos of Buckingham Palace as we walked back to our flat one evening, and we took in some Jewish history.
We walked through biblical times at the British Museum, which has a large collection of archaeological material and ancient art from Mesopotamia, Iran, the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel), Anatolia (Turkey), Arabia and Central Asia and the Caucasus. Highlights of the collection include Assyrian reliefs, treasure from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the Oxus Treasure, Phoenician ivories and the library of cuneiform tablets from Nineveh. Items from Ur, Abraham’s home which he left for Canaan, and Nineveh, mentioned in Genesis 10:10-12 as the home of Nimrod and again in the Book of Jonah, brought the stories of the Torah to life.
The Assyrian Flood Tablet, which tells the story of a plan by the gods to destroy the world using a great flood, was startlingly similar to the story of Noah. Utu-napishtim, a character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, was warned in secret by the god Ea that humankind would be destroyed and told to build a huge boat to ensure the survival of humans and animals. Birds were released from the ark before it landed safely.
This item was of particular interest to us because Noah is my son’s Torah portion for his bar mitzvah. It was cool to look at his parsha written not in Hebrew, but in cuneiform! And versions of this familiar story existed at least 1,000 years before the Assyrian tablet. This object sparked a conversation about how Judaism developed and evolved from and in response to other ancient societies, and how the writers of the Torah made important stories from other cultures part of Jewish literature.
From the Bible, we jumped in Jewish time to the 17th century and the Spanish Inquisition by way of lunch at Kerbisher & Malt, a fish-and-chips restaurant. We learned that fish and chips have Jewish roots—Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition introduced the crispy, light fish to the British. Typically, street vendors sold the fish from large trays hung from their necks. In the 1800s, fish shops, or “fish warehouses,” were serving fish with bread or baked potatoes.
Encounters with other Jews and discoveries of Jewish connections are intriguing because they remind us that we are part of something bigger, that our family extends beyond our family tree to include a community we feel connected to but do not know personally. This bond created between Jews by shared history and experience is called peoplehood. And it’s best learned through engagement in Jewish life.
The email had arrived a week before I was to travel to Houston to speak to a congregation about intermarriage and creating a Jewish home as an interfaith couple. It said that the following week, instead of regular Sunday school, there would be a program for sixth-grade students and their parents related to b’nai mitzvah and those children whose bar or bat mitzvah was in the fall of 2017 would pick their Torah portion.
Great, I thought, another pre-bar mitzvah project or meeting that I would miss due to work or a speaking engagement. Once again my not Jewish husband would be called upon to be the religious school, no, the Jewish parent. I was annoyed and disappointed that I wouldn’t get to be part of this activity with my son. I was grateful that my husband who has always been supportive of and involved in creating our Jewish home was willing to step in.
Because I wasn’t going to be at the program, I wanted my husband and son to know what to expect and to prepare them with any information they needed. I told one of our rabbis that my husband and son were coming without me. She said, “Jane, Cameron will be fine. In fact, he probably knows more than many of the Jewish parents who will be in the room. Just make sure he and Sammy know how many aliyahs you want or need. If you don’t have a big family with a lot of people to honor, Sammy only needs three.” (An aliyah is the honor of reciting the blessings over the Torah at the bimah before the Torah is read. During bar or bat mitzvah services, it is common for the bar mitzvah child to give these honors to family.) I passed the information on to my husband and son – three aliyahs.
I knew my rabbi was right. My husband would be fine. My son would be fine. In fact, my son was glad I wasn’t going to be there. He wanted to feel like he was in control of as much of the bar mitzvah planning as possible. My absence made him feel independent.
Still, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to be present when my son picked his Torah portion. I felt like I was missing out, not getting to be fully involved in the process, and that I was somehow falling down on the job of Jewish parent. At the same time, I smiled at the irony of the situation–the Jewish mom busy with other things leaving her child’s not Jewish dad in charge of making sure their son got to religious school and became a bar mitzvah.
As I spoke to the assembled parents at the congregation in Houston on the morning of the Torah portion picking, my watch vibrated, and a text from my husband came through. “Three aliyahs, right?” I apologized to the audience for the distraction and shared that my husband was helping my son pick his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah as I spoke to them. I said, “You don’t get a better example of life as an interfaith family living Jewishly than that! Sometimes the Jewish parent is the Jewish parent, and sometimes the parent from another background fills the role of Jewish parent.”
When I got home in the evening, I looked at the materials on the Torah portion and requirements for b’nai mitzvah students that my son received. His Torah portion was from Parsha Noach (Noah). He chose the first part of the chapter, where God tells Noah that the earth is corrupt and lawless, and instructs Noah to build an ark because he is going to flood the earth in order to destroy all that lives that is unclean. I turned to my son, “Did the kid pick the portion, or the portion pick the kid? What a perfect piece for my child who wants to be an engineer that designs and builds ships with water purification systems so he can repair our waterways!”
“It was the most interesting part to me,” my son responded. “That’s why I picked it.” My rabbi was right. My son was fine, and my husband did a great job.
I’ve written many times, about how lucky I feel to have a spouse who is so engaged and supportive of our family’s Jewish journey. I went to sleep that night feeling incredibly grateful once again for all that my husband does to make this Jewish thing happen and for the sweet ironies that are part of life as an interfaith family.
Growing up, my mother’s house was kosher. We had dishes for dairy and dishes for meat and we never mixed milk with meat. This goes back to the teachings of the Torah where it states on three separate occasions that a baby goat is not to be cooked in it’s mother’s milk. But our house was kosher mainly because my mother wanted my brother and me to fit in at the Orthodox Yeshiva we went to even though we weren’t Orthodox.
This plan fell through more than once. Most of my friends’ parents knew that my own parents weren’t religious. When we had sleepovers it was I who would have to travel to my peers’ houses because our house wasn’t “kosher enough.” But my mother’s efforts weren’t in vain. When Adrian and I moved into our apartment a few years ago it was my Grandmother’s dishes I unpacked from a cardboard box labeled “Grandma Rosie’s Dairy Dishes.”
There were teacups with pink roses and a tan trim on them wrapped in bubble wrap. There was a cake plate lined in gold and a blue glass candy dish I remembered reaching into as a child to pull out sticky black licorice squares. These dishes had made their debut in my Grandmother’s apartment then later at my mother’s house and finally were gifted to me. They held memories of Friday morning pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches. They also held the responsibility of staying kosher.
For my nephew’s first birthday party this past Sunday, the Star Wars cake I made followed the kosher rules. But the kosher rules also brought up concerns for our daughter Helen’s quickly approaching birthday in October. My brother and his wife ordered from a kosher catering company and had traditional Brooklyn/Jewish food. There were pastrami sandwiches, pickles, coleslaw and chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting in addition to the cake I baked. As with any Jewish event there was more than enough food. Adrian and I talked about having a Mexican/Jewish themed birthday for Helen to honor the Jewish side of my family and the Mexican Catholic side of Adrian’s family.
I started to get excited thinking about Helen’s birthday. We began saving empty cans of jalapeño peppers for floral arrangements and I bought a pack of Mexican Lotería cards (a traditional Mexican board game similar to bingo) to make into crafty invitations. I obsessed over Pinterest cake ideas and thought that getting balloons that say “uno” instead of “1” would be a cute idea.
Then, in the middle of my excitement, I remembered how much Adrian loves to eat meat and how steak tacos are usually accompanied by fresh cream and cheese. I thought of Adrian’s favorite Mexican dishes that involve chicken and cheese and pork. Then I panicked.
We keep a kosher home but when we eat out we don’t eat kosher. But how was I to explain to him that Helen’s birthday had to follow kosher rules? My family is kosher but his family will also be there. Part of me felt I was being unfair. Part of being kosher sometimes makes it seem like I am making Judaism seem more important than Catholicism, and that’s not fair. But, how do you bend a rule that can’t be broken because of tradition or belief or just out of respect for other family members?
I waited until Adrian got home from work.
“Bebe,” I said, “I’m worried about Helen’s birthday. Maybe we shouldn’t even have a party this year.” I couldn’t believe I was considering cancelling my daughter’s first birthday party so that I wouldn’t have to have an argument about steak enchiladas.
“Why?” Adrian asked, “I thought you wanted to do a big thing the way your brother did.”
“Well, I did, but I’m worried about the food.” I started to bite my nails.
“Stop biting your nails. What about the food?” he said.
“It has to be, well, it’s going to have to be, I mean because of my family we are going to have to have kosher Mexican food.”
Adrian thought for a while before he answered, “What does that entail?”
He knew some of the kosher rules but I reminded him that aside from the meat being kosher we couldn’t mix milk with meat.
“You want meat at the party?” he asked.
“I thought you wanted meat at the party,” I said.
“Why don’t we just do all dairy?” he said.
“What?” I couldn’t believe it. Adrian is a carnivore through and through and I assumed he would want to have something with steak at Helen’s party.
“I mean we can just do cheese enchiladas, guacamole, salsa, chips and have everything be dairy, no meat.”
“I thought you wanted meat!” I yelled in shock.
“I do, but dairy is so much easier!” he shouted back.
Part of the challenge of being in an interfaith relationship is trying never to offend the other person. I was so afraid I would offend Adrian by not having traditional Mexican cuisine at our daughter’s birthday that I looked past the other options in Mexican cooking. Mexico has a wide variety of seasoning and spices and I was looking only at having a kosher party as being a problem and not a bridge between two cultures and traditions. Anyway, Helen’s first birthday is about celebrating the birth of new traditions as well as old. We want to bestow on her a life rich with flavor; a life where the menu has both chicken noodle soup and pozole.
Our son will become a bar mitzvah in about a year, and I imagine that this will be the first in a series of posts about our family’s interfaith bar mitzvah journey. Since he is our oldest and only child, the bar mitzvah and its planning are new territories.
Neither my husband nor I have ever planned a bar mitzvah. For my bat mitzvah, I was responsible for learning my Torah and Haftorah portions, and writing my speech. My husband grew up in an Episcopal home. But more than the planning, it’s that for the first time in 14 years we’re confronting big religious questions, and I feel that same uncertainty that I felt in the early part of my relationship with my husband.
It’s strange to feel this way because for the last dozen years, it has been relatively smooth sailing in the Larkin’s interfaith and Jewish home. Sure we’ve had issues with some extended family members (mostly my Jewish ones) and some challenges around Christmas, acceptance in non-Reform segments of Judaism and dealing with prejudice, but we haven’t had the difficulties that some mixed faith couples have to navigate. Mostly, our decision to have a singularly Jewish home, made before we were engaged, has guided our choices and parenting.
Maybe it’s the significance of the Jewish coming-of-age ritual that makes the questions we must address seem bigger than before. Maybe the questions themselves are more significant. Whatever the case, they weigh heavy on my mind.
Over the years, my husband has said on numerous occasions that if he decides to convert it will be around our son’s bar mitzvah. What always felt like a far off decision point is now upon us. I have never asked my husband to convert, and I don’t care if he does or not, but I understand the weight such a decision has at this moment in our lives.
There are rituals and traditions that my husband will be able to participate in if he does choose to convert before our son’s big day that he would not be able to be fully a part of if he doesn’t convert. For example, he will be able to hold the Torah. I get teary thinking about passing the Torah to my husband and then watching my husband pass it to our son during the service.
I wonder how my husband will feel if he doesn’t formally choose Judaism before the bar mitzvah. Will he feel excluded because he can’t fully participate in the service? Will he be angry and will his anger change how he engages in our Jewish life going forward? Will he regret that he didn’t convert before the bar mitzvah after he experiences the power of the tradition as a parent rather than a spectator?
I suggested that it was time for my husband to talk to one of our rabbis. He agreed but said he would wait until we find out which one will work with our son. Apparently, he is not yet ready to deal with these questions either, and I know that he will be more willing to discuss them with a clergyperson. Sometimes when a spouses poses a question, we feel there is an agenda. When a third party asks the same question, it is just a question.
I’m also concerned about how our Christian family members will participate in the service. I know our synagogue’s clergy are all experienced in working with interfaith families. I know they work to craft as inclusive an experience as possible. But I wonder if some family who are not Jewish will feel hurt, ostracized, excluded or left out? How will we make them feel a part of and the significance of the moment? I already sense a gap.
These are just some of the questions circulating in my mind. I’d feel much better if I knew the answers and could see the outcomes. Instead, I need to navigate these uncertain waters, work with my husband to make thoughtful choices, and let this part of our family’s story unfold. That’s a lot easier said than done.
There was a painting that hung in the living room of our house when I was a child. My father’s good friend Mike painted it. Mike was an artist who had his art studio in New York and his apartment in Brooklyn. He also had a German Shepherd named “Renny” who sat on the floor of the studio while Mike painted. I’m not sure if the painting that hung in our house was a gift or if my father bought it. It was enormous. It seemed enormous when I was a child. From close up the image in the frame looked like watercolors of black, red, and gold with a hint of green. But, from far away Moses appeared with the Ten Commandments over his head looking down at the Jewish people from Mount Sinai as they bowed down to a Golden calf.
I had learned this story in school. Moses was so angry that his people were praying to an idol that he held the Ten Commandments above his head and threw them down and so they broke in half. This is what hung in our living room and above the Passover table every year when we invited our family and had to pull the big table out of the garage to fit everyone at the feast. Moses stood in a fit of rage at the top of a mountain and I learned every day that God was angry.
This was discouraging.
It was especially discouraging when in school the teachers asked us to “count the Omer.” The “Omer” are the days after Passover leading up to the holiday “Shavuot” in which the Jews celebrate the day God gave them the Torah. Shavuot is said to be a marriage between the Jewish people and God as it is a re-acceptance of the Torah, similar to a renewal of marriage vows.
The Omer lasts for 49 days and they must be counted and a prayer must be said. But, if a prayer is not said and you miss a day of counting you cannot say the prayers after that day, you must listen to someone else say them. In my house of liberal artists and unorthodox traditions I could never remember if I had counted the Omer, if I had missed a day, or if I had said the prayer right or not at all. What stuck with me more were the colors in Mike’s painting, that blood red of Moses’s cloak and the piercing gold of the calf.
In my house Shavuot was not a big holiday, hence the reason I couldn’t remember to count the Omer. My parents would have to sign a pink card that said I had counted it and I lost the pink card. I think my teachers had to give me five different pink cards. Charles Cohen found one of my cards in his box of Lemon Heads and returned it to me on the school bus one day. I hated math and I didn’t like to count. I didn’t want to believe at such a young age that our days were numbered. Besides, I already knew. There had been death in my family and Moses hung in my living room as a constant reminder of wrath and indignation.
Today my daughter is eight months old. Again, I count. I count her toes, her fingers and her months. She already has a life of her own, a personality of her own. She already has a different life experience than my own. For starters, Moses does not hang in our living room. That painting is still at my mother’s house somewhere in the attic. Here we have a menorah for Hanukkah, a chamsa for luck and a Virgin of Guadalupe for protection. My daughter is Jewish. My daughter is Catholic. My daughter is Mexican-American-Ashkenazi-Aztec. God is not angry. God is loving. It took me a long time to understand that.
This year on Shavuot Jews walk the streets in my neighborhood all night. It is traditional to stay up all night learning the Torah and walking. In Mexico they celebrate the festival of San Antonio of Padua. Adrian, my partner, sends money home for the festivities. San Antonio in Mexico is known as the “Saint of the Whole World.” He is best known for finding lost things. He also helps people find husbands or wives, helps women have babies and he helps the poor. The Jews in Midwood walked the streets praying and the Mexicans in Puebla walked the streets praying on the same day this year. My daughter hears Spanish and Hebrew and English and grows up knowing that God is a tapestry of colors like Joseph’s coat.
The Jews were wanderers for many years in the desert. They were seekers. I’d like to think this is still the case. The Aztecs were warriors and one of the most advanced cultures in science and technology of their time. Walking the streets of Brooklyn is sometimes like being at the Smithsonian Museum. So many different faces tell so many different stories.
I walk Helen down the street in her stroller on Shavuot, on the day of San Antonio of Padua. I imagine Moses walking beside us holding the Ten Commandments. Moses who exists in both the Catholic and the Jewish traditions. He does not look angry walking beside us. He looks serene. He understands my daughter’s mixed faith, race and religion. He stands beside us to teach us the lesson he himself learned as a child: that fire is stronger than gold.
As a baby Moses was tested by the Pharaoh. Since Moses had been found by the Egyptians in a basket floating down the river, the Pharaoh was superstitious that Moses might be a threat to him when he grew up. The Pharaoh had two bowls set in front of Moses to test him to see if he liked jewels and riches. A bowl of gold coins and a bowl of fire were set in front of baby Moses. Just as Moses crawled toward the bowl of gold an Angel swooped down and moved him to the bowl of fire. He burned his hand and stuck his fingers in his mouth to soothe the burn. Because of this Moses had a speech impediment and later on in his life it was God who would speak through Moses so that the people would listen. The Pharaoh was satisfied that Moses would not try to steal his throne after this incident.
What I never understood about the painting in my mother’s living room was the significance of the golden calf. All I saw was a mix of rage in color. It was not only that the Jewish people were bowing down to an idol that was not their God, it was that the idol was made of gold. Gold was the very thing the Angel had moved Moses away from as a child. Gold made the Pharaoh jealous. Gold took precedence over religion and faith. Gold was the reason Hernan Cortez murdered and defeated the Aztec empire. The Aztec Empire was known as the “City of Gold” much like Jerusalem. Everyone in every faith and every religion has at some point been tempted by gold.
Shavuot and the Festival of San Antonio of Padua both teach us the lesson of staying humble. The riches, the real gold are in our families, our traditions and what we teach our future generations. We want to reach for the bowl of shiny coins. We believe this is where our happiness lies. The Angel swoops down every time to burn our hands so that our speech is stifled in order to hear a higher power. We must be silent in order to listen. Not just one but many faiths teach us this lesson.
Moses walks beside my daughter’s stroller and we meet San Antonio along the way. Perhaps a long time ago San Antonio helped Moses to find the Torah again and Moses helped San Antonio feed the poor.
Hello again. Anne and Sam here. You may remember us from the InterfaithFamily Wedding Blog. A few years have passed and we have a 5-month-old son, Jack. As new parents we may not know how to handle teething or potty training yet, but we would like to share some of our experiences with you, especially those having to do with raising a child in an interfaith household.
Sam is Jewish and I am Catholic. Growing up, religion has been a very important aspect in both of our families and our faith will continue to be at the core of our growing family.
When we were planning our wedding, the topic of children came up frequently in conversation. We decided that our future children would practice only one religion. We thought it would be very confusing to send children to Hebrew school and Catholic school, believing in Catholicism on Sunday and Judaism on Shabbat. The question was which religion should we choose?
When I got pregnant, the conversations about religion became more frequent. We came to the conclusion we would raise our children as Jews. Below are some factors that fed into our decision.
Despite choosing Judaism for our children, I will still practice Catholicism. My religion will not be hidden or kept a secret from our children. Sam and our children will be able to celebrate the Catholic holidays with my family and me, but Catholicism will be my religion, not the religion of the household.
I will be able to keep my Catholic faith while maintaining a Jewish home and teaching our children about Judaism. I feel as though I don’t have to believe all aspects of the religion in order to keep a Jewish home. I can practice the cultural aspects of Judaism by cooking traditional holiday foods, hanging mezuzot, building a sukkah, lighting the Hanukkah candles, reading from the book of Esther during Purim, keeping leaven out of the home during Passover and celebrating other Jewish holidays, all while staying true to my beliefs.
It is much easier for me to teach our children about Judaism than for Sam to teach them Catholicism. Since Catholicism is partly rooted in Jewish scriptures, I believe in most of the teachings of the Torah, as it is the first five books of the Catholic bible. By raising our children as Jews, we can embrace the similarities of our religions by teaching our children the stories and traditions that we both believe in.
Sam is more active at his synagogue than I am at my church. Sam is very active with the synagogue’s Men’s Club, frequently reads from the Torah, has established a tight-knit, faith-based community within his synagogue and will become the Chairman of the Rituals and Practices Committee. Unfortunately we do not have these same strong ties with my local church.
When we found out that we were going to have a boy, there was a certain level of tradition that we wanted to uphold. Jack is our first-born. Sam is the first-born in his family; Sam’s dad is the first-born and Sam’s paternal grandfather is the first-born in his family. We wanted to ensure the future patriarch of the Goodman family continues to be Jewish.
Should you have any questions regarding how we came to this conclusion, or any other topic related to raising children in an interfaith household, feel free to ask away! We’ll be happy to address your questions in future blog posts.
By Alex Schuh
One thing I love about being in an interfaith relationship is the seemingly endless array of religious holidays and celebrations of my wife’s and kids’ religion that pop up to surprise me again and again every season. Because the Jewish holidays are keyed to the lunar calendar, plus some other mysterious (at least to me) factors, the dates seem to shift widely throughout the year, which makes the whole thing a bit more exciting than planning around the Christian holidays (Christmas? It’s December 25 again this year! Hanukkah? I have no idea!). The surprise nature of the Jewish holidays revealed themselves to me again this year, when my wife announced what we would be doing on our wedding anniversary, which is June 11.
“Remember,” she said, “We’ll be going to the Havurah gathering that night.” I could feel my twin 14-year-olds leaning forward a bit from the back seat of the car to get more details.
“What for?” I asked.
“It’s Shavuot,” she replied, matter-of-factly. Hmm… Shavuot. Yes, I’d heard of it. In fact, Shavuot was instrumental in moving our Texas wedding date to the middle of June from early June. That was not an insignificant change, particularly since every additional June day in Texas adds another degree to the thermometer. Shavuot actually had an impact on my life and the start of our family, and the 100-degree weather of our wedding weekend (!), so I should have been able to call up some reference facts on it. I knew it had something to do with counting, but beyond that, I was clueless.
“What’s Shavuot?” I asked. The kids were listening more closely in the back of the car, trying to discern what might merit a trip to the Havurah on a school night just before their final exams week, I suspect.
My wife hesitated for a moment. “I’m guessing it has something to do with a famous battle, agriculture or a feast of some kind—or maybe all three.” I offered.
“It’s, um, related to the Torah: when Moses received it.” She quickly checked Google on her phone, and sure enough, it is a commemoration of when God gave Moses the Torah. And, it did indeed involve counting: It occurs on the 50th day after 49 days of counting the Omer.
I remember our Rabbi in the Havurah explaining how it is determined when it occurs, although having never actually counted the Omer myself, I still don’t think I could have determined when it would occur that year. Because it doesn’t have any particular Torah commandments associated with it (unlike the other holidays) it can be celebrated in different ways, or without much fanfare at all (many Jews don’t give much attention to Shavuot, which explains why some Jews are not as familiar with it as they are with the other holidays).
It turns out that Shavuot is a very interesting holiday—most of them are interesting, but this one has some particular features that are worth noting. It’s known as the “Feast of Weeks,” as it is celebrated with a feast that gives thanks for the grain harvest (In Israel, not in Philadelphia, where we live). Shavuot means “weeks,” in Hebrew; it is actually a series of weeks (49 days) after Passover. Although it’s technically a grain-related holiday, it’s milk that gets the prime position in the food department, possibly because Israel is said to be flowing with “milk and honey” or because the Israelites abstained from eating meat before receiving the Torah. So, cheesecake is just as likely to make an appearance as cream of wheat (well, probably much more likely).
Shavuot is also one of three biblically based pilgrimages; the other two are Passover and Sukkot (another harvest holiday). Some people, like some of my Orthodox Jewish friends, stay up all night studying and teaching about the Torah on Shavuot. That would not work so well for my kids, who would be preparing for their final exams the next day.
On this wedding anniversary, I will be celebrating the beginning of “Father’s Day Week” with my twins and my wife during the festival of Shavuot. I am always grateful to have a reason to have a party with my family and friends, so Shavuot gives us the perfect reason this year. I am grateful once again to my children—my two wonderful Jewish kids—for their gift of a 5,000-year-old religion and all of the surprising, enlightening and tasty holidays that they give me season after season, year after year.
First words. What was my own first word? Probably “Mama,” though now my mother doesn’t remember. She does remember my brother’s first word, which was “arrow.” This is because she was constantly driving around the block with him in his car seat trying to put him to sleep. He would see the arrow on the speedometer and my mother would say “arrow” and so he too repeated “arrow.” It was inevitable, he spent most of his time trying to get to sleep in the car.
What will my daughter’s first word be? Adrian and I wonder this often. We speak Spanish and English in our house. Adrian is Mexican Catholic and I am American Jewish and we have Hebrew letters all over the house. There is a Virgin of Guadalupe in our room and the Hebrew alphabet on the fridge. We wonder if little Helen is confused. She has begun to make many noises and just a few weeks ago she was saying “mamamamamamama.” At first we thought it was me she was calling. She’s eight months old now and it’s a bit early for her first words. But I was ecstatic when I heard “Maaaaaa!!!” come out of her mouth. But then, she stopped saying it. Now she’s making noises. We are happy with noises, too.
What we wonder most is what language she will choose. We speak Spanish at home, English at Grandma’s house and Hebrew on holidays. Also, we hope her first word will be something nice. We live in New York and our language here can be, well, special. We really hope her first word doesn’t fly out of her mouth unannounced during rush hour traffic so we, mostly me, have had to tone it down when in her company.
Every Thursday when Adrian goes to work I pile Helen into the Chevy and we go pick up my mother and head off to my sister-in-law’s house. My brother works as well so it’s usually a girl’s day except for my twin nephews, Jacob and Nathan, who are just two-and-a-half months older than Helen. We look to them for what to expect with words. They haven’t started speaking yet either, though they make a lot of different sounds as well.
In the Torah there are two sets of famous twins. First, there are Jacob and Esau. They are the most well known because they are famous for being the “good” twin and the “evil” twin. But, if I am going to make comparisons I’d like to compare my nephews more to Tamar’s twins, who the Torah describes as both being righteous. Tamar’s twins also came early, as did my nephews.
Our Thursdays are spent playing and observing and waiting for words. This week Nathan can stand while holding onto something and he makes a low gurgle and smiles. Jacob can stand, too, but he doesn’t like to get down by himself and he loves to look at books. Helen bangs a plastic donut against her head and is content. It’s a marvel to watch these three cousins interact. Helen and Nathan seem to be the best of friends and Jacob lies in the middle of the play rug and flips the pages in his cloth book. I won’t be surprised if Jacob’s first word is a whole sentence and he one day blurts out, “E equals Mc squared.” Nathan will probably say, “Let’s go Mets!” and I still wonder about Helen. Adrian has started to say “Hola” and wave to her. I have started speaking to the twins in Spanish. They look at me like I have three heads but I think they look at me like that anyway.
I’d like my daughter and my nephews to learn basic Yiddish words as well. Here are a few I’m highlighting that will serve them well on their journeys through life:
1. Feh. Feh is like spitting. It’s when you disapprove or find something gross. If someone asks if you like politics you can say, “Feh.”
2. Plotz. To plotz means to explode. If you are shocked by something then you could just plotz!
The most important word and one used most frequently in my household is…
3. Nu. Nu means, “Hello?” “Well?” “Huh?” When Helen doesn’t want to eat I say, “Nu? When are you going to finish this?”
Now that I’ve added another language to the list I’m worried that Helen will never want to speak. Maybe that’s why my brother said “arrow” for the longest time. He could never get a word in edgewise with my parents always clucking. But, I think the word my daughter and my nephews will learn quickly enough is a word everyone uses with them all the time. In English, “Love” or “I love you.” In Spanish, “Amor” or “Te Amo.” In Hebrew, “Ahava” or “ani ohevet otcha.” In Yiddish, “Oy vey.” Just kidding. In Yiddish, “Ikh libe dikh.”
When I was 8 years old I had a good friend who lived around the corner from me. His name was Nachshon. We took the same school bus to school and at the Orthodox Yeshiva we attended we were in the same class. I went to his house often after school to play video games or just to hang out. He rarely came to my house. My family was not religious enough for his family even though we had a kosher home and my parents tried hard to educate us in Judaism. My parents were liberals. They had been actors and met on stage. They believed in finding out about oneself both inside and outside of the religion. For this reason the Jewish community at my Yeshiva rejected many of my parents’ beliefs and therefore my brother and I were rejected as well, though in a subtler manner.
I was allowed into Nachshon’s home where the rules of kosher/non-kosher, religious and non-religious were in tact and could not be stirred. He was, however, not allowed into my own home. At 8 years of age I didn’t care. He had a Nintendo and my brother and I did not. He had better toys, better games and carpeting in his basement. He had what I didn’t have, or so it seemed.
Then something happened to Nachshon, or rather something happened to his father. One day Nachshon didn’t show up to school. In the middle of Torah study that morning our teacher told us all to put on our coats, we were going somewhere. Once outside we boarded a yellow bus. The bus twisted and turned through the sooty Brooklyn streets until we were close to my own neighborhood. We ended up in front of Nachshon’s residence.
I had been to his house many times before but never with my whole class. There were twenty of us: the girls dressed in long skirts and long sleeved shirts, the boys with yarmulkes, black pants and white shirts. We looked like a sea of exclamation points shuffling through the small doorway. The house was dark and the mirrors had been covered with black fabric. There were low boxes on the floor in the living room for the family members to sit on. It was then I realized what we were doing there. We went, as a class to sit shiva. Shiva is the traditional Jewish mourning period. It usually lasts for seven days and family members sit on the floor or on low boxes, they cover their mirrors and in my neighborhood they leave the door open for visitors to come and go. It is a “mitzvah,” a good deed to sit shiva. As a child it is terrifying.
Nachshon looked small in his own home surrounded by guests from all over the neighborhood. His father had been sick for a long time. No one knew any of the details. He died of some kind of cancer and now the closest family members sat around the living room on low boxes reciting his name and weeping.
That year I stopped going to Nachshon’s house to play. He didn’t speak to me in school. I heard that his mother wanted him to hang around only very religious Orthodox Jewish boys and girls. I was not in that category. The next year I was kicked out of the Yeshiva and I didn’t see him again for a long time. Then one day something happened to me, or rather something happened to my father.
I saw Nachshon again four-and-a-half years later at a shiva for my own father. He showed up on the front porch with sad eyes, dressed in a black suit, his yarmulke a patch of crimson velvet on his head.
“I’m so sorry about your father,” he said. It was the first time he had ever been to my house. Death had brought him there. Death, sympathy and compassion had overcome my “not Jewish enough” family. Though he came on his own. There was no school bus, no long skirts following his lead. He came alone. It was the last time I ever saw him. I felt as if his presence was an apology.
Today I have a newborn. She is Jewish by her mother, Mexican-Catholic by her father. I wonder what she will feel as she grows up in the neighborhood I grew up in. Her father speaks a different language and her mother wears rock t-shirts every day of the week. Does this make her less Jewish? Will parents be afraid to send their children to our house? How will this make her feel? What will I say when she says “Why?”
I will tell her I lost a very close friend a long time ago because of fear and judgment. I will tell her something broke between us because the community that surrounded us did not know how to bind us closer together in a time of mourning and instead shifted us apart.
I would like my daughter to grow up understanding the customs of each religion. The way Catholics and Jews deal with death is of equal importance. But more than this I want her to make her own decisions about religion and I want her to be able to turn to spirituality in times of great distress. I want her to have courage the way Nachshon had when he defied the community and walked up on my front porch to pay his respects. I will explain to my daughter one day that in that one fixed moment in time we were who we were as Jews but more so as resplendent human spirits.
My memories of religious school are pretty varied. I remember visiting the sanctuary in first or second grade, a room whose enormity overwhelmed me, watching a few old men daven in the corner while our teacher pointed out the ark and the eternal light. I remember great conversations in our Jewish Studies sessions in later elementary school, reading coming-of-age stories about Jewish children and discussing them together. I remember lots of bagel cafe sessions, too many, if I recall, designed to drill down on how to order cream cheese in Hebrew.
I also remember a few teachers who seemed old-fashioned and way too strict. I remember some social dynamics between middle school students that hardly seemed to reflect the Jewish values we were learning in class. I remember some unfortunately contentious conversations during Confirmation class with a rabbi who didn’t seem to understand us teenagers. Like my secular school experience, there were things I liked, and things I didn’t. When all was said and done, I think I would say religious school was important, and I learned things that have stuck with me. There were people and things I loved about it, but I am not so sure I would ever say I loved it.
We are only two months in, but Ruthie loves Sunday School. I didn’t expect that. I hoped she’d like it. I hoped she’d learn some things that would stick with her. The big surprise of this school year is less about her Monday-Friday school experience, and more about how much she loves Sunday School.
There are a few reasons why Sunday School had a step-up in the likeability scale before she even started. She has a Sunday School best friend, who she met last spring, who not only clicks with her beautifully but even shares her name (another Ruthie!). Unlike many of her peers, Ruthie started in public school in pre-kindergarten, so her Monday-Friday school is old hat, but this is her first year in Sunday School, so there is a shiny newness to it. And Sunday School is something that only Ruthie does – Chaya isn’t old enough for it, so her Sunday morning obligation also solidifies her position as a more mature sister.
But that alone isn’t enough to create love. I give the majority of the credit to the reality that her Sunday School is loveable. The temple where we are sending Ruthie is one of many where I have seen a commitment to make religious school awesome, recognizing that a lot of the parents dropping off kids on Sunday morning did not love Sunday School. The curriculum is varied and current. Once the kindergarten crafts are done, Ruthie’s class engages in Hebrew Yoga to connect themselves to Jewish concepts and spirituality. Learning about Torah is so fun that we have overheard Ruthie bragging to her non-religious friends about how cool it is that she is learning about it.
A friend with older kids assured me that Ruthie’s love is likely to wane, that I can expect an adolescent girl at some point that I’ll have to drag to temple on Sunday morning. I don’t doubt that that may lay ahead. But for now, Ruthie loves Sunday School, and it is a pretty great gift.