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This yearâ€™s Rosh Hashanah became the beginning of a challenging New Year. Approaching the middle of my third trimester with a two-year-old at home I refused to cook. I spent the Wednesday afternoon before the festivities with my feet up while blowing bubbles for my daughter. There was only one small tantrum that occurred in the kitchen when I said â€śchickenâ€ť and my daughter said â€ścookieâ€ť and then when I pulled out a cutlet there were a few kicks and screams and â€ścookie, cookie, cookie!â€ť demands. Other than that, things seemed to be going my way.
We had Rosh Hashanah dinner at my motherâ€™s house and my daughter and nephews played until they exhausted themselves and then we all went to bed. The real Rosh Hashanah tradition begins in the morning when my mother and I walk one mile to our Orthodox synagogue every year. This is purely tradition. We are not Orthodox and I have been running an interfaith household with my Mexican/Catholic partner since before our first daughter was born. But the walking to the synagogue where my father prayed and where we went to visit my grandmother as children, because she lives half a block away, is the tradition I have kept because it is most important to me. It is also important for me to share that tradition with my own daughter and the new baby girl on the way.
It was so humid for our walk in the morning that my mother and I had to stop every few blocks. (AtÂ 72, my mother is in better shape than her pregnant daughter.) We huffed and puffed and made it in time to hear the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn that the rabbi blows into every year. And every year he says the same thingâ€”that no one can hear the shofar in the streets without trembling. I always tremble when he says this because it is such a unique image and I imagine the olden days when perhaps this was true.
It is always the walk to synagogue with my mother that matters on the High Holy Day. Of course we pray and we listen to the rabbiâ€™s sermon, but when we walk, we share memories. We wonder and are in awe of how we both made it so far with so much heartache. We look at my daughter and marvel how a baby so Jewish and so Catholic at the same time can be so blessed.
Our walk home this year is what changes things. On our way back to the house, my mother tells me she is excited because she will be going with my nephews to synagogue on Friday morning. At first, I think my brother will be bringing them to our synagogue. He doesnâ€™t live too far away but he would have to drive them over. But then my mother assures me that he is not driving, in fact SHE is driving to their house in the morning and going to a new synagogue in my brotherâ€™s neighborhood. I stop walking and have to sit down.
During my most challenging times of trying to balance two cultures and two religions in my own home and trying to give my daughter the gift of both beautiful worlds, I have never broken my own traditions to do so. I have never told my mother I was not going to synagogue with her. I have never missed a Passover seder. So it shocked me when my mother decided to do something she has never done before on our most important holiday. It also shocked me that I hadnâ€™t been invited. I was stunned.
The next morning was a beautiful day in Brooklyn. It was what Rosh Hashanah is made of. The neighborhood was green and the sky was a piercing blue. There was no humidity. The sidewalks had cooled off and the Orthodox women in my neighborhood shuffled by in their best dresses. Lilac, burgundy, opal and sea foam green were the colors of the dayâ€™s fabric. I walked out of my house without my mother. At first, I thought that I should try a new synagogue. Next door to our apartment, where I held a baby naming for my daughter, they had a service. When I walked in and the woman asked if I needed help I told her I had forgotten something at home and I walked back out onto the street.
I took the long walk to synagogue alone. When I approached my seat inside, the rabbi had just brought out the torah and everyone stood. Rosh Hashanah signifies a new beginning. It is the day God opens a new page and decides whether or not we will be forgiven for our past sins. It is a joyous holiday celebrated by the tradition of eating apples dipped in honey for the desire for a sweet year to come. It is on this day that I can always hear my father singing, even though he has been gone for so long. It is on this day that I thank God for the opportunities I have, for a family I have made with two faiths. But it was never in my mind that on this day, I would sit without my mother when she is still alive and well. It was never in my mind that I would miss someone. It never occurred to me that the matriarch of my own childhood family would be the first one to truly break tradition, to unravel it like a typewriter ribbonâ€”as if at the last minute she decided to change the story.
Numbers are a big deal in Judaism. Hebrew is an ancient language, but numerology is hidden in every letter of scripture. This is something I learned very early on: Numbers matter. Our time on this earthâ€”our nights and our days are numbered. So it wasnâ€™t surprising that I grew up on 23rdÂ street in Brooklyn and my father died on August 23. I was 12-and-a-half years old.Â By Jewish law, I was a woman. But by losing a father at such a young age, a part of me remained fixed in timeâ€”always a little girl.
This year marks 23 yearsÂ since my father died and I still havenâ€™t set foot in the cemetery since childhood. This has nothing to do with numbers. This has to do with the fact that my father, a Brooklyn boy through and through, was buried in New Jersey of all placesâ€”Paramus, New Jersey. If I know one thing about the spirit, itâ€™s that my fatherâ€™s spirit wouldnâ€™t be caught dead in Jersey. Heâ€™s not really there.
The dead live in our hearts. They live with us throughout our numbered days. Sometimes they ride the trainÂ or the bus with us. They help us cross the street on particularly tired days. We canâ€™t see them, but they are around.
In Jewish tradition, my family believes that after death our souls go back to God. My husbandâ€™s family of Mexican Catholic tradition believes that the dead hover around all the time, just in case you need them. Once a year on Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), Adrianâ€™s family travels to the cemetery to leave the favorite foods of the deceased. I believe in all of that, but I also believe that my father still sometimes likes to visit my motherâ€™s living room and sit in his big blue chair.
So this year, as my mother got dressed in her usual Sunday cemetery garb, she called to ask me the same question sheâ€™s been asking me for 23 years, â€śAre you coming with us to the cemetery today?â€ť
My father was crematedâ€”that is unheard of in Judaism. He sits on a shelf in a small jar behind a stone that says his name in both Hebrew and English. On the day he died, one of the neighbors remarked, â€śThereâ€™s Big Dave in a little jar.â€ť Iâ€™m not sure my husbandâ€™s take on cremation and Iâ€™m nervous about asking him, but as it turns out, our two religions and cultures have more in common when it comes to death and dying than I would have suspected.
In Adrianâ€™s village, when someone dies, the family stays up all night because they believe that the spirit of the person is still in the house. Then he informs me that the body must be buried within a 24-hour period. This is true in Judaism as well! Adrian alsoÂ tells me that people are cremated in Mexico, but thoseÂ people are usually from a bigger city whereas he is from a smaller village setting.
What Adrian canâ€™t comprehend is that almost my whole family is buried in the Paramus cemetery and there is an empty lot next to my father that belongs to my mother whenever sheâ€™s ready to join him (hopefully no time soon). He says thatâ€™s the strangest thing heâ€™s ever heard. I try to explain to him that itâ€™s kind of like owning real estate and he refuses to believe me.
But, both of our religions have a high respect for the dead. We both have special prayers. Both of our families wear black when someone dies. We both cry. Both of our families visit the dead once or twice a year. Except for me.
I talk to my father every day. And she may not know that I know this, but my mother talks to him every day too. There is a picture of my father in my living room holding me as a newborn. His face is close to my face and I have just been born. In that photo, my father is happy. He owns a house. He has a son and his daughter has just been born. Heâ€™s happily married. He goes to the theater once a week. He eats dinner out. He waters the lawn. In the photo next to him is a picture of Adrian and our little one, Helen Rose. In the photo, she has just been born and Adrian holds her in the exact pose as the photo of my father and me. Adrian is happy. His first child has just been born. He has a new apartment. He sees his friends and brothers once a week. He eats dinner out. He waters his plants.
Itâ€™s been 23 years since my fatherâ€™s death. So much has happened without him, though it feels as though he were here just yesterday. In Kabbalistic terms the number 23 signifies a kingdom. Usually it refers to an inner kingdom. As a Jewish girl from Brooklyn who started a life with a Catholic boy from Mexico, I feel as though my choice to create an interfaith family has kept my inner kingdom and my familyâ€™s inner kingdom intact. The choice to give my daughter a vast knowledge of who she is breaks tradition and yet holds it in place forever.
I never visit the cemetery on the anniversary of my fatherâ€™s death. Itâ€™s clear heâ€™s still among usâ€¦in his own way.
Giving your child a Hebrew name is a long-standing tradition in Judaism. Sometimes families have elaborate gatherings as part of a bris while others choose more intimate family ceremonies (we chose the latter). With our siblings and parents together, we could not help but reflect on the long journey to that moment over the last several years. We could not have persevered through it all without the love and support of those closest to us, which is why we asked that they share in this special moment. Thank you to each of these people for your unconditional love, generosity, kind words and most important, hope.
A naming ceremony for an interfaith family does not come without challenges, but we viewed it as an opportunity to foster understanding with those in our family who lovingly participated, and areÂ not Jewish. And in all honesty, my family is not the most religious, so it also served as a nice refresher for them. A family friend who is a doctor and mohel (someone trained in both Jewish law and the surgical hygiene for performing a circumcision) performed the beautiful ceremony. She made sure there was plenty of opportunity to pause and ask questions about the topics we discussed and why certain traditions were important to us. We asked my brother and sister-in-law to be Quinnâ€™s godparents. They will always be a big part of her life and in our absence, they would be there to help guide her through the learning process and discovering Judaism.
Jews of Central or Eastern European descent encourage the celebration of new life by the naming of children to honor loved ones who are no longer with us. Between both of our families, there are many loved ones we wish could have been there to share in the joy of this most wonderful occasion. Jewish tradition also teaches us the importance not to mourn their passing, rather to celebrate their lives. They will live on in our hearts and are never truly gone whenÂ we continue to tell their stories and talk about our special memories of them. Often, we recognize this honor by giving the child an English name that starts with the same letter as a late relative.
It is also customary to give a child a Hebrew name in addition to an English name. We gave Quinn the Hebrew name of Pelia (pay-lee-ah) Davi (dah-vee). Pelia means wonder or miracle and Davi means cherished. Both her arrival into this world and into our arms made her Hebrew name very fitting. She is named after my nana, Paula, and Kimberlyâ€™s nonnie, Domenica. By giving her this name, we are bridging the generations of the past and present and also blending her Jewish and Italian heritage. She will never know where she isÂ going until she knows where she came from. Her great-grandmothers would have loved to have known her. In the years to come, we will be able to share many stories and memories about them with her. We hope she will embody many of the characteristics and qualities we loved about them and carry on their namesake.
We closed this memorable dayÂ by reading this special poem:
â€śWe didn’t give you the gift of life,
But in our hearts we know. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
The love we feel is deep and real, Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
As if it had been so. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
For us to have each other, Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Is like a dream come true! Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
No, we didn’t give you the gift of life, Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Life gave us the gift of you.â€ť
Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday because it is mostly about storytelling. Every year, my family sits around the Passover table and tells the story of how the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt by blindly following Moses across the Red Sea. The story is about freedom, faith and most of all, food. We eat matzah (unleavened bread) to symbolize the unleavened bread the Jews took with them on their long journey through the desert. We clean our houses and get rid of every last trace of bread. Then, my mother calls me 68 times about the Passover menu. In my head, I picture all the Jewish mothers in Egypt during Mosesâ€™ time asking, â€śChicken, brisket or both?â€ť But what Iâ€™ve always loved the most about Passover at my motherâ€™s house was the kidsâ€™ table. It is the table I was always a part of until only recently. Now, thereâ€™s a new kidsâ€™ table and its guests include my daughter Helen and her two cousins (my brotherâ€™s boys), Jacob and Nathan.
I didnâ€™t realize this phenomenon about the kidsâ€™ table until I brought over my half of the Passover menu in aluminum pans an hour before the seder. Adrian, my significant other who grew up in Mexico as a Catholic, pointed it out when he carried our daughter into my motherâ€™s house. â€śMy Mom used to do that at Christmas,â€ť Adrian remarked when he saw one long table in my motherâ€™s living room and the mini table at the end set with three kiddie plastic plates and spoons. Adrian comes from a family of seven kids and he loved my motherâ€™s rendition of a kidâ€™s table, which made him nostalgic. His family is scattered across the globe and his one dream is to have everyone go back to Mexico to sit at his motherâ€™s table on a big Catholic holiday. But this year, Adrian was part of the Passover festivities even though he couldnâ€™t totally grasp matzah.
â€śIt tastes like paper,â€ť he said.
â€śYes,â€ť I replied, â€śthatâ€™s the point. We suffered in Egypt and then we suffered with matzah.â€ť
The kidsâ€™ table signified so much to me this year. For the first time in maybe 50 years, my uncle missed the Passover seder because heâ€™s sick and my aunt couldnâ€™t come either. My cousins were also absent. Usually, our Passover table is set for 15-18 people, but this year, it dwindled down to seven adults and three kids. This made me afraid because my brother was in charge of running the seder and I was in charge of half the cookingâ€”it made me realize that the original Passover kidsâ€™ table was now the adultsâ€™ table.
My mother is getting older and I am trying to balance old traditions with new interfaith beliefs. Adrian and I are trying to show Helen that two cultures and two faiths can coexist and we are trying to do this by example. But sometimes, I still feel like a kid. Sometimes we donâ€™t have all the answers and there are times that even when I make 22 chicken legs, the guests only eat the brisket. â€śI told you so,â€ť I hear my Jewish ancestors whisper.
My nephews, who are twin boys, came in like a hurricane. They love Helen and arrived shouting â€śHelen, Helen, Helen!â€ť When they saw my mother, who always brings them the challah bread and chicken noodle soup, they began to shout, â€śChallah, challah, challah!â€ť But on Passover, we canâ€™t eat challah or noodle soup, so they learned instead to shout, â€śMatzah, matzah, matzah!â€ť And then continued with, â€śAdi! Adi! Adi!â€ť for Adrian, their favorite uncle.
I marveled at the kidsâ€™ table for its differences and its similarities. This year, as my nephews speak English, Helen answers in Spanish. â€śNo se,â€ť she says, which means, â€śI donâ€™t know,â€ť and the boys laugh. But they look just as my brother and I had once looked. The only difference is that this Passover, like all future Passovers, there will be room for more than one faith. Adrian sits at the table and is reminded of Catholic holidays in Mexico, I sit at the table and am reminded of my father and how he, too, loved a good story.
The traditional Jewish four questions, to be asked by the youngest child at the table, are sung by everyone, in Hebrew. â€śWhy is this night different from any other night?â€ť begin the questions. I laugh because I want to look up at God and say, â€śSeriously?â€ť But instead, I think of a proverb appropriate for this Passover from the New Testament: â€śGet rid of the old leaven of sin so that you may be a new batch of dough â€“ as you really are.â€ť (Bible, I Corinthians 5:7) This quote gives me hope for the future and urges me to shed my old skin and step into my new real one of woman, mother and two-faith-household-builder.
I type this while holding a squirmy, feverish 3-month-old in my lap. Shh, shh, shh, I tell him. It’s OK, just relax and rest bubbeleh. I rub his back and pull him closer, patting his head, whispering, “Just lay your keppe down on mommy’s shoulder.”
He has no idea what I’m really saying, but the words must be soothing because slowly he’s settling down and snuggling in as I type with one hand. I can feel his stuffy nose breathing against my neck and my arm is falling asleep but I hesitate to lay him down, knowing he doesn’t feel good. I’m talking to him quietly, telling him maybe we will FaceTime with Bubbie and Gramps later after he rests. Go schluffy, I say. It will make you feel better. Let’s move this wet schmatte off your face (as he lays his head on a particularly drool-covered burp cloth) and you’ll feel better in a little while.
Suddenly I’m channeling all of my great-grandparents. Did I always throw this many Yiddish words into the middle of everyday conversations? Last time I checked, I’m a 40-year-old from New Jersey, living in Maine and I can’t speak conversational Hebrew, let alone Yiddish. In the last ten minutes, I used five Yiddish words and didn’t think twice about it. And apparently my older children, ages 7 and 9, have either never noticed, don’t care or they are just so used to hearing random Yiddish words they don’t know any different. My boyfriend who is not Jewish (and father of said 3-month-old), has never once questioned me as to what I’m talking about, and until recently, I never considered how weird some of the things I say must sound.
A Lutheran friend of mine (who recently revealed to me that she’s learned of some Jewish roots in her family and is doing research to learn more, and asks me questions as her resident Jewish friend), went in on a group gift for the baby. They had a custom onesie made for him with the word “tuchas” (which means butt) and an arrow on the behind, because she knew I’d find it funny. Of course I did chuckle, andÂ a few weeks ago while sitting in the waiting room during my daughter’s cheer practice, it led to a whole conversation about Yiddish words. The “cheer moms” started quizzing me, looking up Yiddish on Google to see a. how much I really knew and b. how many words I actually use in conversation. In a room full of mostly straight-outta-Mainers, we all had a good laugh at the strangeness of it all, and the realization of how much Yiddish I use truly emerged.
Yet the strangeness has sat with me, making me feel even more different living in a place not known for diversity. I’ve caught myself changing my language to fit social situations, almost unconsciously. I’ve never been one to worry about “fitting in” as I’d rather just be me, but I’m coming to the realization that my version of being me incorporates my Jewishness as a given. So when I throw Yiddish into a conversation, I have this unrealistic expectation that the people I spend time with just get it. My reality doesn’t exactly match up in a world where the dying language of my ancestors has either become standard dialogue for the rest of the population (helllloooo Cawfee Tawk!), or a symbol of what connects me–and my children–to the past.
The baby is stirring, as he burps and spits up on my shoulder. Time to go clean up the schmutz, as I take solace in the words and pass on yet another tradition in my blended Jewish family.
The dual holiday extravaganza this season is more work than I thought it would be. But, itâ€™s important for me to keep the traditions from both my own family and Adrianâ€™s family in order for our daughter Helen to grow up understanding and respecting her two faiths: Jewish on my side and Mexican Catholic on Adrianâ€™s side. Also, Helen is 14 months old now and this Hanukkah/Christmas is really starting to come alive. This year both holidays fall on the same day! It feels like Moses and Jesus are somewhere eating latkes and drinking eggnog together.
From the beginning of my organization of the holidays, decorations were the first thing on my list. As far as decorations go, the question on my familyâ€™s minds was, â€śTo tree or not to tree?â€ť Iâ€™ve wanted a Christmas tree since I was a little girl in Hebrew school. When I was 12 I bought a plastic one from Rite Aid and hid it in the garage. I decorated it with colored balls and candy canes and I would goÂ out into the garage to stare at it. But this year because of our interfaith family, and our new traditions that include our old traditions combined into one big tradition, I was curious to know if Adrian wanted a tree.
At first he did. We set a date to go look for one. But, after a few days he decided against it. We are being quite thrifty right now and he decided we didnâ€™t need to spend money on a tree. â€śNext year,â€ť he said. But, what he doesnâ€™t know is that on Saturday when he goes to work at the restaurant at night, Helen and I will sneak out to buy a tree. It will be cheaper then because Saturday is Christmas eve so the tree people are looking to sell the rest of what they have for a lower price. I canâ€™t wait to see Adrianâ€™s face when he walks in and sees the tree. This might be a new tradition Iâ€™ve invented. Maybe every year Helen and I will sneak out to surprise her Papi! And of course, my 12-year-old self really wants that tree too.
I raided the aisles at Amazing Savings last week. I bought something called “Hanukah Tinsel.” Who knew something like this even existed! Itâ€™s tinsel but itâ€™s blue and white with dreidels hanging off of it. Then I bought stockings with our familyâ€™s initials and filled them with Hanukkah gelt. Usually Hanukkah gelt is money, but I filled them with big plastic dreidels that have jelly beans inside. Thatâ€™s my idea of Hanukkah gelt. Our apartment looks like the beginning of a crazy bat mitzvah/quinciĂ±era/Christmas/Hanukkah party. Obviously, Iâ€™m more excited about this than anyone else in my family.
Our gift bags are also outrageous. We have gifts from Santa, Mami, Papi and Grandma. Then we have Hanukkah gifts. Thereâ€™s one bag with Santa on it and heâ€™s looking at another gift bag with a menorah on it, almost as if heâ€™s remarking to himself â€śNow thatâ€™s a great idea to light my sleigh.â€ť In my mind I see Santa climbing down chimneys holding a menorah and having a plate of latkes by the tree. In our Brooklyn apartment Santa has to come through the fire escape. But, heâ€™ll get here somehow. I just hope no one calls the cops on him.
Today when Adrian goes to work Helen and I have to start shopping for the food on our Hanukkah/Christmas menu. In Mexico, a tradition on Christmas is a drink called â€śPonche.â€ť This is like a warm fruit punch that can be made with or without alcohol. Adrian likes it without alcohol. It has Mexican fruits, apples, raisins and sugar cane in it. Helen and I will go to the Mexican markets in the Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn and look around for these fruits and ingredients. We also need a bag of jalapeĂ±o and serrano chili peppers. Then we might make tamales or another traditional dish called â€śPipian Verdeâ€ť which is a pumpkin seed sauce.
For Hanukkah I always make plain potato latkes and zucchini latkes. And of course I have to make applesauce to go with it! In my family when I was growing up, Hanukkah was never one of the biggest holidays that we celebrated. But now that Adrian and I have Helen, I think it will become a bigger holiday than it was for me. Iâ€™m grateful that our two holidays coincided this year. To me it is a symbol that the world is changing and we are united even in our differences. I know that the holidays coinciding have to do with the 13 months of the Jewish calendar, but nevertheless I take it as my own personal and familial symbol.
Our apartment looks bright and festive. Also, this year I learned to knit and everyone is getting a Hanukkah/Christmas scarf! And thereâ€™s just one more thing I forgot to mention. In lightÂ of us trying to save money this holiday, I made homemade ornaments both as gifts and for our tree that we have yet to buy. They arenâ€™t finished yet but they are in the shapes of elephants, reindeer, dreidels, menorahs, candy canes and of course, hearts. One special ornament is a circle with Helenâ€™s hand print in it. That one symbolizes our two faiths as a circle, a meeting point, a never-ending sphere of understanding, communication and love. Two faiths, two holidays, one meeting point, one love.
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.
Itâ€™s strange to feel this way because for the last dozen years, it has been relatively smooth sailing in the Larkinâ€™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. Iâ€™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.
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
Or at least, this is what my six-year-old daughter Laurel would have me believe. This week, I opened up her teacherâ€™s monthly newsletter, scanning, as usual, for mentions of my own child. The final page usually includes what Laurel calls â€śjokes,â€ť except theyâ€™re actually wordsÂ â€śout of the mouths of babesâ€ť which sound funny to adult ears, but often meanÂ more than they say.
This particular snippet of conversation went as follows:
Classmate: â€śI speak English, Chinese and Spanish.â€ť
Laurel:Â â€śI speak English and Chinese and Spanish and Christian. And I speak Jewish too.â€ť
I laughed, of course, when I read it, and Laurel chuckled, too. She meantÂ â€śHebrew,â€ť of course, and â€śChristianâ€ť isnâ€™t really a language. Yet even as the children in her class oppose English to their lessons in Spanish and Chinese, Laurel knows as an interfaith child that Jewish can be contrasted with Christian, and Judaism has a language which is not English.
Out of the mouths of babes, indeed. Religious studies scholar Susan Friend Harding, for example, argues in her bookÂ The Book of Jerry Falwell, that the way words are used in fundamentalist Christian culture is key to understanding that culture itself. Or, to put it another way, culture functions like a language, and finding oneâ€™s way through an unfamiliar culture is much like learning to speak, write, or understand a new language.
As she gets a little bit older each month, I find it fascinating to see how Laurel learns her way around patterns of tradition and observance. She does indeed â€śspeak Jewish.â€ť I hear her speaking Hebrew when we say blessings for Shabbat. I hear her adorable mispronunciations and as she follows her parentsâ€™ guidance through the words of the Shema, revealing her growing familiarity with the language of Judaism. Even her younger sister Holly, at almost 28 months, tries to say the prayers, which usually results in some very cute utterances.
Sheâ€™s learning, too â€“ I think â€“ that churches and synagogues refer to similar types of places, but are not quite the same. One belongs to the â€ślanguageâ€ť of Judaism, and the other to the â€ślanguageâ€ť of Christianity. We, her parents, still dance nervously around the linguistic content of some of these religions: Ben remains as uncomfortable telling the stories of yet another Jewish holiday that exists because of some long-ago military triumph as I am answering her questions about Jesus â€“Â or even Santa Claus. In both cases, we try to treat the topics historically, and to say why Jews or Christians view these things as important. These conversations form one part of our daughtersâ€™ cultural knowledge and understanding, and one part of the â€ślanguagesâ€ť theyâ€™re learning.
When I first wrote for this blog, Laurel at 5 was only beginning to understand what religion or holidays meant, much less that they could come from different backgrounds: Jewish, Christian, national, or secular, or something else entirely. What a difference a year makes, and as little Holly gets older, too, sheâ€™ll grow in her understanding of the â€ślanguagesâ€ť present in our family.
Just last night, Laurel came into Hollyâ€™s room as I was putting her to bed. â€śI want to sing the Shema to my sister,â€ť Laurel said, and she did, beautifully, her sister listening as the language of Judaism washed over her. This morning, the Shema is stuck in Laurelâ€™s mind. She sang it repeatedly, joyfully throughout breakfast, and I have no doubt sheâ€™ll bring the language of Judaism with her to school today.
Â What â€ślanguagesâ€ť do your children speak? With what traditions, knowledges, and practices must they become familiar, in order to speak, think or act in the traditions of your family?
When I was 17, my family hosted a French exchange student. Isabel had never spent any significant time in the US, and our job was to make her feel at home and to introduce her to American culture. I think we did a pretty good job, engaging her in the hustle and bustle of the life of a family of five, dragging her to school plays and track meets, hitting all of the sightseeing hot spots we could fit in during the short time that she was with us. But I always felt like we gave her an exaggerated view of how Americans celebrate Valentineâ€™s Day, since the Berman Family Valentineâ€™s Day is a far cry from the typical card-and-a-box-of-chocolates event. Every year, on February 14,Â I smile when I remember Isabelâ€™s bewildered look as my mother entered our paper-heart-filled dining room with the Valentineâ€™s cake, the grand finale of a day filled with fanfare for all of us.
Valentineâ€™s Day is not a Jewish tradition, but as it is observed in the US it seems far enough away from its roots to be mostly non-religious. Â As I understand it, St. Valentine was actually one (or more) Christian saints, and there are some Christians who observe a special feast or mass. Â The Valentineâ€™s Day we recognize in the US is an amalgamation based on a little Ancient Roman and Christian tradition, bird-mating season, a few great poems, and the business savvy of a bunch of greeting card companies. In my house growing up, it was a reason to celebrate.
My mother loved a good party. She lost her father at age 19 and carried with her a deep understanding of the fragility of life. Â This motivated her to seize every opportunity to celebrate life. Â She also was a perpetual crafter, and any holiday that involved scissors, glue and paint was for her. So Mom was in on Valentineâ€™s Day. And having Isabel as a visitor only motivated her to make 1994 more special.
So Isabelâ€™s first American Valentineâ€™s Day went a little something like this: We woke up to a breakfast table set with Valentine-themed paper goods, and a gift bag at each seat. The bags were filled with cards, candies, socks, some goofy tchotchke to put on our dressers, and one gift picked out just for the recipient. Mom had on heart-shaped earrings, and we were encouraged by example to deck out our outfits with holiday-themed embellishments. Mom had probably labored with at least one, if not all four of us, to put together Valentineâ€™s for our friends – homemade chocolate lollipops or personalized cards. When we got home from school that day, the dining room was set for a formal dinner, with some heart-shaped confetti on the table and construction paper hearts spread hanging from the chandelier.Â We sat down to a dinner that was unusually polished for a school night, and dinner concluded with the cake. A beautiful, heart-shaped cake with pink frosting, set on the table with a grand presentation from Mom.
Incidentally, that year I had my first Valentineâ€™s Day date (after cake, of course). Â But that was a minor happening in the dayâ€™s festivities.
When we become parents, we have a chance to choose which of the traditions our parents gave to us we want to make our own, which we might make special events between grandparents and kids, and which we let slip away. Â Now that my mother is gone, this choice feels even more complicated, as some days, like Valentineâ€™s Day, I feel pressure to be both Mom and Grandma for my girls. Â When special days approach, I find myself in the aisle at a gift store, contemplating spending more than usual on something that only my Mom would buy for them, or worried on the eve of Valentineâ€™s Day that the decorations just arenâ€™t living up to her memory.
I know many people who hate Valentineâ€™s Day. Â They feel it is a â€śHallmark Holidayâ€ť that encourages needless spending. Â They hate how restaurants bloat their prices, and how crowded and unromantic that evening out can be. Â They feel it creates too much stress about being in a relationship, or if they are in a relationship, they feel it creates unnecessary stress to make a grand gesture.
But I love it for all of the reasons that my mother was trying to get through to me. By making it a family holiday, Mom made it about crafts, about food, about a break from thinking about snow and ice, about spreading joy. The love we celebrated was between people, some of them married or coupled, and some of them not. I love having an official Valentine, and having an excuse to tell Eric about how I love him. But I also think back happily on the years I was single and friends and I would enjoy cocktails together, stuffing quarters into the jukebox in our favorite bar, or the years my best friend and I would put goofy off-color poems into each otherâ€™s lockers.
That night in high school, when I saw Isabelâ€™s puzzled face, I leaned over to her and whispered, â€śThis is not normal.â€ť Â But it was not normal in a completely unobjectionable and totally wonderful way. Â So I am choosing to make this somewhat exaggerated family lovefest a Boatright tradition, too. Â Over the weekend our dining room became a craft-making factory, the heart-patterned tablecloth a mess of construction paper, stickers and glitter glue. Â We had a wonderful celebration with my family, a scrumptious brunch followed with the gift bags Mom taught us to make, and way too much chocolate. Â And this morning, my breakfast table was set for a special Valentineâ€™s meal. Â Regardless of the origin of this day, I just canâ€™t pass up a chance to celebrate the gift of another day together.