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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.
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 “behavior problem.” 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 weren’t Jewish.
When my father died I’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 “shiva” and this word in Hebrew also means “seven.” The traditional mourning period after someone dies lasts for seven days and we call this “sitting shiva.”
I had one friend from this Brooklyn Heights private school who did come to my house to sit shiva. Her name was Liz. She didn’t live near me but she didn’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 can’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 she’s pregnant with a baby girl, her first. Her due date is October 23 and my baby Helen’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.
Here’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 didn’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 wasn’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 Liz’s baby shower. I attended with Helen and saw four or five people I haven’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 Papi’s family. After the shower I went to my mother’s house to visit and watched her coo over the baby.
Helen and Grandma
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 weren’t or who we didn’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 on my mother’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 don’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. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” As my eyes were closed I could hear the woman begin to cry. Her crying turned into sobs. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love…” 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, “Miss, is there anything I can do?” But, my 12 1/2-year-old self was already lying on the ground with her… “Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith…”
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. The second verse came to me immediately: “Two thousand years is a very long exile. The time has come for it to end…”
Or at least, this is what my six-year-old daughter Laurel would have me believe. This week, I opened up her teacher’s monthly newsletter, scanning, as usual, for mentions of my own child. The final page usually includes what Laurel calls “jokes,” except they’re actually words “out of the mouths of babes” which sound funny to adult ears, but often mean more than they say.
This particular snippet of conversation went as follows:
Classmate: “I speak English, Chinese and Spanish.”
Laurel: “I speak English and Chinese and Spanish and Christian. And I speak Jewish too.”
I laughed, of course, when I read it, and Laurel chuckled, too. She meant “Hebrew,” of course, and “Christian” isn’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 book 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 one’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 “speak Jewish.” I hear her speaking Hebrew when we say blessings for Shabbat. I hear her adorable mispronunciations and as she follows her parents’ 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.
She’s learning, too – I think – that churches and synagogues refer to similar types of places, but are not quite the same. One belongs to the “language” of Judaism, and the other to the “language” 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 – 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 daughters’ cultural knowledge and understanding, and one part of the “languages” they’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, she’ll grow in her understanding of the “languages” present in our family.
Just last night, Laurel came into Holly’s room as I was putting her to bed. “I want to sing the Shema to my sister,” Laurel said, and she did, beautifully, her sister listening as the language of Judaism washed over her. This morning, the Shema is stuck in Laurel’s mind. She sang it repeatedly, joyfully throughout breakfast, and I have no doubt she’ll bring the language of Judaism with her to school today.
What “languages” 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 Valentine’s Day, since the Berman Family Valentine’s Day is a far cry from the typical card-and-a-box-of-chocolates event. Every year, on February 14, I smile when I remember Isabel’s bewildered look as my mother entered our paper-heart-filled dining room with the Valentine’s cake, the grand finale of a day filled with fanfare for all of us.
Valentine’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. 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. The Valentine’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. This motivated her to seize every opportunity to celebrate life. She also was a perpetual crafter, and any holiday that involved scissors, glue and paint was for her. So Mom was in on Valentine’s Day. And having Isabel as a visitor only motivated her to make 1994 more special.
So Isabel’s first American Valentine’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 Valentine’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. 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 Valentine’s Day date (after cake, of course). But that was a minor happening in the day’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. Now that my mother is gone, this choice feels even more complicated, as some days, like Valentine’s Day, I feel pressure to be both Mom and Grandma for my girls. 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 Valentine’s Day that the decorations just aren’t living up to her memory.
I know many people who hate Valentine’s Day. They feel it is a “Hallmark Holiday” that encourages needless spending. They hate how restaurants bloat their prices, and how crowded and unromantic that evening out can be. 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 other’s lockers.
That night in high school, when I saw Isabel’s puzzled face, I leaned over to her and whispered, “This is not normal.” But it was not normal in a completely unobjectionable and totally wonderful way. So I am choosing to make this somewhat exaggerated family lovefest a Boatright tradition, too. Over the weekend our dining room became a craft-making factory, the heart-patterned tablecloth a mess of construction paper, stickers and glitter glue. 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. And this morning, my breakfast table was set for a special Valentine’s meal. Regardless of the origin of this day, I just can’t pass up a chance to celebrate the gift of another day together.
My grandmother, Bless her Soul, made the most amazing dishes. Sadly, all the recipes disappeared when she passed away because she would never reveal any of her secrets. She was born and raised in Egypt and emigrated with the Exodus of the 1950’s.
One dish I remember LOVING as a child was her charoset, a staple of the PassoverSeder. I used to steal the walnuts with some of the sweet dip during the Seder.
My grandmother lived (with my father’s family) in Italy for a while and from my research, I think her charoset recipe is a blend of a traditional Egyptian charoset and a traditional Italian charoset.
It seems fitting since my husband’s parents were both born in Italy.
I don’t have amounts, so these are approximate and then you can adjust based on taste.
1 Cup dried dates, chopped
1 tablespoon raisins
one apple (shredded) or 1/3 cup of apple sauce (I think the applesauce gives the charoset the flavour that I remember)
a bit of sugar (if you’d like it even sweeter)
a pinch of cinnamon or ground ginger (if you like that flavour)
a splash (or three!) of sweet wine or grape juice
Put the raisins and the dates into a saucepan with some of the wine (or grape juice) and some water and simmer gently until everything is softened and the liquid is gone. Add all the ingredients together and blend. Enjoy!
What charoset recipe do you use? Was it a traditional recipe in your family (or country)?