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In the local stores in my neighborhood it seems that everyone is pushing everyone else aside. People don’t say “excuse me” anymore. In the kosher bakery I get hit in the eye with a challah bread when one woman reaches past me, past Adrian and over Helen’s stroller. She really socks me one with the golden dough. Then she doesn’t say, “I’m sorry” or even acknowledge my family’s existence. At least the challah was fresh and warm so it was a soft blow to my right eye, and anyway it smelled good.
We try the Mexican bakery next for Adrian. He loves a traditional “concha.” A concha is a type of bread shaped like a roll covered in chocolate, vanilla or strawberry sugar and traditionally it is eaten in the morning. It looks a little bit like a shell from the beach and that’s what concha means in Spanish: “Shell.” We have this routine. On Friday mornings before Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts we hit the bakeries. Everyone else in our neighborhood has the same idea. Friday mornings can be overwhelming.
At the Mexican bakery we grab a tray and tongs and pick the bread we like. On the way over to the counter a woman cuts in front of me slamming her tray down on the counter and demanding a bigger plastic bag for her bread. I take a step back. I’ve been hit with enough dough for one day.
On our walk home a cyclist (riding on the sidewalk) nearly runs us all down and yells “Watch it!” No one holds the door for the stroller in our building and when I say, “Hi Frank!” to my super, her grunts, curses, spits and stomps up the stairs murmuring, “Everybody wants somethin’ from me all the time…”
I feel defeated. Why is everyone so rude? I have this thought while stress eating in my kitchen standing up. Helen goes to her crib to take a nap and I decide to look for some spiritual inspiration. I put away my bag of popcorn and salted caramel ice cream.
I Google the word “mitzvah.” In the Yeshiva I attended as a girl the teachers taught us that the word “mitzvah” means “a good deed.” The plural in Hebrew is “mitzvot,” for many good deeds. But, as I search deeper into the meaning I come to find out that “mitzvah” actually translates as “commandment.” So in the Jewish religion it is commanded by God that we complete the task of doing good deeds every day.
This is interesting. What have I been teaching Helen about good deeds?
What have I been teaching her about commandments? It’s easy to point a finger. Friday at the two bakeries it was so simple for me to become the victim. But, what did I do to help the people around me? Did I do any mitzvot on Friday? What about the rest of the week? What did I do to help anyone besides myself?
I know that’s a pretty harsh self-judgement. But I wasn’t blaming myself. I was merely trying to dig deeper into the similarities of my two-faith household. I understand that a mitzvah is a commandment. In Catholicism there is the belief in “good works.” This is the same concept. It sounds simple because these teachings from both religions don’t involve complicated holidays, recipes or traditions. These ideas and beliefs arise during the everyday. Maybe that is what makes them go unannounced and unnoticed. Maybe that’s also why they are harder to commit to.
This is a situation in which Adrian and I believe the same thing. Nothing is complicated about doing good deeds out in the world. But how do we teach each other and how do we teach our daughter about the power of mitzvot?
I think that everything begins at home and so I start to think about our apartment building. We live on the fourth floor of a walk-up apartment built in 1927. The stairs aren’t just tough to climb, they’re made of marble. But in my own building my neighbors have done the deed of a mitzvah many times for me. There have been so many nights that Adrian has been at work and Helen and I have to go to the store to bring bags of groceries back. The boy who lives on the first floor always carries the stroller up the stairs for me if he’s around. The super’s son has carried Helen for me. There is a woman named Veronica who lives on the second floor and she’s carried four bags from Whole Foods filled with canned goods up to my apartment. Once, a young girl from the other side of the building (our building has two sides) saw me and helped me. She was 11 years old!
The mitzvah starts at home. The commandment begins in the hallway of our building and spreads far out into the community. A good deed speaks many languages, follows many cultures and faiths. This Friday at the bakery I’m going to hold the door for someone because maybe I wasn’t looking behind me the last time. Maybe I slammed the door in someone’s face instead of holding it. Maybe the woman who smacked me with a challah bread had plenty of reason to do so. It was like God was saying “Wake up! You’ve got a lot of mitzvot to do!”
Our family has had a hard few weeks. Every day we open the news to a different headline about hatred and anger. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world has gone bonkers. To top it off, my significant other, Adrian, recently received a phone call from Mexico informing him that his mother is ill. Her diabetes has taken a turn for the worse, and her doctor told her she could no longer eat tortillas, a staple food in Mexico. Adrian came home from work one night and put his head in his hands, defeated. “I think my father feels very alone,” he said.
The next day I found out that my mother’s favorite cousin died from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He had been living in a care facility where his wife would go three times a day to bring him food, company, laughter and a lot of love. My mother came home from work one day and put her head in her hands, defeated. “I think Tommy’s death has finally hit me,” she said.
My almost 1-year-old daughter, Helen, does not understand death and sickness yet. She has just begun learning how to live, how to crawl, how to hold onto something and pull herself up, how to grab onto the coffee table and take one step at a time.
With Rosh Hashanah right around the corner, we leave the house daily with lists of ingredients to buy for honey cake. I want her first Jewish New Year to be a joyous one full of hope. But there is some despair in our home right now.
Adrian checks his phone for messages about his mother. He calls Mexico. He meets with his brothers to discuss how much money they need to send back to Mexico for his mother to see a good doctor.
I sit in my mother’s kitchen trying to scrawl out a letter to Tommy’s wife, searching for words to explain my sympathy.
I want to pray. It is important to me that my daughter learns to pray, and because we are an interfaith family, it is important that both Adrian and I teach her how we both pray, especially because we pray so differently. But Adrian does not feel like praying lately. His statue of The Virgin of Guadalupe rests dusty on the bureau. I take this as an opportunity to learn that sometimes we as human beings don’t have the will to pray. Sometimes praying means admitting something is wrong, and Adrian doesn’t want there to be anything seriously wrong with his mother.
In Judaism it seems there is a prayer for everything. There is a prayer for death, life, sadness, forgiveness, women, men and children. There are prayers before going to bed, before eating lunch, after eating lunch and a prayer upon waking up in the morning. Adrian has different prayers, and because I didn’t grow up Catholic like him, I don’t know many of them. I assume they are similar to Jewish prayers, but I can’t be sure.
I’ve been trying to teach Helen a few Jewish prayers. Because Adrian has been feeling so down, I looked up a prayer that Helen and I could recite for him and his mother. After coming across prayers similar to those in Judaism, I found a prayer to Guadalupe that begins, “Our Lady of Guadalupe, mystical rose….” I liked that because Helen’s middle name is Rose. I sat down on the floor with Helen and began to recite the prayer, even though it’s not a Jewish prayer. Then we added a Hebrew prayer for cousin Tommy.
“This is for Papi,” I said to Helen, “and for Abuela (Grandma) to get better. And we will say one for cousin Tommy’s family too.”
Helen was silent; I’m not sure she understood, but comprehension will come later. For now it’s important for me to keep up with my own traditions, as well as Adrian’s, even when he can’t. I’m sure he would do the same for me.
Sometimes Adrian and I don’t understand each other’s faiths. For him, Judaism has a lot of rules and complex meanings to these rules. For me, as a Jew, I don’t bow down to idols. But I can enter into a realm of understanding and ask his saints to care for him just as I can ask Hashem, my God, at the same time to care for him.
Our goal as an interfaith family is to bring just that: faith. How do people survive bombings, terror, heartache and grief? We survive by faith. Helen has two faiths. She will learn, and is learning, two faiths. At times these two faiths can be difficult to maneuver, but their deep messages are the same: Have compassion. Be a good person. Help others. Do good work in the world. And our two faiths teach us that when our significant other comes home defeated, we can be the strength they need to keep going. Our two faiths teach us to watch our child and learn from her as well. She teaches us how to live, how to crawl, how to hold onto something so we can pull ourselves up and how to hold onto a coffee table, a chair, a bench, something, anything, so that we can take our steps slowly and one at a time until we are able to walk.
With not quite 12 days between Hanukkah and Christmas this year (depending on just how you count), I thought I would dedicate this post to that persistently ambitious Christmas carol (which also has more than one Hanukkah-themed version). In no particular order, here are some memorable moments from this December’s interfaith holiday season:
1. Learning and sharing holiday baking traditions always crowns my list, from my spouse’s excellent latkes to Christmas cookies to the gingerbread people my spouse’s family favored at this time of year, and chuckling at his always-remarkable excitement over indulging in my family’s Christmas morning tradition of having pigs-in-blankets for breakfast.
2. Learning and re-learning with my children the story of Hanukkah, from the Maccabees to the hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), from dreidel to gelt, and learning and re-learning, how to share the stories of Christmas with them as well.
3. Making a list, or two or three, and checking them at least twice, to make sure we have a good balance of gifts to spread across eight nights and one festive morning.
4. Making sure that list of gifts includes opportunities to remind our children that the holiday season is as much about giving as getting (and this year, giving each daughter a tzedakah box as an opportunity to think about giving).
5. Baking “just one more batch” of cookies after we’ve already made four, this time chocolate peppermint buttons, because I am a compulsive holiday baker who likes nothing more than giving away platefuls of cookies.
6. Answering the persistent queries from my children’s great-grandparents about what to send their great-grandchildren, and do they have to send gifts for Hanukkah, or is it all right to give them a Christmas gift, too, since they know we’re raising our kids Jewish? (Answer: gifts are always welcome, and we love you no matter how you figure this one out).
7. Soothing my 6-year-old daughter’s tears as she mourns the eighth-night end of Hanukkah, by reminding her of all of the many holidays and festive days that we’ll enjoy between now and next December.
8. Worrying that hegemonic Christmas is overtaking Hanukkah in our home’s holiday decorations, as this year we brought Christmas-themed dishes onto our holiday table, and asking my Jewish spouse for what feels like the 50th time if he is sure he is OK with the Christmas-themed dinnerware, and all of the other Christmas-y things that have festooned our house, like the bough of pretend holly which now winds up our staircase, and gives great joy to our daughter who shares the plant’s name?
9. Smiling as he reassures me that he really likes the new dishes, because the bowls have holly on them and the plates have a cute little village that reminds us of a favorite place where we once lived.
10. Laughing with my spouse as I tell him that I think it would be fun to have special Passover plates too, not because I want us to be particularly frum, but because I enjoy holiday dishes, and wouldn’t it be fun to mark Passover with special dishes too (and throw a bit of kashrut into the mix without even meaning to)?
11. Continuing to read Hanukkah books to my daughters many nights after all nine candles have long since burned down to their holders, and smiling at my spouse over our elder daughter’s head as she insists on singing the song “Hanukkah O Hanukkah” all by herself.
12. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as Christmas Eve approaches, and realizing that somehow, again, I’ll have made it through another festive and yet frenetic holiday season.
Wishing all of you a happy, festive and joyful holiday season!
This year, I’ll be celebrating my 13th Passover with my husband. As a way of introducing myself as a new InterfaithFamily parenting blogger, I want to reflect back on what’s become many years of shared Passover meals. I was happy to share some reflections on the December holidays in a post late last year, and I’m very glad to be starting a regular blog here with InterfaithFamily.
When I mentioned it to my husband, Ben, he was surprised to hear that we have shared 13 Passovers together. We met in graduate school for religious studies in 2001, and were married in an interfaith ceremony in 2005. I was raised Episcopalian, but have been involved with Unitarian Universalism for about 15 years; Ben grew up in Reform Judaism. We had our first daughter in the fall of 2009; at 5 1/2 she is a delight, and full of questions. Our younger daughter is just shy of 2 years old, and looks just like her older sister.
For my first Passover with my then-boyfriend, we traveled from our graduate school program to North Carolina, where Ben’s brother lived at the time. I would be meeting his family for the first time, and I worried endlessly about what to wear, what to say, what to do, and how to help. The mood at that first Passover was at times both joyous—as when my boyfriend’s family got out of their chairs and started to twirl each other in circles during “Dayenu”—and nerve-wracking, when the conversation turned to the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I remember sitting through that conversation, terrified to say anything, lest whatever I said be the wrong thing to say. We used a homemade haggadah that my boyfriend’s father had created and recreated over the years, photocopying, cutting and pasting together his favorite versions of songs, poems, stories, and images. The obvious love that went into preparing the text for the meal impressed me, and gave me an early window into why Passover had always been my then-boyfriend’s favorite holiday.
For several years, I enjoyed learning about the Passover tradition Ben had enjoyed with his friends from college. Every year, a large group of twenty-somethings descended on someone’s vastly rearranged living room for a raucous seder involving jello Manischevitz shots, “death-by-matzah” (matzah covered in butter, brown sugar, and melted chocolate), plenty of good food and excellent camaraderie.
The year after we married, Ben and I hosted a large Passover seder at our new home in New Jersey. My mother’s siblings and some of their children lived in the area, creating a 13-person seder at which the only Jewish attendees were my new spouse and his parents. Thankfully, I am blessed with in-laws whose company I enjoy greatly, and the two mothers also like each other, which went a long way to create a joyous, rather than stressful, occasion. Ben adapted his family haggadah to be intelligible and approachable for the seder’s many gentile participants.
Two years later, Ben and I found ourselves living in rural North Carolina, in a town where the tiny Jewish population consisted almost entirely of retirees. We started hosting annual seders with some of our friends, all of whom were not Jewish and unfamiliar with the Passover seder. Ben had fully embraced the idea of the seder as a time when all people should experience the feeling of freedom that the ancient Israelites experienced in the Exodus, and I entered into that spirit gladly. Some friends came back year after year, looking for another taste of Ben’s family recipe of Sephardic charoset, or amusing renditions of songs like “Clementine” translated into verses about Passover. Perhaps, like me, they waited for the hilarity of these songs to die down, so that the peace offered by singing “Oseh Shalom” at the end of the seder could rise to the surface, and giving the evening with a sense of tranquil wonder. If peace is a type of freedom, that moment of peace always set my heart free to celebrate as a fellow traveler with the Jewish people.
When I was pregnant with our first daughter, I announced my pregnancy to our friends by drinking non-alcoholic wine at the seder, preferring that to the overly sweet taste of grape juice. Once Laurel was born, she added an increasing level of chaos to a meal that seemed, to her, to drag on for too long before real food appeared. Suddenly, matzah crumbs were everywhere, and one year, a haphazardly-thrown plush pull-toy plague ended up in someone’s water glass. We moved our seder from the dining table to the couches, allowing our increasingly mobile child, and our friends’ children, to enjoy themselves as we attempted to stay on track with the haggadah. Each year, Ben streamlined the haggadah more and more to make up for her small attention span and growling stomach.
When Laurel was three, we moved from North Carolina to the suburbs of Chicago, and our seders changed yet again. Some of Ben’s extended family live nearby, and and the past two seders became family affairs, painted with memories of too much pepper in the gefilte fish, or the year the power went out and the seder became a candle-lit night to remember.
Now, after over a decade of attending and hosting seders, I pitch right in. I know the recipes, and I know the main prayers. Last year we attended a seder at the home of some of Ben’s extended family, and I found that I know the traditions well enough to feel comfortable at someone else’s seder. It reminds me that even within families who celebrate the same holidays, traditions vary and the emotional tenor of an event can change with the hosts.
This year’s seder will present perhaps the biggest challenge yet. We’re hosting, and we expect to have 19 guests. Between my 22-month-old baby and my husband’s great aunt, who is in her 80s, our seder runs the gamut of ages and experiences. I am not quite sure if all of the guests will have chairs to go with the pillows on which they will recline, but I do know that I am excited to once again be a beloved stranger within the gates for a night that truly is like no other.
The night before I left for my family vacation, I paid a shiva call to a friend who had just lost her sister. In the middle of my visit, a rabbi friend-of-the-family led those present through the first night’s shiva minyan. Before we began the Mourner’s Kaddish, the rabbi explained that this night was a very special Shabbat. It was Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. After the somber observance of Tisha B’Av, Shabbat Nachamu begins seven weeks of consolation, of shifting from mourning to comfort as we clear our minds and prepare for the New Year. It was a beautiful frame to put around this heartbreaking time, and gave those of us present a sense of purpose in being with my friend’s family in that moment. It also fortified me as I prepared for my annual trip to the Maine lakes, a trip that my Mom organized for 29 years, including 2012, the year she, like my friend’s sister, lost her life to cancer.
When I arrived at the lake, I sensed so many things that were missing, so many things to mourn. The plastic bins she packed neatly with games and crafts were missing, replaced by a mish-mash of last-minute items I had thrown into canvas bags. There was an empty seat around the campfire, and no easel set up on the dock, waiting for a sunset to paint. When I think of my mom in Maine, I see her smiling in the oversized neon green and blue plaid shirt she inherited from an old high school friend of mine, and her laughter echoes off of the lake. There are so many ways in which she is not there, and I mourn them all each year that I go up without her.
But this year I carried the rabbi’s words about Shabbat Nachamu with me, and tried not to look back quite so much. There were consolations and small comforts all around me if I opened my eyes to the present. The beauty and tranquility of the lake are gifts that live on. My Dad, siblings, and our kids and partners are still a family: a family that treks hours through weekend summer traffic to be together, to cook hot dogs on an open flame and then to find a new stone to overturn – a new farm to visit, or a new craft project to undertake. I can see a paintable sunset and relish it, even if I can’t paint it like my mom could. My nephew, whose entire life began after my Mom died, is making his way fiercely in the world and reminding me of how much of life remains for all of us to discover.
And then I found another new joy that surprised me. My girls are becoming friends. Not in the way it’s been, where I can get Ruthie to distract Chaya with a book while I change my shirt, or where the girls sit beside each other at the table but interact on separate mental planes. A real friendship is blossoming between them, one which is uniquely theirs, and in which I am only a supporting character. While we were on vacation, they created their own games together, skipping rocks in the pond side-by-side and enlisting my sister and me for hours of “beauty salon” activities. They sought each other out to try new jokes and held hands in the backseat of the car. And there was nothing as consoling as this friendship, which has to be one of parenthood’s greatest gifts.
One of my favorite Jewish notions is that of sacred continuity – that we must remember our past in order to best be in the present and plan for a better future. Shabbat Nachamu is a bridge from a recollection of loss to an appreciation of what is around us. During my week on the lake, I made a small pilgrimage over that bridge. And with the New Year approaching, I will carry the clarity I found in Maine and continue to seek out consolation and joy.