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A few weeks ago my family had a hard day. It seemed that both my Jewish and my husbandâ€™s Mexican/Catholic faith were being tested. A 7.1 earthquake shook Mexico. The epicenter of the quake was in Puebla where my husband, Adrian, is from and where his immediate family still lives. We were at the laundromat with Helen, our 2-year-old. All of a sudden breaking news of the quake flashed across the two flat screens above us.
Both Mexico City and the small, unknown villages of Puebla suffered. What was even more striking was the undeniable factor that the same earth shook on the same date in 1985 when 10,000 people were killed in Mexico City. Adrian grabbed his phone immediately. But then, so had the rest of the world. There was no connection to his village and the phones seemed dead or the lines were all busy. We grabbed our laundry from the dryer, put it in the trunk of the car and drove home to fold it.
The 19th of September this year also marked one day before the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. I wondered how we would be able to celebrate in the wake of such a tragedy.
As the day moved on, Adrian kept getting Facebook updates from friends in his town who had some access to the internet via their phones. Photos started being uploaded of demolished buildings. Another mutual friend of ours who was in Mexico City said 46 buildings had collapsed and there was chaos on the streets. Adrian went somewhere deep inside of himself with worry. I tried to play with Helen in the living room and not say too much. There was nothing to say, there was only waiting.
News came from Adrianâ€™s brother that the church in their village had collapsed. The front was cracked down the middle and still standing but everything inside had fallen. Adrian started to cry. His mother went to that church every Sunday, every holiday and at every opportunity she had. He still hadnâ€™t heard from her. I wondered what it would be like if my synagogue fell down, the same one I had been going to since I was a child. I couldnâ€™t imagine the feeling. He went into the bedroom and prayed to his Virgin of Guadalupe.
At 6 oâ€™clock Adrianâ€™s sister got through to him. That was mostly due to the iPhone he had sent to her a year ago. She said that the town was a mess but that luckily the family was OK. However, a lot of the neighbors were left homeless and there were huge cracks in the earth. One wall in his motherâ€™s house was cracked and the stove had fallen killing three live turkeys that had been running around the kitchen. I could see the relief on Adrianâ€™s face even before he hung up with his sister. I could see his sadness but also his faith, that unshakable faith when you believe in something hard enough that it changes the outcome of your worst fears.
We found out later that one girl in the village had been rushed to the hospital after a house collapsed on her. We also heard later on about how money from the government was not reaching the pueblos and that people were forced to rebuild without help. Then someone in the village started a donation page and raised enough money for bottled water and supplies.
The next night was Rosh Hashanah. Adrian was still reeling from the destruction of his village and he had to work so he didnâ€™t join Helen and me at the table in my motherâ€™s house. But, my brother said a special prayer for his family and he was present even in his grief. Adrian was actually happy to go to work so that he could take his mind off of things.
As the Jewish New Year progressed I looked at Helen. I remember when Adrian and I decided that she would be of two faiths. It was way before she was born. We said that whatever she wanted to be, she would be part of both of us. So far she eats my motherâ€™s chicken soup, jalapeĂ±os, challah and tacos. She smiles like her mother and looks like her father. She says â€śhello,â€ť â€śholaâ€ť and â€śshalom.â€ť
When Helen was just a year old I received an angry email from an irate woman asking me how I could raise my daughter in an interfaith household. She accused me of being a â€śbad Jewâ€ť and told me I was making my daughter into a â€śguinea pig.â€ť The email had me in tears. I couldnâ€™t believe someone would say such a thing. It took me weeks to realize that a voice like that is not a voice of strength but a voice of true weakness, full of misunderstandings. After the earthquake happened I thought about that womanâ€™s email and how absurd it was. After all, Helen goes to the synagogue I went to when I was a child and she will help rebuild the church that her abuela cherishes. We have already asked when we can make a donation in her name.
This year on Yom Kippur I will wear black, say the Kaddish (the mournerâ€™s prayer) for my father and for the people of Mexico who suffered during the earthquake. I will teach my daughter a Jewish prayer and a Catholic prayer. I will teach her that being part of an interfaith family does not make you less of one thing but more of both. After all, we have work to do. There are synagogues that need renovations and churches that are waiting to be rebuilt.
Itâ€™s a Monday morning in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and my almost 2-year-old daughter and IÂ have a date with my friend and her 10-month-old daughter to go to a read-along at the Brooklyn Public Library. We get downstairs with the stroller, enough snacks to feed a small army and a water bottle. Not to mention diapers, wipes, A & D ointment, cell phone, wallet and keys. Oh, and Duckie, the stuffed animal that is covered in one thin layer of gross because it is trudged across New York by my daughter on every trip we take. Even when I wash Duckie, his yellow is a kind of city yellowâ€”so, basically heâ€™s gray.
The super of my buildingÂ sees me trying to get Helen into the stroller. â€śYou gonna take an umbrella?â€ť he asks, â€śItâ€™s supposed to rain like crazy.â€ť
The library is a ten-minute walk from my apartment and it hasnâ€™t started raining yet. The umbrella is the one item Iâ€™ve forgotten. â€śNo,â€ť I say, â€śIâ€™m not afraid of a little rain.”
Famous. Last. Words.
Almost eight blocks from my house, the sky opens. The rain comes down in sheets as if the sky had been holding its breath and someone just reminded it to let go. I am so soaked and Helen (though covered by the stroller top and a blanket) is getting her legs and feet soaked as well. I almost panic.
Midwood is a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. I grew up here and now I live here with my interfaith family. Itâ€™s hard to live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and try to make people understand that my daughter is both Jewish and Mexican Catholic. In Jewish circles I find myself getting defensive. In Catholic circles I donâ€™t know how to explain my own take on Judaism. And when strangers hear me speak Spanish and then shout something in Hebrew three seconds later, I am met with baffled looks.
But Midwood means something else too. It means a ton of Honda OdysseyÂ minivans. Once, from my motherâ€™s house to our apartment three blocks away, I counted 11 parked Odyssey minivans. This is because the Jews, like the Mexicans, have big families and the Honda Odyssey seats eight. But, as a driver in New York, I hate being behind an Odyssey. Iâ€™m constantly making cracks about them. I can always see the TVÂ turned on in the back seat of an Odyssey. So many Odyssey minivan drivers drive too slow in themÂ because of all theÂ kids they have in the car. But, itâ€™s my own personal obnoxious joke that I canâ€™t stand the Honda Odyssey.
With that being said, as Iâ€™m in a small panic halfway from home and halfway from the library with the rain still pelting down, I see a blue Honda Odyssey turn the corner. A young woman in a traditional wig rolls down her window. â€śExcuse me!â€ť She shouts from her Odyssey, â€śDo you need a ride? I have three car seats in the car.â€ť I am wearing jeans (a clear sign I am not an Orthodox Jew, though I am a Jew, but she doesnâ€™t know this) and a shirt that has become so obviously see-through.
â€śAre you sure?â€ť I ask, hesitating as water drips down my face.
â€śYes!â€ť she says as she leaps out of her Odyssey with a purple umbrella decorated with dogs wearing tutus. She holds the umbrella over our heads as I get Helen out of the stroller. She then holds my daughter and puts her in the car seat. Helen starts to cry a little, but the woman is so gentle and I tell her not to be afraid. I throw the stroller in the trunk and get into the front seat. As soon as the woman closes the â€śdogs in tutuâ€ť umbrella she says, â€śIâ€™ve never picked up a stranger before! I just couldnâ€™t believe you were out here. I just dropped my kids off at camp and saw you. Where are you going?â€ť
I tell her that we are on the way to the library and I find out that she lives on that same block. She points to her house (which is directly across the street from one of my relatives’ apartment building) and on the porch are three mini beach chairs for each of her children. I thank her profusely and as I get Helen out of the car seat, the woman climbs into the trunk of her Odyssey and pulls a pink and white blanket from the back that says, â€śbaby.”
â€śPlease take this,â€ť she says, â€śI have six blankets in this car and the library is freezing.â€ť
This is when I take the opportunity to let her know in Hebrew that I am a Jew. Iâ€™m not sure why I do this. The entire ride, when I spoke to Helen, I spoke in Spanish. It was obvious to the woman that we were a different kind of family than the families usually seen walking through Midwood. But, religion, class or status didnâ€™t matter to this woman. So I said, â€śtodah rabahâ€ť (thank you, in Hebrew). â€śYou did a real mitzvahâ€ť (good deed).
But, to my surprise the woman wasnâ€™t shocked. Her mouth didnâ€™t drop open and she didnâ€™t shout, â€śOh my God youâ€™re Jewish!?!â€ť And that was a good lesson for me because her picking me up had nothing to do with my two faiths. She picked me up because she saw I needed help. She saw I was in a panic and she saw that, like herself, I am a mother. And being a mother has nothing to do with being a Jew or a Catholic and it has everything to do with being a Jew and a Catholic. Because two faiths, interfaith or one faith is about respect for the fellow man. And in a world that seems more chaotic every day, itâ€™s nice to know that as Anne Frank once wrote at the age of 13, â€śIn spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.â€ť Maybe Iâ€™ll stop being so judgmental about the Odyssey.
The doctor calls Adrian and me saying, â€śCongratulations! Youâ€™re pregnant!â€ť Adrian hugs me and we lift Helen up and kiss her little 16-month-old cheeks. â€śHelen! Helen!â€ť we cry, â€śHelen you are going to have a little brother or sister!â€ť Helen pushes our faces away not exactly understanding and gallops into the bedroom in search of her favorite stuffed animal, Senor Buho (Mr. Owl). Adrian and I are elated and we head out to our local kosher grocery store in search of kosher meat to cook as a celebration. Of course Adrian wants pork, but our home is kosher so celebrating is limited to all other delicacies.
On the Avenue, I feel lightness in my step and I whisper to Helen all day about how we are going to welcome a little bean into the family. I do everything right: I get my prenatal vitamins, buy Omega-3, stock the refrigerator with fruits and vegetables, rest and drink tea. I am five, maybe seven, weeks pregnant. Thatâ€™s when everything goes wrong.
One morning, I wake up early and see blood. Itâ€™s not a lot and itâ€™s not bright red, but I call the doctor anyway. â€śDonâ€™t worry,â€ť she assures me, â€śitâ€™s normal.â€ť Adrian also tells me not to worry, but I worry all day. I worry so much that by the evening, Iâ€™ve sweat through my clothes. Helen senses something is wrong and puts her head on my knee while Iâ€™m sitting on the couch. This calms me down a little, but only a little.
The next day I start to make promises. â€śHashem, God, if you make everything OK I will be the best person in the universe this year. I will do good deeds and feed the poor and work harder and pray more,â€ť I pray. Adrian thinks this is foolish and I ask him why he doesnâ€™t pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is known to help in times of worry and distress.
â€śBebe,â€ť he says in a serious tone, â€śthatâ€™s not how God and the saints work.â€ť I laugh because even with our interfaith family, I obviously think I can trick myself into convincing God of something.
I do everything right. And then, everything goes wrong.
The next day, I wake up and there is a lot of blood. Itâ€™s not brown, but itâ€™s red. My body feels heavy like itâ€™s losing something. â€śBebe,â€ť Adrian says, â€ścall the doctor.â€ť The doctor tells me to go the hospital right away. I rush to Manhattan and am attended to at Beth Israel/Mount Sinai with the thought, Â â€śThis is a place of miracles.â€ť I am shaking in my seat in the waiting room and I clutch a small pink book called â€śTefillas Channahâ€ť meaning Prayers of Channah (my Hebrew name). When I am finally called in, the doctor does an examination and tells me sheâ€™s sorryâ€”I have had a miscarriage. She adds, â€śBut it was very early, which is good.â€ť
Loss of any kind is letting something go when you were never ready to part with it. â€śBebe,â€ť I say to Adrian on the phone, â€śI have some bad news.â€ť I bleed for days. The doctor tells me this is normal, but it doesnâ€™t feel normal. I have not cracked my Hebrew prayer book to defy my God the way I feel he has defied me. I realize that these thoughts are irrational, but this grief is overwhelming.
After one week on the couch, my daughter brings me a book. It is a book about animals and I flip the pages for her. â€śBubbles!â€ť she shouts and I laugh. There is a miracle before me that I havenâ€™t been able to pay attention to. By far, Helen is the grandest miracle that has been gifted to me. Over a year ago, Adrian and I, out of fear for her life, decided to put Helen on formula when she had dropped down to 4 pounds. I prayed to God then. Now, Helen is in the 90thÂ percentile for height, walks, babbles, speaks some words in Spanish and English, points to the Virgin of Guadalupe before bed and I sing her the prayer of Israel in Hebrew at night. As I get up to get the bubbles, my body feels like it has been crouching in a cave.
â€śBebe,â€ť Adrian says a week into his own grief, â€śwe will try again.â€ť
I reach for my Hebrew prayer book to try to find the right words for what Iâ€™m feeling. Somewhere in the middle of the book, I find it: â€śAnd so I come before you, Hashem, EternalÂ who reigns over rulers, and I cast my supplication before You. My eyes dependently look toward You until You will be gracious to me and hear my plea and grant me sons and daughters.â€ť I look at Helen as she plays on the rug and I understand that I have been granted a miracle. With the two faiths that shine brightly through my house, I will be granted another one when the time is right.
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 receivedÂ a phone call from Mexico informing him thatÂ 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. â€śI think my father feels very alone,â€ť he said.
The next day I found out that my motherâ€™s favorite cousin died from complications from Alzheimerâ€™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. â€śI think Tommyâ€™s death has finally hit me,â€ť 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 motherâ€™s kitchen trying to scrawl out a letter to Tommyâ€™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 donâ€™t have the will to pray. Sometimes praying means admitting something is wrong, and Adrian doesnâ€™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 didnâ€™t grow up Catholic like him, I donâ€™t know many of them. I assume they are similar to Jewish prayers, but I canâ€™t be sure.
Iâ€™ve been trying to teach Helen a few Jewish prayers. Because Adrian has beenÂ 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, â€śOur Lady of Guadalupe, mystical roseâ€¦.â€ť I liked that because Helenâ€™s middle name is Rose. I sat down on the floor with Helen and began to recite the prayer, even though itâ€™s not a Jewish prayer. Then we added a Hebrew prayer for cousin Tommy.
â€śThis is for Papi,â€ť I said to Helen, â€śand for Abuela (Grandma) to get better. And we will say one for cousin Tommyâ€™s family too.â€ť
Helen was silent; Iâ€™m not sure she understood, but comprehension will come later. For now itâ€™s important for me to keep up with my own traditions, as well as Adrianâ€™s, even when he canâ€™t. Iâ€™m sure he would do the same for me.
Sometimes Adrian and I donâ€™t understand each otherâ€™s faiths. For him, Judaism has a lot of rules and complex meanings to these rules. For me, as a Jew, I donâ€™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.