A Mother’s Jewish Guilt

  
Helen Rose in her Hand Made Birthday Dress from her Abuelita in Mexico

Helen Rose in her Hand Made Birthday Dress from her Abuelita in Mexico

I burned myself last week. Right after Rosh Hashanah I went into the kitchen to pour hot water into a single-cup coffee filter and ended up with a pot of boiling water splashing down the right side of my body. On the week of the Jewish New Year, my 1-year-old daughter, Helen Rose, had a bad head cold and I had a second-degree burn across my chest. Everything would have been fine, except it wasn’t.

A little while later, the blisters that had formed on my breast ruptured while I was trying to carry Helen down four flights of stairs in our apartment building. I was in pain for five days. I walked around the apartment without a shirt on and tried to keep the area clean. Then, one night a few days before Yom Kippur, I noticed a thin red line spreading from my breast to my armpit; I could hardly move my arm.

As a Jew I feel that guilt has played a large role in my life. There are jokes in our community about “Jewish guilt” and “Jewish mothers’ guilt.” So my mind automatically went to that place we tell ourselves not to go: “What did I do? I did something wrong and it’s almost Yom Kippur. I’m paying for something.” Adrian, my Catholic partner, heard my lament.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “It was an accident.”

I asked him if there was such a thing as Catholic guilt, especially in Mexico, where he’s from. I even tried to find the word for “guilt” in Spanish. The only word I could come up with was “culpa.” But culpa doesn’t really mean “guilt”; it means “fault.” It comes from the Latin root “culpa,” also used in the well-known term felix culpa. The phrase means “happy fault.” Catholics believe that Jesus dying on the cross was a felix culpa, because although he died for mankind’s sins, which was bad, the Catholics got to have him as their savior, which was good. So to me it was as if Catholic guilt, if there is such a thing, could never compare to Jewish guilt. For me, guilt is guilt, and there is no happiness involved.

As soon as Adrian got home from work, I rushed to the emergency room carrying all my guilt with me. My burn had become so infected that the doctors at my local hospital transferred me to the burn center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. I cried. Adrian was taking care of the baby, and I felt alone. It turned out I had cellulitis and was to stay at the hospital with an IV until my burn healed. I cried again. Helen’s birthday was two days away and Yom Kippur was the day after her birthday, but I was informed I might have to stay in the hospital for three days.

Hospitals are lonely, but if they do one thing it’s test your faith. They test your faith in God and your faith in other human beings. One of my nurses wore a cross. Another wore a Star of David, and the third wore a heart with the word “Mom” in the middle. I felt that all three of those nurses represented all three parts of my family and myself: Jewish, Catholic and motherly (and fatherly) love. They took great care of me while I thought more about guilt, about the New Year and about the Day of Atonement coming up. I thought about my daughter’s smile and Adrian’s sweet face.

I tried to remember that my wound was nothing. A burn center cares for people who have been truly disfigured by fire. I was lucky to have only been partially burned, and not across my entire body or face.

I thought of my little Helen Rose. How could I have let myself think God was punishing me for something by burning me? I burned my own breast! And it was an accident! Some people sit in the hospital for days, weeks, months. And then some people’s children sit in the hospital. Guilt has nothing to do with it—life happens. Tragedy happens. Sometimes death happens. These things happen to Jews, Catholics, Muslims and every human being on earth. They don’t happen to make us pay; they happen to make us learn.

But Jewish guilt can come in handy sometimes. I dished out the Jewish guilt that was passed down to me to every doctor who came in contact with me. “You know,” I said as the IV dripped, “my daughter’s first birthday is on Monday, and if you don’t fix me I may not be home for it.” I remember one doctor said, “She won’t remember.” I could feel my Jewish ancestors rise up in my blood to reply, “But I’ll remember! And what kind of mother would I be if I missed her birthday because of my burned breast?”

I was released from the hospital on Monday, just in time for Helen’s birthday. I took the kosher cake I had made days before out of the freezer. Our party plans were cancelled, but Adrian, my mother, Helen and I blew out a candle.

The Kosher Aztec Birthday Cake

The Kosher Aztec Birthday Cake

I couldn’t go to synagogue because I wasn’t allowed to leave the house for a week, but I felt I had already atoned. A week later at my follow-up visit at the hospital, a doctor asked, “Why didn’t I see you when you were here? Were you in the burn unit?”

“Yes,” I said, “I was released on Monday, just in time for my daughter’s….”

Before I could finish, he cut me off: “Your daughter’s first birthday? Yes, I know who you are now. There was a lot of talk about you. The staff felt so guilty about keeping you here that they decided it was OK for you to leave a day early.”

I Was the Only Jewish Kid on the Block & Worry My Kid Will Be, Too

  

By Melissa Henriquez

Children in schoolGrowing up in a small, rural town in northern New Jersey in the ’80s, I never had perfect attendance in school. Not because I was sick or because my family took vacations outside the school calendar, but rather because every fall, I needed to take two days off in observance of the Jewish holidays.

Unlike my friends who grew up in one of the predominantly Jewish parts of our state—where schools are closed for the High Holidays—I was one of about six Jewish families in our entire school district. So for us, school was definitely open and the High Holidays were considered excused absences (but still counted as absences), which meant I’d never have perfect attendance.

Of course, what I share today as a sore spot of my youth seems beyond frivolous now at 36 and a married mother of two. But at the time, it really bothered me. I already knew I was “different” from the other kids.

Sometimes I really loved being unique. For example, my bat mitzvah was the first one my friends who weren’t Jewish had ever been to—it was their inaugural exposure to Judaism and, not surprisingly, it was happily met with rave reviews. After all, what’s not to love? There’s the party and the fancy dresses and the DJ and the neon necklaces and Shirley Temples.

Yet, other than the fact that I missed some school days each fall, or that I attended Hebrew School and had a bat mitzvah (whereas they all went to CCD at the same Catholic church and had confirmations), my religion remained a very personal thing for most of my childhood. It wasn’t until I was getting ready to look at colleges that I realized finding a school with a large Jewish population was going to be really important to me.

I didn’t want to be the only Jewish kid on the block anymore.

And so I accepted an offer from American University in our nation’s capital—affectionately dubbed “Gay Jew” (or at least it was called that when I attended, 1997-2001!). At American, I found myself part of the crowd—religion often came up in conversation (as did politics, internship opportunities and study abroad plans). Suddenly, being Jewish bonded me to others. And later my freshman year, I even dated an NJB (Nice Jewish Boy) for a few months.

I finally felt like I belonged at AU, like I was among my people. And though the university didn’t close for the High Holidays, many professors canceled class, either for their own observances or because they recognized many students would be going home to their families. Instead of being singled out at American, I felt accepted, not having to explain at length why I couldn’t present a group project on Rosh Hashanah. It was just understood.

I didn’t realize just how much that understanding meant to me until I entered the working world in D.C. after graduation. I was naive and didn’t know how things like vacation time/PTO worked–or that they’d vary depending on company. I [wrongly] assumed that I’d be able to take my religious holidays off as personal days, no big deal.

So you can imagine I was none too happy when I learned I’d have to take PTO for the Jewish holidays, as at this particular company, sick, vacation, personal and religious holidays all fell in one PTO bucket. It didn’t seem fair to me when I’d be perfectly willing to work Christmas Day and Christmas Eve—which were considered company holidays.

It was a poignant reminder that, once again, I was back to being in the minority—even in a culturally, religiously, ethnically diverse city like Washington, I still had to “explain” myself.

Years later, when my husband (who isn’t Jewish) and I moved to Kalamazoo for his job, I told my parents, “GREAT. I’ll be the only Jew in Kalamazoo!” And it sure felt that way for a while. My one Jewish friend here was my friend Dana in Chicago, two hours away. But then my husband introduced me to his new colleague, Emily—and said, half-kidding, “She’s Jewish and has curly hair, too; you’ll be best friends!”

And he was right. She is one of my best friends, to this day.

When the ad agency I worked for was acquired by a global marketing firm a couple years ago, one of the best changes to come out of the acquisition was that now religious holidays are counted as personal days, versus PTO. Though I’m still the only Jew in our Kalamazoo office, I no longer feel “alone,” or like I have to explain myself, knowing this is an across-the-board policy.

Which brings me to present day. Our 5-year-old daughter Maya is really into the Jewish holidays, traditional foods and singing the songs I’ve taught her. She can begin Hebrew school this coming fall, and I’m excited to begin her formal Jewish education—but I know how small the Jewish community is here in Kalamazoo. It’s just a tad bit larger than my hometown community was, and I worry about how she’ll feel, being one of just a few Jewish kids in her elementary school.

While I’ve always been proud of who I am and love our faith and its teachings, I remember that hard-to-explain, nagging feeling of not belonging growing up… and it plagues me. Though I know as parents, we shouldn’t project our emotions onto our kids, it’s hard not to when experience is tainting how we feel. Fortunately, the synagogue we will be joining has a lot of young families and even some interfaith families like ours—so I am sure we will get some guidance from those who have gone before us. But it’s hard living in a community where we really are a minority.

It’s my hope that I can instill in her that being “different” is what makes her special—what makes her (and our family) interesting and unique. We might have to explain ourselves to some people, especially living here in the Midwest in a city without many Jewish families, but that’s OK. Who knows, maybe she’ll find her place in college, just like her mama did.

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

MelissaHenriquez_02Melissa Henriquez is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now live in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (5) and Ben (2).  By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs at Let There Be Light (est. 2008). Melissa’s writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.