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Non-Orthodox institutional Judaism seems to suffer from a lack of young families – and, more importantly, young people. We might see a handful of families with pre-school aged youngsters at the first Friday “family service,” but at most Shabbat services at Sam’s synagogue, there are rarely young children other than Jack in attendance. I know Jack is not the only infant at the synagogue, because we see other babies his age at “bagels and blocks” program on Sunday mornings. In a congregation of about 300 families, why are so few young children engaged in ritual life at the synagogue?
This was mirrored when we attended Rosh Hashanah at Sam’s parents’ synagogue earlier this month. Upon arriving, I noticed that Jack was the only baby, and practically the only child, in services. We sat as a family (of 4 generations!), during the early Rosh Hashanah service, and – as babies do – Jack fussed a little. While wandering the halls trying to calm him down, I found the children in classrooms and playgroups. It was surprising to me to see children not sitting with their parents during one of the most important holidays of the Jewish liturgical year. I learned that youngsters of all ages attend the family service, later in the day, which is much shorter and geared to children, whereas the other services are for adults only. Even during Friday night services at our local synagogue, Jack is by far the youngest one in attendance.
This is drastically different than what I am used to. Whether or not it is a major holiday, it seems like families with young children are always present at Catholic churches. During mass, little children read books, color, and play quietly in the pews. If the babies/toddlers/children have outbursts, their parents take them into the lobby, calm them down, and then bring them right back into the mass. During the most important day of the Catholic liturgical year, the entire church is full of families. Just last Sunday, at the end of the mass, the priest addressed the moms, calming their fears about bringing their youngsters. He said that children at mass are anything but distracting, saying “let the children come to me.”
Are children welcome your place of worship? If our experiences at our synagogue match what you’ve seen, how can we shift institutional Judaism to welcome young children and families, ensuring our faith’s continuity for the next generation?
“But you’re not really Jewish right?” This has been a question I have been asked since I was big enough to walk. My family celebrates all of the big holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover to name a few. The women in my family don’t wear long skirts and the men don’t wear black hats. But, yes, we ARE Jewish.
“But you’re not really Jewish, right?” is an insulting question. First of all, what does that mean? That’s usually my response: “What does that mean?” And people respond by changing the subject because they know they’ve offended me or they keep asking questions that further insult me. Since I live in a very religious neighborhood, these are a few of the questions I get: “You don’t wear a wig right?” “You don’t keep kosher, right?” (wrong), “It’s so strange that you’re Jewish,” they say, “You don’t look Jewish.” Again, what does that mean?
This year I had a baby with Adrian, my lifelong partner. He is Catholic from Mexico and I am Jewish from Brooklyn. We decided before we had the baby that ours would be an interfaith family. We wanted the beauty of both cultures and both religions to be a part of who our child was and who she would become. She is a Mexican-American-Jewish-Catholic child.
Adrian and I live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The stores are kosher, on Saturday none of the stores are open and on Jewish holidays women in pretty dresses and men in ironed suits walk in the middle of the streets because there are hardly any cars around. Our kitchen is kosher. Adrian eats pork but not in our home. Does this make me less Jewish? Does loving a man from another faith make me less Jewish? Is my daughter less Jewish because she’s also Catholic?
The challenge so far has been trying to live a balanced life. When our daughter was first born these questions nagged at me. Would someone one day ask my daughter, “But you’re not really Jewish, right?” What would she say? What should I teach her to say? How would I explain to her a double faith? An interfaith? The more these questions loomed over me the more I decided to challenge the ignorance of these interrogations.
I found myself in the lobby of a large synagogue next to my apartment building where I was to inquire about a baby naming for my daughter. This was when my daughter was just 2 months old. The woman who ran the functions at the synagogue was all smiles when I walked in with the baby strapped to me in my ergo carrier. She asked me the baby’s name. “Helen Rose Castañeda,” I said. She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to spell it. I wrote it out in both Hebrew and English.
“Oh, you write in Hebrew,” she said surprised. After all, I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and I was not in a skirt or dressed up at all. I had only gone to inquire. I had not gone to pray. As I filled out the rest of the information on the sheet I realized I had to write Adrian’s name in Hebrew and my daughter’s name. Her Hebrew name is Chaya Rachel but how was I to write “Castaneda” in Hebrew? I sounded it out.
The woman stared at the paper. I was waiting for the question, any question. I was waiting for her to say, “Well that’s interesting,” or “Is this a Jewish name?” I was waiting for the insult. It never came. Instead, before she could speak I said, “Miss, I’d like to tell you, before we begin the process of setting up this baby naming event, that my family is an interfaith family. I am Jewish and my partner is Catholic. We are not married and our daughter is both. Is this going to be a problem?”
Her reaction was not what I expected. She was calm and smiled. She said, “That’s absolutely OK.” There were no insulting questions, no asking if I was really Jewish. We had a beautiful baby naming ceremony at the synagogue and I felt at home. I felt accepted and my family felt accepted. But, I had also for the first time accepted myself.
I am a Jew always in my heart and I live my life according to Jewish law, meaning I treat others with compassion, I speak to G-d, I meditate and I try to do good deeds. I don’t always succeed at all of these laws but I try my best to abide by them. I was born Jewish and I celebrate Judaism. I come from a long line of prophets and strong biblical women. This is what I will teach our daughter who has Jewish and Aztec blood in her. I also understand that people will always question my “Jewishness.” I’ve learned now to respond in a different way. Now, when someone approaches me with the question, “but you’re not really Jewish, right?” my answer is always a flip of my hair and a long laugh.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that I didn’t know yet what I would do for Yom Kippur. In the end, the Books of Life and Death helped me answer that question. Just before Yom Kippur, a beloved relative in my husband’s family passed away after a brief illness. On Erev Yom Kippur, we found ourselves driving the short distance from the Chicago suburbs to the Milwaukee suburbs for the funeral and interment ceremony of Ben’s great-aunt Elaine.
Elaine, already in her eighties, became ill a few weeks ago with a blood disorder. Doctors told her that she had two to four weeks to live. Just days before Rosh Hashanah when the Days of Awe would begin, sealing all lives in the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the years to come, phones across the country rang as Ben’s family shared this sad news.
Elaine and her sister Pauline had hosted Ben’s and my rehearsal dinner: As always, Elaine baked cookies and desserts by the hundreds, bringing them on the plane to the celebration. Her sister Pauline, always the artist, made delightful tissue-paper flower decorations for the rehearsal dinner tables, decorations that still brighten our home more than ten years later.
My in-laws purchased emergency plane tickets and visited Elaine in her hospital room. With over a week remaining until she eventually passed away, she talked vigorously, offered advice and stories, and, knowing the end was near, ate chocolate of every variety at nearly every meal.
Although I could not know for sure, to me it seemed that Elaine had done what so few of us have the courage or opportunity to attempt: She had chosen that this would be the end of her life. She rejected invasive, intrusive treatments that might cure a body that was already into its eighties, and a mind which must have missed the presence of her husband Al, who passed just over two-and-a-half years ago.
I did not know Elaine very well, although I often felt I knew her through her baking, her generosity and warmth, and the stories I’ve heard through the years. My encounters with her were always studded with humor, welcome, compassion and joy. Before I first met Elaine, my future mother-in-law (herself a convert to Judaism) told me that Elaine “taught [her] how to be Jewish.” Living in the same city, Elaine welcomed Karen lovingly as a new member of the family and of the Jewish people.
This effusive welcome greeted me the first time I met Elaine, who enfolded me in a bear hug before passing the plate of Hanukkah cookies, insisting I eat some. Elaine always brought desserts to funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and any other gatherings at which food offered welcome in ways that went beyond words. I remember especially her mandelbrot and her crescent cookies dusted with powdered sugar, and my surprise when I learned that she received “her” cheesecake recipe from my mother-in-law!
Elaine’s funeral service at her synagogue was filled with the sounds of tears and occasional laughter as her sister, daughter and son offered eulogies. Already set up for High Holiday services, the chapel had been closed off from the large hall outside, where chairs already stood in rows waiting for that evening’s Kol Nidre service.
At the graveside interment, friends and relatives carried her plain wooden casket with a Jewish star engraved on top to the open grave on a beautiful, warm-but-not-hot fall day. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves in the trees, and the sky glowed that bright blue that only happens when the darker days of fall hover just around the corner. After a prayer and the Kaddish, everyone present helped to shovel soil back into the grave until the hole was filled and Elaine lay at rest next to her husband. I couldn’t help but feel that Elaine would be happy to be near him again.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I thought to myself, searching for words to describe the symmetry, and finding I could only use those which were most familiar.
As the stunning blue sky of the day before Yom Kippur waned toward the darkness of night, Ben and I drove home, our thoughts on the year that had just passed and the one just starting. He hummed Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire,” a folk song inspired by the High Holiday liturgy. It’s a powerful song even after the Days of Awe have closed and when a beloved person hasn’t, herself, chosen “by brave assent” that this could be her time.
If Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, of making amends for the sins of the past year, I feel that all of us who knew Elaine received a special blessing over these last few weeks. As she lay in the hospital and then in hospice, holding tenaciously onto life even as it slipped from her grasp, she found time to make peace, again, for the hundredth time, with every one who came to visit. For each person, she offered a final message, shared one more story, and once again made the people in her life feel welcome. I was not there in her final moments, but I am comforted by the hope that she found atonement (or “at-one-ment” as I’ve heard it be called) with her life as she had lived it, a life which was, by all accounts, beautifully lived.
Rest in peace, Elaine. May your memory be always for a blessing, and may those whose lives you touched be inscribed this year in the Book of Life.