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By Tamara Reese
When my family moved to Pittsburgh, my son was 10 weeks old and my husband was entering into a grueling six-year medical residency. Though we’re not Orthodox, he found us an apartment smack dab in the middle of the eruv—a ritual enclosure some Jewish communities use to allow residents to carry certain objects on Shabbat and holidays, which would otherwise be forbidden. He was hoping that by surrounding ourselves with Jews, I would feel supported in living a Jewish life.
Judaism is my chosen faith. While the conversion process was long and intimidating, it is not nearly as intimidating as raising Jewish children in a Jewish home. My husband grew up a secular Jew and his mother has since passed, so there has never been anyone to show me the ways of brisket braising and Hebrew prayers. And while I studied prayer books and cookbooks, blogs, and literature about how to build a Jewish home, I prayed every night that someone would take my hand and show me the way.
Our first week here we attended a family Shabbat service. I sat in the lobby hushing my fussy newborn and I noticed another woman chasing her 18-month-old daughter through the coat racks. She smiled at me and asked if we were new to the area. Turns out her husband was also in medicine and they were Pittsburgh “transplants” as many call it: people who come here for a job—usually away from family and friends—and end up staying because they love the city.
We developed a friendship and her family invited us to Shabbat dinners, Passover seders and birthday parties. Five weeks after our first meeting, she babysat my not-bottle-taking newborn so that I could have a minor surgical procedure. Two years later, she rushed over to my house when I was in labor with our second son, scooped up my toddler, and grabbed a laundry basket like it was her own home, allowing me to focus on getting to the hospital.
My friend was also a convert and I looked up to her greatly. I admired the Jewish art on her walls and her collection of menorahs. I watched her cook, pray, and mother her Jewish children. I was inspired and hopeful that I could execute Judaism just as effortlessly one day.
Mothering unites us as Jewish women.
As a child, I sang almost before I could speak. I truly believe that it was a gift God bestowed upon me to share with the world. As an adult, I remember walking into my first Shabbat service and hearing the music. So beautiful and so… foreign to me. I wanted nothing more than to find familiarity in that sound. The sound of Jewish music.
After living in Pittsburgh for about two years, I met a woman at the park one day. Our children were very close in age and she and I were equally nine months pregnant. We got to talking about life, about ourselves. We were both Jewish and both in a local MOMs club chapter but had never met. She told me in passing that she and her sister sang in an a capella group and I should come sing for them sometime.
I did and was welcomed into this group, Kol Shira, to sing Jewish music alongside nine other Jewish women, each of us differing in our level of observance but all equally Jewish in the eyes of one another. Through a chance meeting at the park, Jewish song became part of my everyday life—learning it, hearing it, and singing for my children.
Song unites us as Jewish women.
When we welcomed my daughter into the Jewish community, Kol Shira filled the chapel with beautiful music in her honor. And when I gave birth to my fourth child two months ago, these same women hosted the most thoughtful brit milah (ritual circumcision). They walked into my living room that morning and let me cry on their shoulder; they hugged my children; they held my baby; and they brought beautiful food and décor, set it up, served it, and cleaned up every last bit, leaving leftovers in the fridge for my family. These Jewish mothers held my hand because they remembered being the one shaking and sobbing on their son’s eighth day of life.
That morning when we welcomed my beautiful boy into the Jewish community, my home was filled with people—only one of them was related to us by blood. My friends, this community of women, took the all too familiar weight of that day off of my shoulders and spread it around each other and I am forever grateful.
Tradition unites us as Jewish women.
A few years ago, we sang at the Chabad Women’s Convention that was held in Pittsburgh. The message of the conference was “sharing your light” by encouraging other women in their own Judaism. When I think of all of the women who have shared their light with me these past six years in Pittsburgh, I am overcome with emotion. Each one gave me little drops of Judaism, and from those drops my cup runs deep. Just by surrounding myself with women who embrace each other and their faith so effortlessly, I’ve become more modest, more generous, more accepting, and more capable. They have inspired me not only to be a better Jewish mother, wife, and teacher, but showed me how I can share my light.
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.
Tamara Reese, MPH, CHES is a stay-at-home Mama and consultant in the field of Maternal and Child Health. She is a contributing editor to Kveller and her work has been published in academic journals, La Leche League USA, Brain, Child Magazine and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Tamara lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, two boys and ginger-baby daughter. Her passions include child injury prevention, gentle parenting, and breastfeeding advocacy. #YouAreAGoodMama
By Robyn Bacon
Like his other mother, my 4-month old son Sam is Jewish. I am not. I was born and raised Catholic. My mother and her sister converted to Catholicism while attending the Catholic schools that offered a better education to black families than the separate but equal public schools in the segregated South. My mother went to mass every day and, after she died, the congregation at her local church planted a tree in her honor outside the front door. My aunt (her sister) regularly serves communion at Sunday mass. My father’s family has been Catholic for generations—his cousin was Mother Superior of a convent of black nuns in New Orleans. My Catholic background was such a point of pride for me that, even after agreeing that our son would be Jewish, I still wanted to name him Ignatius Xavier in honor of the founders of the Jesuits.
With this history, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I told my family that Sam was going to be Jewish. I was especially concerned about my father. Dad’s family is Louisiana Creole. For him, being Catholic is not just about religion. It’s a core part of his identity, as integral to his sense of self as being black and from Texas. Sam was already biracial and a native Californian. I was afraid that when Dad learned that Sam was going to be Jewish, he might decide Sam was too different to be his grandson.
To my surprise, my father was not only accepting, he was also enthusiastic. And full of questions. Why was Sam going to be Jewish? How could my baby be Jewish if I’m not? Was he going to be baptized Jewish? What were the Jewish holidays? It was a bit overwhelming. Figuring that it would be better to let him find his own answers, I asked IFF/LA’s Rabbi Keara Stein for book recommendations.
Dad came to visit Sam for the first time a week ago. When he called before the visit, he mentioned that he had read the books. Judaism had made a strong impression on him and he was “excited” that it was going to be a part of Sam’s life. He liked the Jewish sense of community and the rituals, but most of all he liked how, as he described it, Judaism emphasized study over knowledge. “I feel like that really resonates with me,” he said.
I suggested that he join us for Shabbat dinner while he was in town. (His text message response was “I’m down w/‘Shabbat’ after I look up what it is.”) We also invited my cousin, who just moved to LA, and my mother’s brother, who happened to be in town. So my father experienced his first Shabbat with his grandson, surrounded by family. It was the first time he had ever shared a family meal at my house. It was also the first time he ate challah, which he thoroughly enjoyed.
At his suggestion, he and I took Sam to services on Saturday morning, where, after seeing me navigate the prayer book, he asked if I knew Hebrew. (“Not really,” I answered. “But it’s OK to just la la la if you don’t know the words.” He laughed.) Driving home, we talked about what to expect at Sam’s bar mitzvah. And he finally asked an easy question. Dad wanted to know why Sam didn’t have my last name. “Easy,” I said. “Our name is Bacon. That’s just not very Jewish.”
Before he left, my father told me how much he enjoyed his trip, even the two hours we spent at services. Looking back, it might have been the best visit we’ve had as adults. Talking about Judaism made for some of the longest and most personal conversations we’ve ever had. And his curiosity gave me a chance to think more deeply about what it means to raise our son in our Jewish community. Dad’s parting words were a request that I let him know when holidays were coming so he could be prepared. Perhaps I’ll give him a call for Shavuot.
By Amourence Lee
A good story is supposed to have a beginning, middle and end, right? Well, this story about being Jewish only has a beginning. Yep, I’m Jewish. Exactly 50% Ashkenazi according to my genome. And Jewish law says I’m 100 percent because my mother is Jewish—which also makes my kids Jewish.
I spent the first half of my life knowing this about myself, but that was literally all I knew about being Jewish. I never went to synagogue, didn’t become a bat mitzvah, we didn’t light candles or celebrate Jewish holidays or eat Jewish food. Since I don’t “look” Jewish, the only Jewish things about me are that I lived in New York and have a passion for lox and bagels.
I grew up in a secular home with lots of influences—Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, atheist, New Age. My dad is a fourth generation Chinese-American, born in Hawaii. If you ever see a balding, long-haired Chinese guy in Berkeley wearing two different color crocs, that’s my dad! My “Jewish” mom wasn’t raised Jewish. My grandfather was atheist and my Austrian grandmother converted to Christianity. I can only imagine this was her best way to cope during the war. In the background, my Jewish auntie and uncle would assure me that I am Jewish, even though I didn’t know what that meant. Then there’s my god-mom, a Southern black woman who meditated every morning and only ate macrobiotic, unless she was cooking her famous mac-n-cheese.
It was a smorgasbord that was totally liberating and utterly confusing! As a kid I felt trapped in between—I was everything and nothing; not Chinese, not white, not black, not Jewish or Buddhist or atheist, but I also felt I had a claim to all these things. Have you ever had to answer the question, “What are you?” Growing up, this was always the first question that people asked me. Innocent curiosity about my ethnicity was exhausting. There were times when I envied people who could check one box and who knew what they were and where they belonged.
But that wasn’t being handed to me, so everything about my identity has been claimed and self-determined. I moved to China, learned to speak Mandarin, studied up on Asian-American history and married a Chinese guy. We’re raising our kids bilingual; my 4-year-old daughter can sing more songs in Chinese than I can and our 7-year-old does Kung Fu.
I was feeling pretty smug about raising my kids to be so culturally fluent, until one day at the JCC. When I took the kids swimming, I had gotten in the habit of pointing out the Hebrew on the pillars and telling them it’s the Jewish language (not that I could read it). I checked a mental box every time I reminded them, “You’re Jewish too.” That day, my son Simon stopped me and asked, “How do I know that I’m Jewish?” And I said, “You’re Jewish because I’m Jewish.”
“How do you know you’re Jewish?”
“Well, because my mom’s Jewish.”
“No mom. How did the first person know they were Jewish?”
I was stumped. “That’s a good question.” That moment I realized that we don’t practice or express our identification as Jews in any outward way—it’s just been a statement of fact. Clearly this falls short, especially compared to the experiences, language and cultural ties that we’ve cultivated on the Chinese side. Simon in his 7-year-old wisdom knew: You have to do something to be part of it and for it to belong to you. Somehow he lasered in on this missing piece of our identity and it sent me spinning.
So I threw myself into reading Jewish books and met with three different rabbis to start my Jewish education. I even went to my first Passover seder with the kids. It turns out there’s lots of ways to be Jewish and my version is part of the Jewish experience. I’m 38 years old and this is just the beginning of my story about being Jewish… whatever that means.
Amourence Lee lives in a fixer-upper in San Mateo, CA, with her husband, two kids, two chickens and two cats.
By Kelly Banker
As a young Jew raised in a secular home, I never imagined that being in a committed relationship with someone who was of a different faith tradition (or none at all) would feel especially impactful to me. In fact, labeling my relationship “interfaith” has been a fairly new paradigm in my life. However, in the past few years I have increasingly identified with my Jewish identity and have spent time living and working in various Jewish intentional communities.
I am in a committed relationship with a man who identifies with his Presbyterian roots, just as I identify with my Jewish ancestry. As we grow closer as a couple, we also spend more time navigating our diversity in religious beliefs and practices. These conversations and experiences have been and continue to be a blessing. The depth of our spiritual and intellectual engagement with one another and with our respective traditions serves as a profound model for the two of us in how to approach differences with love, respect and connection.
A few weeks ago, I was in deep need of a ritual space. I was yearning for a way to mark a rite of passage, a moment in time, with my partner, and yet finding something that would be meaningful for the both of us was feeling increasingly difficult. I felt drawn toward marking the day with Jewish ritual, which I knew might be a challenge as an interfaith couple. I can’t quite name what the calling to Jewish ritual is, but it feels visceral, ancestral—written into my body.
When I asked my partner if he would be willing to mark this moment by visiting Mayyim Hayyim (a Jewish spirituality center in the Boston area) together, he was receptive but also distanced from it. He said that he would definitely go with me, but that it would be for me, and not for him. Since he is Christian, and the mikva’ot (ritual baths) at Mayyim Hayyim are for Jews and those converting to Judaism, immersing in the baths is neither an option for him nor a strong point of identification. A mikveh is designed for enacting a Jewish ritual that includes dunking under water (and involves much more that goes along with that act), typically to honor a lifecycle event, rite of passage or other life event. My partner is wonderful and knows how important the mikveh is to me, so he went along with me.
I had spoken to the staff at Mayyim Hayyim in advance of my visit to think through how to best make my partner feel welcomed and involved, despite his not being able to immerse. We talked through several options, including a hand-washing ritual and his being present in the space to witness my immersion. I was inspired by their attention to ensuring that Mayyim Hayyim was welcoming for an other-than-Jewish person who was understandably apprehensive about visiting a mikveh.
When my partner and I stepped across Mayyim Hayyim’s threshold, we felt a subtle shift. The warmth and kindness of our mikveh guide made us both feel at ease and since she had been informed of our interfaith status, she focused her tour on providing information so that my partner would feel comfortable, able to ask questions and connected to the place and to the ritual itself. Prior to arriving, he and I had decided that he would witness my immersion. Yet there was a feeling that came over us as we were exploring the space with our guide, a sort of holiness that neither of us could quite pinpoint. As I began preparing, I felt my nerves begin to spark. Was it strange to have my partner witness me? Was it too non-traditional for the both of us? Would the immersion hold meaning for me if he was there, and vice versa?
I stepped into the mikveh room wrapped in my sheet, and there he was, waiting for me. As the mikveh guide had taught him, he held up the sheet to obscure his view and I walked the seven steps into the sacred water. As I immersed, he lowered the sheet just beneath his eyes to witness my transformation. I prayed, sang and felt held by the water-womb and by his modest, unassuming gaze. I not only felt the renewal that I had been seeking, but an increased connection to my own self and to my partner. In that moment, I felt the sacredness not only of the water and of the space, but of my body and of our love for one another. I climbed the seven steps out of the water and he wrapped me back in the sheet. I had never felt such warmth.
As we thanked our guide and stepped out into the brisk air, I felt a newness on my skin, the blooming of new beginnings and the bittersweet sting of endings. We held hands and I asked him what he thought. He breathed deeply and paused. “It’s a holy place.”
His words underscored what many of us who immerse here regularly know, but it was a feeling I never thought would be accessible to us as a couple. We walked on, hand in hand, the air chilly against our faces, still basking in the afterglow of Mayyim Hayyim’s quiet holiness.
A version of this piece was originally published by Mayyim Hayyim
Kelly Banker works as a Jewish educator and as an intern at Mayyim Hayyim. She is also a resident organizer at Moishe Kavod House. Kelly recently earned her BA from Carleton College in Religion and Women’s Studies and has worked as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence. Kelly is a doula, a farmer and a certified yoga teacher. She loves feminist theory, ritual, movement, exploring the woods, poetry and the moon.
By Jared David Berezin
Sometimes it’s nice to have others make minor decisions for me. I’m happy when my wife decides what we’re cooking for dinner. It’s more convenient when a friend suggests a specific date to get together. If I look in my closet and see only one pair of pants (the others being in the laundry), no problem, it makes deciding what to wear very easy.
Sometimes though it can be difficult to avoid others trying to make decisions for me. From political commentators telling me who “won” a debate, to companies telling me what product will make me happy, to programmers at Netflix creating algorithms that tell me what movies to watch, I’m bombarded with recommendations from people I’ve never met.
For important lifecycle events—baby naming ceremonies, bat and bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals—affiliated and unaffiliated Jews alike tend to rely heavily on others, most often experienced and knowledgeable rabbis. For unaffiliated Jews and interfaith couples who do not belong to a synagogue, however, rabbis are often strangers whom we don’t know and who don’t know us.
Stepping away from the cast of strangers
The day my grandfather died, my mother said aloud what we were all thinking, “Arrangements need to be made.” I immediately pictured the typical funeral service with a rabbi we didn’t know talking to us about a man he didn’t know. Something inside me cried out, “No more strangers!”
Since my grandfather suffered from dementia, the nurses, doctors and staff at the assisted living facility were always strangers. As my grandfather’s dementia progressed, the cast of strangers in his life expanded to include even us, his own family. I was extremely grateful for the care he received, and yet I wondered, “Why must we rely on someone we don’t know to care for Papa even after he’s dead? Do we really need a stranger to show us how to say goodbye to the man we loved so much?”
Rabbis, like all individuals, can be wonderful people, but I was hesitant to have a rabbi who did not know my grandfather lead us through such an emotional experience. Although a rabbi would help ensure that Jewish rituals were met with accuracy, this had never been a priority for my grandfather. He loved to poke holes in theology and remind us not to take ourselves too seriously. I wanted a service that was as loving and authentic as my grandfather; an experience that was both Jewish and completely tailored for the man I admired.
I asked my mother and aunt—my grandfather’s daughters—if I could lead the funeral service. Initially, they said they’d think about it. In our next conversation I learned that their hesitation stemmed only out of concern for me. “Would you be OK?” they asked. “Would it be too difficult, since you and Papa were so close?” Truth is, I was scared to get what I asked for. Even thinking about attending a funeral makes me nervous.
Interfaith marriage as a confidence-booster
The determination to create and lead my grandfather’s funeral service grew in large part from my experiences in an interfaith marriage—I was raised a Reform Jew and my wife was raised Christian, though she has since developed an aversion to all organized religion. To build rituals and Jewish holiday celebrations that are meaningful for both of us (and our friends who are Jewish and of other faiths), we experiment with ideas from within and outside Judaism. Together, we’ve learned that we can try anything—if a ritual works we can do it again; if it doesn’t we can try something new.
Developing a practice of spiritual self-reliance and interfaith experimentation gave me the strength to take responsibility for my grandfather’s funeral, to help lead rather than be led and to do so without the pressure of trying to be exactly perfect.
The Jewish ritual at the end of a burial service is to place dirt atop the casket. This voluntary ritual gives loved ones an opportunity to participate in the burial process. Creating and officiating my grandfather’s funeral service felt like an extension of this dirt ritual, a way for me to get my hands dirty, to get involved and to get uncomfortable for the sake of love and gratitude.
Preparing the funeral service also helped me appreciate all of the work done by strangers of all faiths whom we rely on to help us say goodbye, particularly the gravediggers. I prepared the words; they prepared the land. After they carefully lowered the patriarch of my family into the earth, I thanked the cemetery workers for their work. A couple of the men nodded in recognition as they walked away wordlessly to their next task.
“I am officiating this funeral service as a grandson mourning the loss of my grandfather, my Papa,” I said at the start of the service to the group of family and friends gathered in front of me. Minutes later as my wife and I were performing the song “Lechi Lach” on flute and guitar—a duet my Papa always treasured—a gust of wind sent my yarmulke flying. As a family friend chased after the yarmulke and plopped it back on my head, I cherished the intimacy of the imperfect graveside service.
After belting out an energetic rendition of “The Bare Necessities” recently, my 8-year-old daughter Molly asked me, “Where do I get my love of music from?”
I’ll admit, I greedily credited my side of our family. After all, my Jewish grandmother was a piano teacher who played beautifully. I have lovely memories of being about 8 myself and dancing in her living room as she played tunes from Fiddler on the Roof and Mary Poppins. Then there’s my Irish grandfather who played the accordion and sang with a lilting brogue. They passed along their love of music (if not their talent) to me, and now I’m passing it along to Molly and my sons.
It got me thinking about the things we inherit from our families and how those things impact our lives. Celebrating Mother’s Day this weekend, I see that my mom—and her interfaith experience—have been a big influence on how I see the world, parent, work and love.
My mom, Mary Margaret Theresa Mahoney, converted when she married my Jewish father, Paul Melvin Hurwitz in the 1960s. With Irish immigrant parents, she grew up immersed in Catholicism but had lost her faith by her late teens. She was happy to convert if it meant marrying my father: a dashing, intellectual Navy pilot. It didn’t really matter to my father, but his family would never have accepted the two as a couple if my mom didn’t convert.
When my brother and I were born, it was my mom who took charge of our Jewish education, which is both ironic and quite common as women often drive their household’s religion—even if it’s not the religion they grew up in. She drove us to and from Hebrew school every week and organized my bat mitzvah. She planned and implemented our Jewish holiday celebrations at Hanukkah, Passover, etc. Looking back, she worked hard to raise us Jewishly.
I think because of her interfaith experience, she has always been an advocate for people who feel excluded or marginalized. She taught me the importance of making people feel welcome, accepted and important.
That lesson extended beyond our family to the larger world. My mom worked with children and adults with special needs and often invited them to our home for holidays. We were always encouraged to reach out to lonely or ostracized classmates and neighborhood kids.
My mother was also an important feminist role model. When I was in kindergarten in Iceland (my dad was stationed there), she started a Women’s Consciousness Raising Group. When we moved to San Francisco a few years later, she went to grad school and I remember her typing papers late into the night at our dining room table. She had cool hippy friends who were artists and writers. She worked (when many Navy wives didn’t) and she and my dad split household chores. My dad cooked dinner most nights.
I grew up with the expectation that I, too, would study and work and be an equal partner in my relationships. These are all lessons that I am teaching my own children.
Often, I see my mom and dad in my children—in the way they interact with their siblings or tell a story or write an essay for school. And I wonder, what about me will my children pass along to their kids? The thought actually reminds me to live more mindfully—because I know my kids are watching, the same way I was 40 years ago. It’ll also motivate me to sing more often—and energetically.