Debbie Popiel White, originally from New York, is a graduate of Hofstra University and the Director of Early Childhood Education at Temple Chai Childhood Center in Phoenix, Ariz. She is married to Gregory, and their blended family includes two older boys and a little girl born in 2002.
Our Braided Heritage
My daughter Gabriella is the light in her parents' eyes. A sister to her two big brothers. A joy to her grandparents. A kind friend. Bright, talkative, inquisitive. She is all these things and she is also black and Jewish.
The combination makes for an interesting heritage and for some interesting choices in hairstyles as well. So as I sat watching my daughter's hair get braided into cornrows the other day I couldn't help but think about how those braids, entwined together, represented some of her many attributes. I saw in them strands of my husband, myself and my daughter's Judaism.
Gabriella is a 4-year-old who reminds me to recite the Sh'ma nightly and teaches her Christian cousins about how the Torah has all the stories in it that God wrote. When I picture her as a grown-up I think of her as being a strong woman who knows who she is and is Jewish above all. Why? Simple. Her parents chose to send her to a Jewish preschool.
One thing I discussed with my husband when I met him eight years ago was my steadfast desire to raise my children Jewish. It was no secret that at the time I was a teacher at a Jewish preschool and had a young son who was clearly being raised Jewish. Being upfront about these things wasn't so much a preparation for our life together as much as it was a sharing an important part of who I was that anyone close to me needed to know about. Gregory noticed my faith immediately, and while he came from a strong Christian family he himself did not observe any faith. He knew that to be with me meant that our children would be Jewish.
A few years later I left teaching to earn more money in the corporate sector and Gregory and I began to merge our families together. We each had a son from a first marriage who was 5 at the time. Blending two existing children, two races and two religions was not an easy feat. When we learned we were pregnant, I became anxious about raising a mixed-race child to be Jewish.
Not only did we decide to raise our daughter Jewish, but based on my previous experience sending my son to a Jewish preschool, we decided that the best place for her to be while we were at work was in the care of a Jewish preschool with an infant room. Having a husband who neither understood Judaism nor wished to embrace religion of any sort was challenging, but we agreed that as a mixed-race woman our daughter would need to be strong in her identity.
While my husband was not overly enthusiastic about sending our child to a Jewish preschool, he liked the strong family values and commitment to education that he saw in my belief system, felt welcomed as an African-American man in the Jewish preschool environment, and recognized this was best for our child through my encouragement. Gradually my concerns about how our daughter would be accepted as a mixed-raced Jewish child diminished, and my husband's outlook helped turn my anxiety to confidence.
Although we had had the conversation that we would raise our children Jewish at the beginning of our relationship, explaining that choice to my mother-in-law, who sings in a church choir, brought more anxiety. Fortunately, although unsure about how we would do it, she was supportive and interested in learning more. So onward we forged!
Since that time, I am fortunate to have gone back to my own roots in education and taken on the role of early childhood director at my daughter's preschool. You might think that as an active member of the Jewish community, incorporating Judaism into my home life would have been simple. However, for a mixed-race, second-marriage, blended family, incorporating Jewish rituals is just as difficult as it is for any other interfaith family. Take, for instance, the year that the first night of Hanukkah fell on Christmas Day. What do you celebrate and more importantly, how? We had a tree in honor of my husband's son, Damien, who in his other home celebrates Christmas. On Christmas day, we awakened to gift giving and eggnog. That evening, we had latkes and menorah lighting. It was a long day filled with lots of food and gifts. Honoring each holiday in a meaningful way other than opening gifts is a challenge too, so we took time to clean out our closets and donate to those less fortunate.
Gabriella's comment on the celebration was "We get to do both!" "Yeah and we get to do this for eight days," added her brother Samuel. "Christmas is eight days too? Yippee!" she shouted in glee.
Learning to celebrate who we are and being respectful of and honoring our differences comes directly from the school Gabriella attends. Christmas is not a bad word at her school. There are many interfaith families and some non-Jewish teachers, so they are very inclusive in their approach, which helps my immediate family enormously. Gabriella was the first person to say during circle time last year, when the topic came up about who was Jewish in the class (since one of the teachers was not), "My daddy is special. He's not Jewish, but God made us all special."
B'tzelim Elokim, being created in the image of God, is a strong theme in the school. Gabriella's teacher in the threes class tells a beautiful story about creation that incorporates diversity into it. She begins with the sun that is yellow and the grass that is green, stopping along the way to ask, "What if the sun was yellow and the grass and the trees were yellow too?" To which the children answer loudly and excitedly "BORING!" She then continues, asking that same question all the way through the story and asks finally, "What if God created us all the same color?" Of course, the children reply, "Boring!" The lesson of being created in the image of God and being grateful for being different is reinforced. Gabriella recognizes the shade of her skin in comparison with her friends and family as they hold their arms against each other and in her sweet sing song voice always ends with, "But we all look like God." She can draw this conclusion because of the strong values she has learned in a Jewish preschool where her friends accept her with no distinctions made about her color, putting my anxiety to rest.
At home, our daughter explains to her father what holidays she is learning about, and he is learning from her. Last Purim, upon giving our non-Jewish neighbors the Mishloach Manot (gift) basket she made at school, she politely told them, "They're meesh lock baskets." Oblivious to their perplexed looks she happily skipped away singing, "meesh lock, meesh lock, meesh lock."
My mother-in-law visits often and spends time at the school learning how to bake challah and recite the blessings. We say motzi (prayer over bread) at the dinner table nightly and my husband is the one who prompts my daughter to lead the prayer. Her education has become our family's education.
We have figured out a way to make raising our daughter Jewish in an interfaith family work and our family has thrived. Our child has brought us together in our rituals. Her brother Damien relearns the prayers each time he visits and knows his sister is Hanukkah and he is Christmas, as he puts it. We are incorporating Judaism into our lives while teaching our family that our differences can bind us together. We may not have the same religions or holidays, but we share our love for family, good food, belief in one God and enjoyment of spending time together. Holidays can be celebrated together, and we have discovered that certain shared foods can help represent some of the rituals. One of our favorites is using sweet potatoes, a staple in African-American food, for our latkes on Hanukkah.
Next year, Gabriella will go to kindergarten in our local public school. I am confident she has the strong identity necessary to succeed in a non-Jewish world. If we had chosen another course for her early education I am not sure I would have been able to make as definitive a statement. I know that the self-esteem she has learned through B'tzelim Elokim will shine through and let her teach others about her beautifully braided heritage.