Salt Cod on Shabbat

By Rachel Rockenmacher


Reconciling our different religious and ethnic heritages in raising our son has been more complicated than my husband and I had anticipated when we married nine and a half years ago. We couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds.

I am the daughter of two professional parents, an Ashkenazi Jewish father and a mother who converted to Judaism. Her English Protestant family has been in New England for centuries, and their lineage has been traced to medieval times.

My husband emigrated from the Azores when he was 10. Now an autonomous region of Portugal, this tropical archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic comprised three districts of Portugal at the time. His parents were primarily subsistence farmers; his father occasionally made furniture to barter and his mother cared for the six of 11 children who survived diseases easily preventable here, cooked in an open fire stove and washed laundry in the river. Villages on their island were so isolated that dialects varied from one to the next.

We met when I heard him performing music in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., and our relationship slowly developed after many years of hesitation because of our different backgrounds. At first, it was not difficult to bring each other to Portuguese and Jewish community events, Jewish holiday and family celebrations, and even to learn a little Portuguese. Both of our families actively took an interest in the other’s heritages: my parents, sister, and brother-in-law went to hear my husband’s band play at Portuguese festivals and talked about accompanying us to the Azores one day; his sister gave us a mezuzah when we bought our house and never forgets to send e-cards for Jewish holidays. My uncle Joe fondly recalled his stopover in the Azores during World War II when he served in the Air Force.

I found many aspects of Manny’s family’s cultural traditions familiar: large family gatherings with too much food and people constantly filling your plate, like my father’s side; value placed on making and fixing things yourself, like my mother’s side; plus vegetable gardens even more beautiful than my great Uncle Francis’s. I never met anyone who could hold and comfort a baby, prepare a delicious meal and feed a large group simultaneously, or pinch a child’s cheeks cooing “such a beautiful child” (in her own language) like my Grandma Sadie, until I met Tia Florinda.

Before our son Ethan was born, we decided we would share with him the aspects of each of our heritages that were important to us. We would raise him in the Jewish faith, as Judaism was important to me while my husband had rejected Catholicism and respected my religious beliefs. Our home, we decided, would be filled Portuguese music, Jewish holidays and Portuguese, Ashkenazi and old New England family recipes. We’d share Portuguese and Jewish community ties, family on both sides, regional ties to New England and the Azores islands, and regular trips to the Azores and maybe Israel. We’d teach our son to speak Portuguese and English first so that he could talk with family (many of whom don’t speak English), then start Hebrew at around 3.

We were overjoyed when Ethan was born, but also overwhelmed by the power of our desire to pass on traditions from our backgrounds. Much of the first week of his life was consumed by a bitter, visceral battle about following through with the plans we had made for a bris. My husband found the concept cruel and gruesome; I found it necessary. Our final decision was so difficult that we agreed not to discuss it publicly.

Naming our son was simpler: we easily agreed to choose names for special family members from both sides of the family who had recently died. He’d call us “Mommy” and “Papa.” Friends and relatives gave him traditional Portuguese gold: a baby ring, a bracelet engraved with his name and necklace charms, a traditional Portuguese fist “for good luck,” a soccer ball and a chai (Jewish symbol of good luck) which my sister-in-law said was “instead of a cross.”

Deciding how to handle the “December dilemma” seemed easy when it was just the two of us, but became more difficult when adoring relatives wanted to share their special traditions with the newest addition to the family. When my mother-in-law was still alive, she depended on us to drive her to my sister-in-law’s house on Christmas Eve, where we would join the family for an amazing codfish dinner. We did not celebrate Christmas in our home.

Then, when Ethan was born we explained that we were raising him Jewish and that we would not have a Christening or celebrate Easter or Christmas. My mother-in-law had passed away a couple of years before Ethan’s birth, and my sisters-in-law wanted to honor her memory by continuing the tradition she had loved of gathering on Christmas Eve. How could we deny our son this only regular annual gathering of his paternal relatives? How could we dishonor my mother-in-law’s memory? So we attend the Christmas Eve gathering every year. My husband’s relatives understand that Santa doesn’t come to our house, but can’t resist at least giving Ethan “a little something” on that day. I was uncomfortable at first, but my husband felt this was what they knew; that we should just accept their expressions of love.

Our son doesn’t seem confused; he told me that even though he doesn’t celebrate Christmas, it was nice of Tia Fatima and Tia Maria to give him a gift, since that’s when they’re used to giving them. He proudly talked to his kindergarten class about what our family does on Hanukkah.

Planning for our son’s Jewish education and our own Jewish community involvement has been another challenge. Because I am the Jewish parent, I feel it is my responsibility to do most of the research. In looking for a congregation, I look for a community in which I will feel comfortable with the liturgy and my husband will not feel alienated, where he will hopefully have positive feelings. I start by taking our son to Shabbat services and meeting with community members. I speak with membership coordinators over the phone openly about my husband’s background and discuss how they would treat a non-Jewish spouse and a child of intermarriage. Will they accept a Portuguese immigrant who never went to college? Will he feel comfortable coming to events, or will he identify more with his cousin and aunt who used to clean the Hillel building at a nearby university and were puzzled by some of the customs they observed at this “igreja” (church)?

With membership so expensive, we still bounce between congregations but have narrowed our search. The three of us fell in love with a Jewish school in our area where we hoped to send our son, but were heartbroken when, despite their generous offer of financial aid, we could not afford the tuition. But we have enrolled Ethan in a Sunday gan (kindergarten Hebrew school) class he enjoys, and last Friday night he fell asleep singing the motzi (Jewish blessing over bread).

It helps that both my husband and I are committed to our plan of passing on aspects of both of our heritages to our son, the Jewish religion and both of our cultures, though we each have separate roles in this endeavor. Ethan loves teaching his papa about Hebrew letters, words and blessings, and about Jewish holidays. He also loves correcting my pronunciation of Portuguese words. His bookshelf includes books on Jewish holidays, stories in Portuguese and others in Hebrew. The Portuguese books are only starting to interest him, thanks to the Portuguese TV website’s children’s games and his growing interest in understanding conversations at family gatherings. For years he was very annoyed when Papa would speak to him in Portuguese, and my husband learned that it was hard to pass on a language mostly alone. I’ve finally committed to taking a Portuguese class next year, so I will no longer speak like Tarzan. Now our son is learning both Hebrew and Portuguese at the same time and seems to be handling it well.

Sometimes aspects of our son’s different heritages come together in unique combinations. We served grilled bacalhau (salt cod) at a Shabbat dinner with our neighbors, and make a vegetarian recipe for sopa de feijao (bean and vegetable soup), with the right amounts of Azorean crushed red peppers and paprika so that even the Portuguese relatives don’t miss the linguiça (spicy sausage, usually made of pork). I remember, on a bike ride around the block in September, when we stopped to give flowers to a “vosinha” (neighbor) who baked biscoitos (Portuguese cookies) and their island’s style of sweet bread (similar to challah) for Ethan, after wishing the twins across the street a “Shana Tova.” We found a place that doesn’t charge extra to make three versions of holiday photo cards: one for Hanukkah, and generic greetings in English and Portuguese. On New Year’s Day, after practicing writing his Hebrew letters, our son wished a “Feliz Año Novo” to our friends who called from the Azores.

Ethan frequently seeks connections between his different heritages: Aunt Gloria reminds him of Tia Florinda, Uncle John built an electric train set-up and Titi José built a garden shed with the same great skill. He notes that “telephone” is the same in the all three of his languages and that glida sounds like gelado (ice cream). Portuguese relatives (who have trouble saying “th”) call him Eitan. On his globe, he loves to find Boston, New Hampshire, the Azores, Israel and China. (Two of my nieces were adopted from China.) He loves building projects with Papa and wants to design and build a sukkah with him from scratch. He shares Jewish holiday traditions with his kindergarten class and wants Papa to perform his favorite Portuguese song for them. My husband and I are pleased when he takes an interest in each of our backgrounds, try to set a positive example, and have learned to make the effort to teach him to be comfortable, hopefully fluent, in these different worlds.

We dream of taking him one day to the Azores to meet family and dear friends; to see what’s left of his father’s old house and the lush, hilly landscape with flowers everywhere and ocean all around; to taste the fresh-picked passion fruit and pineapple, to watch the village feast procession in which his uncle and grandfather used to play saxophone, marching across the streets decorated with flowers; and to visit the old synagogue on my husband’s island and view the Torah scrolls found hidden in a grotto. But Ethan is more interested in the volcanic crater lakes, the tiny three-wheeled cars, and the pool with water slides. After all, he is just 5-and-a-half!



About Rachel Rockenmacher

Rachel Rockenmacher lives with her husband and son in the Boston area, close to family on both sides. She and her sisters frequently discuss reconciling their families' multiple racial, ethnic, religious, class and linguistic heritages. She also works on balancing the demands of family, work and graduate school.