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While we were in New Orleans, we had to take our son to the emergency room. He’s fine, and was fine at the time, but he had bronchiolitis/RSV and was wheezing a lot. We called his pediatrician, who said it was probably not a big deal but since he’d never wheezed before we should have someone check him out. Due to insurance restrictions, we ended up in the ED. They declared him a “happy wheezer”, didn’t even think he needed a breathing treatment, and sent us on our merry way with an inhaler and mask gizmo, just in case.

When we checked in, I had to fill out an admissions form. This form had an extensive section for information on all three of us, more so than any form I’ve previously encountered. I was rolling right through the baby’s section — social security number, name, birthdate — when I hit a blank that gave me pause.

Religion: ___________________

Nobody had asked me this before. Mine and his father’s, yes, but I’ve never had to mark down baby J’s religion. I paused and looked at BWB, who shrugged. Just put both, he said. Oh, right, of course. So I filled it out: Christian/Jewish. I was proud of us, satisfied with that answer, and moved on.

The clerk at the desk, an older gentleman who had been telling me about his pre-Katrina job in real estate, looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, mama, but the system only lets me put one in.” I frowned, and started to explain that it wouldn’t be accurate. “Should I put down other?” Um. Okay? So my son got marked down as “other”, and he apologized again. He said he was Cajun, and they never had a good box to check for that, or for Creole either. I smiled and nodded, and we moved on.

But I haven’t moved on. My son is other? No. Other implies not belonging, lack of definition. My son is not other. My son is loved and accepted by two communities, has two sets of ladies at coffee hour and oneg who want to hold him. My son was blessed by a rabbi and a priest, he hears both Shalom Rav and Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing sung to him as lullabies at bedtime. I reject your checkbox, fancy computer system.

Yet even as I write this, I know that this is only the beginning. We have a long road of other-ness ahead of us, and I am sure this will be far from the last time that we find ourselves in this position. We are still confident in our choice to “do both”, and still certain we will make this work. That doesn’t mean we’re not aware that it would have been easier to just pick one. Sometimes the right thing isn’t the easy thing, though.

Someday, my son will speak for himself. He might choose to identify as Jewish, or Christian. He might call himself Buddhist, or Muslim, or Wiccan. Maybe he will continue to claim all of his heritage and defy the checkboxes on his own. Until he gets old enough to make those choices, though, it falls on me to try and make the world accept his religious reality.

So no, not “other”. How about, All of the Above, Yes, or Both? It’s Complicated. More Than Meets the Eye. Answer Unclear, Ask Again Later. Clearly, the form needs to be updated.

In the meantime, we’ll keep doing our thing despite the boxes. My son and our family are many things, and we are okay with that. Even if sometimes we don’t fit neatly on a form.

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As soon as we found out we were having a boy, I knew our interfaith childrearing was going to start fast and early. The bris (or brit milah), customarily performed on the 8th day of life, was going to force our hands with its timetable. We knew we wanted to make sure it happened, but neither of us knew exactly what would be required. Early on, we talked to one of the rabbis at the synagogue we had become most comfortable with and were attending regularly. She seemed pleased that we wanted to have one, and didn’t break stride when we pointed out that I am not Jewish, assuring us the text could be adapted for non-Jewish parents and grandparents. We were encouraged, and BWB set out to find a mohel.

On the recommendation of the rabbi, my husband contacted a very nice gentleman and explained to him our situation. The mohel said he was fine with our intention to have both a bris and a baptism, but it did mean he wanted a rabbi present and fully informed. No problem, we thought, as we had already covered that with the rabbi. This, however, is where things got strained. Suffice it to say, the rabbi did not ever actually come out and say she actively would not attend, but she did make it clear she was… unable to do so for unclear reasons. We found ourselves in the hospital with a baby, a mohel, and no rabbi.

Our priest (the one from the church I stumbled into in March) came to visit us in the hospital. I mentioned that we were having trouble and that I was worried because BWB was taking it pretty hard. He had started talking glumly about just having it done by a doctor before we were discharged, and none of us were happy about that option. Our priest told us she would work on it and get back to us. A few days later, she gave us a name and told us she’d see us at the ceremony.

God does indeed move in mysterious ways. The rabbi that we were put in contact with is amazing. He said his congregation is about fifty percent intermarried and that he wasn’t concerned about the baptism at all. “We did it first, after all! It’s just another ancient welcoming ceremony.” He called me because he wanted to make sure I was okay with everything and to answer any questions, and I felt so listened to, so supported, and most importantly so included.

The day of the ceremony, I was a little bit of a wreck. It was in our living room, which meant I needed to get the house clean enough for guests. (It was passable, and nobody said anything.) I didn’t get the challah out of the freezer early enough to have it baked in time, but there were kosher hors d’oeuvres (even though nobody really ate them). Mostly, I was trying to keep myself busy and not think about the fact that some stranger was going to come into the house and wield a scalpel at my son’s most tender parts.

In attendance that day were the rabbi and mohel (obviously), my priest and her partner, and one of my dearest friends. My family had come in when the baby was born but wasn’t able to stay for a full week, and his parents had been unable to travel. Not to be bested by the difficulty, we set up Skype on one of the iPads and his mom and dad were able to be the proud grandparents at their grandson’s bris thanks to the fact that we are living in the future. The ceremony itself was lovely and had no awkward moments of pseudo-“inclusive” language that felt rammed in where it shouldn’t be, which I appreciated. When the mohel stepped up to do his part, he spoke about how it was the duty of every father to see his son circumcised, and that there was some kind of loophole made to allow someone trained to do it so that the father didn’t have to do it himself. (I’m a little hazy on the details; I was nervous about the cutting about to happen.) So then he says, “But here we have a strange situation, because BWB is a doctor, and therefore is qualified to circumcise his own son. So, BWB and I have talked about it, and he will be doing the circumcision.” I did not appreciate this joke, and chuckled nervously.

It quickly became apparent that he was not, in fact, kidding, and my husband had every intention of taking a scalpel to our son. Suddenly, the prospect of a stranger cutting my son’s genitals seemed not so bad by comparison. (Sorry, honey. We don’t operate on family members for a reason!) My stress level increased, easing somewhat only after I realized that the mohel was doing all of the difficult set-up part, leaving BWB with the relatively easy task of the actual cut. I had been told I could step out of the room, but I stayed. I think the wine helped the little guy, because other than two soul-piercing, anguished screams (I may be overstating this a tiny bit), the baby was a trooper. His mom was a wreck, but they gave him back to me very quickly and that made things better for both of us. (Mostly me.)

Even though we had a tiny crowd, I felt surrounded by love and welcomed. I’m hoping the baby could feel it, too. When the rabbi and I talked about the bris prior to the ceremony, he emphasized that this ceremony is all about recognizing a baby and his family as part of the community. He made it explicit that he included me in that welcome, wholeheartedly and without reservation. I appreciate that enormously, and know that it is remarkable for us to have found someone as generous in spirit as he is. This welcome into the community is why it has been so important to us to make sure he has a bris and baptism. We are fully committed to raising our child with the help and support of both of his communities, and are so grateful and blessed to have found two communities willing to help us do so.

Last year, my goddaughter’s mother let me know that my brilliant godchild, who was 7 at the time, had been asking questions about Easter. Her parents are not especially religious, but wanted her to have some exposure to spirituality and religion and so they hired me. (We joke about this often.) Unfortunately, since I am not local to them anymore and haven’t been for some years, my ability to do things like take her to church regularly is a little bit hampered. As a result, last year was the first time she started to really inquire after this whole Easter thing, beyond Cadbury bunnies and dyed eggs.

Please explain Easter, then, to someone with limited exposure to Christianity in particular or God in general.

Um, okay.

What follows is what I sent her. I found it while sorting out my extremely neglected email inbox, in a reply to me from my sister, who mentioned she thought I should post it here. Since my sister is also brilliant, I decided to do just that.

***

Dear S,

Your mom told me you were asking about the Easter story, and I thought I’d give you my version of it. I wish I were there with you to talk about it in person, but in the meantime, we’ll try this!

A very long time ago, there lived a Jewish man named Jesus. He was a very wise man, a holy man, and a rabbi, which means teacher. He taught people about God, and said that God wants us to love each other and be kind to one another. At the time Jesus lived, there were a lot of rules about who could be friends or hang out with each other, and Jesus pretty much said those rules were stupid, that people should be equal no matter what they believed or how much money they had. People started to follow Jesus around and listen to him speak. Some people said that they thought God had sent him down to earth. They were saying that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. They called him the King of the Jews, because the Jewish people are waiting for the Messiah to come and lead them.

The people in power were scared of Jesus because the things he said challenged their authority, and because change is scary. They also didn’t believe he was the Messiah and thought it would offend God for people to follow Jesus and say he was the Son of God when he really wasn’t. So they decided that Jesus should be executed, killed for his beliefs and the changes he was trying to make in his world.

Jesus knew that there were a lot of people out to kill him. There was a Jewish holiday dinner, a Passover Seder, and he gathered his friends together to celebrate and eat. During dinner, he told them that they should always remember him, no matter what happened. He said that every time they shared bread and wine, they should think about what he taught them, and remember that God loves them and wants them to be good people.

The scared people took Jesus and had him killed. The way they did it was to put him up on a huge wooden cross with nails in his hands and feet. They put a crown of thorns on his head to make fun of how people called him King. It was pretty bad. Jesus’s friends and students were scared and upset at losing their friend and teacher. After he died, his friends came to take him down from the cross and carried him to a grave. At the time, graves were like big caves, and they would put a huge stone in front of the cave to seal it up. They sealed him in the tomb and went away to grieve.

About three days later, some of the women who loved Jesus came to visit his grave. When they got there, they found the stone rolled away from the grave, and the tomb was empty — there was no body in there! She thought someone had come to steal the body, and was very upset. An angel appeared and told her not to be afraid, that Jesus had risen from the dead and would see them again. The women ran to tell the others, but on the way they were stopped by Jesus himself. Jesus told them not to be afraid, and that God would bring them all to Heaven to be with him again after they die.

Jesus appeared to all of his students later, telling them that they had to keep doing the work he started, but that he would see them again after they died. He sent them into the world to do good work, and then he went to Heaven to be with God.

Easter isn’t about Jesus dying, it’s about the part after that, the part where he lived on after he died. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and that he rose from the dead. When we’re baptized, we are recognized as part of Jesus’s family, children of God, and we have a responsibility to do what Jesus taught — to love everyone, even our enemies, even people who are mean to us, and to work for justice and peace in the world. My home is also a Jewish home, and Jews don’t believe that Jesus was literally the Son of God. However, they do also believe that it is important to be a good person and that God wants us to work for peace. BWB says he doesn’t have to believe that Jesus was God’s son in order to believe that he was a wise and holy man who had a lot of good ideas about how people should act. I agree!

I know this is a lot of information, and some of it might not make sense. If you ever have any questions or want to talk about this stuff, you can always ask your mom and dad to call me, or see if they can get a video conference going so we can see each other. I’d like that even if you don’t have questions, because I think you’re an awesome kid and I’d love to talk to you! But especially about things like this, I’m always happy to talk.

I miss you and hope school is going well! Many hugs and much love from both BWB and me!

Love, me

Contents:
1 Kiddush Cup, Tree of Life design
1 Menorah
1 Box of leftover Hanukkah candles
1 The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat
1 Yahrzeit candle
1 Wedding/Shabbat shawl, aka future Baptismal blanket (God willing)
1 Wall Cross, Tree of Life design
1 Set of Islamic Prayer Beads sent to my grandfather in his last hours

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Any questions?

It’s Friday evening, and Christmas is all over the table. Yes, as of the first week of February, Christmas has migrated into bins on the dining room table, slowly being sorted into ornaments (breakable and not), garlands and soft things, and breakable non-ornaments. Hanukkah is there too, in slightly larger proportion than when they came out of the boxes as we made a concerted effort to find more Hanukkah-related decorations this year. The jury is still out as to whether there will be interfaith storage, or if the blue bins will sit beside the red ones in the closet. All of this is progress from the last week of January, when it still looked approximately the same as the last week of December, only with slightly more wilted and brittle greenery.

With Christmas and Hanukkah holding court on our dinner table, there is no room to put out candles, wine, and bread. The smell of challah hangs in the air, filling the house with the essence I am coming to associate inextricably with Shabbat, but I fret over how this will work without a clear space to put our food or sit. How are we going to do this?

My iPhone plugs into the television, and soon Shalom Rav is quietly playing in the background. My husband and I stand in the middle of our kitchen and say prayers over the candles, wine, and bread which are waiting on the countertops. We have dinner on TV trays from the couch, listening to my very short Shabbat playlist and talking about inane secular topics like what the dog has found and whether he’s supposed to be chewing on it.

Even without the dinner table, without elevated discourse, without the good china or cloth napkins, standing in the middle of the kitchen with doughy dishes soaking in the sink, even with Christmas and Hanukkah haunting us and the stresses of school driving us both insane, even with all of that, we still eked out our little holy space tonight.

Blessed are you, oh God, who blesses Your people with Peace.

A friend of mine has invited me to a Zozobra celebration. If I understand correctly, we will put paper representations of the worries, fears, and stresses that have plagued us into a small effigy, set it into the barbecue on the balcony of her apartment, and light them on fire. It is an annual purging of gloom, and according to my friend it has roots in several different faith traditions.

Her celebration coincides with Rosh Hashanah this year, and it seems to me appropriate timing, if accidental. What better way to start a new year than by leaving behind the gloom of the old? One might even say, casting it off?

A few nights ago, this friend and I were out with another friend of hers, a woman I hadn’t met before. I said I was going to bring honey and apples to Zozobra, or maybe honey cake, and we all agreed that adding Jewish food traditions to the already jumbled heritage of this holiday seemed to make good sense. Later in the evening, we were talking about our mothers and their reactions to various boyfriends, and I of course recounted the three questions story. I was puzzled as to why it didn’t get quite the laugh it usually does, but the conversation went on. Finally, the new friend asked hesitantly, “But wait, why was your mom unnerved? Aren’t you supposed to — I mean don’t Jewish moms want their kids to find nice Jewish partners?”

My friend jumped in to explain that I wasn’t Jewish and I agreed, “Nope, I’m Episcopalian.” And after a beat, I added, “I’m intermarried.”

It’s the first time I’ve ever identified as such, rather than simply saying that my husband is Jewish, and there was something about it which felt different. It was a statement about my identity, about our identity, rather than his and mine as two separate things. We are intermarried. Our home is interfaith. Our lives together are not threaded separately, they are woven together into a gloriously complicated braid.

This comes on the heels of something I have been struggling with for the past couple of months. BWB and I have been apart since July, and will not see each other until October. It’s been really hard, and I miss him horribly. I also miss going to temple on Friday nights, miss Shabbat. I miss the little traditions we had just barely started kindling together, miss lighting candles, the smell of the challah, the sound of his voice still self-conscious through the Hebrew. I have felt like I am not entitled to miss these things, that these traditions are not mine and that I can’t claim them while my husband is gone. After all, he is the Jewish one.

And yet, I have been listening to my small but growing Shabbat playlist and surreptitiously lighting candles on Friday. Honestly, I don’t even know if I’m supposed to light candles without all of the rest of it, but I’ve been doing it anyway. I have nearly gone to temple alone, but haven’t quite worked up the courage to do so. I was secretly delighted at the timing of the Zozobra party as an excuse to bring honey cakes and other food I was trying to justify making without the Jewish husband in the house.

At first I have to admit that I wondered if this was a sign that I was more interested in conversion than I had previously thought. Maybe wanting to do these Jewish things meant I should be Jewish after all? The idea scared me, but as I explored it I realized it wasn’t quite right. Instead, I came to a conclusion that feels a little like a soap bubble, shimmering and delicate. I can want these things and still be content, because my I have simply added a facet to my faith that wasn’t there before. I am becoming a little bit of what my children will be born into, an interfaith woman in an interfaith household. These traditions belong to my family, and I am part of my family, and therefore they belong to me, too.

That is such a scary declaration to make. Scary because I am waiting for someone hateful to find it and tell me I am less of a Christian because of it. Scary because I am waiting to be told that I am not Jewish enough (at all) to have any right to those prayers, songs, or foods. Scary because I am waiting for someone to come along and burst my little soap bubble. But here I am, making that scary declaration. I am stepping into that in-between place where it is never easy to be, and deciding I would like to set up camp there.

Saying out loud to my new friend that I am intermarried was not an intentional choice of language, but I think from now on it will be. As much as it is a scary declaration, it is also the best way I can begin to convey that my faith doesn’t come with his and hers towels.

This week, I’ll take apples and honey and honey cakes to a pagan, Mexican, Native American celebration and ring in at least two or three different kinds of new years. If anyone asks, yes, I’m bringing those foods because of the proximity to Rosh Hashanah, and yes, I’m okay with that. Or at least, I’m working on it.

In a sermon a few weeks ago, the priest was talking about soul food, the kind of food that not only feeds your body but makes you feel good inside at the same time.  He drew a parallel to communion, not surprisingly, and in the process of doing so said something along the lines of, “Jesus created a way to nourish our spirits”.  Not long ago, I would have taken this at face value and moved along.

However.

On Sunday morning, the priest says a blessing over bread and wine.  He washes his hands, and says a prayer over that, too.  He blesses the congregation, and we all share food together at God’s table.

For the last three Friday nights, we have said a blessing over bread and wine.  We wash our hands and say a prayer after we do so.  We bless each other, and then we share food together.  I’d venture to say we share food together at God’s table on Friday nights, too.

I don’t think most Christians are aware of how closely Sunday morning Eucharistic prayers mirror what happens in Jewish homes every Friday night.  I also don’t think that the echo somehow invalidates or cheapens either ritual.

I’ve heard several sermons over the years which have addressed the importance of sharing food in ancient/Middle Eastern cultures.  The basic concept is that sharing a meal creates a special connection, establishing a relationship amongst the people gathered at the table.  This is why the Israeli and Palestinian representatives have refused to sit down to dinner with each other, even after signing treaties.  There is an obligation to treat someone with whom you have shared food with a level of respect that perhaps is inconvenient for opposing politicians.  This idea of being united by sharing food is one which I’ve heard many times before, but I wonder if I’ve missed the point in the past.

I don’t think Jesus, the Jewish man, was thinking literally when He told His disciples to think of Him when they broke bread together in the future.  He said, I am the Bread of Life.  Christ was broken for all of us, for the whole world.  I think what Jesus was getting at was that we should recognize that through Him, we have all broken bread together, whether we have shared a table or not.  I think what He wanted us to remember was that His ministry was for everyone, no matter what they believed, and that the obligation we feel to each other should not be limited by whether we have literally broken bread together.

For me, both Friday night challah and Sunday morning communion wafers are a reminder of my ties to my family and to my community.  I think I need to also remember that everyone is invited to God’s table, even though they may not be able to literally fit in my dining room.

Yesterday, one of my residents was looking at Smitten Kitchen and the two of us were talking about various recipes from there which we love.  I told the her I used that blog’s challah recipe every week, and she agreed it was one of the best she knew of.  There wasn’t any discussion of religion, just food, and we moved on to cookies and lemon cakes.

Later, we were out to dinner with some other residents and the topic of conversion came up.  I mentioned that my husband is Jewish and I am Episcopalian but neither of us plans to convert, and there was some bemusement at the table.

Then this resident spoke up, “Yeah, but she makes challah every week.”

Everyone aaahed and nodded, as if that explained everything.  I’m not sure how, but it felt good anyway.  I wonder if that should be my new introduction now: I’m not Jewish, but I make challah every week.  Think that’d work?

Last night, while working on my Shabbat post, I found Susan Katz Miller’s blog, On Being Both.  I was excited when I read the subtitle, “Interfaith Parent, Interfaith Child: Notes from a Hybrid Universe”.  As I read on, I realized that this wasn’t someone speaking hypothetically, or one of the “interfaith” blogs where “interfaith” is really code for “convincing the non-Jew it is best to convert, for the children”.  This blog is written by a woman who is doing what BWB and I have decided to do, and more than that, she isn’t alone. I followed first one link, and then another, and found myself reading about all kinds of communities for parents choosing to raise children in two (or more) faiths — and succeeding.  All of the things we’ve been warned are not possible, are being done.

I nearly cried.

There isn’t any such community in New Orleans (at least that I’ve been able to find) (yet), but just knowing that they exist somewhere, that someone is writing a blog about families like mine, that there are interfaith children who are not lost, confused, or God-free — just knowing these things makes it easier to believe that we are not crazy.

I’ve been devouring the archives of the blog, tucking it all away deep in my soul like fuel, or maybe armor.  There are many posts I want to share, but for right now I’ll just start with one.  The poem in this post by peace activist Christover Mattias is beautiful, and I hope anyone reading this heads over there to drink it in.

Maybe next time we are visiting family, we’ll check out one of those interfaith groups, just to see what it’s like not to have to explain, or justify.  Hope is so precious, and yet it arrives in the strangest packages, at the strangest times. I’m so grateful this little slice came into my life right now.

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