Thursday, April 21, 2011

Next Year in Ohio

          April Vacation officially began at 3:30 on Friday when Hot Shot arrived home with a pocket full of Easter candy and a claim she is “half-Jewish, half-Christian.”  Seems her public school spent some valuable curriculum time celebrating the resurrection.  She was abuzz with news of Easter egg hunts in the public parks.
          “If you let me go I’ll give you all the chocolate,” she bargained.  (My most prized parenting accomplishment thus far is that I trained her to hate chocolate when she was a wee one.)
          I spent a moment wistfully recalling the minor infractions of Christianity in the Portland Public Schools, the little trifles that used to ruffle our feathers.  They were mostly the work of the Foster Grandparent in Hot Shot’s kindergarten class.  She was an old dog and not to be dissuaded, so the teacher let her get away with a reindeer here and a chick chick there.  But those little blips?  They are nothing (nothing!) compared to what we’ve seen this year.  Math, reading, and social studies lessons infiltrated by Christmas.  Mardi Gras hats dancing on kids’ heads as they skip down the steps after school.  And now Easter parties.  I watched Hot Shot fish her jump rope out of the broken laundry basket beside the driveway and I resented the teacher, the school, the whole damn Bible Belt for making my daughter, who loves Judaism, feel like she needs to be half-Christian in order to fit in.  I was all ready to explain to her for the thousandth time that visiting my Catholic family on Christian holidays does not make us Christian, but then it occurred to me she might be citing a different source of her half-Christianess.  So I asked.  And sure enough:
          “My birth family’s Christian.” She stopped jump-roping to answer my question in classic “of course, Mom” posture.
          My birth family.  My Birth Family.  The words flew at me at me across the driveway in a stream of reminders (as if I need reminding) that I’ve chosen to raise my black children in a religion where almost no one looks like them.  A fact that has become magnified since we left Portland where almost no one looked like them, period; not just no one at synagogue.  But that’s why we moved here, right?  So that when they walk down the street they will have black neighbors.  So that when kids come and hang out in our driveway after school, they will be black kids.  So that when reading groups are picked at school, the students who read as well as Hot Shot will be black students.  So that when we go to the grocery store.…  Well, you get the idea.
          But come Sunday morning, where are all those black neighbors and students and grocery shoppers?  Black church, of course.  And where are we?  Hebrew School.  We take that long drive, to another part of town, where the kids who gather in the driveway after school are white, and we bring Hot Shot to Hebrew School.  Which, by the way, she loves.
          She loves it when she’s at Hebrew School, that is.  But when she’s back at school school (which she also loves) nobody really even knows what “Jewish” means.  And it’s not like she’s out of practice at being different.  She’s got white parents after all.  And that’s a little surprising to most kids, but it’s knowable: it’s an objective bit of data that can be seen and incorporated quickly into a seven-year-old’s understanding of reality.  And then she’s got two moms.  Again, not what you’d expect.  But everybody’s got something you wouldn’t expect: Grandma as everyday parent, half-sisters in Chicago, God-brothers on the couch.  But Jewish?  It’s not the kind of thing that jumps out at you like two white moms waiting at the bus stop.  Is it a language?  Is it a country?  Is it more like Methodist or Lutheran? 
          And we knew this.  We knew this way back before we checked the box next to African American on the adoption forms.  We knew there were reasonable arguments against white, Jewish couples adopting black kids.  That they would feel out of place at temple and then out of place among their black peers.  We knew it.  And we did it anyway.
          So here’s my Jewish kid, home from a day of Vacation Bible Camp (oops, I mean public school), jumping rope and begging to hunt for chocolate eggs she doesn’t even like.
          We have Shabbat dinner together--it’s Moon Boy’s turn to light the candles--and that’s Friday.
          Saturday morning my partner, Darling Virgo, took Hot Shot and Moon Boy to the airport to pick up a beloved Portland friend for a weekend visit.  Ankle Biter and I made a grocery run so we could feed our friend something other than limp celery.  I looked down the holiday isle and delighted at the ample shelves of “Passover items” alongside the florescent peeps.  Bible Belt or not, we had done good work, redeemed ourselves at least a little.  I mean: Columbus Ohio.  What two-white-mom, three-black-kid, mostly-Jewish, partly-vegetarian, completely-Democratic family (after years of research) would choose Columbus, Ohio?  But seriously, our grocery store--by which I mean the closest and most convenient grocery store to our home--sits on the boarder between our neighborhood (black with pockets of gay, white homesteaders) and Bexley (a white, 50-percent-Jewish town).  What I mean to say is, my grocery store carries Havdallah candles and chitlins; and I’m willing to bet no grocery store in Portland carries either.
          So really, if we are going to fit in anywhere on the planet, it’s right here at this Kroger: aisle 14.
          But I didn’t browse the ample Passover items.  I thought about it.  And I thought I probably should.  Because I was pretty sure Passover was coming up sometime in the middle of the week.  But company was coming first.  In twenty minutes.  And that was all my grocery-shopping brain could handle.
          So we spent a lovely weekend with our guest.  We introduced her to our favorite place in Columbus: the downtown library.  We took our first trip to the zoo.  (The Zoo?!  More on that in future posts I’m sure.)  And we kept her up talking every night because we are just that starved for face to face contact with established friends.  Then, early Monday morning, DV quietly took our guest back to the airport, went off to work herself, and I awoke alone with three kids, looking at the calendar, realizing that Passover began at sundown.  Tonight.
          I had a hunch DV was aware of this little secret; it is her holiday after all.  And for sure she was avoiding it, because, well, because we are in Ohio.  Not Portland.  Not Boston.  Because we are not with family.  Because her Bubbie is in the hospital and she is not at her side, massaging those puffy old feet and tactfully interrogating the physicians.  Because she was feeling alone.  Of course.
          I wondered for a minute at how casually I put off my Jewish Home Beautiful duties this time around.  As if the public school system might help me along a little, offer a few Passover-infused math lessons maybe, or conjure up a handful of unleavened crafts to decorate our dining room and get us all in the mood.  Who did I think was going to create this holiday for my children?  Who was going to tell them the story of their resilience, their liberation, their self-determination?  There were no grandparents across town.  No community of friends with whom we had gathered for family Shabbats all these years.  It was our job alone.
          But by that point it seemed a lot to pull off with only two grown-up hands already pretty busy keeping Moon Boy from doing serious damage to Ankle Biter and finding first-day-of-vacation projects to engage the already-bored Ms Hot Shot.
          I thought I could manage some charost.  That was a start.
          I called DV and asked her to pick up some pecans (the boys can’t eat walnuts).  And then I called again a few minutes later for grape juice.  And we’re almost out of cinnamon.  I thought we’d skip the matzoh ball soup because we only just finished the leftovers from an oddly timed pot we made last week.  But we could probably use some matzoh meal.  And eggs. 
          With great effort I got Moon Boy down for a nap around 1:00 and settled in on the back steps to read a library book to Hot Shot and Ankle Biter.  On the outside I was reading a library book.  My lips formed the words.  I even read with expression.  And my fingers turned the pages.  But in my mind I was flipping through our Haggadah, making a list of things we’d need on the Passover table in addition to the meal.  Pulling off an actual seder seemed increasingly unlikely as my mental list grew.  That’s when Star Gazer rounded the corner into our driveway, looking for fun.  Star Gazer is ten years old and our most frequent visitor.  A fifth grader at Hot Shot’s school and nearby neighbor, she spends many afternoons at our art table and many evenings at our dinner table.  She’s an eager helper and anthropologist: happy to pass out the napkins and quick to learn the Havdallah blessings. 
          As soon as I saw her face, I knew we could do it.
          By the time DV got home from aisle 14 with fresh parsley, coconut for macaroons, and enough chutzpah to rustle up another round of matzoh balls, Star Gazer and Hot Shot were already busy at the table chopping apples.  Bolstered by Star Gazer’s genuine interest, Hot Shot let go of her annoyance that no one even knows what part of speech “Jewish” is, and let herself enjoy the preparations alongside her friend.
          “I never had no charoset before,” Star Gazer confessed.
          “Don’t worry,” said Hot Shot.  “You’ll love it.”
          She told her about the Haggadahs I made a few years ago and how there’s room for kids to draw pictures if they get bored.
          We found them in the drawer and made sure there were enough that weren’t already drawn in. They finished the apples and pecans and mixed in the grape juice and cinnamon.  Then while I was putting Ankle Biter to bed (we thought a one-toddler Seder would be enough this time around) they moved on to the macaroons.
          By the time Ankle Biter was asleep and I re-emerged, the table was set, DV had cut a shank bone from construction paper, eggs were boiled and shelled, matzoh balls were plumping in the broth, and the girls, already dressed in their Christmas Concert finest, were helping Moon Boy into his fancies.  In a moment of unprecedented generosity, Hot Shot even gave him five of the dozen jangley bracelets recently handed down (via the US Postal Service no less) from a beloved older friend in California.  The room sounded as if Miriam was already shaking her timbrel on the shores of freedom.
          So we did it.  And Hot Shot was able to read loud and clear this year, as if she were one of the elders ‘round the table.  And we all helped tell the story.  And when we got to each song--some of them in Hebrew, some of them from the front row of the march across the bridge in Selma--my kids knew most of the words.  And then we got to the part where we hold up the orange and say “this doesn’t belong on a seder plate!  But here it is, reminding us to include people we might sometimes think don’t belong at our table.”  And Star Gazer said: That’s me!
          Of course Moon Boy was under the table by the time we served the meal he was too over-stimulated to eat, and Star Gazer found the afikomen a little too quickly for Hot Shot’s salty-eyed taste.  But when DV and Hot Shot walked our friend home, and when I followed Moon Boy up the stairs to his room with the glowing planets, we were all a little more free. 
          And so it will be again: Next year in Jerusalem.  Next year in peace.  Next year in Ohio.


  1. Ah, there are so many times in life when we end up questioning our identities and how we fit into the scheme of things. Hot Shot's dilemma isn’t one that I would’ve thought of right away, but now that I think about it, you bring up a valid point. I’m glad that the arrival of your friend helped to smooth things over and make it so that Hot Shot could enjoy the evening. :)

    And may I just say, I love the way you write, Auntie Lizzie! I've enjoyed reading your blog posts. :)


  2. "my grocery store carries Havdallah candles and chitlins". Priceless! Find comfort in knowing that Hot Shot has a shared experience. Just part of the overall new experience of difference. Sometimes that experience can be one of confusion and sometimes it can be one of learning. Sounds like Hot Shot was eager to be a participant observer in the traditions of her new classmates. In turn, one of her new friends became a participant observer in your family traditions. At the end of the day, a very beautiful thing.

  3. What a beautiful telling of your challenges and how you were able to adapt to them and then soar above them. This is a wonderful post, both in writing and in meaning. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. I have tears in my eyes. You (and your wonderful family) are always amazing and incredibly inspiring. Chag Sameach dear friends.

  5. Oops! Didn't mean to masquarade as Janet. google account must be under her name. The above comment is from Faith.

  6. love this! I mostly appreciate how it all works out (have you noticed that in the midst of our parental anxiety, it usually does) What a beautiful ending! I think that the orange can so often help to "bridge the gap" in helping kids to celebrate the uniqueness of who they are. Certainly helped by bringing the orange to the table :)

  7. Ok, tears in my eyes - then streams down my cheeks reading Silverwing's response. Miss you and your family. A blessing on your house. And I recall claiming a bit of judaism - still do.

  8. (raises hand tentatively)
    Why is chocolate so bad?

  9. Mmmm... well... Hot Shot has always had a hard time going to sleep, so getting hooked on something with caffeine on it never seemed like a great idea for her. And, I know from experience, once you like chocolate you want it all the time. So it's nice as a parent (a) not to be pestered for chocolate every time my kid sees it, and (b) to receive chocolate from my kid every time someone gives it to her. She actually brings home contraband cartons of chocolate milk for me in her coat pockets and I actually drink them. :)

  10. love the "vacation bible school/public school" element, this is something that bothers me quite a bit, but i try to pick my always, your post has made me laugh an cry and I will read it again!!

  11. Wonderful stories!! Love them all. Even if read in backwards-sequence, they reverberate our common experiences with a such a novel outlook. Thank you, FIBN.