Flying makes me nervous. It never used to, but a few years ago on a bumpy trip back from England, I lost my faith in the Bernoulli principle. I used to pop a Xanax and snooze my way through the anxiety, but now that I’m a parent, I need to stay awake and alert to tend to my daughter on flights.
Without my sedative crutch, I turned to superstition to get me through a cross-country flight to California this winter. I bought a little silver hamsa necklace with an elegant branch and leaf design on the palm. I put it on before we left our island home in Maine for the airport, and haven’t taken it off. If the Evil Eye had any designs on our airplane, we’d be covered.
We got through the flight (Penrose is a much better traveler than I am these days) and landed in the warm embrace of my husband’s extended family, all of whom live in Southern California. His mother’s side is from Guatemala and his father’s side is Italian and German. Dozens of them descended on his childhood home for the holidays, drawn by Penrose’s presence.
She sat on my lap and met relative after relative, warming up slowly to each new person. When she got overwhelmed, she would turn into me and often hold my hamsa in her hand.
“This?” she asked.
“It’s my hamsa,” I answered.
“Ham,” she replied, touching it gently.
Beyond the irony of her abbreviation for the symbol, she began to connect my necklace to the jewelry of others.
“Abue ham?” she asked, wondering if her grandmother had a similar necklace.
“Abuela doesn’t wear a hamsa; sometimes she wears a cross,” I said. “I wear a hamsa because I’m Jewish. Abue wears a cross sometimes because she’s Catholic.”
“That’s right, Mommy’s Jewish.”
“Me joosh?” she asked, pressing a palm to her chest.
“Yes, you’re Jewish too.”
“No, Daddy’s not Jewish.”
Although this was Penrose’s second holiday season, and she was enthusiastic about candles, latkes, and matzah balls (and Christmas tree lights and wrapping paper), it hadn’t yet occurred to me to talk to her about our Jewish identity, and how that differed from her father’s side of the family.
As a secular humanist, I haven’t imbued our day-to-day life with Jewish rituals. My husband doesn’t practice any elements of Christianity, and we are planning to celebrate Hanukkah, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah. When we are in Maine for Christmas, we often attend the Lessons and Carols service as musicians and enjoy the quiet evening of storytelling and song, but we’re hoping to avoid the Santa and tree elements of the holiday. We often talked about the fact that Penrose would be the island’s first Jewish child, and my excitement—and anxiety—about that. I wanted to find a way to start explaining to Penrose what it actually meant to be “joosh” other than wearing jewelry. But I wasn’t sure what she would understand at 20 months old.
“To me, being Jewish means that we are connected back thousands of years to strong people who fight for what they believe in,” I said. “We help people and we work to fix the world. We never stop learning. We celebrate holidays that remind us of our freedom. We eat delicious things.”
She nodded and squirmed off my lap to find her abuela. Over time, we’ll continue the conversation. She likes to look in the Union Haggadahs I inherited from my grandfather and pretends to read the prayers out loud. She would be perfectly happy eating latkes every night, and asks to see my hamsa when it’s hidden under a sweater. Every night, especially, for some reason, when she’s singing “Bow wow wow, whose dog are thou?” she runs through the list of Jewish family members.
Even though she might not yet understand what it means, my heart swells with pride when she ends the list with “Me, joosh.” It’s not a question for her anymore—it’s become a part of her story.