A conversation with the Cohens: Part One
Melissa and Marc Cohen are familiar names on MassMoms.com. Melissa is a regular MassMoms blogger, and Marc recently wrote an article with tips on how to be a great dad. We recently talked to both of them about their life together as parents. This article is the first of two parts. The second half of the interview will appear on Thursday.
Tell us about yourselves. Where and when did you meet?
(Melissa) I'm a 38-year-old, happily married mom of three. Or five, depending on how you do the math. My husband has two daughters from his first marriage. My oldest daughter is Jessica, she's nine years old. My son Samuel will be six next week, and our youngest is Julianna and she turned two in the spring. Marc and I met ten years ago, online. It was a free week trial at matchmaker.com, and all of the girls I worked with were doing it. Marc emailed me just before the membership expired with the sweetest little note, saying he hoped he'd get a chance to meet me before the membership expired that night. We met for dinner a few days later (on Valentine's Day) and really--that was it. I don't know if it was love at first sight, but it was certainly magic, and we've been together ever since.
(Marc) I'm 43, happily married, father of five. And the story of our first meeting is the most improbable thing you have ever heard. Melissa had a membership on matchmaker.com, and was planning on just letting it run out. Meanwhile, I was searching through different women's profiles, and just by chance decided to look for the first time at profiles that did not include a picture. And there she was.
Now, you have to understand - when you sign up, they ask you a LOT of questions. I thought long and hard, and wrote complete and detailed answers. So there would be a question like "What makes you happy?" and I would write five paragraphs about the nature of happiness, and the various ways a person can balance the trade offs between long and short term happiness, and other important goals like fulfillment of responsibility. Then I started perusing other people's profiles, and saw that most people's answer to that question would be something like "I like the beach."
So when I found Melissa's profile, I remember reading her response to one about a "perfect date." She wrote a beautifully imagined description of a scene, like a snapshot, of a young couple out for a ride along a country lane, with the sun reflecting off their sunglasses, the wind blowing through their hair, and her "only responsibility to hold onto my cup of coffee and hold up my end of the conversation."
I knew I had found a person of my own ilk, so I sent off an email in the hopes she would check her inbox one last time in the remaining 90 minutes before her account ran out. She did. We had our first date two days later, on Valentines Day. Two days after that, we had more-or-less moved in with each other.
Did you grow up in this area?
(Melissa) I grew up in Maynard, which is about forty five minutes away from Worcester. So in theory, yes, we grew up in the same area, but Maynard is so vastly different from Worcester, it seems like it's a lot farther than it actually is. Maynard is small and homogeneous. Everyone I knew had a parent who worked at the Mill, everyone went to St. Bridget's for CCD, and everyone knew not only my parents, but all of my aunts and my grandparents. Worcester feels enormous, I get lost at least once a week, and I still don't feel like it's home to me.
(Marc) I am VERY local. I grew up in Worcester. I went to Tatnuck Elementary, Chandler Junior High (now Chandler Magnet), and The Bancroft School for high school. I went away to Tufts University in Medford (really not that far) for college, but even then came back to Worcester every weekend to visit my girlfriend, a Clark University student. My parents were both born and raised in Worcester as well. My parents, six aunts an uncles, and four first cousins (plus their spouses and kids) still live in the city. So when I visit my aunts, uncles, and cousins who live in Holden, or Grafton, it feels strange to me that they would move so far away.
You are a mixed-faith family. Can you tell us that story?
(Melissa) I wouldn't say we're a mixed faith family, we're a mixed culture family. Because actually, we're all Jewish, I formally converted (along with my two oldest children) about three years ago. Marc grew up Jewish, I grew up nominally Catholic, but dabbled in Wicca, paganism, and finally cobbled together my own belief system that was very similar to Jewish theology. Judiasm is not just a religion, but also a culture and an ethnicity. While you can convert to the religion, and it was absolutely the right decision for me, you cannot convert to an ethnicity and culturally, it's still sometimes a struggle. I knew that we would raise the kids Jewish, they were Jewish. Marc was Jewish, the way that I was Irish, Scottish and English, so the kids would inherit those from both of us.
Initially, I wasn't going to convert. I had my own very defined spiritual beliefs, and was perfectly content not belonging to any structured belief system. Honestly, organized religion makes me vaguely uncomfortable, so I had no intention of converting. BUT - I had Jessie and then Sam. Jessie is a very spiritually oriented child, and I wanted her to have that structure. One of the things that really appealed to me about Judaism is the emphasis on learning and thinking. I wanted her to have that. I wanted her to be a part of a community that would embrace her questioning, that would give her a context for thinking about spirituality and theology. And when Sam was born, it was critical for Marc that he have a bris. Both of these things coincided - and I recognized that because I wasn't Jewish, according to Jewish law, they weren't either. But Jessie was already self-identifying as Jewish. And really, by that point, I had done so much research and so much reading into the religion, I knew that my beliefs were a near perfect match.
So we're all Jewish here, but culturally, we still struggle at times. December is challenging for us, some years we have the tree, some years we don't. Passover is hard too - Marc keeps kosher for Passover, I don't. And this year, the older two kids really wanted to do it, so we did, and I really struggled with it. Bottom line - spirituality is very important to both of us, and our kids have either inherited that tendency or picked up on it from observation. So religion is a huge part of our lives, but culturally, we still have to work at melding my own upbringing (with half of my family self identifying as witches) and Marc's - and making sure that the kids are proud of and embrace both sides of their heritage.
(Marc) This is a hard topic for me to discuss. I grew up in the United States. I watched all the Christmas Specials as a kid. I went to my childhood friends' Christmas parties. I had Christian girlfriends, and was invited to celebrate in their families' homes. I love to drive around and look at the Christmas lights on people's houses. I even paid my own money to dress up as Santa Claus my senior year of high school, and bought chocolate to hand out the day before the start of Christmas vacation. So, I have a lot of fond memories.
My great-grandfather Samuel Korenblum was born in The Pale of Settlement, an enormous ghetto that covered parts of what are today Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and the Ukraine. He lived until I was 18 years old, and I had the tremendous good fortune of getting to really know and love him in a way most people never have the opportunity to do with their great-grandparents. We were VERY close. And he told me about what it was like to grow up there, before he was able to flee to the United States. Christmas and Easter were times of terror, violence, rape, and murder. People would start preparing weeks in advance for the annual attacks, building bunkers and hiding places, and stockpiling food and weapons. Law enforcement officers, instead of protecting the innocent, would participate in and even lead the attacks. Catholic priests would kidnap Jewish children, forcibly baptize them, and then place them to be adopted and raised by Catholic families. Their parents would never see them again. Women, if captured, were gang raped. Men, beaten and murdered.
And so, when I see a Christmas tree, there is a part of me that thinks "Oh! Isn't that pretty!" And there is another part of me that puts Christmas trees in the same category an African American person would put a 30-foot burning cross.
And I'm sure you can see where this could be a problem at holiday time.
Melissa converted to Judaism. She studied it very deeply, and thought very long and hard about it. She loves celebrating the Sabbath on Friday nights. She is involved in the synagogue. She even learned how to make matzo-ball soup (the best!). But her grandparents and great-grandparents were all wonderful people who never murdered or were murdered by anybody. Her ancestors for generations all lived in the US, a country where, thank God, the rights of religious minorities are protected. She has none of the mixed and negative feelings I have. So when her mother brings a Christmas tree over to our house, trying to be nice, she does concern herself with whether it's appropriate, and whether it sends a mixed message to the kids. But she most decidedly does not have to suppress the urge to shout "Get that thing out of my house!"
I bet it's similar to how a Native American might feel about the Columbus Day Parade.
It's something we struggle with every year.
Are you both active in your synagogue?
(Melissa) Marc is more so, certainly. I've had a toddler at home for the last nine years, essentially, and toddlers and long synagogue services don't mix well. I'm involved in the early childhood committee at our synagogue, but I'm more active in their public school. Marc is much more of an active member, both because he's able to go because I'm home with the little one, and because he really enjoys being in that atmosphere.
(Marc) We belong to Beth Israel Synagogue in Worcester, and I do my best to be as involved as I can be. I am on the Membership Committee, and at some point in the next couple of weeks I am going to take over as Chairperson of the Hesed (loving kindness) Committee that coordinates volunteers to visit the sick, deliver meals to old people, help unemployed people do job-search, etc. I also represent the synagogue every year on the planning committee for the community-wide Lag B'Omer celebration. And of course I try to go to services on Saturday mornings. The Hebrew School meets Saturday mornings (as well as Monday and Wednesday afternoon), and I think it is important for the kids to see that it is not just for them - I go as well. So I always tell them “Daddy will be in shul (a Yiddish term for synagogue) when you are finished with Hebrew School, so look for me.” And then after services and Hebrew School we usually stick around to enjoy kiddush (literal translation: sanctification. It is a small Sabbath meal that is “sanctified” because bread and wine are served, and the bread and wine are blessed before being served). Its a great opportunity to socialize with and get to know the parents of the other kids.
In this country we have a lot of different "parenting philosophies," like authoritarian, attachment parenting or consensual living. Are you able to articulate what philosophy guides your parenting? Has it changed over the years?
(Melissa) I'm both an attachment and free-range parent. While not a strict adherent to either philosophy, I agree with most of the tenets. We co-sleep, I breastfeed until toddlerhood. My kids lived in their sling, and I rarely go anywhere without the youngest one (whichever one that happened to be). I think kids, especially babies, naturally want to be close with their mother, and am very comfortable with that set up. But I also think that as they get older, they should be able to explore and decide and take risks and be confident. I really encourage independent play, I let them make as many decisions as I can and really stress responsibility as well as freedom. I want confident, secure kids who know that they are capable of anything they put their minds to.
I'm relatively laid back about most things, I'm lackadaisical about processed foods, I don't mind neon colored yogurt, and my kids all love McDonalds, but I'm strict about talking back; respect is really important to me. Also, not giving them too much responsibility. There are decisions that they don't get to make yet, like whether or not they do their homework or brush their teeth.
(Marc) I don't know that I have ever had anything like an actual parenting “philosophy.” At least not a purposeful one. But if I had to describe what I actually do, I think you could describe it as pragmatic and authoritative. Pragmatic because I'm willing to try anything, try to not be dogmatically attached to something if its not working, and learn from my mistakes. And authoritative as opposed to authoritarian, because its not about simply obeying me, as much as recognizing that I am a lot older, more experienced, and more knowledgeable, and so I usually know what's good for you better than you do. That being said, sometimes I wish I were more authoritarian. In frequent small ways, I wish sometimes that the kids would just do what I tell them immediately and without thinking about it, like when I yell "Close the door, close the door, close the door," over and over again while watching mosquitoes fly into the house. I guess that's another point - perfection doesn't exist. Everything is a series of trade-offs. Is mindlessly obedient zombie robots really what I want for children? No? Then I guess I have to put up with mosquitoes in the house.
What do you teach your kids about faith, since you have two faiths in your family with very different beliefs and traditions? Do you insist they believe anything, or are they free to accept or reject any and all of what each religion teaches?
(Melissa) I don't think we get to insist they believe anything. Even if we could, I don't think either of us would. If I insist on anything it's going to be that they have the right and the responsibility to decide for themselves. Do I want them to be Jewish when they grow up? They are Jewish, their level of observance is up to them. I want them to be happy. I want them to be sincere in their beliefs, I want them to be passionate about the world and their place in it. I want my kids to believe in a divine and benevolent God. I want them to know that they are loved and blessed and extremely lucky. And because of that, they have a responsibility to make the world a better place. Whether that means being a world leader or just a really great person. I want them to be grateful, to be kind, and to be smart.
(Marc) Melissa comes from a different religious background than I do, but in a lot of very important ways she has really embraced her Judaism. For example we have became more consciously Sabbath observant over time, and she has driven a lot of that. My children are thoughtful, inquisitive, and spiritual. I enjoy creating an environment where they can exercise all of those traits. And my Jewish identity is very important to me, so I also really enjoy passing on the millennia-old traditions of the Jewish people to them as they were passed to me.
As far as an obligation to accept or reject what Judaism teaches, one of Judaism's core teachings is the ability of everyone to use their God-given intellect to examine for themselves. The Talmud (the 3000-year accumulation of the analyses and debates of history's most famous and brilliant rabbis) is full of majority and minority opinions on the moral and religious aspect of every facet of human life, from marriage and divorce, to ethical business practices, to formal religious practice. To be considered a good Jew, you must study, analyze, and deeply consider, informed by the accumulated wisdom of thousands who have come before you. The most anti-Jewish thing they could do is blindly accept something, without research, thought, and consideration, and that is what I discourage.
What are the top three qualities you want to see in your kids by the time they are ready to leave home?
(Melissa) I'm tempted to just say ibid. Grateful, kind and smart. And by grateful, I mean that I want them to not take their lives for granted, they have so many blessings in their lives. They are healthy, born to two parents who love them and love each other. They have a roof over their heads, food on their table and toys in their rooms. I want them to be aware of that, and to not take it for granted. By kind, I mean that I want them to always be thinking of how to make it better, whatever it is. I want them to go that extra step to make it easier for someone else. And by smart, I mean that I want them to read and think and make informed decisions in their lives.
(Marc) I think the Boy Scouts have it dead on: Physically Strong, Mentally Awake, and Morally Straight.