Two Faiths and Powerful Women

  

My daughter, Helen Rose Castaneda, wakes up one day at 10-and-a-half months old, pulls herself up in her crib and says “hola!” at the top of her lungs. “Hola, hola, hola!” This makes sense because Adrian and I speak to Helen mainly in Spanish at home.

She says “hola” for an entire day and then stops saying it. Was this her first word? Does it count if she says it but then stops saying it? I ask myself these questions and think it incredible that I grew up speaking one language at home (English), yet my daughter understands two. My brother and I later learned Hebrew in school and I learned to speak, read and understand Spanish at 18. But Helen Rose understands two tongues, and I find this fitting for a household where two seems to be a theme.

There are two religions in our home: Jewish and Mexican Catholic. I say Mexican Catholic as opposed to just Catholic because Mexican culture is deeply tied to its Catholicism, and the culture itself is rich with colorful history. But one of the things I love most about Mexican Catholicism is the belief in the Virgin of Guadalupe. Guadalupe is like the Virgin Mary and is thought of as the mother of Mexico.

When Adrian and I decided to build an interfaith family and raise Helen believing in both Judaism and Catholicism, it was Guadalupe who swayed me. I like that Helen can look up in her room and see a statue of not only a religious icon but also a female religious icon instilling in her at a young age that women are powerful.

This brings me to my current dilemma. My family belongs to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. This means that women and men are separated when they pray. What is the reason for this? At 5 years old, I turned to my mother one Rosh Hashanah in synagogue and asked, “Ma, why are the men in jail?” My mother said she knew I would be fine in life after that question because I was seeing that the men were separated, not the women. Then I had friends who weren’t Jewish when I was growing up say they thought it was sexist and horrible that women and men were separated. It wasn’t until recently as an adult that I asked what the deeper meaning for this separation was.

As it turns out, the reason is not so obvious. Many Jews will tell you the separation between men and women at synagogue is because the focus in synagogue should be on God and not on the opposite sex. Though that is a valid reason, it’s not the whole truth.

According to some scholars, the reason women and men are separated is that the soul of a woman and the soul of a man, though equal, are different. It is because of this basic difference that women and men need their own space to pray and to become in tune with their natural and true selves. It is more of a spiritual reason than a sexist reason.

I’m not sure if I agree with the rules, but I respect them in my own synagogue. It feels important to me that I have the right answers to the questions my daughter might ask me one day. I think about the Virgin of Guadalupe and how men fall to their knees before her. In some Mexican towns, men tattoo Guadalupe on their backs as a form of protection so no one will ever stab them from behind. I think of how Guadalupe is the mother figure and then I think about Judaism again.

“Who are the strongest women in Judaism?” Helen might ask me. I think about my answer to the question that doesn’t exist yet because my daughter is too young to form a sentence, let alone ask a question. But within my interfaith partnership, I find myself increasingly aware of the differences between the way Adrian and I grew up, and I find myself asking my own questions in order to answer my daughter’s future questions.

So, who are the strongest women in Judaism? The answer I came up with is similar to Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe. The strongest women are our mothers. They are not glorified saints, but they are saints. Our grandmothers—they too hold the wisdom of decades. Guadalupe appears to the poor, the needy and the hungry. Our mother figures are there for us when we need them most.

I will tell Helen my thoughts on the separation of the sexes in synagogue. I will say that even though a curtain separates us, or a wall or a door, the belief is that our prayers are just as important. We will sit in synagogue on the women’s side this year with Rachel, Sarah, Rebekah and with the Virgin of Guadalupe.

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Back to Synagogue

  
Ruthie and one of our Temple buddies during a special visit this summer in Maine

Ruthie and one of our Temple buddies during a special visit this summer in Maine

This past year was our first year with both girls in Sunday school. We had a steady rhythm of Sunday mornings at Temple and monthly Shabbats with other families with young children. It was a nice addition to our school year schedule. Without planning it, though, along with taking the summer off from school, we accidentally took the summer off from Temple.

I say accidentally because it wasn’t planned, and I didn’t even think about it as a thing we were doing. Over the course of the summer, though, when I bumped into “Temple friends,” I felt a pang of longing for a community that is becoming a big part of our lives. This community is special because we all chose the congregation as a path to explore common values, and, for the families in our religious school cohort, we all chose it to help us raise our kids with those values.

Like any group of Jewish people I’ve ever been a part of, we don’t all agree on every element of practice. And like my own family, we weren’t all raised Jewishly. Also, the way we practice is not always parallel with the way we were raised, Jewish or otherwise. But we have all agreed to try to figure things out together, and to shepherd a Jewish identity for our children.

Another piece of this longing I felt is because while we didn’t take the summer off from being Jewish, as we welcomed the relaxing pace of summer, we also let loose on Shabbat. Late nights out or traveling replaced the ritual more than we might have preferred, but for better or worse for a few weeks we traded it for other adventures.

I love the loosening of schedules and predictability in the summer. I savor the long days and the opportunity to lengthen our mornings and evenings. I also appreciate the time to be together as a family away from our local communities. But I also miss some of the touchstones that ground our family – things like knowing we will be home for Shabbat, and even more so now, knowing we’ll see some friendly faces on Sunday morning.

So while we stumble our way to get back to school, I am also looking forward to getting back to synagogue. I look forward to seeing old friends, to meeting new ones, and to the rhythm that practice helps put in our lives.

Our Attempt at Planning a Family Vacation and Baby’s First Fever

  

Anna Keller Family Vaca Grandma and HelenWe had been planning our vacation to upstate New York for six months. The hotels book up by the end of August, so we made the reservation well in advance. Adrian, my significant other, got his freshwater fishing license, and we ordered our daughter a ton of new summer clothes. Everything was packed, even Grandma, who was accompanying us on the trip because she loves New York and offered to babysit in an attempt to let Adrian and me have some time alone on our vacation.

But plans never work. Not for me, at least. I look at the entire scope of my life and can say that almost anything I planned went awry. I had planned to have a Jewish wedding with a Jewish husband. But when I fell in love, it was with Adrian, a devout Catholic from Mexico. We aren’t married, we have a beautiful daughter and nothing went as planned. But still we planned our trip.

The first night at the hotel, our daughter, Helen, seemed different. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something in her personality had shifted. We attributed it to the fact that she had been in the car for five hours with only a few short breaks in between. We also put her to sleep in a Pack ‘n’ Play instead of a crib, because it’s all we had and Helen won’t sleep with us. We went to sleep and the next day—our first official vacation day—we went to the lake.

Adrian packed his fishing gear into the car. I planned what food we would eat, what toys Helen would play with and what bathing suits everyone would wear for the photos I planned to take. We propped up a tent with a blanket for Helen. Adrian went off to fish. Grandma and I stayed and played with the baby. At one point I took Helen into the water and she started to fuss. This was also unlike her. Helen loves the water, and she’s not usually fussy when it comes to trying new things. But I just thought she was over-stimulated. I’d kept her out of the sun and covered, and I couldn’t think of what could be bothering her. So I took her out of the water and we spent the afternoon playing and napping.

When we finally got back to the hotel, Helen had a fever and was crying. I noticed that her eyes looked sick. I did what any new mother with a sick baby in a strange town would do: I freaked out! I took her clothes off and left just her diaper. I washed her with a warm washcloth. I hugged her, I kissed her, I told her everything was my fault and I cried.

This is when being in an interfaith family comes into play. Sometimes interfaith also means inter-culture. Helen is from two distinct and beautiful cultures: Jewish and Mexican. Whereas I was raised to panic and have high anxiety, Adrian grew up in a village where, when a child was sick, you waited before you panicked. I had already gone out to buy Tylenol; Adrian said no Tylenol. I had already gone out to buy canned chicken-noodle soup because I didn’t have a kitchen to make soup in; Adrian said chamomile tea. I was taking Helen’s temperature with the thermometer every five seconds; Adrian just felt her back. I was taking the baby’s clothes off; Adrian said to let her sweat it out and cover her.

So we called the doctor in Brooklyn. I have the best pediatrician in the world, or at least I’d like to think so. Adrian and I have been taking Helen to Tribeca Pediatrics in Boerum Hill since she was two days old. They’re a good fit for us because they understand our religious and cultural differences and look at each child as an individual. They know Adrian’s concerns about modern medicine and my concerns as a Jewish mother who wants to make everything better with food.Anna Keller Family Vaca Papi Adrian and Helen

They told us to watch the fever and that Tylenol wasn’t necessary, unless Helen couldn’t sleep. They said the fever would most likely be gone by Saturday. Saturday came, and a full-body rash came with it. The fever was not down; it was up and down. We called the doctor again. “Give it one more day,” was the advice from the other end of the phone. Apparently the rash was a reaction to the virus, and there’s no medicine to give a child for a virus. According to Tribeca Pediatrics—and the wise mothers of Mexico—the baby has to fight it.

Adrian did what any father would do when he saw the rash: He freaked out! It was then my turn to assure him that the rash was part of the process. Helen was also getting her big teeth in the back, and in addition to the fever and rash, she was teething like crazy. By Sunday she had no fever and the rash was going away. We went back to the lake. I bought her a teething ring and Adrian bought her a lamb chop, which he cooked on the grill and let cool. She chomped on the lamb-chop bone the whole day, and I think it was better than any teething ring ever made. She was smiling and happy and was her own self again! We planned the rest of the week and then threw the list of plans in the garbage and said, “Let’s just play it by ear.”

The Battle of the Bar Mitzvah Guest List

  

Restaurant's banquet room decorated for Bar MitzvahBefore I signed the contract for the place where we would have our son’s bar mitzvah, I needed a rough idea of the size of our group so I could let the venue know the number of people we would guarantee. I started a spreadsheet with names of family, friends, and acquaintances: anyone I could think of that we possibly wanted to invite.

I wasn’t concerned that the list was big. It’s a destination bar mitzvah, and the destination isn’t a beach in the Caribbean or the mountains of Colorado or lakeside in Maine; it’s our son’s Jewish overnight camp outside of Waco, TX. An incredibly special place for our family, especially our son, but not a location where most people will be eager to travel. Except for our son’s camp friends who would jump at the chance to spend a weekend at camp, I assume that 40-50 percent of those invited will send regrets.

My family accounted for 20 people. My husband’s extended family is large, and we see all of the cousins in the summer and on Christmas Eve when we visit Vermont. These family members know our son, know he is being raised Jewish and I thought they should be invited to the bar mitzvah. I added 50 people to the list.

By the time I was done, I was at just under 300 people. I reviewed the list with my son. I told him it was preliminary; it would be refined and tweaked over the next year. With a few minor comments, such as, “By the time I have my bar mitzvah I will probably want to invite some girls,” he was OK with what I put together.

Then I went over the list with my husband. “We don’t need to invite my family. Just my parents, sister, her boyfriend and son,” he said.

What?!? The bar mitzvah was a significant milestone in our life. I wanted to invite the entire world to be part of our simcha (joy)! I wanted our family to be part of it. I explained this to my husband.

“They’re not going to come,” he said.

“So what? We can invite them so that they feel included,” I responded.

“They won’t know what a bar mitzvah is.”

“Sammy and I are not the first Jews your family has ever met. They have heard of bar mitzvahs, and if they haven’t, they know Jewish people to ask.”

“They will think that we are asking for gifts.”

“That’s ridiculous. People don’t assume they’re invited to a wedding just so the marrying couple can get a gift. Guests know the hosts want them to be part of the celebration. Plus, we’re going to encourage people to make a donation to a cause Sammy chooses in lieu of gifts.”

“I don’t want to invite them.”

Exasperated by my husband’s response, I said, “I’m calling your parents!” I assumed they’d be more reasonable.

They weren’t. My in-laws’ response was similar. My mother-in-law said she “didn’t even know how to think” of a bar mitzvah. I said to think of it like a wedding. I thought that would help. After all, all of the family members in question were invited to our wedding reception. Still, my mother-in-law insisted on just the immediate family.

I contrasted my husband and his parents’ response to my mother’s. While I was trying to convince my husband and in-laws to include more family, I was telling my mom she couldn’t invite her network of friends in New Jersey.

“I just want a few,” she said. Yeah right, I thought. “I’ll pay for them. I’ll pay for Friday night dinner.”

My answer: None of the grandparents were inviting friends. This event was about family and the people who knew our son well.

I wonder if the difference in approach to celebrating is religious. Certainly, a joyous celebration is a big part of Jewish ritual and culture from blessing the wine on Shabbat to raucous Purim parties to shouts of L’chaim and dancing the hora. But these things aren’t part of Christian celebrations.

Maybe it’s cultural. My husband is a New Englander, and I’m from the less genteel New York Metro area. The difference is probably a combination of both.

I grudgingly accepted my husband and in-laws’ little family guest list. My son did not. He reminded me that the bar mitzvah was about him, and he wanted to invite his Vermont cousins. I put them back on the list in a “maybe” column.

With plenty of planning ahead, we’ll see if father or son wins the battle of the guest list.

From Baptism to Bar Mitzvah: Navigating a Dual-Faith First Communion

  

By Sheri Kupres

Sheri's son and father

Sam and Sheri’s father at Sam’s First Communion

When my Catholic husband and I decided to participate in a dual baby-naming/baptism ceremony for our firstborn, it was not warmly accepted by my Jewish parents. The ceremony, while wonderful for the three of us starting our journey as a dual-faith family, was fraught with tension. So when we had two more children, we didn’t invite my parents to these baby-naming/baptism ceremonies.

Fast-forward seven years later, and we were again embarking on a religious milestone as my oldest was about to take his First Communion through the dual-faith Sunday school we enrolled in. The First Communion ceremony was to be officiated by both a priest and a rabbi. The service itself, while being a Catholic ceremony, weaved in elements of Judaism, including Jewish prayers and stories.

In the time between the two sacraments, my mom had died from cancer and my dad and I were forging our own relationship in the absence of the strong force that was my mother. We started having more conversations about the religious education we were giving our children. While I knew he didn’t agree or believe we could educate our children in both religions, my dad was less likely to escalate his opposing views into full-on arguments. And while we weren’t necessarily getting to common ground, we were at least talking. Additionally, my dad had started visiting us more often. During these visits, he often came with us to our Sunday school’s adult-education sessions.

I remember at one of our sessions, we had a Humanist rabbi speak with us. He spoke quite honestly about how the Jewish faith is resistant to interfaith couples unless the couple is willing to raise their children solely as Jewish. This lit a fire in my dad, and he was quite upset that there is a whole interfaith community that wants their children to have a Jewish identity but the Jewish religion is turning us away. This frustration was the catalyst for us to begin talking more about the challenges we were facing as a dual-faith family.

My dad started sending me articles he found in the Jewish Journal about Jewish acceptance of interfaith families. He even went so far as to send in an op-ed piece explaining his views on why Judaism should be more open to accepting dual-faith families who wished to raise their children in both religions.

Sam's first communion

Sam’s First Communion class with their rabbi (left) and priest (right)

I felt like we were moving in a good direction, but I was not expecting to invite him to the First Communion ceremony. My husband, however, was adamant that we should include him. He felt this was an important event in our son’s life and that all of his family should be there; it would be my dad’s prerogative to refuse to come, but it was our responsibility to make sure he knew he was welcome.

After much trepidation, I finally asked my dad to come. I was surprised by the angry reaction I got. He told me that I was trying to make him feel guilty and forcing him to come. I explained to him that he was an important part of our family and welcome at the ceremony, regardless of whether he decided to come. My dad calmed down and told me he would think about it.

A few days later, he called back and said he would come. I was glad, but after our experience with the baby naming/baptism, I was also apprehensive.

The night before Sam’s First Communion, my dad and I had some time to talk. He told me that growing up in the late ’40s and ’50s, there was much anti-Semitism in the U.S. While there was a good-sized Jewish population in his town, it was very segregated. The Jewish kids stuck together and were told not to walk alone for fear of being harassed by the Catholic kids. Understanding this was very insightful for me and made me see things differently. His apprehension wasn’t entirely a religious issue; it was also based on negative experiences he faced as a child. This cultivated his protection of the Jewish religion, as well as his fear and disbelief in understanding how the two religions could meld together.

The next day was the ceremony. It was sensitive and inclusive of both religions. Sam was proud of himself and thrilled to have his family in attendance. My dad didn’t say much about the ceremony itself, just that he was glad he was there for Sam. I knew he still wasn’t comfortable, but the fact that he attended the service was certainly a positive step.

Sheri and her family

Sheri and Jim with their children Rachel (left), Sarah (middle) & Sam (right) at Sarah’s First Communion

This set my dad up for the next First Communion, which came one year later for my daughter, Sarah. At Sarah’s ceremony, the rabbi had a scheduling conflict, so the Jewish parents led the Jewish prayers and stories. No one wanted to say the Yevarechecha (priestly blessing), so I asked my dad if he would do it. He agreed and came up to recite the prayer with the priest, who repeated each line in English. I joked with my dad that he had probably never said a prayer with a priest before.

It was special to have my family at this celebration and even participating. I know that we are still not in the same place, and likely won’t ever be exactly on the same page, but I think we have come a long way. We have one more First Communion coming up next spring, and my son is starting to prepare for his bar mitzvah next summer. We are continuing on our interfaith journey, and I now feel much more positive and hopeful about the path that lies ahead.

30 Miles North of Lakewood

  
jack is concerned about being the only Jewish kid on the block

Jack is concerned about being the only Jewish kid on the block

“Thirty miles north of Lakewood” is usually what we say when we talk about where we live. Lakewood, NJ, is the largest pocket of Orthodoxy around us, and many Orthodox Jews know someone (or rarely have more than two degrees of separation from someone) who lives in Lakewood.

Thirty miles north of Lakewood is a Catholic pocket of New Jersey. We live within walking distance of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The priests at this church are known throughout the dioceses of Philadelphia and Trenton. Our entire neighborhood is Catholic. We’ve sat with our next-door neighbors at church. The neighbors’ kids go to the St. Mary’s school. There is a family on our block that has been going to St. Mary’s for two generations. I see schoolchildren walking to and from school, from our front porch. Unfortunately when Jack becomes of school age, he will not attend St. Mary’s school, because we are raising him Jewish. I often wonder what it would be like for him, being the only Jewish kid on the block in a very Catholic neighborhood.

Will Jack be able to use this as a way to strengthen his own faith? Will his neighborhood peers question his faith? We would like Jack to have the freedom to struggle or wrestle with his own faith; after all, he is a child of Israel (Gen. 32:28). We would love for him to be able to explain why he believes what he believes, and why he observes Jewish rituals. This may be the first experience that some of the neighborhood kids have with Judaism, which puts a lot of pressure on Jack and me—the Catholic mom who is raising her son Jewish.

Because Jack will probably be the only Jewish kid on the block, will this cause scheduling and other conflicts? Jack won’t attend the Catholic school down the street; he won’t be in classes with the neighborhood kids or part of the same school-based extra-curricular activities. He will probably have different days off of school than the neighborhood kids. Will this cause him to be excluded? Will it make him feel “different?” And will that cause a rift in playgroups or will his friends be interested in learning about his school and his activities?

Thirty miles north of Lakewood there will be a small Jewish boy growing up in a Catholic neighborhood. It’s not the first time, but it is for us.