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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.
A funny thing happened when I had a baby. People in my neighborhood whom I had never spoken to started speaking to me. They had seen me walking around Brooklyn since I myself was a baby. They had spotted me on my bicycle, buying candy and I’m sure some had seen me in my various teenage phases of trying cigarettes and dyeing my hair. Since I live three blocks from my childhood home these same people have now watched me carry my daughter around the neighborhood from the day she was born. Now though, they speak to me.
This week is Passover week and I am shocked to find that in every store I enter with my daughter strapped to me I am asked, “What do you need? What are you looking for?” Sales people pull things off the shelves for me and when I make my final purchase, my cart filled to the brim with potatoes, horseradish, parsley and all of the other Passover delights, the cashier says, “We will deliver it to you by four o’clock, you live on Avenue M., right?” They know me and have known me my whole life, though we have just now exchanged words.
The sense of community in my neighborhood during Passover is overwhelming. At night when the first Passover seder begins one can walk down any block and look into people’s windows to see the same table settings, the same Passover plate and the same book we all read from. This year Passover is extra special for my family because my daughter and my twin nephews are new editions to the table and we are passing down the traditions of my family through them.
My significant other, Adrian, had to work which was unfortunate. Being from a Mexican Catholic family he appreciates both food and family. But he joined my mother and me in the morning as we prepared the matzah kugel, marinated the brisket and chopped onions. My daughter watched and squealed.
Our food delivery came at four o’clock as promised and my mother said, “We’ve never gotten delivery from Avenue M.” I just pointed to the baby as if to say “Now it’s a different ball game, Ma.”
It’s been a long time since we’ve had babies at the seder table in Brooklyn. My mother usually does the first seder and my aunt does the second seder in Long Island. But this year I cooked the entire first seder with some help from my mother. I am a new mother and so I wanted to do the cooking. It is an enormous amount of work because a lot of people come to our seder and it made me appreciate my own mother and how hard she worked every holiday.
Because my daughter is from an interfaith, multi-lingual family we have a special hagaddah for her. That’s the book we read from on Passover. Her book is in Spanish, English and Hebrew. It was special to share the Passover story with my daughter and Adrian so that they can understand what we celebrate and why.
That’s another thing about my neighborhood. My interfaith family has become the latest gossip. Sometimes it’s hard to break the barriers of age-old tradition and make room for new tradition. I understand that when I walk through Midwood with Adrian and my daughter, people stare. People whisper. People can be cruel. But the lesson of Passover is that we should never let ignorance lead us. The only way Moses parted the Red Sea was because he believed in what he was doing and ignored everything negative around him.
My daughter is a light, a path to a new world. There is a Jewish proverb that says, “A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.” It is this light that compels the people in my local grocery stores to speak to me for the first time in 30 years. It is this light that wins over the many losses my family has endured over the years. My daughter and my nephews are new lights who shine at the Passover table and ask for the first time, “Why is this night different from any other?”