Mourning, Friendship and the Future

Liz and baby Helen

Baby Helen meets Liz

I was in the seventh grade when my father died. I had already been asked to leave an Orthodox yeshiva in the fifth grade because I had been a “behavior problem.” I was on my second life at a private school in Brooklyn Heights. Brooklyn Heights is one of the oldest, richest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Truman Capote, Henry Miller and W.H. Auden all lived there. I was not from there, I was not rich and I knew no one. But my school was there and I made my first set of friends who weren’t Jewish.

When my father died I’m not sure that anyone in my new school knew our Jewish customs for mourning. For example, we covered our mirrors to erase vanity. We sat on the floor because when death is upon us the living should not be comfortable. The belief is that we should be uncomfortable because by getting used to discomfort one can learn to go on. We left our doors open for neighbors, friends and family to visit for seven days. This is a period called “shiva” and this word in Hebrew also means “seven.” The traditional mourning period after someone dies lasts for seven days and we call this “sitting shiva.”

I had one friend from this Brooklyn Heights private school who did come to my house to sit shiva. Her name was Liz. She didn’t live near me but she didn’t live in Brooklyn Heights either. Her father drove her to my house and when she got out of the car she looked lost and confused. She was not Jewish but she knew it would mean a lot to me if she came to visit. I can’t remember what we said to each other that day. I only remember that she showed up.

A few months ago Liz texted me to tell me that she’s pregnant with a baby girl, her first. Her due date is October 23 and my baby Helen’s due date this past year was October 24. Liz came over to meet Helen. Over the years we have kept in touch and fallen out of touch and then got back in touch again. Life and its winding roads have kept us close in spirit but not always in body. When Liz met Helen for the first time it was as if my past was meeting my present.

Here’s another strange coincidence. Liz recently moved back to Brooklyn from L.A. and she bought an apartment just three blocks away from where I live. Without knowing it, we have been living back to back for a while. Helen and I went over to drop off some clothes and play with Liz’s dog, Wally. While we were visiting, Liz took out a book I had written for her in the eighth grade. It was an English assignment to write a short book about someone you admire and I had chosen to write about Liz.

Liz read the book out loud to me while sitting pregnant on her couch. Helen chewed a stuffed animal and listened, too. The book was about how we used to hang out in the bathroom and how many times Liz had dyed her hair and how much I admired her for being a good friend. I didn’t recall writing that book. What I did recall was how very lost I felt in the eighth grade.

I felt I had never been Jewish enough for yeshiva, but I wasn’t not Jewish enough for private school in high class Brooklyn Heights. I never felt pretty. I never felt special and I never felt God listened to what I had to say. I felt that God had betrayed me, taken away my father, made my mother unreachable and my brother disappear.

God has a funny way of showing up. This past Sunday was Liz’s baby shower. I attended with Helen and saw four or five people I haven’t seen since the sixth grade. Many of the guests heard me speaking Spanish to Helen and asked where I was from. I told them our backstory. I explained that Helen is Jewish from my family and Mexican Catholic from her Papi’s family. After the shower I went to my mother’s house to visit and watched her coo over the baby.

Helen and Grandma

Helen and Grandma

The Jewish mourning period lasts for seven days but the mourning period for a parent that dies lasts for a year. This is Jewish law. What Jewish law does not say is that sometimes we mourn for a lifetime. Sometimes we mourn the dead for years and then we mourn ourselves. We mourn who we were and more so who we weren’t or who we didn’t know how to be. When my father died and Liz came up on my porch to sit shiva that was the seed that stayed in my heart. A girl from outside of my religion and culture came to visit during a crucial time in my life. I was 12 1/2  on my mother’s porch that day. Today I am 35. Today I understand that compassion is not one religion and neither is God.

This afternoon on my way to work I stopped inside a church. It is a small church very near the famous Brooklyn Heights. I stopped in to meditate and ask for guidance. Though I pray in synagogue I often find that churches have a much more calming effect on my spirit. There was a woman in the church praying and I took a seat in the back. She was the only other person there and I don’t think she felt me come in. Sometimes I say a Hebrew prayer, sometimes a Buddhist prayer, but today I closed my eyes and began the Prayer of St. Francis. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” As my eyes were closed I could hear the woman begin to cry. Her crying turned into sobs. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love…” I opened my eyes and the woman was lying on the floor faced down. She had thrown herself in front of a statue of Mary and was crying into her own arms.I wanted to hug her, to reach down and say, “Miss, is there anything I can do?” But, my 12 1/2-year-old self was already lying on the ground with her… “Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith…”

Then I began the Hebrew prayer called Shemah Yisrael, (Hear, O Israel), which I usually sing when I feel sadness, just as I sang it every night before bed as a child. The second verse came to me immediately: “Two thousand years is a very long exile. The time has come for it to end…”

But You’re Not Really Jewish, Right?


Photograph of Helen Rose by Lizzy Sullivan

“But you’re not really Jewish right?” This has been a question I have been asked since I was big enough to walk. My family celebrates all of the big holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover to name a few. The women in my family don’t wear long skirts and the men don’t wear black hats. But, yes, we ARE Jewish.

“But you’re not really Jewish, right?” is an insulting question. First of all, what does that mean? That’s usually my response: “What does that mean?” And people respond by changing the subject because they know they’ve offended me or they keep asking questions that further insult me. Since I live in a very religious neighborhood, these are a few of the questions I get: “You don’t wear a wig right?” “You don’t keep kosher, right?” (wrong), “It’s so strange that you’re Jewish,” they say, “You don’t look Jewish.” Again, what does that mean?

This year I had a baby with Adrian, my lifelong partner. He is Catholic from Mexico and I am Jewish from Brooklyn. We decided before we had the baby that ours would be an interfaith family. We wanted the beauty of both cultures and both religions to be a part of who our child was and who she would become. She is a Mexican-American-Jewish-Catholic child.

Adrian and I live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The stores are kosher, on Saturday none of the stores are open and on Jewish holidays women in pretty dresses and men in ironed suits walk in the middle of the streets because there are hardly any cars around. Our kitchen is kosher. Adrian eats pork but not in our home. Does this make me less Jewish? Does loving a man from another faith make me less Jewish? Is my daughter less Jewish because she’s also Catholic?

Helen and Adrian

Baby Helen and Adrian in Prospect Park

The challenge so far has been trying to live a balanced life. When our daughter was first born these questions nagged at me. Would someone one day ask my daughter, “But you’re not really Jewish, right?” What would she say? What should I teach her to say? How would I explain to her a double faith? An interfaith? The more these questions loomed over me the more I decided to challenge the ignorance of these interrogations.

I found myself in the lobby of a large synagogue next to my apartment building where I was to inquire about a baby naming for my daughter. This was when my daughter was just 2 months old. The woman who ran the functions at the synagogue was all smiles when I walked in with the baby strapped to me in my ergo carrier. She asked me the baby’s name. “Helen Rose Castañeda,” I said. She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to spell it. I wrote it out in both Hebrew and English.

“Oh, you write in Hebrew,” she said surprised. After all, I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and I was not in a skirt or dressed up at all. I had only gone to inquire. I had not gone to pray. As I filled out the rest of the information on the sheet I realized I had to write Adrian’s name in Hebrew and my daughter’s name. Her Hebrew name is Chaya Rachel but how was I to write “Castaneda” in Hebrew? I sounded it out.

The woman stared at the paper. I was waiting for the question, any question. I was waiting for her to say, “Well that’s interesting,” or “Is this a Jewish name?” I was waiting for the insult. It never came. Instead, before she could speak I said, “Miss, I’d like to tell you, before we begin the process of setting up this baby naming event, that my family is an interfaith family. I am Jewish and my partner is Catholic. We are not married and our daughter is both. Is this going to be a problem?”

Her reaction was not what I expected. She was calm and smiled. She said, “That’s absolutely OK.” There were no insulting questions, no asking if I was really Jewish. We had a beautiful baby naming ceremony at the synagogue and I felt at home. I felt accepted and my family felt accepted. But, I had also for the first time accepted myself.

I am a Jew always in my heart and I live my life according to Jewish law, meaning I treat others with compassion, I speak to G-d, I meditate and I try to do good deeds. I don’t always succeed at all of these laws but I try my best to abide by them. I was born Jewish and I celebrate Judaism. I come from a long line of prophets and strong biblical women. This is what I will teach our daughter who has Jewish and Aztec blood in her. I also understand that people will always question my “Jewishness.” I’ve learned now to respond in a different way. Now, when someone approaches me with the question, “but you’re not really Jewish, right?” my answer is always a flip of my hair and a long laugh.