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Being stuck in a car for three hours with my mother, Adrian (my significant other) and our baby girl, Helen Rose, is just part of the beauty of Thanksgiving. I should note that being born and raised in Mexico, Adrian doesnâ€™t know a lot about our American holiday, so I began by explaining that sitting in traffic is not just a rite of passage, but also a tradition. I should also explain that he hates turkey and canâ€™t stand the way I drive. But no one else wanted to drive, so our holiday began with a two-hour traffic delay through Staten Island on our way to New Jersey.
Here is something else: The last time Adrian met my cousins, uncle and aunt was at Helenâ€™s baby naming, when we were consumed with being new parents as she was then only two months old. So this was going to be a new rite of passage. Meeting family can be nerve-wracking, especially since I have a very Jewish family. Almost everyone in my family has gone to yeshiva, keeps kosher and lives following Jewish law, and some even live or have lived in Israel.
Helen, Adrian and I follow different rules and laws within our interfaith family. Some we make up along the way as we try to find our place in both a Jewish and Mexican-Catholic culture. We make sure to keep both faiths present in our household so that nothing is lost for Helen. Both religions and traditions live and speak through her. And as she grows she will decide what to keep.
We eventually made it to New Jersey. There were 23 people at my cousinâ€™s house, not including babies. It felt like a new year. I remember lonely Thanksgivings working in restaurants. I remember Thanksgivings without my father, without my grandparents and without hope. This year felt so different and alive.
Adrian was nervous but excited, and Helen looks so much like him that people kept commenting that they seemed like twins. My baby cousins (now grown and almost all engaged) said I looked happier than theyâ€™ve ever seen me. Also, when we first arrived, my cousin saved us some mini hot dogs from the appetizers they had passed around, and Helen ate almost three of them. My nephews, just two-and-a-half months older than Helen, were there as well, and they all played and ran around chasing the two dogs.
At one point my cousinâ€™s father made a speech about my baby cousinâ€™s recent engagement. During his speech he talked about living a Jewish life and passing down Jewish traditions. I thought about this deeply. I asked myself, what from my culture, my tradition and my religion do I want to pass to my daughter?
As a child I had a lot of trouble in school. Sent to an Orthodox yeshiva at a young age, I learned how to fit into a black-hat community while wearing jeans and swearing on weekends. I was taught that there was only one way to do something. I was taught that God was almighty, all-knowing and pissed off all or most of the time.
It wasnâ€™t always bad though. I learned Hebrew and spirituality. Later on in my life when I picked up a book by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan called â€śMeditation and the Bible,â€ť I could follow the deep meaning of the Torah. When I returned to the Judaica store to purchase another book by the same rabbi, I could answer the religious boy behind the counter who asked me what I thought about Rabbi Kaplanâ€™s observations.
Sometimes it feels as though Adrian, Helen and I are walking through a biblical desert. We have our own beliefs; our traditions and obstacles rise up from the sand all the time. How we react to those obstacles is an integral part of our spiritual growth.
My cousin turned to me mid-meal and asked if it was hard for Adrian to be at the Thanksgiving feast with us. It was hard for him, but not because of a difference in religion. Itâ€™s hard because his family is a million miles away. Itâ€™s hard because his mother is sick. Itâ€™s hard because his brothers are not united and his sister just broke up with her boyfriend and doesnâ€™t know what to do. Itâ€™s hard in a lot of different, normal ways. But itâ€™s also easy. Itâ€™s easy for him to smile when Helen smiles. To laugh when she chases one of my cousinâ€™s dogs all over the house. Itâ€™s easy because thereâ€™s food on the table, a roof over our heads and a warm bed to sleep in when we get home. Itâ€™s easy because so many people do not have these simple luxuries.
What about the Jewish tradition do I want to pass down to our daughter? Gratitude. Love. Life. Traditions new and old.
After we said our thank yous and goodbyes, we drove back to our little apartment in Brooklyn, where I put Helen to bed and unpacked the blue-and-white menorah for the Hanukkah holiday to come. Then I opened the package containing our matching family Christmas pajamas and set them aside in a special holiday drawer.
Thanksgiving came about when the pilgrims and Native Americans sat down at a table to eat and celebrate together. Thatâ€™s one story, anyway. What were they celebrating if not their differences, their two ways of living, their double faiths?
Growing up, my motherâ€™s house was kosher. We had dishes for dairy and dishes for meat and we never mixed milk with meat. This goes back to the teachings of the Torah where it states on three separate occasions that a baby goat is not to be cooked in itâ€™s motherâ€™s milk. But our house was kosher mainly because my mother wanted my brother and me to fit in at the Orthodox Yeshiva we went to even though we werenâ€™t Orthodox.
This plan fell through more than once. Most of my friends’ parents knew that my own parents werenâ€™t religious. When we had sleepovers it was I who would have to travel to my peers’ houses because our house wasnâ€™t â€śkosher enough.â€ť But my motherâ€™s efforts werenâ€™t in vain. When Adrian and I moved into our apartment a few years ago it was my Grandmotherâ€™s dishes I unpacked from a cardboard box labeled â€śGrandma Rosieâ€™s Dairy Dishes.â€ť
There were teacups with pink roses and a tan trim on them wrapped in bubble wrap. There was a cake plate lined in gold and a blue glass candy dish I remembered reaching into as a child to pull out sticky black licorice squares. These dishes had made their debut in my Grandmotherâ€™s apartment then later at my motherâ€™s house and finally were gifted to me. They held memories of Friday morning pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches. They also held the responsibility of staying kosher.
For my nephewâ€™s first birthday party this past Sunday, the Star Wars cake I made followed the kosher rules. But the kosher rules also brought up concerns for our daughter Helenâ€™s quickly approaching birthday in October. My brother and his wife ordered from a kosher catering company and had traditional Brooklyn/Jewish food. There were pastrami sandwiches, pickles, coleslaw and chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting in addition to the cake I baked. As with any Jewish event there was more than enough food. Adrian and I talked about having a Mexican/Jewish themed birthday for Helen to honor the Jewish side of my family and the Mexican Catholic side of Adrianâ€™s family.Â
I started to get excited thinking about Helenâ€™s birthday. We began saving empty cans of jalapeĂ±o peppers for floral arrangements and I bought a pack of Mexican LoterĂa cards (a traditional Mexican board game similar to bingo) to make into crafty invitations. I obsessed over Pinterest cake ideas and thought that getting balloons that say â€śunoâ€ť instead of â€ś1â€ť would be a cute idea.
Then, in the middle of my excitement, I remembered how much Adrian loves to eat meat and how steak tacos are usually accompanied by fresh cream and cheese. I thought of Adrianâ€™s favorite Mexican dishes that involve chicken and cheese and pork. Then I panicked.
We keep a kosher home but when we eat out we donâ€™t eat kosher. But how was I to explain to him that Helenâ€™s birthday had to follow kosher rules? My family is kosher but his family will also be there. Part of me felt I was being unfair. Part of being kosher sometimes makes it seem like I am making Judaism seem more important than Catholicism, and thatâ€™s not fair. But, how do you bend a rule that canâ€™t be broken because of tradition or belief or just out of respect for other family members?
I waited until Adrian got home from work.
â€śBebe,â€ť I said, â€śIâ€™m worried about Helenâ€™s birthday. Maybe we shouldnâ€™t even have a party this year.â€ť I couldnâ€™t believe I was considering cancelling my daughterâ€™s first birthday party so that I wouldnâ€™t have to have an argument about steak enchiladas.
â€śWhy?â€ť Adrian asked, â€śI thought you wanted to do a big thing the way your brother did.â€ť
â€śWell, I did, but Iâ€™m worried about the food.â€ť I started to bite my nails.
â€śStop biting your nails. What about the food?â€ť he said.
â€śIt has to be, well, itâ€™s going to have to be, I mean because of my family we are going to have to have kosher Mexican food.â€ť
Adrian thought for a while before he answered, â€śWhat does that entail?â€ť
He knew some of the kosher rules but I reminded him that aside from the meat being kosher we couldnâ€™t mix milk with meat.
â€śYou want meat at the party?â€ť he asked.
â€śI thought you wanted meat at the party,â€ť I said.
â€śWhy donâ€™t we just do all dairy?â€ť he said.
â€śWhat?â€ť I couldnâ€™t believe it. Adrian is a carnivore through and through and I assumed he would want to have something with steak at Helenâ€™s party.
â€śI mean we can just do cheese enchiladas, guacamole, salsa, chips and have everything be dairy, no meat.â€ť
â€śI thought you wanted meat!â€ť I yelled in shock.
â€śI do, but dairy is so much easier!â€ť he shouted back.
Part of the challenge of being in an interfaith relationship is trying never to offend the other person. I was so afraid I would offend Adrian by not having traditional Mexican cuisine at our daughterâ€™s birthday that I looked past the other options in Mexican cooking. Mexico has a wide variety of seasoning and spices and I was looking only at having a kosher party as being a problem and not a bridge between two cultures and traditions. Anyway, Helenâ€™s first birthday is about celebrating the birth of new traditions as well as old. We want to bestow on her a life rich with flavor; a life where the menu has both chicken noodle soup and pozole.
â€śBut youâ€™re not really Jewish right?â€ť 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 donâ€™t wear long skirts and the men donâ€™t wear black hats. But, yes, we ARE Jewish.
â€śBut youâ€™re not really Jewish, right?â€ť is an insulting question. First of all, what does that mean? Thatâ€™s usually my response: â€śWhat does that mean?â€ť And people respond by changing the subject because they know theyâ€™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: â€śYou donâ€™t wear a wig right?â€ť â€śYou donâ€™t keep kosher, right?â€ť (wrong), â€śItâ€™s so strange that youâ€™re Jewish,â€ť they say, â€śYou donâ€™t look Jewish.â€ť 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 sheâ€™s also Catholic?
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, â€śBut youâ€™re not really Jewish, right?â€ť 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 babyâ€™s name. â€śHelen Rose CastaĂ±eda,â€ť I said. She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to spell it. I wrote it out in both Hebrew and English.
â€śOh, you write in Hebrew,â€ť 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 Adrianâ€™s name in Hebrew and my daughterâ€™s name. Her Hebrew name is Chaya Rachel but how was I to write â€śCastanedaâ€ť 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, â€śWell thatâ€™s interesting,â€ť or â€śIs this a Jewish name?â€ť I was waiting for the insult. It never came. Instead, before she could speak I said, â€śMiss, Iâ€™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?â€ť
Her reaction was not what I expected. She was calm and smiled. She said, â€śThatâ€™s absolutely OK.â€ť 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 donâ€™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 â€śJewishness.â€ť Iâ€™ve learned now to respond in a different way. Now, when someone approaches me with the question, â€śbut youâ€™re not really Jewish, right?â€ť my answer is always a flip of my hair and a long laugh.
As the High Holidays approach, Iâ€™ve thought a lot about the past year – my successes; my failures; the moments when Iâ€™ve been my best self and those when I havenâ€™t lived-up to who I want to be as a colleague, daughter, friend, mother, sister, spouse and Jew. As Iâ€™ve gone through this psychological housecleaning Iâ€™ve made note of the things big and small that I might want to repent for this year.
Iâ€™ve asked myself which transgressions will I seek forgiveness for and which ones are wellâ€¦minor infractions and not important. Does not observing Jewish dietary laws make the cut? What about walking past litter in a parking lot? Does God really care about what I eat or is the divine more interested in seeing me do a better job of caring for the earth?
As I contemplated these questions I was reminded of a conversation I had with Sammy during Passover. The holiday fell during his spring break. We were on vacation and were not being mindful of the holidayâ€™s food restrictions. Sammy said, â€śWeâ€™ve been really bad at keeping Passover this year.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™re right,â€ť I said. â€śSome years Iâ€™m good at making sure we keep it, and others years Iâ€™m not. Itâ€™s always easier when weâ€™re home. Since weâ€™re away Iâ€™ve let it go. I think God will forgive us.â€ť
â€śI donâ€™t think God cares,â€ť replied Sammy. â€śI donâ€™t think God cares about what we eat. I mean, God wants us to eat healthy food but I donâ€™t think God cares if we keep kosher or keep Passover. God cares about important things like not hurting people, not making fun of people and treating people fairly.â€ť
At the time of the conversation and again as I replayed it in my mind I thought Sammy has a point â€“ eating matzah instead of bread on Passover wonâ€™t repair the world, but showing compassion and gratitude, and honoring others can go a long way to making our society better.
Then I found an article, â€śA Universal Explanation for Religious Atheists,â€ť that I had torn out of the paper back in July. Written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, it is a conversation between the author and God about atheists and the concept of a godless â€śuniversal spirit.â€ť Pitts asks God if the idea of a universal spirit bothers him to which God replies no. God then says, â€śIâ€™ve been called worse. Besides have you seen the things some religious people do, supposedly in my name? They blow things up in the name of God. They stone women in the name of God. They fight in the name of God. They hate in the name of Godâ€¦ I wish, more often they would hug in the name of God. Serve in the name of God. Heal in the name of God. Make peace in the name of God.â€ť
After re-reading Pittsâ€™ column I felt that he was making a similar point to Sammy â€“ care about the things that are truly important, the things that have the ability to make the world a better place. Donâ€™t sweat the small stuff. Because while the small stuff can help us feel closer to God; more connected to our faith, traditions and history; and provide a way for remembering to hug, heal and serve, it can also if weâ€™re not careful, become more important than loving thy neighbor, honoring our elders and caring for the earth.
So as I finalize the list of things I will seek forgiveness for this year Iâ€™ve decided that my food transgressions will not be on it. I donâ€™t think God cares that I ate pizza on Passover or indulged in lobster rolls over summer vacation. But I do think God would like to see me acknowledge that I can do a better job honoring my mother and father, listening to my colleagues, showing patience with Sammy, controlling my temper in disagreements with Cameron and taking care of the environment.