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Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday because it is mostly about storytelling. Every year, my family sits around the Passover table and tells the story of how the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt by blindly following Moses across the Red Sea. The story is about freedom, faith and most of all, food. We eat matzah (unleavened bread) to symbolize the unleavened bread the Jews took with them on their long journey through the desert. We clean our houses and get rid of every last trace of bread. Then, my mother calls me 68 times about the Passover menu. In my head, I picture all the Jewish mothers in Egypt during Moses’ time asking, “Chicken, brisket or both?” But what I’ve always loved the most about Passover at my mother’s house was the kids’ table. It is the table I was always a part of until only recently. Now, there’s a new kids’ table and its guests include my daughter Helen and her two cousins (my brother’s boys), Jacob and Nathan.
I didn’t realize this phenomenon about the kids’ table until I brought over my half of the Passover menu in aluminum pans an hour before the seder. Adrian, my significant other who grew up in Mexico as a Catholic, pointed it out when he carried our daughter into my mother’s house. “My Mom used to do that at Christmas,” Adrian remarked when he saw one long table in my mother’s living room and the mini table at the end set with three kiddie plastic plates and spoons. Adrian comes from a family of seven kids and he loved my mother’s rendition of a kid’s table, which made him nostalgic. His family is scattered across the globe and his one dream is to have everyone go back to Mexico to sit at his mother’s table on a big Catholic holiday. But this year, Adrian was part of the Passover festivities even though he couldn’t totally grasp matzah.
“It tastes like paper,” he said.
“Yes,” I replied, “that’s the point. We suffered in Egypt and then we suffered with matzah.”
The kids’ table signified so much to me this year. For the first time in maybe 50 years, my uncle missed the Passover seder because he’s sick and my aunt couldn’t come either. My cousins were also absent. Usually, our Passover table is set for 15-18 people, but this year, it dwindled down to seven adults and three kids. This made me afraid because my brother was in charge of running the seder and I was in charge of half the cooking—it made me realize that the original Passover kids’ table was now the adults’ table.
My mother is getting older and I am trying to balance old traditions with new interfaith beliefs. Adrian and I are trying to show Helen that two cultures and two faiths can coexist and we are trying to do this by example. But sometimes, I still feel like a kid. Sometimes we don’t have all the answers and there are times that even when I make 22 chicken legs, the guests only eat the brisket. “I told you so,” I hear my Jewish ancestors whisper.
My nephews, who are twin boys, came in like a hurricane. They love Helen and arrived shouting “Helen, Helen, Helen!” When they saw my mother, who always brings them the challah bread and chicken noodle soup, they began to shout, “Challah, challah, challah!” But on Passover, we can’t eat challah or noodle soup, so they learned instead to shout, “Matzah, matzah, matzah!” And then continued with, “Adi! Adi! Adi!” for Adrian, their favorite uncle.
I marveled at the kids’ table for its differences and its similarities. This year, as my nephews speak English, Helen answers in Spanish. “No se,” she says, which means, “I don’t know,” and the boys laugh. But they look just as my brother and I had once looked. The only difference is that this Passover, like all future Passovers, there will be room for more than one faith. Adrian sits at the table and is reminded of Catholic holidays in Mexico, I sit at the table and am reminded of my father and how he, too, loved a good story.
The traditional Jewish four questions, to be asked by the youngest child at the table, are sung by everyone, in Hebrew. “Why is this night different from any other night?” begin the questions. I laugh because I want to look up at God and say, “Seriously?” But instead, I think of a proverb appropriate for this Passover from the New Testament: “Get rid of the old leaven of sin so that you may be a new batch of dough – as you really are.” (Bible, I Corinthians 5:7) This quote gives me hope for the future and urges me to shed my old skin and step into my new real one of woman, mother and two-faith-household-builder.
This interfaith holiday season has been trickier than I thought. If there is a lot of planning, cooking and gift buying for one holiday, then the two holiday celebrating seems impossible. My family celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. But, we are not just a Jewish/Catholic home. We are a Brooklyn Jewish and Mexican Catholic household. This means a few things. First it means that I had to decorate with two faiths in mind, cook with two faiths in mind and buy gifts with two faiths in mind. What it also means is that I messed up a lot of traditions, which I now know I need to fix for next year. It’s hard trying to get everything right and I’ve been so concerned about teaching Helen, our 1-year-old, about our different traditions that I forgot to relax and pay attention.
Here are a few examples of the way I historically ruined part of the holidays. Apparently in Mexico, Christmas is a big deal but it’s something called “Las Posadas” that’s an even bigger deal. The “Posadas” begin on December 16 and end on December 24 (Christmas Eve). In Mexico it means a party every night from the 16th to the 24th and a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem in search of lodging. Although I heard Adrian mention the “Posadas” I assumed this tradition was on Christmas day. On Christmas Eve while Adrian was at work, I was making a traditional Mexican punch to surprise him with and while reading the recipe I read the story of the “Posadas” and realized I HAD MISSED THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE MEXICAN CATHOLIC HOLIDAY! Great.
That was mess-up number one. Here’s something else. Hanukkah began the same night as Christmas Eve this year. I was supposed to make tamales (a tradition in Mexico on Christmas) and latkes. Out of my concern for how to make the tamale recipe perfect, I FORGOT TO MAKE THE LATKES. Great.
That was mess-up number two. It gets better. Little did I know that tamales take almost four hours to make! The recipe said one to two hours. But, ask anyone from Mexico and they will laugh if you say one hour. I found this out later. I had told Adrian not to eat at work, so he got home at midnight when I thought the tamales would be ready and we ended up waiting until 2:30 a.m. when they were finally ready and we were so tired that we ate one each and went to bed.
That was mess-up number three. On Christmas day we went to my brother’s house with the baby. My brother has twin boys and he and his wife threw a Hanukkah party. My mother brought the latkes to that party and we all lit the menorah and had a great time. Then Adrian, Helen and I went to Adrian’s friend’s house and saw their tree and their baby Jesus statue. Helen had a great day. But, when we got home I had another recipe I had yet to make and I was so exhausted that when I went to put something in the blender I forgot to put the top on and green tomatillo sauce splattered all over the kitchen (and my mother who had come over to watch the baby while Adrian and I made dinner).
That felt like mess-up number four thousand. I was upset. First I couldn’t believe I had missed the week celebration before Christmas. Then I couldn’t believe how bad my recipes were. But both Hanukkah and Christmas are celebrations of miracles. I waited for one. And in a moment of frustration I thought of the Hanukkah story.
The Hanukkah story is about not having enough of something, or thinking one doesn’t have enough of something. On Hanukkah the Jews celebrate the small band of Jews who defeated the Greeks during the time of the second Temple. When the Greeks made all of the oil in the holy temple impure, the Jews found a little bit of oil left. But, the oil they found was only enough to last for one day. And then a miracle occurred and the little oil they had come across ended up lasting for eight days. Hanukkah is the celebration of light.
Christmas too is a celebration of light. The lesson of Hanukkah is that sometimes in great darkness a miracle can happen. The birth of Christ teaches this same lesson. A lot of the challenges my family faces during the holidays has to do with teaching our daughter to respect and understand both of our religions and cultures. It is about starting new traditions and sticking to them so that when she grows up she can feel the love of both faiths and choose her own path. But another challenge is the need for others to take our beliefs seriously. At the Jewish homes we go into we have a need for people to take us seriously and the same goes for the Catholic homes.
Adrian and I visited two of his friends’ homes during the holidays. Both friends have children. At the first house his friend’s daughter who is 7 years old ran to greet us at the door and took Helen out of my arms so she could carry her to her toys and play with her. At the second home, the other friend’s daughter is Helen’s exact age. They played with dolls, stuffed animals and books. At my brother’s house my nephews are a few months older than Helen. They all ran around laughing and opening their Hanukkah presents. These are the real miracles of light. Children have no inhibitions, no preconceived notions. They want to play and explore. They want to love and be loved. Sometimes out of total darkness they appear. They are the rare oil, the spark that lights the whole Beit HaMikdash (The Holy Temple).
I burned myself last week. Right after Rosh Hashanah I went into the kitchen to pour hot water into a single-cup coffee filter and ended up with a pot of boiling water splashing down the right side of my body. On the week of the Jewish New Year, my 1-year-old daughter, Helen Rose, had a bad head cold and I had a second-degree burn across my chest. Everything would have been fine, except it wasn’t.
A little while later, the blisters that had formed on my breast ruptured while I was trying to carry Helen down four flights of stairs in our apartment building. I was in pain for five days. I walked around the apartment without a shirt on and tried to keep the area clean. Then, one night a few days before Yom Kippur, I noticed a thin red line spreading from my breast to my armpit; I could hardly move my arm.
As a Jew I feel that guilt has played a large role in my life. There are jokes in our community about “Jewish guilt” and “Jewish mothers’ guilt.” So my mind automatically went to that place we tell ourselves not to go: “What did I do? I did something wrong and it’s almost Yom Kippur. I’m paying for something.” Adrian, my Catholic partner, heard my lament.
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “It was an accident.”
I asked him if there was such a thing as Catholic guilt, especially in Mexico, where he’s from. I even tried to find the word for “guilt” in Spanish. The only word I could come up with was “culpa.” But culpa doesn’t really mean “guilt”; it means “fault.” It comes from the Latin root “culpa,” also used in the well-known term felix culpa. The phrase means “happy fault.” Catholics believe that Jesus dying on the cross was a felix culpa, because although he died for mankind’s sins, which was bad, the Catholics got to have him as their savior, which was good. So to me it was as if Catholic guilt, if there is such a thing, could never compare to Jewish guilt. For me, guilt is guilt, and there is no happiness involved.
As soon as Adrian got home from work, I rushed to the emergency room carrying all my guilt with me. My burn had become so infected that the doctors at my local hospital transferred me to the burn center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. I cried. Adrian was taking care of the baby, and I felt alone. It turned out I had cellulitis and was to stay at the hospital with an IV until my burn healed. I cried again. Helen’s birthday was two days away and Yom Kippur was the day after her birthday, but I was informed I might have to stay in the hospital for three days.
Hospitals are lonely, but if they do one thing it’s test your faith. They test your faith in God and your faith in other human beings. One of my nurses wore a cross. Another wore a Star of David, and the third wore a heart with the word “Mom” in the middle. I felt that all three of those nurses represented all three parts of my family and myself: Jewish, Catholic and motherly (and fatherly) love. They took great care of me while I thought more about guilt, about the New Year and about the Day of Atonement coming up. I thought about my daughter’s smile and Adrian’s sweet face.
I tried to remember that my wound was nothing. A burn center cares for people who have been truly disfigured by fire. I was lucky to have only been partially burned, and not across my entire body or face.
I thought of my little Helen Rose. How could I have let myself think God was punishing me for something by burning me? I burned my own breast! And it was an accident! Some people sit in the hospital for days, weeks, months. And then some people’s children sit in the hospital. Guilt has nothing to do with it—life happens. Tragedy happens. Sometimes death happens. These things happen to Jews, Catholics, Muslims and every human being on earth. They don’t happen to make us pay; they happen to make us learn.
But Jewish guilt can come in handy sometimes. I dished out the Jewish guilt that was passed down to me to every doctor who came in contact with me. “You know,” I said as the IV dripped, “my daughter’s first birthday is on Monday, and if you don’t fix me I may not be home for it.” I remember one doctor said, “She won’t remember.” I could feel my Jewish ancestors rise up in my blood to reply, “But I’ll remember! And what kind of mother would I be if I missed her birthday because of my burned breast?”
I was released from the hospital on Monday, just in time for Helen’s birthday. I took the kosher cake I had made days before out of the freezer. Our party plans were cancelled, but Adrian, my mother, Helen and I blew out a candle.
I couldn’t go to synagogue because I wasn’t allowed to leave the house for a week, but I felt I had already atoned. A week later at my follow-up visit at the hospital, a doctor asked, “Why didn’t I see you when you were here? Were you in the burn unit?”
“Yes,” I said, “I was released on Monday, just in time for my daughter’s….”
Before I could finish, he cut me off: “Your daughter’s first birthday? Yes, I know who you are now. There was a lot of talk about you. The staff felt so guilty about keeping you here that they decided it was OK for you to leave a day early.”
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.