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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).
Our family has had a hard few weeks. Every day we open the news to a different headline about hatred and anger. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world has gone bonkers. To top it off, my significant other, Adrian, recently received a phone call from Mexico informing him that his mother is ill. Her diabetes has taken a turn for the worse, and her doctor told her she could no longer eat tortillas, a staple food in Mexico. Adrian came home from work one night and put his head in his hands, defeated. “I think my father feels very alone,” he said.
The next day I found out that my mother’s favorite cousin died from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He had been living in a care facility where his wife would go three times a day to bring him food, company, laughter and a lot of love. My mother came home from work one day and put her head in her hands, defeated. “I think Tommy’s death has finally hit me,” she said.
My almost 1-year-old daughter, Helen, does not understand death and sickness yet. She has just begun learning how to live, how to crawl, how to hold onto something and pull herself up, how to grab onto the coffee table and take one step at a time.
With Rosh Hashanah right around the corner, we leave the house daily with lists of ingredients to buy for honey cake. I want her first Jewish New Year to be a joyous one full of hope. But there is some despair in our home right now.
Adrian checks his phone for messages about his mother. He calls Mexico. He meets with his brothers to discuss how much money they need to send back to Mexico for his mother to see a good doctor.
I sit in my mother’s kitchen trying to scrawl out a letter to Tommy’s wife, searching for words to explain my sympathy.
I want to pray. It is important to me that my daughter learns to pray, and because we are an interfaith family, it is important that both Adrian and I teach her how we both pray, especially because we pray so differently. But Adrian does not feel like praying lately. His statue of The Virgin of Guadalupe rests dusty on the bureau. I take this as an opportunity to learn that sometimes we as human beings don’t have the will to pray. Sometimes praying means admitting something is wrong, and Adrian doesn’t want there to be anything seriously wrong with his mother.
In Judaism it seems there is a prayer for everything. There is a prayer for death, life, sadness, forgiveness, women, men and children. There are prayers before going to bed, before eating lunch, after eating lunch and a prayer upon waking up in the morning. Adrian has different prayers, and because I didn’t grow up Catholic like him, I don’t know many of them. I assume they are similar to Jewish prayers, but I can’t be sure.
I’ve been trying to teach Helen a few Jewish prayers. Because Adrian has been feeling so down, I looked up a prayer that Helen and I could recite for him and his mother. After coming across prayers similar to those in Judaism, I found a prayer to Guadalupe that begins, “Our Lady of Guadalupe, mystical rose….” I liked that because Helen’s middle name is Rose. I sat down on the floor with Helen and began to recite the prayer, even though it’s not a Jewish prayer. Then we added a Hebrew prayer for cousin Tommy.
“This is for Papi,” I said to Helen, “and for Abuela (Grandma) to get better. And we will say one for cousin Tommy’s family too.”
Helen was silent; I’m not sure she understood, but comprehension will come later. For now it’s important for me to keep up with my own traditions, as well as Adrian’s, even when he can’t. I’m sure he would do the same for me.
Sometimes Adrian and I don’t understand each other’s faiths. For him, Judaism has a lot of rules and complex meanings to these rules. For me, as a Jew, I don’t bow down to idols. But I can enter into a realm of understanding and ask his saints to care for him just as I can ask Hashem, my God, at the same time to care for him.
Our goal as an interfaith family is to bring just that: faith. How do people survive bombings, terror, heartache and grief? We survive by faith. Helen has two faiths. She will learn, and is learning, two faiths. At times these two faiths can be difficult to maneuver, but their deep messages are the same: Have compassion. Be a good person. Help others. Do good work in the world. And our two faiths teach us that when our significant other comes home defeated, we can be the strength they need to keep going. Our two faiths teach us to watch our child and learn from her as well. She teaches us how to live, how to crawl, how to hold onto something so we can pull ourselves up and how to hold onto a coffee table, a chair, a bench, something, anything, so that we can take our steps slowly and one at a time until we are able to walk.
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.
We 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.
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.”
When I was a child there were two books I wanted desperately to hear before bedtime. The first was Goodnight Fred. This was a favorite because the grandmother in the book comes out of the telephone to visit Fred and Arthur, her grandsons. I, too, thought my grandmother lived in the telephone and could come out and visit whenever she pleased.
Then there was The Clown of God. This book, written by Tomie De Paola, is about an Italian boy named Giovanni who juggles. He juggles for food and a place to sleep. He spends his whole life juggling and has one fancy trick called “the sun in the heavens,” in which he juggles colorful balls. The last ball he throws into the air is gold like the sun. Then one day he drops the sun in the heavens and he stops juggling. He goes from door to door begging for bread as he once had done as a child. Now that he’s an old man, people don’t care about him. The book is filled with Catholic references. By the end of Giovanni’s journey he ends up at a church for a big religious festival. He has fallen asleep in the church and when he wakes there is a big procession for the statue of the Madonna and her child.
When everyone leaves, Giovanni notices that the Madonna’s son is frowning. So, Giovanni puts on his clown makeup and does his most famous juggling trick in front of the statue. As he throws up the golden ball he shouts, “For you sweet child for you!” Then he drops dead in front of the statue. Two monks run in and find him lying dead on the floor. One of the monks looks at the statue in shock. The statue of the boy in the mother’s lap is smiling and holding the golden ball.
It isn’t surprising that I chose to build my life with a man from Mexico who grew up poor, Catholic and happy. I pretty much looked all my life for Giovanni and found him in Adrian. Instead of juggling, Adrian cooks. He also knows how to enjoy the simple things in life. We have a roof over our heads and we have food in our bellies. We have work. We have a healthy baby girl. These are not small things.
As a child I did not grow up poor. I didn’t grow up Catholic either. I grew up Jewish and most of the time I was happy. I expected more because I was given more as a child. I grew up with big dreams and high hopes and plans. I planned everything. I planned what shoes I was going to wear with what shirt. I planned what job I would have, how much money I would make and whom I was going to marry. I planned to have a baby no later than 25 years of age. I planned to own a house and a summer house by 30. I planned to keep in touch with all of my closest friends from nursery school, first grade, camp, junior high, high school and work. Sometimes, God has other plans. Actually, all of the time God has other plans.
I am 35 years old. Adrian and I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Midwood, Brooklyn. Helen Rose, our little one, wakes up every morning smiling at us from her crib. In our apartment there is a hamsah hanging in our kitchen and a Virgin of Guadalupe in our bedroom. There is a menorah in the living room and a prayer to Jesus in Adrian’s wallet. Good Night Fred and The Clown of God are a part of Helen’s library. These are our riches.
Life surprises me. Growing up Jewish I wish I could say that my most inspirational book was A Tale of Two Seders or Snow in Jerusalem. This is not the case. The book that most inspired me while I was tucked in under my puffy quilt with my Scottie dog wallpaper was The Clown of God. On my journey through Judaism this makes sense. When I began working in restaurants I was most inspired by the kitchen workers, most of whom had left their own countries in search of a better life. In school, I am most inspired by the students who hold down two jobs and have families or the students whose first language isn’t English but are getting an education and getting A’s in every class. I am inspired by the human capacity to overcome struggle.
I feel that people often tend to see goodness as a religious quality. But goodness is a human quality. Goodness is often compared to gold. It is this quality I wish to pass on to my daughter. Having an interfaith family is challenging. It challenges me every day to be more open and aware. It makes me ask questions and urges me to listen. It stops me from making plans and lets life lead me.
My favorite page in Tomie De Paola’s Clown of God is when Giovanni is still a young man and he makes his money juggling. One day he runs into two monks on the way to town. He shares his food with them and they begin to chat:
“Our founder, Brother Francis, says that everything sings of the glory of God. Why, even your juggling,” said one of the brothers.
“That’s well and good for men like you, but I only juggle to make people laugh and applaud,” Giovanni said.
“It’s the same thing,” the brothers said. “If you give happiness to people, you give glory to God as well.”
I wonder if my mother knew while she read me that book that it would take two faiths, not one, to convince me of God and God’s many beautiful and unexpected plans.
I believe in the mystical. Tarot Cards, Ouji boards, even the woman on the corner of Ocean Avenue who stares at me with one blue eye and one gray eye and says “you have a purple aura” when I walk by. Yes, I believe in her too. As I watch my newborn grow and change every day I wonder what magic I will teach her. What mysticism will her father share with her?
The Hebrew word for Pregnancy is Herayon. In Hebrew every letter is paired with a number and the letters in the word Herayon add up to 271. This is because a woman’s pregnancy generally is equal to 271 days. Here is another interesting Kabbalistic fact about Herayon: Har, the first part of the word in Hebrew, means “mountain.” This is because a woman’s belly is shaped like a mountain. I try to explain this to my significant other, Adrian. We compare notes on magic.
The month before my daughter was born I went to the Judaica store in my neighborhood and bought Channa’s book of Prayers for Jewish Women. I was nervous about delivery. I was looking for a magic spell. I called Adrian’s mother on a regular basis. “Señora,” I said, “Is it very, very painful? Is it unbearable?” She did not lie. She said it was. My own mother told me the truth as well and then she added, “But the pain doesn’t matter. In the end you get a baby.”
But I needed magic! I needed the Zohar to whip me up a flying carpet and deliver me from the agony of childbirth. More than this I wanted my newborn delivered into the world safely and with the prayers of both my Jewish background and Adrian’s Catholic background.
I thought of the word Tzirim. The Hebrew word “tzirim” means “contractions” or “labor pains” but there is another literal translation as well. “Tzirim” can also mean “hinges” like, door hinges. This is because a woman is opening a door for her child to exit through during childbirth. The Kabbalah compares contractions to snake bites and when this happens the woman gets ready to push the baby out of the womb and into the world. Snake bites make me nervous. Again, I needed magic.
Adrian is from Puebla, Mexico. In his small village his parents speak a language of the Aztec empire. They speak Spanish but they also speak a language called “Nahuatl.” It is an indigenous language. It is a dying language. It is the Hebrew of Mexico.
The Nahuatl people believe that when a boy is born his umbilical cord should be buried on a battlefield and when a girl is born her umbilical cord should be buried in the field because the cornfield is where tortillas come from.
But the birthing process for both cultures, for both religions is the same. In ancient times Jewish women gave birth in tents surrounded by other women. The same is true for Nahuatl women. In fact, when I spoke on the phone with Adrian’s mother she told me that she had birthed all seven of her children in her house surrounded by her female family members and one witch doctor.
I asked to speak to the witch doctor but I never could get a hold of her. My pregnancy began to take on an artistic form in my head. In my imagination, my giving birth began to look like Frida Kahlo and Amedeo Modigliani had lunch together and then had a painting competition. I saw myself painted slim across a canvas with a dark red background and serpents coming out of my nose. My imagination was winning over my mysticism.
Here is the truth about birth: It hurts. It hurts, but it is the one true visible sorcery. I had been so concerned about what my newborn would learn, how she would grow, what she would believe in. What I didn’t realize is that SHE was pure wizardry. On every contraction I felt the hinges inside swing back and forth. On her long entrance into the world I asked Adrian, “Can you see her head?” he nodded yes. I asked, “Is her hair black?” he nodded yes again. She arrived black haired as the raven, audacious as the eagle and breathtaking as an Aztec monarch.
The Hebrew word for love is ahava, and its numerical value adds up to the number 13. There are other words that add up to the number 13 as well. Zeved, for example, means “to gift” or “to bestow” and its letters add up to 13. To whisper or meditate is Hagah in Hebrew, also a numerical value of 13. Even the number 1 in Hebrew, which is Echad, has a numerical value of 13. Thirteen plus 13 is 26. In Hebrew, the letters in G-d’s name add up to 26. Love is a gift, love is a whisper, love is one and so is magic in any culture or religion.