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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 doesn’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 can’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 Helen’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 cousin’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 they’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 cousin’s father made a speech about my baby cousin’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 wasn’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 “Meditation and the Bible,” 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 Kaplan’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. It’s hard because his family is a million miles away. It’s hard because his mother is sick. It’s hard because his brothers are not united and his sister just broke up with her boyfriend and doesn’t know what to do. It’s hard in a lot of different, normal ways. But it’s also easy. It’s easy for him to smile when Helen smiles. To laugh when she chases one of my cousin’s dogs all over the house. It’s easy because there’s food on the table, a roof over our heads and a warm bed to sleep in when we get home. It’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. That’s one story, anyway. What were they celebrating if not their differences, their two ways of living, their double faiths?
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.
“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?
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.
When I was 8 years old I had a good friend who lived around the corner from me. His name was Nachshon. We took the same school bus to school and at the Orthodox Yeshiva we attended we were in the same class. I went to his house often after school to play video games or just to hang out. He rarely came to my house. My family was not religious enough for his family even though we had a kosher home and my parents tried hard to educate us in Judaism. My parents were liberals. They had been actors and met on stage. They believed in finding out about oneself both inside and outside of the religion. For this reason the Jewish community at my Yeshiva rejected many of my parents’ beliefs and therefore my brother and I were rejected as well, though in a subtler manner.
I was allowed into Nachshon’s home where the rules of kosher/non-kosher, religious and non-religious were in tact and could not be stirred. He was, however, not allowed into my own home. At 8 years of age I didn’t care. He had a Nintendo and my brother and I did not. He had better toys, better games and carpeting in his basement. He had what I didn’t have, or so it seemed.
Then something happened to Nachshon, or rather something happened to his father. One day Nachshon didn’t show up to school. In the middle of Torah study that morning our teacher told us all to put on our coats, we were going somewhere. Once outside we boarded a yellow bus. The bus twisted and turned through the sooty Brooklyn streets until we were close to my own neighborhood. We ended up in front of Nachshon’s residence.
I had been to his house many times before but never with my whole class. There were twenty of us: the girls dressed in long skirts and long sleeved shirts, the boys with yarmulkes, black pants and white shirts. We looked like a sea of exclamation points shuffling through the small doorway. The house was dark and the mirrors had been covered with black fabric. There were low boxes on the floor in the living room for the family members to sit on. It was then I realized what we were doing there. We went, as a class to sit shiva. Shiva is the traditional Jewish mourning period. It usually lasts for seven days and family members sit on the floor or on low boxes, they cover their mirrors and in my neighborhood they leave the door open for visitors to come and go. It is a “mitzvah,” a good deed to sit shiva. As a child it is terrifying.
Nachshon looked small in his own home surrounded by guests from all over the neighborhood. His father had been sick for a long time. No one knew any of the details. He died of some kind of cancer and now the closest family members sat around the living room on low boxes reciting his name and weeping.
That year I stopped going to Nachshon’s house to play. He didn’t speak to me in school. I heard that his mother wanted him to hang around only very religious Orthodox Jewish boys and girls. I was not in that category. The next year I was kicked out of the Yeshiva and I didn’t see him again for a long time. Then one day something happened to me, or rather something happened to my father.
I saw Nachshon again four-and-a-half years later at a shiva for my own father. He showed up on the front porch with sad eyes, dressed in a black suit, his yarmulke a patch of crimson velvet on his head.
“I’m so sorry about your father,” he said. It was the first time he had ever been to my house. Death had brought him there. Death, sympathy and compassion had overcome my “not Jewish enough” family. Though he came on his own. There was no school bus, no long skirts following his lead. He came alone. It was the last time I ever saw him. I felt as if his presence was an apology.
Today I have a newborn. She is Jewish by her mother, Mexican-Catholic by her father. I wonder what she will feel as she grows up in the neighborhood I grew up in. Her father speaks a different language and her mother wears rock t-shirts every day of the week. Does this make her less Jewish? Will parents be afraid to send their children to our house? How will this make her feel? What will I say when she says “Why?”
I will tell her I lost a very close friend a long time ago because of fear and judgment. I will tell her something broke between us because the community that surrounded us did not know how to bind us closer together in a time of mourning and instead shifted us apart.
I would like my daughter to grow up understanding the customs of each religion. The way Catholics and Jews deal with death is of equal importance. But more than this I want her to make her own decisions about religion and I want her to be able to turn to spirituality in times of great distress. I want her to have courage the way Nachshon had when he defied the community and walked up on my front porch to pay his respects. I will explain to my daughter one day that in that one fixed moment in time we were who we were as Jews but more so as resplendent human spirits.