Two Faiths and Powerful Women


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?


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.

Jewish Mourning: A Lesson for My Newborn



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.