But You’re Not Really Jewish, Right?

  
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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.

Pray for Rain

  

The drought and high temperatures have caused large sections of our pond to evaporate.

My family is looking forward to Sukkot after the serious work of the Days of Awe. As I wrote about in my essay Beyond the Lulav and the Etrog, it is an easy holiday for my interfaith family to embrace. It emphasizes the concept of gratitude, a universal sentiment that is prized by many faiths and people, including those who subscribe to no religious tradition, and it directly connects to my family’s daily life.

We are avid vegetable gardeners and Sukkot is the perfect opportunity for us to express appreciation for each other’s work maintaining our garden space – Cameron turns the compost and prepares the beds, and I plant and weed with Sammy’s assistance. During the holiday we give thanks for the produce we produce and the elements of nature that enabled us to grow such a delicious bounty.

This year we are especially thankful because Texas is in the third year of drought with most of the state experiencing severe to extreme conditions. We see the effects of the water shortage in the cracked soil surrounding our tomatoes and okra, and in our dry rain gauge. We also notice the impact of the weather on our neighborhood pond, which has large areas where most of the water has evaporated.

Recently, while walking our dog near the pond Sammy gasped when he noticed the water level. “Mommy, look at the pond!” he exclaimed. “There is almost no water in some areas. What’s going to happen to the ducks, geese and herons if the water gets lower? Someone needs to do something!”

“I heard someone the other day ask if water can be pumped in, but that isn’t feasible because of the city water restrictions and the energy it will require. We really need rain,” I said.

Sammy was quiet the rest of the walk and I could tell he was thinking. When we got home he said, “I’m really worried about the water. We need to do something. What can we do to make rain?”

“Short of cloud seeding which is a method used to increase precipitation, not much. We could pray for rain…actually, that would be an appropriate thing to do during Sukkot. Have you learned about the Water Drawing Ceremony?” I asked.

“No.”

“According to the Talmud, Sukkot is the time of year when God judges the world for rainfall. The Water Drawing Ceremony, conducted in ancient Israel each morning during the holiday, asked for God’s blessing for an abundant rainy season,” I explained.

“What was the ceremony like?”

“It was very joyous. Water was brought from an area near Jerusalem in a golden flask to the Temple’s Water Gate. The shofar was sounded and the water was poured over the altar.”

“Well, I learned to make rain at camp,” he said demonstrating the hand and foot sounds designed to mimic a rainstorm. “But that’s not a ceremony and let’s face it, it won’t fill the pond with water.” He thought for a moment and then said, “I know, the next time it is supposed to rain we can put buckets outside in different areas of the yard and collect rain. Then we can bring the buckets over to the pond and pour the water into it helping to fill it up again. It can be our own Water Drawing Ceremony!”

Water used to connect one bank of the pond to an island. Today little water remains.

“I like that idea,” I said.

“Me too,” Sammy replied. “I feel better knowing that we’re going to help.”

This year as you celebrate in the sukkah and give thanks for the abundance that fills your plate remember the precious natural resources that helped to make your meal possible. Show some appreciation for them too and please, don’t forget to pray for rain.