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.

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Services and the Summertime Quiet

  

SummertimeThis past week, my family stumbled late into the pizza dinner before one of our local congregation’s children’s Shabbats. It was a rainy, surprisingly chilly Friday in June, and after a week of no school and being relatively cooped up at home, both children felt more than ready to get out of the house and go to services.

When we arrived, we saw three cars in the parking lot, and immediately wondered if we’d come on the wrong date. Ben pulled out his phone and confirmed that a “Pizza Dinner and Children’s Shabbat” was, in fact, listed on the calendar. Inside, a grandfatherly gentleman greeted us in the community hall where at least five tables were set up with silverware, candles, pitchers of water and simple flower arrangements.

But there were no other families! We’ve been to a couple of other dinners at this synagogue, and we’re usually surrounded by noise and chatter. This time, though, our grandfatherly host quickly informed us that most of the younger part of the congregation was away at camp, hence the empty tables.

Empty tables: I’m used to this in the summer time, when Protestant congregations empty out for the summer. Sunday schools close for the long break and families find themselves busier than ever with travel, enjoying outdoor markets or early morning bike rides and are otherwise disengaging from organized religion during the warmer months. Some congregations I have known switch from two Sunday services to one, and many ministers might take extended time off during the summer, filling the pulpit with lay or other guest preachers. Although this picture is by no means true for all congregations, in many of the more liberal pews I’ve sat in, it’s a common scenario.

I’m still learning to what extent this pattern repeats itself in Jewish congregations as well. When I asked Ben a few years ago if synagogues also closed shop for the summer, comparatively speaking, he surprised me by saying “no, they didn’t.” Historically, this pattern makes sense. The majority of America’s Jews have always been city dwellers, rather than farmers or rural folk (and farming characterized the majority of the American populace until remarkably recently). The need to help out at the farm meant that American schools closed over the summer, which in turn affected Sunday schools and the calendar of events in America’s churches, as well.

In terms of the liturgical calendar, of course, nothing in either the Jewish or Christian traditions suggests that congregations should become quieter over the summer. My daughters would tend to agree. However much they might appreciate summer as a time of expanded freedom, they still crave the comfort and familiarity of a weekly routine.

Although we don’t attend services every week at this point in our lives, both girls sense the familiarity that can be found in a mostly-regular routine or ritual. As outgoing, social kids, they enjoy the company of other children and even of the adults they see when we go. Shabbat on Friday nights gives them that comfort, no matter whether the sun is up long past their bedtimes, or down long before.

Does your synagogue scale down in the summertime? What do you think about this phenomenon?

Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah Come Light the…Christmas Tree?

  

Saturday morning my family and I were at a children’s Shabbat service. Halfway through the service, our youth director asked the children to think of something they were excited to experience in the coming week. My son Oliver perked up and shot me an excited look, then reached his arm high into the air. I knew what was coming. We were going to cut down our Christmas tree the next day, and Oliver had been talking about it incessantly all week long. He is a child who hides his face and refuses to talk in Shabbat services, but Christmas trees could bring him out of his shell. I began sinking farther down in my seat and wishing this wasn’t happening.

Sure enough, the youth director called on Oliver first. “I’m excited to get our Christmas tree tomorrow!” he practically shouted. To the youth director’s credit, and probably in recognition of the number of interfaith families who are members of our synagogue, she asked Oliver whether or not we were going to cut the tree ourselves or buy it pre-cut. Oliver had no idea, but that didn’t stop him from saying we would buy it pre-cut. Then she said, “Sounds fun!” and moved on to the next child, who expressed his excitement for Hanukkah starting in a week. Which got Oliver excited, too. Hanukkah AND Christmas were so close? Amazing!

It was a nice moment, because she didn’t shoot him down or ignore his excitement. She did what a good youth director does and engaged him in conversation. Oliver was pleased that he participated. And I felt relieved and thankful for a youth director who understands interfaith families and excited little kids.

The episode reminded me of a Hanukkah/Christmas book called, “Light the Lights” by Margaret Moorman. I like it because it explores how both holidays use light during the darkest time of the year, and many of the sweetest interactions are about talking to your neighbors and observing your community as it prepares for the holidays. I especially like that you can’t tell which parent is the “Jewish” parent and which one is the “Christian” parent. Instead, both parents are equally participating and enjoying the holidays. It’s available at Amazon.com for under $10, and is part of the growing canon of books exploring both holidays.