Stumbling into an Interfaith Identity in Spain

By Rebecca Cohen


Granada, Spain, mid April, 2004. It was 2:30 in the morning and I was helping my neighbors pour cinnamon-spiced sangria and prepare bocadillos de queso, cheese sandwiches, for the bar stand they had set up outside their home in Barrio Sacromonte. This ancient stone street, usually so peaceful as it laces lazily up the mountainside through whitewashed home fronts, was today literally overflowing with people. Small children weaved through grown legs and old women shouted greetings to their friends, smiling in their reddest lipstick and waving their boldly flowered scarves.

The entire neighborhood (and most of Granada) had gathered along Calle Sacromonte to watch the passing of El Cristo and La Virgen, grandiose statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary that would soon pass by, raised high on lavish platforms by twelve strong, well-trained men. This procession, the passing of El Cristo de los Gitanos, was said to be the most beautiful of all the processions held during this holy week, La Semana Santa, and my neighbors and friends had been anticipating and preparing for it for months.

Only moments later, I, too, would be making my way through these crowds, as I held onto my neighbor’s youngest daughter, Cintia, anxiously searching for a spot with a good view of the beautiful virgin. There I was, a Jew fully enmeshed in this homage to the sacredness of Christ.

Just last week my mother asked me how my identity as an interfaith child had affected my time living in Southern Spain last winter. She is always asking me questions along these lines: How had my Jewish identity changed after I went to college? How did it feel to have my non-Jewish relatives take part in my Bat Mitzvah? How did my father’s non-Jewishness alter my own relationship with the Jewish community? Yet somehow this particular asking of the question caught me off guard. Always before, when asked to consider my religious identity, I had considered only my Jewish identity. But the phrasing of this question pushed me in a new direction. Rather than focus on my Jewish identity, and perhaps on how my father’s Christianity has affected that, this question asked me to search for an underlying interfaith side of myself.

At first, I responded to my mother’s question as I always had. I started thinking about how my being Jewish had shaped my time in Spain. I replayed the several bitter moments of anti-Semitism I had stumbled my way through, and remembered the beautiful conversations I had had with my Moroccan friend, Zouhair, as he told me about the rich cultural and artistic history of Muslim and Jewish friendship in Granada. I recalled my fruitless quest for a synagogue and my persistent interest in the Expulsion that had been announced in that same city only a little more than 500 years before.

I thought through all these levels of my time in Granada, but I realized that I was not coming anywhere near to answering my mother’s real question. The question was not how my Jewish identity influenced my experience, but how my identity as an interfaith child influenced it. At that moment the notion first dawned on me that yes, I was an interfaith child, and yes, perhaps this side of myself did shape the way I lived, set the boundaries in which I felt comfortable and at home, and formed the framework of the way I approached the world.

As I reexamined my time in Spain, I started to see that maybe I had gained a lot more than I had realized from a family that included several religions–Judaism, Presbyterianism and Catholicism. The extent of my family’s different backgrounds and cultures, I think, has helped me to be able to appreciate and feel comfortable in different cultural and religious settings.

“How beautiful was the Virgin as she passed,” my friend Marina exclaimed as we shared breakfast the morning after the long-awaited procession. “She might have been more beautiful than ever this year,” she suggested. “Si, si, pienso que si,” her husband added enthusiastically. She continued to pause and sigh throughout this meal (and even days later) as she recalled the sacred beauty of the Virgin Mary. As I sat, somewhat enchanted by my friends’ awe for these traditions–traditions that they have participated in their entire lives–I thought of my own grandmother, my father’s Protestant mother, who might also appreciate the Virgin’s beauty. I remembered my grandmother’s deep pride and love for the stained-glass windows that grace her own church, and I remember times we had gone together to gaze up at these windows.

Through those mornings sitting in a church in the middle of the sprawling cornfields of Springfield, Illinois, I think I learned some important things. I found a way to participate in these experiences in a non-religious way. I learned to give my grandmother the satisfaction of showing her family to her church friends and pastor, to allow her the joy of being surrounded by grandchildren in her own house of worship, without feeling that I was being pressured to pray in this setting. I learned to listen to what her priest told her and to learn what kinds of things my grandmother hears each Sunday, without feeling that I was somehow belittling or sacrificing my own Jewish identity. I learned what my own boundaries are, and how I can appreciate a lot of things on a cultural, rather than a faithful, level. I suppose that I learned to feel safe and at ease surrounded by a religious ferver that was not my own.

The procession through Sacromonte was a holy moment in the barrio’s year, the pinnacle of La Semana Santa, and it was very important to my friends there that I could share it with them. I am Jewish. My Catholic friends in Spain know that I am Jewish. But despite this, I was able to share a special part of their culture with them. I was able to participate, to the extent that I felt comfortable, in one of their most sacred traditions.

I watched the week of La Semana Santa with awe, sometimes shock, sometimes distrust. But mainly with appreciation. Mainly, I was able to see this culture that was not my own, to be in its midst without feeling estranged and without feeling out of place. And this, I think, is part of my interfaith identity.

About Rebecca Cohen

Rebecca Cohen spent one semester of her junior year of college in Granada, Spain.