Last Saturday evening I was given an opportunity to be part of a truly wonderful celebration – the Sweet 16 party of a very special young woman. As I explained to the guests gathered there that evening, this was an evening of firsts for me. We don’t really make much of the 16th birthday in the UK, probably because 18 is not so far away. In the UK, 18 takes on greater significance as it is the legal drinking age.
So last Saturday was my first ever Sweet Sixteen party. Another new and special part of the experience for me was that this Sweet 16 was celebrated Puerto Rican style. As I learned in preparing for the event, there are variations on the rituals that have become associated with this celebration – Brazilians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and other Latin American countries all utilize slightly different symbolic acts and objects to represent the transition into womanhood. Traditionally, these events took place at the age of 15, and so the celebration would be called a quinceanera.
In North America, the celebration has often shifted to the age of 16, influenced by North American Sweet Sixteen celebrations. At the celebration I attended, two key ritual moments involved replacing a ribbon in the young woman’s hair with a tiara, and a pair of flat shoes with high heels. Another part of the tradition is for a priest to offer a blessing, often presenting a bible and a crucifix necklace. And this is where I came in.
The young woman in question is Muslim. Desiring to celebrate her Puerto Rican cultural roots, but minus the religious traditions of Catholicism, it might have been challenging to involve either a priest or an imam. Much of the family was practicing Catholic, and many of the women from the Islamic community were present for the celebration too. It was a wonderful interfaith and intercultural gathering in and of itself. But why add a Rabbi to the mix?
I was invited to offer a blessing at this particular Sweet 16 after getting to know this young woman these past two years through our Tent of Abraham interfaith activities. We had met on several occasions – adult and teen discussion programs, Rosh Hodesh group and Muslim women’s study and celebration gatherings, and Iftar (evening break fast) during Ramadan. And so it was that, in the week leading up to the celebration we spoke on the phone. In preparing some words of blessing, I asked her to reflect on significant moments in her life up until now that seemed to her to have shaped her life and her faith. She spoke of her father’s death at an early age, and later reflecting more deeply on taking responsibility in the world during a time that her mother was unwell. She spoke of the values that were most important to her – trust, loyalty, compassion, friendship. She spoke of her belief in one God, who could be addressed and experienced directly by every person. These words and more were the sentiments that I reflected back to her. In the mix, as per a request from her and her mother, I explained how the rituals and the celebration compared with Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies. Just as the evening was filled with many firsts for me (I even began with a few sentences of Spanish – a language I have never studied or spoken before – thanks to the assistance of one of our Puerto Rican staff at the synagogue!), I explained that I was sure that the presence of a Rabbi to offer the blessing was a first for everyone there. It became an opportunity to learn from and about each other.
In the mix was the Priestly Blessing, an English interpretative rendition by Debbie Friedman, a Rashi interpretation on the blessing, and a blessing over the food sung in Aramaic and English. In just 5 minutes I had the opportunity to share some rich Jewish traditions and prayers with many who may never or rarely had any direct experience of Judaism before. This was taking Jewish wisdom public in a whole new context. These were blessings beyond borders. It certainly was a blessing for me to attend and participate in this wonderful young woman’s special evening.
cross-posted at Raise it Up: the Blog of Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz
Not in a million years would I have imagined that becoming a rabbi would lead to this.
Hora and rabbis go together to be certain, but in conjunction with mariachi? Seriously? But in this setting, nothing could have been more fitting than the juxtaposition of castanets and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”
We were in Guadalajara, Mexico, at the closing gala of the Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean (UJCL). The music, the food, and the setting –the historic courtyard of city hall- were a perfect fit.
For the most part American Jews, and by this I really mean Jews living in the United States, rarely if ever think of Jewish life south the border. If we are to go by size, this oversight might be forgiven. There are only 40,000 Jews in Mexico and in Guadalajara a mere 500. But as our 5 days in Guadalajara proved, size is by no means the only measure when it comes to Jewish life.
All the communities that belong to the UJCL are small; at 180 members the Comunidad Judia de Guadalajara is no exception. Yet, the community put their heart and soul into opening up their home to us and to showcasing what it means to be Mexican Jews and they succeeded.
I was met at the airport (at the very delayed hour of 1am) by Louis and Roxanne. As we drove to the hotel, I learned that every Friday night the entire community comes together to share Shabbat dinner, the sense of belonging is real. There is no Jewish school in the city, but the children are very engaged in congregational life, getting up for minyan weekly. Indeed, when we came to the synagogue on for services all but one part of the Torah reading was done by teens. I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen that in any community in the United States. Moreover, the 180 members of the community absorbed nearly their number of guests inviting us into their homes for dinner on Friday night.
The members of Comunidad Judia de Guadalajara are also very proud of their Mexican heritage. In addition to the sessions on Jewish life in Central America and the Torah learning, we experienced some of the cultural sights and sounds of the area with visit not only to the historic city hall but also the Cabañas Cultural Institute – a Unesco World Heritage site, with extraordinary murals and architecture. Like the Mariachi music to which we were treated, the tequila is a local specialty. The town of Tequila is located near the edge of this bustling city.
The Jews of Guadalajara are deeply connected to both their Jewish and Mexican roots, proud of both elements of their heritage. Ahead of Cinco de Mayo, I asked Rabbi Joshua Kullock the rabbi of Comunidad Judia about this dual identity and how he sees it in his community. “Take a look at the video we made singing the Hatikvah,” he suggested. I did, and recommend you do too. Young and old, singers and crooners, with accents that belie their Spanish mother tongue, these Jews remind us of how communities can come together, bringing together multiple identities to help create and share meaning.
This Cinco de Mayo, I’ll raise a glass tequila to my friends in Guadajara and thank God for a rabbinate that includes this.