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
Working with Jewish teenagers, I’ve seen it demonstrated that one very effective way to get them thinking deeply about their identity and the role that their religious values, beliefs and practices play in their daily lives, is to engage them in a comparative religion class. Whenever we begin such a course together, we always start by looking at the various reasons that are often heard for studying other religions. For example:
- To learn about another religion and come to better understand it.
- To explore the similarities and differences between our faith and the faith of others.
- To find common ground and, through understanding, build stronger relationships with people of other faiths.
All of these reasons are true, but the one that I find to be most true in terms of actual impact over a relatively short period of time is that we come to better understand and know ourselves.
And so, during this year’s course that I teach in our local Hebrew high school program one night a week, we recently came to end of our 4 week introduction to Islam. During this same period of time, the incredibly well-crafted TLC TV show, ‘All-American Muslim’ has been airing. A number of the students have been watching it, and it has provided not only a wonderful window into the lives of a diverse group of Muslims living in Dearborn, Michigan but, as we reflect on how questions of practice, observance, gender roles, interfaith relations, conversion, childbirth, and more, are part of the discourse of the families portrayed in the show, so the Jewish teens that I work with have found many of these topics to offer a powerful lens to look at their own lives and the diversity to be found in the Jewish community.
Our mini-unit culminated with a visit from a mother and daughter who live locally, to engage in a conversation about their own journey of faith. Mom is from Puerto Rico, and converted from Catholicism to Islam in 2000. Her daughter, raised as a Muslim, shared her own interfaith experiences with members of her family, the multiple identities of being both Muslim and Puerto Rican, exchanges she has had with students at school who understand or do not understand the co-existence of these identities, and the personal spiritual path she walks as she navigates life as an American teenager and a practicing Muslim.
While my students had many questions for our guests, our guests in turn had questions for our students. Why don’t your names sound Jewish? What is a Hebrew name and how is it used? Why is it that we say our culture is Puerto Rican and our religion is Islam, but being Jewish is both culture and religion? How do you deal with explaining Jewish holidays and taking holy days off school?
I sat back and listened to my own students provide incredibly articulate answers to these questions, even as they were thinking out loud and learning about the kinds of questions that those who see us as ‘other’ might ask; things that we might take for granted but yet cause us to reflect deeply on who we are and how we live our faith when we are asked the questions. In a brief 45 minutes, I saw my students articulate aspects of the meaning of their faith and identity in a way that two years of preparation for a bar or bat mitzvah could not achieve in the same way. At the end of our class, our guests joined us for the mid-evening break, to enjoy latkes and apple sauce with our students.
I am well aware that there has been a vicious campaign attacking ‘All-American Muslim’ in recent weeks. I wish those who attack from a place of ignorance and fear could have been present in my classroom last week. Our exposure to and interactions with each other strengthen the bonds between us, and strengthen our own individual sense of identity and faith.