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I Was the Loca Lady at My Baby’s Naming

Anna's baby
Photo By Lizzy Sullivan

I never thought that I would be the crazy lady in synagogue. You know the one: She sits in the front row and stares out at the sanctuary with that watchful eye. Her hair is like a piece of puffy cotton candy; it swirls around her head and takes on the form of a houseplant. Her bag is filled with snacks: pretzel nuggets, peanuts, the occasional mini York peppermint patty. This woman smiles at everyone and then reaches into her bra and pulls out a white Kleenex as if surrendering to her body. When she blows her nose, even the Rabbi has to pause to find his place again in the prayer book.

This is what I looked like at the baby naming for my second daughter, Alma Evelyn. Alma, just 4 months old, slept in the baby ergo carrier I had strapped to my chest. Helen, my first daughter sat on her father’s lap and asked every two minutes if we could go home. I opened a plastic bag I had brought with me just for the occasion. I pulled out cheese sticks, a granola bar, yogurt, Goldfish crackers and a pint of blueberries. No, I’m not making this up. The plastic crinkled and the Rabbi cleared his throat. An older gentleman next to me started to cough and I pulled a Kleenex out of my bra and offered it to him. Yes, really. Just 2 1/2 years after Helen was born and I became a new mother, now at the baby naming of my second child, I had become a new kind of loca.

I’ve heard people say that the second child is vastly different. As mothers we pay more attention to the first because we feel guilty. Second children become more independent, they adapt more easily, yet they eventually compete for the kind of attention continuously showered on the first child.

This was all painstakingly clear at the baby naming. It was similar to Helen’s naming because Adrian’s Mexican Catholic family attended, my American Jewish family attended and we all found ourselves in the same seats we had occupied when Helen had been given her Hebrew name. But, the second time around everything was different.

For starters I wasn’t afraid anymore. At Helen’s naming, the idea of raising my child in an interfaith family was intimidating. I felt judged by people who didn’t know me, people who didn’t know Adrian. I was afraid of my relatives’ thoughts and opinions on the matter. I was scared that Adrian’s family wouldn’t understand the traditions, values and beliefs we were trying to instill in our Spanish-, English-, sometimes Hebrew-speaking household.

The second time around I was an old pro. Upon arrival, the members of the clergy asked for my daughter’s last name. “Castañeda” I said. When one clergyman snickered in disbelief I channeled my inner “crazy synagogue lady.”

“What’s so funny?” I stared defiantly into the man’s eyes. I could feel my puffy cotton candy hair beginning to stand on end. The man only smiled, knowing he had said the wrong thing to the wrong lunatic.

I was tired but I was still committed to a dual faith-based life. I was still committed to naming my child at synagogue so that she would have an English and a Hebrew identity; a Jewish and a Catholic faith. I would not be deterred by an old fashioned gentleman who scoffed at my daughter’s gorgeous Spanish last name. What did he know about the fire and pride of a Castañeda? He had been a Lieberman or a Goldman or a Schwartz for all his life and I had been a Keller for all of mine. Yet, I was and still am accepting of multiple faiths; the way they help me grow, change and explore the deep meaning of spirituality, the way it is able to connect a Keller to a Castañeda, the way these connections make an impact and are hard to ignore.

Of course the rabbi remembered us. How many Mexican American Jewish Catholic families have two baby naming ceremonies within 2 1/2 years?

When we were called up to the altar so that my daughter could be blessed with her Hebrew name, the rabbi turned to us, grinned, put his hands on my little girl and whispered, “What’s her name again? I’m so sorry, I couldn’t find the paperwork this morning.”

“Crazy synagogue lady” really wanted to knock the rabbi in the head. I relented. Instead I said, “Alma, her name is Alma. In Spanish it means ‘soul.’ Alma Evelyn Castañeda.”

“Oh,” he said now holding the baby, “Castañeda, like castanets?”

I was now putting my hand over inner crazy synagogue lady’s mouth. “No Rabbi,” my sane self responded, “like Castañeda.”

“Right, yes…of course,” he continued.

When the ceremony ended I packed up the stroller so that we could run to my mother’s house and prepare a luncheon for our guests. I began to realize a few things. When I was a child, there were plenty of those crazy women in synagogue with their pocketbooks stuffed with pretzels. Yes, they stared at me while crunching on snacks covered in lint. Yes, they quietly observed the masses who attended services. Yes, they might have had an entire box of Kleenex meticulously placed throughout the padding of their bras. But, they were mothers, maybe even grandmothers, and they knew that family was more important than tradition; that tradition could bend but family never breaks. They must have known a few Castañedas in their lifetime. They also knew that faith is the ruby you gift your children and your grandchildren. They knew that faith isn’t only one rule or one way.

Perhaps those women had seen enough sadness in their lifetime to know that when a toddler is cranky at synagogue, you pull out a bag of snacks. They were carefree. They understood that the world, as mysterious as it is, always leaves room for more love…and an occasional cheese stick.

Photo by Lizzy Sullivan

Anna Keller

Anna is a writer and teacher who lives in Brooklyn with her family.


Author: Anna Keller