Name: Sophia Henriquez
Place of Birth: New York City
Neighborhood: New York City
“So, who are you interviewing next?”
“Sophia Henriquez from Peer Leadership,” I answered.
“But I thought your project was about Jewish feminism,” my mom replied, her face scrunching into a contortion of confusion that accompanies assumptions proven incorrect.
My mother is not the only one who responded like this when I mentioned that Sophia was my next interviewee. With a common Hispanic last name and a self-identified Latina, she is not the most likely Jew and that makes her a fighter for her religious identity, someone who goes the extra mile to prove to people that she is, in fact, Jewish not in spite of but in conjunction with her last name.
Sophia is not only Jewish, but Christian as well. She has grown up embracing diversity. After going to camp with her when we were younger, we have reunited in the Peer Leadership classroom, a place where high school juniors and seniors are taught to acknowledge differences and use them to construct individual identity. I knew she would be an ideal candidate for this project when she said during a lesson on family identity that what she loves most are the traditions her family has created, traditions that stem from a fusion of practices generally thought to run parallel, but to never intersect. This is precisely the beauty of the Henriquez interfaith and interracial household: it proves that this intersection is possible and that Judaism has a place in it.
I meet Sophia in the Senior Inquiry classroom. There are teachers bickering in the background and the din makes her assert her responses just like she asserts her unique and occasionally unaccepted identity. As with many young Jewish women, the first example that comes to mind when I ask Sophia to describe her religious upbringing is her Bat Mitzvah. The least genetically Jewish of all the women in her immediate family, she and her sister were actually the first ones to have Bat Mitzvahs.
She describes her mother’s influence, “My mom wasn’t a force on [my sister and I having Bat Mitzvahs] because she didn’t have one herself and neither did my grandmother so it was very individual for my sister and I because it was always a question of where we belonged.”
Sophia is a representative of what happens when you choose religion and religious practices. She puts choice back into religion and tradition. She took the initiative in having a Bat Mitzvah. This initiation is the most mature step to take in a ceremony that has the intention of a coming of age.
Just as she defined her desire to have a Bat Mitzvah, she defines other rituals on her own terms. Flexibility with Judaism is vital for this reform Jew from Stuyvesant Town. Her take on religion is beautiful and modern, containing elements of acceptance and comfort. As someone who is a part of two religions, she is able to take Judaism into a greater context.
“I think religion is something you have to find within yourself. That’s what I learned through Hebrew School. You know, it was my choice to have this and no one’s to say that you have to believe in God or have to believe in one thing in any religion! In some, [that’s true], but I feel like that should never be the case and it’s supposed to be what you find within yourself and what you believe in as an individual, not as a community necessarily. [Religion is] doing those little things that remind you of where you’re coming from and what makes you happy and your traditions and values. If you have that, that’s following a religion so I think being flexible is just your way of understanding the religion and tradition and values. There are people who go to synagogue all the time and they don’t even ever know what’s really going on so I think it’s just important to comprehend it in your own way and that’s how we do it.”
Sophia conveys the intersections of individualism, identity, and Judaism through the lens of flexibility. Flexibility is too often seen as being less observant, but Sophia shows that it is being observant in a way that is true to herself.
And her life has truly necessitated flexibility, growing up with so many rich cultures that her family works hard to balance. Her biracial background has made her experience Judaism through the context of proving that she fits into a greater community, one that extends beyond the color of her skin, but still includes and accepts it.
She says of this experience with her extended family on her mother’s side, “It’s very interesting going to Thanksgiving when my dad and I are the only people of color because my sister looks Caucasian and even though she will say she is Hispanic, that’s not the first thing that pops into your head when you see her so even just because of the way I look, it was hard for me to understand where I was fitting in. Growing up, I knew we had these same traditions, but I didn’t understand what it meant for me because these were things my parents wanted to follow and my sister wanted to follow and by me having a Bat Mitzvah, it wasn’t about me saying I wanted to forget about Christianity because I don’t. It’s not like my parents didn’t want [me to have one]; it’s just that they’re both very reformed in both of their religions so it was like we didn’t have any core so it was me finding a core.”
It is important to note that throughout our interview, Sophia varies between describing her Jewish practice as “Reform” and “reformed.” These two terms have very little to do with each other in the context through which Sophia uses them. Being “reformed” in religious practices, as Sophia uses the term means to not be observant, to – for example – practice cultural Judaism without knowing what the rituals signify. Reform Judaism, as a denomination, can be just as observant as Orthodox Judaism, but this observance is different in quality, not quantity.
Sophia’s Bat Mitzvah has a greater meaning, a larger purpose of asserting her belonging in a religion as a Jewish woman of color. Religion itself is not identity. It is a lens through which individual identity is strengthened. It can even be a lens through which womanhood – or an interpretation of femininity – is seen in the core being of someone.
I decide that Sophia’s insight is so powerful, so ranging, that she must have learned these ideas somewhere so I ask how her mother has influenced her experience of Judaism. She replies with examples that come very close to home for me,
“She was so reformed and she didn’t put any pressure on me, which I absolutely loved. I would see these kids going to Hebrew School and talk about how much they hated it and how much they didn’t understand what the point was and why they were doing this and it was the same with Sunday school, the same with any practice you follow. My mom never put that pressure on me. I just loved eating the apples and honey and loved lighting the candles. I just loved the traditions that we had so for me, it was fun and when I got to that age where I was able to make my decision, she didn’t even ask.
“She brought me in but then at the end, she let it be up to me, which really helped me to love the religion and love what I was doing and love what I was understanding as opposed to hating everything I did.”
When religion is a choice rather than an obligation, its practices become of greater value because they are, as we distinguished in one of our first Peer Leadership lessons “chosen” rather than “given” aspects of identity. Choice in religion is a common theme throughout our conversation. Sophia’s path in Judaism is stronger because she laid out all her options and then crafted a practice in a way that expressed what she loves.
Sophia acknowledges that identity is never experienced alone. For her and for many Jewish women who are being presented with opportunities for participation in rituals for the first time in history, sisterhood has been vital – the communal identity of women in the context of a larger institution allows the space for an even more specific individual identity to be formed.
Such was the case when Sophia encouraged her sister Anna to have a Bat Mitzvah along side her. She says, “I honestly would feel awkward if I had one and she didn’t only because we had grown up doing everything together and to have split sibling religions would be like the split of our ethnicities and values. I knew I wanted to go into it with someone so I was, like, ‘I’m going to study for this. Want to come with me? Check it out? See what happens?’ and she was, like, ‘Yeah, let’s try it out.’ I think her main pullback was that she had already turned thirteen – [she was fifteen at the time] – even though there are plenty of stories where grandmothers have Bat Mitzvahs. Having someone in my family do it was more important than a friend because she shared the same values and traditions I’d always grown up with so I knew we’d be in the same place.”
This desire to connect with like-minded women is literal sisterhood in the case of Sophia and Anna Henriquez, but for so many women like my grandmother who leads her synagogues “Sisterhood” and had a Bat Mitzvah later in life just like Sophia referred to, sisterhood of any degree is vital for the perpetuation of Judaism for women of all generations.
Age does not really matter in the grand scheme of ritual. What matters is readiness, both of the individual to accept adult responsibilities and, in the case Sophia presents, of society to accept women as part of these rituals. Because the Bat Mitzvah is a community-oriented ritual, the individual and society must be ready together.
Her experience in having a Bat Mitzvah was that of “being a woman getting my Jewish name and the little things that are silly are very nice for me. I just did something for me that made me feel very good and if people didn’t understand it, that’s fine.” Sophia exemplifies how ritual can make people feel a part of in progressive Judaism rather than excluded from.
I then ask Sophia what being a Jewish woman means to her. She replies, “This becoming a woman meant strength to me because, not going into all these gender roles, it was becoming a newer person, a stronger person and it gave me a verification that I was a woman and I felt like a stronger figure and a lot older and more confident as a person.” In this generation of defiance to submission, there is finally the opportunity for womanhood to connote strength.
This opportunity stems from a translation of an ancient religion into modern times, times that are inclusive of women and do not discriminate. Stories in the Torah, as interpreted by a high school student, shows how this translation can happen. She articulates, “They have plenty of drama in the Torah that really is relatable to teenage life. The negatives and positives were both very relatable to our world and society.” When not taken literally, there is the opportunity Sophia presents for the Torah to connect to our world, for Judaism to evolve and include everyone because the stories can adapt to changing times.
My overall impression of Sophia is that she carries a response of someone who really chooses Judaism rather than someone who has it forced down their throat. I see that in her excitement and conception of Reform Judaism. She believes, “I think that it’s completely Judaism. Some go to synagogue, some don’t. It’s just deciding what works best for you and for you to follow that faith and that value and those traditions so I feel it’s just you building more building blocks for yourself and your own path, but not jumping off the path. You’re still Jewish. It’s getting in touch with yourself more than getting in touch with this religion that other people will ask you to follow or that other people will expect you to follow so I think it’s more personal.”
Sophia responds to the notion that one is less Jewish and less observant as denominations grown more current. There is an acceptance that must happen in Judaism to show that different denominations mean people observe Judaism differently, but it is still the same religion. The definition of that acceptance is pluralism.
A sisterhood of Reform Jewish women guides Sophia’s religious experience. She does not have an older Jewish male figure in her life. She comments, “It’s really interesting especially since at home my dad is a huge idol for me, but not in this religion. It’s funny that you say that because learning with women has made me feel stronger and more empowered.”
Sisterhood is vital for empowerment, but it can only go so far. Jewish women could use male role models for the sake of a full and equal perspective on religious practice. Although a social construct, it is unproductive to pretend a gender binary does not exist, especially within Judaism.
I question Sophia of this binary in Judaism and she comes out with thoughts characteristically Reform, “As a Reform Jew, I don’t think there are defined lines. If you get more conservative there are, but for the most part I think they’re pretty intact and that’s something I value because yes, learning with all women made me feel more personally empowered, but I don’t think that should differ for gender. I don’t think the roles switch and I don’t think they should. It’s a religion. It’s not anything other.” She puts Judaism as a religion rather than a lifestyle in a more global perspective through these denominational values.
I ask what it means to become a man in the process of the Bar Mitzvah. Sophia replies, “Even though this is the stereotype for men, it’s becoming stronger, but I do think it’s a very sensitive part for men and they definitely don’t realize it, but I think it is. It’s becoming someone who is a caretaker. A caretaker’s still sensitive and that’s not as manly as some might think.” When boys have Bar Mitzvahs, their gender roles (in a Jewish context only) move away from the status quo in general as they take on a stereotype of femininity.
I ask Sophia, just like I asked my grandmother, when she has experienced feminism and her response is dramatically different: “I think every day. I think just hearing it in the halls. It’s really all the time, which is horrible. Nora, [another Peer Leader] told me that the other day we were talking with our Peer Leadership girls about the positives and negatives of being a woman as our warm-up and Nora was really made because she was giving Daniel homework and she wasn’t able to help him and he called her a bitch. It’s just things like that.”
Sophia gives me a specific example of what I call casual sexism. She is only able to identify it as sexism because she is hyper-aware of her environment. She has grown up in a generation of New York City women taught to defy rather than submit to social norms. She has been taught to question where my grandmother has not been.
At the same time, she has been taught to ignore the discrimination my grandmother feels on a daily basis because when I ask her if she has ever experienced anti-Semitism, she replies, “I don’t think it comes up often or ever.”
Throughout her life, Sophia has been a part of several non-Jewish communities, including the camp and school we attended together. She has had to assert her identity in these places. She remarks, “I think there were times when I felt left out, but it built my strength up. The people around me are like family, especially in camp or school. They made me very strong and I think they’re part of the reason I decided to have my Bat Mitzvah and then once I had it, I felt more like I belong with people. It’s very surprising when I tell people that I’ve had a Bat Mitzvah or that I’m Jewish, period, but the fact that I can not just say that I am Jewish, but that I’ve had a Bat Mitzvah makes it a lot easier to say that I am Jewish because once again, it’s this verification that I understand the religion and the values.”
The Bat Mitzvah is a means to prove that Sophia is actually Jewish. She does not take Judaism for granted because the rest of the world does not take it for granted that she is Jewish because of the color of her skin. What amazes me is that she does not use this as a reason to reject Judaism, as I used Orthodox exclusion of women as an excuse to drop out of Hebrew School. Instead, she uses it as incentive to choose and embrace it.
In having this conversation, it becomes evident that Sophia misses her Jewish education. She tells a truth, “After your Bat Mitzvah, it kind of stops – all the information you’ve just absorbed for the past however many years you’ve been doing it kind of ends at a point after you’ve studied the Torah and I wish it continued on. There were times when we discuss during Passover. We’re talking at the table. That’s the best. I don’t think there’s been many things like that and there are not many moments when I can absorb that information or really use what knowledge I have.” There needs to be an accessible and progressive type of Jewish higher education for adolescents like Sophia who want to embrace Judaism, but do not have the facilities to do so.
As we discuss ideologies in general, she says, “I don’t want to say I’m half and half, but I am and I’m a mix and I’m fine with that. Having my Bat Mitzvah wasn’t the pull towards me picking a side. It was me finding myself and understanding the religion I had in me and wanted to know more about.” This is the potential of interfaith Judaism – to include women with feminist ideals like Sophia.
As our conversation comes to a close, I ask Sophia what she thinks of the title of my project. She responds, “I think it means from yourself, from who you are, your own body and more individualized. Like I said what Reform Judaism was – more what you feel, what your mind tells you, what your body tells you, what your instinct tells you and we don’t have that many moments like that to do what we feel like doing, to move on instinct and I think this is one of those times where we do that.”
I think, finally! A nontraditional metaphorical interpretation filled with youthful promises of discovering identity! This is exactly what I want my project to be about.
I then ask her where on the one to five scale spectrum of feminist identity she falls. She replies, “4.5. My mother was always put in that category while she was growing up. I just feel like in that category, some people always get the wrong idea and I hate when that happens and it totally turns them off to not understand what your values are and what your point is on feminism. That’s why I don’t want to say completely a five because sometimes when you tell people a five, they get this idea in their head, this femmy idea and I love that, but some people just don’t get the right things that they should out of it, but moral-wise and value-wise, completely a five. It’s instinct. It’s what my mom taught me.”
This is the unintended legacy of second wave feminism that was considered extreme to an offense. It makes the third wave daughters of second wave feminists hesitant to embrace the label.
I leave the interview feeling as if Sophia and I just created a mutually beneficial relationship rooted in Jewish feminism. This interview, along with all others, inspires change. The only way to create change is through creating dialogues, especially with Jewish women like Sophia whom the world does not expect to speak back.