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Virtual prayers: Rice students celebrate religious holidays under lockdown

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Tiffany Cuaresma celebrating Easter outside of her San Diego home last year. This year, the Baker College freshman celebrated by video calling friends from her church. Courtesy Tiffany Cuaresma.

By Kavya Sahni     4/14/20 9:16pm

Religious festivals are times of celebration, shared in a community, when families hold both simple and extravagantly planned gatherings to catch up with each other and have a good time. Oftentimes, these festivals give religious communities the opportunity to gather as a large group to worship and celebrate together. Many of these festivals have deep spiritual or religious significance for students. The Thresher caught up with students celebrating Easter, Passover, Ugadi and Ramadan this year to discuss how they’ve managed to maintain the spirit of the festival even after the pandemic struck.

Easter

Years ago, Daphne Campo’s grandmother — “Mawmaw” to her — accidentally burned the brown-and-serve rolls at Easter, a Christian holiday which was celebrated on April 12 this year. Since then, overcooking the rolls has become a family tradition, even after her grandmother passed away. If Campo had gone home to Louisiana for Easter this year, she would have spent the day with her family having a crawfish boil, where they spend time together drinking beer, listening to music and eating the overcooked rolls. Instead, she stayed in her off-campus apartment in Houston.



“To this day we overcook the rolls in her memory and call them ‘burn-and-serve’ rolls, have a laugh, and feel as though she is laughing with us just like that first time,” Campo, a Baker College junior, said. 

Although classes moved online, Campo did not travel back home for Easter. Her father, who works in a hospital, did not want to put her at risk. Despite the distance from her family, Campo still enjoyed the holiday. 

“Despite all of the things I cannot partake in this year, I don't actually think that Easter was dampened in any way besides missing my family,” Campo said. “It is a holiday of rejoicing, a celebration of the resurrection of Christ and an assurance of hope that the promise of God will come to pass. Luckily, none of the spiritual significance of Resurrection Sunday can ever be dampened by circumstance.”

Tiffany Cuaresma, who returned to her home in San Diego when classes went remote, attended an online service with her family on Sunday morning. Afterward, they planned to watch a movie.

“My parents have been really wanting to watch this movie called ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ which really depicts the resurrection and trials that Jesus faced before this resurrection,” Cuaresma, a Baker College freshman, said.

One of Cuaresma’s favorite parts of Easter is the opportunity to sing worship songs live at church. She’s involved in New Life Fellowship, a Christian ministry on campus at Rice. The fellowship has smaller subgroups called house churches. To make up for not being able to sing praise songs live, Cuaresma has found a new way to share music after the quarantine started — she sends members of her house church what she calls a “Jesus bop of the day,” which they reflect on together over video call.

Passover

Sophia Prieto and her siblings were planning to visit their mother in Atlanta for Passover, but were forced to change their plans due to travel restrictions. Instead, they spent Passover at their dad’s house. The Jewish holiday was celebrated from April 8 to April 16 this year.

“Normally my mom hosts a big Passover for my family and a couple of my family friends. I think last year we had maybe 30 people, just from the community,” Prieto, a Hanszen College freshman, said. “She’ll cook all the traditional foods – we have a brisket, a matzah ball soup, haroset.”

Prieto said the first part of the Seder, which involves reciting prayers and telling the story of Passover, is usually at least an hour long.

“We have these books called haggadahs, and basically you just go in order, and there’s very certain prayers at certain moments,” Prieto said. “There's a lot of little traditions — like there's a part where you list out the 10 plagues and dip your pinky in red wine and put it onto the plate, and then there’s a part where you dip parsley in saltwater and eat it.”

She said that her favorite part is getting to eat the food, especially after sitting for up to two hours. 

“There’s this traditional food, haroset, which is like cut up apples with some nuts and cinnamon … and that is supposed to symbolize the brick and mortar that the Jewish slaves used to build the pyramids in Egypt,” Prieto said. “Also, you have to drink four glasses of wine, so that’s always fun.”

This year was very different. Prieto’s sister made all the food, and it was not as extravagant as normal. Although her mother was raised Jewish, Prieto’s father converted as an adult. Prieto’s stepmother isn’t Jewish.

“He didn’t really grow up with all traditions,” Prieto said. “This year me and my siblings kind of had to lead the service and take charge because we know it more than my dad.”

Even though she had to adjust her expectations for the first time in years, Prieto said she still had a lovely time celebrating with her family.

“I kind of knew that this year wasn’t going to be the same. And I’m not really upset about it, because it’s just how it is, and [you] can’t really do anything about it,” Prieto said. “It ended up being really nice.”

Daniel Schrager, a Hanszen freshman, doesn’t typically use his phone or laptop during Passover. Because of this, he and his immediate family did not video call their extended family over Zoom, choosing to have a small seder instead.

“According to Jewish law, holidays are supposed to be days of rest, and one of the things that makes it a day of rest is that you’re not supposed to use fire or electricity or anything like that,” Schrager said.

Schrager, who lives in Los Angeles, said that even though this year he and his family followed all the traditions, the atmosphere was different. Normally there are 15 to 20 people present, and his family makes sure that they invite a number of people who bring different perspectives on Jewish history.

“A traditional thing during a Seder is to have back-and-forth discussions with a lot of really in-depth questions about the story of Exodus, which is what Passover is celebrating,” Schrager said. “One of the really common things is to have hours and hours of discussion, and it’s kinda difficult to have that when it’s just a few people.”

According to Schrager, a lot of his friends have expressed their reluctance to celebrate Passover the way they normally do, because of the stress from the pandemic and significant adjustments which are required in terms of dietary restrictions. For Schrager, however, it’s been a welcome relief to “return to something normal.”

“Celebrating Passover is something I've done every year of my life, and since the whole world has been thrown out of whack over the past few weeks, it was nice to have that routine again,” Schrager said. “It was kind of a sense of return to normalcy.”

Scarlett Spindler, a Will Rice College freshman, usually holds one Seder at home with her family and goes out to someone else’s house or to the synagogue the next night. This year, she joined her uncle’s Seder over Skype on the second night.

“I think we were definitely a lot more lazy, not gonna lie, just because we’re in quarantine this whole time and you just don't feel like doing anything anymore,” Spindler said. “We used plastic cups, plastic plates and stuff. We usually care and use glass and ceramic, and this time I was like, ‘Ma, can we just use plastic please?’ So we did.”

Mark Helman, who traveled home to Rio de Janeiro, said that he found it easier to follow the diet required over Passover because he and his family got rid of bread and anything that had wheat in it before Passover. This meant that the food available in the house was only what was allowed.

“During Passover, we can’t eat anything with bread, or anything that’s chametz, and chametz means anything that has one of the five prohibited grains. Through this whole week, as I always do, we’re not eating any of that,” Helman, a Lovett College sophomore, said. “Usually at Rice, you’re going out, and going [about] your everyday life, and I think it’s easier for people to eat something without them noticing and breaking the Passover.”

According to Helman, there are some traditions that his family was able to follow better because of being restricted to smaller gatherings.

“This year, we lit the candles at the right time, which we never do usually, with our family,” Helman said. “But since it was just us, we did it at the right time.”

Ugadi

Every year, on Ugadi — the Telugu new year — Sree Yeluri’s family goes to the temple and has a priest read their horoscopes. Yeluri hasn’t been able to go to the temple for Ugadi for the past few years, ever since she started attending college, because it usually falls during the school year. Despite being at home this year, Yeluri did not get to visit the temple this Ugadi, which was March 25, with her family.

Yeluri and her brother usually help their mother prepare traditional dishes like mango rice, chutney, sweet roti (a type of bread) and Ugadi pachadi.

“Ugadi pachadi … is a drink with the six different flavors that are supposed to represent the six flavors of life — sweetness, bitterness,” Yeluri said. “Whatever flavor you taste first is, like, what that year will be.”

Yeluri usually goes shopping for new clothes that she wears on this day. They also conduct a pooja, a prayer ceremony, in the house, where they have a small mandir, with figures of gods.

“We usually have coconuts for poojas at home, but this year we didn’t have a coconut,” Yeluri said. “We couldn’t find one at the store.”

Yeluri said that her mother still managed to prepare most of their traditional dishes at home in Virginia, but they were missing ingredients and had to find substitutions.

“We usually have neem flowers in the Ugadi pachadi, which is the traditional drink. If you celebrate Ugadi, that’s the one thing that every person that celebrates Ugadi does,” Yeluri said.

Yeluri lived in Sugar Land, Texas, and moved to Saudi Arabia before moving to Virginia. She said there’s a big Telugu population in Sugar Land. Going to the temple on religious holidays, which wasn’t possible this year, is important to Yeluri.

“There are a lot of cultural events that are planned out around Ugadi, like dances and skits performed by little kids, bhajans for the older kids and adults. Not having those activities this time, that was kind of disappointing,” Yeluri said.

Ramadan

Editor’s Note: The Thresher granted anonymity to the following student to protect them and their family from potential physical harm in response to their statements about religious practices. Anonymity is granted at the discretion of the editors-in-chief. Any questions about our anonymity policy and sourcing should be directed to thresher@rice.edu.

One student said she usually holds a fast during the month of Ramadan. She particularly enjoys meeting her family and friends for iftar, the meal to break the fast after the sun sets, and sahur, the meal before sunrise, during Ramadan — the Islamic month of fasting and prayer, which will be celebrated from April 23 to May 23 this year.

“Especially for iftar, people usually get together. You can go to mosques, they have these really big gatherings — not inside but outside the mosque — where a lot of people get together and eat together … because the timing is the same for everyone,” the student, a Will Rice freshman, said. “It’s just very nice to get together and celebrate it together.”

Unlike other ways of praying in Islam, which tend to place more emphasis on individual prayer, the student said that fasting during Ramadan is usually more community-based.

“Even though you’re fasting obviously by yourself, because you’re just not eating and that’s a personal thing too, you still kind of do it in a group,” the student said. “During Ramadan it’s kind of like a necessity that you all eat at the same time, so it kind of just gets people together.”

If it hadn’t been for the social distancing, she and her family would have either gone out or had family friends come over to celebrate for iftar. This year, however, out of concern for her father, she is not planning to fast.

“Fasting is something that makes you really, really tired, right? It also lowers every bodily function, because you’re not eating for 16 hours. It’s not easy,”  the student said. “Doing that will also make it easier for you to catch a disease, and because I’m living with my dad who’s immunocompromised, I don’t think it’s a good idea. So we just won't do it this year.”

According to the student, in Islam, if a person is sick or if there is a possibility of hurting another person, fasting is not a priority.

“At least for me, I don't see it as a priority right now, just because I don't want to infect my dad with anything, let alone [coronavirus], something that is actually deadly for a lot of people who are in his situation,” the student said.

Fasting during Ramadan is something that she had been looking forward to.

“It is something that is part of my religion, so I do want to practice it,” she said. “But also right now it’s kind of difficult to practice it.”

Editor’s Note: Daniel Schrager is a senior sports writer for the Thresher.

[4/15/20 1:50 p.m.] The story was updated to accurately reflect Yeluris moving history and frequency of visiting temple.



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