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“I saw Aishwarya Rai on Oprah last week. You know, the Dollywood [she meant Bollywood] actress? Stunning girl!” Then came the truth bomb: “She told Oprah that your boyfriend already has a bride arranged for him back in India. At some point, he’s going to leave you high-and-dry, marry the girl his parents chose, and move back into their house.”
I was pretty sure Aishwarya Rai hadn’t been discussing my love life with Oprah. And while my future husband didn’t actually have a clandestine bride arranged in India, he also wasn’t the Jewish doctor to whom my grandmother had married me off in her fantasies.
“He seems very nice,” she said of the love of my life. “But that’s just how they do things.”
They. She’d never met an Indian person before and, on some level, I was touched by her urge to protect me, even if it was born of her own frustrating, dated brand of xenophobia.
My boyfriend and I were born at the same hospital, raised in the same town and attended the same schools. From an objective eye, we weren’t some sort of star-crossed pair. Still, he wasn’t white and he wasn’t Jewish, and for all the many things we had in common, those two facts seemed like insurmountable differences to her. At least at first.
In the years before our engagement, I ran interference, often dispelling bizarre myths about Hinduism and Indian traditions.
“Jess. Your grandfather printed out an article from the computer. It said that Hindus have 300 million gods and that they worship monkeys. Monkeys.”
“Jess. I just watched a program about women in India. If you marry him, you’ll have to get a dot tattooed on your forehead. A tattoo. On your face.”
Super, super false (and racist.)
Without being too pushy, I tried to create opportunities for her to see us together, to help her understand why our relationship worked, despite what she believed to be deal-breaking differences.
And here’s where the story gets surprising: during our visits, I watched my grandmother and my husband form an extraordinary bond.
As it turned out, they shared a mutual appreciation for beautiful things—art, music, even fashion—and were able to talk about everything from Matisse to Mozart to Alexander McQueen. It didn’t hurt that my guy had developed a masterful knack for conversational Yiddish, having grown up in a predominantly Jewish suburb—and could confidently describe an ugly dress as a schmatte or flowery piece of music as schmaltz. He literally and figuratively spoke her language.
Before the wedding, we invited her to visit our apartment. It was kind of a big deal. She entered tentatively, taking in all the unmarried, interfaith sin around her. Then she stopped in front of a painting by an emerging Indian artist that my husband had acquired before we started dating; a painting that I had made a lot of noise about hating, for no good reason. She gasped.
“The colors. The lines. It’s so…sensual!” I burst out laughing, not because my grandmother had said the word “sensual” (which was definitely hilarious), but because she had simultaneously validated my husband’s taste in art and solidified their unexpected connection.
Over the years, my husband asked her about gallery openings in the ‘70s and Coney Island in the 40’s. She clipped articles for him about contemporary art exhibits and Indian actors in Hollywood. They also shared one key interest—me—and to her delight, she’d finally found an audience for her outsized stories about my childhood. To anyone else, she would have been bragging, but between them, she was simply affirming his good taste.
My husband was attentive to her in ways that grandchildren who’ve had the luxury of time with a grandparent too often are not. And ultimately this was what made her change her mind and deem him a mensch of the highest order.
From birth, my grandmother and I had a special relationship. My status as the favorite grandchild was an open family secret. But by the time she passed, we all agreed that my husband had become the apple of her eye—we even joked about their rocky start.
Friends and strangers alike often ask about the challenges my husband and I faced marrying outside our cultures. They assume that that our parents presented the biggest roadblocks. They didn’t. Not by a long shot. The older generation—my grandmother in particular—held longer, more entrenched views on the importance of marrying within one’s community, and thus they had a much steeper hill to climb to reach a point of acceptance.
There’s that word: acceptance. Too often, we use it to describe some sort of blissful, interfaith end-game. In my experience, it’s just the cost of entry. It’s what we need from the people we care about to maintain the status quo in our relationships. But beyond that threshold genuine love, messy and strong, is what we really crave. And that love can grow in unlikely, even inhospitable places.
That love grew for my grandmother as she got to know my husband, and I was more than happy to relinquish the title of favorite grandchild when she discovered it.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Jessica Melwani is a freelance writer and editor. A recent suburban transplant, she lives outside New York City with her husband and their two awesome, ridiculous boys. When she isn’t in the car overcoming her fear of highways and left turns, you can find her binge-watching British crime dramas or sometimes even blogging.
By Steven Fisher
This is the story of how a Jewish couple added to and became part of our changing America. But more important, this story is about what I learned when my wife, Robina, and I were introduced via our son to a religion, culture and traditions that we thought were so different from ours. It’s also a story about love, respect and acceptance.
On October 17, 1971, I married my high-school sweetheart. Nine years later, after two miscarriages and years of fertility treatments, our son, Jared, was born. Because we didn’t want Jared to be an only child, we continued our fertility treatments and suffered another devastating miscarriage of triplets that nearly cost Robina her life. We then looked into adoption to complete our family.
While on a business trip, Robina called to tell me we had 24 hours to make a decision about adopting a little girl. A month later, we received a birth certificate for Judith. After completing a mountain of paperwork, we were on our way to Paraguay, South America, to bring home our little Latina daughter, Elana Judith.
Fast forward to 2006, when Jared arranged a lunch date with Robina. During lunch, Jared began the conversation with the words every mother wants to hear: “I met a girl. I think she’s the one! Her name is Jaina, she’s a teacher and she’s Indian—South Asian, not Native American.”
Like any Jewish mother, Robina wanted our son to marry a nice Jewish girl. She was shocked and disappointed, and it showed in her expression during lunch. That evening we discussed the situation and decided to stay neutral and take a wait-and-see approach, not wanting to drive our son away.
Their relationship grew. Jared learned to eat vegetarian Indian food and experienced the Hindu religion and culture at Jaina’s family home and temple. Jaina, for her part, ate latkes and matzo brie and came to our house for Passover and Hanukkah, and attended High Holiday services at our synagogue. Their love grew, and in 2008 they became engaged.
Planning a wedding is difficult any time, but blending cultures and religions is a real challenge. Jaina wanted a traditional Hindu wedding, and we wanted a Jewish ceremony. In the end, it was decided that there would be no combined ceremony; instead we would honor both religions and traditions and have two separate traditional ceremonies with one reception to be held after the Jewish ceremony. What we learned from the process of planning these weddings was that although we came from different religions and traditions, we had so much in common.
Our families worked together on every aspect of both ceremonies and the reception. The year leading up to the wedding was crazy! We were immersed in Indian culture—we ate Indian food, learned about the Hindu religion and discussed the differences and similarities with Judaism. We attended services at both a Hindu and Jain temple, we attended Punjab ceremonies at people’s houses and even attended a Hindu funeral.
Jaina’s family joined us for Passover dinner, and we had our first Hanukkah party together. At this first party, Jaina’s niece and nephew, ages 4 and 6, surprised us by singing the dreidel song. They had learned the song at school, and from their mother learned it was a song for the holiday they were going to celebrate with Jared’s Jewish family.
As the wedding planning evolved, we learned how the bridal party reflected the diversity of Jared and Jaina’s friends. It was made up of friends white and black, Indian and Hispanic, Hindu, Christian and Jewish. It was a snapshot of our changing America.
Today we have beautiful granddaughters. You may wonder, “Will the girls be raised Hindu or Jewish?” The answer is they will be raised learning and respecting each religion and culture, as they are part of both. They will learn about the mezuzah on their front door and the Hindu shrine in their house. Jewish and Hindu traditions will be celebrated with both families watching them with pride. Although we are not social friends with Jaina’s parents, we have become family!
Jared and Jaina are my inspiration. Together they live a life of acceptance. They are an example of how America and the world could be if we looked past our differences and embraced our similarities with understanding, respect and love.
Steven Fisher is in sales and lives in Deerfield, IL with his wife of 45 years.
By Gretchen Rachel Hammond
Throughout my life, I was a person in search of a religion to call my own. Born in the United Kingdom to a non-practicing Hindu father and a non-practicing Church of England mother, I never received any kind of religious upbringing beyond weddings and the hymns I was forced to sing in grammar school—words that were as meaningless to me as the tunes were depressing.
From an early age, I began to discover my identity. I was a teenager in 1980s England. The word ‘transgender’ was never used. All I knew was that the horrific bullying and abuse I suffered growing up had to be because God didn’t care for me very much.
When I was 18, I fled England for the United States. Without the internet or any U.S. history taught beyond “Oh and, by the way, in 1776 we lost the colonies,” my education about the United States revolved entirely around Dallas, Dynasty, Starsky & Hutch and Quincy, M.E.
However, my history professor did at least provide some education about the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. While naturally horrified, I was drawn immediately to the nobility of the Jewish people. I also obsessively watched and re-watched the miniseries Masada with Peter O’Toole and Peter Strauss. (It told the story of the historic Roman attack on a Jewish citadel and its leader Eleazar, and the Jews’ mass suicide as the Romans advanced.)
I believed America was where anything could happen and anyone was free to be whomever they wished to be. I was in for a bit of a rude awakening when the foreign exchange company placed me in New Albany, Indiana, with a Mormon family. They tried to convert me but I couldn’t make sense of any of it.
My identity started to take over with full force and I suffered the consequences of America’s Judeo-Christian rejection of what some people considered a “perverse cross dresser.” I was in the middle of the Bible Belt and a doomed marriage to an evangelical Christian led to moments, in church, where I questioned my own validity as a human being.
In 2001, I attempted suicide. Most transgender people can tell you a similar story. I wasn’t trying to follow Eleazar’s defiant end. I just wanted the pain to stop. I did not credit God with my change of heart, but instead set the blame at God’s feet for my failure to remain an active part of the world
In fact, I flirted with atheism, believing that there could not be a God given the inner conflict I was suffering and the endless torment of knowing that I could not live as myself in a society which just would not accept me. Yet I could never reject God completely. I just had no hope that God would not reject me.
Fifteen years after the day I stood on the sidewalk of Indianapolis’s busiest street and was one step away from death, I met with Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, in a suburban Chicago coffee shop. From there I joined Rabbi Cindy Enger’s classroom at Temple Beth Emet in Evanston.
By this point, my physical transition from Jonathon to Gretchen was over and I was beginning my journey toward finding God in Reform Judaism. There was just one missing piece.
I found it last year when, for one week I joined my LGBTQ brothers, sisters and gender nonconformists in their day-to-day struggle for equal rights in Israel. I was a secular transgender journalist invited to join a writers and bloggers tour of Israel during the 2015 Pride Celebrations. I wanted to know what life was like for the average Israeli lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individual.
After eight days in Israel, I realized that the lives of LGBTQ people there are not so dissimilar from our lives in America and I knew I wanted to be a part of the passion, solidarity and fight of the Israeli LGBTQ community. I knew it the moment I was invited to take hold of a corner of the immense transgender flag on its journey through Tel Aviv’s streets.
There was no question about whether I was an outsider or what my religious affiliation might be. As far as the transgender marchers were concerned, I might as well have been living and fighting along with them for years.
The lesbian, gay and bisexual communities may be celebrating more social acceptance in Israel but they are still fighting against religious intolerance and for pro-LGBTQ legislation that has stalled or even moved backwards. This has left them even further behind, say, a LGBTQ person in Mississippi.
In the end, I discovered the Israeli LGBTQ community is involved in a fight that is just as brutal and essential for their rights to exist as those in the trenches of any other country, or state, where such a right is being denied.
I had hoped to go to the summit of Masada and breath in the place Eleazar had made his last stand, but alas, the schedule didn’t allow for it. Instead, I found the people of Israel and especially their LGBTQ community to be as beautiful and flawed as those in the rest of the world. There is a passion to get a lot of things changed for the better and I believe they will.
I will be honest. Recent events in North Carolina, Mississippi and Orlando, Florida, have not only tied me further in solidarity to my LGBT community but also with the community in Israel. That is why I want to join them. Oppression must and can be fought no matter where it rears its head. The story of Masada taught me that.
I have found the God I have searched for all my life in Reform Judaism. It is a place I am accepted, where I can question God but love at the same time. I have been a part of many religions whether through circumstance or family, but this is home.
My life as a secular British transplant in the United States amounted to a 25-year discovery of my authentic self. Now that I have discovered where I belong—as a proud Jewish transgender individual in Israel—I expect the road to get there to be as challenging as it is long.
But it is a journey I can hardly wait to begin. Next year, in Tel Aviv.
InterfaithFamily is proud to offer many LGBTQ resources and connections. For more info, click HERE.
Gretchen Rachel Hammond was born in Manchester, England. She came to America at the age of 18 as part of a foreign exchange and was placed with a family in New Albany, Indiana. In the course of her career, Gretchen has worked as an actor, screenwriter, film critic for FOX 59 and WXNT radios in Indianapolis, a fundraiser for theaters and educational organizations and is currently a senior staff writer for the Windy City Times in Chicago with a focus upon investigative pieces and features. A transgender woman, Gretchen was inducted in to the Trans 100 in 2015 and has lectured on transgender issues for the Adler School of Professional Psychology and Roosevelt University in Chicago. Gretchen sits on the Board of the Trans Life Center at the Chicago House. Her book The Last Circle was published in 2013.