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ByÂ DebraÂ Lynn Shelton
Apparently when she and her non-Jewish fiancĂ© scheduled their most special event, they had no idea the date coincided with the holiest days on the Jewish calendar. By the time they realized the conflict, it was too late. They werenât able to change the date of their wedding at the fancy country club where it was booked.
On a scale of religiousness, our family ranges from fairly religious to completely non-participating. So the fairly religious contingent now have a difficult decision to make.
The bride is my first cousin, the daughter of my momâs younger brother. For my immediate family (parents and sisters) the knee-jerk reaction was: reject the occasion altogether. Send a gift, but donât attend.
I mean, how disrespectful could you be to schedule your special day on such a somber and important holiday? What could the future bride and groom have been thinking? What could they expect? But the deeper we delved into the dilemma, the more complicated it became.
For my mom who is fairly religious, in her mid-70s, and lives across the country from her two brothers, the decision was especially difficult. She was choosing between sharing the joyous celebration including magnificent meals with her cherished brothers vs. observing the High Holidays by attending services and fasting.
Rather than asking the audience, she decided to âphone a friend.â That friend was her rabbi who happened to be in Israel on a trip with fellow congregants.
After explaining the situation, my mom asked: âWhat advice can you give our family regarding attending the wedding? I can hear my fatherâs voice saying, âfamily is family.âÂ How do I choose between my family and my faith?âÂ
His response was surprising. On a call from Jerusalem the rabbi advised:Â âDonât go, but do send a gift.Â Do not tell her why you are not going.â
This confused my mom even more, especially the last part. If she chose not to go, why not stand up and say why?
She called her brothers to discuss the situation, and their voices reminded her of the deep love they share. In the end, that love overpowered everything else. She and my dad booked their tickets and will be attending the wedding at the end of September.
The bride-to-be also showed some flexibility, changing the time of the rehearsal dinner so anyone who wishes may attend Kol Nidre services. She also researched nearby temples and their times for services on Friday night and Saturday.
Her Saturday evening wedding is, technically, after the holiday is over. I think she genuinely feels bad about the predicament this has put her observant family members in, and has done what she can to rectify the situation. (Iâm sure many of you will disagree with this.)
Personally, Iâve come full circle. At first I was ready to book my plane ticket. Then I thought, since it was so disrespectful of the bride and groom to put so many in such a challenging position, I wouldnât go. Then I considered what really matters: family. So Iâll be checking out flight and hotel information soon.
This isnât an uncommon dilemma in our world where so many levels of observance can be found in one family. Secular Jews may have weddings or birthday parties or even graduations or professional milestones that involve travel on Saturdays, for instanceâleaving their Sabbath-observant relatives torn.
After all is said and done, as inconsiderate as keeping the wedding date scheduled for Yom Kippur is, Iâm of the opinion that, as my grandfather said, âFamily is family.â
The High Holidays will occur again next year. My cousinâs wedding will not. So, Iâll be joining my parents to watch my cousin walk down the aisle (They plan on attending services near the wedding venue.) Iâm looking forward to spending time with relatives I donât get to see very often, and to celebrating this special milestone with them.
But it isnât an easy choice. Dear readers, I wonder: what would you do?
This article was reprinted with permission fromÂ Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids.Â Follow Kveller on FacebookÂ andÂ sign up for their newsletters here.
By Elana Bell
Photos by Peter Dressel
It is two days until our Hindu wedding ceremony, and my fiancĂ© Jai and I are standing outside the Rama Krishna Mission where I am staying, in Calcuttaâs hundred-degree humidity, arguing about translations. I am asking, for what feels like the hundredth time, for an accurate translation of the mantras I will be chanting during the four-day ceremony.Â Jai has been promisingâand putting offâthese translations for months, but apparently, it is not as easy as weâd originally thought.
It turns out that there is not one generic Hindu wedding ceremony, but rather a precise set of mantras for each region, caste and specific lineage. He thought that once we arrived in India it would be easier track down translations from the local priest, but unfortunately the local priest actually lives in a remote village on the outskirts of the city, has no cell phone and can only be reached during certain times of the day on the communal village phone, which is almost always busy. And, as Jai painstakingly explains to me, there are no simple, ready-made English translations for a four-day ceremony.
This is not our first wedding. Six weeks earlier, we were married in a Jew-ish weddingÂ ceremony on the canals in Venice, California, a few miles from where I grew up. I say Jew-ish, because while it was rooted in Jewish culture and included many elements of a traditional Jewish wedding, weâd devoted months to crafting the language of our ceremony to make sure it was a precise reflection of who we were as a couple.
Since Jai is not Jewish, and has no plans to convert, it seemed false to recite the traditional blessing for the ring exchange: Haray aht mâkudeshet li bâtabaâat zu kâdat Moshe vâYisrael, which translates as By this ring you are consecrated to me in accordance with the traditions of Moses and Israel. Instead, we wrote our own blessing, recited in both Hebrew and English: With this ring I consecrate myself to you by the universal laws of love. During the sheva brachot, the seven blessings, we invited Jaiâs parents and sister to recite Sanskrit verses that were close to the meaning of the traditional Hebrew blessings, because we wanted to honor and include his language and culture, and because we wanted our guests to understand that although this was a predominantly Jewish ceremony, it was also the marriage of two rich and ancient traditions.
So you can imagine my annoyance when two days before the Hindu ceremony, I still had no idea what it was that I was actually going to be saying. The year before, we had come to Calcutta to participate in Jaiâs sisterâs wedding. Though born in Calcutta, Sukanya was raised in the United States and holds a doctorate in astrophysics from Berkeley. Going in, Sukanya was already skeptical of some of the rigmarole that the traditional Hindu ceremony requiredâthree different heavy-silk, embroidered saris, yellow paste smeared on the face and more than a dozen intricate rituals to bind her to her chosen mateâceremonies that were not necessarily reflective of the quieter, more stripped down Hinduism practiced by her family growing up. Yes, there were the small altars around the house with statues of Durga and Ganesha, but the most important ritual was the daily recitation of the Sanskrit verses their father demanded. Add to the equation the fact that Sukanya was marrying a nice, Bengali young man who, although he cooked a perfectly delicate hilsa fish, believed in the intricate rituals of his born religion about as much as he believed in the tooth fairy.
Throughout their four-day ceremony (which I studied intently, knowing that I might soon be going through it myself), I occasionally noticed Sukanya grimacing, or calling her father over and whispering to him with agitated gestures. When I asked her later what was wrong, she explained that unlike most contemporary Indian brides, she could actually understand the Sanskrit verses she was reciting and they contained some pretty paternalistic sentiment. âI canât believe I am supposed to repeat this crap about thanking my husband for taking over the burden of taking care of me from my father!â she hissed. Â âElana, you and Jai shouldnât even have an Indian wedding. Just do it in America. Then you wonât have to go through all of this nonsense.â
As a cultural and religious outsider joining the family, I didnât really think that was an option. Can you imagine me telling my soon-to-be Indian mother-in-law that her only son wouldnât have a traditional Hindu ceremony? Plus, I was already picturing myself in a flowing red silk sari. And, although I was not thrilled about the chauvinistic element that Sukanya had revealed, most organized religions are patriarchal in origin, and their marriage rituals reflect that. Judaism is no exception. The traditional ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, includes a promise from the husband to present the bride with âthe marriage gift of virgins, two hundred silver zuzimâ in exchange for her promise to live faithfully according to the laws of Moses and Aaron, and bring the agreed upon sum of silver, gold, and valuables from her own fatherâs house.Â Sounds like a sale to me.
Even more than my concern with an antiquated, patriarchal ceremony was my secret, deep-seated fear that I was going to unknowingly end up invoking some god or goddess that wasnât mine. That somehow, by reciting these ancient Hindu mantras, I would be betraying my God, and therefore my essential Jewishness.
As Jai and I stood outside the Rama Krishna Mission, trying to resolve this frustrating circumstance, I realized I had a choice. I could hold my ground on principle, andÂ spend the last days before our wedding in a state of tension and frustration over what I could not control, or I could jump into this ceremony on faith and with the clarity of my intention to honor my soon-to-be-husbandâs culture. I knew that no matter what words I would repeat during the ceremony, we would be invoking the love we have for each other, and honoring the values that are important to us, whether connected to our cultural heritage, spiritual practice or to something as mundane as who is going to take out the trash.
On the day of the ceremony we wake at dawn in our separate residences. I am brought toÂ the wedding house and dressed in an elaborate red silk sari and made up to look like a combination of Bollywood starlet and a Hindu goddess. When I come out, they seat me in a red velvet wedding chair to wait for my turn to participateâwhich turns out to be not for a long time. In the Hindu ceremony, it is the father of the bride who actually has the most to say and do. And my father was a champion. He sat under the wedding tent on a white mat, dressed in a white dhoti with a red-checkered cotton shawl around his neck, repeating Sanskrit verses after the priest for hours. Watching the delight my musical father took in pronouncing these foreign phrases helped me relax and be present for the ritual. Although I did not understand every word, when Jai and I threw the fragrant jasmine garlands around each otherâs necks, circled the fire together seven times and tied his clothing to mine, the metaphor was clear.
It would resemble a fairy tale rather than life if I ended the story here, if I implied that after that powerful and exhausting ceremony, and the compromises we each made to get through it, everything fell into place and the struggles of being an inter-faith couple faded into the sunset. In truth, the negotiations continue, some more painful than others. Whereas in India I felt that I was the one who ended up compromising more, in our day-to-day life, it is Jai who is consistently being asked to include more and more Jewish ritual into his life.
We celebrate Shabbat on a weekly basis, either in our home, with friends or with our beloved local Hassidic rebbe. Jai accompanies me to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and other Jewish holiday dinners and services. In the beginning, I think Jai came for my sake, so I would not have to be alone, since Judaism is such a communal religion. And while Jai is very clear that his is a Hindu soul, he acknowledges that his life has been enriched by his experiences with Jewish culture and practice.
As far as my participation in Hinduism, as I mentioned, Jaiâs familyâs practice is more philosophical, internal, and text-based, than communal. In fact, when we were traveling in India I would eagerly go into each temple, leaving my shoes at the threshold and braving the dirty water littered with petals, while Jai waited outside for me to return, forehead sticky with the remnants of a priestâs blessing. Early in our relationship, Jai would tell stories from the Bhagvad Gita and the Ramayan so intimately, it seemed that heâd been born knowing them. Besides making me fall more in love with him, being exposed to these stories through his eyes has made me want to have a deeper understanding of my own sacred stories, and wish that I was as versed in the Torah as he is in the Hindu sacred texts.
A few days after our Hindu ceremony, on a train heading from Calcutta to Delhi, still reeling from the four days of intense festivities, I asked my father how he, a Conservative Jew from California, felt about all the Sanskrit heâd had to recite and if any of it had made him uncomfortable. He paused for a moment and said, âWell, the way I see it, Sanskrit is a holy language, like Hebrew. The sounds felt familiar in my mouth, even though I didnât know exactly what I was saying. And as I was speaking, I just kept focusing on my love for you and Jai, and my blessing that you should have a long and happy marriage.â I canât imagine any God that I would call mine taking issue with that.
Elanaâs debut collection of poetry, Eyes, Stones (LSU Press 2012), was selected as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, and brings her complex heritage as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors to consider the difficult question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, the Edward Albee Foundation, and the Brooklyn Arts Council. Her writing has recently appeared in AGNI, Harvard Review, and the Massachusetts Review, among others. Elana was a finalist for the inaugural Freedom Plow Award from Split This Rock, an award which honors a poet doing work at the intersection of poetry and social justice. To find out more about her work, please visit: www.elanabell.com.
Recently weâve been thinking about what it means to be planning a religious wedding as a same-sex couple. Until the Supreme Courtâs ruling on same-sex marriage less than two years ago, marriage was simply not an option for many couples like us. Although weâre now able to participate in the tradition of marriage, things still remain far from clear-cut when it comes to religious attitudes toward our relationship.
We feel very lucky that our family and friends have wholeheartedly supported our relationship. Our wedding will be officiated by a rabbi and a priest who have been nothing but immensely kind and supportive. But we know that for many conservative proponents of both Judaism and Christianity, our relationship is not a sanctioned one. The Church of England bishops voted to maintain their opposition to same-sex marriage a little over two weeks ago. If we were to get married in the U.K., where Vanessa is from, we would not be able to getÂ married within the religious tradition thatÂ she grew up with, and in which her mother is a priest. In the U.S., some rabbis and priests would also refuse to marry us. Googling âreligion and gay marriageâ brings up pages of sites, many of which are not in support of same-sex marriage.
So we asked ourselves if we should stillÂ have a religious ceremony, given the discrimination that many LGBTQ people face from their religious communities.
Our answer concluded in a yes. We choose to stand alongside those in our religious communities who welcome and support people who have historically been marginalized and alienated. We, and our families, try to have conversations with people who find it more difficult to accept our relationship. Sometimes, simply showing up as gay people in a religious context is enough to start making change.
We strive toward understanding how our religions can inspire such a range of opinions, not just about LGBTQ people but also about people of other faiths, colors and economic circumstances, and we stand up against people who use their religions as an excuse to hurt and vilify other human beings. So yes, we #ChooseLove by proudly celebrating our interfaith same-sex wedding with the support of 150 family and friends, and we will base our marriage on our shared religious principles of love and acceptance.
While Iâve dealt with doctorâs appointments and missed deadlines at work, Iâve had a mental image of a calendar with pages flying byâeach representing a day of wedding planning that weâve missed. But, honestly, none of that really matters. What matters is the fact that, with the support of family and friends, weâll make it there togetherâthe details of what the wedding day will look like are substantially less important. After all, thatâs what it means when you choose love.
At a recent doctorâs appointment a nurse smiled at Justin, as she said to me, âyouâve got a good one sticking by you through this.â Justinâs response was instantaneous: âwell, sheâs sure had her share of being by my side in similar situations.â
Itâs true. Only four months after we met I was by Justinâs side, calling 911 when he was injured, holding his hand as he came to after a 7 hour surgery, and traveling almost every other week between Boston and Philadelphia as he spent three months in a rehabilitation hospital relearning how to walk.
We havenât actually made it to the point of planning where we are addressing vows (which, as weâve learned, are traditional in Christian ceremonies but not in Jewish ceremonies), but we both know that this concept isnât new to us. Weâve committed to holding up our relationship through adventures and health, and through the lows of sickness and injuries.
So, the countdown is on.Â We need to order rings. We need to design our invites. We need to pick out a ketubah. Finalize our huppah design. We need to pick out food. And figure out what to wear. And how to light our venue. And order flowers. And learn how to dance. The list is long, but weâll get it done.
After all, those are just details. Weâve already worked out the important things.
Jose and I met six years ago in Washington, DC, on a co-ed soccer team. After a few weeks and a carefully worded Facebook message, Jose invited me to a DC United soccer game with his friends, and I did not realize it was a date until he called and offered to pick me up. He showed upÂ at my door smiling, looking relaxed and confident, like he had been waiting for me all along. I felt the same, and I could not wait to see where this went.
We were serious from the start, so when Jose told me he was applying to law school, I told him I would move with him wherever he went. After a year of dating, we moved to Philadelphia and heÂ started law school at Temple University. We were excited to start our life together inÂ Philly.
Because our relationship was intense early on and we were moving to a different city, we had to confront our religious and cultural differences right away. Jose is Filipino and Catholic, and I am Jewish. I remember a few times in the first few months when I cried, convinced that our relationship wouldnât work and that our differences would break us up. Jose and I would always talk about it and we would arrive at a place knowing we could work it out no matter the issue.
In six years together, Jose and I have lit Hanukkah candles,Â celebrated Easter, taken interfaith classes, witnessed a First Communion,Â hosted Shabbat dinner, talked about how we will raise our kids, bought a Christmas tree and ornaments, joined a Reform synagogue, and so much more. We are a team, and we talk often aboutÂ how our team will support and honor both of our backgrounds.
This past December, Jose got down on one knee in Rittenhouse Square, on the seventh night of Hanukkah. And this coming December, exactly one Hebrew calendar year later, we will get married at the Loews Hotel in Philadelphia.
Stay tuned for more details about our wedding planning over the next few months!
Â Want to share the ways you #ChooseLove? Check this out!