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By Elana Bell
Photos by Peter Dressel
It is two days until our Hindu wedding ceremony, and my fiancé Jai and I are standing outside the Rama Krishna Mission where I am staying, in Calcutta’s 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. Jai has been promising—and putting off—these translations for months, but apparently, it is not as easy as we’d 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 wedding 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, we’d 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 m’kudeshet li b’taba’at zu k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael, 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 Jai’s 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 Jai’s sister’s 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 required—three different heavy-silk, embroidered saris, yellow paste smeared on the face and more than a dozen intricate rituals to bind her to her chosen mate—ceremonies 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. “I can’t 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!” she hissed. “Elana, you and Jai shouldn’t even have an Indian wedding. Just do it in America. Then you won’t have to go through all of this nonsense.”
As a cultural and religious outsider joining the family, I didn’t really think that was an option. Can you imagine me telling my soon-to-be Indian mother-in-law that her only son wouldn’t 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 “the marriage gift of virgins, two hundred silver zuzim” 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 father’s house. 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 wasn’t 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, and 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-husband’s 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 to 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 participate—which 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 other’s 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, Jai’s family’s 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 priest’s blessing. Early in our relationship, Jai would tell stories from the Bhagvad Gita and the Ramayan so intimately, it seemed that he’d 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 he’d had to recite and if any of it had made him uncomfortable. He paused for a moment and said, “Well, the way I see it, Sanskrit is a holy language, like Hebrew. The sounds felt familiar in my mouth, even though I didn’t 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.” I can’t imagine any God that I would call mine taking issue with that.
Elana’s 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.
My name is Hannah, and as one half of an engaged couple, I’m excited to share with you my experience planning our upcoming May wedding. I found InterfaithFamily online when I began searching for a rabbi who was willing to officiate the type of wedding ceremony my partner and I want to have: namely a non-traditional, and somewhat Jewish one!
Let me tell you a little bit about us:
Amma and I met in San Francisco in 2013. When I wasn’t making art, I was working as a cashier in a popular specialty food market, where Amma would often stop to get lunch or that last minute, forgotten grocery item. She lived around the corner from the market, and was what you would call a regular. It wasn’t long before we had noticed each other, and the fast-paced market, with its never-ending checkout line was quickly becoming an insufficient meeting place. At the end of our first date, we made plans to see each other again the next day. We both knew early on that ours was a relationship we wanted to put our all into.
We’ve had fun together since we first met, and still do every day. We also work to understand each other and smooth out the inevitable bumps that arise. We are similar in our beliefs and dreams and in the activities we enjoy, and we can be very different in our approaches to problems and the ways in which we get through daily life. We balance each other out in really meaningful ways that make us both better people.
Some of our differences could be attributed to our respective upbringings. We have really different backgrounds. At this point you may be expecting me to describe our religious differences. Ironically, neither one of us was raised with any religion at all.
(I will explain how we ended up getting involved with InterfaithFamily, and deciding to have a rabbi officiate our wedding in my next post.)
In their early 20s, my parents moved to Vermont to escape mainstream culture and headed into the woods to find peace and organic food. My father was raised Jewish, and though very spiritual, no sooner had he completed his bar mitzvah then he decided he didn’t want any part of organized religion. My mother was raised Catholic, but her spirituality seems to be more centered around interconnectedness. I often hear her say “Isn’t that cosmic?” or use the term “kindred spirits.”
Amma’s mother was actually the daughter of a Hindu Priest, and as the very independent individual that she is, I think it just felt natural for her to discover her own brand of spirituality. Amma’s father grew up Christian (I’m not sure which denomination) and I would venture that his life’s work in science is indicative of his pragmatic and analytic mind, where religion has no place.
So, if only by coincidence, religion has not been an issue for us. As similar as our backgrounds are in terms of religion, they are equally as different culturally. Amma’s parents are both from developing countries. Both recognized for their brilliance, they took advantage of every opportunity to educate themselves and develop careers that would eventually take them around the world. They have worked so hard to be where they are and to give their children a good life. Their perspective is potent, and they have passed much of it down to Amma and her brother. To come from such humble beginnings and work that hard means you don’t take anything for granted.
My parents were fortunate to be born in the U.S. Even if you’re not wealthy here, you are afforded certain opportunities and privileges that simply don’t exist in the developing world. Life begins on a stronger foundation. Both of my parents are musical and artistic, and because they didn’t have to worry about having a roof over their heads, or getting a good education, they were able to concentrate on more creative ventures and choose a life for themselves that suited their personal interests and beliefs. The culture within our family, not to mention the whole community I grew up in, emphasized creativity and peace, getting along and being physically and spiritually healthy. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but because of their foundation, they had more choice and flexibility in their lives. Not surprisingly, my siblings and I were very much influenced by the priorities of our parents and our community.
Through the lens of Amma’s experience and perspective, I realize how fortunate I truly am. I have also learned that working as hard as her parents had to can produce better results than being privileged from the beginning. There are some extremely positive qualities engrained in Amma that I’m still working on. Strength, clarity and perseverance are just a few of my favorites!
Just over a year ago, on my birthday, we got engaged. Amma knew it would be the best birthday present. She had broken her ankle about a week before, and was still bed-ridden. She somehow (read: Amazon.com) managed to prepare the most perfect “birthday in bed,” complete with pink wrapping paper (my favorite) and daffodils. One of her gifts to me was a pack of origami paper. That was good enough for me, but then she said, “There’s something I want to teach you how to make.” She kept me in suspense as I followed each of the folding directions. I didn’t know until the last fold that we were, in fact, making origami diamond rings! As soon as I realized what they were, we looked at each other with big grins and she said, “Wanna get married?!” I obviously said yes.
We agreed that we wanted to have real rings to symbolize our engagement to each other, and we wanted to pick them out together. As soon as Amma’s ankle had healed, we went to our favorite jewelry shop, Bario Neal, and picked out matching gold bands…well, almost matching. Amma’s has a polished finish and mine is brushed. We hadn’t necessarily set out to get matching rings, but in the end, it turned out we wanted the same thing: a thin gold band with a tiny champagne diamond. Something simple, timeless and low profile.
As an artist, I work with my hands constantly, and I wanted to be able to wear my ring without it getting in the way. Amma doesn’t wear a lot of jewelry, so for her it had to be something that wouldn’t feel foreign on her body. We weren’t sure if we wanted a stone at first, but it felt incomplete without one, so we picked the tiniest diamond available at the shop. It gives the rings just a touch of character and represents the spark between us. Because we do not view our engagement and our wedding as two completely separate notions, we really only wanted the one ring to represent our commitment to each other. Instead of getting a second ring to exchange at our wedding, we plan to exchange the rings we already have, and get them engraved with our initials and the date of our wedding.
Thinking about the idea of rings and picking the right ones turned out to be the first exercise in a long string of challenging decisions. Within the context of planning my own wedding, a lot of big questions have come up. It takes diligence to get to the bottom of your own beliefs and desires. I didn’t fully realize until I began this process myself, that there is an unspoken, pre-written script to wedding planning and the wedding itself. Even after recognizing the presence of this script, it is easy to lose sight of what you and your partner really want. For Amma and me, the marriage is what we are most excited about. The wedding will be a [hopefully] fun celebration of our love and commitment, and the official gateway into our marriage. As we continue planning, we are trying to stay true to ourselves and keep our own desires for the big day in the forefront of our minds, whether they coincide with the script or not.