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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.
We’re Michele and Vanessa, and we’re getting married on April 30, 2017. Michele is Jewish and grew up just outside Philadelphia; Vanessa was raised in the Church of England (more or less equivalent to the Episcopal Church) a little outside London in the U.K. We got engaged in May 2015, and are thrilled to be counting down to the big day and our interfaith celebration.
Amidst our wedding planning (more on that another time), we’re also—like everyone else—planning our holiday celebrations. This is a pretty big year for us, as it’s our first Christmas in the U.S. For the last couple of years, we’ve gone to the U.K. and celebrated with Vanessa’s family; but this year we’re staying in Philly. For a while, I (Vanessa) was pretty sad: This is the first Christmas in 31 years that I won’t be with my family, watching my sister stare with trepidation through the oven door at the cauliflower cheese and roast potatoes and listening to my mum attempt the descants to Christmas carols on TV. But talking this over with Michele, and planning the holidays with her has brought me a lot of joy, as I’ve realized that this is actually a really exciting opportunity: We get to figure out how we can create our own traditions, and not just do whatever our families do, as we celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah.
This has led me to seek out cookie cutters in the shapes of dreidels and reindeer, menorahs and Christmas trees, and a variety of stars, both five- and six-pointed. I did a dance of delight in the Dollar Plus when I found Hanukkah garlands next to the Christmas tinsel. We started our own collection of tree ornaments that we’ll keep adding to each year, with a classy otter bauble from the Vancouver Aquarium on the first vacation we took together that didn’t involve either of our families. Our hope is that, in a few years’ time, our tree will be covered in ornaments that represent memories from our lives together. These things might sound frivolous, but for us, they symbolize the joining of our lives and our traditions; albeit in sparkly and (hopefully) delicious forms.
More seriously, we’ve had to negotiate with family members what holiday events we’re going to, with Hanukkah brunches and parties surrounding Christmas church services and the first Christmas dinner hosted by us for Michele’s family (complete with British stuffing and Christmas cake, sent all the way from England by my mum). We’ve had to think about what’s really important to us in terms of our own traditions, and about what elements we want to share with each other. I want to go to Christmas services because it’s important for me to hear a choir welcoming Christmas in with “Adeste Fidelis,” but I’m happy to let the cauliflower cheese go as we make the dinner kosher-style. Latkes are fairly high on Michele’s priority list, but being all together and visiting the various branches of her family is even higher.
It’s easy to get caught up in the mania of present-buying, tree-decorating, cookie-eating and playlist-curating, and to be honest I’m definitely enjoying all those parts. But Michele and I are able to use those things to have conversations about what the holidays mean to us, how our families traditionally celebrate them, and what we want them to be like in our married life together. Of course, I’ll still miss my family—but this December, I’ll be surrounded by the love of my new family, Michele and all the Zipkins, and I can’t wait. It’s a timely reminder that our wedding planning isn’t just about working toward a wedding, but a marriage. I feel incredibly lucky that we’re getting a head start on building our traditions for that marriage this year. Even if I’m covered in powdered sugar and my reindeer cookies look more like dogs.
Today’s blog post brings us well into wedding planning process—as well as to a few other relationship landmarks.
Last week we celebrated Justin’s birthday, which we do in a traditional (to him, not so much to me) way—with a King Cake. The King Cake is a Mardi Gras custom (Mardi Gras being part of the Carnival celebrations that occur immediately before the observance of Lent)—and Justin’s family has roots in the Bayou of Louisiana.
With his birthday falling so close to Mardi Gras each year, it’s become a tradition for his Grandparents (who live just over the Louisiana border in Mississippi) to send him a King Cake.
Before meeting Justin I’d never had a King Cake. Now it’s something I look forward to each year. This purple, green, and gold cake is topped with frosting and sugar, and from the time it arrives until we’ve eaten it all, every meal involves cake. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, mid-day, and midnight snacks all involve King Cake. (And, as we are adults, we have deemed it okay if one wants to have a slice of cake before dinner.)
The most important part of the King Cake—besides it being delicious and often arriving in the same box as Mardi Gras beads—is that it comes with a plastic baby Jesus hidden inside the cake. It’s good luck if you find the baby in your piece of cake.
And, every year that we’ve celebrated with a King Cake, I’ve always ended up Jesus-less.
Somehow that plastic baby is always in one of Justin’s slices of cake. (Perhaps there’s a secret to finding the King Cake baby that I’ve missed out on? My ability to always find the Afikoman at a Passover Seder does not seem to translate to the King Cake’s hidden Jesus.)
Justin’s Jesus finding skills did, however, set us up for a fantastically cheesy exchange this year about how he was the one with the luck—thus he gets to marry me—and I was the one without the luck—hence I was stuck marrying him.
This year, we’re hoping that little plastic baby Jesus is going to bring us some mutual luck—especially as we move from the theoretical planning into actually putting the plan into action.
One of my favorite holidays is Hanukkah, and for that, I give a lot of the credit to the Beerorah. The Beerorah is something that my fiancé Derek and I came up with the first Hanukkah we were dating – well, really it’s a gift pack from He’Brew brewing company (a division of Schmaltz brewing) that his best friend had given him when the friend found out he was dating me.
We joke that the Beerorah combines our two loves: “My love of God with his love of beer.” And Derek really does love beer – it’s his hobby in a true aficionado’s way. I have learned more about craft beer in the four-and-a-half years we’ve been together than most people learn in a lifetime, and we love to visit beer bars and breweries just to try new and rare beers. Also he and his best friend have a collection of over 500 bottles of (craft) beer, carefully inventoried in their “beerventory.”
As for me though, the love of God part is apt too. A Conservative Jew, Judaism has always been a large part of my identity. Growing up, I attended synagogue every Saturday because I wanted to – not only to gain guidance from the Rabbi’s sermons or to enjoy the serene satisfaction of the silent Amidah (one of my favorite prayers), but because it was the center of the social circle for my friends and I. Go on a date? Having family drama? Meet at synagogue and we can discuss it.
But going to synagogue and practicing Judaism were also integral to my identity in part because of the climate in which I grew up. I am from Riverdale, NY – home of eight or nine different synagogues and many many Jews. Nonetheless, my synagogue was swatstikaed one weekend when I was in Hebrew School. On the night before Kol Nidre (the holiest night of the year) a year or two after September 11th, our synagogue was firebombed with Molotov cocktails. We attended services while eager news crews waited outside to interview us and have gone through metal detectors and pat downs with varying regularity ever since. So my Judaism and its essentialness to my identity came in part from the fears to my safety that came with it – and the way those fears bound my group of close friends and I together to the community and to each other.
That said, it was never essential to me to date a Jewish guy. I greatly enjoyed learning about different religions and cultures and watching people experience aspects of Judaism for the first time. I always had a strong opinion about how I wanted to observe Judaism and had my own relationship with God. I knew that my kids will be Jewish, that I am Jewish, that my family is Jewish, that I will never be anything but Jewish. And honestly, I knew I needed a laid back low-maintenance sports fan kind of guy – I wasn’t sure I would necessarily find that within the Jewish community.
You can say “Oh, but traditions! But continuity! But faith!” but I have also found that Derek has been much more respectful of my faith and practice than the Jewish guys I’ve dated. One got mad at me for not answering the phone while I was at a Friday night Shabbat dinner. I got in a heated argument with another who asked, “But WHY do you believe? WHY do you have faith? Where’s the rational proof that God exists?” Both were the moments when I knew the relationships wouldn’t work out. The Beerorah was one of the first examples of Derek’s openness and respect of my faith. And when we light it together each Hanukkah (this year was its fifth iteration), it reminds me of that – that we can meld what matters to us together to create something just as wonderful (or more wonderful) than the original. I haven’t compromised anything – I’m still Jewish, and I still have my love of God and my observance. He still has his love of beer. And we both have each other.
[Guest post by Sam Goodman]
I have fond memories of going to services as a youngster and looking forward to the weeks in which I could pelt young adults, the clergy, and innocent bystanders with tiny packages of hard candy. Not wanting to miss being on the receiving end of such a deluge, a few months back I mentioned to the Cantor at my synagogue, Monmouth Reform Temple (MRT), that Anne and I would like to have an aufruf. This is a custom during which the bride and groom – or, in more traditional synagogues, just the groom – are called up for an Aliyah, and the Torah is read in their honor.
Scheduling our aufruf posed a bit of a challenge. Traditionally, the aufruf takes place during Shabbat services prior to the wedding. However, our rehearsal dinner takes place on that Friday, outside of Philadelphia. The Shabbat prior to that coincides with Yom Kippur, and celebrating with candy is not the best way to observe a solemn fast.
We also wanted to make sure our aufruf date aligned with an appropriate Torah portion. Our wedding occurs the week prior to Simchat Torah, the holiday during which the Torah is “rewound” and we begin reading from the book of Genesis. Unlike the numerous beautiful, wedding-appropriate readings in the beginning of the Torah – the creation of Eve and man and wife becoming “one flesh,” the rainbow at the culmination of the flood, Abraham’s covenant with God to become a great nation – the final book of the Torah is not quite so generous. We made a decision to avoid the passage containing material ill-suited for beginning our wedding celebration, such as the Biblical proscription for when “a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her, dislikes her” (Deut. 22:13, NIV translation). Luckily, nestled within Deuteronomy is a passage describing the blessings that will be rained upon Israel should they choose to keep God’s laws (Deut. 28:1-14). That coincided with the weekend of September 12th, which was free for both sets of parents. Hooray!
However, we hadn’t cleared all hurdles yet. A significant proportion of the families at MRT are interfaith, and over the past year, the Rituals & Practices Committee has discussed what activities on the bimah are permitted to the members of the congregation who are not Jewish. Also, they are charged with awarding honors for aliyot, lighting candles, and Kiddush on Friday nights. I happen to sit on this committee. A few weeks ago, the person responsible for managing these honors for the month of September asked if anyone would be interested. I asked if my parents could do the candle and Kiddush blessings for the night of our aufruf. My mother is a practicing Christian, and some congregations do not permit those who are not Jewish to say the blessings over the candles. Also, neither of my parents are members of MRT, though they do belong to a Reform synagogue in the Philadelphia area. Finally, Anne is not Jewish, and the committee had discussed in the past whether it was permissible for members of the congregation who are not Jewish to be called to Torah for an aliyah. After raising these concerns, I opened the topic for discussion to the members of the Rituals & Practices Committee.
This kicked off a lively discussion. Our Cantor sent around a link to the recent article on Interfaith Family about how different synagogues approach candle lighting by with interfaith families. Ultimately, the committee agreed that my parents could light the candles and recite Kiddush, and that as long as I was with her and saying the Torah blessings, Anne could join me for the aliyah.
With this final hurdle cleared, it looks like September 12th will be a very Keefe/Goodman Shabbat at Monmouth Reform Temple! In case you have an itching to bean some soon-to-be newlyweds with candy, services start at 7PM.
In the Torah, Genesis 18:2 talks about how Abraham welcomes strangers (who would turn out to be angels) into his tent and gives them food and drink. For their kindness to strangers, Abraham and Sarah are blessed. Modern translation: If you want to be blessed on your wedding day, make sure the people are fed.
So, let’s talk about food.
Our wedding menu is going to be a lot like in our home. I keep a version of kosher… no meat and dairy (although I am a vegetarian so not too hard), no shellfish, fast on certain Holy Days, and eat certain foods on others. Lisa maintains a higher protein, lower carb diet. She also loves her traditional polish kielbasa on Easter and Christmas. Our diets may seem worlds apart, but we always enjoy a meal together as often as we can.
When you first think of food at a wedding, you think wedding cake. We first thought against it. However, my mother asked us to get one for the reception. The reason being is that when my parents got married on their front lawn 30+ years ago, they had very little. The only thing they had was a Carvel ice cream cake. They even had to borrow the $10 to get that. It holds a special place in their hearts and to honor that we decided upon a small cake to cut. It’s one tier, simple design, almond flour base with apricot filling cake.
For our main dessert, we went for a Cincinnati local favorite, Holtman’s Doughnuts. Wedding cake for everyone was a bit too traditional. Cupcakes at weddings are tired. Pies are messy. We knew we made the right decision when my dad, who is not much of a doughnut person, was in town visiting and proceeded to eat 2 doughnuts in the 10 minutes that it took to drive home from the shop.
Our main course catering was a much different situation. We are working on a budget and we considered some Cincinnati favorites of Indian or Skyline Chili. Both are reasonably priced, but we realized we actually would be serving something not a lot of people may eat. Lisa was quick to point out if we are tasked with providing a good meal for our guests, we should give them one.
This weekend we decided to give a small restaurant called Meatball Kitchen in the Short Vine neighborhood a try. They had catered a work event for a colleague and when I emailed them they came back with a quick response and great pricing. They do a fun and modern take on the meatball. We took a couple friends there this weekend and we all were blown away. I loved the veggie options, Lisa loved the pork option, and our friends loved the beef option. We ordered every side on the menu and we all enjoyed every single one of them.
It has felt like all our choices were a home cooked meal or something comforting that everyone loves but with an interesting twist that plays with our sensibilities. You could call it the perfect marriage.
I think the Passover/Easter combination is more difficult than Hanukkah/Christmas. This is because Easter most always falls within Passover. Over the past few years, Sam has celebrated Easter with my family: joining us for mass, taking part in the Easter egg hunt, and sitting down with us for our giant ham dinner.
Two years ago, a few months into our relationship, I invited Sam over for Easter at my parent’s house. Not wanting to make a big fuss about his religion, I explained to my mom that Sam was Jewish. Mom told my sister, Michelle, who told my sister Carolyn, who told my brother Chris, and soon everyone knew that Sam was Jewish.
Sam and I attended Easter Sunday mass with the rest of the family. I spent the entire mass worrying about how uncomfortable Sam must have been. Later, he told me that he wasn’t uncomfortable at all. He had gone with me to previous masses at my parish in New Jersey, which helped acclimate him to the flow of the mass.
After mass we had our annual Easter egg hunt. My siblings and I have a tendency to make a mess searching for eggs, whereas, Sam was being very careful looking for his egg behind books and under boxes. Upon finding his egg, he realized that he couldn’t eat anything inside because the goodies weren’t kosher for Passover.
Easter dinner came around and my sisters bombarded Sam with “Why can’t you eat ham on Easter?” and “Are peeps kosher for Passover?” Sam fielded these questions like a champ! We had brought some kosher for Passover wine, but it had slipped my mind to tell everyone that it was specifically for Sam. The wine was poured and by the time the wine reached Sam, all the kosher for Passover wine was gone. We sat down to our usual Easter ham, rolls, corn, and potatoes. Thankfully my uncle brought over a small lamb. I think the only thing Sam ate that night was lamb and a potato.
Round Two. Last year, my mom and I worked really hard to make the entire meal kosher for Passover. I explained to her all the dietary restrictions. For the month leading up to Easter, I received calls with “Is this kosher for Passover?” or “Can Sam have that?” My mother experimented with matzo meal and potato starch for the first time in cooking all the Easter dishes and desserts.
During the Easter egg hunt, Sam had remembered some of the hiding places from the previous year and that was where he started looking. Once he found his egg, there were kosher for Passover macaroons inside!
My brother and father picked up some really good kosher for Passover wine which sparked some good conversations about keeping kosher. Dinner was served and my father said the prayers and then offered for Sam to say his blessing. Sam said the motzi in Hebrew and English. My dear old grandfather (who is hard of hearing) blurted out with “That’s not Catholic!” It was at this moment that we told my grandfather that Sam wasn’t Catholic. My dad responded with, “Yes, but everything he just said, you also believe in!” Since then Sam and my grandfather have had many conversations on religion, and have come to the conclusion that there is always more to talk about.
Looking back on last year, I think, making the entire meal kosher for Passover was too stressful for my mother. For Easter, a week ago, I provided the main course and desserts and gave my mom some specific sides to make.
Easter mass was very comfortable sitting alongside Sam and my family. After Mass, Sam even went up to the priest to talk to him. We have been meeting with this priest to plan our wedding ceremony, so he is getting to know Sam and I very well.
The infamous Easter egg hunt came around and after much searching Sam found his egg taped under the lampshade in replace of the light bulb! After an enjoyable egg hunt, dinner was served. Both my father and Sam said the blessing over the meal and everyone left pleasantly full. It took us three years, but I think we have finally found a routine in balancing Easter and Passover!
By Sam Goodman
Won’t you help to sing / These songs of freedom?
We’re currently in the middle of one of the most widely-observed Jewish holidays, Passover. One of the Shalosh Regalim, or three pilgrimage festivals (literally “three legs”), in ancient times Jews throughout the land of Israel would gather and make sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and is one of the few holidays mentioned in the Torah. In modern times, it is observed by abstaining from the consumption of items with leavening (e.g. bread, cake, beer), and with a festive meal on the first two evenings, which is called a seder.
When I was growing up, we would have the first night seder with extended family. Between grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and my nuclear family, there would be about fifteen of us crowded around the table, hearing Poppop recite the story of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt. It was always fun running around with the cousins, searching for the afikomen, and staying up way past our normal bedtimes. We still meet at my uncle’s place every year on the first night, and although lately we’ve had a couple faces missing from the table due to cousins living abroad, or away at college, usually at some point we would Skype them in. Also, as some of the older cousins have become involved in serious relationships, there have been new guests at the table – including, for the past three years, Anne.
The second night seder had a very different tone than the first night while I was growing up. My two sisters and I would each get to invite one friend, and beyond these three friends, it would just be our nuclear family at the table. We lived in an area that had very few Jews, so most of our school friends had never been to a seder before. At the beginning of this seder, we would start by explaining the symbols on the table – the matzah, different items on the seder plate, Elijah’s cup, etc. Diana, my youngest sister, would start the explanation; Stacey, the middle child, would add things that Diana had forgotten, and provide additional layers of meaning behind the symbols; and I would continue with the things both sisters had left out.
This year, we invited Anne’s parents and siblings to our second-night seder. As an added twist, my Dad had asked me a few weeks ago if I could lead our seder. My father, an accountant, was a *bit* exhausted by the night of the second seder, which fell this year on April 15th. After a few weeks of reviewing the haggadah and the Passover story, I had committed as much as I could to memory, and felt prepared for what was to come.
Anne and I arrived at my parents’ house around 5:30, about half an hour before the seder was to begin. I wanted some time to settle in, and do some last-minute reviewing of my notes and the biblical Exodus story. Thanks to some heavy traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, I ended up having quite a bit of extra time – Anne’s brother Chris showed up around 6:15, and her parents and two youngest siblings didn’t arrive until nearly 7PM. After some brief greetings, we sat down at the table, and the seder began.
We began with my retelling the story of the Exodus, beginning with Joseph’s trials and tribulations, culminating in the arrival of the Hebrews in the Promised Land, and hitting all the major high points along the way. Unfortunately, due to my nerves, I ended up hitting many of the minor points as well, resulting in a retelling that felt as long as Cecil B DeMille’s epic film. In reality it was probably only 15 minutes, but it felt much longer. At least nobody could say I missed anything important!
After my retelling was complete, we began reading from the haggadah. After the first cup of wine, my nerves (finally!) began to ease up. We went popcorn-style around the table, each person reading a paragraph. As we reached the Four Questions, we broke our order and had Theresa, Anne’s youngest sibling, read them. We continued along, with Anne’s parents and siblings asking questions as we went. What foods do we “dip”, as mentioned in the Four Questions? What’s the egg for? Why is the shank bone, rather than another part of the lamb, used to symbolize Passover offering? Is that really a lamb’s shank bone, or just a chicken bone? When do we drink more wine? In some cases, the answers were literally on the next page of the haggadah, but I was able to field most other questions without significantly affecting the flow of the service.
Finally, it was time to eat the main meal. Anne had prepared eggplant dip, chopped liver, and potatoes, and my mom cooked up some beef brisket, chicken, and fruit kugel. Everything tasted delicious, though it certainly helped that we were having a very late dinner. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go through the post-meal portion of the seder due to a confluence of the delayed start time and Anne’s youngest siblings’ bedtimes (the following day was a school day, after all).
I’m certainly in no rush to lead my next seder, a responsibility I hope continues to be held by my healthy father and grandfather for many years. However, it was a lot of fun studying the details of the seder and the Passover holiday while preparing to lead it. Also, I’m extremely grateful that Anne’s family is open to learning about the customs and holidays of my faith. While we certainly differ on quite a few theological matters, I appreciate that Anne’s parents are willing to join my family for holiday celebrations. It displays both a confidence in their beliefs and an acceptance of my ability to practice my faith.
On a completely unrelated note, I listened to this song on repeat while writing this blog.
I have always known December as a time to prepare for Christmas. Now that I am in an interfaith relationship, December is a time for many holiday celebrations. Sam grew up in an interfaith household celebrating Christmas with his mom’s family and Hanukkah with his dad’s family.
Growing up, Sam’s family all picked one day to give their Hanukkah gifts. For example, on the first night his dad gave his gifts, and then on the second night his mom gave out her gifts and so on, as to make the excitement of Hanukkah last. I think I like this idea of gift-giving and would like to continue this tradition as Sam and I start having a family of our own.
This year, we were able to exchange all of our gifts with each other on the first night of Hanukkah. Each night thereafter we gathered on Google Hangouts. The image above is his parents (who live in Pennsylvania), his sister, Diana, on the right (at the University of Maryland), his other sister, Stacey, (in Brooklyn) and Sam and I (in New Jersey).
This holiday is unlike all other holidays that I know. All the holidays that I grew up with, we got together as a family for a day or two, but we were hardly ever together celebrating a holiday for many consecutive days. There are 12 days of Christmas and 3 days in the Easter Triduum, but we are never all together celebrating during all of these days. During Hanukkah, each evening, for 8 days, we gathered together to celebrate, by chanting the blessings over our respective menorot. For these consecutive days, we are in touch with each other on a daily basis: wishing Sam’s sister well on her exams and then hearing how well she did on them, hearing of his parent’s quest to find a nice December movie, or his other sister who always has several stories about living above a modeling agency. It is comforting to know that even as adults, my
Two weekends ago, Sam’s extended family had their Hanukkah party at his aunt’s house and exchanged gifts with everyone in a Pollyanna. In my family, we do a Secret Santa on Christmas Eve. I’m not sure which one I enjoy better, the element of surprise in the Secret Santa is always fun, but then again, there is less stress in knowing who has who in Sam’s family. I love hanging out and talking with his family. The conversations at this year’s Hanukkah party seemed to always circle back to wedding planning. It was so much fun hearing the different proposal stories and how his aunts and uncles met each other!
It’s still a little strange to me, to go into someone’s house during December and not see a Christmas tree. It’s also a little strange having a Nativity scene and a menorah as decorations. I guess I am still getting used to the differences in the December Holidays. Sam and I will have to figure out these holiday traditions when we start having a family of our own, but until then- it’s Christmas with my family and his mom’s family and Hanukkah with this dad’s family!
Our wedding blogger Matt Rice recently wrapped up his blog after getting married to his now wife, Shannon. We’re sad to see him leave our blog, but thrilled for his happy union. While we search for a new wedding blogger, I thought I would fill in since I recently got engaged! I have to be upfront though: My fiancé is Jewish, and I am Jewish, so we are not an interfaith couple. Scandalous, I know, but I think there are a lot of pieces of wedding planning that are similar for anyone planning a Jewish wedding—interfaith or not. To some extent, every wedding is the bringing together of two different faiths, and a couple must navigate their families’ differences during the planning process. I hope I can be of help or at least amusement until we find a new blogger—and if you are planning a wedding and are interested in blogging, please email me at email@example.com.
I got engaged in September, and have already nailed down a date and a place, taken engagement photos (my brother is a photographer and was kind enough to give us this gift), blocked off hotel rooms for guests and are close to figuring out who our rabbi and caterer will be. Oh, and I tried on dresses yesterday. (Never has anything been more fun.) We can sit back and eat bon bons now, right?
Not so fast. We’re planning on getting married in Bristol, Rhode Island, which means the bulk of our organizing revolves around the Newport area. Newport is a major wedding destination and everything from lodging to photographers book up quickly. (And no, my brother will not be allowed to work on our wedding day!)
My fiancé and I found ourselves suddenly going from blissfully engaged to full-on planning our wedding just two weeks after our engagement. Not to say this part isn’t also exciting—from the grins on our faces, it’s clear we are not exactly sweating it. But at the same time, after each item gets checked off the list, there’s another one waiting to be explored just as urgently.
It’s kind of like holiday prep—I realize many of us are overwhelmed with the upcoming Thanksgivukkah mega holiday (Is it here yet???), but of course we’re looking forward to it at the same time. How do you keep things in perspective when you’re stressed out prepping for a holiday that is both celebratory and spiritual? IFF/Chicago director Ari Moffic blogged about stress release during the holidays.
When it comes to wedding planning, I find that what keeps the process fun, exciting and meaningful is the constant reminder of what will be our joy at the end of it all: a day in which we make a lifelong commitment surrounded by our loved ones. Eye on the prize.
But how do you keep your eye on the prize when there is a seemingly endless list of things to do to prepare for your wedding day over the next TEN months? Take a step back. What works for me might not work for you, but simply spending quality time with my fiancé and participating in the planning together is what I find makes it all meaningful. It’s more fun to pick out save the dates or imagine a menu when you’re bouncing ideas off your fiancé. I realize I am lucky in that my fiancé actually wants to be an equal player in this process, which is not often the case. (I’m sorry if that sounds sexist: I do not mean to say this exclusively pertains to men. But often there is one person who is less interested in planning than the other.)
I also know that I’m only two months into wedding planning. I keep hearing that things will get more stressful as it gets closer. But your fiancé is your support. He or she is your partner and your care taker and your source of joy. Whether or not they want to help you pick out flower arrangements–and whether or not you agree on bigger issues like whether or not to have a rabbi officiate the ceremony–lean on that person. I promise everything will seem easier.