This Hindu-Jewish Couple Celebrated with Two Beautiful Weddings

  

By Elana Bell

Photos by Peter Dressel

Hindu wedding. Photo 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.Photo by Peter Dressel

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.

Elana's Jewish wedding. Photo by Peter Dressel

Photo by Peter Dressel

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.

Photo by Peter DresselOn 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 Photo by Peter Dresselfamily’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.

Growing Our Interfaith Marriage “Garden”

  

emily and jose garden blogBefore Jose and I got married, I wondered how marriage would influence our personal growth. I frequently heard the term “growing apart” to describe divorce. I worried whether that happens to some extent in all marriages, that all couples drift apart in their natural self-evolution and whether some couples are just stronger at making the union work. Would growing alongside another person stunt personal evolution, constraining one to only grow so much? Or would a marriage stimulate more self-growth?

Even before setting off on a career as a yoga teacher, I was interested in the concept of self-improvement. I believe we must better ourselves to better serve the world around us. I always saw, and still see, only minor hurdles in Jose and I coming from different religions and cultural backgrounds. All spirituality teaches us to be compassionate and kind to others, and there are more similarities than differences. If our religions encourage us to serve and to love, then Jose’s Catholicism is not at odds with my Judaism in that sense. Still, what obstacles from our faiths might emerge within our continued growth?

As we sat outside enjoying frozen yogurt last week, I asked Jose to get a cup of water from inside the shop. He refused. I thought he was being lazy and I got annoyed, but he explained that he didn’t feel comfortable asking for a cup of water when they sell bottles.

Wow, I thought. I was raised to not spend money unless I had to. Tap water is always free, so why buy a bottle? He was raised to respect a shop owner’s right to sell a product and to buy the item they sell.

Part of the beauty of our interfaith, intercultural marriage is the subtle differences in values, opinions and behavior that shine light on our self-development. When you’re married, you allow yourself to be exposed and vulnerable, to reveal your faults and to be embraced by love. When you give your partner the chance to love you fully for your strengths and for your weaknesses, you become aware of how to grow as an individual and as a partner. When your starting point involves different backgrounds, you often face these opportunities for growth early on.

When you grow alone, you may shoot off in one direction, one path, and no one is there to reality-check you. You may have family and friends as a support system, maybe roommates you must learn to live with, but no relationship compares to a life partner in the way it forces you to face yourself. That’s part of the reason I was always afraid of marriage.

I used to think of marriage like a sandbox: You build the wood planks around the outside to set clear boundaries for your wishes, desires, dislikes, hopes and dreams, and you try to keep the sand inside because there’s a finite amount of it. You can play with the sand, shaping and molding it in different ways as you grow and learn together, but the sandbox itself never changes shape, unless you break it down and start from scratch. That’s the other reason I feared marriage—what if we grow out of the sandbox?

I realize now there’s a much better metaphor for marriage. The marriage itself can grow; it’s not a sandbox. The two partners grow as individuals, but at the same time the union itself grows with life experiences, hurdles overcome and shared memories. I see marriage now as a garden. What grows each season may change. Sometimes you have a fruitful harvest because you have tended your garden with care, while other times the external factors like too little rain, sun or warmth prevent growth. Ultimately, each season is new, a new beginning for you to replant and learn from your mistakes.

Our interfaith and intercultural marriage is a beautifully varied garden. Together we have more seeds to choose from, more lessons from our ancestors’ cultures and religions to explore. We can plant something new, something uniquely blended to our garden, when we have children. Most important, if the harvest of our self-evolution grows beyond the perimeter of our garden because we tended to each other and ourselves with care, we can expand the garden.

Our marriage, still in its infancy, has taught me that growing alongside another person is in fact a greater, more rewarding challenge than growing alone. Marriage forces you to grow to the very edges of your comfort zone, expanding within the shape you and your partner design. That allows you to grow fully in all directions, becoming a well-rounded individual and a loving, supportive partner. And just like a garden, marriage grows when seeds are planted for the future, and that growth happens when you aren’t looking.

Blending Holiday Decorations and a New Life Together

  
Alexandra & Paul at a family holiday party shortly after they got engaged

Alexandra & Paul at a family holiday party shortly after they got engaged

In a million years, I never would have imagined that I would someday marry the sweet, funny, curly-haired freshman I met at a house party at Penn State 10 years ago. Yet, here we are.

Paul and I were friendly acquaintances at Penn State, but not much more. Despite our shared love of bad television and daiquiris, we only socialized a handful of times during our four years in State College.

After graduating from Penn State, Paul moved to Philadelphia to study medicine and I moved there to study law. Halfway through our second year of graduate school, we discovered we were both single. (Thanks, Facebook!) Paul asked me out. Unlike our chance encounters at Penn State, when Paul walked into our first date it was different. We talked for hours, laughed a lot and I had this overwhelming intuition that this was the beginning of something big.

We have been together since that first date. Our respective career paths have not always made it easy or even allowed us to live in the same city, but we both now work and live in Philadelphia. Nearly five years strong, we are still talking for hours, still laughing a lot and our relationship is the biggest thing in my life.

On a chilly Friday night this past December, Paul proposed in our living room, which was decorated at the time with our Star of David-topped Christmas tree, wax-covered hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) and a porcelain statue of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus, recently gifted to me by my Catholic, Italian grandmother.

Surrounded by our blended holiday decorations, we excitedly agreed to blend our lives as husband and wife.

By way of background, I was raised Catholic. Paul is Jewish. Our proposal story is, undoubtedly, a beautiful snapshot of our interfaith relationship. However, in all candor, the interfaith aspect of our relationship has been a challenging (albeit, a rewarding) one. Communication and compromise have been instrumental to our process.

After one particularly difficult discussion, I turned to my best, most reliable resource in a time of uncertainty: Google. That night I found the InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia website. I began reading blogs by clergy and similarly-situated couples who have made interfaith relationships, weddings and parenthood work. Suddenly, Paul and I had options, resources and a network to help us figure this out. It was a game-changer and ultimately led us to our kind and open-minded officiant, Rabbi Robyn Frisch (director of IFF/Philadelphia).

Paul and I will be married in an interfaith ceremony on December 3, 2016 in Philadelphia. While I am still not entirely sure what that will entail, I look forward to figuring it out and sharing our experience with the InterfaithFamily community.

The Misunderstandings of Being Inter-Faith

  

I am having a rediscovery of music and have been listening to the band The Mars Volta quite a bit. One of the things that I love about those albums is that the lyrics do not seem to make any sense, but it does not take away from the enjoyment of the music. In my mind and to my ears it all makes sense. To a lot of people, without any context, it could easily be misunderstood, dismissed, or even perhaps judged harshly.

Our inter-faith yearly Seder, where all are welcome

I think a lot could be said similarly to Lisa and me, in our inter-faith relationship and our inter-faith ceremony.

I felt strongly about having a rabbi marry us and incorporating a lot of Jewish customs. Lisa was passionate about getting married in the Catholic chapel due to her upbringing and her love for her grandparents. To a lot of outsiders, those concepts married together (pun intended) may be strange and misunderstood.

Before I came to Cincinnati, my then rabbi sat down with me one-on-one and in groups with other inter-faith couples. I not only left with the rabbi’s blessing, but also with the idea that in order for an inter-faith couple to be successful, both faiths must be embraced and encouraged.

Outside of our ceremony, I feel that one misconception of an inter-faith couple is that G-D has very little to do with the relationship. I was having a conversation with a rabbi this week. (Note: I speak with a lot of rabbis in my line of work. This was not a rabbi I have an ongoing relationship with.) He was the second rabbi who tried to nicely explain that when couples are inter-faith, that somehow G-D is taken out of the equation.

When it comes to Lisa and me, it is G-D who made and continues to make our relationship possible. My spiritual mentor, and groomsman, Scott, encouraged me to allow G-D to come into the relationship. Whether it was sending a text message or calling Lisa on the phone, I always said a prayer. Even before Lisa and I met in person, there was a big G-D moment. As I was running late for my flight to visit her and speeding toward the airport, I decided to pull over my car and pray. The five minutes I took to pray was the same amount of time the flight was delayed and I was able to make the final boarding call. Our foundation is based on our relationship with G-D. Whether it was moving across the country, or planning our wedding today, our relationship continues to thrive because we both have faith, even if we express it in different ways.

This week, Lisa and I both felt that we as an inter-faith couple were being misunderstood, whether from people trying to understand the ceremony and the venue choices or our life decision. I am just grateful that I simply have this space to reach out to others who are inter-faith to let them know they are not alone in those awkward moments. The important thing to remember is G-D speaks every language and will show you love no matter how you want to express it.