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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.
As a Catholic teen and young adult, I never imagined I would be planning an interfaith wedding. Even though I was preparing to leave for college in Washington, D.C., I imagined I would be married in my local parish church, by one of the priests I had worked with as a receptionist at our parish center. And here I am, nine years later, planning a life together with a man who completes me and compliments me in the most important ways—and, oh yeah, he’s Jewish.
I’m so happy with the path I have chosen, but it’s different than what I imagined for myself. The saying goes that humans plan and God laughs, but I also believe that God has an infinitely better plan.
My fiancé Zach and I met on the university shuttle on our first day at college. He was rooming with a guy I knew from high school. We went on a few dates, but were ultimately reluctant to jump into something immediately. Five years later, we started dating after attending Preakness (for the music, not the beer or the horses).
A few years in, we started to seriously think about our future. Could we get married and raise a family where he could still be Jewish and I could still be Catholic? Our spirituality, traditions, culture and history make us who we are and shape our families.
Being a planner, I did the only sensible thing to do: I researched. Other people must have had similar challenges or questions, right? We weren’t the first ones to consider doing this. In my research, I was amazed at the resources and communities available to interfaith families. (Side note: What did people do without the internet?) I found great references about what to expect on InterfaithFamily‘s website, including this post about a Catholic priest’s perspective on interfaith marriage. Following a couple’s story was incredibly powerful and made me feel less alone—I saved a few posts from A Practical Wedding (this one brought me to tears and made me realize that I could plan a beautiful and meaningful interfaith wedding). I connected with the challenges and vulnerability that authors shared in the stories I read. We started looking for examples of what we were looking for: a family where the beauty of what we each had experienced as children could be imparted to our kids; where both partners’ beliefs were treated equally; where no one felt excluded.
Reading Susan Katz Miller’s Being Both helped us make our decision. The book explores interfaith families who have chosen to educate their children in both traditions. Some kids choose to continue in both; others make an informed choice about which tradition is right for them. It made us realize that we didn’t have to choose between our traditions; we could share the beauty of both in an authentic way and that others had, in fact, already done it.
Fast forward a few years, and we’re less than six months away from our interfaith wedding in September. We are planning a beautiful outdoor ceremony with a priest and a rabbi both officiating. We have incorporated elements of both our faiths that are particularly meaningful to our family and us. While it has not been easy to plan, it’s been an experience that will stick with us as we begin our married life, and it’s been a good testing ground for our problem-solving and communication as a couple. So far, we’ve aced it.
Recently we’ve been thinking about what it means to be planning a religious wedding as a same-sex couple. Until the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage less than two years ago, marriage was simply not an option for many couples like us. Although we’re 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 get married within the religious tradition that 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 “religion and gay marriage” brings up pages of sites, many of which are not in support of same-sex marriage.
So we asked ourselves if we should still 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.
It has been two months since Jarrett and I tied the knot and there are times I still catch myself daydreaming about our wedding day. While it was not the easiest task to plan our big day, the reward was better than I could have imagined! In the weeks leading up to the wedding, I tried to remain cool and collected while tackling an intimidating to-do list but I remained motivated knowing every check off the list was one step closer to marrying my best friend.
As October 8 inched closer, I grew more and more anxious knowing our closest friends and family members would soon be traveling from near and far to celebrate with us and my hope was that everything would run smoothly day-of. When I woke up the morning of our wedding day, I knew every item on the checklist had been completed except one: Get Married. In that moment, the advice from many close friends who had gotten married months or years prior to us popped into my head… “Be present,” “Don’t sweat the small stuff” and “Enjoy every moment because the day will go by in the blink of an eye.” In that moment, I put every worry behind me and was ready to walk down the aisle.
The day began on a relaxing note with breakfast and movies at home with my mom and bridesmaids while we had our hair and makeup done. The limo arrived to take us to the wedding venue. Once at the venue, time moved faster than ever before. We began photos right away, then it was time for the first look with my soon-to-be husband. We chose to do a non-traditional first look because it allowed us to take all photos before the wedding ceremony so that we could be present at our cocktail hour to have more time with our friends and family. As I walked out onto the patio toward Jarrett standing with his back to me, I smiled knowing we were about to see each other for the first time on our wedding day. The photographer instructed Jarrett to keep his eyes closed while she arranged us back to back for a few photos. My mind raced with memories from our relationship over the last six years that brought us to this point and my smile grew even wider as the photographer instructed us to turn around to see each other for the first time. We cried happy tears as we exchanged notes we had written to each other the night before the wedding.
After our first look, we headed upstairs for our ketubah (marriage contract) signing ceremony. I was raised Catholic and never experienced a ketubah signing ceremony until my own wedding day. But after Jarrett and I spent weeks designing our own Interfaith ketubah, I was excited for this event to be part of our big day. Our wedding venue, The Bradford Estate, recently completed upstairs renovations which provided us with a perfect space for a private ceremony. Rabbi Robyn Frisch (Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia) led a beautiful and intimate ketubah-signing ceremony for Jarrett and me along with my parents and sister, Jarrett’s mom and two close friends we chose as our witnesses. The ketubah-signing ceremony will forever be one of my favorite parts of our wedding day. It was such a special time with the closest people in our lives and a way to spend a short time together before the chaos of the reception began. The ketubah ceremony even calmed some nerves before the wedding ceremony because technically, we were already married once our ketubah was signed!
Following our ketubah signing was our wedding ceremony (chuppah ceremony) officiated by Rabbi Robyn Frisch. Jarrett was raised Jewish and it was his request to be married by a rabbi in a ceremony incorporating Jewish traditions. I was happy to agree to his request as I understood how important this was to him and I did not need to be married in a Catholic church or by a priest for our wedding day to feel special to me. We chose to be married under a chuppah and it was so special to have our parents and my sister standing under the chuppah with us during our ceremony. I love the sentiment of the chuppah representing the home we will build together and how it is open on all sides to represent the welcoming of others.
We also chose to incorporate the Kiddush/Blessing over the wine utilizing a kiddush cup given to us by Jarrett’s aunt from a trip to Israel earlier this year. During our wedding ceremony planning, Robyn provided us with different verses for the exchange of the rings and Sheva B’rachot/Seven Wedding Blessings. Jarrett and I took time together to read through the different verses and chose verbiage that we connected with for use in our ceremony.
We were so thankful to have chosen Robyn as our officiant as she was so helpful during the ceremony planning (especially as a resource to someone who was not raised Jewish). She also took the time to get to know us as a couple and shared stories about us that truly made for a personal and unforgettable wedding ceremony. She even provided explanations during each part of the ceremony for those in the audience who were not from a Jewish faith background so they too could connect and understand the ceremony. Our ceremony ended with the Priestly Benediction and Jarrett breaking the glass with all of our loved ones yelling “Mazel Tov!”
Following our wedding ceremony, our cocktail hour and reception commenced complete with the hora and cutting of the cake. We ate, drank and danced the night away with our closest friends and family members who helped make the day so special. Two months later, we continue to receive compliments about how beautiful and personal our wedding ceremony was and we feel very lucky to have had such a memorable experience. We are thankful for the memories from our wedding day that we will cherish for a lifetime and look forward to what the future holds as we embark on our interfaith marriage together.
As we inch closer and closer to our wedding day, I catch my thoughts darting in a million different directions. “What cake flavor will we pick?”; “Will all of our vendors show up on the big day?”; “How much time will my bridesmaids and I need to get ready?” And while many of these questions have been consuming my thoughts during the wedding-planning process, I know that three months from now, all of it will be irrelevant as our wedding day will have come and gone and we will be starting a new chapter of our lives as husband and wife. This new chapter will have a whole different set of thoughts to keep our minds busy in the future.
As several of our friends and family members have gotten married before us and embark on the journey of marriage, they are now preparing to start families of their own. Watching friends and family members prepare to welcome their first children has made me start to think about what hopes I have for my future children. While every parent can agree that they want their children to be happy, healthy and always feel loved, there are additional hopes I have for my future children who will come from an interfaith marriage and be born into an interfaith family. These are the hopes I have for our future children:
I hope our future children know we chose love despite our different faith backgrounds. Jarrett was raised Jewish and I was brought up in the Catholic faith. We did not allow our different faiths to be a divider; rather, we used these differences to listen to what was important to one another and found compromises that worked for our relationship. I hope our backgrounds and experiences can teach our children to love and learn from others who are different from them.
Jarrett and I plan to raise our children Jewish, yet we still want to teach them that other religions exist and that not everyone has the same beliefs as them. I grew up in a town limited in diversity. Like me, my friends were raised Catholic and many of them even attended the same church as me and my family. I saw my friends at church on Sundays; we went to CCD classes together, received Communion and Confirmation together. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I met and became friends with individuals of different faith backgrounds.
Jarrett’s upbringing was similar in that all of his friends were raised Jewish and attended Temple and Hebrew school together. In the diverse world we live in today, I think it will be beneficial for our children to have exposure to and understanding of different religions. While I want our future children to embrace the religion we have chosen to raise them in, I also want them to understand other religions; especially Catholicism and the traditions that are important to me as someone raised Catholic.
I hope our future children feel confident in their religious identity despite coming from an interfaith family. In our ever-changing culture, interfaith families are becoming more and more common, but if my children are raised in a predominantly Jewish community, I hope my children will be able to educate their peers about their own interfaith family and never feel excluded because they come from an interfaith family. I hope they are proud of where they come from and who they are.
Finally, I hope our future children choose love like we have. Years and years from now when my future children meet the person who they want to share their life with, I want them to pick their life partner based on love. If our future children choose to marry, we will support them whether or not they choose interfaith marriage because we will support what makes them happy. Interfaith marriage is what we have chosen is right for our lives and I look forward to beginning that marriage in less than three months. As we continue the countdown to the beginning of our interfaith marriage, I also look forward to what the future holds when we decide to turn our interfaith marriage into an interfaith family.
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.
When Jarrett and I started our wedding planning journey last April, I knew very little about Jewish wedding traditions. However, once I learned how important it was to Jarrett for us to have a Jewish wedding ceremony, I spent time learning about Jewish wedding traditions so we could find special ways to incorporate these traditions into our big day.
One tradition Jarrett and I have been particularly focused on over the last few weeks is the design of our interfaith Ketubah. The Ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract. In ancient times, this marriage contract was legally binding and confirmed that the groom would provide for his new spouse. Today, the Ketubah is a personalized piece of art that includes both meaningful text and design. The modern Ketubah has been adapted from ancient times to better illustrate modern marriage, the partnership between a couple and their love and commitment to each other.
During our first meeting with our wedding officiant, Rabbi Robyn Frisch (Director of IFF/Philadelphia), we discussed ceremony details, including the Ketubah. She advised that we choose a Ketubah that is meaningful to us, especially when deciding on the text. She informed us that there are different texts written for couples of different religious backgrounds so we should search for interfaith text for our Ketubah (for ideas see this InterfaithFamily resource). She also asked us to start thinking about who we would choose as our witnesses in signing our Ketubah on our wedding day. The two witnesses must not be related to us but should be very special people in our lives to share in such an important tradition.
Rabbi Robyn made suggestions on where to search for our perfect Ketubah, including the National Museum of Jewish American History in Philadelphia as well as Etsy online. Then, at our last InterfaithFamily Love & Religion workshop a fellow classmate who is also in the process of planning her interfaith wedding made the suggestion to look on www.ketubah.com.
I spent days scouring through the pages of beautifully-designed Ketubahs and shared many of my favorite designs with Jarrett. It’s a big decision as we look forward to having this special work of art displayed during our wedding ceremony in October and then hanging it inside our home for years to come. We loved so many of the options on the ketubah.com website. It was a hard decision but we were drawn toward the intricacy of the paper cut ketubah designs. Our favorite design has personalized touches within the artwork, including our names cut into the top. We can also choose to incorporate a favorite quote or phrase around the perimeter of the Ketubah design.
This site offered four interfaith text options for us to choose from. I printed one of each text choice from their website and on a recent road trip Jarrett and I spent time reading the texts together to determine which one was most meaningful to us. We chose an interfaith text that we could identify with and felt symbolized our partnership with words we would use toward one another. We felt especially connected to the text that states, “They choose each other as friends according to the teachings of our ancestors who said, ‘Acquire a friend with whom you will learn, next to whom you will sleep and in whom you will confide.’”
To make this wedding planning step even more special, Jarrett’s mom has requested to buy our Ketubah as part of our wedding gift because it is equally important to her that we have chosen to incorporate Jewish wedding traditions into our big day. We look forward to seeing our personalized Ketubah when it arrives and we are even more excited to participate in the Ketubah-signing ceremony on our wedding day in less than five months!
I am a lot of things in this diverse world. I am a female, a daughter, granddaughter, sister, fiancé, niece, friend, Catholic, dietitian, animal lover, coffee and chocolate enthusiast… in no particular order. While I identify as many different things, there are many things I am not and won’t try to be. As I continue to grow and navigate through life, I am finding that the way I define and present myself to the world is more important than the way someone else defines me. However, when someone tries to define or label me differently than how I see myself, it can be hurtful.
I have had so many positive experiences over the last several years as one half of an interfaith couple. I have had the opportunity to learn so much about the Jewish faith. I have embraced Jewish traditions and culture and continue to learn ways to incorporate these new traditions into my life. I have been welcomed with open arms into a Jewish family that I will officially be able to call my own family when I say “I do” in an interfaith wedding ceremony six months from now.
Unfortunately, when small, negative experiences occur, they can put a damper on even the most joyful occasions, just like a rain cloud can ruin a beautiful sunny day. These negative moments can linger causing sadness and frustration. I have encountered very few negative opinions in response to my interfaith relationship but that doesn’t mean it hurts less when these situations do arise. My hope is that individuals today can continue to become more open-minded and non-judgmental. As the Catholic half of a Catholic/Jewish interfaith couple, below are some experiences I’d like to avoid repeating in the future.
For starters, please do not call me a “shiksa” if you would like to maintain a friendship with me. Calling me this term will not make me laugh and I will not think it’s funny. The word “shiksa” means “non-Jewish female,” however, other translations for the word include “impure” and “abomination.” This word is not a term of endearment and every definition I have ever read for this word describes it as derogatory. Most definitions even directly indicate that this word should not be used as a label or reference for someone. It is 2016, I am a Catholic woman who fell in love with a Jewish man and there is nothing forbidden about our love. If you are a person who identifies as Jewish who is not aware of the correct definition for the word “shiksa,” please take the time to research the word and then ask yourself if the person you’re referring to would be offended by this.
I am Catholic. I am “of a different faith background” but would prefer not to be called a “non-Jew.” I have read articles about the controversy of the term “non-Jew.” It made me stop and think about my feelings toward this term. I get it. I’m not Jewish and I’m not trying to be. I am marrying someone who identifies as Jewish while I identify as Catholic. To me, this is very concrete. The problem arises when someone else starts identifying me by what I am not rather than what I am. When someone calls me a “non-Jew” it makes me feel like I’m on the outside looking in or excluded from a group. The term “non-Jew” also makes me feel as though the person referring to me as a “non-Jew” feels superior because they are Jewish and I am not. Individuals should be identified as what they are rather than what they are not to avoid hurt feelings or discomfort.
Finally, I have been asked on a number of occasions since my engagement if I plan to convert to Judaism. While I respect the question and a person’s interest in our different faith backgrounds, I don’t feel as though I need to convert to my partner’s religion in order for it to be acceptable to get married. Don’t get me wrong, I love that conversion is an option and that in the future, if I feel conversion is right for me, I can make that decision. On the other hand, I love that intermarriage is accepted by many today and that I can continue to practice my personal religious beliefs while building new traditions with my partner who has personal religious beliefs that are different from my own.
I don’t know what the future holds for my partner and me as we move closer to our wedding day but my hope is for continued acceptance and respect for individuals of different faiths and interfaith couples. We will continue to surround ourselves with friends and family who accept and embrace our different faiths and support us as we build this new life together!
After our first pre-wedding meeting with Rabbi Frisch, we were giddy with excitement. We walked the 10 blocks home reviewing all the things we had talked about. (Check out my last blog post to see how we chose Rabbi Frisch to officiate.) One detail that stood out was when Rabbi Frisch asked us if we were going to have a ketubah. Amma said something like, “Oh is that the canopy thing that you stand under?” and I said, “No, no, that’s a chuppah!” I thought I was so smart for half a second, until I realized I didn’t know what a ketubah was either.
We learned that the purpose and meaning of the ketubah, like many traditions, has changed over time and still varies from one Jewish community to another. Currently, within our particular community, it is basically a written and signed statement of love and commitment between the couple getting married. You can read InterfaithFamily’s kutabah explanation here.
You should have heard all the ketubah mispronunciations we came up with in the days following our meeting as we discussed whether or not we were going to have one. That week we went to our friends’ house for dinner and brought up the subject with them. They were married two years ago in a Jewish ceremony. They showed us their ketubah and told us the story of searching for just the right one. Not satisfied with anything they could find in the area, or online, their rabbi put them in touch with an Israeli scribe. The result was a stunning, sacred document with thick black Hebrew lettering and gold accents. As an artist and a bride-to-be, I was inspired.
Knowing I am an artist, Rabbi Frisch mentioned that if we did decide to go for it, I could make our ketubah myself, so I set to work researching the various versions and styles and decided it was definitely something I wanted to try my hand at. I loved the circular designs I was finding in my searches. Knowing I was bound to take a lot of liberties adjusting the meaning and language to suit our needs, I wanted to use more traditional colors and motifs to balance out the inevitable modern flair.
As I was familiarizing myself with ketubah art, one particular image made its way into the forefront of my mind; a small painting my grandparents have had hanging in their house for as long as I can remember. The combination of shapes and colors (and the fact that it had a line of Hebrew text below it) was just the inspiration I needed. I also loved that I would be drawing my inspiration from something that tied back to my family, giving the whole project a deeper foundation. I found a photo of the painting I had taken last year, while documenting some of the art and tchotchkes around my grandparents’ house. I collected my paints and inks and began designing our ketubah.
I continued to use the original painting as a reference throughout the composition of the piece. In the original, a strange bird sits atop a large golden egg and the whole image is framed by a circle. It occurred to me that a bird sits on an egg to protect and nurture it, so perhaps it could do the same for our promises to each other.
I found a ketubah text that suited us beautifully, and painted it in black ink within a gold circle, meant to represent the egg from the original painting. Among decorative shapes, I painted the same strange bird from my grandparents’ painting, sitting on top of our promises, keeping them safe. I regretted not knowing how to write in Hebrew, but knew I could at least copy a few words. I searched online for a morsel of Jewish wisdom that would add value to our ketubah.
Within seconds, I came across the perfect words: “Shalom Bayit,” or “Peace in the Home,” a Jewish concept referring to domestic harmony. I did my best to copy the words letter for letter, bringing my creative journey to an end. I presented the finished piece to Amma, and we were both excited to welcome it into our ever-evolving vision of our wedding, and our marriage.
In the days after our engagement, we began to imagine our wedding. I had thought about a possible future wedding many times in the past, but the realness of that imagined wedding became heightened by our official engagement. Distant ideas like, “getting married outside might be nice,” were suddenly translated into Google searches for “outdoor wedding venues.” One of the first questions we asked ourselves was, “Who do we want to officiate?” I was actually surprised by how quickly the answer came to me. After flipping through the various options in my mind, I knew a rabbi was the right choice for us. I asked Amma what she thought of the idea, and without skipping a beat, she completely agreed.
Just a couple of years ago I don’t think either of us would have guessed that we would be married by a rabbi. For starters, neither of us is technically Jewish (depending on how you define Jewish). One could argue (and I often do) that I am Jewish because my grandparents are. Whether or not that argument wins, depends on the audience. Because I wasn’t raised Jewish, and whatever lineage I do have is on my father’s side, some would say I’m a far cry, but that has never stopped me from feeling Jewish! And that isn’t the only reason we want a rabbi for our ceremony.
As Amma and I examined our decision, we discovered our desire for a tie to something greater than ourselves to play a meaningful role in our wedding. We may not be religious, but we do feel a strong spiritual connection to humanity, the universe and God. It was clear to us that we wanted the person leading us into our marriage to be someone who is dedicated to that greater spiritual connection.
Also on a spiritual level, being two women, we felt that our union would be best endorsed and honored by the heart, experience and wisdom of a woman. Reform Judaism has not only been ordaining women and LGBTQ rabbis since the early 1970s but also supporting its followers in the LGBTQ community. This history of equality and acceptance was yet another great reason for us to adopt Judaism into our wedding and our lives.
So we knew we wanted a rabbi, but we still had to find the right one. I didn’t know what I would find when I started my search. Not only had we just moved to Philadelphia, but we also weren’t part of a Jewish community. I went online and Googled “Philadelphia rabbis,” and up popped an ad for InterfaithFamily. I didn’t know what InterfaithFamily was, but it sounded inclusive and open-minded, so I clicked. I liked what the InterfaithFamily community stood for and it seemed like it had grown from a wonderful place of wanting to bring people together. The fact that they had a rabbi referral service was more than I could have dreamed of.
The referral service was exactly what I needed, and my request was handled with care and attention. When I received a response from Rabbi Frisch, it felt like a gift. The questions on the referral form were used to compile a list of potential rabbis who were appropriately matched to our needs. It was fun learning about all these different rabbis. I did an Internet search for each candidate to find out more.
After narrowing the list down to a handful of rabbis who I thought might be a good fit, I sent out initial emails. I felt hopeful as the responses began popping up in my inbox. There were two or three who, through the tone and wording of their emails, felt like they could be “the one.” But over the next week or so, each conversation resulted in a dead end due to various issues, and there I was back at the drawing board, feeling defeated.
Rabbi Frisch must have heard my prayer, because the next morning I received an email from her asking how my search was going. I wrote back describing my fruitless efforts. In my reply I also felt inspired to talk about my strong desire to have a rabbi marry us, and why. Much to my surprise, but true to her generous nature, she offered to be our rabbi. I can’t begin describe my delight. Not only did I already feel like I was getting to know her through the emails we had written back and forth, but I absolutely knew she was a perfect fit for us.
There is something about the way everything worked out that just feels like fate. Since Rabbi Frisch agreed to officiate, we have met in person to chat and get to know each other better. Suffice it to say, we all hit it off wonderfully! We plan on meeting a few more times before the wedding to talk about the ceremony in more detail, and we can’t wait to see her again.