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By Hila Ratzabi
When José and I first started dating, my Jewish parents were not pleased. Though my mom is fairly liberal, some instinct flared up in her that has roots in centuries of Jewish fear of disappearance. Though that fear has lessened over the decades for many Jewish families, particularly in the U.S., it still rises up for many people, sometimes unexpectedly. What if my daughter loses her Jewish identity?, some parents wonder. What if the grandchildren aren’t raised Jewish? Is this the end of the line?
For me and many other Jews like me, this fear is unfounded. I went to Jewish day school from kindergarten through high school, and even went on to get a degree in Jewish philosophy. While my Jewish practices have changed over the years, I have always been a proud and engaged Jewish woman. I was, and remain, confident that my connection to Judaism is strong enough to share with my husband who is not Jewish and our future children.
The road to acceptance took a few years, but by the time we were ready to get engaged my parents had thankfully come around. They gave us their blessing, and we set out to create a wedding that reflected my Jewish heritage and José’s Mexican culture.
We had it fairly easy in that José does not identify with a particular religious tradition. He is a scientist and committed atheist; as a child he briefly attended a Baptist religious school in the small town in Baja where he was raised, but he definitively broke off with religion when he awakened to his atheism. While being an atheist, José has always supported and joined in with my Jewish practices. I’m not a believer either, but I love Jewish holidays, attending services and grappling with the big questions in life. Judaism is the lens through which I consider ethical dilemmas and the source of my commitment to social and environmental justice. These are things we’re able to share.
We found an amazing Reconstructionist rabbi, Rachel Weiss, of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah—the gay/lesbian synagogue in New York City—to officiate at our wedding. Aside from being open-minded and accepting, Rabbi Weiss also had the added bonus of being fluent in Spanish. She had previously worked with Mexican immigrants, and we felt she understood both of our backgrounds.
Together with Rabbi Weiss, we designed a ceremony that honored the dual heritage we were bringing together. We included traditional Jewish elements, including the chuppah (wedding canopy), the seven blessings, the circling of bride and groom, the ketubah (marriage contract) and the ring exchange. We wrote our own ketubah text instead of using the traditional text, and changed the language of the ring exchange and seven blessings to be more inclusive and universal. The witnesses who signed our ketubah included two of our close friends who happen to be another interfaith/intercultural couple—Jewish and Indian. We had watched them create a beautiful marriage that included both of their cultures, and were inspired by their example.
José’s grandmother was central to his upbringing, often standing in as a second parent since he didn’t have a father in his life, so we wanted to make sure she was included and would understand what was going on at the wedding. Since his grandmother doesn’t speak English, Rabbi Weiss explained each part of the ceremony before it was performed in both English and Spanish. José’s grandmother found the customs fascinating and listened intently as they were described. We also had traditional Mexican paper cutouts (papel picado) created for our wedding, which served as decoration at the entrance of the garden where the ceremony took place.
My own Jewish background is somewhat mixed, in that my mother is Ashkenazi and my father is Yemenite on his father’s side and Sephardic on his mother’s side. To honor my late grandmother, Rabbi Weiss sang a Jewish song in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language that my grandmother had spoken. This was another way to bridge our cultures, having a taste of the Spanish language woven into an ancient Jewish song.
When it came to the reception, we just wanted to throw an awesome party. The raucous klezmer band Golem was essential to making that happen. The wedding took place in an art museum on Long Island, and since both José and I dabble in visual art, we made mini-paintings on mini-easels as souvenirs for our (very impressed) guests. We also brought a giant blank canvas and paints for guests to create a piece of collective artwork for us. The painting now hangs in our living room, reminding us of that incredible day.
During the reception, my mom gave a speech that chronicled her and my dad’s evolution in coming to accept and share the joy in our relationship. They had truly done a “180,” realizing over time that they had nothing to fear in my marrying “outside” the Jewish faith, and that I had found the life partner who was exactly right for me, and who they loved like a son. Now, three years later, I am pregnant, and we all can’t wait to bring another person into our crazy, mixed family. Among our plans for the baby: teaching it Hebrew, Spanish… and if there’s time, maybe even English.
I confess that I was disappointed by the mikveh.
I did not expect to emerge from the waters with fully grown peyot and spouting Yiddish. Nor was I unhappy with the aura of the mikveh, quiet and peaceful, reminiscent of the womb of which it is symbolic. Rather, I was unprepared for the mundanity of the instance of conversion, a once-in-a-lifetime moment for which I had not prepared myself. Introspective but self-absorbed and weaned on television dramas and Hollywood blockbusters, I expected the significance of the moment to present itself to me. Having spent over a year studying to become a Jew, it didn’t even occur to me that I should prepare myself for the moment of conversion. I can now say that, in that moment, I lacked sufficient kavannah, which may be translated as “intentionality” or even “mindfulness.”
Contrast my experience at the mikveh with Elijah’s encounter with God. Elijah stood atop the mountain as “the Eternal passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal, but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake, but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire, but the Eternal was not in the fire.” And what then? “A soft murmuring sound,” sometimes translated as “a still, small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12.) God was not in the fire, but in a whisper, and in order to hear a whisper, one must listen.
There is no magic in our rituals. Reciting the motzi over a loaf of challah does not make that bread more sacred than any other. But saying a blessing over food we are about to eat does change our relationship with it. The profundity of a ritual, then, is to be found not in the change it makes in the world, but in ourselves. We cannot, like God, call down wind and fire but, through ritual, through saying a blessing or lighting the candles, we can create the space necessary to listen to that still, small voice and, having heard it, can ourselves go forth to effect change in the world.
Just as I did not prepare myself for the mikveh, I did not consider the implications of converting to Judaism before I married Shannon. It didn’t occur to me that our different “statuses” might be an issue, or that some people might deny altogether the legitimacy of our (Jewish) union. Indeed, it was only earlier this year, after I had begun to “settle into” my Jewish identity, that I discovered how hotly contested intermarriage is. A conversation begun in Reform Judaism Magazine over whether or not rabbinical students at HUC-JIR should be admitted if they are married to non-Jews continues to provoke responses on both sides of the debate. (IFF founder Ed Case relates some responses here.) I read the editorials that were published, and I read the comments on the editorials, and I began to worry. Was I doing something wrong by planning a Jewish wedding when my partner isn’t Jewish?
A friend told me that no matter how “humane” or “compassionate” the arguments one makes, a wedding ceremony between a Jew and a non-Jew simply cannot be Jewish. And I confess to writing an e-mail to a Reform rabbi who published an editorial condemning intermarriage. I explained to him my relationship with Shannon, much in the way I described it in my first post here. And he responded that, while I am “on the playing field,” Shannon will find herself “increasingly on the sidelines.” I don’t view performing mitzvot as a sport, and I’m not trying to achieve a high score. Nor is Shannon a benchwarmer.
Over the weeks, the editorials and comments about intermarriage continued to pile up. Friends told me not to read them, but I couldn’t help myself. It was like being buffeted by a mighty wind, shaken by an earthquake, or burned with fire.
I had read about the issue. I had talked about it with friends. I had thought about it. And so I did what any good liberal Jew would do: I made up my mind that I would do what I think is right, and to hell with what everyone else thought. As a rabbi and friend of mine has put it, “Haters gonna hate.” I can’t control what some members of our community think.
I intend to approach our wedding with greater kavannah than I did my visit to the mikveh. The debate about intermarriage rages on, but I’ve stopped paying attention to it: God is not in the fire. Now I’m free to listen to the still, small voice.