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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.
Forty-four days, 23 hours and 53 minutes to go to the big day (but who’s counting?), so we thought we’d give you a sneak preview of how we’ve constructed our interfaith ceremony. All the way back last summer, we had a lovely meeting with our rabbi, IFF/Philadelphia‘s Rabbi Frisch, and our priest, Mother Takacs, where we talked about the elements of the wedding services from our religions and which of them were particularly meaningful to us.
There was no question that we would stand under a chuppah; after walking down the aisle separately, we’ll hold hands and stand underneath it together, entering the special space as equals. We’ll begin with the Kiddush, and then the “Declaration of Intent” from the Episcopalian tradition, in which we’ll both announce to everyone that we intend to get married and stay married!
Both our officiants will say a few words, and Rabbi Frisch will read our ketubah text aloud as well (we’ll sign it before the ceremony). We then move onto the part of the ceremony that, for Vanessa, was the most important part from her tradition: the vows. Rather than writing our own vows, we’ll say the traditional ones derived from the Book of Common Prayer. These vows encompass everything that we could possibly want to cover, promising to remain faithful to each other through the best and the worst times. After exchanging our rings, we’ll hear the Sheva B’rachot (seven blessings), and have the second Kiddush. One final blessing from the priest, and then – we’ll break the glass together!
Hopefully you can see from this description that we’ve tried to weave our two traditions together: We’re not keeping the Jewish parts of the ceremony separate from the Christian ones, but rather combining them to make a wedding service that does justice to how we plan to continue our lives together. Our conversations with Rabbi Frisch and Mother Takacs helped us to figure out what we needed to do to make our ceremony perfect for us and our families, and the process of planning the ceremony has given us the space to reflect on exactly what each part means to us. So much of the wedding planning industry tells us to spend hours picking the perfect menu and flower arrangements: Why shouldn’t we spend just as much time thinking about the words and actions that will be the centerpiece of our ceremony?
The wedding was over a month ago, and we had a fantastic honeymoon in the Galapagos Islands and mainland Ecuador. It was an incredible mix of beautiful scenery, wildlife, laid back people and delicious food. It was insanely hard leaving behind 80-degree tropical weather with limitless ocean and volcano views to return to 10-degree gray and dreary weather in Philadelphia. But we did, and we are back with stories to tell.
I have been sick twice in the last two weeks since I got back (it’s been a bad winter) and I am working on making a complete career shift that is both scary and exciting. Back to reality. As it happens, the phrase “the honeymoon is over” feels pretty apropos, but luckily not regarding our relationship.
Over the last two weeks I have returned to my gratefulness practice where I can truly appreciate the unbelievable experiences we had and the opportunities we were given with the wedding.
There was something intangibly special about our wedding. Having everyone we loved in one place cheering us on and celebrating this milestone was a high I will carry with me forever. The photos we have and the trailer video from our videographer are mind blowing and awesome. They capture our love and admiration for each other, which is something I will cherish for many years to come.
I look forward to watching my wedding video trailer (and the longer one still in progress) when we are at our highest and lowest moments, to remember how we felt on our wedding day. If you are planning a wedding and can splurge for a videographer in your wedding budget, do it. It is something you will have forever, long after the funny stories and fuzzy memories fade. It is something we would not have done because of cost, so having this included in the contest we won was such a blessing. But if I had to do it again, it is something I would spring for.
Our ceremony was exactly what we hoped it would be—intimate and meaningful—and it honored both of our religious backgrounds. Jose’s side loved seeing the Jewish traditions; his older relatives gave us feedback that they were glad they could witness them for the first time. My side adored the Filipino traditions, especially the arras, or exchanging of coins, and the cord and veil ritual, where Jose and I were clothed in a veil and a cord shaped in an infinity sign while we exchanged short promises.
We chose seven friends and relatives to recite seven blessings to us in English, as a nod to the Jewish tradition of a rabbi reciting the Sheva Brachot, or seven blessings, in Hebrew. We rewrote them to words that made sense for us and it was beautiful to have our loved ones say those words back to us.
We also did a candle lighting ceremony where our parents lit two candles and we used their flames to light our unity candle, as a nod to the Filipino tradition of the parents “lighting the way” for the new couple. We also incorporated the Jewish tradition of saying a blessing and drinking wine, and Jose broke the glass at the end of the ceremony, followed by a huge “Mazel tov!” from the crowd.
The night before the wedding really set the tone for the weekend. We hosted a ketubah signing ceremony for our immediate families and the wedding party. This was something I thought long and hard about for months during wedding planning. Winning the contest was amazing in so many ways, but it was important to me to still have the intimate ceremony I always dreamed of. At the ketubah signing, we had our rabbi from our synagogue officiate by explaining what the document is and the meaning of it, and then leading us through signing it. We also lit Hanukkah candles for the sixth night of Hanukkah and Shabbat candles, since it was a Friday night.
We were able to accomplish a personal and meaningful feeling at our ceremony, thanks to our outstanding officiant who donated her services for the contest, Jill Magerman. I can’t recommend her highly enough. I feel like she is a part of our little family now.
But not everything went so easily. Two days before our wedding, Jose’s first cousin lost her courageous battle with cancer. It was devastating; she had her entire life before her and young children and a wonderful husband we all adore. We did our best to honor her life at our ceremony and to fill the hole left by her absence with happy memories from the evening. We were not able to be with Jose’s family at her funeral, but we said prayers for her while we were on our honeymoon.
After the ceremony, Jose and I took a few moments alone for the Jewish tradition of yichud, or seclusion. It is a chance for us, as a newly married couple, to spend a few cherished moments alone before being showered with love by our family and friends at the reception. It was such a nice break in the day, and gave us a chance to take our first married selfie with our new rings.
The reception was the most fun I have ever had. We hired DJ Deejay, a nightlife and wedding deejay we go to see often, and he played non stop hits. (His slogan when he spins at Silk City Diner is “playing anything you can shake your hips to.”) I danced myself to exhaustion! It was glorious. I remember my face hurt so much from smiling and my voice was sore from singing.
We honored a bunch of traditions at the reception too: the hora (for the Jews), the money dance (for the Filipinos) and the anniversary dance. We did the cake cutting and I smashed cake in Jose’s face (sorry babe). But we did not do a bouquet or garter toss (sorry wedding party), although I did have some awesome friends recreate a bouquet toss of their own, which was hilarious.
The speeches by my parents, Jose’s mom and Uncle Jun, my sister (Maid of Honor) and Jose’s brother (Best Man) left me floored. I was seriously blown away by the power of their words and genuine joy that our families felt for us. And the craziest part was that my sister and Jose’s brother chose the exact same Dr. Seuss quote in their speeches, without planning it:
“We’re all a little weird. And life is a little weird. And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall into mutually satisfying weirdness — and call it love — true love.”
Hold on, are we really that weird?
Ultimately nothing was better than Jose’s poetic vows. I knew he was sentimental and a great orator, but I had no idea he could tug at my heartstrings that hard. Jeez, he had me sobbing! And then smiling. And then laughing. His best line came off the cuff. He planned what he was going to say but then winged it to make it even better. He said, “Before I met you, I was singin’, I was dancin’, I was fine.” [Roar of laughter from the audience.] “Now you’re the music I dance to and the song that I sing.” [More sobbing from me!]
Our first dance was to Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up” which has a very special meaning to us. When we found ourselves playing it daily we knew it had to become our first dance song. Our favorite line is: “I won’t give up on us / Even if the skies get rough / I’m giving you all my love / I’m still looking up.” I can still hear the first few guitar chords playing in my head and it makes me tear up.
My father/daughter dance was also a highlight for me. We chose another Jason Mraz song, “93 Million Miles,” that holds a lot of meaning for me and my dad. Substitute the word “daughter” for “son” and the lyrics are basically a transcript of words he has said to me in the not so distant past. My parents have helped me out of difficult times, and to them I am so grateful. The song goes: “Oh, my my, how beautiful / oh my irrefutable father / He told me, ‘Son, sometimes it may seem dark, but the absence of the light is a necessary part.’” And for my mother who believes in me as I embark on a new career path: “Oh, my my, how beautiful / oh my beautiful mother / She told me, ‘Son, in life you’re gonna go far / If you do it right you’ll love where you are.’”
I think about the lessons my parents have taught me and those lyrics daily. They so beautifully capture the bond we have and the love and respect I have for how well they have raised me and my sister. I will have a lot to live up to when I become a parent!
I am not sure whether our guests noticed but Jose produced the wedding like a show, with acoustic versions of our first dance and other songs teased in at the ceremony and then played in full at the reception. He might have a second career in theater production.
As I settle back into real life, I find myself feeling my name change to my married surname to be very cool and very jarring. I am so happy to take Jose’s last name. Really giddy actually to be that solidly connected to him, but a name is such a huge part of anyone’s identity. And in my yoga teaching and writing I am Emily Golomb. It’s so weird to see my new name, Emily Sabalbaro, on Facebook and in print, and it will certainly take some getting used to. But my favorite part is that it marks the official start of a new chapter. As of December 12, 2015, I am beloved, and my beloved is mine.