July 25, 2006
At age twenty-three, with a degree in Public Policy, much study of Third World Economics, and a keen interest in overseas development, my son Tony went off to start an NGO in India. Five and a half years into the project, Tony telephoned to tell me he was getting married. He immediately proceeded to tell me how opposed to the marriage her family was: Tony was not an Indian, was not Hindu and was not a Brahmin from the Hills, as was Rajni's family.
It soon became clear to me that these were two mature people who had spent a lot of time thinking about an intercultural and interfaith marriage. They were both almost thirty and each had had prior marriage opportunities. I believed that my son, who was a deep thinker and a rational person, even in matters of the heart, would choose wisely.
He and Rajni had worked closely together for over four years. They had observed each other's humanity, strengths, vulnerabilities, and idiosyncrasies.
What of the ramifications of the interfaith part? Tony had clearly acclimated to Hindu culture and was several years into understanding at least the fundamentals (as well as the daily and annual observances) of Hinduism. He explained that Rajni had heard all the stories of our holidays and would love our family observances. They each had great respect for the other's beliefs. He was not sure they would choose to have children, but in case they did, they would each continue to observe and believe as before. Any children would be taught both sets of beliefs and practices.
I skip ahead to the wedding, which was to be in India. Rajni was having her family's pundit (religious leader) and Tony was to get his own pundit. I asked if Larry Kushner, our family's rabbi, could act as his pundit, and Tony chuckled and said it would be like Rajni's pundit running Friday night services! Beyond the question of the pundit, my suggestion to Tony was to find out all that might be expected of us, in terms of ritual, dress, participation. My feeling was that we should participate fully, not be tourists, at Tony's wedding. Then I thought, "Oh my gosh, is this like saying 'It's OK, get married in the church'"?
The night before a wedding, each of the couple has a puja or traditional prayer service officiated by her/his pundit. These pujas are pre-wedding purification ceremonies for the bride and groom that also serve as a way for family and friends to wish them well for their married life. Tony's was held at his office and was a joyous event, attended by the several family members and one American friend who were able to make the trip, several coworkers and other friends Tony had made, as well as my close college friend Jaya, who lives in Delhi and knew Tony.
The wedding itself was 100 percent Hindu. Not one word of Hebrew. Not one reference to anything Jewish. That is, except the Priestly Blessing this parent bestowed on the bride and groom, which I muttered very quietly. This bothered me very much--I think most of all because it did not seem to faze Tony.
Today, Tony and Rajni reside in Maryland; Tony works for a nonprofit based in Washington, DC, that does development work overseas, and he travels to East Africa and India. Rajni, who had never been out of India and had not aspired to become Western, has adjusted to life in America. They have one son, Sagar, who is two and a half.
Rajni has a small mandir (shrine) in the house, at which she sits and does her daily worship. They observe Hindu religious and Indian cultural holidays. They observe Jewish holidays, as well. Tony continues the observances he always has and remains strongly identified as a Jew. Rajni's practice is daily. Tony's is more holiday-oriented. Obviously Sagar notices everything.
Just as Jews feel very strongly about circumcision as a symbol of what our people have endured (as well as a symbol of Abraham's covenant with God), so Hindus feel non-circumcision is a symbol of what Hindus have suffered--forced circumcision at the hands of the Muslims. Although Tony is in favor of circumcision, in part because of the religious feelings he has related to a bris, Sagar was not circumcised.
At first this bothered me enormously, more than the wedding and all else. For me a bris is about the most fundamental agreement we have with God; for me circumcision would be nonnegotiable. Gradually, however, I have come to accept that this is not my life, and not the most important issue. I do honestly believe my son has chosen wisely. He and Rajni have an enormous amount of love and respect for one another and their natures are extremely well matched. They are an unusual couple and I believe they were destined to find one another. And they are amazing parents.
My mother, aleha ha-shalom (may she rest in peace), would say, "They should just all be healthy."
Sallie Teitelbaum Castleman's son Tony wrote a companion piece about his and his wife's choice to raise their son in both religions. Read Walking Seven Circles.