Picture This: Old Photographs, New Life

By Heather Subba


My grandmother’s family photograph collection captivated my attention as a child. Each photo told a familiar yet mysterious story. Every time I looked at them, I imagined the lives of the people pictured. I could almost hear loud discussions in Yiddish and the soft steps of black leather shoes imprinted with stains from the cobblestone streets of old world Chicago. Part of the allure of those photographs has to do with being able to find a piece of myself in them.

Equally appealing to me is my parents’ wedding album. These photos remind me that they were individuals before they were my parents. I marvel at my mother’s porcelain white skin and tiny frame. She seems to fit perfectly beside my father, who has a taller stature and skin the color of sun-kissed brown olives. Most of all, I love to see how happy my parents were just on the cusp of adulthood.

It is only now that I realize the impact those photographs have had on my life. Nearly every person in my grandmother’s and my parents’ photographs came from the same cultural background. Almost all of the individuals pictured were Jewish with a European lineage.

When I became engaged, however, and visualized my own wedding, I saw something entirely different. The love of my life is from a different part of the world, Nepal, and from a different spiritual background, Hinduism. In our wedding ceremony, I envisioned many unique faces, from two different backgrounds. In my generation, I would be altering my family’s ethnicity by mixing a Jewish past with an interfaith future. I felt unsure about how my family would react to these major changes as our wedding planning began to unfold.

While my husband Rajen and I had a traditional Jewish ceremony performed by a rabbi, at one point I questioned the lack of interfaith customs at our wedding. As I created our wedding program, I felt myself becoming confused. The program symbolized the union of my husband and me, but the text of the program, the Jewish wedding customs, did not reflect us both. Rather, the traditions reflected only half of us–the heritage that I often admired in my family’s photographs.

I decided to postpone writing about the Jewish wedding customs in our program while I thought about what our wedding meant in my heart. I began searching on the Internet for inspiration about love. I found a beautiful poem by Pablo Neruda, “Sonnet XV,” which speaks universally of what it feels like to love another person deeply. I placed it on the last page of the program. Then, I researched Hindu marriage customs, advice and poems. I placed a Hindu marriage proverb on the front of the program that deems the sacred and tender relationship between husband and wife as a forever partnership.

After much virtual searching, not unlike that of my own real life quest, I finally returned to the Jewish customs. I began to see that I had focused too much on what separated us from the tradition and not enough on how we could apply the meaning of the ceremony to our lives. I realized, through my research, that love and marriage are not so different in Jewish and Hindu cultures–it’s just that each culture has a different way of expressing what love and marriage mean. This made it easier for me to feel comfortable with having just the Jewish wedding ceremony.

I also began to understand why my husband had never felt distressed about having a Jewish wedding ceremony. He wanted to marry me for who I was and he did not feel it compromised his own faith to marry someone outside of it. In this way, the power of love is spiritual and uniting.

For me, the two most beautiful Jewish wedding symbols are the huppah and the breaking of the glass. The huppah, or wedding canopy, symbolizes the home the bride and groom will make together and it is opened on all four sides to always welcome family and friends. The breaking of the glass symbolizes the destruction of the Temple in Israel and reminds us that even in our happiest moments, we should not neglect or forget the suffering of others. I think these symbols correspond to three essential Hindu wedding values: happiness, harmony, and growth.

On our wedding night, as we stood under the huppah and were blessed by Hebrew words, the strangest thing happened. I felt like I was at home. The rabbi’s blessings and the unconditional love of my husband, family, and friends created a sense of deep and universal spiritual belonging in my heart. Instead of feeling at home in one culture, I felt at home in two cultures. Originally, I had envisioned the ceremony as a type of departure. I was leaving behind part of my life by marrying someone of a different faith. This dilemma had previously brought many questions to my mind: What happens when you belong to two communities and not one? How do you express your faith when it’s born of two distinct sets of traditions?

I am not sure I know the answers to these questions but I know that we often determine inclusiveness by excluding others. In my life, I want to have an open mind and heart. I also recognize that love crosses boundaries, religions, and race.

I had worried that, in making these decisions, I was rejecting the past reflected in those photos by leaving some of our Jewish traditions behind. I had also worried that I was rejecting my husband by marrying him in a wedding reflective of only my faith and customs. Looking back on my wedding day, I remember letting all of those feelings go. As I became my husband’s wife, I began a new journey and all I felt was the warmth of acceptance and love. It was the same feeling I used to have when looking at my grandmother’s photographs.

As I began my new life, I realized my journey would be both familiar yet mysterious.



About Heather Subba

Heather Subba lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children. She works in the field of educational publishing.