The rabbis of the Talmud held that when a wedding and a funeral meet at a crossroads, the wedding always has right of way. This is, according the sages, because life always takes precedence over death.
What the sages didn’t teach, however, is what you should do when the wedding is a Catholic cousin’s, and it is taking place on Yom Kippur.
I’d heard through the family grapevine that my cousin David was getting married, and that the wedding was supposed to take place in the early autumn. As a fairly religious Jew-by-choice, I’m always aware that the months of September and October represent a minefield of observances and obligations that require filling out copious vacation request forms and making explanations to bosses, colleagues, and, most important, family members. But for some reason, the impending wedding didn’t set off any alarm bells. Most of the holidays fall on weekdays, I reasoned, and the only date I had to worry about was Yom Kippur. What were the odds that the wedding would fall on the same Saturday?
Apparently, the odds were not in my favor.
The invitation arrived in early August. As I opened the creamy white envelope and looked down at the date on the heavy paper, I realized that my luck had run out. There it was: “We request the honor of your presence on Saturday, September 22nd”–otherwise known as the 10th of Tishrei, 5768, the Day of Atonement.
“I can’t go,” I said instantly to myself, ruling out all other possibilities.
“I can’t go,” I told my mother, when she called and asked if I had received the invitation.
“What do you mean, you can’t go?” she asked. “This is your cousin. I’m sure he would be very upset if you decided to miss it.”
“Then they shouldn’t have scheduled it on Yom Kippur,” I argued. “It’s not a good position to be in.”
“Well,” she sighed, “you realize that if you don’t go, then I can’t go either.”
Of course I hadn’t. My mom, while not at all elderly, doesn’t like to drive on the highway anymore. Since my father’s death, I had been responsible for her transportation when it involved covering any distance.
“No, Mom, I hadn’t realized,” I said. “I guess we’ll have to figure something out.”
“I’m sure your temple will understand,” she said reassuringly. “After all, family is more important.”
I didn’t respond. More important than what, I asked myself. G-d?
For weeks I went back and forth, questioning my decision. I considered asking other relatives to drive my mom up to Connecticut. I considered ordering a car service for her, but I knew she’d feel uncomfortable with it. I polled the three other Jews who had married into our family (one attending the wedding, two going to synagogue). When the RSVP deadline arrived, I still hadn’t made a decision.
The bride-to-be emailed me at work, wondering why she hadn’t heard from me. Her tone conveyed worry. I wanted to be honest with her–I was hurt that they’d scheduled their wedding on the holiest day of the Jewish year–but I felt my response would be both childish and selfish. And then I started thinking that perhaps I was being childish and selfish, denying my mom the chance to see her nephew marry, all so I could prove a point about having converted.
So I gritted my teeth, emailed my cousin’s fiancée, and said I’d be happy to attend. The wedding was set to start at 5 p.m., which meant that I could get through most of the day (I serve as the cantorial soloist for morning services at a local nursing home, after which I hightail it over to my synagogue, so that I can be in the company of my own congregation, and even participate in reading from the Torah in the afternoon). I ticked off the schedule and details to myself; yes, I’d be exhausted from praying and singing and chanting all morning, but on the upside, I would already be dressed up. I wouldn’t have to go home to change clothes, thereby missing even more of the day.
But there was still one major issue: there was no way for me to take part in Yizkor–no way for me to say the memorial prayer for my father, who had been born Jewish.
“What should I do?” I asked tearfully in the car one afternoon. Quickly, clearly, I heard my father’s voice.
“Ann, it’s for your mother,” I imagined him saying. “Don’t make a big production out of it. There will be other holidays, other times you can say Yizkor. But your cousin, God willing, will only be getting married once.”
Perhaps it was a rationalization; perhaps it was just a matter of me trying to make it OK for myself. But I knew, in the end, that I had to attend that wedding. Even though nothing meant more to me than being with my congregation on that holiest of days, I would have to make that sacrifice, because nothing could–or should–be more important to me than family.
On the day itself, I did the best I could. I fasted and prayed; I tried to be sincere in my chanting and singing. Hardest of all, I tried to keep smiling while explaining to my fellow congregants that I’d have to duck out of the proceedings at 4 p.m. I tried to keep smiling when I arrived at my mom’s house, and also later on, as we drove up I-95 to the wedding.
When we arrived, there were a few raised eyebrows, a few quizzical stares from family members who knew of my dilemma. But the day went off without a hitch for the most part and my cousin was gratifyingly happy to see me there.
There was still, however, a part of me that had misgivings, a part that felt I had made a terrible compromise. I might not have let my family down, but I had let myself down, and my congregation down. Even worse, there was a nagging feeling that I had even, perhaps, let G-d down.
How difficult, how truly difficult it was to make a decision about what is most sacred, on that most sacred of days. But that is what being in an interfaith family is all about. My family and I may not agree about the significance of a day on the calendar, but we can agree on not letting those differences divide us. In this case, it may not have been fair, and I may have been the one to make the sacrifice, but it was worth keeping shalom bayit–peace in the home–intact.