By Olufemi Sowemimo
I’m not sure how most people turn away from the religion of their upbringing. For some, I suspect there’s a moment crystallized in their memory that led to the decision: witnessing the hypocrisy of a pastor caught in a sex scandal. Having a confrontation with a parishioner who uses scripture to justify hatred and bigotry. Tasting bacon for the first time.
For others, I imagine a more gradual falling away from religion: There’s no dramatic rejection of the church, or declaration of freedom from oppressive stricture. You just kinda decide one day that staying in bed for another hour sounds more rewarding than going to church. And one day you wake up and realize you’ve been staying in bed for another hour for months – and you prefer it that way.
My own story falls a little in between the two, because while I have a memory that led to me leaving the church, it took many, many Sunday mornings in bed to realize that I didn’t want to go back.
The memory is a sermon, about being a “True Christian.” The pastor analogized becoming a Christian to letting Jesus into your car, where the car represents your life, and the Jesus represents Jesus.
“Most Christians,” he says, “most Christians think that you invite Jesus into the passenger seat.” (This is where the congregation would typically say “Mm-hm” or “well!” or “awright, now.” It’s a Black church thing.)
“But TRUE Christians,” he says, “TRUE Christians know that you’ve got to let Jesus into the driver’s seat, and YOU are the passenger! You have to let Jesus take the wheel!”
My love of the scriptures of Carrie Underwood notwithstanding, this never sat well with me. It just… didn’t feel right. Given the applause that the statement got during that sermon, there were plenty of people who agreed with it, who had no problem with that idea, but for me… not so much.
Don’t misunderstand me: I am not, and never have been, anti-religion. I don’t mean to deride the preacher or the sermon, or to criticize those who agreed with it. I don’t begrudge a person living according to whatever rules and ideals make sense for them (so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, of course). What matters is that the sermon, and ultimately the tenets of the religion, didn’t work for me.
With all that said, Judaism is a religion and a culture steeped in tradition, that has survived for millennia. A traditional Jewish wedding ceremony has many beautiful expressions of that culture that I can admire and appreciate. And yet… I don’t speak Hebrew. I don’t own a tallit, and I look goofy in a kippah. And I just had to Google how to spell “Shehecheyanu.” For as rich in history as these practices are, they’re not me. More important, in terms of my upcoming wedding to my beautiful Jewish fianceé, they’re not us.
Navigating which ceremonial elements to include, exclude or modify for our wedding has been an adventure in itself. It’s probably a lot easier to simply agree to a traditional ceremony when that’s what you’ve been brought up on, and it all has personal relevance to you. Being the partner who is unfamiliar with those traditions makes things a bit more difficult. On the bright side of things, though, it also presents an opportunity to put our own unique spin on the proceedings (I’m guessing that not many other weddings will have the bride and groom drinking a bourbon-infused cream soda float during the kiddush. Yes, seriously).
I’m fortunate to have a partner who is patient and understanding enough to want to make new traditions, rather than just following old ones. The wedding, like our marriage, will be something new: a melding of the traditional and the unconventional, but ultimately, it will be unmistakably us.
(We’ll still probably do the Hora, though.)