On Mother’s Day we were invited to the house of a young couple who had a gift for us from a distant relative of my husband’s in India. All we knew is where this couple lived and that the woman was a new mother. I asked my husband what we should bring given that it was Mother’s Day. He looked at me askance and with complete sincerity said, “Honey, in India every day is Mother’s Day.” I decided to bring flowers and forget the Mother’s Day salutations.
Our visit turned into a full-fledged affair, with loads of food and this couple’s relatives turning out in droves to meet us, complete strangers. At the end of the day, my husband and I had many new friends. As we were leaving, my husband pushed a $20 bill into the infant’s hand, as is customary upon first seeing a new member of the family.
My experience has been less of an interfaith than an intercultural marriage. When we got married, Muslims in the United States, with the exception of the American Black Muslim movement, were generally new immigrants with one foot still firmly planted in their country of origin. Marrying a Muslim can be more of a cultural immersion than a religious one. Essentially, my husband and I are living in two worlds. By day we live as typical Americans, and our nights and weekends become absorbed by Indian food, languages, people and customs.
Luckily for both of us, we have had no opposition to our marriage from friends or family. Everyone has been remarkably supportive of our life together. My husband’s family is both impressed and intrigued by his American wife, and they asked me more questions about my American life than my religious beliefs.
When we eloped to India, dozens of my new in-laws and their Muslim neighbors flocked to see me. On my second day in the family home, I was surprised with an informal reception. I sat on the divan for what seemed like hours meeting and greeting beaming Indians whom I could not understand. We did use some sign language and my sister-in-law offered a bit of translation, consisting mostly of people saying that I have beautiful white skin and asking why I wasn’t wearing any jewelry. Surely an American must be rich, so where was my gold? I later learned that most of the visitors had never seen an American.
My family was not in the least surprised by my elopement or choice of husband. A quick look at my family would leave people with a lot of questions. My parents could be viewed as failures by some in the Jewish community–three out of their four children have married people who are not Jewish, and in fact these are inter-ethnic marriages. Friends laugh and say our family now resembles the United Nations.
I, however, view my parents as resounding successes because their children have strong religious identities and family values. Our Passover seders are lively and interesting, and friends vie for seats at our table. But most importantly, we have brought new members into the fold and celebrate Jewish holidays as we always have. Our partners have been eager participants and quick studies of Jewish holidays and culture.
Ironically, seeking “family values” in a mate led me directly into the arms of my Indian Muslim husband. I had a hard time relating to the Jewish men I worked so hard to root out and date. Many, after seeing my zaftig (curvy) figure and curly brown hair fled the scene. Unfortunately, those willing to look a little deeper struck me as assimilationist and generally self-loathing. I couldn’t find the right balance of religious pride and secular lifestyle.
My husband, due in part to his Muslim education in India, was under the impression that Muslims and Jews had the same beliefs and religious practices. When we first met–and already knowing that he was Muslim–I nervously told him I was Jewish. He laughed, “So we’re cousins! And, you know, we marry our cousins.”
For the longest time he wouldn’t accept that Jews, unlike Muslims, were allowed to drink alcohol. His assertions were first dashed when we drank from the communal wine glass at our Jewish wedding and then completely crushed when he attended his first seder.
For the most part we try to celebrate our religious similarities, however we avoid certain topics to keep the household peace. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is particularly sticky for us. It has been eye opening to learn that people view Jews as a political and social force so powerful as to transcend a country–completely contrary to my education of Jews as the perpetual victim. While my husband does not dispute the right of Israel to exist, he simply cannot understand why we cling so tightly to a country that we have so clearly outgrown and which has become a glaring liability.
I went into this relationship with a degree of cultural chauvinism. Having just a superficial knowledge of Indian and Muslim culture, I was quick to tout my liberal family, my independent and successful girl friends, and my own education and ambitions. Beyond, I often expressed my dismay over arranged marriages, “homely” women (having no ambitions outside the house) and the sexist culture.
As I learned more about Indian Muslim culture, my attitude changed. What I saw was completely refreshing. His traditions and way of life are similar to my own, where family and community come before anything else–and people feel that they belong and have a responsibility to the community. The hospitality, the love of food and the emphasis on custom–it feels just like home.