I don’t know why a simple question became such a significant issue. The memory from that day is still so clear in my mind.
My new husband, Rojerio, and I were standing outside the sanctuary of my uncle and aunt’s synagogue. I was staring at the basket of yarmulkes—a traditional Jewish cap, previously worn by men, but becoming more common on women—specially made for the occasion. I was trying to answer the question before we went in. We had flown out for my cousin’s bar mitzvah and having been married for less than a year, it was our first time in a setting that wasn’t among friends or my home synagogue.
Seeing a line forming behind us and knowing—as supportive of my religion as my husband was—that wearing a yarmulke might make him uncomfortable, I made a split-second decision.
“You don’t need to wear one,” I said quickly, as we were ushered inside to our seats. But once seated, I began to second-guess myself.
That simple question and the answer I’d chosen became a symbol for our first outing into the complicated religious life that we’d created. I started wondering what’s acceptable, what’s not, and what other people would think.
As the Shabbat service began, I purposefully kept my eyes on the siddur—prayer book—in my hands, shoulders hunched, and avoided looking around. In whispers, I told Rojerio what to do and when to do it, even then wondering what he should and shouldn’t take part in. Should he bow during prayers? Try to recite the prayers himself? What would he do when I was up on the bimah (the main podium in the synagogue)?
During the oneg, the post-service gathering, most people were friendly. But there were a few covert looks, and several asked the inevitable question: “Is he going to convert?” No, I told them, but explained he’s very supportive and comes with me to synagogue, and we’re going to raise our kids Jewish. It was a practiced line.
I grew up expecting to marry someone Jewish, just like my mother and grandmothers—but dating Jewish men hadn’t gone so well. Then, I met my Rojerio unexpectedly and, just as unexpectedly, fell in love.
A non-practicing Spanish Catholic with ties to our region going back 400 years, he wasn’t the partner I imagined going to services with, praying with during Yom Kippur, or even standing on a bimah for a baby naming ceremony or a bris (the Jewish circumcision ceremony). But he was everything I’d wanted in a partner: funny, kind, ambitious, generous, romantic, and respectful. His culture and history, so different from my own, fascinated me. And he valued my faith and my culture.
However, his family was—and still is—Spanish Catholic. And while I felt magically accepted by them, there were still rocky moments as we’d discussed our life, our wedding, our marriage, and hopes for future children. Questions inevitably came up, such as: If we do this, what will they think? If our service isn’t in a synagogue or a church, how will people feel? How will we handle our two traditions if we raise our children Jewish? Will your family even consider us married if we have a Jewish ceremony?
But I respected the ways his family was so much like mine and at the same time so different. They gathered in the kitchen to cook special food for holidays, the older women sitting around the table talking about who was sick and who died and who got married. It’s just that, instead of Yiddish-accented English, the language would switch between English and Spanish without warning.
My mother, sister and I were warmly invited to cook tamales, green chile stew, red chile sauce and tortillas. I brought chicken soup to my mother-in-law when she was sick, and she and I would sit for hours talking about similarities and differences in our two religions out of respect and curiosity.
I loved our two cultures and the way they came together. I loved celebrating with my family and my husband’s family. We had found ways to bring our lives, cultures, customs, social mores and even religions together in a joyous, mostly harmonious way.
We made it work and found ways to appreciate and celebrate what we brought to the table. We even worked out questions about our wedding and our future children peacefully and respectfully.
So, there I was in at the synagogue and wondering: Why was I so worried about what other people thought?
Why was I feeling so stiff, my shoulders hunched, and avoiding looking at other people for fear of their judgment? All of my anxiety centered around what others thought and believed. But this was our life. Our future. Our path.
What did it matter that I had to whisper instructions to my husband because he didn’t know what to do, just as he did for me at the Catholic weddings and funerals we’d attended? Why should the covert looks and the not-so-covert questions of him converting bother me? Similar questions posed to my husband hadn’t bothered him at all. And what about all the people who were happy for and accepting of us?
We were both respectful and doing our best to navigate an unfamiliar situation together. We experienced finding ways to celebrate with each other, to show your partner all the reasons you love your religion and culture, and what happens when something separate becomes all the more beautiful for the sharing of it.
When we got back into town and went to Shabbat services, I asked our rabbi: Does he need to wear a yarmulke?
“He can wear one or not. It’s up to him.”
It was a simple answer to a complex problem, but I was glad for the solution that stood—if not everywhere, at least at our synagogue.
And, more important, how the answer stood for the shared religious and cultural life we were creating and celebrating: It’s up to us.