My Religion

What’s my religion? First I’ll need to provide some background.

My father was raised Orthodox Jewish. In college he rebelled and converted to Christianity. He chose a particular blend of Jewish-Christian called Messianic. My mother is Jewish by heritage but she was raised by Christian parents. My parents met for the brief moment in time when their religious beliefs overlapped. They had three kids and meanwhile the marriage was going sour (to put it lightly). They divorced and several years later my Mom decided to abandon Christianity and follow a very liberal version of Judaism called Reconstructionism. My Dad continued with evangelical Christianity (that means tries to convince everyone to agree with him).

I tried being Christian: said the prayer where you accept Jesus Christ as your savior. I was baptized. But it wasn’t working for me. I tried Hebrew school but I wasn’t motivated and couldn’t concentrate. Neither of my parents tried very hard to push me. I was never bar mitzvahed.

I became obsessed with reggae music in high school – particularly Bob Marley. I learned about Rastafarianism. I grew my hair into dreadlocks and traveled to Jamaica. I became a vegetarian. I tried to live a more natural life. But I couldn’t pray to Haile Selassie.

In college I was terrified of death. My mom gave me a book on Buddhism. I liked their ideas about karma and suffering. I liked their approach toward death and rebirth. But I couldn’t find solace in reciting mantras.

Even if I wanted to I don’t think I could pick a religion. I’d have to draw a separation between myself and my mom or my dad or my relatives. So I went and married a Hindu. We had a priest and a rabbi co-officiate at our wedding. We picked and chose customs from both religions and attached our own meanings as necessary. Among our 400 guests we had Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. Now that we’re married we celebrate Passover, Chanukah, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sarswati Puja, Diwali, Durga Puja, Eid, Ramadan, Christmas and Thanksgiving.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If I don’t tell you my religion does it mean I don’t have one? Do I have to say the word “Jesus” or “G-d” or “Buddha” or “Allah” to mean the same thing? Isn’t language a man-made construct that artificially limits a meaning to make it more digestible? Does the word “love” fully encompass its infinite variations? If I don’t say the word “love” does it mean I don’t love you? If I can’t put it into words does it mean I don’t feel it? Does it make it less real?

I don’t need a religious text to tell me it feels right to be good to other people. I don’t need a person in a robe to tell me when I’ve done something wrong. I don’t need to choose sides when people kill each other because they use different words to describe the indescribable.

No one wants to make the wrong choice especially if it means burning in a fiery pit for eternity. If you still want to know which religion I am: it’s the right one.

The Setup

Before I could propose to [D] I’d have to get her mother’s permission and blessing. She made it clear to me this was a required part of the process and I was happy to oblige. My brother-in-law had done the same with my Dad; although my father felt a bit awkward when he was given a bouquet of flowers, he was appreciative of the gesture. It was definitely a good precedent for future relations.

Both our situations were slightly atypical since there was only one parent to meet with. For my brother-in-law it was because my parents were divorced and he knew my mom had no need for such formalities. For me it’s because my girlfriend’s father had passed away several years prior.

Traditionally, I guess the father is supposed to grill the potential suitor and make sure he is deserving while the mother waits for her cue to tear up and gush over her future son-in-law. At least that’s what I feel like we’ve been told in movies and TV shows. In situations where there’s only one parent I suppose that person has to play both roles.

When her mother and I set up the evening to meet (surreptitiously by email so [D] wouldn’t find out) I’m sure she knew what was coming. I contemplated taking a swig of whiskey in the parking lot of her building complex but I didn’t want to risk smelling like alcohol. Plus, it seemed important that I should be able to do this sober.

Her mother welcomed me into the house. I gave her flowers which she promptly put in a vase, and she offered me some vegetarian lasagna that she had picked up from the supermarket on her way home from work. The sentiment wasn’t lost on me but I couldn’t feign an appetite. She offered me some tea and we sat on opposite ends of the couch facing each other.

I told her that I loved her daughter and would like her blessing and permission to marry her. She smiled and became quiet. She got a far away look for a few moments and then returned to our conversation. I didn’t see joy or tears on her face – just quiet contemplation.

She asked me what it is that I like about her daughter and how I know that she is the one. These were fair questions, I thought, and although I appreciated the opportunity to talk about our relationship I wasn’t expecting such a calm, measured reaction. I was anticipating more of a TV-crew-at-your-door-you-just-won-a-car-or-the-publishers-clearinghouse-sweepstakes type reaction. You know – lots of screaming, crying, hugging, jumping up and down. Instead we were sitting calmly and talking on the couch.

If her husband was still here I suppose he could have been the reserved, skeptical one while her mother could afford to lose herself in the moment. Instead she had to imagine how her husband might have reacted and channel a bit of that temperament.

I answered her questions – pretty well for the most part – and then she went right into discussing wedding plans.

“We’ll have to have a wedding here in the States … and then another one in India …” her voice trailed off as she got that look again. Did I miss the part where she said, “Yes, you have my permission and my blessing”? We’re already into the logistics? And why was an India wedding such a given?

I had much to learn over the next two years. The journey from engagement to marriage included an ashirbad, a civil ceremony, multiple bridal showers, a 400 person wedding in the States, and multiple receptions in Bangladesh and India before we were finally and completely married almost exactly two years after this meeting.

Maybe that’s why her mother was so contemplative – she knew better than I did what was coming next.

An Introduction

We had known each other for almost 7 years but it wasn’t until we got engaged that D started to clue me in to the part of her life that is Bengali.

She knew what was she was doing. For one thing, I wasn’t ready. I would have been overwhelmed and it’s not something that can just be explained in conversation – it has to be experienced.

That leads to the second point: I wasn’t worthy. Yet. To experience Bengali culture I would have to be introduced to all the aunts and uncles and friends and families in her community. What if we broke up? It’s a realistic concern … I guess it’s like when someone is pregnant they usually wait until they get past the first trimester to start telling their friends and co-workers. It would be too painful to have to go back to those same people and say, “Oh, it didn’t work out.”

She’s tried to clue me in previously but we never got very far. Her family isn’t from India, they’re from Bangladesh. So is Bengali what you call someone from Bangladesh? No, that would be Bangladeshi. Bengali is more of a people – they’re from both India and Bangladesh. Oh, ok, a people – like Jews who can be from Israel or anywhere else in the world. It’s passed down by birth. So is Bengali also a religion? No, Bengali’s are both Muslim and Hindu. Well what do they speak? Bengali. Or Bangla. Bangla is Bengali in Bangla. Confused? Me too.

I liken our conversations about being Bengali to watching a serial TV show. Over the course of a half hour or hour you might get answers to some questions but you’ll end up with even more questions than you started with. And by the end of it you’re dying to find out what happens next – even though you know the point is not to get all the answers, it’s to keep coming up with more questions. It’s the game we play to keep things moving forward.

It’s not her fault that she doesn’t have answers to all my questions. We all do things associated with our culture without knowing quite why we do them – or at least without thinking about it very hard. For example, in American culture we have many options when greeting someone:

• handshake, one handed
• handshake, two handed (the handshake sandwich) for emphasis
• hug, two-armed, full body
• hug, one-armed sideways
• hug, bro-style (handshake held, pull in to one-armed full body hug possibly
combined with a pat on the back)
• kiss, one cheek
• kiss, two cheeks
• kiss, lips
• head nod

Can you imagine trying to explain to a foreigner all the intricacies of when to use one greeting or another? Often I’m not sure myself – or you go in for one type of greeting and the recipient switches it up on and it’s awkward or embarrassing. It’s just something we do and we’re not always sure what we’re doing or why we’re doing it.

Speaking of greetings, I have a great story about the first time I had to do pronam to an elder but I’ll save that for another post.


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