“Walk down the aisle?” I harumphed. “It doesn’t look that way, does it? This is my WEDDING DAY and the groom’s family haven’t turned up.” A perfect spring day, plumped with possibility and excitement, had shrivelled into catastrophe.
One hundred and eighty guests had been seated for over an hour in a small wedding chapel in France. A heavily-treading usher had informed us that the groom’s family still hadn’t appeared. Looking into the chapel, I could see an impatient congregation twitching feverishly.
“Do you think they haven’t turned up because their Jewish son is getting married in a chapel?” I hissed. “But we promised that there would be no Christian references! And there’s the Jewish ceremony tomorrow.” Marching my way up and down the room, I tore out petals from my balding bouquet. “Don’t worry, darling. They will turn up. I’m sure of it,” said my mother. The catch in her throat sent a gallop of panic up my stomach which settled and thickened in my throat.
My fiancé, Oliver, and I had been together for seven years. We met during our respective years abroad, in Sydney, Australia. “I’m Jewish, you know” he had told me over a glass of wine. “Oh right,” I had said. “And my family are all Christians.” The implications of this conversation had been muted by the neon-coloured booze and thrum of music.
It was only on our return to London and things were getting serious, that I realised how this was going to play out: “I’m sorry, but you can’t meet my parents,” Oliver had grimaced one night. “My family won’t allow you in the house.”
“What? But last week I was coming with you to your brother’s wedding?”
“Hmmm. I think my parents thought you were Jewish. You are called Rebecca, after all. But then your surname came out.”
I was finally invited by Oliver’s brother and sister-in-law to the circumcision of their son. It was the first time I would meet all of his family and it was a black silence that welcomed me to the bris.
One lady, eyebrows triangulating in horror, turned her back on me. After months of diplomacy and tears, Oliver’s parents asked me to witness the wonderful traditions of a Friday night supper. I was welcomed, but with reports of one in two Jews marrying out, they were wary of a Christian girl from Chelsea.
As Oliver’s mother and father started to accept me, my job as a journalist took me to Jordan. A recent terrorist attack had blown apart a wedding in Amman and Oliver’s parents, on account of his Jewish upbringing, were terrified about letting him visit. The ensuing rows threatened a family breakdown, non-stop screams shattering the quiet Radlett streets. Oliver boldly went against his parents’ wishes and booked a return ticket to the Middle East. In doing so, the message he sent to his parents was set in stone as solid as the the Ten Commandments.
When I returned to England, Oliver proposed. Navigating the wedding wishes of both sets of parents proved tricky. My parents were set on a traditional Christian white wedding and Oliver’s parents, after realising I wouldn’t convert, wanted a non-demoninational occasion. Months of rows led to the break-up of our engagement.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I had cried. “Me too,” Oliver replied, chewing his lip.
After two months of misery and separation, we stumbled upon a resolution to please both parties. Over a year-and-a-half of planning and three massive wedding celebrations were needed to satisfy everyone. Forget a Jewish Princess – I was like the Queen! The whole situation was so fraught that neither of us had a moment to assimilate our feelings about our own religious ideals.
It was only when I started writing a book about my experiences of marrying into a Jewish family, that I could begin to make sense of the complex emotions of trying to retain my own identity while respecting that of my boyfriend’s.
As I sat in my wedding dress praying for Oliver and his family to appear, I had a moment of clarity. As the band desperately clung on to the last note of Handel’s Xerxes for Largo for the tenth time, I realised that I could never solve the problem of not being Jewish.
I could, though, use the foundations of my own religious background to face whatever was thrown at me with dignity, grace and courage.Learn more »