Guest Editorial

Mazel Tov!
By Lucia Vilankulu

L. Vilankulu (This is a story I sent in to the Love Story project at PBS)

I'm looking for a good rabbi. Baptized Methodist, spent my childhood in Catholic parish schools, grew up playing "Dracula" in the Gothic shadow of New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine where I became an Episcopalian as an adult -- now I'm searching Minneapolis' small and scattered Jewish communities for a rabbi for my wedding. I'm going to have a Jewish wedding because my fiance is Jewish, and after briefly researching Jewish weddings I fell in love with the beautiful ceremony, which so powerfully mixes the purely joyful with the solemn. I'm especially looking forward to the part where Pete steps on the glass and everyone yells "mazel tov!"

Am I converting? No. In fact, I'm going to wear my grandmother's cross to the wedding, my "something old." I'll also wear the bracelet Pete's grandmother gave me a few weeks ago. Her husband gave it to her on one of their anniversaries, before he died. She told him then that when Peter "got his girl" she would pass it on. After presenting me with the bracelet she also gave us a hundred dollars and a box of Mallomars. She calls me "mummula," and other Yiddish endearments and fusses over me extravagantly.

Most people seem to think that the biggest difference between me and Pete is that he is "white" and I am "black." But then Pete is not really white, he's Jewish. And I'm neither black nor white but "mixed." Ironically we actually look a great deal alike -- olive skin, bushy eyebrows, full lips, the same squarish, blunt hands, the same crazy hair. We're often taken for brother and sister.

There's never been any racial strife in our household -- it was religion. The first time we fought over religious issues I was mortified. How could this be happening to me?, I thought. I'd always regarded myself as high-minded, liberal, cosmopolitan, multicultural, and I thought of Pete the same way. Yet here we were nearly breaking up because he didn't want me to get a Christmas tree for our house and suddenly I wanted one more than life itself. Although I had always broken the unspoken law against "interracial" dating, I had never dated anyone who was not a Christian of some kind. I thought of the line from Beloved "A forest sprang up between them, trackless and silent."

Pete and the Oppressed Jews on one side, me and the Opressor Christians on the other. I felt that I should want to be on his side, yet I couldn't leave my own, problematic as that side seemed to me even then.

It was a time of self-examination for me. I realized that I was not just a default Christian. I hadn't been to church in years, I had no interest in converting anyone, I had (and have) nothing but contempt for the "family values" campaign of the Right, but there I was, undeniably Christian, and digging in my heels no matter what justifiable problems I had with other Christians. Pete, who hadn't been in a temple since his bar mitzvah, and who regularly feasted upon swine, dug in his heels on the other side.

I called my mother in tears -- the relationship that had seemed so wonderful was foundering, and in such a humiliating way. She sympathized but pointed out that Pete had grown up Jewish surrounded by indifferent and occasionally hostile Christians, and that a Christmas tree in his home might represent a greater threat to his identity than the traditions of his religion could ever be to mine. I saw her point, and felt a bit ashamed that I had argued as though we were playing on an even field--no-one had ever rammed Passover down my throat. I decided that I didn't want a tree--the cats would just knock it down anyway.

Christmas passed without a tree of my own but I got to enjoy the family tree at home. Pete came home with me for Christmas. He admired our tree and listened to all the family stories behind the ornaments. He went to the Cathedral with me one Sunday and was gratified to find that we all sang the "Shma Yisrael" at the beginning of the service. I went with him to the Jewish Expo at Jacob Javits Convention Center and came home loaded with samples and trinkets.

We fought a lot on that vacation, and then suddenly lapsed into unprecedented bliss when we returned to our apartment in Minneapolis, which suddenly seemed larger and less chaotic than it ever had. Slowly we figured it out: our religious warfare, as religious warfare so often turns out to be, had been about territory -- the apartment, personal space, the uncomfortable and unsettling merging of two households into one. The scales of dogma fell from our eyes, and we saw each other again the for people we were, not just the institutions we participated in.

We have a manorah that we light every Chanukah, and there are no objections to my singing the "Picardy" or "Jerusalem" in the shower as long as I'm in good voice. On a recent roadtrip I told Pete that I was looking forward to dancing the Horah at the wedding. I would teach him how, I offered. "How do you know how to do Jewish dances?" he puzzled. "They taught us in Catholic School," I replied. I sang a few lines of "Haba Nagilah," to prove it. We laughed, and basked in the familiar strangeness of us. So I'm looking for a good klezmer band. I'm looking for a chain for my grandmother's cross. I'm looking for a good rabbi.

Also by Lucia Vilankulu:

  • "Raising a Mixed Race Child"


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