My family and I were invited to my first cousin’s wedding. Her fiancé is Christian. The date? September 30th, which happened to be Yom Kippur.
Initially, my parents had decided not to go. After all, who attends a wedding of their niece when it’s held on the holiest day of the year? But after careful consideration, including consulting with her rabbi, my mom decided seeing her two brothers (they live in different states, are getting on in age, and don’t get to see each other often) was more important than observing the holiday in the way she and my dad were accustomed.
That didn’t mean they wouldn’t observe, just that it would be different than usual. They would do their best to attend the wedding events, while also visiting a local synagogue for services. I am not observant (or even a believer), but I planned to go with them to Kol Nidre (Yom Kippur evening) services since it would make them happy, and I don’t get to see them often enough (they live in Colorado, I’m in Pennsylvania). Also, I love the music. As a musician, the haunting melodies of the Kol Nidre service move my soul.
The rehearsal dinner, originally planned for 6 o’clock, was supposed to have been moved to 5 o’clock to make it easier for my parents to attend Kol Nidre services. No other Jewish relatives who were there planned on attending services. (Some no longer observe, some decided to put the wedding before the holiday, and the most observant ones did not attend the wedding.)
Unfortunately, the dinner was actually scheduled for 7 o’clock. We arrived with the plan to leave by 8 p.m. to attend the 8:30 Kol Nidre service. We did just that, but after driving around for over an hour, we were unable to find the temple. (Turned out the address that comes up on the website is incorrect, so our GPS was unable to locate it. Also, the temple is set far back from the main street and wasn’t visible at night.) I told my dad it was God’s will we weren’t able to find the temple—knowing his daughter is a devout atheist and he leans in that direction himself, he appreciated my joke.
The next morning, my parents set out—in the daylight—to find the synagogue and attend morning services. They succeeded, although my mom felt sick while there and almost had to leave early. They managed to stick it out, and said the service was lovely and they were glad they’d gone.
They came home and rested, and then we left for the 5 o’clock wedding. Yes, you read that right. The wedding was called for long before sunset. By this time, my parents had resigned themselves to spending time with family who (clearly!) maintain differing levels of observance.
And here’s where it gets especially tricky: My parents and I assumed the ceremony would be performed by a non-denominational officiant. We were wrong. The ceremony was performed by a priest. I looked at my mom and whispered, “I feel like we’re living in an alternate reality.” She nodded. My dad seemed disappointed, but not surprised.
My cousin, the bride— who looked more radiant and happy than I’d ever seen her—was raised in a Jewish household, had her bat mitzvah, and never denied her Judaism. Even for me, it was uncomfortable to see her being married by a priest.
Yet this was the path she chose. We remained stoic and didn’t clap or follow the priest’s requests for responsive readings. The priest never said, “Jesus,” and the groom broke the glass at the end of the ceremony to a rousing “Mazel tov!” from the bride’s side of the breathtakingly beautiful outdoor seating area. And then, it was over. The bride and groom kissed and were introduced as the new Mr. and Mrs.
The reception was truly wonderful. No matter the circumstances, spending time with people you love who have been part of your entire life cannot be matched. I had meaningful conversations and shared big “inside joke” laughs with cousins I hadn’t seen in years.
An uncle of mine (and uncle of the bride), a retired astrophysicist and devout atheist, gave me a photograph of me as a baby, full of innocence and wonder. It was the first slide he’d ever taken, and he’d transformed it into a photograph. It touched me deeply. My mom and dad danced arm in arm, like I’ve watched them do their entire lives. Dancing is one of their favorite activities, and it brings tears to my eyes every time I see them embraced in their own, quiet, musical world.
The bride hugged me tight and thanked me over and over for coming. The joy in her eyes was everything. She’d found her Prince Charming and was embarking on her Happily Ever After. (Well, after she finishes her medical residency in anesthesiology and then sports medicine, that is.)
She’s a full-grown adult who has every right to choose her own path. Her contentment with her groom and exhilaration for life is palpable and contagious. So, she didn’t have a traditional wedding and won’t have a traditional Jewish life. Neither do I and so many others. Ultimately, who am I—or anyone—to judge?