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Taking My First Trip to Ukraine, Under the Watchful Eyes of Jesus

A visit to Lviv for my brother’s wedding showed that for some Jews with Eastern European roots, you can’t go home again

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(Malina Saval)
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Had my brother chosen to marry say, a Methodist girl from Minnesota, would I have felt so strongly the sting of religious rejection, the betrayal of our familial past? Was it because we were standing in a place with such deep personal meaning, a place from where our relatives were carted off like cattle to meet their horrific end, that I was so bunched up in shame? Then again, if my brother hadn’t married a Ukrainian girl, I might never have even gotten to Ukraine—not that I was seeing the parts of Ukraine I had always wanted to see, or at least the bits that remained of the parts that once existed. As these thoughts raced through my mind, I kept reminding myself that this wasn’t about me, that this wedding had nothing to do with my cultural identity, and that it would all be over in an hour (or two, or three) and that would be that.

Then I felt something wet hit my forehead.

The priest was shaking his aspergillum in the air, sprinkling holy water on my daughter. Suddenly, the entirety of my children’s nascent Jewish education flashed before my eyes: Jewish preschool, Hebrew school on Sunday mornings, not to mention all those Shalom Sesame DVDs I that I’d “borrowed” a year and half ago and still needed to return to the synagogue library. I did my best to act composed and suffer the spritz in silence, but my hand had other plans: Reaching out, as if by reflex, it swatted the priest’s hand away from my daughter, a light rainfall of holy water landing on the head of the person standing next to me.

As I dug around my purse for a tissue, the priest led my brother and his beautiful flaxen-haired bride around the church, stopping at various focal points along the way: a shrine with flickering red votive candles in front of which my brother’s fiancée knelt and made the sign of the cross; icons of saints; the altar, which the couple circled three times (symbolizing the Holy Trinity); and the pulpit, where the priest placed their hands, wrapped together in a rushnyk, a traditional Ukrainian wedding towel, atop a big wooden cross. At one point the priest had my brother and his betrothed stand facing one another and placed giant gold crowns atop their heads, a Ukrainian custom, as they exchanged vows. My brother (the King) and his wife (the Queen) were now officially married in the eyes of the church.

By the time we got to the Jewish ceremony, held outside in a woodsy park next to the restaurant where the reception would be, my kids were completely tuckered out, nodding off on the laps of my parents. My brother and his bride linked hands under the chuppah as a crowd gathered around the outer edge of the grassy area, watching the wedding unfold in a state of rapt fascination. Clearly, they had never seen a Jewish wedding before (my brother and his wife had to get special permission from the city to erect the chuppah on public property), and by their quiet stillness and steady stares, you could tell they beheld it with a mix of curiosity and confusion. We were a spectacle, like a species once thought extinct by scientists and now on open display for the world. And while it was actually cool that the locals were interested in what was going on, and so deeply respectful you could not hear a pin drop as I recited one of the sheva brachot, it still felt strange and weird. It wasn’t that aspects of it weren’t beautiful—the rabbi’s words were heartfelt and pure; the ketubah, with its golden font and warm yellow and orange colors, was a stirring work of art—but it just just didn’t feel authentic. The rabbi wasn’t really a rabbi. The bride wasn’t Jewish. My kid had just been sprinkled with holy water. It felt like a theatrical performance, or an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

My brother stepped on the glass and everybody—including the spectators—broke out in applause. There were a few shouts of Mazel tov! but most of the guests were unfamiliar with Jewish traditions and so what is usually the big finish to a Jewish simcha felt a bit empty and dull. But everybody around me looked so joyous, so festive in their summer sundresses and colorful Ukrainian garb, I wondered if maybe I was missing something in this whole experience that everybody but me understood. After all, my brother’s wife was embracing (at least in part) a culture and religion that her country once sought to annihilate. That could not have been a simple process for her, but she did it with great enthusiasm, as did her family. Her mother was the one who hired a Ukrainian wedding band that knew how to play “Hava Nagila” (which they played as we hoisted my brother and his bride up in the air). My brother’s wife was the one who picked out the ketubah and convinced my brother that they needed 50 suede yarmulkes (even though only five people wound up wearing them). And yes, in the end, theirs was a Jewish Humanist wedding watered down by drops of holy water, and maybe it was a little sad, but it was also reality, and the reality of modern Jewish life. And it was neither my responsibility nor even in my power to change. And then it occurred to me: Wasn’t it ultimately better that I encourage my brother’s Ukrainian wife to learn more about Judaism than cast her good intentions aside simply because she wasn’t one of us?

Because this summer she became part of our family, so in a way, she was one of us. And as she and my brother walked away from the chuppah and down the aisle together, married twice in one day in two separate religions, they were beaming, they were laughing. They were happy.

***

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Taking My First Trip to Ukraine, Under the Watchful Eyes of Jesus

A visit to Lviv for my brother’s wedding showed that for some Jews with Eastern European roots, you can’t go home again

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