January 20, 2019

A Jewish wedding, Indian-style

Cranberry-brown lines swirled around my hands and feet, my beloved’s name hidden discreetly in the henna tattooed on my finger. Exhausted, but not ready to sleep, I hugged my new husband close and marveled at what brought me to Mumbai to be married.

It all began at a Shabbat potluck dinner in Los Angeles, where I met my first Indian Jew, one of only 5,000 from Mumbai and part of the Bene Israel community of Jews. Two years and countless adventures later, Norman proposed and I said, “Yes.”

“Can’t we go to Vegas?” I asked. But a quick wedding in Sin City wouldn’t do. We were merging our worlds and traditions, and we wanted our wedding to reflect that. Ultimately, we decided to get married twice — in his home of Mumbai and Michigan, my native state.

We began by traveling to the Indian subcontinent, about a 24-hour journey from Los Angeles, and enjoying a Shabbat dinner at the home of Norman’s family. His mom lit candles, and his dad’s friend led Hebrew prayers over the wine and bread. As a Reform Jew, I grew up celebrating Shabbat dinner, but here I recognized only some words, not the tunes. 

Norman’s family speaks English, but often slips into Marathi, their native tongue, forcing him to act as translator, and leaving me feeling like an outsider. I leaned on him more than usual as he helped me navigate his world, even though this was his first wedding, too. 

The night before the Feb. 14 wedding was the Mehndi (or henna) ceremony, which in the Bene Israel community of Mumbai incorporates the Hindu tradition of henna tattoos with its own Malida ceremony, honoring the prophet Elijah and offering thanks before a happy celebration. To prepare for the ceremony, orange turmeric lotion was shmeered on my arms, legs and face by family to help my skin “glow.” Unsure how I’d react to their advances, his family members barely touched me with lotion; my uninhibited sisters made me much messier. 

Afterward, I showered and pulled on the green lehenga (skirt) and the decorated choli (bare-midriff top) of my new Indian outfit. Then I arranged the dupatta, a flowing, green-and-gold scarf, and secured the tikka jewel so it hung on my forehead. My anklets jingled with each step while bangles clattered on my wrists. 

Norman looked like my own prince, wearing purple pants, curled-up shoes and a long, sparkling, white-and-purple jacket. I focused on his face, his eyes, and let out the breath I wasn’t quite aware I had been holding. With him by my side, I felt like a princess in my exotic dress. 

Norman’s auntie then caked thick, brown henna paste onto my finger. A few days before, the artist had painted the intricate swirls and designs on my hands, arms, feet and lower legs, but this final finger-full of henna finished the process that some say marks the transition from girl to woman. 

Other rituals wishing abundant food, prosperity and good fortune followed — guests placed money in a plate in front of me, fed me sweet morsels, tossed rice over my shoulders, offered blessings and more. 

The next day at the wedding ceremony, as I walked down the aisle of the Orthodox synagogue wearing my white, traditional Western-style dress, Norman sang the psalm “Yonati Ziv” (My Beloved Is a Dove) in the traditional Bene Israel melody as generations of men had before him. 

When he stopped singing, I stopped walking. We finally met and I squeezed his hand, harder than I should have, but he never flinched. We didn’t circle each other as we would later during our American wedding, but together we stepped up to the bimah under the chuppah.

Norman and the cantor (there is no ordained rabbi in Mumbai) said more Hebrew prayers, but I grasped only bits and pieces. We drank funky grape juice that tasted fermented — Norman drank half and I had to finish it, with a big gulp. 

After placing a twisted gold band on my henna-covered index finger, Norman took the cloth-covered wine glass in his hand and — instead of stomping it — smashed it against a wooden box, breaking it on his first try. We signed the traditional ketubah, and then he fastened a gold necklace with black beads around my neck, another sign of a married woman in India. 

But we weren’t done yet. My dad placed Norman’s ring on his finger and took the now-signed ketubah. I attempted not to let my annoyance show at the outdated Orthodox tradition of the man buying his wife from her father. I wanted to embrace my husband’s native culture and its traditions, but I’m sure my sisters recognized my strained smile. I knew that our Michigan wedding would include more progressive wording that better represented our shared commitment. 

As the ceremony came to a close, we stood together in front of the Torahs, and Norman left a small donation in the open ark before stopping at the mezuzah on the way out. 

Outside, fireworks exploded, lighting up the sky, welcoming and celebrating us. We entered our reception, held outside at a school campus, in a blaze of glory as sparklers shot fire over our heads and confetti explosions rained down. 

After feeding the whole family wedding cake, we went up on stage. Norman’s grandfather’s sister’s daughter’s husband’s brother presented our biographies, and Norman and I each gave thank-you speeches. Norman choked up and almost couldn’t continue when he talked about all of his parents' support — despite all of the different customs that can make us seem far apart, we are both close to our families and that pulls us back together. 

We floated around the LED dance floor in an elegant waltz until the tempo changed. Norman jumped over to meet me and I rebounded to him, matching the new Bollywood beat. Celebrating his Indian roots and the culmination of several months of lessons, we surprised and impressed everyone with our Bollywood flair. People crowded the dance floor, moving to different music, including lifting us in chairs during an energetic horah

A procession followed and all 500 guests — small for an Indian wedding, but four times the number of people we expected to celebrate with in Michigan, where my family’s rabbi of 20 years would conduct the ceremony — came up to get pictures and congratulate us. Some tried to give us gifts, but we had to refuse them per Norman’s parents and the invitation: “No gifts or flowers, blessings only.”

I snuggled close to Norman on the way back to the hotel. We made it, despite my Vegas temptations and some snafus. We were married and finally alone together, able to bask in our love and in the knowledge that as we start our lives together — and continue to learn and accept each other and our unique cultures — we had a special bond and faith in each other that would bring it all together. 

And, of course, the adventure wasn’t really over. Less than two months later, we got married all over again in Michigan. 

Tami Tarnow, who is originally from Southfield, Mich., works for the Walt Disney Co. and lives with her Indian-Jewish husband in North Hollywood.