If you’ve read the most recent Pew Research Center poll on religion, it turns out most of us know very little about it, even if it’s our own.
We tend to defend what we think we know, and according to Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, we cherry-pick so that the least inflammatory stuff relates to us. Of course we do.
If you’re Bill Maher or any other atheist, you know more than most of us about religion. The poll doesn’t say why, but my guess is that having to form the atheist argument you tend to reach for facts rather than emotional stuff heaped on you by your parents, elders and statesmen. Or in my case, nuns with a bone to pick.
But we expect people to know something. Case in point, we accepted an invitation to a relative’s wedding that read in both Hebrew and English. My Jewish bar mitzvahed husband was thrown by Kabbalat Panim at four o’clock. We had an idea what Chupah at five meant. Black tie and Bedford, where the event was held, we understood.
Turns out the Kabbalat Panim was a reception featuring the veiled bride on a velvet and gold chaise surrounded by the women folk from both families. Although I was the wife of a cousin, I didn’t qualify for sitting, and was told a brief greeting was fine but I felt like too far removed from the fold. Besides, squishing onto the corner of a crowded chaise in a tight fitting dress with a full cocktail seemed a bridge too far.
The elegant hors d’oeuvres and numerous food stations didn’t look kosher-whatever that looks like- but it was overheard that they were. I was definitely an outsider to the people who had been raised in this faith. My husband had told me that being Jewish means you know two things, “Chinese food and Christmas trees.” This I knew, and that my kids double dipped on the gifts at the holidays.
Missing was the groom and his father, the cousin. An hour into this lively reception they appeared with a band of musicians, trumpet leading. The groom was carried on the finger tips of friends and was paraded around the golden chaise while the entourage high-stepped to the Hora. Suddenly the Catholics and their over the top celebrations- the funerals being the real keepers- looked like amateurs.
Following the trumpeter and his merry men the party filed into a synagogue a few yards away.
We were separated by sex-my husband sat on the right side in the pews and I shuffled in next to a pair of older women that had known the bride as a baby. Eyeing me, they asked who I knew, sniffing me out from the get-go. I gushed that I had been raised Catholic but had left the church, uncomfortable with the status of women and the treatment of its youth, and was now at St. Thomas in Mamaroneck.
“We’re raising our three boys Episcopalian”, I volunteered, not adding that my change of churches had created a loss for everyone in the way that shifting allegiance can.
There was quiet comfort with one lady handing out Kleenex and another giving me a tutorial on the seven rules of the marriage read in Hebrew. There was a kindred spirit with the women, like you wanted to tell your childbirth stories. I assumed the men did the same. Maybe a lewd joke was heard, or quiet applause to some impolite bodily function. How were we to know what they were doing, this sea of yarmulkes and black dinner jackets? I had often wondered why Muslims felt the need to segregate. Besides the downside of women being second class citizens I could see the allure in not having to check your bad breath or whether your conversation was mundane.
The Pew Research Center poll also says that we’re threatened by other faiths-no news flash here. Originally I looked around for a Catholic guy to marry but came up empty handed. I tried the Baptists, and had a college boyfriend that I would accompany to church. The most I remember from that experience was how delightful he looked in a pair of Wranglers. The atheist boyfriend told good jokes at the expense of my church going convictions, but he was both harmless and ineffective in the end. Like Bill Maher, he thought religion was more trouble than it was worth.
Back at the mansion, the assembled 20 piece band looked a lot like a Hasidic ZZ-Top. They started with the whirling dervish Hora which ends with the bride and groom in chairs holding hands high above the crowd. I danced in the circle with only women first and then a mixture of everyone. For the rest of the evening the band played rock and roll, music that has caused me to expose the repressed Catholic school girl in me, as I am reminded by my spouse.
His Catholic obsession doesn’t run in his family though. When I met his open-minded mother for the first time, she wasn’t disappointed that I wasn’t Jewish, she said, “as long as you’re not dumb you’ll do”.
We should all be so smart.
Kim Berns is a writer and interior designer in Rye.