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Om-Shalomers Come of Age

Last month, Sara Mishra celebrated her bat mitzvah with a little laining and a little lamb. Mishra, 13, read from the Torah at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, before she and her family and friends piled onto school buses and drove to Utsav, an Indian restaurant in Midtown. The party started with some traditional klezmer tunes and Israeli folk dances, followed by an Indian feast, complete with Goan fish curry, lamb vindaloo and an array of spicy (nonkosher) Indian delicacies.

It may sound like the latest craze in exotic bar and bat mitzvah catering, but in fact Mishra is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Hindu father, and her experience is reflective of a cultural heritage that she shares with many in her generation. Some call them “HinJews.” Others say they’re “Om-Shalomers.” But whatever they’re called, young Jews of Hindu and Jewish parentage are coming of age, marking the emergence of a new cultural subset in an increasingly diverse American Jewish population.

In the wake of the Hart-Cellar Act, which liberalized U.S. immigration policy in 1967, a wave of mostly male Indian graduate students moved to the United States to study engineering. Many of them married Jewish-American women. Of these couples, many have raised their kids as Jews while also introducing them to secular Indian cultural values. Like “JewBu kids” — born of Jews married to Buddhists — these children have grown up surrounded by a unique blend of values and traditions.

“Despite the obvious religious differences, there are clear parallels between Jewish and Hindu traditions,” said Nathan Katz, a professor of religious studies at Florida International University and the editor of The Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies. “They share an emphasis on home-centered religious practices, family values, dietary codes and other rather striking similarities.”

Mishra’s bat-mitzvah invitation — which integrated the Star of David with a lotus and other traditional Indian symbols — was designed by Shelley Beckler, who, like Sara’s mother, Deborah Bernick, is a Jewish woman married to a Hindu man. During the bat mitzvah reception at Utsav, some of the men wore yarmulkes while many of the women in attendance wore traditional Indian flower bracelets, and Mishra’s family brought out a small statue of Ganesh to help illustrate a brief lecture about the Hindu elephant god. Baruni Samal, Sara’s paternal aunt, offered Sara her blessing, explaining that Ganesh is traditionally invoked to help remove obstacles for a young person coming of age. Her maternal grandmother, Frances Malter, 87, expertly navigated the buffet; since her daughter married an Indian in 1981, Malter was armed with more than two decades of experience with Indian food.

Bernick traveled to India in 1973 to teach at an ORT vocational school for girls. She met Bijon Mishra in Bombay (now called Mumbai), and the two quickly became friends. A year later, Mishra came to the United States to study engineering on a Rotary Fellowship, during which he maintained his friendship with Bernick. It wasn’t until 1978 that the two started dating, and they weren’t married until three years after that.

“It was an ‘Om-Shalom’ wedding,” Bernick said. “Bijon’s sister sang a song in Oriya, an Indian language, and my friend sang songs in Hebrew.” The couple also exchanged sweets during the ceremony, according to an Indian tradition, and then ended with the customary Jewish breaking of the glass. A justice of the peace conducted the wedding, because the rabbis Bernick contacted wouldn’t officiate at an interfaith marriage.

Bernick said her parents accepted her choice of husband. “It didn’t come as a great surprise, since we had been dating for several years,” she said. “And they knew I had an interest in other cultures; they knew I had dated people in Iran and India. The most important thing to my parents was that his family had good values and Bijon was a mentsh.”

Bernick and Mishra named their first daughter Dina because it is both a biblical and an Indian name, and they named their second daughter Sara after Bernick’s maternal grandmother and because it echoes a Sanskrit word for wisdom, Saraswat. The couple decorated the walls of their Manhattan home with Indian cloth paintings and an Indian ketubah from the 1800s, while on their shelves Indian artifacts joined menorahs and Jewish handicrafts. And although the family blends cultures, Bernick said that religiously, the family is fully Jewish, not Hindu.

Dina, now 19 and a student at Harvard University, celebrated a similarly blended bat mitzvah six years ago. “There’s a stigma against intermarriage in some segments of the Jewish community,” she said, “but it’s not a choice I made. It was my parents’. One girl at a Jewish camp I went to told me I was a sin and I wasn’t supposed to happen. But I’m trying to find a way to blend aspects of both cultures. I’m a member of both Hillel and the South Asian Association at Harvard. And I light candles for Chanukah and for Divali, a Hindu festival of lights.”

Not all Jewish-Hindu matches go over well with parents. Judi Kila- chand, who attended Sara’s bat mitzvah, is a Jewish friend of Bernick’s who also married a Hindu. Kilachand’s parents were so disappointed by her marriage that it took six years before they accepted their son-in-law, Kartik. “Like all other Jewish parents, they wanted me to marry someone who was Jewish,” said Kilachand. “But once they got to know Kartik, they really liked him and accepted him into the family.”

Kilachand and her husband traveled to India for their wedding reception and, over the years, Kilachand has learned to cook Gujarati food and to speak some Hindi and Gujarati. She often wears salwar kameez, an Indian tunic and pants, but she and her husband sent their two sons to Hebrew school and both sons had bar mitzvahs.

“There’s a natural affinity between Jews and Indians,” said Kilachand, who works at the Asia Society. “They share a lot in common. You’ve never met a more Jewish mother than an Indian mother. All they want to do is feed you, mother you and take care of you.”

In the majority of Jewish-Hindu marriages, the groom is the Hindu. But in some cases, it’s the bride. A colleague of Kilachand at the Asia Society, Shyama Venkateswar, is a Hindu woman who married a Jewish American man. Unlike Kilachand, she faced little familial resistance to her choice. “My parents were liberal and progressive, and the issue of my husband’s race or religion was moot,” said Venkateswar. “But it’s still a relatively new phenomenon, and both the Indian and Jewish communities look askance at intercultural marriages.” Venkateswar and her husband are raising their child as a Hindu, and she hopes he might someday learn to speak an Indian language.

Indeed, language is often an important marker for “blended couples.” Bernick said that she even knows one family — the Schaechter-Viswanaths — whose children are being taught to speak both Tamil and Yiddish. Like so many mixed couples, they want to ensure the kids understand both their South Indian heritage and that of their Jewish ancestors.

Though Sara and Dina Mishra are a long way from marriage, Bernick admits that she hopes one day her daughters will pass on Jewish values to their own children. “I feel strongly about transmitting a strong Jewish heritage. We are a diminishing minority,” she said. “But we’ve brought up our daughters as Jews. I don’t see intermarriage as a pure negative, though I also wouldn’t necessarily encourage it. I just hope my daughters each settle on a good person. All other things being equal, it would be nice if they found someone with a Jewish background with whom they can pass on our traditions.”

Jeremy Caplan writes for Time magazine and Time For Kids in New York City.

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