I am a Hindu Brahmin and my husband is an Iranian Zoroastrian. We are not a particularly religious couple, neither of us practices rituals. When we got married, we didn't think that religion or religious identity was important.
And then one day in a New York hospital, a midwife presented us with a six-pound baby boy, who in turn was presented with a host of golden "Om" pendants and "Farohars" (a Zoroastrian symbol) in all shapes and sizes.
While my parents thanked the panoply of Hindu Gods for our son, my Zoroastrian in-laws rejoiced at having another potential member to add to their clan.
Suddenly, my husband and I were at a loss. Everyone was asking us how we were going to raise our son and we had no clue. Sure, we had our love, and we would give plenty of it to our son. But beyond that, what was he - a Hindu, a Zoroastrian, both, neither? Didn't we need to impart to him a sense of identity, a sense of belonging? Was it not our duty as parents to let him know where we were from, to give him a religious backdrop to his life?
The problem, though, was that neither my husband nor I had any clear definition of what it means to be a Hindu or a Zoroastrian. Beyond knowing that one of us was born a Hindu and the other a Zoroastrian, we had little knowledge of what that meant, and we had never felt any need to know more.
Now, I considered joining a Hindu group, or visiting the Hindu Temple. I urged my husband to join the Zoroastrian Association of the Greater New York Area. I read books and articles on the Zoroastrian faith and acquainted myself with Hindu practices.
And then one day, things changed. I happened to pass by a Persian grocery store in Manhattan, which was beautifully decorated for Noruz, the Persian New Year. The owner was friendly - he was thrilled my husband was Persian, and he spoke to me at length about Noruz, a festival that dates back to the time of the Prophet Zoroaster and marks the beginning of spring. Every Noruz, Persians - Muslims, Zoroastrians, Bahais - set a table with seven symbolic objects that begin with the Farsi letter 'S'. Each object is symbolic of life, of new beginnings. The shopkeeper showed me his own Noruz table - the "Sofreh Haft Seen," as it is called, colorful and beautifully decorated.
Suddenly, I was inspired. I rushed home and began to set up my own "Sofreh Haft Seen." I removed the photo and the cigar box from my little wooden table and set upon it a pretty white lace cover. I then placed the germinating sprouts I had bought at the Persian store. I added an apple, a whole head of garlic and a small cup of vinegar. I also added a small glass bowl of sugar, some honey, and a glass of orange juice. I also added colorful dishes of cookies and candy and a goblet of red wine, which Zoroastrian Iranians place on their tables. I topped it off with a painting of the Prophet Zoroaster.
My table looked so pretty that I was further inspired. I rushed to dress my son and myself in fine clothes, and urged my husband to do the same. Grabbing the digital camera, I took a picture of the three of us in front of our table and sent it to our friends and family members.
The following year, I continued our budding tradition. My son had grown a little, and I could give him some context for the little table's finery. I told my son the story of Christmas, I started to tell him about Hindu Gods like Ram, Krishna, and Ganesh, and I explained who the Prophet Zoraster was. I wish for story telling to be a part of our family tradition to give some context to the festivals we are celebrating. He learned how the elephant God, Ganesh, got his elephant head, and he understood that the picture of the man with the long beard (Prophet Zoroaster), who presides over the Noruz table, was given to him by his paternal grandparents.
More than anything else, though, he now knows that when the little table gets all dressed up, he too must dress up in his best for a photo. And that, to me, is the best part of all this. There is something special about the way my family looks in those photos as we cluster around that little mahogany table, something that gives me a warm feeling and a satisfying sense of contentment and security.
I've discovered that there is a lot of depth in religion, and having a religious identity is extremely important. One day, my son is likely to come and ask us to define Zoroastrianism and Hinduism for him. He is likely to ask us who he is, where he comes from, where he belongs, and what he should believe in.
At that time, my husband and I will have to look for deeper answers. But even then, I am sure I will tell my son what I feel now when we decorate our little table and snap what has become the traditional photo: the best kind of belonging is where we celebrate our heritages among ourselves. This makes us feel not only part of a larger community, but it also creates a strong bond for our own family. Because what we are making is uniquely ours and no one else's, and when we get together around our table on special occasions, we can feel a sense of togetherness and belief in one another that to me, is far more important than the technicalities of any religion.