Their courtship started in 1981 after they met at an Asia Society symposium on Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. He was white and Jewish, a Harvard Law School graduate from upstate New York working in the government for the poor. She was black, the oldest daughter of Philadelphia Baptists and an expert on Oriental languages.
At first, their parents would say later, the decision by Edward Eitches and Rachel Virtha to marry caused some consternation at home, a nagging worry about how the two young people would fare--an interracial couple in a world where blacks and Jews often have been society's outcasts.
But last Saturday night, at the Adas Israel synagogue in Northwest Washington, any lingering worries evaporated, melted by the clear voice of a cantor singing ancient songs of love.
"I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine," Eitches and Virtha said in solemn unison at the end of a marriage ceremony before 135 friends. The crowd, which included Syrians, Hindus, Muslims, Japanese, Turks and a contingent of Virtha's Virginia relatives from Hampton and Norfolk, later dined on Sephardic delicacies and danced to disco and traditional Hebrew music until 3 o'clock Sunday morning.
"We wanted to have an ethnic mix at our wedding," said Eitches, puffing nervously on a pre-wedding cigarette. "We figured that if we could integrate the people here, we could make every one a little more conscious of what Rachel and I were doing."
The evening was a mixture of gaiety and seriousness: Indian women in bright saris moved slowly among Embassy Row officials in somber pinstripes; Virtha's Middle Eastern-style wedding gown, festooned with gold thread and pearls, seemed to glow next to Eitches' dark tuxedo.
Eitches, 33, an expert on housing in Third World countries who has traveled to the Soviet Union three times on behalf of Soviet Jews, and Virtha, 35, a linguist who heads the Hindi section of the Voice of America, agreed before the wedding to donate 10 percent of their cash gifts to the cause of Falasha Jews, an oppressed group of black Jews in Ethiopia.
"It's appropriate," said Eitches. "There were a million Falasha Jews in the 13th century--they had a whole kingdom--but until 1974 they were treated as serfs. And now, there are just 25,000 of them.
"All this bounty," he said, waving toward a gift-laden table. "We felt like we should share some of it."
Virtha's year-long conversion to Judiasm was overseen by the Washington Board of Rabbis, and aided by private counseling with Rabbi Harold S. White, who officiated at the ceremony. White said the chapel was not divided into the traditional separate sides for bride and groom because the two families had "meshed so nicely."
But it took some time for the parents to warm to the idea of their childrens' marriage, they said. "In the Washington area, interracial marriages may be old hat, but in Rome, N.Y., where I come from, it's a rare occurrence," said Eitches' father, Irving, a retired Air Force engineer.
"The idea that all Jews are accepted, or all blacks are accepted--that's for the birds," Eitches' mother, Shirley. "That's not the way it is. "We love both these children," she said, "but it may not be easy going for Rachel and Eddie. We just hope the world parts for them."
Herbert Virtha, a retired environmentalist for the city of Philadelphia, said that when the two families first met "there was something tentative about it, some tension."
"The reaction in our family was mixed. We batted it back and forth and then decided, hey, these two people are in love, they fit together. It's up to them," he said.
"When your children get married, the two families stand behind them. It's the world that tears you apart."