How I Acquired A Serbian Godfather

It’s not a new movie; or a revelation of a heretofore secret mafia organization in Belgrade. No. This is a post about Serbian family and married life.

The direct translation for godfather in Serbian is kum. However, kum means much, much more. The concept runs deep, enriching friendships and social life.

First, things, first. … Let’s get pronunciation out-of-the-way. “Kum” is pronounced coom, like it rhymes with room. Kum, not come.

At recnik.com, kum means godfather, and kum/kuma (female version) also means sponsor. I’ve never heard of this, but I am only an American.

Finally, with the help of my friend, Google, I got down to Slavic.net and found a proper explanation for kum: best man, godfather, godparent, and of course, sponsor. Whatever that means.

Yes, kum can refer to the person you choose as the godfather when you baptize your child in the Serbian Orthodox Church. The kum/kuma is the one to witness when an adult is baptized. But then, that also means that your kum has been baptized himself. And in an increasing secular society (left over from communism), more and more people are not even baptized.

I know, right? Scandal!

Kum is more than “just” a best man.

This is where dictionaries don’t do the language justice. Today, among my friends at least, in addition to the religious/baptismal purpose, a kum is a best man, kuma is a maid-of-honor. You choose this person to stand with you when you get married; but the responsibility and the sense of closeness go deeper than that.

When you make someone your kum/kuma, it essentially makes them a part of your family. But better, because it’s someone that you actually choose and genuinely like. Your kum/kuma is probably someone you went to college or have a long history with. It’s a person you’d wish to be related to, if you could. And in Serbia, it’s possible!

Nuances

1. A kum/kuma is probably not from the same family as your parents’ kum/kuma. What! Why?

Because when the parents got married, they also had a kum and kuma. (Duh.) The children of the kum/kuma’s families then became the kumice, or “little” best men and “little” maids-of-honor. (This is where literal translations get a slightly ridiculous.)

2. People don’t seem to choose their brother or sister (siblings are already family), although sometimes Orthodox priests require you to choose a male family member. No kuma allowed.

3. The kum/kuma thing generally goes only one way, although I have seen exceptions. So, if Ivan chooses Sasha to be his kum, Sasha will likely choose someone else to be his kum.

4. From as much as I can gather, kum status remains, even in the case of divorce. If Ivan gets divorced, Sasha is still his kum!

5. A man chooses a kum, and a woman chooses a kuma, generally. After marriage, these connections transcend gender. So, Ivan’s wife may now refer to Sasha as kum.

All of this gets very complicated, I know. But, this kum/kuma/kumice actually makes for wonderfully close friendships.

My Wedding

I chose my brother to stand at my wedding. It was all very “Californian” to have a man-of-honor, instead of a maid-of-honor.

Nikola was my husband’s kum, chosen well before Misha and I even met. Nikola is a good man. He flew from Serbia to Los Angeles, and we met for the first time a few days before the wedding. After our lovely celebration, Misha and I had a “day after” brunch for our close family friends.

Amongst all the people, chatter, food and generally busy-party-goings-on, kum Nikola pulled me aside, and spoke a gruff whisper, pulling out a jewelry box with lovely earrings inside. After the thanks you’s and the assurances that he didn’t have to do that, Nikola got serious. He took my hand and looked me squarely in the eye.

In his thick Serbian accent and deep voice he said, “Lora, I have something to tell to you. … Lora. … If you ever need anything, anything at all. You call me. You understand? You. Call. Me. … Yes?”

“Yes, yes, thank you, Nikola.”

“No, Lora. I am very serious, any problems. You call me, okay?”

And with that, I realized that I, too, had my very own kum.

* * * * *

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