Interfaith Marriages

Getting Hitched – The Big Day (Part 2)

IMG_3703[1]On the day of our wedding, before the ceremony, we signed an interfaith ketubah, witnessed by the rabbi, my sister, and Joel’s brother, who were our maid of honor and best man. These wedding contracts traditionally refer to the couple marrying in the tradition of Moses and Israel, but ours instead refers to a home based “on love, on Torah and on the traditions of our respective heritages.” Our ketubah hangs in a prominent place in our home.

At the start of the ceremony, Joel’s father walked him up the aisle, and then both of my parents walked me up the aisle—a Jewish tradition I knew I’d embrace the moment I read it. Had I married a Christian, I would have been ushered up the aisle by just my father, but I would have left out the part of the ceremony where the minister traditionally asks some variant of, “who gives this woman to be married to this man?” And one or both or all parents answer, “We do.”

I love my parents and respect their opinions, but I grew up in the 70s listening to Marlo Thomas sing “Free to Be…You and Me.” My princess story was “Atalanta,” a tale about a young woman whose father decides to marry her off to the winner of a race. She insists on running too, on the condition that if she wins, she’ll be allowed to choose for herself when and if to marry—not to mention to pick her own groom.

The idea of being given away—even symbolically—felt wrong. I had made my own choices about who I would be in the world as an adult. I wasn’t being handed off from one protector to another, I was making a life-changing choice. The weight of the decision to marry this man was on my shoulders, and I was averse to even a symbolic suggestion that someone else was responsible for it. No one but me was giving me away.

That said, the Jewish tradition of both bride and groom being walked to the front of the church by their own parents felt more like an ushering of children into their new life together than a handing off of property. And that was what we wanted from our parents on this day. Our choice to marry was not their responsibility, but we very much wanted them to share in our joy.

We were married under a huppa, a wedding canopy draped over four posts. As the rabbi explained to our guests, it is a Jewish tradition that symbolizes the home. The canopy’s open sides refer to openness to family and friends, to the importance of community, and to the fragility of being human in the world, exposed to the elements and vulnerable.

We said the Shehecheyanu, a prayer of thanks to God for keeping us safe so far and bringing us to this moment. The pure simplicity of its gratitude makes it one of my favorite Jewish prayers. Thank you, God, for seeing us safely to this moment. It’s a pause of a prayer. Be grateful. Breathe. Continue on our way.

We also included the traditional Jewish seven wedding blessings—one thanks God for the fruit of the vine—the wine that the couple drinks from a ceremonial Kiddush cup, the remainder praise God for creation and love.

The ceremony had one Christian element and another that I thought at the time was a Christian element.

The definitively Christian one was a reading from 1 Corinthians 13 by my best friend from high school. The passage says in part:

 “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

“Love never ends.”[1]

It is a beautiful passage about what love is and what we should aspire to. It is a much-used passage that I love for its clarity and poetry. And it doesn’t mention Jesus.

Our other non-Jewish touch was a unity candle, a tradition in which two smaller white taper candles are used to light a tall white pillar candle, symbolizing two individuals becoming a family. I thought at the time that this was a Christian tradition, but it turns out the internet is at a loss to explain where unity candles came from or how they became popular.

We ended the ceremony with the Jewish tradition of stomping on a wine glass—wrapped in a cloth napkin to protect my sandaled foot and the floor—a symbolic acknowledgement that we were entering into something transformative. Even if you try to put it back together, the glass will always be different than it was.

As with most things about Judaism, there’s more than one explanation for most of these traditions. Breaking the glass, for example, is sometimes explained as symbolizing the idea that joy is always tempered by some sorrow, or sometimes as symbolizing the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

With the help of the rabbi, we had chosen the explanation for each one that most directly spoke to us.

This picking and choosing of traditions can sound like so many shopping decisions. But it wasn’t just a matter of wanting this trinket over that trinket. We wanted the service to reflect ourselves, our traditions, and our values and beliefs. The trappings of the day were fun to assemble—the flowered cake, the childhood pictures we used as centerpieces, the food we picked—but they weren’t the main point. The point was to take this step surrounded by family and friends—the people who’d helped shape our lives and to celebrate together and with the rabbi formulate a service that spoke to the things that were important to us.

A few weeks before the wedding, one of the bridesmaids asked if I wanted her to wear cover up on her tattoos. My reaction was, “No, I want you there as yourself.”

We wanted our real people around us and celebrating with our all too human selves. Not to have a perfect day, but to have a happy day filled with love and joy. We wanted to see which friends would enjoy each other as dinner companions and who was game for the Chicken Dance. It was that approach that informed our choices about the ceremony, and that sensibility that allowed me to embrace Jewish wedding traditions that acknowledge real life. Our canopy is open, letting love in but also leaving us vulnerable to storms. And thank you God for bringing us safely to this moment.

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