Chuppah: Your First “Home”

  

By Maria Bywater

Chuppah - the first "home" for the engaged couple

I grew up in a large, close Catholic family, so when I got married in a Jewish wedding ceremony, finding meaningful roles for everyone in my family proved challenging. I had converted to Judaism, and the rabbi required that the roles linked to Jewish ritual—–signing the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) and reciting the Seven Blessings, for example—be filled by people who were Jewish. Eventually, I figured it out: I asked my two sisters and two of my brothers to hold the poles of the chuppah, the wedding canopy under which the ceremony took place (you’ll also see it spelled “huppah” and “huppa”).

Looking back, what I remember most about the ceremony was how comfortable I was standing there, in that space under the chuppah, surrounded by so many people who represented important parts of my life. I didn’t feel nervous. I felt supported. I felt at home because the chuppah is symbolic of the marrying couples’ home—both their physical home and the spiritual home they’ll build together. And today, as a chuppah designer and founder of Huppahs.com, I specialize in hand-held chuppahs.

The chuppah is a deeply traditional element of the Jewish wedding ceremony, but also one with a great deal of flexibility as far as what style you use, which makes it a great opportunity to make the ceremony your own, whether you use a hand-held or free-standing version, want something large or small, formal or casual, traditional or modern, or simply or elaborately decorated.

If you didn’t grow up hearing a lot of Hebrew, like me, the only really intimidating thing about using a chuppah might be the moment you first try to pronounce the word out loud in front of someone. It has that back of the throat “h” sound at the beginning. It’s the same sound as at the beginning of the word “Chanukkah.” People pronounce Chanukkah all kinds of different ways, so however you pronounce the first sound in the word “Chanukkah” is a good way to pronounce the first sound in the word “chuppah.”

And really, once you’re past the pronunciation, it’s on to the fun stuff.

Handheld or freestanding?

Chuppah freestandingThere are two basic styles of chuppah: handheld—the kind I used—and freestanding. Both kinds have a canopy held up by four poles. The difference is that a freestanding chuppah will have more structure so that it stands on its own.

Traditionally, the chuppah is open on all four sides, in a nod to the first Jewish couple, the Torah’s Abraham and Sarah, who traditionally kept the four sides of their tent open to welcome guests.

Hand-held chuppahs hark back to when the custom of using a chuppah first arose in Europe in the Middle Ages. Young boys would escort the bride from her home to the ceremony location, holding the canopy over her head like royalty on procession through the city. There’s even an official name for the chuppah bearers: unterferers, which means “supporters.”

To use a hand-held chuppah for your ceremony, you can have the chuppah bearers lead the procession or enter from the side of the ceremony space just before the procession begins. Aside from the links to tradition and community, a hand-held chuppah works great when your ceremony space doubles as your reception venue and you need to move the chuppah out of the way quickly.

For a chuppah that is set in place when the guests arrive, choose a freestanding chuppah, with bases to hold the bottom of the poles or a frame with supports connecting the poles at their tops. Using a frame is pretty much a must if you want a large chuppah, if the canopy is heavy or if you want to add drapery or a lot of decoration.

What size?

You’ll want enough square footage under the canopy for the couple, the officiant and a small table for the wine and other ritual items. It can be as small as 60 inches by 60 inches. Generally, poles that are seven to eight feet tall work well for small to medium sized canopies, although you’ll also find taller versions for a dramatic look.

Where to Get a Chuppah

Some synagogues, wedding venues, florists, and event rental companies have a chuppah to borrow or rent. If you’re interested in this option, be sure to check the condition of the chuppah early in your wedding planning process. Ask the chuppah provider if they set up and take down the chuppah and if there are extra fees for delivery and set up.

You can also buy or rent a chuppah or chuppah kit online. You’ll find both commercial and artisanal versions. If you want a custom design, look for an artist on Etsy or other sites selling handmade items. My company, huppahs.com, rents different styles of chuppahs as well as canopies and poles if you only need one or the other.

For the canopy, you can use a tallit or tablecloth that you have on hand, especially if it has special meaning to you. Just make sure the fabric is in good shape and will hold up to being secured to the poles.

Another great option is to make the chuppah yourself or have someone make it for you. You can choose the form and materials that work best for the wedding you want to create, and you can let your style shine.

If you’re looking for a wedding role for someone who is not familiar with the Jewish wedding ceremony, asking them to help create your chuppah can be a great way to include them. Depending on the chuppah you envision, there can be roles for sewists, fabric painters, embroiderers, weavers and other textile artists as well as folks with light construction skills.

DIY Advice

My book, Sew Jewish, includes instructions for making a chuppah canopy and poles, but here are some guidelines to keep in mind if you’re designing your own.

For the canopy, choose fabric that is lightweight, doesn’t stretch, and looks good from both sides. A canopy made heavy by the fabric or extensive needlework can make holding the poles or attaching the canopy securely to the frame difficult. If the canopy is lightweight and not too large, add some combination of loops, reinforced holes or ties to enable you to attach the corners to the supporting poles or frame. If the canopy is large or heavy, make sleeves on the edges of the canopy to fit into supports running across the top of the chuppah frame.

Hand-held chuppah

Popular materials for the structure are wood, dowels and tree branches, especially birch branches. PVC piping is also a popular choice for frames when you plan to cover the pipes with drapery.

If different people will be providing your canopy and poles or frame, make sure you know how they’ll fit together before anyone gets to work. Ideally, put the whole chuppah together for a trial run well before your wedding day so that you can make adjustments if you need to.

Whatever style of wedding you choose, with all the chuppah options available to you, you’re sure to find one that feels like home.

Maria Bywater is the founder of Huppahs.com, the leading national wedding chuppah rental company and author of the book Sew Jewish: The 18 Projects You Need for Jewish Holidays, Weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebrations, and Home. She lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson River Valley amid her large, close family.

Going Custom: Writing Our Own Interfaith Ceremony

  
Laura and Zach sitting on a wall with mosaic turtles on either side in the Caribbean and relieving some stress.

Living that Caribbean lifestyle: the perfect stress remedy!

After my latest blog post on finding officiants for our Jewish-Catholic interfaith wedding, I got questions from both friends and fans about what the actual ceremony would look like. We had started a draft but needed to tie up some details, so we weren’t ready to share. I didn’t really think about it much in the past week, because we went to Cancun, Mexico, with my sisters and my parents to celebrate my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. As much as I love how our wedding is coming together, and as much as I’m excited for us to get married and start our married life together, I cannot emphasize enough how beneficial this time off was. No cell service meant no emails to vendors, no looking online for wedding bands and no Facebook monitoring of friends’ wedding photos and measuring up our plans against theirs. I was barely on my phone all week and it felt amazing.

Brides and grooms, do this for yourselves. Give your partners the opportunity to do this for themselves. You don’t have to go anywhere, but take some time (an afternoon, a day, a weekend) and do something you love with people you love. It really helped me to regain a sense of mindfulness and a desire to be present in the moment and it will continue to help me make sure I don’t miss a moment of this exciting year—or what our wedding is really about: two people starting a new life together; two becoming one.

After this time off, we’re now ready to share the details of our ceremony. This custom wedding ceremony is a beautiful blend of our respective traditions. It was crafted using the years of interfaith experience of our rabbi, Rabbi Bleefeld, and several resources I found. I talked in my last post about using a book by Rabbi Devon A. Lerner: Celebrating Interfaith Marriages: Creating Your Jewish/Christian Ceremony—we borrowed heavily from the suggested ceremony components and order. If you’re not sure where to start, this book will not only give you sample ceremonies, but will also explain the importance of the different components of a wedding ceremony.

I also read blog posts such as this one from InterfaithFamily to get a sense of what others had done. As I’ve alluded to in earlier posts, it was really important for us to have both traditions not only represented but celebrated during our wedding ceremony. We both made compromises and sacrifices on the venue—me on my dream of being married in a Catholic church, and Zach on the familiarity and beauty of being married in his native California (some of our East Coast relatives would not have been able to make the flight). It was important that the wedding ceremony, like the outdoor space, feel like a reflection of us, because we were both in otherwise unfamiliar territory.

Beautiful pottery goblet

Roberta’s beautiful pottery goblet

Our rabbi has done several interfaith weddings and our first meeting with him was a great orientation to all we had to think about in the next year. He offered a suggested ceremony outline and explained the different parts and how he would handle explaining the significance of each to guests—he suggested printing explanations in the program, so we wouldn’t interrupt the flow and beauty of the ceremony with too many teaching moments. We built on that initial outline, got some input from the priest officiating, added some special touches and voila! An interfaith wedding. Here’s what it will look like:

After the procession (where there will be oodles of happy tears), Rabbi Bleefeld will open with a statement remembering Zach’s mother Roberta, who passed away four years ago from breast cancer and my grandfather Tom, who lost his battle with bone marrow cancer a year ago. These people were so important to us and we will miss them so much on our special day. We want everyone to know that we feel their absence on this momentous occasion.

In explaining the subsequent different components of the ceremony, the insight we got from Rabbi Bleefeld and Fr. Mike was consistent: The consenting and the vows is paramount in a Catholic wedding ceremony, while the exchange of rings is the high point of a Jewish ceremony. To that end, we’re asking my mother and Zach’s aunt to read from the New and Old Testament, respectively, to introduce each of those components. We’re getting the dads involved too—they’ll say the Seven Blessings, alternating in Hebrew (Zach’s dad) and English (my dad). We’ll mark the last blessing by drinking a cup of wine from a goblet that Roberta made for Zach, one of the many uniquely beautiful pieces of hers that we have in our home. My godparents will then read the General Intercessions, which are not required in a Catholic ceremony, but Zach says they’re his favorite part of the Catholic mass. (You can find an explanation for this part of the mass here, at paragraph 69. It is also called the Prayer of the Faithful or the Universal Prayer.) We’re writing our own prayer that reflects our hopes and values, as well as our desire for health and happiness as we start our marriage surrounded by the family and friends we love. 

Zach with Laura's parents and sisters in Xcaret, Mexico.

Zach with my parents and sisters in Xcaret, Mexico

Throughout the service, we sought opportunities to involve our parents and close family in the wedding ceremony because these individuals helped us form our sense of faith, tradition and family. It was important to us that they be intimately involved in the ceremony that would mark the start of our own new family with its own faith tradition.

I’m adding an outline of the ceremony below, for those who would like more details.

Our Wedding Ceremony

Procession

Remembrance Statement – Rabbi Bleefeld

Opening words of welcome and blessing – Fr. Mike and Rabbi Bleefeld

New Testament Reading – Mother of the Bride

Introduction to and recitation of vows – Fr. Mike

Old Testament Reading – Aunt of the Groom

Introduction to and exchange of rings – Rabbi Bleefeld

7 Blessings – Dads, alternating in Hebrew and English

General Intercessions – Godparents of the Bride

Pronouncement and Marriage blessing (Hebrew and English) – Rabbi Bleefeld and Fr. Mike

Stepping on glass – Rabbi Bleefeld

Kiss and Processional

This Hindu-Jewish Couple Celebrated with Two Beautiful Weddings

  

By Elana Bell

Photos by Peter Dressel

Hindu wedding. Photo by Peter Dressel

It is two days until our Hindu wedding ceremony, and my fiancé Jai and I are standing outside the Rama Krishna Mission where I am staying, in Calcutta’s hundred-degree humidity, arguing about translations. I am asking, for what feels like the hundredth time, for an accurate translation of the mantras I will be chanting during the four-day ceremony. Jai has been promising—and putting off—these translations for months, but apparently, it is not as easy as we’d originally thought.

It turns out that there is not one generic Hindu wedding ceremony, but rather a precise set of mantras for each region, caste and specific lineage. He thought that once we arrived in India it would be easier track down translations from the local priest, but unfortunately the local priest actually lives in a remote village on the outskirts of the city, has no cell phone and can only be reached during certain times of the day on the communal village phone, which is almost always busy. And, as Jai painstakingly explains to me, there are no simple, ready-made English translations for a four-day ceremony.Photo by Peter Dressel

This is not our first wedding. Six weeks earlier, we were married in a Jew-ish wedding ceremony on the canals in Venice, California, a few miles from where I grew up. I say Jew-ish, because while it was rooted in Jewish culture and included many elements of a traditional Jewish wedding, we’d devoted months to crafting the language of our ceremony to make sure it was a precise reflection of who we were as a couple.

Since Jai is not Jewish, and has no plans to convert, it seemed false to recite the traditional blessing for the ring exchange: Haray aht m’kudeshet li b’taba’at zu k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael, which translates as By this ring you are consecrated to me in accordance with the traditions of Moses and Israel. Instead, we wrote our own blessing, recited in both Hebrew and English: With this ring I consecrate myself to you by the universal laws of love. During the sheva brachot, the seven blessings, we invited Jai’s parents and sister to recite Sanskrit verses that were close to the meaning of the traditional Hebrew blessings, because we wanted to honor and include his language and culture, and because we wanted our guests to understand that although this was a predominantly Jewish ceremony, it was also the marriage of two rich and ancient traditions.

Elana's Jewish wedding. Photo by Peter Dressel

Photo by Peter Dressel

So you can imagine my annoyance when two days before the Hindu ceremony, I still had no idea what it was that I was actually going to be saying. The year before, we had come to Calcutta to participate in Jai’s sister’s wedding. Though born in Calcutta, Sukanya was raised in the United States and holds a doctorate in astrophysics from Berkeley. Going in, Sukanya was already skeptical of some of the rigmarole that the traditional Hindu ceremony required—three different heavy-silk, embroidered saris, yellow paste smeared on the face and more than a dozen intricate rituals to bind her to her chosen mate—ceremonies that were not necessarily reflective of the quieter, more stripped down Hinduism practiced by her family growing up. Yes, there were the small altars around the house with statues of Durga and Ganesha, but the most important ritual was the daily recitation of the Sanskrit verses their father demanded. Add to the equation the fact that Sukanya was marrying a nice, Bengali young man who, although he cooked a perfectly delicate hilsa fish, believed in the intricate rituals of his born religion about as much as he believed in the tooth fairy.

Throughout their four-day ceremony (which I studied intently, knowing that I might soon be going through it myself), I occasionally noticed Sukanya grimacing, or calling her father over and whispering to him with agitated gestures. When I asked her later what was wrong, she explained that unlike most contemporary Indian brides, she could actually understand the Sanskrit verses she was reciting and they contained some pretty paternalistic sentiment.I can’t believe I am supposed to repeat this crap about thanking my husband for taking over the burden of taking care of me from my father!” she hissed.  “Elana, you and Jai shouldn’t even have an Indian wedding. Just do it in America. Then you won’t have to go through all of this nonsense.”

As a cultural and religious outsider joining the family, I didn’t really think that was an option. Can you imagine me telling my soon-to-be Indian mother-in-law that her only son wouldn’t have a traditional Hindu ceremony? Plus, I was already picturing myself in a flowing red silk sari. And, although I was not thrilled about the chauvinistic element that Sukanya had revealed, most organized religions are patriarchal in origin, and their marriage rituals reflect that. Judaism is no exception. The traditional ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, includes a promise from the husband to present the bride with “the marriage gift of virgins, two hundred silver zuzim” in exchange for her promise to live faithfully according to the laws of Moses and Aaron, and bring the agreed upon sum of silver, gold, and valuables from her own father’s house. Sounds like a sale to me.

Even more than my concern with an antiquated, patriarchal ceremony was my secret, deep-seated fear that I was going to unknowingly end up invoking some god or goddess that wasn’t mine. That somehow, by reciting these ancient Hindu mantras, I would be betraying my God, and therefore my essential Jewishness.

As Jai and I stood outside the Rama Krishna Mission, trying to resolve this frustrating circumstance, I realized I had a choice. I could hold my ground on principle, and spend the last days before our wedding in a state of tension and frustration over what I could not control, or I could jump into this ceremony on faith and with the clarity of my intention to honor my soon-to-be-husband’s culture. I knew that no matter what words I would repeat during the ceremony, we would be invoking the love we have for each other, and honoring the values that are important to us, whether connected to our cultural heritage, spiritual practice or to something as mundane as who is going to take out the trash.

Photo by Peter DresselOn the day of the ceremony we wake at dawn in our separate residences. I am brought to the wedding house and dressed in an elaborate red silk sari and made up to look like a combination of Bollywood starlet and a Hindu goddess. When I come out, they seat me in a red velvet wedding chair to wait for my turn to participate—which turns out to be not for a long time. In the Hindu ceremony, it is the father of the bride who actually has the most to say and do. And my father was a champion. He sat under the wedding tent on a white mat, dressed in a white dhoti with a red-checkered cotton shawl around his neck, repeating Sanskrit verses after the priest for hours. Watching the delight my musical father took in pronouncing these foreign phrases helped me relax and be present for the ritual. Although I did not understand every word, when Jai and I threw the fragrant jasmine garlands around each other’s necks, circled the fire together seven times and tied his clothing to mine, the metaphor was clear.

It would resemble a fairy tale rather than life if I ended the story here, if I implied that after that powerful and exhausting ceremony, and the compromises we each made to get through it, everything fell into place and the struggles of being an inter-faith couple faded into the sunset. In truth, the negotiations continue, some more painful than others. Whereas in India I felt that I was the one who ended up compromising more, in our day-to-day life, it is Jai who is consistently being asked to include more and more Jewish ritual into his life.

We celebrate Shabbat on a weekly basis, either in our home, with friends or with our beloved local Hassidic rebbe. Jai accompanies me to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and other Jewish holiday dinners and services. In the beginning, I think Jai came for my sake, so I would not have to be alone, since Judaism is such a communal religion. And while Jai is very clear that his is a Hindu soul, he acknowledges that his life has been enriched by his experiences with Jewish culture and practice.

As far as my participation in Hinduism, as I mentioned, Jai’s Photo by Peter Dresselfamily’s practice is more philosophical, internal, and text-based, than communal. In fact, when we were traveling in India I would eagerly go into each temple, leaving my shoes at the threshold and braving the dirty water littered with petals, while Jai waited outside for me to return, forehead sticky with the remnants of a priest’s blessing. Early in our relationship, Jai would tell stories from the Bhagvad Gita and the Ramayan so intimately, it seemed that he’d been born knowing them. Besides making me fall more in love with him, being exposed to these stories through his eyes has made me want to have a deeper understanding of my own sacred stories, and wish that I was as versed in the Torah as he is in the Hindu sacred texts.

A few days after our Hindu ceremony, on a train heading from Calcutta to Delhi, still reeling from the four days of intense festivities, I asked my father how he, a Conservative Jew from California, felt about all the Sanskrit he’d had to recite and if any of it had made him uncomfortable. He paused for a moment and said, “Well, the way I see it, Sanskrit is a holy language, like Hebrew. The sounds felt familiar in my mouth, even though I didn’t know exactly what I was saying. And as I was speaking, I just kept focusing on my love for you and Jai, and my blessing that you should have a long and happy marriage.” I can’t imagine any God that I would call mine taking issue with that.

 

Elana’s debut collection of poetry, Eyes, Stones (LSU Press 2012), was selected as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, and brings her complex heritage as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors to consider the difficult question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, the Edward Albee Foundation, and the Brooklyn Arts Council. Her writing has recently appeared in AGNI, Harvard Review, and the Massachusetts Review, among others. Elana was a finalist for the inaugural Freedom Plow Award from Split This Rock, an award which honors a poet doing work at the intersection of poetry and social justice. To find out more about her work, please visit: www.elanabell.com.

How Our Interfaith Ceremony Got Us Out of Writing Our Own Vows

  
Two silver shoes in the snow

We’ll have to practice stepping on glasses in these shoes – and we’ll keep our fingers crossed for good weather!

Forty-four days, 23 hours and 53 minutes to go to the big day (but who’s counting?), so we thought we’d give you a sneak preview of how we’ve constructed our interfaith ceremony. All the way back last summer, we had a lovely meeting with our rabbi, IFF/Philadelphia‘s Rabbi Frisch, and our priest, Mother Takacs, where we talked about the elements of the wedding services from our religions and which of them were particularly meaningful to us.

There was no question that we would stand under a chuppah; after walking down the aisle separately, we’ll hold hands and stand underneath it together, entering the special space as equals. We’ll begin with the Kiddush, and then the “Declaration of Intent” from the Episcopalian tradition, in which we’ll both announce to everyone that we intend to get married and stay married!

Both our officiants will say a few words, and Rabbi Frisch will read our ketubah text aloud as well (we’ll sign it before the ceremony). We then move onto the part of the ceremony that, for Vanessa, was the most important part from her tradition: the vows. Rather than writing our own vows, we’ll say the traditional ones derived from the Book of Common Prayer. These vows encompass everything that we could possibly want to cover, promising to remain faithful to each other through the best and the worst times. After exchanging our rings, we’ll hear the Sheva B’rachot (seven blessings), and have the second Kiddush. One final blessing from the priest, and then – we’ll break the glass together!

Hopefully you can see from this description that we’ve tried to weave our two traditions together: We’re not keeping the Jewish parts of the ceremony separate from the Christian ones, but rather combining them to make a wedding service that does justice to how we plan to continue our lives together. Our conversations with Rabbi Frisch and Mother Takacs helped us to figure out what we needed to do to make our ceremony perfect for us and our families, and the process of planning the ceremony has given us the space to reflect on exactly what each part means to us. So much of the wedding planning industry tells us to spend hours picking the perfect menu and flower arrangements: Why shouldn’t we spend just as much time thinking about the words and actions that will be the centerpiece of our ceremony?

Ketubah: The Bass-line of Our Marriage (Get it? Like a tuba)

  

One of the items that we needed to tick off our Wedding To-Do List this month was ordering the ketubah. As an interfaith, same-sex couple, we were looking for a text that spoke to the myriad possibilities of what it means to be in a loving, committed relationship. In a moment in the wedding industry when interfaith and same-sex ketubah texts are relatively scarce, we were happy to find something that struck a chord with us.

The Church of England doesn’t have anything similar to a ketubah. The traditional wedding ceremony involves words and vows that have remained more or less the same since the Book of Common Prayer wedding service was first codified in the 17th Century. Our own wedding ceremony will combine these long-recited vows with elements of the Jewish tradition, so we won’t be taking the opportunity to express our more personal thoughts about marriage within the service itself (partly because the Church of England vows are very meaningful and beautiful, and partly because Vanessa would become a blubbering wreck). So, the ketubah felt like a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect on our conception of marriage and to verbalize our priorities and commitments for the years ahead.

A small preview of our ketubah

A sneak peek at our ketubah!

In the end, we decided to choose a ketubah that encompasses more of a poetic, abstract notion of love. The design is relatively abstract too: an impressionistic tree with blue and gold leaves, with its roots drawing strength from the text underneath. Our ketubah tells the story of a partnership between two people using beautiful metaphor, but a metaphor that is rooted in concrete behavior.

Wedding planning can be stressful, and we’re combining it with finishing our graduate degrees and looking for jobs: So when we read our ketubah text that speaks of supporting each other’s dreams and comforting each other’s sorrows, we know that the beautifully-illustrated document is not just for show. The line that describes holding each other in both our arms and our hearts has never seemed more appropriate than in recent weeks, as we’ve huddled together under a blanket on our sofa, escaping the delightfully chilly weather/miserable freezing temperatures (depending on who you ask).

So, the ketubah is on its way. Many more things remain on the Wedding To-Do List, the vast majority of which relate to a single day. But this is one element of our planning that we’ll see every day for the rest of our lives, throughout our entire marriage.

Two Months Since “I Do” with Wedding Memories to Last a Lifetime

  
Stephanie's wedding

Our first look!

It has been two months since Jarrett and I tied the knot and there are times I still catch myself daydreaming about our wedding day. While it was not the easiest task to plan our big day, the reward was better than I could have imagined! In the weeks leading up to the wedding, I tried to remain cool and collected while tackling an intimidating to-do list but I remained motivated knowing every check off the list was one step closer to marrying my best friend.

As October 8 inched closer, I grew more and more anxious knowing our closest friends and family members would soon be traveling from near and far to celebrate with us and my hope was that everything would run smoothly day-of. When I woke up the morning of our wedding day, I knew every item on the checklist had been completed except one: Get Married. In that moment, the advice from many close friends who had gotten married months or years prior to us popped into my head… “Be present,” “Don’t sweat the small stuff” and “Enjoy every moment because the day will go by in the blink of an eye.” In that moment, I put every worry behind me and was ready to walk down the aisle.

The day began on a relaxing note with breakfast and movies at home with my mom and bridesmaids while we had our hair and makeup done. The limo arrived to take us to the wedding venue. Once at the venue, time moved faster than ever before. We began photos right away, then it was time for the first look with my soon-to-be husband. We chose to do a non-traditional first look because it allowed us to take all photos before the wedding ceremony so that we could be present at our cocktail hour to have more time with our friends and family. As I walked out onto the patio toward Jarrett standing with his back to me, I smiled knowing we were about to see each other for the first time on our wedding day. The photographer instructed Jarrett to keep his eyes closed while she arranged us back to back for a few photos. My mind raced with memories from our relationship over the last six years that brought us to this point and my smile grew even wider as the photographer instructed us to turn around to see each other for the first time. We cried happy tears as we exchanged notes we had written to each other the night before the wedding.

After our first look, we headed upstairs for our ketubah (marriage contract) signing ceremony. I was raised Catholic and never experienced a ketubah signing ceremony until my own wedding day. But after Jarrett and I spent weeks designing our own Interfaith ketubah, I was excited for this event to be part of our big day. Our wedding venue, The Bradford Estate, recently completed upstairs renovations which provided us with a perfect space for a private ceremony. Rabbi Robyn Frisch (Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia) led a beautiful and intimate ketubah-signing ceremony for Jarrett and me along with my parents and sister, Jarrett’s mom and two close friends we chose as our witnesses. The ketubah-signing ceremony will forever be one of my favorite parts of our wedding day. It was such a special time with the closest people in our lives and a way to spend a short time together before the chaos of the reception began. The ketubah ceremony even calmed some nerves before the wedding ceremony because technically, we were already married once our ketubah was signed!

Our interfaith ketubah

Our Interfaith Ketubah

After signing out Interfaith Ketubah

After signing our interfaith ketubah

Following our ketubah signing was our wedding ceremony (chuppah ceremony) officiated by Rabbi Robyn Frisch. Jarrett was raised Jewish and it was his request to be married by a rabbi in a ceremony incorporating Jewish traditions. I was happy to agree to his request as I understood how important this was to him and I did not need to be married in a Catholic church or by a priest for our wedding day to feel special to me. We chose to be married under a chuppah and it was so special to have our parents and my sister standing under the chuppah with us during our ceremony. I love the sentiment of the chuppah representing the home we will build together and how it is open on all sides to represent the welcoming of others.

We also chose to incorporate the Kiddush/Blessing over the wine utilizing a kiddush cup given to us by Jarrett’s aunt from a trip to Israel earlier this year. During our wedding ceremony planning, Robyn provided us with different verses for the exchange of the rings and Sheva B’rachot/Seven Wedding Blessings. Jarrett and I took time together to read through the different verses and chose verbiage that we connected with for use in our ceremony.

We were so thankful to have chosen Robyn as our officiant as she was so helpful during the ceremony planning (especially as a resource to someone who was not raised Jewish). She also took the time to get to know us as a couple and shared stories about us that truly made for a personal and unforgettable wedding ceremony. She even provided explanations during each part of the ceremony for those in the audience who were not from a Jewish faith background so they too could connect and understand the ceremony. Our ceremony ended with the Priestly Benediction and Jarrett breaking the glass with all of our loved ones yelling “Mazel Tov!”

Under the Chuppah during our Interfaith wedding ceremony

Under the chuppah during our interfaith wedding ceremony

Following our wedding ceremony, our cocktail hour and reception commenced complete with the hora and cutting of the cake. We ate, drank and danced the night away with our closest friends and family members who helped make the day so special. Two months later, we continue to receive compliments about how beautiful and personal our wedding ceremony was and we feel very lucky to have had such a memorable experience. We are thankful for the memories from our wedding day that we will cherish for a lifetime and look forward to what the future holds as we embark on our interfaith marriage together.

Fielding Questions about the Wedding & Our Life Together

  
Alex and family

Alexandra with her parents and fiancé

The decision to get married inevitably invites inquiry. How did you meet? What is the proposal story? Can I see the ring? Have you set a date?

The decision to proceed with an interfaith marriage invites it even more so. For example, in response to an earlier blog where I shared news of our recent engagement, I received comments asking whether we had made a decision about how we would raise our children.

These well-intentioned comments, which presupposed that we even plan to have children, offered their views of how to solve the apparent conundrum of two faiths under one roof.

The answer is that we have talked at great length about how we will raise children if we are so blessed. These conversations have been some of the more difficult discussions we have had as the issue is a deeply personal one.

While we do not purport to be experts on how to blend two religions into one family, we compromised and reached an agreement that seems workable for us, at least in theory. (I promise to resume blogging someday to share whether it actually works in application!) Our ability to reach this compromise, I think, solidified the fact that we were “engagement-ready.” The process was challenging and illuminating. We learned how to communicate effectively and compassionately about a sensitive subject.

As we progress in the wedding planning process, I anticipate that we will continue to hone those communication skills as the inquiry about children is only one of many questions we will face (and have faced) while planning our wedding.

Would the ceremony be Jewish? Catholic? “Interfaith?” And, who would officiate? After much thought and consultation with each other and our parents, we decided on an interfaith ceremony officiated by a rabbi (Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of IFF/Philadelphia) on a Saturday evening in December.

Prior to finalizing the decision, I had to ask myself whether I was comfortable with our plan. Our wedding will more closely resemble a Jewish wedding (albeit on a Saturday evening and with a Catholic bride). Having only attended one Jewish wedding, I feared that I might feel disconnected from the ceremony – and that my Catholic family would too.

Fortunately, we found an officiant willing to incorporate elements into our ceremony that are meaningful and familiar to me. And, distilled to its essence, a Jewish wedding ceremony supports and celebrates the union of two people. While the formalities may be different, conceptually, this is a tradition that I am familiar with.

Still, our tailor-made interfaith wedding is a far cry from the traditional, Catholic weddings of my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. They have questions and they, too, want to feel connected to the ceremony. My Irish grandfather actually asked me earlier this month whether he should wear a kippah (yarmulke) to the wedding!

Over the next few months, we will be working closely with our officiant – asking questions and answering them – to craft a ceremony that suits us as a couple, celebrates our differences and allows our families to meaningfully participate in our once-in-a-lifetime day.

But when all is said and done, and the majority of questions have been asked and answered, the most important question in this process will be our willingness to make a lifelong promise to each other. Though I may not know the answer to the myriad questions about interfaith wedding planning, my answer to that most important question is a resounding, unequivocal yes.

How We Planned Our Inclusive, Co-Officiated Wedding Ceremony

  

By Emily Baseman

Emily and Brandon's ceremony

Our interfaith ceremony was the best and most meaningful part of our wedding day. It was really important to my husband, Brandon, and me that the ceremony be both very personal to us as a couple and truly interfaith. This meant we looked at wedding traditions from both Christianity and Judaism, and discussed which would fit into our ceremony. It also meant working closely with both a rabbi and a pastor to select readings and determine what would be said by each of them. I took a very hands-on role in planning our ceremony—maybe more than most brides do—because we had very specific ideas of what we wanted to be included. Here’s a look at what we chose to do, and where we made it work for ourselves and our families. (We also had a Ketubah ceremony, which I’ll write about in an upcoming post.)

Processional & Affirmation of Families

Brandon with his parents

Brandon walking down the aisle with his parents

It is traditional in Judaism for both parents of the bride and both parents of the groom to walk their respective child down the aisle. In Christianity, it is much more typical for only a bride’s father to walk her down the aisle. For this tradition, Brandon and I went with what we were comfortable with and had imagined growing up—both his parents with Brandon, and just my dad with me. My feminist heart hated the notion of my father “giving me away,” and so I chose to look at the experience as an incredibly special moment between my father and me, and I’m glad I did not miss out on that. Early in the ceremony, our pastor led an Affirmation of Families that included blessings from both sets of parents.

Chuppah

We loved the symbolism of our new home under the chuppah and were excited to include this in our ceremony. We decided that only Brandon and I, and our officiants, would stand under the chuppah, with our parents in the front row and our attendants off to the side. We made this choice because we wanted our parents to experience the ceremony without feeling like they were on display, and we also wanted it to be a more intimate moment between ourselves and our officiants.

My mother and I designed our chuppah with our amazing florist. Our wedding was outside in Washington Square Park in Chicago and we wanted to ensure that our chuppah felt natural. The flowers and birch poles the florist used were beautiful and the best part of the chuppah was a white lace tablecloth that belonged to my late maternal grandmother. During the ceremony, I glanced up at the chuppah and loved feeling my grandmother’s presence in that moment. We now have the tablecloth at home and I hope to have it made into baby blankets for future children.

Acknowledgement of Different Faiths

Our pastor began the ceremony with an acknowledgement of our two faiths and talked about how the ceremony was uniquely created for Brandon and me, with traditions and beliefs adopted from both Christianity and Judaism. He closed with a Bible passage, God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (1 John 4:16)

Blessings

Our rabbi led three blessings: Shehecheyanu, blessing over the wine and blessing over the chuppah. We saw these blessings as essential to our ceremony and wanted to include both Hebrew and English. Our rabbi also provided background for each so that everyone understood their meaning. For the blessing over the wine, we asked our rabbi to recite it in Hebrew and our pastor to recite it in English. We also used the Kiddush cup from Brandon’s bar mitzvah, which added special meaning.

Brandon & Emily under the chuppah

Scripture Readings

In our initial conversation with our pastor, we agreed that we wanted to include Jesus throughout the ceremony. It is possible to have a Christian-Jewish ceremony that only references God, but it was more comfortable for us to also include Jesus in name. During our ceremony, our pastor explained with grace how we would be including aspects from both faiths, which could be perceived differently from person to person. We selected both Tanakh and New Testament readings for the ceremony, both of which offered blessings and a charge for our marriage. For the Tanakh, we heard Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, and for the New Testament, Colossians 3:12-17.

We were also blessed with homilies from both officiants, a statement on the gift of marriage, “I Carry Your Heart” by E.E. Cummings and the singing of “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong, arranged by my brother-in-law, our pianist for the day, and performed by him and my sister.

Vows & Exchange of Rings

Inspired by my sister and brother-in-law, Brandon and I wrote our vows together and each said the same words to one another, which was our personal way of making promises to each other about our commitment.

Brandon and I were also eager to find a way to incorporate each of us speaking in Hebrew in the ceremony. We found this opportunity in our ring exchange. Our pastor led Brandon and the rabbi led me in reciting our own words and words borrowed from Songs of Solomon, “With this ring, I thee wed. Wear me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is infinitely strong. Many waters cannot quench love, no flood can sweep it away.” We closed with these words in English, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” and in Hebrew, “Ani le’dodi ve’dodi li.

Sheva Brachot and Benediction

Before we were pronounced married, our rabbi recited the Sheva Brachot, or “Seven Blessings,” which are traditional in a Jewish wedding. Our pastor also read a benediction, Numbers 6:24-26, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord be kind and gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favor And give you peace.” Later at our reception, our first dance was Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” which we loved dancing to because the lyrics also echoed these words.

Breaking of the Glass

There was no question—how could we not include this fun tradition?

To learn more about interfaith weddings and for a full list of resources, click HERE.

To read more about Emily and Brandon’s interfaith wedding planning, read her first post HERE.

Designing our Interfaith Ketubah

  

Couple looking at Ketubahs onlineWhen Jarrett and I started our wedding planning journey last April, I knew very little about Jewish wedding traditions. However, once I learned how important it was to Jarrett for us to have a Jewish wedding ceremony, I spent time learning about Jewish wedding traditions so we could find special ways to incorporate these traditions into our big day.

One tradition Jarrett and I have been particularly focused on over the last few weeks is the design of our interfaith Ketubah. The Ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract. In ancient times, this marriage contract was legally binding and confirmed that the groom would provide for his new spouse. Today, the Ketubah is a personalized piece of art that includes both meaningful text and design. The modern Ketubah has been adapted from ancient times to better illustrate modern marriage, the partnership between a couple and their love and commitment to each other.

During our first meeting with our wedding officiant, Rabbi Robyn Frisch (Director of IFF/Philadelphia), we discussed ceremony details, including the Ketubah. She advised that we choose a Ketubah that is meaningful to us, especially when deciding on the text. She informed us that there are different texts written for couples of different religious backgrounds so we should search for interfaith text for our Ketubah (for ideas see this InterfaithFamily resource). She also asked us to start thinking about who we would choose as our witnesses in signing our Ketubah on our wedding day. The two witnesses must not be related to us but should be very special people in our lives to share in such an important tradition.

Rabbi Robyn made suggestions on where to search for our perfect Ketubah, including the National Museum of Jewish American History in Philadelphia as well as Etsy online. Then, at our last InterfaithFamily Love & Religion workshop a fellow classmate who is also in the process of planning her interfaith wedding made the suggestion to look on www.ketubah.com.

I spent days scouring through the pages of beautifully-designed Ketubahs and shared many of my favorite designs with Jarrett. It’s a big decision as we look forward to having this special work of art displayed during our wedding ceremony in October and then hanging it inside our home for years to come. We loved so many of the options on the ketubah.com website. It was a hard decision but we were drawn toward the intricacy of the paper cut ketubah designs. Our favorite design has personalized touches within the artwork, including our names cut into the top. We can also choose to incorporate a favorite quote or phrase around the perimeter of the Ketubah design.

This is our favorite Ketubah design!

This is our favorite Ketubah design!

This site offered four interfaith text options for us to choose from. I printed one of each text choice from their website and on a recent road trip Jarrett and I spent time reading the texts together to determine which one was most meaningful to us. We chose an interfaith text that we could identify with and felt symbolized our partnership with words we would use toward one another. We felt especially connected to the text that states, “They choose each other as friends according to the teachings of our ancestors who said, ‘Acquire a friend with whom you will learn, next to whom you will sleep and in whom you will confide.’”

To make this wedding planning step even more special, Jarrett’s mom has requested to buy our Ketubah as part of our wedding gift because it is equally important to her that we have chosen to incorporate Jewish wedding traditions into our big day. We look forward to seeing our personalized Ketubah when it arrives and we are even more excited to participate in the Ketubah-signing ceremony on our wedding day in less than five months!

Surprise! It’s a Rabbi!

  

Wedding rings on the Torah

In the days after our engagement, we began to imagine our wedding. I had thought about a possible future wedding many times in the past, but the realness of that imagined wedding became heightened by our official engagement. Distant ideas like, “getting married outside might be nice,” were suddenly translated into Google searches for “outdoor wedding venues.” One of the first questions we asked ourselves was, “Who do we want to officiate?” I was actually surprised by how quickly the answer came to me. After flipping through the various options in my mind, I knew a rabbi was the right choice for us. I asked Amma what she thought of the idea, and without skipping a beat, she completely agreed.

Just a couple of years ago I don’t think either of us would have guessed that we would be married by a rabbi. For starters, neither of us is technically Jewish (depending on how you define Jewish). One could argue (and I often do) that I am Jewish because my grandparents are. Whether or not that argument wins, depends on the audience. Because I wasn’t raised Jewish, and whatever lineage I do have is on my father’s side, some would say I’m a far cry, but that has never stopped me from feeling Jewish! And that isn’t the only reason we want a rabbi for our ceremony.

As Amma and I examined our decision, we discovered our desire for a tie to something greater than ourselves to play a meaningful role in our wedding. We may not be religious, but we do feel a strong spiritual connection to humanity, the universe and God. It was clear to us that we wanted the person leading us into our marriage to be someone who is dedicated to that greater spiritual connection.

Sally Jane Priesand, the first woman in the United States to be ordained as a rabbi.

Sally Jane Priesand, the first woman in the United States to be ordained as a rabbi.

Also on a spiritual level, being two women, we felt that our union would be best endorsed and honored by the heart, experience and wisdom of a woman. Reform Judaism has not only been ordaining women and LGBTQ rabbis since the early 1970s but also supporting its followers in the LGBTQ community. This history of equality and acceptance was yet another great reason for us to adopt Judaism into our wedding and our lives.

So we knew we wanted a rabbi, but we still had to find the right one. I didn’t know what I would find when I started my search. Not only had we just moved to Philadelphia, but we also weren’t part of a Jewish community. I went online and Googled “Philadelphia rabbis,” and up popped an ad for InterfaithFamily. I didn’t know what InterfaithFamily was, but it sounded inclusive and open-minded, so I clicked. I liked what the InterfaithFamily community stood for and it seemed like it had grown from a wonderful place of wanting to bring people together. The fact that they had a rabbi referral service was more than I could have dreamed of.

The referral service was exactly what I needed, and my request was handled with care and attention. When I received a response from Rabbi Frisch, it felt like a gift. The questions on the referral form were used to compile a list of potential rabbis who were appropriately matched to our needs. It was fun learning about all these different rabbis. I did an Internet search for each candidate to find out more.

After narrowing the list down to a handful of rabbis who I thought might be a good fit, I sent out initial emails. I felt hopeful as the responses began popping up in my inbox. There were two or three who, through the tone and wording of their emails, felt like they could be “the one.” But over the next week or so, each conversation resulted in a dead end due to various issues, and there I was back at the drawing board, feeling defeated.

Rabbi Frisch must have heard my prayer, because the next morning I received an email from her asking how my search was going. I wrote back describing my fruitless efforts. In my reply I also felt inspired to talk about my strong desire to have a rabbi marry us, and why. Much to my surprise, but true to her generous nature, she offered to be our rabbi. I can’t begin describe my delight. Not only did I already feel like I was getting to know her through the emails we had written back and forth, but I absolutely knew she was a perfect fit for us.

There is something about the way everything worked out that just feels like fate. Since Rabbi Frisch agreed to officiate, we have met in person to chat and get to know each other better. Suffice it to say, we all hit it off wonderfully! We plan on meeting a few more times before the wedding to talk about the ceremony in more detail, and we can’t wait to see her again.