This colorful booklet lists all the ritual items needed for the Passover table. The history and significance of each item on the seder plate is explained, as are the customs that have been handed down through the generations.
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The shul went all out. The theme was âA Night in Persia,â and congregants came dressed in robes, bedecked themselves in scarves and beads, and happily buzzed around the room. Our cantor and one of our rabbis, both female, dressed as Women of the Wall; the other rabbis, both male, wore police costumes, looking like the Village Peopleâs second string. And of course there was drinking. Lots of drinking.
I didn’t dress up. I didn’t schmooze. And I didn’t drink.
When I told a friend about it the next day, she laughed. âIâd expect nothing less of a Reform Jew,â she said, âto know the âright wayâ to do something and then do the opposite,â playing on the Reform movementâs ideal of informed practice, by which individual congregants educate themselves regarding traditions and then deciding which to follow and to what degree. I laughed, too. In my experience, there are few things Jews enjoy more than knowing what they should do, even when theyâre doing the opposite.
For instance, I donât keep kosher. Now, I am not sitting here with a wad of bacon in my mouth, drooling grease onto the keyboard. I donât even particularly like pork. But I still havenât been able to bring myself to quit it altogether. It isn’t that I havenât thought about it; I have. I didn’t grow up kosher, though, and, more importantly, while I respect halakhah, I have little patience for the way it can devolve into tedium. Consider this recipe for pretzel challah, shared by The Shiksa in the Kitchen. Great recipe. But the real treat is in the comments: If you scroll down, youâll find two halakhically-minded women arguing over whether or not one can say motzi over pretzel challah for Shabbat, since the bread is boiled rather than baked. It reminds me of the joke about the Jew on the desert island who built two synagogues. Why two? âNu, one I pray in, the other I wonât set foot in.â
Shannon's kuku, Sephardi herb pie. (Recipe from the Swarthmore Co-op.)
I recently stopped eating pork, though, quietly, assuming it would slip past Shannonâs radar. Of course it didn’t. âYou stopped eating pork?â she asked me at a fair we attended a few weeks ago. She just knew. âDoes that mean I canât make it anymore?â I hesitated. âIâll eat it if you cook it,â I said, âbut otherwise, no.â I paused, waiting for an argument to start. Food and foodways are such personal things; they evoke strong responses. âI donât think I could give up pork,â Shannon said. âPork and sauerkraut on New Yearsâ, mmm!â (A Pennsylvania Dutch tradition.) And that was it. Shannon accepted the new paradigm.
Shannon's apple cake.
I think Shannon is so accepting of such sudden changes on my part because she knows how important Judaism is to me, and because of how we’ve learned to accommodate one another. Several years ago I read Barbara Kingsolverâs book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in which she recounts her familyâs sustainable lifestyle. Kingsolverâs clan attempted to reduce their carbon footprint by eating locally, permitting themselves only one âluxuryâ item, such as coffee or tea. When a family friend visits and asks for bananas, the Kingsolvers explain their philosophy to her. The scene stuck with me for years, and it wasn’t until I converted to Judaism that I realized why: Kingsolver and her family lived their lives as if they mattered, as if individual choices have meaning and consequence. Thatâs what Judaism has done for me. I think Shannon knows that.
In last weekâs parsha, Lekh Lâkha, God tells Abraham (then Abram) to decamp for Canaan. âLekh lâkhaâ is usually translated as âGo forth,â but it literally means âGo to (or for) you.â Thus âGo forth from your native land might be read as, âGo, for you, from your native land.â âGo,â God tells Abraham, âand I will make of you a great nation, / And I will bless you; / I will make your name great, / And you shall be a blessing.â (Breishit / Genesis 12:1-3.)
Shannon and I, like Sarah and Abraham, are journeying, heading from the safety of the ânative landsâ of singlehood to the unknown territories of marriage. We find security in our knowledge of one another, even in Shannonâs ability to intuit on my part a change in my attitude towards kashrut. We head forth together, as individuals, but also âfor us,â as a couple. And that shall be a blessing.
Shannon practiced saying âShanah tovahâ during the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
âHow do you say that thing?â she said.
âWhat thing?â I replied, all innocence.
âYou know, that thing you say that means âhappy new year.ââ
âOh, that thing.â I told Shannon how to say it and listened as she repeated it. That she wanted know the right thing to say, and how to say it, made me smile.
Communication featured prominently in last weekâs Torah portion, Noach, too. Everyone knows about Noah and the Flood, but tucked at the end of the parsha is the story of the tower of Babel. All humankind, possessing the âsame language and the same words,â began building âa tower with its top in the sky, to make a nameâ for themselves. God saw what humankind was up to and concluded, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.â God then âconfoundsâ peoplesâ speech so that they donât understand one another. (Breishit / Genesis 11:1-9.)
The tower of Babel is, on its surface, a straightforward explanation as to why people speak many languages rather than one. Having seen humankindâs hubris, God literally descends from the heavens to which the people were building and puts a stop to it. Some of my fellow congregants at Rodeph Shalom were troubled by what they perceived as Godâs capriciousness. âWhy,â they asked, âwould God give us the potential to do something, and then, when we do it, punish us for it? Why would God make it harder for us to understand one another, which leads to endless strife?â
There are deeper theological currents in such questions than Iâm qualified to parse, but I donât think that by âconfoundingâ our speech God was simply âpunishingâ us. Indeed, absent from the story is any sense of severe judgment, and God is forgiving considering we were building a stairway to his house. âNothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach,â God says. Should we have reached our zenith at the very beginnings of history? If it is true in Judaism that we are Godâs partners in the act of creation, and that we use the tools we have to work toward a more perfect world, then I prefer to think of the worldâs many languages not as barriers to understanding, but as a nudge to better comprehend oneâs fellows, as reason to reach out not with a closed fist, but with an open hand.
Shannon holds our ketubah, designed by Etsy seller Once Upon a Paper.
As our wedding approaches, Shannon and I are becoming more aware of the ways in which the ceremony will be an act of translation, of one culture speaking to another. The irony of our wedding night is that, of the dozen or so people present, only two will be Jewish: myself and the rabbi. My family members have rarely encountered Jewish people, and the only Jewish event they ever attended was my conversion. Thus Shannon and I, and our friend and officiant, Rabbi Eli Freedman, have determined that our wedding will be not only a ritual we perform for ourselves, but also an opportunity to educate our families about the faithway that informs our lives.
Rabbi Freedman will not only lead the ceremony, but heâll also narrate it for the benefit of our families. Heâll explain to our mothers and siblings what weâre doing and why. We want our families to understand the symbolism of the event, to know why weâll circle one another and why Iâll break the glass.
What better way to âtranslateâ Judaism for others than by to invite them to participate? Family is one of the foremost Jewish values, and, to that end, our families have roles to fulfill during the ceremony. My sister and Shannonâs brothers and sister-in-law will hold the poles of the chuppah. Shannonâs mother will read the Irish wedding blessing (which is cultural, not religious). And weâll remember my father, without naming him, when my mother reads Koholet (Ecclesiastes) 3:1-8, which was read at his funeral service. Weâll emphasize the positive half of each of those verses, âa time to build…a time to laugh…a time to dance,â and not only honor my father, but also invest them with a happier significance.
There are elements in the contemporary Jewish community that see only a tide of darkness, âa time to weep, a time to mourn,â especially in regards to interfaith marriages. To approach it thus is to say, as my fellow congregants did, âWhy did God do this to us?â Shannon and I choose to celebrate our marriage as an opportunity for greater understanding. We were given different ways of speech, Jewish and not, but that doesnât mean we canât communicate. âCome, let us build a city.â
A friend of mine led the Torah study that preceded services. We read from the haftarah, Hosea, in which the prophet addresses his unfaithful wife, Gomer. Their troubled marriage is really a metaphor for the relationship between Israel and God.
Hereâs a sample of what Hosea says: âAssuredly, / I will take back My new grain in its time / And My new wine in its season, / And I will snatch away My wool and My linen / That serve to cover her nakedness. / Now will I uncover her shame / In the very sight of her lovers, / And none shall save her from Me.â (Hosea 2:11-12, JPS Tanakh.) Hosea goes on to assure Gomer that he will take her back and shower her with love. (So too with God and Israel.)
Grim stuff. It reminded our modern sensibilities of an abusive husband addressing his battered wife. âOkay,â our teacher said, âwe understand the psychology of it. So how do we reconstruct this?â
I think about that Torah lesson every time I encounter a practice with which Iâm uncomfortable: How do we reconstruct this? How do we maintain the integrity of the tradition while also making it relevant and meaningful? The ketubah, or Jewish wedding contract, is a good case-in-point.
Traditionally, the ketubah was a legal document. It was a contract that stated the obligations of the husband to his bride. The husband promised to work and support his wife, to provide her with food and other necessities, and even to fulfill her conjugal needs. Should the husband prove remiss in his duties, he was required to financially compensate his wife. And thatâs it.
The ketubah was a significant development in Jewish marital relations. It was written in Aramaic, the lingua franca at the time it was codified, and thus comprehensible to the parties entering into it. It attempted to provide some security for women, too, by assuring them some material support. But there is no doubting that it is a pre-modern artifact. A traditional ketubah insures a bride for the dowry that she brings to the marriage, âwhether in silver, gold, jewelry, clothing, furnishings or beddingâ plus an additional amount agreed to by the groomâs family. The insurance is calculated in zuzim, the Jewish currency used in Roman Palestine.
There is power in the age of certain Jewish traditions. Consider the ancient sound of the shofar calling us to repent, or the lighting of the menorah, a reminder of the survival of the Jewish people throughout the ages. But there are some things liberal Jews have trouble connecting with, and the traditional ketubah is one of them. That Shannon and I canât imagine celebrating our union with a traditional ketubah is only partly related to our status as outsiders in terms of halakha. We know weâre outside the Law. Rather, we find the spirit of the ancient ketubah lacking, too.
So what to do? How do we reconstruct this?
An example of a modern ketubah, courtesy of Gene B., Once Upon a Paper
Shannon and I chose to have a custom ketubah. We reviewed possibilities we found on the Internet and settled (appropriately) on a Reconstructionist-inspired ketubah. We chose the text we did because of its emphasis on community, social justice and tradition. âWe promise to honor our community by offering and accepting support, love, and friendship,â it reads. âOur home will be a place of openness and generosity, enriched by Jewish tradition. Together, we will work for peace and justice with empathy and hope, taking action to help heal the world.â
We liked the text so much that we made only one change, adding to the ketubah, after the first sentence quoted above, âWe will honor Shabbat, the Jewish holidays, and other family customs. If we are blessed as children, we will raise them as Jews.â Shannon and I have agreed to keep a Jewish home, but we want to make sure that she never feels out of place or excluded, hence âother family customs,â which covers a range of potentialities. (For instance, it is not Shannonâs custom to fast on Yom Kippur.) We engage in reconstruction to bring modern meaning to ancient ways.
The service I attended at Mishkan Shalom included an aufruf, or blessing over the Torah, by a couple soon to be married. (My friend, who led Torah study, and his fiancee.) After that, we threw candy at the couple. As the rabbi prepared to return the Torah to the Ark, she discovered a Hersheyâs Kiss in the scroll. (To which there was no damage, I promise.) âThere is much sweetness in Torah,â she quipped.
That is what Shannon and I have aimed for in our nontraditional Jewish wedding: to capture the sweetness of custom by actively reconstructing it.
(Special thanks to Gene B., the artist who is designing our ketubah and gave me permission to use an example of his artwork in my post. You can find more of Geneâs work at his shop on Etsy, Once Upon a Paper.)
A Muslim man greeted me with âAs-salamu alaykumâ on Rosh Hashanah morning. Having seen the kufi-style yarmulke I wore, he acknowledged me as he passed the bench on which Shannon and I sat. âHe said âhelloâ to you,â Shannon told me as I wrested my attention away from my smartphone. âHe did?â I said, blinking in surprise. I caught the manâs eye, but reacted too slowly to respond to him.
I thought about that brief interaction during the train ride back to our apartment. I felt badly that I hadnât replied to the manâs greeting. G. Willow Wilson, writing in her memoir The Butterfly Mosque, notes that it is a grave insult when one Muslim ignores anotherâs âhello.â Iâm not Muslim, of course, but the man who spoke to me thought otherwise. I wondered what the appropriate response might have been. Should I have ignored his mistake and replied, âWa alaykumu salamâ? Should I have smiled and said, âAleichem shalom?â My concern was further exacerbated when the passenger sitting behind Shannon and I leaned forward and asked, âHey, man, are you Muslim or Jewish?â
Richard Fletcher, in his book Moorish Spain, describes a piece of art in the Grand Mosque of Cordoba: the crude image of a man who appears to be shrieking in terror. It is only upon consideration that the viewer realizes that the man is not screaming, but praying. Fletcher sees in this imageâs ambiguity, in the confusion it evokes in people looking at it, a metaphor for the West.
Echoing Fletcherâs characterization of Western history, my first college professor lectured about the seventeenth century false messiah Sabbetai Zvi. When not engaged in mystical study, Zvi performed bizarre public acts, marrying himself to a Torah scroll and otherwise promoting his messianic aspirations. âIs this the nature of Western history?â my professor mused. âIs Western civilization schizophrenic?â
Teaching about anti-Semitism, the same professor maintained that hatred of the Jews stemmed from our status as the âEternal Other.â Our peopleâs mere existence was a provocation, serving as it did as a refutation of the Westâs foundational beliefs: namely, that mankind was redeemed by the son of God. Our stubborn refusal to accept Christianity caused doubt among Christians themselves, who then projected their anxieties back onto us in violent ways. According to this argument, anti-Semitism is the result of a process similar to the formation of a pearl, only the product is not a thing of beauty, but a perfect sort of hatred.
Jews are accepted in America as we have been in few other times and places. I believe that will remain true. But some thinkers are less sanguine about the future of world Jewry. Mosaic Magazine recently questioned the future of European Jews, and Tablet ran a review of two new scholarly books on anti-Semitism under the headline âWhy Literally Everyone in the World Hates Jews, and What To Do About It.â I mentioned these articles to a friend, who replied that anti-Semitism always increases during difficult economic times. Iâm not convinced that there is a âreasonableâ explanation for such irrational hatred.
I am not genetically Jewish. (A DNA test that Shannon and I took a few weeks ago revealed in our genes the absence of Ashkenazi ancestry. For more on the genetics of Jewish identity, see Harry Ostrerâs book Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People.) We who count ourselves members of the Tribe know that âJewishnessâ is a slippery thing, comprised of, but not singularly defined as, peoplehood, ancestry, ethnicity, culture and religion. I doubt that bigots are so discerning. To anti-Semites, a Jew is a Jew. Perversely, I welcome the equality of status in the Jewish community granted me by bigots but denied me by our own hardliners.
Engaged to Shannon, though, I no longer speak for myself alone. I must consider my partnerâs well being in all things. The local news station ran on the morning before Erev Rosh Hashanah a story about a fire at a home in the Philadelphia suburbs. The family was Jewish; the fire was an act of arson that appeared to be âraciallyâ motivated. Coming as this news did amid stories about rising anti-Semitism and the looming crisis in Syria, it made for a bleak beginning to the new year.
The response the Muslim strangerâs greeting provoked in me was less worry over hurt feelings than an existential dread. Lest anyone suspect me of Islamophobia, let me be clear: it is not Muslims I fear, but the potential for confusion and violence inherent in all faiths. I have bound myself to a people who has, for millennia, been the target of the worst travesties of faith. Shannon may not be Jewish, but by marrying me, she, too, will be casting her lot with us. Am I asking too much of her? Is it wrong of me to request of Shannon that she join me on a path I freely chose?
"For a good and sweet year." My minor contribution to our Rosh Hashanah dinner. Shannon prepared the meal.
On Rosh Hashanah we recite the Unetanneh Tokef, a litany of misfortunes that might befall us during the coming year. I wonder if, by naming our fears, weâre trying to rob them of the possibility of coming true.
For those readers who donât know, âas-salamu alaykum,â and its Hebrew equivalent, âshalom aleichem,â means âpeace be upon you.â The appropriate reply inverts the words: âwa alaykumu salamâ (in Hebrew, âaleichem shalomâ) or, âupon you be peace.â I think thereâs something lovely about such a greeting. (It also serves as âgoodbye.â) “Shalom aleichem” is a favorite expression of mine, but it’s the sentiment behind it that matters. May we wish peace to friends and strangers alike in the coming year.
I did not expect to emerge from the waters with fully grown peyot and spouting Yiddish. Nor was I unhappy with the aura of the mikveh, quiet and peaceful, reminiscent of the womb of which it is symbolic. Rather, I was unprepared for the mundanity of the instance of conversion, a once-in-a-lifetime moment for which I had not prepared myself. Introspective but self-absorbed and weaned on television dramas and Hollywood blockbusters, I expected the significance of the moment to present itself to me. Having spent over a year studying to become a Jew, it didn’t even occur to me that I should prepare myself for the moment of conversion. I can now say that, in that moment, I lacked sufficient kavannah, which may be translated as “intentionality” or even “mindfulness.”
Contrast my experience at the mikveh with Elijahâs encounter with God. Elijah stood atop the mountain as “the Eternal passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal, but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake, but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire, but the Eternal was not in the fire.” And what then? “A soft murmuring sound,” sometimes translated as “a still, small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12.) God was not in the fire, but in a whisper, and in order to hear a whisper, one must listen.
There is no magic in our rituals. Reciting the motzi over a loaf of challah does not make that bread more sacred than any other. But saying a blessing over food we are about to eat does change our relationship with it. The profundity of a ritual, then, is to be found not in the change it makes in the world, but in ourselves. We cannot, like God, call down wind and fire but, through ritual, through saying a blessing or lighting the candles, we can create the space necessary to listen to that still, small voice and, having heard it, can ourselves go forth to effect change in the world.
Shannon and me at a recent Finnegan family BBQ.
Just as I did not prepare myself for the mikveh, I did not consider the implications of converting to Judaism before I married Shannon. It didn’t occur to me that our different âstatusesâ might be an issue, or that some people might deny altogether the legitimacy of our (Jewish) union. Indeed, it was only earlier this year, after I had begun to “settle into” my Jewish identity, that I discovered how hotly contested intermarriage is. A conversation begun in Reform Judaism Magazine over whether or not rabbinical students at HUC-JIR should be admitted if they are married to non-Jews continues to provoke responses on both sides of the debate. (IFF founder Ed Case relates some responses here.) I read the editorials that were published, and I read the comments on the editorials, and I began to worry. Was I doing something wrong by planning a Jewish wedding when my partner isn’t Jewish?
A friend told me that no matter how “humane” or “compassionate” the arguments one makes, a wedding ceremony between a Jew and a non-Jew simply cannot be Jewish. And I confess to writing an e-mail to a Reform rabbi who published an editorial condemning intermarriage. I explained to him my relationship with Shannon, much in the way I described it in my first post here. And he responded that, while I am “on the playing field,” Shannon will find herself “increasingly on the sidelines.” I donât view performing mitzvot as a sport, and Iâm not trying to achieve a high score. Nor is Shannon a benchwarmer.
Over the weeks, the editorials and comments about intermarriage continued to pile up. Friends told me not to read them, but I couldn’t help myself. It was like being buffeted by a mighty wind, shaken by an earthquake, or burned with fire.
I had read about the issue. I had talked about it with friends. I had thought about it. And so I did what any good liberal Jew would do: I made up my mind that I would do what I think is right, and to hell with what everyone else thought. As a rabbi and friend of mine has put it, “Haters gonna hate.” I canât control what some members of our community think.
I intend to approach our wedding with greater kavannah than I did my visit to the mikveh. The debate about intermarriage rages on, but Iâve stopped paying attention to it: God is not in the fire. Now Iâm free to listen to the still, small voice.
When I became Jewish, I began seeing homeless people.
I was not unaware of the homeless before I converted to Judaism. When I moved to Philadelphia in 2008, it was the first time I saw people living on the street. I was shocked. I grew up in rural Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There were poor people, certainly, but no obviously homeless people. So I was unprepared when, while walking to the office on my first day of work in the city, a homeless man accosted me. Unnerved, I passed him without responding. He cursed me. âWelcome to Philly, country boy,â I thought, amused by my uncertainty. When I told friends the story, I made it about myself. And thus I began the process of cynically numbing myself to the sight of people begging in the street. Within a few weeks I was so acclimated to city life that I had adopted the standard reaction to the homeless. I didnât see them. I didnât hear them. And I certainly didnât give them any money.
My conversion to Judaism lifted the veil with which I had covered my eyes. A famous verse from Torah reads, âTzedek, tzedek tirdof.â (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:20.) The verse is usually translated into English as âJustice, justice shall you pursue.â But âtzedek,â meaning justice, may also be translated as ârighteousness,â and, less exact, perhaps, but more common, âcharity.â Thus righteousness, justice and charity are bound together in one concept. We give to others not necessarily because we like to, or even because we want to, but because we are instructed to. (And the repetition of âtzedekâ in the verse, unusual in Torah, is interpreted by the rabbis as an indication of its importance.)
On the day of my beit din, the rabbinical âcourtâ with whom I met prior to my conversion, I confessed to my rabbis that, as a result of my studies, I had once again begun seeing the homeless as people. I at that time had not been able to bring myself to give change to anyone who asked, but just as I had not hardened myself to my fellows at one time, the act of breaking old habits would be a process. I continue to work on it. I think this is the purpose of the mitzvot.
Last year's Rosh HaShanah table. Note the tzedakah box front and center!
Right now you might be wondering: âThis is a wedding blog. What does any of this have to do with marriage?â
Jewish values are really universal values. Most people, and all faiths, believe in the importance of charity. And that is something that Shannon and I have in common, despite the fact that she is not Jewish. Tzedakah is the Jewish tradition of charity, and Shannon and I both have embraced it as part of our lives together. We find common ground in the Jewish expression of a universal value.
The last line of our ketubah states, âTogether, we will work for peace and justice with empathy and hope, taking action to help heal the world.â We give tzedakah, sometimes in money, sometimes in units of time, as our resources permit. I believe I speak for us both when I say that, as our resources grow, so too will the amounts that we give. To that end, we have a little tzedakah box into which we put change on Shabbat and on holidays. (We inaugurated it during last yearâs Rosh HaShanah dinner with 18 cents, 18 being the Jewish symbol for life. Tzedekah is often given in multiples of 18.)
Shannon and I are building our future together with shared values, expressed âJewishly.â
When Shannon and I fight, I assume the worst. Weâre going to break up. Weâll never speak again. Weâll be torn apart by wild dogs. âI just want us to be happy,â Iâll say. âWe canât always be happy,â Shannon responds, ever sensible, ever right. âSometimes weâre going to fight.â
No love story is entirely happy. Sometimes there are fights. But what are the fights of an interfaith couple in the midst of wedding planning like? They might start with one partner exclaiming, âBut Iâm not Jewish!â As if that fact were not obvious to the other (possibly male, Jewish and occasionally dense) partner. âIâm not Jewish!â Shannon would shout. âOkay!â I replied, angry and baffled.
Shannonâs exclamations were in response to expectations I put upon her. As I mentioned in my first post here, Iâm a recent convert to Judaism. And, like many converts, I feel a particular zeal. Combined with my typically male expectation that Shannon would take the lead in the home, that zeal resulted in certain expectations I forced upon Shannon. I thought, for instance, that Shannon would light the Shabbat candles. Weeks passed; no candles. When I finally mentioned it, Shannon replied, rightly, thatâs sheâs not Jewish. I am, and I should take the lead in Jewish activities. Shannon was right. (This is not to say that Shannon is any less involved in making a Jewish home. Rather, she supports those events I arrange and excuses herself from those she perceives as onerous, such as Yom Kippur.)
For a long time, when Shannon said, âBut Iâm not Jewish!â what I heard was âYouâre not Jewish,â the personal baggage I carry knowing that traditional Jews will not recognize me as a member of Israel. Shannon doesnât think that, of course; I was projecting my fears onto her. It took me a long time to realize that and now, I hope, I no longer do it.
How to make sense of such fights, though? With the zeal of a convert, I suggest this interpretation.
The shofar Shannon gave me. Perhaps I'll use it to wake her on Rosh Hashanah?
A few weeks ago we observed Tisha BâAv, the day commemorating the losses of the First and Second Temples. The âThree Weeks,â a mourning period, immediately precede Tisha BâAv. The Three Weeks are known in Hebrew as bein ha-Metzarim, literally âbetween the narrow straits.â Readers familiar with Torah will recognize in âMetzarimâ echoes of Mitzrayim, the biblical name for Egypt. Tisha BâAv and Mitzrayim are symbols of emotional and spiritual constriction. Just as our ancestors experienced the disorientation of slavery and conquest, we, too, have known isolation from one another, from God, and from ourselves.
Jewish weddings traditionally end with the breaking of a glass. The most popular interpretation of this custom is that, even during our happiest moments, we remember the destruction of the Temple. Shannon and I are uncomfortable with expressing such a negative thought during our wedding. Rather, we will recall with the breaking of the glass not only our hope for the (metaphorical) rebuilding of the Temple, but also âthe spheres of lightâ the mystics say shattered when God created the world. Just as performing the mitzvot is supposed to allow God to reenter the world, ârebuildingâ the Temple would restore Godâs dwelling place on earth. When we break the glass, then, Shannon and I will consecrate our marriage toward the living of righteous lives, with the intention of contributing to the increase of justice in the world. Of course, this being a Jewish marriage, we will begin this âmissionâ in the home.
Shannon and I are alienated from one another when we argue. We become lost in the ânarrow placesâ of our relationship. Our vision becomes restricted, singular. But we remember the wholeness we search for, and we always make it through, each time a little stronger than before.
A fitting thought to leave you with for the beginning of Elul and the season of repentance.
One of us has said that every week since we began planning our wedding. âWe should have eloped,â I say. âI know,â Shannon replies. Then we both sigh.
A wedding is a turning point. It’s the moment when two lives become one, when two individuals are sanctified unto one another. And, as Shannon and I have learned, planning one is a lot of work. At some point, romance gives way to administration and dreams become action items. Dress? Check. Synagogue? Check. Ketubah? Well…I’m still working on that one. I’ll send Shannon a meeting invitation so we can plan milestones.
Weddings so often become events unto themselves rather than celebrations of the couples getting married.
Midrash tells us that the patriarch Abraham, as a child, smashed the idols his father manufactured. When his father confronts him, Abraham tells his father that the largest idol smashed the others. His father scoffs at the story, and Abraham responds, âThey have no power at all! Why worship idols?â (Midrash B’reishit 38:13.)
The rabbis used this story to explain Abraham’s righteousness and his call by God. But I think the idols Abraham smashes can be understood as a metaphor for anything that obscures the truth. That’s what Shannon and I aim to do with our wedding: smash any idols that obscure the true intent of the day. For instance, we decided to have a small ceremony, despite the size of our families. Neither Shannon nor I are comfortable as the center of attention, so only 14 people will be present, including the photographer. The wedding will take place in the chapel at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, in Philadelphia.
A detail of artwork welcoming visitors to the Congregation Rodeph Shalom sanctuary. Do visit if you're ever in Philly!
Some aspects of our ceremony will remain traditional. We’ll stand beneath a chuppah. We’ll perform the badeken, or veiling of the bride. And, after the ceremony, we’ll have yichud, a brief time we’ll spend alone as a newly married couple.
But we’ll smash idols along the way, ensuring that the ceremony is wholly ours. The chuppah will be a quilt made by my great-grandmother. Rather than Shannon circling me seven times, we’ll circle one another three-and-a-half times, a maneuver that may prove tricky when Shannon’s in her dress. We interpret the act of circling as the separation of our new relationship, as a married couple, from our past. In a nod to Shannon’s ancestry, her mother will read the Irish blessing (which has cultural rather than religious connotations). And we’ll walk down the aisle to the rabbi playing âOver the Rainbowâ on the ukulele. (Our rabbi plays a mean uke.)
Of course, the biggest idol we face is that of intermarriage. So many people bow before it! But, as Abraham knew, the power an idol possesses is all in the worshiper’s mind. Why worship it? Shannon and I, surrounded by family and loved ones, will smash that idol on a quiet Saturday night in October.
And it won’t be about the âissues,â the flowers or even the dress. It will be about us.
And we’ll be glad we celebrated our union in a Jewish ceremony, even if, in the meantime, we sometimes wish we had eloped.
Please note: I’ve posted this for Yolanda, who wrote the following post.
Hey there IFF,
So here we are, two months past our actual wedding date and we’re both enjoying the married life. Before we head off into wedded bliss, Arel and I are leaving you with a farewell video and some extra goodies to take a look at. We never talked about our actual wedding day so this is the video that finally covers how our day went and Arel included some pics for you guys to see how our wedding progressed that day.
We loved vlogging for InterfaithFamily.com and hoped that you enjoyed viewing our journey as much as we enjoyed documenting it for you guys. We wish you all a blessed life and for those of you getting married, good luck and enjoy the process. We welcome the next wedding bloggers, Jess and Erik, and wish them an awesome wedding and life thereafter.
Enjoy our last videos. We have video recapping our actual wedding, the video below that is a glimpse of the ceremony, and the third video showcases our unusual wedding dance. Let us know what you think.
Last weekend, Erik and I celebrated the wedding of our friends Raul and Sarah, another interfaith couple (Raul is a Salvadorian Buddhist friend of Erik, who grew up in Northern Virginia; Sarah is Christian, from Birmingham, Alabama). As we enjoyed their special day, we took notes for ours.
Raul and Sarah held their wedding in a small church/community center in southwest Virginia, with about 35 of their closest friends and familyâmuch different than the 200+ person wedding that weâre planning. The food was served buffet-style, and made by the brideâs cousin. Sarah, the bride, made all the decorations herself, and had friends help her set up the room. Although I know (or hope!) that our wedding will be lovely, thereâs something to be said about the intimacy of a smaller, family-style engagement with the people you care about most in life.
One of our favorite take-aways, besides the fact that they wrote their own vows: Sarahâs grandmother, the associate pastor of the church, officiated. She told a story about how, growing up, Sarah used to play dress up with her cousin and ask: âGrandma, will you help marry me at my wedding when I grow up?â And, for 20+ years, her grandmother answered, âYes, honey. I will be there when you get married, and I will marry you myself.â
It was such a special moment, that it underscored for us the importance of our choice to have family and a close friend officiate our wedding too. Weâve decided to have my cousin, Wendy, an Orthodox Jew, and Erikâs college philosophy professor, Ken, who introduced Erik to Buddhism, preside over our wedding. Weâre thrilled about it. The next step: figuring out the vows and the ceremony.
We would welcome your suggestions and ideas as we move into the ceremony planning stageâŚ.
Thanks for reading, and Happy St. Pattyâs Day to any fellow Irish-Jewish folks out there!
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