Our Two Worlds Blend & Balance


Hannah & Amma hands

My name is Hannah, and as one half of an engaged couple, I’m excited to share with you my experience planning our upcoming May wedding. I found InterfaithFamily online when I began searching for a rabbi who was willing to officiate the type of wedding ceremony my partner and I want to have: namely a non-traditional, and somewhat Jewish one!

Let me tell you a little bit about us:

Amma and I met in San Francisco in 2013. When I wasn’t making art, I was working as a cashier in a popular specialty food market, where Amma would often stop to get lunch or that last minute, forgotten grocery item. She lived around the corner from the market, and was what you would call a regular. It wasn’t long before we had noticed each other, and the fast-paced market, with its never-ending checkout line was quickly becoming an insufficient meeting place. At the end of our first date, we made plans to see each other again the next day. We both knew early on that ours was a relationship we wanted to put our all into.

We’ve had fun together since we first met, and still do every day. We also work to understand each other and smooth out the inevitable bumps that arise. We are similar in our beliefs and dreams and in the activities we enjoy, and we can be very different in our approaches to problems and the ways in which we get through daily life. We balance each other out in really meaningful ways that make us both better people.

Some of our differences could be attributed to our respective upbringings. We have really different backgrounds. At this point you may be expecting me to describe our religious differences. Ironically, neither one of us was raised with any religion at all.

(I will explain how we ended up getting involved with InterfaithFamily, and deciding to have a rabbi officiate our wedding in my next post.)

In their early 20s, my parents moved to Vermont to escape mainstream culture and headed into the woods to find peace and organic food. My father was raised Jewish, and though very spiritual, no sooner had he completed his bar mitzvah then he decided he didn’t want any part of organized religion. My mother was raised Catholic, but her spirituality seems to be more centered around interconnectedness. I often hear her say “Isn’t that cosmic?” or use the term “kindred spirits.”

Amma’s mother was actually the daughter of a Hindu Priest, and as the very independent individual that she is, I think it just felt natural for her to discover her own brand of spirituality. Amma’s father grew up Christian (I’m not sure which denomination) and I would venture that his life’s work in science is indicative of his pragmatic and analytic mind, where religion has no place.

So, if only by coincidence, religion has not been an issue for us.  As similar as our backgrounds are in terms of religion, they are equally as different culturally. Amma’s parents are both from developing countries. Both recognized for their brilliance, they took advantage of every opportunity to educate themselves and develop careers that would eventually take them around the world. They have worked so hard to be where they are and to give their children a good life. Their perspective is potent, and they have passed much of it down to Amma and her brother. To come from such humble beginnings and work that hard means you don’t take anything for granted.

My parents were fortunate to be born in the U.S. Even if you’re not wealthy here, you are afforded certain opportunities and privileges that simply don’t exist in the developing world. Life begins on a stronger foundation. Both of my parents are musical and artistic, and because they didn’t have to worry about having a roof over their heads, or getting a good education, they were able to concentrate on more creative ventures and choose a life for themselves that suited their personal interests and beliefs. The culture within our family, not to mention the whole community I grew up in, emphasized creativity and peace, getting along and being physically and spiritually healthy. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but because of their foundation, they had more choice and flexibility in their lives. Not surprisingly, my siblings and I were very much influenced by the priorities of our parents and our community.

Through the lens of Amma’s experience and perspective, I realize how fortunate I truly am. I have also learned that working as hard as her parents had to can produce better results than being privileged from the beginning. There are some extremely positive qualities engrained in Amma that I’m still working on. Strength, clarity and perseverance are just a few of my favorites!

Just over a year ago, on my birthday, we got engaged. Amma knew it would be the best birthday present. She had broken her ankle about a week before, and was still bed-ridden. She somehow (read: Amazon.com) managed to prepare the most perfect “birthday in bed,” complete with pink wrapping paper (my favorite) and daffodils. One of her gifts to me was a pack of origami paper. That was good enough for me, but then she said, “There’s something I want to teach you how to make.” She kept me in suspense as I followed each of the folding directions. I didn’t know until the last fold that we were, in fact, making origami diamond rings! As soon as I realized what they were, we looked at each other with big grins and she said, “Wanna get married?!” I obviously said yes.

We agreed that we wanted to have real rings to symbolize our engagement to each other, and we wanted to pick them out together. As soon as Amma’s ankle had healed, we went to our favorite jewelry shop, Bario Neal, and picked out matching gold bands…well, almost matching. Amma’s has a polished finish and mine is brushed. We hadn’t necessarily set out to get matching rings, but in the end, it turned out we wanted the same thing: a thin gold band with a tiny champagne diamond. Something simple, timeless and low profile.

As an artist, I work with my hands constantly, and I wanted to be able to wear my ring without it getting in the way. Amma doesn’t wear a lot of jewelry, so for her it had to be something that wouldn’t feel foreign on her body. We weren’t sure if we wanted a stone at first, but it felt incomplete without one, so we picked the tiniest diamond available at the shop. It gives the rings just a touch of character and represents the spark between us. Because we do not view our engagement and our wedding as two completely separate notions, we really only wanted the one ring to represent our commitment to each other. Instead of getting a second ring to exchange at our wedding, we plan to exchange the rings we already have, and get them engraved with our initials and the date of our wedding.

Thinking about the idea of rings and picking the right ones turned out to be the first exercise in a long string of challenging decisions. Within the context of planning my own wedding, a lot of big questions have come up. It takes diligence to get to the bottom of your own beliefs and desires. I didn’t fully realize until I began this process myself, that there is an unspoken, pre-written script to wedding planning and the wedding itself. Even after recognizing the presence of this script, it is easy to lose sight of what you and your partner really want. For Amma and me, the marriage is what we are most excited about. The wedding will be a [hopefully] fun celebration of our love and commitment, and the official gateway into our marriage. As we continue planning, we are trying to stay true to ourselves and keep our own desires for the big day in the forefront of our minds, whether they coincide with the script or not.

How to Include Everyone in Our Jewish-Mexican Wedding


By Hila Ratzabi
Photos by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Wedding ceremony

When José and I first started dating, my Jewish parents were not pleased. Though my mom is fairly liberal, some instinct flared up in her that has roots in centuries of Jewish fear of disappearance. Though that fear has lessened over the decades for many Jewish families, particularly in the U.S., it still rises up for many people, sometimes unexpectedly. What if my daughter loses her Jewish identity?, some parents wonder. What if the grandchildren aren’t raised Jewish? Is this the end of the line?

For me and many other Jews like me, this fear is unfounded. I went to Jewish day school from kindergarten through high school, and even went on to get a degree in Jewish philosophy. While my Jewish practices have changed over the years, I have always been a proud and engaged Jewish woman. I was, and remain, confident that my connection to Judaism is strong enough to share with my husband who is not Jewish and our future children.

The road to acceptance took a few years, but by the time we were ready to get engaged my parents had thankfully come around. They gave us their blessing, and we set out to create a wedding that reflected my Jewish heritage and José’s Mexican culture.

We had it fairly easy in that José does not identify with a particular religious tradition. He is a scientist and committed atheist; as a child he briefly attended a Baptist religious school in the small town in Baja where he was raised, but he definitively broke off with religion when he awakened to his atheism. While being an atheist, José has always supported and joined in with my Jewish practices. I’m not a believer either, but I love Jewish holidays, attending services and grappling with the big questions in life. Judaism is the lens through which I consider ethical dilemmas and the source of my commitment to social and environmental justice. These are things we’re able to share.

We found an amazing Reconstructionist rabbi, Rachel Weiss, of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah—the gay/lesbian synagogue in New York City—to officiate at our wedding. Aside from being open-minded and accepting, Rabbi Weiss also had the added bonus of being fluent in Spanish. She had previously worked with Mexican immigrants, and we felt she understood both of our backgrounds.

Reading the ketubahTogether with Rabbi Weiss, we designed a ceremony that honored the dual heritage we were bringing together. We included traditional Jewish elements, including the chuppah (wedding canopy), the seven blessings, the circling of bride and groom, the ketubah (marriage contract) and the ring exchange. We wrote our own ketubah text instead of using the traditional text, and changed the language of the ring exchange and seven blessings to be more inclusive and universal. The witnesses who signed our ketubah included two of our close friends who happen to be another interfaith/intercultural couple—Jewish and Indian. We had watched them create a beautiful marriage that included both of their cultures, and were inspired by their example.

José’s grandmother was central to his upbringing, often standing in as a second parent since he didn’t have a father in his life, so we wanted to make sure she was included and would understand what was going on at the wedding. Since his grandmother doesn’t speak English, Rabbi Weiss explained each part of the ceremony before it was performed in both English and Spanish. José’s grandmother found the customs fascinating and listened intently as they were described. We also had traditional Mexican paper cutouts (papel picado) created for our wedding, which served as decoration at the entrance of the garden where the ceremony took place.

Papel picado

My own Jewish background is somewhat mixed, in that my mother is Ashkenazi and my father is Yemenite on his father’s side and Sephardic on his mother’s side. To honor my late grandmother, Rabbi Weiss sang a Jewish song in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language that my grandmother had spoken. This was another way to bridge our cultures, having a taste of the Spanish language woven into an ancient Jewish song.

The horaWhen it came to the reception, we just wanted to throw an awesome party. The raucous klezmer band Golem was essential to making that happen. The wedding took place in an art museum on Long Island, and since both José and I dabble in visual art, we made mini-paintings on mini-easels as souvenirs for our (very impressed) guests. We also brought a giant blank canvas and paints for guests to create a piece of collective artwork for us. The painting now hangs in our living room, reminding us of that incredible day.

During the reception, my mom gave a speech that chronicled her and my dad’s evolution in coming to accept and share the joy in our relationship. They had truly done a “180,” realizing over time that they had nothing to fear in my marrying “outside” the Jewish faith, and that I had found the life partner who was exactly right for me, and who they loved like a son. Now, three years later, I am pregnant, and we all can’t wait to bring another person into our crazy, mixed family. Among our plans for the baby: teaching it Hebrew, Spanish… and if there’s time, maybe even English.

Our Cultural Knapsack


Hi–it’s Chris here. Following a Facebook link early last week, I reach this article which discusses a “Jewish” style of conversation which the author of the study refers to as “cooperative overlapping,” and which I and many other people who are not Jewish–and, I’m sure, a lot of Jews who don’t practice this conversational style–would call interrupting. [Note: I used the quotations because, as the author notes, “Jewish conversational style” is not a very precise term, and it seems to refer more to Eastern European Jews from the general New York area. In fact, I might go as far as to call this harried conversational style more typical of New Yorkers in general than Jews specifically, but I digress.]

Reading this article got me to thinking about our often unthought-of cultural heritage, the unspoken set of assumptions and standard operating procedures that all of us walk around with. In my education classes this is referred to as your “cultural knapsack” to emphasize how pervasive it is; we carry it with us everywhere. I remember the first family Channukah party I attended, and while I would not accuse any member of Dana’s family of practicing the not-so-delicate art of cooperative overlapping, I do recall being overwhelmed by the constant conversation, trying very hard to keep pace–and I thought my large Irish-Italian family could talk!

Conversational style is just one of perhaps a million things that we are coming to learn about one another and our families. Little did I know, for example, that it was “a gentile thing” to eat dinner early! Or that Jews are the true masters of ordering Chinese, and that, at least in Dana’s family your Chinese food is always shared. These small things, whether they are cultural or merely family traditions, are part of what makes this union so exciting. Dana and I are constantly learning new things about one another and our culture and background, and have learned to be more sensitive about insisting that our way is the right way or the only way. In addition to just learning about how the other half lives, we’ve both expanded our horizons by attending multiple religious services of the other person’s faith. But I suppose that’s a blog entry for another time…