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Over the July 4th weekend, Zach and I spent some time with my family in the Philadelphia area. As mentioned on my previous post, we got ambitious with some DIY projects, so we planned a few (three) weekends to go home and visit (work) with family to complete those projects. The first weekend in July was one of those weekends.
In thinking about blogging for InterfaithFamily, I’ve thought about what readers might be interested in, and family acceptance probably ranks pretty high. It’s an obstacle many couples (including some of my friends) struggle with, but luckily, we did not—my family loves Zach. Loves him. This cannot be stressed enough. They ask about him all the time.
While it doesn’t surprise me that everyone loves Zach (I do, after all), it did surprise me how that affected their reaction to us getting married. No one was disappointed that I wasn’t marrying another Catholic, because they all knew and loved Zach. They knew how well we worked together, they knew how well he got along with the rest of the family, and they knew how well he complimented my strengths and weaknesses—and same for me to him. They got to know him as a person so that by the time we announced our engagement, everyone was on board. They knew I could not find anyone who complimented me better, challenged me more and treated me better than Zach.
That’s not to say that this path has been super easy. It took some time for my parents to understand that my family life probably wouldn’t look like the one they had provided for me—with private Catholic school and a strong rooting in Catholic parish life. I loved growing up with that setting, but it might not work for our family-to-be. That’s a struggle that Zach and I, along with our extended families, will have for the rest of our lives. But I feel that both families see the love that we have for each other and know that for us, the struggle will be worthwhile.
Readers, excuse the interruption, but Zach has something to add!
Hi, this is Zach. While Laura’s been doing most of the heavy-lifting around here, I wanted to insert myself into this post to say that my family also loves Laura a ton. We’re more of a secular bunch than her family, but there was still somewhat of an expectation that I would end up with a Jewish spouse. But they’ve been nothing but supportive of our relationship, and everyone can see how good we are for each other. So there’s excitement on both sides for us as we begin this journey together.
Back to Laura:
One of the most fun parts of being an interfaith couple is learning, with your entire family, new things from your significant other. One year, Hannukah started while we were home with my family for Christmas. Zach led the family in prayer in lighting the menorah, and the next day my Grandma called to make sure that we had gotten home in time to light the menorah. Zach taught my family to play dreidel by the Christmas tree, and everyone had a great time (while he hustled us). We’re taking the same fun, learning approach to our wedding. Below is a video of Zach explaining to the camera and my parents the significance of the tradition of breaking the glass after the wedding ceremony. We were testing out a glass to make sure it would actually break!
By Maria Bywater
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?
There 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.
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.
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.
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.
“So, how’s the wedding planning?” These days, this question excites and exasperates me at the same time. I have a lot of energy and excitement about the wedding, but it varies day by day whether that excitement is greater or less than my stress about “getting it all done.” To explain that, I need to go back to the beginning of the process and explain a few things.
From the beginning, we’ve been fairly flexible about what this wedding will look like. I don’t have a crystal-clear vision of what I want, so I have invited and taken suggestions from family and close friends. I was breezing along for the first nine months, checking things off my list, thinking, this is easy! Sure, there’s a lot to do, but I’m organized! I’m on top of it! We can do this!
In May I started to feel the pressure. And it was all because of Pinterest.
In the winter, we visited Lansdale and started thinking about decorations–again, an area where I didn’t have preconceived ideas about what I wanted. My parents own a beautiful old house, and my dad has completed a lot of home improvement projects. Back in the wintertime, we discovered some old doors and windows he had saved that sparked some crafty neurons in my brain. I thought, these things will be perfect for signage, table assignments, whatever! And it’s all free! Perfect.
It’s true that nothing in life is ever really free. I did not factor in how much effort it would take to polish all of those things. Washing, sanding and painting. Re-glazing some of the old window panes. Building stands for the doors so they aren’t a hazard. We spent a full day cleaning some of these pieces and drawing out multiple iterations of plans for how we would use all the pieces. Luckily my family (and fiancé) dove into the projects with gusto, each contributing their own talents to different pieces.
I went into that weekend excited, but I came out feeling overwhelmed. We had so many different ideas for how to use each piece. Plus, there were so many steps to bringing it all together–for example, to use one window we would need to wash it, sand the frame, repaint the frame, re-glaze the panes in the window and then write table assignments on it! I was having a hard time figuring out how we would get it all done, even with all the helping hands we had.
I did two things in response to this overwhelmed feeling. First, I sat down in my cone of silence and came up with a plan. I laid out all the steps, determined the critical path, and wrote out which tasks we could complete on which weekends we would be coming to Lansdale from Washington, DC. I had it all figured out, but I still felt tense.
Then I did the second thing: I envisioned what our wedding would look like if these projects didn’t all come together. Surprise–everything was still beautiful. And we were still getting married! There would be officiants, food and a DJ. Somehow people would be welcomed, know where the bathroom was, and find their seat, even if it didn’t look like the way we had envisioned it.
I realized that I was, to some degree, in control of how much pressure I was feeling to “get it all done.” If I decided that some things, like the signs for the bathroom, were more important than others, I could give myself (and everyone else) permission to not get those other things done, if we ran out of time.
Sure, an old window with a quote from Song of Solomon would make a beautiful addition to our ceremony space–but it wasn’t as high on the list as, say, the table assignments. I needed to let some of these things go if I was going to enjoy the rest of this process. The time between engagement and marriage feels so special–you’re giddy and excited and hopeful, all leading up to this one day that will be over before you know it. The wedding day starts a blessed and fulfilled lifetime of marriage, but there’s something special about this expectant time, where you’re waiting for that next step, and I don’t want to miss that. I want to savor it.
So, when I start to think about all that I “have to do,” I think about all the people around to help me. I think about what the “bare bones” of the event will look like, and I’m still happy. I think about standing in front of friends and family and promising to love Zach for the rest of our lives, and I know it doesn’t matter if we get the photo booth just right.
I’m choosing to use this time to prepare for a lifetime with my best friend, where the little things don’t shake our happiness together. And I make that choice anew every day. Some days are better than others, but I, like most of us, am a work in progress.
After our first pre-wedding meeting with Rabbi Frisch, we were giddy with excitement. We walked the 10 blocks home reviewing all the things we had talked about. (Check out my last blog post to see how we chose Rabbi Frisch to officiate.) One detail that stood out was when Rabbi Frisch asked us if we were going to have a ketubah. Amma said something like, “Oh is that the canopy thing that you stand under?” and I said, “No, no, that’s a chuppah!” I thought I was so smart for half a second, until I realized I didn’t know what a ketubah was either.
We learned that the purpose and meaning of the ketubah, like many traditions, has changed over time and still varies from one Jewish community to another. Currently, within our particular community, it is basically a written and signed statement of love and commitment between the couple getting married. You can read InterfaithFamily’s kutabah explanation here.
You should have heard all the ketubah mispronunciations we came up with in the days following our meeting as we discussed whether or not we were going to have one. That week we went to our friends’ house for dinner and brought up the subject with them. They were married two years ago in a Jewish ceremony. They showed us their ketubah and told us the story of searching for just the right one. Not satisfied with anything they could find in the area, or online, their rabbi put them in touch with an Israeli scribe. The result was a stunning, sacred document with thick black Hebrew lettering and gold accents. As an artist and a bride-to-be, I was inspired.
Knowing I am an artist, Rabbi Frisch mentioned that if we did decide to go for it, I could make our ketubah myself, so I set to work researching the various versions and styles and decided it was definitely something I wanted to try my hand at. I loved the circular designs I was finding in my searches. Knowing I was bound to take a lot of liberties adjusting the meaning and language to suit our needs, I wanted to use more traditional colors and motifs to balance out the inevitable modern flair.
As I was familiarizing myself with ketubah art, one particular image made its way into the forefront of my mind; a small painting my grandparents have had hanging in their house for as long as I can remember. The combination of shapes and colors (and the fact that it had a line of Hebrew text below it) was just the inspiration I needed. I also loved that I would be drawing my inspiration from something that tied back to my family, giving the whole project a deeper foundation. I found a photo of the painting I had taken last year, while documenting some of the art and tchotchkes around my grandparents’ house. I collected my paints and inks and began designing our ketubah.
I continued to use the original painting as a reference throughout the composition of the piece. In the original, a strange bird sits atop a large golden egg and the whole image is framed by a circle. It occurred to me that a bird sits on an egg to protect and nurture it, so perhaps it could do the same for our promises to each other.
I found a ketubah text that suited us beautifully, and painted it in black ink within a gold circle, meant to represent the egg from the original painting. Among decorative shapes, I painted the same strange bird from my grandparents’ painting, sitting on top of our promises, keeping them safe. I regretted not knowing how to write in Hebrew, but knew I could at least copy a few words. I searched online for a morsel of Jewish wisdom that would add value to our ketubah.
Within seconds, I came across the perfect words: “Shalom Bayit,” or “Peace in the Home,” a Jewish concept referring to domestic harmony. I did my best to copy the words letter for letter, bringing my creative journey to an end. I presented the finished piece to Amma, and we were both excited to welcome it into our ever-evolving vision of our wedding, and our marriage.
Our wedding is three-and-a-half months away (yay!) and we have a lot to do. We checked off the major items and now we must decide on the smaller pieces. Should we do those things ourselves or hire professionals? The invitations, the honeymoon, and more—these are things we could design, plan and book ourselves if we want to. But do we want to?
In a dream world, which one could argue I spend too much time in, my love of Pinterest and TLC shows would translate into the DIY wedding of my dreams with no stress and at a fraction of the cost. These details that we have to plan now are not covered by the wedding contest that we won, so we can choose how to handle them. Do we put our stamp on them and hopefully save money, or do we spend money and let professionals handle them, because most other vendors are covered by the contest?
Sometimes I get lost in thought envisioning an alternate universe without the contest where I am three and a half months out but have drowned in a treacherous sea of bad DIY art projects flooded with ribbon and lace. It’s not a pretty scene. Maybe winning the contest saved me from myself, and I should let trained professionals handle the rest. After all, it’s a predictable formula where David Tutera has to swoop in to save the day: Girl gets big ideas for DIY wedding. Girl gets in over her head. Girl pulls all her hair out. Girl ends up hiring professionals.
For the save the dates, I did do them myself, and it was a DIY project that I’m very proud of. I hired a designer and friend of mine whose work I am fond of and we designed the font, colors and style that felt right for me and Jose. We designed them as postcards to save time and money, and I hand-cut each one with a ruler and X-Acto knife, which took a few hours on a Friday night. Jose and I even added our own touch with a cute hashtag (thanks Melanie!).
For the invitations, I’m at a crossroads now. Do I design them from scratch and source the paper and printer to live out my wildest fantasy of a very unique invitation, or do I go to an invitation shop, pick what we like most and call it a day? It’s a black hole once you start Googling what past brides have done and what they’ve learned from the experience. There is good advice, but mostly there is just too much advice. Sometimes you gotta try it for yourself. Sometimes you gotta get dirt on your hands (or in the case of paper, blood!). But that’s a very scary proposition and could end up taking more time and money than we want it to. Regardless, I visited Paper Source in Center City to look at paper, and I’m feeling very inspired to do them myself! I think I can pull it off.
For the honeymoon, we met a fantastic and inspiring “travel designer” who builds dream honeymoons from scratch. She was a riot and we loved her personality and approach. She has traveled the world and specializes in unique accommodations in cities around the globe. Things like treetop hotels and hard-to-find vacation rentals and scheduled itineraries. Ultimately, Jose and I decided that we love doing the research that goes into booking a trip and it feels more rewarding to book our own activities and places to stay, so we are going it alone without a travel agent. We booked our flight and are thrilled to say that our honeymoon will be in the Galapagos over the winter holidays! (That’s literally all we’ve planned for the trip, though. Phew, we better get on that!)
For the rehearsal dinner, there are elements we might make DIY, too. I am gluten-free by necessity since I have Celiac disease, so I want to find a place that has options for me. My future sister-in-law has a severe seafood allergy, so we also need to find a place that can accommodate her. We are currently looking at unique spaces to rent where we can bring in a caterer of our choice instead of renting out a restaurant, but there are so many challenges (and costs!) to doing that.
Our dream would be to serve food that incorporates Jewish elements, since our rehearsal dinner and wedding are during Hanukkah, and Filipino elements to honor Jose’s background (and because the food is delicious!). My dream on top of that dream is to have gluten-free jelly donuts (sufganiyot) for a traditional Hanukkah treat, but I may need to focus on the bigger picture and just plan the rehearsal dinner before I get too excited about dessert! It may be simpler and better to find the right restaurant with a price-fixed menu, so we could always end up going that route, but for this one we are exploring what DIY options may be out there.
Ultimately, the process of making these decisions is exciting and enjoyable for me, since I’m decisive about what I want and Jose is an active and involved partner. I won’t look back and wonder “what if” I chose the wrong thing, because I know that no bride can go wrong with what she chooses. It’s her wedding (and it’s just a wedding) so if someone judges you for choosing differently than they would, so be it. You are doing it your way and making it your own. That is never wrong.
Keep following my blog for more updates on our wedding planning. I can only imagine (or hope) how much further along we’ll be a month from now!