Making Time to Reflect Before the Big Day

  

We’re counting down the days—less than one month until the wedding! Plenty of friends and family have been asking us if we’re excited (of course) and if we’re ready (which is a tougher question). In the practical sense, yes, we are ready. The caterer has our menu, the DJ has our song list and we’re finished with all of our DIY projects. In a broader sense, I’ve been thinking a lot about the question: How do you know you’re ready to make such a monumental commitment to another person?

Since we’ve completed most of the wedding planning, we’ve been able to spend the past few weeks making sure we stay connected and grounded. Last Saturday, we biked to Yards Park in the Navy Yard area of DC, which is where Zach proposed over a year ago! We rode past one of our favorite breweries and sat in the park with our feet in the wading pool for a while, watching the kids run around and play. I thought about this lazy summer day that we were taking advantage of—that we were making the time to have fun and do something that wasn’t wedding-related, grocery shopping or watching TV together. I promised myself when we got engaged that we would make time for these things, and I haven’t been as good about that as I would have liked, but that day, we were.

We ran into our maid of honor and her family visiting from out of town, got ice cream with them and biked home in time to host some friends for a low-key game night. That’s one of the many things I love about Zach—that he gets me out of my head, and he challenges me to enjoy things like warm summer days and riverside parks without thinking about what I should be doing instead. Yards Park was a perfect reminder of that strength of his, at an exciting and busy time in our lives.

I’ve also been catching up with old friends, like my former roommate. We lived together for two years right after college and have kept in touch since both of us moved on. Last week, we met up for dinner at our favorite place in the old neighborhood. As we laughed and commiserated over wedding planning (and assured each other that the headaches would be worth it), I couldn’t help but think: Am I ready to get married? To leave my single life behind?

Zach and my dad came up with this genius display for our table assignments.

Those years of supporting each other through good and tough times over wine, lazy weekends and taco nights seem so rosy, and I’m a little sad to leave them behind. But then, I go home to my amazing fiancĂ©, who has already unloaded the dishwasher, or left me Reese’s in the fridge, or asks me how my day was, and I know I’m ready to marry Zach. I’m ready to promise to be there for him in all of those ways and more. It’s still important, for me, to reflect on where this journey has taken me, and the other relationships I formed on the way. I’m a firm believer in the value of friendships outside of a relationship, even outside of your marriage, and the end of my “single life” in no way means the end of those friendships. But it does mark the beginning of a binding partnership—a promise to work through tough times and celebrate the good ones in new ways.

This past weekend, we went home to Pennsylvania to work on our seating chart. Putting it together was beautiful because, at each table, we see different groups of people from different times in our life, who have made us into the people we are today. We have friends from childhood, friends from high school and college, family friends who we’ve known since birth, current friends, work friends—they’ll all be there, with our loving families, to watch us commit to the rest of our lives together. We can’t wait for everyone to meet and mingle, and to represent for us on this momentous day who we have been and our hopes for who we are to become.

When I read about the Jewish tradition of the ketubah, I realized it was the perfect way to create a visual representation of this commitment we’re making to each other. Rather than a contract or agreement, it’s a perfect reminder of the promise we’re making—to constantly strive to live up to the ideal of love for each other. You can read the text we selected here. Different articles (like this one from InterfaithFamily and this one from America Magazine) and conversations with family and friends have forced me to acknowledge the uncertainty associated with marriage—the idea that people’s values, personalities and desires can shift over time, and marriage is a promise to work through those. Like many people, I personally struggle with uncertainty, but in thinking about these issues, I know that Zach is the person I want to take that leap of faith with. I can’t wait to see where we end up on this journey.

Family Acceptance & Testing the Breaking of the Glass

  
two men stand ready to sand some wood

Zach works with my dad to build a stand for our photo booth

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!

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?

Jewish + Catholic Wedding Ceremony Decoded

  

By Katie Ryan

bride & groom

Katie & Steven after the wedding

Steven and I were married in an outdoor Catholic and Jewish celebration on May 23, 2015. The ceremony itself was the biggest black box for us when planning our wedding and we hope sharing how we brought our two faiths together into an interfaith ceremony helps anyone else trying to decode this process.

Steven was raised Jewish and I’m a born and raised and practicing Catholic. We wanted faith as part of our ceremony and we also wanted to make sure it represented us and was welcoming and inclusive for our families and friends in attendance.

With some work, the help of great people and some luck, we pulled it off.

The Ceremony

Steven’s parents are really involved in their Jewish community and through those connections found us a local rabbi, Lev Baesh that they thought we would like. It just so happens that Lev has a long history with InterfaithFamily and continues to work as a consultant with the organization. Steven and I both really value sustainability, so when we found out that Lev has solar panels on his house and chickens in his backyard, we felt like things would work out. The first time we met him for coffee (and to “interview” him) he said two things that stuck with us through the planning process:

1. Many of the major religious milestones (or sacraments in the Catholic world) recognize things that have already happened—baptism/ naming ceremonies (the baby is already born), funerals (the person is already dead) and in the case of marriage, two people have already made the decision to be together and the ceremony is to officially recognize it. Knowing this took some pressure off of us—we’d already been through the hard part of finding each other and figuring out that we wanted to be together forever. The ceremony was the cherry on top.

2. The ceremony is the first real opportunity to set the tone for how religion is going to look in your newly formed two-person family. That observation actually added a little more pressure, but also helped us find a framework as we came to decision points when planning the ceremony. For example, while I had written a word-by-word ceremony, our officiants both wanted the opportunity to speak in their own words, reflecting the sentiment we put forth in the draft. When we looked at our framework, we decided we wanted our faith journey to have room for flexibility and to be genuine and personal, so we agreed to let our officiants speak from the heart (that ended up being a GREAT decision—more on that later).

We found our priest through the recommendation of a friend who served on the Board of Directors for the Interfaith Action of Central Texas. I like the priest at my longtime Catholic parish, but I wasn’t sure he had the personality we needed for an interfaith ceremony. It can also be challenging to have the Bishop recognize an interfaith, outdoor marriage. Luckily, Father Larry Covington knew how the system worked and helped guide us through the process which included the required paperwork as well as Pre-Cana, multiple pre-marriage preparation meetings a Catholic couple goes through. He also made us feel at ease about an interfaith ceremony and marriage. Oh, and he speaks some Hebrew, which came in handy (see list below).

The Rituals

katie_ryan_chuppah

We decided on a mix of Catholic and Jewish traditions as well as things we just thought would be cool. Here’s what we ended up doing:

  • Both of my parents walked me in; both of Steven’s parents walked in with him (Jewish tradition)
  • Our dog was in the wedding party, holding the rings on her collar
  • We got married under a chuppah (the canopy structure present in traditional Jewish weddings). My father made it for us and personalized it by using Longhorn and Duke bed sheets as the canopy covering, paying homage to our alma maters
  • The priest and rabbi each gave a welcome and a blessing
  • We invited seven friends to give a blessing of their choosing, a twist on the traditional
  • The priest said the traditional vows, the rabbi did the exchange of rings
  • Steven and I wrote and said our own additional vows to each other
  • We did the Jewish stomping of the glass at the end of the ceremony
  • The singing of a prayer in Hebrew: We lucked out—our priest did this part and wow’d everyone!

 

ceremony

Katie & Steven’s wedding ceremony with Rabbi Lev Baesh and Father Larry Covington co-officiating. Photo by Elizabeth McGuire

Tips

Here are a few additional resources and things we did that were helpful:

Lots of communication with our guests: We emailed all of those attending the wedding to give them the heads up that our wedding would have a rabbi, priest and a dog. It really helped people know what to expect.

Lots of communication with our parents: We especially wanted to make sure our parents felt good about the ceremony since we were the first interfaith couple in our immediate families. We gave the opportunity in the beginning of planning to share anything they really wanted in the ceremony. We also shared the ceremony document with our parents in advance and they appreciated it.

Ceremony: It wasn’t easy to find more than an outline of a ceremony, but we did find one from InterfaithFamily that we really liked. Here it is.

Vows: In addition to the traditional vow exchange, we also wanted to say our own words to each other. We worked off of this list and made the vows our own.

Here’s to a ceremony that’s just right for you!

 

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