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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, Iâve thought about what readers might be interested in, and family acceptance probably ranks pretty high. Itâs an obstacle many couples (including some of my friends) struggle with, but luckily, weÂ did notâmy family loves Zach. Loves him. This cannot be stressed enough. They ask about him all the time.
While it doesnât 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 wasnât 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 weaknessesâand 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.
Thatâs not to say that this path has been super easy. It took some time for my parents to understand that my family life probably wouldnât look like the one they had provided for meâwith 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. Thatâs 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 Lauraâs 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. Weâre 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 theyâve been nothing but supportive of our relationship, and everyone can see how good we are for each other. So thereâs 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 playÂ dreidelÂ by the Christmas tree, and everyone had a great time (while he hustled us). Weâre 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!
âSo, howâs the wedding planning?â 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 âgetting it all done.â To explain that, I need to go back to the beginning of the process and explain a few things.
From the beginning, weâve been fairly flexible about what this wedding will look like. I donât 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, thereâs a lot to do, but Iâm organized! Iâm 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 didnât 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 itâs all free! Perfect.
Itâs 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 arenât 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 fiancĂ©) 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 didnât 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 didnât 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 âget it all done.â 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 wasnât 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–youâre 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 thereâs something special about this expectant time, where youâre waiting for that next step, and I donât want to miss that. I want to savor it.
So, when I start to think about all that I âhave to do,â I think about all the people around to help me. I think about what the âbare bonesâ of the event will look like, and Iâm 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 doesnât matter if we get the photo booth just right.
Iâm choosing to use this time to prepare for a lifetime with my best friend, where the little things donât 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.
In the days after our engagement, we began to imagine our wedding. I had thought about a possible future wedding many times in the past, but the realness of that imagined wedding became heightened by our official engagement. Distant ideas like, âgetting married outside might be nice,â were suddenly translated into Google searches for âoutdoor wedding venues.â One of the first questions we asked ourselves was, âWho do we want to officiate?â I was actually surprised by how quickly the answer came to me. After flipping through the various options in my mind, I knew a rabbi was the right choice for us. I asked Amma what she thought of the idea, and without skipping a beat, she completely agreed.
Just a couple of years ago I donât think either of us would have guessed that we would be married by a rabbi. For starters, neither of us is technically Jewish (depending on how you define Jewish). One could argue (and I often do) that I am Jewish because my grandparents are. Whether or not that argument wins, depends on the audience. Because I wasnât raised Jewish, and whatever lineage I do have is on my fatherâs side, some would say Iâm a far cry, but that has never stopped me from feeling Jewish! And that isnât the only reason we want a rabbi for our ceremony.
As Amma and I examined our decision, we discovered our desire for a tie to something greater than ourselves to play a meaningful role in our wedding. We may not be religious, but we do feel a strong spiritual connection to humanity, the universe and God. It was clear to us that we wanted the person leading us into our marriage to be someone who is dedicated to that greater spiritual connection.
Also on a spiritual level, being two women, we felt that our union would be best endorsed and honored by the heart, experience and wisdom of a woman. Reform Judaism has not only been ordaining womenÂ and LGBTQÂ rabbis since the early 1970s but also supporting its followers in the LGBTQ community. This history of equality and acceptance was yet another great reason for us to adopt Judaism into our wedding and our lives.
So we knew we wanted a rabbi, but we still had to find the right one. I didnât know what I would find when I started my search. Not only had we just moved to Philadelphia, but we also werenât part of a Jewish community. I went online and Googled âPhiladelphia rabbis,â and up popped an ad for InterfaithFamily. I didnât know what InterfaithFamily was, but it sounded inclusive and open-minded, so I clicked. I liked what the InterfaithFamily community stood for and it seemed like it had grown from a wonderful place of wanting to bring people together. The fact that they had a rabbi referral service was more than I could have dreamed of.
The referral service was exactly what I needed, and my request was handled with care and attention. When I received a response from Rabbi Frisch, it felt like a gift. The questions on the referral form were used to compile a list of potential rabbis who were appropriately matched to our needs. It was fun learning about all these different rabbis. I did an Internet search for each candidate to find out more.
After narrowing the list down to a handful of rabbis who I thought might be a good fit, I sent out initial emails. I felt hopeful as the responses began popping up in my inbox. There were two or three who, through the tone and wording of their emails, felt like they could be âthe one.â But over the next week or so, each conversation resulted in a dead end due to various issues, and there I was back at the drawing board, feeling defeated.
Rabbi Frisch must have heard my prayer, because the next morning I received an email from her asking how my search was going. I wrote back describing my fruitless efforts. In my reply I also felt inspired to talk about my strong desire to have a rabbi marry us, and why. Much to my surprise, but true to her generous nature, she offered to be our rabbi. I canât begin describe my delight. Not only did I already feel like I was getting to know her through the emails we had written back and forth, but I absolutely knew she was a perfect fit for us.
There is something about the way everything worked out that just feels like fate. Since Rabbi Frisch agreed to officiate, we have met in person to chat and get to know each other better. Suffice it to say, we all hit it off wonderfully! We plan on meeting a few more times before the wedding to talk about the ceremony in more detail, and we canât wait to see her again.
Sam and I couldnât be more different. Sam enjoys heavy metal rock music. I like classic rock, jazz, folk and NPR. Sam gets lost in each musical component- the percussion, the vocals, the guitar etc, whereas my music puts Sam to sleep. I use my music to cheer me up, get me going, and to keep me company at work.
I work in the event industry and my background is in arts management. Sam, on the other hand, works in pharmaceuticals and his background in engineering, physics, and computer science. Our backgrounds and training have taught us to think differently about problems, situations, and the world around us. Sam is very logical, he concludes that the fastest way from point A to B is a straight line and A plus B always equals C. My brain doesnât function that way. The fastest way from point A to B may not be the best way and A plus B may equal purple or square or dog.
Sam likes sleeping in; I am an early bird. Sam was born in Pennsylvania; I was born in Minnesota. Sam has 2 siblings; I have 9.Â Sam is Jewish; I am Catholic. I could go on and on listing the ways that Sam and I are different. Through all of these differences, we both understand that we love each other for the whole package.
I love Sam for his rock music, Pharmaceuticals, physics, logic, Judaism and all. Sam loves me for my NPR, arts background, Catholicism and everything.Â We both understand that it is all of these elements combined that make up who we are.Â If you were to take out any one of these elements Sam would be totally different and not the man that I love. If you were to take out the element of my religion, or family, I would be totally different and not the woman that Sam loves. You canât say, âI love you except_________ (fill in the blank)â or âI would love you more if ___________â, because then you would be taking out little pieces of that person.
We love each other because of these differences. As we plan our wedding and our future together, we are learning that we can use our differences to balance out each other. I can help Sam see things from an arts management perspective; he can help me appreciate heavy metal rock music. I can learn about his Judaism and he can learn about my Catholicism. It is in learning, understanding, and loving ALL of these aspects of each other that will help us with our lives together and raising a family. I can just imagine, our future three year old reading the Wall Street Journal and teaching me about physics.
Our wedding blogger Matt Rice recently wrapped up his blog after getting married to his now wife, Shannon. Weâre sad to see him leave our blog, but thrilled for his happy union. While we search for a new wedding blogger, I thought I would fill in since I recently got engaged! I have to be upfront though: My fiancĂ© is Jewish, and I am Jewish, so we are not an interfaith couple. Scandalous, I know, but I think there are a lot of pieces of wedding planning that are similar for anyone planning a Jewish weddingâinterfaith or not. To some extent, every wedding is the bringing together of two different faiths, and a couple must navigate their familiesâ differences during the planning process. I hope I can be of help or at least amusement until we find a new bloggerâand if you are planning a wedding and are interested in blogging, please email me at email@example.com.
I got engaged in September, and have already nailed down a date and a place, taken engagement photos (my brother is a photographer and was kind enough to give us this gift), blocked off hotel rooms for guests and are close to figuring out who our rabbi and caterer will be. Oh, and I tried on dresses yesterday. (Never has anything been more fun.) We can sit back and eat bon bons now, right?
Not so fast. Weâre planning on getting married in Bristol, Rhode Island, which means the bulk of our organizing revolves around the Newport area. Newport is a major wedding destination and everything from lodging to photographers book up quickly. (And no, my brother will not be allowed to work on our wedding day!)
My fiancĂ©Â and I found ourselves suddenly going from blissfully engaged to full-on planning our wedding just two weeks after our engagement. Not to say this part isnât also excitingâfrom the grins on our faces, itâs clear we are not exactly sweating it. But at the same time, after each item gets checked off the list, thereâs another one waiting to be explored just as urgently.
Itâs kind of like holiday prepâI realize many of us are overwhelmed with the upcoming Thanksgivukkah mega holiday (Is it here yet???), but of course weâre looking forward to it at the same time. How do you keep things in perspective when you’re stressed out prepping for a holiday that is both celebratory and spiritual? IFF/Chicago director Ari Moffic blogged about stress release during the holidays.
When it comes to wedding planning, I find that what keeps the process fun, exciting and meaningful is the constant reminder of what will be our joy at the end of it all: a day in which we make a lifelong commitment surrounded by our loved ones. Eye on the prize.
But how do you keep your eye on the prize when there is a seemingly endless list of things to do to prepare for your wedding day over the next TEN months? Take a step back. What works for me might not work for you, but simply spending quality time with my fiancĂ© and participating in the planning together is what I find makes it all meaningful. Itâs more fun to pick out save the dates or imagine a menu when youâre bouncing ideas off your fiancĂ©. I realize I am lucky in that my fiancĂ© actually wants to be an equal player in this process, which is not often the case. (I’m sorry if that sounds sexist: I do not mean to say this exclusively pertains to men. But often there is one person who is less interested in planning than the other.)
I also know that Iâm only two months into wedding planning. I keep hearing that things will get more stressful as it gets closer. But your fiancĂ© is your support. He or she is your partner and your care taker and your source of joy. Whether or not they want to help you pick out flower arrangements–and whether or not you agree on bigger issues like whether or not to have a rabbi officiate the ceremony–lean on that person. I promise everything will seem easier.
This morning I put a cross into a drawer. It was a cradle cross that Leacock Presbyterian Church gave my parents when I was born. My mother returned it to me on the day of Shannonâs bridal shower. âI wasn’t sure if youâd want it or not,â she said. I wasnât sure either. Itâs the symbol of a tradition I left behind. If it ever hung over my crib, which was its intent, I donât remember it. My earliest memory is of being held by my mother and draping a handkerchief over head like it was a tablecloth. Thereâs a picture of that moment: I was proud of myself, smiling ear-to-ear. That I remember the moment at all might be a result of its having been caught on film. Memory is like that: fluid, permeable, changing over time. Our memories shift to better inform our narratives of who we are and who we want to be.
The foundation of Jewish peoplehood is our historical memory. From the hasidim who believe literally in the revelation at Sinai, to secular Yiddishists who recall the travails of Ashkenaz, or, like most Jews, somewhere in between, we are united by our shared memories. The Hebrew calendar is structured around our stories: we are liberated during Passover, wander the wilderness during Sukkot and receive Torah on Shavuot. The irony of Jewish time is that, although we were among the first peoples to insist upon a linear, rather than a cyclical, view of history, we relive the same events from year to year. Perhaps thatâs why, despite our disagreements, we persevere, why we remain one people. It reminds me of Romi Somekâs âA Poem of Blissâ: âWe are placed upon a wedding cake/like two dolls, bride and groom./When the knife strikes,/Weâll try to stay on the same piece.â
The sense of foreboding evident in the last lines of Somekâs poem looms large in Jewish memory. The Shoah casts a long shadow over us all, as it rightly should. So too do other tragedies, from the expulsion of our people from Spain in 1492, to the Munich Olympics, to the countless injustices done to men and women long gone to dust. The price of Never Forgetting is Eternal Vigilance, necessary but wearying to the psyche. Watchfulness has engendered in some quarters of the Jewish community a sense of permanent crisis, that the âknifeâ of Somekâs poem is always poised to strike. We see bogeymen at every turn: the presidentâs policy towards Israel, Muslim immigration to the West, Iran, assimilation, intermarriage. For some Jews, intermarriage is the most insidious crisis of all, âperpetratedâ by its own âvictims.â
That attitude toward intermarriage is further exacerbated by nostalgia. Some Jews shield themselves against the anxieties of the present by retreating into sentimentality. Informed by wisps of history, family memory, and pop culture (think Fiddler on the Roof), we have constructed a dreamworld alternative to the present, an eternal shtetl cast always in the golden sunlight of American afternoons. We smile at the women baking challah. We nod at the old men praying in shul. Weâre comforted by the singsong strains of Yiddish bubbling forth from homes. But to remember it thus is to do our ancestors a disservice. The shtetlach were nothing like our dreamworld; rather, they were characterized by poverty, wretchedness, superstition and filth. Walk the cramped and muddy streets. Here women served men, for they had no choice. Here bellies growled for want of food. Here the rebbes studied while their people suffered. If you ever hear anyone hearken back to how it was in the Old Country, ask them if theyâd really like to visit. They may: There are haredi communities here and in Israel in which one may readily access âthe world we have lost.â
American Jews have no need to retreat into fear or sentimentality. Weâre thriving. Weâre more accepted than we have ever been, anywhere, at any other time in history. That you can no longer identify a Jew by peyot, by curly hair, or by surname, is not a cause for alarm, but for excitement. Weâre not disappearing; weâre diversifying. Our contributions to American society speak to our success. We were at the forefront of white support for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, when Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. Now weâre leading the charge into ethical and sustainable foodways through organizations such as Hazon and, in Philadelphia, Cafe Olam.
Iâve written this blog to demonstrate one thing: that we who intermarry are in no way enemies of Judaism or the Jewish people. We are individuals who have fallen in love with other individuals who are not themselves Jewish. Our partners love us, in part, because weâre Jewish; after all, itâs part of who we are. Writing in The Forward, Yoel Finkelman notes that the argument against intermarriage is a difficult one âbecause itâs hard to muster much moral indignation against a loving, caring couple whose differing religious convictions are an accident of birth.â Finkelman goes on to advocate synagoguesâ acceptance of homosexual Jewish couples as an antidote to intermarriage, but his argument is weakened by his previous statement. Finkelman, and all those who rant against intermarriage, should come to a hard stop: it is not ancestry or religion (or sexuality) that matters in a relationship, but love. Embrace loving couples and they will respond.
A Jewish friend of Shannon and I volunteered to teach our families the hora at our wedding party. Consider the image of dozens of non-Jews celebrating by learning a Jewish dance. Our union is but a tiny thread in the grand tapestry of our peopleâs history. How lovely, and how appropriate, that it is a wedding that will bring Jews and non-Jews together, if only for a moment. We’ll be wed the evening of Saturday, October 26. You’re welcome to dance with us.
I went to Congregation Rodeph Shalomâs Purim celebration this year. (Or last year, by the Hebrew calendar.)
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
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.
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.
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
I confess that I was disappointed by the mikveh.
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.
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.
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