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By Nataliya Naydorf
“I don’t think being with someone who isn’t Jewish compromises my Judaism.” I said to my fiancé on our first date. “As long as my partner is open, tolerant and willing to learn about my traditions, I can’t say it would be a huge issue.”
He had asked me whether I was OK with dating someone who wasn’t Jewish and how I reconciled that with my beliefs. Our original plan was to play pool, but instead we ended up sitting and talking for four-and-a-half hours about everything that you’re not supposed to talk about on the first date. At that point, we had most definitely broken the cardinal rule of first dates by discussing politics, religion and children. Let’s just say that I’m not great at being subtle and knew it was a good sign that he didn’t try to flee the scene.
I met Andy when we were working on the same project at a consulting firm in Washington, DC. Our first non-work related conversation occurred after our building was evacuated during the district’s earthquake in 2011. We bonded over our shared anxiety about using public restrooms. Afterwards, we began to speak more frequently and eventually began dating.
Our first date conversation regarding religion was only the beginning of our continued dialogue. As we became closer and our relationship grew more serious, we learned to traverse our religious differences together. I am a Ukrainian Jew who identifies most with Conservative Judaism. While I am not shomer Shabbat (I do not keep to the strict rules around observing Shabbat, such as not using electricity), I do keep kosher, go to Shabbat services at least once a month, and make sure to light candles and say kiddush on Fridays. Andy was raised Catholic but dislikes organized religion and considers himself somewhere in between agnostic and atheist.
Thankfully, one of the most significant strengths of our relationship is our ability to communicate effectively. Our conversations regarding religion, while sometimes difficult, have been meaningful and have helped us to better understand each other.
When our relationship became serious and more questions regarding religion arose, I realized that I wasn’t able to answer many of them. While I was following some traditions and was involved in Jewish learning, there were still many things I was ignorant about. In the past, I had assumed that my partner would be Jewish and would be in charge of most of the religious traditions. When I realized that I would be the partner that would take that role in our home, I began to learn as much as I could. With the full support of Andy, I took a six month sabbatical from work to study Torah and Talmud at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. It was an amazing experience that helped me to take more control over my religious beliefs and practices.
As we spoke of marriage and children, Andy devoted time to learning more about Judaism too. It was already a part of our lives in terms of food and Friday nights, which resulted in him being extremely knowledgeable about kashrut and the Shabbat songs and prayers. He furthered his education by reading books about Judaism and Jewish history, especially This is My God by Herman Wouk. Additionally, we took an introduction to Judaism class and attended an interfaith workshop at the DC JCC.
When we first started planning our wedding a year ago, I had a feeling that one of the hardest things would be to find a rabbi who would marry us, be supportive and be willing to perform a traditional Jewish ceremony that was inclusive of friends and family. However, there turned out to be many resources for finding a rabbi to perform an interfaith wedding, including Unorthodox Celebrations and InterfaithFamily’s referral service for finding officiants.
Unfortunately, after speaking with several rabbis, I did not feel a true connection with any of them. Feeling ready to give up, I decided to do my own research. We are getting married near a small Virginia town which happens to have a Reform synagogue. On a whim, I called the synagogue and asked them if their rabbi performs interfaith ceremonies. The very helpful gentleman on the phone told me that the current rabbi does not and it crushed me. Fortunately, he then told me that their previous rabbi who had just retired did and gave me his contact information. It turned out to be perfect. The rabbi’s wife’s family was also from Ukraine and we had a lot in common. We met with him recently to plan the ceremony.
Andy and I decided together that our ceremony would be Jewish, but would still be inclusive of our friends and family who are not Jewish. Our go-to wedding book was A New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant (she has a new version that just came out, The Jewish Wedding Now). It helped us tremendously with finding traditions that resonated with the both of us. After reading the book, we worked closely with our rabbi to discuss the parts of a Jewish wedding that we wanted to include. One of those elements includes a ketubah, which we are getting through Ketubah.com.
We are including both of our sisters as witnesses and used InterfaithFamily’s “Choosing an Interfaith Ketubah” resource to create our custom ketubah text. We will also be having a chuppah with two friends and two family members as chuppah holders, a tnaim ceremony for our mothers and yichud, which is a short interlude after the wedding ceremony where Andy and I can have a moment to ourselves during what will be a happy, albeit chaotic, day.
Because we had so many resources to aid us in planning our wedding, because we had the support of a rabbi and because of our ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings about religion, planning our wedding has not only been incredibly meaningful, but it has strengthened our love and commitment to each other. We are three months out from our wedding day and we can’t wait to say “Cheers,” “L’chaim” and “Nazdarovye” with all of our friends and family.
One of the items that we needed to tick off our Wedding To-Do List this month was ordering the ketubah. As an interfaith, same-sex couple, we were looking for a text that spoke to the myriad possibilities of what it means to be in a loving, committed relationship. In a moment in the wedding industry when interfaith and same-sex ketubah texts are relatively scarce, we were happy to find something that struck a chord with us.
The Church of England doesn’t have anything similar to a ketubah. The traditional wedding ceremony involves words and vows that have remained more or less the same since the Book of Common Prayer wedding service was first codified in the 17th Century. Our own wedding ceremony will combine these long-recited vows with elements of the Jewish tradition, so we won’t be taking the opportunity to express our more personal thoughts about marriage within the service itself (partly because the Church of England vows are very meaningful and beautiful, and partly because Vanessa would become a blubbering wreck). So, the ketubah felt like a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect on our conception of marriage and to verbalize our priorities and commitments for the years ahead.
In the end, we decided to choose a ketubah that encompasses more of a poetic, abstract notion of love. The design is relatively abstract too: an impressionistic tree with blue and gold leaves, with its roots drawing strength from the text underneath. Our ketubah tells the story of a partnership between two people using beautiful metaphor, but a metaphor that is rooted in concrete behavior.
Wedding planning can be stressful, and we’re combining it with finishing our graduate degrees and looking for jobs: So when we read our ketubah text that speaks of supporting each other’s dreams and comforting each other’s sorrows, we know that the beautifully-illustrated document is not just for show. The line that describes holding each other in both our arms and our hearts has never seemed more appropriate than in recent weeks, as we’ve huddled together under a blanket on our sofa, escaping the delightfully chilly weather/miserable freezing temperatures (depending on who you ask).
So, the ketubah is on its way. Many more things remain on the Wedding To-Do List, the vast majority of which relate to a single day. But this is one element of our planning that we’ll see every day for the rest of our lives, throughout our entire marriage.
It has been two months since Jarrett and I tied the knot and there are times I still catch myself daydreaming about our wedding day. While it was not the easiest task to plan our big day, the reward was better than I could have imagined! In the weeks leading up to the wedding, I tried to remain cool and collected while tackling an intimidating to-do list but I remained motivated knowing every check off the list was one step closer to marrying my best friend.
As October 8 inched closer, I grew more and more anxious knowing our closest friends and family members would soon be traveling from near and far to celebrate with us and my hope was that everything would run smoothly day-of. When I woke up the morning of our wedding day, I knew every item on the checklist had been completed except one: Get Married. In that moment, the advice from many close friends who had gotten married months or years prior to us popped into my head… “Be present,” “Don’t sweat the small stuff” and “Enjoy every moment because the day will go by in the blink of an eye.” In that moment, I put every worry behind me and was ready to walk down the aisle.
The day began on a relaxing note with breakfast and movies at home with my mom and bridesmaids while we had our hair and makeup done. The limo arrived to take us to the wedding venue. Once at the venue, time moved faster than ever before. We began photos right away, then it was time for the first look with my soon-to-be husband. We chose to do a non-traditional first look because it allowed us to take all photos before the wedding ceremony so that we could be present at our cocktail hour to have more time with our friends and family. As I walked out onto the patio toward Jarrett standing with his back to me, I smiled knowing we were about to see each other for the first time on our wedding day. The photographer instructed Jarrett to keep his eyes closed while she arranged us back to back for a few photos. My mind raced with memories from our relationship over the last six years that brought us to this point and my smile grew even wider as the photographer instructed us to turn around to see each other for the first time. We cried happy tears as we exchanged notes we had written to each other the night before the wedding.
After our first look, we headed upstairs for our ketubah (marriage contract) signing ceremony. I was raised Catholic and never experienced a ketubah signing ceremony until my own wedding day. But after Jarrett and I spent weeks designing our own Interfaith ketubah, I was excited for this event to be part of our big day. Our wedding venue, The Bradford Estate, recently completed upstairs renovations which provided us with a perfect space for a private ceremony. Rabbi Robyn Frisch (Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia) led a beautiful and intimate ketubah-signing ceremony for Jarrett and me along with my parents and sister, Jarrett’s mom and two close friends we chose as our witnesses. The ketubah-signing ceremony will forever be one of my favorite parts of our wedding day. It was such a special time with the closest people in our lives and a way to spend a short time together before the chaos of the reception began. The ketubah ceremony even calmed some nerves before the wedding ceremony because technically, we were already married once our ketubah was signed!
Following our ketubah signing was our wedding ceremony (chuppah ceremony) officiated by Rabbi Robyn Frisch. Jarrett was raised Jewish and it was his request to be married by a rabbi in a ceremony incorporating Jewish traditions. I was happy to agree to his request as I understood how important this was to him and I did not need to be married in a Catholic church or by a priest for our wedding day to feel special to me. We chose to be married under a chuppah and it was so special to have our parents and my sister standing under the chuppah with us during our ceremony. I love the sentiment of the chuppah representing the home we will build together and how it is open on all sides to represent the welcoming of others.
We also chose to incorporate the Kiddush/Blessing over the wine utilizing a kiddush cup given to us by Jarrett’s aunt from a trip to Israel earlier this year. During our wedding ceremony planning, Robyn provided us with different verses for the exchange of the rings and Sheva B’rachot/Seven Wedding Blessings. Jarrett and I took time together to read through the different verses and chose verbiage that we connected with for use in our ceremony.
We were so thankful to have chosen Robyn as our officiant as she was so helpful during the ceremony planning (especially as a resource to someone who was not raised Jewish). She also took the time to get to know us as a couple and shared stories about us that truly made for a personal and unforgettable wedding ceremony. She even provided explanations during each part of the ceremony for those in the audience who were not from a Jewish faith background so they too could connect and understand the ceremony. Our ceremony ended with the Priestly Benediction and Jarrett breaking the glass with all of our loved ones yelling “Mazel Tov!”
Following our wedding ceremony, our cocktail hour and reception commenced complete with the hora and cutting of the cake. We ate, drank and danced the night away with our closest friends and family members who helped make the day so special. Two months later, we continue to receive compliments about how beautiful and personal our wedding ceremony was and we feel very lucky to have had such a memorable experience. We are thankful for the memories from our wedding day that we will cherish for a lifetime and look forward to what the future holds as we embark on our interfaith marriage together.
The decision to get married inevitably invites inquiry. How did you meet? What is the proposal story? Can I see the ring? Have you set a date?
The decision to proceed with an interfaith marriage invites it even more so. For example, in response to an earlier blog where I shared news of our recent engagement, I received comments asking whether we had made a decision about how we would raise our children.
These well-intentioned comments, which presupposed that we even plan to have children, offered their views of how to solve the apparent conundrum of two faiths under one roof.
The answer is that we have talked at great length about how we will raise children if we are so blessed. These conversations have been some of the more difficult discussions we have had as the issue is a deeply personal one.
While we do not purport to be experts on how to blend two religions into one family, we compromised and reached an agreement that seems workable for us, at least in theory. (I promise to resume blogging someday to share whether it actually works in application!) Our ability to reach this compromise, I think, solidified the fact that we were “engagement-ready.” The process was challenging and illuminating. We learned how to communicate effectively and compassionately about a sensitive subject.
As we progress in the wedding planning process, I anticipate that we will continue to hone those communication skills as the inquiry about children is only one of many questions we will face (and have faced) while planning our wedding.
Would the ceremony be Jewish? Catholic? “Interfaith?” And, who would officiate? After much thought and consultation with each other and our parents, we decided on an interfaith ceremony officiated by a rabbi (Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of IFF/Philadelphia) on a Saturday evening in December.
Prior to finalizing the decision, I had to ask myself whether I was comfortable with our plan. Our wedding will more closely resemble a Jewish wedding (albeit on a Saturday evening and with a Catholic bride). Having only attended one Jewish wedding, I feared that I might feel disconnected from the ceremony – and that my Catholic family would too.
Fortunately, we found an officiant willing to incorporate elements into our ceremony that are meaningful and familiar to me. And, distilled to its essence, a Jewish wedding ceremony supports and celebrates the union of two people. While the formalities may be different, conceptually, this is a tradition that I am familiar with.
Still, our tailor-made interfaith wedding is a far cry from the traditional, Catholic weddings of my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. They have questions and they, too, want to feel connected to the ceremony. My Irish grandfather actually asked me earlier this month whether he should wear a kippah (yarmulke) to the wedding!
Over the next few months, we will be working closely with our officiant – asking questions and answering them – to craft a ceremony that suits us as a couple, celebrates our differences and allows our families to meaningfully participate in our once-in-a-lifetime day.
But when all is said and done, and the majority of questions have been asked and answered, the most important question in this process will be our willingness to make a lifelong promise to each other. Though I may not know the answer to the myriad questions about interfaith wedding planning, my answer to that most important question is a resounding, unequivocal yes.
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.
Blessings have been on my mind lately. In the Jewish wedding ceremony there are seven blessings recited, and, for better or for worse, I’m finding them complicated. Which is why, when our house started to shake during a thunderstorm the other night, I was already awake turning blessing after blessing over and over in my mind.
The thunder rolled, the lightning flashed, and my mind immediately went to the damage that we’d seen this winter, wondering if this storm would re-expose those leaks. After a few minutes of almost deafening rain, my mind finally slowed past its catastrophic style thinking to an appreciation of all of the noises, smells, and feelings that accompany a thunderstorm.
I was thankful for the rain that we receive here in New England, as opposed the droughts that are impacting so much of our world. I was thankful that I was inside, and lucky enough to be safe from the elements. I was grateful to be cuddled up under my blanket next to my sleeping partner, with my sleeping cat in the nook behind my knees.
I noticed Justin stirring from his sleep. “Good thunderstorm,” he muttered to himself.
It might seem simplistic, but right there… that was a blessing.
One of the pieces of Jewish learning I’ve most taken to heart is the idea that a prayer should speak to what is truly in your heart—the trappings of the words matter a whole lot less. (This idea seems particularly relevant when coming at the idea of one religion’s prayer from a multi-faith lens.)
Which is why we’re going to take the seven blessings and take them from complicated ideas to a simple “good thunderstorm” style message. But we need your help.
We’re asking seven of our friends to craft their own blessings based on the meaning of the originals. They’ll then be recited in the original Hebrew by our rabbi. What matters to us is less of the traditional language (we’ll have our bases covered by our rabbi’s recitations), but the sentiments passed along by the friends reciting the blessings.
Here’s where we’re asking for your help: if you were to simplify the following prayers to one word, what would it be?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
One of my favorite holidays is Hanukkah, and for that, I give a lot of the credit to the Beerorah. The Beerorah is something that my fiancé Derek and I came up with the first Hanukkah we were dating – well, really it’s a gift pack from He’Brew brewing company (a division of Schmaltz brewing) that his best friend had given him when the friend found out he was dating me.
We joke that the Beerorah combines our two loves: “My love of God with his love of beer.” And Derek really does love beer – it’s his hobby in a true aficionado’s way. I have learned more about craft beer in the four-and-a-half years we’ve been together than most people learn in a lifetime, and we love to visit beer bars and breweries just to try new and rare beers. Also he and his best friend have a collection of over 500 bottles of (craft) beer, carefully inventoried in their “beerventory.”
As for me though, the love of God part is apt too. A Conservative Jew, Judaism has always been a large part of my identity. Growing up, I attended synagogue every Saturday because I wanted to – not only to gain guidance from the Rabbi’s sermons or to enjoy the serene satisfaction of the silent Amidah (one of my favorite prayers), but because it was the center of the social circle for my friends and I. Go on a date? Having family drama? Meet at synagogue and we can discuss it.
But going to synagogue and practicing Judaism were also integral to my identity in part because of the climate in which I grew up. I am from Riverdale, NY – home of eight or nine different synagogues and many many Jews. Nonetheless, my synagogue was swatstikaed one weekend when I was in Hebrew School. On the night before Kol Nidre (the holiest night of the year) a year or two after September 11th, our synagogue was firebombed with Molotov cocktails. We attended services while eager news crews waited outside to interview us and have gone through metal detectors and pat downs with varying regularity ever since. So my Judaism and its essentialness to my identity came in part from the fears to my safety that came with it – and the way those fears bound my group of close friends and I together to the community and to each other.
That said, it was never essential to me to date a Jewish guy. I greatly enjoyed learning about different religions and cultures and watching people experience aspects of Judaism for the first time. I always had a strong opinion about how I wanted to observe Judaism and had my own relationship with God. I knew that my kids will be Jewish, that I am Jewish, that my family is Jewish, that I will never be anything but Jewish. And honestly, I knew I needed a laid back low-maintenance sports fan kind of guy – I wasn’t sure I would necessarily find that within the Jewish community.
You can say “Oh, but traditions! But continuity! But faith!” but I have also found that Derek has been much more respectful of my faith and practice than the Jewish guys I’ve dated. One got mad at me for not answering the phone while I was at a Friday night Shabbat dinner. I got in a heated argument with another who asked, “But WHY do you believe? WHY do you have faith? Where’s the rational proof that God exists?” Both were the moments when I knew the relationships wouldn’t work out. The Beerorah was one of the first examples of Derek’s openness and respect of my faith. And when we light it together each Hanukkah (this year was its fifth iteration), it reminds me of that – that we can meld what matters to us together to create something just as wonderful (or more wonderful) than the original. I haven’t compromised anything – I’m still Jewish, and I still have my love of God and my observance. He still has his love of beer. And we both have each other.
In many religious communities, it is customary for men and women to spiritually ready themselves before they walk down the aisle. A traditional observance of Orthodox Jews is to take a bath, or immerse themselves into a sacred pool known as a mikveh. For those more familiar with Christian metaphors, it would be like getting a baptism in a pool filled with Holy Water. One of the times the ritual is preformed is before a couple becomes married. At the end of the day, it is all about becoming spiritually clean and purifying our bodies before we walk down the aisle.
I find myself spiritually readying myself without the assistance of the mikveh. I am exploring the idea of the mikveh ritual, but in the meantime, I have begun the process of spiritual readiness that may be good for people of all faiths!
We need to purify the body, and make sure we fit in those wedding clothes! That means we need to work out. I put roller derby on the shelf. It was not only hurting my body, but was beyond mentally taxing. So I hung up my skates and took down the yoga mat. I began to practice Bikram Yoga. Bikram is strict 26 posture yoga practice done for 90 minutes in 105 degree heat. I admit, I am not flexible at all, but I am finding myself being able to let go of the daily stresses and finding mental clarity. For me, it really has become a mind, body and soul cleansing process which is exactly what I had set out to do for the wedding. After one of those classes, it certainly feels like I have been immersed in water.
The next part of my spiritual readiness is coming from my mentor and my groomsman, Scott. Scott became my mentor when I was about 10 months into a mentoring program and really began to look at life from an honest perspective. Over the past 4 years or so, he has been not only a mentor but a friend and really helped develop me into the man I am today and when I met Lisa. Scott and I recently began to restart our work together. The purpose is that by the end of it all, you have re-established or deepened your relationship with G-D. This past weekend, I spent close to four hours reviewing over the phone with Scott. Although we have done this process before, I truthfully say that this an extremely powerful experience and am already experiencing changes in my life. Today, I feel spiritually lightened and on a path to repair, mend, and strengthen all my relationships in life.
There is a lot of work left to do. There is the long list of actual wedding to-do’s, but after completing this post, there is clearly spiritual work that needs to be completed as well. I am looking forward to sharing more with everyone and taking those traditions and putting our new spin on them. Time to hit the bar… the ballet bar.