How a Slightly Disorganized and Overwhelmed Interfaith Couple Organized a Jewish Wedding Ceremony

  

I tried incredibly hard to make the wedding planning process as organized as I could. I had spreadsheets upon spreadsheets of guest lists and vendors that I shared with my fiancé, Andy. I had folders with links saved and an extensive private Pinterest board of DIY wedding planning ideas that required far more creativity than anything I would ever be capable of and which, closer to the main event, I had completely forgotten about.

As our wedding date loomed ever closer, as our work lives became more hectic, and as we closed on our first home two weeks prior to the wedding, I realized that we were still missing vital last minute details and items.

It was two weeks before the wedding and I had forgotten to buy my shoes, to create the wedding programs, to give the music requests for the ceremony and reception to the DJ, and to top it off, the kiddush cup we had ordered still hadn’t arrived.

Oops.

But somehow, despite a few last-minute glitches, it all came together to be one of the most unforgettable, special, and happiest day of our lives.

As mentioned in my first InterfaithFamily blog post, we started our wedding planning journey with the book A New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant. Together, we carefully selected Jewish wedding traditions that were meaningful to us:

TenaimTenaim is the pre-wedding ceremony where the families of the bride and groom decide on the financial and logistical arrangements of the marriage. Our rabbi drew up a progressive tenaim document which we and our ketubah witnesses, our two sisters, signed. The document stipulated that we would bring a physical reminder of our love and our spiritual gifts for one another (in lieu of a traditional object of value/dowry) which in our case, was a kiddush cup from our wine fountain set. We had originally ordered a new kiddush cup but soon realized it was not going to arrive in time so we ended up using the cup that we regularly use for Shabbat.

Tenaim includes the pre-wedding tradition of the mother-in-laws breaking a plate together. Two nights prior to the wedding, Andy and I trudged to Pier One to buy the cheapest, most breakable looking plate we could find. The rabbi had warned us to break the plate beforehand and glue it back together but we figured the plate would break easily. Lo and behold, as our mothers, the rabbi and then Andy desperately tried to break the plate in various ways, it was clear that we should have followed instructions. No matter what we did, the plate would not break. I will never underestimate the strength of Pier One plates ever again. We all laughed, the rabbi called it a “symbolic breaking” of the plate and we agreed that our mothers would break it at our house warming in two months.

KetubahA ketubah is the Jewish wedding contract which conveyed our commitment to each other and to building a loving and supportive home together. It requires the signature of the bride and groom, the officiant and witnesses. We each have one sister and while traditionally, witnesses should not be related to the bride and groom, we decided that we truly wanted to honor them in this way. We had purchased the ketubah off of Ketubah.com and made some adjustments to the Hebrew spelling thanks in part to a rabbi friend’s review of the text. The ketubah.com team was more than willing to correct the text. It was a great experience and I highly recommend them. Our ketubah is beautiful and we look forward to putting it up in our new home.

ChuppahA chuppah is the wedding canopy which represents the home that the couple will create together that will be open to family and friends. To create ours, we purchased four 7-foot birch poles off of Amazon for around 60 dollars and large eye hooks for 10 dollars. Andy drilled a hole at the top of the birch poles and screwed in the eye hooks. Our rabbi brought in his large tallit, tied the corner fringes to the hooks at the top and voila! A chuppah was constructed cheaply and easily. We had also wanted to include and honor our friends and family and had decided to have chuppah bearers. Our chuppah was held up by my best friend, my sister, Andy’s brother-in-law and one of his best friends.

One of the most special moments for me was when my parents walked me to the chuppah. It was great being able to have that time with them before the ceremony.

Circling: Circling is the tradition where the bride circles the groom seven times (or the partners both circle each other). Seven is an auspicious number in Judaism and circling seven times can represent the seven days of creation, the seven blessings and other instances where something happens seven times in the Torah/Talmud. However, for us, the circling meant that we would make each other central to each other’s lives. We decided to keep it equal and circled each other three times.

Birkat ErusinThe Birkat Erusin is the betrothal blessing recited by the rabbi over a kiddush cup of wine. We then drank from the same kiddush cup that we had used in our tenaim ceremony to symbolize our commitment to sharing our lives with each other.

Ring Exchange: Traditionally, the ring ceremony in a Jewish wedding is where the groom gives the bride a ring, constituting the act of gifting an artifact of value to the bride and therefore making the marriage official. However, we decided to do a double ring ceremony where we used my maternal grandmother’s ring for my wedding band and Andy had his paternal grandfather’s ring for his. Neither of us have any living grandparents left so it felt like they were able to participate in our celebration in a way, making it even more special for us.

Sheva BrachotThe Sheva Brachot are the seven blessings which are recited for the bride and groom. Our rabbi read them in both Hebrew and English. We had no strong feelings about the Sheva Brachot and allowed the rabbi to select the wording.

Breaking the Glass: Breaking the glass marks the conclusion of the ceremony and has many interpretations but the ones we chose to add into our wedding programs were that it’s a reminder that there is still suffering in the world and that it represents the breaking of barriers between people of different cultures and faiths. After being regaled with stories of over-confident grooms going to the ER after stomping on the glass, I made sure to put the glass into a plastic bag and cover it with multiple cloth napkins prior to the wedding. I was relieved that Andy was able to break the glass without any issues but I’m also pretty sure our wedding pictures captured my anxiety-filled expression. We kept the broken glass and are now trying to decide what to do with it.

YichudAfter Andy broke the glass, and everyone yelled “Mazel tov” and we shared our first kiss as husband and wife, we then left for yichud, a time of seclusion for the bride and groom at the end of the marriage ceremony. We escaped to the bridal suite where we had water, Coca Cola and appetizers waiting for us. We also had a chance to practice our wedding dance one last time. It was an ultimate must-have for us and we are both glad we had those moments to be alone and decompress before heading out to our guests again.

Our wedding ceremony was perfect for us and set the tone for not only the rest of the wedding but for the rest of our lives. It opened our hearts in a way we could never have imagined. It was a celebration of love, of unity and of starting our marriage with our nearest and dearest close by.

Most of all, it was a celebration of us.

Now a week after the wedding, we’re excited to have started our marriage adventure and have mostly stopped accidentally referring to each other as ‘fiancé.’

Chuppah: Your First “Home”

  

By Maria Bywater

Chuppah - the first "home" for the engaged couple

I grew up in a large, close Catholic family, so when I got married in a Jewish wedding ceremony, finding meaningful roles for everyone in my family proved challenging. I had converted to Judaism, and the rabbi required that the roles linked to Jewish ritual—–signing the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) and reciting the Seven Blessings, for example—be filled by people who were Jewish. Eventually, I figured it out: I asked my two sisters and two of my brothers to hold the poles of the chuppah, the wedding canopy under which the ceremony took place (you’ll also see it spelled “huppah” and “huppa”).

Looking back, what I remember most about the ceremony was how comfortable I was standing there, in that space under the chuppah, surrounded by so many people who represented important parts of my life. I didn’t feel nervous. I felt supported. I felt at home because the chuppah is symbolic of the marrying couples’ home—both their physical home and the spiritual home they’ll build together. And today, as a chuppah designer and founder of Huppahs.com, I specialize in hand-held chuppahs.

The chuppah is a deeply traditional element of the Jewish wedding ceremony, but also one with a great deal of flexibility as far as what style you use, which makes it a great opportunity to make the ceremony your own, whether you use a hand-held or free-standing version, want something large or small, formal or casual, traditional or modern, or simply or elaborately decorated.

If you didn’t grow up hearing a lot of Hebrew, like me, the only really intimidating thing about using a chuppah might be the moment you first try to pronounce the word out loud in front of someone. It has that back of the throat “h” sound at the beginning. It’s the same sound as at the beginning of the word “Chanukkah.” People pronounce Chanukkah all kinds of different ways, so however you pronounce the first sound in the word “Chanukkah” is a good way to pronounce the first sound in the word “chuppah.”

And really, once you’re past the pronunciation, it’s on to the fun stuff.

Handheld or freestanding?

Chuppah freestandingThere are two basic styles of chuppah: handheld—the kind I used—and freestanding. Both kinds have a canopy held up by four poles. The difference is that a freestanding chuppah will have more structure so that it stands on its own.

Traditionally, the chuppah is open on all four sides, in a nod to the first Jewish couple, the Torah’s Abraham and Sarah, who traditionally kept the four sides of their tent open to welcome guests.

Hand-held chuppahs hark back to when the custom of using a chuppah first arose in Europe in the Middle Ages. Young boys would escort the bride from her home to the ceremony location, holding the canopy over her head like royalty on procession through the city. There’s even an official name for the chuppah bearers: unterferers, which means “supporters.”

To use a hand-held chuppah for your ceremony, you can have the chuppah bearers lead the procession or enter from the side of the ceremony space just before the procession begins. Aside from the links to tradition and community, a hand-held chuppah works great when your ceremony space doubles as your reception venue and you need to move the chuppah out of the way quickly.

For a chuppah that is set in place when the guests arrive, choose a freestanding chuppah, with bases to hold the bottom of the poles or a frame with supports connecting the poles at their tops. Using a frame is pretty much a must if you want a large chuppah, if the canopy is heavy or if you want to add drapery or a lot of decoration.

What size?

You’ll want enough square footage under the canopy for the couple, the officiant and a small table for the wine and other ritual items. It can be as small as 60 inches by 60 inches. Generally, poles that are seven to eight feet tall work well for small to medium sized canopies, although you’ll also find taller versions for a dramatic look.

Where to Get a Chuppah

Some synagogues, wedding venues, florists, and event rental companies have a chuppah to borrow or rent. If you’re interested in this option, be sure to check the condition of the chuppah early in your wedding planning process. Ask the chuppah provider if they set up and take down the chuppah and if there are extra fees for delivery and set up.

You can also buy or rent a chuppah or chuppah kit online. You’ll find both commercial and artisanal versions. If you want a custom design, look for an artist on Etsy or other sites selling handmade items. My company, huppahs.com, rents different styles of chuppahs as well as canopies and poles if you only need one or the other.

For the canopy, you can use a tallit or tablecloth that you have on hand, especially if it has special meaning to you. Just make sure the fabric is in good shape and will hold up to being secured to the poles.

Another great option is to make the chuppah yourself or have someone make it for you. You can choose the form and materials that work best for the wedding you want to create, and you can let your style shine.

If you’re looking for a wedding role for someone who is not familiar with the Jewish wedding ceremony, asking them to help create your chuppah can be a great way to include them. Depending on the chuppah you envision, there can be roles for sewists, fabric painters, embroiderers, weavers and other textile artists as well as folks with light construction skills.

DIY Advice

My book, Sew Jewish, includes instructions for making a chuppah canopy and poles, but here are some guidelines to keep in mind if you’re designing your own.

For the canopy, choose fabric that is lightweight, doesn’t stretch, and looks good from both sides. A canopy made heavy by the fabric or extensive needlework can make holding the poles or attaching the canopy securely to the frame difficult. If the canopy is lightweight and not too large, add some combination of loops, reinforced holes or ties to enable you to attach the corners to the supporting poles or frame. If the canopy is large or heavy, make sleeves on the edges of the canopy to fit into supports running across the top of the chuppah frame.

Hand-held chuppah

Popular materials for the structure are wood, dowels and tree branches, especially birch branches. PVC piping is also a popular choice for frames when you plan to cover the pipes with drapery.

If different people will be providing your canopy and poles or frame, make sure you know how they’ll fit together before anyone gets to work. Ideally, put the whole chuppah together for a trial run well before your wedding day so that you can make adjustments if you need to.

Whatever style of wedding you choose, with all the chuppah options available to you, you’re sure to find one that feels like home.

Maria Bywater is the founder of Huppahs.com, the leading national wedding chuppah rental company and author of the book Sew Jewish: The 18 Projects You Need for Jewish Holidays, Weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebrations, and Home. She lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson River Valley amid her large, close family.