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Embracing Espaņol in Interfaith and Jewish Weddings

November 25, 2013

Wedding in Bolivia
Rabbi Gruber officiates the wedding of Ana Paula and Juan Carlos in Santa Cruz, Bolivia
In my final year of rabbinic training, I participated in a program that trained rabbis for—and placed them in—far flung communities. My choices were Wellington, New Zealand, or someplace in Latin America. I chose the former, saying to myself, "Hey, they speak English. How different can it be?" (Answer: Very.) On the latter: "Going to Latin America would mean I would have to learn Spanish. When on earth will I ever need that again?" Smash cut to seven short years later, and where do I move to? That's right, Texas. (How DO you say, "Poor judgment," in Español?)

Now, you might be saying to yourself, "What's he crying about? He's a rabbi! When does HE ever need Spanish?" Well, think again. When you marry about 50 interfaith couples a year, the answer is, "More often than you think!" About a quarter of the U.S. population below age 17 is Hispanic, and 58 percent of Jews marry outside the faith. Do the math, and you will understand how many Hispanic Jewish weddings we should expect in the next few years.

My anecdotal evidence fits these statistics. There are more and more couples that want some Spanish in their ceremonies. Usually, the side that is not Jewish is the Hispanic one, but sometimes it is the Jewish side. Beyond that, as the world becomes smaller and flatter, there are interfaith couples in Latin America who choose an American rabbi to officiate their weddings, but still want the ceremony to be officiated entirely in Spanish.

The first time I included Spanish in a wedding ceremony, I started with just the Priestly Blessing. I had a friend teach me how to read it. At the time I really thought I would not go beyond that. That whet my appetite, though, and I decided to take a course or two in Spanish at our local community college to incorporate more of the language into ceremonies.

The "secret" I discovered regarding Spanish is that Spanish is one of the easiest languages to learn to read. English, which is really a hodge podge of different languages, has many different exceptions, and spelling and pronunciation sometimes bear little relation to each other. Spanish, however, much like Hebrew, has a pretty consistent set of consonants and vowels. Once you learn how pronounce each, you can read pretty much anything. Beyond that, the rules of very basic Spanish grammar are, once again, much easier to grasp than those of English. One more thing that helps English speakers is that the number of cognates (identical or similar words) shared by English and Spanish is great.

Wedding in Chile
Rabbi Gruber blesses Florencia and Gustavo during their ceremony in Santiago, Chilé

Once I took two Spanish courses I was able to mix more Spanish into ceremonies. If a couple was willing to translate something, I was willing to master saying it at their wedding. Then, in December 2012 in Santiago, Chilé, and once again in August 2013 in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, I successfully officiated two ceremonies entirely in Spanish. Each time I practiced what I was going to say, so I could say it fluently, and both ceremonies went quite smoothly. In fact, both times, during the reception, people came up to me and attempted to speak to me in Spanish!

The funny thing about going outside our comfort zone and learning how to operate in Spanish is that in a way, it is like coming home. Spain was home to one of the greatest Jewish communities ever, for hundreds of years, prior to their expulsion/forced conversion by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. The Jews who left Spain took with them a Spanish dialect written in Hebrew characters called Ladino, a language some use to this very day in prayer and speech. Some ended up in the New World, and in the nascent United States these Sephardic (Spain in Hebrew is Sefarad) Jews were more numerous than their Ashkenzic (Northern/Central European) brethren.

At the same time, many conversos (forced converts, who sometimes remained secretly Jewish), made their way to the Americas too, in attempt to escape the Inquistion. As its long arm reached across the Atlantic, many of them moved north to the outer reaches of Spanish territory, as far north as today's American Southwest, only to vanish into the local Hispanic populations.

In these senses, officiating a wedding with some Spanish in it, or even entirely in Spanish, is nothing new, and certainly not alien. The past is once again present. It is indeed just coming home.

Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
A language, also known as Judaeo-Spanish or Judezmo, once widely used by Sephardic communities, but now close to extinction. It is influenced by Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and Turkish. It is comparable to the language of many Ashkenazi communities, Yiddish. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Rabbi David S. Gruber

Rabbi David S. Gruber is a native of Evanston, Ill., who grew up in Israel. He is an eighth generation rabbi, ordained by the Chief Rabbis of Israel, and served in educational and religious leadership positions on three continents. Though he used to be Orthodox, he now sees himself as a Jewish secular humanist. As such he deeply believes in helping every couple make the most out of the most wonderful day of their lives. To learn more about his work with couples, please visit www.interfaithweddingrabbi.net.

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