Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, a resident scholar at Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, is author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children and Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family.
Marrying Off a Daughter as a Values Clarification Exercise
Marrying off a daughter is a values clarification exercise. While the wedding ceremony ostensibly serves to connect two individuals legally, it is also binds two families in a lifelong relationship. These families will share some of the most emotionally important aspects of life--their children's happiness and their grandchildren's milestones. In our culture, the bride and groom make the decision to marry, but the whole family will feel the results of that decision. The wedding is not only the official beginning of shared lives, but it can also be an opportunity to create good will on which to build the future.
My daughter had chosen a wonderful man. He is everything I had hoped she would find. He is kind, caring, smart, well educated, handsome, and from a nice family. In short, he fulfilled all my dreams for her. However, he is from a different culture and a different religion. I think his family felt the same way--a nice girl, but from a different religion and culture. I chose to view the wedding and its preparations as a chance to build bonds with him and his family. I had learned from serving in a state legislature and from planning four b'nai mitzvoth (ceremonies in which someone assumes the privileges and obligations of an adult Jew) that all decisions have both rational and political components. Whether one is deciding where to put a road, whom to tax or what color the napkins should be, money, facts and power are all part of the decision. Every decision is about who is in charge and who has the power and influence to make that decision. The color of the napkins and the type of food served are thus not trivial matters, but opportunities to negotiate.
In the case of the weddings the question is, "Whose wedding is it anyway?" My own belief is that it is both the couple's and the parents'. The couple is celebrating their union and their love; the parents are celebrating a job well done, the passage of time, and the building of new bonds. My goal for my daughter's wedding was to establish some connection with the other family and for them to feel comfortable in our midst. With this in mind, I sat with my husband and listed the most important aspects of the wedding for us. After much thought I realized that I wanted my relatives and those of my son-in-law-to-be to begin to know each other as individuals, not as members of a strange tribe. I wanted my friends, too, to know this wonderful person who would soon be my son-in-law. I wanted them to understand and support me as I struggled with both the tremendous joy and deep disappointment involved in their union.
Of course, space and monetary constraints made it difficult to fulfill this ideal. I have been blessed with many close wonderful friends and a large extended family. Thus, I decided creativity was in order. I would invite the extended family and close friends to an engagement brunch the first time the machatunim (my daughter's in-laws) came to town. This resulted in an unexpected benefit. By the time the wedding occurred several months later, my machatunm had already met and begun a relationship with our family. We did not enter the wedding ceremony as total strangers.
My daughter and her fiancee made it clear that the ceremony was theirs to plan. They would have to deal with two different backgrounds for the rest of their lives. They needed to figure out what parts of their own traditions were important to them. After discussions, however, we agreed that the music and the food might be a good way to blend cultures. We thus decided on Jewish hors d'oeuvres, an Iranian main course, and an American wedding cake. The couple found an Iranian caterer familiar with Jewish dietary laws. I made an appointment to see her when both my daughter and my daughter's future mother-in-law were in town. I asked my machateainister (daughter's mother-in-law) to select the food but instructed her not to mix milk and meat. This gave us a wonderful chance to talk about our different religious practices. The three of us had lunch after the selection process, which allowed us to chit chat and build future connections. We talked of flowers, wedding gowns, and the wedding customs of both cultures.
The children decided to hire a klezmer band, but supplied them with some Iranian music, too. We were not merely celebrating our new family diversity; we were blending the best of both cultures.
The wedding went smoothly. The couple asked their siblings to hold the chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy) which was held over an Iranian sofrey (a floor which serves a similar purpose as the chuppah). The ceremony was secular but used symbols from both traditions.
For Jewish parents, after a circumcision is done, the mohel (ritual circumcizer) says (either alone or in conjunction with all present): "As he has entered into the covenant, so may he enter the blessings of torah, the wedding canopy, and a life of good deeds." Every Jewish parent wishes that for their sons and daughters. Yes, I was disappointed that my prayers of standing under the chuppah (symbolic of a Jewish marriage ) with my child were not fulfilled, but I also felt that doing so would have been difficult for my son-in-law's parents. I chose instead to focus on the fact that our other children and the groom's siblings were holding the chuppah and that these siblings would be supporting each other for far longer than we will be alive. I also chose to marvel at their clever and sensitive solution to their bi-cultural problem.
Two days after the wedding we invited our new machatunim to join us for lunch at a local restaurant to re-live the joys of the wedding day. My daughter's new father-in-law began by saying how relieved he was. We expressed the same emotion and all shared that what we had feared the most was an awkward ceremony. We agreed that the children had shown sensitivity to us all by choosing the culturally, but not religiously, significant portions of their pasts. Thus began an honest relationship which has been enriched by many shared events and two wonderful grandchildren. Our children continue to be both respectful and sensitive in honoring many holidays and ancient traditions.