Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.
Our "Jewish-ish" Wedding
Unless you're one of those couples that elopes to Vegas, chances are, planning your wedding won't be easy. In our case, we made things more difficult by having an interfaith wedding. We took on the task of trying to appease my Protestant family and Bonnie's Jewish family, while also remembering to take care of our own needs in the process. In interfaith weddings, families don't just battle over seating arrangements, they are often torn apart by the issues of marrying outside the religion.
Looking back, the first issue we ran into was trying not to offend any member of either family. My parents had their own visions of how a proper wedding should be. These were probably ideas that had been cooking in their heads for years. Basically, Protestant weddings are plain and simple. There is no "Protestant Culture" that is an integral part of the ceremony or reception (unless you count the garter toss--I don't know who thought that one up). But all in all, you walk down the aisle, a minister marries the bride and groom, maybe a song or poem is recited, you walk back up the aisle, and then there is a party afterward.
In the Jewish wedding, however, there are countless elements of Jewish traditions, many of which Bonnie's parents considered important. For instance, you've got the chuppa, or wedding canopy, under which the couple are married, the breaking of the glass by the groom for good luck, the blessing over the wine, the blessing over the challah, dancing the hora, etc. Bonnie and I had the task of somehow trying to make sure nobody felt uncomfortable on our special day.
Woah. Stop right there. Did you see what I just wrote? "Our special day." Somewhere along the way, we remembered that it was important for us to make sure our day went the way we wanted it to go. Don't get me wrong. Our parents were very cooperative and had our best interests at heart. But we were the only two people who could plan our wedding the way we wanted it to go.
Okay, what exactly did we want? As we were new at planning weddings, we weren't sure what we did want. We started by making a list of all the things that were important to us. Bonnie had been to many of her cousins' Jewish weddings and was accustomed to seeing the traditional Jewish elements that I mentioned earlier. She had always felt that these features would be there when she, herself, became a bride. I, because I'm a typical guy, never really thought much about weddings. I hadn't even been to that many and didn't know of any burning cultural items that I just had to have. Although I'm of Scottish descent, I felt that kilts would be a little too much. So you can pretty much guess how I felt about the flower arrangements and dessert menus.
Between the two of us, however, there was one thing for which we both had strong feelings. We both wanted to have God as part of our ceremony. After all, God is a big part of our lives. So would we have a minister marry us? What about a rabbi? Wait, that wouldn't be fair to one of us. How about a co-officiated wedding? I think the word "officiated" is very appropriate. With all the negotiating we were doing, I expected a guy in a black and white striped-shirt and yellow flag to marry us. It would be hard to find two clergy who would agree to jointly conduct a wedding service. There aren't many out there who see co-officiating as proper. Although we felt that we could eventually find the right two people, we decided that this approach, although fair, didn't make us comfortable. With the ceremony divided into a Jewish part and a Christian part, we just couldn't envision there being any flow to the service. It may work for some couples, but it was not our style.
On the other hand, Bonnie said that having a minister perform the ritual would make her feel like we were having a Protestant wedding. Likewise, a rabbi would give the service an overly Jewish tone for me. Although we decided that we would raise our children Jewish, it was still not possible for us to have a true Jewish wedding. For this, you need both the bride and groom to be Jewish. One out of two doesn't cut it. Then there was the issue of where to hold the wedding. For the same reasons, we didn't feel it would be fair to one of us if the ceremony were held in a church or temple.
Wow! We could see why everyone told us that interfaith marriages were difficult. Sometimes it crossed our minds that we had to be crazy to even attempt such a feat, but our love for each other kept us determined. Then one day, we found the perfect solution. A friend of Bonnie's mom, named Sheila, was a justice of the peace who performed civil ceremonies. She also happened to be a cantor. She specialized in officiating weddings between interfaith couples and happily agreed to involve God. As a bonus, we found someone to perform the songs in our wedding.
Sheila suggested a nice hotel as a warm and friendly neutral location to hold the service. This worked out extremely well for the reception, too. We were even able to incorporate some Jewish elements, such as the chuppa, or wedding canopy, and the breaking of the glass. We even danced to a traditional Jewish tune called the fralich. I was worried that my Protestant friends and family would be lost. But to my surprise, this dance really energized the crowd and set a festive tone for the rest of the afternoon. Because these were mostly cultural details, my family did not feel threatened. As important as it was that Bonnie and I plan the wedding for our tastes, we also felt that it was a family affair and that everyone should be made to feel welcome, if possible. Luckily, my family said it was the greatest wedding they'd ever been to. "No more boring Protestant weddings!" my mom declared. I think they really enjoyed the change of pace.
Having figured out the How and the Where, we were suddenly faced with the question of Who would show up. My wife comes from a Conservative Jewish family. However, many of her relatives were Orthodox and did not approve of our marriage. We had just found out that her great uncle politely declined our invitation. At first, I was upset--no, angry. I thought it was insulting. However, after having thought about it for a few days, I came to understand his position. Her great uncle was deeply rooted in his faith, which told him that intermarriage was not appropriate. Although we'd miss him, I now had a sudden respect for the man who stood for what he thought was right.
Fortunately, my family had no problems with our interfaith marriage. They had gotten to know Bonnie over the previous five years and had developed a loving relationship with her. I know this doesn't always happen, so I thanked my lucky stars. My parents did have concerns, though. While we were dating, my mom and dad warned me that we would be facing some very difficult issues in the future. They weren't kidding!
Just when we thought everything was going to work out fine, we had the biggest problem yet. Bonnie's grandmother was undecided as to whether or not she would come. To Bonnie, a wedding without her Bubba--grandmother--would be like apples without honey on Rosh Hashanah, only on a much larger scale. Ever since my wife had broken the news to her grandmother that we were getting married, Bubba said that she wished her well, but was not sure she would come to the wedding.
Thanks to some heart-to-heart talks with Bonnie's stepmom, Bubba decided that what was most important was her granddaughter's happiness. She came to the wedding. She even danced with me that wonderful summer afternoon. And while the Bo Winnaker Band played Benny Goodman's "Memories of You," I'll never forget what she said to me. "Jim, you're my grandson now."