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A Jewish Aunt at a Catholic Wedding

January 2, 2009

My nephew got married this past summer. It was a perfect day for a wedding, bright and sunny. The bride looked beautiful and the groom was resplendent in white tails. The wedding had been planned for so long that it was hard to believe it was really taking place. This was to be the storybook wedding the couple wanted and it certainly seemed that way. One small detail was strange for me, however: it was Shabbat and I was in a church. How did I, a practicing Conservative Jew end up in church on Shabbat? It's a story that developed over the course of a year's time and included a lot of soul searching and some tough conversations.

wedding stock imageThe father of the groom, my brother, is Jewish; his family was raised Catholic. This was the first family wedding that took place in a church. My older nephew got married on a Saturday night at the beach in Florida, by a non-denominational minister. That was easy! When I first found out that this nephew was getting married in church on a Saturday afternoon, my gut reaction was that I could not possibly attend. I simply could not picture myself at a church service on Shabbat. However, I could not picture myself missing my beloved nephew's wedding either. He's the same age as my son and they grew up together. How could I not be there for the happiest day in his life?

I don't think anybody else in the family really understood this as a dilemma. I am the only one of my siblings that belongs to a synagogue, attends services and keeps a kosher home. Although there have been scattered flare-ups over religious differences through the years, they were relatively minor. We never talked too much about our differences and always tried to make things work. I made a decision a long time ago to make certain exceptions to my Shabbat observance in order to be part of my brother's family. If there was a significant family event on a Saturday (birthday or graduation), I would travel there after going to synagogue earlier in the day. This was not ideal, but the alternative was to see the family infrequently and not share in any of their celebrations. That was not a viable option for me.

The wedding somehow seemed different, like more of a conflict. The idea of going to another religious service of any kind on the Jewish sabbath seemed inappropriate. I certainly have no problem going to a church on any other day, and have participated in interfaith services in my community, as well as other religious services. It seemed wrong to do that on Shabbat, the one day that should be devoted totally to Jewish spirituality and worship. I could not decide the correct course of action, so I embarked on a journey of seeking advice from others as well as exploring my own beliefs. Over the course of a year, I got advice from three different rabbis and from people on the discussion boards. The rabbis were all in agreement, their advice being to go to the wedding, while at the same time keeping my observance of Shabbat as I usually would.

In the end, I found a synagogue located right near the church. My husband, daughter and I stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast right down the street from both. We arrived on Friday afternoon with all our food and supplies for Shabbat dinner that evening. In what ended up being a rather comical series of events, we went to shul on Shabbat morning, followed by church in the afternoon. The wedding was lovely and I don't regret having attended. I wish I could say that I rose to the occasion and felt totally comfortable in the church, but I did not. However, it was not for the reason I anticipated. The problem was not the church, or the wedding, or anything else related to that day. It was something else entirely.

During the course of the year prior to the wedding, I came to understand the depth of my feeling of loss about my family's Jewish identity. A branch of our family tree is no longer Jewish. The branch is growing and producing new families. That in itself is wonderful, but the leaves of our precious heritage will not grow on those branches, and our language, culture and traditions will wither away. It is astounding how fast what was probably thousands of years of Jewish life could disappear. It is simply gone in one short generation, the cosmic equivalent of the blink of an eye. That hurts deeply and because of it a little piece of my heart will always be in mourning, no matter how happy an occasion may be.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Yiddish for "synagogue."
Ilisia Kissner

Ilisia Kissner is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. She has worked in Jewish education for the last 26 years, as both a teacher and religious school director. She is passionate about Jewish families in all their permutations.

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