We called it a marriage renewal, but to us, it was more. Mark and I had gotten married more than eighteen years ago. Since we were of two different faiths then, we met with strong resistance from our families. We had wanted a ceremony with our respective clergy. However, if a rabbi officiated, the Catholic side of the family wouldn't attend, and if a priest officiated, the Jewish side wouldn't attend. We chose to have a justice of the peace and a ceremony devoid of religion. Later, whenever I thought about our wedding day, I always felt it lacked something. I had been brought up to believe in God and that marriage was holy. I regretted that neither my husband nor I had acknowledged our beliefs.
Years later, after the birth of our daughter and my conversion to Judaism, Mark and I began to toy with the idea of having a Jewish wedding. We wanted to acknowledge our commitment not only to each other, but to Judaism, and to have God's blessing. Our rabbi suggested that our eighteenth wedding anniversary would be a great time to renew our vows. ( In Hebrew, the number 18 corresponds to the Jewish letter "Chai," which means "life.") On the date of our 18th anniversary, I was in the first year of mourning the death of my mother. I realized how quickly life goes by, how often we forget to say "I love you," and just how important it is to have a supportive partner. For these reasons, it became even more meaningful to us to renew our vows with a Jewish wedding.
We promised each other that as we planned this wedding, things would be different from the first time. There were some major differences, but also several similarities. Whenever I asked about colors, food, cakes, etc., I received the reply "Whatever would make you happy." I would joke that this second husband of mine was so much like my first! However, unlike the first time, I pushed my husband to get him to share with me what he would like at 'OUR' wedding. When pushed enough, he shared his feelings. He would like new wedding bands--this time rings with the Hebrew inscription "I am my beloved's." Mark also wanted us to have a ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract, and to write vows to each other.
We searched the Internet for a ketubah design that would have significance for us and found one with examples on how to personalize it. We wanted to acknowledge that we were joined in marriage eighteen years ago and that our life together is an adventure, that our home is committed to Judaism, family and friends, hope and peace.
As with our first wedding, we had anxieties about how family would respond. Since this was to be a Jewish wedding, there were no comments from Mark's side of the family. But I agonized over which relatives to invite from my side. In the year following my mother's death, my younger brother and sister and I had become very close--and I definitely wanted to invite them. They loved the idea of a party and a wedding and said yes immediately. My older siblings, however, were a different story. The pain from the arguments at my mother's funeral about Judaism vs. Catholicism was still fresh, and I didn't want this to be another occasion where religion would be debated. Sadly, I decided not to include them.
My father, however, was a different matter. He didn't understand my conversion to Judaism, and at our first wedding he had been very outspoken about wanting a priest. I thought and prayed over this dilemma. However, he is still my father, and with some trepidation I called to tell him about the wedding renewal. He couldn't understand and thought this Jewish ceremony was all my husband's idea. I assured him that it was more me than Mark. He then stated that he wasn't sure he could attend. I told him that he was wanted and loved, but that if he felt unable to attend, I would understand.
Dad did not attend the wedding or the party afterwards. While nineteen years ago I would have felt personally rejected if my father chose not to attend, today I understand that he is just following his personal beliefs. As I followed mine.
I spoke with my rabbi about ways to increase the spirituality of this day. Some suggestions, like a visit to the mikvah, or ritual bath, didn't feel right. However, other suggestions appealed to me. One was that I could make a chuppah, or traditional wedding canopy that Mark and I would take our vows under. This proved to be a wonderful suggestion. With the help of friends and family, I made a chuppah showing Jewish holidays, symbols and traditions, lovingly working it in crewel embroidery. As I stitched on it, I fantasized about my daughter someday standing under the very same chuppah with her husband-to-be. However, my daughter has clearly stated that she would like to make her own chuppah someday!
Knowing that we would want to have family participate in our wedding, the rabbi made suggestions that would be appropriate for our Jewish and non-Jewish family members: my younger brother and sister could read a poem, hold the chuppah, or read a speech that they had written. Enabling them to participate would show how special they are to us.
Our rabbi also suggested that our daughter make a speech, and this become an extraordinary part of our ceremony. Our shy 11-year-old daughter Erica stood on the bimah, or podium, and told us how much she loved and admired us, how happy she was that she was a Jew, and acknowledged that her being Jewish wasn't such an easy decision for a Jewish dad and Catholic mom. She also spoke about how proud she was of me for choosing to become a Jew. Erica ended her speech with her wishes for us: That our lives be like a fairy tale and that we live happily ever after!
Mark and I ended the ceremony with each of us breaking wine glasses--symbolizing the equality in our relationship, our remembrance of the destruction of the Temple, and the fragility of life and love.
We called it a marriage renewal, but it was so much more: A rededication of our love, a pledge to continue our Jewish life together, and a celebration of life!
L'Chaim! To life!
Paula C. Yablonsky serves as co-chairwoman of Congregation Gates of Heaven's Outreach Committee in Schenectady, NY. She is currently chairwoman of the Northeast Regional Outreach Committee for the Reform movement. A Meal Site Manager at her local Jewish Community Center, she plans meals and programs for senior citizens. She and her husband Mark Gibbons have a twelve-year-old daughter Erica.