A Place for Us

By Karen Engels


Like Tony and Maria of West Side Story, Reinhard and I met on the West Side of Manhattan. I was finishing my undergraduate program at Columbia, and he was returning home to the Upper West Side after graduating from the University of Wisconsin. We met through mutual friends, and took a casual liking to one another. The last thing on either of our minds was marriage.

At the time, I felt very conflicted about my Jewish identity. Growing up, I had very strong roots in the Reform Jewish community. My father was a congregational rabbi in our hometown, and in my teenage years I was extremely active in the New England Federation of Temple Youth. I was eager to come to New York, where there would be a vibrant Jewish community. But the largely Orthodox Jewish community I found at Columbia was disdainful of my Reform background and my progressive politics. I tried to carve a niche for myself by becoming a writer and eventually the editor of the Jewish Student Union’s magazine, Perspectives, but my own perspectives continued to alienate me from my fellow Jews on campus.

And so, when I met Reinhard, a first generation German American, I was much more interested in his compassionate nature than his religious identification. Within a year, our relationship had become quite serious, and after two years, we decided to move in together. Reinhard always understood how important Judaism is to me, and he demonstrated his support actively: accompanying me to synagogue, cooking latkes (potato pancakes) for our annual Hanukkah parties, and even relinquishing his beloved pork-heavy cuisine so that our home could be without traif (unkosher meats, including pork and shellfish). While we celebrated Christmas and Easter with his family, we did not celebrate these holidays in our home. He also knew that it would be essential for me to raise children within the Jewish tradition. And I knew that for Reinhard, conversion to Judaism would not feel genuine. He could support my identification, but not renounce his own.

For several years our relationship continued to grow, and we encountered relatively little conflict over the issues pertaining to our background. Of course, there were members of both families who expressed concern, but we were fortunate to have a surprising degree of support and acceptance from those close to us. And yet, as the inevitable question of marriage began to emerge, I became increasingly anxious about how we would handle a wedding. As we began to attend the Jewish weddings of friends, and joined in the ancient traditions which surround marriage, I started to experience a sense of grief that we would not be able to be fully united on the day which sanctifies the very act of uniting.

A few months into our engagement, we attended a weekend workshop for interfaith couples sponsored by the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism). The workshop brought the complexity of the issues we were grappling with right to the surface.

Reinhard realized during the weekend that he was afraid of losing his own connections to his faith by becoming, in effect, a “pretend Jew,” a member of a Jewish family without any outlet for his own religious feeling or exploration. We also realized that I had been allowing history to justify my own personal needs: the fact of Reinhard’s German ancestry had become an unspoken carte blanche for me to claim the necessity of preserving Jewish tradition within our personal relationship. And though I could see this as unfair, I couldn’t let it go.

I had grown up with the phrase “giving Hitler a posthumous victory.” What better way to give Hitler a posthumous victory than for the daughter of a rabbi to lose her Jewish identity through marriage to a German American. Though the weekend posed painful challenges, we remained committed to working through them.

With a clearer sense of the long-term issues to contend with, the immediate question remained: how should we structure our wedding? First, we needed to decide on an officiant. My father does not perform mixed marriages, and I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of a non-Jewish officiant. Reinhard agreed to have a rabbi perform the ceremony. We asked a colleague of my father’s to officiate, and he helped us proceed with the creation of a service that would provide me with a sense of connection to Jewish tradition while enabling Reinhard’s faith to be simultaneously present.

We decided to include the primary elements of the Jewish wedding ceremony, including the signing of a ketubah (marriage contract), the chuppah (wedding canopy), some of the brachot (wedding blessings), and the sh’virat ha’cos (breaking of the glass). We also observed the primary rules of Jewish weddings. Because in Jewish tradition weddings do not occur on Shabbat (Saturday), we chose a Sunday morning instead. For the reception, we served chicken and vegetarian foods, forgoing traif (non-kosher) choices like shrimp and pork. On the Friday night before our wedding, we went to services at my father’s synagogue and received the traditional priestly benediction for a bride and groom.

While the wedding remained faithful to Jewish tradition in many ways, and reflected our decision to create a Jewish household, we also took care to ensure that the ceremony was fully inclusive of Reinhard’s Christian faith. The text of our ketubah was explicitly interfaith, and emphasized the bonds of love underlying our marriage rather than specific commitments to the Jewish community. For our wedding music, we decided against inaccessible Hebrew ballads and potentially inflammatory Wagner, and settled on Pachbel and Mendelsohn. We included a New Testament reading from I Corinthians, as well as a Hebrew Bible reading from the Song of Songs. Our chuppah bearers and ketubah witnesses were both Jewish and non-Jewish. While some of the non-Jewish members of the wedding party decided to wear kippot (prayer caps), Reinhard decided against it.

Despite my fears that the wedding would feel like a paltry imitation of a “real” Jewish wedding, the ceremony was in fact a rich reflection of our relationship. The result was an incredibly happy occasion for the two of us, as well as our friends and family. During the reception, we were paraded in chairs as the band played Hava Nagilah and Haveinu Shalom Aleichem (traditional Jewish wedding songs), and for our first dance, we chose–what else? Tony and Maria’s love song: “There’s a place for us…somewhere a place for us!”


About Karen Engels

Karen Engels is a sixth grade teacher at the Harbor School, a pilot middle school in Dorchester, Mass. She lives with her husband Reinhard in Cambridge.