Intercultural Wedding in Italy: Sipping Sake With a German Couple in Siena

By Rabbi David S. Gruber

August 1, 2012


This last June, I had the privilege of officiating Judith and Peter’s wedding in the Siena province of Tuscany. They are German, though they both spent time in the United States and the United Kingdom. Judith, whose father is from Japan, grew up with Catholic, Buddhist and Shinto influences; Peter is Jewish.

In Europe, regardless of what one does for religion, one must first have a civil marriage ceremony. Therefore, we first gathered in the small medieval walled village of Serre di Rapolano. This village is where I was staying in a bed and breakfast in a home built around the year 1200! Having grown up in Israel, the narrow streets and medieval construction reminded me very much of the Old City in Jerusalem. The town’s deputy mayor met us in a small museum, wearing a sash with the colors of the Italian flag. She conducted the ceremony in Italian, while a friend of the couple, who had worked in Italy for a year, simultaneously translated into German.

Once this brief ceremony was over, we headed to Podere Finerri, on the outskirts of Asciano, a twenty-minute drive from Serre di Rapolano. Here was where the bride and groom and most of the guests were staying. The Italian-New Zealander couple, who own the venue, had built a large and sturdy chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy) in the garden. They had kosher lamb on the BBQ and fresh challah warming in the oven.

After signing the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract), I conducted the Jewish ceremony. For the few guests who knew no English, the groom’s sister translated my explanations regarding the bride and groom circling each other, the chuppah, the breaking of the glass and the yichud (period of time the bride and groom spend alone after the ceremony) into German. Along with vows and the ring exchange, I included the traditional Jewish seven blessings, the priestly blessing with the couple wrapped in my tallit, and with a nod to the bride’s heritage, a beautiful reading by the Dalai Lama.

I had spent quite a bit of time on the phone with Judith and Peter, and I shared what I felt I had learned from interacting with them. Judith and Peter are so open, insightful and empathetic, and I talked about why I thought this was so. There is one particular fascinating core experience that they share. Judith and Peter are both of layered cultural backgrounds, as a Japanese-German and a Jewish-German, respectively. They treasure and embrace these complex backgrounds, through which they share a feeling of being German, but being something else too, of always being just a little bit out of place, of not quite fitting in. Through this shared experience, as individuals and as a couple, they were able to become as deep, thoughtful and contemplative as they are. Through this shared experience they became so much more open to the world around them, and they developed a strong sense of empathy towards others, and especially towards “the other” in society.

After the Jewish ceremony, we headed from the garden to the house courtyard, for the San-San-Kudo, which is one of the oldest Japanese wedding traditions. On a table before us were special square wooden cups called “sakazuki.” There were sakazuki of three different sizes, stacked one on top of the other. The bride and groom took turns sipping three times from each cup for a total of nine sips. Hence the name of the ritual, which literally means “three-three-nine.” Odd numbers, specifically three and nine, are considered very lucky in Japanese culture. This ritual’s symbolism is very similar to the explanation I usually give for the shared cup of wine during the Jewish ceremony. The hope is that the couple will find good fortune in life, but as all couples also have challenging moments, we pray that they be blessed with a spirit of cooperation. With that, we all sipped sake from similar sakazuki. With the ceremonies over, the celebration began, only to end at 6:30 the next morning…

Many thanks to Mr. Katsushi Tsutsumi for his comprehensive explanation of the San-San-Kudo.


About Rabbi David S. Gruber

Rabbi David S. Gruber is a native of Evanston, Ill., who grew up in Israel. He is an eighth generation rabbi, ordained by the Chief Rabbis of Israel, and served in educational and religious leadership positions on three continents. Though he used to be Orthodox, he now sees himself as a Jewish secular humanist. As such he deeply believes in helping every couple make the most out of the most wonderful day of their lives. To learn more about his work with couples, please visit