How Jews by Choice do weddings
In every tribe and culture, a wedding is cause for a celebration. And all of those celebrations involve some degree of negotiation among the couple, their families, their cultures and their traditions to make the experience meaningful and powerful for everyone.
Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University, said when it comes to Jewish nuptials, even born-Jews will have differences. Is one a secular Zionist and the other Modern Orthodox? Reform and Conservadox? The combinations seem endless.
But, for Jews by Choice, there is the added wrinkle of following Jewish practice while making sure beloved non-Jewish family and friends feel included.
When Jazmine Green, who went through the Miller program, and Jeremy Aluma started planning their Jewish wedding, Jazmine’s Catholic mother revealed that she had always dreamed of watching Jazmine’s father walk their daughter down the aisle. The Jewish practice of having both the bride’s parents walk her to the chuppah and remain there with the groom and his family throughout the ceremony was unfamiliar and she resisted it.
Greenwald, who each year officiates at the weddings of 15 to 20 couples in which one person is a Jew by Choice, often meets with non-Jewish families early in the preparation process to talk through these issues and answer questions. He recognizes that, for some parents, there is real sadness when a child chooses a different faith.
“I try to honor those complex emotions and assure them I only want to help create a special, meaningful day for everyone,” he said.
He suggests couples create booklets to explain Jewish terms for attendees who may not be familiar with them and that they make sure the officiating rabbi offers a few sentences of context before each stage of the wedding. These can range from a word about the Sheva Brachot, or Seven Blessings, to explaining to a Christian family that a traditional ketubah is written in Aramaic, the language spoken during the time of Jesus, as Rabbi Anne Brener, professor at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, has done.
Of course, the wedding itself is not a classroom. Jazmine and Jeremy Aluma kept their printed program informal and friendly with questions such as, “What’s up with the circling?” Their explanation of the ketubah concluded, “It also puts a monetary value on Jazmine’s head so she can hold it over Jeremy for the rest of their lives.” About the glass-smashing, they wrote, “If you’re a Jew, you know that as a people, we’ve overcome adversity and make up a thriving global community. Being torn apart encourages us to grow and gives us the opportunity to come back stronger and more resilient than before. We break a glass as a symbol of this natural process.”
Des Khoury, another student of Greenwald’s, and Moshe Netter found a way to recognize many of their families’ traditions in their ceremony and afterward. They were married by Moshe’s father, Rabbi Perry Netter, who explained to the guests that the chuppah, which symbolized the house Des and Moshe were creating, was open on all sides to indicate that everyone was welcome.
Des is a first-generation American. Her father is Lebanese-Egyptian and her mother Armenian; her family’s faith tradition is Catholic. Her wedding program included ways to express congratulations in Hebrew, English, French, Arabic and Armenian. And after the ceremony, Des and Moshe emerged from yichud, or their moment alone, to the horah, followed by an Armenian song and folk dance, and then an Arabic tune. By that time, she said, everyone was dancing.
The material of the chuppah itself can be inclusive. Brener said she once officiated at a wedding beneath traditional Ecuadorian fabric brought to Los Angeles by the groom’s Catholic family.
Music, explanations and words of welcome are nice, but when it comes to actual participation by non-Jews, every officiating rabbi will have his or her own halachic opinion. Because the marriage liturgy itself can be completed in about 10 minutes, many feel there’s room to add appropriate ritual. The mothers of Des and Moshe, for example, lit a unity candle under their children’s chuppah.
Jessica Emerson McCormick, who was born into a Jewish family, researched clan tartans before her marriage to Patrick McCormick, whose Catholic family is Scotch-Irish. Jessica and her mother found a festive blue, red and yellow pattern, and had it woven into a length of cloth and made into a custom tallit for Patrick, as well as special kippot for him and his father to wear at the wedding.
Along with that plaid tallit, Jessica and Patrick’s ceremony included several rabbi friends reading the traditional Seven Blessings in Hebrew, followed by members of Patrick’s family reading English translations. Both of Jessica’s children from a previous marriage were on the bimah, and her son wrote and read his own interpretation of the seventh blessing.
Rabbi Susan Goldberg at Wilshire Boulevard Temple said having non-Jews read translations of the Sheva Brachot is “a nice way to include friends and family in the ceremony.”
Because all translation is a kind of interpretation, Greenwald said he also approves of participants riffing on the basic idea of a blessing to create something that especially speaks to the couple. He finds that the needs of the couple can get lost while they’re making sure everyone else is happy, and sees one of his jobs as helping them stay focused on what they need, how they can be kind and compassionate, but still have the wedding they desire.
“The most important thing,” he said, “is that the couple under the chuppah have a powerful, meaningful experience of commitment.”
Because the wedding day marks a transition to what Jewish tradition sees as a new life, many rabbis encourage couples to go to the mikveh before the ceremony. Often for Jews by Choice, it’s their first visit since their conversion and a chance to reflect on how much has changed since then.
It wasn’t clear at first that Patrick would choose to become Jewish. When he did decide, Jessica said, his family was supportive. Like the families of the other Jews by Choice interviewed for this article, his parents were happy that he had chosen to include religion in his life.
Des, who said she spent years searching for a spiritual practice that felt right to her, also found her parents accepting. “To them, it’s all prayer and God. They’ve even started looking forward to invitations to Shabbat dinner.”
Jazmine’s mother, too, witnessed her daughter’s spiritual seeking and was glad that she found a place that felt like home. In recognition of that, she even gave up her front-row seat and walked with her husband and daughter to take her place under the unfamiliar chuppah.
The officiating rabbi, Ari Lucas of Temple Beth Am, spoke to Jazmine and Jeremy about coming together with the support of their community. He reminded the guests that they were there not just to witness. Together, this mix of family and friends, cultures, languages and traditions would help — and go on helping — the couple begin their new life together.