Re-imagining and recycling traditional wedding objects


Artists and creative newlyweds are finding new ways to make the trappings and ceremonial elements of Jewish weddings their own — and then to have these mementos live on and remain useful long after the actual ceremony.

The evidence? Broken shards of glass turned into art, chuppahs repurposed and more.

Cigall Goldman, founder and CEO of mazelmoments.com, a Jewish event-planning site in New York, said there are opposing influences on couples approaching their wedding.

“There are only so many trends with the ceremony, since it’s based on traditions and rituals that go way back,” Goldman told the Journal. But, she continued, “Modern Jewish couples want the wedding to be a reflection of the couple.” 

One place to start is with the chuppah. The centerpiece of any Jewish wedding, it has gone from a traditional tallit to a statement piece, with personalized themes, colors and creative touches. 

Today, the rustic-chic theme is popular, with an “organic, earthy vibe” with perhaps a grape vine or birch poles providing an all-natural feel, said Goldman, who in April led a webinar on nationwide Jewish wedding trends. “A more modern chuppah with a sleek, rectangular design has gained popularity too.”

Karina Rabin, owner of Happy Chuppah of Orange County, said, “Lately, birch is extremely popular because it’s natural. Flowers are also popular — roses, hydrangea, peonies. We also include crystals as an added decoration, and they’re complimentary, so they’re good if someone’s on a budget. A lot of fabric is also popular, chiffon fabric in white or ivory. People like to make a statement and go all out.”

After the wedding ceremony, couples often find a new purpose for their chuppah, which represents the home they are building together. Goldman said it could be used for decor at the reception or set up over the sweetheart table for the just-marrieds. 

Its uses can go far beyond the wedding day, too.

“People often purchase the top, which is the actual chuppah, and use the fabric for a baby naming or a bris,” Rabin said. “They decorate a table and cover it with the chuppah as the linen and put pictures on the table of family members who have passed away. Couples also pass on the chuppah to their children for their wedding; that happens a lot.”

When it comes to the traditional marriage contract, the ketubah, papercut versions have become very popular, according to Andrew Fish of Gallery Judaica in Los Angeles. 

“Papercut ketubot are our biggest sellers,” he said. “Two artists in particular, Danny Azoulay and Enya Keshet, have created amazing selections of exquisite, meticulously detailed designs, which are cut by laser. We think that one reason these pieces have become so widespread is that the majority of them offer a stunning way to display your wedding vows while maintaining a neutral color. This way, if you change your decor, you don’t have to worry about color matching.”

Keshet, who lives in Israel and also offers custom-made ketubot that are hand-painted, said in an email that she offers both a traditional text and alternative options that she composed herself: “The ‘Pledge of Love,’ which leans on tradition and stresses the long-term mutual responsibilities, and the ‘Vision of the House,’ which sets the house as a metaphor to marriage … special versions of the vows are adapted to same-sex weddings and even to interfaith ones.”

The traditional broken wedding glass, once stomped on and forgotten, can now live on as a part of anything from a Kiddush cup to a picture frame. In its new form, the couple can keep the glass pieces to remind them of their special day. Fay Miller of Los Angeles conceived the idea of reusing the broken glass pieces some 20 years ago, crafting unique designs including the pieces through her company, Shardz.

“I came up with the idea at the wedding of my husband’s cousin’s daughter. He said no one does anything with the broken glass, and I said, ‘We should.’ That began a journey of apprenticeship at my studio with another glass artist. I built my own furnace and piped it except for the electrical. I learned how to work with high-temperature cement. I think that’s not bad for an old Jewish lady,” she said. 

“Working with the broken glass puts me in touch with the joy and ritual they represent. … I feel I’m a part of so many Jewish lives, and I’m honored they choose me to preserve such important memories.”

Other well-known artists, such as Gary Rosenthal of Maryland, have been inspired by the practice. Rosenthal said the mezuzah he makes for broken wedding glasses is his most popular item with couples.

“You lift up the top of the mezuzah and put the shards in front, and then you have it in your home as a permanent memento,” he said.

Rosenthal integrates shards with other Jewish ritual objects as well, such as Kiddush cups and menorahs. He also creates picture frames, heart-shaped pieces and other designs. 

“They’re like little treasure boxes,” he said.

Today, long after the Jewish wedding ceremony has ended, artists like Rosenthal help the promises a married couple have made to each other on their wedding day live on — and live on in style.

Jewish conversion 101


Conversion to Judaism is not easy. It requires a change in beliefs, actions and lifestyle. It involves extensive study, practice, a leap of faith, a shift in perception and some sacrifice. However, for those who feel it’s the right decision, it can be an exciting and rewarding experience. 

Before stepping into the mikveh — the ritual of immersion in water that is the culmination of the conversion process — prospective converts to Judaism must choose a movement, which will determine what kind of observance they want to follow and how they want to live their life as a Jew. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU). “It wasn’t an accident of birth.”

Most prospective Jews by Choice go through a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox conversion, and the rules vary for each. Anyone considering conversion must find a sponsoring rabbi as the first step, then participate in a period of study, which might mean organized classes or individual study with a rabbi or tutor. Who guides the convert will determine which beit din — a rabbinical court consisting of three rabbis — is the best one to complete the conversion. 

AJU offers an 18-week course for those considering conversion — as well as anyone wanting to learn more about the faith — that takes place at venues throughout Los Angeles. Students at AJU’s program learn about Jewish values, traditions and history, including Conservative traditions and observance. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements also approve these classes.

In addition to the classes, a Holocaust survivor speaks to the students. All candidates learn to read prayers in Hebrew and participate in a Shabbaton and in a scavenger hunt at Whole Foods for kosher products. Since the program got its start in 1986, more than 4,000 participants have converted to Judaism, Greenwald said. 

Although Greenwald does not himself give approval for prospective converts to go before the beit din, he said he meets with all of his students and helps them to connect with a sponsoring rabbi: “It’s a great challenge to give a person the tools and information that they need in only a few months to be able to feel genuinely a part of the Jewish community,” he said. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish.” — Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller, Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU)

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the former director of the AJU program, has led Judaism by Choice, another educational offering for those wishing to convert, since 2009. Weinberg’s classes include about 300 students each year and cover Jewish history, holidays, rituals, Zionism and the Torah. Classes, which instruct students for a Conservative conversion (see sidebar for more on Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program), are offered either once or twice per week, for an average of three months. 

Since most students have busy lives, Weinberg acknowledged, he said he tries to make his classes entertaining. He demonstrates a brit milah (ritual circumcision) using a Cabbage Patch doll, holds a mock wedding with a chuppah (wedding canopy) and goes over the prayers. His classes are offered at synagogues in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice and the San Fernando Valley. “Anybody can take the program,” said Miri Weinberg, the rabbi’s wife, who helps run Judaism by Choice. “We don’t turn anyone away.”

The Weinbergs’ program includes Shabbat dinners and holiday-themed events for both current students and program graduates. He said that he expects students wishing to convert to attend synagogue consistently and keep a level of kosher. “I think there has to be a certain behavior,” Neal said. “I’d rather I be the one [teaching them] than having them go through the beit din and not passing. That could be painful. I’m a coach that prepares people for it.”

Most of the time, the participants in the Judaism by Choice classes undergo either a Conservative conversion or go before the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a pluralistic beit din that is endorsed by Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis. 

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) also offers an 18-week Introduction to Judaism course for prospective converts. This class, too, covers lifecycle events, history, holidays, prayer, Israel and theology. Many of the URJ’s candidates end up going through the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, as well.

Rabbi Sabine Meyer, director of the URJ’s conversion program, said about 15 classes per year are offered throughout Los Angeles, all of them both rigorous and comprehensive. “Reform conversion is not conversion light. We do not convert people to Reform Judaism. We convert them to Judaism,” she said.

URJ has offered its introduction class for more than three decades, and Meyer has seen classes where up to 80 percent of the people have continued on to convert, but she emphasized that the class is not meant just for prospective Jews by Choice. “It’s for anybody who is interested in learning more about Judaism and the important tools that they need [to practice], if that’s what they want to do.”

Candidates for conversion in Los Angeles who would like to connect to a more traditional lifestyle can also prepare to go before an Orthodox beit din. The requirements for an Orthodox conversion typically require that the candidate observe kosher laws both inside and outside of the home, live within an Orthodox community, observe the Sabbath and study with a tutor. 

Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which features an Orthodox beit din, said candidates must be sincere and “want to be part of the [Orthodox] community and adopt that lifestyle. We look to see that people approach this with a certain maturity and a solid [reason as to] why they want to do this.”

Applicants accepted to the RCC’s program are assigned a private tutor, and a candidate should expect to spend 18 to 24 months studying and participating fully in Jewish life before the process of conversion is complete, Union said. The most important aspect of the conversion, he said, is establishing oneself in a community. “Orthodox Jewish life tends to revolve around Shabbat. We want people working with us to be a part of that community. We don’t want them to feel different from someone who was born Jewish.”

Since entering into an Orthodox lifestyle can be a huge change for most candidates, Union said that he and the rabbis on his beit din “want people to get personal attention. For someone to make a transition from gentile to Orthodox Jew is a significant transition, and it’s not like a university course, where you simply learn the material, take the test and pass. It’s a process of personal growth.”

Any candidate who chooses to convert — whether through an Orthodox, Reform or Conservative program — should know their goals and understand the process as they enter into it. They also need to realize that being immersed in the mikveh is not the culmination of the learning — it’s just the beginning. 

“Becoming a Jew is not an event,” Miri Weinberg said. “It’s a process.”

Over-the-top nuptials an Israeli specialty


Born into a poor Moroccan immigrant family that settled in the development town of Dimona, Yardena Ovadia always dreamed of giving her daughter a fairy-tale wedding.

A millionaire who made a fortune doing business in New Guinea, Ovadia spent almost $2 million on the Venetian-themed wedding, which featured close to 200 flower girls and boys, a river-front setting designed to look like a canal in Venice, and—of course—gondoliers.

Asked by an Israeli news show why she decided to splurge on such a grandiose wedding, Ovadia replied, “My daughter was getting married. That doesn’t happen every day!”

As the number of rich Israelis has grown in recent years, so, too, has the number of lavish weddings taking place in Israel.

“Last year was the year of huge weddings,” says Nikki Fenton, an Israel-based wedding planner. Yitzhak Tshuva, a self-made billionaire, spent nearly $2 million on his son’s extravagant wedding. Some 1,700 guests, nearly all of them rich and famous, including family friend Paul Anka, traveled to the Ben Shemen Forest, where, according to a Ha’aretz business columnist, “large stages were erected … around which gigantic hideous artificial flowers were placed. There was enough lighting to set the city of Ramat Gan aglow.”

“The Tshuva wedding took over the entire Ben Shemen Forest. It had four events, each with a different theme. It was absolutely on another level of crazy,” Fenton added.

Even that sum was paltry compared to the $5.2 million extravaganza billionaire Michael Cherney, an Uzbekistan-born aluminum magnate, threw for his daughter. It took 200 workers working 24 hours a day to prepare the indoor venue, which was the size of a football field or two. Guests who flew to Israel from all over the world, many in private jets, received engraved Czech crystal key chains as party favors. Specially made Italian textiles and magnificent crystal chandeliers were hung throughout the hall, and even the bathroom floors were carpeted for the event. A 36-member orchestra serenaded the couple.

Just as the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton lasted several days, so, too, do some Israeli wedding and even bar mitzvah celebrations.

Naomi Schwartz, the events manager at the venerable King David Hotel in Jerusalem, said wealthy families from abroad—the United States and especially France, Belgium and Brazil—sometimes book half of the hotel’s rooms, including all the suites, for four or five nights.

“It means starting celebrations on Thursday with a henna party and continuing with a very fancy private Friday night dinner and then lunch, often around the pool or in a tent, replete with carpets and draperies, in the garden.”

If the group is large, Schwartz said, the hotel creates a tented synagogue in its parking lot.

Often, the chuppah is placed on the hotel’s semi-circular terrace overlooking the beautiful garden, pool area, and the walls of the Old City. Paul Newman dines on this terrace in the movie Exodus.

While the King David’s vast garden has enough flowers to please any bride, one couple asked the hotel to import two planeloads’ worth of flowers for their special day.

Schwartz said the hotel does whatever it can to please its clients. Within reason.

“This past summer we had an amazing wedding,” she said, noting that the family, which was French, booked 100 of the hotel’s 240 rooms.  

“It was a nonstop celebration. A rich barbecue around the pool, a private breakfast on the terraces, and a menu geared toward the French Moroccan grandparents.”

Yaniv Hiumi, the assistant general-manager of the Dan Accadia Hotel in Herzliya, said his seaside hotel has hosted weddings of up to 800 people.

“They took 100 of our 209 rooms and the wedding was around the pool. At midnight, the guests went to the ballroom, where a well-known Israeli singer entertained until 3 a.m.”

Hiumi said the Dan Accadia is popular with both Israeli and foreign families. He added that all of the hotel’s simchas are at the highest standard.

“We don’t have regular and premium rates, and that’s the reason we don’t host a large number of weddings. But the weddings we do host are on a very high level,” Hiumi said.

While religious families, especially from abroad, often opt for Jerusalem-based venues that afford a view of the Old City, both religious and secular couples are drawn to ocean-front properties like the Accadia, which also has a vast garden. Aquariums are a popular centerpiece, because they reinforce the sand-and-sea atmosphere.   

One recent Accadia wedding boasted eight “open kitchens”—large outdoor work stations where chefs prepared a stunning assortment of food.

Fenton, who plans wedding both in Israel and England, believes Israel provides more options, as well as better value, for upscale weddings.

“The high-end Israeli market is really a level above what you see in London. What you can do here stretches far beyond what you can do in Europe or the U.S.,” Fenton said.

Thanks to “almost guaranteed weather” between April and November, when virtually no rain falls, “you can do a big fancy production outdoors,” whether in an Israeli vineyard or the desert.

In addition to being a lot more affordable (an elegant wedding at the Accadia can cost $150 per person), “menuwise, there’s more on offer here,” Fenton said. “There’s a lot more variety and caterers here are more flexible than kosher caterers abroad.”

And then there’s what Fenton calls Israel’s intangible “wow” factor.

“When you throw a wedding in an unusual location, the guests don’t know what to expect,” the wedding planner said, conjuring up images of circus tents and Arabian nights.

“The spectacle is heightened,” Fenton said of the adventure, “and people are amazed.”

The unconventional dress


After Talya Ilovitz (née Strauss) got engaged, the hunt for a dress for her Orthodox wedding felt endless. She never imagined her best option would be a sleeveless white cocktail dress a few sizes too big. But after searching widely, every other possibility was either too expensive or didn’t have sleeves.

“I liked this dress more than anything else I could find,” she recalled. 

So, together, with the help of a seamstress, dedicated friends and her sister, artist Avra Strauss, her crack team gave the dress a makeover from top to bottom. 

“We cut the arms off a blazer to make sleeves and changed the very straight sheath shape to a mermaid shape that flared out. Then we added four layers of tulle to create a much fuller skirt,” Strauss said. “I also cut fabric into the shape of a few hundred leaves and we attached them with beads to the bottom of the dress. I liked that it was a little bit unusual, with a different texture and shape, and had a feeling of movement.”

The unique look of three-dimensional, raw-edge leaves suited Strauss’ personality. The result? A stunning one-of-a-kind creation, reminiscent of a tree in bloom, evoking the bride’s love of the outdoors. The stunning long-sleeve gown put an unconventional spin on a look appropriate for an Orthodox ceremony. 

As more brides opt for inventive solutions to classic wedding dress dilemmas, retailers are following suit. Vera Wang and Monique Lhuillier are among the household names of designers now producing bridal gowns in unconventional colors to match their ethereal, dream-like styles, employing shades of blush, nude and (gasp!) black. In fact, Wang’s upcoming fall 2012 bridal collection relies on colors primarily reserved for under- rather than outerwear. But these are far from the only unconventional options for contemporary brides. 

Transforming undergarments into outerwear has long been a traditional method of creating non-traditional attire. In fact, vintage trousseau “dressing gowns,” and other slip dresses once worn only at home, are frequently sold on etsy.com and other sites as potential wedding dresses for unconventional brides. The site is a great resource for unique treasures, including an eggshell- and champagne-colored 1930s boudoir gown with matching peignoir jacket found on a recent search. Silk nightgowns and other unusual pieces that traverse unconventional territory can be easily identified by searching with the key words “unconventional” or “experimental” to discover wedding dresses with unusual details such as raw edges in silk chiffon or georgette. 

Vintage pieces, unusual colors and Ilovitz’s DIY option are among the appeal of the unconventional wedding dress. As the character Carrie Bradshaw illustrated in the feature film “Sex and the City 2,” some brides might prefer a vintage suit. The look not only expressed Bradshaw’s on-screen personality, but the option also, in theory, presents the opportunity of a repeat appearance at other events. 

According to Jewish law, there is no halachic requirement to wear white under the chuppah (the wedding canopy) although it is considered a ritual convention suggesting spiritual purity. Among Orthodox couples, the groom, too, wears white in the form of a kitel, or ritual robe-like garment placed over a suit. The kitel is reserved for life’s most poignant moments: one’s wedding, Yom Kippur, Passover seders and, ultimately, burial. 

The Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:8) discusses the tradition of women wearing white dresses in association with marriage. Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel said, “There were no greater holidays (yamim tovim) for Israel than Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur, for on them the girls of Jerusalem used to go out in borrowed white dresses … and dance in the vineyards. What would they say? ‘Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself …’ “ These days, Tu b’Av, the 15th of the month of Av, which falls this year on Aug. 3, is commemorated as a Jewish day of love and is a popular time for weddings. 

Like all fashions, bridal attire takes cues from celebrities. When today’s brides say “I don’t” to a conventional gown, their choices may take the form of a two-tone dress. One of the most widely noted examples was singer Gwen Stefani, who donned a white Galliano dress that dramatically transitioned to a bright coral pink as it reached the floor. 

Some brides opt instead for more subtle twists, such as adding floral appliques or a contrasting sash, as Wang has done with a vivid black sash against clouds of white skirt for her spring 2012 collection. The look is one of the most anticipated trends for spring 2013, along with her debut of deeper blushing tones for gowns ranging from shocking fire engine red, to maroon, burgundy and deep wine. 

Some brides wearing color flip tradition by dressing their bridesmaids in white, with a colored sash on A-line or empire waists to match the bride’s colored gown. 

The operative concern when it comes to an unconventional dress is will it evoke regret years later when brides look back on their choices? Despite her on-screen “Sex and the City 2” white bridal attire, when actress Sarah Jessica Parker married husband Matthew Broderick in 1997, she chose a black dress. In a subsequent interview with Bazaar, Parker admitted that if she could do it all over again, she would definitely opt for a beautiful white gown.

As Ilovitz’s experience suggests, with thoughtful attention, even the most personalized white can be far from conventional.

Award-winning journalist Lisa Alcalay Klug has written hundreds of articles for mainstream and Jewish media outlets, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Jerusalem Post. She is the author of “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe,” a National Jewish Book Award Finalist. Her next book, “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe,” debuts October 2012, everywhere books are sold. cooljewbook.com.

Garden wedding in Israel


When Miriam Sushman and her then-fiancé, Owen, were planning a summer wedding, they searched for an outdoor venue that would reflect their love of nature. 

“Israel is such a beautiful country, and I couldn’t imagine not getting married outdoors if the weather was nice. Also, we both love nature and enjoy hiking,” said Sushman, a photographer.

The couple ultimately opted for a garden wedding at Neot Kedumim, the biblical landscape reserve in Israel, located about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Lovingly landscaped with indigenous plants mentioned in the bible, the venue “smelled nice,” Sushman said. “The place was beautiful.”

Years later, Sushman still remembers how donkeys brayed while she was under the chuppah (wedding canopy). She also remembers “some gunfire” from Israel soldiers doing military maneuvers in the distance. “I don’t know if that’s on the video,” she said.

Garden weddings, with their unique scents and sounds, are extremely popular in Israel, where rainfall generally doesn’t factor into the equation from May through September.

Thanks to an Ashkenazi custom that is now almost universal in Israel, the majority of Jewish couples hold their actual marriage ceremony outdoors, weather permitting.

Wedding planner Adi Porat, manager of Simcha Maker, says Israeli garden weddings can be magnificent, provided certain steps are taken.

Couples, especially if they’re from abroad, sometimes forget that Israel has a real winter, though not nearly as cold as the ones in the United States or Europe. And Eilat and the Dead Sea are relatively balmy in the winter, though insufferably hot in the summer.

“I would never advise a couple to have an outdoor wedding from the beginning of November till April without a ‘Plan B’ for an indoor space. That way, the chuppah can be outside, with standing heaters if necessary, and the reception can be indoors,” Porat said.

Having an indoor and outdoor option at the same venue is sometimes just as important during the summer months, when daytime temperatures hover between 90 and 100 degrees (and up to 110 in Eilat and the Dead Sea).

“I advise not starting the chuppah before 7 p.m. in the summer, because it’s boiling. A tent is a great idea, but it depends on the client and the weather. There are lovely clear ones today that allow you to see outside, to feel part of the garden.”

Porat suggests ordering food that is appropriate for the season: cold cucumber soup, ice cream and frozen drinks in the summer; hot soups and warm, filling food in the winter.

Like most places around the world, Israel has mosquitoes.

“Mosquitoes can ruin the event,” Porat said, “so a garden venue must spray for mosquitoes the day of the wedding, before the caterer starts arranging gear and plates outside. And make sure there will be coolers and fans, not only on the dance floor but where people will be sitting and eating.”

Riki Metz and her husband, Howard, learned the hard way that fans aren’t always sufficient.

“We got married in August at Kibbutz Tzora, near Beit Shemesh, and it turned out to be an incredibly hot day,” recalled Riki Metz, a holistic healer and jewelry maker.

Beit Shemesh means “house of the sun” in Hebrew, and is hotter and more humid than midtown Manhattan during a heat wave.

The wedding was so hot, Metz said, “that we have photos of a friend with his shirt plastered to his back. The kibbutz now has air-conditioning,” she noted.

Despite the heat, the Metzes have no regrets.

“We fell in love with the venue because it’s in a lovely location, is reasonably priced and is very, very pretty,” Metz said. “The chuppah was on a gentle hill and, unlike many wedding halls, there was lots of room for the guests to be seated.”

At most Israeli weddings, the majority of guests are expected to stand during the wedding ceremony.

Some of the loveliest garden weddings are at kibbutzim, Metz said, but she advised couples to visit the venue a couple of times before booking.

“You have to know where the garden is in relation to the cow shed. If the wind blows in the wrong direction, you’ve got a problem,” she said with a laugh.

Because some garden venues do not like to accept a wedding party of less than 200 guests, couples need to be creative, Porat said.

Hotels can be a good choice for a wedding party of almost any size. Most have beautifully designed outdoor spaces, whether they be gardens or patios. Upscale restaurants are another option. The eateries in the ancient port of Caesarea, for example, offer a sea view and garden access very close to archaeological ruins. 

Regardless of where the event is held, it’s e it on a Sunday, Porat said, because Sunday is a workday in Israel and is less popular with locals.

Tracey Goldstein, who writes the Hatunot blog (hatunotblog.com), a resource for non-Hebrew-speaking couples, loves garden weddings “because there are so many natural things in the venues, you don’t need to add to the floral décor.”

Garden and other outdoor weddings can also have a Zionist feel to them, said Goldstein, who did event planning in New York before making aliyah.

“They’re reminiscent of the outdoor kibbutz life that flourished here during the early years of the state. What better way to experience this feeling?”

While outdoor weddings are the dream of many couples, Goldstein strongly suggests sticking to locations with indoor/outdoor spaces boasting amenities like indoor plumbing.

“In our minds it sounds great, but you must also think of your guests and whether they’ll mind walking in muddy grounds in their nice clothes. Rustic is cool, till you bring in the logistics,” Goldstein said.

Living chuppah can serve as family heirloom


Imagine standing under a beautiful, hand-embroidered chuppah that 25 years earlier your parents stood under as they became husband and wife. That is the legacy Los Angeles artist Robin Van Zak hopes to create every time she designs a one-of-a-kind heirloom lace bridal canopy.

The idea of passing down wedding keepsakes is not new, but it’s not commonly associated with the ceremonial chuppah. While many brides preserve their wedding gowns with the hope of one day passing it down to their daughter, the chuppah is often tucked away and rarely seen again. A family chuppah provides the perfect opportunity to create a “living” memory that can be shared from generation to generation.

Most couples understand what the bridal canopy represents, but its origins are more literal than many may realize. The chuppah’s roots go back to talmudic times, when, as explained by author Sol Zim in the “Joy of the Jewish Wedding,” after the ceremony, the groom “brought his bride into a ‘chupa,’ special living quarters arranged for the couple in the home of the groom’s parents.” By the 14th century, as the expense associated with building a separate space for the couple became too costly, the contemporary ceremonial chuppah, representing the new home that the couple would share as husband and wife, was born.

Because its beginnings are based in a life-cycle event, a bridal canopy that is shared among relatives highlights the importance of family. The simplicity of its frame comprised of four poles, four open sides and a cloth covering on top draw the wedding guests in, while at the same time provide an element of privacy for the couple. It’s as if they are embraced and protected by those who stood under the canopy before them.

For Van Zak, the idea for a multigenerational chuppah was born when her sister announced she was getting married. She wanted to create something special for her, something that was personal and representative of their family, something that could be shared for generations to come.

“I focused on the chuppah, because I have seen so many made out of flowers that cost tens of thousands of dollars and are thrown away by the end of the night. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to blend traditional elements with a contemporary flair,” she said.

After the wedding, a cloth patch was sewn into a corner listing the couple’s name and wedding date. Since then, at least one more name and date has been added, and its designer takes pride in knowing more will be added in years to come.

Van Zak focuses on finding premium lace, creating delicate designs that evoke a sense of romance and warmth. Each creation takes days to complete and brings a level of romance and elegance to a wedding symbol steeped in tradition.

Chuppahs have the ability to alter the mood of the ceremony and claim a far greater role than many couples might realize.

“The chuppah is the centerpiece of the wedding ceremony,” said Debbie Geller, owner of Geller Events, a boutique wedding and event planning company. “The bulk of the wedding photographs are taken there, and more than any other element of the wedding, it demonstrates the tone of the couple itself, whether traditional, modern, simple or elaborate.”

Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, who has officiated hundreds of weddings, speculates that “the people who take the time to create a personalized chuppah are probably people who are more likely to put more time and energy into their home — to recognize the importance of proactively creating the home that they want to create to reflect their values.”

Couples who are trying to decide if a living chuppah is right for them should take a tip from Van Zak herself, who uses inspiration as her guide in their creation.

“It’s when I see beautiful lace that I start the process,” she said. “I treat them as pieces of art; it’s my passion.”

What will inspire the couple as they stand there declaring their love and commitment? If it is finding comfort when looking up and knowing a piece of their love will be shared with their children and their children’s children, then a living chuppah is the perfect fit.

Allison Krumholz is a professional freelance writer who writes on a diversity of topics and has written for several publications, including Inside Weddings. She lives in Los Angeles.

Briefs: Big results and rewards at Big Sunday, Former Weiss deputy enters Fifth District race


Big Sunday Is L.A.’s Makeover Weekend

Big Sunday, which has morphed from an annual Sunday event into a full weekend of volunteer opportunities, once again thrived on May 3 and 4. Organizers say that this year the number of volunteers again reached about 50,000, working at about 325 projects from Santa Barbara to Orange County to the Inland Empire and throughout Los Angeles. The efforts ranged from tours for homeless teens at a Hollywood prop-rental facility to rehabilitating inner-city gardens, to primping rescue dogs, to dancing with seniors in homes for the aged, as the signature Big Sunday T-shirts became the ubiquitous fashion statement of the day.

Big Sunday founder, David Levinson, as always, shared the credit with every participant, even as he was dubbed “volunteerism’s reluctant rock star” on the national “NBC Nightly News.”

— Staff Report

Former Weiss Deputy Enters 5th District Race

When Adeena Bleich was in grade school, her mother sat her down and told her, “You are a Jewish factor, and everything you do matters. Everything you do will reflect the Jewish world and the greater world as well.”

These early memories inspired Bleich, 30, to run in March 2009 for the 5th District City Council seat currently occupied by Jack Weiss, who plans to run for city attorney.

But Bleich wasn’t always political. She wanted to help people directly, volunteering at old-age homes, in soup kitchens, trying to make a difference. “I never thought I would want to run for office. I voted and cared about the world but I was more of an activist,” she said.

But when the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida caused the final results of the election to be decided by the Supreme Court, she changed her thinking — she had always thought that every vote counted, she said, and Bush vs. Gore really upset her. But then she realized she didn’t know how politics and the government actually worked — so she decided to become more involved. She left her job at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) and spent the next four years working for Jack Weiss, first as a field deputy — mainly as the Jewish community liaison. Next she served as Bob Hertzberg’s director of communications when he ran for mayor, and for the last three years she has been the Los Angeles director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

With the ongoing debate over traffic flow on Pico and Olympic boulevards, she says the time has come for her to run for the 5th district City Council seat, against four other candidates also in the race — former Assemblyman Paul Koretz, attorney Ron Galperin, activist Robyn Ritter Simon and businessman David T. Vahedi. Although Bleich does not have a position on the plan, she calls the way it was handled “divisive.”

Having lived in Sherman Oaks, Bel Air and Pico Robertson — all neighborhoods in the district — Bleich said, “This is my home, and the decisions being made today will affect us in 20 years. I want to have a direct positive effect for my children and all the neighborhood children.”

— Amy Klein

Angelenos Remember Holocaust, Honor Survivors

As the Holocaust’s survivors age, an urgency to remember the 6 million Jews who perished underscored the citywide Holocaust Remembrance Day at Pan Pacific Park on May 4. Marking 70 years since Kristallnacht, an impressive list of city and state officials and religious leaders joined nearly 3,000 community members, including hundreds of survivors, in the public commemoration.

Surrounded by hundreds of police officers, firefighters and security details, the crowd packed into a blue-and-white striped tent circled by Israeli flags, where prominent voices vowed to remember the millions murdered but also emphasized using the Holocaust as a lesson to decry global violence and injustice whenever it occurs.

“We know that the source of history’s greatest crime is rooted in the silence,” said L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has attended the event every year since the mid 1990s and was accompanied by California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and City Councilman Tom LaBonge

“On Yom HaShoah, we come together to say ‘Never again,’ and we must make these words more than a simple promise to be repeated as a matter of ceremony,” Villaraigosa said, urging action on behalf of current global crises like the food shortage and genocide in Darfur. “We must state in one clear voice that in times of crisis and injustice, silence is never an acceptable response.”

Survivor Jona Goldrich, who sponsors the annual commemoration and donated $1 million to build a new Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust on the same site, shared the mayor’s sentiments.

“We relied on God too much,” Goldrich said about the crippling silence during World War II. “Now the responsibility lies with the second and third generations to carry forward the lesson.”

Consul General of Israel Jacob Dayan shared a personal story about his grandparents, who escaped the Holocaust but live with its memories every day of their lives.

Performances by Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra cellist Barry Gold and the TOVA Concert Singers, who sang the prayer for Israel, “Avinu Shebashabayim” and “When You Believe,” from the film the “The Prince of Egypt,” complemented the powerful tone of the ceremony.

“The Shoah is such a powerful experience, such an unprecedented happening in the history of humanity that there is a temptation to use it for something else,” said Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, who delivered the keynote address. “We remember, because those who died deserve to be remembered.”

— Danielle Berrin, Contributing Writer

Wiesenthal’s ‘Interactive’ Office Dedicated

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also observed Yom HaShoah at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The two were joined by the center’s officials and trustees and other guests to dedicate the Museum of Tolerance’s interactive installation recreating Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal’s office in Vienna.

The Museum of Tolerance includes artifacts transported from Austria from Wiesenthal’s office — his desk, books and many of the awards and honors he received for his work that contributed to the capture and successful prosecution of more than 1,100 Nazi war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann; Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka death camp; and Karl Silberbauer, the Nazi who arrested Anne Frank. The exhibition was made possible by a grant from Alan and Susan Casden.

Couple stands under the chuppah — 60 years on


“What is this chuppah? We didn’t order it.”

Maria Shvarts, 80, spotting the wedding canopy standing on the dance floor at West Hollywood’s Cafe Troyka, asked the restaurant staff to remove it. She and her husband Boris, 84, were hosting a 60th anniversary party. Guests were arriving, and the chuppah — obviously from a previous celebration, she thought — was an obstruction.

Then she saw Cantor Alexander Berkovich and Rabbi Liat Yardeni-Funk arrive, and suddenly she understood.

“This is what we were not allowed in Russia,” she said, stunned by the surprise that her son and daughter-in-law, Vladimir and Felina, had orchestrated.

Sixty years earlier, in a wedding veil her mother fashioned from a white curtain and a dress sewn from inexpensive floral-patterned silk, Maria Zaltsman celebrated her marriage to Boris Shvarts. They had exchanged vows in a perfunctory civil ceremony five days earlier and on that day gathered with 30 friends and family members in the living room of her parents’ tiny house in Kishinev, Moldavia, and ate cherry strudel and Napoleon cake and drank red wine.

That was Feb. 1, 1948. About 53,000 of Kishinev’s pre-World War II population of 65,000 Jews had been annihilated by the Nazis, and the town itself was almost completely reduced to rubble. Food and money were scarce, and in a country under the domain of the Soviet Union, a Jewish ceremony was out of the question for the young couple, 20 and 25 respectively.

“But the whole time we knew we were Jewish,” said Boris, who, like Maria, had been raised in an observant family.

Now, Maria, elegantly attired in a long beige lace dress with a turquoise corsage, and Boris, distinguished looking in a black suit and black-and-white tie, a kippah atop his head, were given the opportunity to reconsecrate those wedding vows.

Only this time, they stood together under a chuppah as Berkovich began singing “Dodi li v’ani lo” (my beloved is mine and I am his) and Yardeni-Funk welcomed more than 100 close friends and relatives.

The guests surrounded them, sitting at white-clothed tables, adorned with balloons and towering floral displays and covered with sumptuous platters of black and red caviar, Russian dumplings and beef stroganoff, as well as open bottles of vodka and wine. Many people blinked back tears.

“You’ve both experienced difficult times in your life, and today we’re all witnessing a miraculous and magical moment,” Yardeni-Funk said.

The difficult times began on June 28, 1940, when Soviet troops entered Kishinev, then part of Romania, making it no longer safe to be Jewish.

Maria’s immediate family managed to escape, riding a horse-drawn wagon to the railway station, where they boarded a cattle car for a two-month trip to Kazahkstan. There they lived in a mud hut and worked in the beetroot fields, given only a little bread and sugar to eat. “But we survived because of that,” Maria said.

Boris, whose family led a comfortable middle-class life, was 17 when the war broke out. He and his older brother, Gersh, were conscripted into the Soviet army, traveling east with the Russian front and digging trenches almost the entire time. Toward the end, they were sent to the Ural Mountains to work in a military factory.

After the war in 1945, Boris and his brother returned to a Kishinev lacking the most basic necessities. With the aqueducts destroyed, even water was scarce.

But life brightened when Boris’ mother sent him across the road to a water pump, instructing him to get the key from the Jewish family living next to the pump.

Boris knocked on the door and, in his words, “There appeared this magic girl.” That was Maria, then 17. From that time on, Boris willingly fetched all the family’s water “when we needed it, and when we didn’t need it,” he said.

Three years later they were married.

As they rose in their careers, unusual for Jews and especially non-Communist Party members, Maria and Boris found it difficult to practice any kind of Judaism. Yet, while their parents were still living, there were improvised seders with matzah bought on the black market and hamantaschen that Maria and Boris’ mothers baked for Purim. And when their son, Vladimir, was born in 1950, they even managed a bris. But these celebrations were always small and carried out clandestinely behind drawn drapes.

“Everything was more than good,” Maria said, despite the restrictions. Vladimir became a mechanical engineer and his wife, Felina, worked at a day care center. Their grandson, Roman, was born in 1972.

But Vladimir and Felina earned so little they couldn’t make a living, and in 1980, they immigrated to the United States. At the time, Maria was ill with thyroid cancer, her vocal cords paralyzed. And complicating things, the Moldavian borders closed, preventing Maria and Boris from following them after her recovery.

“For five years my eyes didn’t become dry,” Maria said, thinking that she would never see them again.

In January 1985, however, the border suddenly opened, and a few months later, on April 30, Maria and Boris landed at Los Angeles International Airport.

Their Judaism was rekindled. On Aug. 25 of that year, they celebrated their grandson Roman’s bar mitzvah at Stephen S. Wise Temple. They themselves began attending Shabbat and holiday services at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

But in addition to attending shul, both Maria and Boris wanted to give back to the community. Maria, who missed the engagement of full-time work, began volunteering at the Russian Senior Center in West Hollywood’s Plummer Park. She also taught holiday workshops to Russian �(c)migr�(c)s at Temple Israel and volunteered for 11 years as a case aide at Jewish Family Service.

Maria also joined the only Russian chapter of Na’amat in the United States in 1987. There were 16 members. After she took over as president in 1992, membership increased to 270. Meetings continue to be held twice a month, often at Cafe Troyka, with no less than 100 women attending each event.

“Whatever we do, it has to include fundraising,” Maria said, even though most of the members are living on SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

Blending cultural traditions in the name of love


Kirin and Babak might not seem like your ordinary Jewish couple. Kirin grew up Jewish in Anchorage, living the typical western American life. Babak was raised with the traditions of a large Persian Jewish family.

The pair met in Los Angeles, got engaged, and then threw a raucous Persian wedding with a twist from up North. While the food and the ceremony were Persian, the quilted chuppah sent down from the sisterhood at Kirin’s Anchorage synagogue was purely Alaskan.

The blending of wedding traditions to create a fusion ceremony has become a contemporary norm in multicultural Southern California. This trend holds true for the Jewish community.

“Welcome to Los Angeles,” said Rabbi Denise Eger of West Hollywood’s Congregation Kol Ami. “Here there are Chinese, Japanese, black, brown, Hispanic all being raised as Jews. The face of Judaism is not what it was back East.”

During one Jewish ceremony a couple used a red chuppah for good luck to honor Chinese tradition. A Persian-Asian Jewish pair sent out two sets of invitations with different start times to be sure everyone showed up at once.

Another couple, a Brazilian Jew and a Rhode Island Jew, met in Los Angeles and married in Brazil. Their ceremony featured a chuppah and glass-breaking as well as an offering afterward to Lemanja, the Brazilian goddess of the sea.

“Any wedding between a Jew and another person is still a mixed-cultural wedding,” said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Congregation Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. “Judaism all across the spectrum through the centuries has been strengthened by what we have gleaned from the societies around us.”

Rabbis understand that there is a rainbow of Jews. Further, Jewish fusion marriages are nothing new. “Historically, this is part of who we are as Jews.” Eger said.

But precedent doesn’t mean it is easy to marry seemingly disparate peoples. Questions arise when a couple comes from two separate worlds for one dream wedding.

“Will we lose our ethnic identity? That’s a concern for all kinds of families. Judaism is a religion but there is also an ethnicity piece to it,” Eger said.

“One thing consistent over the years is that having a ceremony is often a catalyst for families being more accepting of a union.”

Babak and Kirin bridge continents in their backgrounds, but they are also two people hailing from the same tribe. For their families, it was the cultural difference that took time to accept.

“There is an acclimation process,” Babak said. “Generally human beings are more comfortable with what we are familiar with. There is a time period involved for each family in acclimating to the unfamiliar.”

Kirin said her parents are now overjoyed with the cross-cultural offerings of her marriage, from new recipes and customs to new genealogy.

“My parents always said marry someone Jewish, it will make your life easier, happier. It never occurred to them that I could find someone Jewish, yet culturally so different,” she said.

While Persian Jewish traditions go back thousands of years, Alaskan Jews haven’t made it past the century mark.

“We Alaskan Jews were pioneers 40 years ago,” Kirin said. “We don’t have traditions necessarily.”

For this reason Babak and Kirin’s wedding was mostly Persian.

Marrying according to Persian tradition despite Alaskan roots didn’t phase Kirin, because her Alaskan community was well represented. “Seventy people came down,” she said.

“When walking off the beaten aisle on the way to a ceremony with thousands of years of cultural tradition behind it, you need all the company and encouragement you can get,” writes Ariel Meadow Stallings, author of the tongue-and-cheek “Offbeat Bride: Taffeta-Free Alternatives for Independent Brides.”

Rabbi Danny Yiftach of the Chabad of Marina del Rey asserted that within Orthodox communities there are often many different nationalities that marry.

“It is often because they are Torah-observant individuals that they are together. This is the main core of what they have in common,” he said.

Yiftach recalled a wedding where the bride was Ashkenazi and the groom Sephardi.

As the families were walking down the aisle the music changed from Ashkenazic to Sephardic, stopping and starting for each family member.

As writer Stallings put it, “If [the tradition] honestly and genuinely reflects the couple getting married, then awesome.”

If Kirin were to put her wedding highs and lows into her own Stallings-style guidebook, she would tell new couples to figure out which traditions are non-negotiable early on: “Then just accept it and enjoy the ride. You’ll save yourself a lot of headache.”

Both women recommended breathing, as did Comess-Daniels, for the purpose of holding on to fleeting memories, connecting to your partner’s vision on the ceremony and surviving the overall wedding chaos.

“Every couple says ‘our wedding is going to be different,'” Kirin laughed. “But from three stories up they are all, fundamentally, the same.”

Same-sex unions roil Jews in former Soviet Union


The resignation of a longtime leader of one of the largest Reform congregations in Ukraine has thrown the spotlight on a bitter controversy over homosexuality within the post-Soviet Reform movement.
 
Boris Kapustin, 70, founder and chairman of the Reform congregation in the Crimean town of Kerch, quit his post in September.
 
While Ukrainian Reform leaders cite Kapustin’s age and health concerns as reasons for his resignation, Kapustin said his resignation stemmed from his opposition to the movement’s acceptance of same-sex commitment ceremonies.
 
“I don’t want to participate in a movement that has organized a chuppah for lesbians, which happened in Moscow this year,” Kapustin said.
 
He was referring to Rabbi Nelly Shulman, who officiated at an April 2 commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple. It is believed to be the first Jewish, same-sex commitment ceremony in the former Soviet Union.
 
A strong backlash greeted the move by Shulman, who insisted she officiated at the ceremony on her own private initiative and was not backed in any way by her group, OROSIR, the umbrella organization of Reform Judaism in Russia.
 
In a strongly worded statement, the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities, the largest stream in the former Soviet Union, urged a boycott of the Reform movement. There were also repercussions within the Progressive movement, as Reform Judaism is referred to in the region.
 
In late April, Zinovy Kogan resigned as chairman of the movement’s Moscow-based umbrella group. In August, a Reform congregation in the Ukrainian town of Pavlograd wrote to all Reform synagogues in the country, urging them to “renounce all religious contacts with the people who committed that crime,” a reference to the lesbian ceremony.
 
Responding to the wave of criticism from their communities, the six Reform rabbis working in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus have agreed to ban such ceremonies for the time being, saying that post-Soviet citizens, including Jews, are not yet prepared to accept the Reform movement’s liberal approach to homosexuality.
 
Homosexuality was only decriminalized after the fall of the Soviet Union 15 years ago. According to a recent poll, 37 percent of Russians still believe gays and lesbians should be criminally prosecuted.
 
Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, the Kiev-based leader of the Reform movement in Ukraine, said that Reform Jews who criticize the ceremony “completely misunderstand Reform Judaism, which teaches tolerance and respect toward the choice of each and every individual.”
 
Nevertheless, when Dukhovny is approached by same-sex couples who want to arrange such a ceremony, “I tell them that neither our community nor society is ready for this.”
 
Esfir Mikhailova, recently appointed as Kapustin’s successor in Kerch, refused to speculate on this aspect of Kapustin’s resignation.
 
“At our board meeting, Kapustin told us he decided to retire because of his age and problems with health,” Mikhailova said.
 
Dukhovny praised Kapustin’s role in building a “strong congregation” in this Crimean town of 160,000.
 
The Kerch Progressive congregation, which Kapustin founded in 1997, has 1,000 members, virtually all the town’s Jews and their families. It is considered a leading light among the 70-odd Reform communities in the former Soviet Union.
 
A retired Soviet navy officer, Kapustin is credited by many local Jews with building a strong and unified Jewish community. That is a rarity in a region where Jewish life is often plagued by infighting among Chabad, non-Chabad Orthodox and Reform groups.
 
Also rare is the congregation’s monopoly over local Jewish life. Kerch is one of a handful of Reform communities anywhere in the former Soviet Union that owns its own building, a 19th century synagogue returned to the congregation as part of a government program of religious property restitution. The community restored the building and reopened it in 2001.
 
Chabad does not have a presence in the town.
 
“This is one of the largest and the best functioning, congregations in Ukraine,” said Alexander Gaydar, executive director of the Association of Progressive Jewish Congregations of Ukraine.
 
The congregation runs religious, cultural, educational and charitable programs; youth and women’s clubs; senior center; family Sunday school; Jewish museum, and theater group. Funds come from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Almost everyone in the Kerch community credits Kapustin’s leadership for the congregation’s success.
 
Kapustin’s son, Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin, 26, was ordained a year ago at the Leo Baeck College in London. The youngest of the six Reform rabbis in the former Soviet Union, he serves the Reform congregation in Kkarkov, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
 
Neither he nor Reform Jews in Kerch believe the elder Kapustin’s resignation will harm the congregation he built.
 
“Boris Kapustin has retired, but he built a good basis for the congregation, which will continue to develop,” Dukhovny said.
 

According to a recent poll, 37 percent of Russians still believe gays and lesbians should be criminally prosecuted.

When a couple divorces, the custody battle goes beyond dishes and children


Jews are not immune to America’s divorce endemic.

With one in two marriages ending long before the expiration date contemplated by the ketubah, rabbis frequently find themselves in the difficult position of having to officiate at bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings with families who continue to be hurt and angry about a divorce. Today’s wedding chuppah is called upon to accommodate not just the bride’s and groom’s parents, but stepfathers and stepmothers as well.

In fact, divorce issues can affect nearly every aspect of a family’s relationship with the synagogue, and with Judaism: Hebrew school, havurahs, Passover seders, Shabbat dinners and Chanukah celebrations are all impacted when a couple splits up.

Even trips to Israel.

Susan Chait and her husband, Michael, wanted to take Michael’s son from a previous marriage to Israel following his bar mitzvah. But the boy’s mother refused to give permission, even at a time when security was not an issue.

“Initially, we had the rabbi talk to her, but she wouldn’t change her mind,” Chait said. “Ultimately, we had to go to court. The judge was angry about the fact that she would stand in the way of her child taking advantage of a great opportunity. He said, ‘I am Jewish, and I understand the importance of a trip like this’ and gave us permission to take him on the trip.”

Chait said she believes the conflict between her husband and his ex-wife blinded her to her children’s welfare.

“And the really sad part of it is that the children know this,” she said. “My advice for parents in this situation is to put the love for your children over the animosity that you have for each other.”

Rabbi David Wolpe of Westwood’s Conservative Sinai Temple is a frequent witness to the battles that affect the synagogue when there is a divorce.

“High Holiday tickets are a very contentious issue,” he said. “They represent not only a monetary investment, but also a community, and it is very difficult for the parties and the synagogue to negotiate over who gets the community. Congregants often feel like there is a judgment of who is right and who is wrong. What tends to happen is the person who has the most friends or connections in the community ends up getting the shul.”

So what is the rabbi’s role in the drama?

“People often try to put the rabbi in the middle to make the difficult decisions, but one of the most important things is not to allow people to triangulate,” Wolpe said. “The rabbi needs to return [the parties] to each other so that they can work the issue out between themselves. The rabbi that doesn’t learn that is in a lot of trouble.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom has also witnessed the impact of divorce on the synagogue.

“Families sometimes use the bar/bat mitzvah as the place to continue the unresolved battles for control, financial redress, custody, etc,” he said. “They can be unusually nasty, petty and mean. They put the rabbi in the uncomfortable position of reminding adults to stop fighting like children and to focus on the child and his or her memories of this special day. Weddings can likewise be difficult. Who stands beneath the chuppah?”

Steve Garren, an active member of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, has witnessed the impact that his two-year separation has had on his family’s synagogue life.
“Even though we went to the rabbi before we split up, this is not something that clergy can tell you exactly how to handle,” he said. “When it comes to divorce, the rabbi doesn’t have the answer for how each family is going to do it and what it is going to look like. The reality is that when you first separate, the temple mail keeps going to just one address.

“When you split up you suddenly become a conversation piece among temple friends, which of course is something that you never wanted to be,” Garren added. “Our separation also meant that we were not in our havurah anymore.
“Passover this year was the first time that the four of us weren’t together,” he said. “The kids went with me one night, and the next night they went with my wife to her parent’s house. We both try to do a good job of minimizing the impact, but there is definitely an impact.”

Hebrew school, frequently a battleground between children and their parents, also finds its way into internal parental battles. Wolpe noted that divorce frequently impacts Hebrew school attendance.
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“Now Hebrew school becomes an additional weapon,” he said. “‘How come you didn’t take him to Hebrew school?’ Some parents work it out well, but many of them only care about Hebrew school to the extent that it is a weapon, and of course it is the kids that suffer.”

Susan Chait saw firsthand how Hebrew school became just another weapon in the divorce arsenal.

“Because my husband and his ex-wife had joint custody at the time his second son was attending Hebrew school, my husband’s ex would use skipping Hebrew school as a way to win her son over.”

So who does get the shul? It depends on the dynamic that the family ultimately chooses for itself. Feinstein noted that although the battles between divorcing Jewish couples can be nasty and mean, other times “divorce can liberate people to enjoy new relationships and a new life,” he said. “They can become better parents, better Jews and better people as they emerge from a marriage that was stifling and abusive. I’ve seen this, too. There are no easy generalizations.”

Today’s wedding chuppah is called upon to accommodate not just the bride’s and groom’s parents, but stepfathers and stepmothers as well.

Wendy Jaffe is the author of “The Divorce Lawyers’ Guide To Staying Married” (Volt Press, 2006). She can be reached at

Fight the Enemy by Being More Jewish


I was at a big, beautiful Jewish wedding two weeks ago when something unusual interrupted the traditional chuppah ceremony: someone came up and read a poignant prayer inEnglish in support of our suffering Jewish brethren in Israel.

Initially, there was no doubt in my mind that this was an appropriate thing to do: dozens of Israeli soldiers had been killed in the preceding days, and the pain of this loss as well as the tremendous hardships in Israel over the past few weeks were undoubtedly on the minds of the assembled guests. But as the prayer wore on and the reader got all choked up, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was bringing unintended sadness to a moment of personal joy.

A great many of us are consumed by the nasty war of existence Israel has been fighting, by the international diplomatic backlash against the Jewish state, and by the renewed chutzpah of an enemy intent on destroying us. It is natural that we should do anything we can to help, whether through charitable donations, public demonstrations or even prayers at weddings.

But in our zeal to do something, in our all-consuming anger at a cowardly and unjust enemy, it is easy to fall into a trap of putting other important things on hold, like our Jewishness.

Think of how many Shabbat dinners have been littered with conversations about Katusha rockets, anti-tank missiles, hypocritical U.N. resolutions and the need for more ground troops. Not that these things are unimportant, but are they more important than our age-old traditions of joyful songs and holy conversations on Shabbat? I’ve often thought that one of Yasser Arafat’s hidden victories against the Jewish people was the darkening of millions of Shabbat dinners around the world.

The silver lining of Jewish unity in times of war is overrated. We forget how wars can throw us off our game. When you’re transfixed in front of Fox News or Arutz Sheva, who has the inclination to take the kids to do a mitzvah? When you spend hours at dinner tables and in living rooms railing against the injustices visited on the Jewish people, who can focus on increasing his or her Jewish learning, or going to a conference on honoring our parents or strengthening our relationships?

Wars are brutal: We yell, we fight, we give money. Judaism is anything but brutal. It’s delicate, complex, subtle. A war-like mentality is not our first choice. Wars promote coarseness, cockiness and smugness, not the ideal Jewish traits. We fight like lions when we have to, we express our outrage when we must, but we still keep an eye on the bigger fight: the need to strengthen our Jewish identity, beyond the temporary boost we get in times of war.

Cease-fire or no cease-fire, we seem to always be in crisis mode, which means we must be extra vigilant. When we’re fighting only to survive, it’s easy to lose sight of what makes us thrive. When fundraising letters promote one big crisis after another, it’s easy to abandon the little details and daily obligations that make up the core of Jewish identity. This gives succor to our enemies, for they seek to destroy not just Jews but Judaism itself.

It seems to me that one way we can foil this enemy is to stop agonizing so much over the news and start doing more Judaism.

I, for one, will make a vow to spend two fewer hours complaining about Israel’s situation and take my kids next Thursday to Tomchei Shabbat, the organization that provides Shabbat and holiday meals to the needy.

I will take another few hours from reading The New Republic, Commentary and The New York Times to take the kids to a retirement home to sing Shabbat songs.

I’ll take some more time from watching Bill O’Reilly and Hannity and Colmes to play Aleph Bet Bingo and the Rashi Memory Game with the kids, and I might even find time to set up that Rambam class with Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller we keep talking about.

And on Friday night, I promise not to talk about Katusha rockets, and I will sing quite loudly (to my children’s great torment) my favorite melodies.

Of course, I will continue to raise money for needy families in Israel, I will RSVP “yes” to any event that will help Israel, and I will continue to pray for the well-being of our brothers and sisters in Israel.

In other words, I will kvetch less and do more.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

When Just ‘I Do’ Just Won’t Do


The traditional Jewish wedding ceremony as we know it has evolved over thousands of years. But suddenly, today, in what seems like a nanosecond out of all of recorded Jewish history, couples standing under the chuppah are seeking a whole new script.

It’s in to take the traditional text and tweak it. Couples from Judaism’s most conventional communities and those independent souls who call themselves Jews but don’t identify with any particular movement are customizing the details of what they and their officiants will say on their wedding day.

It’s not exactly a revolution. Brides and grooms are not tossing aside the spiritual significance and solemnity of the occasion, nor are they inventing new rituals. On the contrary, customs such as the couple spending a brief period privately after the ceremony (yichud) — for a long time observed only among more traditional groups — are now being adopted by community members of varying stripes. But the tendency among virtually all but the most conservative groups is to make sure that the promises made to and by each partner are personally relevant and come from both the heart and mind.

Yesterday’s Jewish wedding words are seen as issued from another world — a world where women were viewed as second-class citizens, at best, or property, at worst. When a bride left her family to marry, a legal contract was prepared, transferring, among other things, the responsibility for her upkeep. It was hoped that companionship, love, mutual respect and all that other good stuff that we 21st century, enlightened people strive for in a marriage, would naturally accompany this official transmittal. But if it didn’t, tough break.

Modern women see themselves as anything but property. And with divorce rates already ridiculously high, why start a marriage with words that don’t describe the real deal?

Traditionally and in Aramaic, the groom spoke the only words that would be considered a vow. The woman was silent. In more modern circles, a double-ring ceremony and a feminine version of the same sentence were and are often employed.

Then there’s the ketubah, the binding contract that made the marriage legal under Jewish law. Since reading all or part of the ketubah aloud to those gathered at the ceremony is customary, the words, though sometimes very personal, become part of the public pageantry.

So if you belonged to an Orthodox shul and wanted your rabbi to officiate at your wedding, he would supply an Orthodox ketubah. I have one of those. Even back in 1973 I thought the wording of the ketubah seemed quite archaic, and I still laugh when I recall the groom’s statement, “I will work for thee.” We were working together at the same job, for the same salary.

I didn’t quit my job after the honeymoon to sit at home and eat bonbons. We were a team, a partnership dedicated to each other as we led a Jewish life and saved some money so that someday we could have the all-American, Jewish dream: enough money to have a couple of kids, a house and a synagogue membership in the suburbs.

For the most part, a Conservative rabbi or cantor who officiates today will still require the couple to have a ketubah, but with what is called the Lieberman clause. This is an addendum that came into being because of the hardship endured by many Jewish women wishing to obtain a get (Jewish divorce) but denied one by a begrudging husband. While nobody wants to enter into a marriage with the thought that it will not last forever, this clause equalizes the get playing-field.

What are some of the words currently being spoken by Jewish couples under the chuppah? Here are some samples:

“Be my husband (wife, partner) according to the laws of Moses and Israel and I will cherish, respect and support you in the faithful manner in which sons (daughters) in Israel cherish, respect and support their wives (husbands, partners).

“We promise to be ever-accepting of one another while treasuring each other’s individuality.

“As husband and wife, we will build a wonderful family in a home filled with trust, warmth, laughter and love.”

If you are planning your wedding, my first words of advice are to consult with the person who will officiate. For your next step, visit sites such as ketubahcollection.com, ketubah4less.com, artketubah.com, ketubaworld.com and e-ketubah.com. Dozens of possibilities, from the most traditional Orthodox to texts with a definite liberal leaning, are there for you to consider.

Just remember that in order to avoid any conflicts with the clergy, wording for the ketubah and your part of the ceremony must be cleared in advance with your rabbi or whomever will be officiating. One wrong word could cause 1,000 problems.

While most couples still choose to use a ketubah in one form or another, an alternative document — a B’rit Ahuvim certificate — is becoming more common in Reform circles. It is described as a covenant between equals, a loving partnership between companions. For a better understanding of this Talmud-based agreement and a Reform rabbi’s take on the traditional route to wedlock via a ketubah, see www.adventurerabbi.com on the Web. Rabbi Jaime Korngold, the adventurous, Colorado-based rabbi who presides over weddings, commitment ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvahs and other Jewish events both indoors and al fresco, has some enlightening insights to share.

My advice to couples planning an intimate ceremony with their parents and a few close friends and relatives: Feel free to add all the psalms, prayers, poetry and personal reflections that you feel like expressing on your special day.

But if you opt for a grand affair, please keep your words brief. The rest of the Jewish ceremony can last a long time, and gathered guests who have traveled many miles to share your happy day will be hungry. The only words left to say are, “Let the party begin!”

Pearl Salkin is a freelance writer living in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Creative Chuppahs Are Labor of Love


Nancy and Kim Goldov wanted to personalize everything about their wedding. She sewed her own gown. He composed music for the ceremony. They both created a new last name to share: combining Stolov and Goldschmidt into Goldov. So it probably didn’t surprise anyone that the couple spent months crafting a one-of-a-kind chuppah to say their vows under.

“The rabbi used the image of weaving our lives together,” when he commented about the way Nancy and Kim carefully planned their creative wedding, with the help of friends and family. Nancy says they decided to make their own chuppah out of hand-dyed silk and handcrafted wood in part because they wanted to create a lasting memory.

“The wedding became a focus for all of our creative energy,” she explained.

They also were able to take such a creative approach to the chuppah because they had lots of time and friends who were craftspeople and willing to help with the woodworking and dying of the silk.

“It wasn’t a sudden wedding. It was a very planned wedding,” Nancy said. “It’s not something every couple could do or want to…. We kind of went overboard.”

But now, thanks to their hard work, Nancy and Kim also have a beautiful canopy over their bed. They can look up and see the magical “tree of life” with pomegranates, apples and figs. The tree surrounds a Star of David made from a piece of spallted maple wood found in a park. The four posts of the canopy are a delicate combination of several different kinds of wood.

Nancy says the chuppah cost a few hundred dollars to make, but is now considered a priceless family heirloom. She is having a quilt made for their bed that mimics the design of the tree. Someday she may change the chuppah in some way to signify their children.

One of the questions Nancy asked concerning her creative chuppah was whether it adhered to Jewish law concerning wedding ceremonies. According to The Jewish Catalog and Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s book, “The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage” (Jonathan David, 1991) the chuppah is affected more by tradition than law.

Traditionally, the wedding ceremony took place under the stars as an omen that the marriage should be blessed with as many children as stars in heaven. To create a more intimate space for the ceremony, rabbis in the Middle Ages allowed the use of a chuppah, which symbolizes the groom’s home into which he invites the bride. It is required only for the seven blessings and only the bride and groom need to stand under it.

“It teaches that this simple, fragile room which is now common to both partners launches the marriage,” Lamm explained.

As with any wedding ceremony decision, it is best to discuss chuppah ideas with your rabbi before you start collecting materials and assembling the structure. Depending on whether the rabbi is Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative or Orthodox, he or she may have different ideas about what is required.

Some of the more common kinds of chuppahs involve a tapestry or tallit fastened to the top of four poles. The poles can be held by four friends or put in some kind of stand. Keep in mind the length of your ceremony before making a decision about whether to have people hold the poles. Some brides prefer to decorate the tapestry with flowers.

How elaborate a chuppah you choose also depends on how much time and energy you want to put into the project. A combination of creative energy and a little chutzpah helped Jenifer Thornton and her mother create a special chuppah for her wedding.

“I’m in a creative field and I knew that I didn’t want to just do the standard,” Jenifer said, adding that they researched whether they could rent a creative chuppah but found nothing to their liking.

“We just kind of thought, if it works out, great.” The only problem was — and this would be a big problem for many brides — they didn’t know what the chuppah was going to look like until an hour before the wedding. They couldn’t put it together in advance and then move to the location of the ceremony.

Jenifer and Philip Thornton’s chuppah consisted of plaster columns; adorned with lace netting, green plants, ivy and copper ribbon.

“It was beautiful and everyone loved it. The only thing I would change would be the lighting,” she said, indicating she would recommend backlighting the chuppah for a greater impact.

She says it wasn’t expensive, but warns that finding proper columns can be a challenge. Most replicas that can be rented are too light and easily toppled by sudden movement.

“It’s difficult to rent them,” she said. “They have to be heavy. You definitely don’t want them to fall over.”

She rented the columns from a friend who doesn’t usually loan them out.

Another approach to creating your own chuppah is to consult with an architect or a landscape designer. When Julie Israel got married about five years ago she was lucky enough to have an architectural designer right in the family, her mother, Linda Haugen.

The chuppah for Julie’s wedding to David Israel consisted of “marbleized” wooden columns and a trellis covered in ivy and flowers. The structurally dramatic chuppah fit in well with the architecture at Temple De Hirsch Sinai.

“It was a very dramatic and important structure and it added considerably to the whole ceremony,” she said.

Fitting the chuppah to the setting and the personalities of the bride and groom is very important, but perhaps the most critical aspect of the project is getting prepared to build it the night or morning before the wedding in just a few hours.

Her experience in architecture and the theater prepared Linda for the project.

“If someone wanted to have a chuppah like ours, they should turn to someone with our level of experience,” she said. “It would be difficult for the average person to do it. It really involves a lot of thought and coordination.”

When asked if such a structural chuppah could have a second life after the wedding, Linda said one could consider reconstructing it in their garden: “It’s your first house and that’s what’s so lovely about it.”

A Portrait of My Wedding


After only two hours of sleep, I woke up on Aug. 13, 2000, to the sounds of drizzle hitting my hotel window. With a pit in my stomach, I got out of bed — terrified and excited all at once. It was my wedding day, the culmination of three months of harried planning. I desperately wanted everything about this day to be perfect, to reflect the perfect love that Brad and I shared.

I scanned the piles around my room: my veil, bridesmaids gifts, personal belongings I would need for the few days following the wedding and lavender Wedding Guides I composed explaining to my guests all the traditional customs and rites they would be a part of that day. That last item made me a bit uptight. "Will my family and friends be utterly lost?" I wondered. After all, I had not become Orthodox until I was 20, and my parents, three sisters, relatives and friends could not believe the transformation. They just soothed themselves with the old adage, "live and let live."

Brad, who also became religious in his 20s, comes from a similar background. Actually, his mother is vehemently Reform, and loudly voices her objections to everything we do (in a sweet way, of course).

Fast-forward three hours and two hairstyles later, as the guests arrive. There is a lot of excitement on two floors. Brad and the men are at the chosen’s tisch (the groom’s table) where a great deal of legal business is being transacted: the tenaim (marriage contract) are agreed upon and signed by two witnesses, ditto for the ketubbah. And in between, Chasidic Lubavitchers that Brad studied with were toasting jubilant L’Chaims, while his college and medical school buddies were trying to make sense of what was going on and what they were supposed to do.

"I hadn’t seen Brad in five years, and just as I was about to give Brad a high-five, he started reading this blessing in Aramaic," recalled his long-time friend Jon. (Editor’s note: the blessing was a meimer, a discourse from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe.) "It went on for so long, I thought we would miss the party upstairs with all the women."

Suddenly, the moment I dreamed of! Accompanied by spirited music, Brad arrived upstairs for the bedeking (covering the bride). This was no ordinary arrival. It was more like a parade of cheering fans extending far behind him, singing jubilant wedding melodies and clapping. The excitement was palpable as Brad approached my throne, whispered in my ear, blessed me in the verses of the Kohanim, the priestly blessing, and draped my veil over my head. With that, he was gone.

This was exactly how I wanted my wedding — imbued with meaning and tradition. I was so grateful to the Almighty for sending me my beshert (soulmate), who exceeded my every expectation and dream, I might add. Throughout my wedding, I thanked God for all the goodness he bestowed upon me and prayed for our future. It is so important to pray at your own wedding, for there is no greater opportunity for divine intervention.

On their wedding day, a bride and groom each experience a Yom Kippur of a lifetime and are forgiven for any past wrongdoing. This is the purest and most auspicious day of our lives and should be taken advantage of. The spiritual ascendance that accompanied our wedding also provided a tremendous opportunity to pray for people who were ill or were in need of divine assistance in any regard. Needless to say, under the chuppah, I had a lengthy list of friends, and friends of friends, all seeking their beshert.

The chuppah was the most remarkable part of our wedding. Luckily, our rabbi was hysterically funny and made everyone feel comfortable, inspired and entertained, all at once. We also added some unique customs to the service, such as calling up all the Kohanim from the crowd to bless us in the same verses they traditionally bless the congregation during the holidays. This was quite humorous because Brad is a Kohen, as are his father, brothers, uncles, cousins and so forth. They are not religious, however, and had no advance knowledge this would be sprung upon them. We wanted it to be a surprise and I purposely omitted it from the Wedding Guide. I did, however, photocopy sheets with the transliteration of the verses. It was still a struggle, nonetheless, but it looked great on the wedding video! Just picture 30-something men with tallitot draped over their heads blessing us as we stood in our chuppah!

Next, we called up one of Brad’s single friends (who used to attend Jewish singles events with him) to finish off the cups of wine used during the betrothal and marriage blessings. Another surprise! "That was really tough," he recalled.

But in between the laughs and bewilderment, I could envision what my proper, erudite grandmother was thinking.

"At least the wedding was at a country club," she said later, "and you and Brad should just be very happy together."

Surprisingly, many guests remarked that this was the longest and most exciting marriage ceremony they had ever witnessed.

"That was the best part," recalled my former co-worker and friend, Henry. "You want to know something funny? Sotoko [his Japanese wife who had just arrived in America and barely spoke English] just assumed this was what an American wedding was like."

Not everyone was pleased with the separate dancing, and my parents even tried to sneak in a dance together, which quickly got broken up.

"What’s the big deal," my mother protested. "It’s not like your Dad and I are not married," I recollect my mother saying.

I can recall being lowered in my seat from high in the air (think: last bar mitzvah you attended) and being placed side by side with Brad. Next came the performances and out came the wedding "shtick," accouterments to enhance their performance. Suddenly, the Orthodox guests among us were in costume and juggling, others did solo dance performances, some ladies passed out party hats and streamers, and our short rabbi was dancing on a taller guest’s shoulders. Then, a few young guys stepped forward and the celebration was in full swing, literally. One guy swung another by his arms, as a third jumped over his flying legs, which served as a jump rope.

"It was so crazy, I have never seen anything like it," recalled my bubbly 20-year-old sister, Shanna, on the phone. "I liked the Israeli songs, but it would have been nice to have some English dance songs, too."

My father felt awkward dancing with only guys, so aside from trying to sneak in a dance with my mother, he just shmoozed and ate to his heart’s delight.

"The wedding was lovely," he told me the other day, "and filled with spirit and energy. That was really special."

As our party favor, we gave out wedding benchers (booklets of grace after meals). To our dismay, and reflecting the demographic of our bunch, two-thirds of the benchers were left behind on the table at the end of the wedding. Poor Uncle Lenny had been assigned the task of collecting them. We had so many left over that we donated them to a struggling kosher pizza parlor in Maryland.

Unfortunately, our guests bid us adieu after the dessert. In other words, hardly anyone, save for our immediate families, stayed for the Birkat HaMazon (the benching after meals, hence, the benchers on the table). This ritual included reciting the Sheva Brachot, the special marital blessings recited under the chuppah, and every day for a week thereafter. You need a minyan of 10 men, and we didn’t meet our quorum. It was so embarrassing — we had to pull the men from the band! So, the music stopped, they recited the "Sheva Brachot" and the wedding ended anti-climatically.

I was too happy to care. After all, each ending marks a new beginning. For us, it is parenthood.

There must be something to those "Sheva Brachot."


Soriya Daniels is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She frequently writes about Jewish affairs.

Writer’s Race to the Chuppah


If the summer’s wackiest movie groom is Jewish, credit "American Pie" franchise creator Adam Herz. The Jewish screenwriter based the fictional Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) and friends on himself and his high school pals. His iconic 1999 "Pie," with its infamous pastry-nooky scene, drew on their teenage sexual peccadilloes. The equally raunchy sequel explored how they struggled to stay friends after graduation.

For his third slice of "Pie," Herz upgraded to wedding cake because "I was hosting bachelor parties and going to like, 10 weddings a year."

The movie revolves around Jim, his ex-band geek fiancée (Alyson Hannigan) and "the as — who wants to crash the wedding," he said.

Levenstein’s stereotypically kvetchy bubbe isn’t thrilled about the non-Jewish bride, which also drew on Herz’s experience. "My grandparents are terrified I’m going to interrupt the bloodline," he said. "But I have a Jewish girlfriend now, which should make them happy."

Herz, 30, was anything but happy while struggling to finish the "Wedding" script in March 2002. Universal had commissioned it after the first two "Pies" devoured close to $250 million domestically — even though the actors had sworn they wouldn’t return.

"So the pressure was on, and I just couldn’t crack the story," he said. "I went through the depths of, ‘I’m horrible and I’ll never work again.’"

When Herz begged a Universal executive for more time, he sounded like the bumbling Levenstein pleading for an extension on his homework.

"But she said ‘I don’t care if you scribble a few lines on a napkin, I need something funny to show the actors," he said.

Herz burned the midnight oil and, two weeks later, he delivered a script that convinced everyone to sign on.

"Adam has the gift of embellishment to the point of creating scenes that are shocking but hysterical," said Eugene Levy, who plays Jim’s dad.

In the nuptial sequence, Levy gets to look aghast when the bride’s clueless father toasts, "Let’s hope we can sit many happy shivas together."

The Jewish actor likes that pere Levenstein comes off as the quintessential, supportive Jewish dad.

"He’s not prudish about sex," Levy said. "He thinks the idea that his son is messing around with a girl instead of baked goods is a good thing."

My Very Own Chuppah


Hold onto your son’s baby blanket. Don’t give away your daughter’s cheerleading uniform. If they hold precious memories and deep meanings, you may be able to recycle them — as part of your child’s chuppah.

Chuppahs and ketubahs are long-standing Jewish wedding traditions. But Los Angeles couples are now taking their heritage to a more personal place, using chuppahs and ketubahs with intimate, as well as religious, significance. And they are asking their parents to help them create these special wedding fixtures.

With their parents’ assistance, Los Angeles-area brides and grooms are trading in hotel rent-a-coverings and standard flowered archways for chuppahs they can truly call their own. Joan and Joel Schrier of Brentwood helped their daughter and son-in-law produce a patchwork chuppah. Joan Schrier, a Skirball Cultural Center docent, sent out 36 fabric squares to her daughter’s wedding guests, asking the friends and relatives to decorate their swatch with a meaningful illustration.

"Weddings all have common denominators: a white bridal dress, a band and not-so-wonderful food. This was a way to make Kimberly and David’s wedding unique to them," Schrier said. She collected the finished squares and her husband sewed them into the quilt under which their daughter, Kimberly Gowing, married.

Gowing, a pediatrician, attended Palisades High School with her husband David, a singer-songwriter. The former classmates started dating after their 10-year reunion and married on July 1, 2001, at the Skirball.

"It was amazing to stand under the chuppah, glance up during the ceremony and see how many special people contributed to our day," Gowing said. Cherished chuppah panels displayed the handprints of a 6-month-old niece, a non-Jewish friend’s Tree of Life and Joan Schrier’s embroidered Rashi quote. The Gowings, who now live in Seattle and attend Temple De Hirsch Sinai, plan to prominently display their chuppah in their home.

The quilt chuppah is a fast-growing Los Angeles wedding trend. Nicole Jessel Heilman, who attends Temple Judea in Tarzana, also recruited her guests’ talents. "I wanted to get my family and friends involved with our wedding," she said.

Heilman, a teacher, was married at the Bel Air Bay Club under a schoolhouse painted by her kindergarten teacher, photos scanned by a childhood friend and a police car she designed for her husband, Dave, a law enforcement officer. Heilman’s mother, Maxine Jessel, spearheaded her daughter’s chuppah effort. "It’s the way people who shared in their lives could share in their ceremony," said Jessel, owner of The Max Event Coordinators.

Variations on the patchwork chuppah are springing up around the Southland. Some couples turn to themselves, not their guests, for square ideas. Newlyweds-to-be have sewn together fabric swatches from memory-filled clothing like football jerseys, baby blankets, beach towels from a first date at Zuma and even college pennants.

Carol Attia, owner of Under The Chuppah Online, has seen a significant increase in personalized chuppahs during her 10 years in business. She believes these self-designed chuppahs truly enhance a wedding day.

"A wedding is so personal, people want their chuppah to reflect who they are," said Attia, recalling one bride’s chuppah made of white fairy lights. She sewed her favorite chuppah out of the mother-of-the-bride and mother-in-law’s wedding dresses.

"The couple married under this chuppah viewed their wedding not as a union of two people but as a union of two families," Attia said. "It’s wonderful that couples now feel free enough to express their love through creative concepts," she added.

Los Angeles couples and their parents display this same creativity with their original ketubah designs. While ketubah prints and texts can be purchased at Judaic galleries, catalogs and Web sites, many Angelenos produce their own. Original artwork can highlight everything from the couple’s hobbies to their engagement stories.

Jessel recently created a ketubah that incorporated the newlywed’s occupations. A teacher and a veterinarian, the couple’s ketubah was covered with animals and children. "Bride and grooms really want the ketubah art to represent their lives, and their two worlds coming together," Jessel said.

Michah Parker, president of e-ketubah.com, just constructed a ketubah using a grandmother’s painting of the bride and groom at sunset. Parker noted that the number of nonconventional ketubah requests he receives has increased every year since 1995. He credits this trend to technology

"Nontraditional, abstract, even bizarre, ketubah art and language has become more popular. When people surf the Internet, they get new and unusual ideas," Parker said. "Plus, now we can download art files, like the grandmother’s work, or a friend’s painting, so we have the ability to accommodate original ideas," he added.

Gene and Ruth Kirshner, members of Temple Beth El in San Pedro, enlisted modern technology to produce their daughter, Shana Johnson’s, ketubah. Gene Kirshner authored the ketubah text and created the artwork on his home computer. "I once did a sample photo mat that looked like the two tablets. I had that in mind when I designed the art," said Kirshner, who once owned a framing business.

The proud father shaped his daughter’s ketubah like the covenant tablets. "I’ve been putting away ketubah texts and ideas for years, in anticipation of my children’s weddings. A ketubah is more meaningful if it has the exact words and images you want," Kirshner said.

Johnson, a physician’s assistant, and her husband Matt, a Score Learning Center executive, married on March 25, 2001 at La Venta Inn in Palos Verdes. Johnson beams as she talks about her cherished ketubah. "I love it. It really captures our relationship, and it means even more to me and Matt because my Dad made it for us," Johnson said. Their ketubah, written in English, is bordered in the same deep rose color as Johnson’s bridesmaid’s dresses.

"It’s so much more special and personal than the standard ketubah. It was a way to take the Jewish heritage and make it our own," said Johnson, whose ketubah hangs in her living room.

This desire to mesh Jewish culture with personal expression seems to drive these wedding trends. In producing their own chuppahs and ketubahs, couples weave their religious ties with their own lives. And in doing so, perhaps they are starting their own tradition.

Gowing was so moved by her personalized chuppah and her parent’s involvement, she hopes to continue the custom when she has children of her own. "I’d love if they got married under our quilt chuppah, but with an added a perimeter of squares made just for them," Gowing said. Perhaps this new nuptial trend is actually becoming a new nuptial tradition.

The Meaning of Marriage


Late spring in Los Angeles: cool, foggy mornings, with sun breaking through around midday. The strawberries are sweet and luscious; the gardens are full of roses. It’s the season of simchas. Our calendars are crowded with graduations and family parties, but most of all with weddings.

The cascading flowers, the gowns and tuxes, the delectable spread on the buffet tables are only a frame for the most beautiful sight at any wedding: the faces of the bride and groom under the chuppah, or at unguarded moments when they think nobody is watching. You notice the way they look at each other and the way they hold hands and the way they dance together — caught up, for those moments, in a magic circle where nobody else exists.

They speak to each other under the marriage canopy, voices breaking with emotion, promising love and friendship, respect and understanding. They sign their names to promises so vast and deep, they would make you tremble if you really thought about them — but the bride and groom are not thinking at that moment, not thinking at all. They are in a fever of joy; they can hardly breathe; they are caught up in the magic circle.

It is all over in a few minutes: the cups of wine, the ancient Hebrew words of commitment, the rings, the blessings, the sound of shattering glass. But something profound has changed in those moments. A covenant is sealed; two people are set apart for one another.

It’s a long way from the chuppah to the fifth chapter of Numbers, where the Torah takes us in this season of roses and romance. It’s grim reading material for wedding guests, and even more so for a bride and groom.

For this week’s portion takes us to the heart of a troubled marriage. There is an irate husband, wild with suspicion; a wife who may or may not be guilty of adultery; a public ordeal designed to bring to light the truth. The suspected adulteress is tested by being forced to drink the “bitter waters” — water mixed with dust from the floor; water in which the priest has dissolved divine curses written on a scroll. The ritual may be primitive, disturbing, even misogynistic to our eyes. But in its time, it provided a sacred, orderly structure to resolve the crisis, and to manage the explosive emotions evoked when marital trust has been compromised: jealousy, rage, humiliation, a sense of betrayal, grief, the murderous desire for revenge.

Asks one commentator: Why does the Torah permit the Name of God to be dissolved in water during this ritual? And he answers: God’s Name does not really disappear. For whenever peace is restored between husband and wife, the Holy One is present.

And maybe it does make sense to read Naso in the midst of the wedding season. For it reminds us that what matters is not the poetic promises we utter under the chuppah, but the prosaic reality of living up to them in marriage. We get a devastating glimpse of how bitter it can be to lack faith in our partner, how hard it is to forgive and make peace. We’re asked to contemplate what it might mean to have God present in our relationship.

On their wedding day, two people set themselves apart for one another, hands joined inside a magic circle — breathless, tearful, in a fever of joy. And God is in the center of the marriage when it’s many years later and the covenant still stands; when the vast, deep promises have somehow been fulfilled, for one partner lies in a hospital bed, too frail to walk or to get dressed anymore, and the other one is still there; and they’re still holding hands.

“Mistress, know yourself,” says Rosalind in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” “Down on your knees, and thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love.”

Blessed is the Holy One, who comes into our lives through the love of a good man or woman; who gives us a taste of eternity in the steadiness of our beloved; who teaches us faith and constancy and forgiveness through the covenant of marriage.


Rabbi Janet R. Marder is director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Pacific Southwest Council. This summer, she will become Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Am, Los Altos Hills, Calif.

The World is More Than a Wedding


“The Invention of Life,” by René Magritte, 1926.

When my kids were still preschoolers,young enough to be influenced by my every word, I used to have thisspiel about marrying out of Judaism. It went something like this:”It’s an insult to the 6 million who died only because they wereJewish.” I figured that you can’t start early enough on the road tothe chuppah. Now, both of my children are chuppah material. And I amspiel-less.

Once upon a time my daughter stood beneath aceiling of sunflowers under the blue Santa Cruz skies, with thePacific at her back and her family and friends looking on throughtears of happiness. She married a young Jewish man. Good pedigree –both parents Jewish and both educated — but it didn’t work out. Sixmonths and one baby later, he realized, on Valentine’s Day, that hewanted out. After all, he had his whole life ahead of him, and whyshould he have to sacrifice it for this one mistake? He left.

A month later, he said to my daughter, “The pastis the past; let’s get on with our lives.” Not an invalid statement.And so at 25, he joined a men’s group. He learned how to drum.

My daughter, who had a baby, married, divorced andlost her father all within a span of 18 months, has not stood beneathanother chuppah, but she does stand firmly on her own twofeet.

It has been two years since my daughter and her exexchanged vows, and my family still talks with joy about the wedding.After all, we thought it had meaning. Except Elliot. He let me knowat the time that he was not pleased.

Elliot is married to my cousin Ronnie-Sue. He’s 62and works as a messenger in New York’s garment district. Herecognizes a good wedding when he sees one. First of all, he asked,why was the rabbi a woman? Why was she wearing a turquoise Star ofDavid the size of a serving tray? And what was all that stuff aboutthe Iroquois Indians in the ceremony? How come there wasn’t anyScotch to drink? Who ever heard of lasagna as a main dish? Where wasthe kishka? What happened to the hora? And, lastly, when the pictureswere being taken, Elliot was confused about who the parents of thebride and groom were because they didn’t match up to the ones whowalked down the aisle. Elliot called it California Jewish, and he wasso upset that he vowed never to attend another wedding unless Iguaranteed its authenticity.

Ironically, the last time I spoke to my formerson-in-law — when it wasn’t a one-word sentence — I asked him whyhe ever wanted a wedding. He said, with loathing: “That was yourwedding, not mine.” My wedding? Elliot would have had his kishka ifit were my wedding. I heard secondhand that after nearly two years ina men’s group, he has learned that he married to do the sociallyacceptable thing, and he has forgiven himself for that dastardly act.Self-redemption is almost as popular as self-love nowadays as ashortcut to self-acceptance.

Recently, I overheard two tattooed young people,their hair varnished into neon green spikes and $150 sneakersadorning their feet, complain about their parents: “They expect me tograduate in four years, and then I have to get a job and supportmyself through graduate school. Is that totally f—ed? They’ll belucky if I get through this semester.” They’ll be lucky?

A New Yorker would have said: “What is it thatyour parents are demanding of you? That you be educated citizens,able to contribute to the world and make enough to support yourself?And, God forbid, that you allow me to attend a ceremony?”

A Californian would have said: “I hear you sayingthat parental pressure is upsetting you and that you would muchrather have your parents have no expectations whatsoever other thanthat you be happy. [Of course, how much happiness can you expect ifyou have no education, are unable to earn a living and look as ifsomeone used you for a voodoo experiment?]”

When we exited from the Garden of Eden, we leftperfection behind to search for, among other things, self-awareness.And for many, it is still forbidden knowledge. In the interim, thereis improvisation.

Linda Feldman, a former columnist for the LosAngeles Times, is the co-author of “Where To Go From Here:Discovering Your Own Life’s Wisdom,” due out this fall from Simon& Schuster.

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