When wedding traditions collide
Everyone has certain images they associate with a Jewish wedding: the chuppah, the horah, the breaking of the glass and, of course, large spreads of food. But certain elements can get complicated in a place like Los Angeles, one of America’s largest Jewish melting pots.
Just look at Rabbi Tal Sessler, an Ashkenazic Jew who serves as senior rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He points out that the mix of diverse Jewish communities cannot help but lead to a different kind of intermarriage — between Ashkenazic and Sephardic individuals, for example — that he likes to call “inter-chuppah.”
The impact on wedding ceremonies is inevitable as traditions meld, borrow from and are influenced by one another. For example, Sessler said: “One [practice] which is a distinctly Sephardic aspect of the chuppah ceremony is placing a tallit over both the chatan [groom] and the kallah [bride]. It has become increasingly popular in Ashkenazi-American circles. While it is not done in Israel, it is done in American Jewry outside Orthodoxy because people feel strongly about not making their ceremony asymmetrical or overly male-dominated.”
Rabbi Menachem Weiss of Nessah Synagogue (a Persian congregation in Beverly Hills), who also is director of the Israel Center at Milken Community Schools, said different customs evolved naturally out of Jews living in different places throughout history. Ashkenazim were originally from France and Germany, while Sephardim were originally from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East.
“The way they were acclimating to the society they lived in affected how they practiced Judaism, as Jewish communities were segregated geographically and the various communities did not connect with each other,” Weiss said.
Preserving wedding traditions from each spouse’s heritage, therefore, has become important not only as meaningful visual adornments for the ceremony but also as a means of following one’s family tree.
“If I were to trace my roots back and go through my family’s line — from Spain to Hungary and on to New York City — the various things we do are somehow shaped by where my ancestors lived,” Weiss said. “My spouse brought in Jewish customs shaped by where her family came from through the generations.”
Consider some differences: In the Ashkenazic tradition, the Shabbat when the groom is invited to be called up to the Torah takes place before the wedding and is called “aufruf,” (Yiddish for “calling up”). In Sephardic communities, the groom’s Shabbat takes place after the wedding. Other ceremonial religious traditions that differ include the bedeken (the groom handling the bride’s veil), with Askhenazi grooms veiling the bride before she walks down the aisle and Sephardic ones only unveiling the bride.
There are cultural differences, too.
“As I am Israeli and my wife is American, we noticed there are cultural nuances that come into play that don’t relate directly to customs, but [to] cultural norms from that country,” Sessler said. “American and Jewish Ashkenazis have smaller weddings in terms of the numbers of guests, while Sephardic and Israeli families stage larger weddings.”
The mood of the service can also vary among groups — in the way the betrothed couple walks down the aisle, for example. In Ashkenazi tradition, only the bride and groom go down the aisle, whereas in Persian ceremonies, the entire family participates, and they sing and dance.
Shimmy Lautman, a Valley-based wedding photographer, is Ashkenazic but will be marrying a Sephardic woman this summer.
“One thing her family is doing, which I was not previously exposed to in my upbringing, is a pre-wedding henna party,” he said. “Another trend I am seeing within my work is [an update of] the bedeken custom. In ceremonies I have covered where an Ashkenazi groom marries his Sephardic bride, he will meet her halfway and do the veiling there, rather than put the veil on before the ceremony.”
It’s all part of making the ceremony reflect the unique personalities and traditions of each couple, he said.
“From my standpoint, it makes a wedding a lot more interesting socially and visually when various Jewish customs from different cultures are included,” Lautman said. “As essential elements of a Jewish ceremony are not going away, they way people interpret them will keep those traditions evolving.”
One issue that can come up in an inter-chuppah wedding is how the ceremony will “sound” to the family guests on both sides. Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international educational and cultural organization with a campus in the Old City of Jerusalem, said that while the songs’ and prayers’ meanings are generally the same, Sephardic variations are more flowery and embellished than Ashkenazic versions.
“The basic wedding layout is the same … but will it play to the audience is what people should consider,” Bouskila said. “If a couple is looking to integrate different traditions, they should consider what the ceremony will sound like.”
If a song or prayer is sung in a Sephardic style, one could direct Ashkenazi guests to read the text and follow along. Couples also can alternate the style in which songs are performed during the course of the ceremony.
“People are finding clever ways to keep different traditions alive, because it is so important to have the traditions of all sides expressed,” Bouskila said.
Weiss acknowledged that couples will pick and choose what speaks to them and theorized that as younger couples tend to be less dogmatic, there will be more leeway and compromise when deciding which customs to carry forth.
“In today’s times, we’re all living together, our children are going to school together, going to shul and falling in love with one another,” he said. “We have a reintegration going on, mending those segments of the community that were previously divided into Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Persian and others. It is my hope for the future that there will be a time where there will be a complete reintegration of the Jewish people under one title, ‘Israel.’”