Old becomes new as couples personalize wedding ceremonies

In the months before his wedding, Jon Citel cringed at the notion of having his friends dance him to his bride at a traditional bedeken ceremony, where he would place the veil over her face.

The concept “was completely foreign to me,” he said. It “felt too traditional.”

But his bride, Ashley Novack, 26, was entranced by the tradition. “I love dancing, and this sounded like an amazing opportunity definitely not to be missed,” she said.

Rabbi Shira Stutman, director of community engagement at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington and the officiant at their wedding, had a suggestion: Reverse it.

“Subverting thousands of years of tradition, I would dance over to Jon,” said Novack, who called it one of her favorite moments of their 2010 wedding. “I was filled with love and joy as the remarkable women in my life encircled me and danced me over to Jon.”

Citel, 27, ended up loving it, too. “The sound of Ashley’s entourage approaching was thunderous and powerful,” he said. “I probably ended up liking it even more than Ashley.”

The Conservative-raised Philadelphia couple’s twist was by no means traditional, but it was an example of a growing practice of couples putting new spins on ancient wedding traditions. From adapting non-egalitarian parts of the ceremony to having friends officiate, it’s all part of a trend toward personalizing the wedding ceremony.

“It’s very important for people to incorporate their voices,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, founding rabbi of the progressive Ikar community in Los Angeles. “That’s the way the old becomes new.”

Sara Cohen of Somerville, Mass., and her bridegroom decided to forego a rabbi, instead asking close friends to officiate at their 2009 wedding.

“We didn’t have a rabbi in our life that felt like ours,” said Cohen, 41. “The bigger reason was we really liked the idea of having people who know us really well do the wedding.”

They asked a lifelong friend of hers, a Jewish studies professor with Universal Life Minister credentials, and a close friend of his to perform the ceremony. But the couple also consulted with a rabbi about the ceremony, which included the traditional hallmarks.

There is no Jewish legal requirement that a rabbi or cantor officiate at a wedding; according to halachah, two witnesses are required to make the ceremony official. Having a rabbi can also add $1,000 or more to the cost of a wedding.

Some rabbis are nonplussed by the idea of clergy-free nuptials.

“It may make for a lovely ceremony, but it does not serve in any way to connect the couple in an official way to the Jewish community by someone who’s been ordained by the community,” said Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, the Union for Reform Judaism’s worship and spirituality specialist. “I think it’s sad and it’s a diminishment of connection to community and tradition.”

He also warned of the loss of premarital counseling by clergy.

But Perlmeter praised the notion of having friends participate in the wedding service in other ways. Couples long have had friends and honored guests recite the seven traditional blessings, but now couples are asking friends to add their own creative translations, blessings or even poetry readings to the blessings.

They are “personalizing it and rendering it unique,” Perlmeter said.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, rabbi in residence at Be’chol Lashon, an initiative of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, says there are practical reasons to have a rabbi officiate, including smoothing over family squabbles.

“When the rabbi takes care of it, there’s a pastoral piece involved,” she said. “Weddings are very, very emotional.”

Ra’anan Boustan, Abusch-Magder’s brother-in-law and one of the officiants at Cohen’s wedding, dismissed such concerns. Laypeople can do those things just as well or even better than a rabbi, he said, particularly if, as in many cases, the rabbi doesn’t know the couple very well.

Noting that he and his wife didn’t know their officiating rabbi well, and did not have premarital counseling with him, Boustan says, “I don’t see that was terribly preferable to the three cases in which I married my best friend from college, my wife’s sister-in-law and a friend from childhood.”

More commonly, couples are making egalitarian adaptations to ceremonies that until recently largely had been ignored outside of Orthodoxy.

For example, Orthodox brides traditionally encircle their grooms seven times under the chuppah. It’s now common for many brides and grooms to circle one another; typically each circles the other three times, then they walk around once together.

Dual-ring ceremonies, long the norm in the non-Orthodox world, are no longer unheard of among Orthodox couples.

And the tisch—a traditional time for the men to get together, discuss Torah, celebrate and sometimes be silly while the bride and female guests hold their own party as they await the bedeken—has gone egalitarian, too, with the bride and groom each holding a separate, often mixed-gender tisch.

That’s one of several suggestions that Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of the Yeshivat Chovevei Rabbinical School in New York, offers to give women a greater role in Orthodox wedding ceremonies.

Linzer also suggests that after the groom has put the veil on the bride, she wrap him in a tallit; that the couple’s Hebrew names include the mother’s as well as the father’s names; and that women are asked along with men to recite the seven wedding blessings, albeit the woman would do so in translation.

Julianne and Justin Miller of Canandaigua, N.Y., each had a tisch at their 2000 wedding and a double bedeken.

“At the first part of the ceremony, I put his kipah on him before he put the veil on me,” said Julianne Miller, 38.

Not only did that make the ceremony more egalitarian but, Miller says—in jest—it also was a chance to be sure she had the right groom.

Her husband is an identical twin.

“Before I put the kipah on him, I looked in the crowd to make sure I saw his brother,” Miller said.

Rabbi Julia Andelman, 36, and her husband, Eitan Fishbane, a professor at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, opted out of kiddushin, the betrothal portion of the wedding ceremony in which the bridegroom “acquires” his bride by giving her a ring.

“We wanted something equally binding for both parties, and God forbid the marriage would not work out, we wanted something that would not require a get,” she said, referring to the religious divorce decree. “You need a get to dissolve to kiddushin, so if you don’t have kiddushin, you don’t need a get.”

But the couple retained the “nisuin” portion—the seven blessings known as the “sheva brachot”—binding them together as husband and wife.

“There are certainly people who could argue we’re not halachically married,” said Andelman, a former congregational rabbi who directs the Engaging Israel Project in North America.

She and Fishbane also each wore a kittel, the white robe traditionally worn by men at weddings and certain other special occasions.

Some of the creativity at weddings stems from efforts to create meaningful ceremonies within a Jewish framework for same-sex couples, said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a senior Jewish educator at the Tufts University Hillel.

“There’s a little more permission to look outside the old box,” said Ruttenberg, who maintains a website, the Kiddushin Variations (http://alternativestokiddushin.wordpress.com/), with postings on rabbinic opinions regarding egalitarian ceremonies.

Aaron Dorfman and his bride, Talia Milgrom-Elcott, wanted to eliminate any portion of the ceremony that spoke of acquisition, including exchanging rings.

Instead they borrowed rings from other people and used those rings as exchanges. This way, the rings “could not be perceived as halachically effecting legal acquisition because they were not ours to give,” Dorfman said.

As a sign of protest that most U.S. states don’t sanction gay marriage, the couple, who live in New York, borrowed from a Passover tradition: As seder participants reciting the Ten Plagues traditionally spill a drop of wine for each plague in recognition of the pain of others, they spilled some of the ceremonial wine before drinking it to signal some diminishing of joy.

Location, location, location

Your congregation is there for you when you need it, but there are times when you’re tempted to think outside the synagogue such as your wedding.

Destination weddings in spots like Hawaii or the Caribbean are a romantic way to start a new life with someone, but changes in the economy and fuel prices are forcing many couples to rethink the concept of getting “married away.” While money may be no object for some couples and their families, they also have to now consider how far their invitees will be willing to travel to be a part of the big day.

Couples living in Southern California are lucky to have some of America’s best wedding escapes just a few hours’ drive away. And better still, many of them either cater specifically to Jewish clientele (from kosher catering to sourcing a rabbi and chuppah) or else are just so fabulous that they have boasted a Jewish following for years.

The best place to start and finish is a wedding location that speaks to your shared personality as a couple and respects your faith. Whether your wedding planning is a solo effort, includes family or a wedding planner, you should do your homework to determine which Southern California locations are willing to help you with the essentials, especially as Jewish weddings have different requirements than other faiths.

“The great thing about Jewish weddings today is that except in cases of ultra-Orthodox weddings couples can choose elements to the wedding day that truly represent who they are as a couple, especially when approaching how they want to do the ketubah signing, blessings, kosher food, use of challah during the service and other traditions,” said wedding planner Melissa Barrad, who founded event company I Do…Weddings! in 2003. “You should ask prospective venues and caterers about any specific directions they have with kosher food. As there are more opportunities for better kosher food and caterers in Los Angeles, be sure hotels will either allow you to bring in food from your caterer of choice or have the capabilities and certifications to prepare the meals in-house. Also look into such details as rooms with high ceilings for the raised chairs and the horah, and rent a sturdier chair for the bride.”

Barrad also advises couples not to neglect the issue of raising a chuppah at the site, as the structures can be difficult to find and some synagogues won’t rent theirs to non-members. Also, if some hotels do offer a chuppah for rent, look at it to see if it will fit into your wedding aesthetically.

However, she notes that many couples are making their own; craft stores and home improvement emporiums offer a wealth of materials that will enable couples to make their own design for the same cost as or less than a rental. She also suggests asking venues to provide photos from other Jewish weddings it has hosted and access to other Jewish couples who have exchanged their vows there.

Once you have all the right questions at hand, here’s a short list of exceptional California venues to consider, including several that provide a variety of services for Jewish couples:

Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina

The Sheraton San Diego features a stunning new wedding lawn adjacent to a marina that’s perfect for erecting an outdoor chuppah, as well as an extensive selection of indoor and outdoor event space with panoramic views of the San Diego Bay and downtown San Diego. The hotel’s on-site wedding planners will cover every detail required for kosher-style weddings, while all four catering managers on staff are proficient in Jewish weddings and the cultural specialties involved with these events, from the ketubah signing to the horah.

Hard Rock Hotel San Diego

Even with its rock ‘n’ roll spirit and location at the entrance of the buzzing Gaslamp Quarter, the Hard Rock Hotel San Diego has the goods and gear Jewish couples want. One of its unique spaces for a wedding is Woodstock, the hotel’s 9,200-square-foot outdoor urban garden, which can accommodate up to 1,000 people as well as a chuppah, dining tables, lounge area and a large dance floor. Before, during and after the wedding, the couple and their guests can party like rock stars, thanks to the 420 suites, 17 “Rock Star” VIP Suites, nightlife destinations created by Rande Gerber and a Nobu restaurant by celebrated chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa.

The Prado at Balboa Park

Prado not only offers the splendor of its Balboa Park location, but is owned by a Jewish family (the Cohns). While they don’t offer strictly kosher meals, the management is sensitive to various dietary restrictions and has made a variety of accommodations for the many Jewish couples who have wed there.

The Viceroy

In Palm Springs, the Viceroy is ideal not only for its hip Hollywood Regency ambiance but also its hands-on approach to wedding planning.

Saddle Peak Lodge

Although Saddle Peak Lodge is not specifically kosher, the management notes that about half of the weddings they do are for Jewish couples, and they offer a list of nearby resources and vendors to assist couples with their wedding’s special needs. It is also a fitting place for film-buff couples to start their own personal history. Built in 1880 as a hunting lodge, it became an escape for the elite of Golden Age Hollywood, including Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn and Clark Gable. Saddle Peak also takes advantage of nature’s bounty on many fronts, from a kitchen that uses sustainable ingredients from local farms and vendors to a backdrop of trees, waterfalls and the majestic Santa Monica Mountains.

Westlake Village Inn

Halfway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, the Westlake Village Inn is well suited for couples seeking the detail-oriented luxury of a boutique country inn. There are several garden settings to choose from, from the Lakeside Gazebo to The Waterfall. Couples yearning for the look and feel of a “wedding away” in Europe will love the Mediterraneo Gazebo where a slightly raised Romanesque gazebo takes a “chuppah-like” effect, or the Tuscan Garden.

Lodge at Sonoma

Those who’ve dreamed of a wine country wedding should look into The Lodge at Sonoma, offering the perfect balance of country inn warmth, boutique hotel glamour, Northern California architecture and wine country trappings.

Sweet somethings for that special day

While the image of a wedding cake at the center of a reception table is iconic, many couples and their guests will admit they are not exactly “layer cake” kinds of people. For this reason, having a sweet table is a must, not just alongside a cake but sometimes instead of one.

“I am seeing a huge movement away from traditional wedding cakes,” wedding planner Melissa Barrad said. “In fact, I am seeing lots of cupcakes, especially among couples who are normally not huge fans of cake. I have seen everything from chocolate fondue fountains to chocolate-covered strawberries. I recently had clients who were fans of Krispy Kreme donuts who picked them up the morning of the wedding and arranged them in tiers.”

While cupcakes, from mini to maxi, have gone from “Sex and the City” trendiness to the shelves of most bakeries across the city (including Hansen’s Cakes, where Patrick Hansen notes couples will buy different flavors in large quantities and arrange them in tiers), Krispy Kreme is a surprisingly easy option. In fact, all ingredients are kosher and the mix is certified kosher. While not every Krispy Kreme kitchen is kosher certified, the company’s Web site can aid fans in locating kosher shops.

Delice Bakery is noted for traditionally elegant sweet table fare such as bakery-style cookies and petit fours, and Hansen’s Cakes is now offering brownies, cookies, fudge and other sweets boasting a “home-made” consistency.

Schmerty’s Gourmet Cookies in Santa Monica features a Bukspan-certified collection of classic kosher flavors, while New Jersey-based Mya Jacobson offers cookie-loving couples throughout the United States their cookie fix through her Feed Your Soul Cookies, which offers cookie adornments for everything from the bridal showers to party favors to the sweet table, with ribbons and wrappings that color coordinate with the wedding. Sweeter still, a portion of the proceeds from the purchase will be donated to a charity of the couple’s choice.

It is also important to remember that there may be people out there who love other types of cakes, such as homespun and decadently rich bundt cakes. From the Hollywood gifting suites to the sweet table, bundtlets from Nothing Bundt Cakes in Thousand Oaks have caused a great deal of excitement, thanks to their unusual presentation as well as their prolific array of flavors red velvet, white chocolate raspberry, lemon, cinnamon swirl and an ever-changing offering of seasonal and specialty flavors.

Of course, there is also the notion that if you want to do the job right, do it yourself. Many couples are doing just that to, literally, make the culmination of their wedding day their very own.

“The sweet table is a wonderful way to incorporate favorite family cookie recipes to further personalize the wedding,” Barrad, who founded event planning company I Do … Weddings, noted. “I have also seen mini-cup cakes and petit fours adorned with baby pictures of the couples.”

If your sweet tooth extends to jelly beans, licorice and sour gummies, Munchies in the heart of Pico-Robertson features kosher candy and chocolates as well as dried fruits and nuts in bulk.

No matter how you serve up your wedding, you ultimately want your guests to leave with a good taste in their mouths. Though you’re dealing with many individuals with individualized tastes, all the options guarantee you will be able to do just that.

Krispy Kreme
(800) 4KRISPY

Delice Bakery

Hansen’s Cakes


Feed Your Soul Cookies

Nothing Bundt Cakes


Married . . . at last!

I got married for the first time at 50. The groom was 51. Yes, we are both Jewish. We met online.

I am tall, thin, blonde, green-eyed, and have a little turned-up nose. My
father-in-law’s first comment, across the Thanksgiving table, was, “Doesn’t she look like a shiksa?”

My husband is an inch shorter than I am and round. He is also handsome, smart, funny and very logical. But I married him because he is a good person and I love him very much.

I decided when I was about 46 that I really wanted to get married. The question became where to meet men who really wanted to get married, too. I decided to try online dating. I had already done everything else.

It was not love at first sight. It was interest. It was let’s see what will happen. We both had dated enough to know the difference between passion and real caring.

It took three years, but we did it. The short version:

We met in November of 2000. The cats and I moved in with him in 2001, and I gave him an ultimatum. We got engaged in June of 2002 and were planning to marry in December 2002, although I had yet to see a ring.

Thirteen weeks before the wedding, he fell and shattered his shoulder. We postponed the wedding. I told him he had until my birthday, in August, to do the ring, or it was over. This was it.

It took him eight months, but he did it. Three days before my birthday, he took me to dinner, and proposed a second time, this time with ring in hand.

This was August 2003, and we were going to get married August 2004. We would have a year to arrange the wedding. That was the plan. The next month, my then-91-year-old mother fell and wound up in the hospital, so the wedding was moved up to December.

I had three months to plan the wedding. I was crazed, to say the least. It turned out that my little, humble then-83-year-old aunt knew the owner of a hotel, which shall remain nameless, kayn ayin hora, poo poo. It was a fabulous hotel, famous for its weddings. We had a place. Then we had a date, invitations, a dress, a menu, a klezmer band and a dance band, and a lot of tuxedos.

In addition to planning a wedding in three months, a full-time job, I was also working and taking a class. How I did it, I don’t know. But I was almost there. We divided the wedding planning, sort of. My husband chose all the food and liquor. I handled the cake and flowers, the logistics of the day, the arrangements for out-of-towners, the rehearsal dinner, the auf ruf and half of the visitor packets. (My husband did the maps and the sites of interest.)

The day finally arrived. Hair and make-up call, 6 a.m. Both my husband and I have backgrounds in the entertainment industry, but this was the biggest production either of us had to pull off. He had produced and directed theater, and I had produced and directed reality TV. But this was something else.

I was drugged out of my mind the morning of the wedding. Not serious drugs, but Advil combined with terror can have a mind-numbing effect.

I had only my maid of honor, my cousin Patty, in the suite with me as I got ready. The ketubah signing was done privately with the rabbi in a separate room with only my two attendants and the two male witnesses present. It was beautiful.

It was getting scarier and scarier. Patty and I retired to the bridal suite to await the final call. The hotel’s coordinator lined everyone up, then called up to the room. They were ready for me.

Patty and I took the elevator down. We stepped out. I looked back at the mirrored elevator doors as they were closing on 50 years of being single. I looked at myself and affirmed, “I’m doing this.”

I just wanted to get through the chuppah. I got into line, at the end, next to my then 84-year-old father. This was a dream. This was unreal.

The music started and the bridal procession began. The coordinator was counting the beats. The aisle was 80 feet long. My father and I had rehearsed this, but there was no need. He was a natural. The music changed. I heard, “Now,” and I said to my Dad, “Right foot.”

Talk about a deer in headlights. I saw my cousin Jenny smiling. She stood up first, and everyone followed suit. All these people were standing up for me! I was the bride!

The ceremony was great, I thought. I loved the rabbi’s words of wisdom, although I had to watch the video about four times to remember what he said.

It was an awesome wedding, filled with Jewish rituals — the hora, the chair dance, the brachot over wine and bread. Then, after the first course, the mezinka, the dance honoring the mother upon the marriage of the last child. I am an only child, my husband, the last of four. His mother was deceased. We danced around our three parents, unbelieving that their “old” children were finally married.

In case you are wondering, married life is great. It is not a sitcom, it is not a romantic comedy — it is real life. Whatever you were before, you bring to marriage. Marriage is not a date — you see each other in the morning, someone takes out the trash, and you pay the bills.

But you do it together. At last.

Mierel Verbit is a writer and teacher who lives with her husband and cat in Santa Monica. She can be reached at mierelverbit@yahoo.com.

Italy’s Top Chefs Join to Spice Up Wedding

Famous chefs gathered from all over Italy to cook for the wedding of Max Willinger, son of Faith Willinger, a well-known wine and food journalist who has lived in Florence for almost 40 years. She was overwhelmed by the culinary community who volunteered to cook the wedding feast.

We attended the wedding, probably the first such event ever to take place in Italy, because it was conducted by a woman rabbi, Barbara Aiello, and a Catholic priest, Don Enrico. It was held in a 17th century church in the small village of Panzano, between Florence and Sienna.

We have known Max for more than 25 years, and it has been a joy to watch him grow into an adult. He was born in New Jersey but moved to Florence with his mother when he was 2 years old, and they never returned.

Max graduated from the University of Florence, and he has been working in the television industry and living in Milan for the past 10 years. That is where he met his bride, Giada, an attorney. After dating for several years, they decided to marry.

When it came to planning the wedding, they mutually agreed that they would have an interfaith wedding. Max is Jewish; Giada is Catholic, and they began their quest to find a rabbi and priest who would marry them.

They spoke to several rabbis in Milan, but when they met Rabbi Aiello, who heads Lev Chadash, the first and only Progressive synagogue in Italy, they knew that she would be perfect for the responsibility to conduct the service.

Progressive Judaism in Italy combines halacha with the modern world. Italian Jews who once described themselves as “secular,” because there was no alternative to ultratraditional Orthodoxy, now have a choice. Progressive congregations welcome interfaith families and recognize the children of Jewish mothers or Jewish fathers as Jews.

Lev Chadash is the first and only Progressive synagogue in Italy, and Aiello is its first woman rabbi. She believes that by conducting interfaith marriages, these couples are more likely to embrace their Jewish heritage.

The couple spoke to the young priest who leads the Catholic church in Panzano, and he also agreed to participate in their interfaith wedding.

With this major decision accomplished, the couple knew that planning the festivities would not be a problem. They just gave that responsibility to the “food maven,” Max’s mother, to help supervise and plan the event.

The festivities began on Friday night with a prewedding party for both families to meet. They were all staying in a small hotel in Radda, a village close by, but the festa took place in a 12th century castle in Panzano. The invitation was for 8 p.m., but it wasn’t until 9:30 that everyone finally arrived, and then the bride and groom made their grand entrance.

The buffet dinner was fantastic — a large U-shaped table took over one room. It was filled with enormous platters of the most delicious food. Fresh mozzarella was delivered that afternoon from a farm just outside of Naples, and Dario Cecchini, the Tuscan butcher well known throughout Italy, served his famous Polpetoni With Red Pepper Mostarda. There were several salads, one with green beans, tuna and arugula and another made with fresh farm greens, tomatoes, mozzarella and Tuscan bread.

A Sicilian gelato maker arrived from Florence and brought his freezer filled with lemon sorbetto and gelato that he served in the traditional cones. The owner of the famous Antonio Mattei Biscotti di Prato came with platters full of biscotti, and, of course, he shared the recipe with everyone.

The festivities went on until early morning with singing, dancing, speeches and lots of music. The wedding ceremony took place the next day at sundown in the lovely, small church located in the center of Chianti. Many of Max’s relatives from the United States attended the wedding, and Giada’s family arrived from Milan, along with lots of their college friends.

The rabbi and the priest met weeks before to organize the ceremony and agreed on how to conduct the interfaith ceremony. The young priest, who has been with the local church for two years and was raised in the same village, wore his traditional brocaded robe, while the rabbi was covered with a large tallit and had a kippah over her short hair, as did all the male guests.

During the ceremony, the priest spoke in Italian, while the rabbi spoke in both Italian and English, each explaining to the bride and groom, as well as the guests, the significance of all the rituals that they performed.

The rabbi spoke about the traditions associated with a Jewish wedding. Then the chuppah, a canopy consisting of a large wool tallit held together with wooden polls at each corner, was carried in by Max’s stepfather, Massimo; his uncle, and Giada’s father and sister. The seven blessings were recited, the traditional wine glass was broken and these two young people were wed.

After the wedding ceremony, the bride, groom and the guests drove through the hills in a wedding procession of cars to Castello Di Ama, an important winery in Tuscany, for the outdoor reception and the formal sit-down dinner

Again, Faith had gathered together her chef friends, and Dario, the Tuscan butcher, took charge of organizing the wedding feast. Although it had rained earlier, it was a lovely, warm evening. The guests were greeted in the contemporary sculpture garden of the winery, where they were served Italian sparkling wine and were invited to enjoy the antipasti. Served on a long table, they consisted of platters with sliced smoked meats, grilled veggies and an assortment of cheese.

Lorenzo Guidi, who had arrived earlier from his restaurant, Nanamuta, in Florence, had a big pot filled with boiling olive oil and was deep frying small pieces of pizza dough, known as coccoli. As soon as they were brown and crisp, he placed them in paper cones for the guests to enjoy.

Inside the villa there were two large dining rooms set for dinner. We began with two pasta dishes. Chef Antonello Colonna of Ristorante Antonello Colonna just outside Rome prepared Strozzapretti con Pepperoni Rossi, Funghi, and Pecorino Romano (pasta with red peppers, mushrooms and cheese), and another pasta course of tagliatelli with a sauce of fresh-stewed cherry tomatoes. The main dish was bistecca.

Dario Cecchini prepared Bistecche Fiorintina (rib steak) on a big wood-burning grill outside the dining room. Between courses, while the meat was browning, everyone visited Dario, who stood on a table top next to the grill and recited poetry that he had written for the bride and groom.

At about 2 a.m., the dancing began, and then the wedding cake arrived, consisting of layers of puff pastry filled with fresh fruit. It was placed on a formal table in the garden, where Giada and Max invited guests to help celebrate their marriage with a glass of sparkling wine while they cut the cake. It was a wonderful wedding that will be remembered by all the guests for many years to come.

Dario’s Polpetone (meatloaf rounds) with Red Pepper Jelly

2 pounds ground beef
1 small red onion, finely diced
2 eggs
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4-cup bread crumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
Red Pepper Jelly (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 425 F.

In a large bowl, mix the beef, onion, eggs, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper. Knead and shape into one very large, almost volleyball-size, meat ball.

Line a deep roasting pan with foil and brush with olive oil. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Then lower the heat to 375 F and cook for one hour. Serve hot or cold.

Dario’s Red Pepper Jelly

1-2 pounds sweet red peppers (about 4 large) (4 pounds: 7 large)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chili powder or 1 small red chili
Pinch crushed chili
5 cups sugar
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
6 ounces liquid pectin

Wash and cut up peppers, discarding seeds and stems. Place few at a time in food processor and chop fine. In a large pot, combine chopped peppers, vinegar, salt, chilis. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and slow boil for 10 minutes. Add sugar and lemon juice, mixing until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil. Stir in pectin and bring to a boil, stirring constantly for exactly one minute.

Remove from fire and skim off foam with metal spoon. Ladle into hot, sterilized jars and seal immediately.

Makes about six (eight-ounce) jars of Red Pepper Jelly.

Spaghetti with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes.

1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, quartered and thinly sliced
3 cups cherry tomatoes
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Pinch of sugar
1/4 cup grated parmigiano
1 pound spaghetti
Olive oil for finishing

Preheat the oven to 250 F.

In a large roasting pan, heat olive oil and add onion, tomatoes and garlic. Bake, uncovered for 45 minutes. The tomatoes should keep their shape and become caramelized. Shake the pan every 15 minutes so they do not stick.

After 30 minutes, sprinkle with rosemary, salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. After another 20 minutes, sprinkle half of the grated parmesan and toss gently.

Cook the spaghetti in boiling water and drain in a colander. Add to the tomato mixture and toss. Pour olive oil on top and serve with grated parmigian cheese.

Serve immediately.
Serves six to eight.

Biscotti (Twice-Baked Almond Cookies)

Known as cantucci in parts of Italy, these almond cookies are baked twice, resulting in a crisp, flavorful biscuit.

This recipe is versatile; try replacing hazelnuts for the almonds or add chocolate chips, poppy seeds or even dried fruit. You can also substitute some whole wheat flour for the white.

2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
3/4 cup toasted, ground unpeeled almonds
1/2 cup toasted, whole unpeeled almonds
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon anise or almond extract
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
1 egg white

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Place the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and fennel seeds in a mound on a floured board. Surround the outside of the mound with the ground and whole almonds. Make a well in the center. Place the eggs, anise and vanilla in the well. Beat the sugar into the eggs, blending well. Quickly beat the egg mixture with a fork, gradually incorporating the flour and almonds to make a smooth dough.

Divide the dough into three to four portions. With lightly oiled hands, shape each portion into an oval loaf shape. Place the loaves two inches apart on greased and floured baking sheets. Brush with the egg white and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned.

Remove the loaves from the oven and use a spatula to transfer them to a cutting board and cut into half-inch thick slices. Place them cut side down on the same baking sheet and return them to the oven. Leave the biscotti in the oven for five to 10 minutes per side or until golden brown. Transfer to racks and cool.

Makes about six dozen.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Cookbooks, 1988) and “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (Morrow, 1999). Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.

Wedding Gowns: A Long-term Commitment

All brides have this much in common: They love their wedding day, and it always goes by much too quickly.

Of course, there is little that you as a bride can do to make your wedding day last longer, but there are things you can do to make sure the beauty of your gown remains — if not forever, then at least for a long time.

When you bring your gown home from the shop, take it out of the garment bag and hang it where it will be safe from children and pets — perhaps in a spare room or from a hook you put into the ceiling for that purpose.

If it will be several weeks until the wedding, you can protect it from dust with a clean sheet or freshly washed unbleached muslin.

On the day of the wedding, all too often someone steps on your bridal gown or you catch it on something. Put several safety pins into the underside of your gown where they will not be seen but will be handy for just such accidents and prevent further damage.

Also, know whether your gown is made from a natural fiber such as silk or an artificial fiber such as polyester. Then if you spill something on your wedding day you will know whether you will be able to remove the stain. Water or club soda can remove coffee, tea, mud or blood from polyester, but silks and rayons are water-sensitive and you may make permanent spots if you put water on them.

If the stain is grease, lipstick or another cosmetic that is not water-soluble, you can try using a moist wipe on polyester (test it on an inside seam first to be sure it will not disturb the color of your gown). On silk, it is probably safer to camouflage spots with something white and relatively harmless such as baking soda, cornstarch or baby powder. Wite-Out or white shoe polish is tricky and is definitely not a good idea for use on silk.

Most importantly, remember that no matter how entranced you are with your gown, your family and friends will be focused on you. They will be looking at you and not at any spots or tears on your bridal gown.

Once the wedding is over, it may be hard for you to give up your gown right away, but it should be professionally cleaned and preserved. If not, it will yellow from exposure to light, air and any stains, especially if they are caused by red wine or mud, which will bond with the fibers. Even if you do nothing else, take your dress out of the plastic garment bag, which can emit fumes that yellow the gown even more quickly than air, and wrap it in a clean sheet or freshly washed muslin.

It can also be difficult to find a cleaner who understands just how important your gown is to you. Look for someone who specializes in cleaning and preserving wedding gowns and ask lots of questions. Does the company do the work, or does it send the dress to someone else? How long has it been in business? What precautions does the company take to protect delicate trims and decorations? How does it guard against latent stains caused by alcohol and other sugar-based stains that do not dissolve during ordinary dry cleaning?

Ask if you can inspect the gown after it is clean and if the service uses tissue with an environmentally safe, archival container that will not discolor or damage the fabric of your gown. Ask if the service seals the box or leaves it open and why. Does the service guarantee the gown will not be stained or discolored when and if it will be worn again? Does the guarantee depend on an unbroken seal? Today or 25 years from today, who will honor the guarantee?

Be sure you are comfortable with the answers to your questions. After all, you want to give your gown, an heirloom for the next bride in your family, the care that will keep it perfect.

Sally Lorensen Conant is the wedding-gown expert for

‘I Do’ in Israel Without Rabbinate OK

The bride circled the groom under the chuppah. The groom stomped a wine glass at the end of the ceremony and was greeted with shouts of “mazel tov.”

Despite these traditional touches, this wedding was not performed by an Orthodox rabbi, and therefore not registered by the Chief Rabbinate, which has sole authority over Jewish marriage in Israel.

Rather, it was officiated by a Conservative rabbi who has no legal standing there. That didn’t deter Shlomit Arbel-Zemer, a 31-year-old pastry chef, and Barak Zemer, a 29-year-old university student, from opting for a non-Orthodox wedding.

“The Orthodox ceremony has some pretty things but it didn’t reflect our lives and beliefs,” said Arbel-Zemer, who, like her husband, is Jewish. “We had male and female witnesses on our ketubah. We wanted flexibility.”

So do many other Israeli couples, a small but growing number of whom are opting for non-Orthodox or secular weddings.

The vast majority of Israeli couples continue to choose to be married by rabbinate-approved rabbis, either because they want a traditional Jewish ceremony or feel an alternative wedding doesn’t meet muster. But the number of alternative weddings is definitely growing.

Last year approximately 1,000 “alternative” marriages were performed in Israel, compared to just a few hundred the year before. These included ceremonies performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis as well as secular ceremonies officiated by ordinary citizens.

At least 5,000 Jewish and non-Jewish couples traveled abroad last year for civil ceremonies — including some who’d had an alternative marriage in Israel — which Israel’s Ministry of the Interior recognized upon their return to Israel for the purposes of tax benefits, Social Security and so on.

Another 30,000 couples, all of them Jewish, were married through the rabbinate. Because the rabbinate only permits marriages between two Jews, alternative marriages are an attractive option for couples in which one or both partners claim to be Jewish but cannot prove their Jewishness; who are not Jewish but have no other religion, and therefore cannot marry in a church or mosque; or who were converted by the non-Orthodox streams in Israel, and therefore are not considered Jewish by the rabbinate.

In late March, however, those working for marriage reform earned a decisive victory, courtesy of Israel’s High Court.

The court voted to recognize a new category of conversions: overseas conversions officiated by Reform and Conservative rabbis.

Israel has hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants, and their inability to marry in Israel has fueled the alternative marriage “industry.” So, too, has disgruntlement with the rabbinate, which is renowned for being bureaucratic, expensive and intrusive.

Rabbi David Stav is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who heads Tzohar, an organization whose members — moderate young Orthodox rabbinate-approved rabbis — preside over secular weddings free of charge. Stav said that the rabbinate’s wedding policies need an overhaul.

Tzohar, which performs 2,500 secular weddings a year, is urging the rabbinate to limit the number of weddings a rabbi can perform on any given evening, on the grounds that some rabbis arrive late for the second ceremony.

“I don’t think there are so many rabbis who are asked to perform two or three weddings, but it happens,” Stav said. “They don’t come on time and the simcha is affected.”

Noting that some regional rabbis demand $1,000 or more to officiate under the chuppah, Stav would also like to see the rabbinate prohibit rabbis who work in a certain community from demanding a fee from couples from that community.

“They already receive a salary to perform religious services from the government,” Stav noted, “so it is therefore unfair to demand money from clients.”

To encourage couples to marry within the Orthodox framework, Tzohar has enlisted the free assistance of hundreds of learned Orthodox women who teach the family-purity class required by the rabbinate prior to marriage.

“Secular women often felt insulted by the way the [rabbinate] classes were run,” Stav said of the courses, which spell out when a woman may have sex with her husband and when she cannot, in accordance with menstrual bleeding.

“Our classes are free, private and intimate,” he said.

While Tzohar’s services assist many couples, they are of no use to the hundreds of thousands of citizens whom the rabbinate refuses to marry.

While several thousand travel abroad to marry, those wishing to have an Israel-based wedding can contact the Institute of Jewish Secular Rites.

Yiftach Shlomy, the institute’s director, said that it has facilitated marriages between gay and lesbian couples and divorcees wishing to marry Kohanim. Jewish law forbids marriage between divorced women and members of the priestly class. It has also performed marriages where one partner is a “mamzer,” the offspring of a married woman who has a child by a man who is not her husband.

The institute has also married many immigrants who have a blood connection to Judaism — often a Jewish father — but who are not halachically Jewish, as well as Jewish couples who for whatever reason do not want to deal with the rabbinate.

“We must change the definition of who is Jewish,” Shlomy insisted. “That is our mission.”

The Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel, which perform a few hundred weddings a year, have different agendas. They consider themselves to be just as Jewish as the Orthodox and want the marriages they perform to be officially recognized by the government.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti movement, said there is “a growing demand for our services. Our weddings are more dignified, they speak to the couple. We offer egalitarianism. The couple does not have to hide the fact that they have been living together and having relations. They don’t have to hide anything.”

Bandel said that his movement’s rabbis meet the couple several times prior to the chuppah. “There is always a personal contact. We discuss everything, such as the mikvah. We say it isn’t mandatory but stress that it can be a special experience.”

The Masorti movement, like the Reform movement, enables Jewish Israeli couples to have a personalized ketubah, a double-ring ceremony, female witnesses or a female rabbi — all things not permitted by the rabbinate.

Eran Dvir, a 29-year-old graphic designer, and his wife, Orly Wolkowiski-Dvir, 31, a photographer, decided to have a Masorti wedding last October because “we felt it provided more equality to the bride and groom,” Dvir said. “It also allowed for more personal freedom during the ceremony, making it more meaningful.”

For this couple, “freedom” meant that Wolkowiski-Dvir was able to present her husband with a necklace while under the chuppah. She was also able to read from the Song of Songs, something most rabbinate rabbis do not permit.

When Dvir broke the glass at the end of the ceremony, he did so not only to recall the destruction of Jerusalem.

“We met in Jerusalem and by breaking the glass we were saying we will never forget the love that began in Jerusalem,” he said. “That and the hope that, despite all the conflict in this city, our dream for peace will not be shattered.”

Michele Chabin, a veteran journalist, has lived in Jerusalem for 17 years.

Welcome to Our Wedding!


A very nice added attraction to your ceremony is the wedding booklet. This is a personal supplement to your wedding that the ushers will give to each guest as they are taken to their seats. The bride usually chooses a white or ecru linen material with black ink.

The cover states “The Wedding of … ” and usually has both the English and the Hebrew dates. We recommend art of flowers and we added the quote “Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li” — “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

At the bottom of the front page we inserted:

I marry you because you are now a part of my life.
In all decisions you are a consideration.
In all problems (mostly in term of solution) you are a factor.
In all joy you are sharing; in all sorrow support. — Peter McWilliams

The inside two pages are very creative; along the margin on the left, we wrote:

We would like to thank each of you for traveling today to celebrate with us this very special day in our lives. Each of you has, in some way, shared a part of our lives and have special meaning to us.

We have chosen to celebrate our marriage in [city]. [Name of place where you are getting married] is special to us because this is where [example: the bride celebrated her bat mitzvah and it is the first place we shared the High Holidays together].

Since there might be guests who are not familiar with a Jewish wedding, you might include some mention of the following:

Ketubah: Before the start of the formal wedding ceremony, the couple signs their ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract. The ketubah usually consists of both a traditional Conservative text and an egalitarian text. The traditional text, written in Aramaic, a Hebrew dialect, is legally binding and states their actual obligations. Oftentimes, they add an Egalitarian text in English that represents expressions of their shared goals, personal commitments and desires for their relationship. Two very special Jewish friends are chosen to witness the signing.

Chuppah: The wedding canopy under which the bride and groom stand during the marriage ceremony. It symbolizes the home that they will create as husband and wife and is open on all four sides to signify that family and friends are always welcome. It is also seen as a sign of God’s presence at the wedding.

Kiddush: The blessing over the wine and occurs twice during the ceremony. The two cups are thought to symbolize the joy and sorrow the couple may encounter in life. By both parties sipping from both cups, they are expressing their willingness to face life as equal partners.

Sheva Brachot: The Seven Blessings that comprise the bulk of the wedding liturgy. The blessings cover many themes — the creation of the world and humanity, the survival of the Jewish people and of Israel, the marriage and the couple’s happiness and the raising of the family.

Breaking of the Glass: The ceremony ends when the groom smashes a wrapped glass — or in some cases, lightbulb — with his foot (at some weddings, the bride and groom step on it together). This ancient custom has a variety of interpretations. One of the oldest is that one should not be frivolous. When there is joy and celebration, there should also be awe and trembling. A similar interpretation sees the breaking of the glass as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and that we should never be so joyous as to forget that there is much sorrow in the world. Another translation is that it serves as a reminder of the sanctity of marriage — a broken glass cannot be mended.

On the back page, you might include something like this:

Now that the ceremony has concluded, there is one more requirement all of you, our guests, must fulfill. You are obligated to rejoice and celebrate to make our wedding complete!

Once again we would like to thank each of you for taking the time to share this important day in our lives. A special thanks goes to the rabbi, chazzan and our families and friends for their guidance and support throughout the planning of our wedding.

You might include a photograph of the bride and groom, and we also like to add some art of Jerusalem. You will add what is important to you, because this is your special time and it is the most important day of your life.

Joan G. Friedman lives in Reading, Pa., and can be reached joan@friedman.net.


Did You Know…?

Did You Know…?


• Sometimes the marriage ceremony is held outdoors. Particularly in ultra-Orthodox and Chasidic weddings — but anyone can do this — the marriage ceremony is performed outside at night. The custom developed because the stars are associated with God speaking to Abraham: “I will bless thee and multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven and as the sand of the seashore” (Genesis 22:17).


• The bride stands to the right of the groom because of a biblical verse is Psalms (45:10): “The queen stands on your right hand in fine gold of Ophir.”

In Jewish tradition, the bride is a queen and the groom is the king.


• A light bulb is often substituted for a glass during the ceremony. Since many believe the main purpose of breaking the glass is to create noise (to scare away the demons), some prefer a light bulb because it is easier to break and usually makes a louder noise.

Will You Marry Me?

Grooms are making big productions of their proposals these days. Sometimes they rent a billboard; sometimes they pop the question at a quiet, intimate time; sometimes it is in a restaurant while a violinist plays their favorite song.

What’s in Style Today?


• Bridal suits are making a comeback.


• Rosette details on sleeves, bodices and backs are in the news. Rosettes are also used on the headpiece and accessories to complement the wedding gown.


• Pink, peach, and other pastels are a fashionable alternative to traditional white, ivory and silky white.


• Beads, lace, sequins, pearls and embroidery are used for embellishments.


• In place of a regular wedding album, you might also choose a “storybook” plan, where the photographer takes continuous pictures so that you end up with a copy of a picture of each event and each shot. (This produces a very large and thorough album, and is more expensive than a standard album.)

Little Tricks of For a Great Wedding

For Him:

If you are able to control the music, select a romantic one. She will always remember the song that played when he proposed — and it is bound to become “your song.”

For Her:

Are you going to have a “Presentation of the Bride?” The groom is brought into a room before the ceremony. There he finds the bride, looking her most beautiful, in her wedding attire. The couple has some time to spend together, after which they have the signing of the ketubah and take photographs.

Other Kooky Wedding Customs


•Couples in 18th-century Mexico shaved their heads to signify their adulthood.


•French suitors sent their nail clippings to their betrothed.


•In 18th-century England, a new bride’s mother-in-law broke a loaf of bread over her head to bring luck and happiness to the couple.


•Polish brides brought luck and happiness to their new homes by walking around a fire three times and kicking each door with their right foot.


•Prenuptial agreements, which have enjoyed a resurgence, actually date back to ancient Jewish and Roman marriages.

How To Get Through the Day


• Stay Calm.


• Break away for a few minutes


• Take some deep breaths.


• Keep focused and avoid problems before they become problems.


• Just remember: The most important parts of planning an event is having fun and enjoying the benefits of all your hard work. With careful planning, even the most elaborate and glamorous affair can be a dream.

Joan Greenberger Friedman lives in Reading, Pa., and can be reached at joan@friedman.net.

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.”

After 45 Years,

Berkeley, 1959. The Berkeley Gazette announced the marriage of two students at Temple Beth El. It was a small wedding performed by Rabbi Axelrod. Our parents didn’t come, our relatives didn’t come; they were afraid to fly from the East Coast. I wore a borrowed dress. There was no honeymoon, because the groom, a UC Berkeley teaching assistant was giving an exam the next day, and I had classes. That was then.

This is now. Forty-five years later we’re getting married again. This time we are on a luxury ship, the Radisson Seven Seas Cruises’ m/s Paul Gauguin, and we’re renewing wedding vows, in Moorea, Tahiti. Instead of Rabbi Axelrod, we stand before Capt. Gilles Bossard. Instead of Hebrew, we get French-accented English and Tahitian from a man we met only days ago. We’ve chosen to have a short, symbolic ceremony on ship to celebrate the fact that we’re still together in a world that isn’t.

The m/s Paul Gauguin is well-known for performing renewal ceremonies in French Polynesian waters. The week we were aboard, there were couples celebrating honeymoons and anniversaries — people in their 20s to 60s, married one month to 50 years. The ship has a one-size-fits-all renewal of vows ceremony, but it didn’t fit us. It began: “My dear friends, we are gathered here today in God’s sight to celebrate your love and marriage.” It talked about the “honorable vocation of wedded life.” And there was a place for silent prayer. I knew then that I’d have to write my own ceremony.

But as I began researching Tahiti, I wondered, “Why are people getting married here?” First, there was the story of Oro, the God of War. Seems that Oro simply got tired of his wife one day, so he conveniently got rid of her by dropping her “from the highest point in the sky” down to earth. After she was let go, Oro commanded his sisters to find him another wife, preferably one who wasn’t “too corpulent.” The sisters found a very young, beautiful girl “who agreed to be Oro’s wife.” That story didn’t sit too well with me in my 60s — especially the part about that young and trim beauty.

Then there was M. Gauguin himself. Sure, he was a gifted painter giving the world Tahiti on canvas — painting the exotic women of his newly adopted home. But before sailing for Tahiti, Gauguin left his wife and five children in France — some sort of midlife crisis. Mistresses and lovers followed, and the great artist wasn’t very healthy when he began to wind down.

James Michener wrote “Tales of the South Pacific,” describing the turquoise waters, the soft sands of the beaches, coconut trees everywhere, a quiet, peaceful, undisturbed, exotic land. This was the place Maurice and I were now seeing. This was Bali Hai, where fruit came in the shape of starfish, and bougainvillea got its name. There were “mangoes and bananas you can pick right off the tree,” as in the musical “South Pacific.” The backdrop was certainly one of the most romantic; now I needed something personal, meaningful to us.

I talked with Claudia Periou, charged with wedding and vow-renewal ceremonies. I asked her whether other couples had written their own vows ceremony. One woman, also a writer, had the captain read her version. But Claudia said the captain blushed during all of the references to that couple’s sexual life. There were emotional ceremonies and impersonal ones. There were three couples, friends from high school, who renewed vows together.

I sat in my stateroom, overlooking some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. And I wrote our vows, later on parchment paper, the words spoken by Bossard: “Marriage isn’t for everyone. Few of Marilyn’s and Maurice’s friends stayed married, and some friends were in their third marriages. During this couple’s 45 years together, there were rose gardens and thorns, obstacles to remove, hurdles to jump over, problems to solve. But the glue that held these two together was their love and respect for each other. Out of their union came Michelle, Carla and Erica, and then the grandchildren, Devin and Alec; we did a great job!” The captain added: “You have been blessed.”

An officer read from Kahlil Gibran, and we were serenaded with Tahitian love songs.

We drank champagne, and ate some of the cake baked for us. (The rest of the cake, which flew home in my cosmetics kit, was saved for our children.) For one whole week, the world’s problems were forgotten as we snorkeled, fed sharks, danced, dined, shopped and read novels. For one week, we didn’t read newspapers or watch CNN.

On Friday night there were services on board. A notice had gone out asking for a volunteer to lead the Shabbat services, and I offered my services. “Sorry, we have somebody,” I was told.

At the services, we sang and prayed, and for a volunteer leader, it was a pretty good service. So I asked the leader: “What do you do in real life?”

In real life he is a real rabbi, Rabbi Michael Stroh of Temple Har Tzion in Toronto.

“So why didn’t somebody tell us there was a rabbi on board? You could have performed our vows ceremony.”

He smiled. “Here, I’m on vacation.”

The last night’s lavish dinner included “double chicken consommé with matzah balls.”

We had two portions each because chicken soup seemed a good idea before the journey back to Los Angeles.

It costs about $200 for a vows renewal ceremony on the Gauguin, aside from the cost of the cruise. You can go kosher, too — the Radisson line was voted “Best Cruise Line for Kosher Food,” in last year’s Total Traveler Guide to Worldwide Cruising.

For more information, contact Radisson Seven Seas Cruises at www.rssc.com. There is a direct flight from LAX to Papeete on Tahiti Nui.

Michael and Bob

It was not your typical wedding invitation — a Monday morning phone call inquiring if my husband and I would be available that afternoon when our friends Michael and Bob were hoping to marry at San Francisco’s City Hall. They decided to marry years ago, but instead of throwing an expensive party they bought a house together and put off the ceremony for some other time. Then suddenly, rebelliously, there were weddings being performed in San Francisco. A judge was considered likely to halt the ceremonies in a matter of days, and our friends decided they were ready.

We hurried home to shower and dress for a wedding. We scrambled for a babysitter, but then decided we wanted to bring our daughter along. Michael and Bob had celebrated so many milestones in her very young life, and since something sacred was going to happen to them, too, we wanted her to be a part of it.

As we raced into the city, worried we would miss the ceremony, I remembered how graciously Michael and Bob had waited with my husband and me in the hours before our wedding. They made friends with our friends. They remembered our siblings’ names, chatted with our parents. They kept us smiling and held our hands during countless rounds of photographs. And once it was over they hoisted us high in our chairs during the celebratory hora. The only openly gay couple in attendance, they bravely shared a slow dance together among the other members of the wedding party.

The scene outside City Hall was jubilant. A mariachi band was playing. There were dancers in top hats. Strangers handed each other wedding cake and offered to snap pictures for each new set of newlyweds as they emerged from the ornate building. A woman was throwing rice at newly married couples, and when she ran out of rice she bent down and picked individual grains off the sidewalk and threw them again. It was raining. All of the couples drew cheers of congratulations as they walked out of the building, but the prettiest lesbians got the loudest cheers. Some things are changing, but some things never change.

Inside City Hall, the mood was more serious. Michael and Bob had been standing in line for hours already by the time we reached them. Our friends were dressed beautifully in their best suits, and they were appropriately nervous. When we joined up with them — waiting in yet another line to receive their marriage license — Michael was talking on a cell phone with his mother in New York. His sister, who lives in San Francisco, was the only relative able to make it in time.

As I watched our friends pin pale purple orchids to each other’s lapels, sadness and outrage mingled with the happy excitement I had been feeling all afternoon. This was a bold, historic time in San Francisco and hundreds of city employees and volunteers were working themselves weary to make it happen. I was overjoyed that our friends — and the 819 other couples who wed that day — would finally have the opportunity to make official their private commitments to each other. There was reason for celebration, but we all knew they and their families deserved better.

Michael and Bob are lawyers, scholars and good, law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes, love their families and mow their lawn. After Sept. 11, when San Francisco was swirling with apologists for terror, they hung an American flag in the window of their home. Michael is Jewish and Bob is not. Neither has a particular appetite for subterfuge.

It is a scary, generous act to bind your future to another’s — not the sort of thing one should have to engage in acts of civil disobedience to achieve.

On their wedding day, Michael and Bob deserved to be surrounded by their families and friends. They deserved time to plan the details exactly how they wanted them, to shop for rings and select meaningful cultural or religious rituals to include in their ceremony. They deserved the chance to pose for pictures over and over and over again until everyone was satisfied, and to be hoisted high up on their chairs in celebration when it was over.

Suddenly it was their turn to be married. We were hurried to the bustling, elegant rotunda of City Hall and a tired but enthusiastic woman who wore a green shirt and clutched a clipboard pronounced Michael and Bob “spouses for life.”

They had chosen the spot on the grand marble staircase where they uttered their vows. They had chosen each other. And in the dizzying, echoing chaos of San Francisco that Presidents’ Day, they had chosen to look beyond the shortcomings of their society and embrace one of its most sacred institutions. Our video camera was rolling.

Maybe it wasn’t all that they deserved, but at the same time it seemed like a lot.

Karen Alexander is a journalist in Northern California.

Mazel Tov?

Step aside, gentlemen. You will have no interest in this
column, I guarantee it.

Okay, girls. It’s about the wedding pages. Come on, admit it, how many of you turn to those pages in the Styles
section of The New York Times every Sunday morning? No matter what else is
going on in the world — and these days, Lord knows, there is plenty — it is the
first section I turn to every week. Even the most well-educated, sophisticated
and accomplished women I know — friends and professional colleagues — read
these pages religiously. Together, we can dish about some of the couples,
particularly those portrayed in the Vows feature, as if we knew them ourselves
and had just attended the wedding. “Can you believe she met him at a bar?”
“What was she thinking when she picked out that hideous dress?” “They got
married on a ski slope?” To quote the mother of one of the men featured in the
first gay commitment announcement, “Oy vey!”

A former colleague of mine referred to the wedding pages as
the “women’s sports pages.” The difference being, of course, that on the
wedding pages, everybody is a winner.

The pages are such a draw for women, and perhaps
particularly for Jewish women, that one of the ads that appears fairly
regularly on the main wedding page reads as follows: “WOMEN [in large, bold
print]. Are you feeling overwhelmed, underappreciated and unfulfilled? Is your
personal relationship less than you would like it to be?” And so on. “If the
answer is yes to any one of these questions, then the ‘Kabbalah for Women’
course at the Kabbalah Centre of New York is for you!” Clearly, stressed out,
neurotic and mystically challenged women constitute the wedding pages’ target

In an effort at full disclosure, I will admit that I placed
my own wedding announcement in The Times. But I got married at a time when The
Times’ wedding announcements were a much more low-key affair. There was no
Styles section, nor a designated spot where you could find the announcements
each week. I got married on Thanksgiving, which of course was a Thursday, and
so my announcement ran the next day, in an obscure part of the Metro section
where no one except me and my parents could find it. Why’d I do it? What can I
say? I’m a journalist; I’ve always wanted to make it into The New York Times.

But there’s no way I’d make the cut today. First of all, I
don’t have a glamorous enough picture, nor the right kind of pedigree to go
with it. And besides, I met my husband on a blind date. What kind of a story
would that make?

So what is it exactly that attracts me to these
announcements? It’s not as if I actually know any of these people, although
once in a while I’ll recognize the name of a former colleague or classmate.
Most of the time, the people on the pages are so ridiculously wealthy or overly
educated or their ancestors came over on the Mayflower, that there’s no way I
would ever cross paths with any of them.

Sure, there’s the element of sheer voyeurism. It’s a glimpse
into the lives of the rich and not-so-famous at one of their happiest moments.
It’s also like reading a series of romantic 19th-century novels in miniature —
as in Jane Austen, where the entire point of a woman’s existence was to get
married — and to marry well — and where everything always ends up happily ever
after. Or so it would seem. At least Austen had a sense of irony.

As I get older, I find myself reading the wedding pages much
the way my mother does. I look for the Jews. Yes, my eye goes straight to the
Jewish names in the headlines. Then I look to see if it’s two Jews marrying
each other. Then I look to see if a rabbi is officiating. I quietly bemoan
every mixed marriage, and every ceremony that a priest conducts with a rabbi
“participating” — or vice versa. Every week I get a thumbnail version of the
unbridled assimilation of American Jewry, especially among the upper echelons
of society, and it is sobering.

So with all the allure and sociological information that can
be gleaned from the wedding pages, why is it a universally acknowledged truth
that only women read them? Too much romance? Not enough competition? My husband
has a different theory. Men avoid these pages for the precise reason that women
read them. “It reminds us of our own wedding day,” said my husband, in one of
his more endearing moments.

So, my fellow females, keep enjoying the wedding pages, and
all the other narrishkayt (nonsense), that fills the Styles section. In a time
of impending war, a lousy economy and the constant threat of terrorism, what’s
wrong with a little escapism? So let’s break a glass, drink a l’chaim and let’s
pray for a time when who’s marrying whom really is all we have to worry about.  

Rifka Rosenwein is a writer based in Teaneck, N.J,. and a regular columnist for the New York Jewish Week.

A Nightmare on Wedding Street

As a little girl, Anna* always dreamed of a perfect wedding. Then, at 32, after a three-and-a-half-year engagement, she was ready to realize that dream. But recently, what she thought was going to be a dream, turned into a nightmare.

First, there were the fights with her mother over the menu. Anna wanted her wedding reception to consist only of a large Viennese dessert table and no main course. But her mother declared that this was not proper, demanding a more conventional sit-down meal.

She and her mother spent the next couple of weeks fighting and sobbing about how much to feed their guests. At one point, Anna called her mother and uninvited her to the wedding.

But that was only the beginning.

Anna says that her future machatanim (in-laws) did not like her, nor did they hide their feelings. She says that just months before the wedding, her in-laws called their son to beg him to date other people. Anna says she declared war.

"I will never forgive them, and will never let them see our future children," she promised her future husband.

Anna’s experience in planning her Jewish wedding might be more typical than the blissful experience portrayed in most wedding magazines. In today’s world, with fractured and fractious families, the wedding simcha can be marred by hundreds of details that only the bride, groom, rabbis, photographers and wedding planners can understand.

"There are never really any two families with exactly the same values or traditions, or with the perfect satisfaction over their child’s choice for a mate," said Rabbi Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am. "On top of that, as with any other elaborate occasion, the wedding generates its own life — its own problems, anxieties and frustrations." Pressman said that all brides and grooms in this situation should sit down with their future in-laws and try to soften any harsh feelings. "It is much easier to go on fighting and hating your in-laws than trying to go forward on good terms," he said.

Like Anna, Rachel* and Ben* are also marrying in the fall. Yet, the tone of their wedding differs considerably. Both have raised families (this is Ben’s third marriage and Rachel’s second) and both sets of parents have passed away.

The wedding will be simple, yet elegant. But in a way, it will be more emotionally difficult than Anna’s wedding. "I only wish that I could hear the voices of my parents bickering about the ceremony," Rachel said.

But many couples are not like Ben and Rachel when it comes to their parents. Pressman said he has witnessed numerous absurd arguments, such as parents insisting that they decide on the seating arrangements. He said that he tries to intervene to discover the underlying issue. "Does it really make that big of a difference where you sit? Is it worth damaging the lives of your children?" he might ask the parents.

To the couple, he might say, "Perhaps the real issue for your parents is not the seating arrangement. It is really about their feelings of loss and desperation to … control their children one more time."

Pressman recalled one disastrous wedding: "One time, I officiated at a marriage in which the groom’s father and mother were divorced. His mother was an alcoholic and the father had remarried.

"The groom’s mother called me and said, ‘If you let that b—h [the father’s new wife] stand under the chuppah with him, I will shout my head off and destroy the wedding.’ The father’s wife then called me and threatened, ‘If you let that drunk come to this wedding, I will leave,’" Pressman said.

It turned out, the rabbi said, continuing the story, that both women came to the wedding. The bride and groom were suffering from the flu and had to sit on chairs under the chuppah. The drunken mother screamed her head off. The groom fainted, fell off his chair and his wine spilled all over the bride’s gown. The bridesmaid and usher were knocked off their feet. "Wheelchairs were carrying people back and forth…. It was crazy!" said Pressman with a laugh.

He said this was certainly an exception. "Out of the hundreds of weddings that I have officiated at, only one was ever called off."

Yet, most Jewish weddings are not like those in the movies. Brides tend not to run from the altar, since they are too focused on other things.

Professional videographer David Stern agreed: "Many times, the bride, groom or parents come to me after the wedding in shock. They swear that their minds went blank, and they completely forgot what happened during the ceremony … they were too wrapped up in their emotions."

Wedding photographer Darryl Temkin added, "As the saying goes, if a couple can make it through the wedding, then they certainly can survive anything else."

A Mazel Tov in Shanghai

This cosmopolitan Chinese city of Shanghai has witnessed what is believed to be its first Jewish marriage ceremony in more than 50 years.

Peter Cohen, originally from New York, met Anna Podtoptannaya, who hails from the Ukraine, when he worked there as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer.

Seeking adventure, the two later moved to China, ultimately settling in Shanghai, home to some 300 to 400 Jews. Cohen works there as a management consultant and Podtoptannaya runs a brand management company.

Their wedding, which took place less than a month after the opening ceremony of Shanghai’s Jewish community center, highlighted the international flavor of the Chinese city. Guests arrived from the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia.

The ceremony itself turned out to have a wider-than-expected audience.

Many of the employees and guests at Shanghai’s Cyprus Hotel — used to Chinese weddings, but unfamiliar with the Jewish ceremony — watched through the hotel’s windows.

The last Jewish wedding in Shanghai took place in 1950, Cohen said.

The wedding had three parts: The chuppah was raised and a traditional ceremony held; then, a representative of the Ukrainian Consulate registered the couple; lastly, the bride and groom read their vows to each other.

The leader of Shanghai’s Jewish community, Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, and his wife, Dina, had difficulty arranging all the Jewish aspects of the ceremony, including having documents proving the couple’s Jewishness sent from overseas.

Since the mikvah, or ritual bath, at the new Jewish center is under construction, Dina Greenberg took the bride to Lake Tai Hu for the prewedding immersions. As a natural body of water, Tai Hu, one of China’s largest lakes, qualifies as an acceptable mikvah, she said.

For Podtoptannaya, going into the lake’s cold waters was something of a shock.

The trip to the natural mikvah wasn’t the only symbolic part of the wedding: The post-wedding reception and dinner were held in the Sassoon halls, named after Sir Victor Sassoon, one of the leaders of Shanghai’s Jewish community in the early 20th century.

The couple plans to live in Shanghai for the next few years.