Getting hitched: Part 2, the big day


On the day of our wedding, before the ceremony, we signed an interfaith ketubah, witnessed by the rabbi, my sister, and Joel’s brother, who were our maid of honor and best man. These wedding contracts traditionally refer to the couple marrying in the tradition of Moses and Israel, but ours instead refers to a home based “on love, on Torah and on the traditions of our respective heritages.” Our ketubah hangs in a prominent place in our home.

At the start of the ceremony, Joel’s father walked him up the aisle, and then both of my parents walked me up the aisle—a Jewish tradition I knew I’d embrace the moment I read it. Had I married a Christian, I would have been ushered up the aisle by just my father, but I would have left out the part of the ceremony where the minister traditionally asks some variant of, “who gives this woman to be married to this man?” And one or both or all parents answer, “We do.”

I love my parents and respect their opinions, but I grew up in the 70s listening to Marlo Thomas sing “Free to Be…You and Me.” My princess story was “Atalanta,” a tale about a young woman whose father decides to marry her off to the winner of a race. She insists on running too, on the condition that if she wins, she’ll be allowed to choose for herself when and if to marry—not to mention to pick her own groom.

The idea of being given away—even symbolically—felt wrong. I had made my own choices about who I would be in the world as an adult. I wasn’t being handed off from one protector to another, I was making a life-changing choice. The weight of the decision to marry this man was on my shoulders, and I was averse to even a symbolic suggestion that someone else was responsible for it. No one but me was giving me away.

That said, the Jewish tradition of both bride and groom being walked to the front of the church by their own parents felt more like an ushering of children into their new life together than a handing off of property. And that was what we wanted from our parents on this day. Our choice to marry was not their responsibility, but we very much wanted them to share in our joy.

We were married under a huppa, a wedding canopy draped over four posts. As the rabbi explained to our guests, it is a Jewish tradition that symbolizes the home. The canopy’s open sides refer to openness to family and friends, to the importance of community, and to the fragility of being human in the world, exposed to the elements and vulnerable.

We said the Shehecheyanu, a prayer of thanks to God for keeping us safe so far and bringing us to this moment. The pure simplicity of its gratitude makes it one of my favorite Jewish prayers. Thank you, God, for seeing us safely to this moment. It’s a pause of a prayer. Be grateful. Breathe. Continue on our way.

We also included the traditional Jewish seven wedding blessings—one thanks God for the fruit of the vine—the wine that the couple drinks from a ceremonial Kiddush cup, the remainder praise God for creation and love.

The ceremony had one Christian element and another that I thought at the time was a Christian element.

The definitively Christian one was a reading from 1 Corinthians 13 by my best friend from high school. The passage says in part:

 “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

“Love never ends.”[1]

It is a beautiful passage about what love is and what we should aspire to. It is a much-used passage that I love for its clarity and poetry. And it doesn’t mention Jesus.

Our other non-Jewish touch was a unity candle, a tradition in which two smaller white taper candles are used to light a tall white pillar candle, symbolizing two individuals becoming a family. I thought at the time that this was a Christian tradition, but it turns out the internet is at a loss to explain where unity candles came from or how they became popular.

We ended the ceremony with the Jewish tradition of stomping on a wine glass—wrapped in a cloth napkin to protect my sandaled foot and the floor—a symbolic acknowledgement that we were entering into something transformative. Even if you try to put it back together, the glass will always be different than it was.

As with most things about Judaism, there’s more than one explanation for most of these traditions. Breaking the glass, for example, is sometimes explained as symbolizing the idea that joy is always tempered by some sorrow, or sometimes as symbolizing the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

With the help of the rabbi, we had chosen the explanation for each one that most directly spoke to us.

This picking and choosing of traditions can sound like so many shopping decisions. But it wasn’t just a matter of wanting this trinket over that trinket. We wanted the service to reflect ourselves, our traditions, and our values and beliefs. The trappings of the day were fun to assemble—the flowered cake, the childhood pictures we used as centerpieces, the food we picked—but they weren’t the main point. The point was to take this step surrounded by family and friends—the people who’d helped shape our lives and to celebrate together and with the rabbi formulate a service that spoke to the things that were important to us.

A few weeks before the wedding, one of the bridesmaids asked if I wanted her to wear cover up on her tattoos. My reaction was, “No, I want you there as yourself.”

We wanted our real people around us and celebrating with our all too human selves. Not to have a perfect day, but to have a happy day filled with love and joy. We wanted to see which friends would enjoy each other as dinner companions and who was game for the Chicken Dance. It was that approach that informed our choices about the ceremony, and that sensibility that allowed me to embrace Jewish wedding traditions that acknowledge real life. Our canopy is open, letting love in but also leaving us vulnerable to storms. And thank you God for bringing us safely to this moment.

[1] New Revised Standard Version.

Getting hitched: Part 1, the planning


Wedding planning was my first real hint that I would find meaning in the sensibilities and rituals of Judaism.

Protestant wedding ceremonies tend to be short and to the point. They reflect a low-fuss sensibility that I internalized as I grew up. I associated ritual with the more formal and ornate services of Catholicism or its closest Protestant relative, Episcopalianism. That kind of formality both of worship and of setting wasn’t something I had ever craved.

I had never even attended a Jewish wedding, so to help us figure out what traditions we wanted in the service, we bought “Celebrating Interfaith Marriages: Creating Your Jewish/Christian Celebration” by Rabbi Devon Lerner, hoping the book would help us figure out how to structure a wedding co-officiated by a minister and rabbi. For page after page, it described traditions that spoke to us—that symbolized things we wanted in our life together. We wanted our wedding day to be a meaningful reflection of the life we envisioned—not glossy perfection, but a full life surrounded by people we cared about. As we read and talked, I realized how hungry I was for rituals and symbolism that would give the day the weight it deserved.

Lerner book

I was 34 when we got married. I was deeply in love and sure I was making the right decision, but I wasn’t some starry eyed kid taking her turn being fairy princess for a day. We were adults with a sense of seriousness about the occasion. It was my first marriage, but Joel’s second. Both of us had long since lost the sense that we were exempt from life’s storms.

The Jewish traditions acknowledge that hard times come and that some decisions affect everything that comes after. They expressed how I felt—like someone taking a big step into the unknown, hoping for a smooth happy life but understanding the texture of life as it’s lived. The joys, yes, but also the times that make you cling to each other, too. The line from our vows that I still find most poignant is, “Loving what I know, and trusting what I do not yet know.” “Trusting what I do not yet know.” The perfect description of a leap of faith. Life will unfold. We will learn more about each other and about ourselves. And yet we trust what we have enough to promise to face it together.


In our planning, we were freer from parental expectations than many. My parents are committed to letting their adult daughters live our own lives and were happy to let us decide how we wanted the ceremony to be. Joel’s mother died many years before I came along, and his father approved.

Even though we were living in Northern California, we chose a wedding location in Virginia near Joel’s father, who was too old and frail to travel. Most of our relatives were either from the East Coast or Midwest so they were going to have to travel no matter where we got married. We didn’t know many people in California yet, and our friends were scattered around the many places we’d both lived. Having the wedding near the one parent who couldn’t travel to get there was a no-brainer.

Our hunt for just the right venue took us through a coldly modern private club favored by our wedding planner, assorted hotel ballrooms, and a restaurant where the staff illustrated its disdain for us and our budget by describing a wedding in which the groom rode up on an elephant, a Hindu wedding tradition. While I would someday love to hear the logistics of getting an elephant onto the Georgetown waterfront, the place clearly wasn’t right for us.

We ultimately chose a simple but elegant Unitarian church where the light filtered down from the skylight and an estate on the grounds gave the reception a homey feel. Because Unitarianism is pluralistic, worship spaces are not decorated with religious symbols. There weren’t any crosses on the walls or other potentially problematic iconography to be argued over or strategically covered. Just a warm, inviting space infused with natural light.

As we worked through what we wanted, it became clear that we didn’t need a minister to co-officiate—that having just a rabbi would be fine, a decision that I did not find particularly fraught given my affinity for the traditions we were embracing.

For many interfaith couples, finding a rabbi to officiate is a painful step. Some Reform rabbis won’t perform interfaith weddings, and the Conservative movement prohibits rabbis from officiating at them. This can be a moment for a painful conversation with a beloved rabbi who feels prohibited from presiding over the ceremony either by conscience or by the dictates of his or her movement.

The sheer percentage of American Jews who intermarry means that most Jewish movements have had to assess and reassess how they address intermarriage at the time of the wedding and what boundaries they set for interfaith families. In 2013, a study by the Pew Research Center found a 72% intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox American Jews who married between 2000 and 2013.

Sometimes the rabbi who can’t or won’t perform the ceremony will offer up the name of a rabbi who will, sometimes the rabbi will discourage the union altogether. And sometimes the discouraged couple will hear, “I love you but I can’t,” and sometimes they’ll hear, “you aren’t welcome here.” This moment can be the start of a conversation or the end of an attempt to engage with Judaism.


We were lucky. We weren’t leaving out my favorite minister or being told “no” by Joel’s favorite rabbi. Our wedding planner gave us a list of rabbis who would officiate at interfaith marriages, which led us to a rabbi for a Humanistic Jewish congregation—one that practices the rituals of Judaism from a non-theistic perspective—who was willing to perform our Friday early evening wedding ceremony. It was July so the sun wasn’t down yet, but that timing—on the cusp of the Sabbath—is one of the few things I might change about the day if we were to do it over again.

The rabbi was very experienced with interfaith weddings. He carefully and clearly described the meanings behind the traditions in the ceremony so that everyone felt included. Although his congregation was Humanistic, he did not have a problem with including God language in the service—something that wasn’t negotiable for me.