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.

That was two decisions?


Before we married, we made two decisions that seemed like one at the time. Any children we had would be Jewish, and we would look for a synagogue that fit both of us. We were clear that we wanted to find a synagogue where we were both comfortable—that sending Joel and our then-theoretical offspring off to synagogue while I stayed home wasn’t going to work for either of us.

For me as an individual, this was a big decision that I didn’t recognize as one at the time. Back then, it felt like a natural part of deciding to raise a Jewish family. Of course we would find somewhere that I felt comfortable. But treating the synagogue search as something we were doing together as a family, not just as something Joel was doing, was the first in a series of baby steps.

Here’s what I thought: I would come along to services sometimes and try to be enough a part of things that I’d feel connected when kid activity time rolled around. My primary commitments would be at a church. And my relationship to Christianity would not change.

As the Yiddish proverb goes, “Men plan, God laughs.”

As it turned out, the decision to make the synagogue choice a family decision nudged me toward not just parachuting in, but really and truly trying to—and increasingly succeeding in—being part of Jewish community, sometimes by baby step, sometimes by leap.

The fact that we both saw involvement in a faith community as an important part of settling in and making a life for ourselves was important in and of itself. It wasn’t that one of us felt strongly about engagement in a faith community and the other was averse or apathetic. We both wanted to feel connected, to start making friends in our new home; and we both saw synagogue membership as an important step in that direction.

My need to feel part of a community is heavily influenced by being an introvert who has spent much of her adult life starting over in new places. I love knowing people; I do not particularly enjoy meeting them.

I can happily wade into a crowd of people I know and ask follow-up questions—How’s your mom doing? Have you heard from the school yet? Did you see we changed the meeting time? But making small talk with a clutch of strangers exhausts me. On a good night, I can chat away about anything. But if I’m tired, I have a hard time starting a conversation with a stranger, and if one does actually get started, I’m terrible at keeping any momentum going. I start into rounds of, “uh huh, uh huh, that’s great,” that even while I’m doing it I know is conversational death.

My years as a newspaper reporter helped teach me how to talk to people I don’t know. I got so I could pick up the phone or walk up to a stranger without an internal pep talk first, but it was learned behavior, not my natural way of being. As a reporter, I had the news judgment but not the conversational fearlessness I needed. When I was in graduate school, one of my professors (a copy editor) told us that if you’re basically a salesman, you’re a reporter, if you’re basically an accountant, you’re a copy editor. At the time I resisted the analogy, but it was only about a year before a city editor recognized which one I was and sat me down in front of a computer to edit to my heart’s content.

In a conversational pinch I will use those years as a reporter to fall back on just interviewing the other person if they’ve said something that intrigues me, but that’s not a very balanced way to have a conversation.

In a faith community, I know I have something in common with the other people there—maybe not all of our specific beliefs, but at least certain common ideas about what is important in life, and that we should take care of each other. Since I can plod along for too long at the small-talk level, being in a religious community, where people have relationships, where they talk about life cycle events—the good and the bad—is the ideal place to form friendships, because it gives me somewhere to ask how I can pitch in and then feel like I’m contributing something while I’m getting comfortable—or really, more accurately, as a way of getting comfortable. Who knew that joining something could be an introvert’s way in?

What I Believe

Whenever I pick up a book about religion, I’m curious about the author’s sensibility. Here’s mine:

I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah (but I can never get the matriarchs in the right order).

I believe that God is what God is, and that my attempts to understand are by definition imperfect.

I believe that we’re supposed to struggle with the material, and I hope God sees engagement in the struggle as a sign of faith.

I believe it’s important to teach my daughter to love God and that we have responsibilities larger than ourselves.window blog

I believe that a life of faith is best lived out in community.

I believe that my life has been enriched by my Christian upbringing and enriched again by being in Jewish community.

I believe that God loves us all, and that learning to understand each other is part of the test.

I believe that sometimes the test you think you’re taking and the one you’re really taking are two different things.

I believe in the still small voice and grace and love and forgiveness.

I believe in divine nudges—that God doesn’t cause bad things, but sometimes nudges us toward good things when we’re quiet and listening.

I believe in “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

Map Pixabay

I believe that when I walk off the edge of my own map, I should try to be brave and open and see what I can learn.

My first Jewish service

Every year right before the High Holidays my friend Dawn, in her official interfaith outreach capacity, sends out an e-mail message imploring couples to avoid making those services the non-Jewish partner’s first exposure to Jewish worship. The services are long. They’re focused on sin and death. Also, everyone is there, so they don’t give you a sense of the week-in-week-out congregation. They are not your average Friday night or Saturday morning at the synagogue.

For most people, this is excellent advice. But I am not most people.

Marin County Civic Center Veterans Memorial Auditorium. (c) Frank Farm
My first Jewish service was an evening Rosh Hashanah service at a huge civic center in Northern California. It was long—a Friday night so we read all of the Sabbath-only red parts in the prayer book, not just the parts specific to the new year being ushered in.

For me, a big, long, and anonymous service was a fine place to start.

First of all, when I’m uncomfortable, I like to be invisible. Feeling out of place in my surroundings makes me uncomfortable. So the anonymity of a packed civic center suited me just fine. I love congregations where people come up after services and say, “I haven’t seen you here before. I’m so and so.” But first I like to sit at the edge, to watch and feel a place before I jump in—a trait my mother assures me I’ve had all my life.

Second of all, the long service gave me enough time to stop worrying about not knowing the prayers, or even the sounds of the language the prayers were said in, and to start watching. And what I saw fascinated me. Instead of standing stock still like the Protestants I grew up with, people swayed as they sang and bowed as they prayed. The readings in English had snippets of familiarity. I’d never thought about where exactly “May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight” appears in the Bible. It’s a Psalm. Solidly not New Testament material. Hearing it evoked in that setting conjured an image of a long-forgotten assistant minister who would begin the service with it every Sunday when I was in junior high.

So by the end, I was feeling pretty good. Sure, I occasionally counted how many pages until the end of the service, but overall I was feeling like I’d spent an enjoyable evening peeking into a different culture.

Then, near the end, a 13-year-old girl, a recent Bat Mitzvah, turned to me, stuck out her hand, and said, “L’shana Tovah.” I shook her hand. I think I mumbled, “Thank you,” or something. But I felt like I’d been outed. Caught being an ignorant imposter at an important occasion. A tourist cravenly peeking in on a solemn moment—the same feeling I’ve had the few times I’ve visited urban African-American churches—like it’s obvious to everyone around me that I’m there to get a look and no matter how respectfully that’s meant or how politely I behave, it’s inappropriate. I’d add that this is a) not how I’d view someone coming to observe a service where I didn’t feel like an onlooker, and b) entirely self-generated.

Fourteen years later, I can toss off L’shana Tovah, and even add u’metukah to wish someone a good and sweet year instead of just a good year, but I still get tripped up by a new holiday greeting on occasion. More often, I stumble over whether to use one with someone who knows I’m not Jewish, or it’s reversed and the other person stumbles over what to say to me.

I trip over these greetings because they feel like a proxy for both what I do claim and what I do not claim. I don’t want to seem to be pretending to be Jewish even though I do worship very Jewishly. And even though I’ve been worshiping Jewishly for more than a decade, I still occasionally feel like I’m pretending or showing off when I wish someone a good Pesach instead of happy Passover, or tie myself into a useless knot figuring out whether “Shabbat Shalom” (peaceful Sabbath) or “have a good weekend” should cross my lips in a particular situation. Hovering endlessly at the edges can be its own vice.

I’m writing this down partly because I’m still finding my own way to the practices that are right for me, and partly because being an intermarried practicing(ish) Protestant balancing between worlds she loves feels lonely at times.

There are lots of intermarried families out there. I have met many people at synagogues who didn’t grow up Jewish. But it’s less common for me to meet an intermarried mainline Protestant who is raising a Jewish family and wants to talk about their own faith journey. They/we are out there. And to be fair, my family tends to move away just as friendships start to deepen. But I also think that if I feel a bit alone in the particularities of my situation, then others may as well.

I’ve traveled a long way in the years since I walked into a civic center, newly in love with a man who didn’t share my religion. This is the story of where that journey has taken me. It is not a how-to book. There are plenty of books about how to have a Jewish household, and an excess of people with shoulds for intermarried couples. I don’t have a magic description of how to be a non-Jew in a Jewish household. My way of being a wife and mother is the right way for me and my family; it is not the only right way.

What I do have is a story to tell about how I went from being so ignorant that I once wished my future husband a happy Yom Kippur (something I still can’t acknowledge without cringing) to being happily and comfortably engaged in synagogue life and a competent parent of a Jewish child while remaining authentically myself. It is not primarily a story about my daughter’s relationship to Judaism. That story will be hers to tell. It’s also not about navigating a marriage between two people of different backgrounds. Lots of people have told that story. This one is about me, about what I have found and lost along the way, and about what I struggle with as my own faith is influenced, challenged, and deepened by two sets of practices.