Wedding Series: Navigating Inter-Faith Families

Or, How to Plan a Jew"ish"/Atheist Wedding

I never thought I would describe my wedding as "inter-faith" because, well, neither my Husband or I have a faith. I was raised agnostic/atheist by parents who celebrated Christmas (think Santa) and Easter (think the Bunny). My Husband grew up in the Jewish community, attending Hebrew school classes and being Bar Mitzvah'ed. His family celebrated the holidays but did not regularly attend synagogue or really practice the religion. As adults we've come to our own non-religious beliefs and religion had never seriously come in conversation with our families. So we didn't expect it to come up during the wedding planning process.

* Planning a Jew"ish" / Atheist wedding yourself? At the bottom of the post I list exactly what we did.

Unexpected Expectations

There were several words I'd never heard out of my family's mouths before wedding planning. One example of this is the word Sabbath. For those who aren't familiar with Judaism the Sabbath is from sun-down on Friday to sun-down on Saturday. It is meant to be a day of rest without work. For those who actively observe it means not working and spending time with family in the home. For more Orthodox observers it means not using any machinery including cars, light switches and elevators. Which basically means you walk anywhere you need to go but otherwise stay in your home/Synagogue.

So. Here we are only a few days into planning our wedding and the word Sabbath comes up. "You can't have a wedding on a Friday because it's the Sabbath". We were both surprised to hear this, me esepcially. Never in four years of knowing the family had I ever heard the word Sabbath. Let alone know anyone to observe it.

It was surprises like these, the unexpected expectations, that were the most difficult to navigate for me. After nearly four years together I had my own understanding of my in-laws family culture and religious culture. In all of our interactions there had not been any scrutiny of my religious and cultural beliefs. I was alwasy accepted without question by a very loving and inviting family. I enjoyed learning about Jewish culture and participated enthusiastically in holidays (my rendition of the four questions is still legendary). I never experienced the family going to synagogue, observing the Sabbath, keeping Kosher or anything else that would be typically indicative of practicing Judaism. And so I had never seriously considered what the religious expectations would be of our wedding.

My first error was making assumptions. (You know what they say...) It was unfair of me to make assumptions about an entire family's religious-cultural practices, even based on my own experiences. If I could go back in time I would probably encourage my past-self and past-Husband to talk to his family about these expectations long before we got engaged.

Another asusmption I made was that my future family had an understanding of my family's religious beliefs and culture. I recall the first conversation where our wedding was referred to as "inter-faith". I stopped. What was my family's supposed faith?

"Well Baptist. Isn't your family Baptist?"

Again, I stopped in my tracks. My grandparents attended a Baptist church. Our family was Lutheran generations ago. But my parents are not religious. I was raised an atheist.

A conversation ensued about my religious beliefs, that yes I am by defenition an atheist, and there would be no religion represnted by my side. (And no one expected there to be.)

This led me to think, "Wait a minute, what is being assumed about me?" Even though I had never represented any religious culture, all of the sudden I would want a Baptist wedding?

This conversation happened months into wedding planning. I couldn't believe it frankly. Was this indicative of their thoughts on their own religious culture? That it only comes into play when one decides? My mind was racing, thinking of the potential expectations to come...including...uh oh...a potential future birth and child...

Those convsersations and many (many, many) in between led us to discover a multitude of unexpected expectations. Some related to religion: Not getting married on the Sabbath, having a chuppah, the specifics of the processional, breaking the glass, signing the certificate, dancing the hora. Some were social/cultural: who to invite, how many to invite, the etiquette/protocal of who to invite, the size of the guest list, the specific speeches to be made by specific people, the degree of opulence, the amount of flowers, the vendors to use. And so on.

It was overwhelming. It was unexpected.

And My Unexpected Actions

Let's turn the tables for a moment. Look at it from a different perspective.

It's 30 years from now and it's my child getting married. We raised them agnostic, we have expectations and knowledge of their ethics. Let's say they are marrying into a different culture. I would assume my child would act how they were raised: a non-religious ceremony that is meaningful to them, not held in a house of worship and not with any religious restrictions.

How would I feel and react if they decided something completely different? If they made plans completely outside of my scope of expectations? Would I have questions? Would I be surprised, maybe shocked, maybe confused, maybe hurt? I would support them best I could but need a lot of explanation.

My Husband's family had their own set of expectations. Out of the blue, we didn't begin to meet them. They have their own family culture and memories of how my Husband was raised. And all of the sudden their (only) son's wedding is not going to be at all how they expected. They had questions. Surprise. Shock. A need for understanding. How come our wedding would be so different from theirs? From most of their friends' weddings in their community? Heck, even their friends' kids' weddings?

To me it was unexpected expectations. To them it was unexpected actions.

All I can advise is to communicate, communicate, communicate. (As I've said before communication is never a bad thing). We all talked, texted, skyped and emailed a lot during the wedding planning process. I wish we had all done a little more of it before it became so high-stakes.

Do Your Own Research

I had done a little research into Jewish wedding traditions but the amount of stress and conversation around it drove me to research it in depth. I read articles from orthodox communities right up to reformed communities. My husband is not a practicing Jew, he describes himself as Jew"ish".

Many times he would come home from work to find me glued to the computer reading up on Judaism. "Did you know such and such? Has your family ever done blank?" Surprisingly to me he had no knowledge of many of the things I was discovering. Together we learned a lot about traditional Jewish practices and the reasoning behind them. It was enlightening and fascinating. Some would have made great sense a few hundred or thousand years. Some seemed to make no sense at all. By doing the research independently we were able to decipher what had personal meaning to us and what didn't.

Finding Meaning

Everyone's understanding of faith, religion and religious culture is different. The following are my opinions and interpretations - and I understand that yours may differ. Please read on to see examples of how we found meaning (or didn't) in different traditions:

House of Worship - Church/Synagogue: We are not religious and do not practice any religion. To get married in a house of worship was never an option to us. As such...

Religious Officiant - Minister/Rabbi: We would have no religion or mention of a religious text in our ceremony. As such our ceremony would not be carried out by a religious official.

The Sabbath: No one on the bride's side observes the Sabbath. None of our combined friends do. There is one lovely family on the groom's side that does, but other than that, no family members or family friends observe this. As it had no meaning to us (and many budgeting benefits) we decided to hold our wedding on a Friday night.

The Chuppah: The chuppah is a wedding canopy, open on all sides, with four posts supporting the covering. The meaning behind it is to represent the home the new couple will create and how, as it is open on all sides, will be open to friends and family.

Jewish Processional: The Jewish processional tradition is that the groom be escorted down the aisle by both his parents, followed by the bride being escorted down the aisle by both her parents.

The breaking of the glass: The breaking of a glass at the end of the wedding ceremony represents the destruction of the temple in Israel and that it must be remembered even in the most joyous of moments.

Certificate Signing - Before/During Ceremony: Jewish couples typically sign the certificate before the ceremony, while Christian couples typically sign during the ceremony.

The Hora: The hora is a traditional folk dance where the guests dance in a circle. The couple is lifted up on chairs in the middle of the circle, as are family members and parents.

A Meal Blessing: Christian weddings can sometimes have a prayer or blessing said before the wedding meal.

We found meaning in some of these elements: The Chuppah, the signing of the certificate during the ceremony and the Hora. We decided to incorporate those traditions into our ceremony. I loved the symbolism of the Chuppah - welcoming friends and family into our newlywed home. Signing the certificate mid ceremony allowed our guests to bear witness (and was a great excuse for yet another musical moment). The Hora looked like a lot of fun and great way to get the guests excited after cocktail hour. We found added significance by asking my (atheist) father to play the Hora live on clarinet! (Fun fact: he had a part-time gig in a Klesmer band as a young man).

We also decided to not include any religion (including a house of worhsip or religious leader), the observance of the Sabbath, the Jewish processional, the breaking of the glass or a meal blessing. The breaking of the glass was an interesting one. My Husband, who had seen the tradition at every Jewish wedding he'd been to, had no idea what it meant. (Fun Fact number two: I always assumed it was some sort of representation of virginity...whoops!) We decided to ask family members if they knew any other meaning to breaking the glass other than the rather down-cast memory of the destruction of the temple. The answers varied a little, but we didn't recieve a clear supported answer. The long and short of it ended up being "Well it's just what we do". My Husband decided this one him self as it's traditionally the groom who steps on the glass. He would not be doing it because we did not believe in the meaning. The meal blessing was also a hard one for me. Two sets of my grandparents attend Church. My paternal Grandfather had said meal blessings at both of my older cousins' weddings. I considered asking him to do the same for us simply to show respect to him. In the end I decided against it. There were better ways to show respect to my Grandfather than to ask him to do something I didn't believe in.

We deicded all of this independently without outside influence of any family member.

It was important to us to make meaningful decisions free from bias and with significant thought behind them.

But that's not to say we didn't make a few compromises.

Show Respect and Mean It

Showing respect to parents and family members is a good thing, right? An important thing? The easy answer is "Yes, absolutely".

My personal opinion differs. "Yes, absolutely" can imply that one shows respect without truthfully meaning it. To make decisions to please others, without finding meaning yourself, is just as disrespectful as not making those decisions in the first place.

Allow me elborate.

Let's say it was very important to be married in a church. Let's say it was important to my beloved grandparents. If we hypothetically decide to blindly show respect, and get married in a church, it wouldn't be truthful. We would know that we didn't believe in it. The Minister would know. Many people baring witness to our union would know. Hence, in my opinion, an untrue union. A marriage begun not by conviction but by acquiesence. That's not the marriage I would choose for myself.

Making compromises and paying hommage needs to come from a genuine place of meaning. And there are ways to find meaning and humility through compromise!

A great example from my experience was the question of processional. If you recall from the list above we had decided against a traditional Jewish processional. Again, making assumptions, we didn't think it would be a big deal to my Husband's family. The plan was for him to be playing music right until the processional started anyway, so why would he, logically, walk all the way back up the aisle only to walk down again?

Again, I cannot over-stress the importance of assumption-making.

When our processional plan was brought up it was met with a lot of emotion. It was met with tears. The processional was so important to those family members that the idea that we brushed it off, or rather brushed them off, was very emotional. It caught us off guard and it caught them off guard. We never intended family members to feel that way! But we also had our own convictions about our processional.

Here's the respectful, meaningful compromise that we all came to:

After all the guests were seated and the groomsmen band stopped playing the processional music started. My husband's father and step-mother would walk halfway down the aisle together and my husband would meet them half way up the aisle. They shared a hug and a moment, and then Hubby cescorted them down the aisle to their seats. He repeated the same process with his mother. (Not only do we have "inter-faith" families, we also have all divorced parents. Maybe that should get it's own post).

Though not the exact tradition it was still a beautiful way to show repsect. And since I had already asked all three of my parents to walk me down it brought symmetry to our processional.

Together we found ways to show respect and, more importantly, to mean it.

Other examples of Meaningful Respect:

- Honouring our parents: The first event in our ceremony was to thank our parents, individually and by name, for their influence in our lives

- Paying hommage to Judaism: I asked my (opera singer) mother to sing during the ceremony. I selected two excerpts from a piece called "5 Hebrew Love Songs" by one of my favrouite composers Eric Whitacre.

- Paying hommage to Chrsitianity: We asked our wedding guests to join us in a "secular hymn" - "Lean on Me" by Bill Withers.

- Honouring Family & Heritage: I asked female family members to contribute pieces to my brooch bouquet. In carrying those pieces down the aisle they would be honouring me and me them.

- And Honouring my Grandfather: I asked my grandparents if they had anything they could lend to my Groom along the same idea of the brooch bouquet. My Grandfather offered him his father's cuff links to wear on the day.

Summary

"Inter-faith" weddings are touchy subjects by nature. There's no right or wrong way to go about them. I am very proud of the ceremony we created and the wedding we had. I believe it represented us as a couple, our families and their heritage, as well as setting the tone for our family to come. The only way to arrive at the ceremony we did was by doing thoughtful research, sticking to our beliefs and making meaningful guestures and compromises. I would encourage you to follow those same steps and also to be wary of making assumptions. Weddings can bring out unexpected feelings in all of us - be prepared to have those conversations. And be receptive to them. You may discover something meanigful that you never would have arrived at yourself.

Specifics

Planning a Jew"ish"/Atheist Wedding? Here's exactly what we did.

Processional: Groom meets parents halfway up the aisle, escorts them to seats. (Groomsmen already by Chuppah). Bridesmaids one by one, then ring-bearer and flower girl, then Bride with her parents.

Ceremony: We had a chuppah provided by the venue. Our officiant, who happened to be a Christian Reverend, was happy to perform our completely secular ceremony. He was immensely supportive of everything we wanted. We thanked each parents individually. (They did not join us under the chuppah for any part of the ceremony). We had a Hebrew song as well as a "secular hymn". (I'm pretty sure I made that up). We had a double-ring ceremony and signed the certificate during the ceremony.

Photos: Everyone wanted lots of pictures with every distant relative. We hired two photographers and wrote out a detailed shot list.

Hora: We had our dinner band and my father play the hora live. It was the best hora ever and went on almost thirty minutes.

Speeches: We asked each parental unit to make a short speech of their choice.

Vendors etc

Officiant: Rudy Heezen

Venue: The Eglinton Grand

Hebrew Love Song: Five Hebrew Love Songs, Eric Whitacre

"Secular Hymn": Lean on Me, Bill Withers

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