Creating a wedding that sets the tone for a marriage.
by Rahel Musleah
For the past year, it’s been wedding season in my family, as my two nieces, a nephew, and one of my sisters have all gotten married. Each wedding was different, bearing the imprint of personalities, partners, ages, families and traditions. They not only took place in June, but in various seasons, and featured color schemesranging from mauve and taupe to navy and gold. Their ceremonies have been similarly diverse, merging rituals from India and Iraq (my family background) with American, Ashkenazic and Israeli customs.
When my niece, Penina Case, 28, married, she and her fiancé, Eli Polofsky, modified Sephardic and Ashkenazic rites to fit their ideals. As is customary in the Baghdadi-Indian tradition, the couple faced the congregation under the chuppah, and my father (Penina’s grandfather) conducted the ceremony according to the Baghdadi liturgy. The very last word of the blessings, u-matzliach – a wish that the marriage will be successful – is our family name.
The Ashkenazic tradition of the bride’s seven circuits around the groom – one explanation bases the custom on the seven days of creation, reflecting the creation of a new family – was important to Polofsky’s family, but it felt “man-centric” to Case. To mirror their equality in their marriage and to show that their worlds revolve around each other, she circled him three times and he circled her three times, reciting appropriate biblical verses. For the last circuit, they made a half circle each around the other, never unlocking their eyes. “We created rituals that spoke of family traditions and history, and were meaningful to us as individuals,” says Case. “It felt very rich.”
Despite the regularity and acceptance with which couples live together today – about 12 percent of couples living together are unmarried (Familyfacts.org) – getting married remains a goal for many. In fact, over half marry their partners within five years (unmarried.org). Case lived with Polofsky for three-and-a half years. Getting married, she says, infused their relationship with a deeper level of spirituality and commitment. “There’s a certain something in getting married, another step we could take. As the wedding got closer we began to appreciate and understand each other even more. I feel I’ve fallen more in love with Eli,” she says. Even the planning process, filled with compromise, financial, logistical and family issues, allowed an element of growth that they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise, she adds.
The diversity in types of marriages – first, second, gay, interfaith, and more – has not stopped Jewish ritual from being an essential component at weddings. An interfaith ketubah signing party even made it to the television screen in one of the last episodes of CBS’s The Good Wife.
“The wedding ceremony is a sacred drama that transforms status, creates a new reality, separates the couple out from other people for each other while connecting their marriage to every other Jewish couple and the Jewish community,” says Paul Kipnes, rabbi of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, Calif., and co-author of Jewish Spiritual Parenting (Jewish Lights) with his wife of 26 years, Michelle November. Even if a couple is not observant or involved Jewishly, says Kipnes, they want a Jewish wedding because “Judaism is their home and the Jewish rituals transform them.”
The Sheva Brachot, the Seven Wedding Blessings at the heart of the ceremony, encapsulate a Jewish view of the most significant values in what a marriage could and should be, says Kipnes, singling out four key words: ahava, achavah, shalom, v’re’ut: love, kinship, wholeness/peace, and friendship. “Love is both a feeling and a perspective on another person. It lifts you up, gives you energy, inspires, motivates, and warms you.” Achava (kinship), he continues, is derived from the word ach, brother – someone to whom you have a responsibility and sense of obligation through good times and bad. Re’ut signifies a friendship with someone you choose and trust, who accepts you for who you are and pushes you to be better. Shalom, from the root shalem, mirrors the wholeness and completeness that can come with marriage.
The exuberant lines of the Sheva Brachot actually reverse the dark vision of the prophet Jeremiah as he watched his people exiled and Jerusalem ruined. “The prophet lamented, 'Never again will the voice of joy and gladness, the voice of bride and groom, be heard in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem.’” By replacing just two letters, the rabbis changed the phrase lo yishama (never again) to od yishama (once again), teaching that just as the Jewish people faced tragedy and survived, so a marriage can overcome dark times and revel in celebration. “For married couples, it can take just two elements – the two partners, making seemingly small changes, to transform hopelessness into hopefulness.”
On a personal level, says Kipnes, he and November regard marriage as “a binding of souls, one to the other, for all eternity. That became the vision against which we measured all the challenges in life and in our relationship. Since our souls would be bound together forever, we worked intensely to address openly and equitably whatever came our way.”
A Jewish wedding “is a decision to work on living with someone in a context of committed holiness. It’s a process that weaves in family and friends, builds in a system of conscious support and amplifies lovingkindness,” says Rabbi Goldie Milgram, 61, author of eight books including Living Jewish Life Cycle: How to Create Meaningful Rites of Passage at Every Stage of Life. Milgram, who now lives in Sarasota, Fla., offers many spiritual and egalitarian options on her website, reclaimingjudaism.org.
For instance, as the couple under the chuppah holds up the cup of wine, a symbol of life, health and joy, they can imagine themselves having a long life together. A mutual glass-stamping ceremony might not only represent sadness at the destruction of the Temple, but could also symbolize that the couple is breaking through from their lives as single people into the joy of marriage.
The spiritual side of marriage is rooted in mysticism, says Debra Band, a Hebrew manuscript artist, author and illustrator in Potomac, Md. According to Kabbalah, at the beginning of time Divinity was shattered; the focus of the universe is bent on reuniting the qualities of the Divine (the sefirot), gathering and restoring the sparks to the whole. When a human couple comes together, they effect a piece of tikkun olam.
Band experienced the healing herself when she remarried at 57 (her first husband, David Band, had died when they were both 52). She and her second husband, psychiatrist Michael Diamond, “were conscious we were doing tikkun on a personal and communal level. I’ve seen how my new marriage affects my life and the life of my kids. It healed wounds and was like a rebirth.”
According to Kabbalah, at the beginning of time Divinity was shattered; the focus of the universe is bent on reuniting the qualities of the Divine, gathering and restoring the sparks to the whole. When a human couple comes together, they effect a piece of tikkun olam.
Band notes that the traditional ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, mirrors Judaism’s brilliance in bridging the practical and spiritual realms. “The Jewish marriage is wholly planted in this world. The spiritual element is powerful but the first function of a wedding is enacting a halachic agreement, a legal arrangement.” The traditional ketubah outlines the husband’s material and practical obligations to his wife, including his financial responsibility, in addition to protecting a woman from being tossed out penniless in case of divorce or his death.
Many couples prefer to diverge from the traditional document and spend hours thinking about how to customize their ketubah to convey their individual values and aspirations for the relationship. When Band, who has designed dozens of ketubahs, works with couples, she tries to connect their interests to Jewish tradition – no matter how assimilated they may be. “The ketubah is a doorway into their Jewish life together,” she says. She offers two original English texts of her own and often couples bring their own, written themselves or adapted from the many alternative texts around.
For Melissa Curley, 28, and her husband Matthew, 25, of Long Beach, N.Y., customizing their ketubah to articulate their feelings and promises to each other was an indelible experience. “To promise someone that you will build a home together that is full of love and trust and laughter is a powerful thing, and I cry a little bit every time I read the words,” says Curley, who married in November 2015.
Matthew was raised Catholic but is not as tied to his religion as Melissa is to her Jewish identity. Their wedding incorporated many Jewish customs, from her bat mitzvah tallit that hung from the poles of the chuppah to the joyous hora at the reception. “I am not a religious person, but find my roots and my identity in Jewish tradition and plan to carry this on to our children. Everything had meaning in the fact that they were the traditions and tunes I had been raised with, and it brought a wonderful sense of my deep roots, knowing that all of the generations before me had the same words and actions at their weddings in some form or another,” says Melissa, who works for a non-profit organization. “It was also the first time that Matt's family experienced this piece of my – and now our – life. They all told me afterwards how beautiful the ceremony was and how much they enjoyed hearing the tunes of the prayers.”
For David Berger, 36, cantor at KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago, Ill., marrying his husband, Rabbi D’ror Chankin-Gould, in Los Angeles in 2009 felt like an act of justice. (They also had a civil ceremony just moments before Proposition 8, eliminating same-sex marriage, passed in November 2008). Though their act was bold, Berger, who was raised Reform, says that he and Chankin-Gould, “are a fairly traditional couple,” and that their wedding was the most traditional Jewish wedding his friends and family had ever seen.
“People turn to me on a regular basis, thinking there is something magical that – poof! – makes a wedding gay,” says Berger. “It’s remarkable and miraculous for me that a gay wedding is just a wedding. But the communal change in saying the spiritual ritual of marriage is open to gay people suddenly makes every other piece of Jewish life open to gay people. That’s profound for me.”
Berger’s wedding featured such traditional elements as separate tisches (literally, tables) for each partner – with food, drink, study, conversation, toasts and roasts. At the bedeken, the customary veiling of the bride, they helped each other don special purple-and-black wedding kippot and kittels, the white robes warn on special occasions by Ashkenazic Jews.
A community of loved ones gathered to witness and participate in the celebration, “precious people from all parts of our lives” including five grandparents, teachers and best friends from childhood, Berger noted. “Honoring our values in a public and tangible way at our wedding helped reinforce and clarify them. They now serve as guiding principles that strengthen our relationship.”
Family and community were also paramount at Rebecca Yousefzadeh Sassouni’s wedding 22 years ago. “It wasn’t just me getting married,” says Sassouni, 45, an attorney in Great Neck, N.Y. who traces her family roots to Kashan and Tehran, Iran. “We were part of a bigger picture. It’s the union of families and set the stage for the rest of my life.” To this day, she says, “it’s not just me and my husband.”
The preparations leading up to the wedding were laden with Persian customs that emphasized the multi-generational, celebratory and supportive circle of women. A henna bandoon, a henna party akin to a shower, was held two weeks before the wedding. Henna, which is thought to have curative and restorative properties, is passed around for luck and the women smudge it in their palms. “It looks like icky mud but the bride is supposed to look at her hand and find her fortune hidden there. She goes around the room and shares her blessing.”
In all traditions, the bride and groom traditionally dip into the transformative waters of the mikvah before the wedding. Even that ritual was shared with the community of women on the Thursday preceding Sassouni’s wedding. “I was alone in the mikvah but the minute I came out it was like a party,” she recalls. Her mother, sisters, mother- and sisters-in-law, and grandmothers had waited right outside. As soon as she put on the robe the first thing she saw was her own reflection in a mirror her mother-in-law had brought so she could view herself pure, reborn, optimistic and ready for marriage. “It was a rite of passage. I loved the purification, renewal, transitional and generational aspects.”
Sassouni was still living at home with her parents before she married. As she drove away from their house for the last time before the wedding, her parents sprinkled rosewater and mint on the ground, reciting the Farsi words, jaat hameesheh sabz basheh [Your place will always be green]. Sassouni remembers it poignantly. “They were saying that there will always be a space for you here. Even though I was leaving home my presence would always be alive there. I’d always be their daughter.” When she returned from her honeymoon and entered her new home for the first time, her mother-in-law had left the same mirror, a bottle of water and a container of dried rice, embodying innumerable blessings for plenty, reflection, purity and renewal.
Judaism acknowledges that in some cases marriages do not last and there are contemporary versions of Jewish prenuptial agreements available. But to give the couple’s new life the best possible chance, Milgram, who is also a social worker, suggests resolving family friction and working on teshuvah, in the form of relationship healing, during the engagement year. “The more teshuvah is done, the more healthy a self and network one brings into a marriage,” she says. “Plus the habit of teshuvah is a great gift in the life of a couple.”
The joy that accompanies so many weddings is part of what makes them memorable. “Most of our experience, what we see, feel and go through, is so temporally contained and filled with illusion,” says Berger. “The wedding is one of the few moments of true certainty in life that allows us to access what is real and precious.”
Get Smart to prevent Get Abuse
Sometimes marriages don’t work out as planned, in the Conservative movement, couples generally sign a clause attached to the ketubah ensuring that, in case the marriage does not last, the husband will grant his wife a get, Jewish divorce. In the Orthodox world, however, there are situations where the husband refuses to give his wife a get. In these situations, the woman becomes chained to the man. In Hebrew, she is called an agunah. Abuse through get refusal has become an increasingly recognized problem in the Orthodox community. Signing a halachic prenuptial agreement can avert this situation.
JWI has launched a program called Get Smart to educate young people about this option. The halachic prenuptial agreement, a legal document signed by the bride and groom before the wedding, can be an effective tool for preventing get abuse. However many couples do not use this document and, in some cases, husbands use the denial of a get as a means of power and control, refusing to give one unless certain conditions or financial arrangements are met.
Drawing on its experience in abuse prevention, JWI’s two-year educational program and public awareness campaign is geared toward Orthodox teens and young adults. The program, which is funded by the Aviv Foundation, will acquaint them with the issue of get abuse in Jewish marriages and will promote the use of the halachic prenuptial agreement as a tool to protect both parties from the risk of abusing or being abused through get refusal.
“This document is a way for a couple to show their love and care for one another since by signing it they agree to treat each other with respect, no matter what,” says Deborah Rosenbloom, JWI vice president of programs.
The halachic prenuptial agreement has been approved by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), one of the world’s largest associations of Orthodox rabbis, and by the RCA-affiliated Bet Din of America. The latter reports a near 100 percent success rate in resolving divorces between parties who signed the agreement.
Rahel Musleah leads tours of Jewish India and speaks about its communities. Her website is explorejewishindia.com.