Jewish Weddings Are Blending Connubiality with Individuality


Mixing tradition with personal details is a winning recipe for these ceremonies.

Last December, surrounded by relatives who held up the bright blue family chupah, Amy and Micah Kagan were married under that symbolic cloth — adding their own gold-embroidered leaf to that of six other couples on the chupah’s family tree. Twenty-five people watched the traditional Jewish ceremony, which Rabbi Eric Yanoff performed in Philadelphia so that elderly grandparents could easily attend.

A month later, a crowd of 110 gathered near the slopes at a mountaintop ski lodge in Park City, Utah for a second Jewish wedding that reflected the couple’s passion for winter sports. But instead of having the rabbi intone the seven traditional wedding blessings, the Kagans assigned seven friends and family members to recite their own interpretations of the prayers.

“We wanted a modern take on the Jewish wedding ceremony,” Amy Kagan explained of their idiosyncratic nuptials. “And both rabbis helped us achieve that. Everyone really hit it out of the park. It was moving and meaningful and heartfelt.”

The Kagans are part of a generational trend toward highly personalized, distinctive wedding ceremonies. As the focus of matrimony has shifted from cementing communal status to celebrating the union of two individuals, Jewish weddings have become more individualized as well, with quirky touches that reflect a couple’s passions and priorities.

So along with vows on mountaintops — “I always dreamed of skiing down the mountain in my wedding dress,” confided Amy Kagan — brides and grooms today might decorate a ketubah with pictures from Camp Ramah; recite poems that reflect a shared love of the Spanish Golden Age; or incorporate sentimental artifacts into the ceremony, from a family ring to a grandfather’s tallit.

“Many couples want to personalize the wedding, to make it more meaningful, so that it speaks to them,” observed Rabbi David Straus of Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood. He views it as part of a larger phenomenon — “the privatization of Jewish life-cycle events,” as he described it. Witness the growing number of Bar Mitzvahs that take place at hotels with hired clergy, or in exotic destinations abroad with only family present. “And weddings, certainly in the liberal community, have become not communal but private affairs,” Straus noted. 

That may reflect both our highly individualistic society and the evolution of marriage from social obligation to lifestyle choice. But when it comes to tying the knot, most seem to agree with Straus: “I think whatever you do to make it personal, more meaningful and more intentional for you, the better,” he said.

When Spencer Hoffman and Adam Putzer, a Manhattan couple, got married in Philadelphia last October, they designed a printed program that — along with explanations of the ceremony for non-Jewish guests — included a picture of their family tree. “That way every guest could see where we come from,” Hoffman said, adding that an Irish branch of her family converted from Catholicism. “Especially for our parents’ friends or extended family who don’t know us, they got a better sense of who we are.”

During the ceremony, friends read texts that the bride and groom had secretly selected that made each think of the other; Hoffman’s came from the novel The Portrait of a Lady, while Putzer’s was from the writings of a physicist.

Another special decision was the reading of their ketubah out loud during the ceremony — an increasingly popular, and visible, inclusion for what was traditionally a legal marriage contract that was signed out of sight of the guests. “We wanted to share it with everybody,” explained Hoffman.

Perhaps no single item symbolizes the personalization trend more than the ketubah, which has evolved into a distinctive, artistic expression of a couple’s love. Chances are good that you’ve never seen your grandparents’ ketubah — but if you have Jewish friends who were married in recent decades, you will likely have noticed a colorfully illustrated, Semitic-language parchment on prominent display.

“There was always the tradition of the ketubah, but a generation ago, it was just that legal document,” explained Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, author of The Creative Jewish Wedding Book and an officiant with Journeys of the Heart, a Philadelphia agency that provides interfaith clergy. “In the Orthodox world, it still is. But in the progressive Jewish world, it’s become more of a spiritual document — the idea of having artwork that you and your partner choose together.”

Writing their own ketubah was a profound bonding experience for Kaplan-Mayer and her husband, a Jewish Buddhist, who married in 2001. “It was the heart of our ceremony,” Kaplan-Mayer recalled. “We wrote our own commitment to each other, and my husband used some language from the Buddhist tradition in his part,” with each reading aloud during the ceremony.

Over the years, Kaplan-Mayer has guided numerous couples as they plan ceremonies that, like her own, embrace the details that make each partnership unique. She has stood by while grooms recited Bruce Springsteen lyrics, coached brides through the Song of Songs, and helped find love poems from sources as diverse as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Fulghum.

And in Kaplan-Mayer’s opinion, it is the Internet — particularly the blogosphere — that has transformed wedding planning, inviting Jewish brides and grooms to consider a universe of options. Whereas couples once had to trek to a Judaica shop to find a decorated ketubah, for instance, “now you can look online at five or 10 different artist websites and see what’s out there,” she said.

Such innovation is less acceptable in the Orthodox community, according to Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch of Mekor Habracha, a Center City Orthodox congregation. He said an Orthodox ketubah must contain the original Aramaic text — no Hebrew, English or poetry, as is commonly found on those of non-Orthodox or secular couples — and the witnesses who sign it must be observant Jewish males.

“My approach, when I’m asked to perform a wedding, is to balance the elements,” Rabbi Hirsch explained. “There are certain elements that are not compromisable. For example, the ring ceremony — that has to be done exactly correctly, because that’s what makes the marriage.”

The seven blessings, also at the core of Jewish ritual, are one of the components most likely to be personalized in non-Orthodox weddings. Some couples opt to write their own interpretations; have the blessings recited in both Hebrew and English translation; or, most popular of all, to assign people to read the blessings as a way of participating in the ceremony, as the Kagans did.

At Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington, Rabbi Robert Leib gives seven numbered cards containing “short, concise, non-literal” English translations of the blessings to each set of potential spouses. “It’s up to them to select seven individuals, and it adds another flavor, as it were, to the ceremony,” he said.

But it is the chupah — the wedding canopy — that is at once the most iconic and most customizable piece of a Jewish wedding. Be it of cloth, floral garlands or other materials that have personal significance, the chupah hangs over the bride and groom as a metaphor for the Jewish home they will build together. It was that symbolism that led Sara Kunzman and David Baumgarten — Philadelphians who are sorting through traditions for their interfaith wedding — to settle first on a chupah: “We both really thought, the chupah is a nice visual element,” Kunzman said.

Kaplan-Mayer, who has seen chupahs made out of Shabbat tablecloths or from quilts with contributions from many friends, said the wedding canopy is the most popular of Jewish traditions. In addition to its creative potential, “especially for the Jewish grandparents, there’s something about the visual symbolism that really resonates,” she said.

Rabbi Leib has officiated under chupahs that wove threads from a grandfather’s tallit, and his couples are also increasingly likely to use old family jewelry for the ring exchange. “It’s something very beautiful and meaningful to incorporate these generational Jewish ritual objects into the ceremony,” he said. The emphasis on family bonds also lends emotional weight to a ritual that — though private rather than communal — is still about the union of families.

Kunzman and Baumgarten, whose wedding will take place in June, have already decided to honor both her Presbyterian side and his Jewish heritage with a unity candle ritual, employing candlesticks from her own family and the set used at Baumgarten’s sister’s wedding. “We’ve been researching heirlooms and concentrating on what we can do to meld the two families together,” Kunzman explained.

Many observers trace the creativity trend in weddings to the 1970s, when the feminist movement prompted Jews from across the spectrum to take a closer, more critical look at the ancient institution of marriage — an institution whose gender roles had been strictly codified for centuries.

“Women started reclaiming and re-imagining ritual,” said Kaplan-Mayer. “Before the 1970s, women really weren’t consulted in the creation of Jewish ritual. When women started bringing their creative energy to ritual, change happened. And that’s been the trajectory.”

That movement has effected change among the Orthodox as well. For example, Mekor Habracha’s Hirsch has married couples in which the woman seeks a more prominent role than might be traditional, and he seeks to accommodate that desire within halachah, or Jewish law.

While the blessings must be recited by men in the Orthodox rite, for instance, a woman might follow the man’s blessing with a recited translation, he said. And although Jewish law does not allow for a two-way ring exchange — as many egalitarian-minded Jews seek today — some couples choose to have the woman present her groom’s ring with a recited blessing at another point in the ceremony.

Some of these contemporary touches might end up as traditions of their own. The personalized family chupah, for instance, has been popular for more than a generation now — and the one Main Line Reform’s Straus created for his own wedding, which took place decades ago, has been shared by many couples since. “My mother-in-law embroiders the names of each couple who uses it,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate not to have to take too many names out.”

This piece first appeared in the Spring Simchas, a special section of the Jewish Exponent. Hilary Danailova is a frequent contributor to Special Sections.


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