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What’s a Wedding without Elephants?

Our cheeks rosy with engagement intoxication, my fiancée Madhavi and I gush over our visions for our wedding. It is a short-lived geyser. Practically every statement requires debate. Welcome to interfaith wedding planning!

We begin with a list of what we cannot compromise on. Madhavi wants the ceremony held outdoors and craves an event that makes her feel at home. For me the wedding needs to be informal, fun and, I cross my fingers, Jewish.

I do not take this for granted. Madhavi grew up in an ashram with a meditative spiritual practice but today identifies herself as a scientist. She practices no religion. As I am a secular Jew, she has learned little about Judaism from me. So how can she feel at home at a Jewish ceremony? Its foreign traditions and unpronounceable Hebrew leave her feeling like an outsider.

Madhavi bravely yields. Despite her qualms she lets my parents’ strong religious connection trump her questioning. She also consents to asking my brother-in-law Michael, a Reform rabbi, to perform the ceremony. For her these are both sizable risks. She has handed a managing stake in her wedding to the family of the groom.

Working with Michael turns out to be an exceptionally smart decision. He deals with Madhavi’s concerns both as a wise rabbi and as a caring brother. For example, she does not feel comfortable invoking Israel at the wedding even though doing so is central to the liturgy. To her Israel equals a no-win political morass. Michael finds a solution. He explains Israel was first a name given to Jacob in the Torah. When he weds us “according to the laws of Israel,” he means the laws of Jacob’s people, not those of the modern political state. In this way he guides us towards a wedding that belongs to us–choosing translations to engage an interfaith group, carefully planning to properly explain Jewish elements to the guests, and simply being open-hearted and welcoming to all of our ideas.

As the date nears, Madhavi continues to wrestle with how to integrate elements from her past. As an ashram émigré and scientist, what can she contribute to a Jewish wedding? Together we brainstorm. Can we wear garlands of marigolds and intertwine them in Indian fashion? Can her mother sing one of the ashram chants to mark the occasion? We think riding in on elephants is too much. I watch my fiancée struggle to find a piece of her abandoned tradition to honor. She looks lost amid the details of kiddush (wine) cups and kettubot (marriage contracts), and I worry.

To compensate for the foreignness of the Jewish ceremony, Madhavi reigns over the reception. She designs each element with an Indian theme. The cake is decorated with henna patterns. The room has a tropical feel. The menu is Indian to be served on banana leaves.

Through working with Michael, Madhavi and I also discover elements of the Jewish tradition that perfectly reflect our sensibilities. Yichud, the time immediately following the ceremony in which the bride and groom seclude themselves, feels ideal. We install my younger brother as badchan, the traditional role of prankster emcee; this guarantees the reception will be uproarious. And the Jewish dancing? How better to celebrate joy than to gather all your friends together and spin and dance and laugh as a klezmer band plays the hora faster and faster, then to be lifted in chairs by those who love you so you can look out over the crowd and bask in beaming smiles. Looking ahead to these things comforts us as we deal with catering quotes and seating charts.

In the end we produce no marigolds, no chanting. Michael kindles the crowd into welcoming us with enthusiastic song. We read love letters we wrote to each other and walk with our families to the chuppah. Madhavi circles me seven times as tradition dictates but a friend declares she’s never seen anyone circle that way. “It’s as if,” she says, “you did not show subservience, but instead claimed him as yours!” Our guests surround us, Michael’s speech brings down the house, I stomp on a glass and we’re married! Alone in yichud we sit stunned. Of course! How could such an act of commitment reflect anything but our most honest selves? For what did we worry?

As we dance the hora and are raised in chairs, it’s obvious: This day is ours, regardless of which traditions we hung our promises on. Madhavi looks radiant with joy and laughter. Are we brought together by the laws of the people of Israel? Yes, in a way. Because these dancing, whooping people are our people. I see her family locked arm in arm with my family, everyone giddy and beaming. They are now united as our family. Her family friends, new to the hora, rocket around the dance floor with my family’s friends and look perfectly at home. I couldn’t be happier.

The room swells with our community and they have made the wedding potent. The community is the heart and we are the spark that lights them into a powerful blaze of joy.

Zack Kushner

Zack Kushner is a freelance travel writer and is currently exploring the world with his bride. He has every intention of turning his experiences into a book.


Author: Zack Kushner