I love officiating at weddings. I love it. Love. It.
And somehow I am surprised.
But, really, preparing for and officiating these sacred events allow me to use my personal strengths and proclivities (and you can read what the couples have to say here).
I love to hear people’s stories. Wedding preparation practically obligates me to ask questions, lots of questions, lots of personal questions: how did you meet? What was the first date like? When did you know? How do your families get along? Tell me about the proposal (I love the answers to this one). Why do you want a rabbi to officiate? Why get married now, after so many years together, or so soon after meeting? Whom do you want to be at the chuppah with you? Which translations of the Sheva Berakhot—Seven Blessings speak to you? Which traditions resonate for you? And what do you admire about your loved one? What values do you share and how are you different? How have you changed as a result of this relationship? Where do you see yourselves in the future?
And they are happy to share with me. They want me to know them. A match made in heaven.
I love to introduce people to Jewish traditions that resonate with them. I help couples embrace Jewish rituals, look at ways to make the ritual reflect their values and their relationship. I offer a way into Jewish sacred practices that makes observant and secular and culinary Jews, non-Jews, and their loved ones all feel welcome. At only about a quarter of the weddings I officiate are there two Jews standing before me. And of those, the level of observance ranges widely, from none to very Conservative.
I offer traditional explanations of the rituals, and then explain how they can be relevant today. And as a result, most couples incorporate significantly more tradition–with the relevant, resonant twist–than they ever expected, or than their Jewish parents ever expected. And they finish the ceremony feeling completely sanctified to each other, with the support of family and friends. And their friends and family—both Jewish and not—express a joy at witnessing a ceremony that speaks to them as well.
I especially have an affinity for interfaith weddings. I have watched and heard from many older couples about how no rabbi would marry them, but then many rabbis would welcome their family and their family’s dues into their congregation. I’ve heard from them that being turned down, being made unwelcome at the beginning of their married life often sours the couple’s impression of finding a spiritual home for their family within Jewish communal life. I want them to know that they are welcome, and that they too could be considered to be each other’s beshert, the person meant for them. And I strongly believe, based on the couples I have married, that non-Jewish spouses bring a new energy that is very good for the Jewish people.
I’ve co-officiated with a Catholic priest, a Presbyterian minister and an Episcopal priest, and will shortly add a Hindu clergy to the list. I’ve married people in living rooms, backyards, on the shore of Lake Tahoe, in Sea Ranch in view of the ocean, in a redwood forest, on a boat near the Golden Gate Bridge, in a church and a synagogue, in parks, at hotels. Each brings its own beauty and allows the couple to feel their own personalities to emerge.
I’ve made mistakes, and they have proven to be major opportunities for growth:
- I didn’t ask the first priest to spell out the vows he would ask each person to make. He asked the Jewish bride to take her vows in the name of the father, son and holy spirit. In essence, he asked her to lie at this sacred moment, and she did not know how to respond, except to say, “I do.” (I now specify at the beginning of any interfaith wedding planning that my bottom line is that no one lies at their ceremony. Everyone seems relieved.)
- There was the time I didn’t demand that we employ the weather Plan B at a December wedding in Tahoe following a snow storm. This meant that the bride’s grandmother (and the rest of us) were outside with inadequate heaters in 30 degree cold. I don’t think the bride in her strapless dress was completely present when she took her vows. (I now hold the image of her grandmother in my head, along with the musician’s creed—if a violin can’t be outside, neither can the violinist or guests.)
- At one wedding, the bride’s parents were still fighting 20 years after their divorce, and I did not speak to them about their behavior. She was in tears. They misbehaved repeatedly. (I now ask about family issues and will not hesitate to step in when people act badly.)
Each of these has been a moment of learning, to the benefit of the next couple.
I have been graced with wonderful teaching moments. Because one bride did not want to let go of her fiancé, she held on to him throughout her circles around him. It was so beautiful that this ritual that I already love took my breath away. Because one couple wanted to incorporate the son/soon to be stepson into the ceremony, to recognize that he was part of the newly forming family, we explored various ways to incorporate children, and chose a sand ceremony, creating a work of art blending their essences. Because couples truly want their seven blessings to speak to them, I have broadened my repertoire of translations and interpretations. Standing at the bris of a couple who used their wedding kiddush cup and their chuppah cover as part of the ritual, I witnessed the awe of investing history and story into what might be a tired cliché.
So many lessons, so many beautiful ceremonies, so many shared liminal moments.
And I have the joy of staying in touch with the couples, with anniversary emails, sending them a copy of the personal address I crafted for them, and thereby to learn of the babies being born, the new jobs, the new successes and challenges. Because, having been a part of those liminal moments, I feel connected to the depth of their relationship, a part of their family.
May it always feel so.
Marian Blanton says
Tell Sam I agree with his judgment. This is the outline of the best-seller you’re going to write about getting married, Meredith. Who would have thought rabbinical training could have been the precursor for giving and receiving so much joy in the wedding ceremony? As time goes by, you’ll incorporate more and more interesting bits of ritual.
Meredith Cahn says
I’m glad to see that this is so joyful for you. Yes, I think you could accumulate all kinds of interesting stories after a few more years of this!
Meredith Cahn says
Thanks, Alissa. I’ve got lots of interesting stories already (with the dozens of weddings I’ve done so far), and should probably start writing them down… Some have proven to be instructive for the next couples and the variations of what different people want always amazes me. I love the diversity: for a small example: who is willing to have their partner see the dress before coming down the aisle, who isn’t. or Who will circle whom and why? I think most of my couples share the circling, but the ones that don’t — the dress is too big, or the heels are too high, or she is afraid of tripping (that would be my reason – and was my reason for not wanting to break the glass…)… I love each couple’s individuality.
Eileen Shapiro says
I loved reading this! I have one of my own for you…and a mistake YOU would never make. Wes and I were married in 1988 when Illinois had a brief few months of required AIDS testing. Being the rebel that I am I decided the govt was not interfering in my life. So we had our religious ceremony in Chicago as planned, then flew to Vegas the next day for our honeymoon. We got a license, and walked into ( ironically) the Chapel of Love to be married. At the end of the three minute ceremony, the “minister” said, “I now pronounce you Mr and Mrs What was your Name Again?”!!!! A friend of mine wrote a book about Vegas weddings …our story is in there.
Meredith Cahn says
Thanks for sharing this, Eileen! Names seem to be really challenging. I’ve heard lots of stories of officiants blowing that (myself included, as noted).. People who are not naturally good with names or who see it as an assembly line must really have trouble… And I say their first names over and over, but their last names, not as much. And sometimes there is much discussion about what the last name will be…