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By Edmund Case
Leave the chatter about flowers, food and guests to the paparazzi. What is of unique interest about the upcoming wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky is the attention they bring to the increasingly common issue of how interfaith couples grapple with planning wedding ceremonies that honor both their backgrounds.
Finding a way to combine the traditions of two families can be difficult enough when the bride and groom are of the same faith. In this case, Clinton and Mezvinsky will take on a challenge faced by a growing number of interfaith couples: The National Jewish Population Survey shows an increasing trend toward intermarriage among those in the Jewish community, growing from 13% before 1970 to 47% in 2001.
Given these challenges, how can interfaith couples create inclusive, meaningful wedding ceremonies? It’s understandable that Marc Mezvinsky might want to incorporate his family’s religious background in the ceremony – but the meaning behind a number of Jewish wedding customs could be appealing to Chelsea, too. Here’s a viewer’s guide of some aspects of a traditional Jewish ceremony to look for in post-wedding reports of the big day:
• The processional: Most weddings include a processional of some sort, but in a Jewish wedding, the groom comes in with his parents beside him. The bride also enters with both parents, emphasizing family togetherness.
• The huppah: In a Jewish wedding, the processional arrives up front at the huppah, or wedding canopy, typically a cloth family heirloom held up by four poles. The canopy symbolizes the new home the couple is creating. The couples’ parents stand up front for the ceremony, near the huppah but outside (it’s the couple’s new home, not theirs!), and the poles are often held by friends, representing community support for the new household.
• The “circling”: At the beginning of a traditional Jewish wedding, the bride circles the groom several times, symbolically walling him off from other women. Many couples today now circle each other, symbolizing that each will protect and support the other.
• The wine: As with so many weddings, drinking wine is a standard element of a Jewish celebration, but it happens after saying a simple blessing thanking God for creating the fruit of the vine. Many couples also say a blessing that thanks God for enabling them to reach this special time.
• The breaking of the glass: The most well-known Jewish wedding tradition occurs at the end of the ceremony when the groom steps on a glass as the guests cheer “Mazel tov!” There are many interpretations for this tradition – a reminder that life is fragile, a reminder that the world is broken and in need of repair, a hope that the couple’s reasons for happiness will be as numerous as the pieces of glass.
These elements of a Jewish wedding symbolize important purposes that infuse the ceremony with meaning – not just to the Jewish side, but to both of the partners and their families. And if our attention to this weekend’s wedding helps other interfaith couples to navigate the process, hopefully the Clintons and the Mezvinskys will forgive us our curiosity about the decisions they make.
Edmund Case is the CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, a Jewish non-profit organization that encourages interfaith couples to make Jewish choices by offering resources like Guide to Wedding Ceremonies for Interfaith Couples and the Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service.
This post is the final essay in a series about how couples can navigate questions related to their interfaith marriages. Click here for the first post on choosing a ‘lead religion.’ Click here for the second post on where to go for help. Here is the third post on addressing how to raise children in an interfaith household. A fourth focused on how to build a healthy foundation to sustain religious differences.