New Jewish Wedding Traditions

ketubah shock

Ariela Rutkin-Becker cried when she saw her ketubah for the first time, just minutes before her marriage to Harris Goldman. Watercolor depictions of milestones and memories from their relationship surrounded the traditional Aramaic marriage contract and an original English text they had composed of their promises for a life together.

Rutkin-Becker’s ketubah mirrors the contemporary Jewish wedding—a blend of tradition, innovation and modern sensibility infused with each couple’s distinct personality. “A friend created the ketubah for us based on emails we had each sent her separately,” says Rutkin-Becker, 26. “It was so powerful to see the images of our relationship—not just the things I had described but also the things I didn’t know he remembered.” One of the pictures was of a rock they had found hiking on their first date. Someone had written on it in graffiti: “I have searched my whole life for you.”

Jewish weddings have been evolving since feminism transformed the landscape of Jewish ritual—both in terms of egalitarianism and inclusiveness—but adaptations over the past decade have moved them even further away from “cookie-cutter ceremonies,” says Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, a Philadelphia-based wedding consultant and author of The Creative Jewish Wedding Book. Couples are choosing which rituals are personally meaningful to them and integrating values like eco-consciousness, egalitarianism and community.

Because Judaism today spans the spectrum—so do weddings, and no one size fits all. There are secular couples who know little about Judaism and Orthodox couples who would like to include egalitarian practices. There are same-sex marriages—accepted by all denominations except Orthodox—and marriages of Jews by choice from diverse ethnic backgrounds who introduce wedding customs from their cultures during the reception. There are second marriages, Sephardic marriages with their own distinctive rites, and interfaith weddings that incorporate Jewish customs.

“Every wedding is a mixed marriage,” says Kaplan-Mayer, 42, whose own wedding balanced her strong Jewish spiritual identity with her Jewish husband’s Buddhist beliefs. “Even among `inter-Jewish’ couples, the bride and groom may come from different worlds of Jewish religious and cultural experience.”

“The guiding principal for us was that we wanted to be true to ourselves and use the planning time to learn about Jewish customs and traditions,” says Rutkin-Becker, who grew up in a Conservative home in Great Neck, NY and is now a first-year law student at the University of California at Irvine. What she learned was that there are only a few parameters that must be followed according to Jewish law (halacha): most prominently, the ketubah (the central document of the marriage), the groom giving the bride a ring, and the recitation of the betrothal and seven wedding blessings. Much of the remaining ceremony is actually minhag, or custom—from the bedeken (the veiling of the bride by the groom) to the huppah (wedding canopy) and breaking the glass.

Lack of knowledge or discomfort causes some couples to rush through the “Jewish” part of the ceremony, notes Kaplan-Mayer. But embracing the challenge allows them to “take a bold stand against an industry that says the entry to your marriage is about wearing the right dress, serving the fanciest food and spending as much money as possible on all of it.”

At her October wedding, Rutkin-Becker highlighted rituals that have what she calls the “coolness factor”—special moments for the couple that also involve family and community. Months before the wedding, for instance, she mailed white fabric squares to friends and family for the huppah, and received back 100 pieces decorated in a myriad of ways. Her mother-in-law sewed it together. “We were stunned and humbled by the creativity and effort,” says Rutkin-Becker, who plans to hang the huppah in her home.

Daniel and Leah Reiser of Brooklyn elevated community by piggybacking on the framework of the wedding blessings. They created a “Sheva Brachot Project” to honor seven inspirational people in their lives (individuals, couples, and even one group of friends) and asked each to offer a blessing—both in written form and as an artifact. “We chose people we trust and whose wisdom we value; people who exemplify where we want to head in our own lives,” says Leah, 28, who works at a global literacy nonprofit organization [Litworld]. “It was a way to be blessed by each other’s communities and deepen our relationships with them.”

The honorees made their presentations at the rehearsal dinner. Daniel, 27, a rabbinical school student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, recalls that his childhood rabbi presented a pair of candlesticks he had received as gift from his first congregation 40 years earlier. Daniel’s former camp counselor (also a close family friend) and his wife rewrote the Sheva Brachot to fit into Shel Silverstein’s classic The Giving Tree. In their illustration of it, they transformed their baby’s handprints into leaves.

Rabbis, too, have rethought and developed rituals to meet the needs of contemporary couples. Rabbi Jamie Korngold, who runs the “Adventure Rabbi” base in Boulder, CO, and supervises another base in South Lake Tahoe, CA, affirms both individual and community by balancing private and public moments. Before the bride and groom sign the ketubah, which is read publicly, Korngold asks them to whisper to each other their own private expressions of love. The parents stand behind their children and Korngold acknowledges all they have done to help the bride and groom become who they are. The two families then go to separate corners to share some private words; then the parents return to standing with the community, and the witnesses to the ketubah come forward.

“Weddings used to be almost a parents’ celebration, a sign of all they had accomplished,” Korngold says. “Many guests were the parents’ friends and the venue and menu were chosen in accordance to their comfort level. Now I see a movement away from that focus. Couples are paying for their own weddings and they want it to reflect who they are.”

Korngold officiates at many weddings in the mountains. The natural surroundings mirror intimate moments the couple has shared hiking or skiing and they want to replicate those experiences at their weddings. Many couples use aspens for huppah poles—both because they grow profusely in the region and because of their symbolism. “Aspens grow in a grove, and though they are different individually, all the trees are connected as one organism,” Korngold explains. “They reflect how we are connected as a community and how our actions affect one another.”

At Korngold’s wedding in 2003, the men and women gathered separately before the ceremony and hiked in different directions in the woods to share blessings and advice. They were to reconvene at a shelter to sign the ketubah. They were to reconvene at a shelter to sign the ketubah. “The women came down singing and the men came up singing. Unplanned, we were all singing the same song—probably Hinei Mah Tov.”

Even if they do not have a regular spiritual practice, couples view their wedding as a microcosm of the home they are creating together, says Rabbi Roni Handler, 34, director of Community Learning at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and editor of, an online resource for Jewish rituals of all kinds. Progressive contemporary couples frequently depart from tradition around the language of the ketubah and the exchange of the ring, Handler notes.

“Couples aren’t looking at marriage as a business transaction, as it was once understood. They want the language to represent their commitment to each other so they personalize their vows or choose poetic Jewish texts as a way to talk about love and relationships.” Some are uncomfortable with the wedding blessings that describe which couples are forbidden and permitted to marry. Because the couple themselves might be in the “forbidden” category (same-sex couples, for instance) they change the language to be more affirming of who they are.

Ritualwell features reinterpretations like modern betrothal blessings; a contemporary tisch (literally, table, when the bride and groom separately receive blessings from family and friends) that emphasizes gratitude; Brit Ahuvim, which rejects the language of acquisition in favor of a mutual covenant, and vows that focus on acceptance. Other sites like offer many alternative ketubah texts.

In pre-wedding conversations with their rabbi, Handler and her partner, Rabbi Isabel de Koninck (Hillel director at Drexel University) envisioned a huppah that they could reuse as tallitot and commissioned a cousin to create it. After the wedding, the huppah, which depicted a tree with screened images of pomegranates, birds and flowers, was divided in half. Each tallit has a piece of the whole tree. “When I put on the tallit I immediately get transported to that day,” Handler says.

The bedeken, an Ashkenazic custom that precedes the ceremony, is based on the biblical story of Rachel and Leah being switched at marriage, so the groom checks to make sure he has the right bride. Traditionally the bride and groom did not see each other for seven days prior to the wedding. Handler and de Koninck recrafted it into a “kabbalat panim,” meant for the couple to “really see each other as if for the first time.” They spent private moments receiving blessings from their respective mothers and bridal parties. When they finally faced each other, they performed a ritual hand-washing for each other, a transformative symbol of transition, blessing and purification—and the last time they would be without wedding rings. They repeat a version of the ritual every Shabbat.

When Goldman danced in to see Rutkin-Becker at their bedeken, he gave her a blessing and lifted the veil; then she dressed him in a white kittel. “I was such a stubborn feminist in relation to this wedding,” Rutkin-Becker says. “I couldn’t have him do a single traditional thing without my doing my own version. I had my own tisch and made a speech. Instead of my circling him seven times, I circled him three times; he circled me three times and we circled each other once. I was relentless.” She did make compromises to stay within halacha, especially with the guidelines her rabbi set.

Cantor Ramon Tasat, 53, who was born in Buenos Aires to a Sephardic family and is currently hazan of Shirat HaNefesh in Silver Spring, MD, posits that there is “wiggle room in Jewish law that many people of Ashkenazic background don’t use.” When Tasat married Roanne Pitluk three years ago—a second marriage for both—they had two ketubot: a traditional version from the synagogue in Florence, Italy, and one with a text they composed that began, “We accept each other as we are on this day.” They integrated Sephardic music throughout the ceremony, and according to Sephardic tradition, were covered with a tallit as the cantor chanted birkat kohanim, the priestly blessing. “As we were entering a new path in our lives it was beautiful to find God in our endeavor—and that has remained with us,” says Tasat. “Love is a lot stronger when it’s connected to spirituality and love for God.”

“More important than what we did was to talk about it in advance,” says Tasat. “The kinds of things you think about in a second marriage are different than in the first,” he adds. “You are more careful, and the things that may not have had value before do now.”

In the modern Orthodox community, a “small but growing” number of couples are opting for a more egalitarian wedding, says Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of Hovevei Torah Rabbinical School, which trains and places modern Orthodox rabbis. Linzer wrote an article ten years ago offering halachically valid recommendations “to achieve an appropriate balance both between the sexes and between tradition and innovation” (“Towards a More Balanced Wedding Ceremony,” JOFA Journal). Today, he notes, whether the couple ultimately decides on the more “balanced” route partly depends on the officiating rabbi’s responsiveness and the potentially negative reaction of friends and family. And some couples want an Orthodox wedding even if they themselves are not halachically observant.

(Same-sex marriages are still taboo in Orthodox circles. Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, officiated at a same-sex wedding in 2011 that was roundly rejected by Orthodox rabbis.)

Rabbi Shira Stutman, 40, director of Jewish programming at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, a non-denominational synagogue-center in Washington, DC, says she encourages tradition whenever possible, but that she suggests “revaluing” it by infusing it with contemporary meaning. A double-ring ceremony, for instance, can be viewed as a man and woman acquiring each other. “Marriage is not just romance,” Stutman says, “but also about the business of living together and sharing responsibilities.”

Sometimes 21st century life forces innovation. “In a traditional bedeken the father blesses the bride and tells her he hopes she has lot of babies,” Stutman explains. “Nowadays a rabbi should always ask a couple if they plan to have children. And a ceremony predicated on the fact that children are leaving their parents’ home can feel irrelevant because 95 percent of the couples I work with are already living together.” Sometimes new rituals emerge organically, like the “subversive tisch” that came about when the groom said he didn’t like to dance and the bride said the custom was sexist. Stutman suggested that the groom sit and the bride dance to him.

Stutman says she has noticed anecdotally that more couples are asking friends to officiate—so much so that Sixth and I is considering holding a workshop on how to officiate at friend’s wedding. But, she points out, it’s important to have a rabbi or someone who knows the traditions and can balance the pageantry and unexpected moments—like the time the bride got in a fight with her mother-in-law as they were about to walk down the aisle, or the time the groom fainted under the huppah. Asking an untrained friend “would almost be like saying to them, `You’ve watched a lot of ER on TV. Can you do my surgery?’”

One Jewish value that many couples agree on heartily is eco-consciousness—sending digital or recycled paper invitations, ordering locally sourced food, giving plantable, seed-based favors and much more. According to a 2013 study by David’s Bridal, 78 percent of all weddings today have some eco-conscious element even if they are not green through and through. Couples in their twenties and thirties are raised with an environmental perspective that’s become normative and that fits into the Jewish value of caring for the earth, says Kaplan-Mayer.

Rutkin-Becker and Goldman married at the Queens County Farm Museum in NY. She didn’t mind that her chiffon wedding dress trailed gently onto the grass and mud; she loved the mooing of the cows near the tents that had been set up and the police siren that wailed during the ceremony. Guests were invited to take a hayride before the ceremony. The tables were decorated with centerpieces made of cornstalk wreaths surrounding bowls with pears, white pumpkins and votive candles. A friend made the bride’s bouquet from flowers grown almost exclusively on the farm that day.
“We want to live on a farm one day,” Rutkin-Becker says. “It’s an old way of living we respect and we want to emulate it in our future life together.” Even more than eco-consciousness, her wedding reflected a consciousness about consumerism. “It was a green wedding but that’s so much a part of who we are that we didn’t label it that way. Our rabbi called it agraratarian—agrarian and egalitarian.”

The economy has affected wedding spending—and that also leads to more reuse and recycling, says Kate Harrison, 35, a green living expert in New Haven, CT, author of The Green Bride Guide: How to Create an Earth-Friendly Wedding on Any Budget and founder of Her suggestions for meshing green values in a Jewish wedding include constructing a huppah out of a tallit and found branches, or crafting a quilted huppah from keepsakes; ordering kippot made of recycled materials (yes, even from soda cans and bottles); renting or buying a used wedding dress from a local Jewish gemach [a free loan society], and choosing a synagogue or venue consistent with earth-friendly values.

When she married Barry Muchnick, an environmental historian, they considered their carbon footprint and chose Cat Rock, an historic castle located close to most of their guests. Their rings were made of recycled metal; they converted a wicker canopy into a huppah; used a rug from her mother’s house as an aisle runner and flowers from her mother’s garden. They made their own ketubah on recycled cotton watercolor paper and drank from the kiddush cup that Harrison’s grandparents and parents used at their weddings; now three sets of names and dates are engraved on it. Muchnick wore a suit that belonged to his uncle by marriage, and Harrison bought a damaged wedding gown that a seamstress repaired. The leftover material was reused for a break-the-glass pillow. “The idea of marriage is to create something for a sustainable future,” Harrison says.

Some couples weave a tzedakah or social justice component into their weddings. Harrison donated her gown and shawl to Brides Against Breast Cancer. On her website, she recounts the story of Brenda and David Jaffe who met on JDate and were concerned about the environmental impact of their long-distance courtship: they drove 375 miles weekly to see each other. Using the Jewish National Fund’s “GoNeutral Calculator,” they determined the approximate amount of carbon their cars had emitted during their three-year relationship and made a donation for planting trees in Israel.
“A wedding is a series of decisions,” says Harrison, “but at the end of the day my memory is of the whole event. Looking out from under the huppah at all our friends and family was so special. Our wedding wasn’t just about us, but about bringing our families together to form a new unit.”

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