Choosing to live your life by your own choice is the greatest freedom you will ever have.
– Shad Helmstetter.
About six months ago (post-Passover/Easter observance), I was sitting at the beach talking to my stepdaughter Kyla and her fiancé Sarah about their wedding. We had a good laugh looking at bizarre wedding cakes and thinking about some of the crazier things that people do at their weddings. While it was clear what Kyla and Sarah didn’t like, it was also clear what they wanted their “party” to be like. But what was a lot less clear was what they were expecting (if anything) of their ceremony.
They knew they wanted it to be special, but they weren’t sure how to begin. So we researched wedding ceremonies. My own ceremony was unusual. Robert and I were married on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, and because of our commitment to social justice and equality we had a dear friend read Dr King’s inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech. Another friend read the “Apache Wedding Prayer” – just because we liked it. Oh, and I had 17 attendants—but I let them all wear whatever outfit they wanted as long as it was black. We’re New Yorkers.
My mom thought the ceremony should be as brief as possible—the party, especially the flowers, may have been more important to her. So I gave her full flower approval while Robert and I planned the ceremony. It was important to us that we share a meaningful, public ritual in front of and with the community of family and friends who would be by our sides in the blessings and trials to come in a long marriage. We would rely on their counsel and love to see us through, as we believed that the witnesses to a marriage are as responsible as the couple to do whatever they can to ensure the marriage thrives. This makes the guest list really important.
I was honored that Kyla, who was a big part of my wedding, standing with her younger sister and other family and friends under the chuppah (wedding canopy), would ask me to help her and Sarah plan their ceremony. I found many resources—more than I expected—for interfaith and gay wedding ceremonies. Widely varied options had already been created; the ceremony could be as simple as “pick two from column A and two from column B.” There were explanations of Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist weddings; for weddings of couples of different genders and couples of same genders; lists of rituals that mixed religions would find acceptable; and rituals that might innocently (and not so innocently) offend. Transparency seemed to be a big theme: Tell people what is going on (verbally or through a program), explain the rituals as they are happening, use English translations alongside other languages, and be as inclusive as possible.
So one Saturday in late July, we—Kyla, Sarah, Kyla’s mom (Annie), Robert, Kyla’s brother (Corey), and I—sat down to create the ceremony. Kyla and Sarah had some ideas from a book they’d read as well as ceremonies they had been to. The first thing I remember hearing was: No God, No Jesus, and No Hebrew.
I had been assuming (not presuming) that we would use the Jewish wedding ceremony and then infuse it with some multi-cultural and/or interdenominational love. But a wonderful thing about our ever-changing, expanding world is that everything can be started from something or it can be started from nothing. So we mixed it up. We created an outline of what they wanted: Welcome, Rituals, Sharing the Meaning of Marriage, Sharing the Meaning of Their Marriage, and Vows—plus Jewish rituals they didn’t want (circling and the seven blessings), and Christian rituals they didn’t want (candle lighting and kneeling).
When the time came, when the family and friends had followed the bagpiper up the hill and were seated, when the sun had broken through twenty-four hours of clouds and storms to light up the surrounding mountains and valleys and make God present even without Jesus or Hebrew, when the brides stood resplendent under the chuppah, it was more splendid than any of us could have imagined . . .