Interfaith or Multicultural? Words Matter at a Wedding

Young statisticians in love. Can you imagine their wedding? If you do, please don’t imagine anything stuffy or stilted. Because I attended it this weekend, and it was a most excellent multicultural affair.

The bride is Jewish, born to North American parents. The groom is Chinese, from a family based in Hong Kong. The groom studied Judaism; enthusiastically embraced Shabbat and holiday practices; but chose not to convert. The couple has entered what some might call an “interfaith marriage.” They frame it, however, as a “multi-cultural” marriage.

READ: How to Make Your Interfaith Jewish Wedding Inclusive

Multi-cultural. That’s how they designed their wedding rituals. They didn’t plan an “intercultural” wedding that creatively melded Jewish and Chinese elements. Instead, they chose to involve their families fully in the rituals of both cultures.

Wedding Day One centered on a quiet Chinese tea ceremony. The couple served tea to their parents and elders, receiving gifts in return. “After we are married,” the groom said, “it will be our role to give gifts to others.”

Wedding Day Two was celebrated with a large Jewish wedding. Under a chuppah (canopy), a rabbi sang traditional Hebrew blessings, offered explanations and creative translations, and made special efforts to engage the guests in song.

READ: Finding a Rabbi or Cantor to Officiate at Your Interfaith Wedding

At the wedding feast, the bride and groom were escorted by two dancing red lions. Each Southern Chinese-style lion, animated by two acrobats, danced and pranced with humorous elegance, gifting the newlywed couple with fruits and good luck banners.

And then the Jewish hora began. Jewish and Chinese guests alike rose from their chairs and danced around in circles. They laughed, clapped, lifted the bride and groom on chairs, and seemed to enjoy the lightly organized chaos.

North American customs came next. Siblings offered speeches honoring the bride and groom. A cousin presented a slide show featuring old photos of the newlyweds. The DJ distributed funny hats and giant sunglasses as he played a pop song mix. Waiters served beef from the prairies, salmon from the coast, and portobello mushrooms for eco-vegans.

A wonderful time was had by all. And why not? One aunt said, “People come here from all over the world. They bring all kinds of skills. Multiculturalism creates a strong economy, a vibrant arts scene, an interesting culture.” Another relative finished the thought. “Intercultural family is part of the cost. We have to find creative ways to preserve our culture.”

Several Jewish family members complained that it was hard to find a rabbi who understood. “I feel so sad about that,” one great-aunt said. “When the young adults don’t feel welcome, they run away. But if a rabbi marries them, they’ll raise their children to be Jewish.”

As I listened, teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan echoed in my mind. Judaism is a civilization, he taught, producing languages, literature, foods, art, music, beliefs and rituals. Religion is only one of many cultural expressions. No wonder the bride’s Jewish relatives think it is wrong to use religious doctrine to decide who is in and who is out of Jewish community.

To the groom’s Chinese family, the cultural model seemed natural. Perhaps that’s because the Chinese government, officially atheist, also officially welcomes five kinds of religion. Or perhaps it’s because Chinese religious expression is a fluid blending of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, emphasizing inner discipline and social respect. “Our Chinese and Jewish cultures are so similar,” explained one Chinese cousin. “We both value family and education so highly.”

The bride and groom, raised on multiculturalism, see their marriage as a mirror of their society. “We fit each other, we understand each other, and we view life the same way. And we push each other, challenge each other, and see the world differently from two cultural points of view. We are complementary parts of a single whole.”

Photo credit: Charles Kaplan

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