When California and Jerusalem Met Under the Chuppah

After long months of bitter struggle with the Israeli Rabbinate's preconditions, I was taken by surprise by the warmth I felt at my wedding, where two very different families – American Reform and Israeli Orthodox - embraced and celebrated their two Jewish children. This is what Israel could look like if she tried.

On New Year’s Eve I got married for the second time. To the same man.

Our Wedding Take Two occurred under the chuppah and the stars on a moshav in central Israel, with an Orthodox rabbi, ketubah, and me walking seven circles around the groom. Take One was three months earlier, in a California backyard and my father, a Reform rabbi, reciting the poetry of e.e. cummings and Carl Sandburg in place of the Psalms.

We never separated; we just had two weddings. The first was to avoid the Rabbanut, and the second because my husband, and his family, didn’t feel the union was legal until it was Orthodox. It was a headache. It was a drawn-out process. And it taught me a few important things.

Anyone who lives in Israel, as I have for nearly two years, knows that there is nothing simple about defining yourself as Jewish here. It’s one of those niggly things about life in this country, like the obscene price of dairy and the parking in Tel Aviv, that I have learned to shove aside in the interest of sanity. I love this country, with its grand ruins, its worrying grandmas, its teeming fresh produce and its inexplicable ability to make you feel at home. And while I was raised a proud Reform Jew, with no interest in defining my relationship to God by another human’s terms, I have always loved its undercurrent of religion. The quiet on Shabbat. The collective, communal debauchery of Purim. The quaintness of referring to pork by the euphemistic “basar lavan," or "white meat".

All of these are the trappings of a community, one I spent much of my 20s searching for and was pleasantly surprised to find when I moved to Israel with no long-term plans to stay. But then I fell in love, not with my husband (that came later) but with this crazy place. So when the man of my dreams, who just so happened to have been raised Orthodox, asked me to be his wife, I said yes, but on one condition: we wouldn’t marry in Israel. I was too scared that the process would taint my relationship with the land, pour blood in the water, turn me off Israel for good.

I had lived here long enough and heard enough horror stories from other secular, American-raised women to have no interest in submitting my Jewishness for judgment before a group of male ultra-Orthodox strangers. Friends of mine had tried. Upon wishing to form their own family – one of the highest mitzvot in Judaism – they found themselves humiliated, hurt, or even forced to beg.

There is no question that my mother is Jewish. My grandmother, too. But I was raised on the summer camps and youth groups of the North American Reform movement, on song sessions and cheers and the idea of tikkun olam. The Judaism I grew up on is inclusive, joyful and so removed from that of my husband’s family that I sometimes feel like one half of an interfaith couple. But he has carved his own path to God, and he accepts mine for what it is. We work together. We know how we will raise our children. And so in the first of what will no doubt be many negotiations in our life together, we compromised: A legal, bare-bones ceremony in the United States, followed by an Orthodox, off-the-books blowout in Israel with our friends and extended family. He gets his seven blessings, I get my fancy white dress, and we both go home feeling officially hitched.

Like most things in this country, it turned out to not be so simple. The rabbi we had hoped would oversee our Israeli union, a beautiful, honorable man who had spent hours studying with us in preparation, didn’t feel comfortable performing a ceremony not sanctioned by Israel's rabbinic authority. So we compromised again, and went to Tzohar, the religious Zionist group that helps so many Israeli couples marry. And while they stretched out their hands to welcome us, it turns out those same hands were tied. At the end of the day, the Rabbanut rules on everything. And, exactly as I had suspected, my credentials weren’t sufficiently burnished.

The Rabbanut asked for a letter from an Orthodox rabbi who could vouch for my Jewishness, but, having been raised secular, with parents 9,000 miles away and grandparents whose family went up in the Holocaust's smoke, I couldn’t find a rabbi willing to testify on behalf of my ancestral line. Day after day, as the date of our Israeli wedding crept closer and my poor, patient husband called yet again to see if the rabbis had made a decision on our fate, I fumed. I felt invisible, expendable.

The rest of the story is long, but the lesson is short: I was finally approved for a Jewish wedding in Israel, and days later was standing at the top of the aisle, my parents on each arm, my groom waiting for me at the chuppah below.

And then something remarkable happened. I walked down the aisle, a song from my Jewish summer camp playing in the air, to where both my husband and our dear rabbi were waiting. And I fell into something so joyful, so love-filled, that I hardly recognized it. I was totally surprised to realize, under the chuppah, that I was having fun. It was Orthodox and traditional, yes, but also ecstatic and relaxed. I was shocked at the warmth I felt wrapped around me.

A few days after our wedding, my husband and I were the guests of honor at a sheva brachot dinner, another concept I had been unfamiliar with and suspicious of. This one was thrown by a friend of my mother-in-law, and I found myself in her Jerusalem living room, surrounded by dozens of her dati leumi (national religious) friends. It was a sea of beards and covered heads, and there I was, with my leggings and uncovered hair, concerned yet again that I might either be offended or offend.

But someone picked up a guitar, and soon I was dancing with a circle of women while my groom and the men danced alongside us. I was embraced. I was showered with praise. There was no one in that room who was interested in who I wasn’t. They were just delighted to meet the bride, to kiss the groom, and to offer us their blessings.

Israel’s religious population has far to go when it comes to embracing their secular brethren, but I learned something at my wedding. We, the proud seculars, do too.

My chuppah, where two very different families embraced and celebrated their two Jewish children, is what Israel could look like if she tried. Jerusalem, which sat fractured and splinting outside of the light-filled living room of that sheva brachot, could learn a great deal just by peeking into the window.

The prayers of a bride, I have learned, have a special power. And so I pray, in my own way and with my own private words, that my adopted country can offer the same compassion and outstretched hands that I enjoyed during my wedding week.

Debra Kamin is a writer and editor at Haaretz-Herald Tribune living in Tel Aviv.

Eyal Gaziel Photography