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Writing Your Wedding Ceremony – A Modern Jewish Service

One of the questions I get asked the most often is – ‘How do you write a wedding ceremony?’ It’s such a complicated question that I have, up until now, avoided it. But with so many of you saying vows over the next few months, this seemed like the right time to dive in. I’m planning to explore this topic for the next week or so, on and off, talking about readings and other ceremony magic. But today you get the general principals I took away from writing our ceremony, which are very much colored by: the fact that it was a Jewish ceremony, the fact that I’m a writer, the fact that David and I are both trained in composition/ directing. Limited, but hopefully helpful. I’m hoping this will be the first in a series, and that other people will step forward with their stories, but until then, here is mine.

I think that the fundamental question to ask yourselves when you tackle your ceremony (and to continually ask yourself at various points during the process) is, ‘what is the relationship we want to have with tradition?’ What push/pull do we want to create with what is traditional for us and/or our families? If there is one part of the wedding where you are tackling tradition head on, it’s the ceremony. I would argue that this is a good, and maybe even important thing. The act of marriage, is, after all, thousands of years old. And by getting married, we are, in some essential way, tying ourselves to the generations that have gone before us. Our job is to figure out how, exactly, we want to tie that knot.

Structure

When David and I constructed our ceremony, we started with the traditional (reformative*) Jewish wedding ceremony. We took this as our basic structure, our frame on which we would hang shiny bits, important bits, things that made our heart sing. So for us, our basic structure looked a bit like this:

  • Processional
  • Rabbi’s Welcome
  • First Cup of Wine
  • Vows
  • Drash (translation, roughly, sermon)
  • Seven Blessings over the Couple
  • Second Glass of Wine
  • Priestly Benediction
  • Breaking of the Glass
  • Recessional

Keep in mind when looking at this list, this was *our* structure. There were things that can be included in a traditional Jewish service that we’d taken out (a veiling, and a presentation of the Ketubah, among others) when we made our frame.

It’s likely that your structure is not going to be a Jewish service. But because writing a service from scratch can feel completely overwhelming, and because the wedding ceremony is something a pretty serious link to history (like it or not), I suggest that when you’re writing a service you adopt a structure as your frame. Remember, it’s just a frame, so you can add to it or subtract to it as need be, but it gives you a very clear place to start. (And if that makes you feel rebellious, just remember: it’s hard to subvert the paradigm unless you have a paradigm.)

Your Relationship With Tradition

Once you have picked a frame (whether it’s the episcopal wedding liturgy or the civil ceremony as performed in your country) your next job is to discover your and your partners relationship to it. The most important advice I can give you here is simply allow yourself to be both honest and surprised. As you look at the ceremony, there are probably going to be bits that each of you say, “I hate this, we cannot do this,” and then there will be other bits that one or the other of you says, “This bit is really important to me.” And you may be totally shocked what bits those are. So be careful with yourself and go slowly. If you have a really strong emotional reaction to something, try to figure out why. That will help you shape your service (and marriage), and discover how close or how far you want to be from your particular version of tradition.

The Fun Bits

Next comes the bits you get to add. This is the really, really fun part, if you ask me. David and I knew that we wanted to add both readings and music to our service. The Jewish wedding ceremony is very short, if left alone. Since I grew up with wedding services that ranged from thirty minutes to an hour (hello church weddings) and included up to four hymns, I knew that I wasn’t going to feel married if we didn’t stretch it out a little.

So. We collected a list of readings and music that we might want to use, and we tried to start fitting it in to our structure. What if we put this reading here? What if we put this piece of music there? This was hands down the most fun I had wedding planning—moving things about, seeing how they work in relationship to each other—is there anything more fun in the whole world? I don’t think so! We ended up constructing our service so it had an emotional arc: it moved from the very serious parts of marriage (till death, old age, righteousness) to the very joyful and silly parts of a marriage (keeping love here, we could be a holiday, smashing the glass). The funny part is, at the beginning at the service everyone was very serious, and at the end of the service everyone was crying. Weddings are funny like that.

The Vows

Last week I got emailed a question:

How do you decide on the vows? Are the individual words so important, or is it just that you’re making a promise to each other? Do people actually look back at their vows? (And I mean really look back, not just on their anniversary in an “awww” sort of way. I mean like when times get tough and you remind yourself that you promised to love and cherish this person during just such a time.)

I thought it was amazing, because it was a question I’d never asked myself. As I explained right after our wedding – we didn’t write our vows, and we never even considered writing our vows, so that’s a bit of a wedding that I can’t speak to. What I can say is: yes, exactly what we said really mattered, and, yes, I do look back on my vows often, and yes, what we said shapes our relationship.

Our vows were short, and in retrospect I’m glad. We didn’t need to sum up all the parts of our relationship that are an ongoing negotiation, to write them in stone. What we did need to do is: say something about the change that we were making in our relationship that day, and speak to foundation that we were laying (and had already laid) for what our relationship was. I’m glad our vows were short, because they are easy to remember. I’m glad our vows were ancient, because I wanted to feel our grandparents and great-grandparents right there (even though mine said different traditional vows). I’m glad we didn’t obsess about our vows, because I needed them to be what they were: simple, matter of fact, to the point.

The promises we made are promises I can tell you at a moments notice. And yes, on most days I think, “Wear me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is infinitely strong,” because that, for me, is it.

Photo: Me, Aisle, By One Love Photo, of course

*I can’t find a good link to explain this particular slang, so. Young liberal American Jews who find themselves, theologically, somewhere between the reform and conservative moments, sometimes refer to themselves as reformative or conservaform, depending on where they started out. Then there is Conservadox, which is a different discussion all together.

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