How To Plan Your Jewish Wedding

Image: Two wedding rings. (Pixabay)

Congratulations! You have found the love of your life, and you are looking forward to a wedding!

What’s the first thing to do?

Share the news with family and friends, of course! And they will immediately begin planning your wedding: where you should have it, when you should have it, who might be the caterer, the florist, the planner, and so forth and so on.

Stop!

That is all fine and good, but for a Jewish wedding, the first thing on your to-do list should be the rabbi or cantor who will officiate.

Why?

  • Because rabbis and cantors have busy schedules and cannot be in two places at once.
  • Because rabbi and cantor calendars get booked up long before “wedding season.”
  • Because there are dates in the Jewish calendar when most rabbis do not perform weddings. (Why would anyone want to get married on Yom Kippur? I don’t know, but I know rabbis who have gotten that request.)
  • Because the rabbi or cantor may have advice or requirements about things like the ketubah and the rings.
  • Because rabbis and cantors can help you plan the wedding service and support you in dealing with family issues.
  • Because many rabbis and cantors can provide premarital counseling, which is different from therapy – an opportunity to learn about your beloved, and for them to learn about you.
  • Because rabbis and cantors are professionals, trained to assist you in making your wedding day a sacred day.

Once you’ve got the rabbi or cantor, then you will have the date. Then you can call the caterer, and the florist, the wedding planner, the venue, the ketubah artist, Aunt Mildred, the dressmaker…

Even if you are planning a very simple wedding, your officiant is the place to start!

Don’t have a rabbi or cantor? Check out the directory at InterfaithFamily.com. They can help you find a qualified officiant.

Pittsburgh Yahrzeit: How You Can Participate

Image: Tree of Life Memorials (White House Photo)

A year has passed since the murders of Jews in Pittsburgh. I was glad to hear that the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has come up with a way for those of us who live far from Pennsylvania to participate and honor their memory.

The JFNA are calling on all Jews and allies to take a moment to pause on this coming Sunday, Oct. 27 to mark one year since the Tree of Life Congregations shooting in Pittsburgh, Pa. Eleven people were murdered there on Oct 27, 2018.

Use this link to sign up to participate.

We will remember their lives and their families in a virtual service around the world. Anyone signing up will receive a text at 5 p.m. Eastern Time (2 pm Pacific Time) with a video reading of a prayer for mourning and the names of the 11 individuals who were killed. Following the prayer, subscribers will be able to tune into a live stream of Pittsburgh’s public memorial service and submit a message of support by text.

Mourning a Non-Jewish Parent

Image: Candle flame. (Public domain)

I converted pretty late in life. My parents are long gone, and I’ve never been sure whether or not I should observe their yahrzeits. Both were gentiles. What do you think?

– A Reader

Great question! When a Jew has Jewish parents, they normally have an obligation to bury the parents, say kaddish for them, mourn them for a year, and then observe their yahrzeit in following years. Yahrzeit is the Ashkenazi word for the anniversary of a person’s death, and we observe it by lighting a candle, saying kaddish with a minyan, and giving tzedakah in their memory. The corresponding name in the Sephardic tradition is nahalah.

A Jew is not obligated to say kaddish for a non-Jewish parent. However, they may observe all Jewish mourning practices for them if they so choose. Thus the answer to your question, “Should I observe their yahrzeits?” is that you have no obligation to observe them. However, you are permitted to observe them if you wish.

In making your decision, a Jew should consider related mitzvot, particularly the mitzvah to honor one’s parents (Exodus 20:11.) Even then, there is no single answer. I have known Jews who chose to observe yahrzeits for their parents out of love and respect for the parents’ memories. I have also known Jews who did not observe yahrzeits for their parents because they believed the parents would not have wanted it, so out of respect they do not observe.

Jewish mourning practices have developed over many centuries. There is a deep wisdom in providing mourners with a fixed process through which they can mourn with support, and then emerge back into ordinary life. Some losses are profound, and for those, having periodic brief times of mourning such as yahrzeit and Yizkor can provide comfort even years after a death.

In general, I advise gerei tzedek [converts] to observe Jewish mourning practices for non-Jewish relatives unless they have strong objections to doing so. Mourning is no time to separate oneself from the community. Like every other Jew, the ger tzedek has a right to the comfort and support that Jewish mourning practice can provide.

What is a Vidui?

Image: A walkway across a dune, to the ocean. (Ulrike Mai / Pixabay)

One of the prayers we will say during the Yom Kippur ritual is called a vidui (vee-DOO-ee). Vidui means “confession,” and that is exactly what it is. It includes an acrostic list of sins.

However, the use of the vidui prayer is not limited to the Yom Kippur service. Such prayers can be very helpful in cheshbon nefesh, taking stock of our lives, as we prepare for the High Holy Days.

The other principal time we say the vidui prayer is near the end of life. The sick person has the opportunity to consider their life in light of Torah values, taking responsibility for their life, for things done and undone, words spoken and unspoken. They may say the prayer alone, or with a rabbi or other support person.

The traditional vidui is a Hebrew prayer, and the English translations of it vary, depending on whether the translator is invested in maintaining the acrostic form. It is always a list of sins, which allows those saying the prayer to reflect on the ways and times they have slipped into those behaviors.

There are also a number of nontraditional vidui variations, such as:

What is a Kittel?

Image: A kittle, folded up like a shirt.

A kittel is a garment you might see during the High Holy Days or at a wedding. It is a white garment made of lightweight fabric, usually cotton or a polyester blend. It looks a bit like a very light lab coat with a cloth belt, generally in a mid-calf length, and it is worn buttoned-up.

You may also see a kittel on the chatan [bridegroom] at a wedding.

In both cases, the kittel signifies the purity of heart one tries to bring to those situations. The color white is sometimes said to take its inspiration from this verse from the prophets:

Come now, and let us reason together, says the Eternal; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be like wool.

— Isaiah 1:18

A kittel may also be worn by the meyt [body of the deceased] in the coffin for burial. Usually it is paired with long trousers of the same material. The persons who wash the body for burial dress it before putting it in the casket. You are unlikely to see a meyt in a kittel because it is not the custom to view a body after death; Jewish funerals are always closed-casket.

This gives us another reason that some people choose to wear a kittel during High Holy Day observances. There is a focus on the end of life during those days, especially Yom Kippur. Wearing the garment in which one might be buried is a sharp reminder of our mortality.

Jewish Holidays and Lifecycle: An Online Class!

Image: Passover at the Kepler/Snyder house. Photo by Linda Burnett.

This eight-week online course will introduce you to:

  • The major and minor Jewish holidays
  • Jewish lifecycle rituals, from birth to death

Date & Time: September 15 – November 10, 2019. Classes meet on Sunday afternoons, 3:30-5:00 Pacific Time. I record the classes so that if students cannot attend “live” they can still access the class via recordings.

Tuition: Sliding scale of $240 – $144. Scholarships available.

Platform: I teach the class using Zoom meeting software. You will be able to access your class meeting using a link in the email invitation you receive after registration.

To Register: Go to the HaMaqom website (formerly Lehrhaus Judaica), and look at the class page.

Texts: Settings of Silver, by Stephen Wylen. The book is available both new and used. I use this text because it contains a history and an excellent index; when you’ve finished the class it makes a nice reference book if you choose to keep it.

This class is one part of the Introduction to the Jewish Experience series, a three part series of eight classes each. The classes may be taken in any order, and each also works as a stand-alone class. Part 2, “History & Texts” will be offered in Winter 2020, and Part 3, “Diversity of Judaism” will be offered in Spring 2020.

Your instructor will be Rabbi Ruth Adar, a Reform rabbi, graduate of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, as well as the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. I’ve been a teacher since I graduated from college in 1976; I’ve been teaching this particular class (Intro to the Jewish Experience) since 2009. This blog began as a resource for that class.

I welcome questions via the Comments section here (also, to any previous students, I welcome any comments/reviews/notes you have to offer.)

Thoughts at a Reform Shiva

Image: Two hands hold two other hands to comfort. (fizkes/Shutterstock)

I did not know the departed. His sister was a friend of mine at synagogue, and her husband and I had learned aleph-bet together years ago. I got an email saying that shiva would be at their house, and I went.

I gave each of them a hug, and then went to find a seat. There was a straight backed chair perched in a corner of the living room – perfect! I parked my cane and settled in to be at shiva.

People poured in the doorway carrying dishes, each greeting the mourners and then hurrying into the dining room, to add to the table of food. Cassseroles, kugels, veggie plates with dip, fruit, breads, muffins, some baked chicken breasts — there was a little of everything there. I had brought a bag of cherries, washed and ready to eat or to pop into the fridge for later.

Elders on walkers arrived, and the Women of Temple Sinai ladies, and twenty-somethings (their daughter’s friends) arrived. The rooms filled up. Periodically someone would come sit by me for a bit, we’d chat quietly, then they’d get up to go get some food. Visitors stood in the kitchen, covered the patio out back, and filled the front yard.

I knew all the faces and all but a few of the names. We’ve gone to shul together for twenty years, some of us. Some are close friends, some barely acquaintances. Some are easy to love, some harder.

But here’s the thing: when someone is bereaved, this group shows up.

This, to me, is one of the great beauties of Jewish community. It is an extended family with a covenantal bond. I show up for you, you show up for me. Is it perfect? No, but it is remarkably consistent. Show up often enough, and you’re mishpachah (family.)

The mourners, who had seemed capable and cheerful when we arrived, gradually lost their masks. They held hands and cried as they told us about the brother most of us had never met. We stood with them for kaddish, blessing them with our covenant: we show up.