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Reaching Out Across the Aisle

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For a group of people that constantly complain how often we’re excluded, Jews should really get better at including other people.

I’ve seen it happen at Seders. I’ve seen it happen at Shabbat dinners. And now I’ve seen it happen at my own wedding. Yes, I am married now – thank you JDate.

For thousands of years, there’s been a focus on education in Jewish families. We send our children to the best schools and encourage them to get the jobs that require very little menial labor. While other cultures might be proud of any honest living, you’ll rarely hear a Jewish mother bragging about her son, the factory foreman.

This leads to the unfortunate side effect: thinking that everyone should be as educated as we are. A common attitude among Jews is, “if you can’t keep up, it’s your fault for not knowing how.”

A Jewish wedding is fairly different from a Christian wedding in the way that a fish is fairly different from a ham sandwich. Both appealing to different people, but they don’t easily go together (unless you’re watching Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee). But it’s not just the food – the main difference between the ways Jews and Christians getting hitched is the use of foreign language.

Jews at Christian weddings might get spooked at the whole Jesus aspect of things, but there’s very little done outside the native language of the bride and groom. But a Christian at a Jewish wedding could be lost in Hebrew for several minutes at a time. It’s no 40 years of wandering in the desert, but several minutes is a long time to leave one of your own guests confused.

We were careful to explain the traditions in our wedding program and our rabbi was good enough to describe what he was doing in an inclusive way, without being overly preachy or obnoxious. And yes, that happens – I once saw a rabbi at a Bat Mitzvah call for the destruction of all Arab nations. If you were at that bat mitzvah, you would have agreed that the real enemy is Miley Cyrus (which sounds eerily like wiley Cyprus). But, I digress.

Our wedding ceremony was great – it was actually during our wedding reception that we accidentally got exclusionary. We’d put benchers on each table, figuring that those who wanted to bench would and those who didn’t would keep chatting. What we didn’t figure on was those of us benching being loud enough to confuse and interrupt those who were not.

After realizing this about three minutes in, I stood up and said “Quick explanation. This is the Jewish version of grace; we just say it after the meal. Thank you non-Jews for your patience – we’ll be done in a few minutes.” That would have been extremely rude to do at someone else’s wedding, but the groom is allowed a bit of leeway.

You might say, “But Steve, I will never have that problem. I live in a Jewish neighborhood and I only associate with other Jews.” First, you’re lying – there are non-Jews everywhere, so unless you’re racist, you are friends with some of them. Second, unless your Jewish friends grew up in the same Hebrew school, Yeshiva, camp, synagogue, and family, your knowledge base is different from them, too.  Third, stop talking, I can’t actually hear you.

We’ve all been to a Seder where one person insists on reading more than everyone else, or just more in Hebrew. We’ve all been to a Shabbat dinner where someone insists on singing more than everyone else, or just more loudly. And we’ve all been to a Jewish wedding where we see something that makes perfect sense to the bride and groom but confused us based on our own knowledge.

The pride we take in our education often manifests itself as showing off and, while done with noble intention, can exclude non-Jews, or Jews, without the same level of education. Remember, they came to celebrate with us, not watch us celebrate without them.

There is a fine line between keeping tradition and keeping those who are not in the know at arm’s length. There was a moment at my wedding during the Horah where I impulsively grabbed two of my Jewish friends from college to form a circle. One of our non-Jewish friends ran over as well and we all danced together. Instead of at arm’s length, we were suddenly arm in arm.

I’m glad he had the presence of mind to include himself. I only wish that I had thought of it first.

Steve Hofstetter is an internationally touring comedian who has been seen on VH1, ESPN, and Comedy Central®, but you’re more likely to have seen him on the last Barbara Walters Special.

*Comedy Central is a registered trademark of Comedy Partners, a wholly-owned division of Viacom Inc.’s MTV Networks.

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4 Comments »

  • gabriela says:

    well
    i would love to be in a jewish wedding or another ceremony!
    am a big fan of judaism traditions :)

  • Taylor Nederman says:

    Linda, where in halacha does it say that when two Jews marry each other, no other Jews may be present?

  • Anna says:

    I think Linda demonstrates the ghetto mentality that Steve is commenting on. I seem to recall that Torah says that a mixed multitude came out of Egypt, it was not just the ancient hebrews. Freedom from slavery is something everyone should be able to celebrate, not just Jews. Jewish law may not recognise intermarriages, but they are a fact of life. Jewish law like secular law has to adapt to new realities otherwise it becomes irrelevant. A wedding between two non-Jews might well have a formal engagement. A declaration in a religious context that they commit themselves to each other to exclusion of others for the long term and usually with the intention of having children. That seems to me to be what kiddushin is about and follows the laws of Israel. I am not sure if it is the law of Moses since the straight reading of Torah shows that he married out, possibly twice. The five books of Moses also allow men to have concubines, marry more then one woman and permit slavery despite the Exodus, which some may find a bit problematic. I can’t speak about Linda’s community, but in my synagogue, when the groom says “Behold you are now bethrothed….” it is in aramaic, not in hebrew. I do agree with Linda that halacha is not determined by popularity. There are some rabbis (and their wives) in Israel, but elsewhere too, who should be reminded of this when they rule that accommodation should not be rented out to non-Jews, or that women should sit at the back of buses in an area away from men. The exclusionist attitude can pervade all areas of jewish life and Steve make a good point in his first line. I am not one for assimilation, indeed I would not be on this website if that were the case, but we could lighten up a little.

  • linda hunter says:

    Perhaps the problem is Jews who are trying so hard to assimilate that they invite gentiles to simchas meant only for Jews.

    For example a Passover Seder is meant only for Jews, who are supposed to rejoice at being freed from slavery in Egypt. Others twist the meaning of the Seder, and try to include meaning for others.

    A wedding is not Jewish unless both the groom and the bride are Jewish…kiddusin is not possible between a Jew and non-Jew. Kiddushin is defined by betrothal, or formal engagement. This is the ceremony where the “chasan,” the groom, places an object of some value, generally a plain ring, in the bride’s hand, and declares the Hebrew equivalent of, “Behold, you are now betrothed unto me by this ring, according to the Law of Moses and Israel.” How can you betroth someone according to the Law of Moses and Israel if you are not Jewish?? And if one of the parties is a convert, then there might be non-Jewish guests, including the parents. And yes, the Rabbi should make every effort to explain what is happening.

    I know mine (Orthodox) is an unpopular point of view, but popularity does not determine halacha (Jewish law).

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