This past weekend, I married one of my best friends.
This is a phrase we are used to hearing from a bride or a groom, not an officiant. But as a thirty-year-old woman rabbi, I often find myself under the chuppah with people I love. And, every so often, it’s in a bridesmaid’s dress.
Ever since I began rabbinical school, friends and family have offered me honors in their weddings: singing the sheva brachot, guarding the yichud room, and signing the ketubah. As soon as I was ordained, it followed that I would also perform the ceremony.
According to the New York Times, because many twenty-somethings don’t have a relationship with a synagogue or a clergy person, it has become common to ask a friend to solemnize the marriage by getting ordained online. It’s meaningful for them, because they can personalize the ceremony, and it’s meaningful for me, because I get to be a part of their special moment, and get to know them through the process in a way that I hadn’t known them before.
Unlike an online ordinee, however, I officiate as a representative of a faith tradition with boundaries and expectations. This sharply contrasts with the modern conception of a wedding, which celebrates romantic love, individuality, and the desire to create a “perfect day” for the couple getting married.
It can be difficult to balance my desire for a couple to have exactly what they want with my understanding of tradition, particularly when that couple are friends or family members. In striving for balance, I’ve learned a few things:
1) The importance of wedding “minutiae”: Having been on both sides of the chuppah, I know how heavy a bride’s bouquet can be, how important it is to keep your knees bent during the ceremony (I’ve seen both a groomsman and a father-of-the-bride go over), and that even something as small as the wording of a wedding invitation can bring the drama between two families to a head. I’ve learned that some little things aren’t little at all, as they are often the first real decisions a couple–and their families–will make together.
2) How to stand my ground: I don’t officiate at intermarriages, and I don’t do weddings on Shabbat. Sometimes I have to tell a bride and groom that they can’t have things exactly as they wanted them, which runs contrary to current cultural norms. Even when couples agree to my terms, there can be friction. Twice now, someone has asked me whether I would move up the ceremony because of an impending storm (once this was the wedding planner, once my own mother). I said no, keeping the tradition trumped having the wedding outside, and proceeded to watch the skies with angst that the bride would never speak to me again if I ruined her wedding. Fortunately, God smiled on us. At a wedding during Hurricane Irene, the rain stopped for the exact duration of the ceremony. This past weekend, the rainclouds burst during the cocktail hour and quickly passed us by. The ceremony, though late, was dry. (On a side note: can we bring back Sunday weddings? In synagogues? My heart isn’t made for this kind of drama. . .)
3) How to be “me”: At my first “double-duty” wedding, I did not want to carry flowers or be escorted, so that I could be “fully rabbinical” during the ceremony. I ended up doing both. My rabbi’s manual was taken from me and brought to the chuppah by a wedding coordinator, which made me incredibly nervous. This time, when I asked the wedding coordinator whether I should carry my rabbis’ manual or my bouquet, she said, “You can carry your book. It’s who you are.”
People ask me about how I “switch back and forth” between roles when I am a rabbi and bridesmaid at a wedding. The truth is, I don’t. I may have a wardrobe change here and there, but whatever I am wearing (though Rev. Victoria Weinstein may disagree), whatever I am doing, I am simultaneously rabbi, bridesmaid, and friend. I am supporting my friends by blessing their marriage and making their wedding ceremony meaningful, and I am being a rabbi by consecrating a marriage and rejoicing with the bride and groom, even when that means bustling a dress, making sure the bride gets her favorite appetizers, or rocking out on the dance floor.
Leah Rachel Berkowitz (NY’ 08) is the assistant rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC. She blogs at thisiswhatarabbilookslike.wordpress.com.