Jewish Journal

Blending cultural traditions in the name of love

A Persian wedding under an Alaskan chuppah

by Merissa Nathan Gerson

Posted on Jun. 7, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Kirin and Babak might not seem like your ordinary Jewish couple. Kirin grew up Jewish in Anchorage, living the typical western American life. Babak was raised with the traditions of a large Persian Jewish family.

The pair met in Los Angeles, got engaged, and then threw a raucous Persian wedding with a twist from up North. While the food and the ceremony were Persian, the quilted chuppah sent down from the sisterhood at Kirin's Anchorage synagogue was purely Alaskan.

The blending of wedding traditions to create a fusion ceremony has become a contemporary norm in multicultural Southern California. This trend holds true for the Jewish community.

"Welcome to Los Angeles," said Rabbi Denise Eger of West Hollywood's Congregation Kol Ami. "Here there are Chinese, Japanese, black, brown, Hispanic all being raised as Jews. The face of Judaism is not what it was back East."

During one Jewish ceremony a couple used a red chuppah for good luck to honor Chinese tradition. A Persian-Asian Jewish pair sent out two sets of invitations with different start times to be sure everyone showed up at once.

Another couple, a Brazilian Jew and a Rhode Island Jew, met in Los Angeles and married in Brazil. Their ceremony featured a chuppah and glass-breaking as well as an offering afterward to Lemanja, the Brazilian goddess of the sea.

"Any wedding between a Jew and another person is still a mixed-cultural wedding," said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Congregation Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. "Judaism all across the spectrum through the centuries has been strengthened by what we have gleaned from the societies around us."

Rabbis understand that there is a rainbow of Jews. Further, Jewish fusion marriages are nothing new. "Historically, this is part of who we are as Jews." Eger said.

But precedent doesn't mean it is easy to marry seemingly disparate peoples. Questions arise when a couple comes from two separate worlds for one dream wedding.

"Will we lose our ethnic identity? That's a concern for all kinds of families. Judaism is a religion but there is also an ethnicity piece to it," Eger said.

"One thing consistent over the years is that having a ceremony is often a catalyst for families being more accepting of a union."

Babak and Kirin bridge continents in their backgrounds, but they are also two people hailing from the same tribe. For their families, it was the cultural difference that took time to accept.

"There is an acclimation process," Babak said. "Generally human beings are more comfortable with what we are familiar with. There is a time period involved for each family in acclimating to the unfamiliar."

Kirin said her parents are now overjoyed with the cross-cultural offerings of her marriage, from new recipes and customs to new genealogy.

"My parents always said marry someone Jewish, it will make your life easier, happier. It never occurred to them that I could find someone Jewish, yet culturally so different," she said.

While Persian Jewish traditions go back thousands of years, Alaskan Jews haven't made it past the century mark.

"We Alaskan Jews were pioneers 40 years ago," Kirin said. "We don't have traditions necessarily."

For this reason Babak and Kirin's wedding was mostly Persian.

Marrying according to Persian tradition despite Alaskan roots didn't phase Kirin, because her Alaskan community was well represented. "Seventy people came down," she said.

"When walking off the beaten aisle on the way to a ceremony with thousands of years of cultural tradition behind it, you need all the company and encouragement you can get," writes Ariel Meadow Stallings, author of the tongue-and-cheek "Offbeat Bride: Taffeta-Free Alternatives for Independent Brides."

Rabbi Danny Yiftach of the Chabad of Marina del Rey asserted that within Orthodox communities there are often many different nationalities that marry.

"It is often because they are Torah-observant individuals that they are together. This is the main core of what they have in common," he said.

Yiftach recalled a wedding where the bride was Ashkenazi and the groom Sephardi.

As the families were walking down the aisle the music changed from Ashkenazic to Sephardic, stopping and starting for each family member.

As writer Stallings put it, "If [the tradition] honestly and genuinely reflects the couple getting married, then awesome."

If Kirin were to put her wedding highs and lows into her own Stallings-style guidebook, she would tell new couples to figure out which traditions are non-negotiable early on: "Then just accept it and enjoy the ride. You'll save yourself a lot of headache."

Both women recommended breathing, as did Comess-Daniels, for the purpose of holding on to fleeting memories, connecting to your partner's vision on the ceremony and surviving the overall wedding chaos.

"Every couple says 'our wedding is going to be different,'" Kirin laughed. "But from three stories up they are all, fundamentally, the same."
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