Wedding Rituals for Parents

Experiencing a child's wedding from a parent's perspective.

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Generations ago, Jewish parents were at the helm of organizing their children's weddings, from the initial steps of arranging a match and establishing a dowry to hosting the wedding festivities and helping the couple set up their new home. In those days, the young hatan and kallah (groom and bride) may have barely known one another before their nuptials and needed to trust that their parents would create the best possible match for them. 

As customs and traditions began to change for much of the Jewish world, especially in America, young men and women started to reject arranged marriages and look for spouses on their own. Still, when it came to making arrangements for the wedding itself, much of the work continued to fall on the parents, in particular the bride's mother. Since it was usual for the bride's parents to pay for the wedding, they often took charge of planning the occasion according to their taste and budget. The young couple might be consulted for their opinions (certainly more the bride than the groom), but it was more often the parents who had the final word.

role of parents in weddingNot so with families today. Statistics show that Jewish people in the United States are marrying later than their non-Jewish counterparts. This means that engaged couples are often financially independent, having lived on their own and established both personal and professional communities (often located far away from parents) by the time they decide to tie the knot. With this independence may come the desire on the part of the couple to make their own choices about where and when to wed, how big a wedding to have, who will officiate, and how many guests to invite. Parents may be consulted and included in the planning, but it is no longer assumed that the bride's family will pay for the affair. The couple may receive support from both sides or choose to pay for the wedding themselves. This break from traditional roles and parental expectations can leave many parents feeling lost and wondering what their role in their child's big day is.

Two Rituals in One

Whether or not parents are playing a key role in organizing and planning their children's nuptials, the wedding of a child is still one of the most significant lifecycle moments that a parent will experience. It is a profound moment of letting go, acknowledging that one's son or daughter is no longer a child and is ready to commit to an adult partnership. This moment can include feelings of great joy and celebration, but also sadness and loss, as well.

Often parents don't have a formal opportunity to think about the ways in which their child's wedding is also a ritual moment for them. Fortunately, some new rituals are being created and some traditional rituals are being revisited which can give parents the opportunity to experience their children's weddings on two levels: as the embracing of their child's new union and as a rite of passage for them as parents, allowing them to acknowledge their children as adults.

Rituals to Build Support

Anyone who has been involved in planning a wedding knows that even in the most open, communicative families, some stressful moments are going to occur. Couples have their own ideas about the wedding, and parents often also want to have their say. What can begin as a conversation about caterers or guests can quickly escalate into a heated argument. All the while, parents and children may be ignoring some of the true issues underlying the fighting--that even for grown, independent children, the wedding represents a degree of separation from parents. And with this separation comes loss.

Couples may wish to work with their rabbis to think about creative ways to acknowledge this aspect of marriage in their weddings. The following are several ritual ideas to honor and involve parents during this special time.

Creating Ritual Objects: Jewish weddings are full of ritual objects, from the ketubah (marriage contract) to the huppah (wedding canopy); from the Kiddush cups to the glass set aside to be broken. One way to honor and involve parents in the wedding planning process is to invite them to help make one of these ritual objects. For example, when Ron and Dr. Joellyn Zollman of San Diego, CA, married, they asked each of their mothers to embroider material to become their huppah. Ron's mother lives in California, while Joellyn's mother lives in Pennsylvania, where the wedding took place. Each mother worked independently on their section of the huppah, then sewed them together in the days preceding the wedding. Ron and Joellyn detailed this process in their wedding program, honoring their mother's efforts.

You need not have "crafty" parents to involve them in this way. For example, a Kiddush cup is needed during the ceremony for the blessings over the wine. Couples can ask their parents to share a special Kiddush cup from their family to be placed under the huppah with the couple. In some cases, couples use the cups that were used during their parents' ceremonies, linking them to that special moment in time. Other parents have taken on such tasks as cutting down branches from trees at their family homes to be used for huppah poles, donating family heirloom materials for use in making the huppah,or helping to design or do calligraphy for the ketubah. By involving parents in creating something tangible for your wedding, you give them a sense of ownership and inclusion in the ritual that is unfolding.

A Ceremonial Moment: Couples may also choose to include in their nuptials a ritual acknowledging what this occasion means for their parents. For example, Rabbi Marcia Prager, author of The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine, includes a special ritual for parents in the weddings that she leads. During the bedecken ceremony (traditionally, the veiling of the bride), Rabbi Prager takes a moment with only the bride and groom and their parents present. She offers the parents their own blessing as a way acknowledging that the wedding is a milestone in their lives as parents. Parents then embrace their children. In the midst of what can be a hectic day, this simple moment allows parents and children to recognize the impact and significance of the occasion.

Dance and Celebration:In Jewish tradition, the wedding celebration continues the holiness of the ceremony; rejoicing with the bride and groom is a mitzvah (commandment). Tradition offers ways to honor parents amidst the joy. Many Jewish couples--even those who don't wish to include traditional Jewish circle dancing in their parties--take time during their receptions to celebrate with their parents. This could done by honoring them with the traditional mizinke dance, originally a tribute to a mother who has married off her last daughter. Today, sons and daughters often honor both parents with this dance, circling the father and mother and presenting them with floral garlands and bouquets. Other couples invite their parents to offer a toast, a poem, or a blessing to their children. In many cases, the children in turn offer a thank you blessing or toast to their parents, or even present their parents with a gift of appreciation.

The possibilities for acknowledging the emotional and spiritual impact of a child's wedding for parents are limitless, and couples, especially with the guidance of clergy, can find innovative ways to include parents in this lifecycle moment. Contemporary couples' independent lives may bear little resemblance to those of the generations that have come before them, but the complex emotions between parents and children remain very much the same.

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Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a freelance writer and educator based in Philadelphia. She is the author of two books of plays for children: The Magic Tanach and Other Short Plays and Extraordinary Jews: Staging Their Lives as well as The Creative Jewish Wedding Book.