He was a nice Jewish boy from the North Shore of Long Island; she was a lovely Ethiopian Orthodox-Christian girl from London and Addis Ababa. Both were urbane, witty graduates of Harvard Business School with thriving New York careers (hers in finance, his producing films like Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino), and when they were introduced at a Manhattan dinner party in January 2007, love bloomed quickly and easily between them.
So it seemed only natural, when Adam Richman and Yadey Yawand-Wossen decided to marry, that their wedding in the Berkshires would be an exuberant black-tie mashup of Ethiopian, Jewish, and American cultures, complete with the signing of a ketubah (a Jewish marriage contract) and glass smashing alongside Ethiopian hand-binding, tribal dancing, a spectacular white satin Carolina Herrera dress, and platters of African delicacies like yebeg tibs and sega wett. "We're both very culturally identified," says Adam, "so we wanted to do something that would merge our two cultures."
Welcome to the Great American Wedding—2012-style. Interfaith and cross-cultural marriages are on the rise (a recent Pew study found that 37 percent of adults have a spouse from another religion), with former first daughter Chelsea Clinton providing a spectacular recent example with her 2010 nuptials to Marc Mezvinsky in Rhinebeck, New York—presided over by both a rabbi (his) and a Methodist minister (hers). The bride wore Vera Wang; the groom wore a yarmulke and prayer shawl. Afterward the Jewish liberal newspaper The Forward acknowledged, "The Clinton-Mezvinsky union is fast becoming the new normal."
Indeed, for a growing number of brides, the question is not so much How do I throw a really great wedding? as How do I throw a really great wedding that embraces two very different worlds—and still feels like "us"?
Whether they're combining Christianity with Hinduism or Judeo-Buddhism with Islam, many interfaith couples answer the question by having two ceremonies, says New York–based wedding planner Sonal Shah, who recently organized a Dallas wedding between Hindu-American bride Kalaivani Sanka-rapandian and Catholic groom T. J. Duane that involved a church ceremony on a Friday and a traditional Indian service (complete with the groom on horseback) the following day. "Having two ceremonies is very popular, because it's a way to make sure you don't upset anybody," she explains. "But it's a lot of planning, and you're basically looking at two dresses and two receptions, which means a much bigger budget." Also, if the bride and groom themselves aren't particularly religious (which is often the case), two full-on ceremonies can seem like, well, a lot.
For Adam and Yadey, focusing on the cultural and spiritual aspects and keeping the ceremony faith-neutral were the solution. "We wanted to make sure our elders felt like we were honoring their traditions, but we did it in a way that fit for us," Adam explains. Hence their "multicultural ketubah," written in three languages (Amharic, Aramaic, and English), which "turned this Jewish custom on its head and made it our own," along with a civil ceremony and vows written by the couple and officiated by a justice of the peace (who is also a close family friend). During the nuptials, Yadey performed an Ethiopian bread ceremony, passing out sweet dabo to all of the guests. "People really loved the mix of it," says Adam. "It felt incredibly spiritual. We spent a lot of time making sure we got it right."
For those planning an interfaith wedding, Shah says, the most important thing is to sit down early on with your fiancé and have a very candid conversation about what's important to you. "You need to figure out how much of a role you want religion to play, and what's important to your families," she continues. "For a lot of the couples I work with, the religious ceremony is more important to their parents than it is to them, so the trick is to find a balance that will make everyone happy."
For Los Angeles couple Benton Jordan Weinstock, who is Episcopalian, and Darren Weinstock, who is Jewish, the solution was to fold both of their religions into one ceremony at their oceanfront wedding at Bacara Resort & Spa, in Santa Barbara. "For our families and ourselves, we wanted to have a priest—my family priest for over twenty years—and a cantor perform the ceremony," says Benton, who was raised in the tiny town of Helena, Arkansas; graduated from Southern Methodist University; and had never been to a Jewish wedding—until her own. "We were really making it up as we went along," she says, laughing. "I walked down the aisle with my father toward the priest and the cantor, who stood together." The priest gave a brief sermon, and then the couple was married under an "incredible huppah" made of four thousand white roses. But they created their own vows, which, Benton says, "were spiritual, not religious."
When it came to rituals, there were also places where the couple drew a line. Though Benton was happy to drink from the Jewish cup and have her husband smash the glass at the end of the ceremony, she was not comfortable having the wedding guests hoist her up in a chair for the traditional Jewish dance. "It just didn't feel like me," says Benton, who has now been married to Darren for 10 years and has three daughters, whom they are raising to embrace both faiths. "Our rule of thumb is that if it makes you uncomfortable to do something that's not yours, you don't have to do it."
Another key to throwing a great interfaith wedding, Shah says, is taking the time to explain each ritual ("what you're doing, and why you're doing it") in the ceremony, so all of your guests feel included. Not everyone has a "mixing is great" attitude, but you can go a long way toward easing their concerns by showing them that love, community, and respect for family life lie at the core of almost all wedding rituals—no matter how unfamiliar they may appear on the surface. Adam and Yadey's wedding program, for example, included a detailed explanation of each of the Jewish and Ethiopian rituals they performed. "When people understand and appreciate what's going on, even though it may be culturally very different, they tend to really embrace it," says Shah. "I mean, of course you sometimes have these parents who, when I tell them there's going to be an elephant at the ceremony, say, 'What?!!' But those are often the people who end up having the best time."
In some cases, however, the melding of faiths and cultures can require true patience—and a fair amount of parental hand-holding. When Shakeera Ali, a Muslim Trinidadian, married Todd Bennings, a Southern Baptist from Augusta, Georgia (who comes from a family of preachers), the groom's family had a case of severe culture shock. "Prior to meeting me, I don't think his family had much interaction with anybody who was Muslim," says Shakeera. "There was a lot of fear of the unknown. His mom was definitely concerned."
But Shakeera and Todd persevered. Together they created a spiritual but faith-neutral ceremony in Charleston, South Carolina (a city they both adore), that was officiated by a mutual friend who read about love and marriage from both the Koran and the Bible. "Our goal was not to have a wedding that was very distinct one way or the other," explains Shakeera. "The goal was to have people walk away saying, 'That was one of the best weddings I have ever been to.' " At the rehearsal brunch, they had a steel-pan artist play soca music and served Trinidadian appetizers; the wedding itself featured southern favorites like shrimp and grits. Beforehand, the couple trawled the Internet for non-denominational rituals and came up with a hand-clasping rite that seemed more original to them than a unity candle or a sand ceremony. "People loved it," says Shakeera, "especially our families. Once our moms saw the ceremony, the love was no-holds-barred. If you have a soul, the emotion just overtakes you in that moment."
Benton Weinstock had a similar experience. "I think everybody came to our wedding not knowing what to expect," she says. "We were flying a hundred and fifty people in from Arkansas, and it was definitely a new experience for a lot of guests." She laughs. "I mean, it was a new experience for me! But in the end, it was just beautiful. In every way, it was beautiful."