How to Throw an Interfaith Wedding

More than a third of Americans tying the knot are marrying someone of a different religion. What's the secret to throwing a fabulous interfaith wedding? Make sure everybody feels included, keep the rituals that matter to you, and leave the rest behind.

Photo: Brookelyn Photography

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."

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