Under the African Huppah

Because ours is an interfaith, interracial, tri-cultural relationship, Donald and I wanted our wedding ceremony to reflect as many of our traditions as possible. Donald is West African, from Sierra Leone, raised Protestant; I’m an American Reform Jew, half Russian and half Greek. To cover both religious bases, at least, we decided on an interfaith ceremony to be jointly led by a rabbi and a minister, with no restrictions on religious content. We set out in search of a rabbi first.

Four months, 20 phone calls and three interviews later, we found ourselves empty-handed. It had been difficult enough to draw candidates from a list of those few rabbis even willing to entertain the notion of an interfaith ceremony; we then had to whittle that list down to eliminate everyone who insisted that the second cleric be only a minor officiant, or who refused to co-officiate at ceremonies with overt Christian content, or who adhered to any number of other restrictions by which we didn’t want to be bound. Out of the now-tiny list of workable possibilities, we met with three rabbis, and at this point the search took on a Goldilocks quality. One rabbi was nice enough, and very progressive, but for me, something just didn’t feel right. The second rabbi was actually unstable, as his chaotic conversation and junk-filled office shelves demonstrated. And the third had written a beautiful interfaith ceremony but seemed surprisingly self-absorbed, and was charging double the rate we’d heard elsewhere—more than we could possibly afford. All told, not the kind of Judaism I hoped to introduce into my new, shared life.

It was on the way home from that last meeting, on a clear summer night, that Donald broke our exasperated silence to ask, half-jokingly, “Well, why don’t we do it ourselves?”

The minute I heard him say it, I felt my breath catch. Do it ourselves! Our own words, spoken in our own voices. Though I’d been to a self-led ceremony before, I admit that I hadn’t really entertained the idea for us. Ours was already a homemade wedding—we were the caterers, the decorators, the printers—and I’d looked forward to having at least one responsibility taken off our shoulders. But the idea of reaching the huppah and having a chance to join hands, turn and actually address the people we love became irresistible.

There were plenty of hurdles to overcome. What would we have to do to make the ceremony legal? Who would sign our marriage license? How could we convince our relatives that we hadn’t lost our minds? Ultimately, in what became one of my favorite pre-wedding moments, we wound up writing much of the ceremony at a corner table at Pete’s Tavern, a lower-Manhattan watering hole. Donald had suggested that we call on friends and family to help us lead certain portions of the ceremony, so we doled out blessings and readings and everything else—right down to the leading of vows, which went to Donald’s brother and my sister, and the final benediction, which would be led in Hebrew and English by both our fathers.

However thrilled we were with the way the ceremony looked on paper, nothing prepared us for the impact of it live. At the United Nations International school in Manhattan, we gathered under a huppah made of an African fabric in deep red, orange, black and gold, a pattern called “Good Husband.” Our wedding party had shawls, cummerbunds and bowties made of the same fabric, in a Sierra Leonean custom called “ashiobie,” in which members of a group or family dress alike as a show of solidarity. Though I wore an ivory gown, my flowers were wrapped in the material, and each guest was given a scarf made of the fabric, so that the ashiobie could include everyone in the room. In Sieira Leone, marriage is the union not only of two people, but of two families, and our ceremony introduced our families—and our families’ traditions—to one another. A friend chanted kiddush; Donald’s mother delivered a homily; his aunt offered libations at a nearby doorway, pouring rum and asking the family’s ancestors for blessing; Donald and I each broke a glass. It was 25 minutes filled with laughter and music and microphone feedback, and, as we assured the assembled, it was all legal: We’d had our license signed a few hours earlier, with my sister and Donald’s brother as witnesses. And though we’d exchanged vows at that signing, in the end, neither of us felt entirely married until we’d done it again, before the people we love. We wanted our promises to one another to be made in your sight, we told them, in our own words, our own voices. For us, that meant everything.

Aliyah Baruchin is a researcher at Vanity Fair and a freelance magazine writer.