Covering All The Bases
Thu, 06/13/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
A non-Jewish couple under the chupah in Austin, Texas. Sarah Q. Photography
A non-Jewish couple under the chupah in Austin, Texas. Sarah Q. Photography

When Lorelei Gilmore, the unwed Connecticut mother on the award-winning sitcom, “Gilmore Girls,” was about to tie the knot in a 2001 episode, she was astonished to see her friend, Luke, drag an elaborate wooden chupah onto her lawn. She reminded him that neither she nor the groom, Max, was Jewish. “Don’t you have to be Jewish to get married under one of these?” she asked, gesturing to the structure, with its hand-carved images of birds, flowers and a sacrificial goat. “Won’t God smite us?”

Rather than being smote, non-Jews are increasingly being smitten — by the Jewish wedding custom of getting married under a canopy. Interviews with a number of wedding planners and chupah rental agencies throughout the tri-state area, as well as in the Los Angeles region, confirm that they work regularly with non-Jewish couples that have decided to adopt the chupah as the centerpiece of their wedding ritual. As The New York Times first reported in 2011, in writing about the popularity of both the chupah and ketubah for non-Jews, Jewish wedding customs are no longer just for Jews. For starters, just think of the eye-popping, rose-covered bower under which Jessica Mapel and Cody Helgeson wed in 2007 in Rockefeller Center, courtesy of “The Today Show” and Martha Stewart Wedding.

Sojourner Auguste owns Erganic Design, a high-end party-planning company in Chelsea. She said that IT is “fairly common” for non-Jewish couples to use a chupah, or chupah-like structure, as part of the “décor” for the wedding ceremony. For these couples, she said, “The wedding canopy still represents a sacred space where they exchange vows.” But Christians want something beyond the standard floral arrangements that flank the altar. “By using a chupah,” Soujourner said, “they elevate their ceremony and make it special.”

Auguste noted that the canopy can take many forms. Among the latest trends, she said, are the use of birch branches and Lucite acrylic for the pillars. Non-Jews, she explained, “use the Jewish framework,” but apply different elements — for example, they may not cover the top completely, as in a traditional Jewish wedding. (Some couples, she added, hang a chandelier from the chupah’s ceiling.) Indeed, the possibilities for designing one’s own canopy have become wide open — as open perhaps, as the chupah itself, which has entrances on all four sides, like the Tent of Abraham that welcomed travelers from every direction.

Yet despite its biblical associations, the chupah appears to be of relatively recent invention. The Talmud refers to the bridal chamber in which a couple consummated their marriage as the chupah. Only in the Late Middle Ages did the chupah become a temporary structure in which earlier elements of both betrothal and nuptial ceremonies were combined into a single ritual. Furthermore, the use of a wedding canopy has never been unique to Jewish tradition; Hindus marry under a mandap, an ornate frame decorated with flowers, mango and banana leaves, water-filled pots, and, often a royal pair of golden elephant statues.

Melisa Imberman is proprietor of Event of a Lifetime, in the Westchester town of Millwood. Non-Jews who use a chupah, she said, are often thinking about how their wedding pictures will look “They may not know what it’s called or be aware that it’s a Jewish concept,” she said. “They see a picture of a wedding arch in a magazine or on a website, and they notice that it frames the bride and groom, creating a focal point for the ceremony.” And not just for the ceremony. According to Yani Makhinson, of Chuppahs are Us, located in Fairlawn, N.J., one non-Jewish couple recently used a chupah for the ceremony and then used it to sit under for the reception.

In the Los Angeles area, the chupah is also exploding in popularity among non-Jews. Karina Rabin is a Staten Island native who owns Happy Chuppah in the Orange County city of Irvine. Her chupahs, she said, are being used increasingly in church weddings. At a recent wedding, she said, “The groom was black, and the bride was a white Christian; they got married in the churchyard.” (Amusingly, Rabin tried to put the word “chupah” on her license plate, but was rebuffed by the Department of Motor Vehicles, because the word “chupa” in Spanish has off-color associations.)

Jennifer Flowers, who owns Happily Ever Chuppah in the San Fernando Valley, recently drove out to Calamesa, a town near Palm Springs, to deliver a chupah constructed by her husband, John, who is a custom cabinetmaker. “I was thinking that they must be the only Jewish family in this town,” she said. “When I got there, I found out that they were Seventh Day Adventists!” As an Air Force brat, Flowers was used to moving around a lot and being among non-Jews. “I constantly had to teach my friends about Jewish traditions,” she recalled. “I’m honored that people find things in Judaism that they want to share as well.”

The major cities where Jews are a dominant part of the culture — New York, Miami, and L.A. — are also, Flowers pointed out, the cities Americans look to for the latest styles. “People go on Pinterest to make their wedding boards, and they see pictures of a chupah.” Because a majority of California weddings take place outdoors, she said, a wedding canopy becomes a natural addition to the ceremony, “creating intimacy and shielding the couple from the elements.”       

 Lawrence Hoffman, a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College in New York City, views the use of the chupah by non-Jews as an example of couples “cobbling together rituals that make use of different religious symbols” — a mélange of diverse elements best summed up, he said, by the French word “bricolage.” The chupah allows, he noted, for “craft and personalization, such as when Jews stitch together prayer shawls from ancestors and family members that are used for the canopy.” Because congregational rabbis are now used to explaining Jewish customs to the many non-Jews who are in attendance at Jewish religious celebrations, “symbols like the chupah have not just been personalized and publicized by the couple, but also given spiritual meaning by the rabbi.”     

Erin Sands hails from the Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks, where she and her husband attend a non-denominational church. They were married under a chiffon-draped chupah at the end of May in an outdoor ceremony in Pasadena. While she knew little about the Jewish customs associated with the chupah, she was pleased to learn that it signified what she called the “covenant with God that fit right in with our Judeo-Christian beliefs.” The chupah, she said, “gave gravitas to the ceremony. The wedding would not have been the same without it. The chupah made the day.”

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