Destination Weddings, With A Jewish Twist
Wed, 12/11/2013
Travel Writer
A wedding on the beach at the supposed birthplace of Aphrodite, in Cyprus. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Zimakova
A wedding on the beach at the supposed birthplace of Aphrodite, in Cyprus. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Zimakova

Jews have a certain advantage when it comes to wedding geography: all you need is a chupah and a rabbi.

“In ancient times, the wedding was outdoors,” notes Rabbi Barbara Aiello, an Italian-American rabbi who leads a congregation in Calabria, Italy and officiates at weddings throughout Southern Europe.

“It’s only in the last 100 years or so that it became common for weddings to be indoors, in a synagogue. The whole idea is that chupah symbolizes the house that you will share. The open sides are the symbol of the endless horizons you and your spouse will have in your life together.”

Those horizons are expanding considerably for today’s brides and grooms, who see the whole world as a potential wedding spot. While most Jewish couples still marry close to home, destination weddings are a booming trend — and progressive, English-speaking clergy like Rabbi Aiello, Italy’s first female and first non-Orthodox rabbi, are in high demand for weddings in places that used to be reserved for the honeymoon.

Here, a look at three of-the-moment choices for a destination wedding with Jewish flavor.

Get Married in Cyprus, Israeli-Style

How about a sun-baked, cypress-flecked island where you have lots of Israeli company?

Cyprus, the exotic and intense crossroads of the Eastern Mediterranean, is not only filled with history; it is also reliably filled with Israeli couples, many interfaith or otherwise non-traditional, who flock here to marry in ceremonies that aren’t quite kosher in the Orthodox temples back home. So despite the fact that Cyprus had no synagogue until recently, Jewish and Israeli weddings are big business, with a well-organized infrastructure for the benefit of both immigrant and visiting couples couples.

Cyprus has all of the qualities people love about the Mediterranean — gorgeous beaches and dramatic mountain scenery; a gentle climate; sparkling turquoise waters — without the red tape and regulation that make marriage, and many other matters, so difficult in neighboring countries. (There’s a reason why Russians do their banking here – and why couples from all over Europe flock to Cyprus for fertility procedures restricted elsewhere.)

“It’s easy here. There are minimum papers,” explains Alexandra Zimakova, a Nicosia-based wedding coordinator experienced in handling Jewish events. “Many people – Russians, Americans – think that Cyprus is a part of Greece. But it’s another country. In Greece, weddings can be beautiful, but there are many more papers from embassies,” as well as hassles like waiting periods.

In addition, since Cyprus was a longtime British colony, the language barrier is much less of an issue than elsewhere in Southern Europe.

Zimakova, who like many Cypriots is originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, guides Jewish couples through the legal as well as the practical formalities: hair, makeup, transportation, flowers, venue. For a reasonable rate (it varies depending on party size and other factors, but starts around 1000 euros, or $1,300), she offers a Jewish wedding package in collaboration with the Chabad synagogue in the seaside resort of Larnaca.

That synagogue — an attractive, modern stucco building — was the island’s first in recent history when it opened about a decade ago. To be married in the shul, couples need to produce documentation attesting to their Jewish lineage and to be comfortable with a traditional Chabad affair.

But plenty of couples choose to be married at a waterfront hotel, with a gazebo serving as the chupah, or on one of Cyprus’s stunning cliffside beaches. There are no beaches in Nicosia, the capital, but the resort towns of Larnaca, Agia Napa, Limassol, and Paphos are all popular. You and your guests can lounge by the sea, wander historic villages or go out on the town in Cyprus’s pulsing, modern cities.

Spain: Retracing Medieval Roots

The beaches of Barcelona and Mallorca have long been prime honeymoon territory for American newlyweds. But until recently, there wasn’t much of obvious Jewish interest to see, or much support for a Jewish wedding, in a country that hasn’t had a substantial Jewish presence since the 15th century.

That’s all changed. Today, Spanish cities like Girona, Córdoba and Mallorca offer myriad possibilities for weddings in an evocative medieval-Jewish atmosphere, thanks to a recent initiative known as the Red de Juderías Españolas — Camino de Sefarad (literally, Spanish Jewish Network - Sephardic Heritage Path). If “Camino de Sefarad” sounds a little like “Camino de Santiago,” the fabled Catholic pilgrimage route along Spain’s north coast, it’s no coincidence: in a bid to attract American Jews to explore their Iberian roots, the Spanish government has invested heavily in the recovery and promotion of long-neglected Jewish sites that date from the pre-Inquisition era.

Now the Red is hoping to promote Jewish weddings at sites throughout a network that spans from Oviedo in the north (made famous by the Woody Allen movie “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) to Andalusia, where Moorish and Iberian influences created a rich Jewish culture in the Middle Ages.

The historic synagogue of Córdoba — arguably Andalusia’s most romantic medieval city — has been renovated, with the goal of offering its sanctuary to foreign Jewish wedding parties.

In cities like Barcelona or Besalú — where ancient Jewish structures are too tiny for weddings — couples can celebrate their vows on the beach or in a picturesque garden, then take guests on a tour of the narrow, humid streets of the Call, or Catalan-Jewish ghetto. And in Girona, the Spanish city most steeped in Iberian-Jewish heritage sites, foreigners can rent the medieval-arched, ivy-bedecked courtyard of the Jewish Museum for a memorable ceremony and reception.

Rabbi Barbara, as she prefers to be known, did a recent event in Palma de Mallorca, an island city that is a stop on the heritage route. Along with a romantic outdoor ceremony, Rabbi Barbara recalls, the American guests were fascinated by a tour of the xuetas — the winding, whitewashed alleyways of Palma’s historic Jewish quarter, where the remains of an old synagogue lead to a modern Jewish Museum.

The Yucatan: The 21st Century Miami Beach

If it’s centuries of Jewish history you’re looking for, don’t come to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, a tropical zone of upscale resorts and white-sand beaches that extends into the Caribbean Sea.

Instead, book your wedding in Cancún or Tulúm to be a part of one of the New World’s fastest-growing Jewish resorts. Call it the next Florida: the Yucatan, a longtime favorite Passover destination for Orthodox families, is rapidly developing into a Jewish retirement community and favored wintertime getaway spot.

Cancún and the hotel district that extends along the Mexican Yucatan’s “Riviera Maya,” as it is known, “reminds of me of Miami Beach in the 1950s,” says Rabbi Stephen Siegel, a freelance rabbi based in nearby Playa del Carmen. A native New Yorker, Rabbi Siegel relocated to Mexico from Pompano Beach last year because, as his wife complained, he was spending more time there anyway – most of it as an officiate for American-Jewish destination weddings.

Now Rabbi Siegel does upwards of 50 weddings a year; many of his couples, though not all, are liberal or interfaith couples for whom Chabad (the major Jewish institution here) is not an option. “The historic communities of Mexico are in Mexico City, Guadalajara, not the Yucatan,” he explains. But with demand for Jewish affairs exploding, the Yucatan is rolling out the kosher carpet for Americans. Cancún boasts a Jewish Center and kosher catering, the rabbi notes.

Playa del Carmen has evolved into the epicenter of expat Jewish life here, with a second kosher restaurant, a new mikveh under construction and an annual menorah lighting on the main drag, Fifth Avenue. Cozumel — a resort island that’s a 30-minute boat ride from Playa — also has a mikveh.

Weddings in many Spanish-speaking countries can be tough to organize, but on the Riviera Maya, “every hotel management here speaks English,” says Rabbi Spiegel – a fact that obviates the need to hire an expensive local wedding coordinator. “And every hotel on the beach has a chuppah or two.” Rabbi Spiegel holds local seminars to teach Mexican hoteliers about accommodating Jewish weddings, which fill up beaches and ballrooms every winter from Thanksgiving to Passover.

“Mexican hospitality is wonderful, and you can spend as little or as much as you want here,” says the rabbi, who went on to rhapsodize about the Caribbean weather. But should that weather disappoint? “I keep an old tallis and four poles in the car for a makeshift chuppah, in case the ceremony has to be moved indoors,” he says with a chuckle. 

editor@jewishweek.org