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Celebrating Interfaith Marriages: Creating Your Jewish/Christian Ceremony Paperback – April 19, 1999

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About the Author

Rabbi Devon A. Lerner (Arlington, MA) has served congregations in Atlanta, Richmond, and Boston. She received an M.S.W. from Boston University in 1986 and since that time has had a private practice specializing in interfaith wedding ceremonies.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Celebrating Interfaith Marriages
* PART I *
Interfaith Weddings
On the Emotional Side
 
 
Creating your own ceremony can be fun and exciting. The process provides you as a couple with a unique opportunity to express your love in words that speak to your own hearts and souls. But the thought of creating such a ceremony scares many people. Few know where to begin, and many doubt their creative abilities. If you are feeling a bit uncertain, let me assure you that regardless of your background or level of religious education, you can craft a beautiful ceremony. All the information you need is in these pages. I will lead you step-by-step through this process, one that is easier than most imagine.
But before I begin talking about ceremonies, I want to address some of the emotional issues that often accompany wedding-day preparations.
Between You and Your Partner
When you announced your engagement, you were full of excitement and joy. Now, as you begin planning for your wedding day, you may feel a great deal of stress. This is normal. Planning any wedding, regardless of size, is stressful because of the endless number of details, including everything from choosing the color of your napkins, to deciding who will preside over your service, to managing the wishes and feelings of two different families. These details consume more time and energy than most couples anticipate, even when they have a wedding coordinator; so try to give yourselves enough space between your engagement and your wedding day to handle all of the arrangements. For most couples, this meansstarting the wedding planning at least a year in advance. Many popular wedding sites, bands, caterers, photographers, etc., book their calendars this early, if not earlier. If you have a year between your engagement and your wedding, you will also have enough time to make decisions about many other details without feeling too pressured. Be aware, however, that regardless of how much advanced planning you do, you will be spending a significant amount of time on last-minute details during the months just before your wedding, such as addressing your invitations, going to dress fittings, and determining the seating arrangements for your guests. In every stage of your planning, try to focus on the purpose of your gathering, which is the celebration of your love and marriage. This may sound like an obvious goal, but you can easily lose yourselves in the flurry of all the details. One way to keep your focus is to work on planning your ceremony.
In addition to the normal wedding preparations, you, as an interfaith couple, must ask yourselves questions that same-faith couples do not, such as: What does my faith mean to me? How comfortable or uncomfortable am I with my partner's faith and traditions? If we choose to have children, how will we raise them? How will our parents respond to our marriage and to our religious choices? If we choose one faith for the children, will the partner whose religion was not chosen feel left out? How will we celebrate the holidays in our home?
These are difficult questions to answer because they reach into our hearts in ways that defy logic. I have never met a couple, for example, who lost sleep over their theological differences about the nature of God. But I have met many couples who cannot decide how they will raise the children, not because they are observant Jews and Christians, but because they feel guilty or just uneasy about choosing one faith over the other.
If you are struggling over this question about how you will raise your children, you are not alone. This is usually the most difficult question that interfaith couples must answer. It is especially difficult when both partners are strongly identified with their traditions and faith. If you choose one faith for your children, one of you must accept the fact that your children will not be raised with the traditions and beliefs so familiar and dear to you. How, for example, will you feel if your child has a bat mitzvah, but no first communion? What will happen if you have a Christmastree in your home? How would you feel about bringing Jesus into your children's lives? How would you feel if you children did not know Jesus in the way you do? Whatever decision you make, it is certain that holidays will not be exactly the same as they were when you were growing up.
Many couples want to postpone the decision of faith for their family until their first child is born. I urge you not to do this. In my experience this decision gets more, not less, difficult over time. The real issue is not the children but your relationship. Ultimately, your children will follow whatever path you choose for them, at least for the first several years of their lives. What is it that is preventing you from coming to terms with this decision now? Are you afraid of your partner's or your family's reactions, or are you simply not sure what you yourself want? It is important to answer these and related questions so that you do not begin your marriage with a major unresolved issue.
If you do choose one faith for your children and that faith is not yours, you will experience a sense of loss, and you may fear, as many do, that this choice will leave you out of a major part of your family's life. While it is true that you will not share in the religious life of your children in the same way as your partner, it is also true that your children will not love you less because of this difference. Show them and teach them about your beliefs and traditions. They will enjoy learning and feel closer to you for sharing this time with them. You will also be teaching your children, through your example, that people of different faiths can live happy, full, and shared family lives.
Of course, raising your children in one faith is not your only option. You may decide to raise them in both traditions or to let them make their own choice as they grow older. While I have my own biases about each option, I know that any one of these choices can lead to a very close and happy family life, if both you and your partner fully support the decision you make.
For more information and help dealing with this and other interfaith family life issues, I recommend that you talk to other interfaith couples and that you read some books on interfaith families. The Intermarriage Handbook, by Jim Remsen and Judy Petsonk (New York: Morrow, 1998), has been particularly helpful for some couples I have married and counseled. Many Reform Jewish congregations and organizations also sponsorinterfaith programs for couples who want to explore these issues. Check with your local Reform rabbis and Jewish community organizations for information about programs in your area. If you like surfing the Internet, I also recommend that you visit some interfaith Web sites. They will lead you to some additional interfaith resources.
As you read and talk with others, you will discover that your conversations about interfaith issues will not end with your decision about the children or with the end of your wedding. This is not something to be feared, but welcomed as a normal part of your life. You may celebrate holidays one way this year and a different way next year. You will continue to explore and experiment until you find just the right expression for you. Remember that all of life is an ongoing process
From Your Parents' Perspective
Your wedding day is as emotional for your parents as it is for you, but for obviously different reasons. They will rejoice in your happiness, but they may feel some nostalgia and some sense of loss as they watch you pledge your love to your partner, confirming that you are not a child anymore. They will remember their own wedding day and reflect on their life together, on the good and the bad. They will be anxious about all the details of the wedding; if they are divorced, they may feel anxious about seeing each other. And the list goes on. With so much stress, it is not unusual for tensions to rise and for family members to behave in ways that you have never seen before. Try to keep in mind that this is mostly situational stress and will likely subside immediately following the wedding.
One wedding stress you can alleviate is your parents' anxiety about the ceremony itself. Both families are usually anxious about the ceremony because they do not know what to expect. They wonder: Will the ceremony be balanced, representing both sides equally? Will the unfamiliar elements be explained so we don't feel alienated? Will the rabbi, priest, minister, or officiant say something that will offend us? Will the ceremony honor us and be sensitive to our history, customs, and beliefs? These are normal questions and concerns. You can calm your parents' fears by showing them a draft of your ceremony. They almost always feel relieved when they see the text because now they know there will be nosurprises; and in the very rare event that your parents do object strongly to some part of the service, you have time to edit, if you wish.
Understanding the Jewish Response to Jesus
One element that is not usually included in interfaith ceremonies are prayers said in Jesus' name. It is not easy for many Christians to understand why many Jews react so negatively to these prayers. After all, wasn't Jesus Jewish? Do we not all pray to the same God? Of course the answer to both of these questions is yes, but the problem is more complex. It involves issues of history as well as theology.
For Christians, Jesus is the foundation and focus of their faith. He was and is the messiah, God, and their savior. His teachings, as recorded in the New Testament, are the focus of worship, study, and prayer. But for Jews, Jesus was not a messiah or God, but rather a very human prophet; so, for Jews, it is inappropriate, and even sacrilegious, to say prayers in his name.
In addition to the theological differences, a painful history of Jewish-Christian relations influences the Jewish response to Jesus. Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of Jews have been killed in the name of Jesus Christ. While this is no longer happening, there are still a few churches teaching their children that Jews are responsible for Jesus' death and that Jews will go to hell because they do not accept Jesus as their savior. There are still churches that tell their children that Jews are lesser human beings, and sometimes evil human beings, because of their different faith. These associations of Jesus with persecution make many Jews feel uncomfortable when hearing his name and when seeing a cross.
If you are a Christian, you may be angry or upset after reading this last paragraph. You might be thinking what many devout Christians have said to me: "But I had nothing to do with the atrocities of the past. My family and my church did not teach me to hate or discriminate against the Jewish people. They taught me to love all people: the essence of Jesus' teaching is love and kindness. Why can't you accept me for my beliefs?"
Your Jewish partner can and does accept you for who you are and what you believe, or you would not be getting married. His/her request to exclude Jesus from the service is truly not personal. Many Jews simply cannot separate Jesus' name from the painful images and memories of thepast, because Jewish identity, more so than Christian identity, is tied to history and culture as well as theology. To be Jewish means to feel a part of a family whose roots and loyalties date back to biblical times, and this familial, or cultural, connection is often stronger than any connection they feel toward Jewish theology or religious practice. This explains how and why many men and women proudly identify themselves as Jews even when they rarely attend a synagogue.
As Jewish-Christian relations and understanding continue to improve, as they have over the last few decades, the wounds of the past may heal and Jews and Christians alike will be able to respect and honor each other's traditions without experiencing any lingering discomfort. Until then, the unpleasant fact remains that many Jews feel uneasy seeing a cross or hearing Jesus' name, even when these symbols are important to ones they love.
Most interfaith couples resolve this problem by agreeing to say all prayers in God's name, not in Jesus' name, and by agreeing to hold the ceremony in a chapel or sanctuary in which no crosses are visible. This is acceptable to the Catholic Church and to most ministers who officiate at interfaith ceremonies.
Even though this compromise is common practice, it is important for the Jewish partner to understand what a sacrifice this may be for his or her partner.
Focus on the Celebration of Your Love
Remember, your wedding day is a celebration of your love and your commitment. It is a time of sharing and rejoicing with family and friends. In preparation for your special day, I strongly recommend that during the week before the ceremony you spend some time away from all the details and decisions surrounding your wedding. One couple I married took a weekend trip away the weekend before their wedding. Another couple, who planned their wedding at an out-of-state resort, arrived a couple of days before their guests and used this time to relax and enjoy the sights. If taking time away is not an option for you, consider a simple evening out, with the understanding that you will not talk about any wedding details. Even small, simple breaks from wedding planning can help you be more present and more centered for your wedding day and celebration.
Copyright © 1999 by Devon Lerner

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; 1st edition (April 19, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805060839
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805060836
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #149,354 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 34 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 30, 1999
Format: Paperback
I must admit, as a near atheist raised as a Catholic I was a bit skeptical when first presented with Rabbi Lerner's book. It was soon after that my skepticism ended. It's everything I didn't expect in a "how to" book that tackles the difficult issues of combining a Jewish and Christian marriage ceremony. Celebrating Interfaith Marriages was a rich, warm book that turned into (no pun intended and with tongue firmly implanted in cheek) our bible.
As an advertising copywriter I can say definitively that the style and way this book is written is not only excellent, but it follows a very conversational tone that made it very easy for me to enjoy. It is well constructed, often witty, and not once did I ever feel I was being preached to, or told it our wedding had to be done in a certain manner.
What's more, Rabbi Lerner fills her book with many different perspectives, solutions and resources. She culls from her experiences, draws from that of others, and puts forth a great deal of outstanding ideas and scenerios to help you through what can often be a very trying and difficult endeavor.
We certianly couldn't have had the wedding we wanted, nor would our wedding have been the resounding success it was, without this book. I highly recomend it to anyone attempting an interfaith marriage. It will serve as an invaluable resource, and most importantly, provide you with considerable inspiration.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 22, 1999
Format: Paperback
This book had an extraordinarily positive impact on the creation of our wedding ceremony. It made what could have been a very difficult task, a thought-provoking, meaningful and bonding experience. My wife, Nancy, is a Jesuit- educated Italian American Catholic and I am Jewish. Her family is large and mine very small. This book provided us with options we could use in creating a wedding ceremony that was respectful of both our traditions and our families. It helped us to understand the meaning behind each other's rituals. We were then able to make choices that were appropriate for both of us. One of the nicest things about this book was its ease of use. A wedding celebration is already a complex event without having to integrate two different traditions. The book was laid out in such a way that we were able to ascertain relatively quickly the options available to us in creating "our" ceremony.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 9, 2001
Format: Paperback
Since no one book is going to cover everything, I got a bunch, including Diamant's "The New Jewish Wedding" and Hawxhurst's "Interfaith Wedding Ceremonies." Lerner's was the most helpful by far. I'm a Reformed Jew and my wife is Baptist, and with Lerner's book we were able to create a ceremony that was both beautiful and respectful/traditional to both religions. The book is clear in thought, and offers many different passages/readings to choose from for each part of the service. I guess Diamant's book would've been okay if my wife was going to convert to Judaism, which was never a consideration for either of us, otherwise, it was too orthodox in thought. Stick with Lerner's book -- clearly the best of the lot.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Elaine Adler on October 30, 2003
Format: Paperback
As someone who creates custom, personalized ketubot (Jewish wedding contracts), I have long sympathized with a tentative question over the phone asking if I am open to creating an interfaith ketuba. In addition to the reality that a relatively small number of rabbis perform interfaith ceremonies, I have become aware that many ketuba artists will not work with interfaith couples to create a personalized ketuba for them. The fact that someone is asking the question tells me that they have already experienced the slamming of doors in their quest to celebrate their marriage to the partner of their choice.
My heartfelt response to such a question is that I would rather be part of a process that is open to their choices, to their commitment to maintain some of the rituals from their heritage, and to their future. The more open, welcoming, and responsive we are ... the more positive and loving we make the experience ... the sweeter the taste that is left in their memories ... the more likely that both the Jewish and non-Jewish partner will feel comfortable and eager to turn toward fostering Jewish practices in their home, both for themselves and for their children.
So when recent ketuba clients told me how wonderful their experience was in meeting with Rabbi Devon Lerner and how helpful it was to read her book, "Celebrating Interfaith Marriages," I knew I had to find out more. When I discovered that we are practically neighbors, I read her book in preparation for a personal meeting. I was drawn in to Lerner's presentation from the beginning. The pervading sense throughout is one of acceptance and non-judgment. How refreshing!
There is no assumption that the couple will adopt only Jewish practices in their home.
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19 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Woody Bartlett on October 20, 1999
Format: Paperback
It is challenge enough to plan a same-faith wedding in today's world. The celebration of an interfaith marriage can be positively daunting. Not only are different faith perspectives involved, but there is often ignorance, if not suspicion of each other's faith. Rabbi Lerner has obviously led many couples through their interfaith wedding planning. She combines a warm pastoral sensitivity for people embarking on a new marriage and she brings a wealth of practical information and knowledge of different faith traditions. Combine this with many useful resources for a couple preparing for their wedding and you have a WINNER. This book will not only help couples starting an interfaith marriage, it could prove a useful resource to all couples planning any kind of wedding.
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