Wedding seamlessly melds Sephardi, Ashkenazi rites

The joining of two cultures through marriage can result in a boundless joy or total disaster. Liorr Kierkut and Shani Karasanti were determined their wedding, held earlier this year, would delight both their families despite their very different traditions.

These two twentysomething Queens residents, who had met many years earlier as yeshiva students, were, of course, both Jewish. But that is where the similarity ended.

Kierkut, the bride, has a Sephardi mother and an Ashkenazi father, but she grew up in a primarily Ashkenazi environment. The groom, Karasanti, is Sephardi.

As is true with most weddings, planning the big day was stressful — very stressful. But since most American Jews come from Ashkenazi backgrounds, few brides and grooms face quite the same obstacles these two young people had to overcome.

"It was almost as if two Jews weren't marrying each other," Kierkut explains. "Our families were uncomfortable with each other's traditions and ceremony requests, to say the least."

To please both sets of parents while remaining true to themselves, the bride and groom included as many different types of Sephardi and Ashkenazi customs as possible. That wasn't easy, notes Kierkut, because the couple's backgrounds encompass many cultures.

Karasanti's father was raised in Israel and is of Algerian, Syrian and Italian decent. His mother is Yemenite. Kierkut's father was born and raised in London. Her mother was born in Turkey and raised in Israel.

Three days before the wedding, the bride participated in an exotic Sephardi "henna ceremony."

She wore a brocade outfit with an ornate headdress, and was bedecked in heirloom jewels. Chains hung in front of her face and women gently dropped leaves on her. As the ceremony continued, she was surrounded by dancing women who carried baskets filled with flowers and candles, which they later balanced on their heads.

Then it was time for the custom of painting the bride with henna, a red dye. But this presented a problem: Ashkenazi tradition dictates that the skin cannot be stained when the bride visits the mikveh, or ritual bath.

Confronted with this dilemma, Kierkut devised an ingenious solution. She donned long gloves, and the women painted the henna on her covered hands.

The following day, Kierkut went to the mikveh and immersed herself in the ritual bath. Feeling cleansed and blessed, she was ready to face her groom.

In accordance with Sephardi tradition, Karasanti, his father, father-in-law-to-be, the rabbi, relatives and friends gathered around a table to witness the signing of the ketubah, the contract between the bride and groom, and the tena'im , the contract between the two families indicating that both agree to proceed with the wedding.

Meanwhile, the bride, surrounded by her bridesmaids, was literally enthroned in another part of the Hollis Hills Jewish Center in Queens, N.Y.

When the signing was completed, Kierkut went before her groom for the bedecken ceremony. Karasanti lifted her veil to assure himself that she was, indeed, the woman he had chosen.

This ritual has two meanings. First, it reminds us of the Biblical story of Jacob being tricked into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. And, as Kierkut explains, "It is also intended to symbolize that the groom loves the bride for her spiritual self rather than her external beauty."

After all this preparation, the wedding ceremony began at last. Hanania Elbaz, a Sephardi rabbi and cantor, chanted traditional melodies as the bride circled the groom seven times under the chuppah.

Marriage is a re-enactment of the process of creation, according to Karasanti and Kierkut, and the custom of encircling the groom also symbolizes the seven days of creation.

The couple then shared challah, and the groom gave his bride a ring. The ketubah was read, seven nuptial blessings were bestowed a nd the glass was broken. Karasanti and Kierkut became husband and wife.

After the ceremony, friends and other guests danced around the newlyweds as the couple walked from the chuppah to a private room, where they spent the first few moments of their married life alone together.

"It was a beautiful day, and Shani and I were thrilled with the ceremonies and customs we observed," Kierkut says. "The traditions of both our families were represented and after it was over our parents with beaming with joy."