We love them, but are our pets kosher for a Jewish wedding

When San Francisco resident Jay Schwartz and his wife Jenny Margolis tried to include their close friend Fuji in their wedding, it presented numerous hassles. Their parents certainly weren't initially thrilled with Fuji playing a prominent role in the ceremony.

It's not just that Fuji isn't Jewish, or that his English skills are lacking, never shaves and tends to snort frequently.

It's just that Fuji is, well…a dog.

"Fuji is not only very sweet and cute, but is a huge part of our lives together," said Schwartz, a copy editor at the Jewish Bulletin. Schwartz, who was married in September, said his black pug was emblematic of "the transitional part" of the couple's relationship.

"One of the first things we did as a couple was acquire him from the Sacramento Pug Rescue Association," he explained. "It was really our first big test of mutual responsibility."

Although the couple was interested in a nontraditional Jewish wedding, they didn't plan on incorporating their pet into the service — until he developed cancer.

"The whole process of Fuji's illness and recovery brought us closer together, and made us confront loss. It was almost like we were going to lose our baby, and it made us realize how much our lives are intertwined with Fuji. At that point, we knew that he had to be included in the ceremony. And we also decided that we wanted Fuji to be our ring-bearer"

But first, the couple had to convince some very skeptical parents about their decision. Incorporating spiritual elements from other religions, such as Buddhism, was one thing. But assigning a huge role to a mammal more accustomed to Kibbles N' Bits than knishes? The line had to be drawn somewhere, they insisted, and having a canine ring-bearer at a Jewish wedding was over the line.

"Fuji became a magnet for all the things our parents objected to in the ceremony," said Schwartz. "At first they didn't take us seriously. They wanted to know what would happen if he ate the ring? Would the ceremony be put on hold until he pooped it out?' But when Fuji got sick, they realized the degree of love we had for him, and backed off.

"In the end, we compromised. Fuji was in the wedding procession, with the understanding that if he acted up, a dog-sitter would lead him out immediately."

The wedding procession was seamless, according to Schwartz, and, far from being a mere novelty, Fuji underscored the warmth and intimacy of the occasion. The success of the ceremony begs the question of where Jewish tradition stands on cats, dogs or parakeets in weddings.

"Well, in San Francisco you have to be ready for anything and everything," said Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of S.F. Although Langer wasn't prepared to declare the entire concept kosher, neither did he throw out any serious bones of contention.

"A man needs to be the best man, and a bridesmaid needs to be a woman, but it's pretty flexible after that," he said. "I've officiated over weddings where seeing-eye dogs were underneath the chuppah, and I know that many people are very connected to their pets.

"On further thought, dogs have proven to be some of the most effective shadchans (matchmakers), and I've seen many couples fall in love while dog-walking. And dogs are generally very reliable and trustworthy. So, why not feature them in weddings?

"I say mazel tov!"

Rabbi Ted Alexander of San Francisco's Conservative Congregation B'nai Emunah was less sanguine about dogs in Jewish weddings. However, he did officiate a wedding in Golden Gate Park many years ago when the best man waited patiently with the bride's parents.

In this case, the best "man" not only wore a yarmulke, but was also sporting a very nice leash.

"Let's just say I was very surprised that the best man turned out to be a dog," said Alexander. "Now, I realize that the groom was very close to Rudy, but had I known about it beforehand, I would've objected.

"Even though I'm a former dog owner, and even though Rudy was perhaps the best-behaved creature at the wedding, I felt that it lowered the value of the ceremony."

When Rabbi Pam Frydman Baugh of San Francisco's Or Shalom Jewish Community said "mazel tov!" at the wedding of Susan and Giora Sagy, she did so knowing that one of the flower "girls" was a German shepherd named Jessica.

"I had no problem with it, and I don't think Jewish tradition does either," said Frydman Baugh. For the Sagys, there was no hesitation in including Jessica, who died last April.

"Both of us wanted a nontraditional wedding, since we had already been in long-term marriages, and had already participated in traditional ceremonies," said Susan Sagy. "We wanted to do something fun, while at the same time preserving the traditions that we liked."

The Menlo Park couple wanted to dispense with the "walking down the aisle" component and instead approached the chuppah from a side entrance. Jessica, however, did walk down the main aisle, carrying a stick in her mouth adorned with flowers and a pink bouquet. The dog then dropped the stick at the newlyweds' feet, and walked away to loud applause.

"I wouldn't change a thing about the ceremony," said Susan Sagy, "and I'm very happy that Jessica got to share that moment in time with us."