Love in two languages: Berkeley artist weaves Hebrew, Arabic into N.Y. couples ketubah

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This is hardly just another boy-meets-girl story.

After all, how often do a Jewish boy and a Palestinian girl fall in love after meeting on a Fourth of July rafting trip in the Adirondack Mountains?

And on their wedding day, how many couples sign a ketubah — this one designed by Berkeley’s Rachel Biale — that is written in both Arabic and Hebrew?

For New York native Ari Epstein and Los Angeles-born Karimeh Shamieh, all of those rarities are simply part of their unique love story. They met in New York in 2005 and got married three years later. Their initial attraction was so powerful that any cultural differences — which have since been bridged with respect, passion and humor, according to the couple — took a backseat to matters of the heart.

“We hit it off pretty instantly,” said Karimeh, who goes by Rami.

Their wedding ceremony in October in Ithaca, N.Y., blended both of their backgrounds: Ari is Jewish and Rami, whose grandparents live in Fremont, is of Palestinian descent. A friend’s father, a Protestant minister, was the officiant.

The ceremony incorporated elements of both the bride’s and the groom’s cultures: Rami dyed her hands with henna (a Palestinian wedding tradition) and the couple was married under a chuppah. Some of the recessional music was of the klezmer variety, and as an appetizer the couple served dates, a Middle Eastern delicacy that knows no religious boundaries.

As for another Jewish tradition, “I really wanted to have a ketubah,” Ari said. “And we wanted one that reflected both our heritages. We looked around for alternative language that captured our aspirations.”

Enter Biale, who met Ari’s parents in Binghamton, N.Y., in 1979 and has remained a close family friend ever since, even after moving back to the Bay Area 22 years ago. The Berkeley resident is an artist, a social worker and the Bay Area regional director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

Ari and Rima never considered anyone else but Biale to design their wedding contract. And Biale delivered the goods, crafting a ketubah with two pillars — one in Hebrew, the other in Arabic, supported by the English translation. As with any ketubah she creates, Biale expects the couple to be very involved in the process — and Rami and Ari were.

“I wanted to visually represent that they are each from different traditions they felt connected to,” said Biale. “Their shared language, English, is a bridge for them. The design of the border visually represents their story and places important to them — Jerusalem and Ithaca — and flowers and fruits of the Middle East.”

Biale has created more than 40 ketubahs over the past 30 years, but she rarely does them anymore because she is so busy. In addition to having a private counseling practice and doing her work with the PJA, she also organizes Lehrhaus Judaica’s annual Bible by the Bay.

But she was willing to do this ketubah, she said, because of her friendship with the family and the unique nature of the document.

So on an usually warm day in October, in a park nestled against one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, Rima and Ari exchanged vows and signed Biale’s Hebrew, Arabic and English ketubah.

Later, their first dance was to a traditional Ladino melody with Hebrew and Arabic flavor. In a nod to another Jewish tradition, Ari smashed a light bulb with his foot to complete the wedding ceremony.

Part of the ketubah read: “Our lives are now forever intertwined. In times of happiness we will cherish each other, and in times of trouble we will protect each other. Together, we will create a home where both of our traditions are celebrated with honor, and where the values of our families are nurtured and passed on � We willingly enter into this covenant of companionship and love: From this day forward, we are as one.”

One, that is, with two ethnic and religious identities linked to one of the most volatile regions on the planet. For the most part, both families embraced Rima and Ari’s union without the rancor one might associate when someone Jewish falls in love with someone of Palestinian descent.

“Our parents didn’t care. Everyone hit it off,” Rima said. “My grandparents were more apprehensive. They thought, ‘OK, he’s Jewish. How does he feel about the Israeli-Palestinian situation?’ “

Rima said her grandmother had the fear that Ari might whisk her granddaughter off to Israel. Admitted Rima: “My family feels very strong about the Israeli-Palestinian issue because it’s their homeland and they’re getting screwed over it.”

Ari’s response to that: “No one has said anything to me.”

In the early days of their relationship, everything wasn’t 100 percent lovey-dovey for the couple. “We had some spectacular fights over Israeli-Palestinian issues when we started dating,” Rima remembered. “We’re from two groups that are in seriously bad conflict. It’s not just cultural differences, but the cultures are clashing.”

Ari’s response: “I don’t remember those fights.”

And how are things between them nowadays, what with Israel’s military operation in Gaza?

“As far as our relationship is concerned, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a non-issue,” Rima said. “We respect each others’ views on the matter, and listen to each other. We learn from each other. We agree that in this conflict, everyone loses. Once you can agree on that there isn’t anything to argue about.”

Ari is the assistant director of the office that overseas student government at Cornell University in Ithaca, and Rima is currently pursuing her master’s in regional planning at the same Ivy League institution.

Another bridge in their relationship was their common desire to move beyond the tum-ultuous and explosive early dating conversations. They have progressed so far beyond that, in fact, that some of Ari’s Jewish cousins feel their marriage is going to save the world.

“At some point we got over it,” Rima said. “I settled on the idea that Ari understood my side. We learned from each other. It’s not what our relationship is about.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.