Joan Gelfand's daughter and son-in-law on their wedding day in Berlin.
Joan Gelfand's daughter and son-in-law on their wedding day in Berlin.

How God showed up to our daughter’s interfaith wedding in Berlin

When my daughter announced her engagement in February, it was her 33rd birthday and the height of the pandemic. Simone had met David six years ago in San Francisco at the California Academy of Sciences’ “Under 30 Thursday.” The spontaneous meeting that night ended with an invitation from David to meet again.

A trained architect and aspiring tech entrepreneur, David was in California on a one-year work visa for a German company building solar fields. He is everything we hoped for for Simone: smart, personable, curious, warm, sensitive and very handsome. Jewish he is not.

The month before his visa was set to expire, David professed his love and asked if Simone would consider coming to live in Berlin. Once he established himself as a software designer, he said, they could return to California.

Fast-forward. After wrangling a German work visa, Simone and David set up house in a fabulous apartment in the hip district of Prenzlauerberg.

Soon after the Zoom engagement announcement, I asked: “How will we find a rabbi?” Covid was raging. They would have to marry in Germany because David was not allowed into the U.S. as a German national. Simone let us know they were planning a secular ceremony. No rabbi, no priest.

A short history of Simone’s Jewish life: Kehillah Hebrew school for a few years and a bat mitzvah. After that, nichts. While she enjoyed Shabbat dinners at home, and joined us for holiday meals, there was no Camp Tawonga, no USY. Still, I knew that she valued her Jewishness, and I knew that David was supportive of her faith. He accompanied her to Berlin’s Neue Synagogue for the High Holidays and read “Beyond Breaking the Glass: A Spiritual Guide to Your Jewish Wedding” by Rabbi Nancy Wiener, a book that my ex, Deb Kinney, Simone’s other mother, had gifted them.

I spent the next weeks imagining my daughter being married in a secular ceremony in a courthouse presided over by a German magistrate. It didn’t compute. I searched my heart. How was I going to see my daughter married Jewishly without alienating her, or worse, causing a rift?

The weeks ticked by. Simone and David contracted with a venue. After three grueling visits to the courthouse where she was interviewed to establish that she was not being sex trafficked or marrying against her will, Simone was cleared. A date was set.

Just a few weeks before the wedding, I talked with Simone. She was more relaxed now that the legal signing and the reception had fallen into place.

“How would you feel if we broke the glass — for good luck, you know?” I ventured.

“Sure!”

I sensed a small opening. As my husband Adam says, I was like the camel sticking his nose into the tent. “And what about the seven blessings?”

“Fine.”

I was jubilant, but restrained. I didn’t want Simone to know that her simple answers meant the world to me. Up until then, she had responded to questions about the wedding with reservations. Understandably, their decisions were joint, but now I got these unequivocal “yes” answers.

“You don’t need a rabbi for a proper Jewish wedding,” I ventured.

“Really?”

“Yup.”

Packing day. Two weeks in Europe during a pandemic. PPE, rain, heat, the gamut.

“Don’t forget Simone’s tallis,” Deb reminded me.

The big day. We all arrived at the Rathaus (the local county seat). Eight of us waited in an anteroom while David and Simone signed the official papers. At 9 a.m. the doors to the ceremony room opened, revealing a classic wood-paneled room and chairs arranged for social distancing. Finally, the happy couple entered. A translator explained the proceedings. Rings were exchanged, and David and Simone, pronounced husband and wife, kissed and embraced.

After the signing, we all headed to the park. After a week of weather reports predicting rain, the sun was miraculously shining.

We prepared for the Jewish ceremony. Four of us held up the tallis, creating a chuppah. Simone and David took their places underneath.

“The chuppah is a symbol of your home. The sides are open to symbolize hospitality,” I explained.

Adam and Deb recited a modern version of the seven blessings. Then Adam instructed David to stomp on the glass. “Siman tov and mazel tov,” we sang.

As I turned away, I caught sight of my new 6’2” son-in-law in Deb’s arms.

“What was that about?” I asked her quietly as we strolled to a nearby meadow for picture-taking.

“David was so grateful that we shared the blessings. He said it infused the wedding with a spiritual meaning that felt so right. He was crying.”

A deep empathy and sense of satisfaction washed over me, purifying and filling me up.

After a beautiful wedding brunch, Adam and I strolled back to our rented apartment. “It feels like Yom Kippur or Shabbat,” I mused.

“That’s because everyone except us is going about their business,” Adam offered.

“No. It’s not just that. God is with us.”

Joan Gelfand
Joan Gelfand

Joan Gelfand is a poet, writer and teacher living in San Francisco. A member of the National Book Critics circle, her debut novel, “Extreme” was featured on NPR/Tech Nation and was named as a finalist for new fiction by the International Book Awards.