Dear Rebbetzin Chaya-
Mazal Tov! I’m engaged. My parents are totally freaking out that this wedding will not be what they are used to. How can I get them into the idea of a traditional Jewish wedding? What parts are most important and what parts are either skippable or can happen quietly so they aren’t overwhelmed with the differences?
Mazel Tov! You know, I am so impressed that you are able to empathize with your parents’ feelings and prioritize their needs. Your empathy and concern are unusually mature– “it’s all about me” is a message that sadly many people internalize about weddings. This empathetic approach is going to serve you well, both in preserving your positive relationship with your family of origin, as well as helping you as you build your new home and family, with your new spouse. Before I answer your question, just some important thoughts to keep in the back of our mind as we problem solve, which may be helpful as well for others in similar situations. From your question I am assuming that you are more traditionally religious than your parents. As you know, no matter how close and supportive a family is, nor how open-minded, this can be challenging for parents. It is a shift of expectations, and the things that they imagined for your future. Even if you have been more religious for several years at this point, your marriage reinforces to them that this new person you have become is real and permanent. You are choosing a life partner, making commitments and life decisions based on your new and different values and priorities. Even if they had come to peace with your decision in the past, and especially if they had not quite, this can bring up a lot of feelings for them. Not to mention that just the idea of a child getting married can bring up all kinds of bittersweet feelings for any parents.
I say all of this not to blame you, rather to give you some context for what your parents may be going through, and to encourage you to continue to be kind and understanding. You are not doing anything wrong by choosing your path in life, but it is normal for them to have feelings around this. Perhaps in a perfect world, perfect parents would be able to keep those feelings from affecting you at all, but we are all, for better or worse, human. That being said, their feelings and stress do NOT give them permission to cross boundaries, or to make your life miserable. It is unclear from your email exactly what “freaking out” means–whether they are emotionally upset, or actively trying to undermine your plans. Either way, the best tool in your arsenal is communication.
First of all, even if you have had this conversation with them before, this time of transition is a good time to sit down with your parents, without your fiancé, and reiterate your respect for them. Talk about everything that you have gained from them and express your gratitude for what they have given you. I had this conversation with my parents many years ago, when I was first becoming religious. It was valuable for them, and for me, to explicitly state that my life choices were NOT a rejection of who they were, but rather an extension of the values that they taught me. It really changed our dynamic at a time that was difficult for them and for me. Remind them that while some of your choices are different and unfamiliar, you are still the child they raised and KNEW and loved. That conversation, which should be a wholly positive one, is step one. If you think that you will not be able to say it all, or the conversation may end up being derailed by negative emotions on either side, put it in writing–a card, an email, whatever.
Step two, if possible in a different conversation, is to address the wedding specifically. I would ask them directly how they are feeling about the wedding plans. You need to gather information. WHAT specifically about the wedding are they nervous about? What hopes and dreams do they have for their child’s wedding? I would try to listen as much as possible to what their concerns are, without promising anything. If they are totally unfamiliar with traditional Jewish weddings, either bring them along to a friend’s wedding coming up in the near future (one that will be welcoming for them), or find some videos online to show them different aspects of a traditional wedding. This is the information-gathering stage. Remember, their panic doesn’t allow them to cross boundaries, but you are attempting to understand what it is they actually want. It is likely that once you drill down, there will be a specific concern or concerns, as opposed to just an overarching sense of panic. This will be much easier to address.
Step three is to sit down with your fiancé, and possibly your mesader kedushin or another mentor, and troubleshoot through your parents’ concerns. You ask what aspects of traditional wedding can be “skipped.” I would humbly suggest that if what you want is a traditional wedding, you should not look to skip anything for the sake of your parents. Rather, whenever possible, look for creative ways to address their concerns by adding, not skipping. If they are concerned that their guests will have no clue what is going on, make sure there are written programs available from the beginning, and maybe even have some knowledgeable guests designated as guides to make sure everyone knows what’s happening. Have someone making quick announcements in English at each stage explaining what’s happening. If their concern is that the music will be unfamiliar–can you find music (maybe just instrumental) that they enjoy, to play during the meal, since the dancing will have Jewish music? If their concern is that they won’t feel central to the proceedings–can you make sure they have a chance to feel central–can they give a toast, or a speech under the chuppah? There are so many things that can be done within the context of a traditional wedding to make your parents more comfortable, without in any way sacrificing the things that you want from your wedding.
Having a mentor or mesader kedushin with experience help facilitate this conversation is important in several crucial ways. They will know what flexibility you have, within the structure of a traditional, halachic, wedding. They will hopefully have experience with other families in similar situations, and might even have creative, out-of-the-box suggestions that you haven’t heard. Most importantly, they are coming at the situation with a lot less emotion, and can help you keep things in perspective as you make your plans.
Once you and your fiancé have decided which accommodations you are comfortable making, you can do two things, depending on how receptive your parents have been until this point. If the conversations have so far gone well, and things are improving, you can seek their input as to how well the ideas you came up with would allay their concerns, and if necessary, do another round of problem-solving. If they are digging in their heels and the conversations have been unpleasant, you can either just let them know what you are doing and why, or just carry on, implementing the ideas at the wedding and hoping they will help. At this point, you will know that you have done your part to respect your parents’ wishes and to be compassionate. As adults, it is their job to cope with their feelings and support you on this important day in your life.
If your parents are paying for the wedding, or even contributing a large sum towards the wedding, you need to keep that in mind as you have these conversations. Make sure to acknowledge the huge gift that they are giving you. Even if they are paying, it is still your wedding, but it certainly does entitle them to much more of a say. You need to figure out how to very respectfully balance those things. In a truly acrimonious situation, I would say to respectfully decline the financial help, and be independent, even if it means a much more modest wedding. It does not sound like that is the case in your situation; it sounds like there is a strong foundation of a relationship to work within.
Lastly, keep in mind that in the end, this is one day of your life. As you plan it, it is understandable that your lens narrows to see very little past the day. As Pesach is coming each year, I cannot imagine that there is an “after Pesach”–all of my focus is on getting to that one week. But “after” comes. When it comes to your marriage, and adult life, the wedding is a beautiful kick-off, but “after” will come. You will have, G-d willing, a lifetime to continue to build these relationships. So don’t despair if things don’t work out exactly the way that you want them to one way or another. Continue to do the best you can to find compromises and common ground, and focus on maintaining these relationships in the long run. One day, like me, G-d willing, your wedding will be a lovely distant memory, that you mostly think of when your kids pull down the wedding albums to look at with their loving grandparents!