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The Rabbi and the Elephant: How I Officiated a Cosmopolitan Interfaith Wedding in Thailand
With guests from Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Thailand and the United States in attendance, Nad and Alex’s wedding was easily one of the most cosmopolitan I have ever officiated. With a fairly traditional inclusive Jewish ceremony, ordered by Thai customs, it was definitely one of the most intercultural. Throw in the fact that I’m facing an elephant upstage, and you’ve got the makings of a great story!
Although one might think that the coupling of a Russian Jew and a Thai Buddhist could be a challenge, this bride and groom showed that it needn’t be that way. This may be because the bride, Nad (short for Nadusa), and the groom, Alex, who live in Australia, are true citizens of the world. Nad was born in Thailand, but grew up mainly in Australia and Europe, due to her father’s work for Royal Thai Airways. Educated at an international school in Paris, she is fluent in English, French, German and Thai (standard American accent). Alex was born in Russia, and grew up there and (from age 15) in the US He trained as a radiologist at Harvard, and practices a particular type of medicine that embodies the global village we live in . If you’ve ever had an x-Ray done in the middle of the night, you might wonder where on earth they find a radiologist to read it. Well, at the bottom of the earth, that’s where! In fact, it may be Alex, a “night osprey” radiologist, who, because he is in a very different time zone, will, during what is his day, report back to your doctor on state side. Nad also (naturally) works for an international corporation.
The couple reflects a cosmopolitan life not only in their upbringing, their professional lives and their day-to-day personal lives, but also in their philosophy of living. Both are very proud of their cultural heritage, but when it comes to actual religious beliefs they are much more humanist in their leanings. They wanted their ceremony to reflect this, and their idea of how it would be to have a fairly traditional Jewish ceremony, while inclusive, with Thai customs before and after. For the location, they chose Koh Samui, a small beautiful island in the southern part of Thailand.
Their exciting ceremony began on the beach with the sound of gongs and drums and men we couldn’t see yet, shouting in Thai, “Here we come, here we come,” as they approached. The first thing we then saw were four young Thai women dressed ornately and traditionally, swaying slowly as they processed. Then we saw the men we heard before, and then the “guest of honour” – a baby elephant! The elephant was adorned with ornate jewelery and was also dancing. They brought the groom in and sat him next to the bride. Then one of the men set up a xylophone, and the four women danced to his music an elaborate synchronized dance in front of the bride and groom. They finished by spreading in front of them a bed of rose petals in perfect synchronization.
I then performed the Jewish part of the ceremony under a beautiful chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy) on the beach. They exchanged heartfelt vows and rings, and shared a cup of wine. They signed an attractive ketubah (ceremonial Jewish marriage contract) written in Hebrew, English and Thai. (Nad’s mother, a professional translator, helped with the translation.) I then blessed them with the Priestly Blessing, which is the oldest copy of scripture that archaeologists have found in Israel. I explained how our ancestors, those who gave us the Torah, my legendary ancestors, imagined the first high priest, Aaron, brother of Moses, blessing the Children of Israel with these very words. I love to recite this blessing in a third language (besides Hebrew and English) when appropriate. In fact, I have blessed couples in Spanish (I live in Tejas, after all), French, Arabic and Bulgarian. This time I used four languages, as I blessed Nad and Alex with the words of my great ancestor and theirs in Hebrew, English, Russian and Thai.
After the Jewish part of the ceremony, we saw more Thai customs. We all got to feed the baby elephant. This “baby” ate whole bunches of bananas and watermelon quarters. The elephant also danced some more while playing the harmonica. (Seriously.) In Thai culture the elephant is the symbol of the king, and so in a wider sense it is used to symbolize the nation and its happiness. Then Nad and Alex planted a small “love tree” together, and raised a “marriage flag” on a high stick. The last Thai custom was very interesting. Guests were invited to light small paper-covered lanterns. Once lit, by virtue of the hot air within, these rose far into the sky, until they looked like distant stars. All guests were encouraged to make a wish on these stars for good luck for the bride and groom.
During my personal remarks, I spoke about a great lesson the bride and groom taught us, bringing us all together on that magical island. They showed us that people from different countries, cultures and religions can come together, enjoy each other’s company and cultures, and make it seem effortless. Hopefully, I said, the whole world will learn Nad and Alex’s lesson too. And, if they need an elephant to help make this happen, consider it done…
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