Faux bnai mitzvah and non-Jewish ketubot befuddle my ethics

Have you heard of “faux mitzvahs”? Look no further than People magazine. An April 26 article spells it all out:

“Welcome to the strange new world of faux mitzvahs, where non-Jewish teens like Kimya Zahedi — whose parents are Iranian-born Muslims — and Taylor Lasley, African American and Presbyterian, get to party like it’s 5764 … Now more and more non-Jewish kids are insisting on their own bar or bat mitzvah-style parties — without the religious rites and months of studious preparation — when they turn 13. ”

Bizarre, disgusting, hilarious? Well, this seems to be part of a larger trend in my life. Let’s examine the evidence.

At a party in Oakland two years ago, I meet a young ketubah-maker. We start talking about her craft, how she got into it, the expected topics. Then she tells me something surprising — that she’s had a number of non-Jewish clients. “They love the ketubot they’ve seen at their friends’ weddings so much that they want one for their own tradition. Christians, non-traditional couples, even some Buddhists have commissioned their own versions.” This was my first inkling of an extraordinary trend in attitudes toward Judaism.

The plot thickened at my own wedding.

We had a traditional Jewish ceremony, with a few twists. We had a chuppah that was made of materials from each of our grandparents’ families. We had a rabbi, a Humanistic one, and we wrote our own version of the traditional Jewish service. Though there was klezmer, we were lifted in chairs, and older relatives squeezed our cheeks, there was a Buddha under the canopy and we had a wedding zine.

However unorthodoxly Jewish our wedding was, most of our guests thought it felt very traditional. As we were lifted up in chairs and the crowd danced the hora around us to the crazy strains of the San Francisco Klezmer Experience, my wife and I thought we had made the right choices.

A month later, a non-Jewish couple who were guests at the wedding asked us for the name of our band. We explained that the music was Jewish, but our woman friend in the couple, who was of Croatian descent, didn’t care. “The music reminds me of what my father used to listen to.” Another engaged Christian couple whom we know also asked us about the band for their wedding.

Recently, at a party, I met a non-religious, non-Jewish, engaged couple. We were talking about their marriage plans and I told them about my wedding. They asked if we had a ketubah.

“No,” I said. “It didn’t feel right for us.”

“Really? We love the idea. We’re thinking of getting one for ourselves. Without the religion, of course.”

I debated whether or not to refer them to the ketubah-maker I had met in Oakland. I was sure she could use the business, and they were perfectly well-intentioned.

But I didn’t mention her to the couple. It just didn’t feel right. Neither choice felt right: If I told them, it might contribute to the further dilution of Jewish culture; if I didn’t tell them, I might be hurting a Jewish artist who clearly could use the business.

And the more I think about it, what can stop the appropriation of distinctly Jewish practices? What impact can I make on the evolution of Jewish culture and practice? Greater minds than mine regularly wrestle with that question. I’m certainly open to suggestions.

Maybe I should let the couple know. Is there really any harm in a non-Jewish ketubah?

As long as they don’t give their kid a faux bat mitzvah.

Jay Schwartz plays the marimbas in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife and a dog named Fred. He can be reached at jay@jweekly.com.