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The changing face of wedded bliss

Jewish marriage trends are increasingly reflecting the secular environment in which most UK Jews live - which means second or third marriages, cohabiting and conceiving before marriage and same sex marriage

    Mike borrowed a skull ring from our son which broke soon after the wedding, and I’m fairly sure it’s since been lost, too. I did buy a ring especially for the occasion, a lovely, plain silver band I wear every day. But I don’t put it on my ring finger. Not because I am making any sort of statement, I just think it suits my right hand better.”

    Rings apart, how unusual were Louise and Mike’s Jewish nuptials? The groom had just turned 50, the bride was 44 and the couple’s children, then nine and seven, saw their parents walk down the aisle. And when they tied the knot in 2012, Louise and Mike had already been together for 17 years, and cohabited for 16 of them.

    Back then, they were part of the 11 per cent of Jewish couples who cohabit before marriage. Now that figure has increased by almost 20 per cent in the last two decades, according to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, and Mike and Louise are pretty mainstream.

    The rabbis who oversee marriage have noticed this trend too. Rabbi Dr Julian Shindler, director of the Marriage Authorisation department of the Office of the Chief Rabbi has noticed that couples are older than in previous generations. “It appears that increasing numbers of Jews are now looking to establish themselves in careers before they take on the responsibility of having children, with many co-habiting before they tie the knot and have those children. In addition, there are larger numbers of divorcees in the community than a generation ago, and this correlates with larger numbers of second and third marriages. In general, the more acculturated Jews are, the more likely it is that their social behaviour will reflect what is going on in wider society.”

    Rabbi Jackie Tabick, convenor of Reform Judaism’s Beit Din agrees. “Jewish marriage has changed enormously in the last 30 years. People are older, there’s more intermarriage and there is an increase in gay couples.”

    For Louise and Mike, the decision to get maried was prompted by Mike’s 50th birthday. They were married by a Liberal rabbi, a family friend who was “very tolerant about how we did things”, says Louise. “The four of us danced down the aisle to some funky, disco music. It was a brilliant occasion and although it hasn’t changed our relationship in any way, we now have a really beautiful ketubah adorning our bedroom wall.”

    Having a ketubah loomed large in Sarah and David’s decision to marry after 14 years of cohabitation.

    “When my parents divorced, their ketubah was declared null and void becase the Beth Din questioned my dad’s Jewishness,” explains Sarah. “This effectively meant that if my kids wanted to get married in an Orthodox shul they would, in years to come, be relying on their great grandparents’ ketubah.” Her daughter is only 11 but “I can actually imagine her wanting to marry in one of the lovely old London shuls, all of which are Orthodox. “I never imagined I’d get married, but I did, so we could create clarity for the next generation .”

    To this end, although they are members of a Masorti synagogue, Sarah and David wed in an Orthodox shul. And although she describes herself as a secular feminist, Sarah walked around David seven times. “Totally paradoxical, I know, but I like the atmosphere of traditional Jewish weddings. It’s like looking at a painting you can imagine hanging in the National Gallery. I don’t think you have to engage with the religious meaning of any of it.”

    Based on 2011 census data, Jewish men are 32 and Jewish women 29 when they first take their vows. But because these figures include charedim, who typically marry far younger than mainstream Jews, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) estimates that for Jews who aren’t strictly Orthodox, men are nearer to 34 and women to 31 when standing under the chupah. When we have data from the 2021 census, we may discover that British Jews are actually marrying later still.

    What is certain is that we are already joining in marriage at least seven years later than Jewish couples in the 1970s. Why? Because of ever spiralling housing costs and an unpredictable labour market”, say the Jewish Marriage Council (JMC). “Couples definitely feel less financially secure than they did. They aren’t less committed, and there aren’t fewer Jewish weddings, but they are taking place when people are older,” say the organisation, which works within an Orthodox framework.

    Josh and Talia are in their late twenties and hoping they can save enough to get married at some point. Even cohabitation is a far-off dream. They’ve been together for three years, but still live separately with their parents.

    “We feel ready for marriage and would ideally like to have our children in the next five years,” says Josh. “But we want to raise a family under our own roof. Our combined salaries are just under £50,000, nowhere near enough for a mortgage on even a modest flat in north London. In around five years’ time, we should have saved the £70,000 we need to get us on the housing ladder. By then, we’ll be in our mid-30s and able, we hope, to conceive quickly.”

    Helen was 37 when she met her husband through JDate. “Although I am from a traditional Orthodox background and he is secular, I still think that both being Jewish helps. We had things in common before the relationship even began.”

    She was determined to buck the cohabitation trend. “Lots of my Jewish friends live with their partners and their relationships seem to go on for years without proper commitment.”

    When Rebecca was looking to settle down, she was also attracted by the idea of having a Jewish partner, by someone who “spoke the same language,” as she puts it. “My long-term boyfriend before Jonny was a working-class furniture restorer from Northumberland. We didn’t separate because of the Jewish question, but when the relationship ended I figured that it would surely help if my next boyfriend came from a more familiar background.”

    In the event, her marriage to a fellow Jew didn’t work out. “Jonny and I were married for 17 years, and have been amicably divorced for two. I think part of the reason things didn’t work out is precisely because we were like family from the beginning. The sexual chemistry wasn’t really there. Familiarity feels secure, but it’s not particularly sexy. So if I ever were to remarry, I would probably look beyond the community.”

    That’s not how Nicole felt when her first Jewish husband left her and their then primary school age sons for his non-Jewish secretary 17 years ago. “I was completely devastated and although I had in some ways been pushed into the marriage when I was just 23 by my parents, when I started dating again I didn’t even consider looking outside the community. I believe too strongly in Jewish continuity.”

    Now married to Maurice for seven happy years, she feels vindicated. “This man is my beshert. I just wish I’d met him before I was 43.”

    Though she didn’t want her first marriage to fail, by getting divorced at the age of 40, Nicole is a living, breathing statistic: it’s the average age at which Jews first divorce each other.

    And she also embodies another statistic: Nicole is one of the one in three British Jews who marries another Jew following divorce from an in-marriage.

    Meanwhile, according to the JMC, second and third marriages have not noticeably increased in the last 20 years. And neither, says the JPR, has Jewish marriage the first time round.

    Except in one area, of course, as mentioned by Rabbi Tabick. At the time of the last census, same-sex marriage didn’t exist in Britain: legislation to allow it came into force in England and Wales in March 2014.

    In 2011, more than 2,200 Jews were living as same-sex couples, and around a third of the group was in a civil partnership. Six years on, it is reasonable to presume that a sizeable proportion have taken advantage of the new legislation and married their partners.

    Talia, 31, and Sinead, 34, are going to have a Masorti wedding next year. “When I was growing up I always thought I’d get married, and when I came to terms with being gay in my early twenties, it was really hard for me to reconcile the two things,” says Talia.

    “My experience of marriage through my parents’ long and happy relationship has been very positive. I guess it boils down to, why am I not entitled to the same? And because my Jewish identity is so strong, I want a Jewish wedding.

    “My girlfriend was born a Catholic and is converting to Judaism because she couldn’t reconcile the faith into which she was born with her sexuality. So for us, her conversion and our impending marriage are totally intertwined.

    “We’d like to have children and believe that it’s best to raise them in wedlock. I am certainly more traditional than my straight sisters, one of whom has a non-Jewish boyfriend and neither of whom show any signs of wanting to stand under the chupah.”

    Names have been changed

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