Weddings that unite cultures

Michael Hootan Tavakolian and Ghazal Hajizadeh's wedding at

Michael Hootan Tavakolian and Ghazal Hajizadeh's wedding at Giando on the Water in Brooklyn. (April 21, 2012) (Credit: Paper Hearts Photography)

Weddings are all about tradition, from breaking the glass (Jewish) to jumping the broom (African-American) to symbolic spitting at the bride (Greek). But with the number of multiethnic and interfaith weddings soaring, so has the potential for a clash of cultures.

Happily, the evidence instead points to a meaningful mix -- couples are finding new ways to blend bits of his and her traditions into even the most contemporary celebrations. Ancient rituals, glittering icons, ethnic food, dance and dress -- they all add a colorful extra dimension to a wedding, and even sow the seeds of joyous new traditions. Take a look at how three Long Island brides and grooms blended the best of their heritages to put a personal stamp on their big day. What better way to celebrate the next link in your family's cultural chain?

CUBAN ACCENTS

Growing up with a Cuban mother and a Puerto Rican father, Rauly Berrios always knew the food at her wedding would reflect her background. So, while planning the menu for her October 2011 fete, Berrios, the 32-year-old owner of a title insurance agency, and her fiancé, Sergio Maldonado, a 32-year-old hedge-fund trader with Mexican-Jewish roots, knew how important the flavors of Cuba would be to their celebration. "It just seemed like a perfect fit," Berrios said.

But the Carle Place couple, who met as first-graders at PS 346 in Brooklyn, wanted to blow out the theme with more than just food: At their engagement party, for instance, guests received shot glasses and mini bottles of Bacardi rum (which originated in Cuba), and at their co-ed bridal shower, the favors were tostoneras (a plantain press), plantains and a recipe for tostones, a traditional Cuban side dish.

Choosing the Garden City Hotel for the main event was easy, Berrios said. Though it's hardly the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, the bride's close relationship with several staffers meant she trusted them to implement her vision. "It was like being at home, and that was what I wanted for my wedding. In Latin families, everyone comes over, and the hotel gave us that feel."

The bride set the fashion bar at the couture level, opting for a Karen Sabag custom gown -- a flamenco silhouette with a sweetheart neck, corseted bodice and dramatic ruffles, which channeled the elegance of Old Havana. And instead of a traditional veil, Berrios wore a Spanish-style mantilla made of five yards of lace and crystal embellishments. Her bridesmaids' flowing orange chiffon dresses added the perfect tropical air, as did Maldonado's dashing light cream suit and the groomsmen's 1920s-style pinstripes.

Though the nuptials weren't religious, they ended with the Jewish tradition of breaking the glass and the roar of "Mazel tov!" Afterward, the twosome shared the spotlight with their menu. Instead of a traditional cocktail hour, the hotel's lounge-like rotunda featured spicy chorizo, mini Cuban sandwiches, coconut shrimp and empanadas, along with such signature drinks as mojitos and Cuba libres -- all with a salsa band serenading.

For the reception, the ballroom pulsed in vibrant orange, yellow and green, with magnificent centerpieces made of palm trees and banana leaves. Dinner featured skirt steak, pollo a la plancha and mango salmon, with family-style sides so their 190 guests could sample black beans, maduros, tostones and yellow rice. "Some people aren't accustomed to that type of food, so they could taste everything. It got everybody talking to everybody," Berrios says. The bride added her own touches to the place settings, including brown napkins rolled to look like cigars and napkin rings that mimicked cigar bands.

After the pair shimmied through their first salsa, their DJ played a mix of hip-hop, reggaeton and Latin music. And at the end of the evening, guests left with dominoes, the traditional Cuban game that Berrios used to play with her grandmother. While they couldn't take their loved ones back to Cuba, it was the next best thing. "We wanted a destination wedding," Rauly says with a laugh, "and we got one."

BOMBAY DREAMS

After Laura Neufeld and Chirag Desai got engaged in January 2011, he floated the idea of saying their I do's on a far-flung beach. She responded with an immediate I don't.

"It was important to me to get married in Northport," says Neufeld, a 30-year-old forensic social worker, who grew up there.

But that didn't mean the Manhattan couple wasn't eager for something exotic. Wanting to recognize both their families' traditions, she and Desai, a 35-year-old laboratory product manager from Elmwood Park, N.J., decided their November 2011 wedding would be a double-feature: a Catholic ceremony at Northport's St. Philip Neri church, followed by a Hindu ceremony and reception at NYIT's de Seversky Mansion in Old Westbury.

To help guests follow along, the program, covered in a colorful Indian design, explained the rituals of both ceremonies, which began with early-evening vows at Neufeld's church, to which she wore a streamlined white strapless by Priscilla of Boston. After a brief photo session along Northport's Main Street, Neufeldslipped into a stunning red and turquoise sari that her mother-in-law, who was born in Mumbai, bought during a visit to India. "She knows me pretty well and knows what I like, so it was beautiful," Neufeld says.

As a surprise for guests, the bride arrived at the ceremony on a doli (a wedding carriage) carried by her father and three brothers. While some Hindu ceremonies last several hours, Neufeld and Desai abbreviated theirs to about 45 minutes. "I was definitely a little nervous about it that day. I had been to other family weddings with Chirag, which helped me to see what it would be like," Neufeld says. "The priest was entertaining and funny, and explained things to the crowd. I had to say things in Sanskrit and he said, 'Oh, not so bad!' "

The service also was a family affair, with both the bride and groom's parents joining them under the mandap (the wedding stage or canopy). "There's a tradition for the bride where seven women who are married come up and whisper advice in your ear -- that was cool," says Neufeld, who received pearls of wisdom from her friends, sister-in-law and mother. There also was a ritual where the bride and groom walk around a fire and whoever sits down first is deemed the ruler of the marriage -- in this case, the bride. "My friends and family loved the Hindu ceremony."

Following custom, Desai gave Neufeld an onyx necklace, which traditionally takes the place of a wedding ring. And while she wore her sari for cocktails, Neufeld changed back to white for the reception. Likewise, Desai wore a traditional sherwani, a long coat-like garment, for the service and his tux for dinner.

Instead of a formal sit-down supper, the 220 guests -- dressed in a mix of cocktail dresses and saris -- floated around the mansion, sampling pastas, steak and stir-fry as well as Indian fare from Akbar Restaurant in Garden City. And to keep the party revved, their DJ played a mix of pop and Bollywood hits, plus some Irish music for the bride's family. "My parents' friends are all crazy dancers, and they were outdone by Chirag's family," Neufeld says. "You worry about the two cultures coming together, but everyone likes to party and dance."

PERSIAN DELICACIES

By day, Ghazal Hajizadeh is a public relations account executive. But the 29-year-old Roslyn native, who now lives in Great Neck, is also a coordinator of the sofreh aghd, or traditional Iranian wedding spread, for local Persian weddings. So when it came time for her own marriage in April to Michael Hootan Tavakolian, 31, a manager of environmental engineering for a Plainview construction management company, she put her expertise to use. "Because my husband and I are both Persian, I definitely wanted to incorporate it, but in a more westernized ceremony."

The ceremony, at Giando on the Water in Brooklyn, took place in what Hajizadeh calls a "garden of antiquity." Although the outdoor patio has spectacular views of the city skyline, she made things lusher, adding tree branches; colorful purple, green and pink flowers; a moss aisle runner and even butterflies.

But everywhere, they celebrated tradition -- Hajizadeh's parents moved to the United States before the Iranian Revolution, while Mike and his family fled after the conflict. "Persian weddings are very symbolic," says Hajizadeh, who incorporated customs like a candelabra and mirror (which represent a bright future) to enhance a vintage look. "The candelabras were antique, and I used some of my mom's antique china for the fruit dish. I did a lot of personal things from our families."

For the secular ceremony -- the sofreh aghd stems from the ancient Zoroastrian religion but has changed significantly since its inception -- the two sat on chairs facing their 170 guests as the officiant (called the aghed in Farsi) led them through the cultural rites. For example, the bride and groom fed each other honey to represent sweetness, while the walnuts, almonds, eggs and hazelnuts on the spread represented fertility. As butterflies fluttered throughout the garden (and delicately perched on wedding guests), Persian musicians played traditional instruments such as a daf (a large frame drum) and zarb (a goblet drum). For a Western touch, the pair included a bridal party -- not traditionally part of Persian weddings -- dressed in very New York-style BCBG dresses and tuxedos by Vera Wang for Men's Wearhouse. The bride opted for a mermaid-style Vera Wang.

Cocktails included traditional dishes such as chicken kebabs, barg kebab (steak) and kebab koobideh (minced meat), plus a "sweet and sour" candy bar that Hajizadeh designed. Then guests moved into the ballroom with picture windows facing the glittering city. "For the reception, I wanted to make it a little more elegant and not so garden-themed," Hajizadeh says. Still, she added details like linens adorned with delicate rosettes, a bird cage to hold gifts and cards, and table numbers set in antique-looking picture frames.

But celebrants may have been too busy dancing to fully appreciate the decor. While a DJ mixed both Persian and Top-40 tunes, one relative added a fun twist, playing a traditional drum as the DJ worked the crowd. "Most Persian weddings are all dancing, and it went on the whole night." Hajizadeh says.

For the bride, the ceremony was the most challenging part of the day -- and the most meaningful. Putting together the sofreh aghd for her own wedding was difficult amid myriad other things a bride has to do, but honoring the richness of her culture, Hajizadeh says, was worth the effort. "In the end, I wouldn't change a thing. It came out beautifully."

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