A Big Fat Israeli Wedding
JNS.org – If you think your Jewish reunions are big, try a gathering with two Jewish families put together, plus friends from nearly every continent. And, with the amount of food served — think life-cycle Jewish event run by Yiddishe Mommes — everyone is bound to come out fat.
My good friend from ulpan (Hebrew language immersion school) made aliyah to Israel to begin his life with his fiancé, whom he met in his home country of Australia when she was a shlicha (Israeli emissary). He was engaged during the five months of ulpan when I got to know him; the bride-to-be came to ulpan many times for Shabbat and to hang out, quickly becoming friends with all of the ulpaners. During that time, in class with the groom-to-be, I got an insider’s view of the wedding planning. Our class heard when the venue was chosen, the band was hired, and the details were filled in.
When the wedding approached, our invitation was hand-delivered by the couple. I kept the invitation on my desk, along with the invitation to the wedding of one of my best friends, scheduled for this coming summer. Of course, the invitation for the Israeli wedding came a couple of weeks before the event and the American wedding invitation came over nine months in advance.
This wedding was uniquely special as it was the first Jewish wedding I have been to in quite some time, and it was just outside of Jerusalem! For Jews, a wedding is one of the most important and sacred life cycle events, along with the birth and brit milah/baby naming, bar/bat mitzvah, and…well…death.
My friends and I arranged for a van to take us from Jerusalem and back. We all gathered at the meeting spot, had a little reunion (many of us haven’t seen each other since ulpan ended, and some had just gotten back from traveling through Europe). We chipped in for a wedding check, signed the card, and got on our merry way. As we entered the venue, we were greeted by name tags, which spelled our names hilariously wrong. Even with easy names like “Chris,” you can’t expect much out of Hebrew-speakers trying to spell names in English.
A great kosher smorgasbord awaited, with meats, lox, sushi, dairy-free pizza, soup, and the much-anticipated open bar. At traditional Jewish weddings, the bride (kallah) and groom (chatan) fast from sundown until the marriage ceremony is over—symbolizing a personal Yom Kippur in which past transgressions are forgiven and the bride and groom emerge as a united soul. After noshing and schmoozing for a while, the bride came out and sat on a throne-like structure where the guests greeted her. The groom stood nearby and greeted guests separately.
Then, the groom and the couple’s families gathered around the bride and placed the wedding veil over her face, symbolizing the groom’s duty to clothe and protect his wife, as well as Rebecca covering her face before marrying Isaac. This part of the ceremony was amazing — the couple beamed at each other and the guests could see their love so incredibly clearly. They both teared up, and so did the guests.
Everyone made their way toward the chuppah, the open canopy that symbolizes the home they will build together. The bride followed the groom towards the chuppah, and the rabbi recited some prayers over wine. The groom gave the bride the ring and the witnesses signed the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract. Family members then came to bless the couple over a second glass of wine. The groom broke a glass to symbolize the destruction of the Jewish Temple and everyone cheered.
The couple disappeared to the yichud room to break their fast and signify their new status as a married couple. The guests sat down to eat (ok, feast) with appetizers, a first course of chicken or fish, a main course, and dessert. In between courses, a mechitzah (barrier between men and women) came out on the dance floor and everyone danced. As in most weddings, the mechitzah usually comes down, and everyone dances together after a few drinks.
Popular take-home goodies for guests at Israeli weddings are “benchers” (pamphlets imprinted with the Hebrew grace after the meal) as well as magnets with photos on them that are taken at the wedding. Many Israelis’ refrigerators are full of these magnets, and there is a common feeling in Israel of “magnets or it didn’t happen.” So of course, this wedding had magnets and my group of new Israelis was all over the photographer, trying to get our fair share to stick on our fridges.
The grace after the meal was read in Hebrew, and the guests left after an amazing night full of food, photo magnets, and celebration!
During the week after the wedding, it is customary for friends and family to host a week of celebrations. The couple hosted a pizza party at their apartment and the guests continued to wish the couple the “seven blessings” in Hebrew, which are customary to read during the week after the wedding.
As the week of my first wedding of a peer ends, the engagements are beginning to trickle into my age group like the steady Seattle drizzle. But I know that the next time I have another big wedding to attend, a summer wedding of a friend in the US, I will undoubtedly think of my first time experiencing a big fat Israeli wedding.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied international relations and Jewish studies. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org.