Israeli Wedding Cultureby Tinamarie Bernard December 31, 2011
Weddings are fun. They are exciting and joyous, remind those who’ve been married a long time that they too were once celebrating new love, and are the hallmark of a momentous lifecycle transition that started with two little lovers sitting in a tree, K.I.S.S.I.N.G. They are also a pain in the tuchas to plan and execute, freak out new brides and grooms and the people footing the bill, and tap into our fears of love, romance and finding our own Mr. or Mrs. Right, someone with whom we might walk down that aisle and profess our never-ending love in front of a gaggle of guests.
All that pageantry and attention to finer details and the formality of American weddings didn’t strike me as unusual or out of the ordinary for years. I’ve been to a fair share of celebrations, including two of my own, the nuptials of dozens of friends and family over the years, and once even a Chinese wedding in which the bride changed dresses at least three times. It wasn’t until I attended my first Jewish wedding — in Israel — that I got my first inkling that more was simply — dare I say it? — ostentatious, and less was simply grand.
The bride was my future sister-in-law, though at the time of her wedding, her brother and I were just dating, and I joined him in Israel on a lark, newly in love with the land and willing to visit it for any reason. My vagabond spirit thrives on traveling and experiencing cultures, not as a tourist, but integrated into the place, a traveler mesmerized by the novelty of seeing the world through someone else’s glasses. Thus, not knowing but one person, I packed my bags and headed overseas for a six-day trip that included one wedding, casual kibbutz style attire, no R.S.V.P.s required.
That last bit is important. As with many aspects of wedding planning in Israel versus in America, invitations in Israel just as soon can be word of mouth, written by hand or printed at home. Seriously. (Since then, I’ve seen enough party invitations to know this wasn’t a fluke. Israelis love their homemade cards.) Forget overstuffed embossed pre-stamped paper ones requiring guests to send their response. If 400 people are invited, 400 or thereabout are expected to come, though no special seating will be reserved for anyone. It’s a first come, first-served, fed and seated affair. This is why my last minute inclusion on the guest list was no big deal and why I found myself, early in the evening, staring in amazement as the event around me unfolded.
In one corner under a canopy of trees, the rabbi and family were preparing for the actual ceremony, though at first I didn’t realize this was what was going on. My attention was diverted by the frolicking good time happening on the dance floor, before any vows had been said. The reception and ceremony were one dynamic blur, with food and beverages flowing freely, guests arriving at their leisure and dressed in jeans (secular) or suits (religious). My angst over what to wear to my beloved’s sister’s wedding suddenly seemed so pedestrian. And besides, there was a family sitting on their own picnic blanket, mom whipping out a breast to feed her youngest child while across the lawn older kids were hooting and hollering with glee to be partying mid-week.
When the official stuff finally got underway — probably late but who was really paying attention — just as many guests chatted away as paid attention, while the bride and groom, along with their dog (yes, puppy had a spot under the chuppah) said their vows. The future wife’s white dress was almost out of place next to her future husband’s dressed-down appearance. All together, the only guy wearing a suit besides the Orthodox men in attendance was my date. The bridesmaids, flower girl and ring bearer were dressed in…oh, wait, there was no wedding party except for the pooch, though plenty of family members and friends jostled one another for a better view of the laughing couple as he stomped on the glass.
Did I not mention this wedding was taking place on a Wednesday? Nothing about the level of excitement or haphazardness suggested that the next day was a working one, and that while this party would go on into the wee hours of the morning, the attendants would wake up as usual to go about their tasks of daily living.
It was as if ordinary worries were filed away for this weeknight, something rare for most American weddings. How many brides had I known to fret over their favorite reception site being fully booked during weekends in June and July? Plenty. How many considered getting married on another day, say your ordinary midsummer Tuesday instead? Few.
Which got me to wondering: what about Israeli weddings, crazy affairs that they can be, could make American weddings become less about the trappings and more about the trip down the aisle? Who do the decorations, wedding conventions and elaborate receptions really benefit? That one night in a kibbutz in the center of Israel showed me that the emphasis on nuptials as a business takes us further away from the celebration of committed loving.
There are also practical reasons that make the unadorned wedding party more appealing. Economically speaking, many families are stressed by costs that can rival that of a third world country’s budget. I’ve heard of too many couples mortgaging their houses to host a big party, friends who complained about the hundreds of dollars they had to spend on pre-wedding parties and gifts, families caught in unpleasant discussions about who’s gonna pay for what.
Certainly, if I were ever to say “I do” again — disclaimer: being fully married to husband No. Last, that’s just a rhetorical statement — I hope I would Israelize the good sense of keeping it simple.