A few months ago, my family and I went to a wedding, an unusual wedding for us, the modern Orthodox union of Jim’s brother’s son and his bride.
Once the invitation arrived, with English words on one side and Hebrew on the reverse, I knew that the couple’s special day would be a novel experience for us.
My first task was to figure out what to wear. I know modesty is of utmost importance for an observant Jewish woman, and I wanted to respect that as a guest at an Orthodox ceremony. Jim and his brother Arthur are both Jewish, as is Arthur’s wife, Tina. But in recent years, their son David has taken his Judaism to a new level. My first clue that he occupies space in a world much different from mine was at his grandfather’s funeral a few years ago, when he declined to accept a hug from me. The rules governing contact between men and women are strict and extend even to a much older married aunt who has known David all his life.
Thus, modesty was my chief concern for the Labor Day weekend event. Normally, I would likely choose a dress with short sleeves or no sleeves, something above the knee, something that might be described as “body-con” in a fashion magazine. All those possibilities were out of the question for this wedding. Tina’s suggestion was to cover my arms at least past my elbows, to wear a skirt that reached at least to mid-calf, and to completely avoid even the merest hint of décolletage. I was free to choose any color or pattern, outside of white, of course.
My closet holds many options for my typical dress-up parties, but I was stumped about what to wear for this occasion. I preferred not to shop for something new, so I dug a bit deeper in the far recesses of the closet. A lovely wine-colored silk pants outfit with a gold patterned silk jacket might look pretty and would be very modest. When I consulted Tina, she was less certain about pants but remembered that the bride’s grandmother was known to wear pants, so perhaps my idea was fine. Assuming the family would not be disgraced if I wore what the grandmother had once worn and knowing that a non-Jewish aunt would not be very high on anyone’s radar in any case, I decided to wear the pretty pants ensemble.
Arthur had requested our presence an hour earlier than we might have arrived. He wanted us to participate in the photography sessions, which gave us a sneak peek at the place where the ceremony would take place and the magnificent chuppah, the ceremonial arch above the bride and groom. This chuppah was dazzling with its display of ivory roses, containing thousands of blooms according to Arthur, or maybe he said it cost thousands of dollars. Some people interpret the chuppah as a representation of the roof of the home where the newlyweds will start a family. I learned that the term chuppah not only refers to the canopy, but it also describes the marriage ceremony itself. Confusing!
The chairs were set out in rows with a broad center aisle, all the better to separate the men’s side from the women’s. With all the separating of the sexes, I occasionally forgot that we were present to celebrate the union of a woman and a man. There was a program on each chair, and that’s how I learned that the groom, Arthur’s son David, has taken a new name: Dovid. Either that, or I should have been hired for my keen proofreading eye, I joked with Jim.
Moments later, I saw Dovid stride into the room for pictures with his parents and brother, beaming a mile-wide smile. The family pix will be so memorable with his happy, beaming face. Here was a groom who couldn’t wait for the big moment.
The dress code was not the only unusual element of this enormous wedding, with a guest list approaching 400. Everybody knows that Jewish weddings do not start on time. Orthodox weddings solve this problem by having the cocktail hour before the ceremony. What a wonderful idea! Hors d’oeuvres tend to be everyone’s favorite, and the open bars were set among scores of appetizing food choices with multiple carving boards, a pasta station, cheese and crudité spreads, sushi (kosher, of course), and numerous passed nibbles and goodies.
Just like the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” taught me, every little moment in Jewish life is based on tradition, and there were so many new ones for me to observe at this wedding. During the cocktail hour, the bride was seated like a queen on a throne, or her bedecken chair, surrounded by her mother and grandmother, as well as her mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law to be, Tina and Beverly.
The custom is for the bride to give blessings to all the women present. A line had formed of those who wished to wait for their turn to see lovely Dina offer her beautiful sparkling smile and her hopes for their good health, a loving life, and happiness. This tradition seemed sweet and joyous to me, drawing all the women together in a public celebration.
Suddenly, a rowdy squadron of men, all dressed in traditional black suits, white shirts, tzitzit, and black hats, stormed the cocktail hour on the bride’s side. They were huddled together as a single unit and swarmed en masse toward the bride and her relatives. I hadn’t known that all the men had been partying heartily on the other side of the divided room, taking part in what Tina told me was the “tisch,” and engaging in the “bridal schtick.” Eating and drinking, in reasonable moderation, is encouraged at an Orthodox wedding, and this boisterous group was proof.
As a courting couple, Dina had once remarked to Dovid, “You’re so cute!” and the professional photos I saw captured the merriment. Many of the men were wearing “You’re so cute!” T-shirts over their dress shirts, all in good fun, to make Dovid even happier on his wedding day.
The grinning groom emerged from the pack of men and headed straight for his bride. This seemed to contradict the few rules I thought I understood. It was still before the wedding ceremony, and they were not beneath the chuppah. Dovid gave Dina a chaste kiss, then lowered her veil over her face. Tina later confirmed my guess that one interpretation of this bedecken ceremony hearkens back to the biblical story of sisters Rachel and Leah. Their father tricked Jacob into marrying Leah rather than his beloved Rachel, and apparently Dovid was just making certain that the bride he would be marrying in just a few minutes was his beloved Dina.
Soon after, with most of us at least a little buzzed, the crowd was nudged away from the bar and into the room with the chuppah for the main event. I found a seat with the women on the left side, while Jim, Joseph, and John sat on the right with the rest of the men. Unwittingly, I had chosen well, because the woman next to me was a longtime friend of Dina’s family and a member of the same synagogue. She was like a private tutor to guide me through the unfamiliar ceremony. So much was different from every wedding that I’ve ever attended — and in Hebrew to boot — that I wouldn’t have even known that marital vows were being exchanged.
Dovid had changed into a traditional kittel, looking to me like a medical lab coat, a generously cut pocketless robe whose white color symbolizes purity. My tutor informed me when the seven brachot or blessings were taking place, but it was difficult to hear, and of course, impossible for me to understand as they were all recited in Hebrew. I saw that the bride walked under the chuppah with both mothers seven times. The blessings were for enduring love, peace, forgiveness, protection, and a long fruitful life — qualities a bride and groom from any culture would desire. I could see Dovid davening and shuckling, or swaying in prayer at this time, perhaps affirming the brachot he was hearing for health and happiness in his new married life.
There were more recognizable traditions in Dovid and Dina’s wedding, such as the smashing of the glass beneath the heel of the groom. Again, there’s more than one interpretation of this act, but I like the one that suggests that even during such a happy event as a wedding, it’s important to remember the pain and suffering of the Jewish people. Unfortunately, we’re reminded of this too often with the intolerable antisemitism in our world today.
Another tradition that I’m familiar with is the signing of the ketubah or marriage contract. Unfortunately, I have no idea when this happened or whether it was read aloud to us during the ceremony. An artist friend of mine designs ketubot, and I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to see Dina and Dovid’s special document.
With the end of the ceremony came the recessional and the return of the guests to the ballroom for the reception. I had read about how the bride and groom remove themselves to a private yichud room for a short period. What a wonderful custom! The very first moments of married life should be privately shared in joyful, loving togetherness, perhaps with a bite to eat or a shared toast or maybe in prayer or simple quietude. Or, for all I know, maybe they cranked up the music and boogied down. I just like that this short time is reserved for the newlyweds to enjoy privately.
The frenetic dancing began immediately, with the fabulous 10-piece band playing Jewish music. The men were still separated from the women; now was not the time for the newlyweds or their guests to enjoy romantic cuddles on the dance floor. Although non-observant guests were seated at mixed tables with their spouses, the dancing was segregated. The band whipped the crowd into a frenzy with deafeningly loud up-tempo music as the women circled Dina, taking turns dancing with her in the center.
When I pushed my way to the center for my turn and the sheer fun of the moment, I was fairly certain that Dina had no idea who was spinning her but was basking in the love and attention of all present. More schtick followed when a giant sheet was placed over Dina, and she emerged from a hole in the center. Various women held up the edges, as if she were wearing an enormous bridal petticoat. The smile never left Dina’s face and the music never stopped until the wedding feast was served, and we all took our seats.
At some point I excused myself from the table, seeking a few moments of respite in the ladies’ room. As I stood before the full-length mirror reapplying my lipstick, a young woman, quite obviously an observant Orthodox woman, admired my outfit. “You look so classy and elegant,” she said approvingly. I was both flattered to be complimented and reassured that my sartorial choice was deemed appropriate. My family and I were thrilled to be included in the celebration, and we wish for the newlyweds’ love to be forever blessed.
Mazel tov, Dina and Dovid!
Susan FitzGibbon of West Orange is a teacher. Her summers are filled with travel, where she enjoys experiencing different cultures. She’s a longtime reader of the New Jersey Jewish News.