I was sipping Champagne and presiding over witness signatures on a marriage license under the shade of a redwood tree as the sun started dropping over the ocean below the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The newlyweds (my friends) and their families exchanged embraces and congratulations following the heartfelt wedding ceremony I had just officiated. The only catch: It was during the time I would’ve normally been standing in synagogue, feeling a little woozy during Neilah as the effects of fasting came on strong.
When my friends asked me, months earlier, if I would get ordained and officiate their wedding — for which I was instructed to leave religion and spirituality out entirely — I deliberated for a few days. I’m not an observant Jew; I don’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat, and I celebrate holidays only selectively. But Yom Kippur is a day I have taken off of work, fasted and gone to synagogue every year of my life. To go to a wedding instead seemed like it would be perhaps too dramatic a leap toward secularism on too important a day.
Let me be clear. I am well aware of the fact that, for Americans and especially for people from New York, having a famous whatever with Jewish connections is not such a big deal, considering the impact of Jewish population in the cultural, political and intellectual life of the country. In Italy we are not completely unfamiliar with this situation, despite the enormous difference in numbers (in Italy there are only 25,000 Jews).
However, as a member of the staff of Pagine Ebraiche, the national Italian Jewish magazine published by the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, I got pretty elated when I found out that Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of the New York Times, was about to be one of the guests of honor of Crescere tra le righe. It’s a prestigious conference focused on the relationship between journalism, publishing and new generations, held every year on the suggestive Tuscany hills.
Being a young female journalist, I guess that excitement was inevitable. But being a Jewish journalist, I was determined to find out more about what has represented an intriguing issue to me since the announcement of her appointment in 2011: Jill Abramson’s Jewishness.
Last week, I wrote a piece for TODAY.com about a man in Chicago named Jason Methner, whose incredibly elaborate proposal to his now-fiancee involved an original kids’ book and some collusion from the Chicago Public Library. While most of the comments on the article were positive, quite a few people were unhappy. However, it wasn’t the proposal itself they were angry about — it was the barrage of attention paid to the story, particularly on social media (the Chicago Library had requested permission to post photos of the proposal on its Facebook page, which helped the story go viral).
“It’s bad enough that this guy has to ruin marriage proposals for everyone else,” one guy fumed to me in a personal email, “but they’re just doing it for attention and you’re giving it to them.”
Now that Pinterest and Facebook have turned wedding planning into a competitive public sport, it seems only logical that marriage proposals would follow. It’s increasingly common for couples to have the moment itself photographed, leaving them with dozens of pictures of the man down on one knee and even more close-up shots of the ring.
This post is the ninth in “Feminist, Orthodox and Engaged,” a series by Simi Lampert on love, sex and betrothal in the life of a Modern Orthodox woman.
The number one lesson I’ve learned from planning my wedding is: This is not my wedding. Sure, I get to wear the ivory gown and the invitations have my name on it, but the wedding is only a fraction about me and what I want. I’m not even sure how the Bridezilla creature was invented; whatever bride actually forced the wedding party to bend to her own personal will must surely only exist in the fantasies of frustrated brides everywhere.
It’s common to read (and receive, from well-intentioned or simply thoughtless friends) articles on why and how weddings should be limited in both expense and size. Every few months, it seems, newspapers regurgitate the topic with a selection of new words and ingenious ideas for cutting costs. But I don’t see the average cost of weddings — not to mention Jewish weddings, outsized only by Indian fares — getting glower, in spite of the plethora of brilliant suggestions published by every news-source ever. As a bride, I get it.
I spent half of my wedding-planning months scheming how my fiancé and I could elope. Not only would it be easier, we argued, but it would be so much cheaper. A quick trip to Atlantic City, a cute hotel on a beach, no fuss. When we presented the idea to our parents, half (but only half) jokingly, they played along. Sure, they said, why not? You’ll save us money and headaches! Inevitably one of the siblings would jump in: “But you’ll bring us along, too, of course.” They couldn’t imagine not being present at our wedding. And if they had to come, then our closest friends had to come, and if we were inviting our friends, then relatives would be hurt … and so it was just a case of giving a mouse a cookie — they’ll want milk and, eventually, a wedding invitation.
Photos and video from the wedding of Avraham Yehoshua Heschel Halberstam, a son of the rebbe of the Bobov Hasidic dynasty, to Chana Sara Baila Friedman posted on this Chabad website, offer a fascinating peek into a world that is all but invisible to those who are not part of it.
Still, even the most insular of ultra-Orthodox communities are no longer totally cut off from the outside world, a point illuminated by the fact that the Hasidic wedding was live Tweeted.
And this being a Bobov affair, there are competing Twitter feeds as well. The community has been divided since the death of its previous rebbe, in 2005, over who is the rightful heir: the father of the groom, Rabbi Ben Zion Aryeh Leibish Halberstam, who is headquartered at the enormous Bobov synagogue on 48th Street in Boro Park, and the younger brother of the previous rebbe, or his sister’s husband, Rabbi Mordechai Dovid Unger, whose community is headquartered at a somewhat smaller shul three blocks away.
As I watched the royal wedding unfold on television today, I was flooded with memories of the day I covered the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana nearly 30 years ago. I thought, as I so often have, of the one tender, unscripted moment I saw amid all the pomp and the pageantry of that riveting day in July 1981.
I was a reporter for the Associated Press in Pittsburgh and had a burning desire to cover the royal nuptials. I called the AP’s foreign editor and told him that I would be in London on vacation in late July, and offered to help with the reporting. (I remember ambition!) He said yes, and so I got on the phone again and booked a flight to London.
I was given what I thought was a plumb assignment, to do a feature story on Americans who had travelled to the wedding. But my first job was to stand on the Queen Victoria Memorial and watch the carriages leave Buckingham Palace, directly across the street. Should anything untoward happen, I was to find a phone and call the bureau.
This Purim, for the first time in more than three decades, I wore my wedding dress. It was a strange experience.
The idea was born out of desperation. My husband and I only began thinking of costumes for the Megillah reading and Purim spiel we attend every year just hours before it was due to begin, and because it was Shabbat, we had no chance to purchase anything. My usual backup, a beautiful kimono he bought me on a business trip to Japan, seemed inappropriate this year. While I want to express solidarity with the grief-stricken country, this didn’t seem the way to do it.
My second backup, a long, embroidered Arab dress and white hijab from Jordan, also was problematic. An expression of solidarity with Middle East women protesting for freedom? A worthy feeling, but this year the outfit could also be interpreted as something far less sympathetic. So, that was out, too.
As a last resort, my husband went to the basement to retrieve my wedding gown, last worn nearly 31 years ago (our anniversary is in a couple of days).
They stand for everything I find abhorrent: Inherited political and religious power. Ostentatious wealth. Idleness. Scandalous behavior. Nonetheless, I can’t resist the English royals at wedding time.
At least I come by this fascination honestly: My late mother was born and raised in Yorkshire, where her family lived for generations — going as far back as Jews were allowed to reside in England. (Jews had been banished for many centuries, another black mark on the monarchy.) I lived in London as a foreign correspondent. I crave really strong English tea. My dogs are named for Jane Austen characters.
So when the news broke that Prince William had finally asked his long-time girlfriend Kate Middleton for her hand in marriage, I had the most wonderful flashbacks. There was the time in 1981 when my sister and I woke up in the middle of the night to turn on the TV and watch Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer proceed through the happy streets of London on their way to St. Paul’s Cathedral and a marriage that, we learned later, was doomed from the start. Whatever. It was a great and lavish spectacle.
In college, I abandoned a sort of mystical, wishy-washy Reform Jewish with a touch of nature-worshiping belief system to embrace happy, unabashed non-believer status. Nonetheless, I retained a deep love for Jewish tradition and spirituality and a fierce commitment to Jewish self-identification and ritual.
So when my avowedly atheist but equally culturally-proud Jewish fiancé and I started talking wedding plans, it should have been easy to come up with a compromise. And yet, I found myself agonizingly loathe to part with the idea of having a rabbi officiate. My latent hunger for an authoritative religious figure reared its head, even though I knew I wouldn’t believe much of what came out of his or her mouth.
You see, since I was raised in the Reform tradition and attended a progressive Jewish day school, I had grown pretty comfortable with a kind of selective filtering. A large percentage of the crowd at my synagogue probably felt quite dubious about what they were singing, saying, chanting or hearing at any given time. In fact most of the sermons I heard over the years openly addressed everyone’s profound discomfort with elements of the text we were reading. And it was all good: We celebrated; we ate. So for a major life cycle event, I thought, why not just keep it in the faith?
At T minus two months, our wedding is only beginning to seem real. Deciding which traditions to incorporate into the celebration has been haphazard on my end: Inspirations include chick flicks (“Bride Wars,”) popular wedding Web sites (so many searchable photos!) and of course, Larissa, our all-knowing wedding coordinator. But it’s taken me longer to find a tradition inspired by my own family. Soviet Jews had nuptials of the more austere sort — with only hints of Judaism. Couples would go sign the documents at their local government wedding “palace,” and then return for a party. Not exactly romantic.
So given that both my fiancé and I are from the Former Soviet Union, it’s been difficult to find a Judaism-infused family tradition to incorporate into our nuptials.
I spent my New Years Eve at friends’ nuptials in Richmond, Va. After the glass was crushed, and guests were bussed from synagogue to reception hall, the band played the song that sets Jewish wedding receptions apart from others. My husband and I, and the two other Jewish couples at the table leapt up like they were offering free Flip cams at the front of the room. I love to hora because it brings wedding guest-factions together like nothing else. I’ve clutched plenty of strangers’ sweaty palms in the name of hava nagila, and have later found myself with new friends.
I feared our people’s celebratory dance as a kid, since it felt dominated by adults in sharp heels (I once nearly lost a toe). Now, I’m likely the heeled crazy-woman that kids are running from. This New Years Eve hora was composed of mostly adults, as the first circle confidently formed. I hadn’t gotten there in time to join it, and our outer circle was a slower to manifest itself, but it got moving. Guests sang, locked elbows, hooted and crooned southern-inflected Hebrew. The jazz trumpeter looked exhausted by the end of the first round of Uru achim b’lev sameach, but he was a sport so he kept blowing.
Chairs appeared, primed for the big lift.
Growing up I didn’t much think about my wedding. This is not to say I didn’t dream about the man I would one day marry; I did that plenty. But the details — a white tulle dress, a tiered fondant cake — were never part of that revelry. I have stayed true to the girl I once was, and have managed to plan a low-key wedding that bucks most of the costly and extravagant traditions. But there is one thing I can’t resist from the American storybook wedding, and as a young Jewish woman, it is the probably the worst of the lot: I want Wager’s “Bridal Chorus.”
Much of my ambition with wedding planning has been to strip off the excess that has been layered on the American wedding over the last 20 years, and pare it down to the traditions I find pretty and simple. For me Wagner’s song, which comes from the opera “Lohengrin,”), fits in this category. The dah-dah-dah-daaaah, whether intuitive or learned, just feels like a wedding procession, allowing a bride to eschew the often too-precious individualism of modern weddings. Using it would be a no-brainer if it weren’t for the composers well documented, not to mention handwritten, antisemitism.
While it would be enough for most that Hitler both adored and was inspired by him, Wagner himself, in 1850, made his own views on Jews public in the essay he penned entitled “Das Judenthum in der Musik,” or “Jewishness in Music.” In this polemic, he claims that Jews are incapable of making good music, and are an overall bad influence on German society. Counter-critics have replied, “some of his best friends were Jewish.” While that was likely true, as was the fact that his motivations were likely bound up in some nascent form of national ideology that makes them even just the tiniest bit more sensible within context, there is really not much wiggle room here.
Is it just me, or are wedding registries tacky? I find it strange to be telling people what you want for gifts – especially when both the blushing bride and handsome groom are scions of two of America’s highest-profile, wealthy real estate families.
Fortunately for the soon-to-be-married couple, most of the items on their registry at Tiffany’s have already been snapped up. There’s still time to get them that Elsa Peretti sterling silver serving fork for just $325, though.
Am I being especially snarky about this? Perhaps.
I nearly had a panic attack at my bridal shower last week, and I blame Williams-Sonoma.
In advance of my June wedding, my mother, aunt and cousin graciously hosted a festive brunch in my honor. There, an all-female crowd offered up thoughtful advice on enduring marriages, and toasted with Champagne my forthcoming nuptials.
Then came the gifts — and the anxiety.
Box after box contained cookware or kitchen appliances; many gifts were accompanied by decorative index cards containing shower guests’ favorite recipes. The women explained how helpful I’d find the Dutch oven or the casserole dish or the food processer the next time I made brisket or kugel or charoset. As if there had been a first time.
I don’t know what I had expected: My bridal registry is at Williams-Sonoma, not Frederick’s of Hollywood; I had requested all of this kitchen paraphernalia, for which I am sincerely grateful. But it wasn’t until I was sitting in my aunt’s living room, face-to-face with all of the shiny pots and pans, that reality set in. I was expected — or rather, I expected myself, thus the registry — to embrace cooking, alongside matrimony.
These days, the meals I prepare are more likely to involve a microwave-safe dish and a “flavor packet” than a roasting rack and fresh herbs. And my fiance has never pressured me to embrace my inner Top Chef.
You see, cooking and baking have never felt like anything other than a chore for me. And because I had myriad good excuses — ”It’s no fun to cook for one” and “I don’t have a paring knife” — it was a chore I could more or less avoid. But now, it seems, I’m out of excuses (although my Manhattan-size kitchen does lack for counter space).
Over the years, two distinct, if parochial, caricatures of Jewish wives have prevailed: There’s the revered Jewish woman who makes kreplach enough for an army — forcing second helpings on everyone at her table — and the reviled Jewish “princess” who makes … reservations. Intellectually, I have always rejected these categories into which most Jewish women I know do not fit. But I guess, in the back of my mind, I had always thought that I would emerge from the chupah, transformed into some variation of the brisket-kugel-kreplach-making Jewish wife.
That seems unlikely.