Friday, August 29, 2003

Unholy Matrimony

Some years ago I requested my friends to refrain from marrying before myself so as not to feel pressurised. Recently, they have been ignoring my requests and now my social calendar (I’m glad to say) is filled with weddings. To begin with it was the odd wedding or two, then there were three or four, and now that we’re hitting our thirties it’s become a stampede. It seems that everyone and his wife are jumping on the marriage bandwagon! Some of the nuptials have been in England, a couple took place in Scotland, but the most unusual have been in Israel. The contrast between Israeli and English weddings couldn’t be greater. Israeli ones are so frequent that I sometimes wonder if it isn’t the same couple marrying each other again. Last August I had three weddings in a week, two taking place at the same venue, same guests, same menu, one night after the other. On that occasion, I did wonder if the same bride and groom as the previous night were marrying all over again.

Whilst English weddings are generally dignified orderly affairs, Israeli weddings are loud and exuberant, (how surprising!). One major difference is dress. In England, a wardrobe isn’t complete without a tuxedo for him and a ball gown for her. Contrast this with Israel where the smartest there are usually the waiters. And talking about chuppahs, this is where the contrast is strongest! In England the wedding revolves around it, which is fair enough (after all, isn’t that what it’s all about?) Guests arrive early, hoping for a great view of the proceedings and everyone is in their seat by the time the ceremony begins. One can’t get too close to the action however, as all the front rows are reserved for VIPs. (In Israel any ‘VIPs’ present are too busy eating at the pre-chuppah reception). As most Israeli weddings take place on weekdays after work, it can be quite late. People arrive hungry, with some guests having to leave soon afterwards. Consequently the main reception usually takes place before the ceremony and it continues during the ceremony itself. As there is no announcement that the chuppah has begun, it’s very easy to miss the whole thing. In fact, the chuppah often seems like a side show. Where the chuppah is well attended, the guests invariably bring their plates of food along with them. Sometimes the Rabbi doesn’t speak but where he does, the microphone doesn’t work, and when it does work, he can’t be heard above the busy chomping of jaws, the din of conversation and the slurping of soft drinks (no alcohol to be found here except some brightly coloured liquors which I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole).

Then there is the subject of punctuality (or not as the case may be). Israelis will routinely phone the baal simcha to find out if the wedding will actually be taking place at the time printed on the invitation. The more religious the wedding, the later it begins. I have heard of ceremonies that have started so late, proceedings have had to be held up in order for the ketubah to be amended to the following days date. This is a regular occurrence at Charedi affairs, where the weddings take place so late, one wonders if they go by Boro Park time!

After the chuppah, it’s time for celebration, and this is where the entire balagan becomes worthwhile. The bands are lively and energetic, and don’t stop playing, not even for the serving of the next course, and sometimes not even for the speeches. Not that it makes any difference, as the guests talk right through the speeches anyway. Above all, the bands are very very loud. I’ll never forget the story of a guest at one wedding who had to communicate with other guests at her table by mobile phone because the music was so deafening. (Dad commented on one Simcha where a guest ran out of the hall screaming: “I can’t stand the noise”………and he was stone deaf!). Israelis aren’t into speeches but having heard some ‘best man’ speeches at english weddings, I can understand how they feel. I had a hard time explaining to Israeli friends what “best man” meant. I could only describe it as the closest buddy of the groom whose job it is to embarrass him on his wedding night and entertain the guests with a barrage of ‘in jokes’ that only the ‘best man’, the groom, and two of his best friends might understand.

If invited to an Israeli wedding, what present does one buy the bride and groom - without an English wedding list? The answer will be clear on arriving in the wedding hall, where in a prominent position will be a safe with a hole in the top, (just like a letterbox) and all that’s missing is a sign saying: “Please insert your cheques here, next collection 11pm”. This is how the Israelis pay for their weddings. The Bridegroom at a recent wedding had three categories of guest, the A list, the B list, and the fundraising list.

The sheer number of Israeli wedding guests is an eye opener. Whereas ‘large’ in England means maybe 200 - ‘small’ in Israel can mean somewhere around 400, and 700 guests isn’t an unusual number, especially if held on a kibbutz. Deciding who to ask is very straightforward. Simply invite everyone you’ve ever known including second and third cousins, their children, their girlfriends and even the taxi driver! It may not be intimate, but it’s very lively - and it’s all possible because weddings cost so much less in Israel. (Dad once joked it would be cheaper to fly the guests over to my sister’s wedding than to have the wedding in England). Maybe this is one of the most attractive features of a wedding in Israel. There’s no exclusivity, everyone is invited and those who aren’t turn up anyway. Guests wear what they want, proceedings are informal, and everyone feels uninhibited. Jewish weddings are supposed to be public occasions, where the couple commit themselves before the entire community. In Israel this is quite literally the case!