Because there are so many different levels of religious observance, customs, cultures and communities among Jews in Israel, it is always fascinating and fun to go to weddings where things are not quite what you are used to. Expect the unexpected!
Last night we were invited to the wedding of very dear friends of ours. We couldn’t be more different in terms of our backgrounds, yet we’ve remained close for the past 17 years despite living (until recently) on different sides of the world.
We met through our eldest son, seventeen years ago in Baltimore. At that time my son was volunteering through Bikur Cholim, an organization that visits the sick and helps families navigate through medical difficulties. My son met a man and his wife who had flown in from Israel so that the man could receive a kidney transplant. The operation was a success but for medical reasons they weren’t yet able to fly home. They had left 4 small children in Israel under the care of relatives. Pesach was coming in a few days and the prospect of spending Passover without their children was unbearable enough, but it was even more difficult knowing they’d be in a hotel near the hospital, alone. They barely spoke English.
My son called me to ask if we could invite them to stay with us for Pesach, so that they could participate in a Seder and have someone to talk to, since we speak Hebrew. Of course we agreed — the more the merrier, I said.
The father, who was in his 40s, was in a weakened state, but managing fine. He was originally from an island off Tunisia called Djerba, but his family made aliyah to Israel many years ago when he was four years old. His lovely wife is a teacher. Although she was born in Israel, her family originally made aliyah from India; they were part of the Cochin Jewish community. Culturally we couldn’t have been more different, but we hit it off immediately. In between my Pesach cooking and cleaning, I took them on a few drives to show them around Baltimore and we even fit in a shopping trip so they could buy presents for their children. It was the first time in their lives they had been to an Ashkenazi seder, and it was fun to exchange information about how differently we each celebrated Pesach.
We visited Israel a few times in the coming years, and each time we visited our new friends. We kept in touch in the interim through phone calls and emails. Now, seventeen years later, we were invited to their son’s wedding. Not only did the father of the groom survive his kidney transplant — thank G-d, he is thriving. What a miracle that he was able to walk his son down the aisle to his chuppa. Of course we were going!
Now here is where different customs get interesting. In Israel, expenses are very much on everyone’s minds. Most people are of modest means, yet weddings are always sit-down dinners. Families are large, with many extended relatives. Classmates are invited. People tend to have a lot of friends. It’s not an exaggeration to say that 400 – 500 people are the average number of attendees at an Israeli wedding. The wedding business is very lucrative since there are always so many weddings. Since there is lots of competition, the wedding halls go all out in their decor. The wedding hall we were in last night was just outside of Kfar Saba, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Besides the impressive building where the dinner and dancing took place, the outside grounds were landscaped beautifully. There was a giant swimming pool that was the size of a small lake, and an “island” in the middle is where the chuppa was set up. It was dazzling, to say the least.
So how can the average Israel afford to marry off his children?
At secular Israeli weddings, as well as religious Sephardi weddings, it is the guests who pay for the wedding.
This is how it works:
When the couple gets engaged, the parents pay a small down payment to reserve a wedding hall, which comes with a caterer. The day of the wedding, the guests do not bring wedding gifts. The only gift that is given is money. We are not talking a small sum. The customary amount is around $100 – – per guest. But giving even more than that is not unusual.
That’s a lot of cash, and there have been cases where the money was stolen at the venue. So now wedding halls provide a safe at the entrance. The wedding hall we went to last night had a safe, and next to the safe was a table with pens, paper and envelopes, so you could put money and a greeting into the envelope before putting it in the safe. But this is not all. To make it even easier for guests, wedding halls have now installed dedicated ATMs. The screen has a photo of the bride and groom, and you simply fill in your name, amount, and a message. After you swipe your credit card, you get a receipt texted to your smart phone, along with a pre-written thank you text signed by the bride and groom.
When the guests leave, and the bride and groom go off into the sunset, the wedding is still not over for the parents. Now they must settle the bill with the caterer. The safe is opened. The amount collected is tallied, as are the amounts deposited into the dedicated ATM machine. The parents pay the caterer’s bill with the gift money on the spot. Any money left after the caterer is paid then goes to the bride and groom.
Perhaps it’s not quite romantic, but this system does save families (but not their guests!) a lot of financial grief. The guests are not required to pay, but overwhelmingly they want to. The parents don’t have to go into hock to marry off their children (unless they are part of the Israeli Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox community, in which case the custom is for parents to buy their kids their first house). The newlyweds are not left with a huge amount of money after paying the caterer, but it’s usually enough to justify a shopping trip to IKEA to set up their rental apartment.
The wedding was extremely lively, with dinner, dancing and festivities that lasted well into the night. Even though we didn’t know another soul, we had a great time and met lots of really nice people. A wedding in Israel lasts many hours with lots of food, music, dancing and singing; it’s pure happiness combined with spirituality. I’ve never seen anyone get drunk at an Israeli wedding. People are lively – – there is always a guest who juggles fire at some point, or balances a chair on his nose – – but generally guests behave themselves. They are there to truly bring joy to the bride and groom, and they certainly do succeed. Certainly with the guests’ gifts of money, they succeed in bringing joy to the (much relieved) parents as well!