This past weekend I went to Cleveland for my cousin wedding. Rachel married her boyfriend of seven years, , in a 500 person, black-tie, Jewish Orthodox wedding. Rachel and Raffi have been dating since high school, but they decided to become Orthodox Jews (the rest of my family, including Rachel’s parents, are Conservative) while spending a year in Israel before starting college. This was my first Orthodox wedding experience, and I experienced a lot of different traditions and learned a lot about a different kind of Judaism than the type I practice. The wedding was a gorgeous, energetic spectacle, and I want to share some of my photos and some of what I learned with you.
Orthodox brides and grooms do not see each other for at least a week before the wedding. Before the wedding ceremony, the bride (kallah) and groom (chattan) have separate receptions where they greet their guests. The groom’s reception was men only (you will notice a lot of gender separation in my explanations), but the bride’s reception was mixed gender. We had awhile to mingle before Rachel arrived–the reception was essentially an elaborate cocktail party with a live band, an open bar, a sushi station with sushi makers, a carving station, hummus, pasta, crudite, cut fruit, and salads.
After about half an hour, Rachel was led into the reception by her mother (my dad’s sister) and Raffi’s mother. She was followed by her sister (my cousin Sarah) and the grandmothers of the bride and groom.
Rachel greeted her guests for about forty-five minutes. My dad popped into the men’s reception and basically said it was a bunch of Orthodox men, sitting around eating and drinking. Makes sense. Oh, by the way, the bride and groom do not eat or drink at these receptions, because it is customary for them to fast all day.
After about forty-five minutes a huge commotion erupted by the entrance to the men’s reception. The Bedekken (veiling) ceremony had begun. Raffi was led into the women’s reception by his friends, who were singing, dancing, clapping, and making a big ruckus. The room parted and Raffi processed to where Rachel was sitting. Rachel’s friends were now singing as well, and the noise and energy in the room was insane. Raffi approached Rachel (remember, they haven’t seen each other in a week) and veiled her. This is a combination of a reference of the biblical story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel and also another reminder of the modesty and the purity of the bride. I’d never seen a Bedekken, and all the singing and dancing and spirit made it incredibly beautiful and moving.
After veiling Rachel, Raffi was led out for the Chuppah ceremony, the official wedding ceremony. Rachel started preparing herself as well.
Rachel headed off to the Chuppah ceremony and the guests all followed. The Chuppah means “canopy,” and it refers to the canopy under which the wedding ceremony takes place. The wedding ceremony was gender separate, women on one side of the aisle and men on the other side.
Unfortunately, I had a very negative Orthodox experience right before the ceremony. I decided to use the ladies’ room right before the ceremony, and I was in a rush as to not miss anything. I rounded a corner and almost ran into a black hat wearing, Hasidic man. I said “excuse me,” as one does to be polite, and he shushed me. He went “shhh.” Because I was a woman. And I had spoken to him. I was pretty furious, as you can imagine. Much of Orthodox Judaism has a bad reputation for being inflexible, outdated, and unequal regarding women’s rights and you know what? People like the man I ran into in the hallway justify that reputation.
Buuuut this isn’t a post about my opinions about Orthodox Judaism and women’s rights, this is a post about my cousin’s beautiful wedding! So, back to it.
The wedding ceremony started as would any wedding ceremony–Raffi was escorted down the aisle by his mother. Raffi then donned a kittel, a white, pocketless robe sometimes worn by Jewish men at weddings and usually worn by Rabbis and Cantors during the High Holidays (it is worn during other occasions as well, and Jewish men are often buried in one). The grandmothers of the bride and groom also walked down the aisle. Rachel’s brother and sister then processed to the Chuppah, followed by Rachel who was escorted by her parents.
The wedding ceremony starts with the bride circling the groom seven times, to symbolize the seven days of Creation and the building of a new life as a couple. The ceremony includes the reading of the Ketubah (marriage contract), the reading of seven blessings by seven different people (usually honored guests or members of the family, although since this was an Orthodox service only men performed the blessings. My father did the second one), and a giving of a ring to the bride (again, not gender equal, only the groom gives a ring to the bride–sort of an acquisition sort of thing).
The ceremony ended with Raffi stomping on a glass (you’ve probably seen that in movies or on tv) and everyone yelling “mazal tov!” and all that good stuff. However, the couple did not process orderly down the aisle. Instead, once the glass was shattered, Rachel and Raffi were RUSHED like it was a rock concert and they were on a stage. And then they were more or less carried out of the room by their friends, who were singing and dancing and all that good, energetic stuff.
Oh just a side note–this is the first time Rachel and Raffi have touched in three or four years. While they dated in high school they did all the normal making out and hand holding things that high schoolers do. However, when they decided to become Orthodox, they chose to adopt the practice called shomer negiah. This means that they only touch members of the opposite sex who are relations. So Rachel could hug her dad and brother, but she and Raffi could not even hold hands until they were married. Just a fun fact.
Anyways, since Rachel and Raffi had been fasting all day they were led to a room where they could eat a meal and spend some time alone together. The rest of us headed to the reception.
Soon Rachel and Raffi’s friends started lining up to prepare for their arrival to the reception.
As soon as Rachel and Raffi arrived, crazy dancing started guys. Rachel and Raffi were each led off to their sides of the floor (the dancing was gender separate) as a mechitzah, a barrier separating men from women, was lowered from the ceiling (the mechitzah in this case was a curtain that could be raised and lowered as necessary depending on whether or not dancing was happening). The dancing was really insane, and it went on for a good 45 minutes before people stopped to eat their dinners. The band was a sixteen-piece, Jewish/Klezmer/Hebrew style ensemble. The ballroom had a balcony from which I took a few pictures, but I also got down into the fray and danced some with Rachel myself. But let me tell you, it was nuts in there.
Dancing paused for dinner, but then resumed pretty quickly. The second round of dancing included the “shtick,” which is when the friends of the bride and groom perform skits and talents for the bride and groom’s entertainment.
This wedding really spared no expense guys. I mean, there were even bowls of delicious French macarons for the taking at the open bar! Genius! Also, check out the cute R&R logo that was designed specifically for the wedding.
The rest of the night passed by with a combination of dancing, some dessert, some more dancing and socializing, and some family type pictures.
I headed upstairs around 11:00-11:30, because I had a 7:45am flight back to North Carolina to go to work the next day–did I mention that the wedding was on Sunday night (Jews don’t get married on Shabbat). Monday was a pretty sleepy day–I had a lot of recovering to do from one of the most entertaining and eventful weddings I had ever attended!
I hope that you enjoyed the wedding stories and the wedding pictures! I learned a lot about Orthodox Jewish wedding traditions and was glad to have had the experience. Below are a few links to videos of the dancing and the shtick, just to give you a better idea of what the reception was like.
Thanks for reading, and mazal tov to Raffi and Rachel!