Mazel Tov! A Jewish Wedding in Maine

Yesterday, which happened to be our 37th wedding anniversary, we attended a wedding in Portland (Maine).

Alas.  Maine has the highest rate of intermarriage (Jews to non-Jews) of all 50 states.  So going to a religious Jewish wedding in Maine, and a chassidic one at that, is surely worth noting.

The bride is the daughter of the Chabad rabbi in Portland.  Her groom is now part of Chabad as well, but his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins come from the Satmar chassidic sect.  It is highly unlikely that anyone in Maine has ever seen  Satmar chassidic Jews, who dress in a distinctive manner, although  I suspect many rural Maine trappers and mountain men might experience a case of “fur envy” for  Satmar men’s shtreimels, which are fur hats made of mink tails that are worn for the Sabbath, holidays, and at life events such as weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Jewish weddings are always sit-down affairs and a full-course banquet meal is served.  The smallest Jewish wedding I’ve ever attended was for 150 people, but 300 – 400 people is average and for rabbinic families the numbers go up to 600 – 1200 guests!  That’s because Orthodox Jewish extended families are very large, and besides friends and neighbors, even distant relatives are included.

At the start of the wedding, a welcome reception was held for the bride and groom – in separate rooms.  The women gathered around the bride, wishing her mazel tov (congratulations) while noshing on hor d’oeuvres; the bride greeted each female guest by bestowing upon them many blessings, wishing them good health, or to single women, the wish that they may find their bashert  (predestined life partner) soon.  (A bride and groom are considered to have a heightened power of prayer during this spiritual day.)  Meanwhile, in the men’s reception area, the men are busy making a l’chaim (a toast) and witnessing the signing of the ketuba, the marriage contract that is the ancient precursor to a modern pre-nup, in which the husband must guarantee to support his wife with food, shelter and clothing.

The groom is then ushered out of the men’s reception room, and walks, accompanied on either side by his father and future father-in-law and grandparents, to the room where his bride waits expectantly.  All the male guests follow behind him, singing songs of joy.

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The groom  is led from the men’s reception hall, flanked by his father and father-in-law.  They are making their way to the bride, where she awaits him to place a veil upon her head.

 

Once he reaches the bride, who is sitting in a chair surrounded by the female relatives, he gazes upon her, and places a veil on her head and face.  The reason for this custom goes back to Biblical times, when Lavan fooled Jacob into marrying the heavily-veiled Leah instead of his intended true love, Leah’s sister Rachel.  In Judaism, even amongst Orthodox Jews who have “arranged” marriages, there is absolutely no concept of “forced” marriages and both the bride and groom must agree to marrying their partner that their parents may have “chosen” for them.  If the candidate does not appeal to them, an engagement, much less a marriage, will not take place.  The veiling ceremony is symbolic; it ensures that there is no deception and that the intended bride (and groom) are who they are supposed to be.  I should add that Orthodox women, while they do cover their hair after marriage (with a hat, scarf, or wig), do not ever wear veils over their face except during the marriage ceremony.

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The grandfather and fathers bless the bride after the groom places the veil upon the bride’s head.

 

The fathers (and sometimes the mothers too) then bless the bride.

The mother hugs her daughter after blessing her, following the veiling ceremony.

The mother hugs her daughter after blessing her, following the veiling ceremony.

Now the groom is walked down the aisle, with his closest relatives (usually parents, but sometimes also grandparents) holding candles.  Shortly thereafter, the bride is escorted in by her parents, also holding candles.

Some of the relatives of the groom who walk behind him down the aisle.  Note the fur hat, called a shtreimel, which is worn by some chassidic men.

Some of the relatives of the groom who walk behind him down the aisle. Note the fur hat, called a shtreimel, which is worn by some chassidic men.

The bride is escorted to the chuppa by her mother, mother-in-law, and other close female relatives

The bride is escorted to the chuppa by her mother, mother-in-law, and other close female relatives

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Female guests are seated/standing on the left; male guests are seated/standing on the right.

Lots of guests!

Lots of guests!

Then the bride is led around the groom seven times, which has its sources in kabbalah.

The bride, led by the mothers, encircles her groom 7 times.

The bride, led by the mothers, encircles her groom 7 times.

As the bride and groom stand together under the chuppa (bridal canopy), various rabbis recite seven blessings.  The bride and groom take sips of wine from a communal cup.  The groom places a ring on the bride’s finger and says that she is betrothed to him according to the laws of Moses and Israel.  Then a glass is placed under the groom’s foot, which he breaks.  This is to symbolize that even at this joyous event, the world is not complete as long as the Temple in Jerusalem is not rebuilt and its destruction is a source of mourning.  Immediately after the glass is broken, shouts of “Mazel tov!” abound, music is played, and everyone rushes up to the chuppa to offer their congratulations.

everyone rushes up to the chuppa immediately following the ceremony to offer a mazel tov.

Everyone rushes up to the chuppa immediately following the ceremony, to offer a mazel tov.

A spontaneous circle dance broke out on the men's side following the wedding ceremony.

A spontaneous circle dance broke out on the men’s side following the wedding ceremony.

The bride and groom are then escorted to a room where they will be alone for several minutes.  They use this time to exchange their first kiss, give one another a wedding gift, and have a light snack (to break their fast, since the day leading up to  the wedding the bride and groom immerse themselves in prayer and fasting).

And then:  the party begins!  A full meal is served, but between the courses is the dancing.  There is no mixing of the sexes as the guests dance in huge circles:  the women dance with the bride; the men dance with the groom.  Sometimes the bride and groom are seated and lifted with their chairs high into the air.  There may be guests who entertain the bride and groom with special dance moves, or juggling.  The idea of a Jewish wedding celebration is this:  it is not the duty of the hosts to entertain the guests; it is incumbent upon the guests to entertain the hosts!  People take this mitzva (commandment) to bring joy to the bride and groom very seriously.  The dancing, singing, and good wishes extend for many hours.  The Jewish music’s lyrics mostly come from prayers, biblical passages, or psalms, but they are sung to a blaring, pulsating beat with all the usual instruments (and no, they do not play “Hava Nagila” at Orthodox weddings).

By clicking here and also here you can see some videos my husband took with his cellphone of the men’s dancing.  (Sorry to disappoint that I am not posting videos of the women’s dancing.)

Because the wedding was at a hotel with many hotel guests who were not at all connected with the wedding, there were a lot of polite gawkers.  Of course I was dying to know what they thought of this most unusual Jewish event in Maine!  And that’s when I overheard one non-Jewish “Mainuh” saying to another,

“Well whattuhya know!  I’ve nevah seen anything quite like this!  It’s just so respectful, ya know?  I mean, heeyah they ah, these Jewish people, dancing like crazy, but no one is drunk or disuhduhly (diorderly)!  No one is vulgah.  They’re just happy!”

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Cedric on September 10, 2014 at 11:01 pm

    Mazal tov indeed to the chassis kallah and parents.

    Reply

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