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Polyester Brides

Big Fat Gypsy Weddings—a documentary miniseries from the U.K. about a peripatetic group known as the Irish Travellers—has much to say about marginalized minorities everywhere

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One of the brides featured on the British documentary miniseries Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. (TLC/© Victor De Jesus/ UNP 01274 412)

An insular, strictly endogamous ethnic community shrouded at least partially in secrecy, with their own peculiar rituals, proscriptions, language, ethical standards, and modes of dress, which inspires both curiosity and (occasionally) hostility from society at large?  Sounds familiar, no?

But in the documentary series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings—a mega-hit in Britain set to hit American television screens later this month—the group in question is not the one that regular readers of Tablet might immediately think of when they hear the words “insular” and “endogamous.” Yet certain aspects may feel eerily familiar just the same.

For hundreds of years, the Gypsies of the show’s title, the Irish Travellers—who speak their own language of Shelta, a English dialect with heavy Irish/Gaelic influences—have led a marginalized existence throughout the British Isles. Due to their similarly peripatetic lifestyles, the Travellers are often confused with the Roma, the ethnic group whose deep musical tradition so influenced klezmer, and who are often (but not often enough) mentioned alongside Jews as victims of the Holocaust, but they are separate groups with disparate traditions and origins (although they do begin to crop up in later episodes of the show; for better or for worse, the two communities have similar lifestyles and, therefore, a great deal of overlap in the public imagination).

The documentary purports to shed light for the first time on this notoriously secretive community clustered in portable trailer parks and roadside camps throughout England and Ireland. The Travellers are most likely the descendants of Irish peasants left homeless by Cromwell’s military campaigns and are indigenous to the British Isles, a fact that makes it all the more poignant when Elizabeth, a young Traveller girl profiled in the documentary, speaks of the hostility her community still encounters from “settled” people. They are also called “gorgers,” a term that seems to intimate the same blend of amusement and disdain as another word I know that starts with a “G”): “They call us gyppos, gypsy scum, say ‘go back to where you came from.’ ” Where, precisely, are they supposed to go?

As the title would suggest, the five-part series centers on the extravaganza of the Traveller wedding, in all its bedazzled, faintly medieval glory, although its reach is much further than that. The wedding, one of the more conspicuous traditions of the Traveller community, is our way in, so to speak. Our guide and Greek chorus—apart from an omniscient female narrator whose clipped BBC accent carries a faintly elegiac tinge—is Thelma Madine, a Liverpool dressmaker (and non-Traveller) who specializes in the creation of the tulle behemoths favored by Traveller brides, adorned with countless rhinestones, yards of lace, and, in one case, electric lights and mechanical butterflies. As such, Thelma occupies a unique outsider/insider perspective on a society that in her words, “doesn’t want anyone to know anything about them.” Traveller girls typically leave school in their early teens and are married soon thereafter—16- and 17-year-old brides are the norm. The dressmaker Thelma (as she is constantly referred to in the voiceover) is often brought, as prototypes, pictures of Disney princess from Cinderella to Princess Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, as perhaps befitting their age, or in one spectacular incidence, a request for a gown based on the monstrous pink one from the wedding scene in the 1988 Eddie Murphy movie, Coming to America, which is exactly what I would have chosen for my wedding when I was 6 years old, if not 16.

What they wear the rest of the time is another matter. Bare midriffs, bras for shirts, visible thong underwear abound. Thelma observes, “To see them most of the time, you would think they were prostitutes.” But you can’t judge a book by its cover, and you can’t judge a Traveller girl by her cleavage. “They really are the most moral people you ever could meet,” Thelma says. Travelers practice the kind of strict sex segregation rarely seen outside of Saudi Arabia or Satmar Williamsburg. Girls travel in packs; they’re not allowed to date or be briefly alone with a boy. Even after a girl is engaged she must bring a chaperone, usually her mother, on all outings with her intended. While Traveller boys have, if not much education, a relatively free hand in the world, girls are expected to stay at home, clean, cook, and look after younger brothers and sisters—sort of a mandated apprenticeship for their married lives. Drinking is strictly forbidden for girls, as is the use of foul language—16-year-old bride-to-be Josie declares that she’d “rather die than swear in front of a man”—and do I have to tell you how they feel about the importance of virginity? (Let’s just say “strongly.”)

While the attitude of the filmmakers toward the treatment of Traveller women is plagued with more than a hint of patronizing cultural relativism, the show doesn’t shy away from showing the dark side of the society. As in all communities where women are treated as second-classes citizens, domestic violence is rife. (After all, the dehumanization of the Other begins at home.) The difficulties facing a Traveller woman in an abusive situation are compounded by the threat of ostracism from the community if she leaves and her lack of education; the vast majority of Traveller adults (and particularly women) are functionally illiterate. “I mean, I’m not terrible,” says 18-year-old bride Lizzie, in the same tone one might describe one’s limited ability at speaking French or downhill skiing. “But we ain’t going to be doctors, or lawyers, or anything. Housewives, that’s what we’re meant to be.”

And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for: What does this have to do with the Jews? The blessedly liberating answer, on the surface at least, is that it doesn’t. Despite my tongue-in-cheek opening paragraph, and despite the various superficial similarities (the ambivalence about assimilation! The traditional role of women! The traumatized expression on the face of the mother of the boy who has insisted on marrying a non-Gypsy!), the two groups aren’t really comparable (for example, more alcohol consumed in a single 45-minute Traveller cemetery visit than has been in Crown Heights in the past 15 years—except, obviously, on Purim).

Many Jews, myself included, have been so conditioned to see everything through the (often paranoid) lens of our own experience, which is how you wind up driving yourself crazy thinking that Toy Story 3 is a Holocaust allegory and the goblins in the Harry Potter franchise are meant as some Streicher-esque depiction of Jews (they work in banks and have their own language too).  But watching Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, I found myself in the welcome position of viewing a minority group from the position of the comfortable majority, capable of gawping at a maligned subculture without immediately wondering “what it all meant” (the key to the series’ success, no doubt, is the way the filmmakers have managed to mix outright prurience with earnest concern; they’ve figured out a way for us to have our 8-foot-tall Sleeping Beauty’s Castle wedding cake and eat it too). I felt like one of them (gorgers or goyim, take your pick) watching us, and what I discovered on the other side was surprising: that curiosity is not the same thing as hostility; that incomprehension or even disapproval does not preclude empathy; and, perhaps most clearly, the disturbing symbiosis that often occurs between persecutor and persecuted.

A few examples from the series best illuminate this last phenomenon. One is the instance of John, a Romany Gypsy (one of the few featured in the series) on his way to the Appleby Horse Fair in Yorkshire, an annual meeting place, or “Mecca” as he calls it, for the Gypsy and Traveller communities. On his way, John takes offense to road signs reading “No Stopping,” as well as a notice at a roadside inn advising that its parking lot is reserved solely for its guests. I was perplexed by his anger; I figured the transportation authority just didn’t want people parking on the shoulder of the interstate and the inn management just wanted to save priority for paying customers, but according to John, the sign might as well as read, “‘No Gypsies.’” Wounded, he confronted the bemused parking attendant, and I suddenly remembered the looks of annoyed bafflement on the face of every teacher, Girl Scout leader, and friend’s mother I was compelled to tell that I couldn’t take the test scheduled for Yom Kippur, make the Christmas ornaments, or eat the pepperoni pizza they’d ordered. They didn’t get it, and I had offended them by reflexively taking offense.

Later on, we get to see just how quickly bemusement can turn ugly. In the fifth and final installment of the series, Thelma Madine has been commissioned to create outfits for the bridal party of a Traveller wedding in Northern Ireland. The bride’s mother has been vague and even misleading about the date of the wedding (common enough among Travellers, who fear that churches and hotels will simply cancel bookings if given enough time to discover who they are hosting), but Thelma, who for the most part is hugely sympathetic to their plight, finally suspects she’s being taken for a ride. “I’m not a die-hard Traveller supporter, I’m not saying that. But I have stuck up for them, and this makes me so angry.” In about 30 seconds, the otherwise impeccably well-meaning Thelma has managed to conflate the exasperating behavior of one woman with that of an entire group.

Collective blame—it’s something we Jews know all too well, and we have all too often found ourselves on both sides of it. It is the very essence of prejudice, on which we certainly have no monopoly. Bigotry, persecution, tragedy: This may be the history of the Jewish people, but it’s also the history of the whole world.

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guest says:

If it’s a”strictly endogamous ethnic community”, it’s the only one known.

invisible_hand says:

the real issue re: the Roma is happening in eastern and central Europe right now, where right wing political parties and movements are targeting them for ethnic discrimination and even violence.
please pursue this topic in a follow up report.

Beautiful writing on an incredibly interesting topic. I really enjoyed this piece.

While you find familiarity and ways to emphasize, the narrative of the series seems to portray these groups in a rather harsh light, at least secularly speaking. Many viewers won’t have similar experiences to relate to when a Traveller confronts a native and dons the mantle of “victim.” I would hate to see a backlash in the wake of the series.

It seems that their is a tragic dearth of education in this community, and children are taught, as many Jews of previous generations have that “the world hates us,” promoting the cycle of isolation and prejudice. I’m looking forward to checking out the series.

The Travellers as the article states have nothing to do with the Roma. The Roma ethnically come from Rajasthan, Inidia and Baluchistan, Pakistan. I have worked with the Roma closely for the last 25 years esepcially in the area of klezmer music and their relationship with the Jews in (Transylvania, Bessarabia, Carpathian Mtns.) specific regions in Eastern Europe prior, during and after the Holocaust. This TV series from England is just another example of “lazy” film making as it does nothing to challenge the viewers stereotypes about the Travellers. Ask people in the Roma community what they think of “Big Far Gypsy Wedding.” They will tell you it is the usual junk that purports itself to be something new about this misunderstood and mistreated ethnic group. In fact why not call it “BIG FAT TRAVELLER WEDDING? Well we know why because the word “traveller” does not titillate the viewers like the word Gypsy. And in fact more and more Roma are less incline to be called Gypsies, as the they did not originate from Egypt. The title is all about ratings and getting advertisers to back this “shund” program.

Rachel says:

Yale Strom–thank you again for stressing this. The two groups are clearly separate and face different issues, and I found the lack of differentiation in this documentary to be absolutely maddening, not to mention reductive and often offensive, which is why I tried to be as clear about this as possible in the article. (I mentioned their Rajasthani origins as well, although it didn’t survive the edit.)

I also concur about the use of the word “gypsy”: Travellers seem to use it without conflict; the (very, very few) Roma featured in the series used it only ruefully, obviously preferring, if they have the choice, to be known as Roma or Romany.

shai says:

“for example, more alcohol consumed in a single 45-minute Traveller cemetery visit than has been in Crown Heights in the past 15 years—except, obviously, on Purim”
You obviously don’t know crown heights!

guest says:

Do they drink Crown Royal in Crown Heights?

By “they” I mean that peripatetic endogamous clan whose faintly elegiac tinged melodies cause laymen to pick up fiddles.

Abbi says:

I agree with Shai. Your conflation of the concept of “Jews don’t drink” and “Chassidim” is laughable. Alcoholism in general is on the rise across the Orthodox community. “Kiddush clubs” in ortho shuls area big problem.

Hannah Lee says:

Fascinating article, Rachel!
But I’m puzzled: why do the girls wear provocative clothing
if they also hold strict views on sexual morality?

as a romany traveller myself. it is my belief that gypsies and jews not so different from one another. most romanies believe they are descendants of cain who killed his brother abel. god then condemned him & his descendants to wander the earth & face persecution forever. in nazi europe only jews & gypsies where sent to the death camps for being a different culture. six million jews & 900.000 gypsies. as for those weddings those shown where irish travellers & not romanies at all

PJC says:

For the posters that have latched onto the writer’s tiny joke about how much Jews drink in this otherwise excellent piece, you are just proving her point about the narrowness of many Jews’ thinking when it comes to other minorities. IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT US.

Pete says:

Uh. Apparently the author has never been to Crown Heights during Sukkos or Simchas Torah.

Mark Donahue says:

In reply to Robert. There were actually 4 Romany Gypsy weddings in that show, so it wasn’t all just us Irish Travellers ;)

Also in reply to Rachel Shukert’s comment regarding our language, Shelta: “who speak their own language of Shelta, a English dialect with heavy Irish/Gaelic influences” Shelta or Shéldru is a unique language that has links to Old Irish Gaelic (spoken 800 years ago) as opposed to modern Irish which is spoken today which but was still separate. It has nothing to do with English although it has taken some English words today. This is clear evidence that we aren’t descendants of Irish peasants who were forced on to the roads as well as we were first mentioned by the Vikings when they first invaded the Island circa 900AD. We were seen as a distinct group apart from the wider Irish people at the time.

Going back to the language, strangely enough, Shelta has been documented that it has some Yiddish as well as Hebrew within it. Maybe because of our history of trading with the old Irish Jewish community for centuries in Ireland or for some other reason.

BTW, I am half Irish Traveller & half Kale (Welsh) Gypsy ;)

We have had talks with the programme makers (Firecracker) and told them that we are not happy with the content, or the way that the Gypsy or Traveller communities are portrayed.
The programme makers seemed purely focused on viewing figures, with no regard to what the Romany Community thought.
I personally told them that they should be ashamed of the way they have portrayed the Gypsy and Traveller communities, their response was “we are already filming the next series” they offered us money to film at one of our events and we refused.
They only seem to care about one thing – ratings
Gypsy Council.

Rachel says:

Mark–thank you so much for your post. As I indicated, my research turned up mainly hypotheses rather than hard fact about Traveller origins, so I very much appreciate your knowledge. Gypsy Council–I very much hope that filmmakers will come along that will portray your rich fascinating community in a more accurate/acceptable light, and that you’ll be open to them when they do!

Mark Donahue says:

Just to follow on from the Gypsy Council .. Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers were incredibly angry at the way the programme portrayed both communities. Of the 340,000 Gypsies, Irish Travellers etc in these two islands, Firecracker painted us all with the same brush as the gorja’s have done for centuries anyway.

Rachel – Not too much positive on the horizon at the moment.
We are open and Gypsy Council are on Face Book.
We also have a website – gypsy-association.com

Brandy Riddle says:

As I am American I have never seen the show and I am glad for it . I honestly wish they were not about to start a series in the U.S. I am Roma (Gypsy) and just off the few glimpses I have caught online I was in shock. Those are nothing like the Roma I know. I have seen on many sites online talking about the show many comments saying that all Gypsys and Travelers are stupid and flashy that is far from the truth. I have been to many weddings gave by and involving Roma people and NEVER seen anything like the pictures I have saw online. Do I say those in the show are wrong ? NO that is thier special day they should have it anyway they want it . I do feel a show was created targeting a race not with the intent to educate anyone or close gaps between communities. Why not create a show that tells of our peoples travels , the obsticles we have overcame, and the obsticles we still face today in the world . Not many know that nearly a 1/3 of our entire Roma worldwide population was killed during the Holocaust. Explain how our people such as Mozart changed music . How our poets and artists changed the arts .

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Polyester Brides

Big Fat Gypsy Weddings—a documentary miniseries from the U.K. about a peripatetic group known as the Irish Travellers—has much to say about marginalized minorities everywhere

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