Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Two Step

After attending one cookie-cutter Orthodox wedding after another, a question arises: Are these rituals being performed in meaningful ways?

Print Email

I’m standing in front of my closet trying to decide what to wear to today’s wedding, and the only thing I’m sure of is that I want to wear the cute heels I bought at Nordstrom a few months ago. It’s probably breaking some fashion rule to build an outfit around the shoes, but I do anyway, grabbing the sherbet-pink linen suit that my brother calls the “Jackie Kennedy.” Today’s wedding will be ultra by-the-book, and I need my heels to get me through it.

We all pile into the car: my mother, my father, my brother Dave, and me. The minute we arrive, Dad and Dave break off from us, heading for the men’s side of the aisle. During the chuppah, there is no physical mechitzah at weddings like these (although there will be during dinner and dancing). Still, there is an invisible mechitzah, and I’m not sure which is stronger: the physical one or the invisible one. My mother and I find seats amid the throng of sheitel-topped, high-heeled, mid-calf-length-suited women. I stow my purse under my chair and look around. I’m trying to get my bearings.

A woman from shul—the mother of a guy I knew in high school—comes over to me and taps me on the shoulder. “In the right hour, to the right man,” she says in Sephardi-accented Hebrew, “may we celebrate at your chuppah, too.”

“Oh!” I blurt out, “thank you!” One marriage blessing and we’re only at the chuppah. How many more before the night is over?

Here’s the thing: This is the third Orthodox wedding I’ve attended in the last month. I don’t dislike weddings, but I have to admit they’re growing a bit tiresome—especially since they’re all the same, give or take a few minor details. Of course, each wedding is completely unique for the bride and groom. No doubt both of them have attended myriad others just like it, but this time it belongs to them. But for the onlooker taking mental notes—a role I can’t help but assume—the wedding is another “big box” event, akin to ordering a Big Mac at McDonald’s. Same burger, same bun, just hold the mayo and add extra onions. Essentially, though: interchangeable parts. These parts come in the form of details like the entree, the bride’s choice of colors, and the melodies played during the chuppah processional. But the venue and room are the same, as is the gemach from which the bride’s family rents their dresses, as is the Russian tailor the women use to “tzniufy” their dresses—making them more modest by extending the above-the-knee hems to mid-calf and inserting a snap to hide cleavage.

Which is why, over the last couple of years, I’ve come to find myself sizing up these affairs as though they’re models in a catalog. I’ll be running around on the dance floor, for instance, watching the bride grin from underneath the mounds of makeup, and realize that I’ve been keeping score in my head all along. I am, in a way, collecting data about the Orthodox community’s social mores and idiosyncrasies, because I want to see which of these idiosyncrasies are grounded in substance—Jewish law or values, scholarship, what-not—and which, in contrast, have evolved over time, their original purposes no longer in anyone’s mind even as people are still caught up with following “the rules” just for the sake of conformity or apathy. I had started to wonder: Are these people, who claim to be motivated by God and Jewish law above all else, just blindly following when it comes to some of life’s most important rites of passage? And why had I started to care so much?

At this particular wedding, something would happen that would finally make me understand.

***

The processional begins, and the room suddenly quiets, pregnant with anticipation. A melody begins softly, then grows quickly louder, drifting over from somewhere behind the chuppah. The words of the song are absent, but most people in the room already know them: Mi adir al hakol, mi baruch al hakol … hu yivarech et hachatan v’et hakallah. He who is mighty above all, He who is blessed above all … may He bless the groom and the bride. The melody is haunting and beautiful, a nod to the seriousness of the occasion. The groom’s parents appear, holding their precious cargo linked in their arms. With their free hands, like bookends, they cup hurricane vases whose glowing candles add a further somber note to the intensity of the room.

And still, mentally, I’m calculating.

Are they even over 50? Is she wearing a rented dress or a purchased one? The $3,000 sheitel, or the $6,000 one? Estimated time at the beauty parlor: five hours.

The band is starting up again, and I know it’s the signal to start a new dance set, so I shovel back the last of the chicken, gulp down some ice water, and look for a weak link in the circle. Sweaty hands part to let me in and I start to jump around like everyone else, in a too-tight circle on a too-tight dance floor. That’s the thing about these weddings: Everyone is expected to dance—it’s a mitzvah to entertain the bride and groom—but because the room is divided by a mechitzah, the dance floors are so small that you end up with this hierarchy of concentric circles. The inner sanctum is the bride and whomever she’s dancing with (you can always tell the nicer brides because they dance with more people), the next ring is the bride’s family and high-school/seminary friends, the third circle is everyone else, and the smaller, floating circles on the edges—each composed of four or five people at most—are the breakaways who got sick of being trampled on.

One thing about the circles: There’s an inverse relationship between the complexity of the dance step and the proximity of the dancer to the bride. For instance, the bride’s dancing partner usually has some fancy footwork going on that will put Ginger Rogers to shame. The friends, in the second circle, have probably been to at least two other weddings in the past month (and are planning on two more), so they know the steps by heart. They also have more energy, because they’re under 23. The third circle, of most everyone else, is both too large and too old to be anything but sluggish. It consists of fake u’shafteh mayim steps, because there isn’t enough room to the do the real u’shafteh mayim step anyway—which is good, because most people wouldn’t know how.

As I shuffle one foot in front of the other and remind myself to keep grinning no matter how sweaty I am, I look around me once more. I can always tell the veterans of Orthodox weddings from the newbies, because the newbies think they’re at a classy event and should therefore dress accordingly. If they’re women, that means nice, fancy, high-heeled shoes. The veterans, on the other hand, wear high-heeled shoes, but only to the chuppah. Somewhere between the breaking of the glass and the hearts-of-palm salad, they ditch the nice shoes and bring out their Keds. (Hint: If you want to avoid your toe getting crushed by a spiky heel, stay in the Keds circle. Another hint? Bring back-up deodorant.)

Around dessert time, the DJ makes an announcement. He has one last dance to play—a special one. It’s called the “Mezinek Tantz.” (Literally, in Yiddish: the Pinky [Finger] Dance.) The Mezinek Tantz, he tells us, is a special Hasidic dance heard only at the wedding of a youngest child—an honor bestowed upon parents who have married off all their children. A reward for making it this far without having lost either their sanity or their life savings.

I wade through the hordes to reach the front of the room, where the mechitzah has been pushed aside. As I’m approaching, I brush shoulders with a frum girl who looks about my age—probably a few years younger, since she’s still single—and she mutters jokingly under her breath: “This chasidishe stuff is just too weird for me.” She brushes past me and disappears into the crowd before I can respond, but I’ve gotten enough of a glimpse to realize I know this girl; she’s a good friend of the bride’s whom I’ve met several times. I wonder if she realizes that I’ve heard her.

1 2View as single page
Print Email

Hi Mindy
At least they did the mezinka. At a wedding I recently attended the grooms Mom sneered at me and said that their family didn’t “sweep their kids out of the house.” Customs like the mezinka tanz add flavor. If you want more shetl flavor check out kosherhomecooking.com for some wierd, and wacky edible minhagim. Best

Yossi B says:

Great article!

“Not that I’m getting married any time soon. But when, God willing, I do, I’ve got my broom ready.”

B’sha’ah tovah, Mindy.

Susan R says:

Hi Mindy! At my (non-Orthodox, been in the USA since the 1880′s) wedding we did it– Matt was the last, but not the youngest. I think I remember that his mom asked for the dance–and of course the band (Maxwell St) knew it. No actual broom.

Nice article!

Mizinke means “youngest daughter.” Pinky is “miiznkl.” The song makes more sense that way.

While there are exceptions, I’ve seen more diversity and differences in dati leumi weddings in Israel. Ditto for “out of town” weddings in the US. You could probably make the same case for other middle/upper middle class US sub-societies.

Shmuel says:

You know, towards the end there is some really thoughtful content to your article.

But…the rest….snotty & snobby. Who appointed you the judge & jury of what is authentic & truthful?

you write: “She takes it for granted that brides and grooms should and will follow these rules down to every last nuance—without anyone applying any rigorous thought or feeling to what does and doesn’t contain real meaning.”

Do you know what every bride & groom is thinking when they plan their wedding? when they end up doing so much like everyone else?

Your thoughts about the mezinke dance are really nice. Too bad you couldn’t just write about that without trying to establish your cultural superiority to all the cookie cutter Modern Orthodox Jews out there.

Re:
“u’shafteh mayim steps, because there isn’t enough room to the do the real u’shafteh mayim.

You must mean “ush’avtem mayim.”

Well, Kate, good thing she’s an English teacher then and not a Hebrew teacher…

Gideon says:

I just want to point out that this is the second google-recorded use of the word “tzniufy”. I have already unified the authors of the two pieces in question by email. (The other piece is here: http://curiousjew.blogspot.com/2009/08/i-welcomed-shabbat-queen-part-4.html

Cloggie says:

I am Sefardi and never saw this tradition until a few years ago. I don’t take issue with people doing it at their own weddings, but if my husband’s [Ashkenazi] parents had wanted to do the dance, it would have been a major issue. I still find the concept of sweeping away the children to be unsettling.

I’m also glad the writer didn’t come to my wedding. It was very different from the weddings she has been to but not up to her $$$$ standards.

Hi Mindy, Mazel tov on yet another beautiful article. Your writing style beautifully captures the various scenes at this wedding and makes the reader feel like he/she is right there with you. The ideas raised in this article, particularly having respect for the “real customs of real people” and the assimilation of American Orthodoxy are right on. The concepts are also applicable to many other areas in observance within Judaism in 5772 as well, whether ritual, cultural or interpersonal. Thank you for writing this. I hope you’re enjoying the comments and chodesh tov! :)

Mindy – I have to say, I felt the same way you did several years ago, and even when planning my own wedding, tried to make it as unique as possible, while still within the standard framework. But now that I’m older, and don’t get to dance at so many weddings….I actually enjoy the comfortable pattern of these weddings! I love standing in a room full of people so happy for one couple, while thinking how while we’ve assimilated so much in so many ways, we still get married more or less the same way we did hundreds of years ago…

Yaakov says:

“It was far more authentic than this one is”

…how so? By virtue of its longevity? Or the fact that our (great-) grandparents still practiced in this “more authentic” way?

This article started by asking what we actually get from scriptural or halachic sources–a very good question. While post-Holocaust American Orthodox Judaism is more technologically integrated than pre-Holocaust European Orthodox Judaism, and cares less about some halachot (and more about others), neither is remotely close to a direct interpretation of the Torah, or the Talmud. I too have madd respect for traditions that have proven their longevity, but they are no less derivative than those sanctified by the current instance of Orthodox Judaism.

John doe says:

Sehr gut mindy.

I use cookie cutters when I want to accomplish the same thing in each new cookie that I successfully accomplished in the one before.
I remember once noticing that I had become unusually involved the exceptionally lovely aesthetics of a particularly “fine,” non-cookie-cutter-type chassanah. After deeming the entree not quite as fabulous as everything else, I balked. I am ashamed to say that I’d lost focus and forgotten that I was supposed to be there for the chasson and callah…not the other way around.
I’ve decided that I like the cookie-cutter type weddings…less distracting.

Naftoli says:

Loved the article!

My understanding of the mezinka tanz is that it was more of a celebration of the youngest child getting married and that the parents have ‘done their duty’, so to speak, in ensuring that all their children have now ‘left the nest’.
I have never seen the broom used and, at the weddings I attended, the family all danced together in a circle. It always seemed to me as this dance was a joyous and very personal time for the family.

Yaella says:

This is so cleverly written, I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you!

Chaim says:

Hi, Mindy, you don’t know me, but I remember you from Chicago — my daughter went to Akiba, and I’ve enjoyed your writing. There’s an old joke that one of the most important points in wedding planning is selecting an appropriate groom. Likewise, the key to a truly “authentic” wedding, rather than a simulation or reproduction, is an authentic bride and groom who know who they are, what they value, and why. Best wishes for finding your beshert in 5772!

I completely related to your description of the weddings and the “accounting” you do in your head at them. Your ultimate point, though… Not so much. In fact, I’m not even sure what it was. That there is not enough appreciation of “tradition” today? That we’re focusing on the wrong part of the wedding, in obsessing over the dresses and the flowers?

If that’s your point, it’s a good one. I just didn’t feel like you made it very clear.

Mindy, I appreciate some of your points but ultimately find your piece rather judgmental. The point of a wedding was never to be “unique” or “different.” It is to seal a holy union, and for all the guests to make the bride and groom happy during this holy time. At a wedding, what makes it unique is that these two holy souls are joining. You didn’t mention that the bride and the groom are different. I’ve been to countless weddings where I know for a fact that brides and grooms were highly cognizant of the real point.

Oh Goody, another Tablet article that goes for snark and aloof disdain rather than a real discussion raised in the opening paragraph.

What a joy you must be at these affairs. 

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Two Step

After attending one cookie-cutter Orthodox wedding after another, a question arises: Are these rituals being performed in meaningful ways?