After attending one cookie-cutter Orthodox wedding after another, a question arises: Are these rituals being performed in meaningful ways?
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.
I squeeze through the last defense of women and sidle up to my mother, in her navy blue chiffon.
“Hey,” I say.
“I remember the Mezinke Tantz,” she says, smiling wistfully. “Bubbe and Zayde used to talk about it.”
“Really?” I ask. I never knew that.
“Sure. They used to do this all the time in Europe. We even did it for Feter Pinyah.” My Uncle Paul.
Now I’m actually shocked. I thought I knew everything there was to know about my grandparents, who were raised in Poland and ended up in displaced-persons camps after the war, before immigrating to America. Silly as it may seem, I feel as though I have to recreate my knowing of them. I feel young and ignorant.
My mother notices but she doesn’t say anything. She’s standing on the balls of her feet, trying to see above the crowd, and I start craning my neck, too. It’s a remarkable sight. There, on the other side of where the mechitzah used to be, sit the mother and father of the groom. In the mother’s hand is a Rubbermaid broom and she’s swatting at her son, presumably sweeping him out of the house. The crowd begins to clap in time to the Hasidic klezmer niggun. The vibrato of the sax plays against the high-pitched trilling of the clarinet, and the DJ is singing his refrain: De mezinke os-gegeben, de mezinke os gegeben. The pinky’s given away, the pinky’s given away.
I’m entranced. It’s as though, by watching this scene, I’m retroactively getting to know my grandparents all over again—even though they’re long gone. I’ve been given the chance to glimpse the world they left behind. A part of me is tempted to “keep score” again, take mental notes as I do with everything else at these weddings. But now, this is no longer anything like those other weddings. This is different: It’s authentic.
When I get back to my apartment, I slide off the ratty sandals—my Keds have holes in them—and peel off the Jackie Kennedy. I pause for a moment, trying to sort through my thoughts. I think back to the girl who brushed my shoulder and feel a little annoyed. Along with the rest of her educated-in-America-but-not-really-American cohorts, she lives in a world that holds shtetl Europe as the paradigm of Jewish observance. And yet, they’re so assimilated—not to America, per se, but to American Orthodoxy—that when they see something too authentic, when they see something that actually smacks of Europe, they balk.
And this, I suddenly realized, was why I’d been keeping count all along. If we had to uproot ourselves from America the way we did from Europe, and create for ourselves a new community elsewhere, which of these traditions would remain because they’re integral to the core we’re trying to perpetuate, and which are just hollow luxuries that we wouldn’t want, or be able to afford, to bring with us?
Unlike me, that mezinke-hater isn’t bothered by the homogenization of Jewish weddings. 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. After all, this is the Jewish community we’ve tried so hard to rebuild in post-Holocaust America. And apparently we’ve succeeded, because now we no longer remember we’re modeling it off of anything.
But if this young woman wants to live in a bubble—complete with all its trappings—then she must also acknowledge the bubble it came from and give credence to it. It was far more authentic than this one is. And that’s the irony: I’m a modern woman. While I appreciate the world my grandparents came from, I make no pretense of trying to replicate it. I love America and always will. But when it comes to the real customs of real people—for that, I have respect.
I’m the youngest in my family. Theoretically, I’m the mezinke. Not that I’m getting married any time soon. But when, God willing, I do, I’ve got my broom ready.
Judah Loew searches for his lost golem at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, hoping that the sculptures will offer him some guidance