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Rethinking the traditions of tish and bedeken for a progressive, egalitarian wedding

Katie Robbins
August 04, 2010
(Photocollage: Margarita Korol/Tablet Magazine)
(Photocollage: Margarita Korol/Tablet Magazine)

“It’s so you,” my future mother-in-law exclaimed when my fiancé, Daniel, and I showed her pictures of the performance space we’d chosen for our upcoming wedding, set for October.

We were delighted. We’ve been aiming for that “so us” spirit in our choice of food (a smorgasbord of dishes from our favorite restaurants), music (a mix of bluegrass and jazz standards), and, most important, with the ceremony itself. We’ve worked hard to strike the right balance between our love of tradition and our progressive values. And so we’ve opted for a Conservative egalitarian ketubah, a double-ring ceremony, and to include the sheva berakhot, or seven blessings recited over the groom and bride, in Hebrew and English, read by friends and family, Jews and non-Jews. The process has been challenging but productive, pushing us to clarify our Jewish identity as a couple—figuring out what is “so us” when it comes to belief and practice.

But of all the issues we’ve managed to traverse, we’ve run into a bit of trouble on an odd set: how, or even if, to incorporate the traditional pre-ceremony rituals of the tish and bedeken.

Having attended very few traditional Jewish weddings, I first heard about these customs early in my relationship with Daniel, when he told me with glee about the tish he’d attended at the wedding of a family friend. His eyes glowed as he described how the male guests had gathered for the pre-ceremony celebration in which the hatan, or groom, delivers a d’var Torah while his friends do their best in a schnapps-fueled revelry to throw him off course. With a couple of klezmer musicians to back them, Daniel and the other men had sung, whistled, and heckled the groom in a kind of Torah-tinged roast. After 20 minutes, the men danced over to where the female guests waited with the bride, and the bedeken got underway, with the groom tenderly “checking” (that is, after all, what “bedeken” means) to make sure that this woman was, in fact, his beloved, before lowering a veil over her face to indicate to the world that she was his bride. He wouldn’t want to be caught in the pickle in which Jacob found himself, having mistakenly been tricked into marrying Leah instead of Rachel, his intended.

It was a raucous good time followed by a loving moment, said Daniel, and best of all, it was grounded in centuries of tradition, giving the wedding an appealing “old-world feel.”

“I’d love to have something like that when I get married,” he’d said, a huge grin spreading across his face. We were far from marriage at the time, but there was something thrilling about hearing him talk so excitedly about his hypothetical wedding.

“It sounds great,” I said, swept up by his enthusiasm. “By the way, what do the women do during the tish?”

“Oh, I’m not sure,” he said, shrugging.

Seven years later, this is one of the main questions that we’re seeking to answer in our wedding planning.

Traditionally, while the groom engages in what one rabbi I spoke with described as a “rabbinic bachelor party,” the kallah, or bride, also receives a send-off, hers from the women in the community. She is seated in a thronelike chair (drawing on the imagery of the groom and bride as king and queen) that has been draped in a white sheet to represent her purity, as her female guests greet her to offer their blessings.

The groom is then brought over to his seated beloved, whom he has not seen in many days, where he then checks her identity. Having avoided the pitfalls of Jacob’s cautionary tale, the groom then lowers the bride’s veil, preserving her modesty and indicating that she is taken.

The more I learned about these rituals, the more inclined I felt to nix them. At the most superficial level, I wouldn’t be wearing a traditional wedding dress and so aesthetically a veil felt out of place, but, more significant, I didn’t want to be hidden or protected behind one. And anyway, the thought that after eight years, Daniel would mistake me for someone else felt, if not offensive, then at least implausible.

My feelings about the tish were more ambivalent. I was uncomfortable with the notion that our male guests would have an alcohol-fueled good time, heckling Daniel and dancing to music, while the women stood decorous, greeting me in my not-so-pure splendor. As an alternative, I learned that in some Modern Orthodox circles, there are two tishen, one for the men and one for the women, but having never delivered a d’var Torah in my premarital life, it seemed disingenuous to do so at my wedding. There was, of course, the possibility that Daniel could have a tish, and I could do nothing. But then what would the women do while the men celebrated? The absence of an activity for female guests felt just as unequal as the traditional set-up.

The feminist magazine Lilith recently published an eloquent d’var Torah delivered by editor Ilana Kurshan at the egalitarian tish she and her husband shared last winter. In an email from Jerusalem, Kurshan told me that the decision to do so was a natural extension of the studying she and her fiancé had been doing together. “Many of our dates involved learning,” she wrote to me. Though the couple composed their d’vrei Torah separately, they helped each other along—Kurshan’s portion focusing on creating a beit chatanot, or wedding house.

Lev Meirowitz Nelson, a student in the pluralistic rabbinical program at Hebrew College outside Boston, says he’s seen an increase in both tishen and bedeken among his friends, much to the surprise of his parents’ generation, who shed many traditions that they saw as too religious. “There’s been a movement to claim and update and egalitarianize traditions that had been written off as too Orthodox or unequal,” he said. When he and his wife were married in November, they knew they wanted to include one. “The tishen we’d been to at friends’ weddings had been tons of fun—why wouldn’t we do it if it was fun?”

“I’m always thinking about, how do you engage people who didn’t grow up with this ritual or who are turned off by it?” said Lev Baesh, rabbi at B’nai Or Boston and the director of the Resource Center for Jewish Clergy at Baesh has adapted rituals to make them more accessible, leading tishen at which the guests engage in group art projects or move back and forth between the bride and groom, offering premarital advice. At one tish, the guests made batik Buddhist prayer flags, which they then used to decorate the chuppah. “Anything we can do from a religious or spiritual standpoint to help the couple and the people around them focus on the beauty of the event—and to do it as a community—is a really important thing.”

In learning about these solutions, I’ve been particularly inspired by how unique they are to each of the couples, and I’ve surprised myself by reconsidering the bedeken, which I’d been so quick to excise early on.

Baesh told me about a bedeken ritual he’s developed in which the couple is brought together back to back, before being turned around to face one another. Baesh then has the couple take several deep breaths before asking each, “Is the person in front of you the one you’re going to marry today?”

When he described this moment to me over the phone, I got goose bumps, similar to that mythic moment when a bride tries on a wedding dress and knows that she’s found the one that is hers. When Baesh told me about this bedeken, I knew it was mine—and when I told Daniel about it, he agreed.

We’re still figuring out the tish. We’ve got some ideas, and I feel confident that we’ll find something that works. But what I’m most looking forward to now is that moment right before we publicly make a lifetime commitment, when we turn around and look at one another. I’ll say easily, “Yep, he is so mine.” And he’ll say, “Yes, she’s so mine.” It’ll be so us.

Katie Robbins is a freelance writer who splits her time between California and New York. She last wrote for Tablet Magazine about herring.

Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.

Katie Robbins is a freelance writer who splits her time between California and New York.

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