Since moving to Israel, we've been invited to more weddings than I can possibly recount or remember, including one just last night on leap day for our friends Ana and Raphael. It seems that there's a wedding literally every day of the week. Israelis really know how to celebrate their life cycle events and the traditional Israeli wedding is the icing on the cake, no pun intended. For those of you who have been to a Jewish wedding in the United States, it doesn't even come close to or compare in any way to what an Israeli wedding experience is. I thought it might be fun to go over a few of the classic Israeli wedding traditions that you might find here in Israel.
First of all, the wedding process starts long before a traditional Israeli wedding even begins. Ordinarily, the bride and groom will spend up to five days apart before the wedding, following traditional custom, in order to be that much more excited to see their bride or groom under the chuppah. This practice is a bit more related to Jewish tradition, but is more commonly practiced either at religious weddings or at Israeli weddings (even if they're secular).
Second, Israeli weddings are on weekdays. It's still hard for me to grasp that one. In the United States, we traditionally stick with Saturdays or Sundays, but here in Israel weddings take place for the most part during the work week, somewhere from Sunday night to Wednesday night. Not only that, but the weddings usually will not begin until very late, about 8 p.m. I have no idea how we manage to wake up the next morning, but we do it and it's normal. People will still stay out as late as they would at an American wedding.
Third, let's talk about cocktail hour. In the United States, we're used to going to the ceremony first and then moving into the celebration with a nice cocktail hour. Not in Israel. When you arrive at the wedding, the first hour is spent in the cocktail room, where you have an unbelievable amount of drinks and hors d'oeuvres floating around. You catch up and mingle during this time and you talk to the groom as well as both the bride's and groom's families. During this time, the bride is nowhere in sight, she's still getting ready.
Fourth, there's the subject of gifts, and I have to say that I think Israel got this one right. In the United States, we're so used to building gift registries for tons of items that we might want for a wedding. Sometimes, though all young couples really want is money. Most of us don't even have a home to fill at the time we're getting married, so registries can be a sore point. I know that for my husband and I, all of our registry items are still sitting in my parents' garage. There was no way to ship them to Israel for the beginning of our married lives. Here in Israel, registries are unheard of. Everyone, and I mean everyone, gives money. When you walk into the cocktail room, you will always find a box and next to it there will be envelopes and pens. Here, you whip out your checkbook and drop in a check for the bride and groom. It's easy and convenient, and it's exactly what the young couple wants and needs.
Fifth, there's the attire. It isn't entirely unlucky that you'll find guests arriving in suits and ties; however, with that said, something unique about Israeli culture (everywhere from the office to a wedding to an interview) is how laid back they are when it comes to their dress. It is just as normal to see someone in a suit and tie at a wedding as it is to see them in jeans and a tee-shirt. It's not considered offensive at all, it's perfectly normal. I know it's hard to wrap your head around it, but even for interviews, Israelis don't wear suits. Most of them don't even own one. Jeans and a nice shirt are perfectly acceptable, and so is jeans and a tee-shirt. Odd, I know. If you come in a suit, you'll be looked at strangely and will be ten times more fancy looking than your perspective boss-to-be.
Sixth, what about the bridal party? Most Israelis will say to you, "the bridal what??" They've never heard of a bridal party before and when they see the crazy things that we do, such as dressing our best friends and siblings up in identical outfits for the wedding, they think it's crazy. They don't get it. In Israel, your immediate family will stand with you under the chuppah as you are getting married, but your best friends (aka bridal party people) will be in the audience where Israelis are happy to have them cheering and enjoying the ceremony.
Seventh, speaking of the chuppah, let's talk chuppah traditions. You know, I'm referring to that beautiful canopy that the bride and groom stand under while they get married. The chuppah experience in an Israeli wedding is markedly different from an American wedding. This is the epitome of the Israeli wedding experience. First off, there are no seats as we have in the US (maybe just a few for the elderly or people who are unwell). The wedding guests crowd together and line both sides of the wedding aisle, standing and cheering, screaming and clapping as loud music plays welcoming the groom and his family and then ultimately the bride and her family down the aisle. The bride's parents stop about halfway down the aisle (with its screaming and clapping onlookers) where the groom comes to grab his bride-to-be, putting the veil over her face (a Jewish tradition). When he has her up at the top of the chuppah for the actual ceremony, the veil is lifted and the groom ensures that this is his bride. Since the bride and groom have already walked down the aisle, the guests then huddle and crowd around all sides of the chuppah for the 20-minute long ceremony (more or less).
Eighth, what about the walk back down the aisle? Nope, not in Israel. We don't have that here. Keeping in mind that the entire guest list is now huddled around the chuppah, once we hear that celebratory sound of the groom crushing the glass, the room fills with a joyous "MAZAL TOV!!", clapping, cheering and singing as the guests begin to pile onto the chuppah platform to hug, kiss and congratulate the young newly married couple. So, instead of walk back down the aisle, the guests come to you. It's a crowded, endless delivery of hugs and kisses and quick congratulations as you try to push your way through to the bride and groom for your brief moment with them. To me, this is a really special part of the ceremony and I find it very touching. It also eliminates the awkwardness of having to hunt down the bride and groom during dinner to congratulate them in person.
Ninth, next up is the immediate celebration following the hugs and the kisses. Before you know it, event staffers are taking down the chuppah at the speed of light as you are shuffled a few feet away to the newly created dance floor. Immediately, the party goes into celebration mode. So, during this time in the US, we'd be having the cocktail hour, but instead, in Israel we've already had the cocktail hour and are going right into dance party mode. The bride and groom are surrounded for the most joyous of dances, the hora, in which circles of guests dance in rings around the bride and groom. In due time, chairs will be brought out, and up the bride and groom will go for the one of the most memorable and spectacular portions of the wedding celebration. You've likely seen this happen in the US at a Jewish wedding, but it's just that much more exciting at an Israeli wedding. If the couple is religious, the men and women's sides of the celebration will be separated by a barrier. The women flock to the bride's side and the men flock to the groom's side where each group partakes in joyous celebration by perhaps lifting up the honoree on a chair and bringing out crazy things like jump ropes and parachutes that are used in unique ways to celebrate the bride and/or groom. Only when the bride and groom are lifted up on their chairs can they see each other and up and over to the other side of the celebration.
Tenth, then there's the food. The mood in general in the US at a wedding is a lot more sophisticated and refined than at an Israeli wedding, which is loud and over the top. And this goes for food too. At an Israeli wedding, not only have you already had your fill of food at the cocktail hour, and not only have you also been snacking on the widest assortment of snacks you can imagine (in the reception room, you might find skewers, edamame, gummy bears, marshmellows, veggies and dip, pretzels, and on and on), but also, your table is filled with a host of appetizers as well, and this is all before the meals. Yes, meals. As in plural. During the course of the night, you will usually have two complete entrees, each with an appetizer. If you've never been to an Israeli wedding before, you really have to know how to pace yourself with the food. You won't believe it until you see it, it's an astonishing amount of food. And of course, after your two complete entrees (which are separated out by marathon dancing sessions to crazy Israeli, Spanish and American music), you will also be getting an equally large selection of desserts. And speaking of desserts, ordinarily there will be no cutting of the cake, because, well, there is no cake. There's just dessert upon dessert upon dessert. For instance, last night we had a selection of an ice cream bar, chocolate souffle cups, various dessert bars, a fruit tower, warm sachlav with rich toppings and a plethora of other items I cannot even begin to remember.
Finally, a few of the final differences. While in the US, we have customs such as throwing the bouquet and tossing the garter, these practices aren't savored in Israel. Nor are there any speeches, which I do have to say are a nice touch in the United States. In Israel, once the party gets going, it doesn't stop. It starts out calm at the cocktail hour and keeps building in intensity from the ceremony to the immediate celebration afterwards. The music doesn't stop playing and the drinks don't stop flowing. All kinds of toys are always brought out, including blow up items, neon necklaces and bracelets, flashing rings and necklaces and sunglasses and a host of other crazy and fun items that will be sure to keep the fun coming until the early morning hours. There is almost always a lounge area with couches and places to lay down and relax and recharge so that you don't need to leave. I've found that the music is loud and booming and that the only time a slow song might come on is for the bride and groom's first dance. Otherwise, it's a high energy event that is very much the party scene in typical Israeli fashion. And did I mention the guest list? Israeli weddings will average out to approximately 300-400 guests in comparison to the typical American wedding which averages 150-200 guests maximum.
These are just a few of the ways that an Israeli wedding differs from a traditional American wedding. It's something I hope everyone has the pleasure of experiencing once in a lifetime. Having lived in Israel for nearly a year and a half and having gone to as many weddings as we have, I really sometimes wish I had been able to have my very own Israeli wedding. It's such a different experience and such an exciting occasion. I'm already looking forward to the next one, just a few weeks away!