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Monday, November 30, 2009

From the Outside Looking In

I was recently more determined than usual not to be late for a wedding I was attending. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to miss the chuppah, but I had a special ‘job’, taking care of and explaining everything connected to the wedding ceremony to the kallah’s non-Jewish family.

Most brides are nervous on their wedding day, but a kallah who has only recently joined the Jewish People and made our life, her life, is inevitably going to be extra nervous. Added to that she was worrying about her family. How would they mix with her new orthodox Jewish family and friends. How would they react to all the “strange” things going on around them that they didn’t understand. .
I glanced around the ladies’ side of the hall quickly, assuming I would spot them easily. Amongst the small group of religious women who were already there my eyes searched for any ladies whose manner of dress appeared different..
But I saw none.
I asked the chatan’s sister where the kallah’s parents were.
She pointed out a middle aged lady dressed in long sleeves with her hair fully covered by an attractive beret and two young ladies in their twenties with long dresses.

I sighed with relief. Sarah was right. They really must be taking her decision well and were obviously trying hard to comply with all her requests.

Sarah, the kallah, had said her parents and siblings, all religious Christians, had accepted her decision happily. She had remained in constant contact with them and had been back to visit them in Europe several times since she started on her new path.
But she was still worried that maybe when they came over to Israel and saw her in her new surroundings, things might not be so clear-cut.

“This is all so wonderful”, her mother said, after I introduced myself .”Everyone is so happy and there is such lovely music.”
She’s right, I thought. The chatting, laughing, smiling friends and family as well as the good wishes and mazel tovs which were poured on Sarah and her family, as she sat radiantly in her kallah chair, made a stark contrast to the silent formality of most non-Jewish weddings.
“If you have any questions or don’t understand what’s going on” I said, “I’ll try and explain it to you”
“Oh” one of her sisters said excitedly. “ We know what’s going to happen now and it’s so beautiful”
I wondered what she was going to say.
“Her groom is going to come and check that she’s Rachel and not Leah” she said smiling. “ I think it’s the most wonderful, beautiful thing. You remember your Bible so well and all these years later you want to make sure that the groom is marrying the right bride and is not being cheated. It is so beautiful”.
I’d never heard the “bedecken” ceremony described with such joy and praise as it was with her lilting European accent.
I turned to look at the kallah, so pale and shy; so beautiful and so nervous.
Her chatan was orthodox from birth, so he had his family and long standing friends as a support system, surrounding him.
But Sarah was comparatively alone with her thoughts. She was surrounded by her friends and her new family and the people with whom she had learnt all about her new life. But she had only known most of the people here for a relatively short time.

Sarah’s new family had accepted her into their midst with love, explaining everything carefully and completely trying to never let her feel lacking or out of place.
But having never been in her situation we could only guess at her feelings and probable inner turmoil.

She was led to her chuppah flanked by her mother-in-law on one side and the Rabbanit with whom she had learnt on her other side . The Rabbanit was also holding Sarah’s mother’s hand so she too would feel a part of the ceremony.

“It was so beautiful” her mother said to me after the chuppah was over. “ She will be happy. I know she will have a good life here. I see it here and in the streets. People are happy. I understand that many religious people here don’t have much money, but they have much joy and many children and that is so much better. In our country people have money, they have big houses. They have many big cars and they work all day. But they aren’t happy.”

The dancing started and I linked arms with Sarah’s mother and her sister. Within minutes they had caught on to the simple dance steps and were whizzing round like pros. They were whirling and diving and humming along to the tune while Sarah in contrast stayed shyly in the center of the circle moving her feet slowly a gentle smile on her face.

And then as I looked at them all I understood the difference in their behavior. Sarah’s non-Jewish family were looking at us from the outside. Yes, they saw the beauty of our customs , our families and our way of life . But it was a detached admiration. It had nothing to do with changing their way of life. Tomorrow they would be on their plane home to Europe, their Jewish experience just a happy, interesting memory.

But Sarah was moving slowly , probably thinking about her future, considering her new role as a Jewish wife; thinking about all the new mitzvot she would now be taking on. Her soft smile and the faraway look on her face showed her thoughts were not completely on the dancing going on around her.
She had many other more important things to think about.


Rosalind Adam said...

It's always the dancing that people remember. In fact those are the most fondest memories of my son, Martin's wedding, the frilly parasol and ribbons on the ladies' side, the enthusiasm and energy on the men's side. It must be even more beautiful in Israel than in Manchester on what was a cold January day.

Reb Mordechai said...

Comment: You make it sound as if Sarah had only just converted in order to marry this boy. This is obviously not the case.

It reminds me of a story about a rabbinic student who went to a family wedding. Standing there trying to look as Rabinic as possible he was aproached by a woman who seemed to know who he was. After some small chat she asked him what he thought of Jews marrying out. He answered that it was a terrible thing and that the Jew was breaking the chain of 4,000 years of being Hashem's special people. The woman replied that she found his remarks interesting because her husband had married a non-Jewish woman! The Rabbinic student had no idea how to react. The woman tried to answer for him. She told him that after all, we both shared the same 10 commandments. To this the student replied "Oh yer? How about 'I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery'"?