A Portrait of My Wedding

After only two hours of sleep, I woke up on Aug. 13, 2000, to the sounds of drizzle hitting my hotel window. With a pit in my stomach, I got out of bed — terrified and excited all at once. It was my wedding day, the culmination of three months of harried planning. I desperately wanted everything about this day to be perfect, to reflect the perfect love that Brad and I shared.

I scanned the piles around my room: my veil, bridesmaids gifts, personal belongings I would need for the few days following the wedding and lavender Wedding Guides I composed explaining to my guests all the traditional customs and rites they would be a part of that day. That last item made me a bit uptight. "Will my family and friends be utterly lost?" I wondered. After all, I had not become Orthodox until I was 20, and my parents, three sisters, relatives and friends could not believe the transformation. They just soothed themselves with the old adage, "live and let live."

Brad, who also became religious in his 20s, comes from a similar background. Actually, his mother is vehemently Reform, and loudly voices her objections to everything we do (in a sweet way, of course).

Fast-forward three hours and two hairstyles later, as the guests arrive. There is a lot of excitement on two floors. Brad and the men are at the chosen’s tisch (the groom’s table) where a great deal of legal business is being transacted: the tenaim (marriage contract) are agreed upon and signed by two witnesses, ditto for the ketubbah. And in between, Chasidic Lubavitchers that Brad studied with were toasting jubilant L’Chaims, while his college and medical school buddies were trying to make sense of what was going on and what they were supposed to do.

"I hadn’t seen Brad in five years, and just as I was about to give Brad a high-five, he started reading this blessing in Aramaic," recalled his long-time friend Jon. (Editor’s note: the blessing was a meimer, a discourse from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe.) "It went on for so long, I thought we would miss the party upstairs with all the women."

Suddenly, the moment I dreamed of! Accompanied by spirited music, Brad arrived upstairs for the bedeking (covering the bride). This was no ordinary arrival. It was more like a parade of cheering fans extending far behind him, singing jubilant wedding melodies and clapping. The excitement was palpable as Brad approached my throne, whispered in my ear, blessed me in the verses of the Kohanim, the priestly blessing, and draped my veil over my head. With that, he was gone.

This was exactly how I wanted my wedding — imbued with meaning and tradition. I was so grateful to the Almighty for sending me my beshert (soulmate), who exceeded my every expectation and dream, I might add. Throughout my wedding, I thanked God for all the goodness he bestowed upon me and prayed for our future. It is so important to pray at your own wedding, for there is no greater opportunity for divine intervention.

On their wedding day, a bride and groom each experience a Yom Kippur of a lifetime and are forgiven for any past wrongdoing. This is the purest and most auspicious day of our lives and should be taken advantage of. The spiritual ascendance that accompanied our wedding also provided a tremendous opportunity to pray for people who were ill or were in need of divine assistance in any regard. Needless to say, under the chuppah, I had a lengthy list of friends, and friends of friends, all seeking their beshert.

The chuppah was the most remarkable part of our wedding. Luckily, our rabbi was hysterically funny and made everyone feel comfortable, inspired and entertained, all at once. We also added some unique customs to the service, such as calling up all the Kohanim from the crowd to bless us in the same verses they traditionally bless the congregation during the holidays. This was quite humorous because Brad is a Kohen, as are his father, brothers, uncles, cousins and so forth. They are not religious, however, and had no advance knowledge this would be sprung upon them. We wanted it to be a surprise and I purposely omitted it from the Wedding Guide. I did, however, photocopy sheets with the transliteration of the verses. It was still a struggle, nonetheless, but it looked great on the wedding video! Just picture 30-something men with tallitot draped over their heads blessing us as we stood in our chuppah!

Next, we called up one of Brad’s single friends (who used to attend Jewish singles events with him) to finish off the cups of wine used during the betrothal and marriage blessings. Another surprise! "That was really tough," he recalled.

But in between the laughs and bewilderment, I could envision what my proper, erudite grandmother was thinking.

"At least the wedding was at a country club," she said later, "and you and Brad should just be very happy together."

Surprisingly, many guests remarked that this was the longest and most exciting marriage ceremony they had ever witnessed.

"That was the best part," recalled my former co-worker and friend, Henry. "You want to know something funny? Sotoko [his Japanese wife who had just arrived in America and barely spoke English] just assumed this was what an American wedding was like."

Not everyone was pleased with the separate dancing, and my parents even tried to sneak in a dance together, which quickly got broken up.

"What’s the big deal," my mother protested. "It’s not like your Dad and I are not married," I recollect my mother saying.

I can recall being lowered in my seat from high in the air (think: last bar mitzvah you attended) and being placed side by side with Brad. Next came the performances and out came the wedding "shtick," accouterments to enhance their performance. Suddenly, the Orthodox guests among us were in costume and juggling, others did solo dance performances, some ladies passed out party hats and streamers, and our short rabbi was dancing on a taller guest’s shoulders. Then, a few young guys stepped forward and the celebration was in full swing, literally. One guy swung another by his arms, as a third jumped over his flying legs, which served as a jump rope.

"It was so crazy, I have never seen anything like it," recalled my bubbly 20-year-old sister, Shanna, on the phone. "I liked the Israeli songs, but it would have been nice to have some English dance songs, too."

My father felt awkward dancing with only guys, so aside from trying to sneak in a dance with my mother, he just shmoozed and ate to his heart’s delight.

"The wedding was lovely," he told me the other day, "and filled with spirit and energy. That was really special."

As our party favor, we gave out wedding benchers (booklets of grace after meals). To our dismay, and reflecting the demographic of our bunch, two-thirds of the benchers were left behind on the table at the end of the wedding. Poor Uncle Lenny had been assigned the task of collecting them. We had so many left over that we donated them to a struggling kosher pizza parlor in Maryland.

Unfortunately, our guests bid us adieu after the dessert. In other words, hardly anyone, save for our immediate families, stayed for the Birkat HaMazon (the benching after meals, hence, the benchers on the table). This ritual included reciting the Sheva Brachot, the special marital blessings recited under the chuppah, and every day for a week thereafter. You need a minyan of 10 men, and we didn’t meet our quorum. It was so embarrassing — we had to pull the men from the band! So, the music stopped, they recited the "Sheva Brachot" and the wedding ended anti-climatically.

I was too happy to care. After all, each ending marks a new beginning. For us, it is parenthood.

There must be something to those "Sheva Brachot."

Soriya Daniels is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She frequently writes about Jewish affairs.