A Nightmare on Wedding Street

As a little girl, Anna* always dreamed of a perfect wedding. Then, at 32, after a three-and-a-half-year engagement, she was ready to realize that dream. But recently, what she thought was going to be a dream, turned into a nightmare.

First, there were the fights with her mother over the menu. Anna wanted her wedding reception to consist only of a large Viennese dessert table and no main course. But her mother declared that this was not proper, demanding a more conventional sit-down meal.

She and her mother spent the next couple of weeks fighting and sobbing about how much to feed their guests. At one point, Anna called her mother and uninvited her to the wedding.

But that was only the beginning.

Anna says that her future machatanim (in-laws) did not like her, nor did they hide their feelings. She says that just months before the wedding, her in-laws called their son to beg him to date other people. Anna says she declared war.

"I will never forgive them, and will never let them see our future children," she promised her future husband.

Anna’s experience in planning her Jewish wedding might be more typical than the blissful experience portrayed in most wedding magazines. In today’s world, with fractured and fractious families, the wedding simcha can be marred by hundreds of details that only the bride, groom, rabbis, photographers and wedding planners can understand.

"There are never really any two families with exactly the same values or traditions, or with the perfect satisfaction over their child’s choice for a mate," said Rabbi Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am. "On top of that, as with any other elaborate occasion, the wedding generates its own life — its own problems, anxieties and frustrations." Pressman said that all brides and grooms in this situation should sit down with their future in-laws and try to soften any harsh feelings. "It is much easier to go on fighting and hating your in-laws than trying to go forward on good terms," he said.

Like Anna, Rachel* and Ben* are also marrying in the fall. Yet, the tone of their wedding differs considerably. Both have raised families (this is Ben’s third marriage and Rachel’s second) and both sets of parents have passed away.

The wedding will be simple, yet elegant. But in a way, it will be more emotionally difficult than Anna’s wedding. "I only wish that I could hear the voices of my parents bickering about the ceremony," Rachel said.

But many couples are not like Ben and Rachel when it comes to their parents. Pressman said he has witnessed numerous absurd arguments, such as parents insisting that they decide on the seating arrangements. He said that he tries to intervene to discover the underlying issue. "Does it really make that big of a difference where you sit? Is it worth damaging the lives of your children?" he might ask the parents.

To the couple, he might say, "Perhaps the real issue for your parents is not the seating arrangement. It is really about their feelings of loss and desperation to … control their children one more time."

Pressman recalled one disastrous wedding: "One time, I officiated at a marriage in which the groom’s father and mother were divorced. His mother was an alcoholic and the father had remarried.

"The groom’s mother called me and said, ‘If you let that b—h [the father’s new wife] stand under the chuppah with him, I will shout my head off and destroy the wedding.’ The father’s wife then called me and threatened, ‘If you let that drunk come to this wedding, I will leave,’" Pressman said.

It turned out, the rabbi said, continuing the story, that both women came to the wedding. The bride and groom were suffering from the flu and had to sit on chairs under the chuppah. The drunken mother screamed her head off. The groom fainted, fell off his chair and his wine spilled all over the bride’s gown. The bridesmaid and usher were knocked off their feet. "Wheelchairs were carrying people back and forth…. It was crazy!" said Pressman with a laugh.

He said this was certainly an exception. "Out of the hundreds of weddings that I have officiated at, only one was ever called off."

Yet, most Jewish weddings are not like those in the movies. Brides tend not to run from the altar, since they are too focused on other things.

Professional videographer David Stern agreed: "Many times, the bride, groom or parents come to me after the wedding in shock. They swear that their minds went blank, and they completely forgot what happened during the ceremony … they were too wrapped up in their emotions."

Wedding photographer Darryl Temkin added, "As the saying goes, if a couple can make it through the wedding, then they certainly can survive anything else."