Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of experiencing a proper Jewish wedding. Growing up Roman Catholic, you don’t get to attend many of those. My mother’s decision to marry outside of the faith granted me a dual-upbringing for which I’m forever grateful.
The short 48 hours I spent in Philly over Labor Day Weekend were potent and pleasing, as I watched my cousin Sarah and her “ex-fiancé” Jeff — he coined the term — pen their latest chapter in life.
I had been looking forward to the wedding, and a change of scenery, since my first true summer of adulthood well warranted a weekend getaway. What I had failed to realize was that the trip would also be a further confirmation that I, and subsequently my family, are getting older, but the heartened pomp and circumstance that surrounded the Kurz-Koller matrimony made me unafraid of the future. It made me unafraid to feel and experience life through a new lens.
I believe it was mostly due in part to the Jewish traditions that were woven into the wedding, and while I was unfamiliar with some of the customs, they had somehow magically inspired a sacred community among guests, most of whom were strangers to one another. But by the time the weekend was over I found myself hugging some of those strangers, holding them close as we said goodbye.
The invitation instructed guests to meet the married couple under the “chuppah” — a canopy that symbolizes the home they’ve begun to build and share. But Alyssa, how could they be married if they haven’t exchanged rings or vows or any of those other standby sacraments? Good question! The morning of the wedding, Sarah and Jeff signed a “ketubah,” a legal Jewish marriage contract that details the commitments and obligations a couple makes to each other as husband and wife.
Before the ceremony the men and women were separated into two rooms, giving each group a chance to share words of advice and admiration for the bride and groom. This is a Hasidic custom known as a “tish.” The lady tish took place in a curtained-off area that would eventually serve as the space for cocktail hour.
In one corner of the room, a decorated white armoire displayed photos of the lovebirds through different phases in their lives. I had recognized a few of Sarah from my grandmother’s former home in Rosedale. I hadn’t seen them in years.
Sarah had asked her closest friends and relatives to speak on her behalf. They shared anecdotes detailing her adventurous youth, her selfless nature, and the seamless way in which she brings people together, which made everyone better for it. Her med school friends seemed to materialize song sheets from their flowy floral gowns, and distributed them among the generations of women. We sang “In My Life,” “I’m Yours,” and “Stand By Me,” with sweet soprano voices that filled the air with hopeful song.
Suddenly, a boisterous baritone chorus, sung in Hebrew, rumbled from the stairwell outside of our tish. As the curtain drew, a flood of men surged into the crowd, bringing the groom to his fated bride. They danced with measured chaos and clapped along to the music, which was provided by a three-piece band of merry Jewish men, supposedly the same group that had played my aunt’s wedding decades before.
We filed into chairs in front of the chuppah and watched the processional: the rabbi, the couple’s siblings, and then Jeff and his parents followed by Sarah and hers. The canopy — the same one under which Jeff’s parents were wed — was supported upon poles held by friends of the happy couple.
During the “hakafot” Sarah and Jeff circled each other three times, then circled once together, creating a symbol of give and take, as well as compromise. After exchanging rings and vows, seven friends presented seven blessings to the budding family. This is known as “sheva brachot,” and consecrated for the Koller’s a lifetime of partnership, intimacy, laughter, growth, health and community.
After triumphantly breaking the glass, a custom better known to me, Jeff kissed his bride. And before disappearing for their “yichud” — a moment where the bride and groom share their first moments as husband and wife — Sarah and Jeff not only acknowledged their resounding love for one another, but also for every single person that shared in their special day. They made note of the ever-present community of colleagues and cousins, family and friends, who helped create the everlasting memory with unfettered support and unconditional love.
And as I danced, shuffled, and laughed my way through the most intense “hora” in recorded history, I thought of those strangers, now my forever family, and the love that had grown between Sarah and Jeff, which they had transplanted in each of us, unknowingly, through the timeless traditions of the Jewish faith. That weekend gave me so much more than another cousin to count; it gave me irrevocable and unabashed joy.