Someone Else’s Simcha A Couple From an Ancient Jewish Sect Ties the Knot, modern-Israel Style

In the central Israel city of Ramle, a major hub of Karaite Jewry, two newlyweds try to sustain a centuries-old tradition, despite getting little support from the state.

Location: Calypso reception hall and garden

Time: 8 P.M.

In the neighborhood: A ring of green neon light, hanging from a mosque minaret illuminates dark, densely packed alleys of the old city of Ramla. Further in the background, the watchtower of the city’s iconic Franciscan monastery rises above a sea of one-story houses and floodlit date trees.

Venue: An expansive lawn and garden, dotted by towering date trees, and partially covered in a wooden deck, is surrounded by an ancient stone wall. Inside the hall, LED video walls flash ever-changing images on the few dozen white-clothed tables.

Simcha: Oded and Almog’s wedding

Number of guests: ~300

A brief history of time: Oded, 27, a car appraiser, is the only child of Eli and Shulamit Levy, raised in a secular Karaite in Ramle, one of the biggest centers for Karaite Judaism in the country. Almog, 20, a kindergarten teacher, was born to Rivka and Rahamim Shukrun, the fourth of five children, raised in Jerusalem by a Karaite mother and a Rabbinical Jewish father. Both Oded and Almog will be getting married without their fathers, having lost them both - Eli and Rahamim - to illness in the last few years.

Karaite Judaism: A Jewish movement, unrecognized by mainstream, or Rabbinic Judaism, characterized by what it considers to be a literal interpretation of the laws of the Torah. As part of this reading of Jewish holy texts, Karaite Jews do not recognize later interpretations and additions, such as those codified in the Mishnah and the Talmud, and, as a result do not recognize the authority of Rabbinic Judaism.

As a result, Karaite Jews do not follow the same customs as Rabbinic Jews, such as tefillin, prayers in Aramaic, and don’t celebrate holidays that aren’t mentioned in the Torah, such as Hanukkah.

Once a major sect within Judaism, their numbers have dwindled considerably throughout the years, with the largest community residing in Israel and made up mainly of men and women of Egyptian or Iraqi extraction.

Photo by Gil Cohen-Magen

Oded: “It’s hard being a Karaite today, because you represent a minority, and it’s hard being a minority, especially when that minority isn’t backed by the state.”

Rites: Guests, bareheaded and bearing yarmulkes, stream into the ancient courtyard, and immediately take to chatting and nibbling away at the several outdoor food stations.

Nissim, an elderly gentlemen speaking of the difference between a Karatie chuppah and its Rabbinic counterpart: “If you go to ten Rabbinic ceremonies you’ll see ten different ceremonies, every rabbi does it differently. With us it’ll always be the same.”

One by one the 10 witnesses required for the ceremony, as opposed to the two required in the rabbinic counterpart, rise to the stage, signing the ketubah under the watchful eye of Chief Karaite Rabbi Moshe Ben Yosef Firuz.

Photo by Gil Cohen-Magen

Finally, guests are invited to gather round the chuppah, as moms Shulamit and Rivka nervously wait for the happy couple alongside Rabbi Firuz and his aide and the evening’s MC Maor.

First up is Oded, appearing in a black suit at the far side of the aisle accompanied by a vocal group of about a dozen young men in white buttoned-down shirts, singing traditional Karaite songs, and walking abreast of each other toward the chuppah. Finally, a very smiling and very nervous Oded arrives at his mother’s side.

Next, it’s Almog’s turn to make an appearance, wearing a flowing white gown and accompanied by her four sisters. Again, the vocal group breaks in song, continuing to sing as Oded steps out of the chuppah to escort his bride to be to the site of the ceremony as sparklers erupt on either side.

Photo by Gil Cohen-Magen

The ceremony commences, led by Rabbi Firuz, with only a few perceptible changes from a rabbinic wedding, including the blessing of the ring, a ketubah written in Hebrew as opposed to Aramaic (as well as mentioning Israeli President Reuven Rivlin), and the mutual exchange of rings. Maor, the Chief Rabbi’s aide: “The ceremony highlights equality between the sexes.”

Then the couple is wrapped in a new tallit, with blue-and-white fringes, and the blessing portion of the ceremony commences, accompanied by yet more songs by the Bnei Mikrah choir.

Finally, the glass is brought forth and broken, despite the fact that the breaking of the glass was never an official part of the Karaite ceremony. Maor: “We didn’t use to break the glass, because such a mourning rite was never mentioned in the Torah. We used to place ashes on the head, but times are changing and we won’t stand in people’s way.”

Photo by Gil Cohen-Magen

The sky fills with an impressive display of fireworks, as adoring friends and family flood the newlyweds before going inside to eat and dance.

Nissim, on whether or not older Karaim insist that their children marry inside the sect: “You raise a child up form nothing, you give it a foundation. But whether he comes home with X or Y, there’s nothing you can do about that. You can’t take them by the ears.”

Music: Liturgical Karaite songs, Middle Eastern pop and dance hits.

Food: Hors d’oeuvres consisting of pickled fish, vegetables, stir fry, tortilla station and cold cuts. First course: Vegetarian pastry, Jerusalem mixed grill, tilapia fillet. Main course: Spring chicken, whole Nile perch, and beefsteak.

Photo by Gil Cohen-Magen

Drink: Soft drinks, wine, water, and a lot of vodka.

Word in the ear: Oded, on the Karaite community’s ceaseless struggle to gain recognition from the state: “Sometimes the state defines us as Jews, and others it doesn’t. If it’s to do with the army, then we’re enlisted just like everyone else, but when it’s time [for the state] to give, they say ‘no, they don’t count as Jews.’”

In my spiritual doggy bag: That the various, quite different Israeli minority groups tend to feel the same way about the state’s treatment of them, and that they aren’t very flowery thoughts.

Random quote: After Rabbi Firuz reads the psalm ״He who finds a wife finds what is good” a guest in the crowd cries out: “What’s even better!”

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