ultra-Orthodox wedding
An ultra-Orthodox wedding. Photo by Alex Levac
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It's a Thursday evening, and a young ultra-Orthodox couple make their way along a busy street on the outskirts of Bnei Brak. With perplexed expressions suggesting they don't live in the area, and clad in elegant if somewhat somber garments, they negotiate a path through a crowded commercial area, past women and men burdened with strollers and shopping baskets. At the corner of two narrow streets, near the smelly backyard of a grocery store, they come upon a marriage canopy. The couple, wedding guests, realize they have arrived at their destination.

They part at once. The young husband strides toward the men gathered around the chuppah, while his wife crowds into the cluster of women on the side. As time passes, before their eyes, the space between the buildings opposite them fills with additional marriage canopies. Other brides, their faces covered in veils, enter them one after the other, encircling their swaying grooms.

The uniform appearance of the weddings is the stuff that creates urban legends about brides who stood under the marriage canopy with a groom from a different wedding. However, in a community that mass-produces joyous occasions - ritual circumcisions, bar-mitzvah ceremonies and weddings - the plethora of events halls is necessitated by reality.

The complexes housing such halls, situated in several stories of buildings, are jammed among yeshivas and food stores in a part of Bnei Brak that is conveniently located near one of the exits from the city and close to a main traffic artery. Here people from outlying ultra-Orthodox areas, from Haifa in the north to Ofakim in the south, also hold their marriage ceremonies.

According to Prof. Avi Degani, president of the consultancy and applied research Geocartography Knowledge Group, the ultra-Orthodox public celebrates 7,700 weddings annually. Most of the brides and grooms are between the ages of 18 and 22. Within a year or two they will be embracing their first child. Marriage at an early age, along with the many births, accounts for the impressive increase in the size of the Haredi population. Each wedding symbolizes the success of an education system that directs every boy and girl to marry. The achievement of this goal makes the wedding itself a climactic event. The financial investment and the planning that go into it reflect its centrality in the life of the community and its individual members.

Expensive basics

The wedding is perceived as the summit of happiness, but the way to it can be paved with crises, especially for the parents, for whom it can constitute a tremendous economic burden. A wedding is also an expense for secular parents, of course, but in ultra-Orthodox families, most of which are relatively poor, an expense like this, occurring perhaps seven or eight times, year after year, is a huge strain.

"It's an industrial process, which must take place," explains Prof. Elor, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "However, when it is a matter of lots of children who need to be married off, the uniqueness of an extraordinary experience melts away. For a parent, it's an emotional effort replete with uncertainties and economic anxieties. In ultra-Orthodox society, it's a very standard part in the lives of parents who reach the age of 40."

In a public characterized by vast wealth among the few and dire poverty among the many, the economic gaps are painfully obvious at these weddings. According to data supplied by the ultra-Orthodox Afikim advertising agency, the cost of simpler events - the choice of most members of the ultra-Orthodox community - ranges from NIS 30,000 to NIS 40,000 at the standard halls, and about half that at the venues subsidized by charitable organizations. People of means can spend a great deal more.

About 300 to 400 guests, members of the family and the closest circle of friends, sit around the tables, with men separated from women. During the course of the festivities, additional guests will drop in to dance and offer congratulations. These "gladdeners," as they are called, do not get the full sit-down meal. For them, there is a drinks-and-salads bar at the entrance to the hall.

The main expense of a wedding, in fact, is the help parents give to the young couple in buying an apartment. According to the Afikim data, parents of both sides pay jointly a sum of up to $100,000, when it is a matter of an apartment in one of the new ultra-Orthodox towns (Betar Ilit, Modi'in Ilit and Elad ), and double that for apartments in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak - for those who can afford them, of course.

In families of more limited means, the young couple moves out to the periphery, such as Kiryat Ata, Ofakim and Harish. This applies mainly to the Lithuanian (Ashkenazi ) community. Mizrahi families or Ashkenazi Hasidim traditionally invest more in the wedding itself and pay the couple's rent during the first two years of marriage. After that they help according to their ability. When you multiply the expenses by the number of children - seven, eight or more - in families where there is one breadwinner, the wife, because the husband usually studies in a kollel (a yeshiva for married men ), the result is sometimes bankruptcy.

H. from Bnei Brak, the mother of nine children, who has already married off eight of them, relates: "I've been dealing with this for years now. I am barely managing, with a bit from here and a bit from there, but there are families that become impoverished. How do people manage? I know a number of families that sold their apartments in Bnei Brak in order to be able to buy inexpensive apartments for several children. At the other end of the spectrum, you can also see families who hold an event at the Dimol hall [a prestigious venue in Ramat Gan]. Deep down, I scorn this parade of ostentation. There is a wealthier class among us and with them the weddings are a matter of status. It's a show. And when they have the wherewithal, they won't pass up on any of the razzmatazz: a six-piece band, a master of ceremonies, klezmer musicians and more."

According to H., the weddings in her family have been "modest." She describes the scene: "In a hall that looks like a soup kitchen they've decorated a bit. Every portion cost NIS 60. Why should I feed 400 people [a full meal]? People collapse from that. For me the nicest part of a wedding is when I leave the hall and realize I've gotten through another wedding."

The tension begins during the matchmaking period. According to H., this is a time "full of tension and worry. Between one child and the next, I needed time to recover." She is irked by the demand for a "full arrangement" - a social convention in the Lithuanian community whereby yeshiva students demand an apartment, furnishings and help with the monthly living expenses for several years as a condition for a match with a daughter. Among the Hasidim, this arrangement is egalitarian: half and half.

"When people phone me to offer a match for my daughter, the starting point is first of all money," she explains. "One of the key questions is: 'What's your [financial] ability? I start stuttering and get out of it with a vague statement. After all, we don't have very much 'ability.' The people who give birth, support the family and carry a heavy burden are the wives. And still a boy is a valuable and expensive thing. You have to pay for both his head and his pants. And if a fellow is well thought of at yeshiva his parents will have demands from here to the Caribbean Islands. When my son was in the matchmaking phase, we too had demands and if there wasn't financial means, we rejected matches outright. That's how it is. But our son took us for a rough ride, because he [also] met with dozens of girls and ruled them out. And therefore, when we met the one he married in the end, and we realized she was pretty and intelligent and vibrant and successful at work, the money was a trivial detail."

Collateral damage

A common joke has it that every time an ambulance siren is heard in Bnei Brak, it is a sign someone has got engaged - because one of the fathers has had a heart attack.

"The parents roll money over," says M., who was married recently - meaning that they borrow from charitable organizations. She says her parents set aside a certain sum every month as an investment for the future, but this is barely enough to marry off their eight children.

The Hasidic communities are more organized, and arrange subsidized events halls. The Gur court has actually issued restrictive regulations, which are compulsory for all members of the community: The young couples must buy apartments in inexpensive areas and a ceiling has been established for all the wedding expenses, down to the cost of gifts and the bride's bouquet.

Yigal Revach of Afikim says the economic situation has led to groups of community activists forming to curb the arrangement by which the girl's parents are expected to pay more than the boy's.

However, ultra-Orthodox journalist Moshe Glasner doubts the efficacy of such social reforms: "This business of buying the bridegroom - if there is a fellow who thinks he is highly valuable and the 'pinnacle of all virtues,' and if on the other side there is a father who has money and wants to buy a bridegroom like that, no one is going to succeed in interfering with the deal."

Revach says the change will happen of its own accord as the economic situation gets worse. "We're already seeing a lot of young people who have received an apartment from their parents and within 10 years they will have to start the process of marrying off their children. One has no idea where they are going to get the money for this."

All these worries go right over the head of the intended bride: For her, getting married is the event that embodies her most romantic fantasies. Weddings are also occasions for presenting young female guests to the public, to the matchmakers, to mothers of potential bridegrooms and to the boys themselves. The more people dance, the flimsier the barriers seem to become, permitting looks and even quick encounters. And indeed the girls are seen at the height of their bloom at weddings - in particular, as compared to the pregnant young wives or mothers with children who are present.

In recent years it has been customary, mainly at weddings among Lithuanian communities, for all the female guests, of any age, to wear black, while the women from the bride's family wear matching evening dresses in a pastel color, which distinguish them among all the rest. This act, taken from the custom of using bridesmaids, also shows the influence of Hollywood movies on the ultra-Orthodox community.

The bride's sisters over the age of 4 have their hair done at a salon in complicated, braided coiffures; relative to their peers, they will look like miniature women. These efforts bear fruit: During the course of the wedding, some of the women who have been invited will take the opportunity to scope out potential brides for their sons.

Tamar Elor says the wedding marks the end of the most beautiful period in the life of a young ultra-Orthodox woman: "Adolescence is a window of opportunity: The girl has a measure of freedom, she has status in the home, she has girlfriends, and nice things happen at the seminary. She goes on trips and to visit her married siblings, she isn't a little girl and her parents let up on their demands for help at home a bit."

At the same time, adds Elor, "Every ultra-Orthodox girl's fantasy is to be a wife and mother. Nowadays this is accompanied by thoughts of pursuing a profession ... It's a time when the family is busy only with her and her welfare."

The engagement period is also characterized by a romantic aura, but mainly, it's a time for a sort of nesting process: The bride-to-be is busy with shopping and has the feeling she is suddenly the center of attention and everyone is trying to please her, soften things for her and watch over her.

According to Elor, apart from the worries, marriage gives parents an opportunity to connect with the daughter or son. "In order to make a match for them, they have to enlist every insight they possess to understand the bride- or groom-to-be. Secular parents don't have an opportunity like this: to try to describe the child's DNA and find an appropriate match according to that. When this works well, there is a kind of joy in the feeling that a match has been made, and this also has a spiritual aspect and mainly a sense of great fulfillment."

In every ultra-Orthodox home there are three or four wedding invitations on the table every month. The frequency of events does not decrease the excitement felt in advance; indeed, each one provides a brief hour of joy during a life full of duties and strictures. From the moment an engagement is arranged until the marriage ceremony, it is as though the young couple is on stage and is serving as a role model. And for the bride's social circle - her girlfriends and the members of her family - every detail connected to the wedding is exciting.

The girls, whose education destines them to become wives, expectantly await their friends' weddings. At the event itself, they look thrilled. They surround the bride, who looks to them like a princess from a fairy tale, and utter the wish "soon by you" to their girlfriends - or perhaps to themselves.