Someone Else’s Simcha / Yoel and Dvorah’s Wedding: A Peek Behind the Hasidic Veil

Ron Ben-Tovim
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Ron Ben-Tovim

Location: Keter Harimon reception hall

Time: 7 P.M.

In the neighborhood: A large clock, an illuminated Star of David at its center, sits atop the minaret-like tower of a massive shopping center situated at the heart of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. From the dizzying height of the rooftop parking lot, a field of tiny windows sparkles yellow and white in the chilly winter night.

Venue: Waterfalls, painted blue and green by embedded light fixtures, converge into a small stream at the entrance of the hall, made traversable by two wooden bridges — one leading to the women’s section and the other to the men’s. Clumps of men and women, each on their respective sides, chat between indoor palm trees.

Simcha: Dvorah and Yoel’s wedding

Number of guests: ~ 1,000

Tying the knot: In something of a Someone Else’s Simcha first, Dvorah ("Dvori") and Yoel’s ("Yoli") wedding is not the first time we have bumped into the young couple, scions of the admorim, or "heads," of two Hasiduyot, or "Hasidic Jewish sects" — the Kretchnif-Spinka of Brooklyn, New York, and the Sassov of Ganei Tikavh, Israel. After attending their tnoyim, or "engagement ceremony," a few months back, we were invited by Dvori, 20, and her future husband, Yoli, 20, to attend their wedding as well. Here we go.

Rites: The wide hall housing the men’s side of the celebration, packed though it is with hundreds of Hasidim, is meticulously separated into various subsections.

To the left of the hall, rows of steep parentches, or "bleachers," are packed with Hasidim of both Hasiduyot, divided into sections. At the center, surrounded by barricades and guarded by reception hall officials, complete with secret-service-style earpieces and invisible microphones, tables are laid out with plates and light starters reserved for those guests who received a personal invitation.

To the right, directly opposite the parentches, a long, lavish dais is set up, seating the many respected family members and guests. Yoel is at the center, flanked by his father, grandfather and Dvori’s father, all adorned with delicate shtreimels, or "fur hats." Above their heads, a huge banner reads “The Sassov Spinka- Kretshnif simcha” — the words accentuated with a painted golden crown. Former Chief Rabbi Israel Lau drops by to congratulate the families before melting away through one of the exits.

In the back of the hall, the evening’s band, made up of a keyboard player and nine singers, sends Yiddish niguns, or "Jewish songs," into the air. Opposite the band, and near the entrance, masses of walk-in guests huddle to get a view of the stage. Two Hasidim try to make eye contact with one of the admorim, holding up iPhones to capture the moment.

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The Kretchnif-Spinka rebbe dancing with his new daughter-in-law.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
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Hasidim before the wedding.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
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The bride before the wedding.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

The MC invites everyone to the chuppah, or "wedding canopy," and a wave of Hasidim in every manner of frak, or "long coat" and shtreimel, rushes to the roof, where the chuppah is set up on a raised wooden platform. Hasidim jostle for a view of the stage, while respected guests enter a reserved section at the foot of the platform. The heads of young women and girls pop up from behind the white screen, as Dvori, clad in white and wearing a heavy white veil ascends the stage, accompanied by the two mothers, both wearing black.

Once atop the stage, the three women circle Yoli seven times, as the choir, which set up shop on the roof, blasts sullen songs. Dvori’s six sisters crowd the metal stairs leading to the chuppah to catch a glimpse of the ceremony. Above the crowd, the residents of a retirement home situated in one of the nearby towers lean against their windows, inspecting the action.

The blessings commence, and, sooner than expected, the glass is shattered. A muffled “mazal tov” runs through the crowd, as the ceremony continues with the seven blessings and the reading of the ketubah, or "wedding contract." Dvori’s father, visibly emotional throughout the ceremony, blesses the new couple, followed by a much more subdued salutation by Yoli’s father (“Joy and wellbeing”).

Finally, happy music and dancing commence. The young couple is rushed toward the yichud room to share a moment alone. Soon enough, tables are set for the admorim to sit and give blessings to those who want them. Naturally, many want, to the point where the barricades set up to create lines collapse, sending one Hasid falling all the way to the concrete floor below. Several Hasidim quickly schlep him away, and the blessings continue, as an ambulance siren wails in the background.

Back under the roof, the meal portion of the evening kicks off. Hundreds of walk-in guests rush the buffets set up on the public side of room, and the personal guests sit at the tables set up within the inner sanctum. Young workers, humming to the Hasidic music in the background, push shopping carts of trash from the public eating area in an endless and almost fruitless effort to clear mounds of plastic cups, plates and chicken bones.

Here and there, beggars in worn-out frocks and kippas, visiting the public eating area for a free meal, ask patrons for spare change, blessing and thanking the donors.

Following a long break for eating and waiting for the young couple to exit the yichud room, workers energetically clear the central seating area, creating a wide empty space, bordered by barricades meant to keep the mass of Hasidim out.

At about 1 A.M., the women begin to file into the men’s hall, concentrating on the further side of the room, with Dvori, now wearing a much lighter veil, her sisters and the two mothers in front. The admorim set up on the other side of the newly formed dance floor, and the stage is finally set for the mitzvah tantz — a traditional dance between the respected elders of the event and the new bride, as each side holds the end of a gertel, or "rope belt," so as to maintain the bride’s modesty.

First things first, however, as Yoel comes over to sit next to his wife, the two chatting smilingly to each other now and again, when not anxiously sitting and waiting their turn. The choir, ever in the background, begins to pick up the pace, as the entire crowd gets on its feet.

The first dance commences. The gertel is spread between Dovri and Yoli’s grandfather, and the latter begins to dance feverishly, sending the Kretshnif section of the crowd into a frenzy. All the while, Dvori stands still, makes sure to take up any slack in the rope and covers her eyes in silent prayer.

The ritual is then repeated, next with Yoli’s father and finally with her own father, who dances before his daughter without the rope and without getting near her. Both father and daughter are emotional and show signs of fatigue. The Sassov admor breaks several times for a drink of water, while his faithful rattle the bleachers with their dancing feet.

At around 3 A.M., following their final dance together and before Dvori’s possible move to her new home in Brooklyn, the bride retreats back to the women’s section as the barricades go down and the entire floor is filled with dancing men.

Music: Hasidic choir music

Food: Salads, chicken wings, beef stir-fry, mini-quiches, cholent, kugel (sweet and savory) and an assortment of cakes and desserts

Drink: Soft drinks and wine

Word in the ear: Dvori, on the lavish standard of high-end Hasidic weddings: “They [the reception halls] themselves can’t afford to lower the standard because they cater to admorim and their children, so they don’t give up the two glasses they place and decorative things. It’s for them, not so much for us. We didn’t ask for it. It’s like a commercial for them. When 3,000 people show up, it’s a commercial for them.”

In my spiritual doggy bag: The sadness and joy felt at Hasidic weddings is as much ceremonial as it is real, which, to an extent, could be said of all weddings.

Random quote: Yosef, an elderly Hasid, on the length of the break between the chuppah and the mitzvah tantz: “It’s not about how many cups of coffee you can drink, but how many times you’re going to visit the bathroom.”

Want to take part in Someone Else’s Simcha? Want to invite Haaretz to your family celebration? Send word to: HaaretzSimcha@gmail.com

The Sassov rebbe dancing with his daughter, the bride.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

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