Triumphing Over Tragedy With the Power (And Persistence) of Love

Shani overcame cancer and Erez overcame shyness. Their love is golden - literally - at their Ashdod wedding.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
Erez and Shani’s henna party.
Erez and Shani’s henna party.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

Location: Sahara reception hall, Ashdod

Time: 8 P.M.

In the neighborhood: Long, deep red rays of sun descend on the industrial zone of the southern coastal city of Ashdod, sending long shadows onto the now empty streets. Orange streetlights come on, palely reflecting in the countless windshields of a nearby car lot.

Venue: A two-story structure housing a large electrical appliance store. A side entrance, lined with artificial turf, leads into a medium-sized hall. Large, white-clothed tables fill two sides of the room, with a henna ceremonial space – decorated in gold and red – situated in one corner. A DJ booth, changing color every now and then, blasts out Middle-Eastern pop.

Simcha: Erez and Shani’s henna celebration.

Number of guests: Around 60.

A brief history of time: Shani, 24, a therapeutic horse-riding instructor, was born in France to Sabine and Bernard Benhammo, and raised in a religious-Zionist home alongside older brother Rohi. After her father passed away at a young age, and with the family growing uneasy with Jewish life in France (“Let’s just say it wasn’t like it is now nine years ago, but it was starting”), the Benhammos made aliyah, arriving at the southern city of Ashdod.

Erez, also 24, a high-tech engineer fresh from his military service, was born to Rachel and Eliyahu Rachimi, raised in a religious household in Ramat Gan (and later Modi’in), alongside big sister Malka, and little brothers Gabriel and Arel.

Meeting up: Seeking to find a significant mate at what both considered the ripe “old” age of 23, Shani and Erez’s initial connection was made through a dating website geared at Israel’s religious single men and women. Quickly hitting it off, the couple soon graduated from online messaging to texting (Shani: “He was too nervous to actually call”).

However, life had other, less fortunate plans. Just as the two were getting to know each other, Shani was diagnosed with colon cancer. Having discovered what lay in store, Shani sent Erez an unequivocal text message: “I knew that I had to go through surgery and chemo, and I wasn’t interested to get into [a relationship] because I wouldn’t be in the mood or have the time, so I just told him, ‘Thank you, but I’m not interested.’”

And that was that. Or so she thought.

Recuperating from her surgery, Shani – who was away from her phone for about a week – was approached by her friend. “There’s this guy who won’t stop texting you.” What made him persist? Shani: “You’d have to ask him that.” Erez: “To tell you the truth, I saw something there and I said I had to give it a shot. So yeah, I didn’t give up.”

And what about “not having time”? Shani: “It was good for me, I had something to do. He kept me busy and gave me something to think about.”

Rites: Guests arrive and are greeted by the happy couple, in gold and silver matching ceremonial dress and head covers. While the young couple retreats to get their pictures taken at the henna station, the few family and friends present chat away and take a cigarette break in the cool early-summer air outside.

Orly, of Mama Henna Productions, who will be in charge of the show this evening, guides potential clients around the premises, highlighting the ornamental tables and her colorful offering of traditional dresses and accessories.

Inside, Erez’s parents, dressed in black and white, arrive quietly, trying to get their bearings (Erez: “Our family doesn’t know much about these things”), as Shani’s mom, Sabine, moves hectically from one detail to the next, making sure everything is just right.

Over to the side, Jillette – Shani’s maternal grandmother – prepares the henna paste that will be used in the ceremony. She’s filling in for Sabine, who, being a widow, is prohibited from the preparation.

Soon enough, it’s time for the first grand entrance. The smiling couple is greeted by guests and immediately sent off to dance: Erez with the men on the main dancefloor; Shani with her friends and cousins in an enclosed women’s section in the corner.

After a good, serious dance, everyone sits down for a food break, only to get up and dance again. Each time, guests – mostly women – collect more and more items from Orly’s colorful rack of dresses outside.

By the time we’re set for the ceremony, everyone – men and women – is clad in all forms of galabias and kaftans, with the bride and groom now in an all-red-and-gold garb. Making a grand entrance under a crimson chuppah, a parade of present-and-sweets-bearing guests ululate and dance their way in.

Finally arriving at the talamun (a traditional wedding throne), they pour rice into a bowl, soon giddily sprinkling it all over their guests, including a delirious Jillette. Next, gifts are exchanged (bracelets, a necklace, and a man’s watch) and, finally, the henna is applied – first to the soon-to-be-married couple, then to everyone else.

In the background, Orly’s assistant slowly and quietly places ornamental copperware back in their boxes.

Music: Middle-Eastern pop, Moroccan music, and Hasidic songs, including a few interesting MTV adaptations of liturgical songs.

Food: Finger food for starters, assorted salads. First course: A choice between salmon and Jerusalem mixed grill. Main course: A choice between roast beef and spring chicken. For dessert: Every kind of sweet imaginable, courtesy of Sabine.

Drink: Beer, wine, vodka, soft drinks, lemonade and black coffee.

Word in the ear: Shani, on insisting on having a henna, despite the fact that Erez’s family were less familiar with the event: “Let’s just say that, of all my grandparents’ grandchildren, I’m the first girl to get married. I have two cousins that got married, one had a henna, but they [her grandparents] weren’t there, and the other didn’t have one. So this is the first henna they could get involved in, and they enjoyed it. And my mom wanted it – her first and only daughter getting married! And I wanted one, too.”

In my spiritual doggy bag: That one of the most important, and probably underrated, ingredients in love is just plain sticking with it.

Random quote: One relative laughing at the hooded costume, or kafan, he was given to wear: “I look like a priest! They turned me into a priest!”

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