Any other year, the weeks between Tisha B’Av – the fast day marking the destruction of the ancient Temples of Jerusalem – and the Jewish High Holy Days would be high season for weddings.
In Israel, that normally means very big events, with hundreds of guests. After all, when the invitation list needs to include not only the couple’s classmates from grade school, high school and university, but also their best buddies from the army and youth movement days – not to mention colleagues from work and the gantze mishpuchah – the numbers start adding up.
Throw in massive amounts of hugging and kissing and crowding on the dance floor and around the buffet tables, and you’ve got the perfect ingredients for a coronavirus superspreader event.
Planning a wedding can be stressful in the best of times, but for Israeli couples heading for the chuppah this summer, it has been nothing short of nerve-wracking. Under current regulations, no more than 20 guests are allowed to be in attendance (although a few weeks ago, this rule was modified to allow for two capsules of 20 guests each, provided they are separated by 20 meters.) Wedding halls are all closed, so finding a suitable venue is a key challenge. Except in very special cases, non-Israeli guests are not allowed to fly into the country to attend.
And getting married outside the country – an option popular among Israeli couples who would rather avoid an Orthodox-style wedding – is no longer possible, with Israelis pretty much banned from traveling anywhere because of the high infection rate in the country.
Still, some Israeli couples are discovering a silver lining in what might otherwise be an impossible situation.
Charone Attias and Elia Kosman, for example, would not have held their wedding at all this summer were it not for the global health crisis. Attias, 24, was in her second year of university in France studying psychology when the coronavirus hit. Kosman, 23 and also French-born, is a career officer in the Israeli army. The two met 10 years ago in France, when they were teenagers, and became engaged in February. In between, Attias married, had a child and divorced her first husband.
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“Our plan was to wait until I completed my studies in France and then join Elia in Israel, where would get married,” relays Attias. “Originally, we were thinking that would happen a year from now.”
Attias, who immigrated to Israel five years ago but subsequently left to pursue her university studies back in her home country, was fortunate enough to have an Israeli passport. That is how she was able to join her fiancé back in Israel last month. “We decided there was no point in my going back to France right now, and instead, we would wait until Elia is finished with the army,” she says. “Our current plan is to go back to France in a year, and meanwhile, I’ll start looking for a job here.”
To help young couples searching for suitable locations for their wedding ceremonies, several cities and organizations have been offering them popular outdoor venues free of charge. As of last week, for example, the city of Jerusalem was offering couples the option of holding their ceremonies at one of nearly a dozen parks, gardens and observation points. The one catch was that the couples had to commit in advance to marry through the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate (the offer is also open to non-Jewish residents of the city, so long as they hold a religious wedding). Last week, several organizations that promote Jewish pluralism and religious freedom sued the city, claiming discrimination against couples who chose not to hold a religious wedding.
Attias and Kosman were among the couples that took the city up on the offer and got married on Wednesday night at the Wohl Rose Garden across from the Knesset.
“Until last week, we thought we would only be able to have 20 guests,” says Kosman, “so in the past few days, since the number was doubled, I’ve been scrambling around to make all the necessary changes. We needed to order more food at the last minute and, of course, decide quickly who else to invite.”
Obviously, there was no time to send out invitations, so Kosman says he personally called every guest who was added to their list to invite them.
“It’s not that we ever dreamed of having a huge wedding,” he says, “but at the same time, I never would have believed I’d have to leave some relatives out of the ceremony.” The couple obtained special permission, through the Israeli embassy in France, for Attias’ parents and siblings to join them in Israel for the wedding. All the other guests are locals.
Before the coronavirus hit, says Kosman, he and his fiancé did talk about holding their wedding in a big outdoor garden. “So at least that part of our dream is being fulfilled,” he says.
Tel Aviv is offering residents wishing to marry this summer a similar deal. In addition to venues, Tel Aviv is also providing couples who choose to marry in a list of designated outdoor sites free tables, chairs and tablecloths. Unlike Jerusalem, Tel Aviv does not insist that couples taking advantage of the offer wed through the auspices of the Rabbinate.
The Nature and Parks Authority has also made a list of treasured national sites available for wedding ceremonies. Among those who jumped on the offer were Shlomi Zfira, 32, and Vera Rosenblum, 27, who held their wedding last week at the reef palace at the Caesarea National Park.
The newlyweds, both from Rehovot and both employed in high-tech startups, had been dating for nearly three years when they got engaged in January. Because her mother is not Jewish (her father is), Rozenblum had to go through a formal conversion to Judaism before they could be approved to marry through the Rabbinate. She completed the year-long process this past May.
The couple had originally hoped to marry on Tu B’Av – the Jewish equivalent of Valentine’s Day – but when they started looking for a wedding hall back in January, every place they wanted was booked. After they found a large hall in the southern town of Kiryat Gat, they settled on August 31 as their wedding date.
“We had originally planned on having more than 450 guests at our wedding,” says Tzfira.
But then along came the coronavirus, and all their wedding plans were dramatically altered. “We were desperately looking around for a place to hold the wedding, when someone told us that the national park in Caesarea had become available,” relays Tzfira. “We called them at the beginning of the month, and they said that if we were interested, we could have the place on August 4. So we decided on the spot. And what do you know? That turned out to be Tu B’Av, the original date that we wanted.”
The bride and groom had barely a week to get the whole event organized after they booked their venue. The biggest challenge, says Tzfira, was cutting the invite list down to 40 people. “I’m an only child, but we have a very big extended family, so we had to pick and choose those on our list with extreme care.”
As fate would have it, three important guests they had hoped would be in attendance were unable to come: Tzfira’s grandparents and Rozenblum’s uncle were all diagnosed with the coronavirus about two weeks before the wedding.
Because the national parks cannot accommodate sit-down dinners, the guests were served finger food on disposable plates. “Aside from that, we handed out many masks and lots of hand sanitizer,” says Tzfira.
The entire event, he reports, was livestreamed so that friends and relatives around Israel and beyond could feel they were participating.
“In the end, I’m glad we did it this way,” says Tzfira. “When you have only the people you’re closest to at your wedding, there’s much less chance of something going wrong. In fact, my mom, who was very disappointed that I couldn’t have a big wedding, called me the next day to say it actually turned out to be quite a wonderful event.”
Alon Redlich, 32, and Hila Tzadok, 31, are planning to hold their wedding at the very same spot next Wednesday. It will be a very different wedding from the one they had planned. Redlich, a project manager from Haifa, and Tzadok, a fashioner designer from Hadera, have been dating for close to five years. They spent a good part of that time together living in Barcelona where they got engaged about a year ago. The original plan, according to Redlich, was to have a Spanish-themed wedding commemorating their Iberian adventure. “Hila had already ordered lots of stuff from Spain for that purpose,” he relays.
They had booked a wedding hall for 450 guests when the coronavirus hit. “Suddenly we had to cut the list down to 250 guests, then it was 100 guests, then we couldn’t do it in a hall anymore, and we had to decide whether to postpone it or cancel it altogether,” recounts Redlich. In the end, the couple, who currently live in Tel Aviv, decided to hold a small ceremony with 20 guests this month, as they had originally planned, and save the big bash for a year from now.
“Were we disappointed? Of course we were,” he says. “But the worst thing was all the uncertainty. They’d say one thing one day on the news and something completely different the next day. Should we send out invitations? Shouldn’t we? It was impossible to plan anything.”
When they first got engaged, Redlich and Tzadok had entertained the idea of holding their wedding on the beach. “When my mom heard from someone that there was this possibility of getting married near the beach in Caesarea, we immediately booked the place,” says Redlich. “In that way, I guess you could say that we’re back to our original plan.”