Israelis Insist on Big Weddings, Risking Coronavirus Infection and Breaking the Law

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A wedding in Givatayim, August 2020.
A wedding in Givatayim, August 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh

Haim Hemmendinger, manager of the Pavilion Mehadrin wedding hall in Jerusalem, which hosts ultra-Orthodox weddings, recalls a recent wedding attended by 50 people. It was outdoors and people were spaced apart, but the number was well over the maximum allowed under the coronavirus restrictions.

“A policeman showed up and said, ‘If in two minutes there are still more than 20 people here, I’m taking the bride and groom home in handcuffs,’” he recalled. “You can imagine what it was like after that – the ceremony took place but the event was ruined.”

What was unusual about that incident isn’t that the wedding party exceeded the limit but that the police came to enforce the rules. Hemmendinger estimates that on any given evening there are 200-300 unauthorized weddings in religious and ultra-Orthodox circles.

“The trick is to find places that the police don’t know about. Event planners are now hiring guards who are posted at a distant perimeter from the chuppah (wedding canopy). If they spot a police car, they pass the word and guests disperse. When the patrol car drives off, they go back to what they were doing,” he says.

If anyone didn’t know it long ago, the coronavirus has come to show how important the idea of wedding, marriage and family remains in Israel. For many Israelis a highly contagious virus takes a back seat to a major, perhaps the major, event of people’s lifetimes. The phenomenon isn’t limited to religious Israelis, but to the secular majority and even to Israel’s LGBT community.

“Israeli society sanctifies family and tribe. Even LGBT couples try not to breach the holy value of having a wedding. They want to be like straight couples,” says Linda Sasson, who officiates at alternative weddings. “I hear from parents who say they don’t care if their son or daughter comes out as gay, as long as they marry and have children. Israelis are obsessed with having children and strengthening the tribe and the family.”

Put to the test

That commitment is being put to the test in the coronavirus era when wedding planning has come to resemble a black ops mission.

Hemmendinger recalls a wedding scheduled just a couple of days prior to the event. The bride and groom had to quickly locate a generator and porta-potties because it was being held outdoors. In another, guests were informed of a change of venue just three hours before the ceremony. “They found out there was a problem because the authorities enforce the rules in a place that has a business license, so they had to hold the wedding in a pirate location. Within three hours, they had to move 100 people and the chuppah and the tables and all the rest. It’s possible in the WhatsApp age, but it’s no easy feat,” he says.

Hemmendinger has no compunctions about skirting the rules. “If you tell a bride and groom to hold an event with just 20 guests, you ruined it for them. You can’t put off the party either. ... Rejoicing with the bride and groom is a sacred value – it’s a mitzvah to rejoice with them and make them happy. It’s not the same thing for secular people. There you have couples who live together for a long time before the wedding. The wedding is basically a party – so there’s no problem postponing it for six months.”

A couple poses for a photo in Netanya, August 13 2020. Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Yerach Toker, a Haredi consultant, says that in the Haredi world restricting a wedding to 100-150 people would mean that only the bride and groom’s close relations could attend. “No one wants to get married with just a rabbi and two witnesses, as if we were in the Warsaw Ghetto,” he says. “Just like large protests are permitted using the capsule system, it should be possible to find a similar solution for weddings.”

For the religious public, there aren’t so many days in the year when one can get married. The period from the end of the High Holy Days until Passover is the main wedding season, in addition to certain stretches of spring and summer. But it’s worth remembering that the wedding ceremony itself is the essential thing, not how many guests are in attendance.

Tehila Bigman, a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research who studies ultra-Orthodox society, says she sympathizes with the desire for big weddings, but adds: “There’s no halakhic justification for holding large weddings at this time. It’s just a sociocultural thing. Citing the saying that one must bring joy to the bride and groom is very clever, but no mitzvah is more important than preserving life, which is an explicit commandment.”

From the standpoint of halakha, you need a groom, a bride, a rabbi to preside over the ceremony and 10 men for a minyan. “Politics has entered into it here. Weddings have been brought into other issues, like street protests and prayer services, regarding what is or isn’t allowed during the coronavirus. It also fits into the Haredi narrative that opposes the coronavirus regulations, which at least parts of the community view as deliberately intended to harm the Haredi public.”

Of all the kinds of gatherings banned in Israel since the coronavirus outbreak began in March, experts agree that weddings are among the riskiest. Aside from a few weeks in May and June, when weddings of up to 250 people were permitted (a limit that was also widely violated), since Israel’s first lockdown last spring there have been restrictions of one form or another on weddings. At present, no more than 20 people are permitted to gather outdoors, including at weddings.

As much as wedding restrictions anger many Israelis, even before the onset of the coronavirus, marriage was on the decline. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 1985 there were 6.9 weddings per 1,000 people; in 2018, it was just 5.6 per 1,000. Unmarried Jewish couples ages 18-34 who are living together tripled between 2000 and 2018 to 6%.

When they do get married, more and more nonreligious Israelis eschew doing it under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, holding an alternative ceremony and getting officially married abroad. For the LGBT community or those who are not halakhically recognized as Jewish, this has been the only option. And now that travel abroad is so restricted, many young couples who fall into these categories have been caught in a situation where they have no legal way to get married.

At the meeting of the Knesset Interior Committee last month, MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) proposed that an emergency order be issued permitting couples like these to be registered as married just like Israelis who are listed as “having no religion.” MK Evgeny Sova (Yisrael Beiteinu) proposed another emergency regulation, by which the young couples could marry in foreign embassies or consulates in Israel for the coming year.

Solutions needed

“No one is trying to make these couples Jewish according to halakha,” says Sova. “But a temporary solution must be found for them during the crisis. This is something the state is obligated to do for its citizens.” For now, however, neither of these proposals appears likely to be approved.

The venue for an outdoor wedding in Netanya, August 13 2020. Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Even those not permitted to marry under halakha, and the secular public in general, haven’t been willing to give up the wedding ceremony itself. For example, Havaya – Secular Jewish Lifecycle Ceremonies in Israel, an organization belonging to the Be Free Israel (Israel Hofsheet) movement, has a registry of hundreds of people who preside over alternative ceremonies.

“A wedding is an important event for secular people, too,” says Dr. Ana Prashitzky, a sociologist at Western Galilee College, who wrote her dissertation on the differences between Orthodox and alternatives. “A decade ago, there were hardly any alternative ceremonies and now it’s an accepted norm.

“You can ask why bother to get married at all if you don’t believe in the rabbinate, and it has to do with a lot of factors. There’s the influence of Jewish tradition, and of Hollywood movies. The white dress, walking down the aisle at sunset – most people still want these things. Israel is also a country where family is a very strong value,” she says.

One sign of the growing Israeli obsession with weddings over the last few decades has been the ever-increasing size of the events. Nowadays, an event with 400-500 people, which used to be considered quite big, has become standard. Young couples who want smaller weddings find that many event halls set a minimum of 200-250 guests.

And a whole wedding industry that includes a DJ or band, bar, wedding dress, makeup and, of course, catering – has also become a regular part of wedding culture.

“The market economy and the consumer society we live in give priority to all kinds of gimmicks,” says Prof. Zvi Triger of the College of Management Law School, who has researched the custom of giving checks as wedding gifts. “It’s not unusual to hear couples say that they weren’t so keen on a big event, but it’s what their family wanted. It shows you that the wedding isn’t just for the bride and groom, it’s for the community.”

In recent years, some people have tried to buck the big-wedding trend in favor of “socially conscious” weddings. The idea is to get back to the spirit of what weddings were like in the old days – modest events in which neighbors and friends would help prepare the food and set up everything.

Four years ago Dina Abramson, a former journalist and owner of an advertising firm, staged such a wedding for herself with hopes that the trend would catch on. She paid 1,000 shekels ($295) to hold the wedding in a synagogue. The food – falafel and sushi – was bought beforehand, and friends helped set up and served as waiters.

“I tried to break a bubble that was very hard to break,” she says. “Not enough people were ready to say, ‘Hey, we don’t really want to write huge checks.’ The goal was for people to see that a social wedding in which people prepare the food themselves is a totally respectable way to get married. At my wedding, people were happy because they felt free. Whoever wanted to bring cookies, brought cookies. Whoever wanted to give 1,000 shekels, gave 1,000 shekels.”

The pandemic has caused more Israelis to see that small is beautiful when it comes to weddings, Abramson says. “Everyone is finally coming around to this approach because of the coronavirus, but at the time it was considered quite subversive and brave to say it. I think the coronavirus will change the Israeli wedding culture.”

A Hasidic wedding in Jerusalem, August 5, 2020.

Meanwhile, over the last few months, thousands of young couples have been racking their brains trying to figure out how to hold the big wedding they always dreamed of. Many had already made down payments on venues and then had to cancel, forcing them to go through all sorts of legal wrangling with venue owners who refused to refund the advance.

Others are just grappling with long periods of uncertainty. A. was supposed to get married in late March in front of 250 people, with many guests coming from abroad. The wedding was ultimately postponed until September and held at a winery in southern Israel for a very small number of guests.

“We had to bring everything there ourselves – tables, chairs, catering, DJ,” she says. “It was my dream to get married in a vineyard, in an intimate setting, but with so much family around and wanting to please our parents, the wedding was originally supposed to be a lot bigger. In the end, it was really fun. It was very nice and intimate. And there was also dancing, despite the prohibition.”

Amit Mor Ben-Zahav is also happy about the small wedding she had, contrary to her original plans. She was supposed to get married at the end of May, at a large venue with 400 guests. Because of the coronavirus restrictions, she and her fiancé Daniel postponed the wedding until mid-August. But in mid-June the wedding halls were shut down and they had to rethink their plans again.

They decided to improvise, holding the event at a bed-and-breakfast her husband’s family had reserved in the Kedumim settlement for the Shabbat Chatan celebration. There were 60 guests in all, divided into three groups, and each group had patio space in front of one of the B&B cottages. There was also a small dance floor that the different groups could use, one at a time.

“We agonized over things a lot before the wedding,” Mor Ben-Zahav recalls. “At first we thought we wouldn’t get married with fewer than 100 people, and we thought we’d postpone it if the restrictions wouldn’t allow that. But at some point we couldn’t wait anymore, we just wanted to be done with it. In the end, we only had our very close friends there plus our families, but it was an amazing event. Because of the coronavirus, we distilled it to the real essence. It was much more personal. It was so joyful and so much fun.”

Udi Erlich, a DJ from northern Israel who started the Social Weddings (Hatunot Hevratiyot) wedding planning website two years ago to bring together professionals who work at such events, says he doesn’t think the social wedding trend will last past the end of the pandemic.

“Right now people are stepping on the brakes, but as soon as the virus eases up, the big parties will be back. The week after Prime Minister Netanyahu said, ‘Go out and have fun,’ I had a wedding gig. The energy level was insane, way beyond anything I’d seen before. It was like people wanted to celebrate with extra intensity after two months of tension stuck at home.”

Wedding season

The urge to merge is just as imperative among Israeli Arabs. The high infection rate in Arab communities in early September was widely attributed to a spate of weddings in July and August, many of them in violation of the rules. With a concerted effort by Arab mayors and other civic leaders, the rate has declined sharply. By mid-October there were hardly any “red” Arab cities left, according to the government’s traffic-light rating system for the coronavirus contagion rates.

A wedding ceremony takes place in Jisr al-Zarqa, near Hadera, July 16, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Arab wedding celebrations generally span several nights, with the ceremony taking place on the last night. In Daliat al-Carmel, local council head Rafik Halabi instituted a system in which events were also held during the day, with rotating groups of 20 people every half hour. That clearly helped bring down the number of infections.

But back in July and August, the situation in Arab towns had been very different. “Despite all the calls to restrict celebrations and limit them to one night, people kept having weddings in their homes, which are more crowded than the wedding halls,” says Maisam Jaljuli, a co-chair of Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality and a member of the “Arab corona desk,” a panel of experts within the national coronavirus headquarters charged with combating the virus in Arab communities.

“Now that the lockdown is over, I’m starting to receive wedding invitations,” she says. “It says on the invitation ‘in accordance with the coronavirus guidelines,’ but I know that’s not what will happen. Personally, I’m not ready to go to weddings. [Last] week, a friend of mine from the north told me that they were driving around with loudspeakers inviting the whole village to a wedding.”

Jaljuli says police enforcement would help reduce the number of mass weddings. “Before these events started being held, the Arab corona desk and influential people in Arab society warned about weddings and the lack of enforcement. But in July and August the police totally ignored it. I heard about people who held weddings and just calculated the 5,000-shekel fine as part of the wedding expenses,” she says.

In response, the Israel Police says it is enforcing the law and coronavirus regulations “everywhere and at all hours of the day, including in Arab communities.”

Dr. Maha Karkabi-Sabbah, an anthropologist and sociologist at Ben-Gurion University, says large weddings suit Arab society, which is traditional and collective.

“The people who held large weddings during the coronavirus didn’t do it because they wanted to disobey the law, but because they wanted to preserve tradition,” she explains. “Weddings are a vehicle for strengthening social ties, and the number of invitees and guests is a marker of social standing within the community, which is of central importance in a traditional society. Apparently, the coronavirus didn’t affect any of this.”

She adds that weddings are also related to the generational struggle within Arab society between traditional and new forces, because of the changes in the consumerist trends in Arab society.

“For young couples who want to live independently and stop relying on their parents’ support, the expenses associated with weddings, especially during the summer, are a huge strain,” Karkabi-Sabbah says. “Since the virus outbreak, there’s been more talk about having smaller weddings, but it’s too soon to know what Arab weddings will look like once the coronavirus crisis ends.”

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