A typical Israeli wedding, from my experience, can easily include 400 to 500 guests. I was even at one recently with close to 900 people, which was apparently 200-300 short of the hall capacity. Since I have been to quite a number of these weddings over the past few years, I thought I’d write a short primer on what to expect. I am writing mainly about secular Israeli weddings at this point. I’ll add another article after I make it to a few more religious weddings.
Most Israeli weddings are at event halls, many with indoor and outdoor facilities. Unlike many Jewish weddings in North America, the ceremony is not really separated from the party and is certainly not in a synagogue. Of course, at this point in time in Israel, only Orthodox Rabbis, approved by the Israeli Rabbinic authorities can actually conduct a Jewish wedding. So even the most secular of Israelis must use the Orthodox rabbinate if they wish to have their marriage recognized by the State of Israel. There are some ways around this but that is for another blog entry.
Weddings are often called for 7 or 7:30 p.m. and they take place pretty much any day of the week from Sunday to Thursday, with some preference for Tuesday (for religious reasons). Since Sunday is a regular work day in Israel, Sunday weddings are not as predominant as they are in North America. The invitation will often specify that the chuppa – the actually ceremonial part of the wedding – will take place at 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. But that is really just an estimate. From what I have seen, there can easily be a delay of an hour or two or even more. Knowing this, guests tend to arrive any time from the specified start time until two or three hours later, with some correlation to age. The younger guests seem to show up later in the evening.
At many of these weddings, there are some great hors d’oevres. When the weather is nice, this can all be set up with outside stations, often including barbecue areas, sushi areas and all kinds of other foods. Of course in the summer in Israel the chance of rain is almost zero. During the fall and winter, these stations can be set up inside, often with a view of the outside. This part of the affair is culinarily somewhat similar to a Montreal Jewish wedding where the amount of food served before the ceremony has even taken place can be enormous.
Usually somewhere around 9 or 9:30 p.m., the actual marriage ceremony takes place. It is often set up off to the side of the hall in a designated area. At a number of the weddings I have attended, I would guess that 20% to 30% of the guests have gone to watch or participate in the ceremony. The rest continue eating appetizers, visiting the bar and schmoozing.
Once the ceremony is over, guests make their way back to the dining and dance floor area for the main meal. The DJ usually takes over at this point for balance of the evening. The range of music can vary wildly with the crowd, though “eastern” Israeli music is very popular these days. I haven’t been to any Israeli (secular) weddings where anyone has welcomed the guests, made a speech, conducted a ceremonial Challah cutting, led birkat hamazon (grace after meals) or held any other “formalities.” Once the chuppah has ended, it has simply been eating, dancing and drinking for the balance of the wedding. Sometimes there is a slide show going on in the background.
Whoever thinks that Jews don’t drink very much at weddings hasn’t attended an Israeli wedding recently. Though there are bottles of wine (usually red) on each table for those who are so inclined, the drink of choice, especially for the younger generation, seems to be vodka and Red Bull and certainly not in small quantities…
Guests uniformly tend to give cash gifts, often handed to the parents of the bride or groom in an envelope with a short note, many times on arrival at the hall, much like an Italian wedding. The amounts are usually fairly substantial, these days starting at about 400 to 500 N.I.S. per couple (about $125 to $150). Though the recipients will usually prepare a list of who gave what amounts for future reference, I have yet to receive any thank you cards, emails or other acknowledgements of a wedding present.
There are no reply cards with the invitations so the hosts have to come up with their best estimate of the number of guests for the caterer. Since no one really knows who will be attending, there is no assigned seating. Sometimes there are too many tables, sometimes not enough. But the caterers can usually open up another 50 to 100 spots in fairly short order. On occasion, if you leave your seat for a little while to dance or go the bar, you might lose it…though this can usually be straightened out.
While the groom will often wear a suit and the bride will usually wear a white bridal gown, anything goes for the rest of the guests. Many of the men will come dressed in jeans and a short sleeve button down shirt. There can be quite a range of dress for the women from skirts and dresses to jeans and casual tops with the only common denominator being that the outfit is often quite tight, to put it mildly.
Most of the meals at these weddings are table service and most of the wedding halls in Israel are kosher. As crazy as this sounds for North Americans, there is an expectation that the guests at each table will take up a collection and tip their assigned server, sometimes at the beginning of the evening if they want to ensure really good service. I was even at one recent wedding with actual “white glove” service. Not only were the servers wearing white gloves, but they were even folding cloth napkins and replacing the cutlery on an ongoing basis. This is pretty rare here from what I’ve seen.
Overall, like in any society, the weddings are somewhat a reflection of the broader culture. Here in Israel, the weddings are fairly informal and casual with an emphasis on fun and celebration rather than formality, dress code or detail. In some ways, that probably sums up the way many things are done in Israel – often hectic and chaotic – with limited attention to customs, rules, or organization but many times quite engaging, raucous and enjoyable.