Weddings are life markers - milestones on a singular journey. Every time, just like today, the two whose lives are joined know that their wedding is the most meaningful, the most special, of all. Every time, just like today, their family and friends smile and sigh, nod knowingly or watch in wonder. Most times, just like today, there is feasting and dancing, laughing and crying, present and past.
The couple in this picture are grownups with jobs, a just-completed dissertation and a real sense of wonder that they found one another and managed to make their way to this day. They planned the wedding, designed the exquisite chuppah (wedding canopy) that has been part of Jewish marriage for centuries, and worked to make the day special in every way (they succeeded.)
This is the third wedding I've attended this year and the third traditional observant Jewish wedding ever. That's very unusual for someone my age but we're blessed with friends who have made us part of their extended family and asked us to share these blessed days with them. Today, for the third time in a year I watched a groom led to his bride by a swarm of singing, dancing men; I've watched him lower the veil over the face of the woman he now knew for sure was his beloved. (Jacob was duped and married the wrong sister; at least 600 years old, this tradition evokes that story and acknowledges its power.) When I first learned of it it sounded barbaric to me. Men taking possession of property, I thought. Check out the goods.
Somehow though, in the years I've spent moving toward an observant life, it's come to mean something quite different: a reverent bow to the centrality of a sound life partnership - not for everyone but certainly for those who choose to marry. Marriage is not just the economic and legal partnership so often described in political conversation, it's an ancient entity with real resonance and a gigantic role in the preservation of a humane, loving and sometimes sacred society. It requires tradition carried on; it requires the presence of ceremony and ritual to link it to the couples of past generations.
On my favorite guilty pleasure, Charmed, rituals of birth and marriage are attended not only by those who share the lives and loves of the Halliwell sisters (yeah they're witches and their story spent 8 TV seasons enchanting us all) but also by those who came before. They summon, "through space and time" all members of "the Halliwell line." Surrounded by these transluscent figures of past generations, today's Halliwells celebrate marriages and new arrivals. Those fully and those ephemerally present conclude together "blessed be."
What does this have to do with Jewish weddings -- or any other terrestrial weddings for that matter? A lot. Eight years on the air, the longest running show with female leads, it dealt often with travel through time and space and dominions never imagined. But when really important events arose, all the magic was supplanted by a single, simple spell that basically --well -- brought the family together. For them it was across ghostly generations...it was a show about witches after all. But that really is what weddings do, and in my limited experience, the weddings of observant Jews are events with special power because they consider a wedding the "creation of a home" where Jewish life will be lived and celebrated. "Home" is represented by the wedding canopy, or "chuppah" under which the bride and groom marry, surrounded by loved ones of prior and subsequent generation: grandparents and parents, aunts and brothers, sisters and nephews.
This particular chuppah was built from branches rescued from a clearing near Boston and covered by a tablecloth that had belonged to the bride's grandmother, who had died the year before. My husband's and mine was covered by the prayer shawls of our grandfathers - mine near death and too frail to attend, his gone just a couple of years before. Again, instinctively, we, like this bride, sought connections over time.
I"m not saying this well but what I think is that we're hardwired to want to be part of something "larger than ourselves" and faith and family are that something. For observant Jews, these connections are manifested throughout the ceremony and the traditions surrounding it. That timeless ritual and all that surrounds it bring the gift of place and meaning - the reminder that as we celebrate a marriage we join the circle once more, honoring all that has been given us and accepting the responsibility to pass it on.