Saturday, July 5, 2008

Israeli Weddings: Wish You Were Here

The Curious Phenomenon of the Self-sustaining Industry

Israeli weddings form a closed loop of financial and social obligation that continuously feed the wedding industry and reinforce the social norms.

When a couple gets married, it must, firstly, be a large affair. The couple will invite 200 to 300 guests and the party will cost, on average, NIS120,000 ($40,000). This goes without saying. One of the reasons for this is that one cannot go without inviting a person when one was invited to said person’s own wedding. This would be a hideous affront, no matter the reason.

Secondly, the parents of the bride will split the cost evenly with the parents of the groom, unless there are mitigating circumstances. Parents begin saving for their children’s weddings at birth. And since marriage is a rite of passage everyone is expected to observe, sooner rather than later, the bride and groom are not usually expected to contribute financially.

As for the wedding dress, brides usually have one made for them, although some rent a dress. The starting price for only the labor of sewing a wedding dress is NIS2,000 ($600). Some brides try to lower the price by telling the seamstress it’s a ball gown and not a wedding dress.

Weddings normally take place May through August, with Thursdays and Fridays being the most expensive days (they do not take place on Saturday and Sunday is the beginning of the work week). If the wedding takes place on a Friday and the Rabbi suspects the party will continue after sundown (and therefore on Shabbat), he will charge extra to officiate the ceremony.

However, since everyone has such a large wedding, everyone knows what such weddings cost. Therefore, instead of gifts, wedding guests bring money. Hence, this season becomes financially burdensome for everyone, not just the wedding party. Most people are invited to two or three weddings per month and are sometimes expected to give money to the couple even if they don’t attend. The sum of money is commensurate with how close the guest and the couple are. And since the sum of the gift is a direct reflection on the strength of the relationship, it would be another hideous affront to receive too much or too little. For this reason, it is the custom to discuss the sum of the gift beforehand. For people close to the couple, it’s normal to contribute NIS500-1,000 per guest ($150-300). This money is deposited into a decorative vault stationed at the entrance to the reception.

Another aspect of Israeli weddings is the food: choosing it and eating it. It’s not possible to have a non-kosher wedding unless you prepare the food yourself. Caterers pay big bucks to get a kosher license and will not jeopardize it. This means you can have either a meat wedding or a dairy wedding. Most people choose a meat wedding because it’s simpler and cheaper. Dairy menus are more difficult to prepare, therefore are more expensive. Now, because most people contribute financially, often far more than they would pay for a meal at an expensive restaurant, they expect to get their money’s worth. This means good food, and lots of it. In fact, people often fast the day of the wedding so they can eat more. It’s normal to go back for 2nd and 3rd helpings. This is probably why three meal combinations are usually offered at buffets set up around the venue.

The financial cycle is not the only interesting aspect of Israeli wedding culture. For someone from the US, where weddings are so boring they’re free and still nobody wants to go, an Israeli wedding seems more like a rave than a marriage ceremony. The music, mostly American or British, is so good it’s difficult to sit out even one song. And the social cohesion is its own phenomenon. Friends stay friends in Israel. This is a gross generalization but true, nonetheless. Groups of friends come together in grade school, stay friends through high school, the army, college, and when they attend each others’ weddings they are witnessing the culminating moment of a life they have been a part of since its innocence.

Furthermore, in Israel, there is much more pressure to meet the milestones of life on time, at the same time as your peers. Israelis go straight from high school to three years in the army (two years for women), after which they travel internationally for up to a year. After travel, they attend college, sometimes travel again before starting work, then get married and have children. This means that one’s friends are doing same things as oneself at any given time. One’s children are roughly the same age as the children of one’s friends. These children grow up together and continue to meet life’s milestones at the same time. And so it goes…

There were a lot of pregnant women at this wedding, further evidence that one's friends are meeting these milestones at roughly the same time.

The money vault.

1 comment:

Avigayil Neshama said...

This is sooo clear and concise, and has a lot of logic to it. I'm so exhasperated with the prospect of having an Israeli wedding. I think I'll stick with Dati/Haredi scene in Israel so I can avoid much of this madness (ie: exchange it for different madness!)

Thanks for the candid analysis