As a Jewish feminist, I’m often critical of marriage. And, as a 26-year old (this month) who attended Jewish camp, leadership/environmental programs in Israel, and was active in Jewish youth groups growing up, I’ve been frequenting my fair share of Jewish weddings lately. These occasions bring me joy, nostalgia, and an overall reminder in the beautiful power of ritual and ceremony. But they also bring me a piercing sense of anxiety – one that I’m sure I am not alone in experiencing. I see marriage as a heteronormative and ideologically oppressive institution that promotes a hierarchy of relationships – being married as the most desirable form of a relationship, and remaining single as a failure of the female, much like not having children is seen as a failure of womanhood. I see the seventy billion dollar (or more) American wedding industry as representative of the capitalist impulse involved in the planning of weddings, bachelorette parties, and honeymoons, not to mention the violence involved in the so-called “blood diamonds” of so many engagement rings.
It’s important to separate weddings from marriage, and so I am not going to make a case for or against marriage – it is an institution and ideology too large to reduce to a pro or con stance. But when it comes to weddings, Jewish weddings in particular, I am torn again and again. For those unfamiliar, a traditional Jewish ceremony goes like this, though of course it varies:
On the day of the wedding, the Bride (kallah) and Groom (chatan) are treated like a queen and king. The day begins with Kabbalat Panim (literally, the “greeting of faces”) in which the bride and groom sit in separate rooms. The bride sits on a throne-like chair while her immediate family stands around her and guests line up to greet the queen-like bride to give and receive blessings. In some traditions, the bride will bless the single guests in hopes that it will increase chances of marriage. During this time, the groom has his own holy hour, the Tisch. During the Tisch (literally, table) the male guests sit around a table greet the groom, as many of them eat and toast the groom.
Next is the signing of the Ketubah, or marriage contract, followed by the Bedecken, or the veiling of the bride by the groom. The bride and groom then proceed to the Chuppah, or wedding canopy, which consists of four poles and covered by a cloth, to symbolize the first roof the bride and groom share together. The lack of walls to the canopy encourages the bride and groom to always be open to guests in their home. The bride then circles the groom seven times, as the number seven is an incredibly auspicious number in Judaism, including the seven days of creation. The rest of the ceremony involves blessings given by the Rabbi, the reading of the Ketubah, the giving of the rings, and the breaking of the glass to symbolize the destruction of the temple and the fragility of marriage. After the ceremony concludes, the bride and groom proceed to a private room to have their first moments together, called Yihud. This is followed by the reception including dancing (I’m sure everyone is familiar the horah), a meal, and my favorite, the Shtick, in which weddings guests entertain the bride and groom with costumes, dancing, and performances.
The above is of course a general map of traditional Jewish weddings, and as weddings are lived they involve a number of deviations and additions. But with each wedding I’ve attended, and the many more I am bound to attend, I find myself having to negotiate a variety of emotions. The queen-like bride sitting on the throne-like chair represents to me the social reproduction of marriage envy and the way we fetishize brides and grooms as holier-than-thou beings. But the openness of the wedding canopy reminds me of the importance of openness in one’s home and the value of selfless giving. Watching the groom veil the bride reminds of the strict delineation of gender roles, and the way women must cover their hair and body to be modest and pure, but every time I witness the groom breaking of the glass I am reminded of tradition in Judaism to recognize ambiguity, fragility, and the desire to repair the world.
At every Jewish wedding I attend, I suppose I continue to occupy a liminal space of identification and disidentification with the bride, the community, and the traditions. I’ll never forget how beautifully my sister and her husband occupied the spaces of kallah and chatan at their wedding, and the joy I felt as I held the train of her dress as she circled her groom seven times. And I still managed to throw in a bit of marriage critique in my maid-of-honor speech. I suppose that’s just how I negotiate my hodgepodge of identities and desires, and I somehow find satisfaction in the struggle.
Amy Levin completed her M.A. in Religious Studies at New York University with an interdisciplinary focus on American religion, gender and queer theory, secularization, spirituality, and consumption. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer and a practicing feminist.