Gloriously calligraphed, the creamy envelope arrives in the mail with double "Love" postage stamps heralding its contents: a wedding invitation.
The phone rings. Voices icy with resentment spill out grievances, raising questions with no answers.
*The groom's aunt is miffed that the groom's parents' names do not appear on the engraved invitation. She snaps, "Like Melvin dropped out of the sky from nowhere? What are his folks, chopped liver?"
*A certain rambunctious 4-year-old, proud owner of a new blue velvet suit purchased for the occasion, is among several "under 12s" not invited to the 9 p.m. wedding. "My Rosalie has to hire a sitter?" carps the boy's grandmother. "It's not enough to pay for a bridesmaid gown she'll never wear again?"
*A certain bachelor's invitation lacks the words "and guest" after his name. "On a Saturday night," the matriarch asks, "he should stand on the dance floor like a bump on a pickle?"
*"On me they shouldn't count. Would I go to his wedding when I wasn't even invited to the bar mitzvah? Some chutzpah!"
*Upon learning that the rehearsal dinner is limited to the bridal party and out-of-town guests only, the bride's in-town uncle, attempting to lighten up a bad scene, jokes, "Just my mazel [luck] we don't live in Phoenix."
The guest list launches World War III. It's not the first in a series of battles fought intra- and inter- families en route to the chuppah — and beyond.
"No marriage contract," notes the Talmud, "is made without a quarrel." Yet pre-wedding squabbling is universal, judging from letters printed over the years by advice mavens Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren.
Recently, Landers reiterated her long-held position that "babies and very young children do not belong at formal weddings," while also insisting that feuds arising from same "should not be allowed to continue." She chided another reader, "Chances are infinitely greater that an infant or small child will disrupt a wedding ceremony than that an adult will have a coughing spell."
Van Buren remarks, "I believe that most brides resent a single's presumptuousness in digging up a date for an occasion that costs a good deal of money." She suggests that anyone — including a "significant other" — whose name does not appear on the invitation envelope and shows up at a wedding "is breaking the rules of etiquette."
According to Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, "You do not invite one member of a socially recognized couple to a purely social function such as a wedding, without inviting the other." Those who qualify are "spouses, fiancés and, (like it or not) people who have set up housekeeping together, declaring themselves to be a social unit." Miss Manners, however, draws the line when guests ask to invite their own guests. She says you may refuse requests on behalf of "Friends, dates and perfectly divine people whom one met in a health club last week."
Secular etiquette is one thing, but Jewish weddings have a mystique of their own, says Anita Diamant; her 1985 book, "The New Jewish Wedding" has provided options to guide many couples down the aisle.
"Weddings are not proms," she insists. "You don't need a date to go to a wedding, certainly not a Jewish wedding. You're going to celebrate with the bride and groom; the focus should always be on them, not on guests."
Diamant says that "for most of Jewish history, weddings were anything but by-invitation-only events. In the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the whole community would be involved in some aspect of the celebration. One went to a wedding because it was a mitzvah.
"Jewish weddings traditionally are lively, joyful events where more food is consumed than drink," says Diamant, who thinks it's important for Jewish youngsters to participate in that experience. "It's about continuity. Kids adore weddings."
Diamant suggests that couples and their parents make a list of "what's not so important and what is. You have to pick your fights…Everybody has to think about who are the most important people to have there."
She urges people to "return a spiritual level to the wedding, which is about two people coming together to declare themselves as a family in Judaism. The more you think about your wedding and plan it thoughtfully, not just the details, but take it seriously as a huge religious and life-cycle change, the better the day will be, the better your memories will be."