Everything old is new again

When Margie Jacobs was planning her wedding, she knew she wanted to have a kabbalat panim and bedeken, but she wanted to do these rituals differently from how she had seen them done before.

Jacobs is a Reconstructionist rabbi, as well as the regional director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. At her 2006 wedding to Andy Seplow, Jacobs gathered with the women guests before the ceremony, while the men gathered with the groom. But rather than the singing and dancing that often goes on in these gatherings, Jacobs asked her friend Rabbi Dorothy Richman to create a more contemplative space.

“We had 180 people at our wedding, and I knew I’d be a little overwhelmed,” she said. “I wanted to be in a mindful space walking down the aisle.”

Richman not only led the women in silent meditation, but in prayers for fertility — not only for the bride, but for other friends of hers who were trying to conceive.

“I felt it was this opening and the perfect time to do it,” Jacobs said, “as the gates are really open.”

The fertility prayers worked. Jacobs is due in the fall.

While these rituals are a big part of Orthodox weddings, they are mostly unfamiliar to Jews outside the Orthodox realm. Yet a growing number are reinventing the rituals and including them in their weddings.

According to Jhos Singer, spiritual leader of the Coastside Jewish Community of Half Moon Bay and an independent ritual facilitator, “Most people who have seen it done, want it.”

At an Orthodox wedding, the festivities begin with the kabbalat panim (“receiving faces”) at which the bride is seated in one room and the groom is in another. They have not seen each other for a week. As guests arrive, they are told to go to one room or the other, designated by gender.

At the groom’s tisch (“table”), the groom is supposed to try to give a short speech about the Torah portion of the week. But schnapps is passed around, and his friends intentionally interrupt him. This is meant to create a lighthearted mood, especially since the groom can be very nervous.

Meanwhile, at the bride’s tisch, women sing and dance. They may ask for blessings from the bride, since it is believed that she has a direct channel to God on that day.

Eventually the men escort the groom, sometimes singing and dancing, over to the bride. The moment when they first see each other is often the high point at such a wedding. The groom lowers or lifts her veil to make sure she is his bride. This custom, called bedeken, harkens back to the biblical story of Jacob, who married Leah rather than his beloved Rachel because he did not lift her veil to see who she was.

“The bedeken is not just to recall this story of Jacob and Leah and Rachel,” said Julie Batz, program director of Jewish Milestones and a ritual facilitator. “It’s to say to each other ‘I really see you at a very deep level. I know who you are and I choose you.'”

When Arik Labowitz, another Berkeley-based independent ritual facilitator, leads the bedeken, he has all of the guests close their eyes to give the bride and groom a moment of privacy to really see each other.

He got this custom from his mother, a Renewal rabbi.

“The only eyes open in the room are their own,” he said, “and they feel they are within community and not doing this on their own, but they have the space to look at each other and open up to each other.

“It’s probably the one time during their entire wedding that they won’t be looked at.”

Labowitz said he discusses that moment with the couple beforehand, to put it into the proper context.

Having that moment to look at each other “allows couples to really open up their hearts to the fact that who they’re marrying is still unknown to them in a certain way. They know this person they’ve fallen in love with to a certain degree, but they don’t know who they’re going to become.”

Labowitz led the bedeken at the 2006 wedding of Daniel Lev and Margie Walkover, both of Berkeley. Lev, a trans-denominational rabbi in his own right, said at every bedeken he has led since, he has asked everyone else to close their eyes.

“The bedeken is giving each other permission to open their internal veils,” he said.

Lev, who is also a therapist, said that in his mind, the tischen (plural of tisch) are the perfect medium for the bride and groom to not only really arrive at their wedding, but relax a bit.

Both Labowitz and Lev said they had presided over tischen that were not exclusively of one gender, as is traditional, so that close friends and family members of the opposite gender could be with the bride and groom right before the ceremony.

“The tisch is a great thing to allow you to have some consciousness, calm you down, and make you feel more relaxed as well as connected to the community,” Lev said. “A wedding is often made up of different sets of friends and family, and it helps create a community connect to each other and to you.”

Singer said that given how scripted weddings usually are, having a tisch and bedeken allow a certain amount of spontaneity, which really appeals to those who are marrying later in life and strongly identify with the Bay Area’s flexible culture.

“I think they really desire something that feels a little rawer than the scripted and neat and tidy and formal. It’s also a way of taking people slightly out of their comfort zones, consciously or not,” Singer said.

Felicia Sloin, who used to be the cantorial soloist at Piedmont’s Kehilla Community Synagogue, laughed at how several of the women at her wedding tisch had no idea what was going on. As her friends came up individually, kneeling in front of her to ask for blessings, one woman was overheard asking “Are we supposed to worship her, or kiss her feet?”

Sloin, who is now cantorial soloist at Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, Mass., said that the Bay Area style of tischen and bedeken have been taking place among her friends on the East Coast, too. When she married Eric Phelps last summer in Massachusetts, the drumming and singing was done exactly as it is done here.

At her wedding, though, the tischen became an even greater blessing. On his way to the wedding, the groom got into a major car accident and had to take a detour to the emergency room. A few people at the wedding were notified, and were told that he was OK, but would be late. Because the men and women were in separate spaces, Sloin had no idea.

“The tisch protected me from knowing that he wasn’t there,” she said. “I was surrounded almost like a bubble by this ritual and community of women.”

Phelps got through the ceremony, and only told his bride about the accident while they were in yichud (seclusion) immediately after. Later, he said it was a relief that he didn’t have to see his bride immediately when he arrived at the wedding.

“I give the tisch a lot of credit,” Sloin said. “Eric had his own thing he had to deal with. If I had gotten to the wedding and known that he was late and wasn’t there, that would have freaked me out completely. So that was another blessing of the tisch that was unexpected.”