jcover06.12.09
jcover06.12.09

Homegrown wedding: Bay Area Chabad first: Raised in Berkeley, now husband and wife

First and foremost, the wedding of Rivkie Ferris to Rabbi Dovid Feld is a great love story.

Ten years ago, at the age of 11, Rivkie was told by her heart that Dovid was going to be her future husband, and it was at that moment — at Dovid’s bar mitzvah — that she decided precisely how she was going to bring about their union: By avoiding him for the next 10 years.

It wasn’t an easy task, considering they both grew up in Berkeley and were part of the small, tight-knit Bay Area Chabad community. While boys and girls are kept separate to a large extent, there is generally some amount of co-mingling and chitchat that occurs.

But not between Rivkie and Dovid. From the age of 11 to 19, Rivkie didn’t even venture to wish him “good Shabbos,” a sentiment she sometimes extended to other boys in the community.

“I wanted to keep an air of mystery,” Rivkie said last week. “It actually worked.”

It worked so well, in fact, that it brought about a wedding of epic proportions June 7 at the San Ramon Marriott. About 450 people attended, many from Chabad communities in Los Angeles and on the East Coast, some from as far away as Israel. The officiating rabbi, a mentor of Dovid’s, traveled all the way from a yeshiva in Pretoria, South Africa, and the photographer, a friend of Rivkie’s father, came in from Brooklyn.

“The wedding of the century,” some people called it. “The merging of two dynasties,” others said.

Rivkie is the 20-year-old daughter of one of the Bay Area’s longest-serving Chabad rabbis, Yehuda Ferris of Berkeley, who has 10 children from ages 4 to 27. Rivkie was his fourth of six daughters to get married.

Rivkie Ferris (left) at age 3 and Dovid Feld at a 1991 Chabad Lag B’Omer picnic in Berkeley’s Tilden Park. photo/david spieler

Dovid is the 22-year-old son of Rabbi Chanan Feld, who has been a mohel in the Bay Area for two decades and who, along with his wife and Noach and Tamar Bittelman, co-founded a Torah learning center and synagogue (Beit Midrash Ohr HaChaim) in North Berkeley 10 years ago.

But more than just being a union of two people from highly prominent local Chabad families, the wedding of Rivkie and Dovid marked a significant milestone: the first time two Chabad children born and raised in the Bay Area were marrying one another. “It’s a historic thing,” Rabbi Ferris said. “It’s a big simcha.”

A Chabad wedding is always a grand simcha, but usually it’s a simcha taking place in Crown Heights or Baltimore or Jerusalem — places where, unlike in the Bay Area, there are large populations of Chassidic Jews (of which the Chabad community is a subset).

However, there they were, on a warm Sunday evening 10 miles from Mount Diablo — the daughter of a Berkeley rabbi marrying the son of a Berkeley mohel, engulfed by nearly 100 men with long beards, dark suits and black hats.

Except for the fact that the ceremony was held outside amid trees and flowers, it looked like a scene straight out of Boro Park … or “Fiddler on the Roof,” for that matter, except — baruch HaShem — there was no argument between Tevye and the widower Lazar Wolf over a broken marriage contract.

Not that there would have ever been any bickering at this wedding. After all, unlike other Chabad couples, who often don’t know each other before they’re set up by the shadchan (matchmaker) or their parents, Rivkie and Dovid have known each other “since they were in the cradle,” Rabbi Ferris said.

That’s what makes them — so far — a unique case in Bay Area Chabad history. In the past, while there have been a handful of Chabad weddings in the Bay Area, all have involved one spouse from outside the area, or people who didn’t become Orthodox until later in life.

Rivkie’s older sister, Sarah Shaina, for example, grew up in the Chabad lifestyle and got married in a traditional Chassidic wedding at the San Ramon Marriott five years ago, but she married a man from Brooklyn (and it was a shadchan that brought them together).

And Chanie Levin, the daughter of Rabbi Yosef Levin of Chabad of Greater South Bay, got married at Foster City’s Crowne Plaza Hotel in 2003, but she wedded a 23-year-old yeshiva student from Montreal that a close family friend “found” for her.

Rivkie and Dovid, on the other hand, have known each other since they were toddlers.

“There were only around three families in our [Chabad of Berkeley] community when we started out,” Rivkie said. Recently, the Northern California Chabad population has grown, with 25 chapters, including 18 in the Bay Area, according to Chabad.org. But 25 years ago, there were only two Chabad outposts: Berkeley and San Francisco.

“Our families were all close friends and we all grew up together. We’d spend 10 hours a week in a van, carpooling to Jewish day school.”

Rivkie did talk occasionally to Dovid back then, but admits that she was very shy when doing so. Even the van driver noticed that Rivkie was smitten, according to a childhood friend.

Then, at Dovid’s bar mitzvah, “I saw him giving his speech, and going through my 11-year-old mind — I know this doesn’t sound logical, but I knew that I was going to marry him one day,” she said.

From that point on, Rivkie decided to avoid all conversation with Dovid. “I was thinking maybe one day, and I don’t know how I got this wisdom at age 11, when we got older and started dating for marriage, that’s when I’d like to cross that bridge.

“If I had maintained a friendship with him, there would have been a lot different possibilities that could have happened, none of which I thought would be good. Having self-control and doing the right thing and waiting until the proper time really benefited us greatly.”

In their teen years, Dovid studied in South Africa to become a rabbi (he was ordained two years ago) and Rivkie attended Bais Chana Chabad High School in Los Angeles. But the two would occasionally glimpse one another at Chabad functions, and were even counselors at the same summer camp a few years ago. But they never spoke, aside from an occasional “hello.”

Rabbi Dovid Feld dances on a lifted-up table, a tradition at Chassidic weddings. photo/yaakov rosenthal photography

Until five months ago, that is, when they went on their first date — which was, technically, set up by their mothers, Miriam Ferris and Jody Feld. First dates in the Chabad community are designed for two people of marrying readiness to get to know each other and their intentions, rather than to have fun. And as such, many Chassids have their first date in a public place, like in a hotel lobby.

Rivkie and Dovid had theirs at the Top of the Mark restaurant on the 19th floor of San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins Hotel. Afterward, they rode a cable car together. “He was impressed by my spunkiness,” Rivkie said of the idea for the cable car ride.

Three and half weeks after that date, the two Berkeleyites decided to get married, although (as per tradition) the official “proposal” wasn’t issued until the actual wedding day, during the ceremony of Kiddushin.

So there Rivkie was, five months after their first date, sitting on a pink “throne” inside a ballroom in the Marriott, not having seen Dovid for one week and still never having touched him (both as per tradition).

Rivkie Ferris sits on a “throne” and welcomes guests before the wedding. photo/stacey roberts-ohr

All of this heightened an anticipation that grew even more intense during the Kabbalat Panim, when the kallah (bride) was in one room receiving her guests on her throne and the chatan (groom) was in an outdoor courtyard, surrounded by guests who sang to him, quoted talmudic passages and toasted him with Scotch and vodka. Nearby, the mothers stood together and broke a plate by hurling it to the ground, symbolizing the seriousness of the commitment (just as a broken plate cannot be fully repaired, neither can a broken relationship).

At a typical Chabad wedding, the men and the women are separate through all of this, as well as through the rest of the wedding, dinner and dancing. And had this wedding been in Jerusalem or Crown Heights, Brooklyn, there might have been a more stringent division.

But this Chassidic wedding was “California casual,” as one attendee called it, and there was a decent amount of gender mixing throughout the six-hour affair.

Even when Rivkie and Dovid met underneath the chuppah, some men were on the women’s side, and vice versa. About two-thirds of the attendees were Chassidim, and the women were dressed colorfully but conservatively — dresses covering the knees when seated, necklines above the collar bone, sleeves covering the elbows. Children were in abundance, and there were so many babies, the hallways often could have used a traffic cop for strollers.

After the outdoor ceremony, the newly married couple was escorted to a room and left alone together for 20 minutes. This first moment of seclusion, known as yichud, signified their new status as husband and wife, and allowed them to get to know each other better — as well as devour some food (they had been fasting since the morning).

For dinner, the men and women sat at tables for 10 on separate sides of a huge ballroom, each with its own dance floor, with a six-foot-high barrier of ivy-adorned curtains in the middle. One Chassidic man was seen talking to his wife through the barrier, and another man went to the women’s side, scooped up his young daughter and walked through a split in the drapes to the man’s side. But for the most part, the barrier served its function.

After a salad was served from the hotel’s temporarily kashered kitchen (an official Vaad HaKashrus document dated 15 Sivan 5769 was on display), a wild round of dancing ensued. Dovid was hoisted in a chair on the men’s side, while the same was done for Rivkie on the women’s side. Then each sat back to be feted by their guests, who juggled, played with hula hoops and breakdanced amid the glitter of sparklers and a storm of confetti. Men grabbed arms and zipped around the dance floor with reckless abandon as the five-piece Moshav Band cranked out high-energy klezmer-rock.

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris holds a goblet of wine and reads one of the Sheva Brachot, Seven Blessings, alongside (from left) his fully veiled daughter, Rivkie, the groom, Rabbi Dovid Feld, and the groom’s father, Rabbi Chanan Feld. photo/yaakov rosenthal photography

Burlingame’s Yes Catering did the cooking, and two 10-pound challahs from Oakland’s Grand Bakery made the rounds after dinner. Dessert included crowd-pleasing no-cheese cheesecake slices from Berkeley chef and caterer Chaya Rivka Diehl, who created the desserts in the Ohr HaChaim kitchen. Diehl works at Cafe Gratitude and also owns Living Vision catering.

In two weeks, the bride and groom will embark for Jerusalem, where he will do two months of study on how to make a good marriage in a kollel for recently married men (and she hopes to do the same with recently married women in a machon). After that, the couple wants to settle in Southern California, where Dovid hopes to continue studying architecture at the L.A. Institute of Architecture and Design.

“Everything is so new all at once,” Rivkie said. “We just want to get settled into married life. At least there’s a lot more familiarity between us, and there’s a comfort level that other newlyweds don’t have. I never had to meet my in-laws, for example. And we come from culturally similar backgrounds. I never had to explain my ‘Berkeleyness’ to him. Both of our mothers always have seaweed on the stove.”

Seaweed cooking on the stove? Well, there’s a topic that won’t come up at a Chabad wedding in Crown Heights.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.