When Miriam Nehama Ani and Brandon Waloff sent out invitations to their May 31 wedding months ago, they included a box to check for people who couldn’t make it: “Will toast you from afar,” it was labeled.
Little did they know how prophetic that would be.
Though they did get married in an actual ceremony, just about every guest toasted the Oakland couple from afar by watching on Zoom. Even the rabbi who officiated the wedding did so virtually from her home in Berkeley.
Miriam, 37, grew up Orthodox in Baltimore, and Brandon, 41, grew up Reform in the Philadelphia suburbs. They met in 2013 at the Grand Lake Farmers Market through a mutual friend, and six years later got engaged and started planning their kosher but tradition-blended wedding, choosing a location in Pennsylvania near both their families.
Months ago, the invitations were sent out.
And then the novel coronavirus hit.
In April, they were still holding out hope that they would be able to proceed as planned. The venue back East was doing all it could, but it was stymied while waiting for recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“People were asking us, ‘Should we buy our plane tickets?’ And we just didn’t know,” said Brandon. “It wasn’t just us and our wedding. Everyone was on this ride together.”
Miriam was particularly distressed. “I grieved the wedding for three weeks before I could make the decision,” she said.
All along, Brandon liked the idea of doing something unconventional, so he wanted to stick to the May 31 date rather than postpone. Then both sets of parents called their children a day apart, each giving their blessings to the couple to go forward on their own.
“I really needed that permission,” Miriam said. “It was a heartwrenching decision to have to surrender being able to gather all the people we love.”
There were many logistics to change, as just about everything except Miriam’s dress was on the East Coast. A slew of items (such as Brandon’s bar mitzvah tallit and a grandparent’s Kiddush cup) had to be sent, and the ketubah needed to be returned to the artist (so the location of the wedding could be updated). Getting a marriage certificate proved to be a big hassle, too.
There was one silver lining, however. Rabbi Adina Allen had been the couple’s first choice to marry them, but she wasn’t going to be able to travel to Pennsylvania. Now the founder of the Jewish Studio Project in Berkeley was back on as the officiant.
Susan and Murray Woolf, local relatives, offered to host the wedding at their Fairfield home, which meant they would be in-person attendees, along with a photographer, video technicians and witnesses to sign the ketubah.
With the rabbi and nearly everyone else participating remotely, “I realized that we were not filming a live wedding, but creating a virtual interactive event that was its own beast,” said Miriam, an actor, a director, and a teacher of acting and yoga. “It was a profound moment when I thought, ‘I understand what we’re doing now.’ I’m a director and I directed our wedding.”
Even without most of their guests physically present, the couple still had arranged separate, Orthodox-style gatherings: All the men signed into one Zoom conference to be with Brandon before the nuptials, and the women did the same to be with Miriam. This was the hardest part, Miriam said later, as she very much wanted her family and friends to be by her side. She cried throughout, needing to touch up her makeup before going underneath the chuppah.
Miriam’s friend Julia Fariss worked out all the technical needs with the couple beforehand and served as master of technology from her home in San Francisco. Another friend handled technology on-site in Fairfield.
When Brandon and Miriam met before the ceremony — for the bedeken, when the groom veils the bride, and for the signing of the ketubah — Fariss directed guests from one call to join the other. (Things would have been easier if all of the guests had their own Zoom accounts, but that’s another story.) Additional guests joined via Zoom at this point.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Allen was on a separate video call, and her image was cast onto a large-screen TV, making it appear as if she was directly in front of Brandon and Miriam.
After one rehearsal came off miserably from a technology standpoint, the couple spent hours the week before the wedding doing practice runs on Zoom with all family members (especially the technically unsavvy) who had speaking parts in the ceremony. Afterward, Miriam remarked that she felt a bit ageist, but in the end, the technology worked perfectly. And fears that Zoom might crash during the ceremony were not realized.
Good thing, because this was it, Brandon said. There will be no in-person wedding after coronavirus restrictions are eased.
“Because this wasn’t planned as a Zoom wedding, there was [a lot of] visioning and revisioning,” said Allen. “This was not the wedding they dreamed of, but it had to be perfect as it is, so I acknowledged the imperfection of it. And yet, they still came out the other end of it married.”
Fariss, their tech guru, said her unexpected favorite part of the proceedings was that many of Brandon’s and Miriam’s friends and family used the chat feature, sending text messages and quips during the ceremony. While the couple couldn’t see any of that while under the chuppah, the messages were saved as a text file that’s now a keepsake.
Allen said officiating her first Zoom wedding turned out to be a pleasant surprise. “You can still create an energetic container, even when not in proximity to people,” she said. “We still felt we were creating a sacred holy space, even though we were on screens.”
Plus, she added, “It was the most dressed up I’ve seen people in months!”
Allen customarily has the couple face outward at some point during the ceremony and take in the faces of their assembled guests. In this case, it took the couple five screens to scroll through images coming from 167 computers and phones.
“We went through one by one, and saw each person wave and named everybody we could,” said Brandon, a health and wellness coach.
“It really gave me goosebumps,” Miriam added.
Susan Woolf, a talented home baker, used a photo to recreate the planned wedding cake as best she could, right down to the flavors. And as her wedding gift to the couple, she bought flowers that approximated the flowers they had planned to have in Pennsylvania.
After a break for yichud, during which the newly married couple enjoyed their first bit of alone time together — and all the Zoom participants took a break from their screens, as well — some guests told a story or gave a toast or entertained the couple with a silly skit, with Fariss spotlighting them for everyone to see.
“It felt very spiritual and holy,” Brandon said. “Just because it was on Zoom, it didn’t take away from the experience at all.”
Added Miriam: “I had a fear it would feel like a farce, and that we’d feel like we were pretending at something. But it was magical. I felt we were both radiating joy, and it was truly profound to feel that loved and celebrated. Even on [Zoom], it didn’t take away from it.”