“Marriage is a gift from God to us. The quality of our marriage is our gift to Him/Her.” Many times I have intoned these lines as I stood with the bride and groom sending them out on their voyage of a lifetime.
Focusing on their privilege to “build“ Am Yisrael (the nation of Israel), I realized that it was 54 years ago, at Fort Sill Oklahoma, when I officiated at my first “hasuna” (wedding). That couple, with whom I am still in touch, have suffered many tragedies, even losing a child, but they are grandparents, about to be great-grandparents. The glue which they and I applied that day worked.
One Sunday, when I was about 10, my father said that we were going to my grandparents’ home for a wedding. “David, you and I are going to hold two poles of the four for the marriage ceremony. Two members of the family who were to help could not come.”
The parents of the couple were present, as were a few friends. My zayde (grandfather) was holding a large Kiddush cup filled almost to the brim. To this day I can recall his “B’ruchim Ha’Baim” (Welcome!) as the couple moved under the huppah (the canopy under which Jewish wedding ceremonies are performed).
The melodies for that ceremony were born in Kovno, Lithuania, my grandfather’s home until he was 33. After the gift of the ring from groom to his bride, the traditional ceremony continued. Rav Tuvia read the Ketubah (wedding contract) created by our sages over 2,000 years ago.
Now the beautiful Sheva Brachot (seven blessings) came out like pearls of wisdom. He then said, “Please break the glass!” The hatan (groom) accomplished this on his first try. As is clear, that “hasuna” is permanently embedded in my mind. Some call it “the most elaborate ceremony in Judaism.” All of us who have married are well aware of this.
The noted professor of anthropology and sociology at the Hebrew University, Dr. Harvey Goldberg, explains to us in his encyclopedic work, Jewish Passages, what the act of marriage encompasses.
“Marriages permanently change the personal situation of individual, set the social stage for biological reproduction, constitute occasions for the movements of wealth, and also call upon the representatives of religious authority for endorsement,” Goldberg writes. “While often relying upon the legitimacy offered by ancient traditions, people expect marriage rituals to speak to current notions.”
In this era, sound and sight recollections of the event are imperative: photos of the wedding enter a bound volume, as well as videos on YouTube, and even taped interviews.
But what if there are no visual images of a wedding? Alas, when my beloved parents, Anna Birshtein and Louis Geffen, were married on December 26, 1934, the arrangements had been made by my late mother, a bastion of efficiency, for a photographer to take the pictures.
When they returned from their honeymoon at an early kosher “boarding house” on Miami Beach, Florida, the photographer was in tears. He told my mother and father that he had not put film in the camera. My mother did tell me that sad story at times. It was so much sadder for me because all my life I have only imagined my mother in her wedding gown and my father in his tuxedo. A wedding is not complete unless you can see the elaborate, amazing and beautiful celebration for your entire life.
American Jewry in the 19th century was still in an infant stage. There were elaborate weddings in the United States described in daily newspapers from The Atlanta Herald to The Daily Alta California. What pride those early Jews took in elaborate Jewish weddings, but when a Rothschild wedding from Europe was detailed in these same papers, they were ecstatic.
In his groundbreaking work, The Jews in the California Gold Rush, published over 40 years ago, the late prof. Robert Levinson wrote that “traditional Judaism was maintained in Mother Lode through the perpetuation of certain ceremonies.” In his words, “When weddings and circumcisions occurred and were celebrated with the proper religious ceremony, they were great events in the Jewish communities.”
Citing the famous California Jewish editor of that period as an example, Levinson writes: “Rabbi Julius Eckman reported in his newspaper, the San Francisco Weekly Gleaner, that he had officiated at a wedding in Georgetown (on the edge of the Gold Country) performed at the town hall, and that the guests were summoned to the wedding by the ringing of the town bell.”
Our good friends, Ellyn (Greenberg) and Rabbi Stuart Geller married on June 9, 1963 at Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. Even though he was a Reform rabbi, Geller wore a kippah, which was rare then but today is almost compulsory at most synagogues.
American Jewish weddings have changed dramatically since the 1960s. Every Ketubah used now has both Aramaic and English.
Rabbi Geller was a pioneer making marriage counseling essential for couples. In fact, without counseling, he would not officiate at the wedding. Top hats like the one I had to wear for my wedding to Rita on December 29, 1962 in New York are rarely used these days. We have three children and eight grandchildren, all of whom – I am proud to say – live in Israel.
At many weddings, the bride and groom compose vows which they recite to each other under the huppah. The “traditional wedding march,” used for two centuries, has been replaced by beautiful Israeli music. Some brides and grooms, separated the week before the wedding, involve themselves in “ma’asim tovim” (good deeds) during those seven days.
One major element in Jewish weddings today is the illuminated ketubah. David Moss, an American who made aliyah with his family over 20 years ago, was the first to revive this art form. He lives in Jerusalem, and I asked him to explain, personally, how he developed his ketubah art form.
“I fell in love with Hebrew calligraphy in 1968. The magic of the letter forms enchanted me,” he says. “At about the same time, David Davidovitch’s beautiful art book featuring exquisite examples of old Ketubot from around the world, appeared. The merger of art and calligraphy to enhance the beauty of marriage seemed to me just perfect.”
Moss decided this was an art form he wanted to explore. “I inquired about who was currently making these wonderful ketubot and was informed that this art had died out long ago. The ketubah had become a drab printed form filled out by the rabbi.“
He went into action. “I knew I must revive this lovely, dormant
Jewish artform and began making illuminated ketubot as wedding gifts for friends and then for others who began requesting customized ketubot. My approach was very personal. Each work was quite different as I interviewed every couple and each reflected who they were.
“In 1971, the editor of the National Jewish Monthly discovered my work and was so excited that he ran three cover stories on my ketubot; I was swamped with orders, and the revival of this form began. Soon an exhibit traveled around the United States. Other artists were drawn to the form and it began to flourish.”
Then the following happened. “Collections of my ketubot, together with beautiful quotations on Jewish love and marriage, were published by the Bet Alpha Editions in a gift book edition called Love Letters and a three-volume collectors edition.
“Today, 50 years after my first ketubot, I still love making them for special occasions. I am honored and grateful that these now include third generation Ketubot. What a blessing!”
Rita and I dedicate this article to our grandson, Ori Burg, and his bride, Hila Benshushan, who are getting married in Israel on June 30, 2020, and send our blessings to them. They both work in film creation and production; Hila is a producer and Ori a director. Last year they received the Ophir (Israeli Academy award) for their short film, Yom Ragil in Hebrew (Committed in English). Hila and Ori, you are such a wonderful couple celebrating your marriage made in heaven. The sages point out that God is constantly working as a mezaveg zevugim (matchmaker). This poem penned by Edwin Hatch states beautifully how to fill your days as you shape your life together:
“For me – to have made one soul the better for my birth
To have added one flower to the garden of the Earth
To have struck one blow for truth in the daily fight with lies
To have done one deed of right in the face of calumnies
To have sown in the souls of men (and women) one thought that will not die
To have been a link in the chain of life shall be my immortality.”
As Hila and Ori become one, we wish them the Blessing of the Geffen (vineyard) – “Gezunt, Parnasa, Nachat” – health, livelihood and gratification.
The writer is a rabbi who made aliyah from Atlanta. He and his wife Rita have lived in Jerusalem for 43 years