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Thursday, 13 August 2009

Four Weddings and a Mechitza

Blow me, there were at least two wonderful Jewish weddings in London last week but I find myself starting this post with a video of the zaniest and possibly most life-enhancing church nuptials most of us will  ever view.

Jill, Kevin and assorted friends are shown jigging  through a church entrance in Minnesota, USA, to the strain of Forever,  much to the bemused delight of the presiding lady vicar. The couple hope viewers will be persuaded to make donations to the Sheila Wellstone Institute which campaigns against domestic violence.

Knowing how this terrible issue affects the U.K. Jewish community as much as the wider world, first I wish the American  lovebirds a “hearty mazel tov and kol kavod – hearty congratulations and all strength to your wonderful campaign”.

I could not think of a nobler, less selfish or disarmingly engaging way of starting married life while entertaining friends and family.

All of which returns me to the grand affair hosted by singer, Rachel Stevens and Alex Bourne at  Claridge's Hotel.

I understand that their chuppah (wedding ceremony) was conducted under the same mainstream Orthodox Jewish auspices as that of my  niece, nee Leora Wood and her groom, Sam Bennett at Stock Brook Country Club, Essex some days later. Otherwise, the two Jewish events shared about as much in content and values  as did either with the church event.

While Rachel and Alex held a much vaunted celebrity bash where style reigned supreme, the new Mr and Mrs Bennett were “king and queen” at a Hassidic-type event where even they were subservient to strict religious rules of separation and modesty.

Following a public bridal veiling or beddeken for Leora and an outdoor chuppah where the canopy was draped in tallitot (prayer shawls) male and female guests dined separately – divided by a mechitza (screen) - which was also used during separate dancing.

Orthodox Jewish couples  often marry on a Tuesday but Leora and Samuel chose Wednesday 05 August as the secular date co-incided with the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, known as Tu B'Av.

By tradition on this  day  in ancient times the maidens of Israel would dance in the vineyards while their potential bridegrooms looked on and chose a partner from among them. Thus, Tu B'Av was the day when marriages were made.

Some readers may join me in seeing a contradiction here but this was but one among many other differences in custom from those I’ve seen at a host of  ‘regular’ Jewish weddings.

My semi-educated guess is that Leora’s was the first ultra-Orthodox – even Hassidic-type wedding - to have been held in our immediate family for several generations. All her paternal great-great-grandparents - who were of Lithuanian origin -  became anglicised while retaining a strong Jewish identity and maintaining a deep involvement in communal affairs.

This time last year, when Leora became 18, I posted comparative pictures of her and her late paternal grandmother, nee Selina Saltman at roughly the same age  during the 1940s.

Here I present a shot of Leora and Sam taken last week -


alongside one of Grandma Selina and Grandpa Louis Wood when they married at Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, Singer’s Hill in October 1952.   


So we have it: In barely 60 years the next generation fairly aches to return to its  spiritual    Eastern European heime (homeland). But I am left to wonder how much of  this is a channelled romantic yearning for a world they’ll never know and one which may  have existed only in the hearts of those who believed they created it - ‘forever’!

Meanwhile, back in the prosaic world of every-day Israel,  proposed legislation will allow couples not belonging to any recognised religions there to register in a civil union and enjoy the same rights as those in a legal marriage. The bill would solve the troubles of 300,000 Israeli citizens, an overwhelming majority of them immigrants to Israel (olim) who can't marry there  because they have no recognized religion.

This is because while they have Jewish family and have immigrated under the Law of Return,  their mother is not Jewish and therefore they do not have official Jewish status.) In action, says The Israel Religious Action  Centre this law will fail to achieve its intended goal and will barely provide an impractical solution to the depressing problem of tens of thousands of couples that aren't allowed to marry in Israel because they don't fit the narrow parameters of the State.

But let us not think for one moment that problems of internal  divisiveness are unique to Jewry. Only today as I was about to close this post, news bulletins highlighted the story of Whitechapel, East London Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick and his wife, Sheila who walked out of the strictly segregated  wedding celebrations of some Muslim constituents.

Mr Fitzpatrick,  minister for food and farming, claimed the custom  threatened local community cohesion. He added that he and Mrs Fitzpatrick had attended many mosque weddings before but had previously never  witnessed such an arrangement.

I often point to the many social customs that Jews and Muslims share broadly if not exactly. Some dietary rules are similar as are the rituals of circumcision and speedy burials. We certainly have more to unite than to divide us if only the extremists on both sides would allow it to happen. But first both communities will have to set their own houses in order.

The irony of Whitechapel having once been home to thousands of immigrant Jews desperate to claw their way out to  posher North London suburbs and become integrated ‘Anglo-Jewish’ was not lost on me. Neither, I’m sure, will it be lost upon the Fitzpatricks, who appear to be  commendably intelligent, sane and sensitive.


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