Universally, a wedding is about three C's—ceremony, commitment, and celebration—but so much of the experience depends on who and where you are as a bride. Take a walk down someone else's aisle for a change—with our Weddings Around the World series that explores marital traditions all across the map. This stop: Israel.
As the land "flowing with milk and honey," Israel sounds like a place that knows how to throw a good party, right? Curious about how the culture approaches our favorite parties of all time — i.e. weddings! — we called up Israeli wedding planner Lisa Shiner, Partner at the Tel Aviv-based wedding production company BE Group, and real-life Israeli bride Yael Plotkin-Ezra for a tutorial.
"It looks like a bit of a mess," says Shiner with a laugh, "but it's a very fun mess. Israelis tend to have a much more party emphasis than other cultures when it comes to weddings." The rowdy crowds and very late late-night dancing may make for a more informal experience than many Western weddings, but Israelis are equally concerned with a ceremony that's sentimental. "It was important to us that all of the details of our wedding reflected who we are," says Plotkin-Ezra, "a family of loving, warm people who love simplicity and a good joke."
As with all countries, those wedding details differ based on a couple's geographic location, as well as their religious and cultural backgrounds. Shiner points out that the ceremonies of North African and Indian ethic groups of Israel will look different than those of the various Jewish sects. Still, she was willing to walk us through some of the most common experiences one might expect when attending an Israeli wedding.
Read through them below, check out photos from Plotkin-Ezra's joy-filled celebration just south of Tel Aviv, and be prepared for some serious party FOMO. Mazel tov!
In Israeli cultures, the reception takes place before the ceremony, in what Westerners would most likely understand as a cocktail hour. Guests enjoy food and drink and are welcomed by the families of the bride and groom. "While generally the couple doesn't appear until the actual ceremony, in some secular cases, the bride and groom will join," says Shiner. "Then, everyone will walk down the aisle for the ceremony together as one big family in a bit of a free for all!" In some Orthodox communities, there are two receptions — one for the bride and one for the groom.
The Groom's Tisch
Shiner affectionately refers to the tisch as "a period of loud and atmospheric boy time" during the reception, right before the ceremony. Envision lots of boisterous singing and dancing, and since tisch translates to "table," the groom enjoys food and drink with his guests too, before signing the wedding contract and seeing the bride.
This traditional Jewish wedding contract that outlines a man's financial and conjugal obligations to his wife must be signed by the groom and two male witnesses to satisfy Jewish law. As soon as his signature dries, the groom will head to see his bride in a "first look" ceremony called the Bedeken. (For a shoppable list of gorgeous ketubot you can get for your wedding, head here!)
Bedeken means "the veiling ceremony" in Yiddish, and is important is Jewish cultures because "the veil symbolizes the idea of modesty and shows that however attractive the bride is, her soul and character is paramount," says Shiner. Now it's time for parents to lead the bride and groom to the public marriage ceremony that takes place under the marriage canopy known as the "huppa," "huppah," or "chuppah."
Even in the case of more traditional Jewish religious ceremonies, the vibe is much more laid-back, explains Shiner. "If the couple is secular, they may not even have what many would consider a 'real' ceremony," she says. "Guests may stand the whole time, and everyone is mingling and embracing. There's not much formality."
The weather in Israel is pleasant most of the year, so many couples choose an al fresco ceremony and/or reception spot, says Plotkin-Ezra, who chose a small hall with both indoor and outdoor accommodations. "Itzik and I really love the summer," she says, "so we wanted an exterior ceremony and cocktail hour, but an interior for the meal and dancing."
While a Jewish religious ceremony is still one of the most popular marriage formats, they're "definitely becoming less rigid," Shiner says. "There's a much more modern take on things. The rabbi will even crack jokes now and again."
Plotkin-Ezra and her husband wanted to have a combination of religious and secular elements, and so incorporated their own hand-written vows. "The vows we read made the ceremony more personal and exciting, and allowed us to really connect with our guests," she says.
As mentioned above, sometimes there is no formal processional; wedding party and guests will enter as a group "singing and playing on drums," Shiner says. But in a Jewish religious ceremony, the cantor (liturgical singer) and rabbi are first to take their places at the front of the site. If the grandparents haven't opted to be seated beforehand, they'll enter next. Traditionally, Israeli couples do not have bridesmaids or groomsmen (though this is slowly changing), but sometimes siblings or friends will join at the chuppa or even hold up the canopy themselves. (If the wedding is extremely traditional, only male relatives and friends are allowed.) Shiner says, "This is a way for couples to incorporate their friends into the wedding." Then, the groom walks down the aisle, escorted by both parents, and the bride is the last to enter — also on the arms of mom and dad.
Bride Circles Groom Seven Times
"Just as the world was built in seven days, this practice is meant to symbolize the bride building the walls of their new home," says Shiner.
In Jewish law, the marriage is considered "official" once the groom has given the bride "something of great value," i.e. places a ring on her finger, explains Shiner. Customarily, the wedding band was required to be plain with no diamonds or any other adornments. Nowadays, many brides, including Plotkin-Ezra, choose to also purchase a ring for their husbands, and thus exchange rings during the ceremony.
The Wine Ceremony
Since wine is considered a symbol of joy, someone—usually the mother of the bride—will often "feed" the bride wine at the chuppa.
Breaking of the Glass
"Here's the part everyone knows!" says Shiner. "At the very end of the ceremony, the groom stamps on the glass and everyone shouts 'Mazel tov!' — which means congratulations and good luck." But at an Israeli wedding, this is also the part where "all hell breaks loose," she says, laughing. "Everyone moves forward, and rushes in to kiss and bless and congratulate the couple. You can't move for 20 minutes."
"The food is a big, big deal in Israeli weddings," says Shiner. "The festive meal" is a feast, usually with seemingly unlimited buffet service and huge (she emphasized the "huge") amounts of food. While dessert tables are the more traditional route ("You'll have thirty desserts!"), Shiner says she sees an increasing number of cakes and cupcakes every year. "They're becoming more popular as symbolic and decorative elements."
The Seven Blessings
The dinner concludes with the recitation of the Sheva B'rachot, or "the seven blessings." This is a task usually divided between seven men who are very close to the couple, and accompanied by lots of singing.
What are the most popular alcohols in Israel? "Vodka, Arak, and tequila," Shiner answers immediately. "There are typically two cocktails named for the couple and a standard kind of wine."
Strap in, newbies. The partying that starts after the meal can easily go until 5:00 in the morning, says Shiner, and Israeli couples like to go all out. "They're opening up more food and drink stands at midnight," she says. Some of her most popular requested entertainment services include interactive bartenders who come out onto the dance floor, photo booths, and DJs. "There is less live music in Israeli weddings," says Shiner. "Most have a DJ for the entire event, or have one live musician who plays alongside streaming music videos." She's also seen couples bring in florescent lights and selfie headbands. (Guests attach their phones to an antenna-looking fixture that's fastened to a strap that wraps around their head for hands-free photo and video recording.) If the couple is Jewish, you can also expect the bride and groom to be hoisted in the air and other traditional jewish dances to make an appearance.
"The dances start with a couple's slow dance, but then the music changes and becomes rhythmic and it feels just like a regular party," says Plotkin-Ezra. "Itzik replaced his buttoned shirt with a T-shirt, and I replaced my heels with flip-flops!" She says because wedding parties go so late into the morning, most couples organize transportation for their guests so no one drinks and drives.
Speeches aren't common at Israeli weddings, beyond the occasional brief welcome from the parents or couple. Instead, friends will prepare "presentations" of paramount quality. "Sometimes friends will make a film-like documentary of the couple's relationship," says Shiner. "It's so well done, you feel like you're at a movie screening."
In Plotkin-Ezra's wedding, "Itzik's friends prepared a presentation, and my friends prepared a presentation," she says. "My brothers and sister wrote, composed and sang a song, and the mothers read a blessing. All these made the wedding more personal and made us feel loved and special."
"Israeli guests consider it an imposition to bring someone a present to their wedding," says Shiner, although she acknowledges registries are becoming more accepted. "Still, guests won't bring anything to the wedding. They'll just give cash or something beforehand through the registry service."
Meanwhile, a popular wedding favor for guests include things that can be given out on the dance floor, such as t-shirts, glow sticks, or flowered leis.
Traditions & Rituals
The pre-wedding henna for North African and Indian ethnic groups includes the rubbing of a reddish-orange henna substance in the palms of the bride and groom. "It's in a circle, the shape of a coin, to symbolize prosperity and good luck," says Shiner. The groom's parents rub in the bride's henna circle, while her parents take care of the groom's circle. Next, the bride and groom have their hands wrapped in decorative silk ribbons. "The guests sing and rejoice to make the couple happy and are also invited to use henna themselves so that they may be included in the couple’s blessing and good fortune," says Shiner. "It's also considered lucky for the unmarried — to help them find companionship."
Shabbat Hatan (Groom's Sabbath)
In this tradition, the groom reads the Torah at synagogue in honor of his upcoming wedding and is showered with sweets and fruit. "For Ashkenazi Jews, it's the Saturday before the wedding," says Shiner. "For Sephardic Jews , it's the Saturday after the wedding."
Mikveh Bathing Ritual
This purification ritual, that involves a woman bathing in a Mikvah pool full of a minimum of 200 gallons of rainwater, was originally considered mandatory for Jewish brides before their wedding. "These days it's typically done in a huge swimming pool-like like thing, and has become almost like a spa experience for the bride and some of her friends and family," says Shiner. "They make it a bit of a party." Modern-day Mikvah pools are equipped with filtration and water-purification systems, she explains, and kept at a comfortable temperature.
Orthodox law commands there be a quorum of ten male adults for a Jewish wedding to be considered legitimate, Shiner says.
Bride and Groom Separation
"In ultra- orthodox communities, couples do not meet for a week before the wedding and do not live together beforehand," Shiner tells us. And on the day of?
"In Israel there is a custom that the groom sees the bride only when she is ready," says Plotkin-Ezra, who got ready the day of her wedding with two close friends ("Similar to bridesmaids in the US, but they do not have a dress code in our country.") and the women in her family. "It was fun to pass a morning with just us girls together," she says. "We had delicious fruits and sushi. And as soon as I was ready, they called him. The moment of meeting is always exciting! And documented of course!"
"Brides and grooms are moving away from Jewish traditional clothing," says Shiner. "Israeli design is typically more revealing and fitted and very flattering for brides. They'll usually choose a white or off-white or blush dress, and a bedeken (veil)."
In keeping with the more informal theme, grooms will usually opt for a white button-down with chinos and a waistcoat, Shiner says, though some wear suits. Expect guests to also be very dressed down. "You may even see some jeans and flip flops," she says. "Though, many couples make a point of requesting a nicer dress code nowadays." And as in American culture, there's an unspoken, but internal consensus that guests are not supposed to wear white.
Shiner couldn't pinpoint a particular honeymoon destination most popular for Israeli couples because "their honeymoons are very un-formulaic compared to other cultures," she says. "They could go anywhere, and sometimes they'll wait six months or sometimes go straight away. Israeli people are very pragmatic, so in all honesty, it usually depends on work." (Gotta work hard to play hard, we guess!)