A year before their wedding, Brandon Gray and Emily Woolf sat down with their rabbi, Jonathan Maltzman of Kol Shalom in Rockville.
“We wanted to know what a Conservative traditional Jewish wedding would look like in 2015,” said Gray.
Maltzman told the couple that a traditional wedding has few requirements and a lot of room for originality.
“He said that if we wanted to play the trombone as we walked down the aisle, we could.”
There were no trombones at their January wedding at the Park Hyatt in Washington. Gray and Woolf – now Brandon and Emily Gray – instead chose to follow the order of the traditional Jewish wedding, both before and after the ceremony itself.
They included kabbalat panim (welcoming guests), badeken (veiling the bride) and yichud (seclusion after the ceremony).
Kabbalat panim literally means “welcoming faces.” In Yiddish it’s called tish, or “table,” usually an event where a rabbi speaks words of Torah over food and drink. The kabbalat panim occurs before the wedding ceremony, and it is the groom, not a rabbi, who is the center of attention.
Traditionally male guests and family members gather to get to know each other, eat and drink a little, help dispel the groom’s pre-wedding jitters and raise the level of joy among the company.
As at a rabbi’s tish, the groom attempts to deliver a short dvar Torah. But his guests take every opportunity to seize on his words and turn them into song.
“My dvar Torah was on the last three of the 10 Plagues,” Brandon said. His party included Jews and non-Jews. And because Hebrew songs weren’t familiar to everyone, the group mixed in English-language songs.
“I went to the University of Tennessee for undergrad,” Brandon said. “’So we sang ‘Rocky Top.’” “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen helped send him off toward married life.
At some weddings, the bride and groom will have a separate kabbalat panim – one tradition has the bride seated on a large chair and receiving whispered blessings from friends and family. Other couples will deliver a dvar Torah together.
After 20 minutes, Brandon’s group, singing, walked him out of the room to where Emily was waiting to begin the segment of their wedding.
The ketubah signing was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. so Emily arrived five minutes early in the room where it was to take place with her mother, aunt and bridesmaids.
“All of a sudden I heard this singing and Brandon came in with all the guys,” Emily said. “That’s when it started to feel real to me.”
The ketubah, or marriage contract, would be signed by two witnesses: Brandon’s best friend since age 10 and one of Emily’s bridesmaids.
First, though, Brandon and Emily performed the badeken, the veiling of the bride.
The act is traced back to the Bible: Rebecca covered her face before marrying Isaac. And Jacob was fooled into marrying Leah instead of her sister, Rachel, because Leah’s face was veiled at the wedding.
But Rabbi David Kalender of Olam Tikvah in Fairfax thinks that hoary Jacob story is a bit too simplistic to be meaningful to contemporary couples, as if a groom really needs to make sure that the woman under the veil is his intended.
“When people say, ‘It’s just like Jacob,’ I think that’s adorable. But the veiling is not about putting a veil on. It’s about creating a sacred space and a sacred time,” he said. “It creates a private moment for those people in the middle of that larger moment.”
As the object of everyone’s attention at the veiling, Emily was afforded a clear view of her guests.
“Everyone was grinning ear to ear,” she said. “For some this was their first Jewish wedding. Watching the expressions on their faces was special to me as well.”
Fast forward: The wine has been drunk and the blessings said. The rings have been proffered and accepted and the ketubah read aloud. Then glass is smashed, and everyone exhales with a jubilant “mazal tov.”
The first thing they do as a married couple is go into seclusion, a short period of time called yichud, or “together.” Alone in a private room, with two “witnesses” from the wedding party guarding the door to assure privacy, the couple has a chance to catch their breath.
Yichud is a vestigial reminder that one of three ways a Jew can be married is through sexual relations. (The other two are the exchange of an object of value, such as a ring, and a signed contract, the ketubah. All are included in the modern Jewish wedding.)
“In the midst of all that, it’s critically important that the couple have a chance to breathe together, whether it’s three minutes or 20 minutes,” Kalender said.
There is a custom that the couple fasts on their wedding day and breaks the fast at the yichud. Kalender says the act can have more meaning than just putting food in the stomach.
“Eating together gives a physical, hands-on expression to what’s going on in their heads. You two are getting married because you want to sustain each other,” he said.
Emily and Brandon Gray did not fast that day, but they ate a bit during their 20 minutes of seclusion.
“We were allowed to have our alone time, and everything sinks in,” Emily said. “You’re in shock, and what just happened feels amazing.”