Last weekend I attended the wedding of our good friends’ daughter. It was only the second Jewish wedding I had ever attended, and I was in my twenties the first time. In those days, I was much more interested in the party afterwards than the ceremony itself. But this time I was paying attention as the ritual unfolded. The site of the wedding was a beautiful hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A tent had been set up with row upon row of chairs for those in attendance. And the focal point was the chuppah.
A chuppah is a four-posted shelter under which the couple stands to marry in a Jewish wedding ceremony. The posts were festooned with flowering vines and covered with a white canopy. The rabbi explained that the chuppah represents the Jewish home. As the ceremony got under way, it became filled with first attendants (including the couple’s siblings), then grandparents, and finally the parents, who accompanied the groom and the bride down the aisle. Unlike my own wedding, during which only my husband and I and the priest were on the altar, this wedding ceremony was truly a family affair.
I noticed during the course of the evening that the importance of family was paramount. Following their intimate witness to the bond created between the bride and groom, the families danced and hugged and clapped under the chuppah. Later on, at the reception, they would repeat this with more dancing, as well as exuberantly lifting the bride and groom on chairs above the heads of the crowd. Both the father of the bride and the father of the groom, as well as the groom himself, made moving speeches about their love for their families and the close bond that this marriage would bring to them all. They also honored those who had gone before, their ancestors.
During the ceremony, the rabbi spoke of the spiritual presence of these loved ones who had passed away. They too were crowded under the chuppah with their children and grandchildren, their spirits celebrating along with their loved ones. The rabbi noted that the bride’s deceased grandfather’s tallit, or prayer shawl, was stretched above them under the white canopy. I was very moved thinking about the continuity of love and tradition being experienced on this happy day.
The bride glowed. The groom radiated happiness. In many ways, it was like any other noisy, festive wedding celebration I had ever attended. But the closeness of these families was remarkable. Family is woven into every aspect of Jewish life. The Shabbat dinner is a time when families gather on Friday at dusk, light the candles, pray, and share a meal together. Many Orthodox Jews do not drive on the sabbath, so you can see them walking to synagogue, hand in hand with children and grandparents. The high holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Passover are family affairs. Jewish spirituality is truly a communal affair.
I realize that there are other cultures which are intensely family oriented. My husband’s own Chaldean culture is certainly that way. But as a woman raised in a world that glorifies independence and individuality, it was beautiful to be part of an event that celebrates community. Indeed, I felt included under the chuppah.