Like a lot of modern couples, Stephanie and Daniel Braceland didn’t bother hiring a videographer for their August wedding at Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.
Instead, Stephanie, a special education teacher, created her own Snapchat filter — #braceyourselves17 — and instructed friends to post their smartphone videos online. “I like it better, because it’s through my friends’ eyes and not the eyes of someone I hired,” explained the bride, who, ironically, moonlights as a wedding photographer.
The Bracelands’ approach to videography typifies the DIY (do-it-yourself) spirit of today’s Jewish brides and grooms, whose desire to personalize their nuptials is often as strong a motivation as saving money.
Plenty of thrifty couples still make their own centerpieces or buy their own liquor to trim the budget, of course.
But the impulse to put one’s own handcrafted touch on wedding elements comes naturally for millennials, a generation that knits for fun, cures pickles at home and curates their own social media brands.
That was the case for Stephanie Braceland, who admitted that she took on numerous tasks out of a desire to have things just the way she liked them — and to express the uniqueness of the couple’s Philadelphia foodie relationship.
“Every wedding I go to starts to look the same, so I wanted to step out of the box,” said Braceland, 35, who considered only unconventional venues for her interfaith ceremony (she is Jewish; Daniel, a 33-year-old software engineer, is Catholic).
So she spray-painted tin cans for the floral centerpieces, put Tastykakes and Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews into Philly-themed goodie bags, and bought white umbrellas for guests to do the “Mummers’ Strut” in homage to her South Philly grandparents, who had done the dance at her Bat Mitzvah two decades earlier.
“The millennials really want a story around what they’re buying, to make a personal connection for their wedding,” observed Jennie Love, who hosts DIY flower arrangement workshops for brides-to-be at her Philadelphia urban flower farm and floral design company, Love ‘n Fresh Flowers. “They don’t just want to go to Target and get a mass-produced item. They want a physical connection with these objects.”
It’s the same impulse that has propelled the popularity of farmers markets, where an understanding of the provenance of organic rutabaga is now part of our culture. Love said her millennial customers bring that same artisanal ethos to wedding planning: Hand-assembling centerpieces from locally sourced peonies takes on significance apart from the financial savings.
“The seasonal and artisanal is really big,” affirmed Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, author of The Creative Jewish Wedding Book and an officiant with Journeys of the Heart, a Philadelphia agency that provides interfaith clergy. Like her colleagues, Kaplan-Mayer has observed a shift toward individualized and tradition-infused DIY elements.
Among the most common: chuppahs crafted from a family tallis or tablecloth, a signature cocktail incorporating local flavors, iPod playlists in lieu of DJs, and guest books that “are rarely just a book anymore,” Kaplan-Mayer said, but might be anything from a snowglobe souvenir to a framed family portrait.
One particularly ubiquitous trend is a photo display of departed loved ones, which couples craft into a decorative tree, arrange on a table or even incorporate into the chuppah.
“It’s very meaningful,” said Kaplan-Mayer, noting that today’s older couples may not have grandparents, or even parents, alive to attend. “In a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, of course, you don’t say the kaddish. There really isn’t a moment where you acknowledge those people who have passed on.”
Not all DIY elements are handcrafted. Music is one of the most common vehicles for personalization in Orthodox nuptials, said Rabbi Yonah Gross of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood.
“In the past it would be the cantor singing under the chuppah,” Gross noted. “Now, often, it’s siblings or friends who’ll sing.”
At Adath Israel, a Conservative temple in Merion Station, Rabbi Eric Yanoff has noticed that his tradition-minded couples increasingly use music to express their own tastes as well.
“It used to be that there were four Jewish songs that musicians chose from, but now I see people choosing a nice love song — maybe a Jewish love song, a modern Israeli love song, even a totally secular song,” he said.
When Cantor Lauren Levy, the cantor at Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, married Eric Goodman, a 32-year-old physician, in New Jersey last May, she chose a niggun as her processional.
“We knew it would be a fairly Jewishly literate crowd, and they’d pick up and sing along,” explained Levy, 34. “The idea of being sung along to as we walked to the chuppah was very meaningful.”
Levy also crafted a photo montage of family weddings, displaying them alongside a half-dozen multicolor wine bottles. In lieu of a guestbook, guests were encouraged to write blessings or advice and stuff them inside the bottles, which the couple plans to break open on significant anniversaries.
“The idea was to show that, with all those years of anniversaries that my relatives had, may we continue to read the blessings for the next 50-plus years,” Levy said.
Many couples limit DIY elements to such sentimental touches, since doing things oneself requires significant time commitment.
Not every bride is as organized as Julia Katz, 30, who organized an assembly line to make bouquets, garland runners and centerpieces for her June 2016 wedding to Barry Katz, also 30. The morning before her outdoor ceremony at the Curtis Arboretum in Cheltenham, Katz picked up an army of pink, white and purple blooms, lined up clear glass vases, and gathered her family and bridal party on the patio of her future in-laws’ Cheltenham house.
“It was stressful,” she allowed, recalling an emergency run to Lowe’s for extra flowers. “We had eight people working at 9 a.m. Friday morning, and we had to be done by 2. But it worked out.” Moreover, full-service flowers for her 150-person affair “would have been crazy expensive,” added Katz, who also saved money by hand-lettering her signs and used a veil handmade by her mother.
For elements like photography, music and flowers, DIY savings can be substantial.
Full-service floral design costs upward of $5,000 for a typical wedding, Love said, while her DIY brides — who buy bulk flowers and assemble most of the arrangements themselves — spend an average of $400 to $700.
But whether they pre-order specially grown blooms for Love ’n Fresh to assemble or do it themselves, Love said Jewish couples are noticeably more invested in their flowers.
“The Jewish faith encourages more appreciation for the natural world. At least that’s my theory,” she laughed.
The Silverbergs of Media certainly bear out that theory.
“Woodsy wildflower” is how Michele Silverberg, who owns a gift-basket business, describes the theme for the June 2018 Brandywine Manor wedding of her son, Jason Silverberg, and his fiancée, Jordana Rychik, both 26.
For the couple’s 2017 engagement party, Michele Silverberg hand-decorated with dozens of peonies from Love ’n Fresh. She’d had practice: At her daughter’s own “terrain”-themed shower a few years earlier, Silverberg made centerpieces of roses and succulents, and crafted terrariums as party favors.
“I’m a visual person, and I like things a certain way, and my daughter had a very specific vision of having a rustic wedding that wasn’t a cookie-cutter ballroom,” explained Michele, who took a DIY approach to the 2016 Jewish nuptials of her daughter, Jessica Konopka, a 29-year-old Philadelphia art teacher.
For that affair at the Philadelphia Horticultural Center, Silverberg lined the aisle with hand-stained wooden crates that she filled with wildflowers. She also fashioned a chuppah from a tablecloth crocheted by her own mother, and hung vintage handkerchiefs on a decorative board for guests to take home. “I saw something like it on Pinterest,” Silverberg explained.
The social media sites Pinterest and Instagram, as well as the artisan online retail collective Etsy, are driving both today’s DIY wedding inspiration and the pressure to look unique in images that may go viral.
“Now there’s this expectation that you’re not just going to have your first dance, but you’re going to have extravagant choreography,” Kaplan-Mayer noted. “You’re in the spotlight, and some people don’t want to be in the spotlight.”
Some don’t — but others enjoy the experience of planning a DIY wedding so much that they look for ways to do it again. Braceland, who said she is still sorry her foodie nuptials are over, is now expanding her photography business to include full wedding planning.
“I enjoy doing stuff like that,” she said. “I guess it’s the teacher in me. I love to put my own personal touches on things.”