What Non-Religious Jews Can Expect at a Religious Wedding

Five years ago, I coerced my non-religious, sushi-eating, bar-hopping best friend to join me on a Birthright trip to Israel.

This past summer, she got married in a traditional Orthodox wedding.

As the first of my closest friends to tie the knot — and the first time I joined a wedding party as the maid of honor — it was a bit of a shock that she embraced her religious side and made such a huge life change in just the past year, especially knowing her Jewish upbringing involved a Bat Mitzvah and nothing else.

Part of me was surprised that my friend jumped into a drastically different lifestyle. But on the other hand, she has always been spontaneous and passionate, and I knew that anything she wanted to do, she set her mind to, and I was always by her side along the way.

That said, it was definitely a mind-boggling switch from spending time with her eating buffets of sushi and Chinese food to reading all the labels for the kosher “U” stamp.

After recovering from the overall bafflement of finding out about the man in her life through a Facebook engagement post, I focused on the ceremony, planning table arrangements and dresses (somehow I got away with a backless purple number) rather than facing the tough questions of a lifelong commitment.

So pausing “Sunrise, Sunset” and putting the shock behind me, I had to address another issue after her quick engagement led to an even faster wedding: What would an Orthodox wedding be like?

I had never been to one before — or many weddings in general — and I was aware that this wedding probably wouldn’t include American traditions like throwing the bouquet and garter or a silly choreographed dance with members of the wedding party (I was very OK with eliminating that one).

I grew up in an active Reform community, but the traditions differ greatly from Orthodox communities.

Based on their backgrounds — both husband and wife in this scenario were raised pretty Reform or non-religious — a lot of their secular Jewish friends and family members had a lot to learn as well.

Most of us tried to understand the Orthodox customs and avoid insensitive questions like, “Am I allowed to rip toilet paper on Shabbat?” or “Why are you wearing a wig?”

To start, there were a bunch of words and phrases I didn’t know.

The bride and groom (or kallah and chosson) acknowledged that this was a new experience for everyone, providing a brief summary on “Orthodox Weddings for Dummies,” in which they explained terms like bedeken, the veiling of the bride, or the yichud room, where the couple share their first moments alone as husband and wife.

Traditionally, the couple doesn’t see each other or communicate for a week prior to the ceremony, building anticipation. Then for a week after, the celebrations continue and they don’t leave each other’s side, generally sitting at their own table during Shabbat for sheva brachot, or the seven blessings said post-nuptials.

The sheva brachot are the same ones recited under the chuppah, proclaiming blessings from God for the newlyweds.

The typical schmoozefest of cocktail hour was time for all the ladies to approach the bride, who sits next to her mother, grandmothers and mother-in-law to receive a bracha, a blessing.

This can be a lot of new information to take in, so I learned that it’s important to be respectful, but still embrace the moment for what it is — a wedding, after all!

That doesn’t mean you should reach out to the groom for a big bear hug or expect any shrimp cocktails at happy hour; be aware of your surroundings, like how men and women dance separately during the reception, for instance.

And when it comes to the dancing, it really all goes back to tradition (how many Fiddler on the Roof references can I make?). With all the excitement, the dancing was more like jumping in a mosh pit at a rock concert, which is not an easy task in heels.

On the men’s side, the groom’s friends are supposed to “entertain” the couple through wacky synchronized dance moves (also thankful I got out of this one).

After the wedding, I spent Shabbat with my friend and her family,  among others. We have celebrated Shabbat together before, so I remembered a few traditions or customs when it comes to prayer, like not speaking after the washing of the hands until you break bread. For some other attendees, the information was less straightforward.

But I had to remember that although my friend was following a whole new life path, she’s still the same person. So there was no shame in asking questions — how else do you learn?

I had no feeling of embarrassment asking, “What does this prayer mean?,” “Why are we standing?” or “Why are we taking shots of whiskey at lunchtime?”

My friend now goes by her Hebrew name, which wasn’t exactly the easiest change for her family and older friends to embrace.

But even with all the changes, not much has changed at all.

We danced like our old rambunctious selves. We laughed at the stupidest old jokes (some of which were truly never funny). We cried with joy that this moment that we’d talked about for so long — usually while watching TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress — had actually come and gone.

I discussed this all at length with many of her family members — that although she may have a new outlook on life, a new name, a new man, she’s still the same person.

Case in point: I learned that in the yichud room, in that first private moment that husband and wife can share alone together, they decided to joyously feast on the kosher orange chicken that was left over from cocktail hour, which they raved about for the rest of the night.

Some things never change.

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Read more from our Fall Simchas issue here


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