Family Matters: Israel Is for Weddings
Forget Florida’s beaches, the islands of the Caribbean or a European castle. For many young Jewish couples, the ideal place to tie the knot is Israel.
When Avery Pack proposed to Miami native Sara Liss, the couple knew from the start they wanted to get married in Israel. That is where they had met and gotten engaged.
Despite some initial objections from family members, Liss booked a hall in Jerusalem. The couple married in August 2005—during the week of the disengagement from Gaza. “We liked the idea of doing something positive that week,” Liss said, “when there was so much negative energy.”
The couple had considered various sites, such as the Roman ruins in Caesaria, the Mediterranean beach and a museum in Jaffa, but in the end decided to celebrate their nuptials at the Mount Zion Hotel in Jerusalem; the capital was centrally located for their guests, and the hotel features a stunning view of the Old City.
“There was also emotional significance because we were right across from the Mount of Olives, where Avery’s grandparents are buried,” Liss explained.
Among the memorable facets of the event were the mosaic tiling and Moroccan furniture in the bridal suite and the Yemenite band that played Louis Armstrong tunes—hired just two weeks before the wedding.
Liss and pack are just one of hundreds of non-Israeli Jewish couples who choose to marry in the Holy Land each year. Although the numbers decreased during the intifada, they are on the rise again; in the past year, at least one wedding coordinator has been getting as many as 10 inquiries a week from American, British and French couples hoping to plan their weddings from abroad.
Sensing a market for an English-language information site for photographers, florists and halls, Beit Shemesh residents Jael Kurtz and Judy Krasna launched an online portal for service providers, www.celebrateisra el.com, in January.
According to estimates provided by wedding planners, the phenomenon of non-Israeli Orthodox and non-Orthodox couples getting married in the Jewish state—with all the associated plane tickets, hotel accommodations, touring by the guests and the wedding itself—injects $15 million to $30 million annually into the economy.
There are many reasons that Jewish couples get married thousands of miles away from their family and friends. In general, destination weddings have become more popular in recent years; many bridal magazines bear witness to the allure of celebrations in exotic, especially tropical, locales. As Jerusalem-based wedding planner Shoshana Falik, owner of Eventfully Yours (www.eventfully yours.net), explained, an overseas affair, which involves a long trip and touring, “turns [the event] into a bigger picture. It often unites the family much more. It is more memorable when you go far away together….”
For most of those choosing the Jewish state as their destination, however, it is not trendiness that is foremost. “The most obvious reason is the spiritual element, that you are celebrating the holiest day of your life in the holiest place in the world,” Falik explained.
“Can you think of any better place?” asked Etan Goldman, 35, a Los Angeles musician known as “the Jewish Rapper” (www.jewishrapper. com). He planned his Jerusalem wedding in less than one month in the fall of 2002. “They say you should have a bayit ne’eman b’yisrael—a trustworthy house within Israel—so what better place than to start off there?” There are practical reasons for a wedding in Israel, according to Joan Summerfield of Raanana-based Anglo Israel Events (www.celebrations.co. il). Some Americans find Israel’s simpler wedding style appealing. They want to “get away from the one-upmanship, the pressure to have a fancier wedding than their friends,” she said. In addition, with the country’s predictable weather, an outdoor affair can be scheduled just about any time of year. And when the bride and groom are from different countries—say, the United States and England—Israel provides a logical meeting place.
A dramatic fringe benefit of getting married in Israel is the cost. Plate for plate, Israeli affairs are substantially cheaper, even at comparably luxurious halls. Since Americans tying the knot in Israel tend to have smaller and less lavish affairs than they would back home, the average couple can save up to two-thirds of their budget.
“If I wanted to get married with a beautiful view in Miami, it would have been three times as much,” Liss observed. “And what we got was 10 times better, given the site and the scenery and our band.” Both Liss and Goldman said their entire weddings cost as much, or just a little more, than what they would have paid for the band alone in their hometowns.
Of course, one reason the weddings are smaller is that far fewer friends and family members attend.
“I had a game plan since college of how I wanted my wedding to be,” said Goldman. “And I didn’t get that. I’d had dreams about my bachelor party. None of that happened.
“But [even though they couldn’t come] my friends still love me. They got to see the video online.”
In addition to downsizing the guest lists, couples typically trim much of the formal atmosphere and costly extras, such as bridesmaids and party favors, tending instead toward the Israeli tradition of informal, joyous, even raucous, receptions. Although there are couples who host black-tie affairs, most choose what Goldman described as “a much more laid-back vibe.”
Israel’s relaxed standards of formality were a perfect match for Goldman and his wife, Marcel. Goldman planned the wedding entirely by himself—from the e-mail invitations to the “old-school pimp tux with bell-bottom pants” and platform shoes he wore. To match his attire, Marcel purchased a dress on eBay “straight from the 70’s for about $80,” she said.
“We stripped our wedding down,” said Goldman, “and nobody cared. The band rocked. There was no nervousness, no pressure. Even my wife was laid back and happy.”
Originally, Goldman had wanted to hold the wedding at the Kotel “so all my friends could watch it on the Webcam,” but, he said, one is not allowed to play music there. Instead, he booked Mul HaHar, a catering hall on Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv Promenade, an overlook with a view of the city. About 125 guests, including “hippies and Jews with black hats and payes,” attended their outdoor afternoon wedding with no assigned seating. “It was perfect,” Goldman said. “You come, you hang out, you dance, you leave. Everybody stood practically under the huppa with us, with a view of the Old City.”
In Israel, people feel free to choose unusual settings: “You can do a party in a nature reserve and watch them make olive oil,” Krasna said. “My friend went to a wedding in a cave. You went down about 150 steps, and…it was all candlelit.”
However, several wedding professionals caution American couples to be prepared for obstacles, particularly cultural differences, not only in the wedding itself but also in the working styles of the service providers.
“In America, when you call a vendor, they call you back,” said Falik. “In Israel you have to call them 12 times before you get one call back. In America, you have formal contracts that are enforced. In Israel, asking for a contract implies you do not trust them. In America, a photographer will look respectable. In Israel, he’ll show up wearing jeans and sandals and smoking at your huppa.”
Krasna, who said that CelebrateIs rael.com includes only vendors who meet American standards of service, listed other hindrances: the language barrier, the time difference and the Israeli impatience with details.
“In America, you book things a year in advance,” she explained. “Here, they don’t have a calendar that goes that far ahead. There is an attitude of ‘everything will be fine, calm down, don’t worry.’ Things do work out here in the end. But most Americans are not relaxed enough to wait until the last minute to work things out.”
On the other hand, Summerfield pointed out, service has improved dramatically in the last few years and it is possible to get five-star service and gourmet food.
Still, a bride cannot make assumptions about any aspect of the event. Israeli hair and makeup artists typically produce results that most American women find garish; caterers do not assume that a wedding cake is part of the menu; and, since an aisle is not part of a traditional Israeli wedding, the hotel staff will not think to set one up for the bride to walk down unless it is requested.
Falik and Summerfield recommend that couples use event planners to help navigate the cultural minefields. But Liss, who left most of her arrangements until a month before the event, used the Israeli modus operandi to her own advantage. “I knew I could change my flower arrangements two days before, because [the florist] hadn’t done anything yet,” she said with a laugh.
Liss pointed out another difference. “Everywhere you go in Israel, people are genuinely happy for you,” she said. “When we were getting Avery’s suit dry-cleaned, they got so excited. When I picked up my flowers, everywhere, they have this real sincerity when they wish you well. They make you feel special.”
Another factor to consider when planning an Israel wedding is where to perform the civil ceremony. For some couples, especially those who may later make aliya, obtaining an Israeli civil marriage license is not only more meaningful, but also an investment in the future. But to obtain a civil marriage license, couples must go through the Israeli Rabbinate and prove that they are eligible by Jewish law to marry. The bride must also provide proof that she has studied the laws of family purity and immersed in a mikve.
“It’s quite a process,” Summerfield said. “Some people don’t want the hassle.”
Liss and Pack opted to go through the Rabbinate because “we wanted to experience the bureaucracy that an Israeli couple would,” she said. “That was the hardest part in terms of planning, but we had the full experience. We weren’t just tourists. We kind of relished the bureaucracy because now we have a marriage license from Israel.”
Etah and Kenny Hamlet were legally married two years ago in New York by a family friend who is also a judge. But their religious ceremony and reception, which took place soon after the American civil ceremony, were held at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem in front of a mix of guests, including American relatives and Israeli cousins, some of whom arrived in their Army uniforms.
After the reception, the couple and their families spent a week touring. The newlyweds then honeymooned on their own in Israel for seven days.
“The wedding…was a two-week experience,” Etah explained, “I can’t see any other way that my whole family would have been in Israel together unless it was for a wedding. It was very meaningful.”
Liss also pointed out that by holding her affair in Israel, her dedication to the Jewish state spilled over to other family members.
“My father came to Israel for the first time for my wedding,” she recalled. “Now, he is making retirement plans to possibly come to Israel. Knowing that we had spread our joy and our love for Israel to our family was one of the happiest things I can look back on.”