Thursday, January 06, 2005

Formal Attire

The invitation to Shaya and Benny’s wedding read: “Formal attire.”

Formal attire? What the heck is formal attire?

In Israel we are masters of casual comfort. We dress down everywhere we go, including weddings, particular at weddings. You want to keep it loose so you can dance and not feel restricted by a tie and a coat.

Still, it would be rude to just ignore a dress code advisory printed in bold type on the invitation itself. And it’s not like I don’t have a suit.

This, it turned out, was only the first of an evening of surprises and confounded expectations.

For example, the invitation went on to list the wedding’s venue: The Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, which, contrary to its name, has in my experience been anything but great.

The main sanctuary is imposing, to be sure, but the last time we’d attended a function there, the wedding hall downstairs was over-lit from too many tacky chandeliers, drafty and lacking any distinguishing Jerusalem touches other than an imposing mechitza separating the men and women during dancing.

The chicken and potatoes, as I recall, were rubbery and decidedly run-of-the-mill.

None of this sounded like the kind of wedding we’d expect from a girl who’d grown up in Berkeley, where newlyweds routinely inform their guests that “no animals were harmed at our nuptials” while standing barefoot beneath a tie-dyed chuppah in Tilden Park, to be followed by a gourmet vegan barbeque buffet.

OK, so Shaya was marrying an Israeli, but you don’t shed your Berkeley adherence to alternative rites of passage and political correctness that easily.

Just the same, the evening started out on a high note. It was wonderful to be reunited with Shaya’s family, many of whom we hadn’t seen since we left for Israel ten years ago.

And, to my further delight, the food was really quite good. There was a hot hors d’oeuvres station with a cook slicing up fresh shwarma during the reception (that wasn’t too out of place, after all, I knew Shaya had eaten meat for some time now).

The ceremony itself was dignified and emotional.

Then it was time to head downstairs for dinner and dancing. I braced myself for blandness.

The hall didn’t look anything like I remembered. The place was decked out like a disco. The chandeliers had been switched off and a sophisticated lighting system had been installed, bathing the room with alternating blasts of pastel pink, green and gold.

A mirror ball glittered the dance floor with twirling sparks. There wasn’t a mechitza anywhere in sight.

Instead, there was a video camera mounted on an enormous, hydraulically-powered TV studio-quality boom that was swinging back and forth, upwards and down across the dance floor like one of Doc Ock’s tentacles

But perhaps most surprising was the hi-tech bar just under the stage where the band was performing. Staffed by a chic and very secular staff in short black t-shirts, they served up non-alcoholic fruit shakes (well, that’s what they said at least).

And all I could think was: are we still in the Great Synagogue?

Shaya and Benny entered from the yichud room after about 30 minutes, and the 350 mostly religious guests erupted into spirited circle dancing, men in one group, women in another.

The band – Adom Atik who I’ve praised previously in these pages – played their usual eclectic mix of simcha music, Israeli rock standards and Clapton-esque guitar licks.

We were half way through the first round of dancing when a boisterous group of about 30 newcomers stormed the dance floor. The men were bare-headed in jeans and open shirts (not a tie among them); the women in the most revealing of belly shirts and tank tops. Everyone was carrying a lit cigarette.

They formed an island of their own positioned between the men’s and women’s circles. They techno-grinded like they’d stumbled into a full moon rave on Goa's Tel Aviv Beach.

Then, two of the guys stripped one of the dinner tables of its tablecloth, cutlery and linen napkins and rolled it into the center of the dance floor. A stocky man with a shaved head and a manic look in his eyes climbed on top while the others lifted the table into the air and attempted to fling him skyward.

As I watched, I found myself more confused than ever. So the wedding wasn’t anything like what I expected. But what were crashers? Is this something that happens routinely in Israeli ceremonies I just wasn’t aware of? Maybe they were checking out the hall for some future event and had just gotten carried away by the music.

And then they mobbed Benny and Shaya, hugging Benny like a brother. Apparently, they did know each other.

As Benny’s buddies circulated into the crowd, the band rocked into a disco-fied version of the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Running.” Any semblance of separate sex dancing was lost now.

I grabbed Jody and we danced together, like two giddy teenagers, both of us marveling at the surprises the night had brought and how such different worlds – Berkeley, Israel, religious and secular – could converge so seamlessly...and with so much fun.

As the music died down and we headed to the dessert buffet, it suddenly occurred to me that the exhortation for formal attire on Shaya and Benny’s wedding invitation wasn’t so out of place after all. It was actually quite purposeful and directed.

It just wasn’t meant for us.

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