On Monday night, I was at a Sheva Brochos. Well, actually, they called it a Sheva Brachot, which is the Sephardi/Modern Hebrew/Israeli pronunciation. In religious matters, however, I stick to the Yiddish sounding Ashkenazi Hebrew of my childhood. To do this marks me off as more Orthodox than the mainstream Orthodox. But actually, it's all about what's closest to my heart. And in religious practice terms, that's the memories of my childhood in Yiddish speaking Jewish Stepney. In case any of you want to write in and pick up some of my inconsistencies in this matter, you don't need to bother. I know I'm not consistent. This is not about rationality.
A Sheva Brochos is a beautiful event. In the week following a traditional Orthodox Jewish wedding, there is a series of festive meals held each night in honour of the newlyweds. They may be given by the parents, relatives or friends. The idea is to involve an ever widening community in celebrating and blessing the union of the couple. It is considered meritorious to fill whatever room they are held in with as many people as it can possibly hold. And it is even more meritorious to invite increasing numbers of new people every night, so that that as the week goes by the circle of who is the new couple's community spreads wider and wider.
The words "Sheva Brochos" refer to the seven blessings for a marriage, which are sung and chanted as a key part of the wedding ceremony. All the blessings, and the words that precede them, are beautiful. Those I love best include these wonderful visions of what love, the love of the community of couples, companions and the youth on our streets might be:
O make these loved companions greatly to rejoice, even as of old thou didst gladden thy creatures in the Garden of Eden......
...who hast created joy and gladness, bridegroom and bride, mirth and exultation, pleasure and delight, love, brotherhood, peace and fellowship.
Soon...may there be heard in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the jubilant voices of bridegrooms from their canopies, and of youths from their feasts of song....
And in the spirit of the Sheva Brochos, it is considered meritorious for each blessing to be chanted by a different man. It is a great honour for each man who is asked, so the circles of honouring as well as celebrating, are spread wider and wider throughout the week. As each blessings is said, the ceremonial wine becher is passed by the guests across the room from the one man to the next, as everyone quietly sings a poignant and lyrical traditional Jewish niggun, the lei-lei-lei-lei-lei of devotional folk melodies. in a small room full of forty or more people, that's a truly magical sound.
And of course I am always aware as a woman with her own perspective on these matters that it leaves the women free to run the show, as they usually do, and focus the men on getting the bit they have to do right. The mathematical amongst you may have noticed that this results in a total of forty nine blessings being made over the newlyweds. Actually, the Sheva Brochos should be said at the two main meals of each day, so the real total of blessings if you really want to do it right is ninety-eight. Which is exactly enough to counter the ninety-eight spine-chilling curses which the Jewish people is warned will be visited on them if they abandon the laws of Torah, and which will be read in our synagogues this coming Shabbos.
The funny thing is, this is only the second or third Sheva Brochos I've ever been to. They are beginning to be held in England now by mainstream Orthodox couples and families, in many cases those where one or other of the children has spent at least a year studying in sem or yeshiva in Israel, as my daughter is doing now. Or they have been involved in the UK's electrifying annual Jewish informal learning conference "Limmud", where, like so many British Jewish couples these days, the bride and bridegroom had met.
In my childhood and youth, no-one in the mainstream Orthodox Jewish circles I grew up in or knew of did them. Jewish weddings in England were strange, grand occasions, where relatively humble tailors, sewing machinists and accountants got dressed up and appeared in the middle of the afternoon in top hats and morning coats or mink stoles and brocaded evening dress to eat one big seven course meal. There were always free cigarettes put out on the table. There would be dancing to a shrunk down version of the Joe Loss Band. And there would be a series of speeches and toasts presided over by a booming character dressed up in a red cutaway coat like some escapee from the Quantock Hunt who would bawl out things like, Ladies and gentlemen, kindly be upstanding for her Majesty the Queen!
(The wedding of my first cousin Greta to Arnold in June 1961. That's me aged seventeen going on forty five up on the steps to the left above the groom's parents, complete with big hair, a ton and a half of make-up and a specially made up matronly outfit)
The English Jewish community of those days was still immersed in the project of comically trying to adopt what they imagined were the ways of the English upper classes.
(The table for our circle of grown-ups at Greta's wedding, who all came to England as refugees from Nazi Berlin circa 1939. Except for Cousin Max from Amsterdam, next to my mother behind the fruit basket, who was one of only two cousins who survived Auschwitz. He was the first person who told me, aged 14, about the orchestra of Auschwitz that played as he was marched to work, and who showed me the number on his arm. My father sits on my mother's other side, his face betraying his distaste for English-Jewish style assimilationism and having to dress up in a dinner jacket)
And its Israeli counterpart was equally immersed in the project of demonstrating that Judaism was redundant now that they had returned to Israel. In fact, if you had asked most Israeli Jews of that type what they thought about Jewish weddings, they would have told you how important it was to stop Orthodox Jewish marriage rites being forced on the Jews of Israel, and how you could go and have a civil marriage ceremony in a register office in Cyprus to avoid this happening to you.
But to the many people who doubt that the Jewish community of Britain has a future (and there are some comments to that effect on this post), I give you the beautiful young couple for whom Monday's Sheva Brochos was held. For unlike the Jewish couples of the forties and fifties, these two loved companions had not done the usual thing of leaving the planning in the hands of the mother of the bride. They had created a setting and a way of doing the ceremony and the Sheva Brochos that was totally traditional and halachically [Jewishly legally] in order. Yet they had also created something electrically new, drawn from the vast wisdom of the Jewish sources.
Now, I need to make my own position clear here. I am down the line Orthodox on Jewish marriage. I don't believe in taking out any little bits people might find awkward or even unacceptable. It's for the same reason that I couldn't stand the eighteenth and nineteenth century intellectuals who tried to improve Shakespeare by altering the unhappy endings. And I don't believe Jewish marriage is for any but Jews in combinations of eligible-to-marry men and women. Because if you read the Jewish marriage contract, it's no recipe for equality. All the obligations are on the man who should be someone who has experienced what it means to deliver what it says about caring for your wife after the manner of Jewish husbands. It seems very well designed to cater for the social realities of men and women who contemplate lifelong partnership. There. I've said it. I always knew that if you start a blog, whatever you write, you won't please everybody. And now I probably have got to the position where I won't please anybody.
So in my next post, I'll tell you exactly what they did. And what it was like to experience that Sheva Brochos.