Sunday, February 04, 2007

A wedding as it should be: full of spirituality

I danced in circles with dozens of elegantly clad women as the band played a Hasidic tune that seemed to go on and on. The blisters on the bottoms of my feet were evidence that I gave it my all, not used to wearing high heels or dancing, especially not at the same time.

I recently attended the wedding of Chanie and Mendy Yarmush at the Grand Hyatt in Tampa. Chanie is the daughter of Sulha and Yossi Dubrowski, who have run Chabad-Lubavitch of Tampa Bay in Carrollwood for the past 20 years. Chabad is a mystical form of Hasidic Judaism that focuses on outreach to unaffiliated nonobservant Jews like me.

I was raised a Reform Jew, so attending a Chabad wedding was like stepping into another world. I witnessed customs that Jews in Europe would have practiced hundreds of years ago. It was the first wedding of its kind in this area, and most of the 400 guests were not Chabad. Most traditional Jewish weddings are held in such places as Israel, New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

Although I was a little apprehensive about not being able to sit with my husband during the wedding or the dinner afterward, it turned out to be a remarkably moving experience.

The bride and groom, who had known each other just a few months, had never touched each other before their wedding night - a startling fact, until you meet Chabad Jews and see how genuinely proud they are of their customs. They've managed to escape the influences of the sexual revolution and effects from mass media, television and pop culture in general.

The first half of the wedding itself seemed like a somber affair in contrast with the party afterward. The couple didn't see each other for a week before, and they fasted the day of the wedding.

It's like a day of atonement for them, a time of personal contemplation. A chance to start fresh. In fact, Chabad sees the wedding day as the holiest day of the couple's lives, and witnessing it, it felt like the way a wedding should be.

I felt it in my soul as a sea of men wearing black suits, many of them in traditional black hats and beards, escorted the groom down a set of stairs to the haunting tune of the Alter Rebbe's Niggun, a Hasidic song that invites all the generations before them to come to the chuppah, or wedding canopy.

Mendy's eyes were closed in deep contemplation as they led him to his bride-to-be. Her hands shook as he approached her, and she didn't look up as he covered her with her veil before the ceremony.

As I think back to my own wedding six years ago, I recall fondly the excitement and newness. But I feel a tinge of regret over missing out on some beautiful traditions I didn't know existed, until now.

Traditions such as the fasting, the seven blessings offered by close friends and family, a kosher kitchen, right down to the cooking utensils.

Whether you're Jewish or not, a wedding day should be a spiritual day. Not just one focused on food, flowers and seating charts.

As for the joyous dancing, being separate allows men and women the chance to express themselves freely in a way they might not otherwise. My husband marveled at the way the men let loose, swinging each other around, kicking up their legs.

As we left at 11 p.m., the party on both sides of the mechitza was still going strong, and we headed back to our world of secular Judaism. The couple has since moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., Chabad's headquarters.

And I wonder, living here in Wesley Chapel, if we'll ever be part of a thriving Jewish community - and what types of weddings my two young children will choose when it's their turn. Weddings, I hope, that will be filled with love and spirituality - and a lot of dancing.

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