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Reimagining the role of women at weddings

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Standing under the huppah, Adrienne Shnier walked around the groom three times, instead of the usual seven. Then, breaking with tradition, he circled her three times. Finally, gathering the folds of her long veil in one hand, she took his arm for the last turn, counterclockwise together.

“It was really nice,” says Shnier, a Toronto law school graduate and articling student, recalling her marriage ceremony two years ago. “The symbolism is there and we each played a part.”

That sentiment reflects the growing interest of prospective brides – across a wide spectrum of Jewish observance – to take a more active role in the wedding rituals.

Driving the change are self-assured young women who want to express themselves (give a speech  at the reception), do something hands-on (drape the groom in a kitel, a ceremonial cloak) or adapt conventional festivities for female guests to enjoy (have a women’s tisch or table, with Torah talk and snacks, while the groom holds court at his own all-male gathering prior to the huppah).

In the process of reimagining how they want the celebrations to unfold, brides are choosing to honour close female friends and family with specific tasks, which vary by degree of religious practice.

A woman may be asked to serve as a witness to pertinent documents, notably the secular marriage licence, or, at non-Orthodox unions, the ketubbah, the Jewish marriage contract. Female guests can also often be seen holding up one of the four poles anchoring the tapestry that covers the bride and groom during the ceremony.

READ: UNORTHODOX ORTHODOX WEDDINGS

Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold of Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim synagogue has experience on both sides of the event, recalling that under their huppah, her husband began the declaration with her first name and the Hebrew words “b’ershootaich” and “b’ahava” (“with your permission” and “with love”), which aren’t found in the traditional liturgy.

As an officiator at weddings, Rabba Finegold finds ways to “bring women to a more prominent place without disturbing halakhah.” This can include naming both sets of parents in the couple’s ketubbah, or supplementing the male Hebrew recitation of the seven blessings of the couple with the same blessings repeated by a woman in English.

While the marriage ceremony attracts much of the attention, couples are getting creative with other formalities, too.

Carpentry tools don’t make the shopping list for wedding essentials, but Audrey Klein and her fiancée bought a hammer together specifically for the occasion. They used it to smash crockery at the tnai’m, the prenuptial act that involves the breaking of a plate.

That usually happens at the hands of the two mothers, but in this instance, the Toronto couple (who married in the bride’s native Cleveland in 2018) did it themselves.

“The egalitarian way is my way of doing things,” says Klein, who is an ordained cantor and congregational engagement director at Temple Emanu-El in suburban Toronto.

In keeping with the spirit of parity, both she and the groom signed the ketubbah, which had been witnessed by three women, two of whom were her late mother-in-law’s best friends. And, prior to the veiling ceremony, Klein draped a tallit around the shoulders of the man she was about to wed.

Personal touches are finding their way into the post-huppah festivities, as well. “Brides are more predisposed to speaking at the reception,” notes Tamara Temes, a Toronto wedding planner, adding that a common theme is how the couple met.

Like Klein, who regaled guests at her reception with “a cute little story” about the couple’s first date, Debbie Stein of Montreal took the mike to deliver prepared remarks at her wedding, a little over a year ago.

“I’d never heard a bride give a speech until my best friend did it. Everyone loved it and I decided to do the same thing,” recalls Stein, who’s a marketing vice-president at a technology company.

Committing her remarks to memory rather than paper to avoid breaking eye contact, she thanked the assembled guests and acknowledged her new family with a few words in their native Russian.

In good humour, she talked about being an older bride and being criticized for being too picky. “It took me 38 years, but I’m finally here,” she told her audience.

Author’s note: this story was inspired by a wedding 43 years ago, where the bride rose at the head table to address guests during the post-dinner speeches.

A bride at the mike was a novelty back then – at an Orthodox shul, no less – and while speaking mostly off-the-cuff, she made sure to mention her elderly bubbe and zayde. Recalling her excitement and happy confusion in that moment, she said: “I wouldn’t have known the difference reading from the telephone book.”

I’m still saying that, all these years later.

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