Several months before my wedding, I was struck with an odd, sudden sense of loss. Beyond the hundreds of strands of detail — deciding on flowers, designing invitations, choosing a photographer, searching for a gown — something was missing. I phoned my father in Brooklyn. “Dad,” I said, “What were weddings like in Drobnin [Poland] when you were a boy?”
He described weddings in which the entire town participated, parades down the main street of Drobnin, mothers-of-the-bride — in the midst of the crowds — dancing with fat, round challahs and candles.
“But Shoshana,” he said to me seriously, “really, the most important thing about weddings was that the poor people got fed!’ Lots of children carrying pushkes (charity boxes) circulated through the crowds collecting money for yeshivas and settlements in Palestine, for poor brides’ funds, for tomchai shabbat (Sabbath food funds) and for the burial society. “Three quarters of our town was so poor they didn’t have what to put on the bread” as my father phrases it.
Since the whole town (400 families) was always invited to every wedding, dozens of poor people (whose general fare was potatoes, sauerkraut and beans) had a rare chance to “eat elegantly” feasting on chicken, goose, wine, tzimmis, lukshen, cake and beautiful challah. According to my father, the non-poor arrived at weddings with their pockets filled with money, knowing they would fulfill their Jewish responsibility to give charity to the poor.
When I shared my dad’s wedding reminiscences with my fiance Bob, we both felt suddenly relieved. So that’s what was missing from our wedding! With this realization, we both determined to add tzedakah (charity) and gemilut chesed (acts of lovingkindness) to our celebration. Though we couldn’t invite all of New York, we could certainly restore good values and social responsibility to the wedding agenda.
I have always loved the Talmudic concept of bal tashchit (not wasting finite resources). The poetic wording of this Biblical injunction not to be un-ecological is, “When you besiege a city in war, do not destroy its trees … for is a tree a person that it should be besieged by you?” [Deuteronomy 20:19].
Since the sheer waste of food at weddings has always offended me, the first commitment that Bob and I made was to observe bal tashchit. Enlisting our caterer to pack up all the wedding’s leftovers, our best man brought boxes full of food to a soup kitchen.
Next, Bob and I created a “playbill!’ Not only did this explain the elements of a traditional wedding to our guests, but it also requested that our guests donate tzedakah to two causes: Project O.R.E., a city-wide outreach program to the homeless Jewish elderly (236 W. 23rd St., New York, NY 10011, 212-645-9726), and West Side Campaign Against Hunger, a general (non-Jewish) hunger fund which runs a pantry for the poor in Manhattan (263 W. 86th St., New York, NY 10024, 212-362-3662).
While doing some pre-wedding Torah study, I discovered Maimonides’ phrase “belly joy” (simchat kraiso). Drinking, feasting and merrymaking that neglects social concern is no more than gaspingly vapid “belly joy.” Against the offense of belly joy, Bob and I decided to order centerpieces from P’tach, an organization which raises funds to help keep learning-disabled students mainstreamed at yeshivas (4612 13th Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11219, 718-854-8600).
In point of fact, the true moral breadth of our “good deeds” equation included the thorny issue of compromise. Bob would have chosen to have a “very small wedding in a friend’s backyard!’ My parents, on the other hand, had their own wedding fantasies to fulfill. My mother had lived through the American Depression, my father through the Holocaust. Their joy at their ability to provide me with a lavish wedding was, I slowly and painfully came to realize, their own tzedakah (charity) to me. For both Bob and me, sensitivity to our parents’ wishes became part of the ethical equation.
Finally, I reminded myself that tzedakah applies to oneself as well as to others. I gave myself the Julliard string trio I deeply wanted and the hairdresser who did an expensive “house-call!’ Bob’s act of kindness to himself was to mandate that the complimentary monogrammed matchbooks were taboo. (He hates smoke!)
When all was said and done, we could have given a lot more. Mazon is an organization that combats hunger across the U.S. and suggests that Jews tithe themselves three percent of their simcha (celebration) expenses (2940 Westwood Blvd., Suite 4, Los Angeles, CA 90064, 213-470-7769). N’shei Ahavas Chesed of Borough Park rents bridal gowns at prorated costs and donates the proceeds to charity (1625 46th Street, Brooklyn, NY, 11204, 718-871-6656). And I wish we’d thought of inviting some elderly or lonely or poor people who were strangers to our wedding.
Besides the obvious gain of providing practical help to a few needy people, blending tzedakah into our wedding allowed Bob and me to begin our marriage on a thoughtful footing. We started the intimate process of working out our spiritual goals with each other, and with the world around us.
It was a good beginning.
Shoshana Jedwab is educational director at The Jewish Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.