Move Over Martha Stewart

A Jewish bridal shower

When my dear friend Diane Lasken got engaged, I was thrilled. When she asked me to be the maid of honor, I was touched. When I thought about throwing her a shower, I was bewildered. Let me explain: Diane and I are twenty-something Jewish feminists.

If we were a little less “ethnic,” and more, say, interested in “wearing pastel,” I might have hit the wedding section of my local bookstore. Within the hydrangea-flourishing covers of Memorable Weddings, I could have learned all that I ever wanted to know about color schemes and garden herbs appropriate for pre-nuptial teas. But Diane is a Jewish family educator at a Conservative synagogue in Boston, and I, a producer of educational TV in New York City, am no Martha Stewart.

So, too young and funky for Emily Post, too kooky for Anita Diamant’s New Jewish Wedding, too Jewish for Brides magazine, I was on my own in figuring out how to throw a shower. I wanted the event to reflect Diane’s enthusiasm for Judaism, but I didn’t want to alienate her less (and non-) religious family and friends.

With a little help from Diane’s enlightened bridesmaids (one a Jewish educator, another a financial analyst), 1 finally cobbled together an idea: A Mitzvah Shower. I found a useful source, The Concise Book of Mitzvot compiled by Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen, also known as the Chafetz Chayim (Feldheim, 1990), that lists all 613 Jewish commandments, and I also discovered an online service (go to any search engine and type in “613 mitzvot‘) that inventories all the mitzvot. Citing biblical chapter and verse for each commandment, I strategically paired up mitzvot and guests.

The homework I mailed out with the shower invitations was simple: Give Diane a gift based on your assigned mitzvah. All together there were 35 guests and 20 mitzvot (some of the commandments seemed so promising and/or suggestive and/or germinal that I couldn’t bear to assign them only once). I gave the more obvious mitzvot to people who I thought would have less energy to be challenged, and the less obvious mitzvot to those with a better Jewish background or a particularly clever turn of mind.

I expected to receive some baffled phone calls from resistant guests (like, “Huh? What’s this— “Guard your tongue,” Leviticus 25:17??? I always give crystal bowls at bridal showers!”), but instead the few calls I got were from intrigued invitees wanting to know more about their assigned mitzvah. People got into it and were very creative.

At the shower, gifts to the bride included dishes in a bold Ikea pattern (for “Keep kosher,” Exodus 23:19); a challah cover (for “Remember the Sabbath,” Exodus 20:10); and a stunning bird feeder (for “Tzar baalei chayim,” “Be kind to living creatures”). One “mother’s friend” gave Diane an alarm clock and Q-tips (“Hear the shofar on Rosh HaShanah,” Numbers 29:1) with the rabbinic-like explication that “you might miss hearing the shofar if you oversleep, or if your ears are clogged.”

“Welcoming guests” (“Hachnasat Orchim,” Genesis 18:2) was a mitzvah I gave out to two invitees. Diane received guests towels from one of them, and a pitcher and glasses set from the other. For “Shmirat halashon” (“Guarding your tongue from gossip,” Leviticus 25:17), a friend gave the bride a book of inspirational readings, meant, she explained, “to redirect your thoughts when they’re headed in the wrong direction.”

Other great gifts included candles in the shape of moons (in relation to the mitzvah of “Keeping the new month holy”) and a donation to a City Harvest group (for the injunction to give charity, Deuteronomy 15:11).

One of the gifts that came with a few small strings attached was from—who else?—the bride’s mother. The mitzvah was “Settle the land of Israel” (Numbers 33:53), and Diane opened a box that turned out to hold a set of miniaturized luggage. “I know you’re planning to go to Israel next year,” explained the bride’s mother, “but this luggage set won’t fit very much—so you won’t be able to stay away too long.”

Besides the 35 individual gifts that Diane received, I also wanted to orchestrate a heartfelt communal gift to her— from all of the assembled shower guests— which expressed our love for her and our wishes for her to have a happy marriage. And so, while we awaited Diane’s arrival at the shower, I gave each guest a fabric leaf (I cut them out from green gingham) and asked everyone to write a sentence of “marriage advice” to Diane. We glued each leaf on to a fabric tree trunk that 1 had made (matching Diane’s kitchen colors). Our leafy bons mots ranged from “Take lots of bubble baths,” to “Never go to bed angry” and “Remember forgiveness.” Diane seemed delighted with all of our gifts.

I must confess that I did borrow one game from a bridal magazine which turned out to be extremely funny: the toilet paper wedding dress game. Forming three teams of 10 women each, the teams each anointed one of its members as “bride to be” and had three minutes in which to design the “Most Stunning Wedding Dress” out of toilet paper. Diane served as judge. For pure fun, I definitely recommend women of all ages dressing each other in toilet paper on a Saturday night. We also asked Diane questions about her courtship that her fiancé had answered earlier. This turned out to be an instructional exercise proving that two do not become one—they stay two!

The Mitzvah Shower was a success. Diane’s Grandma was there, attending her umpteenth shower. Attending her first shower was Diane’s young cousin Julie, who had just celebrated her bat mitzvah. And then there were the rest of us mitzvah girls in between. We gorged on dessert, catered potluck style. We ate, we laughed, and we learned a little about Judaism, each other, and marriage.

And, by the definition of any culture’s mores or wedding-planning book, we unquestionably fulfilled the fundamental mitzvah at the root of our all-female evening: We entertained the bride.

Ilana Trachtman is a 26-year-old children’s television producer in New York City.