Book Review: The New Jewish Wedding

The New Jewish Wedding, by Anita Diamant

As someone with a family heritage of Judaism that, if my ancestors were not observant since at least the 19th century or so, there was still some sort of vestigial cultural interest in Judaism, coupled with an intense interest in Jewish law during the past few generations, this book is to me a helpful reminder of the fact that Jewish culture has long been an uneasy blend between that which is commanded in scripture, traditions passed down and modified over long periods of time, along with various rituals springing from superstition as well as rabbinic tradition that are of less soundness and propriety. As might be expected, this is a fairly complicated book despite being only slightly over 200 pages, complicated by the fact that its thematic order is not in order of the ceremonies that one might do, and the fact that it gives a lot of statements, some of them dogmatic and reflecting current societal trends (divorce, feminism, the decline in observance of Jewish law among Jews and the rise of intermarriage with non-Jews) before it gets to the historical and cultural reasons for Jewish practices. Ultimately, the complexity of this book serves to bring home the point that every bride and groom are in the position of having to construct their own wedding based on a complicated tension between their own wishes, the wishes of their relatives, and the desire for religious sanction on their union, all of which can be fraught with immense difficulty.

In terms of its contents, the book is divided into four parts. The first part deals with making the tradition of marriage one’s own, looking at the many decisions a couple must make for marriage. This part of the book, and the book as a whole, are working under the assumption that both a bride and a groom are interested in marriage, a stark contrast to the usual assumption that only women think about weddings. The second part of the book looks at ways and means, the logistical aspects of planning a wedding, planning the after-wedding party, along with a note on remarriage. This part of the book examines aspects of a Jewish wedding like the huppah (canopy) and ketubah (the wedding covenant), where the author spends about twenty pages talking about the importance of covenants and providing examples of egalitarian covenants that show equality between husband and wife. The third part, dealing with celebrations and rituals, examines the practice of an engagement party, the fairly short and straightforward liturgy of the nuptuals themselves under the canopy, and the blessings given to the couple during the meal after the wedding. The fourth part, a brief one, looks at husbands and wives, including the question of how Jewish of a home the couple is looking for, the problem of Tay-Sachs Disease, for which the solution provided by the author is the abortion of an afflicted child, and the thorny question of divorce, about which the author has some strong words, despite being a divorced woman herself who married again, which was the occasion for her writing this book in the first place. After this comes appendices with wedding poems, a wedding ceremony for the marriage of Jews and non-Jews, and the traditional text for engagement.

There is a lot about this book that is fascinating. The writing of this book, with its blend between a celebration of modernity and its compulsive need to connect with tradition and history show a tension that ought to resonate with many Reform Jews and others who feel torn between a desire to celebrate the present and change without entirely severing roots with background and history. The rise of freedom to maneuver for couples and the diversity of wedding options and customs, depending on how seriously one wishes to honor one’s culture and family also forces a lot more choices to be made, choices that require communication and negotiation among various parties. The book also makes a lot of comments on various Jewish traditions regarding weddings, like a cleansing mikvah bath as a sign of virginity and purity, and the practice of having the bride and groom fast on the day of the wedding until the ceremony, and the avoidance of rehearsals to avoid increasing stress and strain on those in the ceremony, as well as the importance of having at least some private time after the wedding ceremony and the importance of using wedding preparation as a way of wrestling with serious questions about how one is to live one’s life and raise a family, that are worthwhile for those who are not Jews but who have a shared interest in biblical law. It should be noted that this book includes a lot of Hebrew and Yiddish terms related to engagement and marriage and general religious practice that are explained in the main text at least once as well as a glossary of terms at the end of the book.

That said, reading this book filled me with a great sense of melancholy as well. For one, over and over again the author states the Jewish expectation that boys and girls will grow up to marry and have their own kids as a way of fulfilling the first commandment of the Bible, to be fruitful and multiply, and at least on a few occasions the author, likely quoting Jewish traditions, seems to say that someone becomes more fully a man at marriage than before. Although the author points out that marriage is coming later and later in Jewish society and that the societal rise in divorce is affecting the Jewish community to the same extent as others, there is still present a social expectation of marriage that has been internalized by the author, and probably by at least some of her readers, that adds a sense of pressure to the aspect of wanting a blessed and godly home life. An additional source of melancholy is the way that the author points to historical abuses as to the reason why the contemporary Jewish ceremony combines the historical engagement ceremony, where the wedding contract was signed, and the actual wedding ceremony where the bride and groom were permitted and commanded to begin their sexual union. The author, as might readily be understood, is particularly sensitive to the conditions, such as having a missing fiance or lacking a get (a document signifying her ‘unbound’ status as a religious Jewess), that would make it impossible for a woman to remarry with full religious sanction and legitimacy. Marriage is such a complicated matter, that even where one has no immediate prospects of it that it is good to ponder and mediate and reflect upon it anyway from time to time.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Church of God, History, Love & Marriage and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: The New Jewish Wedding

  1. Pingback: Book Review: I Was Blind (Dating), But Now I See | Edge Induced Cohesion

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  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Story Of Yiddish | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Great World Religions: Judaism | Edge Induced Cohesion

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