Monday, August 27, 2007

Weddings: We Need Another Model

I just caught this story on Yeshiva World News from a writer who lent money to a man to make a chatunah for a daughter which was well beyond his means and now their home is in foreclosure. I'm sure there was nothing unusual about the wedding he put on.

Recently I heard a talk show discussing just how out of hand weddings have become in America and how the wedding industry has the American public duped. We have been convinced that a wedding must cost $25,000, for example, so a couple feels really smug when they make their wedding for "only" $15,000. And yet $15,000 is a big chunk of money.

I've been to plenty of frum weddings, and we have been duped too. But, we haven't been duped by a major marketing machine. We have been duped by ourselves. Granted a Jewish wedding is going to have a fairly strict structure by its very nature. But, at least here in America, there is almost no variety to the venue of the wedding.

I've been to frum weddings and non-Jewish weddings and except for a second wedding and two weddings between two converts, I can't think of any real significant differences between the (wonderful) weddings we have been to. Sure, some families have gone easy on the smorg, while others have gone over the top. Some have cut down in the floral department while others put on a flower show. But where is the wedding without a smorg (or some form thereof)? Where is the backyard wedding? Where is the wedding with canned music?

In college I had two wonderful non-Jewish roommates (I had a handful of not so wonderful roommates too). These girls were close friends and I was lucky enough to be able to help plan the wedding of one, since she was engaged during our time as roommates. They were on a limited budget and so she burned a CD of tunes for the dancing and she had no reason to feel like a "neb." I remember our other roommate asking me what a normal Jewish wedding was like. She had grown up in a very tight knit Christian denomination and in their community every wedding was followed up by cake and punch on the church lawn/social hall (and kids were always invited with their parents, so she had been to a lot of weddings by the time she left home). I imagine many couples followed by their wedding with more limited reception. But how many of us would ever consider "only" serving guests cake and punch at a kabbalat panim or at a simchat chatan v'kallah (the alternative format where everyone is invited to the smorg and only closer family and friends stay for the reception)?

My husband likes to point out that a frum couple has to have bread to wash on (true!). But, we wash on bread at a brit milah too, and very few go into hock over that. Last year we attended a brit milah for a popular local couple and there must have been 200 people that sat down to a breakfast seudah. For a brit milah, the menu was fairly extensive (and a nice change from tuna salad on a bagel). Putting on a more casual affair for a wedding should be acceptable and I don't see any reason why it would be any less enjoyable.

Who knows how many people have had property repossessed or foreclosed on because they can't just make do? Who knows how many families have hurt their shalom bayit over keeping up with a standard that is just unattainable? Who knows how many people have defaulted on loans to friends? Who knows how much tzedakah money in the form of hachnasat kallah goes to support an inflated standard? I don't know. I don't think much can be quantified. But, it sure would be nice to see a different standard that really was different.


miriamp said...

Just for the record, we had what felt like a bargain basement wedding, but it still cost us about $8000. (11 years ago.) Still, everyone had a great time. No flowers. No food whatsoever for Kabalas Panim, and buffet style for the meal. The photographer was an "amateur" -- we paid for film and developing, but that was it. Videographer was a friend with a borrowed camcorder -- we paid nothing. We did have a real band, and had to pay for the rental of the hotel facilities, but we didn't stay there overnight -- we went back to my husband's apartment. My dress was from a second hand bridal store, and his suit was borrowed from his brother. Even at that, it went on his credit card, (we were pretty young, early 20s, but our parents said, "Mazel Tov! Send us an invitation.") but we did pay it all off a couple of years later with stock options.

My oldest is only 10... but I'll tell you right now, I am so not going into hock for his bar mitzvah, much less his wedding! Or for any of the girls either.

queeniesmom said...

You raised very valid points, especially the kallah funds. Sisters in our community were getting married within weeks of each other and the mother let it be known that she felt the community had a responsiblity to help pay for these weddings. Tempers were frayed on all side because many felt the mother was being to free with other people's money and the mother felt that the community was treating her daughters in a very shabby fashion. Perspective has been lost on all sides of the issue.

We paid for our own wedding 15 years ago and M"H we will be making a Bat-Mitzvah in 15 months (our daughter is one of the youngest in her grade). We've sat her down and explained economic reality. She realizes that in the coming months, she will go to affairs that rival weddings and others that will be relatively simple. we've come to an agreement on a Sunday morning dairy brunch. Now I suppose I'll have to start after the yom tovim getting prices, places etc. At least with the boys, it's a two for one deal. For that one I leave most of the headaches to my husband and the Rav, as my father is a Levi and my husband is a Cohen.

The only silver lining to the tuition crisis is that it may force people to readjust their priorities. I can live in hope can't I?!

Anonymous said...

Solution is

Ateres Chinka

or any of the other chasidishe halls in boro park, bensonhurst or williamsburg

Orthonomics said...

Anon-I don't think there is such a thing as a one size fits all "solution." But thanks for contributing nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

I was at a most beautiful wedding on Thursday night at Kibbutz Ein HaNatziv. The weather (it was an outdoor, night-time affair) did not drop below 91F. The food was served kibbutz style: take what you want from the "buffet" table, no waiters, with food quality to match. There were probably over 600 people there. Singing and dancing and making merry. Though I did not love it (too hot and very far to travel) it was a stunning wedding, with pure souls being joined under the chuppa, and that was the point of the whole thing, no? So what if people left a little early.. more time for the family to be together!
The solution: focus on the chuppa, do away with all the frills. The only problem is that Mr. Cohen doesn't want everyone to know that he can't afford what Mr. Levi can... how did that come about? Why does everyone have to show their wealth, even if it's non existant?

Looking Forward said...

here's a solution: move out of town! :-)

they said about my rabbi's oldest's wedding that if he had made it here it would have costed a third as much for the exact same thing!

when I get married I very much hope that it will be a simple wedding. I have absolutely no desire to keep up with the joneses. Spend what I can afford, and hopefully, keep the number of guests down on anyone evening so that we can actualy recieve all of them instead of just nodding our heads.

mother in israel said...

The Dollar Stretcher Newsletter featured a $500 wedding: Homemade centerpieces, cold food platters, taped music, in a hotel meeting room. My parents got married in my grandparents' house with about 50 guests.

Selena said...

I once went to a backyard frum wedding, although it was a stunning backyard :) A one man band and simple food, and it was a blast.

Anonymous said...

To Anon who said the solution is a specific hall in Brooklyn.
When I got married 3 years ago, I went to look there and elsewhere. Many places had a minimum of 400 people and started at $40 a plate with a hall rental fee on top of that.

Anonymous said...

In Chicago, they have "simcha" weddings at very reduced cost. This was described on Emes V'Emunah, Harry Maryles's blog. Different community members volunteer, the synagogue room is free, and you past cost or more, depending upon how much you can pay.

This would be a good project for people to organize in New York and elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

1) Decide whether you want to be m'sameach chatan v'callah or display status

2) Assuming you want the former:

a) keep things moving along so you only have to provide 1 meal. Say, light snack (i.e. cake and fruit) for 1/2 hour before the chupah, meal after.

b) Serve the meal buffet style

c) Don't go crazy with flowers, centerpieces and other decorations

d)Limit your guest lists--maybe some people can be invited to Sheva berachot. If you can get it down to the point that you can do the cooking yourself, even if you need to rent a shul kitchen you'll save money.

e) Skip the videography--no one will watch this after you are married for 5 years. Still photos are nice because the kids will want to look at them (at least mine do even after 25+ years[I'd rather not say how many = +])

f) There is a big difference between a live band and CD's. Much less difference between a one man band and a full band.

Ariella's blog said...

There are many areas in which to trim wedding costs --especially with so many things, from centerpieces to gowns, available in gmachs; however, frum weddings tend not to cut out the sitdown meal, which probably constitutes the biggest percentage of the overall budget. Some general wedding books suggest scheduling a wedding for before or after dinner time and only serve the equivalent of a tea or cocktails with a buffet, but even weddings called for 2 pm I've been to include the multi-course dinner. A DJ with CD's rather than a band is also something I've seen in general wedding books but never at a frum wedding. To cut costs, a one-man-band may be hired instead of a the usual 5 piece orchestra, but I've never seen a DJ instead at a frum wedding.

DAG said...

I need to point out that many of the things we associate with Jewish weddings, have NEVER been Jewish customs. Did you ever ask a survivor what their weddings were like before the war? My father used to always joke with my great uncle about his wedding bash at the Minsk Hilton...

Anonymous said...

It's me again. The mom with the over $120,000 a year tuition. Making a wedding is at least a simcha--paying outrageous tuitions is not. If a wedding costs less than one years high school tuition is the wedding cost out of line or is the high school tuition out of line?

Anonymous said...

anonymous with the over 120k tuition: FOR REAL???? If this is for real and you can pay it then Hashem has blessed your family with an incredible income. I left the States when people were bemoaning 70K in tuition bills. If some of the sum is for college, then I assume you can pay part in the form of loans. Most people would have a negative income on a bill like that. Or are most people earning half a mil these days?
Jewish school tuition is not out of line per-se, if you compare it to better private schools (Catholic schools, supported by the community, are less but also not widely known for their excellence if I am not mistaken). The only problem is the content (the feeling we aren't getting our money's worth compared to the amount of tuition paid) and the fact that most families have at least 4 kids to put through school at these tuition levels.
I don't know of a U.S. Jewish-NY-area wedding as inexpensive as one year's HS tuition. It does exist out of town (I have attended shul weddings in Cleveland and Pgh which I assume were reasonable) and in Israel: if you have such an income, why not spend it here? You won't be sorry!
Just so you can compare figures:
I have a son currently starting 7th grade YHS here in Israel: the whole bill including breakfast and lunch and bussing (it's a big ride daily which we have to pay for) with trips and extras included and a FABULOUS array of educators is under $3k per year. My kids up to grade 7 are basically free. One of mine going to University for a year will cost maybe $3k (no dorm) maybe a bit less. Granted, we don't earn dollars but it's still a bargain compared to $15k per kid in the States! Non religious are more or less free up till 10th grade.
Israel is making more and more sense for a lot of people and slicha in advance to those for whom Israel is not feasible - I know not everyone can do it :-(

Anonymous said...

Let's get this straight.

We are a people with the highest spiritual aspirations, who often invoke the idea of being happy with our lot, who venerate sages who achieved amazing things living in impoverished pre-modern conditions...

but we create social conventions that put the average family heavily in debt for frills, when so many basic Jewish needs are hard to meet.

How much sense does this make?

Anonymous said...

I think my wife and I had a perfectly frum wedding. I don't recall, but I think we had probably about 150+ people there.

A local shul donated space (our shul was too small). Friends shopped and made the food. Students who I worked with from the university had a lovely band, and they were entertainment for a low price.

There was tremendous simha.

Folks said it was one of the best weddings they had ever been to.

Cash cost to us was just the band, a few hundred (maybe $300?) dollars as I recall.

Cash cost to the friends who made the meal as their gift was a probably about $2000+ outlay and LOTS of work that they did to cook and set up.

People later said it was a great kiddush Hashem, as no one had ever seen the community make a wedding before.

Low cash cost, labour of love, great simha, kiddush Hashem, a good example.

Why aren't we doing this more often?

Anonymous said...

Forgot the photographer. A real artist. Donated his time, and we only paid for materials.

Orthonomics said...

Anon 3:59-I'm with you. Why do we own the every wedding a blow out model rather than the equivlant of the cake and punch wedding?

R. Mordechai Sher-Thank you for sharing. I also attended a friend catered wedding and would love to see more of these. Fun, low key, and just as much of a simcha.

Anonymous said...

"But, we wash on bread at a brit milah too, and very few go into hock over that."

You might be surprised at how much a brit milah costs in many frum communities! Two years ago, we had twin boys and when I figured what the costs would be including the rent for the room at the shul, the caterer, and the mohel, it was much more than we wanted to spend (more than $10k!!!). So instead we opted to have it at our home, a much smaller event (even though we had at least 100 people show up), the table/chair rentals were $300, the catered food (that we picked up and set up) was $750, and the mohel was $700, for a total of under $2000, including a few hours of help cleaning up after the seudat mitzvah. It was very nice, and we thought it was a great simcha. It was also our first brit milah because our first 3 kids are girls :-)

The >$8000 we saved came in very handy for tuition payments.

Anonymous said...

I like Mordechai's suggestions, but you can also get more elaborate without going over the top. What we did:

1) Rented silk flowers instead of spending $$ on real ones that will get tossed. I forget the name of the organization but they used the proceeds for hachnosas kallah.

2) Wife's mom made the wedding dress. It was then donated. I realize that making a dress is a rare talent, but there is NO reason to have to spend $1000s on a one-time piece of clothing. You CAN rent one.

3) Smaller band. Just as loud as big one (unfortunately!)

4) Photographer, but no videographer. How many times do you really think you can watch a video of the wedding? And you aren't really going to bore other people with such a video, are you? Whereas a photo album will often be picked up and perused by guests. OTOH, I CAN see how a video can have historical value.

5) Again with the photographer: you probably know someone who does this as a sideline and does quality work at a big savings over a professional with a studio.

6) Some folks like to go light on the shmorgasbord, but an alternative is to have a fairly lavish one and don't invite every one to the main meal. Admittedly, this can be a hard decision to make.

Ester said...

I think it's time we all re-evaluated the way celebrate smachot. This was driven home recently when I saw a plea for help making a wedding for a young couple who don't manage to make ends meet. The plea seemed so misguided, I ended up writing about it here:, and I referenced this article on Orthonomics.