Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Wedding in Tel Aviv

Ha-na’alayim b’seder?”  I asked the blue-shirted security worker lining up bags on the conveyor belt at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.  “Are shoes OK?”  I knew the answer – I could leave them on – but I asked because I wanted him to talk with me in Hebrew.  Most people take one look at my American passport and assume I won’t understand them if they go beyond “Shalom.”  My ploy worked, and I was in over my head before I knew it.  But I now know the words for pockets and belt.

I was returning from my eighth trip to Tel Aviv in two years.  As usual, I came here for work – but this trip, I stayed an extra day so I could attend my friend Nimrod’s wedding.  I’d received the invitation months earlier, by email.  Instead of writing my response on a calligraphed card and mailing it to the bride’s parents, I clicked Accept.  “Nimrod and Naomi’s Wedding” went from striped to solid on my Outlook calendar.  

Spending even a little time with Nimrod and Naomi as a couple makes you happy that they’ve found each other, and I was honored to witness their union.  I was also excited about the wedding from my vantage as a cultural explorer: I had never been to an Israeli wedding.  As soon as I confirmed my trip, questions started queuing up in my head: what do guests wear?  Will the ceremony be religious?  Do they have a gift registry somewhere?  Who will be at my table?  Will everything be in Hebrew?  

Although this was my maiden voyage as wedding guest, I had actually been to Nanuchka, where the wedding would take place.  It’s a trendy Georgian bar and restaurant on Lilenblum in the heart of Tel Aviv, and I’d gone there with friends after work.  If memory served me right, we were in for a seriously good time. 

 Nanuchka, December 2011

Before I left the US, I grilled an Israeli colleague about what to expect.  No gifts, she said.  Everyone gives a check.  Guests will wear everything from jeans and T-shirts to semiformal dresses.  Don’t expect place cards and assigned seats.

The morning of the wedding, my friend Minna joined me for a pedicure the morning of the wedding.  I grilled her with more questions.  Should I buy a card to put the money in?  Not necessary, she said.  Just put it in the envelopes they’ll provide.  Would I find a place to park near Nanuchka?  Better to take a cab if you don’t have a Tel Aviv parking sticker.  Should I be there right at 11:30, the time on the invitation?  Only if you want to stand around awkwardly with the wedding party.  

I arrived at Nanuchka a little before noon to find the bride and groom greeting guests and taking photos with their family.  Outside on the patio, where the temperature was upwards of 90 degrees, champagne cocktails were lined up on the bar, and a few of my colleagues already had them in hand.  Unlike American weddings, Israeli celebrations usually involve drinks and appetizers flowing before the ceremony begins.  “Mazal tov!” my colleagues greeted me in unison, which surprised me – I knew to say it to the newlyweds, but I suppose a wedding of friends is lucky for all who know and love them.  I looked around at the attire, which fit the range that my friend had described: women were dressed up a bit, while many of the men were in jeans.  A friend wandered in, wearing cargo shorts and a pair of flip flops that looked like they were overdue for renewal.  “I only wear shoes for customers,” he said.

The ceremony began about an hour later, after hors d’oeuvres, more cocktails, and a celebratory round of shots.  As the rabbi, in his traditional black hat and suit, began the ceremony, the chuppah bearers walked out first, followed by Nimrod’s nieces carrying baskets of flower petals, Naomi’s son Dan, and then Nimrod and his mother.  Israeli music accompanied their procession.  When it was Naomi’s turn to emerge, the music changed to “Here Comes the Sun.”  The guests cheered loudly as she walked down the aisle.  Then she joined Nimrod under the chuppah.

In Israel, I have noticed that even "cultural Jews" follow more traditional rites than are customary in the Reform movement.  When I was here during Chanukah, I was not invited to light the candles at the office because it is not a job for women.  This caught me off guard in a company where half the executive team is female.  Yesterday, at the wedding, Nimrod gave Naomi a ring and recited the traditional Hebrew words of commitment.  The rabbi began a rousing round of “Mazal Tov”, and the crowd joined in.  Wasn’t Naomi going to give him a ring, I wondered?  My colleague said that it wasn’t common in Israeli ceremonies.  As it turned out, Naomi did give Nimrod a ring, but later in the ceremony – after the marriage was sealed.  The whole ceremony was about 15 minutes.

Then it was party time.  The restaurant staff began assembling a buffet of Georgian favorites- a dozen different salads, the Russian equivalent of ravioli, potatoes, couscous, meat.  We filled our plates and found a cooler place to sit inside.  After the meal, we wandered into the next room, where the bride, groom, and several small children were standing on the bar.  Others joined them, and soon the bar was more a dance floor than a place to belly up for a drink.  The Georgian DJ played a great mix of American, Israeli and Georgian music.  It was impossible not to shake your tail feathers.  

The bartender congaed by on the bar and held out a hand.  When in Rome, I thought…. up I went, wondering whether any of my colleagues would see my underwear.  Does this fall under the umbrella of “executive presence”?  I was having too much fun to care.  At the end of the bar, my boss was catching all this on film.  First thought: stop him and destroy the evidence.  Second thought: Paula is going to be so proud.  Somehow, I had made it through 44 years without ever dancing on a bar.  Now I could cross that off my bucket list.  It didn’t feel so risqué when there were toddlers up there too.

I left about three hours later with the last of my colleagues, having dropped my wedding gift (festively presented in a bank deposit envelope with “Mazal Tov!” scrawled on a Post-It) in the large metal safe placed there for that purpose.  Naomi and Nimrod were still dancing on the bar when we left – she in her gown, he in the black “Newlywed” T-Shirt that had replaced his suit.  Their family and close friends lingered on, drinking and dancing and celebrating the couple of the hour.  The wedding was a blast-- grounded in ritual, but 90% pure fun, unfettered by some of the pomp and fussiness that surrounds American weddings.  No seating charts, no calligraphy, no gift registry… just a joyous celebration. 

By the time I went back that night  to look for my forgotten sweater, all traces of the wedding had been erased by a wave of Tel Aviv’s hipsters who filled Nanuchka to standing room only.  Waitresses hurried back and forth with trays of red shots, and Georgian specialties poured out of the kitchen.

I finished my stay in Tel Aviv with dinner at Benedict, a 24-hour breakfast spot on Rothschild where they greet you with “Boker Tov” (good morning) even if it’s 9:30 at night.  Tel Aviv doesn’t slow down much for Shabbat, and there were plenty of people out enjoying breakfast for dinner.  For my last meal of the trip, I ordered a fluffy stack of blueberry pancakes –served, because this is Israel and not IHOP, with a green salad.  And the next morning, I was off to the airport – still subconsciously grooving to a medley of Israeli pop and Britney Spears.

{Self-indulgent tangent: It mystifies me that in Israel I can leave my shoes on, but in the US, I have to take them off.  Airport security seems like something where international consensus would be readily achievable- like maybe we could defer to the experts who live and breathe terrorist threats every day.  But, given that we can’t come together as a planet on the notably less-charged topic of when daylight savings begins, I suppose it isn’t all that surprising.}