DATELINE 12/30/10

This is a story about tradition.

All cultures and religions, all nations and societies have certain rituals in common. These rituals are steeped in tradition. Arguably, one of the most important of these is the wedding.

Everything about a wedding, every detail, is bound by tradition. And every traditional detail requires a decision. Decisions, decisions. Where shall we have the wedding and when? Should it be a large or small wedding, day or evening, formal or casual? What about the flowers, the music, the meal? But, for the bride herself, the biggest and most difficult decision is about her wedding dress. Should it be long or short, frilly or plain, white or ecru?

My cousin Sara never had any difficulty with the decision about her dress. That's because the same wedding gown had been worn by every woman in her family for three generations. It was first worn by her grandmother in 1928, and then by her mother and each of her mother's three sisters. All of her female cousins had worn it as well. So, there was never any question of what Sara would wear to her wedding.

Sara announced her engagement one evening in the middle of a family dinner at her parents' home in Brooklyn. She simply looked up from her plate and said, “Jerry and I are engaged.”

All hell broke loose at the table. It wasn't just that everyone was ecstatically happy for Sara and Jerry (we were!), but it was also because most of us had thought Sara would never get married. This was because shall I put this?...Sara was not a “10”. No, Sara was a sweet, calm, agreeable...4. But, apparently Jerry saw something beautiful in Sara, something he knew would make him happy for the rest of his life. But, I digress.

Everyone at the table was going crazy. We were all consumed with shouts of “Mazel tov!” and “Let me see that ring!”, and hugs and kisses, and thumps on the back for Jerry, when Sara's mother, Aunt Selma stood up and said, “Sureleh, let's go try on the dress!”.

So, Sara got up and she and Aunt Selma descended the stairs to the basement. There, at the bottom of the stairs, was the giant oak armoire. They opened the door and inside was the gown, still carefully housed in its dry cleaning bag. And what a gown it was.

It was cream-colored silk charmeuse, with a low neckline, front and back. It was a body-hugging style, fitted all the way down to the ankles and then puddling out to the floor, mermaid-style. It had long fitted sleeves, and each sleeve was fastened with a long row of pearl buttons. It had a matching cap, heavily embroidered with lace and seed beads, with a single pearl drop that rested against the middle of the bride's forehead, and from this cap flowed a veil approximately six feet long, a veil of many layers, because Jewish tradition requires that the bride's face be covered by her veil until after the ceremony. The gown also had a matching train, that was attached at the back neckline and floated twelve feet behind the bride, and this train was also heavily embroidered with lace and seed beads. This was a serious gown!

So, Sara tried on the gown and looked at herself in the pier glass mirror next to the armoire.

Miraculously, the fit was perfect. The gown didn't even need to be hemmed. Aunt Selma immediately began to cry. “Oh, Sureleh”, she said, “this is a good omen for the wedding”! When, in fact, it would have been a better omen had the dress not fitted perfectly, because then they would have taken it to a seamstress for alteration and the seamstress would have told them that the dress had been improperly stored and that silk can be very fragile. But, I digress.

Plans for the wedding began immediately, and continued for the next year. Sara was a very competent and methodical girl. A date was set, a venue secured, the music was arranged, and the flowers were ordered. The perfect menu was chosen, the seating plan devised and a rabbi engaged for the evening. At last, a year later, Sara and Jerry's wedding day arrived.

Two hundred and fifty guests, dressed in their finest evening clothes, assembled at the temple that night, friends and family alike, to see Sara marry Jerry.

Now, I must explain to you a couple of other Jewish traditions. The first is that the bride and groom get married under a canopy called a chuppah. The second is that the bride is escorted down the aisle by both her parents. When they reach the halfway point, the bride's mother steps away. The bride's father then lifts her veil, kisses his daughter good-bye, replaces her veil and waits with her as the groom comes down from the chuppah, where he has been waiting. The groom walks down to where the bride and her father are standing, her father puts her hand in the groom's hand, and she travels the rest of the way to the altar on the arm of her beloved. Sorry, I have digressed again.

So, all these people were sitting in the chapel. The music began. Down the aisle came Jerry and his parents. Then the best man and the maid of honor, the bridesmaids and the groomsmen. After that, the ring bearer wandered his way down the aisle, with the rings pinned to a pillow, so he couldn't possibly lose them. Then, the darling little flower girl, with her little basket, ambled down the aisle, strewing rose petals for the bride to walk on.

Suddenly, there was a fanfare. The curtains at the rear of the chapel parted and there stood my Uncle Sam (Sara's father), my Aunt Selma and between them, there was Sara in that amazing gown. People caught their breath at the sight of her. The trio floated slowly down the aisle until they got halfway to the altar, where they stopped. Aunt Selma, who was crying (big surprise!), squeezed Sara's hand and stepped away. Uncle Sam, who was also crying (Jeez!), lifted Sara's veil and kissed her tenderly on the cheek. Then he lowered her veil as Jerry made his way from the chuppah to where Sara was standing. As he faced Sara, his face was so filled with love, with adoration, that everyone cried. Uncle Sam put Sara's hand in Jerry's hand. Jerry turned to stand beside her, put her arm through his and they slowly walked the rest of the way to the chuppah.

Except, that Uncle Sam was standing on Sarah's train. The back half of her dress came away and stood for an instant in the middle of the aisle, like a separate bride, then slowly fluttered to the floor in a pile of silk, lace and beads. Sara arrived at the altar in her bra, her pantyhose, her fancy garter and the front half of her dress.

For a moment, all was silent. No one was quite sure what the protocol was for a situation where the bride appeared to be auditioning for a Marx Brothers movie. But, you know, any time you have two hundred and fifty Jews in a room, it won't be silent for long. Suddenly, there was cacophony in the chapel. Almost everyone had a story to tell about an event where some strange thing had happened.

Uncle Stinky, who was sitting all alone (there was a good reason for that nickname), talked about a wedding he attended where the groom left the bride at the altar. Actually at the altar. They were up to “Do you take...”, when he turned around and walked back down the aisle and out the chapel door, never to be seen again.

Cousin Shlomo, known to stuff his pockets with wedding cake (“for later”) told about a wedding he went to where the groom fainted in the middle of the ceremony. But, the bride's family wasn't having any of that. They got a chair from somewhere, picked him up off the floor, plopped him down on it and the ceremony continued (“No medical attention for you, buddy, until you're a married man!”).

And my Aunt Roz, the palest woman on earth, told about going to her Aunt Rivka's funeral. During the services, Rivka suddenly sat up in her coffin, looked around and waved to her family in the front row. The occupants of the front row immediately went down like a stack of dominoes and there was a caravan of ambulances to the hospital, where they managed to convince Rivka that she had dreamed the whole thing. Now, this occurrence was due to another Jewish tradition, which is that we do not embalm. Back to the story at hand.

Sara's attendants formed a circle around her to protect her modesty. Someone was dispatched to the bridal room for a robe, and the ceremony continued.

At last Sara and Jerry were married. There followed a wild and joyous Jewish wedding reception. There was singing and dancing the hora. There was hoisting of the bride and groom on chairs up above the heads of the crowd. There was eating and drinking and toasting the happy couple. Fortunately for Sara, all the formal pictures had been taken before the ceremony. The fabulous party lasted until dawn, when all the guests were given freshly baked bagels and copies of the Sunday New York Times to take home. A great time was had by all.

And twenty-five years later, when Sara's daughter became engaged, she said, “Tradition Schmadition. Let's go to Vera Wang and get a brand new wedding dress.”

There is, of course, a moral to this story, a lesson to be learned. Antique textiles are very fragile. They cannot be stored in plastic bags. Textiles need to breathe. The best way to store them is in acid-free tissue paper, in a box, in a cool, dark closet, where the humidity and temperature do not vary. The garment should be taken out once a year and inspected for stains and insects, and then re-packed.

And, I guess, also that all weddings are happy occasions.


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