What does one wear to an Orthodox Jewish wedding in Jerusalem? In August?
This became my preoccupation from the moment I heard over the telephone wire—which ran like an umbilical cord all the way to the Pacific Northwest from my son who was calling from Israel—the announcement that he was engaged. As a bagel-and-cream-cheese Jew, I knew there were various body parts that could be shown in any U.S. city but would have to be hidden from sight in the Middle East. Having never stepped into an Orthodox temple, and certainly not into one built on sand, I was instantly horrified to think my elbows or knees might cause an international incident.
My son and my soon-to-be daughter-in-law reassured me.
“Just wear whatever makes you comfortable.”
Liars. I was perfectly comfortable in tube tops and sweats, but I knew that wouldn’t be kosher.
“Ummmm, you probably don’t want to wear red,” my daughter-in-law-to-be added.
Red? Who knew red was a problem? Clearly I had to become educated about the Jewish laws regarding modesty. When my research revealed several hot zones on the female form—no elbows, knees, toes, or décolletage—I walked into my closet and stood there, horrified. All my summer clothes reveled in showcasing at least two pieces of offending flesh.
My long, black never-wrinkles ankle length TravelSmith skirt made me look frumpy. Turtlenecks were out as the Promised Land promised over one-hundred degrees in the summer.
I yearned to wear the one forbidden dress in my closet that made me feel zippy. If it were anyone else’s wedding, my silky dress could help me shine, as it had at a friend’s son’s wedding overlooking Bellingham Bay. I had worn the outfit with open-toed shoes—also not permitted in Orthodox Israel.
I’d originally purchased the dress under the rabbinic supervision of my twenty-year-old daughter, Gaby, while we were shopping for clothes deemed acceptable and appropriate for her on-campus wardrobe. Well, to be technically accurate, even though Gaby knows Hebrew and was Bat Mitzvahed, she’s not quite a rabbi. But she’s my spiritual leader when it comes to all things stylish. So I was relegated to shopping schlepper. I schlepped garments from the racks to Gaby and made sure they were the right size and color as strictly defined by my wardrobe rabbi. Her rules were as detailed and exacting as the 613 commandments my son, as an Orthodox Jew, followed.
As I passed by the deep discount rack, bearing an armload of garments for my daughter, a dress winked at me from its hanger. It had eyes not for Gaby, but for me and me alone.
That dress. Oh, that dress. A sleeveless number with peek-a-boo cut-outs over the shoulders, made out of a black silky satin trimmed with sliver. The bodice was fitted, then flared out from below. With its tiers on the skirt, it was like something that could top a mature woman’s wedding cake.
When I showed the dress to Gaby, she narrowed her eyes, considering.
“Try it on,” she said.
I eagerly shut myself into the dressing room next to hers and pulled the dress over my head, enjoying the sensuous feel of the fabric. It snugged just right under my chest, then swam out in a cascading poof that stopped before my knees. When I twirled, so did the dress.
Okay. I’ll admit to twirling past forty. It was in the privacy of my own dressing room, so I was allowed.
Gaby ripped open the door and I froze.
“You have to get that,” she said.
I did. And wore it to another woman’s son’s wedding in July. Luckily the dress got exposure because after much teeth gnashing about what to wear to my own son’s wedding in August, I bid shalom to my new favorite frock and pulled together an outfit that covered me up.
Long black skirt that wasn’t too ugly.
Black sleeveless top, covered with the piece-de-resistance: a black sequined shawl with gauzy material that fluttered over my elbows as I walked.
When I twirled in the privacy of my Jerusalem hotel room, the sequins shot off a muted light. It wasn’t great, but it would do and I would be an appropriately-attired mother.
On the day of the big event, in the wedding hall, I was promptly seated next to the bride, or kalleh. I learned that the closest one can be to God is the kalleh on her wedding day. Wedding guests line up to ask her for her blessing. While waiting for the chatan, or groom, to appear, she sits on a throne, flanked by her mother on one side, and her future mother-in-law on the other, murmuring blessing after blessing to those next in the queue.
I sat on her right side, fingering my shawl, rolling the sequins between my fingers like worry beads. Snatches of Hebrew, which I didn’t speak, filled the air. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing besides smiling.
One of the women in line, her head wrapped in the manner of Orthodox married women, bent over to greet me.
“I like what you’re wearing,” she said.
Finally, I could relax and let go of all sartorial anxiety.
Then a great hullabaloo erupted from the far end of the hallway. Reed instruments sang and cymbals crashed. Men dancing with wild jubilation thrashed towards us, high on natural ecstasy.
One of the bride’s friends came screeching towards us.
“He’s coming, he’s coming!”
I craned my neck. Clearly a dignitary was among us.
Instead, it was my son, tall, handsome, his face beaming. Over his suit, he wore a long, white coat, or a kittle, reminiscent of what a butcher wears. Orthodox Jewish men wear the kittle only twice in their lives, when they marry and when they are buried.
The sight of that kittle touched me in a place deep below my sequins. My son, by wearing white, declared on this day he was a man.
What he was wearing was so much more important that what I was wearing.
The guests hooted and shouted and all heaven broke loose when he leaned over to drape the veil over the kalleh’s face. When their eyes met, the dimples in her cheeks deepened and my son, with great delicacy and grace, lowered the veil.
They exchanged an open, joyous smile that made me realize: this is what you should wear to an Orthodox Jewish wedding in Jerusalem.
Bliss Goldstein has written for newspapers such as The Jewish Bulletin, along with publishing essays in the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle, where she was a Two-Cents columnist. Additionally, Bliss has appeared on numerous radio and television shows, such as Phil Donahue, sharing her quirky perceptions. She has a graduate degree from Stanford University and teaches writing at Western Washington University. Bliss has just finished her first book, Adventures of a Detour Queen: Lessons Learned by Going off My Mother’s Map. Find Bliss at www.blissgoldstein.com