November 6, 2020
A wedding when less is more
By Barbara Sofer
On a Sunday afternoon, I find myself standing on an outdoor stairwell that leads from the third floor of the oldest building of Hadassah-University Medical Center to an outdoor utility plaza that is attached to the second floor. Below me, the hospital carpenters are tacking down the last lace coverings of a wedding canopy, a huppah, so that the afternoon wind coming up from the verdant Ein Kerem hills doesn’t blow it away.
Three floors above, yellow, orange, green and pink balloons have been pinned to the windowsill of the brick building. They mark the room where the groom’s father, 56, a Gur Hassid from the southern city of Arad, is hospitalized for coronavirus. He’s already been in the Outbreak Ward for three weeks in serious condition, now not to a ventilator.
His son, 20, and the bride, 18, from the northern city of Hatzor, have asked a favor of the hospital administration.
Can they possibly hold their wedding outdoors at Hadassah, Ein Kerem, so that the groom’s father can be there? It would be their dream come true, they tell Hezki Braun, a representative of Yad Avraham, a Mea She’arim-based medical advice organization with a strong presence at Hadassah Medical Organization.
“We got an immediate yes from Hadassah,” said Braun. “But then they had to work out the logistics.”
Large weddings are notorious hot spots for spreading coronavirus. The family members had to promise that they would stay within the limit of 20 participants outdoors prescribed by the Health Ministry.
“At first we tried to come up with a solution in which the groom’s father could actually be at the wedding, but it was impossible because of his continued ill-health,” said Noa Perkel Ragones, head nurse of the Outbreak Department, where the father is hospitalized. “Then I looked out the window and noticed the utility plaza below, and we went from there.” The hospital carpenter was summoned to pry open the locked windows of the fifth floor Outbreak Department. Ragones and her team blew up the balloons and pinned them to the windowsill.
The groom’s father’s bed is wheeled to the window. “He declined our offer to change his pajamas for more festive clothing,” said Ragones, “He said he’d concentrate on his breathing.” The bride and groom need separate spaces before the wedding. A bridal chair is set up in a covered passageway that opens to the utility plaza.
From my perch, I glimpse the bride, greeting a few guests and praying. A bride’s entreaties are considered especially potent.
Outside, a relative helps the groom into a white robe, not dissimilar from a doctor’s coat. Above his long brown sidelocks, a cylindrical fox fur hat called a spodik crowns his head.
The groom is to be accompanied to the huppah by his father and the bride’s father. One of his brothers fills in for their hospitalized dad, as they enter the passageway where the bride sits for the traditional bedeken, checking to make sure this is the woman he wants to marry, a tradition since Patriarch Jacob married Leah instead of Rachel.
The music begins. To my right on the stairwell is soloist Mendy Weiss, a popular religious singer from El’ad, and his keyboard accompanist. No five piece band. The tenor has received a special request from the hospitalized dad. Although they are Gur Hassidim, he wants the nigun called “Daled Bavos” (Four Stanzas), a Chabad nigun, which aims to raise the listener to higher spiritual levels. The poignant music engulfs the campus.
The bride, her face covered by an opaque white veil, now enters the plaza, holding the arms of her mother and mother-in-law carrying candles. Her mother’s pink dress is the only color in the black-and-white tableau. A photographer’s drone incongruously flies above.
Eighteen masked guests plus the bride and the groom. It’s enough, I keep thinking. Weddings, once modest in Israel, have burgeoned into extravagant affairs, pretzels and herring yielding to stations of sushi and entrecôte, chandeliers in Zedekiah’s Cave or fireworks over a swimming pool. Less can be more. Back to basics.
Drawn by the music, from the 14 above-ground floors of the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower and the Round Building doctors and nurses and patients stop whatever they are doing and come to the windows, some wearing protective suits.
In his bed, the groom’s father, wearing PJs and a spodik, is alight with joy, praying quietly.
“He was very sick but the wedding seemed to elicit untapped energy in him,” said Ragones. “He’s doing better.”
The ceremony is short: the wedding vows, the seven blessings, the breaking of the glass to remember Jerusalem. It’s enough.
The couple emerges from the huppah. I get a full view of the bride in her elaborate hoop-skirted dress with a pearled bodice and a pearl hair fastener on her wig. She seems cheerful, even ebullient.
A guest takes the microphone and sings a personalized ballad with prayers for the happiness of the couple, for the patient’s recovery and blessings for staff, a hassidic rap to the haunting tune of “Machnisei Rahamim,” “Angels of mercies, put our prayers before the Lord of Mercy.” And what about the mitzvah tantz, the hassidic custom of men dancing before the bride, who remains still while distinguished members of the wedding party hold the end of a gartel, the hassidic rope belt?
Out of the fifth floor window flies a long rope of tied black gartels. Below, the bride grabs it. This subdued dance had its own emotional charge.
There were indeed only 18 guests, not counting the hundreds of patients and staff looking out their windows, mostly Jews and Arabs of every shade of religious observance.
“I perform at many weddings,” said musician Weiss. “But I never was at a wedding that crossed so many borders.”
The wedding also went, you’ll excuse the expression, viral, with coverage ranging from The Washington Post to the Indian Hindustan Times, reaching wedding cities like Las Vegas and Brooklyn and warming hearts in chilly Calgary. Voice of America, which broadcasts in 26 languages, including Mandarin, Swahili and Tagalog, sent out a clip on YouTube.
Sometimes less can be more.