First Person: The chewpee in the garden — an evolving tradition

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Last spring my wife and I took our annual tour of the homes and gardens of Hudson, Ohio. As we entered a stately home on the campus of Western Reserve Academy, the prestigious private school, the docent who was pointing out the salient features of the home said, "Don't forget to see the `chewpee' in the garden."

"The chewpee? Did she mean chuppah? And if so, what was a chuppah doing there?"

The chuppah (wedding canopy) is one of the distinctive features of a Jewish wedding. Today it usually refers to a white silk or satin awning supported by four poles under which the bride, groom, rabbi and relatives crowd during the ceremony.

There are no specific halachic regulations concerning the style or adornment of the chuppah, which is often enhanced with real or artificial flowers and leaves. Many artistic families create their own distinctive woven or embroidered chuppot, which include the names of the bride and groom.

A favorite adornment for a chuppah is often the biblical verse from the Book of Jeremiah, "The voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride."

Most chuppot in synagogues are self- supporting or at least have long corner poles that rest on the floor. Some chuppot are portable, with short wooden poles, which are held up over the heads of the participants by four stalwart volunteers.

At one of the most memorable weddings I attended, I was holding up the chuppah while the overly eloquent rabbi droned on in endless admonitions to the couple on the virtues of keeping a good Jewish home. By the time the groom broke the glass, my arm had become paralyzed in an upright position.

Today's chuppah has evolved from its original biblical meaning as a bridal bower in which the newlyweds were actually confined at the end of the wedding ceremony. The word chuppah appears a number of times in the Bible and Apocrypha. In the pro-phet Joel (2:16), we find that at a time for national repentance, "the bridegroom shall go forth from his chamber and the bride from her chuppah." Perhaps the most familiar biblical usage or the word chuppah is found in the 19th Psalm, which is part of the morning Shabbat service. The sun is described as "kechatan yotzay may chuppahto, a bridegroom coming forth from his chamber."

During talmudic times, the chuppah evolved into a baldachin, or fabric canopy, erected in the courtyard of the bridegroom's father. It was often made of heavily brocaded royal purple cloth adorned with spangles. In modern times, especially at Israeli weddings, a tallit, or prayer shawl, stretched over the heads of the bride and groom has become the symbol of the chuppah.

On Simchat Torah, the Festival of Rejoicing of the Law, a tallit is stretched over the head of the chatan Torah, the bridegroom of the Torah, and the chatan Beresheet, the bridegroom of Genesis, who are called up, respectively, to finish and begin the Torah reading anew.

The wedding canopy, like many Jewish customs, was also used in the ceremonies of other peoples. The ancient Greeks had a gaily decorated wedding bower. In Brahmin weddings in India, the newlyweds are placed under a canopy of 12 poles. In 19th-century Scotland, the newlyweds were led home from the church under a bower of arched greens.

Which brings us back to the Hudson "chewpee." It turned out to be a four-posted, climbing rose-covered archway in the garden of the home, under which the daughter of the owner had been married in a Jewish ceremony. The chuppah, an evolving feature of the Jewish wedding for millennia, has now apparently become a permanent fixture in American suburbia.