Israeli weddings are often a chance to showcase status

The Hamelech Shlomo banquet hall in Ramle, which caters to a working-class crowd, recently had one of its most star-studded weddings ever.

"The father of the bride is with Israel Aircraft Industries, and he's a big man in the Likud," said Shmuel "Chico" Kishales, manager of the hall. "Nearly the whole government was there, except Bibi."

A social worker in south Tel Aviv who says she is frequently invited to weddings by her lower-income clients notes that when she goes, "they treat me like I'm royalty."

Power, pull, who you know — Israelis are no less immune to status consciousness than others, and many use their weddings to impress people with how well-connected they are.

At the middle levels it may be a contractor who hounds his small-town mayor until he agrees to show up at the affair. But the most avid jockeying for VIP guests naturally takes place at the highest levels of society.

"[Former Prime Minister] Shimon Peres is a highly sought-after guest," said a Tel Aviv-area banquet hall staffer who didn't want his name published. The elite, he added, also set their sights on big-name rabbis such as Israel's Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Lau and Tel Aviv's Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger.

Hebrew University Professor Yaron Ezrahi, a leading political scientist and social commentator, has strong feelings about the practice.

"The weddings held by high Israeli public officials are the most disgusting things you ever saw," he said. "They're vulgar displays of power, with the host showing off how many ministers and Knesset members he got to attend."

So much for the show of power. As for weddings meant to demonstrate wealth, Ezrahi said, "They tend to be cold, elegant and held in the most expensive hotels.

"The top lawyers invite their most important clients. I was at one wedding where the entire diamond industry was probably there. At weddings like these, the bride and groom simply disappear."

But even for anonymous, middle-class Israelis, weddings are "an opportunity to show off status symbols, to demonstrate how far you've come," said Dr. Rina Ne'eman, a Tel Aviv University anthropologist.

"How many guests you have, what kind of hall or outdoor garden you hold the wedding in, what kind of food, what kind of band — all these are Israeli status symbols, like Levis or Reeboks," she said.

Israelis didn't start showing off at their weddings until after the Six Day War, when a significant number of people began entering the bourgeoisie.

"In the '50s, people held weddings in synagogues," said Kishales, who's been in the business of catered affairs for 32 years.

In the early 1960s, weddings halls on Hamasger Street in Tel Aviv's industrial district were built and became popular.

"But then folks in places like Ramle, Rehovot and Rishon got smart," Kishales said.

"They said, `Why should people who live here have to travel to Tel Aviv for a fancy wedding?' And in about 1968 or 1969, they started building wedding halls outside of Tel Aviv. Now in Rishon alone there are about 50."

While the Hamasger Street halls were once thought the height of fashion, they are now considered the bottom of the barrel, Kishales noted.

"When those halls started, they were the only ones, and they were making huge amounts of money. But they thought they would always have the market to themselves, so they didn't bother to make improvements, to update. Now people only go to Hamasger if they're looking for a cut-rate deal," he said.

About a decade ago, when land, especially in the northern Dan region, jumped in value and citrus groves began being sold off to developers, many patches of farmland were transformed into sites for garden parties.

At first, holding a garden wedding was considered a high-status practice, said Doron Levy, sales manager of Tel Aviv's Beit Recital, which offers indoor and outdoor settings. "But now it's become common," he noted.

Status comes in the eye-catching, budget-stretching details, Levy said — "covering the chairs with satin, bathing the chuppah in green, blue and pink lights."

People demand stylish table settings, added Kishales, such as "German porcelain, like Rosenthal. I can't afford Rosenthal, so I carry Bauscher."

This is the mainstream Israeli wedding — a display of wealth, power or both, an overwrought attempt to make an impression. But there is such a thing as an alternative wedding emerging in this country.

The newlyweds may write parts of the ceremony themselves, which means they must recruit a liberal-minded rabbi who's willing to go along with their program. The toasts and speeches are personal and familiar — referring to the characters and histories of the couple — rather than rote.

The setting is usually out in nature. The music is frequently classical. Even the bride's gown tends to be different, "more colorful, more exposed, less formal, rather hippyish," Ezrahi said.

Such Israeli weddings are more often found in the environs of Jerusalem than in Greater Tel Aviv, he continued, because Jerusalem is more modest and less materialistically inclined. These affairs compare favorably with American weddings, "which can be so sentimental that you want to run away," he noted.

Maybe Ezrahi is describing the Israeli "countercultural" wedding, or maybe it's the wedding of the cultural elite — or maybe they're the same thing.

"I don't think of a wedding as an `event' or an `affair' at all. It's the day I'm going to marry the man I love, so it has to be very personal, very special," said Shira, 21, an aspiring Tel Aviv actress.

"I can't hold it out in the middle of the desert, but if I could do it completely my way, I would. The desert would make a beautiful setting."