Clowns, juggling and God fit into Orthodox weddings

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Dressed in a polka-dotted clown suit and a bright red wig, a gentleman surrounded by a group of men tosses flaming torches in the air. In the center of the commotion sits a young man, delighted.

Across the room, a woman in an ornate white dress watches as her female friends, dressed as cowboys and Indians, chase each other in a high energy Wild West skit.

Sound like a three ring circus? Guess again. It's an Orthodox wedding.

At the weddings of Torah observant Jews, you're likely to find guests literally doing cartwheels to entertain the chatan, or groom, and kallah, or bride.

At most social occasions, the hosts entertain their guests. But at an Orthodox wedding, it's the other way around: The guests have the responsibility of entertaining the bridal couple. It's called misameach chatan v'kallah, meaning make the bride and groom happy.

"People go all out at religious weddings. You dance until you drop," said Shira Drissman of Farmington Hills, Mich. "You don't care about making a fool of yourself because you get to see a smile on the bride's face all night long."

Whether juggling, dancing with scarves and tambourines, or lifting the newly married couple up on a table, most dancing at Orthodox weddings nowadays is done in circles around the chatan and kallah — men and women separate, in most cases.

This custom of separate dancing at Orthodox weddings prevents the violation of three laws: First, men cannot watch women dance. Doing so violates lo taturu, which means "not following after one's eyes."

Second, mixed dancing violates hatzenea lechet im elokecha: the principle that one should conduct oneself modestly before God.

And third, men and women are prohibited from touching the opposite sex, aside from a spouse, because physical contact could lead to sexual activity.

However, in modern Orthodox settings, the customs may be slightly modified. At a recent wedding at Berkeley's Congregation Beth Israel, for example, men and women danced in separate circles within view of one another. The bride and groom also shared one dance together.

Adhering to laws and traditions only heightens the joy of a Jewish wedding, said Bradley Yellen, who recently got married. "It wasn't only our simcha, because the Jewish nation was welcoming another family into the ranks, through which more Judaism [can be] brought into the world."

His bride, Deborah, said she was not only uplifted by all the attention at her wedding, but also by the fact that everyone she cared about was in the same room, celebrating together.

"You are in the center of the circle; everyone's energy is directed toward you, and you are elevated and energized by the fact that you just made a terrific move in life," she explained. Even the wedding guests wish each other mazel tov, in addition to heaping congratulations on the bride and groom.

Yardena Yadin, also recently married, agreed: "Something so great has just happened to you. The fact that everyone is so happy for you is the most exciting thing. It gives you a great deal of positive energy," she said.

Rooted in Jewish law and custom is the idea that when a man and woman come together in marriage, it is a time of blessing and closeness to God. The Torah states that man and woman were created incomplete; they become whole when linked together as husband and wife.

Because of these statements from the Torah, many pre-wedding activities are directed toward a spiritual end, which encourage bride and groom to spend time preparing for the big day — spiritually, emotionally and practically. Bride and groom study Jewish laws, customs and perspectives on marriage.

An example, found in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's handbook, "Made in Heaven," is the kallah's first immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath).

Many new brides said that first dip brought them a closeness to God — more so than they had previously experienced. Others said it was like a spiritual rebirth, and the woman emerged a new person, in a new, married life.

Another custom is a wedding day fast. "The bride and groom fast to disassociate themselves from the physical," making them better able to focus on the spiritual aspects of their marriage, "Made in Heaven" explained.

The marriage ceremony itself is symbolic of the seven days of creation. This idea manifests through the recitation of seven blessings under the chuppah, and the seven circles the bride walks around the groom.

The act of circling is also explained as a symbol of the woman protecting her husband from harm, according to Rabbi Maurice Lamm's "The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage."

Another interpretation, he wrote, is that the action creates a circle of privacy, inside which the bride and groom build a new life together.

Torah traditions also give a couple an opportunity to transfer the energy from their wedding into the first week of their marriage — through sheva brachot (seven blessings).

That week, a couple's family and friends organize as many as seven festive gatherings, each centered around a meal. Sheva brachot help the couple make a transition into this new phase of their lives.

After months of planning for one day, the sheva brachot also help a couple to avoid feeling let down after the day is over.

Darra Phillips, a Michigan native who now lives in Jerusalem with her husband and daughter, said some of her most joyful moments have been at religious Jewish weddings.

"You are seeing each other in a very supportive, loving environment surrounded by friends and family," she said. "When missiles are falling on Tel Aviv or there is a bus bombing in Jerusalem, a Jew sitting in Detroit watching the news feels an emotional connection to their Judaism."

Of course, their are better ways to feel connected.

"Why do we have to wait for a bus bombing, when we can take the power of the creation of a new family at a wedding to more strongly feel that connection?" Phillips said.

"When Jews are involved in working toward the same goal, a special strength exists, making it a time of blessing. And when you feel the most connected to other people, you feel the most connected to God."