California marriage, Chassidic-style

When Chanie Levin, 21, and Shmuel Wolowik, 23, got married recently, their wedding featured all the trappings of a Lubavitch marriage: The bride’s face remained covered throughout the ceremony, a crackling tape of the Lubavitcher rebbe was played, and men and women danced furiously afterward — separately, of course — in joyous celebration.

In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, these affairs take place every night of the week — except Shabbos. But for those non-Lubavitch guests lucky enough to be invited to the first local wedding between Lubavitch rabbinical families, the sight of so many bearded, black-suited and hatted men in one place made it seem like a little slice of Brooklyn landed here in Foster City.

Aviva Rind surveyed the scene around her. The lobby of Foster City’s Crowne Plaza Hotel on a recent Monday night was packed with several hundred people — more specifically, men with full beards in black hats and women in floor-length gowns pushing strollers.

The 25-year-old Rind had baby-sat for Chanie since they were kids. Just a few months ago, Rind arranged for a yeshiva student from Montreal to fly here to meet her.

“I knew exactly what kind of man Chanie needed. I know her like the back of my hand,” said Rind, who described her friend as having “the biggest heart in the world” and the kind of person to whom “people sit down and tell their whole life story.”

She found that kind of man in Montreal, where the Palo Alto resident studied. While in Canada, she got to know the Wolowiks, a Lubavitch rabbinical family. Although she didn’t know Shmuel Wolowik specifically, his family had a reputation. “They make amazing husbands,” she said.

Rind called one of the Wolowik brothers she knew. Shmuel wasn’t ready to date yet, she was told. But Rind was persistent. She called again six months later, and got the answer she wanted. He was ready to begin looking for a wife.

On their first date, Shmuel took Chanie to Fort Funston — at Rind’s suggestion — to watch the hang-gliders. He stayed here a few days, during which they went out two more times. Not long after, they met in New York to announce their engagement.

From talking to Rind, it seemed that their meeting was only a formality. “I think they knew before they even met” that they were mean to be together, she said. “I knew before they met.”

Of course Rind was thrilled to be matchmaker for the girl she used to baby-sit. But on the other hand, she said, it really had little to do with her.

“God made me the messenger,” she said. “It doesn’t come from people; God made the shiduch,” using the Yiddish word for match.

And Rabbi Yosef Levin, director of Chabad of the Greater South Bay, couldn’t have been more pleased. Chanie was not only the first of his 13 children to get married, but hers was the first wedding among the families of Chabad emissaries here.

“We came here 23 years ago,” Levin explained before the ceremony. “Chabad is still young here.” And it is only now that the first Chabad emissaries to arrive in the Bay Area have children old enough to wed.

Levin has a son older than Chanie who isn’t married yet, and Chanie has a twin sister, so it probably won’t be long before there is another wedding in the family.

“It’ll be easy after this,” said Dena Levin, mother of the bride, looking almost as youthful as her daughter in her floor-length beaded beige satin gown.

But all attention was on Chanie, who made a beautiful bride in her white gown, her brown hair done in a sophisticated up-do, adorned with a rhinestone tiara. Her eight sisters, all of whom were as beautiful as their sister, were in complementary dresses in varying shades of pink and mauve.

At 4 in the afternoon that day, the families were posing for photographers — but not together. In traditional Jewish weddings, the bride and groom do not see each other for a week before the wedding, until moments before the ceremony.

In Chassidic weddings, they also must fast all day.

“Since on the day of one’s wedding God forgives the bride and groom of all their previous transgressions, it is seen as a private Yom Kippur for the couple,” explained the booklet given out at the wedding. “They fast until the ceremony; add Yom Kippur confessions to their afternoon prayers; recite the Book of Psalms, asking for forgiveness for the wrongdoings of their youth, committed knowingly or unknowingly, before starting their new life together.”

From the photo sessions outside, the chassen (groom) and kallah (bride) were escorted at separate times to rooms off the lobby for the Kabbalas ponim, pre-wedding receptions, where people could greet them. The men filed into the room to sit around a table and listen to Shmuel give a Chassidic discourse.

But before doing so, the engagement had to be finalized. After a groom’s relative read aloud the conditions of the marriage, the mothers of the bride and groom held a plate aloft and dropped it on the doorstep to break it, just as the glass broken at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony symbolizes making the agreement irreversible.

Meanwhile, Chanie held court in a room next door, where the women — many of them cradling babies or pushing strollers — told her how beautiful she was, and wished her and each other mazel tov.

“What number is this?” they asked each other, referring to their latest addition.

As they chatted in the heavily perfumed room, excitement began to build. Word came that the groom would soon enter the room to veil his bride, in what’s called the bedeken.

“Mom, he’s coming,” the bride said to her mother, who was seated next to her.

Soon, the men’s voices could be heard chanting an ancient tune, as the groom, his eyes tightly shut and a tense expression on his face, was escorted by his father and grandfathers in to see his bride.

After he brought down the veil, which is reminiscent of Rebecca covering her face upon seeing Isaac before marriage, Dena Levin pinned a white, opaque piece of cloth to her daughter’s veil, ensuring her face would be covered for the ceremony, symbolizing modesty. Relatives of the bride then approached and blessed her.

And then guests made their way outside, to the parking lot, where a blue chuppah with silver Magen Davids was set up on a platform strewn with rose petals. Guests sat adjacent to a parking structure, the white stripes of a parking lot beneath their feet, and a freeway off-ramp.

Chassidic weddings take place outside, “recalling the blessing of God to Abraham that his seed be as numerous as the stars,” according to the wedding booklet.

Judging by the rubbernecking that the event attracted, it’s a safe assumption to say that those exiting the freeway — as well as the patrons of Harry’s Hofbrau across the street — had never seen anything quite like this before.

The some 400 guests sat in separate sections, the men’s side a sea of black suits and hats, the women’s much more colorful.

The groom came in first, again escorted by his father, father-in-law and grandfathers, all holding candles, symbolizing the union of God and the Jewish people. Again, he looked incredibly somber. Then came the bride, led by her mother, mother-in-law and grandmothers. Whether she was as nervous as her betrothed is anyone’s guess; as her face was covered.

Her relatives led her to circle the groom seven times, symbolizing, among other things, the seven times tefillin is wrapped around a man’s arm and the seven days of creation.

Then, as at every Lubavitch wedding, a letter from the deceased Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was read aloud as was a tape of him speaking, his voice barely audible beyond the first 10 rows.

Several rabbis were called upon to deliver blessings and take part in the ceremony. The wine was drunk, the ring bestowed, seven blessings conferred, the ketubah signed and then the bride and groom went into yichud, or seclusion, for a bit of time together before the merriment was to begin.

It was time for more pictures when they emerged — now the bride and groom could actually pose in the same photograph. Wide lenses were likely in order to fit all the extended family members in, as most Lubavitchers average 10 siblings.

Dena Levin called upon her brother, a caterer in Los Angeles, to handle the affair. While she thought the food would have to be made there and heated here, she said the hotel staff would have none of it; they agreed to kasher their kitchens so the food could be made on site.

“They’ve been wonderful,” she said.

Tables were positioned outside the ballroom, with pitchers of water and bowls for the ritual hand-washing before the meal. Although a mechitzah (divider) split the ballroom in half, and signs designated which side was for whom, they didn’t stop a few women from venturing over to catch a peek at the men.

Dancing began before guests even had a chance to eat their salads, though it was difficult to maneuver through the women’s tables, with so many strollers blocking the way. One Lubavitch man with a synthesizer — standing on the men’s side — provided the music.

After the chicken dinner (almost half a chicken for each guest), hardly anyone sat down. One guest came up to join the synthesizer player, singing “Ani Ma’amin” (“I believe” in Hebrew) and then “Moshiach! Moshiach! Moshiach! Moshiach! Oy yoy yoy yoy yoy yoy!” — a song calling for the arrival of the Messiah.

“Before I told people I had nine girls and four boys,” said a happy Yosef Levin as he thanked his guests for coming. “Now I have nine girls and five boys, Baruch HaShem [blessed is God].”

After dinner, the dancing continued. On the women’s side, Chanie sat in the center of the dance floor, as a masked woman and others holding sticks tipped with silver and green streamers twirled them around her. Still others tied napkins together to make a jump rope. Some had to hold up their crinolines to participate, but they did so and the bride joined in. Chanie danced so hard the curls in her up-do frequently needed attending to by a sister.

There was even more energy on the men’s side. With hats and jackets flung aside, they danced so vigorously their shirts became untucked, and their tzitzit (ritual fringes) flew. Shmuel was encircled by men, who ran around him, each holding the shoulders of the man in front of him. Off to the side, other men danced in pairs, and one did a handstand, showing off argyle socks.

Chassidim were by far the majority of the guests, and between family members and the local Chabad emissaries, there were at least 75 rabbis present. Others from the community were invited, too: Rabbi Sheldon Lewis of the Conservative Kol Emeth and Rabbi Ari Cartun of the Reform Etz Chayim, both in Palo Alto, were among those dancing.

“It’s really been beautiful, how everyone gets along in this community,” observed wedding guest Navah Epstein. “It happens in a way that it doesn’t elsewhere.”

Toward the end of the evening, before the Birkat Hamazon (the prayer after the meal) was recited, the groom stood on a tabletop only to be whisked off and around the room by at least 10 men. Not a trace of his pre-ceremony solemnity could be seen on his face.

The newly married Shmuel Wolowik smiled broadly, and waved his hands in the air as if he were king.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."