Josh Glancy

The joy and chaos of a Jewish wedding proves life is back

Horas, bars and dance floors — traditional celebrations are as far removed from the restrictions of the pandemic as it’s possible to get, and all the more wonderful for that

July 29, 2021 12:47

What is the opposite of pandemic isolation? A big sweaty group hug, perhaps. Or a writhing dancefloor. Maybe it’s two hundred boisterous people yammering away together in the same room, eating, drinking and kibitzing until they can kibitz no more. Yes, the truest opposite of the strange, solitary lives so many of us have been living these past 18 months is of course a Jewish wedding.

Any wedding would suffice, in fairness, in order to strike a contrast with the alienation of the pandemic. But for me it took the boisterous commotion of a proper Jewish wedding to fully dissolve the new and unwelcome boundaries that have ruled our world for far too long.

This week, with the restrictions on parties now fully lifted, two very patient friends held their weddings at last. That we all needed a party goes without saying. But even more than that, I think, we needed to remember what it means to come together as people, as Jews, and celebrate the best of ourselves.

Our Jewish lives are built on mass ritual: embracing, chanting, dancing and eating in groups, all things that have been sorely restricted for longer than any of us could have imagined.

It was quite something to see a hora again. A real hora: white-shirted men, locked armpit to sweaty armpit, rotating wildly in circles, shirts untucked, feet stamping, kipot bouncing onto the floor. Women whirling and whisking in rapid rotation, pearl earrings and bar mitzvah wings flapping in the slipstream. The grabbing of chairs, the launching of the bride and groom into a vertiginous stratosphere, linked together by love and terror and a crisp white napkin.

And a bar. A proper bar where you can just walk up and order a drink, slipping off for a post-prandial scotch or three with great-uncle Brian. There were hugs, too. Big enthusiastic drunken hugs. The visceral thrill of clutching an old friend in a long embrace.

And of course there was singing. The clanging melody of 200 people mumbling along to shir hamalot. The cathartic power of a mass “mazel tov!” after long minutes of sombre and ancient ritual. We sang niggun neshama at one of the weddings, an old Shlomo Carlebach classic that you’ve probably heard. It’s a fervent, wordless song that positively bursts with love and longing, at once universal and profoundly Jewish. “Melody of the soul” is the English translation of niggun neshama, which captures the tune perfectly but also expresses the full sensation of a wedding celebration itself: gossiping, praying, flirting, saluting the passion and commitment of our most enduring institution. An outpouring of humanity.

I needed this. Being young, healthy and fully vaccinated (in the US) since April, I’ve nibbled away at pandemic precautions for quite some time now. My work as a reporter has taken me all over Britain and America, on planes, trains and buses. I’ve seen pubs and bars and house parties push the boundaries, particularly as evenings wear on and the empties mount up. Within obvious limits, I’ve tried to live as normally as possible.

But going to an actual fully-fledged wedding party was a different matter altogether. Was it a little nerve-wracking? Absolutely, especially for some of the older folk.

There will be “breakthrough” infections from parties like these, most of them fairly mild, one hopes. There was the dreary ordeal of pre-party swabbing and testing, the lingering medicalisation of daily life, the Covid chat that we all find so tedious yet somehow inevitably lapse into.

There were some residual attempts at distancing, moments of awkwardness over hugs and handshakes. There is the continued clash between our longing to be in the well-ventilated outdoors and the diluvian onslaught of this sopping British summer.

And of course we’re all still harbouring niggling fears about case resurgence and canny new variants. We know this isn’t over and no one wants to go down in the last weeks of the war.

But all that aside, a Jewish wedding was the tonic I needed, the emotional antidote to go with my viral antibodies. It was a jolt back into full-bore living again; not the half or three-quarter life of caution and distance, but the tactile abandon of a long and loving party.

Life in all its messy splendour, a melody of the soul. It felt good to be back.

July 29, 2021 12:47

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