Friday, January 13, 2012

Changing Communal Expectations

Last night, we celebrated the wedding of my nephew Simcha in Baltimore, MD. The wedding was lovely; lively and leibedik, the Chattan and Kallah radiated a sense of infectious joy. It was wonderful to see members of my family who live in America, albeit briefly. You can never really talk at family simchas, but the wedding represented the first time that all my siblings were in one place at the same time in eight years. Who knows when the next time will be?
Aside from the actual wedding itself, I appreciated another aspect the wedding as well.
The wedding was held on a Thursday night in the new hall of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore. The smorgasbord consisted of a few salads, some chopped liver (I was on vacation - I know it's bad for you), and a pan of potato kugel. The band consisted of four musicians, and the entire event began at 6:30pm and ended by 11:00pm. 
The wedding did not take place on a Sunday. It was not at a fancy hall in a hotel. The music was not from an 8-piece band. The smorgasbord did not include a meat carving station, nor numerous pastries, cooked foods, nor unlimited salads. The entire inventory of liquor at the wedding consisted of two bottles of wine: one for the Chuppah, and one at Sheva Brachot. No ice sculptures melted as people took their coffee. The wedding was close by, and everyone was able to get home at a reasonable hour in order to be able to get to work the next morning.
And to my mind, the wedding was perfect.
Why did my sister make such a "simple" wedding? Undoubtedly, the motivation was financial. But was anything lacking at the wedding because she "left out" so many elements common to Orthodox weddings? I didn't notice it. The dancing was wonderfully leibedik, and the band wasn't overly loud. I left the hall sated, but also satisfied that I hadn't eaten two whole meals in a single evening. 
So, if the "cheap" wedding had all the elements necessary for a wonderful Simcha, why to so many, if not all of us, do so much more? Do we really need the six or seven piece bands? Is the shmorg remotely necessary, especially with the ever-growing Orthodox waistline? Must we really pay for the members of our community to liquor up? Does that really add to the Simcha?
The answer, of course, rests in the notion of peer pressure. We do it because it's accepted, and because it's what's done. Somehow, our community has integrated a sense of norms far and beyond our financial wherewithal, and people invest money that they often can't afford to fulfill unreasonable, unnecessary and ever-growing expectations. We don't need the Slurpee machine for desert at the Bar Mitzvah, and yet we order it nonetheless.
I left the wedding hoping that my nephew's wedding would serve as a model for the rest of the community. I hope that this trend will grow, and that people will stop asking what everyone does, and start asking, "What can we afford?" and "is this really something that we need to spend money on"? And, "will this added expense add to my simcha?"
Almost always, the answer is no.