Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Still Wanna Know Why I Love Israel??

Come as you are (by Treppenwitz)

One of the cultural stumbling blocks over which I find myself constantly, well... stumbling [that whirring sound you hear is my High School English teacher spinning merrily in her grave], is the tricky decision of what to wear to an Israeli wedding.

In the U.S. I had a much better handle on the social niceties, and in many cases the hosts would gently guide you by indicating on the invitation how formal (or informal) the affair was going to be.

But here in Israel there seems to be no reliable guide one can use to judge what to wear to a wedding. You just sort of make a wild guess based on what you know about your hosts and dress accordingly.

This method has let me down on more than a few occasions.

I've shown up at weddings here wearing a suit and tie, only to find half the men wearing casual slacks and open-necked shirts... and the rest in jeans and t-shirts. I've also shown up wearing a white shirt and slacks only to find most of the men walking around in jackets and ties.

It's gotten to the point where I sometimes bring a few extra items of clothing in the car as a hedge against the inevitability embarrassment of guessing wrong. (For the record, my wife somehow always manages to be dressed impeccably and appropriate to the occasion. That I don't 'accidentally' spill something on her is a testament to what a good sport I am. :-)

Last night Zahava and I attended the wedding of a friend from our town. The bride was one of my regular trempisti'ot (hitchhikers) to Beer Sheva over the past year, and we have become quite friendly during the hours together in the car. She is a very low key, down-to-earth person... so while I surveyed the possibilities for humiliation hanging in my closet, I hazarded a guess that the attire would be more towards the casual end of the scale. The fact that the wedding was to take place at a small rural Moshav (sort of a collective farm) helped cement my decision. Slacks and an open-necked shirt it was.

When we showed up, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was to be an outdoor affair, and that several men were walking in dressed at about the same level of studied slovenliness as I was. But when we got inside I got a big surprise that has changed the way I will view the issue of wedding attire forever.

It seems the groom is an officer in the elite Magallan Paratrooper unit of the IDF. I hadn't really given it much thought until we walked into the place, but obviously he and most of his friends had been fighting for their lives in Lebanon for the past month... and the wedding was taking place only two days after the cease-fire took effect.

How do you plan a wedding under such circumstances?!?

Well, it turns out that the two families had gone ahead with the final preparations for the wedding in hopes that the fighting would end in time. Israelis are incredible optimists that way.

When I was talking with the Bride's mother before the ceremony, she told me that the army had offered to let the groom leave Lebanon early for his wedding, but he refused to leave his men while the war was still raging. His rationale was that his men were already operating under extremely dangerous conditions in enemy territory... and to have a new, unfamiliar officer take over his command would further endanger everyone. So he made the decision to stay.

Looking around the reception it was easy to spot the groom's friends. They fell into three groups:

1. Those that had returned from Lebanon two days ago. These were the guys whose sunburns had mostly faded to tans and who had been able to shower, shave and change into mostly clean uniforms.

2. Those who had returned from Lebanon the previous night. While they had shaved and had managed to buy or borrow clean white t-shirts during the day (and had tossed aside their sweat-stained olive-colored uniform shirts), they still wore filthy army pants.

3. Those who had come directly from Lebanon to the wedding that day. These were the guys who hadn't had a chance to even wash their faces or find a clean t-shirt. They had several days worth of stubble on their cheeks and still wore their dirty army uniforms stained with the soil of Lebanon.

What all of these young men shared in common was the inevitable M-16 casually slung over a well-muscled shoulder, and an impossible level of enthusiasm and energy... broad toothy smiles and friendly shouts that gave hint to the simple, unimaginable pleasure they were experiencing at being safe and alive.

As Zahava and I wandered around the place we watched as groups of these young soldiers hugged each-other with joy, asked after friends who had 'only' been wounded... and occasionally paused to quietly mention the name of a friend/comrade who was conspicuously absent.

Walking around with many of these active duty and reserve soldiers were girlfriends, and the occasional wife. Maybe it was my imagination, but the women seemed to absolutely drink in the men with their eyes as if to constantly confirm that they were really standing there beside them.

Nowhere was this deep, penetrating gaze more apparent than under the chuppah (the marriage canopy). As silence fell over the gathered crowd sitting under the open sky and the ceremony began, all eyes were on the bride... and her eyes never left the strong, smiling face of her groom for even an instant.

Zahava leaned over and whispered to me that she couldn't imagine how the bride had managed to remain sane knowing that terrorists had been trying desperately to kill her soon-to-be husband in a foreign country only days before they were to start their life together. While I understood and admired the groom's loyalty to his men, I couldn't help agreeing with her on that point. This beaming, beautiful bride was made of stronger stuff than I could imagine.

I've been to hundreds of weddings in my life and am loath to compare one to another. Each is special and each is the holy union of two people. But I have never seen the likes of the dancing that ensued once the couple were officially married last night.

The men, who should have been too exhausted to move, flew around in wild circles lifting the groom (and each-other) high into the warm night air. I stopped trying to keep up after 10 or 15 minutes. The women matched (and maybe even exceeded) the men for sheer output of energy... and the two groups sang so loud that the highly amplified band seemed only a background afterthought by comparison.

As we ate the courses of the festive meal together under the starry night sky, I couldn't help but notice that all the happy celebrants seemed to exist entirely in the present. No talk of yesterday's events. No thought of what the morning might bring. And most of all, nobody seemed to notice that some people were wearing dresses or jackets... others were dressed in the equivalent of rumpled, dirty, olive green pajamas... and the rest fell somewhere in between.

It was then and there that I resolved never again to worry about anything so meaningless as what to wear to a wedding.

I realize now that to be Israeli is to just show up to share your friend's happiest occasions... and occasionally their grief. Nobody is interested that you are a snappy dresser or that you know what people are wearing this season in Paris or Milan. They want you there to help celebrate and commemorate an important event in their lives. You, not your wardrobe.

If an Israeli host bothered to take note, they would notice that this person came dressed in a jacket and tie... and that other person joined the celebration in their very best jeans and t-shirt. And they would conclude that both were dressed exactly appropriate to the occasion.

But no Israeli host would ever notice such things. Because the height of Israeliness is that people honestly expect you to simply come as you are.

3 comments:

chanie said...

Linked. :)

Comrade Tovya said...

Great story, I really enjoyed it, and couldn't agree more.

the sabra said...

Glad to hear. Thanks for commenting, er comrade. Gosh, must I? I feel like I'm back in Stalinist Russia...

Back? I was never IN Stalinist Russia!

But ye, my point's understood.