October 11, 2007
Israeli American couples finesse fusion of cultures
"Thou art sanctified unto me with this ring, in the tradition of Moses and Israel," Eyal Giladi said in Hebrew as he slipped a smooth, unadorned ring onto the finger of his veiled bride, Orit Shachar.
Guests crowding the chuppah on a warm evening in August erupted in vigorous applause and cheers. Young, sharply dressed and already tipsy from the pre-ceremony reception, the guests were mostly unmarried Israeli transplants who had befriended the couple since they arrived in Los Angeles five years ago.
Set in the backyard of their San Fernando Valley home, Giladi and Shachar's wedding hosted 85 guests, eight of whom were parents and siblings from Israel. The small but boisterous group was not the typical modern Israeli wedding, which often boasts a 400-guest reception.
The couple, whose names have been changed for this article, decided to keep their wedding intimate and in Southern California, rather than travel to Israel for an excessively large ceremony that would include everyone from close relatives to a brother's co-worker.
"I really didn't want to be greeting people I've never even met at my wedding," said Giladi, a statuesque man with a long ponytail.
For Israeli immigrants like Giladi, 27, and Shachar, 30, there are a variety of reasons why saying "I do" so far from their birthplace is preferable. Financial and logistical considerations can play a major role in the decision, but another important factor is the immigration status of the couple. Some Israelis work and live in Los Angeles without proper government authorization from the United States.
But even if a couple resolves to hold a wedding ceremony in the Southland, it can be tricky to blend Israeli expectations with American realities.
Shachar always thought she would get married in Israel, even after immigrating to Los Angeles with Giladi in 2002. They briefly considered the possibility, particularly because their parents were pushing for an Israeli wedding.
When Giladi proposed to Shachar on her birthday one year ago, leaving the country wasn't an option. The couple has actively pursued permanent residency status, but their expired tourist visas would not allow them to return to the United States if they traveled to Israel.
"It made it easy to decide where to get married," Shachar said. "There was actually nothing to decide. We couldn't go to Israel. End of discussion."
It makes perfect sense to event planner Ada Doron, who has been living in the United States for more than 20 years, that so many Israeli immigrants are choosing to get married where they live rather than where they were born and raised.
"They've established a new life here. They've lost connection with their Israeli friends back home and they've made new friends here," said Doron, the owner of Fleur Creations, a party-planning service. "It's also more convenient to plan a wedding here. To plan a wedding in Israel, you would need a family member to coordinate everything or you would have to fly there a few times before the wedding. Who has the money to do that?"
If the possibility exists that an Israeli couple might return to Israel, they want to make sure their marriage will be recognized by the Jewish state. In order for the unions to be recognized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, a marriage between Jews must be officiated by an Orthodox rabbi. Dozens of Israeli couples looking for an Orthodox rabbi find their way each year to Rabbi Amitai Yemini, director of the Chabad Israel Center on Robertson Boulevard.
In addition to officiating at the ceremony, Rabbi Yemini assists Israeli couples with tasks unique to their situation, such as registering their marriage with Israel's Ministry of the Interior and the rabbinate.
A Los Angeles County marriage license has no residence or citizenship status requirements. A bride and groom must present proof-of-identity and age documents, such as a driver's license or passport, according to the Los Angeles County's Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Web site. However, the county will also accept a birth certificate and accompanying photo ID, even if it's in another language, as long as there is an accompanying English translation prepared by a certified translator.
The Chabad Israel Center also helps couples by easing the red tape guests from Israel might face when applying for a conditional temporary visa to the United States. A wedding invitation and a letter from the Chabad Israel Center can often expedite the process, Yemini said.
Giladi and Shachar, who found a rabbi through an Orthodox friend, said the problems they encountered in planning their wedding were not necessarily of the variety a rabbi could help them with. Instead, the differences between Israeli and American wedding cultures provided a few stumbling blocks for the couple.
For instance, outdoor weddings are popular in Israel, and there are many gardens and similar sites to choose from that have kosher amenities. But in Los Angeles, most outdoor locations don't feature a kosher kitchen -- a requirement of Orthodox rabbis who officiate at weddings.
In Israel, wedding venues are typically one-stop shops with a rental price that includes decorations, food and entertainment. Here, the couple had to look for each of these services individually.
Perhaps the most daunting difference of all, at least for Shachar, was the style of wedding gowns.
"There is no comparison," she said. "Wedding dresses in Israel are so unique and so elaborate."
She described the latest trend of two-piece dresses with a flowing skirt that can be removed after the ceremony and replaced with a more fitted, dance-friendly bottom.
Shachar ultimately found a dress, but was surprised to find out that most Americans buy their dresses. In Israel, brides rent a gown.
Giladi said the decision to have a small wedding had nothing to do with cost. The couple spent what the average American spends on a wedding, about $30,000. While they saved money by having the celebration at home, they splurged on elaborate decorations, high-end kosher catering and abundant spirits.
Against the advice of their wedding planner, Giladi and Shachar bought enough alcohol for a traditional Israeli party with several-hundred guests. Long before the police arrived after 1 a.m., Giladi actually sent a few friends out to get more alcohol. "People came to really enjoy," Shachar said. "They came to be happy for us and that's the difference between having only your closest friends at your wedding instead of a bunch of strangers just there for the party."
In the end, Giladi and Shachar succeeded in fusing Israeli and American norms with their own ideas of what a wedding should be.
Relaxed and well rested after a weeklong honeymoon in Hawaii, the newlyweds are already thinking about the next lifecycle event: having a baby.
But will the baby be American Israeli or Israeli American?
"We haven't decided yet where we want our children to be born or raised," Shachar said. "That's too much to think about right now."