April 19, 2008
Some Iranian Jews still follow old traditions for preparing their weddings
Late last year I reported on a controversial topic of extravagant spending by some Southern California Iranian Jews on their wedding celebrations in this piece which was published in the L.A. Jewish Journal. The story really touched a nerve in the community and drew both praise and curses from various factions in the community. Even today, many months later I still have both young and old Iranian Jews approaching me with insider information about the topic of marriages and weddings in the community. Many of them recall the lavish weddings they’ve attended while others try to give me advice for a potential future story. Unfortunately none of these individuals are willing to go on the record with their stories because of their old world fear that “some secret police” will come after them for chatting with the press.
Nevertheless, one aspect of Iranian Jewish marriages in America that has been repeated to me has been the fact that many families are preparing for their weddings just as was the case in Iran. Now I’m talking about the groom’s family gifting three chickens and the bride’s family purchasing a mule for the lovely couple…but rather both sides are using an older friend or family member as an intermediary to write informal wedding contracts for them. In fact I was recently invited to one of these informal wedding contract signing secessions which had nothing to do with the Jewish marriage contract or “Ketubah”, but dealt with the responsibilities of each family for the expenses of the wedding. The intermediary at this gathering was a 70-something Iranian Jewish woman who I will refer to as “Janet” because she did not want her name to be known to the public. Janet sat down with the bride and groom and both their parents, asking them point blank “how much do both families want to spend on this wedding?” Both sets of parents gave Janet their dollar amounts and she wrote them down. Janet then went through a series of questions asking the families how much they wanted to spend on flowers, decorations, catering, entertainment, the bride’s dress, the hair and make-up expenses, etc.
After two hours of her questioning, haggling, and writing down their requirements, Janet finally presented the informal document she had prepared in Persian language to both parents who signed the agreement. To my utter surprise, both families all shook hands and hugged—I could not believe Iranian Jews were able to quickly and efficiently resolve their wedding expenses. Typically both families before the marriage of their child quarrel and argue about the amount of guests to be invited and the amounts of money being spent, yet this was not the case with the families Janet had helped.
Still surprised, I pulled Janet aside and I had a quick Questions and Answer secession with her about this informal wedding contract she had negotiated and prepared. The following is an excerpt of that conversation:
How long have you been doing these informal wedding contract negotiations?
Well…since I moved to America. I noticed many potential weddings were being called off over families fighting about how much money was to be spent on the weddings. So I was thinking back to what we did in Iran many years ago before a couple wanted to get married—an elder person would sit down with both families and hammer out an agreement. This solved a lot of problems back then and it still works so many Iranian Jewish families still use it. I learned how to do it from my parents who used to do it for their extended family members. It’s a great mitzvah to help bring two Jews together in marriage.
Why do you think it’s such a great idea for people in the Iranian Jewish community to use today?
Because there is just too much fighting over the number of guests, the type of dress for the bride, the type of band and other stupid little things that families in the community go through. When everything is writing down and agreed to beforehand, no one in either family can object or demand something more because they’ve already agreed to it in writing. If anyone on either side does try to demand something beyond the written contract, he or she is pressured and sometimes shamed into keeping their mouth shut for the good of the couple. After all, what’s important is that these two young Jews love each other and the rest of the material things should not be important!
Have couples that do not have this type of informal contract for their wedding expenses broken off their engagements?
Sometimes yes and often times they also get divorced a few weeks or months after their weddings. When the groom is burdened with some hefty debts for additional expenses placed upon him by the bride’s family he often gets frustrated and just decides to abandon his marriage. I’m not saying that all couples without this agreement end up calling their engagements off, but this contract makes their lives much easier if problems arise about their expenses during the wedding. In the end everyone knows his or her financial responsibilities and they must abide by them.