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Jewish Journal

Who pays for what at today’s Jewish weddings?

by Jane Ulman

August 9, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Jay Frailich of University Synagogue officiating at wedding of his daughter Reena Frailich and Robert Stone. Photo by David Ross/R & R Creative Photography

Jay Frailich of University Synagogue officiating at wedding of his daughter Reena Frailich and Robert Stone. Photo by David Ross/R & R Creative Photography

Forget the Bible, the Talmud or even the Code of Jewish Law. When it comes to figuring out who pays for what at a contemporary Jewish wedding, today's families are more apt to consult Modern Bride or TheKnot.com.

And for those looking to tackle costs according to tradition? Well, there is no distinctively Jewish law or historical precedent.

A Jewish wedding used to be simple. "The bride accepts an object worth more than a dime from the groom, the groom recites a formula of ritual acquisition and consecration and these two actions must be witnessed," author Anita Diamant writes in "The New Jewish Wedding."

But today, with the average wedding topping $27,000 nationwide, according to "American Wedding Study 2006" by the Conde Nast Bridal Group -- and exceeding double that number to more than $60,000 in Los Angeles -- nothing is simple or expected.

Add to that the number of divorced, blended, intermarried and otherwise diverse family configurations, plus the number of second and third marriages, and the situation becomes even more complex.

"There's no rule, unless you go by Emily Post, and most people don't know who she is anymore," said Susie Remo, executive caterer at Stephen S. Wise Temple's Casiano Catering. But what Remo has observed during the last half of her 25-year stint there is the trend toward more and more brides' and grooms' families sharing the costs.

That was certainly the experience of Shana and Jay Sokol, one of thousands of couples worldwide who married on July 7, 2007, possibly the most popular wedding day in history.

"For us, the most important thing was the people," said Shana, whose outdoor ceremony took place before 225 people on Stephen S. Wise Temple's hilltop campus.

Shana, 32, and Jay, 31, worked up a rough budget, including the rehearsal dinner as well as the wedding and reception. They brought it to Shana's mother and Jay's parents, who each contributed essentially equal amounts.

The couple saved money by doing much of the legwork themselves and then negotiating with vendors. Additionally, they printed out invitation envelopes at home, bought candles at Michael's, rented table linens at half price and bought their wedding cake at one-third the usual cost. Shana even purchased her wedding gown online.

Their big splurge was for a band, in addition to a DJ, as they felt that live music would enhance the celebration.

The couple doesn't believe, however, that their expense-splitting is the new norm. "We've been to probably a thousand weddings in the last few years and, honestly, every one is done differently," Jay said.

In the United States, tradition generally maintains that the bride's family pays for everything, perhaps a holdover from the days of providing a dowry to the groom's family. Nationwide, that's still de rigueur for 30 percent of all weddings, according to the Conde Nast study.

"There was no question that the expectation was that we were going to cover most of the expenses," said University Synagogue's Cantor Jay Frailich, who married off daughters Lonee, 31, to Michael Gantman, 36, on Sept. 3, 2006, and Reena, 29, to Robert Stone, 27, on June 24 of this year.

The grooms' families, both from out of town, covered such accepted expenses as the rehearsal dinner and the liquor.

Every family is different, according to Frailich, who has officiated at hundreds of weddings, but he believes the assumption is that the bride's family will absorb the majority of the cost.

"Along with paying goes control," he said, explaining that if a groom's family wants a say or wants to invite more people, they often offer to pick up some of the expenses.

"I'm not complaining. We were able to have exactly the kind of ceremonies and celebrations that we wanted," he said.

In the Orthodox community, it's common for families to share expenses, according to wedding planner Talia Rosenthal, owner of Events Organized.

"I tell families that if they can get through the engagement, they can get through everything else," she said, adding that most people don't talk about finances with their closest friends, let alone a family they're just getting to know.

Often the groom's family pays for what's known as FLOP -- flowers, liquor, orchestra and photography/videography -- and the bride's family covers the reception. This usually comes out even, according to Rosenthal, especially since the bride's family, usually local, has more guests than the groom's family, often from out of town.

According to Rosenthal, a wedding and reception in Los Angeles ranges from $25,000 to $250,000. "And for a kosher wedding, double it," she said.

In the Persian Jewish community, it's more traditional for the groom's family to pay for the wedding and reception, according to event planner Venus Safaie, owner of Khonche. She estimates that up to 90 percent of the weddings she coordinates, which generally start at $80,000 and include 400 guests or more, fit that pattern.

Still, the bride's family often hosts a lavish engagement party, and the two families usually sit down together and discuss all the wedding details.

For Candis Siman, 23, married on Sept. 3, 2006, to physician Homan Siman, 34, the traditional family meeting took place at her grandparents' home. While the groom's family absorbed all the costs, including that of her gown, the two families made decisions together, with Candis and Homan having the final say.

Their big expense, for a wedding for 500 guests at the Four Points by Sheraton LAX, was a Persian band to keep everyone dancing and the mood upbeat. Candis, a PR consultant, found many of the vendors herself, using referrals from friends. But family members on both sides participated in discussions and weighed in on all the arrangements.

"It's a happy time. Everybody does it from the bottom of their hearts," event planner Safaie said.Many couples today, especially with people marrying later in life or for the second time, pay for the wedding themselves. According to the Conde Nast study, this group constitutes 32 percent of brides and grooms nationwide.

Freelance Rabbi Wendy Spears, who has officiated at many such nuptials, believes that the amount of money spent on the wedding bears little relation to how couples experience that day. She advises brides and grooms to think carefully and realistically about finances and not be swayed by the high-pressure advertising of what she calls the "marital-industrial complex."

"A wedding is one day, but your marriage is for the rest of your life. You don't want to start your life together with a big debt," she said.

While author Diamant warns, "Establishing who pays for what is one of the most common causes of inter- and intrafamily conflict," couples interviewed for this article reported little disagreement. Rather, while the process wasn't stress-free, they envisioned their marriages as the merger of two families coming together as one and worked hard to achieve consensus on important issues.

Still, Casiano Catering's Remo mentioned one item that inevitably evokes instant pre-marital ire -- the caterer's signature mini-hot dog hors-d'oevres.

"All the grooms request them," according to Remo, "and the brides get hysterical. 'We are NOT having mini-hot dogs at our wedding,' they say."

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the reporter and her husband, the parents of four, as yet unmarried, sons.
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