When Sara Schwimmer Marcus, founder of JewishWeddingNetwork.com, gives her brides a pep talk, it always includes this: “Hold on tight, enjoy the ride and try not to make that face.”
By “that face,” she means try not to make the grimace that tells it like it is: “Help! Helllllllp! Get me down off this chair!”
Marcus had to follow her own advice three years ago, as she grinned through gritted teeth above her own wedding hora, but my question is, why? Why has the chair lift become so ubiquitous, not just at weddings, but at bar and bat mitzvahs, too? And not just the lifting of the happy couple or proud 13-year-old, but also the mother, father, sister, brother — everyone but the family cat (which at least could enjoy it, knowing it was going to land on its feet)?
Even at my own wedding, the lift seemed like fake festivity — a tradition that owed more to Marc Chagall paintings than to my own suburban upbringing. My parents hadn’t been lifted up at their wedding, so why were we suddenly acting as if this thing came straight from Moses — one long, unbroken chain of newlyweds desperately clutching slippery catering hall chairs? Feh!
Then it came time for my son’s bar mitzvah this past spring, and darned if this wasn’t the thing he was most looking forward to. So, despite my tradition of disliking this tradition, up he went — and loved it. A bar mitzvah high point. Literally! Could I have been wrong about its heinousness?
As it turns out, the chair lift is the most divisive issue in Judaism (if you don’t count… everything else).
“To me, it’s always been a central theme in all weddings or bar mitzvahs,” said Robert Firestone, a big guy who happens to be a judge in New York City as well as a compulsive chair hoister. “It’s exciting! It’s an honor! In a way, you sort of connect to the people in a different way.”
That being said, Firestone’s wife, Laurie Milder, recalled her own wedding. “They got me 2 inches off the ground, and I said: ‘Okay. That’s enough.’” Down she came.
Their daughter, middle-schooler Arielle, who had never heard this story before, looked alarmed.
“Don’t worry,” her mother added. “It doesn’t mean we’re not married! I was just concerned they were going to drop me.”
Turns out, that concern has a basis in reality. Richard O’Malley, president of The O’Malley Project, oversaw about 1,500 bar and bat mitzvahs in his days as a party planner (now he procures discount items for big events). “I’ve seen overzealous friends who’ve had a few launch a dad — and I don’t just mean out of his chair; I mean across the dance floor. So he flew from the chair and they picked him right up and, like, crowd-surfed him back to his chair. I’ve also seen a very unfortunate occurrence where the guests used a folding chair and the chair closed on the mom when she was sitting on it, and it trapped her.” With only her head and arms sticking out, he added, “she looked like a moose head.”
Happily for all concerned, the mom survived just fine and had the wherewithal to joke about it that same night, earning everyone’s admiration. But did she even have to go through with this ritual to begin with?
No. The chair lift at bar mitzvahs seems to have become popularized only in the past generation or two. “I think that DJs who don’t know any better have worked weddings, seen the chair lift and maybe figured it was just a ‘Jewish thing’ and brought it to bar mitzvahs,” said Lisa Kanarek, a mom and home office maven in Dallas.
As for where the tradition comes from at weddings, the National Jewish Outreach Program’s associate director, Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, says there is a story in the Talmud of a Rabbi Acha who danced with the bride on his shoulders.
Clearly this raised some eyebrows — or whatever — and other men were interested in doing the same, so the rabbi drew up some caveats. You can do this lifting, he said, only if, to you, “the bride is like a piece of wood.” (You want poetry? Read Song of Songs.)
The tradition of both bride and groom being lifted may have its origins in Eastern Europe, where this way they could “dance” together even if men and women were separated by a divider (and the couple’s hankie made it even more kosher). But the truth is, a lot of different ethnicities do the chair thing, including some Muslims. And in Mexico, sometimes the bride gets bounced on a blanket.
Perhaps TV writer/producer Bill Grundfest has discovered the real truth: “The tradition of having out-of-shape Jews lift overweight Jews up in chairs was popularized by a personal injury attorney in Bayside. He foresaw the falling and breaking that followed, and cleaned up.”
Then the attorney realized that he could get them to do it at bar mitzvahs, too, and the rest is hernia. Er…history.
Lenore Skenazy is the author, most recently, of “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name?: The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — but Can’t Remember Right Now” (Penguin).