A wedding expo is, above all, an education in the do’s and don’t’s of tying the knot. And at My Big Fat Jewish Wedding Expo — a one-stop shop for all things matrimonial — these lessons were wrapped in layers of tradition.
Dozens of vendors ringed the main banquet hall in Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall, which looks like a pastel wedding cake, on Tuesday night. They passed out samples of kosher wedding cake, painted makeup onto young women and showed dresses — all fit to modest specifications — to brides-to-be. The take-away, as demonstrated by an artful, candlelit table setting under a chuppah, is that one can be chic, even decadent, within the confines of Orthodox stricture.
The expo is the brainchild of Avi Werde, a 24-year-old event planner from Brooklyn. Wearing oversized black plastic glasses, sneakers and a tailored suit, Werde cut a different figure than the visitors — mostly men in wide-brimmed hats and yarmulkes and women in tight-fitting skirts and wigs. Though Werde, who sports a barely there goatee, conceded that many vendors cater to the Orthodox, the event is intended to appeal to Jews of all stripes.
“This event is really geared toward Jews,” he said. “I didn’t call it the ‘Religious Jewish Wedding Expo.’ I didn’t called it the ‘Orthodox Jewish Wedding Expo.’ I called it ‘My Big Fat Jewish Wedding Expo.’”
Even so, the Orthodox presence was clear to see. To the right of the chuppah was a booth with three-dozen wigs on Styrofoam busts from a Brooklyn store called Galit Italia.
Unlike the other items on display, the wigs — which sell for at least $850 a piece — were meant not for the ceremony itself, but for the day after, when Orthodox women cover their heads in public, showing their real hair to only their husbands.
Owner Racheli Chaimson said that young brides often come to her looking for wigs that match their natural hair color and cut, “so their husbands will recognize them after the wedding [and not say]: ‘Hello! Who are you?’”
Across the room, Zalman Minkowitz was manning a booth with several glass displays holding samples of diamond jewelry from his family’s store, in Crown Heights. Asked if there was anything different about wedding jewelry in the Orthodox tradition, Minkowitz called over his father, who then called over his wife to help explain a decades-old recommendation by the late rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson that Jews should not give each other engagement rings, only wedding rings.
“It symbolized marriage,” said his father, Mayer Minkowitz.. “Don’t give the ring before the marriage.”
Minkowitz turned to his wife to ask her if he’d followed the rebbe’s advice at their engagement. Did he give her pearls? Nope.
“It was a gold watch” for the engagement, she said. “I got the diamond ring after the chuppah.”
The evening’s official proceedings began just before 9 p.m., with a speech by Rabbi Yehoshua Werde, Avi’s brother. Werde told the story of two families from the Old Country who were fighting over the same boy to marry their respective daughters.
In a twist not quite worthy of King Solomon, the two would-be mothers-in-law were brought before the chief rabbi, who suggested he cut the boy in half to resolve the dispute. One woman demurred. The other said, “Chop him in half!” “You are the real mother-in-law,” the rabbi concluded of the second woman.
After the yuks died down, men and women gathered on the beige seats assembled around a runway at the center of the room to wait for the evening’s main event: a fashion show of bridal dresses from Aliza’s Bridal Boutique in Brooklyn. The master of ceremonies, Simon Kaufman, stalled artfully while the women readied themselves in an adjacent room.
“We’re raffling off an investment banker!” he joked. “He’s 29, five foot nine, and very good looking.”
At long last, the show began. Three women in white dresses glided by, each gown more ostentatious — if equally modest — than the one before. Next, Kaufman said, was the “charming, swanlike princess of the ball.”
A model appeared onstage, her legs wrapped in a 3-foot-thick tulle skirt with a long square tail, not unlike that of a platypus. “Extravagance is in abundance,” Kaufman said.
“There’s enough room in there to hide a husband,” one woman in the audience said softly.
Surprisingly enough, there didn’t seem to be much of a market for the dresses at the expo. Reporters roamed the banquet hall, looking for fiancées to interview, but they bumped up against already marrieds and still singletons time and again.
One young couple, Shaya Gutleizer and Miriam Robbins, found themselves on camera several times during the evening. “You ladies engaged?” a reporter asked a group of girls seated near the catwalk. “No,” they said in unison.
The Forward did manage to find one engaged woman just before the night’s end. Dorit Finkel, a 22-year-old musician from Englewood, N.J., was to be married in June 2012 at the Grand Prospect Hall. In fact, Finkel said that the draw of the expo was the vendors, who would understand her Modern Orthodox family’s needs, good kosher food being one of them.
“Traditions can be weird,” she said. “It can be nice to meet with vendors who are aware of them.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.