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… And the Most Important

June is upon us and with it, wedding preparations are in full swing: last minute fittings; anxious consultations with the clergy or other officiants; continual emendations to the seating chart; and, perhaps most significantly, a seemingly endless stream of conversations with the caterer — arguably the person of the hour.

When it comes to staging a wedding in contemporary America, it often is not the happy couple or their parents or even the clergy who calls the shots; it is the caterer. In fact, in growing numbers of American Jewish households, it is the caterer, especially the kosher caterer, who serves as the key religious specialist, advising celebrants on everything from the design and placement of the chupah, or wedding canopy, to the exact timing of the moment at which the glass is to be broken at the conclusion of the ceremony.

A modern-day phenomenon with roots dating back to the early years of the 20th century and the rise of the commercial wedding hall, the prominence of the caterer not only attests to the way so many American Jews at the grassroots transformed the wedding from a solemn ritual occasion into a full-blown party. It also attests to the ease with which they adapted to modern life, replacing traditional Jewish values with newfangled ones — and with barely a fare-thee-well, at that.

Is it any wonder, then, that more and more American rabbis, feeling increasingly superfluous, began to complain openly about having to play second fiddle to the caterer or worse still, to Emily Post? “Parents used to ask the rabbi for specific information” about the wedding and its rituals, recalled Minneapolis rabbi Albert Gordon, in 1949. “Today the rabbi will discover, much to his surprise, that either the bride or her mother is carrying a copy of Emily Post’s rules of etiquette in much the same manner as if it were the Bible.”

A decade later, Ruth Jacobs gave Emily Post a run for her money. The author of “The Jewish Wedding: An Explanation of Its Ancient Rituals and Modern-day Etiquette,” and a well-known Jewish radio personality, Jacobs freely dispensed advice about matters nuptial, all but displacing the Shulkhun Arukh (the traditional compendium of Jewish law) in the process. Her 1955 booklet — which was sponsored, fittingly enough, by the Calvert Distillers Company (“Another Jewish Community Service”) — told every Jewish bride and groom what they needed to know in the most resolutely up-to-date language. The ring, Jacobs wrote, “symbolizes the wheel of life,” while the breaking of the glass reflects the difficulties that lie ahead. “Just as the fragile glass can be broken by a hard blow, so can connubial bliss be disrupted.”

If, at weddings, the caterer would find himself flanked on one side by Ruth Jacobs or Emily Post, and on the other by a representative of the American rabbinate, he had the entire field to himself when it came to the fancified bar mitzvah and its singular rituals — of which, perhaps, the candle lighting ceremony is the best known, if not the most ubiquitous. Transcending denomination as well as social class, this latter-day ritual, which is reminiscent of both a regular ol’ American-style birthday party and an aliya to the Torah, invites family and friends to light a candle in honor of the bar or bat mitzvah and, in some instances, to say something special about him or her, as well. (For those not given to making speeches, Marcy Schwarz’s “This One’s for You: Poems for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Candle Lighting Ceremony” is there to help out.) One by one, as their names are called, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins rise from their seats and, to the tune of some recognizably Jewish pop music, solemnly light a candle as the bar or bat mitzvah stands there, either mugging for the camera or looking for all the world as if he or she would give anything to be somewhere else at that moment.

Although the origins of this modern-day ritual are shrouded in mystery — some historians date it to the 1950s, others to prewar America — there’s no mistaking its creator: the caterer. Mindful of the day-to-day realities of modern Jewish life, of both the allure of American practices and the increasing desuetude of traditional Jewish ones, the caterer took a normative secular practice — the lighting of the candles on a birthday cake — and Judaized it, rendering it the ritual highpoint of the bar/bat mitzvah celebration.

What’s more, in creating the candle lighting ceremony, the caterer successfully enlarged the ritual geography of American Jewish life. At a time when, historically, women were excluded from full participation in the Sabbath morning service, this new, largely nocturnal, cultural invention made a point of including them. Mothers, grandmothers, sisters and female cousins may not have had the opportunity to receive an aliya or a kibud — a ritual honor — on Saturday morning, but come Saturday night, they would more than make up for it. And they didn’t need to know any Hebrew or Yiddish, either.

Fulfilling so many different needs, the candle lighting ceremony spread like wildfire to become one of the most enduring and meaningful of American Jewry’s invented traditions. At the same time, it highlights the singularity of the American Jewish experience: Where else but in America would you find ritual served up by the caterer?

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