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The Friendly Competition That Is the Wedding Hora

I spent my New Years Eve at friends’ nuptials in Richmond, Va. After the glass was crushed, and guests were bussed from synagogue to reception hall, the band played the song that sets Jewish wedding receptions apart from others. My husband and I, and the two other Jewish couples at the table leapt up like they were offering free Flip cams at the front of the room. I love to hora because it brings wedding guest-factions together like nothing else. I’ve clutched plenty of strangers’ sweaty palms in the name of hava nagila, and have later found myself with new friends.

I feared our people’s celebratory dance as a kid, since it felt dominated by adults in sharp heels (I once nearly lost a toe). Now, I’m likely the heeled crazy-woman that kids are running from. This New Years Eve hora was composed of mostly adults, as the first circle confidently formed. I hadn’t gotten there in time to join it, and our outer circle was a slower to manifest itself, but it got moving. Guests sang, locked elbows, hooted and crooned southern-inflected Hebrew. The jazz trumpeter looked exhausted by the end of the first round of Uru achim b’lev sameach, but he was a sport so he kept blowing.

Chairs appeared, primed for the big lift.

Up went the bride and the groom looking happy and beautiful, and holding on tight. Parents followed. When I nudged a male friend next to me, suggesting he help catapult one of the fathers, he refused. He’d threw out his back hoisting his thin sister at her wedding, and it had scared him from beneath the chair. Fair enough. This was a traditional hora, and a tame one, but what struck me was the conversation at our table afterward.

Five relatively newly married couples poked at the salads placed on our 60-inch round, and took turns describing our own horas — proudly recounting the way we’d danced them at our own weddings. One newbie groom claimed his tradition fueled a war of the sexes version where men lined up on one side, and women crowded the other, cat-calling and challenging each other to a dancing duel. A new bride (not his) claimed her dress was big enough to need its own chair.

My own hora got going later in the evening than the one at this wedding, and was (at least by my memory) a bit rowdier because guests had by that point gulped more drinks. After my husband and I came down from the chairs, the mothers went up together, and subsequently, up went the fathers. They are fit men, my father, the former professional baseball player who lifts weights, and swims laps, and my father-in-law the professor who frequents the elliptical machine in his basement. But the men launching my father-in-law in the sky tired before the group lifting my dad, who was so not ready to come down yet. Upon his descent, my new father-in-law’s head crashed into my dad’s lap. A first in hora history, perhaps.

We couldn’t help but juxtapose horas, each husband and wife internally determining how the one we just danced stacked up. Even sweeter was the chance to share it with a couple at the table that was at their first Jewish wedding. They had never done a hora before.

A lapsed Baptist friend from Alabama told me that she wants one at her wedding. Lenore Skenazy recently traced the muddled origins of the famed chair lift in the Forward’s pages. And in the South, where I’m from, it’s often difficult to feel enrobed in Judaism, but sometimes all it takes is a little dance floor craziness to feel culturally, Jewishly at home.

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