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Where They Wed: Catering Hall, City Hall and Synagogue

Some people are lucky enough to get married at the governor’s mansion, but the rest of us, wedding planner in tow, trudge from one catering hall, hotel ballroom or synagogue to another — and then another — in search of the perfect setting for our nuptials. Blessed with a multitude of possibilities and a plethora of willing caterers, we have a hard time making up our minds. But years ago, especially in the aftermath of World War II, matters were much more straightforward: Many, perhaps even most, middle-class American Jewish couples would exchange vows in a synagogue sanctuary.

It wasn’t as if there were no alternatives back then. You could, of course, get married at home, which is what thousands of couples did. When Annie Oshinsky of Decatur, Ill., married William Berkson of Chicago in 1897, their wedding was held at the home of the bride’s parents, which, reported the Decatur Daily Review, was “beautifully decorated for the occasion with flowers and smiles.”

Or, if your parents had deep pockets and moved in the right social circles, and kashrut was not of concern, you could have your nuptials at the local country club or at a tony downtown hotel, which, apparently, is what many a well-heeled bride and groom elected to do. So many, in fact, that in 1910 the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of the Reform movement, complained that the synagogue had been “usurped” by the club and the hotel. Immigrants, in turn, had their own preferred social spaces, neighborhood catering halls that boasted an abundance of traditional kosher food, much leg room and the latest novelty: a chupah festooned with light bulbs.

Getting married at City Hall was an option, too, especially for those young couples determined to dispense with a rabbi or, for that matter, with anything that smacked of ritual. Not surprisingly, Jewish communal leaders frowned upon that practice. “Persons who are cold-blooded enough to be satisfied” with a civil ceremony, sniffed the American Hebrew in 1911, “are likely to take a much more prosaic and business-like point of view on marriage,” and to divorce more frequently than those married by a rabbi. So there!

Hoping to counteract the corrosive effects of acculturation (symbolized, of course, by City Hall), growing numbers of rabbis in America during the interwar and immediate postwar years sought to provide the happy couple with a venue that was respectable and affordable, up-to-date and kosher, all in one. Enter the new and improved, self-consciously modern synagogue — with its catering hall, bridal room, well-fired kitchens and administrative staff. Under the watchful eyes of a rabbi and executive director, as well as a kosher caterer, arguably one of the most influential of American Jewish cultural authorities in postwar America, the modern synagogue sought to become — and for at least a generation or two actually became — the most popular wedding venue of them all. Expanding its facilities in the city or, more commonly still, building amply endowed quarters in the suburbs, the postwar institution actively encouraged young American Jews to marry within its precincts. “Marriages may be wrought in Heaven,” one clergyman explained, “but they ought to be solemnized” in the sanctuary.

This claim, however, ran counter to history. For centuries, the synagogue sanctuary had been off-limits to wedding celebrations lest displays of merriment and frivolity mar its sanctity. In the mid-19th century, however, Reform-minded Jews in Germany set out to change that by having rabbis conduct weddings from the pulpit. Motivated as much by politics as by politesse, they hoped to demonstrate to the outside world (and themselves) that Jewish marriage was no mere economic transaction, as critics of the Jews commonly believed, but an occasion of the highest sanctity, much like public prayer. Eastern European Jewry, slower to change, continued to hold wedding ceremonies in the synagogue courtyard or at home. The fact that most Old World synagogues, no matter how grand their sanctuaries, lacked adequate recreational facilities also prompted celebrants to hold their simchot elsewhere.

In the New World, meanwhile, resistance to a synagogue wedding was rooted less in history than in circumstance. “I realize that customs and habits are not changed overnight,” Rabbi Israel Levinthal wrote in the publication of the amply endowed Brooklyn Jewish Center, referring to American Jewry’s longstanding affinity for the catering hall and the clubhouse, where abandon rather than restraint was the norm. Even so, he persisted in beating the drum for the synagogue-based wedding, acting on the belief that upwardly mobile American Jews, once ensconced in the sanctuary, could be expected to behave like gentlemen and ladies.

Some of Levinthal’s colleagues weren’t quite so sure. Instead of taking things on faith, they made sure guests received a 10-point list of “rules and regulations” when attending a sanctuary-based wedding. “Please remember that you are in a House of God, a Holy Place,” visitors were told. “Do not chew gum and do not smoke. Avoid loud laughter and, above all, do not powder your nose or paint your lips.”

Despite the cautionary note they sounded, these rules and regulations did little to dampen the enthusiasm of many a prospective bride, groom and their parents for a synagogue wedding. Everyone in the wedding party benefited from this arrangement: The price was right, the setting sufficiently decorous and the caterer responsive and responsible. But the biggest beneficiary by far was the synagogue. Thanks to its thriving wedding business, more Jews saw the inside of a sanctuary than would have otherwise.

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