Growing up in a small town in Maine, my Jewish identity was defined by cultural Jewish experiences like visiting my grandparents in Long Island where I enjoyed bagel, lox, and cream cheese, knishes and other culturally Jewish delicacies; it was a small taste of what living a Jewish life could mean. It was not until I participated in a Mayanot Birthright trip during my sophomore year in college that I experienced and became intrigued by Judaism and was eager to learn more.
As a curious teenager, I had a lot of questions about life and I was unable to find satisfying answers. So, I embarked on a journey of Jewish learning that included studying at the Mayanot Women’s Program in Jerusalem, which was an unforgettable experience. Mayanot provided me with a strong foundation that enabled me to grow in my Jewish observance at my own speed. I never felt pressured, only support and guidance that provided me the knowledge to strengthen my Jewish identity and practice.
After studying at Mayanot, I slowly began adopting practices such as keeping Kosher and attempting to keep Shabbat. When I met my husband, AJ, it was the first time I found someone who came from a similar background, yet was moving in a similar direction. AJ grew up in a Reform synagogue in San Francisco, and became more observant during business school. Together, we are currently paving our path and still figuring out what kind of Jewish home we will keep.
We decided that although we are still growing in our observance and haven’t committed to all observant traditions and practices, it was very important to us to have an Orthodox wedding. There were several reasons to this, but a few included: We wanted all of our guests to feel comfortable. Some of our closest friends are Orthodox and will only eat Kosher food that is under the supervision of a Rabbi. Additionally, many men will only dance with men and women with women. Also, the meaning behind a traditional Jewish ceremony was extremely intriguing to us. It was important that our wedding was a spiritual and elevating experience, not just a party. And lastly, the few Orthodox weddings I had been to in the past were the most moving, exciting, and meaningful.
Obviously, this added a level of complexity when the planning process began because neither my mother nor future mother-in-law had ever been to an Orthodox wedding. The first challenge we faced was deciding where to have the wedding. If we decided to have the wedding in Maine, we would have had to bring Kosher food up from Boston. This just seemed crazy. So, we decided to have the wedding in San Francisco, where we could find Kosher food and had AJ’s mom on the ground to help with the planning. Next, we could only serve Kosher Mevushal wine. In the end, we separately ordered the wine from the rest of the alcohol from a distributor in Chicago.
Choosing a band was also challenging. We wanted a band that could play “simcha” music (Hora style music), but a band that could also play American music, as well. We ended up bringing a band from Los Angeles. Also, we decided that the first 25 minutes would be separate dancing and the rest of the wedding would be mixed. One of the only pre-wedding nightmares I had was about this particular part of the wedding. I worried guests would not want to participate in the separate dancing or that nobody would know what was going on! Fortunately, the separation occurred organically and it seemed as though most of our guests really enjoyed and appreciated this part.
AJ and I decided to not see each other the week before the wedding. However, our parents felt very strongly about having a dinner the night before the wedding with our immediate and extended families. We wanted to respect their request, especially since they were so supportive of our choice to have an Orthodox wedding, so we did not see each other for the entire week up until the wedding, and sat at different tables during the dinner and did everything we could to avoid eye contact. We wanted the moment at the Bedeken (veiling ceremony) to be as special as possible. Many argue the Bedeken goes back to biblical times when Jacob married Leah by accident because her face was veiled, when he really wanted to marry Rachel. Others say it is the groom publicly demonstrating that his love and affection for his new bride goes beyond physical beauty; he loves her for what he cannot see. The Bedeken added a complexity to the photography schedule. Our photographer wanted to take group and family photos before the wedding, which is commonly done. However, we decided we would hold out for the Bedeken and do group pictures during cocktail hour. We wanted our first interaction to be at the veiling.
In the end, it all paid off despite the added challenges of planning a wedding that nobody in our family had experienced before. The minute AJ was ushered out of the Tisch escorted by his father and my father, our friends, and family he approached me and pulled my veil over my face, and leaned in and whispered loving words in my ear. I was flooded with emotion and gratitude that not only was I marrying my beshert (soulmate), but I was participating in a tradition that goes back thousands of years and I have the privilege of living in a time where I can be Jewish openly, and proudly live a Jewish life. I am so grateful to my teachers and friends from Mayanot who supported me along my Jewish journey.
After growing up in non-observant Reform Jewish households, Anna & AJ Prager now live in the Pico Robertson community in Los Angeles, which is typically very traditional. They recently moved from Chicago where Anna was attending graduate school at the University of Chicago. Anna loves to cook, bake challah, host Shabbos meals, and enjoys her daily fitness classes at Equinox with AJ!
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