Jerusalem — Born into a poor Moroccan immigrant family that settled in the development town of Dimona, Yardena Ovadia always dreamed of giving her daughter a fairytale wedding.
A millionaire who made a fortune doing business in New Guinea, Ovadia spent almost $2 million on the Venetian-themed wedding, which featured close to 200 flower girls and boys, a riverfront setting designed to look like a canal in Venice, and — of course — gondoliers.
Asked by an Israeli news show why she decided to splurge on such a grandiose wedding, Ovadia replied, “My daughter was getting married. That doesn’t happen every day!”
As the number of rich Israelis has grown in recent years, so, too, has the number of lavish weddings taking place in Israel.
Last year, Yitzhak Tshuva, a self-made billionaire, also spent nearly $2 million on his son’s extravagant wedding. Some 1,700 guests, nearly all of them rich and famous, including family friend Paul Anka, traveled to the Ben Shemen Forest where, according to a Haaretz business columnist, “large stages were erected … around which gigantic hideous artificial flowers were placed. There was enough lighting to set the city of Ramat Gan aglow.”
Even that sum was paltry compared to the $5.2 million extravaganza billionaire Michael Cherney, an Uzbekistan-born aluminum magnate, threw for his daughter. It took 200 workers working 24 hours a day for several days to prepare the indoor venue, which was the size of a football field or two. Guests who flew to Israel from all over the world, many in private jets, received engraved Czech crystal key chains as party favors. Specially made Italian textiles and magnificent crystal chandeliers were hung throughout the hall, and even the bathroom floors were carpeted for the event. A 36-member orchestra serenaded the couple.
“Last year was the year of huge weddings,” says Nikki Fenton, an Israel-based wedding planner. Shari Arison, owner of Carnival Cruise Lines and one of Israel’s top banks, “threw a wedding. The Tshuva wedding took over the entire Ben Shemen forest. It had four events, each with a different theme. It was absolutely on another level of crazy.”
Just as the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton lasted several days, so, too, do some Israeli weddings and even some bar/bat mitzvah celebrations.
Naomi Schwartz, the events manager at the venerable King David Hotel in Jerusalem, said wealthy families from the U.S.—and especially from France, Belgium and Brazil — sometimes book half of the hotel’s rooms, including all the suites, for four or five nights.
“It means starting celebrations on Thursday with a henna party and continuing with a very fancy private Friday night dinner and then lunch, often around the pool or in a tent, replete with carpets and draperies, in the garden.”
If the group is large, Schwartz said, the hotel creates a tented synagogue in its parking lot.
Often, the chupah takes place on the hotel’s semicircular terrace overlooking the beautiful garden and pool area, and the walls of the Old City. Paul Newman dines on this terrace in the iconic movie “Exodus.”
While the King David’s vast garden has enough flowers to please any bride, one couple asked the hotel to import two planeloads’ worth of flowers for their special day.
Schwartz said the hotel does whatever it can to please its clients. Within reason.
“This past summer we had an amazing wedding,” she said, noting that the family, which was French, booked 100 of the hotel’s 240 rooms.
“It was a non-stop celebration. A rich barbecue around the pool, a private breakfast on the terraces, and a menu geared toward the French Moroccan grandparents.”
Yaniv Hiumi, the assistant general-manager of the Dan Accadia Hotel in Herziliya, said his seaside hotel has hosted weddings of up to 800 people.
“They took 100 of our 209 rooms and the wedding was around the pool. At midnight, the guests went to the ballroom, where a well-known Israeli singer entertained until 3 a.m.”
Hiumi said the Dan Acadia is popular with both Israeli and foreign families. He added that all of the hotel’s simchas are at the highest standard.
“We don’t have regular and premium rates, and that’s the reason we don’t host a large number of weddings. But the weddings we do host are on a very high level,” Hiumi said.
While religious families, especially from abroad, often opt for Jerusalem-based venues that afford a view of the Old City, both religious and secular couples are drawn to ocean-front properties like the Accadia, which also has a vast garden. Aquariums are a popular centerpiece, because they reinforce the sand-and-sea atmosphere.
One recent Accadia wedding boasted eight “open kitchens” — large outdoor workstations where chefs prepared a stunning assortment of food.
Fenton, who plans weddings both in Israel and England, believes Israel provides more options, as well as better value, for upscale weddings.
“The high-end Israeli market is really a level above what you see in London. What you can do here stretches far beyond what you can do in Europe or the U.S,” Fenton said.
Thanks to “almost guaranteed weather” between April and November, when virtually no rain falls, “you can do a big fancy production outdoors,” whether it’s in a vineyard or the desert.
In addition to being a lot more affordable (an elegant wedding at the Acadia can cost $150 per person), “menu-wise, there’s more on offer here,” Fenton said. ”There’s a lot more variety, and caterers here are more flexible than kosher caterers abroad.”
And then there’s what Fenton calls Israel’s intangible “wow” factor.
“When you throw a wedding in an unusual location, the guests don’t know what to expect,” the wedding planner said. An invitation might conjure images of circus tents and Arabian nights.
“The spectacle is heightened,” Fenton said of the adventure, “and people are amazed.”