After a warm-up joke about mothers-in-law, Rabbi Yehoshua Werde, in beard and black hat, extolled the institution of marriage.
“It’s the centerpiece of Jewish life. Marriage and married life are on a pedestal in our tradition,” he said from the stage of Grand Prospect Hall in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. “There’s no greater act than the act of marriage.”
The 400-plus exuberant young men and, mostly, young women from several Orthodox communities, who had flocked to My Big Fat Jewish Wedding Expo on a recent rain-soaked night, surely had no quarrel with the rabbi’s statement. They were already fully versed in the virtues of matrimony (but they weren’t particularly listening).
Pointing to a booth run by Mikvah.org, one of more than 20 vendors promoting wedding-related services, Rabbi Werde, the director of the Torah Learning Project, a Lubavitcher organization, put in a plug for what he called a successful Jewish marriage’s “secret weapon”: ritual immersion.
Aspiring brides were more interested in the dress designers, jewelers, makeup artists, and hair and wig stylists touting their wares in the hall’s ornate, gilded ballroom, complete with tiered, gilt-and-pastel balconies and crystal chandeliers, where an eminent Victorian society was said to have held court in the 1890s.
“We’re here for the fashions,” said Nechama Jacobs, 21, in knee-length skirt and patterned black tights.
Like many others at the expo, Jacobs, the manager of a Brooklyn mental health clinic, hadn’t found her beshert yet but had little doubt that she soon would.
Call her pre-engaged. “In our circle, it’s common to be engaged shortly, even if you’re not yet,” said Jacobs, who describes herself as Modern Orthodox.
The dating period in certain Orthodox communities usually lasts no longer than two months, and the wedding takes place within a year, so pre-engagement research can be handy.
This was the first Jewish bridal trade fair to feature vendors serving people from diverse religious backgrounds, said Avi Werde, a brother of Rabbi Werde and the founder and CEO of Event Connection Source, which organized the event. Previous fairs have been “very small and specific — slanted toward a specific community.”
Sitting on a ballroom chair near the runway, Aidy, a manager in Manhattan’s diamond district who grew up in Kfar Chabad, Israel, chattered with a friend in Hebrew while waiting for the fashion show.
And waiting. “The girls are taking a little longer to get ready,” said Simon Kaufman, a stand-up comic and the evening’s emcee.
Aidy, who declined to reveal her last name or her age, was among the pre-engaged. “I’m old enough,” she said. She hopes to meet her future husband through an introduction, not on an online dating site like Frumster.
Finally, in observance of Jewish time, professional models swanned down the runway in gowns from Aliza’s Bridal Boutique in Crown Heights. (AlizasBridal.com).
“Champagne netting over satin”… “Finely ruched chiffon waistband”… “Cascading layers of tulle over taffeta,” went Kaufman’s expert catwalk spiel.
Most of the gowns had high necklines and three-quarter-length sleeves. But, except for one multi-flounced ante-bellum gown, from the waist down, they showed “sleek lines that accentuate the figure,” Kaufman said.
Did these shapely silhouettes hug the body perhaps a tad too tightly?
“It’s OK. They’re not skin-tight because there’s so much fabric,” said Avraham Schmalberg, who works with his mother Aliza Schmalberg, owner of the boutique. “If they’re loose, it wouldn’t look right.”
Schmalberg, 24, was, as of the date of the expo, unattached. With so many pre-engaged women on the premises, was he tempted to alter his status?
He shrugged. “I’ll get married — eventually. I have to find the right girl.”
At one booth, pre-engaged men could check out designer tuxedos by Dante Zeller (www.dantezeller.com), or bespoke kapotas by Sartorio Sacho (www.kapotas.com), haberdasher to Matisyahyu, the chasidic hip-hopper. Ordinarily, the Prince Edward-style jacket, introduced by the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, and adopted by his followers, is “a boring black frock-coat,” said booth owner Mendy Sacho, whose company has branches in Israel, Canada and England as well as in Brooklyn. “But we can funk it up” with paisley, silver, or rainbow-hued linings, or by stitching the fiancée’s initials on the underside of the lapel.
With so many of the necessary components on hand, one could tie the knot in the center of the ballroom in a chupah crafted by Tammy Polatsek, the Satmar chasidic owner of Aristocratic Design in Borough Park (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Polatsek won a nationwide competition to design the flowers for the latest Twilight Saga blockbuster, “Breaking Dawn,” which features a chupah-like arch in the wedding scene.
“I was inspired by the movie’s rough and woodsy look,” said Polatsek of the lush but rustic canopy of peonies, roses and hydrangea at the expo. It would cost about $3,000. “I’m not the cheapest floral designer in town.”
Another expense for certain Orthodox brides is the purchase of a wig or two. At sheitel stylist Galit Italia’s booth (Galitaliausa@gmail.com), Miriam Sherman, who was already engaged, tried on the “Belladonna,” a long, side-parted “natural” brunette style with a slight wave and a sultry mèche grazing one eyebrow.
It cost $1,200. “Our wigs are all top-of-the-line European human hair,” said Racheli Chaimson, co-owner of Galit Italia with her husband Dovi. Custom-by-size models run as high as $2,600. Semi-custom models can be under $500.
“This is similar to my hair, but longer and softer,” Sherman said.
“You should have fun with your wig,” Chaimson said. “You don’t have to do it exactly like your own hair. It can be a touch lighter or darker.” It should fit your face and feel comfortable. There’s usually a period of adjustment.
“Some people say you never get used to it,” said Jacobs, whose thick straight dark hair swept past her shoulders. When the time comes, she might opt for a “fall” instead of a full sheitel. “The wig is the worst part of getting married, in our circle.”
As bands performed onstage, attendees sampled chocolate bonbons and parve “engagement” cakes topped with pastel flowers from Your Sweet Expressions (email@example.com), checked out photographers and videographers, stopped (occasionally) at the Ask-a-Rabbi table, and watched a power point presentation by Total RSVP (info@TotalRsvp.com), which provides software that can help nudge tardy responders, save guest lists for future events, and address envelopes and print place cards.
At a booth run by Mink jewelry of Crown Heights (minkjewelers.com), Rachel, who didn’t want her last name in print, ogled a display in one of the vitrines. She was on the verge of being engaged. How big was that French-cut diamond ring?
“About a carat,” said Zalman Minkowitz, an owner.
“About $3,000,” Minkowitz said.
“That’s it?” Rachel said, incredulous.
Nearby, pushing her 3-month-old son Leibish in a stroller, Crown Heights “housemom” Rochel Litzman said, “I was engaged.” Now she was about to celebrate her first anniversary. The expo would have been a valuable resource during her two-month-long engagement, she said. As the youngest of nine, she’d had older siblings to help her, but, even so, she hadn’t found a makeup artist until just before her wedding.
But tonight’s elaborate gowns and skyscraper heels were not her style. She had opted for something simpler and less constricting for her wedding. “I don’t believe in being in pain for beauty.”
“She wore white sneakers to dance in,” her husband Levi said admiringly.