I had never envisioned my own wedding until I met my husband Isaac four years ago. We wanted to create a wedding that would reflect both Jewish traditions as well as our own personalities. The summer before our wedding we spent three months in France, studying the colonial archives. At the time I was just beginning my dissertation about Jews during the Algerian War for decolonization (1954–1962). I was looking at the French state’s registries for Algerian-Jewish weddings, which went as far back as 1870—the year that native Algerian Jews first received French citizenship. I saw the scrawling signatures of new brides and grooms, some of whom were unable to write their names in French, instead scribbling their names in Hebrew and Arabic characters.
In the Paris Jewish Museum, we happened to see a traditional Algerian wedding dress. It was like nothing I had ever seen—multiple layers of different kinds of fabric, deep reds, pinks, blues and yellows, adorned with gold and silver details. There was a large graphic quarter-circle on the skirt and a conical hat with a draping lace veil. The dress’s colors, materials and shapes seemed to capture the essence of a wedding as we envisioned it. At the time, I was not aware whether the shapes or colors had any particular significance, nor did I know anything else about Algerian-Jewish wedding traditions.
Isaac is an artist, and as a color theorist he is most fascinated and moved by bright, vibrant color. He painted a swirling colorful silk chupah for our wedding and also made a beautiful multicolored ketubah. His engagement ring for me was an antique ruby surrounded by a border of diamonds, inspired by a line from the Kabbalah—“My beloved is white and red.” It was Isaac’s fascinations with the magic of colors and shapes, as well as my personal pursuit of Algerian-Jewish history, which drew us to the idea of a Sephardic wedding dress.
At times I felt a sort of “Orientalist’s” guilt for my fascination with North African wedding styles. As I studied the mechanisms of French colonization, I observed the well-documented destructive effect that imperialism had on native cultures. As Edward Said first observed, it was the Westerners’ initial intrigue with so-called exotic cultures that eventually began a pattern of misunderstanding and violent conquest. I was also keenly aware of the French painter Eugène Delacroix’s romanticized renderings of North African Jewish women. Nonetheless, for my own wedding experience, I decided to free myself a bit from the strictures of academia. I decided to let myself dream.
I was lucky to know Norma DiSciullo—a vivacious, imaginative and incredibly talented Paris-based dress designer. I showed Norma my (surreptitiously taken) photograph from the Jewish museum, and explained to her in a vague mixture of French and English what I wanted. Norma, a brilliant artist with the generosity of heart to want to make me what I wanted, began some research. Together we looked at images of Sephardic wedding dresses from history. These dresses were old. I explained that I didn’t want to look exactly like those, but I wished those dresses to become some inspiration for the modern bride that I was. Norma pointed out the circles on the dresses. Together we ventured into Paris’s Barbès district in the shadow of the monumental Sacre Coeur cathedral. There, we found all manner of fabrics and adornments.
Inspired by the gold that we saw in the historical dresses, we chose golden and silver braided ribbons to adorn the dress. Little did I know then that these would eventually become the dress’s straps, belt and gigantic circles. For the background fabric, we chose a champagne-colored silk, which was overlain with a pink-hued lace that had hand-sewn miniature flowers. The jacket—to be worn at the ceremony—came together in a triangle shape and was fastened with gold and silver buttons. Its sleeves were draped, and they were made of a transparent lace fabric, adorned with flowers and rhinestones. The effect of the dress, once I had seen it in its entirety, was simply magical. I enjoyed taking a leap into the imaginary along with Norma, and I loved having a secret dress to be revealed to Isaac on our wedding day. The circles, I learned, actually fit perfectly in our Jewish wedding ceremony. The groom and bride trade rings, which are thought to be perfect circles. The bride circles the groom seven times. Traditional Sephardic dresses had a gigantic quarter-circle at the base of the skirt of the dress. Those circles refer back to the kabbalistic sefirot, as well as to the cycles of a life together, entwining bride and groom and signifying that this deep commitment is taking place.
There were some elements of Algerian-Jewish weddings that I was happy to leave behind. While some parts of those weddings seemed fascinating—a sauna bath with female friends and relatives, a henna party that culminated in the destruction of one of the bride’s dresses (her dernière robe de jeune fille)—other parts of the Algerian wedding were troublesome. For example, the parading of the bride’s family’s belongings which would eventually belong to the groom, the focus on the dowry, the inspection of the marital sheets by the bride’s mother-in-law, and, not least, the fact that many of the weddings were pre-arranged. In the 20th century, young couples began choosing one another, and the community’s strict insistence on female virginity also eroded.
Some peculiarities of the Algerian-Jewish wedding ceremonies throughout the 20th century indicate that there was an intersection of native traditions on the one hand, and French-European conventions on the other. Young women began their initial festivities in the traditional pink dress, but they also had a white, “European” wedding dress for the ceremony at the town hall, which was required by French law. For a time, Jews began to keep their religious traditions more private and insular, saving the big, European-style party for the wedding day itself (after several days of celebration).The parties featured French-style food and champagne and a French orchestra.
Just as my wedding ceremony was not an exact replica of an Algerian ceremony, my dress was not an exact replica of a North African wedding dress. Norma experimented with the colors, the cut and some of the stylization. While some scholars have accused the Algerian Jews of adopting the European styles in order to keep up appearances, or they have said that it was indicative of an uneasy generational contest against traditions, my interpretation is different. By the 1940s and 1950s, the Algerian Jews were French—it was part of their identity. Rather than trading in one tradition for another, brides were able to combine both things. I felt similarly about my dress. It was a hybridization of an “expected” wedding dress, but it also included elements from my imagination. The background color was nearly white, but the circles, flowers and embellishments still held the core of the North African Jewish gown.
The beauty of modern weddings is the hybridization—instead of seeing a wedding ceremony as purely a contest between innovations and tradition, between family and individual, they can actually represent a creative compromise. Isaac and I balanced our individual wishes within a tradition of Jewish marriage. We chose elements that fit us and willfully rejected others. Weddings in Algeria began to do the same: as brides became more independent, as cultures changed, the ceremony reflected that.
Jessica Hammerman is a doctoral candidate in modern European history at the City University of New York Graduate Center.