The great conceit of most Jewish weddings, particularly Orthodox weddings, is that they are traditional, thoroughly authentic. And yet, a lot about weddings would not be recognizable to a guest from even the 1960s, let alone the Old Country. There’s been an upheaval of etiquette. Guests rise at the ceremony, when once they sat. Guests sometimes cheer and applaud, when once they were still. And wedding music “has definitely gotten louder,” says Mati Lazar, director of the Zamir Chorale Foundation.
Some like it, many don’t. A study conducted in 2015 for City University’s graduate department of audiology found that of 149 people who frequently attend Orthodox weddings, 68 percent said the dance music was “too loud.” Even during the meal, when there is no dancing, 36 percent said the music was still too loud, making it difficult to converse. And 48 percent sensed a “trend towards an increase in overall music levels.”
The “most distinguishing sound of modern weddings,” said Cantor Sherwood Goffin of Yeshiva University’s Belz School of Jewish Music, is “the proliferation of the electric guitar and electric amplification,” both of which were almost non-existent in Jewish music until the 1960s. Deep into that decade, despite the popularity of guitar-based rock, even in the yeshiva world, Sy Kushner’s Mark 3 Orchestra, a leading Jewish wedding band of that era, never used guitars at all. Kushner’s standard ensemble consisted of an accordion, alto sax, string bass, clarinet, trombone, drums and sometimes a flute or tsimbl (a klezmer instrument akin to a hammered dulcimer).
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, 85, a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, recalled that when he was young, “Weddings used to have small bands, maybe three musicians at most.” He realized that was long ago. “I came from an era where we listened to ballads on the radio.” He laughed. “What’s a ballad? What’s a radio? A slow romantic ballad might be nice at a wedding, but instead everybody’s jumping around.”
One chasid, who preferred anonymity, challenged the high volume of electric guitars on spiritual grounds. Traditional Jewish weddings, he said, aspire to “ruach,” literally “spirit,” but ruach also means “wind,” as in wind instruments, thought to be more conducive to creating a mood of holiness. Rav Shimon Schwab, who died in 1995, was leader of the meticulously traditional German-Jewish (Yekke) community based in Washington Heights. In his communal newsletter, he wrote: “A wedding is supposed to be for [the] bride and groom like a Yom Kippur. The simcha is supposed to be holy and serene.” Modern weddings, he wrote, “have gotten totally out of hand in the mad rush … to imitate one’s friends.”
Rabbi Blech was more forgiving. “Look, it is a simcha,” he said, and if people want to express joy in whatever way, who are we to judge? These things have become common because people like it,” and through energetic dancing, “they want to add to the celebration.”
That’s the conventional wisdom, but it’s hardly unanimous. Some prefer more ethereal music, and the ability to converse without shouting. Leon Metzger, an Orthodox Jew who said he grew up a “steadfast Yekke,” said, “I don’t enjoy dancing,” preferring to express his simcha in other ways. “Therefore, I would postpone the dancing until after the [meal]. Then those for whom dancing is a real expression of joy can dance. Others, for whom it is not, can leave. In place of dancing during the meal, I would replace it with a few short speeches or grammen,” joyous rhyming sing-a-longs, personalized to the bride and groom.” There are ways other than raucous dancing to enjoy a few hours with people you love and care about.
Nevertheless, Metzger said he noticed “longer and longer dance marathons.” Even if there was dancing, he didn’t see why it couldn’t be kept to 15 minutes, instead of 45 minutes, as it often is.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, 86, remembered that after “the war” the first dance-sets were indeed 15 minutes. He recalled that after the Shoah, there wasn’t that much Jewish music to dance to. After all, Jewish recordings were mostly operatic cantorial; Yiddish musical theater had collapsed; European Jewish music was extinguished; and the few surviving composers and musicians were often shattered, still displaced persons.
“Of course,” Rabbi Lookstein added, “that was before Shlomo,” referring to Reb Shlomo Carlebach whose energetic re-invention of Jewish music in the late 1950s and ’60s still provides the initial musical “fanfare” almost universally played when the bride and groom enter the dance hall, as well as many of the songs after that. But Reb Shlomo, himself, only played acoustic guitar.
M.J. Kanner, a speech pathologist who is also trained in audiology, said, “Increasingly, my husband and I spend most of these beautiful weddings wincing, because we can’t tolerate the painfully loud music. We arm ourselves with ear plugs and often retreat to the lobby areas, along with others, seeking respite from the noise.”
The world was once a quieter place, she said. Baseball stadiums didn’t play even organ music until 1941. Before the war, no drums were allowed in country music’s Grand Ol’ Opry.
Weddings were quieter, too. For centuries, Ashkenaz authorities in Jerusalem allowed only a vocalist and percussion. On the other hand, another authority, the Remoh, was against any restrictions “because it is impossible for a wedding to not have musical instruments.”
Rabbi Blech recalled that “the Vaad Arba Aratzos (the central rabbinic authority in Poland) capped the amount of money that could be spent on a wedding,” similar to the economic uniformity of Jewish funerals in which everyone, rich or poor, is buried in the same plain wooden box. “Maybe you can afford something better,” such as a larger orchestra, said Rabbi Blech, “but then you embarrass and intimidate everyone else into a similar expense.”
In the United States, said Goffin, the unamplified violin was the leading instrument in Jewish wedding bands until the phonograph was invented in 1877. Violins were not heard well on the early recordings, said Goffin, so clarinets and other horns became more prominent on recordings, and then at weddings, too. “That was the first detour into ‘louder music,’’’ said Goffin. Drums also were added, replacing the “hackbrett” (another instrument in the tsimbl-dulcimer family). “Drums were another step-up in sound.”
Goffin recalls that in the 1950s, “The [wedding] repertoire was Yiddish music, with some American songs like ‘Anniversary Waltz,’ and Israeli crossovers like The Weavers’ ‘Tzena-Tzena.’” Even in the early 1960s, Jewish wedding bands were “still acoustic only.” Few bands, said Goffin, “knew any chasidic or chasidic-style melodies, other than something like Hava Nagila.”
When Les Paul invented the first solid-body electric guitar in 1952, said Goffin, “that changed everything,” though it took around a decade “until it became a regular component of the American music scene.” Electric guitars in wedding bands forced “the other instruments to balance the sound with amplifiers of their own.” It wasn’t until after the Six-Day War, said Goffin, when chasidic songs with liturgical or biblical lyrics “suddenly became popular,” and were played on electric guitar. Even Orthodox wedding bands adopted riffs from rock music, such as Cream’s opening to “Sunshine of Your Love.”
Wedding ceremonies were once regal and stately, but the rock music seems to have unleashed a bit of anarchy, even beyond the dancing. It became acceptable, even in formal Ashkenazic circles, to adopt the rural Sephardic custom of applauding or cheering anyone and everyone in the processional. Others countered the reverie with increased reverence. Once, “no one thought they had to rise when the bride or groom walked down the aisle,” said Rabbi Blech. “Now, many of us are standing up.”
Somewhere, gently, a dulcimer plays.