Tuesday, 28 August 2007

A Mexican Sefaradi Wedding

Jessica and Jaime got married on Saturday night in the Synagogue of the Comunidad Sefaradi up in the Inter-Lomas area of Mexico City, way up high in the north-western parts of Mexico City. We didn't notice our ascent so much in the car going there, as we were getting to know Cousin Celia, in her 80's, who was born in Poland, and trying to find out what we could of the family. We learned of deceased uncles in Chicago and Miami, but not much more about the relationship between my grandmother's family and the Mexican branch of the Kutno Kirshbaums. We really noticed the wonderful panorama of city lights from the windows on two sides of the reception room while we were dancing, and when we were driving back, we seemed to descend at least 1,000 feet in the first 15 minutes of the drive. Mexico City is in a basin, a former lake bed on a high plateau: I don't really know at what point in the City they measure its elevation of around 7,350 feet (which sounds more impressive than the height in metres), but we were certainly up high on Saturday night, as we had also been at a friend's lunch on the southern outskirts of the City that afternoon, from where the taxi ride back to Coyoacán had also been downhill all the way. Australia is so old geologically speaking, and so worn down over the ages, that we have very few mountains: by contrast, the constant rise and fall of the landscape here always delights me.

(An aside as I write - I have the University FM station on in the background. They have been playing a selection of Jewish liturgical music and Yiddish folk songs, and they have just started playing a very spirited version of Chad Gadya! I must find out whether this is a weekly theme or a one-off.)

This Sefaradi centre is very new, also very large with lots of marble, and plaques everywhere recognizing the contributors of every identifiable object. When we arrived, it was announced that the Chuppah, which we had been told would be at 10, would be at 10.30, well after Shabbat. We all mingled, and I munched on some of what my mother used to call Paris almonds, roasted almonds in a hard candy shell - a big basket of these was available next to the tray of beige suede Kippot, and we later encountered more on the table in little metal pill boxes with a see through window in the lid, tied up with a gauze ribbon and thanking us for attending the wedding - the local bomboniere, I guess. We were introduced to various friends and family, including Sammy, the son, and Lillian, the daughter, of Elias and Silvia, their spouses and some of their children (one was a little bridesmaid). As is standard in Mexico, lots of people were smoking. I realised at this point that I had left my camera at home - of all times! ¡Estupida! I tried taking a few pics with Barry's phone during the most exciting parts of the wedding, but everyone was moving too fast to capture without blurring. And anyway, on the Amigo phone service we have here, you can't email photos so I can't see how to get them onto the computer, even if they were any good.

Then, close to 11PM, we were ushered into the shule; men and women were seated separately. The synagogue itself is on one level, with a space for women at the back behind a low divider. All beautifully carved marble, very much in what I would have thought of as Islamic style (Barry said it looked like the Lebanese parliament!), the decoration featuring flowers and plants, no animals or people. There is a stained glass domed ceiling, and some more stained glass windows behind the Ark, and elaborate etched glazing in all the other windows. The Chuppah (wedding canopy) was suspended from a structure which presumably is the Bimah - it looked a bit like a large and ornate Victorian gazebo in brass, and was decorated for the occasion with ferns and flowers. The bride was preceded down a specially constructed carpeted elevated central aisle by all the members of both bride and groom's close family, with special music for each group, provided by a string quartet and songs from a cantor. The songs were mostly in Hebrew, including for the parents and most elderly relatives of the bride "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof. Not a dry eye in the house. Siblings were greeted, then the parents. Then came a little page boy all dolled up, bearing the rings on an ornate cushion, flower girls in white with garlands in their hair and frilly socks, strewing pink and white rose petals, then the groom and finally the lovely bride to Mendelssohn's wedding march.

Here are some similarities and differences I noted from the Jewish weddings I have attended in Melbourne: there seemed to be a very large crowd under the Chuppah; there was no bride walking around the groom in circles; several different rabbis and/or cantors chanted different blessings and parts of the ceremony and a rather more senior and considerably less tuneful rabbi read the Ketubah (wedding contract, in Aramaic) and most of the 7 blessings; ; the vow part with the rings was there but did not seem invested with any particular solemnity; the breaking of the glass is something never omitted at a Jewish wedding, as were the Mazaltovs from the crowd; there was no speech I could detect from any of the rabbis about entering a Jewish marriage and establishing a Jewish home; and the little kids got fidgety and started a minor re-distribution contest along the aisle with the rose petals.

The bride wore an elegant white strapless dress with a boned bodice and a long train, all edged with diamante, with an organza cover up for the ceremony. There was a nifty button arrangement on the back of the skirt so she could tie up her train for the reception: at one stage this may have come adrift as on one trip to the loo I observed half a dozen women fussing over her and one busily sewing the button or its loop back onto the dress. The groom wore a morning suit with striped vest and tie.

After the ceremony we again met up with Nathan and Eugenia - she is still very beautiful. When we last met none of us had any children, and now we have kids from 27 down to around 20. Poor Nathan asked for our sympathy - his wife and 2 daughters are all psychologists, what chance does a man have in such a household? We did a bit more mingling then gravitated towards the multi-purpose room where this small (by Mexican standards) wedding reception for about 250 people was to be held. Our names were there on the table guide - "Barbara y Barry - Australia -Table 12". We were seated with Nathan and Eugenia, Cousin Celia, Cousin by marriage Pepe and his compañera Gloria, and Betty (Nathan's sister-in-law, his brother being away in Israel making arrangements for another wedding a few weeks away). Betty and her family lived in Israel on Kibbutz Ein Gev for 17 years, and they have been back in Mexico for about as long. She is taking a break as a Montessori kindergarten teacher after many years teaching Hebrew to children of all ages, and still takes some private classes, and we conversed in a mixture of English, Hebrew and Spanish. When I search for a Hebrew word these days, it is more likely to come out as Spanish - the newer language learning seems to displace the older, somehow. However, she was most accommodating. Everyone wonders what I do all day - these days, mostly blog and read The Age and Crikey on-line it seems, but I don't think they can imagine a life with no car and no servants, where going for long walks in the neighbourhood, shopping and cooking take up lots of time.

A starter salad of lettuce and herbs, some nuts, and some fried tortilla strips in a crispy tortilla basket was on the table at each place setting, with a couple of different dressings, at least one of which was Asian-flavoured with a lot of sesame oil. We didn't know whether to wait for a rabbi and a hamotzi to begin, but none was forthcoming and eventually we tucked in like everyone else while the bride and groom ("los novios") and close family were presumably signing things and having some photos taken.. Then the band played a signature tune for each group of rellies to enter the hall to applause, with the novios entering last, greeting all the others, and then beginning their bridal waltz. After that the band took a break and dinner was served, accompanied by recorded music from the band's sound system.

We had speculated in advance about whether wine would be available on the table. So we were not entirely surprised to find there was no wine on offer at all. Tequila, yes: spirits and mixed drinks, yes, but we couldn't order wine and didn't notice anyone drinking beer, so we knew we certainly were not in Australia.

Waiters brought around a selection of small rolls, including some utterly delicious little onion Bialys, and after clearing away the starter produced a soup served en croute: a really good puff pastry lid covered a rich sopa de cilantro (coriander soup). Due to kashrut concerns it couldn't have been thickened with cream, but had a lovely mouth texture as well as flavour. It seemed to have some pistachios in it, but maybe they were some kind of bean? As well as being very tasty, with the pastry lid the soup stayed hot and didn't spill: what a good idea for serving soup to 250 people. The main course was a lightly breaded chicken breast served in some sauce, possibly a Mexican interpretation of teriyaki, which was rather too sweet for my taste: there were stir-fry style julienned vegetables in a sharpish sweet and sour sauce, which were very good, and the accompanying rice also had nuts in it, and maybe sesame seeds. We are used to basmati or jasmine rice, so plain Mexican rice seems to need a little something added for flavour and aroma.

There was an enormous range of small (and not-so-small) pastries laid out on a huge table for dessert. There were familiar Middle Eastern types, including baklava and other filo-based pastries, fruit tarts, creme patissiere-filled pastries, some on biscuit bases, more Acland Street style ones, some mysterious orange jelly things - I had one piece of chocolate-dipped Marzipan but had no room nor inclination for the anything else, though Barry kept his end up. Not a piece of fresh fruit to be seen, though Betty and Eugenia asked for some and very much later received a personal plate of wonderfully displayed papaya, tuna (the fruit of the cactus, not the fish, which is atun in Spanish) and watermelon. I wish I'd thought of that!

Then the dancing began in earnest, with Israeli circle dances and the novios being lifted up on chairs jointly and severally. The band who played and sang these songs were enormously versatile and seemed completely indefatigable. There looked to be about 8 musicians when I tried to count while dancing. There were 2 on keyboards, one on conventional drum kit and one on a set of bongos and more ethnic drums, 2 guitarists, 2 trumpet players, someone on a mixing console and at least one other person involved with props and other activities, plus 3 female and 2 male singers. The women were young and slim, and never stopped dancing for a second, waving their arms about in unison (or whichever arm was not occupied with a mike) and jiggling about. Their moves were echoed by the younger of the male singers, a very handsome youth who looked more like a Cuban than a Mexican, and to a lesser extent by the older guy who was the lead singer usually and as the evening progressed was the one getting down and dirty with the guests, enticing people up on stage to sing and dance.

After quite a long set, well over half an hour without any breaks, first the girls, one by one, and then the boys, disappeared from the stage and shortly after reappeared, this time dressed in Military camouflage fatigues - well, the girls were in camouflage miniskirts, drab green t-shirts, fishnet tights and the same knee high black platform boots they had been wearing with their black hipster pants and off-one-shoulder black spangly tops. I am not familiar enough with Mexican music to have any idea what the significance of this costume was for the next set, but the dancing continued up on stage and on the floor for at least another hour. While we took a break for a drink and a bit of a sit down, the mood changed again and they handed out headbands with foam tequila bottles or tropical fruit, and straw hats with a turned up brim, obviously from some tropical region of Mexico, and another long set proceeded with music we again failed to recognise but which delighted the crowd.

At some stage the band changed back into their black gear and continued on. During the course of the morning, as it was about 3 AM by now, the band changed styles and clothes - for example, beige vests and flares with large Afro wigs for a disco segment, and /or handed out new props to the dancers. The most colourful was a patriotic Mexican set, where many of the dancers, including los novios, went outside and came back clad in Mexican regional costumes on top of their formalwear, carrying Mexican and other national flags - we recognized at least Argentina, Chile, Cuba, the US and Israel - and proceeded to do lots of folk dances as well as just parading about in their finery to the marching music. For another turn, the groom came on in a camel suit: he had the front of a camel attached to himself and was dressed in a lilac lamé djelabah and kefiyeh, and many other males were similarly attired, and yashmak and kefiyeh-type headresses were handed out to the dancers, while the band played Middle Eastern music.

There was another regional Mexican set with a kerchief for the men and lace headdresses for the women. The bride led the crowd in singing and dancing a whole set from Grease (I love that it is translated as Vaselina here!). Many of the older women joined the lead singer in Karaoke versions of famous Mexican Ballads, some up on stage and others from their tables. There was a lot of line dancing Mexican style, where a different type of sombrero, more befitting a cowboy than a Mexican peasant, was handed out. There was a set of dances where they handed out lucha libre masks: at least we were on the floor for this, and the attached photo shows me modelling the mask Barry had. There was a long Elvis set, with the inevitable sequence of Elvis impersonators taking turns in the costumes and wigs. They provided boiler suits/ tracksuits (I fancy in the dark blue and yellow of the Pumas, the top football team in Mexico City ) for another set. Everyone seemed to know all the songs and dances - where oh where is this common culture at home?

It was the bride's 35th birthday so there was a cake to be cut and the crowd sang Las Mañanitas, which is what they sing in Spanish speaking countries instead of Happy Birthday.
We had a 60's set (knowing more about this music, I didn't think this was really the band's metier, but they were enjoying themselves - and still dancing whether up on stage or on the floor leading the crowd in various dances. They even did the Zorba dance! Melbourne's Greek community has taught us much better than the Mexicans know how to do this properly, but nobody cared. There was also a special dance for the mother of the bride upon marrying off her last daughter - no idea if this is a Mexican or a Sefaradi custom.

There was an elaborate ceremony around tossing the bridal bouquet - various sub-bouquets were presented to the many significant women in Jessica's life who were present. After these had been presented with love and kisses, the single women were lined up and the actual bouquet was thrown. Something similar happened for single men, too, but I am not sure what it was as I went to the loo. At another stage, a carpeted platform was held up and all kinds of significant people were encouraged to do a little solo dance to some very rhythmic music, to applause from all. The tireless lead singer did all the rounding up and announcing of who was next, and MC'd the whole performance. I really liked the way so many family and friends were encouraged to participate in the shenanigans; I really felt it was very inclusive and not so much about the bride and groom individually but about them in the context of their family and friends. It seemed that a lot of thought had gone into ensuring everyone really enjoyed themselves and participated.

I have no doubt forgotten some of the craziness that prevailed as everybody danced the night away, but around 5 am, a group of Mariachis appeared (it seemed to be some of the musos in Mariachi costumes) to welcome the dawn, and the long-suffering waiters served whoever was still there a Mexican breakfast of chilaquiles (sort of corn chips in a green chile salsa), huevos a la mexicana (eggs scrambled with chiles and tomatoes) and frijoles (refried beans), served with pan dulce (sweet rolls or small pastries) and a glass of juice. The novios sat at their own table for breakfast. One last duty before we left with Elias and Silvia (who took a flower arrangement home - this at least was familiar) was to tip the waiter who had kept Barry in tequila all night!

There were no speeches at all, it was just a great party that will not soon be forgotten. I have no reference points, so don't know how typical this was of a Mexican wedding or a Sefaradi wedding, but it was most enjoyable and very different to be privileged to experience the entire event.


batyaf said...

Wow! Sounds like a Mexican-Sfaradi-all over the world wedding!! If weddings like these are standard fare, people must be very fit!!

Re the mother (usually father, or both parents)farewelling her last daughter: this is an Ashkenazi custom. It's usually the last daughter whom they are happy to get off their hands, because of having to provide a dowry for her. She is called the "mezinke". However, sometimes it's the last boy whom they farewell, who is called the "mezinek". There's quite a well-known song in Yiddish (written by Warshavsky).

I know this because recently I was asked to sing the song for a cousin's wedding. The problem is that by the time I was called to sing it was late (by Israeli standards - 11 pm!!!!!!), and I'd drunk too much wine. So weeks of practicing the words were all in vain, and I had a complete blackout! (I forgot to bring the words along just in case!) All I could remember was "der mezinek oysgegeben", so I had no choice but to bluff the rest singing "rhubaarb rhubarb" with a Yiddish accent!!

Keep the blogs rolling in! (I'm looking forward to you putting the food terminology into practice!!)

Love, Bev

EDO said...

I'm an anthropologist doing research on the relationship between ethnic/religious identity and language among Jewish young people (focusing on the Syrian communities) and really enjoyed/learned a lot from your vivid account of the wedding. You would make a great ethnographer! Keep posting!