Even for more-levelheaded individuals, weddings can be expensive and stressful, especially when the community has certain expectations of what should take place. I’m an Orthodox Jew, and our weddings are no exception — especially since we throw seven wedding parties, the biggest affair the first night and then one a night for six more nights. Usually, family and friends host the last six — each one called a sheva brachot — by renting out a restaurant or even hosting a mini-banquet in their homes.
But my family wanted to send off my oldest brother — the first of my siblings to get married — in a way that found a little more meaning amid the chaos. When my father suggested a few days before the big banquet that we host a sheva brachot at a Masbia kosher soup kitchen, it was such an obvious idea that I wish I had thought of it myself. Masbia has a few New York City locations, each designed as a restaurant, to help give its client base dignity. Rather than burn money at an expensive eatery, we could hold the party in a Masbia dining room, bring the regulars in on the fun, offer our guests something different and give a donation that would more than cover the costs.
The week before my brother’s wedding, I shuttled him around in an effort to keep him happy. I was the “bestest Mensh,” to borrow Dwight Schrute’s term from “The Office,” referring to the Yiddish and German word for man. The groom was to be treated like a king. Sushi lunches were bought, last nights on the town were arranged, and three stops in one day at the suit store were completed. My credit card had friction burns, especially because I bought wedding attire I’d never wear again. But I didn’t mind spending for a happy occasion, and the prospect of a party at Masbia kept me going. It was something we actually wanted to spend money on, not simply the Most Expensive Party Ever.
While planning the soup kitchen affair, I called Alex, the executive director, with a list of concerns. Would wearing suits, a show of wealth, make the regulars feel out of place? Could we take pictures? Would there be enough food for everyone? I didn’t want to get in the way of operations or cause the organization undue expense. And I wanted the regulars to feel a part of it.
He laughed it off and told me not to worry, reminding me that fun was contagious. He suggested that we exercise caution about pictures, though, because the regulars deserve anonymity. After a long few days of dealing with store owners who saw only green, the conversation was a nice change of pace.
I wanted to secure musical entertainment but also wanted all the money we spent to be given to Masbia. (That money included funds donated to our party by the organization Moishe House, which helps young Jews build a communal Jewish space.) I chased a dozen dead ends. The ones that were available couldn’t play free of charge. I posted on my network of WhatsApp groups of hippie Jews who like to play music to come burn the roof down. Everyone was excited, but no one confirmed their attendance.
Plus, I was hearing that some guests didn’t understand the point or were uncomfortable with the idea of eating food that might not be that tasty. The event seemed poised to be a complete disaster, with no one showing up.
The first wedding party was beautiful. More than 400 people attended, including family from Canada and Israel. Guests drank (cost: $1,000), we posed for a photographer (more money than I feel I could publish), and the wedding singer and four-piece band killed it (same). Family WhatsApp groups overflowed with smiling Reiters.
Then, the day before the Masbia party, I visited the site and met with Alex face-to-face. He informed me that he invited his “Shabbos crowd” and arranged with a caterer to have better food than usual.
But on the morning of the Masbia sheva brachot, nothing seemed like it would fall into place. Few confirmed guests, and no confirmed musician. Two hours before showtime, I received a text asking for an address. David, a friend of a friend who plays guitar, could make it.
When I arrived, the place seemed nice but a bit empty, with just a smattering of regulars — including a mix of observant Jews and others. A train roared above us on an elevated track. I saw that the row of tables for our guests was along a wall and separate from the regulars — and ours had tablecloths. I was worried that the clients might feel othered and uninvited.
Slowly, more of the regulars started to trickle in, some wearing their Shabbat best on a Tuesday, to be a part of the festive atmosphere. An older woman brought a bouquet of roses, which we proudly displayed on the dais in front of the couple. Some took pictures with their old BlackBerry phones, like proud grandparents.
Alex gave a wonderful introduction to our family and friends about the organization. The meal — four courses, soup included — was delicious.
During the party, I got up to greet a cousin. Then, I turned around to see my seat taken by a stranger. The regulars were starting to sit side by side with us. I was more than happy to grab a seat at a nearby unclothed table, especially because some of our guests were joining the clients in the other part of the eatery. Throughout the evening, the happy couple were approached by dozens of strangers who wished them congratulations.
My brother told me that it was the best of his seven get-togethers. There were no speeches and no pressure. When I looked at pictures of the event, trying to count our family members, I lost track, unable to differentiate between familiar faces and new friends.