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Producing Jewish Wedding Videos
Posted Jan 3, 2007 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Eight years ago I was videotaping a destination wedding in Manchester, Vermont for NHL player Brendan Shanahan, who at the time was a starting forward for the Detroit Red Wings. During one of the dance sets the band started to play a "Hava Nagila" and members of the Red Wings lifted Brendan and his wife up in chairs and started dancing a traditional Jewish Hora.
(ALL PHOTOS USED IN THIS ARTICLE ©2006 Mark Karlsberg/Studio Eleven Newton, Massachusetts)

This was not a Jewish wedding, yet everyone joined in on the festivities. When Brendan came to pick up his VHS tape a few months later, I asked him why he was doing a Hora during a Catholic wedding reception. He told me, "You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy a good simcha." His wife's best friend was Jewish, he explained, and he had seen his share of Jewish weddings and loved the Hora tradition.

It's true—you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy a Jewish wedding, and you certainly don't have to be Jewish to videotape one. But it certainly helps to know and understand the traditions and flavor of the day. With that knowledge in hand you'll be able to sell your video talents to more Jewish couples.

One of my best friends—and also my main competitor in the Boston video market—is Mike Callahan of Black Tie Video. Years ago, when he was trying to break into the Jewish marketplace, he asked me to give him a few Jewish words that would make him sound more credible when selling to his Jewish brides. I jokingly regret that I gave him some good advice, and as a result, I have lost some big Jewish weddings to Mike. But in that spirit, in this article I'm going to share with you what I told him.

The first thing you need to know is that your understanding of Jewish wedding traditions will come into play long before the event itself; you'll do well to call on your knowledge the first time you meet the family if you're serious about booking the business. Early on in your sales presentation, make sure to ask this question: "Will the rabbi do the Sheva Brakhos before or after the reading of the Ketubbah?" Once you say this, you will be booked on the spot whether your name is O'Brien, Johnson, or Bernstein.

figure 1Of course, there's much more to mastering Jewish weddings than throwing a little Hebrew around, and you should know what you're talking about if you're going to use those phrases. What you asked in that case was if the rabbi will recite the Seven Blessings (Sheva Brakhos) before or after the reading of the wedding contract (the Ketubbah, left). These are only two of the many rituals that symbolize the beauty of the relationship of the bride and groom on their wedding day. To do your best work on a Jewish wedding, you'll want to have a working understanding of all of them.

Many Jewish Styles
There are many styles of Jewish weddings. The three most popular are the ones that follow the traditions of the Orthodox (most religious), Conservative (middle of the road), or Reform (least traditional) Jewish traditions.

The one basic rule is that the wedding ceremony can take place on any day of the week except for Shabbas, which is the Jewish day of rest starting at sundown Friday and ending at sundown on Saturday. Most Jewish weddings take place on Saturday evenings and Sundays, while many Orthodox weddings are held on Thursdays and Sundays.

Like most weddings you shoot, Jewish ceremonies rarely go entirely by the book. As Jewish families have been assimilated into our heterogeneous American culture, so have the traditions of the wedding ceremony. I like to have a meeting with the couple and their families six weeks before the wedding to discuss the traditions that they will be incorporating into their wedding ceremony. Many modern Jewish couples will pick and choose a few of the traditional values for their ceremony, while the Orthodox couple will celebrate the traditions as their ancestors have done for thousands of years.

Your best strategy is to be prepared for all types of Jewish weddings, so that regardless of how traditional the event is, you'll know what's happening no matter what. Your role as a creative videographer is to fully understand the needs of the couple so that you can produce and craft footage that will be a true representation of their wedding day.

Pre-Ceremony Receptions: Kabbalat Panim
Jewish tradition portrays the wedding couple as a queen and king on their wedding day. The Orthodox bride is not allowed to see her mate for one full week before the wedding ceremony, while the modern Jewish couple will see one another starting with photographs hours before the first guest arrives.

On her wedding day, the Orthodox bride (kallah) and groom (chatan) will have two separate receptions (one for the female guests and the other for the men) called Kabbalat Panim. These are held a few hours prior to the actual wedding ceremony.

This will be one of the more hectic parts of the day for the videographer because you will have so much footage to capture with two key events happening simultaneously. Even if you don't have the luxury of a second or third camera, you can still capture everything you need by following the flow of events.

Start your day shooting in the bridal suite as the bride prepares to march in with the bridal entourage from her room to the reception area. Once the bride arrives she will be seated in a special chair surrounded by her bridesmaids as she greets her female guests.
figure 1Once you have footage of her room, the guests, and the ambiance of the moment, you should head to the groom's reception area, where similar events take place at the same time. The groom's reception is also festive, with men singing and dancing. The groom will have prepared a speech. The crowd will be in a jovial mood and will have fun with the groom as he tries to get through his remarks.

The festivities will become more serious with the signing of the marriage contract or Kettubah. The Kettubah may be very simple and straightforward or ornate and artistic, depending on the bride and groom's preference. One important tradition that is a must for recording is when the two mothers come into the groom's reception and perform the breaking of the plate ceremony (left).

The reasoning (and don't ask me where this logic came from) is that once a plate is broken it can never be fully repaired, much like a broken relationship can never be fully repaired. Don't worry about the logic; just get the shot.


figure 1The Badeken
With the plate-breaking out of the way, you are halfway done with the pre-ceremony, and it's time to get ready for some more important footage. Remember that the Orthodox bride and groom have not seen one another for a week, so you are going to get great emotional footage when their eyes meet.

The bride will be sitting in her chair and the groom will be danced into her reception area surrounded by his entourage of fathers, uncles and friends. To get the best vantage point, I use a stepladder that I put on the right side of the bride's chair. This allows me to get an excellent bird's eye view of the groom as he approaches the bride.

Once the groom sees the bride, he will give her a blessing and then put her bridal veil over her face in what is known as the Badeken ceremony (left). Mic the groom in advance so you can hear what he says to the bride. The room will be loud and festive and your clients will be amazed that you got great sound during this hectic moment.

Both fathers will also say short prayers to the bride, and then the groom will be carried on the shoulders of his groomsmen and taken into the sanctuary where the wedding ceremony will begin.

Modern Jewish Couples
The contemporary Jewish bride will not have as lavish a pre-ceremony as her Orthodox counterpart. But she will borrow a few of the traditions for a brief Ketubbah signing.

Surrounded by the bridal party, close friends, and family, the bride and groom will sign the marriage document along with two witnesses. The groom will place a veil (Badeken) over the bride's face and will recite a short prayer.

With the pre-ceremony completed, you will have about 10 minutes until the wedding ceremony begins. Now is the time to check batteries, microphones, and gather your strength for the mishigoss to follow.

The Ceremony
As when working with any other officiant, be sure to speak with the rabbi before the ceremony to see what his or her rules and regulations are regarding videotaping of the service. Most Orthodox and Reform rabbis do not object to your being under the Chuppah, the wedding canopy, as the ceremony proceeds. However, many conservative rabbis, in my experience, seem to have an issue with videotaping under the Chuppah. If the rabbi will not allow me to videotape under the Chuppah, I will ask that the bride and groom face one another during the service so that I may see their faces as I videotape and zoom in from the back of the room.

figure 1Male guests at the wedding will be wearing a traditional skull cap or yarmulke. Conservative and Orthodox rabbis usually expect the male videographer to wear one; by and large, Reform rabbis generally don't care. If you don't get a chance to ask the rabbi's preference, plan on wearing one.

The processional is much like any other ceremony, with the bride and groom escorted by their parents to the Chuppah. In an Orthodox wedding, the groom will wear a white covering to his wedding suit known as a Kittel. Once the bride and groom are under the Chuppah, the bride will circle the groom seven times (left). With this symbolic gesture, the bride "builds the walls to her new home," and the seven circles parallel the seven days of creation.

When the bride finishes circling the groom, she will be on the left side facing the rabbi. I like to position myself near the rabbi, facing the bride, for the best footage especially during the exchange of rings and vows.

Most Jewish ceremonies last about 30 minutes and include the drinking of wine, exchanging of rings and vows, reading from the Ketubbah, and the singing of the Seven Blessings, the Sheva Brakhos.

figure 1During the Seven Blessings, I move my videotaping position to the aisle to capture the breaking of the glass. The breaking of the glass has numerous interpretations. One is that it is a reminder of the fragility of human happiness.

Regardless of the interpretation, in all cases it's the dramatic moment that signifies that the bride and groom are married. I usually tell the photographers ahead of time where I will be during the ceremony so they will not be surprised when I leave the Chuppah and join them in the aisle to capture my closing ceremony shots.

As the ceremony ends with the breaking of the glass everyone will say "Mazel Tov" (good luck), and the bride and groom will kiss and join the wedding party as they walk down the aisle. The bride and groom will then be escorted (left) to a private room to be left alone for a short period between the ceremony and their arrival at the reception. This is known as Yichud. This is the couple's private moment and videotaping and photography are not allowed.

figure 1The Orthodox Reception
If you are producing an Orthodox wedding, I recommend you practice the time-honored tradition of videotaping with one hand while you are reaching for knishes, lox, and other assorted foods during the cocktail hour. There is not much down time to eat during the reception, so fill up during the cocktail hour which is usually held during the pre-ceremony rituals.

The Jewish wedding reception is a joyous celebration filled with much dancing and fun. The Orthodox reception will consist of mostly five or six long (as in 30- to 50-minute) Horas. The Hora (left) is a traditional dance where all the wedding guests hold hands in a large closed circle and move three steps forward and one step back. The bride and groom will dance inside of the larger circle and will be picked up in chairs and hailed around the room as the king and queen of the festivities. Some of the special traditions at an Orthodox wedding may include the separate circle dances of just women or just men. Bring your trusty stepladder with you so you can focus on both sets of Horas at the same time.

During one part of the evening, the wedding couple will be seated next to one another in one of the Hora circles, and their guests will perform for them one by one with juggling, acrobatics, and dancing known as Shtick. Position yourself behind the chairs of the bride and groom to get the best footage of the guests as they entertain the couple.

The evening will end with a Benching ceremony (the blessing over the meal), where special guests will recite the seven blessings.

Modern Jewish Receptions
At Reform and other more Jewish weddings, once you get to the reception, you will be videotaping much like any other wedding you have done. The bride and groom will be introduced into the room for their first dance which will be followed by a ten-minute Hora. For the rest of the evening the band will play contemporary music and guests will party the night away.

If the bride or groom is the last child to be married, the parents will be honored in a Mizinke dance where the mother and father are seated and the guests circle them and give them hugs and kisses for good luck (Mazel Tov) on the honor of marrying off all their children.

The Wedding at the Wedding
As the videographer of a Jewish event, you'll have a lot of great footage because you've got the best view of the festivities (whether under the Chuppah or atop your stepladder) as they unfold. Most Jewish weddings have 200-300 or more guests, and very few of them see the event from the vantage point you have.

I find that my Jewish clients are very receptive to having us produce a 10- to 15-minute biography video that showcases the bride and groom as they talk about their history and how they met. We show this video towards the end of dinner when the band is on break and people are focused on the screen. The highlight of this video is when the bride says on camera, "I have been looking forward to my wedding for more than a year and I can't wait to walk down the aisle with my father," at which moment we dissolve to an instant edit of the bride tearfully walking down the aisle with her proud father. We will then show a quick two-minute video highlight of the ceremony, reception, and especially the bride and groom being lifted up in their chairs during the Hora. We brand this instant edit as the "Wedding at the Wedding."

You have worked hard to gather all of this great footage for the event and the audience is receptive to viewing your video craft the same day of the wedding, so make the most of it. When your company logo comes on the screen at the end of the video, you won't have too much time to bask in the glory as the next dance set will start and the party will again move into high gear as you gather your video camera for the next Hora.

Be Ready to Capture Everything
Every Jewish couple will choose what traditions they will honor at their own event. Sit down with them a few months in advance of the wedding day to listen to what their day will consist of and what their expectations are in regards to your videotaping this special day.

The Jewish family celebrates many Simchas (happy events): Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, anniversaries, and birthdays. Once you have proven to the family that you have the skills, personality, and craftsmanship to produce and edit fabulous video footage, you will be asked to join the family as their trusted videographer and historian at the events that follow.

As you gear up to produce your next Jewish celebration, I'll leave you with the ancient Jewish words of well-wishing passed down from generation to generation, and shouted emphatically at every Jewish wedding: Mazel Tov

Hal Slifer (hal@halslifervideo.com) is known to his clients as a Video Historian and has produced thousands of family histories for clients throughout New England for more than 25 years.

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