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Take It From Us: The Insiders’ View

“People have to learn to live within their means, I see people spend thousands and thousands of dollars. But the chasunah is only for seven or eight hours. And then what?”

 

No one knows the wedding scene like the service providers who spend night after night heralding the establishment of new Jewish homes. Here, hall managers share how to spend smarter, musicians reveal how to produce more melodious sound for less, and caterers divulge some industry secrets that allow big savings for customers. Their motivation: to finally address what they see frankly as a festering problem
“I

 

used to think,” says L.A. Rosenzweig, manager of the Imperial chasunah hall in Williamsburg, “that people just have a lot of money. Then I started working in credit repair, and I realized that people just swipe and swipe and swipe.”

The spending spiral is all too prevalent in the American Jewish simchah scene, say a half-dozen service providers in wedding-related industries. People spend beyond their means in hopes of keeping up with the Cohens, who spend even more in a wild aspiration to keep up with the Levys, who break their bank accounts in the ever-swirling rat race.

For cohesive communities with a single authority, such as chassidic communities, wedding spending is often curbed by “takanos” — guidelines that limit spending to specific areas and specific caps.

But the takanah system carries some drawbacks. It has limited efficacy in looser communities that lack the built-in discipline of a central rabbinic authority. Other criticisms leveled at takanos are that the system contains a stigma — the term “takanah hall” is sometimes thrown around to mean a poor man’s wedding — that it imposes a blanket limitation on all, penalizing men of means who can afford higher spending.

There is a third path, however, between excessive spending and takanos, say the service providers. Gowns can be rented instead of tailor-made. Creative centerpieces can utilize less flowers and still achieve maximum ambiance. A little extra time can significantly boost the output of a smaller band. In short, a less expensive wedding can still be a beautiful event. But it all depends on a baal simchah being honest about what he can — and can’t — afford. Take it from the experts: The service providers who work the simchah circuit every night, seeing our community’s best and worst spending habits as they herald the establishment of countless Jewish homes.

A group of singers contacted by Mishpacha for this article briefly considered but ultimately decided against speaking about this topic, worrying that it may adversely affect them. But most others eagerly cooperated, with some saying that it offered them the opportunity to finally address what they see frankly as a problem unrelated to what takanos can help.

“People have to learn to live within their means,” says Yonasan Schwartz, a musician and the owner of Boro Park’s Toys to Discover. “I see people spend thousands and thousands of dollars. But the chasunah is only for seven or eight hours. And then what?”

THE MUSIC
Something for Every Budget

“The music industry today,” says Chaim Bokchin, a Boro Park resident who plays the guitar and arranges bands for simchahs, “has something for all budgets.

Whether you want to make a huge orchestra or a small band, it all comes down to budget and what a person  can afford.”

Music is an area with a huge range of options, and smart spenders can save significantly, says L.A. Rosenszweig, a former Los Angeles resident who’s known by the intials L.A., both for his past hometown and his name, Lazer Aryeh. It’s become accepted these days to hire a singer along with the band for the dancing and/or chuppah, but that extra voice need not amp up the cost by thousands of dollars. “If you’re willing to look beyond the big-ticket names,” he says, “there are many talented singers who bring energy and life to the dance floor for $1,400 or $1,800. Most players will take just another $200 to perform at the chuppah as well. And make sure  to, discuss how much overtime will cost in advance. Better to start the mitzvah tantz right after bentshing, rather than get charged for schmoozing.”

If you’re taking an orchestra and the sound quality is important to you, says Bokchin, look for an orchestra in which the musicians work together regularly — even if the players aren’t star performers with brand names. The bands that play together regularly tend to produce a more coordinated sound.

“Back in the day,” Bokchin recalls, “it was very popular to hire a company that would send out freelance bands every night. With today’s technology and frequent rehearsals, eve freelance bands can make beautiful music because they’re used to playing together.”

Another sound-enhancing idea from Bokchin: feed the musicians. Most of them have day jobs and are coming into the chasunah hall famished. They must then sing, blow, pick, or drum along for many hours.

“Musicians need to be served food at weddings,” Bokchin said. “Flowers can stay in one place; they don’t need anything. But musicians are there from the beginning to the end and they are making sure that your guests are enjoying themselves — for the smorgasbord, the dinner, the dancing.”

Bokchin said he is in the process of setting up what he says will be “an amazing band with affordable rates.” He was inspired by seeing people wealthy enough to make an upscale chasunah for their child but who went instead for a simple affair at V’Yoel Moshe hall with a one-man band. The man didn’t want to “poke out other people’s eyes,” Bokchin said.

“People who cannot afford it,” he adds, “I say to them — it’s not necessary to try to outdo some unspoken standard — more flowers, a bigger production. Don’t do more than you can afford.”

A couple of months ago, Rav Yoel Roth, a Breslover mashpia in Boro Park, made waves when he married off his son by spending no more than $7,000, from top to bottom, l’chayim to sheva brachos. He even released a list of expenses proving it could be done. The chasunah took place in his beis medrash, food was served using leftovers from a simchah the night before, it was served on paper plates and plastic cutlery, and music was piped in from a CD player.

Very few people could do the same, acknowledges Yonasan Schwartz, whose son is a devotee of Rav Roth. However, people should learn from the concept.

“What Rav Yoel Roth can do, others cannot,” Schwartz says. “He has his own beis medrash — I’m sure if you ask him to make a chasunah in his beis medrash he would say, ‘sure, but it costs money.’ What you have to learn from Rav Yoel Roth is that he has a kehillah of about 200 people and could have had an impressive rebbishe chasunah, but he chose not to. He chose to have a simple affair.

“When one of my sons became a chassan,” he added, “I told my mechutan — in front of my son — ‘You’re not buying him a watch that costs anything more than $150. To my son, the greatest jewel is that he’s marrying your daughter.’ My son got a watch that cost $100, $150 — and he’s happy.”

The Food
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT

Rosenzweig, the Williamsburg hall manager, laments the immense waste he sees on a nightly basis that could have easily been avoided with a bit of foresight.

“People just swipe and swipe without thinking. It comes from not preparing in advance,” he says. He offered as an example the underestimating people do when deciding how many tables are needed.

“If a lot of guests come and the hall puts out another few tables,” he says, “they’re going to charge a lot of money for that. And they’re usually not going to tell you in advance.”

The biggest wedding expense is the catering, which is exacerbated by a minimum that halls mandate for the amount of couples. In Imperial Hall, for example, Rosenzweig says there is a minimum requirement of 180 couples. About 70 percent of baalei simchah end up having empty places, he estimates.

Rather than just swallowing the extra cost, Rosenzweig suggests, just serve your guests the amount of food that is needed and use the rest of the food budget for a Viennese table or a mitzvah tantz table. “Most halls don’t care,” he says. “They just want to make some money. Most of the time the hall will work with that.”

Simcha Wenger, the manager at Ateres Golda hall in Boro Park, agrees.

“We do have an option for people who can’t fill the minimum which is also 180 couples,” says Wenger. “We give them a credit to use for an upgrade.”

Rosenzweig says that some halls may try to persuade people to upgrade their simchah by using fancier tablecloths or serving beef instead of chicken. But in his experience, much of the meal usually just ends up in the garbage. Most guests eat at the smorgasbord and are too full by the time the seudah comes around to enjoy any more than a bite or two of the main course. “I see every night how it all gets thrown out,” he says.

Some people recommended taking home the leftover food and using it for Shabbos sheva brachos. While Rosenzweig agrees in principle it would be a good idea, he does not see it happening in a practical way.

“We’re happy to give you the food and let you use it for Shabbos sheva brachos,” he says. “But most mechutanim just want to go home after the chasunah rather than start taking home a huge amount of food.”

Another realistic area to cut, Rosenzweig says, is the spirits. “Most people overestimate the amount of alcohol they’ll use,” he says. “Wine itself could sometimes be as much as $2,000. The right thing would be to have a conversation with the place where he buys the wine to allow him to bring it back. It’s such a shame seeing the loss of money, every night, again and again.”


The Ambiance
FLOWERS FOR TWO HOURS

Weddings and flowers go hand-in-hand. But rather than spending on real floral centerpieces that can cost up to $7,000, Rosenzweig says that his hall offers an option of faux flowers and candles for $500. “People don’t realize that the actual seudah, when people see the flowers, lasts for maybe an hour and a half to two hours,” he notes. “There are so many good options with fake flowers, it’s a shame to use real ones.”

In particular, he adds, the best way to save money when making a simchah is by speaking to the person who’s most experienced at it — a person like himself, the hall manager.

“People don’t realize, the manager can be such a help to you,” Rosenzweig explains. “Speak to him a month before, or two weeks before the wedding, give him a $100 tip, and he’ll be able to save you so much money and he’ll be so happy to work with you. You’ll see how much he can help you. They’re doing it every night and have a lot of experience.”

But along with their experience, the managers are also good at reading their customers. If you’re just trying to get a good deal on the food, they’ll see through that, too. Hall managers don’t like it when they see people spending a lot of money on flowers or musicians and going cheap with them. Show them you’re genuinely interested in spending wisely, and you’ll find a willing partner who will make sure your money gets spent on the right things: it might be smarter, for example, to add portions to the Viennese table for drop-in guests than to overspend on the meal.

The desire to keep up with the Joneses, Johanneses, and al-Yahans runs through all cultures and continents. Arabs make elaborate weddings, paying for events they can’t afford through loans and extra jobs. Some countries see it as an insult for the groom and bride not to purchase expensive gifts of animals and jewelry for each other.

“But at the end of the day,” wonders Bokchin, “whether you have a 40-piece orchestra or a one-man band at the wedding depends on who you are. In terms of the music industry, there are people who could afford, and people who cannot afford, a big, big wedding. Don’t live in denial. Even the fanciest wedding — if you take your guests down to the Arabian desert — lives on Instagram for one day only.”

And even for those who don’t feel the pinch, warn the service providers, your simchah isn’t celebrated in a vacuum, and it isn’t just about you. We’re all part of concentric circles of relatives, friends, and acquaintances, and our actions have ripple effects. A frightening account told by Yonasan Schwartz — he says he heard it directly from the protagonists — sheds light on the responsibility people of means have to not function as the “Joneses” who are blindly followed by others.

A wealthy person — “one of the biggest baalei tzedakah today,” Schwartz says — decided to “go all out” for the wedding of his only daughter. The event, while lavish, was completely within his means.

When five years passed and the new couple hadn’t been blessed with children, the anxious father went to Rav Yankele of Pshevorsk ztz”l with a kvittel, asking for a blessing for the couple.

“Rav Yankele took the kvittel, crumpled it, and threw it down to the floor,” Schwartz recounted. “He said, ‘how many eyes did you poke out with that fancy chasunah?’ The father went home and came back with his daughter. With tears in their eyes, they beseeched Rav Yankele for a brachah. The Rebbe said, ‘Your tikkun is to marry off a hundred people who can’t afford it, paying for the chasunahs from beginning to end.’ The man went home and set up a fund.”

The man told me, ‘Exactly nine months and two weeks later, my daughter had a baby. I can show you the stamps on my passport — it was exactly to the day.’”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 773)

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