The Backyard Wedding of 2019| August 12, 2020
This was the realest fake wedding I’d ever attended
While deep in the throes of the pre-camp planning last summer, I got a message one evening in early June: Can you help me by working something fun and embarrassing into programming for my anniversary on Thursday June 27th without telling Meira, of course?
As an assistant director of Camp Nageela Midwest, I’ve received interesting and unusual requests before. But something was funny about this one. Every summer, the Spivaks travel from Portland, Oregon, to Camp Nageela Midwest, where Meira is director of our girls’ teen division. They’ve been coming to camp for about ten years, and camp always falls out on the same dates, give or take a day or two.
Ummm…Is this the first time your anniversary is during camp? I texted back.
The response was quick in coming. Oh man. Don’t ask. I bomb this one every time.
Now this was exciting. Getting the go ahead to plan “something fun and embarrassing” for a head staff member is almost like getting an unlimited camp budget. Almost.
Plus, we had a history. Two years earlier, the Spivaks had pulled their own camp shtick behind my back, so this was the perfect opportunity for some friendly payback.
This wasn’t going to just be an anniversary. This was going to be a wedding.
There were two important elements that needed to be done right for this to work. Number one: the surprise component. If Meira were to find out about this in advance, she’d put a full stop to it… or at best, follow lamely. And keeping programming secrets is really hard at a senior-staff level, where everyone has access to the internal calendar and is constantly in touch with each other. All it would take is one benign comment from a maintenance staff member about something on their to-do list and all our efforts would go up in smoke.
The second important element was that this wedding would have to be done authentically, or as authentically as possible. Campers in our camp attend public schools and have minimal to no Jewish backgrounds. Most have never seen a Jewish wedding, let alone a religious one. Our camp motto is “Judaism isn’t taught, it’s caught” and we believe in having campers experience the joy of Judaism by living it in camp. We don’t preach; we live Shabbos and it’s truly the highlight of the week.
Now we’d have the opportunity to show and teach our campers all about a Jewish marriage and establishing a Jewish home. We might not have a wedding hall or the traditional trappings of a large Jewish wedding, but we’d do our best with what we had. No toilet paper or white tablecloth gowns for this kallah!
So we proceeded with our elaborate and secretive preparations. I drove to camp with suitcases of my clothing, linen, and towels…. and seven authentic bridal gowns collected from gemachs and people around the community, hoping one would fit the “bride.” Full-size plumbing poles were purchased to serve as the frame of our chuppah, faux flowers for bouquets, flower petals for the flower girls (our youngest campers), tall candles for the “parents,” and a glass to break under the chuppah.
Everything was hidden in my cabin so it wouldn’t be discovered by the wrong person, and soon the living area began looking more like a gemach, filled with bridal gowns, mother- and sister-of-the-bride gowns, proposal supplies, wedding shtick and more.
The morning of June 27 dawned bright and sunny with a clear forecast, but hot. Our internal calendar listed a random, decoy activity. Only a few people were in on the secret, and we shared only the bare details with Rabbi Spivak the day before. The plan was for a full proposal in the dining room during lunch, some prep time in the afternoon, and then the wedding itself later that evening — ceremony, meal, then dancing.
During lunch, we asked Rabbi and Mrs. Spivak to stand up in the front of the dining room. And then… cue the slow, beautiful music. Glass vases were taken out of a box that was hiding under a table and rose petals were strewn along the tablecloth path that was set up leading to the stage in the middle of the dining room. The main lights went off, spotlights turned on. Props placed on stage. And all eyes were on the couple of the hour as they watched the setting unfold.
Meira shook her head and hid her face in her hands for a few moments before putting on a surrendered smile and following the path to join her husband on stage. Mazel Tov! Invitations for the wedding (monogram and all) were distributed in the dining room.
The teens spent the rest of the afternoon prepping the bride for her big night. A bridal gown salon was quickly set up in the teen lodge featuring a platform, mirror, and a rack of beautiful tzniusdig wedding gowns. Meira tried on the gowns… as did many of the teen campers. With the guidance of the teen stylists, Meira chose a gown that they made work with some very creative (and non-permanent alterations) using supplies in camp.
A staff member who did hair and makeup as a side gig helped get the bride ready and the rest of the camp also put on their special Shabbos clothing. Some long-time campers-now-staff, who’d decided that they were basically part of the Spivak family, dressed themselves in the other gowns we’d brought to camp. Others prepared for a beautiful chuppah near the lake.
And then in true camp fashion, just as we finished setting up the chuppah… the clouds set in and the rain came down. Pouring buckets. Cats and dogs. If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gum drops what a (sweet and sticky) world it would be. Whatever you’d like to call a summer storm that leaves you soaked and turns the dirt path into mud.
And in true camp fashion, we improvised. The chuppah poles were brought inside the rec hall. (The tablecloths hadn’t survived the deluge, but the structure was there.) Some new cloth was rolled out to make an aisle. We made it work.
The wedding began. Never was there a mock wedding that felt so authentic. Our kallah made her grand entrance wearing a beautiful wedding gown, makeup done professionally, and her sheitel styled with a jeweled headpiece and veil. She sat on a bench with the rec hall stage curtain as her backdrop and her faux bouquet of flowers in hand, surrounded by her “family” of former campers whom she’s known for years.
Counselors helped the campers line up to wish the kallah mazel tov. I cried as she gave each girl a brachah that she should find a nice Jewish boy to marry one day.
And so it went. Before each stage of the wedding, we paused to explain what was going to happen and to show the campers what to do. Before the badeken we helped the girls crowd on the sides to leave a path for the chassan to come through. The music shifted and the “chassan” entered, with a group of “men” (the boy bunk from the staff day camp) dancing in front of him. He placed the veil over his bride/wife’s head.
Some extra announcements preceded the chuppah, for the benefit of the staff (everyone is reminded to turn off their cell phones, there’s a car blocking the entrance with license plate number BJV653, there will be a minyan for Maariv following the chuppah). Our youngest campers served as the flower girls and the “chassan” and “kallah” were each escorted by two other staff couples. (As they quipped afterwards, it was a really religious wedding — the kallah’s mother was nine months pregnant). Under the chuppah Rabbi Spivak himself gave a short and impassioned speech, explaining the concept of a Jewish marriage.
After the chuppah, a special, non-campy dinner in the decorated dining hall was followed by dancing and wedding shtick. There were circles and circles of girls dancing and everyone had a chance to dance with the kallah. To top off the humor for the staff and the prank on the Spivaks, we made a mockup of a screenshot of a simchaspot post that truly looked like their wedding picture from the night was actually posted there and sent it to them.
All in all, it was definitely the most real non-real wedding I ever attended. And five-year-old Michi Spivak apparently agrees; he’s still telling everyone that he went to his parents’ wedding… I think it’s safe to say that I’ve paid the Spivaks back for the 2017 shtick (and then some). Which means that next time we’re in camp — whenever that will be — I’d better be on my guard. Now it’s their turn.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 705)
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