Scaling down the simcha

The wedding is your future, but it doesn’t have to cost you your life

By Chandrea Serebro

He offers her the ring and the promise of forever. She says I do with a tear of happiness in her eye. Families gather, dance, and toast to the happy couple. Then they contact the caterer. And the rest is not yet happy ever after. What soon follows is a battle of wills and finances, triumphs and disappointments to plan the perfect wedding without bonding the not-yet-bought house three times over.

These days, not only has the cost of living risen, but the standard of what is considered the ‘norm’ is at an all-time high, leaving many a bride and groom and their families flummoxed as to how they can ever bridge that gap and still have the wedding of their dreams. But scaling down simchas is a trend that is fast becoming the new norm, and it isn’t just for those who can’t or won’t spend untold amounts on a simcha. Now, it’s okay to have the party of your dreams with a professional white dove release and swans swimming in the lake, but it is also okay these days to have a simple, yet happy affair. And the best part of it is that professionals and service providers are getting on board and helping out in whatever way they can.

Making some courageous changes

Nicki Hurwitz (Nicki H) and Nicki Mirkin’s (Nicki M) children got engaged, and the two over-the-moon mothers of the bride and groom set out to help their children plan their wedding. “After the engagement, we contacted the caterers to get an idea of the costs of a ‘normal’ wedding. We understood that it would be necessary to have a small wedding, as we wanted to keep the costs down,” says mother-of-the-groom, Nicki M. We were going to limit our numbers, have a simple menu and décor, and just cut out extras. As we progressed through with the planning we saw that, either way, it’s hugely expensive. We were also feeling very uneasy about those dear friends who we would have to exclude in order to keep to our numbers,” says mother-of-the-bride, Nicki H. “So the brain-storming began.”

“Thankfully, both families were on the same page, and, more importantly, we both realised that the wedding is one night, and really rather unimportant in the big scheme of things. We wanted to focus on the couple and the future relationships between them and the two families,” says Nicki H. Not letting the reality of the wedding industry deter them, the families set out to find a way to include all those that they loved and with whom they wanted to share their joy without having a wedding of several hundreds of people. Both sets of parents had previously toyed with the idea of a ‘dessert and dancing’ wedding – inviting a smaller amount of guests for the meal and some only for dessert and dancing – but the chosson and kallah couldn’t picture how an “out of the ordinary wedding” would look or feel. But, when the couple realised just how many people they would not be able to invite, they opened themselves up to different ideas. “We decided to go ahead with a new-look wedding.”

After the chupah, close and extended family members and very close friends of the young couple made their way to the hall for 6:30pm. The couple were welcomed warmly and excitedly by this small group of 120 and the first dance and seuda was held. The fathers each addressed the couple, a one course delicious meal followed with benching. “It was incredibly relaxed, warm, and enjoyable,” remembers Nicki M. Other guests were invited to join a Simchas Chosson V’Kalla at 8:30pm, and an explanation letter was included so that no one would feel like a second-rate attendee. For this, there were large tables with a big variety of desserts and simple snacks. Guests could come and go as they wished, with some staying the whole night and others just for a short time. There was continuous dancing and relaxed seating, with the chosson’s speech which was saved for this time so that he could talk to all of his guests. After 9pm, the teenagers joined and brought a new energy.

“In the end we were quite nervous as to how it would work out. We got a minimal amount of criticism for it, as some did feel left out – which pained us. But the positive comments far outweighed that and there was a feeling of appreciation that someone had finally done a wedding in a more realistic way,” says Nicki H. “We had an incredible response. People were really proud of the ‘courageous’ changes that we had made,” says Nicki M. “Wedding costs are astronomical and place great stress on parents and couples, especially for those with big families. There is a lot of wastage and unnecessary additions. We are all under financial stress and need to be highly responsible and try to cut as many costs as possible. Besides being financially responsible, it felt good to downscale and simplify the function so that there was a little more space for the important stuff,” says Nicki M.

It can be done

And it can be done – borrowing dresses, using gemachs for decor, shtick, and outfits, restructuring the programme. Ronit Beleli runs Regesh, an event décor gemach to help people put on a beautiful simcha without going into financial debt in doing so. “Most of the time I work through the Kalla Fund, who approach me and ask me to do the décor for a Kalla Fund wedding. They pay me a small handling fee to do the wedding and I handle the décor from top to bottom, making sure it is beautiful and tasteful.” Often, says Ronit, it is a bride that approaches her to do the simcha because she wants tasteful décor without the hefty overhead that other service providers charge, in which case Ronit will cover the décor for the event at a reduced rate, or if circumstances require, without charge at all. “We supply the décor that the bride chooses; we deliver it all to the venue; we set up; supply the flowers, the cloths, chair covers, and candles – everything that they need to make the simcha beautiful at a fraction of the cost. It is my z’chut (privilege) to be mesameach chatan v’kalla (to make the groom and bride rejoice),” explains Ronit.

“The reason that I opened the gemach was to make a bride happy on the day of her wedding without the stress of worrying about the financial side of the décor as well. I absolutely love doing the décor, which I handle myself with two exceptionally good staff. And, at the end of the set-up, when I look around and I am happy with the ambiance of the hall and I know that the bride will walk in and absolutely love it, I know that it’s worthwhile.” And using a gemach is a good way of toning things down in this day and age, because you get all the things you want and need without the high costs of using other providers. “The budget of having a wedding today is extremely high, so by using our décor it puts a lot less stress on both sides of the families.” And the beauty of sharing ones resources is that there are endless ways of sharing the load.

“I have so many amazing hashgacha pratit (Divine providence) stories that have happened with my Kalla Fund weddings. Like arriving at the hall and finding bunches and bunches of flowers from the simcha the night before being thrown away, only to be told we can use them for our wedding. The bride wasn’t expecting fresh flowers and it certainly made her evening more special. Or, I would arrive at the flower market and the colour roses that my bride wanted are going for a special price so I purchase more than expected and the bride is ecstatic.” The beauty of it is that no bride should have to do away with her dreams, and she can still achieve them without any guilt of enjoying her dream wedding, irrespective of her circumstances. “If the hall is the one that the kalla always dreamed of, then it is mesameach kalla to help her get that hall.”

Change in mindset

“There is a huge amount of chessed in the community by service providers, individuals, and organisations that cover simcha costs in certain cases or give great discounts. By way of this, and by limiting our guest list, we managed to downsize rather than downscale our simcha,” says another recent bride. “There is quite a high standard when making a simcha and that can put pressure on people who would otherwise make a simcha on a simpler level.” That said, it is also important to many to have a simcha that is in keeping with the community standards, so as not to isolate or disappoint the expectations of the new couple or the families involved. “When people take out a loan they often need to borrow more than they’d like to in order to cover the higher standard of simcha. This also draws more resources from the loan organisation and the payback instalments add extra pressure.”

“I negotiated a wedding package which included the weddings of all my five children, with all the traditional venues, caterers, and suppliers, and by negotiation and give-and-take we saved almost R70 000,” says another father-of-the-bride who found the costs of weddings “prohibitive”, and the amounts people pay “astronomical”. “The whole mind-set of the broader community needs to change – regardless of affordability. Weddings in general need to scale down to Israel style, where the focus is on the couple and the life that they are going to create together, with the financial pressures that they will soon have to handle as a unit as well.”

Of course, it isn’t easy changing the style of the way simchas are made, but if more people opted to cut down where possible, says the recent bride, it would make it much easier for others making simchas not to feel that their simcha is less special in any way. “At the end of any simcha, it’s not necessarily the food, the flowers, colour scheme, or chair covers that remain in people’s memory, but rather the atmosphere and the joy that permeates the simcha, which is created by the people attending.”

Helping to scale down

“I have been involved in a number of small-scale simchas over the years where generally a couple getting married do not have the funds for a larger function, working closely with the Kallah Fund to help people put on a beautiful wedding,” says Nati Crouse of Natan’s Chupas, who hires out chupas and mechitzas, “and have tried my best over the past 16 years to keep my pricing affordable to any size wedding.”

“I believe that one should not have to break the bank to have a beautiful simcha. I have seen how it is getting harder and harder to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ and sometimes the true essence of a simcha is lost in the arrangement of excessive details and size of a function.” One can still have a beautiful simcha and focus on the meaningful parts of the celebrations, says Nati. “As a supplier, when I have dealt with the small functions I have found more of an appreciation of what I do for them. I have also been a guest and supplier to many functions – from small functions to large scale, fancy events. And in my experience, what is memorable is the energy and the vibe, and how integral to the celebration the guest feels, more so than the scope and the cost of the event itself.”

Kari Berkowitz of Flowers by Kari is well-versed with helping people scale back on one of the most expensive parts of the simcha, the décor, and knows many of the secrets to ‘out-of-the-box’ events which turn out to be exhilarating affairs. “The prevailing financial situation in South Africa has resulted in an inability for most people to afford the size of functions as they had done in previous years and the need has arisen for many to cut back on size as well as opulence when it comes to décor. Some people have turned their engagement parties into surprise weddings while others have had a wedding dinner for extended family only and then invited all their friends to dessert and dancing. A reverse of this has been to invite more friends to a cocktail party after a chupah, followed by a more intimate dinner and dancing. There are far fewer bar and bat mitzvahs in halls and the trend has become to have a restaurant or a butcher cater in a small venue or mostly at homes.”

The bottom line is that budgets are more limited, but with commitment, and the help of those who have experience in scaling back simchas, people can be guided to maximise what they have to create a function that they can be proud of. “It might be more financially rewarding for me to work on a high-end function where I can express myself fully, but it is so very heart-warming and spiritually fulfilling to give a bride in need a wedding she didn’t dream possible, or even work on a wedding that has been organised by a charitable organisation where I don’t even get to meet her. I believe it is so important to give back to our amazing community while at the same time giving your best, regardless of who the client is.”

Baruch and Yisroel Meir Raff formed simcha band Lechatchila with the goal “to make entertainment accessible to as many in the community as possible. We have always tailored our price accordingly, so that we are as affordable as possible.” Lechatchila believes that “quality entertainment does not need to cripple anyone”, and everyone can have the event of their dreams within their circumstances. “The reality today is that South African Jews, in line with all South Africans, are under financial strain, which means that, overall, there is less available to spend on anything, let alone simchas. We have noticed a shift in the approach to functions. People are opting for simpler events as they get back to basics. Whereas it might have been the norm for people to celebrate a bar mitzvah at a function during the week, many are now contemplating what works for them and their budget and so we are seeing bar mitzvahs becoming smaller, more intimate events, and they are moving to Shabbos events, which cuts out much of the non-Shabbos costs.” Weddings, says Baruch, are still being celebrated in the traditional manner, and people still have weddings ranging in size and scope. “Our offering, however, can be tailored to fit the size of the function and the size of the budget, and we make sure that no matter what, we do our best to make the function the success that it should be.”

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