The checklist for Gavri and Laura Yares’ wedding last year included British and American flags, a ton of Star Wars paraphernalia, animal figurines, Hawaiian leis and grass skirts.
At least that was the checklist their guests had made when planning their shtick — the comical dancing, tricks and other gags that guests at Jewish weddings perform to please the new bride and groom.
The reason for the fun and games is “deeply rooted in tradition to make the bride and groom happy during their wedding,” said Rabbi Avidan Milevsky of Kesher Israel in Georgetown.
The word itself is Yiddish and is roughly translated as “play” or “games.”
Whether a Jewish wedding includes shtick depends on who is getting married, said Rabbi Ethan Seidel of Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington.
“Some are more formal and are not comfortable with it,” he said. “If the couple studied in yeshiva, then they’ll have yeshiva friends” who will likely be ready to entertain.
As an avid juggler, Seidel brings juggling balls and clubs to most Jewish weddings he attends.
At Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, religious school students are learning about the tradition by hosting a mock wedding, where they will perform different kinds of shtick.
“I hope our students learn that, just as much as lifting the bride and groom in chairs, having them sit in those chairs next to each other, and having friends and family performing shtick to entertain them is also a part of a Jewish wedding and tradition,” said Rabbi Susan Grossman.
Milevsky, who has seen shtick at both American and Israeli weddings, said the most memorable piece of shtick happened at his own wedding, performed by a friend from his yeshiva.
“He sits himself down in front of [my wife and I] in a bathrobe and pulls out Windex, mouthwash and toothpaste from his bag,” Milevsky said.
Then he started ingesting them.
“People were buying into it,” Milevsky recalled.
What the guests did not know was that the seemingly toxic or stomach upsetting items were actually harmless homemade look-alikes specifically created for doing shtick.
Dov Gal, Milevsky’s friend who performed the routine, said he had requests to do it at other weddings and that it always gets a reaction.
“I have had people physically trying to stop me, or they would get upset until someone told them it’s a joke,” he said, adding that he did not invent the routine.
What was his secret?
The Windex was water with blue food coloring. The mouthwash was water with green food coloring. And the toothpaste was cake frosting.
For added believability, Gal removed and replaced the packaging seals to make the items look brand new.
Would-be imitators beware: “I remember one time we did the shtick, and the bottle still smelled a little like Windex. I realized we needed to do a better job at cleaning stuff,” Gal said.
Shtick is such an important tradition at Orthodox weddings that some communities will break another custom.
At Orthodox wedding parties, men and women are separated while dancing by a mechitzah, a dividing wall. But some brides will cross over into the men’s section temporarily to allow guests to perform shtick for both bride and groom at the same time.
That does not happen at every Orthodox wedding, Milevsky said, but when it does, “it is driven by the tradition of making the bride and groom happy.”