Towing the Mehitza Line at Dan and Ris' Wedding

This is a guest post by Rebez. For reasons of privacy, names of participants have been left out.
Even before the dancing began, one could sense this wedding was going to push boundaries.  The seating arrangement for the huppah was a tri-chitza.  Looking out from the huppah, on the right was a small woman’s section, on the left was a men’s section, and in the middle with 80% of the participants was mixed seating.  No signs for the different sections, just implicit understanding.  It was assumed that you would know which section you belonged in.  And dividing each of the three sections was a looming thick movable wall also known as the mehitza.
I’ve never seen this mechitza’s equal. The mehitza was a solid structure of four metal bars with a connecting crossbar and a piece of colored hanging plexiglass that was both opaque at eye level and translucent everywhere else.   The metal bars were shaped like a swing-set with the glass divider hanging down as the swing. Approximately 10 feet long and 9 feet high.  An intimidating presence.
By the time the dancing began, the room was transformed from a tri-chitza huppah space to a dance hall with one barrier in the middle.  As soon as the Chattan and Kallah were introduced and the dancing ensued, they parted ways to opposite sides.  The separate dancing began.
There are many ways to create intentional separated dancing space at a simcha.  You can have a physical barrier.  You can also have no barrier and still have separate dancing.   You can have a tri-chitza.  And then you can do what this wedding did, although I’m not sure something like this can be planned.
Like most Jewish weddings, the dancing at this one began with the traditional horah of concentric circles surrounding the Hattan and Kallah on their respective sides of the mehitza.  The divider gave the sense of two separate dance floors.  As an active participant on the men’s side, by design I had no idea what was happening on the women’s side.
As to be expected, the first boundary break was the chairlift.  First the hattan was hoisted up by the men, and then the kallah was lifted in her chair.   The airborne couple, as is the custom, passed a handkerchief between as a symbolic connector.  First they held the handkerchief between them over the mehitza.  But pretty soon the two floating chairs were moving in unison on the same side of the partition.  As they were lowered down, the people returned to their respective sides, seemingly resuming the separate dancing.
Pretty soon it was time for shtick, the moment where Hattan and Kallah sit down as their loved ones entertain them with goofy dancing, personalized signs and innuendo.  But even before it started, confusion set in vis a vis the mehitza.  On which side would the shtick happen?  When do we move the mehitza?  Can men and women start doing shtick together? When does it become mixed dancing? No one is there telling us the expected protocol.  No one knows?  Do the chattan and kallah know?  Surely they designed the first set to be separate, but they knew certain elements would be joint.
As the shtick was winding down, confusion ensued about whether or not the separate dancing was over.  The mehitza was reestablished to divide the floor once again.  Then someone tried to move it off the floor.  But someone else saw that the new married couple wanted it back on.  Twenty seconds after someone removed the mehitza, another person brought it back.  Then someone started moving it again.  The mehitza was now in a state of motion.  As if it had a mind of its own.  It did not know where it belonged.  Were the mehitza to speak it might have said with a bewildered look, “Am I going to preserve this halakhic gender purity, or will my absence lead to mixed dancing?
Then something spectacular happened.  The mehitza actually came alive.  Or at least it became a sacred object.  Several people spontaneously grabbed the poles and started to dance with the mehitza!!!  Round and round.  All four polls off the ground and in the air, as if it were shouting, “I deserve a chance to join in the simcha.  I am sick and tired from all the angst you Jews continually project on to me as the symbol of what’s wrong with the way you people do or don’t observe the Jewish laws.  Get over yourselves!”
But the mehitza didn’t simply dance.  It transformed the dance space.  People began making faces through the plexi-glass.  Others began diving under.  Soon the mehitza was being used as a limbo rod.  Another person grabbed the crossbar and started doing chin ups.  People were howling in laughter.  The chattan and kallah were roaring.
At one point some women grabbed the kallah, hoisted her above their collective heads and marched her right in front of the men and quickly retreated to the other side of the mehitza, almost taunting the men.  Not to be outdone, the men grabbed the chattan raised him up like a crowd surfer and paraded him to the women’s side and quickly back.  The mehitza was no longer a barrier, but part of the act.  We were having fun with the mehitza, coming together, separating again, unifying and dividing.  Instead of being this symbol of religious division, the mehitza became a symbol of playfulness and sheer joyful absurdity.
And then we reached the climax.  I really hope someone took a picture of this.  (thanks Eric Foley) One agile man somehow was launched on top of the mehitza’s cross bar. And like a balance beam, he attempted to walk across it, over nine feet above the ground. After a few steps he lost balance and was tossed off, but the entire dance hall was in bedlam.  The mehitza line was walked.  The line between the male and female, between orthodox and liberal, between feminism and traditionalism, each line was towed, respected, crossed, balanced and tripped up.   This was the mehitza of the future.   Not the yes or no mehitza, but the yes and no mehitza.  Most importantly, we succeeded in fulfilling the most significant requirement of the day: bringing joy to the chattan and kallah.
What does all this mean?  Based on this experience, I believe it may be time for the separate space to re-enter the conversation about how American Jews do simcha.  How it is ultimately executed is up for discussion, but it should no longer be taboo. If for no other reason, the mehitza charges the space.  It creates division within the unity which expresses a paradox very much reflective in marriage.  Just the conversation alone will reveal much about where American Jews are today.  Who wants to join me?

17 thoughts on “Towing the Mehitza Line at Dan and Ris' Wedding

  1. Reb Ezra,
    thank you for this is inspired musing on mechitzahs and marriage. you reminded me of the crazy scene at a wedding I attended many years ago when there was a “line of trees” mechitzah separating the dance floors. At a certain point the trees were being moved to make way for mixed dancing but everyone was caught up in the chaos so it was like the trees became dance partners, a forest rejoicing for the bride and groom.
    One important question — How many minutes after mechitzah removal must one wait to cue up Michael Jackson?

  2. the thing i don’t get is this… like KRG said, it’s great that this worked for this wedding, but for people who choose to be gender egalitarian and find value and virtue in that, it is not a necessary component of a simha. those communities that choose to utilize a mehitza it is a necessity; for those communities which choose to reject the mehitza on sociological, theological or any other grounds, it’s not that it’s taboo–it’s simply irrelevant.

  3. @Justin: Not just irrelevant but offensive (In those communities I mean, if I were at an O wedding, obviously I wouldn’t be into storming the Bastille).

  4. It just wouldn’t be a Dan and Jewschool moment if a fight over ritual didn’t ensue. I guess in its own way, it’s a fitting, loving, and genuine tribute.
    I just hope Dan and Ris see it that way.

  5. Love it! The whole crazy pluralistic back and forth, give and take, attraction and revulsion thing. And that it ends in joy- simcha.

  6. I was married by an orthodox rabbi in a non-modern orthodox environment, and separate seating at the chuppa is more of a haredi minhag than anything else. i think trihitzas are a nice sentiment, but sort of ridiculous.

  7. Family simchas are often spaces where your personal halakhic preferences must bow to shalom bayyit, even if it’s your own wedding. Everyone wants ritual their own way; somebody’s going to get bruised. (I’d speculate that 40% of the attendees at this particular wedding were black hat relatives.)
    But that’s what was so blessed about this event — despite the presence of the mechitza (onerous for myself and others) and the flouting of its purpose (no doubt objectionable by those who felt it important) the atmosphere was playful and respectful. So much of the playing were little acts of rebellion, such as two men kissing through the plexiglass, dancing it back and forth so that the men’s side was smaller, and more. And some of the acts become symbollic in retrospect though they weren’t at the time, like the tightrope walking so metaphorically described by Rebez.
    I wish that feeling of levity, creativity and comfort at being outside one’s own preferences were more available on both sides of the mechitza debate.

  8. The most interesting example of a mechitza debate I’ve encountered was at Limmud Colorado. Denver’s traditional egal minyan, Minyan Na’aleh, was apparently in the midst of an internal debate about mechitza’s. On the table were options ranging from mechitza to no mechitza to trichitza. So at Limmud Colorado last year, one leader of Na’aleh who was opposed to the mechitza and one was in favor of it had a discussion, moderated by a member who didn’t seem to acre one way or the other. It was VERY interesting.

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