My departure date for Peru was no arbitrary day picked out by closing my eyes and seeing where my finger landed on the calendar. It was planned very specifically around a special event — the wedding of my dear friends Justine and Ben.
Long time readers will remember Justine as my partner in crime from my very first trip to Thailand back in 2009. From the moment she knocked on my hostel door in Bangkok to our tearful goodbye a month later, our friendship was cemented through the kind of mad adventures one can only have on a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand. On our first day in Koh Tao, Justine taught me how to use a manual flush toilet, and the next afternoon I repayed her kindness by bucking her off our rented ATV in search of pristine beaches. We fell into the best kind of routine — frantic mornings at the animal clinic we volunteered at were followed by lazy afternoons on the beach, followed by wild nights drinking alcohol out of plastic pails. Since that summer our time together has been sporadic and there have often been continents between us. But distance doesn’t stop the kind of friendship that comes from finding a person who was cut from the same cloth, someone who gets you — someone who is a soul sister, if you will.
I was honored when she asked me to be her bridesmaid.
Justine was born and raised in South Africa, and Ben is from Arizona. Today, they live in New Jersey after a recent move from Brooklyn. After realizing that the majority of their guests would be traveling regardless of location, they settled on a in the pleasant town of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Funny enough, this would be my second wedding in the Quaker State.
Following Jewish tradition, the wedding took place on a Sunday, however festivities kicked off with an intimate Shabbat dinner on Friday night. On Saturday, the majority of guests arrived for a tear-and-laughter-filled rehearsal dinner, where Justine gifted the bridesmaids some fantastic kimonos to get ready in.
I was so grateful to have arrived early to get to know the rest of the bridal party better. Both Jus and Bens’ families welcomed me so warmly I was overwhelmed, and it became very clear exactly how this special couple came to be who they are today.
We woke up on the morning of the wedding to spectacular blue skies. As we pulled up to the farm the limo filled with screams and I could see Justine beaming as all her amazing hard work started to pay off. During the planning process there had been some mumbled questions about why the wedding was being held in more or less the middle of nowhere — but I can’t imagine anyone was still curious once they arrived to this view.
The girls were immediately whisked upstairs to start the beautifying process. I loved having Leanne, a fellow bridesmaid, do my makeup, but starting acting like an impatient toddler when I was in the hair chair. What can I say, I barely run a comb through my locks most days!
Tensions were a little high as we were running behind schedule, but typically this is my favorite part of the weddings I’ve been involved in. I just love time with the girls.
Justine wisely brought a change of shoes with her — a sparkly pair of killer stilettos for photos followed by a cute pair of cowgirl boots for the rest. Because I was actually in this wedding I didn’t play photographer as much as I usually love to, but I did steal a few moments during the getting ready process to run around and shutterbug.
The first event on the schedule was something completely new for me — a Jewish badeken. This veiling ceremony would turn out to be one of the most emotion and joy-filled moments of the day, as the women gathered in the barn’s loft to give blessings and well wishes to the bride. Meanwhile, the groom and male guests were gathering beneath us, singing in Hebrew. In a whirlwind of music and clapping and smiles, the two groups joined and the rabbi gave a blessing to the couple as they laid eyes on each other for the first time that day.
It was such an intense and beautiful and chaotic and loudly joyous ceremony, such a departure from a traditionally formal, somber wedding. I truly felt swept away by the love in that room.
After the badeken, it was time for the ceremony. Sadly, we had run quite behind schedule that day and so there was no time for any portraits of the bridal party all together. Thank god for the iPhone!
This being my first Jewish wedding, I was again fascinated by the different traditions. I loved that both the bride and groom were escorted down the aisle by their parents, and that both families stood with the bridal parties alongside the huppah. Should I ever get married someday, I might just adopt some of these traditions.
With all ceremonies completed and the couple finally officially hitched, it was time to party. And party we did. I’ve been a guest at a fair number of weddings and worked at several more (I used to work for a wedding designer back in my New York days), and yet this one really topped the charts.
Every detail, from the fantastic band to the delicious food to the stunning decor — much of it handmade by Justine — was pure perfection.
There was one more Jewish tradition left for me to geek out over — the horrah! Again, I marveled at the love and energy pulsing through the room. As toasting and impromptu serenades and crazy dancing ensued, the night went by in a blur of happy. Never have I attended a wedding that felt so truly like the joining of two families, each overjoyed at the prospect. Every time I looked at Ben or Justine’s parents I saw people beaming with pride and elation.
It was hard to look away.
I feel I’ve done nothing but gush and spew superlatives in this post, but truly — that’s how this day felt. This wedding was love and euphoria and celebration — out loud. I loved every minute of learning about Jewish and South African traditions, and it made me hopeful I’ll be lucky enough to attend weddings in many more cultures.
We live in a strange world where marriage seems like more of a gamble than a guarantee. I was skeptical that any man could be deserving of this friend of mine — who could match a heart so big, and a spirit so free? But from the moment I met Ben, I was at ease. I could not have dreamed a better partner for her, and I was moved to tears by their vows to each other.
It is a rare joy to be at a wedding of two people so right for each other — and it is an honor to be a part of it.
Justine and Ben, I wish you a lifetime of adventure!
See all of my photos from the wedding .