'It's been so difficult, but the overriding feeling is joy'

Israelis are going forward with weddings despite war and loss in their own families

Unprecedented circumstances call for quick thinking and last-minute changes as rockets fall and men go to reserves – but for many couples the only unacceptable option is canceling

Shirel Tayeb and Reuven Lebetkin are married at Israel's northern border on October 23, 2023. Their planned wedding date took place during the Israel-Hamas war and they chose to move forward with changes. (Courtesy of Lebetkin via JTA)
Shirel Tayeb and Reuven Lebetkin are married at Israel's northern border on October 23, 2023. Their planned wedding date took place during the Israel-Hamas war and they chose to move forward with changes. (Courtesy of Lebetkin via JTA)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Yonatan Perez was 10 days out from getting married when his world was torn apart.

Perez was shot in a battle with Hamas terrorists on October 7 when they invaded near the kibbutz where he was stationed as a soldier. His brother Daniel Perez went missing in action, his tankmates all dead or abducted. Their country was plunged into despair.

And yet he stood with his bride Galya Landau under the chuppah as planned on the date set months prior, despite the pain felt by everyone who stood with them.

“We couldn’t really think about [the wedding] for the first few days, and with Yonatan injured, we didn’t quite know what to do,” Doron Perez, Yonatan’s father, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

But five days after the bloody onslaught, when Daniel was officially declared missing and it became clear that Yonatan would recover enough to return to his unit, the path forward became clear. Yonatan and Landau, whose family had been evacuated from their own kibbutz, wed at Yad Binyamin, where the Perez family lives, on October 17.

“It wasn’t a difficult decision but it was difficult to go through the experience of the decision,” said Doron Perez, a rabbi and executive chairman of the Mizrachi World Movement. The wedding itself, he said, was “a happy event” despite the circumstances.

“It just felt holy,” he said. “It felt like we’re living in a special time of big things happening… and even though the price has already been so difficult, the overriding feeling was one of happiness, one of just celebration.”

The family’s experience was an extreme version of what many couples in Israel are going through, as they decide whether and how to follow through with their weddings despite the pain and upheaval instigated by Hamas’s unprecedented slaugher of Israelis.

Some are downsizing their celebrations because family and friends from abroad are unable to come. Many also want to ensure that guests can get to bomb shelters if needed. Others are seeing the guest list grow as bringing joy to brides and grooms has joined the tasks for which Israelis are volunteering in droves.

Yonatan Perez and Galya Landau are wed at Yad Binyamin in Israel on October 20, 2023. Perez was wounded in the Hamas attack on October 7 and his brother was declared missing. (Courtesy: Perez family via JTA)

Some couples are rushing their nuptials in advance of grooms heading to the reserves. And a few have gotten married on the front lines, their parents and fellow soldiers the only guests at ceremonies in the shadow of war.

Reuven Lebetkin, 25, and Shirel Tayeb, 23, were supposed to get married on October 23 with many of their family members in attendance from overseas. Both moved to Israel with their families as children, Lebetkin from Miami and Tayeb from France. Instead, they had an intimate wedding at Israel’s northern border, where threats from Hezbollah in Lebanon loomed.

“That’s the date that we decided beforehand. We don’t believe that it’s good luck to push it off,” Lebetkin said. “Also, if we do it means that we give into the terrorism.”

The couple had chosen a song by Israeli musician Noam Banai to play during the veiling ceremony, called a bedeken. They were shocked to see Banai himself at the wedding, in a surprise organized by his friends. Banai ended up playing for the entire ceremony.

Other prominent Israeli musicians have made appearances at wartime weddings. The religious pop star Ishay Ribo played at a backyard wedding where the groom was on a 24-hour leave, according to a report in The Times of Israel, and Ivri Lider sang his hit “I was Fortunate to Love” at a wedding that was downsized from a 400-person hall to an apartment balcony. (Lider also sang the song at the funeral of a soldier who had planned to have it played at his wedding on October 20.)

Hanan Ben Ari surprised another couple, Nadav and Noam, at their ceremony on a military base. Eden Hasson sang for a couple after encountering their wedding while visiting a military base to cheer up soldiers. And the singer Ariel Zilber posted a video of himself performing at a different wedding in the north on Thursday, a red carpet laid down next to a military truck, the bride wearing military attire along with a veil and flowers.

Ishay Ribo singing at the impromptu backyard wedding of Maor and Gal Peretz on October 9, 2023. (Courtesy: Yossi Zer)

The weddings frequently go viral on social media, in an indication of how deeply the traumatized nation is craving signs of joy and hope.

For the Perez family, just being able to hold the wedding at all was a triumph. It was Yonatan who had alerted his father that Daniel’s tank was missing from their base near Kibbutz Nahal Oz — a fact they found reassuring. “It was a good sign,” Doron Perez said, pointing to the tank’s indestructibility.

But Yonatan, who was shot in the leg during a five-hour gun battle in the Gaza envelope, painted a dire picture of the base, which was overrun by terrorists. “There was death and destruction all around. RPGs everywhere. Every army vehicle had been destroyed,” Perez said, citing Yonatan.

One of the soldiers from Daniel’s tank, Tomer Liebowitz, was found dead. Another, Itay Chen, was confirmed captured. Chen’s father, Ruby, last week also celebrated a lifecycle event — a bar mitzvah — in the absence of his older son, telling JTA that his youngest son “deserved to have a happy bar mitzvah.” Then he flew to the United States to lobby at the United Nations and in Washington, DC, on behalf of his son and the more than 220 other Israelis taken hostage.

Daniel’s absence was palpable at Yonatan and Galya’s wedding. “When the rabbi mentioned him, it was very, very hard and I broke down,” Doron Perez said. “I had my son holding me up, instead of me holding him up.”

His daughter, meanwhile, said the hardest part of the wedding was being pictured with all her siblings — minus one. “It was a moment that was hard, and we acknowledged that and validated it.”

But, Perez continued, even though Daniel’s “presence, or lack thereof, permeated the whole wedding, it didn’t set the tone.”

Jewish weddings have a built-in acknowledgment of catastrophe amid joy, in the breaking of the glass that takes place at the end of the ceremony. Jewish tradition also holds that weddings should go on as planned whenever possible, no matter the circumstances.

Perez said he had gained a new appreciation for those ideas, in an acutely personal way.

“Unfortunately, I’ve had to learn that it somehow is possible to live with such conflicting, contradictory feelings as deep pain, worry, dread, fear… and at the same time to marry off a son,” he said. “I have learned that it’s possible to do both. To sort of compartmentalize, and I think I did that at the wedding.”

He said he knows his family isn’t the first to forge forward in moments of crisis.

“I’ve also drawn a lot of strength that throughout the most challenging times, Jewish people got married and had families,” he said, citing the Holocaust as an example. “We are part of a people that sanctifies life. It’ll be a new dawn and a much better time for the Jewish people going forward.”

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