For a blessing and for a curse: the cholera wedding

For a blessing and for a curse: the cholera wedding

For the JC June 2021

With the pandemic still raging it seems timely to look into one of the most arcane ideas ever to thwart it.

As the Portland, Oregon-based professor, Natan Meir, explains, the so-called cholera wedding, or schwartze chasseneh — literally, “black wedding” — was a custom peculiar to the Jewish communities of eastern Europe, from around 1830.

It involved rounding up a man and a woman from the poorest and most challenged levels of the community, who might not otherwise expect to be married. Often they were orphans: others were physically or mentally disabled.

The cholera wedding, says Professor Meir, was based on the same principle as incantations against the evil eye. “The danger represented by an epidemic, according to basic Jewish and folklore beliefs, has to come from the Other Side, the demonic or evil side. A traditional explanation, from a rabbi, is that it comes from God — everything does.

“But the traditional Hebrew or Yiddish word for some sort of bad news, whether governmental policy, or an epidemic, was ‘g’zeira’, or decree from on high. There’s nothing you can do about it: all we can do is to question our own ways and assume we have done something wrong in the eyes of God. That was the rabbinical, or apologetic, explanation, for the cholera wedding. It is saying, we have not treated these poor people correctly, that must be one of our sins, so we must make it up to them — and the way we do this is by giving them a wedding which otherwise they would never have”.

It’s certainly difficult to know what the bridal protagonists themselves thought of this unlooked-for “bounty”, since some of these weddings entered rather more fully into the, er, spirit of things by taking place in a local cemetery.

“They were real weddings. I only found one instance where there were group weddings, with a newspaper report that the following day the grooms had given their wives gittin (Jewish divorces). Everywhere else the reports said the couples continued to live together”.

The first report Professor Meir found of something resembling a cholera wedding was from 1830, during a Russian cholera outbreak. “It’s not quite what it became in later years, but it is a report of a poor man and a poor woman getting married, by the community, in the cemetery.”

By the 1860s, Professor Meir says, the candidates for bride and groom had changed. “Then you start having the people I call the outcasts — either they had physical or developmental disabilities — it seems likely from the descriptions, they are beggars, or described as ugly or malformed in some way. In fact, this is the mirror image of the custom of inviting the poor and the dispossessed to your wedding. Here, they are the centre of the celebration; but I argue that in many cases they were compelled to do it, and sometimes did not want to be married. But it’s clear that this was a ritual that’s for the community itself, not for these people.”

He has been unable to find any instances of a cholera wedding taking place before the 19th century, which puzzles him. He would have expected, he says, to find this practice going back much earlier. The custom seems to have been confined to eastern European, or Ashkenazi, communities, and did not feature in the Sephardi world at all. He has found reports of cholera weddings in 19th century Eretz Israel, but believes those are imported practices from eastern Europe.

He thinks there might have been a literary source for the cholera wedding — “a Purimspiel, going back several centuries, called the Beggars’ Wedding. That was essentially a farce, making fun of the poor people, associating them with disease and demons, with all of the motifs that we find in the 19th century. There was a socio-cultural understanding that you could use beggars in a specific way”.

The practice of the cholera weddings took place in countries such as Russia, Austro-Hungary, and the satellite Baltic states, where there were dense pockets of Yiddish-speaking Jews. “This ritual doesn’t respect political boundaries. We even find examples, besides in Eretz Israel, of a few cholera weddings in the United States and Canada in the early 20th century. You wouldn’t go to the cholera wedding [as a solution] the minute you heard about an epidemic in your area. It was a last resort. You would wait until all other remedies had been exhausted. What that means in terms of the trajectory of the disease, is that it had probably almost run its course… and so if people saw the epidemic waning a week or two after the wedding, they would say, see! it was the wedding that stopped the plague.”

If you believe in that kind of magic, Professor Meir says, “it doesn’t really matter about the timing, you can always make the justification”.

Jewish folklore is alive with descriptions of spells and charms to ward off the evil eye, going all the way back to the Bible. Israel has particularly become a home for amulets and incantations, with the promise of finding a soulmate or children, for the unblessed.

One of Professor Meir’s favourite superstitions is that of a special meal made and set out on the night before a brit, with the understanding that the evil demons which hover around the baby at the time of a brit would be attracted by the food and leave the child alone. Rabbis warn that people should not eat from this table — a prohibition frequently ignored.

Although the practice of cholera weddings has largely died out, there was a recently recorded example in Israel with the aim of stamping out Covid— a wedding in a cemetery in Bnei Brak, complete with a black cloth chupah, in which one of the participants was reported to be an orphan. Comments on the news website where the wedding was reported maintained that “it won’t work, because they both have to be orphans”. Well, as we know, Covid is still with us.

Professor Natan Meir, author of Stepchildren of the Shtetl: The Destitute, Disabled, and Mad of Jewish Eastern Europe, 1800- 1939, is giving a lecture on the Cholera Wedding as part of the YIVO summer school on June 10 at 7.30pm, together with JW3

  • 7 June, 2021