Rebecca Wallersteiner is cordially invited to relive a century of simchas at the Jewish Museum’s new Weddings Unveiled exhibition…

A romantic exhibition of vintage wedding photographs opened at the Jewish Museum this month. For Richer for Poorer: Weddings Unveiled tells the story of London’s immigrant Jewish community from the 1880s to the mid 20th century through the prism of all things wedding related – from how couples met and fell in love to how they planned their weddings to ensure that everything was perfect on the big day, including invitations, food, music and the ceremony itself.

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A wedding dress from the early 20th century.

‘We are delighted to unveil this inspirational, romantic exhibition and to use so much from our collection that has remained hidden until now,’ said Abigail Morris, Chief Executive of the Jewish Museum London.

On display is a rich variety of artefacts including early twentieth century wedding dresses, old wedding contracts and photographs dating from 1905 to World War II. Each image provides a glimpse into a couple’s individual romantic story and their hopes for a better future. Many of the brides and bridegrooms snapped on their wedding day had fled persecution in Eastern Europe and were seeking a brighter new life in England.

One of the exhibition’s most beautiful brides must surely be orphan Sarah Levy who walked down the aisle at New Road synagogue in 1905 wearing an elegant, yet simple dress that she had made herself.

London-born Sarah was marrying Raphael, an immigrant Jewish boot-maker from Poland and money was tight. She would have had to save for months to afford the material for her stunning dress. During this era it was not unusual for families to plan the weddings of their offspring from childhood.

“Fathers frequently took out an endowment policy years ahead to be able to afford their daughter’s wedding. Some couples sold their wedding presents to pay for the reception and others found themselves in ruinous debt and unable to pay the florist, or caterers,” explained Elizabeth Selby, the exhibition’s curator.

A generation later, in the jazzy 1920s, another bride-to-be Lily Arbisman, the daughter of immigrants, hired a dressmaker in Hampshire to create her fashionable flapper wedding dress, embroidered with beaded tassels.

Short-hand typist Lily, who was a member of the British Communist party, married a taxi driver in 1925 looking as every bit as glamorous as a Hollywood film-star. “Although the dresses worn by Sarah and Lily look extravagant they are typical of wedding dresses of their time,” added Mrs Selby. “Men would usually hire a suit for the night as it wasn’t worth them buying an outfit to wear just once.”

Other highlights of the exhibition include wedding portraits taken by the legendary Jewish East End photographer Boris Bennett.  In his Art Deco studio, in Whitechapel, Boris snapped thousands of couples between the 1920s and the end of the 1950s. He was the star wedding photographer of his era and couples would save for weeks just to afford a single photograph taken by him.

“Boris charged £2.10 in the 1920s for a dozen framed photographs, which could be placed on a mantelpiece – a fortune at that time,” Mrs Selby tells me.

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A Jewish wedding invite dated 1888.

Boris was able to photograph thirty couples on a single Sunday (the traditional Jewish wedding day) and crowds would gather outside his studio to watch the brides arriving. He perfectly captured the Hollywood glamour that 1930s couples wanted their weddings photographs to reflect.

Thanks to Boris and his Kodak camera, named “Big Bertha” (presented in the exhibition), couples could look a million dollars on their Big Day. His distinctive style used romantic flowing dresses, beautiful bouquets and sharp tailoring. During World War II having your wedding photograph snapped by Boris was a gesture of hope for a better future against the background of the suffering of Jews that was happening across Europe .

There will still be older couples living today who are proudly displaying wedding photographs taken by Boris on their mantelpiece.

“Despite the challenges of the time – including poverty, in many cases – putting on a good party for the neighbours was vital, irrespective of the cost involved,!” comments Mrs Morris.

The exhibition explores the ceremony, food, music and dancing at the heart of Jewish celebration – offering insight into Jewish social history and how weddings offered the community an opportunity to celebrate and practice old traditions as well as adopt news ones.

Don’t miss seeing the historical table plan for a wedding reception in Piccadilly and a catering agreement, by Sterns, for huge amounts of food to feed a crowd of wedding guests all day long. You can also learn stories of how early twentieth century Jewish couples met, including the role of the ‘shadchan’ or matchmaker, who arranged wedding matches within more orthodox communities.

For the first time ever, visitors to the exhibition will be able to see the shadchan’s ledger and letters from the 1940s and also a ‘ketubah’ – Jewish wedding contract from 1729.

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Before the iPhone 6: a camera used at simchas at the turn of the 20th century.

If you’ve ever wondered about the wedding day of your grandparents and great-grandparents and their aspirations and hopes for the future – this new exhibition will shine a light on this.

Throughout the show, the Jewish Museum is hosting a series of events on the theme of love and marriage.

These include a ‘Secrets of a successful marriage’ workshop with the Jewish Marriage Council; Jewish dance for weddings; a talk by about what the Torah tells us about relationships by Maureen Kendler and a tour of historical places associated with Jewish weddings in London’s East End with Rachel Kolsky.

The exhibition runs until 31 May.  For more details, visit  www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/whats-on