Enjoying a wedding dinner with strangers at a soup kitchen

I have never been happier to be kicked out of my seat - and it happened at my brother's wedding.

It is an age-old story that weddings cause many happy couples to lose sight of what matters.

A recent viral story featured a bride who asked her guests to contribute US$1,500 (S$2,066) each to her US$45,000 destination wedding in Aruba.

Even for more level-headed people, weddings can be expensive and stressful, especially when the community has certain expectations of what should take place.

I am an Orthodox Jew and our weddings are no exception, especially when we throw seven wedding parties, the biggest on the first night, and then one a night for six more nights.

Usually, family and friends host the last six - each one called a sheva brachot - by renting a restaurant or hosting a mini-banquet in their homes.

But my family wanted to send off my brother - the first of my siblings to get married - in a way that found a little more meaning.

When my father suggested that we host a sheva brachot at a Masbia kosher soup kitchen, it was such an obvious idea that I wished I had thought of it myself. Masbia has a few New York City locations, each designed as a restaurant to help give its client base dignity.

Rather than burn money at an expensive eatery, we could share the fun with the regulars, offer our guests something different and give a donation that would more than cover the costs.

While planning the soup-kitchen affair, I rang Alex, the executive director, with a list of concerns. Would wearing suits make the regulars feel out of place? Could we take pictures? Would there be enough food for everyone?

He laughed it off and told me not to worry, reminding me that fun is contagious. He suggested that we exercise caution about pictures, though, because the regulars deserve anonymity.

I wanted to secure musical entertainment, but also wanted all the money we spent to be given to Masbia. I chased a dozen dead ends.

The ones that were available could not play for free. Everyone was excited, but no one confirmed attendance.

Plus, I was hearing that some guests did not understand the point or were uncomfortable with the idea of eating food that might not be that tasty.

The first wedding party was beautiful. More than 400 people attended.

Then, the day before the Masbia party, I visited the site and met Alex. He informed me that he had arranged with a caterer to have better food than usual.

But on the morning of the Masbia sheva brachot, nothing seemed like it would fall into place.

Few confirmed guests and no confirmed musician. Two hours before showtime, I received a text asking for an address. David, a friend of a friend who plays guitar, could make it.

When I arrived, the place seemed nice but a bit empty, with just a smattering of regulars.

I saw that the row of tables for our guests was along a wall and separate from the regulars - and ours had tablecloths.

I was worried that the clients might feel uninvited.

Slowly, more regulars started to trickle in. An older woman brought a bouquet of roses, which we proudly displayed on the dais in front of the couple.

The meal - four courses, soup included - was delicious.

During the party, I got up to greet a cousin. Then I turned around to see my seat taken by a stranger.

The regulars were starting to sit side by side with us. I was more than happy to grab a seat at an unclothed table, especially because some of our guests were joining the clients in the other part of the eatery.

Throughout the evening, the happy bride and bridegroom were approached by dozens of strangers who congratulated them. My brother told me that it was the best of his seven get-togethers. There were no speeches and no pressure.

When I looked at pictures of the event, trying to count our family members, I lost track, unable to differentiate between familiar faces and new friends.


• Eli Reiter is a teacher and writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 21, 2018, with the headline 'Enjoying a wedding dinner with strangers at a soup kitchen'. Print Edition | Subscribe