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A Vow to Carry On Tradition

April 29, 1993|BEVERLY BEYETTE

The bride arrived in a purple sedan chair, the groom on a pink and purple elephant. The happy couple stood on stair steps to reach their five-tier cake.

And so, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, 5-year-old Orly-Reine Sibony and 5-year-old James Maher were "wed."

The ceremony, fashioned after a centuries-old Moroccan Jewish custom, was ecumenical, to say the least. Orly-Reine is Jewish. James has a Salvadoran-Basque mother, Alicia, and an Irish-Syrian father, Joseph--both Roman Catholics. But Alicia once lived in Israel and, "very taken with the Jewish culture," chose a Jewish school for James.

There, at the Institute of Jewish Education on West 3rd Street, James and Orly-Reine are classmates. The ceremony, at the school, was part birthday party (hers) and part fulfillment of a fantasy (her father's).

Growing up in Marrakech, Nessim Sibony, 53, heard about "the school wedding," once a rite of passage among Moroccan Jews. It, and other traditions, had been discarded as some of these Jews--wanting to be modern--adopted French and Colonial ways.

Sibony, who left Morocco in 1960, never saw such a wedding, "but people who were very old spoke about it." It was one of the traditions brought by Jews settling in Morocco after expulsion from Spain 500 years ago.

As a folklorist, Sibony is passionate about making people aware of the traditions of their ancestors. His goal is "to give them life again," not simply bequeath them to some dusty archive.

About a year ago, he hit upon the idea of a wedding for Orly-Reine. Poring through books, he took note of every detail--the costumes, the lore, the meaning.

The symbolism is debatable. One theory, Sibony says, is that it had roots in "the pressures of exile": Reaching Morocco, orphaned Jewish girls were forced to become Muslims and to avoid that, they were married off early, in their young teens.

Others say that the very old, before they died, wanted to see their daughters married. Traditionally, the wedding was between a 7- or 8-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl from families of the same social class. "Some people say the parents were really hoping the children would get married, and some did," Sibony said.

He made Orly-Reine's burgundy and brocade costume, her jeweled headdress, even the elephant--a wood and foam frame covered with Sari silk, beading and coins--and the sedan chair. The girl and her mother, Marcia--from Indiana--were involved all the way.

Orly-Reine seemed to enjoy all the fuss. On the big day, she blew kisses to wedding guests and--in an added fillip probably unknown to the Jews of Morocco--told knock-knock jokes.

After all, it was her birthday. Earlier, mother confided that daughter had asked, "Can we play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey?" (They couldn't). The games they played were Moroccan.

The young guests and their families nibbled Moroccan delicacies--marzipan-stuffed dates and sesame cookies--and tapped their toes to the staccato beat of the flamenco.

James conducted himself with aplomb, pecking his bride on the check before settling onto a cushion on the rug-draped stage, seemingly unfazed to be surrounded there by a mini-harem of his bride's girlfriends.

From the start, he had been Orly-Reine's choice. Her mother had to smile: "Last year she hated him."


Randy Shilts, author of "Conducting Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military," in a conversation on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air":

"What has struck me the most about the congressional hearings is how appallingly ignorant both the senators and the 'experts' are about the reality of gay people in the military. Watching these experts try to inform the senators is like watching the blind leading the blind, deaf and dumb."

All Business

It was definitely not business as usual at "An Income of Her Own," a conference for 80 teen-age girls from five local urban high schools.

Entrepreneurship was the buzzword. The idea: to let these young women know that owning a business is a viable alternative to becoming a teacher, a nurse or a homemaker.

"Women start their own business 10 to 15 years later than men," explained Joline Godfrey of Ojai, co-founder of the nonprofit pilot program. "That puts them so far behind."

Although many who came said they expected to be bored, most were pleasantly surprised. On their end-of-day evaluations, they wrote:

"I think that if I have a dream, I can make it come true."

"What I learned today is that you don't have to be a man to go into business."

The biggest hit at the event, held recently at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester, was a Monopoly-like board game that taught about cash flow, budgets, accounts payable and business ethics.

In small groups, the girls talked with successful businesswomen who had volunteered their time. Plain questions, plain answers. What, they wanted to know, about juggling careers and babies? It's tough, they were told, but it's possible.

Some segments of the program--which has various foundation funding--need fine-tuning. The trading cards of female business owners were a flop. The teens simply weren't interested in cards picturing the likes of a female restaurateur in Minneapolis.

But the future entrepreneurs related to straight talk, such as this from program co-founder Karen Schafer: "Many of us did stuff that failed miserably" but bounced back to start another business.

Godfrey is "blown away" by the low expectations of urban girls and sees a "desperate" need for solutions.

Her concern was borne out when girls were asked to predict what business they might own in 20 years. A few turned in blank papers.

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