When we ask newlyweds to think back on what they wanted most for their big day — and we’ve interviewed hundreds of them over the years — the most common response is “For it not to feel like a wedding!” But in a monsoon of flower crowns and macaron towers, how do you see beyond the usual tropes and actually pull off a non-cookie-cutter affair? For the answer, we decided to interrogate the cool couples whose weddings we would actually want to steal — right down to the tiger-shaped cake toppers.
Here we talked to a couple with a conundrum: how to throw a wedding that satisfies conservative Jewish parents while still allowing their own freak flags to fly? (They’d already technically been married at Burning Man.) The solution for Elana Knoller, the chief of staff and head of growth and strategy at Better.com, and Robert Halperin, a real-estate agent at Compass, was to throw two (or three-ish) celebrations this past November, spanning multiple days and multiple venues, including Brooklyn’s oldest synagogue and an illegal Bushwick loft. The partying continued straight through until waffles and coffee were served at 9 a.m. Sunday morning.
Elana: We wanted no wedding, and we ended up with three weddings — the first one was at Burning Man. We have a big Burning Man camp that we build every year with 50-something people, super-close friends we spend ten straight days with every year.
Robert: At Burning Man, there are these things called art cars, where people build out these crazy cars — our friend has an old-school bus with an LED snail skin built over it. So the plan with friends was “meet at the snail at 5 a.m.” The sun started to come up, and the music was rolling.
Elana: Our friend Maria led a meditation, and our friend Landon married us. Then we had Champagne and caviar. What I’ve always loved about Robert is that he’s just so adventurous. We’re both people who are open to new stuff. We originally met seven years earlier, in Shanghai, in NYU’s study-abroad program.
Robert: It was our first adventure. Two Jews from New York went all the way to China to meet.
Elana: After Burning Man, back in New York, we wanted to throw the biggest party that we’d ever thrown — which was in conflict with the thing my family wanted, which was a very traditional Jewish wedding.
Robert: We decided to have a religious wedding ceremony on a Thursday in November, in Greenpoint, and then that Saturday — it had to start late, late, late on Saturday because of Shabbat — a party at House of Yes. It’s a totally ridiculous mixed-use performance space in Bushwick run by a troupe of artists, with a stage and all these ways to transform the space in a few hours. The Greenpoint synagogue I found by googling “oldest synagogues in the U.S.” It turned out to be one of the oldest is in Greenpoint, this amazing double-height, European-style, tiny synagogue. I’ve only seen one like it in Poland.
Elana: It’s a German synagogue, stained-glass windows, very old school. My grandparents are German Holocaust survivors, so it was kind of a nice thing to be able to get married there. And then we looked for reception venues within a five-minute walk.
Robert: We were like, let’s keep it simple, and then there will be a low-key barbecue family thing after, benches and picnic tables. But … she has a huge family. She had 40 cousins come over from Israel. We wound up at 140, 150 for Thursday at Greenpoint Loft.
Elana: Robert’s best friend from childhood, Bobby, spent a month with a rabbi who taught him how to perform the ceremony. We also wanted to do the seven blessings, which are the crux of a Jewish wedding, but they’re usually all in Hebrew, and in an Orthodox wedding, only men are allowed to read the blessings. Instead, we had couples come up — the man read in Hebrew and the woman translated it into English. We had a chuppah made by my grandmother and a tallit over our heads that had been Robert’s father’s. He passed away ten years ago, so it was really beautiful to be able to incorporate that.
Robert: Going into it, I was definitely thinking, “Just show up and go through the motions. Saturday night, you get to do your thing.” But it was a lot more emotional than I expected. You strip back all the BS around wedding stuff and it’s this ineffable thing, a feeling in the room. You’re left with the purest emotion. After the ceremony, we had a New Orleans-style walk for the two and a half blocks to Greenpoint Loft, with a band playing Jewish songs. It was funny to watch all of Greenpoint looking at us.
Elana: Everyone dancing and cheering from the windows. From there it was just hours of Israeli dancing, from the same band that walked us over to the loft, and food and drinks. We served Texas-style barbecue. Our favorite restaurant in the tri-state area is this kosher barbecue place called Izzy’s deep in Crown Heights, so we chose that. Like, let’s just get our favorite thing. And then, two nights later, we did it all again.
Robert: Elana and I have our life in New York, where we have these very intense jobs, and then outside that we have our Burning Man social life in New York, which a lot of our friends don’t know about. This was a chance to share that with them. House of Yes is about inclusivity and making people feel comfortable and the word yes. Our friend Dani Slocki runs events at House of Yes, and we pitched it to her, and they’re always looking to try new things. I think if someone had wanted a flowery New York City wedding, they would probably say no, but they saw the spirit of what we wanted to do and they said yeah, let’s try it, could be fun. It was the first time they ever shut down on a Saturday night for a private event.
Elana: The dress code on the invitation was along the lines of “that thing you’ve always wanted to wear but never had the chance to,” and people took it really seriously. A friend dyed her hair pink. My dad wore a top hat and a sequined blazer, my mom wore a vintage green sequined dress. They went for it. People came in wigs and sparkles, and we had a glitter face station so that people could get even more into the vibe. House of Yes gave us a max of 250, but we knew not everyone would stay until 3 a.m. A lot of my family left at midnight, but we had another shift of friends come around then, so it probably ended up being 300 people altogether.
Robert: We had outfit changes throughout the night. The idea was that it would start off relatively tame and then slowly fall apart, become more provocative and underground. I found a cool dinner jacket by Tom Ford that I wore in the beginning, then I changed into a python suit for the ceremony, also by Tom Ford.
Elana: I probably tried on 300 dresses. Wedding dress shopping was the worst thing I’ve been through in my entire life. I’m five-foot-nine and not a stick figure, and you try these dresses on and none of them can even zip on you. I didn’t want something traditional, I wanted something Met Gala–wild, for both parties. For Thursday, I wore Monique Lhuillier. For Saturday night, I wore this unbelievable Black Swan–style dress by Alexandra Vidal, with feathers and beading — I’d been shopping with my mother-in-law at Bergdorf and found it there.
Robert: When the ceremony started, I walked down the catwalk stage and tossed my hat into the crowd. They opened the curtains, and Elana was suspended from the ceiling.
Elana: We had aerialists and acrobats performing, so there were different structures in the ceiling above the DJ booth, and I came down on a chair. I’m actually terrified of heights, but my adrenaline was superhigh and I was just having a lot of fun.
Robert: Our friend Maria did a 30-second meditation for everyone again, a friend from England read something, then our friend Landon, who’d married us at Burning Man, did a nondenominational ceremony.
Elana: At the end, instead of “you may now kiss the bride,” Landon joked, “You guys have been married four times already, but you may kiss again.”
Robert: When you’re talking to the caterer or anyone else involved in weddings, they’re like, “You have to do it like this, like this, this and this. That’s how it works.” Every little thing was a battle, even the flow of catering. There was food out basically the entire time, but there weren’t any tables for a dinner. We didn’t want —
Elana: Sit down, and then you eat, and then you stand up, and then you dance, and then you sit down, and then there’s another course, and then you get up and dance.
Robert: And there were activations, as House of Yes calls them — elixirs, face paint, things to wander around and do. Elana got this advice: “Grab Robert and make sure you’re together, otherwise the night will come to an end and you’ve spent it apart.” So Elana kept coming back and grabbing me.
Elana: The first half of the night, I was like, “Where’s Robert? Where’s Robert?” We kept getting pulled away from each other. But after saying hi to everyone, around midnight, people were talking and dancing and making new friends, and so we spent the rest of the night together. We had an hour and a half of the Jay Prince Band, just really fun rock and roll and pop. Then some of our favorite DJs played through the rest of the night — Atish, Christian Voldstad, Matt Miller.
Robert: At a certain point, we wanted the activations to stop because it’s weird to have paid dancers around, but the House of Yes party ended around 5:30 a.m. The after-party started at 6 a.m. at an unnamed illegal loft venue a few blocks away. We got there and they had breakfast supplies waiting — people were making waffles and coffee. Another DJ played for a couple more hours.
Elana: Our DJ turned to Robert and I at one point and was like, “I’m done at 9 a.m.,” and I was like, “We are, too!”