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This morning I put a cross into a drawer. It was a cradle cross that Leacock Presbyterian Church gave my parents when I was born. My mother returned it to me on the day of Shannonâs bridal shower. âI wasn’t sure if youâd want it or not,â she said. I wasnât sure either. Itâs the symbol of a tradition I left behind. If it ever hung over my crib, which was its intent, I donât remember it. My earliest memory is of being held by my mother and draping a handkerchief over head like it was a tablecloth. Thereâs a picture of that moment: I was proud of myself, smiling ear-to-ear. That I remember the moment at all might be a result of its having been caught on film. Memory is like that: fluid, permeable, changing over time. Our memories shift to better inform our narratives of who we are and who we want to be.
The foundation of Jewish peoplehood is our historical memory. From the hasidim who believe literally in the revelation at Sinai, to secular Yiddishists who recall the travails of Ashkenaz, or, like most Jews, somewhere in between, we are united by our shared memories. The Hebrew calendar is structured around our stories: we are liberated during Passover, wander the wilderness during Sukkot and receive Torah on Shavuot. The irony of Jewish time is that, although we were among the first peoples to insist upon a linear, rather than a cyclical, view of history, we relive the same events from year to year. Perhaps thatâs why, despite our disagreements, we persevere, why we remain one people. It reminds me of Romi Somekâs âA Poem of Blissâ: âWe are placed upon a wedding cake/like two dolls, bride and groom./When the knife strikes,/Weâll try to stay on the same piece.â
The sense of foreboding evident in the last lines of Somekâs poem looms large in Jewish memory. The Shoah casts a long shadow over us all, as it rightly should. So too do other tragedies, from the expulsion of our people from Spain in 1492, to the Munich Olympics, to the countless injustices done to men and women long gone to dust. The price of Never Forgetting is Eternal Vigilance, necessary but wearying to the psyche. Watchfulness has engendered in some quarters of the Jewish community a sense of permanent crisis, that the âknifeâ of Somekâs poem is always poised to strike. We see bogeymen at every turn: the presidentâs policy towards Israel, Muslim immigration to the West, Iran, assimilation, intermarriage. For some Jews, intermarriage is the most insidious crisis of all, âperpetratedâ by its own âvictims.â
That attitude toward intermarriage is further exacerbated by nostalgia. Some Jews shield themselves against the anxieties of the present by retreating into sentimentality. Informed by wisps of history, family memory, and pop culture (think Fiddler on the Roof), we have constructed a dreamworld alternative to the present, an eternal shtetl cast always in the golden sunlight of American afternoons. We smile at the women baking challah. We nod at the old men praying in shul. Weâre comforted by the singsong strains of Yiddish bubbling forth from homes. But to remember it thus is to do our ancestors a disservice. The shtetlach were nothing like our dreamworld; rather, they were characterized by poverty, wretchedness, superstition and filth. Walk the cramped and muddy streets. Here women served men, for they had no choice. Here bellies growled for want of food. Here the rebbes studied while their people suffered. If you ever hear anyone hearken back to how it was in the Old Country, ask them if theyâd really like to visit. They may: There are haredi communities here and in Israel in which one may readily access âthe world we have lost.â
American Jews have no need to retreat into fear or sentimentality. Weâre thriving. Weâre more accepted than we have ever been, anywhere, at any other time in history. That you can no longer identify a Jew by peyot, by curly hair, or by surname, is not a cause for alarm, but for excitement. Weâre not disappearing; weâre diversifying. Our contributions to American society speak to our success. We were at the forefront of white support for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, when Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. Now weâre leading the charge into ethical and sustainable foodways through organizations such as Hazon and, in Philadelphia, Cafe Olam.
Iâve written this blog to demonstrate one thing: that we who intermarry are in no way enemies of Judaism or the Jewish people. We are individuals who have fallen in love with other individuals who are not themselves Jewish. Our partners love us, in part, because weâre Jewish; after all, itâs part of who we are. Writing in The Forward, Yoel Finkelman notes that the argument against intermarriage is a difficult one âbecause itâs hard to muster much moral indignation against a loving, caring couple whose differing religious convictions are an accident of birth.â Finkelman goes on to advocate synagoguesâ acceptance of homosexual Jewish couples as an antidote to intermarriage, but his argument is weakened by his previous statement. Finkelman, and all those who rant against intermarriage, should come to a hard stop: it is not ancestry or religion (or sexuality) that matters in a relationship, but love. Embrace loving couples and they will respond.
A Jewish friend of Shannon and I volunteered to teach our families the hora at our wedding party. Consider the image of dozens of non-Jews celebrating by learning a Jewish dance. Our union is but a tiny thread in the grand tapestry of our peopleâs history. How lovely, and how appropriate, that it is a wedding that will bring Jews and non-Jews together, if only for a moment. We’ll be wed the evening of Saturday, October 26. You’re welcome to dance with us.
Shannon practiced saying âShanah tovahâ during the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
âHow do you say that thing?â she said.
âWhat thing?â I replied, all innocence.
âYou know, that thing you say that means âhappy new year.ââ
âOh, that thing.â I told Shannon how to say it and listened as she repeated it. That she wanted know the right thing to say, and how to say it, made me smile.
Communication featured prominently in last weekâs Torah portion, Noach, too. Everyone knows about Noah and the Flood, but tucked at the end of the parsha is the story of the tower of Babel. All humankind, possessing the âsame language and the same words,â began building âa tower with its top in the sky, to make a nameâ for themselves. God saw what humankind was up to and concluded, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.â God then âconfoundsâ peoplesâ speech so that they donât understand one another. (Breishit / Genesis 11:1-9.)
The tower of Babel is, on its surface, a straightforward explanation as to why people speak many languages rather than one. Having seen humankindâs hubris, God literally descends from the heavens to which the people were building and puts a stop to it. Some of my fellow congregants at Rodeph Shalom were troubled by what they perceived as Godâs capriciousness. âWhy,â they asked, âwould God give us the potential to do something, and then, when we do it, punish us for it? Why would God make it harder for us to understand one another, which leads to endless strife?â
There are deeper theological currents in such questions than Iâm qualified to parse, but I donât think that by âconfoundingâ our speech God was simply âpunishingâ us. Indeed, absent from the story is any sense of severe judgment, and God is forgiving considering we were building a stairway to his house. âNothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach,â God says. Should we have reached our zenith at the very beginnings of history? If it is true in Judaism that we are Godâs partners in the act of creation, and that we use the tools we have to work toward a more perfect world, then I prefer to think of the worldâs many languages not as barriers to understanding, but as a nudge to better comprehend oneâs fellows, as reason to reach out not with a closed fist, but with an open hand.
As our wedding approaches, Shannon and I are becoming more aware of the ways in which the ceremony will be an act of translation, of one culture speaking to another. The irony of our wedding night is that, of the dozen or so people present, only two will be Jewish: myself and the rabbi. My family members have rarely encountered Jewish people, and the only Jewish event they ever attended was my conversion. Thus Shannon and I, and our friend and officiant, Rabbi Eli Freedman, have determined that our wedding will be not only a ritual we perform for ourselves, but also an opportunity to educate our families about the faithway that informs our lives.
Rabbi Freedman will not only lead the ceremony, but heâll also narrate it for the benefit of our families. Heâll explain to our mothers and siblings what weâre doing and why. We want our families to understand the symbolism of the event, to know why weâll circle one another and why Iâll break the glass.
What better way to âtranslateâ Judaism for others than by to invite them to participate? Family is one of the foremost Jewish values, and, to that end, our families have roles to fulfill during the ceremony. My sister and Shannonâs brothers and sister-in-law will hold the poles of the chuppah. Shannonâs mother will read the Irish wedding blessing (which is cultural, not religious). And weâll remember my father, without naming him, when my mother reads Koholet (Ecclesiastes) 3:1-8, which was read at his funeral service. Weâll emphasize the positive half of each of those verses, âa time to build…a time to laugh…a time to dance,â and not only honor my father, but also invest them with a happier significance.
There are elements in the contemporary Jewish community that see only a tide of darkness, âa time to weep, a time to mourn,â especially in regards to interfaith marriages. To approach it thus is to say, as my fellow congregants did, âWhy did God do this to us?â Shannon and I choose to celebrate our marriage as an opportunity for greater understanding. We were given different ways of speech, Jewish and not, but that doesnât mean we canât communicate. âCome, let us build a city.â
When Shannon and I fight, I assume the worst. Weâre going to break up. Weâll never speak again. Weâll be torn apart by wild dogs. âI just want us to be happy,â Iâll say. âWe canât always be happy,â Shannon responds, ever sensible, ever right. âSometimes weâre going to fight.â
No love story is entirely happy. Sometimes there are fights. But what are the fights of an interfaith couple in the midst of wedding planning like? They might start with one partner exclaiming, âBut Iâm not Jewish!â As if that fact were not obvious to the other (possibly male, Jewish and occasionally dense) partner. âIâm not Jewish!â Shannon would shout. âOkay!â I replied, angry and baffled.
Shannonâs exclamations were in response to expectations I put upon her. As I mentioned in my first post here, Iâm a recent convert to Judaism. And, like many converts, I feel a particular zeal. Combined with my typically male expectation that Shannon would take the lead in the home, that zeal resulted in certain expectations I forced upon Shannon. I thought, for instance, that Shannon would light the Shabbat candles. Weeks passed; no candles. When I finally mentioned it, Shannon replied, rightly, thatâs sheâs not Jewish. I am, and I should take the lead in Jewish activities. Shannon was right. (This is not to say that Shannon is any less involved in making a Jewish home. Rather, she supports those events I arrange and excuses herself from those she perceives as onerous, such as Yom Kippur.)
For a long time, when Shannon said, âBut Iâm not Jewish!â what I heard was âYouâre not Jewish,â the personal baggage I carry knowing that traditional Jews will not recognize me as a member of Israel. Shannon doesnât think that, of course; I was projecting my fears onto her. It took me a long time to realize that and now, I hope, I no longer do it.
How to make sense of such fights, though? With the zeal of a convert, I suggest this interpretation.
A few weeks ago we observed Tisha BâAv, the day commemorating the losses of the First and Second Temples. The âThree Weeks,â a mourning period, immediately precede Tisha BâAv. The Three Weeks are known in Hebrew as bein ha-Metzarim, literally âbetween the narrow straits.â Readers familiar with Torah will recognize in âMetzarimâ echoes of Mitzrayim, the biblical name for Egypt. Tisha BâAv and Mitzrayim are symbols of emotional and spiritual constriction. Just as our ancestors experienced the disorientation of slavery and conquest, we, too, have known isolation from one another, from God, and from ourselves.
Jewish weddings traditionally end with the breaking of a glass. The most popular interpretation of this custom is that, even during our happiest moments, we remember the destruction of the Temple. Shannon and I are uncomfortable with expressing such a negative thought during our wedding. Rather, we will recall with the breaking of the glass not only our hope for the (metaphorical) rebuilding of the Temple, but also âthe spheres of lightâ the mystics say shattered when God created the world. Just as performing the mitzvot is supposed to allow God to reenter the world, ârebuildingâ the Temple would restore Godâs dwelling place on earth. When we break the glass, then, Shannon and I will consecrate our marriage toward the living of righteous lives, with the intention of contributing to the increase of justice in the world. Of course, this being a Jewish marriage, we will begin this âmissionâ in the home.
Shannon and I are alienated from one another when we argue. We become lost in the ânarrow placesâ of our relationship. Our vision becomes restricted, singular. But we remember the wholeness we search for, and we always make it through, each time a little stronger than before.
A fitting thought to leave you with for the beginning of Elul and the season of repentance.
First, a confession:
So here we go:
The Big Day:
I think it would have been slightly disconcerting for me had we just had one officiant who followed a traditional Jewish wedding service because that was not the tradition in which I was raised. (See our previous post about working with two officiants.) Having two stand with Ethan and me under the chuppah grounded me and really reinforced the communal aspect of the ceremony.
Said ceremony, as outlined in an earlier post, included a mix of Jewish, Celtic, and Native American wedding traditions that many guests said blended beautifully together. I will confess that the only tradition during the entire day that felt slightly foreign to me was dancing the horah; I didnât really know the exact steps, nor did many of my family members and friends, so we just threw ourselves into the circles, grabbed hands, and kept up! Sadly I got separated from my new husband who ended up flanked by his family members, which made me feel like this was âtheir thing.â But I have a terrific photo of Ethan, his step-dad, my brotherâs wife, and my mom all smiling and dancing together in one of the circles, and I love the unity of that moment! Any lingering concerns I had about whether members of EthanÂs side would think the wedding âwasnât Jewish enoughâ were mitigated by the enthusiasm with which they participated in the various celebrations, and the warmth with which they embraced us and me on that day.
Six months later:
As we were preparing for the open house, I quietly contemplated how blending the two December holidays would work for our future kids. Would they fall into the âyours, mine and oursâ mode of thinking, or would Ethan and I be successful in creating a home in which both traditions merge well? (For the record, Christmas was never about celebrating Christâs birth for my family; it is a time of gathering with loved ones, adding light, magic and sparkle to a dark season, and sharing gifts and giving back to the community and those less fortunate to demonstrate your love.) A recent Boston Globe feature noted the increasing number of interfaith families in Massachusetts, which is good, but acknowledged that sometimes itâs hard for the kids who feel like they are straddling worlds, which is disheartening. Later that evening, as Ethan and I sat with 10 of his family members in our living room, each of them began sharing aspects of Christmas that they âactually like,â most particularly non-secular songs, food, and made-for-TV movies. Ethanâs step-dad then led everyone in a rousing rendition of âRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.â I got choked up when I looked around the room and realized, âThis is going to work. Both histories and realities can be honored without sacrificing anything.â
That is how I hope Ethan and I will continue to live our lives together and to raise our children: to demonstrate that core values cross faith and traditional divides, and that love, family and community are what matter most, no matter what language, song, or decoration you use to honor them. Am I afraid that members of Ethanâs family will look upon our kids as ânot Jewishâ with some sadness? Yes, and that isnât easy for me. But then I think back to the joy, acceptance and inclusiveness of our most wonderful wedding day, and feel confident that we will be able to make it all work out. To paraphrase She-ra, âWe have the power!â
Eight weeks left until the big day and I feel like we have barely gotten started on what needs to be done. Life just flies by so fast now that I know June will be here before we know it. Between the invitations that havenât gone out and the Ketubah that is yet to be made, I feel like we have more on our plate now than when we started. How did that happen?
Lu and I have taken every step to internalize each piece of tradition and make it our own. It is a big task to be able to separate ritual from tradition and I often feel that life would be easier were we to take things at face value. But hey. Whatâs the fun in that?
Tradition ends where the new age begins. Right?
I mean. There comes a point where a chuppah is just a chuppah and a ketubah is just a ketubah. But why not make these things ourselves? Why not create them so that they donât create us. I feel like we spend a lot of time internalizing and a lot of time in conversation about these traditions. We make each piece a challenge. And the truth is: I love it.
It makes me feel closer to Judaism.
We have spent the better part of a year planning this thing and the more that we have to learn, the more I feel connected. The more that we have to figure out together, the more I feel connected. The more we meet with Rabbi Berman, the more I feel connected. The more I write this blog, the more I feel connected. Itâs like Iâm creating a new relationship with an old friend. My Judaism is fresh. It makes me feel good.
I know that we have much learning to do. And just like when our son, Raiden was born, I know that we will never be ready.
The best that we can do is to do our best. We will begin our life together knowing that we didnât just take what was prescribed and that we are in every capacity to carve out our own path.
Life is such a wonderful journey.
Where does one put her individuality and feminism aside for the greater good? This is the question I face.
I’m talking about our processional at our wedding. What I didn’t know is that it is Jewish tradition for the parents to not only walk their child down the aisle but to also stand under the huppah with them. For various reasons mostly dealing with logistics, we had decided that only us, our son, and the rabbi would be under the huppah. Needless to say, this was quite the punch to my mother-in-laws gut. However, she accepted this with the consolation that she would still get to walk her son down the aisle.
That’s where the issue begins. I didn’t want my parents to walk me down the aisle. As a thirty-two year old mother who has been on her own in the world for quite a while, I felt that no one needed to “give” me away. I am giving myself to Alx. To add to this, there is some heavy water under the bridge when it comes to my relationship with my father. I’ve come a long way in life emotionally but on this issue I’m torn. Do I put aside my issues and let my parents walk me so Alx’s parents can walk him?
From what I understand, in Judaism this is a symbolic gesture of releasing their child into adulthood. They’ve supported and cared for them under their own roof and they are now escorting them with love to the new home that the child will make with his/her spouse. It’s actually a heart warming ritual but what about when there is unresolved issues between child and parent(s)?
I guess this would be easy if I were Jewish as well because then it would just be. The choice would be made for me out of tradition and ritual.
Alx and I have talked about this intimately and I’ve even spoken with my mother-in-law about it. She understands my position and has selflessly left it up to me. Even though it breaks her heart, she is willing to give up this ritual if it is going to make me uncomfortable. I have to say that I really lucked-out with mother-in-laws. Miki is caring, understanding, easy to talk to, a bit bossy at times but always, always puts her children’s well-being before anything.
She has accepted me as her daughter with open arms and an open heart. This is why I’m in the process of reconciling the issues that are stopping me from participating in this ritual. It bothers me to have my parents walk me but that pales to the heaviness in my heart at taking this away from Alx and his parents. Jewish or not, Alx is extremely close to his family and they are active participants in every aspect of his life. I want to accommodate but I don’t really know how to do that without compromising myself.
Our rabbi says that this situation is a paradox because it’s all in the viewpoint. I can have them walk me and see it as a healing moment or I can focus on the negative and allow that to ruin the moment. I can not walk with them and it might be negative since it is in reaction to the unresolved issues or I can not walk with them and retain my current viewpoint of individuality and self-sufficiency. I think it all boils down to what I’m ready to accept, forgive, and move past.
If I’ve learned anything from Alx’s family, especially his mom, is that love knows no bounds and for family we gladly sacrifice to ensure the happiness and well-being of our loved ones. For my mother-in-law, I am willing to sacrifice. I am willing to endure the pain that it will take to resolve my issues and move-on so that on our beautiful wedding day she can walk her son down the aisle. The thought of this makes me happy. Maybe this was the stimulus that I needed. The last little nudge to take those last painful steps towards forgiveness and closure on a not-so-great chapter of my life.
So, thank you Miki, for being you. For being caring, understanding, easy to talk to, a bit bossy at times but always, always putting your children’s well-being before anything and for being the little nudge that I needed to strive to become healthier, happier, and whole.
It’s a continuous cycle that doesn’t seem to have an end. It’s not Alx’s fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not anyone’s fault.
I just can’t get over that little twinge in the back of my conscience that’s irritated with the whole Jewish wedding thing. I mean, we have already established that the wedding isn’t strictly Jewish. We’ve established that every single minute aspect will be filled with the essence of us. So why is it still bothering me? Well, I think I figured it out. It’s a point that Rabbi Berman brought up in our last meeting but I didn’t put any thought into it at the time. She hit the nail on the head though. She said that milestone events such as weddings cause a plethora of emotions to surface that really have nothing to do with the event; however, the event serves as a platform for the issues to be brought forth. Okay, either she is psychic or just that damn good.
What are the issues you ask? Where do I even start. Well, you know that perfect family set-up, Leave It to Beaver style? That’s Alx’s family except much, much cooler. They are the most tight-knit family that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Now this isn’t a bad thing. This is an absolutely fantastic thing. I love it. I love that our son, Raiden, will grow up with that.
So what’s the issue then? The issue is that my family is the opposite of that. We love each other but we are not close by any means. It isn’t for a lack of trying but we grew up with a tough love kind of dad. There wasn’t much hugging, pat-on-the-back kind of stuff going on. My mom grew-up in a traditional Japanese household where emotions and physical affections just aren’t a part of the family structure. To top it all off, my dad was in the military so we moved about every four years. Putting it bluntly, my brothers and I had no issues with packing-up, skipping town, and none of us have ever looked back. Until now.
Now, I’m looking back. I’m looking back at the missed opportunities of intimacy with my family. How does this pertain to the wedding you ask?
Well, it has everything to do with the wedding on an emotional level. I want what Alx has always had and always will have with his family. I am close with his family but let’s face it, it’s totally not the same. It doesn’t fill that longing void in the pit of my heart that bleeds because my family missed out on Rai’s first everything while Alx’s family has been there for all of it. Frankly, I’m down right jealous at times about Alx’s family intimacy and solid cultural background. It makes his aspects of our wedding pretty straight forward. I’m proud of my heritage, my diversity, even my complete fractured randomness but how do you make all of those pieces into something tangible and wedding ready?
This is my issue. This is why I’m going around and around and around with no end in sight. My pragmatic logical self tells me that it is an unwarranted fear and that all will be well. However, my somewhat schizophrenic emotional self obsesses over those fragmented pieces of me and worries that they won’t stack up. I’m thinking that Rabbi Berman has some work cut out for her. Thank the powers that be that she’s psychic and damn good.