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Shannon practiced saying “Shanah tovah” during the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
“How do you say that thing?” she said.
“What thing?” I replied, all innocence.
“You know, that thing you say that means ‘happy new year.’”
“Oh, that thing.” 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 week’s 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 “same language and the same words,” began building “a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name” 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.” God then “confounds” peoples’ speech so that they don’t 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 humankind’s 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 God’s capriciousness. “Why,” they asked, “would 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?”
There are deeper theological currents in such questions than I’m qualified to parse, but I don’t think that by “confounding” our speech God was simply “punishing” 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. “Nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach,” God says. Should we have reached our zenith at the very beginnings of history? If it is true in Judaism that we are God’s 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 world’s many languages not as barriers to understanding, but as a nudge to better comprehend one’s 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 he’ll also narrate it for the benefit of our families. He’ll explain to our mothers and siblings what we’re doing and why. We want our families to understand the symbolism of the event, to know why we’ll circle one another and why I’ll break the glass.
What better way to “translate” 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 Shannon’s brothers and sister-in-law will hold the poles of the chuppah. Shannon’s mother will read the Irish wedding blessing (which is cultural, not religious). And we’ll remember my father, without naming him, when my mother reads Koholet (Ecclesiastes) 3:1-8, which was read at his funeral service. We’ll emphasize the positive half of each of those verses, “a time to build…a time to laugh…a time to dance,” 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, “a time to weep, a time to mourn,” especially in regards to interfaith marriages. To approach it thus is to say, as my fellow congregants did, “Why did God do this to us?” 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 doesn’t mean we can’t communicate. “Come, let us build a city.”
When Shannon and I fight, I assume the worst. We’re going to break up. We’ll never speak again. We’ll be torn apart by wild dogs. “I just want us to be happy,” I’ll say. “We can’t always be happy,” Shannon responds, ever sensible, ever right. “Sometimes we’re going to fight.”
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, “But I’m not Jewish!” As if that fact were not obvious to the other (possibly male, Jewish and occasionally dense) partner. “I’m not Jewish!” Shannon would shout. “Okay!” I replied, angry and baffled.
Shannon’s exclamations were in response to expectations I put upon her. As I mentioned in my first post here, I’m 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, that’s she’s 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, “But I’m not Jewish!” what I heard was “You’re not Jewish,” the personal baggage I carry knowing that traditional Jews will not recognize me as a member of Israel. Shannon doesn’t 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 B’Av, the day commemorating the losses of the First and Second Temples. The “Three Weeks,” a mourning period, immediately precede Tisha B’Av. The Three Weeks are known in Hebrew as bein ha-Metzarim, literally “between the narrow straits.” Readers familiar with Torah will recognize in “Metzarim” echoes of Mitzrayim, the biblical name for Egypt. Tisha B’Av 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 “the spheres of light” the mystics say shattered when God created the world. Just as performing the mitzvot is supposed to allow God to reenter the world, “rebuilding” the Temple would restore God’s 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 “mission” in the home.
Shannon and I are alienated from one another when we argue. We become lost in the “narrow places” 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 didn’t 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 “their thing.” But I have a terrific photo of Ethan, his step-dad, my brother’s 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 Ethans side would think the wedding “wasn’t Jewish enough” 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 “yours, mine and ours” 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 Christ’s 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 it’s 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 “actually like,” most particularly non-secular songs, food, and made-for-TV movies. Ethan’s step-dad then led everyone in a rousing rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I got choked up when I looked around the room and realized, “This is going to work. Both histories and realities can be honored without sacrificing anything.”
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 Ethan’s family will look upon our kids as “not Jewish” with some sadness? Yes, and that isn’t 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, “We have the power!”
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 haven’t 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. What’s 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 don’t 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. It’s like I’m 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 didn’t 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.