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Mouseketeers at a Yorkshire Wedding

January 22, 2008

It was toast time. Before the guests assembled in a Victorian music hall for my son's Yorkshire wedding reception, I offered these words, now immortalized on YouTube:

"What we are doing today is we are joining two very, very different cultures. We've got England, we've got New York, California. Vegan, vegetarian, carnivore."

Then I invited Randy and his bride, Annie, to come to the front of the auditorium.

"It was very important for me that Randy not forget his roots and where he came from," I said. "So we have something very, very special (for you) to remember your traditions as a Californian."

My two little granddaughters reached into a plastic bag and pulled out Mouseketeer ears for the newlyweds, who put them on, promenading to their seats amid applause. Mickey and Minnie were the culmination of a love story that brought together two people who had always believed they weren't the marrying kind--and their families couldn't have been happier.

With so much joy and support on both sides, it seemed unlikely that Randy and Annie would have to face some of the obstacles I encoutered with my first marriage in 1965, a union between a secular New York Jew and a Midwestern ex-Protestant-turned-atheist.

When I suddenly announced I was getting married, my mother, who only attended synagogue under protest, approached a rabbi. He said he would conduct the ceremony only if I agreed to raise my children Jewish and celebrate all the holidays.

As a child of the '60s, I wasn't about to make any such agreements. Besides, like my mother and grandmother before me, I hadn't a clue about how to run a Jewish home or celebrate the holidays. As I told friends, "It's a mixed marriage. He's nothing and I'm nothing."

So we had a Unitarian ceremony, and the band played "The Missouri Waltz" for my mother-in-law and "Fiddler on the Roof" for the New Yorkers. After the wedding, I pretty much stayed away from Judaism until 1988, when my ex and I split.

Our children were raised Unitarian. My daughter, the mother of my granddaughters, is now an evangelical Christian. My son has taken a secular path. As co-founder of Car Busters and author of Cutting Your Car Use, he focuses his life on healing the planet, an endeavor his English wife shares.

Annie's parents are also divorced. Her father is a churchgoer; her mother is not. Since neither Randy nor Annie is religious, they chose a small civil ceremony at the Registry Office in Settle, a medieval market town in the Yorkshire Dales. Their exit music was "Moving Right Along" from The Muppet Movie.

Randy and Annie Ghent
Randy Ghent and his new wife Annie moments after Janet's speech.

At the reception we danced to Scottish reels played by a band from Lancashire. At the post-reception dinner, my husband led Christians and Jews, Brits and Americans, in impromptu choruses of "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof. What's a wedding without it?

Considering that family members would be together in close quarters for five days, Randy and Annie planned a bevy of activities, including a hike in the Dales, a canal trip, a visit to a castle and finally, a dinner at their home in York.

During the months leading up to the wedding, I went to work on other fronts, corresponding with each of the bride's parents. I also e-mailed Annie photos of wedding rings that had been in the family. She chose a narrow platinum band that my maternal grandfather had presented to my grandmother in 1917. I also offered her a diamond that had belonged to my ex's deceased mother, and was now set in a brooch. Annie didn't want a diamond ring, so the stone was set into a pendant that she wore the night before the wedding.

Although it's not the British tradition, that night I hosted a dinner for family members and out-of-towners. My ex agreed to chip in, and we were able to share a joyous occasion by focusing on our children, not on what might have been between ourselves. Since most of us were holed up at the same hotel, a charming former coaching inn built around 1640, there were many opportunities to share light moments.

During the post-wedding trip to York, where Randy and Annie live, my husband and I decided to go on one of the legendary evening "Ghost Walk" tours. The others were too tired, but my granddaughter, then just shy of 7, asked to join us. We weren't quite prepared for what happened next. Standing before Clifford's Tower, the guide told the story of the bloody massacre of the Jews in 1190. More than 150 Jews died when the castle was besieged by Crusaders, peasants and burghers indebted to Jewish lenders.

"Why did they do that?" my granddaughter asked later. "Some people didn't like Jews," I explained.

Then, as she has done before, she asked us why we were Jewish. "Because our parents were Jewish," we explained.

"If you're Jewish and my mommy came out of you, doesn't that make her Jewish?"

Uh-oh.

"That's something to ask your mother," I said

All in all, through several days of enforced togetherness, our families managed to set aside differences to celebrate a marriage. Since one of my goals was to emphasize the commonalities rather than the differences, I did not think it was appropriate for Judaism to intrude on a celebration that belonged to my son and his wife. Instead, I took care of my Jewish soul at home, with my synagogue family. On the Saturday before we left California, we provided bagels and lox for the folks in our Torah study group.

"Is this a simcha"? one woman asked.

"Yes, it's my son's wedding," I replied, beaming.

Another asked if his fiancé was Jewish.

I knew that question would come--as it had for me, when I was first married. This time I had a better answer.

"No," I said. "My son is almost 35. He's getting married and that's a good thing."

The woman smiled. "That's good."

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "gladness" or "joy," it is often used to refer to a festive occasion or celebration, like a wedding, bat mitzvah, or bris. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, former senior editor of j., is a freelance writer/editor and voice student living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at ghentwriter@gmail.com.

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