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My Brother’s Big, Fat Jewish Wedding…by Sarah Szanton

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My brother’s wedding!  How delightfully un-middle-aged it sounded to think about my brother getting married.  People my age talk more about our kids getting married, if we’re lucky, but usually not our siblings.

Despite the sound of it, though, this was, alas, a middle-aged event after all.  A second marriage for both of them, the complications of children from a first marriage, and the desire to do something right this time that didn’t work out so well the last time.

Another element of this Southern California wedding that affected me, the older sister in Maine, was the minimal advance planning.  I heard about the date, March 25, about two months in advance.

At that point, I said I couldn’t go.  A student of mine had his Bar Mitzvah on March 26.  I had been tutoring him since August and was really looking forward to standing with him at that magical moment of his first Aliyah and Torah reading.  I didn’t think it would be possible to go to a wedding in Ventura, California on March 25 and then a Bar Mitzvah in South Portland, Maine the next morning.  Or, if it were theoretically possible, I didn’t want to subject my body to that kind of punishment.

Well, to cut a long story short, after a little pressure from my kids and a little more from my parents, I changed my mind and went.  The result was not only getting to participate in a beautiful life-cycle event, but also having the chance to ponder some Big Issues about family and Jewish commitment, clarity of identity, continuity, confidence and gratitude.

Growing up in Los Angles, being Jewish was easy.  We moved there from Arizona in 1970 when I was six years old.  Our next-door neighbors were Jewish and their daughter, Michele, quickly became my best friend.  We went to Camp Hess Kramer together and we were confirmed together at Wilshire Blvd. Synagogue.  Both sets of my grandparents and almost all my aunts, uncles and cousins lived in Los Angeles, so there were always family Seders, Hanukah parties, and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs.  After my Bat Mitzvah, I started Hebrew High School.  We had a carpool that went from my largely-Jewish public high school to the synagogue where I studied Hebrew literature and language after school two days a week.  These were the same kids with whom I travelled to Israel for nine weeks in the summer of 1980 and walked 18 kilometers with every year on Israel Independence Day in the huge gathering we called the Solidarity Walk – our solidarity with Soviet Jews.

My pediatrician was Jewish.  My orthodontist was Jewish.  Many of my teachers were Jewish.  My Congressman was Jewish.  The families I babysat for were Jewish.  And my dad was a Reform rabbi, first at the synagogue where I went to religious school, and then at a few different Hillels in the Los Angeles area, with his longest tenure being at California State University, Northridge.  On weekends, he would often do other rabbinical duties, including social justice work (supporting Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and the Fair Housing Council, among many causes) or weddings or funerals.  He officiated at a few of my cousins’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, as well as weddings, but then at some point he and my mom decided that they wanted him to be a family member, not the rabbi, at these events.  Just as a physician usually wants another physician to provide his or her family’s medical care, a rabbi usually wants another rabbi to direct his or her family’s religious observances.  So, my own Hillel rabbi, the “Jewish chaplain” at the Claremont Colleges, officiated at Nathan’s and my wedding.  It didn’t really feel like that different from my dad, though.  The rabbi and his wife were among my parents’ closest friends.

Commitment to Jewish education, synagogue membership, Jewish camps, Israel trips, Shabbat and holiday observances were never questions for my family.  These were all things we did because being Jewish was at the very core of our identity for my mom, my dad, my brother and me.  Not necessarily for the rest of our extended family, though.  My aunt’s Yom Kippur Break-the-Fast did not necessarily break a fast, or even follow much of a Yom Kippur observance, for many people who were there.  Another aunt and uncle talked about having Bar Mitzvah ceremonies for their twin sons in Israel, but somehow they never got around to actually making it happen.  Even my grandparents, on both sides, pretty much relegated Judaism to a corner of their lives or something they were wanted to put behind them, especially the rituals and worship.  In retrospect, I think the rest of my extended family probably resented the centrality of Jewish identity in my nuclear family, as if we were claiming a sense of superiority.  For us, though, it brought security and a sense of purpose in how my brother and I viewed our futures.

David and I both grew up with a commitment to Tikun Olam.  His focus became the environment, in both his personal and his professional life.  For many years now, he has coordinated the recycling program for his county, including facilitating the manufacturing of materials made from locally recycled materials.  My focus has been mostly on education and working with people with communication disabilities and vulnerabilities.

David and I also grew up with something else: a clear message from our parents that they expected us to marry someone who was either Jewish or would commit to having a Jewish home.  We didn’t talk about “falling in love.”  We also didn’t believe in letting kids choose their own religion.  Most importantly, we did not really respect secularism.  I remember my dad taught a class at our local community college called “The Ambivalent American Jew.”  Helping him correct the exams he gave his students, I came to understand with increasing clarity my dad’s philosophy about the responsibilities of American Jews to resist assimilation.   It was a philosophy that my mom turned into a message for my brother and me:  the purpose of life is to make the world a better place to live.  We expect you to do that, to do it as Jews and to make Jewish choices in every major decision of your lives, from choosing a spouse to having children to observing life-cycle events.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but you could say we were raised in a fairly doctrinaire household.  At the time, it seemed normal.  Confronted with that ethic now, though, after having lived in Maine for almost thirty years, I am surprised at its heavy-handedness.

“This is a Jewish wedding,” my dad proclaimed to the guests as he welcomed them to the ceremony.  “We have a chatan and a kallah, who are both Jewish.”  He went on to explain how the kallah, Jessica, had recently chosen to become a Jew after a long period of study, immersion in the mikvah, and appearance before a Bet Din, a panel of three rabbis who questioned her and approved her readiness to commit to the Jewish people.  He then explained the chuppah as a symbol of a Jewish home and the ketubah as the equivalent of a “two-thousand-year old handshake.”

Here was my dad, age 80, back in his official capacity as a rabbi, complete with the portable chuppah that I saw him take with him to weddings in the 1970’s, in the days when the most popular song for walking down the aisle was John Denver’s “Follow Me.”  This time it was a little different, though.  My two sons held two of the chuppah’s corners.  And the rabbi sat on a kitchen stool.  He explained that if he stands for too long, he is liable to collapse.  Behind the chuppah was a window with a view of the Pacific Ocean.  The chatan had worked long and hard to buy a house in the hills of Ventura with an ocean view.  Now, at age 50, after two children and a difficult divorce, he had found a woman who loved him and agreed to join our family.

So what happened to my dad’s desire to be a regular person rather than an officiantat a family member’s wedding?  When I asked him, he explained that they were having trouble finding a rabbi with whom they felt comfortable and he didn’t want them to reach the point where it was a crisis.  He wanted them to have a rabbi who help them choose and interpret those elements of the Jewish wedding ceremony that would be most meaningful to them as a couple.  In other words, he wanted someone to do it right and he wasn’t sure they would be able to find anyone who could do it better than he could.

My dad’s agreement to officiate at my brother’s wedding was, at its root, a simple act of giving from an 80-year old father to his 50-year old son at a time of life when both of them needed a sense of peace and security.  David needed relief from a lonely and painful period in his life;  my dad needed to know that his son and new daughter-in-law were starting out this next chapter in their lives together with clarity, resolve and the strength that comes from making a moment holy through ancient rituals and blessings to God.

Whatever heavy-handedness there was in the messages about Jewish continuity that my parents raised us with, somehow it did seem to work.  In fact, my brother and I both not only sustained, but added to the Jewish people by marrying people who converted to Judaism.  Nathan and I have one son who married a Jew and a second son who is close to doing so, G-d willing.  My brother’s kids are still too young for us to know how they will make those decisions, but they do look to my sons as role models.

In the Reform movement today, it has become less acceptable to teach our children that Jews should marry other Jews.  There are too many people within our synagogues  who would be offended by that advice and/or would disagree with its premise.  Better to welcome anyone who wants to join us as b’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel, and let them enrich our community and grow from it, the thinking goes.  At Bet Ha’am, our congregation went through long and difficult discussions about the roles of non-Jews and ultimately reached a compromise rule about the extent of their participation as teachers in our religious school and as Board members.

What makes sense for our community in southern Maine may well be different from what made sense for me growing up in Los Angeles.  Being at my brother’s wedding, though, made me realize how lucky I was to grow up in a family that was fairly doctrinaire on the subject of choosing a spouse in the context of valuing our tradition.  My mom always said that Judaism was the glue that held our family together.  My dad always said that he was a serious, committed, albeit not pious, Reform Jew – and that Jews like this are vital in our pluralistic modern society.  Those are the values that I inherited and that I tried to teach my children.

Singing “Erev Shel Shoshanim” as my brother’s bride walked down the aisle, I thought about childhood Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations, carpools, camp, Israel, and all the celebrations and rituals Nathan and I have gone through raising our own children. What made this small, modest wedding at my brother’s house feel like a big, fat Jewish wedding? It evoked memories, meaning and a clear moral compass. Yes, I was glad I decided to come. Yes, I am glad my family agrees on Jewish commitment, Jewish rituals, and unambiguously Jewish choices to mark the passages of our lives. Yes, this is a simcha. Mazal Tov!

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David and Jessica stand in front of their home in Ventura on March 25, 2016.

 

 

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