On not losing a father, when gaining ‘the one’
In early May of this year, my fiancé Jonathan and I, along with our beaming parents, visited the Long Island vineyard where we’ll be married this weekend. The day was bright and Jon and I walked with the bouncy gait of the newly-engaged. We had chosen the place just days before, and we were eager for our parents to see it—and love it. At 32, I am still bent on getting their approval on most things.
We led our parents to the orchard, our planned ceremony spot, where an old oak tree with a twisted trunk stands. Jon and I envisioned our chuppah under the thick cover of branches. My mom’s eyes filled with tears. “It’s perfect,” she whispered. My father was off on his own, inspecting the lawn for electrical sockets. “Have you thought about whether the chuppah poles will be buried in the dirt or free-standing?” he called out from 20 feet away. “And where will your officiant stand? What about the rabbi’s mic?”
My dad is a rabbi, and he will officiate at our wedding. But, that day at the vineyard, I’d been thinking about him as my father and how I’d be losing him as the central man in my life. This transition wasn’t easy to negotiate. It was Dad who bought me cards on Valentines Day and told me I was beautiful even at my worst moments. It was Dad who read everything I wrote out loud to my mother, brimming with pride. And what I wanted, as I navigated my last few months as a single gal, was for Dad to keep playing that role: father of the bride, not rabbi. He was already edging from one to the other, confirming that his place in my life was changing.
My father wasn’t always our rabbi, though he always had the beard, which he started growing the year I was born, 1977. He decided, at age 50, to give up teaching literature and composition at a college in Brooklyn and begin his rabbinical training. Over the years, amid the hectic schedule of work and childrearing, my parents had become deeply involved in our synagogue. They hosted Sabbath dinners and befriended our rabbi. On Friday nights, we were always the last family to leave services, as my parents lost track of time talking with the rabbi while I fell asleep on the pews.
As a teenager, I’d wondered what they talked about. I couldn’t imagine confiding in a clergyman. All I really understood were my own desires and dreams. I wasn’t fully aware that my parents were individuals, with rich inner lives, desires and dreams of their own, even though I saw evidence that my father’s interests were changing. He wrote a book of spiritual teachings and began introducing himself to new friends as “Avi,” a nickname for his Hebrew name, Avram. He dabbled in Talmud study at a little yeshiva around the corner from our house, on Long Island. On the Sabbath, he wore a knit yarmulke, which he got in a shop in Jerusalem’s Old City.
By the time my father was ordained—it took eight years of part-time study—I still wasn’t used to the idea. I was proud, sure, but conflicted, especially after he found a pulpit to serve in Suffolk County. Suddenly, he belonged to many people, not just those of us in his immediate family.
I was in my 20s, living in Manhattan, and Dad was no longer free to meet me whenever I needed him—weddings, births, funerals, and other demands of his congregants trumped an impromptu lunch. On Long Island on Friday nights, I watched as worshippers approached Dad after services, looking for a word of encouragement. I saw how couples whose weddings he’d performed would keep in touch. Invariably, they’d ask Dad to perform naming ceremonies when they later had babies. I tried to understand how these people felt so connected to my father. What would lead them to call him? What did he say during the countless meetings with couples before marriage? What counsel did he offer?
When Jon proposed to me in April, and we decided that my dad would officiate, that’s what we wondered. “Adina, what exactly happens at those meetings with your dad?” Jon had asked, apprehensively, the night we became engaged at an inn in the Berkshires. We lay under the covers, holding hands and whispering about our plans. “What’s he going to ask us that he doesn’t already know the answers to?”
Adina Kay and her father
I had no idea. I knew Dad gathered lots of information at those meetings to use in the speech he delivered to the bride and groom under the chuppah. But what would he ask us, two people he knew so well?
When we arrived at a vegetarian Indian restaurant on the Upper West Side for dinner Dad was already settled in at a table. He wore his favorite blue knit yarmulke and a tie. He got up and gave us quick hugs, sat down again, took a sip of water, poised his pen on a blank sheet of paper, and began asking questions.
“So, tell me how you met,” he started.
Was he kidding? He knew this story well enough to relay it to countless people, so thrilled that his youngest had finally met her match. But this wasn’t a joke. He was waiting for an answer. I looked at Jon, who put his arm around me and began.
“Well, Rabbi,” he started, “Our first date was on Christmas Day, 2006.”
Jon talked for a while and as he did, Dad took notes, and asked more questions. “Which qualities do you most admire in Adina?” “Tell me how you knew Adina was the one for you.” I liked hearing the answers. Jon spoke of our future with a new passion.
At some point, it was my turn to answer. Dad asked me about spirituality and God. When I hesitated, he asked me about a transcendent moment I’d shared with Jon. I remembered an afternoon atop a mountain in the Catskills. I began to relate the experience. This was a story my father hadn’t heard before.
As I spoke, I stopped being conscious of whether I was confiding in a rabbi or in my father and whether there was a difference between the two. For an hour, Dad gave Jon and me the space to talk about our feelings un-self-consciously, to consider the kind of ceremony we wanted, to evaluate the moral and religious conditions around which we would like to build our home.
I was beginning to understand why my parents valued their rabbi—this relationship was meaningful in a way I hadn’t considered before. Rabbinic counsel didn’t have to mean talks about Torah—that afternoon he also advised us on life and love. I was proud to think that my father offered that to other couples, too.
It wasn’t until a waitress came over with the check that we resumed our roles of dad, daughter, and future son-in-law: Jon reached for the check, Dad argued with him about who would pay, and I excused myself for the bathroom. On the street, we said our goodbyes.
“Sweetheart!” my father said as he pulled me in for a hug, “You’re getting married!”
He kissed my cheek four times. He kissed Jon’s cheek too, and handed us two Lotto scratch-off cards. He was our rabbi now, yes, but he was also still Dad. “If you win, you can pay for the wedding!” he said. Then he turned and headed off toward his car.
Adina Kay is a writer and teacher in Manhattan.