After attending one cookie-cutter Orthodox wedding after another, a question arises: Are these rituals being performed in meaningful ways?
I squeeze through the last defense of women and sidle up to my mother, in her navy blue chiffon.
“Hey,” I say.
“I remember the Mezinke Tantz,” she says, smiling wistfully. “Bubbe and Zayde used to talk about it.”
“Really?” I ask. I never knew that.
“Sure. They used to do this all the time in Europe. We even did it for Feter Pinyah.” My Uncle Paul.
Now I’m actually shocked. I thought I knew everything there was to know about my grandparents, who were raised in Poland and ended up in displaced-persons camps after the war, before immigrating to America. Silly as it may seem, I feel as though I have to recreate my knowing of them. I feel young and ignorant.
My mother notices but she doesn’t say anything. She’s standing on the balls of her feet, trying to see above the crowd, and I start craning my neck, too. It’s a remarkable sight. There, on the other side of where the mechitzah used to be, sit the mother and father of the groom. In the mother’s hand is a Rubbermaid broom and she’s swatting at her son, presumably sweeping him out of the house. The crowd begins to clap in time to the Hasidic klezmer niggun. The vibrato of the sax plays against the high-pitched trilling of the clarinet, and the DJ is singing his refrain: De mezinke os-gegeben, de mezinke os gegeben. The pinky’s given away, the pinky’s given away.
I’m entranced. It’s as though, by watching this scene, I’m retroactively getting to know my grandparents all over again—even though they’re long gone. I’ve been given the chance to glimpse the world they left behind. A part of me is tempted to “keep score” again, take mental notes as I do with everything else at these weddings. But now, this is no longer anything like those other weddings. This is different: It’s authentic.
When I get back to my apartment, I slide off the ratty sandals—my Keds have holes in them—and peel off the Jackie Kennedy. I pause for a moment, trying to sort through my thoughts. I think back to the girl who brushed my shoulder and feel a little annoyed. Along with the rest of her educated-in-America-but-not-really-American cohorts, she lives in a world that holds shtetl Europe as the paradigm of Jewish observance. And yet, they’re so assimilated—not to America, per se, but to American Orthodoxy—that when they see something too authentic, when they see something that actually smacks of Europe, they balk.
And this, I suddenly realized, was why I’d been keeping count all along. If we had to uproot ourselves from America the way we did from Europe, and create for ourselves a new community elsewhere, which of these traditions would remain because they’re integral to the core we’re trying to perpetuate, and which are just hollow luxuries that we wouldn’t want, or be able to afford, to bring with us?
Unlike me, that mezinke-hater isn’t bothered by the homogenization of Jewish weddings. She takes it for granted that brides and grooms should and will follow these rules down to every last nuance—without anyone applying any rigorous thought or feeling to what does and doesn’t contain real meaning. After all, this is the Jewish community we’ve tried so hard to rebuild in post-Holocaust America. And apparently we’ve succeeded, because now we no longer remember we’re modeling it off of anything.
But if this young woman wants to live in a bubble—complete with all its trappings—then she must also acknowledge the bubble it came from and give credence to it. It was far more authentic than this one is. And that’s the irony: I’m a modern woman. While I appreciate the world my grandparents came from, I make no pretense of trying to replicate it. I love America and always will. But when it comes to the real customs of real people—for that, I have respect.
I’m the youngest in my family. Theoretically, I’m the mezinke. Not that I’m getting married any time soon. But when, God willing, I do, I’ve got my broom ready.
Judah Loew searches for his lost golem at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, hoping that the sculptures will offer him some guidance