My family practices a kind of compensatory Judaism. Brought up only culturally Jewish in the Soviet Union, my parents find religious ritual daunting and alienating. But having paid dearly for their Jewishness, and having had it reinforced by former countrymen who wouldn’t let them forget it, my parents are eager to celebrate it. So American freedom has amplified their Jewishness without greatly increasing their observance of tradition and ritual. Their support for Israel borders on the fanatical: Next fall, my 57-year-old father will use his two weeks of vacation to volunteer in the mess halls and warehouses of the Israeli Army; my mother has kept her menorah lit well into January. (It can’t hurt.) My parents are like the animists of Brazil or New Orleans: Their blend of the pagan and Abrahamic disturbs only the purists on either side of the fence.
I am a purist. I’ve taken care to preserve my Russian—I was 9 when my family arrived in America, in 1988—and go out of my way not to pollute it with Runglish (parkovat’, affordat’, spellat’). In the past, this notion has held especially true for Judaism. Unable to see past what Marx said about all religions, I steered scrupulously clear. I was kosher in my abstainment. I even managed to date a Modern Orthodox girl for six years—a yeshiva graduate who kept a kosher home—without adopting her rituals. I wasn’t going to do things piecemeal or in the improvised, dabbling way of my parents.
Several months ago, my parents and I were having dinner when the conversation turned to their upcoming 35th wedding anniversary. My mother, a schemer who would use Canadian Boxing Day as an excuse for a bash if it meant someone south of Montreal would show, proposed caterers. And table linens. And seating at separate round tables, wedding-style.
“I’ve got it—we’re going to renew our vows!” she exclaimed. My father choked on his pasta. “Under a chuppah,” she added.
In 1975, they had been married by the government of the city of Minsk, Belarus. This time, my mother wanted a figure closer to her faith to officiate. The only problem was that the last rabbi we had engaged, a bearded mumbler in Orthodox garb who whispered something over my grandmother’s grave, pocketed the white envelope from my grandfather’s hand, and slipped off into the night, did not leave us with the most inspired feeling toward the clergymen of our faith.
My mother’s conviction that there’s no such thing as a bad party pales only before her conviction that her son can do anything. (And what’s the harm if doing it will require him to make a couple of extra calls to his mother?)
“You should do it,” my mother said, turning to me. “Please. A present for us.”
I had numbed myself to Mom’s guilting long ago. So, a mechanical refusal was nearly out of my mouth before I realized I wasn’t sure I wanted to refuse. For some reason, my mother’s request did not provoke the same intimidation that my ex-girlfriend’s hopes of interesting me in Judaism had. Judaism had felt inapproachably general. This—the wedding ceremony—felt finite, digestible. My curiosity stirred.
That my mother would ask me to officiate under the chuppah should indicate how symbolically she regarded the religious portion of the proceedings. If I limited my role to a series of non-denominational bromides of the sort we traded at every other family-and-relatives gathering—“May you live with happiness and health”—no one would have thought twice. But I didn’t want this ceremony to be like other gatherings. I had observed with envious resentment the tenderness and passion with which my ex-girlfriend connected to religion. Here was my chance to find out more.
A Google-explorer venturing to find out how to officiate a Jewish wedding discovers a smorgasbord of options in his very first screen of hits: Reform? Hasidic? Messianic? You might expect that this Yom Kippur face-stuffer would choose Reform. The one-page explication of the Reform ceremony I came across did include the lovely revelation that the chuppah symbolizes the home that the bride and groom will build together. This had literal meaning for our family. My father is a superlative craftsman who has built most of the things inside our homes with his own hands.
In the end, however, the brief Reform primer felt like a gloss. I found myself drawn instead to the far more detailed explication of the ritual in another link. This one didn’t specify the provenance but seemed to draw heavily on Hasidic philosophy. On first read, the document was a jumble of incomprehensible dictates, suggestions, and caveats. But I pressed on. After the third read, the ideas behind the rules began to come into relief, like hills taking pale shape at dawn.
My parents’ vow-renewal ceremony took place in the backyard of their suburban New Jersey home on one of those heavenly early-September days that makes you think of Cézanne. The guests were resplendent in white, black, and coral, the color of the traditional gift for a 35th wedding anniversary. (The dress code was requested by my mother in the handwritten invitations that she had me—natch—write out.) The chuppah, a sheet imprinted with photographs from our lives on both sides of the ocean, rested on four trunks of young birch, the ubiquitous tree in Belarus.
I had sent my parents my script for the ceremony only the previous evening. We hadn’t had a chance to talk since. A little nervously, I searched out my mother’s face as she wrangled with the caterer. Soviet Jews tend to be as aggressively skeptical of Judaism as they are guilelessly sentimental about Jewishness. But when I finally pinned her down, my mother had few corrections. The flipside of her blind faith in her son is more blind faith; she would follow me anywhere. You can say I’m her religion.
The traditional Jewish wedding ceremony is as loaded with high-minded symbolism as an avant-garde Russian novel of the early 20th century. Prior to the ceremony, all knots on the groom’s clothing must be untied, symbolizing the breaking of all other bonds except for the one he is about to forge with his bride. The bride and her father must circle the groom seven times, to symbolize the bond that will exist between the families of the bride and the groom, the seven-day period during which the earth was created, and the seven times men wrap tefillin around their arms. The breaking of the glass symbolizes the breaking of our hearts in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple; that love, like glass, is fragile and must be protected because, once broken, it’s hard to put back together again.
The sound of the breaking glass is supposed to travel through time and space to share the newlyweds’ joy with all who have loved them. This sense of community, including those individuals no longer with us, permeates the ceremony. The bride and groom enact rituals that have their roots in the lives of the Patriarchs. Hasidic philosophy says that three generations of deceased on both sides of the wedding aisle are present, looking on and conferring their blessing. And when the ceremony has concluded, the rabbi informs the assembled that it is their duty to entertain the bride and groom, to perform a dance around them to indicate the community’s intention to stand by them as a couple. “As a part of the Jewish people,” I had read in my Hasidic primer, “they should never fear facing life alone.” In a sometimes lonely place, these are invaluable sentiments.
It wasn’t only what was in the ritual that enchanted me. It was also the freedom I felt to reshape and leave out. It’s funny the way scrupulousness works. Regarding the monolith of my faith from a distance, armed with nothing other than a generic all-or-nothing compulsion, I couldn’t imagine engaging with it selectively. This felt unserious and inauthentic. (Take it from this immigrant: There is no insecurity like the insecurity of an interloper.) But once I’d actually taken the dive, a blessed equanimity descended from somewhere. Pick and choose, it said. It’s OK—you’re forgiven. In a laboriously intellectual way, I had ended up where my parents had found their way by instinct long ago.
So, when I came across the instruction that a Kohen should bless the newlyweds, I modified it, there being no Kohens in our heathen midst. Instead, I decided to ask one member of each family in attendance to share a story about the newlyweds. “You are our Kohens,” I told them when the moment came during the ceremony. I said it in Russian, the language in which I conducted the ceremony (with a couple of assists from the audience), save for the Hebrew blessings.
And when the time came to read the promises made to the bride by the groom in the ketubah, I revised again, asking my parents to also prepare messages for each other. Under the chuppah, my mother told a story about a recent weekend trip to a department store with my father, where they split to shop separately. When they met by the register an hour later, each held the same decorative miniature three-legged stool. They thought the other would like it. My father played my mother two songs—his first on the guitar in about 35 years. The first was a famous Russian poem set to music. The second he had written for her himself.
That afternoon, my father smiled bashfully as he reached over his belly to untie the knots in his shoelaces. My grandfather completed his seven-times circuit of the groom with eyebrows lifted in mystification at this otherworldly ritual. When the time came to tell stories, I told the one about how, as a 13-year-old given the fresh opportunity of a self-reinvention in the suburban town to which my parents had moved me from Brooklyn, I had tried to pass myself off as a Bobby instead of a Boris, only to be returned to the hirsute, sweaty splendor of my original name when my parents came to pick me up from a tennis match and began shouting my real name up and down the hard court. They were early harbingers of the reconnection I would have with my heritage in several years, after a decade of strenuously trying to discard it.
Not everyone in attendance—or under the chuppah—understood every aspect of the ceremony; not everyone made their way successfully through the Hebrew blessings. But in the end, everyone confessed to a transforming experience. Some friends of my mother’s had a niece about to get married; they asked: Was I available to officiate?
My study of the Jewish wedding tradition had revealed it to me as a ritual of symbolism, remembrance, and poetry. Indeed, it was the last quality that struck me the most: the notion that marriage returns man and woman to the ideal state of togetherness in which they began history, Eve having been created from Adam’s rib; the idea that the wedding day is a personal Yom Kippur during which the bride and groom forgive the other past sins; that on this day, they are referred to as King and Queen; that the sixth—and longest—of the concluding sheva b’rachot “expresses the hope that the bride and groom grow in their love for each other, focusing their love as exclusively as Adam and Eve, when there was no one else in the world.” To love each other as if there was no one else in the world—that is a definition of love I can get behind.
The tradition got my attention as an exile from a land where I was less wanted but felt more at home; as the grandson of a remarkable woman who would be the first person in our family line to die in America; and as someone who tries to make art. It was the last thing I expected, but its intelligence, longevity, and sense of community gave me solace. And an itch to find out what comes next.
Boris Fishman is a 2010-11 Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center.
Boris Fishman is the author of the novels Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, A Replacement Life, and Savage Feast, a family memoir told through recipes.
Boris Fishman is the author of the novels Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo and A Replacement Life, and Savage Feast, a family memoir told through recipes.