Ten years ago, I heard the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. Near the end of my Jewish wedding ceremony, I stood under the chuppah as my wife and I and more than 200 wedding guests simultaneously stomped on tiny red light bulbs held in white pouches. The resulting bang and pop was tremendous and it pleased me far more than I imagined it would. It was levity and seriousness, power and weakness, victory and loss, beginning and ending, joy and despair, individuality and community.
Perhaps most astounding was that this beautiful sound marked the close of a ceremony in which I had previously never imagined I would find myself a participant.
My wife and I were in a relationship for nine years before we got married. From the beginning, we approached each other as equals and made decisions together. We both believed that we didn’t need the state or a religious ceremony to validate our relationship. We already knew its value and our commitment to each other and we knew nothing would change how we felt about or treated each other. Besides, I disliked the sexual politics of weddings. By this I mean that I disliked the traditional imagery and symbolism of weddings: the “giving away” of the woman by a man (her father), the acquiring of a woman by another man (her new husband), the emphasis on the woman’s appearance and attire, and the rigid gender roles associated with these ceremonies.
We had debated the topics of weddings and marriage numerous times. It came up in response to attending the weddings of our close friends and in response to pointed questions and pressure from family members. These discussions were also prompted by our cohabitation, which began around the fifth year of our relationship. We mostly agreed at that young point in our lives that a wedding was not something we needed, although in truth, I was likely more strongly against it than she was: I had deep reservations about the value of weddings in modern life and how they appeared to conflict with the gender equity in which I deeply believed. I was also opposed to getting married because there was not yet marriage equality in New York. And, as a child of divorce who saw my mother and father split and experienced all the pain it caused, I subconsciously approached marriage from a place of fear.
Being unmarried had not limited us or our love. We were able to live together, share expenses, and support each other. Perhaps we also wanted to push back on the constant devaluation of our relationship by others because we were not married and did not carry certain legal titles. As someone raised by two mothers during my formative years—women who had a very real relationship but were not given an opportunity to marry (or divorce when they split up)—and who then observed my mother and her subsequent partner (now wife) sharing a committed relationship, I knew relationships had an intrinsic value without a stamp of approval from a higher authority, be it divine or secular.
But, one night on a long walk home around 11 years ago, my then-girlfriend and I began talking about our living grandmothers. My girlfriend in her wisdom noted how our grandmothers were getting older (they were in their mid-80s then, and are still with us). She suggested that a Jewish wedding would give them great joy. And these were women who deserved joy. Her grandmother is a Holocaust survivor who gave birth to my future mother-in-law in the Bergen-Belsen displaced-persons camp after the war and then made her way to America to start life anew. In 1940, my paternal grandmother (my savta) escaped from Romania and landed in Haifa, where she studied agriculture and later became a teacher. With her spirit and drive and energy, she could have run a small country if asked to do so.
It did not take many more conversations to agree to a wedding. Nobody proposed. With my wife taking the lead, we jointly agreed (as we had with many other things) and set about planning a ceremony that would match our values. No engagement rings were exchanged. And, from the inception of the agreement, we conceded that we were inspired by the thing we had always known and had until then rejected: Weddings are for others. They are for family and friends and the world outside the one in which a couple resides.
But, if we were going to do this thing, if our community was to truly see us, and if we were to embrace Jewish tradition, we would have to make the tradition our own. As Anita Diamant explained in The New Jewish Wedding: “To make a wedding that is both recognizably Jewish and personally meaningful requires a level of conscious decision-making that would have mystified our great-grandparents.” Or, as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg put it, if “you’re committed enough to the Jewish tradition that the legal framework in which it exists matters to you,” you want a wedding ceremony that “reflect[s] the marriage [you] intended to have” and expresses your values.
Perhaps it is not surprising that I could only accept tradition by grappling with it. Through my father, I am the 10th generation descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the mystical rabbi and founder of Hasidic Judaism who revolutionized Jewish thinking and traditions in 18th century Poland. My mother and father had been married by Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained a rabbi in America. Among many other things, my mother was one of the co-founders of the Feminist Passover Seder, which reordered that sacred dinner by giving priority to women’s voices and stories, and she was among the first group of women to pray at the Kotel with a Torah, and part of the International Committee for Women of the Wall, which in 1991 sued the State of Israel to grant women religious rights at the Kotel.
In short, my genealogy and upbringing trained me to challenge and seek to improve upon things. Is this type of analysis not also the definition of being a Jew? As Diamant suggests, “Judaism is a living tradition because it has been examined, debated, and reinvented, generation after generation.”
Some things were out from the start. There would be no bedeken ceremony, in which men and women are segregated, the groom’s party approaches the bride’s entourage, and the groom veils the bride—for we each knew who the other was and our faces would remain open to all. Instead, we would begin with a cocktail hour and by greeting our guests as a couple. She would not circle around me seven times. We would walk each other down the aisle to the chuppah, rather than be “given away” by others because we already belonged to one another. We would not have a “first dance” because we had danced together a thousand times. Rather than having the assembled sit in straight rows facing us, we would sit in the round all facing each other. We would not separate the day before the wedding. We would help each other get dressed and have our photographers trail us around Manhattan to our favorite places: a diner, a movie theater, the subway and bus, the Brooklyn Bridge.
Some things were in: Our grandmothers cutting the challah to start the meal. Speeches. Dancing to our favorite songs. The hora. The mazinka. Delicious food.
Because we did not want to erase the pre-marital portion of our relationship, we decided to hold the event on our next anniversary, which happened to be our ninth, and to incorporate that as a theme of the celebration. There could not have been a better choice. In Judaism, nine is half of the numerical value given to the Hebrew word chai, which means life, and nine also represents birth. Abraham was “90 and nine years old” (symbolically reduced to a nine) when he received his covenant from God, and nine is associated with the creation of man; the total of the digits represented by the Hebrew letters spelling Adam’s name results in the number nine. Coincidentally, our anniversary date, 11/25 is reduced to the number nine (1+1+2+5 = 9).
We chose a rabbi, Judith Hauptman, the first female Talmudic professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who swiftly absorbed our concerns and ideas and effectuated them. She crafted two blessings for us so that instead of the traditional seven blessings, we read nine at our ceremony. These additional blessings thanked God for creating wisdom and love, and asked for a life of peace and to have our wishes fulfilled. Each blessing was read aloud by a guest in English and chanted in Hebrew by Cantor Sam Levine of the East Midwood Jewish Center.
The ceremony began with the soft, tear-inducing sounds of a flute and the cantor’s voice. After our entrance, my wife and I addressed the assembled in a joint opening speech (an unusual thing). We announced we were tired of being asked, “When’s the wedding?” talked about the meaning of the number nine, and told a story about when I threw up at the sight of my wife sick in a hospital bed. It was love at “first regurgitation,” we advised.
Although we exchanged rings and each recited the words meaning “behold, you are consecrated to me,” we also placed the rings in a pouch, held it aloft and by doing so cemented our partnership. We then executed our rainbow-colored ketubah in full view of the audience. In that contract, we promised to be understanding and forgiving, to be there in times of need and celebration, and to support each other in life. In addition to our close friends who served as formal witnesses, we invited all guests to sign around the ketubah as witnesses. Seeing their signatures and messages makes me smile to this day.
In her charge to us, Rabbi Hauptman advised us that “we have a whole Jewish society invested in us”; that “we, your community, can reflect back at you our joy in your marriage.” And, she added: “You are there for us and we will be there for you.”
Those words hit the mark. We were reflecting joy and obligation back and forth with our community — a virtuous, fulfilling cycle. Still, even though we had put on this event for others, and spent much of the night greeting and hugging and receiving and reflecting, somehow everyone else disappeared and I managed to dance the night away with the only person I could really see: my wife. Yet, it was through this ceremony and celebration that I felt affirmed and, I admit, the joy of others made me love my wife even more. I even loved the people who hocked us to get married all those years, and the wedding itself.
The number nine invokes something else: the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av. It is the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new cycle. So, with the loud communal breaking of glass we were remembering loss and sadness for our people, and in the world. I think, too, it was a reminder to the couple to take our obligations seriously, a warning that there will be future loss, and that we will need to rely on each other to make it through life’s pain and to find resilience.
But that night was about merriment and fulfilling obligations and sharing our love. It was about two Brooklyn kids on cloud nine floating over Manhattan, ever moving forward and onward, but never forgetting to look back across the river.
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Ariel Chesler is an attorney and writer in New York. He lives with his wife and two daughters, and one cat. He is the son of feminist author and psychologist Phyllis Chesler.