I'm sitting at the post-chuppah dinner table (#2) with my aunt at the Lakewood wedding I went to this weekend. It was my niece's wedding, very beautiful, thank G-d.
Somehow we end up talking about marriage.
"The secret to a happy marriage is never to talk to each other," I state firmly.
"Whaaaaaa???" my young married cousin gets this big grin.
My other cousin's daughter, a teenager, is staring at me. She's resting her face on her hands and her elbows on the table and she's smiling in this way that says, now this is interesting.
"That's right, just don't talk to each other. Talk equals fight."
"That's insane," my cousin says. "Oh my G-d."
My older daughter, who is with me at the wedding, leans forward intently. "No seriously though, how much should you talk?"
I turn around. "Not at all. I just said."
"Oh my G-d," says my cousin again.
"Well how much did you talk before you got married?"
"I don't know."
"How much do you talk now?"
"What do you talk about?"
"I don't know, what do married couples talk about? The kids."
"You see!" I say triumphantly.
My beloved aunt Sari weighs in. "This was the first Shabbos without the kids. Miriam came home because what are Ma and Ta gonna do without kids to talk about."
"A-ha!" I pounded my fist on the table. "You see!"
My husband's mother, may she rest in peace, used to put one finger over her lips. "Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," she would say, and give a knowing look to my father-in-law, a"h.
You want a happy marriage?
Keep your opinions to yourself.
All opinions my own. Photo by Amanda Tipton via Flickr Creative Commons.
If memory serves, my uncle Abie and my aunt Merci got married in about 1980.
Abie had gone to the Dominican Republic to study medicine. I am not clear whether it was easier to get into medical school in the Dominican Republic or whether this had something to do with the pickings as far as Jewish girls of marriageable age were concerned. I kept hearing the words "short, fat and ugly" but then again as they say the grass is always greener on the other side.
As far as the quality of Uncle Abie's medical credentials he went on to be a doctor in Monticello, New York and has practiced there for forty years. When anyone has a question they call Abie. When I have a question I call Abie. When we moved to Silver Spring and met a neighbor with that very distinct Monticello accent - really it is unmistakable, I can't even try to duplicate it but I know it when I hear it - he knew me first and foremost as the niece of Dr. Garfinkel.
So he must have learned something.
My cousin Jessica, Abie's daughter, works for him in the office. I haven't seen her since my wedding. But we correspond on Facebook and she is the nicest person. She is also gorgeous and could model, I think.
This is Jessica.
In any case, as I recall when Abie brought Merci home it was a hot summer evening in Monticello and I was in Grandma's house.
Back in those days I went to Camp Tagola in the Catskills, with my mom who served as the camp nurse and with my sister. David Luchins of Touro College, where I spent my first semester of college, was the camp director.
We had a fairly ironclad routine in those days when it came to summers, although what came in between summers tended to change a lot because my dad was an IT consultant and changed assignments. Which meant we moved.
June would arrive and we'd prepare to make the trip up to the Catskills. Although I loved a lot of things about camp -- like tetherball and Color War and drama and pottery; the country air and waterskiing, kumsitz and the good all-you-can-eat buffet -- my social life was a problem because I looked like this.
That's me on the left of the photo. Maybe you're thinking that's a cute pic but if the thought is lurking in your mind that I look somewhat awkward you can magnify that about a thousand times and you'll get the reception that I got from the very well-groomed and gorgeous Long Island girls.
I had a love/hate relationship with the fact that my mom Debbie was the camp nurse.
On the negative side I was somewhat of a drag, what with having Mom on the faculty so to speak. Like, that is very not cool and made me into even more of a social outcast.
On the weekends, on Sundays I could frequently escape all the oppressive social issues and hide out at Grandma and Grandpa's house. It was about a 5 minute drive from the camp.
So on that hot summer night, which was not so bad because of the country air and slight breeze, I remember that Abie brought Merci home.
Clearly she was not Jewish, or at least did not seem Jewish, as all the Jews I knew were Caucasian and I believed at the time that the two went together. In fact I didn't know any people who weren't Caucasian. I saw them out the window of the car, maybe, but my world was extremely limited.
One time, and this is a very vivid memory, we were living in Cincinnati, Ohio. I saw a Black person on the street and turned to my mother and said, "Oh look -- " and then I said the N-word.
My mother grabbed my arm and threw me over the bed - keep in mind that I was five years old - and whacked my ass so hard. It was the only time she hit me and she hit me so forcefully that I learned what kind of bad word that was. Never, ever used it again. Not even to say that I had used it.
In any case, Merci was also gorgeous and extremely nice. I thought to myself, even at that young age, Abie has done extremely well for himself. From her demeanor, her dress and makeup I could tell that she was classy.
Later I learned, the way children do, that "she came from a very good family" and in fact had converted to Judaism as well.
All I can tell you is, my aunt Merci was the best aunt.
I don't think she ever got enough press, enough credit.
I haven't seen her, just like I haven't seen Jessica, in more than twenty years.
But here is what I do remember, and for me this is enough. I wanted to take a minute to celebrate her.
1. Merci took care of my Grandma, Muriel Garfinkel a"h, in her old age, as well as or better than any daughter could. I don't know about Grandpa, a"h, so much. But Grandma for sure.
2. My cousin Jessica clearly adores her. (I lost touch with my cousin Jason.)
3. She never aimed for the spotlight. Just quietly supported Abie - in everything.
4. Her food was amaze-ing. I am talking fried plaintains like you would not believe. I honestly didn't even know what a plaintain was until Merci got me involved with them.
5. The charcoal-grilled steak deserves a special mention.
6. So hospitable to me, so nice. Her home was my home. She let me trek all over it in my wet bathing suit.
7. A positive person to be around, in every way.
8. Never offended if she was overlooked in a conversation, or never let it show. She could easily have been pissed about pretty much anything. But in all the years I was around her -- and that was quite a few, although we only saw each other occasionally -- I only remember her focusing on other people - in a real way. Not because she had to.
Merci is up in the country still with Abie, and although it's unlikely I hope to see her again one of these days. She is a very special, very lovely, very warm human being and just the thought of her makes me smile.
All opinions my own. Family photos.
At the Lakewood wedding I attended, my niece's wedding, my mother was supposed to wear a wig.
She'd gone shopping and apparently this had resulted in two choices, neither of them especially flattering.
The sheitel macher was very nice. All of the women were very nice. Somebody told me they seemed almost too nice. She used the phrase "almost like Stepford wives" and I had to laugh.
I don't think they're artificially nice. Maybe sheltered.
So my mother is sitting in what looks like a barber's chair, in a room where the women are supposed to get ready. Inappropriately the men keep bursting in. First there is my father with the camera. He has a sheepish look on his face like this is the naughtiest thing in the world, and I suppose it is somewhat naughty for a man to go into the women's dressing room, even if we are all dressed.
But as my mother says, "This is our family," so what else would you expect?
Then my sister's sons join us and there is general hilarity about the dysfunctionality that is our blended crew.
So my mother is still in the barber's chair and I'm sitting opposite her. Me; my sister's mother-in-law who is very nice and bemusedly tolerant of this whole religious affair; the makeup artist who apparently grew up in Lakewood and is sort of tolerated because she does really good makeup, but is not as religious as the really religious ones; my daughter, who is angling for a makeup session but there's a long line of women waiting for the goods; and my niece who is just about as happy as can be amidst all the femininity and the frills.
My sister is running in and out making sure everything is under control.
And then there is the bride and her shomer, who I keep thinking of in a skeptical way as a "minder" but who seems to be reassuring the bride when her nerves would normally be off the charts. Indeed the bride tells me this is true, and so does the shomer. I make a mental note to learn the skills of this young lady who just quietly but very attentively supports her friend.
As the makeup artist does her thing I turn and look at my mother.
The nice sheitel macher, who looks about 25, has plopped this indescribably bad shaggy mop of a wig onto my mother's head. It is horrible. Like, really bad.
The women in the room are murmuring audibly that the wig looks bad but they don't want to make my mother feel bad.
Somebody says "let's see the other one."
Let's call the "other one" Plan B.
Plan B is not as bad, but it's close.
At first I try to reassure my mother. "It will look better when the makeup is on."
It seems like an interminable wait to get that makeup on.
My mother is so dutiful. She doesn't want to embarrass my sister because this is a religious wedding, right? We are all falling into line.
I've already had a "discussion" with her because my daughter's dress shows a little back skin at the top.
"No, she is not wearing a shell to cover up a little back skin. Please!"
"Listen, Dossy, go back to taking your pictures," she says.
"No Facebook!" says the bride. "I don't want an ayin hara."
I turn to my sister's mother-in-law.
"I don't know how much more of this religion I can take."
She looks at me unsympathetically.
"I had to patch up this dress in three places just to make it in here," she sighs, pointing to her neck, back and arms.
My nephew is taking this all in and shaking his head. He rolls his eyes and goes back to the other room.
I take a good long look at my mother and realize she is not going to do well with this wig. Now how do we get this handled.
The makeup artist is good and she does a very flattering job of adding cosmetics to my mother's face.
The wig is a little bit better then, but it's frumpy. And it's big for my mother's head. She is telling the sheitel macher that she's worried it's going to fall off.
I have this image of a wig somehow skating off my mother's head as she walks my niece down the aisle. And it's laying on the carpet beneath her as she keeps on walking.
And something inside me shrieks "NO!"
"What should I do?" says my mother.
Nobody wants to tell her that the wig looks bad.
My mother heads into the bathroom and calls me. "Dossy, come in here," she says. She needs help zipping up her dress.
Suddenly I can't take it anymore.
"TAKE OFF THAT DAMN WIG," I yell.
The bathroom walls are thin and I don't care.
"TAKE OFF THAT G-DDAMN WIG. I CAN'T STAND IT ANYMORE."
"Do you think?" my mother says.
"OH MY G-D TAKE OFF THAT WIG I CAN'T LOOK AT IT."
My mother takes the wig off. Her hair looks fine.
I can almost hear her sigh of relief.
"Let me brush it," she says.
"YOUR HAIR IS SHORT," I say. "THERE IS NO HAIR TO BRUSH. LET'S GO ALREADY."
Enough of this drama. What is it, five thousand years we're sitting here in this dressing room?
I can't decide if I'm more claustrophobic about being in here or more agoraphobic about going out and greeting all the guests. I decide claustrophobia is better.
I sit down in the corner and my mother stretches out her arms before the small crowd.
"What do you all think? Wig or no wig?" she asks.
And then my sister's mother-in-law speaks up.
"You seem happy. You looked good either way. But this way you definitely seem happier."
All opinions my own. Photo by Sarah Stierch via Flickr (Creative Commons)
I come from a strictly Orthodox family that values three things above all: the worship of G-d, the learning of Torah, and strong family bonds.
There are some cultural differences.
My mother's side of the family is "Litvish." Literally this means "from Lithuania." The yeshivot in Lithuania were renowned for the quality of the Torah scholars they produced. So in practice this cultural tradition places an emphasis on learning halacha in a yeshiva setting. The meaning of life comes from accurate observance of the laws.
My great grandfather, Reb Dovid Garfinkel, a"h, was a Torah scholar in the Litvish tradition. I am not sure if he meant this humorously or not, but I am told he used to say that a person should not be grandiose in their aims: "Just don't make the world worse."
Reb Dovid emphasized the importance of taking care with one's words. You may have heard the saying "speech is silver and silence is gold." He emphasized the Jewish prohibition against gossip and its discouragement of idle talk generally.
My mother's side of the family reflects the influence of Litvish culture generally and Reb Dovid specifically, as follows:
- Law-centric - life is about following the law and discussions are about interpreting it accurately
- Accuracy - don't add to the Law and don't subtract from it
- Rational not emotional; we hold the children but adults take physical space; they're not "huggers"
- No idle talk, no gossip, no "shmooz"
- No bragging or self-promotion - "all jaw and no paw" was a family insult - it means that someone is "all talk and no action"
- Keep to yourself and don't proselytize (this has changed somewhat as many Jews have become non-religious; a good example of modern outreach is the Aish.com organization; before that it was NCSY).
That's my maternal grandmother, Muriel Garfinkel, a"h, in the forefront of the photo above. She was married to Reb Dovid's son, my grandfather Murray a"h. The two of them were so much alike the uncles and aunts used to call them "Mur and Mur." Routinely they would pick up the telephone at the same time when I called.
Grandma was a true feminist. It seems to me that her values went beyond the traditional Jewish ones of home and family. She had a kind of holistic, humanistic view of the world we don't see articulated very clearly now. But she was Rosie the Riveter:
- Devoted to Grandpa
- Had and raised six kids
- Cooked from scratch
- Stood up for the "girls" including her daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters
- Loved all the children equally
- Was fiercely devoted to the family
- Worked professionally, independently and with Grandpa and urged the girls to do the same
Much of my childhood, or at least the part of it that I spent in Grandma and Grandpa's house, was spent actually litigating the difference between Chassidim and non-Chassidim, or Litvish tradition, which they never called out in my earshot. Probably because for them it was the default view of the world.
Why did Grandma and Grandpa get so exercised about Chassidim?
Because it was personal for them: My mother married my father.
That's Bubbie, Matilda (Mattie) Stroli a"h, in the center of the photo above. She came from Cluj, Hungary-Romania. Like my Zayde, Rabbi Valentine Stroli, she was imprisoned in the camps (my grandmother was in Auschwitz). Bad things happened to her family. She was one that got away.
She married Zayde after the war and they had my father, Alex. He and my mother married, in the late '60s and my childhood was full of discussions that led me to learn the following.
- Litvak versus Chassidish is a very gut-level argument for strictly observant Jews. They don't see themselves as ultra-Orthodox or fundamentalist. They see themselves as authentically Jewish.
- For strictly observant Jews, Conservative, Reform, etc. don't even enter into the conversation. (Today, the term "Open Orthodox" wouldn't mean anything at all.)
- Women are the center of the family and therefore the community, but men control the money and the ritual. Feminism is not a valid ideology because the focus is on Judaism; any ideology separate from religion is not compatible with a focus on religion.
As for Chassidism itself:
- Chassidus, initiated by the Baal Shem Tov in the late 1700s, was a reaction against the caste system of the time. Torah scholars were revered, but if you weren't a scholar you weren't considered much at all. And many Jews were not learned.
- According to Chassidus you could form a personal relationship with G-d through personal retreat and prayer and meditation, and in this relationship there was valid spirituality whether or not you were learned. This could lead to great holiness. In practice the emphasis came to be one's connection to the Rebbe, since such a level of focus was rare.
- Chassidim are ideologically oriented toward protecting the community from bad influences that can corrupt their focus on G-d. They are also oriented toward protection from the "evil eye," which derives from Jewish mystical belief about the influence of one's thoughts and the corresponding judgments these can invoke on the part of G-d. Anti-Semitism, especially after the Holocaust, is another factor; there is an intense focus on keeping the community safe from potentially hostile civil authorities.
- Chabad Chassidim are a separate sect which believes that the purpose of the world is to "redeem the sparks," e.g. to turn evil into good, meaning to bring non-religious Jews back. The other groups believe it is dangerous to mingle with bad influences and seek mostly to protect their families from it.
- Chassidim are deeply invested in emotion and relationships. Chassidic events typically start late and run late because the clock is considered more of a starting point for human connection rather than a regulator of it. The exception of course is Jewish law, so where time is fixed it is not negotiable (e.g. the start time of the Jewish Sabbath.)
My father proposed to my mother on the first date. The story goes that he picked her up and took her out to eat and asked her what she wanted.
"A hot dog."
My mother is simple and lovely and loving. That's her in the photo below, on the left.
That's me in the middle. My husband caught me young; we've been married for nearly 25 years. My older daughter Minna is on the right. (Rebecca is not pictured here.)
Minna and I came to New Jersey yesterday for the wedding of my sister's oldest daughter. I took lots of pictures but am not allowed to show them to you because the family is worried about ayin hara (evil eye).
What I can tell you about the wedding is that it was beautiful and fun and holy.
The wedding hall was in Lakewood, New Jersey, a center of yeshivish Jewish life.
Litvaks and Chassidim were in attendance, and they were just fine sitting side by side.
Everyone was welcome.
We spent a good long time in the makeup room getting ready.
The bride had a friend there to keep her calm.
We bonded over makeup. I felt bad for the makeup artist because the women just kept coming and coming.
There were beautiful, sweet children and babies overflowing the hall, k'neina hora.
Unlike what we see in secular culture, the focus was overwhelmingly on the family.
Everywhere you looked there were mothers, fathers, grandparents, uncles and aunts and extended family holding, hugging, feeding, and talking to their children.
People talked about their jobs and some people seemed to have high level job titles. But it was clear that there was no such thing as a "career ideology" the way there is in the secular world.
Religious people do not derive their identity from the workplace.
* * *
All in all, it was a wistful throwback for me personally. I had re-entered "my world," except as an adult that left it many years ago.
You can't go back in time. And I don't think I could live in this world anymore, at all. I am a secular person and a feminist. I don't live a life dictated by all the rituals they do.
But I can remember all the good that lived there when I was young. Which I took very much for granted.
I can share with you a limited amount, in words. That you don't get to see very much of, at all.
Because they're trying to protect what little they have left.
* * *
It's easy to throw stones at religious people.
But when you talk without knowing, or from cynicism and hate, you're not really telling the story.
Mazel tov to my niece and her new husband. Two really nice people. May they be healthy and happy and have a beautiful life.
Mazel tov to my sister and her husband, to my nieces and nephews.
Mazel tov to my mom and dad and to my brother-in-law's parents.
Mazel tov to the whole family.
All opinions my own.