If they’d met a generation ago, Shayna Peavey, a cantor, and Melissa De Lowe, a first-grade Judaic studies teacher, might very well have fallen in love. They might have waltzed across Israel together, setting off for little-known destinations in their leisure time — as they did when they first met as Hebrew Union College students abroad in Jerusalem. They might have regrouped in New York City, where Peavey, now 30, finished her cantorial studies, and De Lowe, 27, moved after dating Peavey for three months in Israel.
But if they’d met in another generation, they would never have experienced such a joyous and public wedding engagement. De Lowe’s first-grade students at Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn
showered her with Mazel Tov cards; one designed a set of wedding dresses; the whole class delights in trying on her engagement ring. And at Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side, where Peavey is the assistant cantor, the entire congregation belted out "Mazel Tov Siman Tov" at a Friday night service. Outside of work, family and friends can’t seem to find enough occasions to fête the lesbian pair. They’ve been toasted at three engagement parties already; one more to go.
The couple got engaged in February, after De Lowe, the bolder of the two, whispered the lyrics of an Israeli love song into Peavey’s ear. They plan to marry next summer in Massachusetts, the first state to offer legal marriage to same-sex couples. And so, with the blessing of three sets of parents (De Lowe’s have divorced and remarried), with a dozen or more rabbis in attendance, and amid the blueberry bushes and bamboo trees of Peavy’s aunt and uncle’s yard in Amherst, Peavey and De Lowe will be consecrated to each other according to the laws of the state. The wedding will closely adhere to the traditional Jewish ceremony, though by necessity it may stray at moments. They both would like to smash the glass, for example.
"We have far to go before we’re granted full equality, but we want to be conscious that we’re benefiting from the hard work of an older generation," says De Lowe. "Thirty years ago, we wouldn’t be in a public, open relationship."
Likely, they wouldn’t have gotten engaged at all — since same-sex Jewish ceremonies have only grown popular since the 1990s. Certainly they wouldn’t have had the option of legal marriage, which has become available only since 2004, first in Massachusetts, with several other states dropping barriers to legal marriage in recent months.
"To think of where the world has come since 1973 is almost breathtaking," says Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a synagogue for the gay and lesbian community of New York City, which was founded 36 years ago and commonly referred to by the initials CBST. "In 1973, not a single Jewish institution, not a single rabbi, not a single Jewish voice supported full gay rights."
With Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire joining Massachusetts in legalizing gay marriage in the past year, and several other states poised to do so, including perhaps New York, "It’s like coming out of Egypt," says Rabbi Kleinbaum. But without the many critical benefits bestowed by federal law on heterosexual marriages, such as Social Security benefits for a surviving spouse, and with the possibility of revocation of legal marriage at any point, she says, "It doesn’t mean we’re in the Promised Land by any means."
In fact, negotiating the recent shifts in law can be irritating. David Berger, a cantor at CBST, plans to marry Dror Chankin-Gould, a rabbinical student at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, in a traditional Jewish wedding this summer in California, where the couple will live after marriage. But Berger, who is 28, and Chankin-Gould, who is 25, felt compelled to hold a civil ceremony in California this past Sukkot, before the state banned gay marriage in November, when voters passed Proposition 8.
"We had to hold our civil ceremony then because we were terrified that in less than a month our right to get married would be revoked," says Berger. "It made my humble civil marriage into a kind of protest. That’s not what marriage is supposed to be."
This period of flux can also be unnerving for those considering a wedding in New York, where marriage laws may change soon — or not. Steve Fuchs, who is 49, is planning to hold a Jewish ceremony next year with his partner of 25 years, Brian Lancaster, who is 50. Fuchs, who popped the question at Lancaster’s birthday party last fall in front of 20 surprised guests and an astonished Lancaster, says he already has considered who the rabbi might be (Rabbi Lisa Gruschow of Rodeph Sholom), the flower girl (his and Lancaster’s 4-year-old daughter) and the ring bearer (their 2-year-old son). He can even already imagine "two tearful grooms walking down the aisle." But as for location? He’s open to many options, including New York.
On the other hand, without national recognition of gay marriage, it may not make much of a difference. According to Marriage Equality USA, the federal government confers more than 1,000 rights and benefits on married couples. "If I really think about it, it gets me so upset I just want to scream," says Fuchs, who says he tends not to focus on the inequities because it makes him sad. "We’re such active participants in society. We’re a family in every other way except marriage."
CBST clergy note a split along generational lines, with many younger couples assuming a path toward marriage and parenthood. And it is the younger couples who seem to be in a more celebratory mood about the recent turn of events. Eva Price, a Manhattan resident who is 30, will marry Stephanie Saunders, 31, by a lake in Connecticut this summer. The party will feature a "very long, ruach-filled hora," says Price, using the Hebrew word for spirit, and the ceremony will be adapted slightly from a traditional Jewish wedding to suit a same-sex relationship.
Price wonders whether the right to marry in Connecticut may be revoked at some point soon, but believes it won’t happen before July. In the meantime, she says that several of her lesbian friends are also coupling up, enmeshed in wedding plans.
Price says she never expected to go this route. As a child, she says she was tomboyish, and didn’t consider "anything girly in my future." She came to terms with her interest in dating women shortly after college, and when her mother informed her she was saving money for her wedding, Price told her: "Don’t bother." Then marriage became legal in Massachusetts. Then she met Saunders, who is quiet and calm while Price is loud and impulsive. Price also favors a nicely cooked brisket at a Friday night dinner and enriches Saunders’ Judaism — "except her Yiddish needs work."
"Together we are funny and smart and very stable. I’ve been in previous relationships, but not like this." And Price began to think: "OK, maybe this can happen to me."