Weddings are perfect moments in time: celebrations of love, certainly, but also carefully crafted productions that express status, values and religious identity. Saturday-night dinner dance or Sunday afternoon in the backyard? Factory-farmed prime rib or sustainable wild salmon? Seven circles around the groom or none at all? Nothing is too insignificant to help a couple display their identity. Recent weddings I have attended have featured couples who design their own signature cocktails, commission personalized fonts for their invitations, and create elaborate videos that share their “story.”
None of these details held my interest when I planned my own wedding six years ago. Instead, I was (perhaps unsurprisingly) really interested in the wedding liturgy, eager to showcase my own perspective on Jewish tradition. By a stroke of luck, many of my friends were getting married in the same season as I was. My fiancé and I joined these friends—one straight couple and two gay couples—and together learned the sources related to Kiddushin. The eight of us had rich and honest conversations and came to understand deeply each other’s different perspectives. After intense study, and in time for ketubot to be scribed and wedding booklets to be printed, each couple had created the marriage ritual that was the ideal signifier of their particular Jewish story—traditional, egalitarian, liberal, socially conscious, textually rich. The process helped me to feel that my wedding could take place in a richer and broader Jewish context than I had imagined.
Weddings, it turns out, are not exactly the same as marriages. One of my favorite descriptions of the difference between getting married and being married is on a piece of yellowed newsprint stuck to my refrigerator with a magnet. It is from a 2004 New York Times article interview with the writer of the finale to the popular HBO series “Sex and the City.” Speculating whether the series would conclude with a wedding for Carrie and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Mr. Big, the interviewer asked whether the show could be fulfilling without a wedding at its end. The writer responded, “It is true, marriage is literally the best convention we have for literally tying everything up with a bow. But that is the whole problem: it does not really do that, except in stories. In reality, a marriage is the end of the television episode and the beginning of the documentary.”
In a planet far away from intense study, personalized cocktails and video montages lives the daily realities of marriage—lots of love and humor and comfort, if you are lucky. But there can also be a certain “mission creep” as organizational consultants say. The great ideals that animated wedding planning seem innocent and naive, because they have given way to the compromises and realities of being married. What a shame this is—not dissimilar from the truths that people acknowledge in the aftermath of a tragedy or of a near brush with death, which they often jettison when life returns to normal. What might it look like to rediscover the values that felt important during the wedding planning and to do the work of bringing those values to our homes and workplaces? I do not mean the narcissism of making 300 guests watch a video about your first date—I mean the feeling that the choices we make actually mean something in the lives we live.
There are two elements of wedding planning in particular that could stand to be re-animated in marriage. The first is the sense that marriage, while certainly a very private institution, might also be richer and deeper by finding people with whom we can be honest about its challenges. When I planned a wedding with my fiancé—and six other friends—I felt solace from watching others wrestle with family issues, traditional texts and doubts. Creating a culture among friends where marriage can be talked about with greater complexity would likely help individuals to understand themselves and their partners better. It would also take marriage off of the pedestal whereby it appears perfect to all except those who are in it.
My years as a congregational rabbi taught me a lot of what takes place within marriage, its ups and downs. Most often, when people shared with me feelings of doubt, boredom or disappointment, they seemed convinced that none of their friends had any of these feelings in their own marriages. A woman came to talk to me once about her negative feelings about her husband. As part of her story she told me that she had recently been out with another couple who were so happy with each other, and she wondered why she and her husband could not be this happy. Of course you can guess the end of this story. I had just referred that other couple to a couple’s therapist so that they could try to overcome the many resentments and disappointments that had built up in their years together. Certainly modesty and good taste prevent people of good sense from talking about deeply personal matters in overtly public ways. But having honesty as a value with a close friend or two will probably ground us in reality rather than fantasy.
The second—for those of us who sought to reflect an egalitarian ethic in our wedding liturgies—is to actually reflect that ethic in our homes (and workplaces). I wonder what would happen if we all read our ketubot to our partners and asked each other how we were living up to what is contained in these documents. While the conversations and actions that might come from this could be both boring (who does the laundry and when?) and fraught (who is emotionally available to our children and when?), they will nonetheless be some small step towards aligning our values and actions—and hopefully making our homes, workplaces and communities places of greater possibility.
Television series and weddings end with a great sense of closure and joy. Marriages and documentaries have no such narrative fulfillment. Because they are about real life — in its complicated, messy, uncontrolled and joyful complexity — we can not expect a redemptive coda. A couple that I know celebrated 50 years of being married recently. Caring, loving, and respectful towards each other, everyone around them wondered what their secret was. What was their answer, delivered with a laugh? “Good luck and hard work, every day!” Maybe that should be calligraphed on each and every ketubah.
Rabbi Joanna Samuels, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, is the director of strategic initiatives at Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.
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