Joy (Jewish style)
(click picture to enlarge)
In college I read a lot about Jewish-Christian relations. My formal area of study was International Relations and so it was my job to read a lot of accounts of relations, mostly from the Gringo side of things: US-Latin American relations (not so swell), US-Russian relations (cold), US-French relations (a very weird love-hate deal), US-Middle Eastern relations (well, I'm running out of adjectives to describe the same, general relation the US of A has had to other parts of the world throughout the 20th century). Suffice to say, the Brits are pretty much the only semi-constant pals to the Yanks. We're admired around the globe, frequently envied, but not always exactly liked.
But the Jewish people of Israel are a different story. I won't belabor a poli-sci lesson, which others could perform with greater skill than I, but I will say that I was fascinated. Sitting in the architecture library at the University of Texas I rummaged through the Old Testament and the Talmud and stacks of The Economist and the Foreign Affairs journal for information on Jewish life and thought. I devoured Leon Uris' novels, Exodus and Mila 18. My friend Craig Ackermann took me to synagogue once. I shared passover with a rabbi and his family while living in Canada. Chaim Potok changed my life. I was in love with things Jewish.
Somewhere along the way I acquired a fantasy life about Jewish weddings. Mostly it was vague notions, things I probably got from movies and novels. But it exercised a powerful influence on my imagination.
I liked the stepping on a glass that grooms got to do. I told Pheadra while we were in honeymoonland that when we returned to our home in Austin I wanted to smash a plate or something. "Why?" she asked. "I don't know," I said, "I just think it would be cool." In some Jewish traditions this custom is said to be a reminder of the broken fragments of creation and our need to engage in the spiritual reparation of all that God made.
I liked the multi-day festival involved in Middle Eastern weddings, usually requiring a village of bartered labor to pull it off. I liked their betrothal ceremonies (which we ourselves imitated back on St. Patrick's Day last March 2007). I liked their chuppahs. These were the canopies that would be carried by the attendants down streets, singing along the way, to the location of the ceremony and which symbolized the home that the couple would build together--under the open skies, open to God.
I totally liked this photograph I once found. In the picture was a room full of Orthodox Jewish men, all with cascading black and brown and red beards, their yarmulkes perched in place. Their black gowns swam in the air as if under water. They all were grinning and sweating. And they danced around in a circle while a few of them, set in the center of the circle, twirled upside-down on their heads, feet flopped over, around and around. "That's what I want to do when I grow up," I told myself. That's awesome!
I think what I was looking for back then was color and ceremony. I wanted a wedding that said something. I wanted a ceremony that pulled me into something greater than myself. I didn't want just signs of my vows, I wanted symbols. I wanted a multi-sensory drama that said everything I'm doing here matters and none of it fully captures what this is all about but you at least try with every sense available.
And that, to my great astonishment, is what we got on January 20, 2008. After two and a half years of dating, lots of fighting, an awful, miserable break-up, marathonic pre-marital counseling sessions, a Medieval Masquerade Betrothal party, fear, uncertainty, excitement, fickle emotions, intense desire, spats with our own love-affairs with independence, playing superhero dress-up, eating non-stop Chuy's, and a willingness to do God's will no matter what, we finally arrived at our wedding day--and again to our great astonishment--found that all the hard work had ended up making a really, really, really tasty wine of color and ceremony and shared friendship and unquenchable joy.
Towards the end of the long, blessed night, my brother-in-law Clifton David Sims Warner, co-officiant, whiteboy amateur breakdancer and erstwhile national junior racquetball champion, rallies the men of our wedding party, and before I know it I'm being shoved down into a chair and then heaved into the air and bounced up and down, up and down--just like in the Jewish novels!
And then, lo, there is Phaedra, raised high, half by women, half by men who rescue her from sliding off with her satiny champagne-colored dress. She is bouncing in the air alongside me. We start laughing and laughing and laughing.
Then I stop and can only manage to smile, a smile that stretches from one ear to the other and more if it could. The joy is too big. Laughter cannot contain the joy. It is too much. It is much too much. We are fully alive as St. Irenaeus said we would be when thickly placed in the glory of God. We are fully alive.
Our wedding day was like a beautiful, joyful, not so simple feast, or perhaps Jewish-like festival, made out of the finest dark chocolate: we ate and our mouths were filled with laughter.
We ate and our mouths were filled with laughter.