Jewish Action Spring 5777
We are drinking instant iced tea out of Dixie cups at a motel next to an amusement park. I like dipping my finger directly into the powder and licking it off. I am four years old. I like the motel we are staying in. I like the instant iced tea. I don’t like the question my father asks me.
“Your mother and I are getting divorced. Who do you want to live with?”
I stare at my father. How can I answer a question like this? This question means I must choose between my mother and my father. I know this is a trick question. Whatever I say will not remain a secret, and someone will be terribly hurt by my answer. I suspect that person might be me.
My father is waiting for my answer. I dip my finger into the instant iced tea powder. It is lemon flavored and very, very sweet. I keep dipping my finger into the iced tea powder while I try to think of an answer that will not cause me to lose someone I love. Then the right answer comes to me.
“I want to live with Jonathan,” I say.
Jonathan is my big brother. He has brown hair and green eyes and a generous helping of freckles. I am four, but Jonathan is already nine. He must know the right answer to this question. He always knows the answers to all my questions.
My father loves this answer. He thinks it is such a clever answer. For the rest of my life, whenever I am faced with a question I cannot answer, I will think of this moment. I will think of how by deflecting the question onto my brother, I have bought myself time; for the next four years, until the day my brother chooses to go live with my father, I still have both my parents.
Once my brother begins living with my father, things change. My family divides into couplets, my father and brother on one side and my mother and I on the other side of an unbreachable divide, as though the Berlin Wall has descended overnight to divide my family. I lose contact with both my father and my brother as a result of my brother’s choice. Three years later, I make a choice of my own. I begin living with my father, am reunited with my brother, and lose my mother. My mother remains on her side of the wall, and the wall is impenetrable. Even my own wedding does not create the possibility of reconciliation, because in my family choices once made cannot be undone.
How did I know this as such a young child? How did I know to deflect the question my father asked me? I must have known then that a decision, any decision, would be catastrophic. I must have sensed the presence of the underground fault line beginning to form. A seed has been planted that will not be discovered until I am forty and married with children of my own. By then I know that good parents don’t ask their children these kinds of questions.
When I am twenty-three years old, I get married. On the day of my wedding, I sit in a white rented gown that is fancier than any dress I have ever worn. It is a beautiful dress. It is good enough. It is good enough because this gown, the make-up on my face, the sheitel on my head and the veils placed on top of the sheitel are all part of a costume designed to deceive the wedding guests into thinking that I am a typical bride.
Yet I am not a typical bride, and this day, this dress, even my painted nails, are all just a diversion from the real question, a question that is actually quite similar to the one my father asked me when I was four: “Who do you want to live with now that I no longer want to live with your mother?”
Now that I am twenty-three, it is not my father who is asking me a question that I am not ready to answer. It is my fiancé. Being religious means getting married or breaking up. So today, I am getting married.
The first time my husband asked me to marry him, we had only been out on six dates, and because I wasn’t ready to say yes, I broke up with him instead. I broke up with him even though I already loved him because I didn’t believe I had whatever it takes to get married and not hurt him, or be hurt by him, as I had seen my parents hurt each other for my entire childhood. In the process of hurting each other, they tortured my brother and me into making impossible choices.
Yet three months later, when my husband and I began to date each other again, I knew that I loved him, and therefore there was only one choice. I knew that breaking up with him again would definitely break my heart, but right then, there was no way of knowing whether marrying him would one day lead to the same devastating outcome. At twenty-three years old, I didn’t know what it takes to get married and stay happily married, and I am not sure I know even now, after being married for almost eighteen years.
What I learned from my father on the day he asked me the question he should never have asked is that love doesn’t always last, and that any wedding invites the possibility of divorce to the wedding party. So even though nobody else saw his shadowy presence at my wedding, I saw him standing in the corner, looking like my brother and dressed like the best man, opening and closing the box that held our wedding ring with a definitive snap.
Sitting in the bridal chair, in the gown that makes me look like someone who is excited rather than terrified to be getting married, praying so hard for a successful and lasting marriage that will not be defined by the bitterness, divorce and devastation that defined my childhood, I forget where I am.
Everyone keeps trying to shove little pieces of paper into my hands on which are scribbled the names of those in need of prayer, but I am too busy to pray for them because I am praying for myself.
My prayer is interrupted when it seems as if someone is trying to pull off my veil. It’s the man I am supposed to be marrying—he is trying to figure out how to cover my face with the veil.
Before I even see him, I start to smile. I smile because at this particular moment, I know that I love my future husband, and I know he loves me. For this single moment, I interrupt my prayers, put aside my questions, open my eyes and smile up at him. The photographer snaps the photo, and this single moment in time when I know that I love him, and I know that he loves me is captured on film and will become the official wedding photo that hangs on our wall.
The photographer snaps the photo and divorce, the best man at my wedding, snaps the box with the wedding ring. I hear these two snaps simultaneously even if everyone else hears only one. My soon-to-be husband turns to leave, and I return to being terrified, only now my face is covered in an opaque veil and nobody sees whether or not I am still smiling.
My husband walks to the chuppah with my father and his own father, one on either side of him. I rise and link arms with my soon-to-be mother-in-law and my aunt, my father’s sister, and follow my husband and his dancing parade to the chuppah.
Under the chuppah, I circle my husband seven times as though these seven circles could protect us from the fate of my own parents.
The blessings are made, the ketubah is read, and my husband takes the ring from his best man.
Still beneath the veil, I offer him my finger. Although I am not ready and never will be ready for this moment, I offer him my hand. He slides a simple gold band on my finger, and for just a moment, there are no questions. There is only the ring on my finger and the wine on my lips, which is lemon flavored and very, very sweet.
Every wedding invites the spectator of divorce to the ceremony. I was uniquely sensitive to this as a result of my own history, but in the world in which we live, divorce no longer requires an invitation. Each new young couple should, after the wedding gifts are unwrapped and the new dishes are toiveled and put away, take an honest look at their relationship, figure out what it takes to protect their fragile new attachment and divorce-proof their marriage.
Marital therapy is most effective when a couple seeks help early on in the relationship, before patterns become entrenched; however, marital therapy is not the only answer, just like medication is not the only answer to health issues. We exercise, we take vitamins—we practice preventative health care to avoid getting sick.
Our marriages deserve the same preventative care. Divorce is a risk we all take when getting married, just as getting into an accident is a risk we take when we drive. In the same way we continue to drive, we must continue to get married and raise Jewish families and not let the fear of divorce deter us from creating Jewish homes. We must pay attention to what we are doing within our marriages, and proceed carefully. Avoid collisions. Use brakes when necessary.