CHAPTER ONE

I love weddings. I even enjoyed my own. Both of them. Too bad the marriages weren’t as successful as the weddings.

While it’s true that I cry at weddings, at least as often as I do at funerals, it’s not because I’m recalling the outcomes of my own. Instead, it’s because there’s something so hopeful about weddings: the optimism that love will remain strong, commitment will continue, happiness will be forever; that there will be a future.

Unfortunately, though, sometimes, you just know the couple will be headed for divorce within a few years. The respective parents barely acknowledge the others’ presence. The bride and groom smile with their mouths, not their eyes. The surface is there – the ritual, the flowers, the dinner, the dancing, the toasts – but the substance, that intangible sense that these two people are beshert, destined to be together, is noticeably absent. The guests are having a good time, but not a great one. There’s no joy, no atmosphere of celebration.

When I officiate at those weddings, I seldom have to struggle to keep my composure.
No matter how soulless a wedding may be, though, no one equates it with untimely death. Maybe I’m not being fair, maybe the deaths would have occurred anyway. But all the trouble did seem to start with two weddings, one that took place under deceptive circumstances, and one that was almost cancelled before it was even planned. But I’m getting ahead of myself ….

It all began on a normal day in August. In a synagogue, a normal day in August means there’s very little for the rabbi to do. Maybe a few board meetings, a couple of hospital visits or funerals. But religious school isn’t in session; no one wants to stand around in what feels like tropical heat and humidity for the unveiling of a tombstone; the synagogue sub-groups – men’s club, sisterhood, adult education classes – are on hiatus for the summer; kids are at camp, so bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies are postponed until the fall. In other words, it’s the perfect time for a rabbi to prepare for the High Holy Days and research sermon topics. Which explains why, when Florence Fischer burst into my office without knocking, I was working diligently on my laptop, checking movie schedules.

“She’s getting married!” Florence shouted with exclamation points, throwing her satchel-sized purse on the couch and flinging herself after it. “Audrey’s engaged! I can’t believe it! I’m so happy!”

I closed the top of my laptop, so she wouldn’t see that I was checking the International Movie Database, not sermon notes, and came around my desk to sit in the chair facing the couch. “Mazel Tov! Who is she marrying? Tell me all about him.”

Florence hesitated before speaking. “His name’s George Brown. He’s a few years older than she is, divorced, adult children. They both teach part-time at the same community college, which is how they met. We haven’t met him yet, but have spoken to him on the phone. He seems nice. Very polite. Jack and I are flying out next weekend to meet him and talk about the wedding.”

The Fischers’ only child, Audrey, forty-three years old and never married, had moved to Seattle after college, much to her mother’s chagrin. Actually, Florence was probably more upset about her daughter’s marital status, or lack thereof, than she was about the distance between Walford, New Jersey, and Seattle, Washington. No marriage, to Florence’s way of thinking, meant no grandchildren. No grandchildren meant fewer opportunities to criticize and meddle.

Florence continued, “We were hoping to have the wedding here, but they want to have it in the Seattle area. Audrey said all their friends live there – not that she’s ever had that many friends, not like we do, and she couldn’t care less that our friends will be inconvenienced. She never did think about anyone but herself, or she’d realize we’d want to invite our friends, too. Well, that’s our problem, not yours. Here’s ours: they don’t belong to a synagogue and don’t know any rabbis, so if you’re willing, we’d fly you out to Seattle and put you up in a hotel for a couple of days.”

“I’d be honored to officiate.” Great! Seattle! I’d never been there and the opportunity to increase my bird life list with the addition of western species was irresistible, even if it did mean spending time with Florence.

Then Florence did something I was surprised to see – she blushed. “There’s a problem.”

“He doesn’t have a get?” I guessed. A civil divorce isn’t sufficient for many Jews; a Jewish divorce is also required. Some liberal rabbis don’t require one, but my feeling is that the get, the Jewish divorce decree, parallels the civil divorce, just as the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, parallels the civil marriage license. I like the symmetry.

“Not exactly. He never had a Jewish wedding, so he doesn’t need a get, right?”

“His first wife wasn’t Jewish?”

Florence now was definitely embarrassed. “Well, no. But neither is he.”

I took a deep breath before responding. “Florence, you know I don’t perform intermarriages.”

Now she got angry. “But you’re a woman! You’re already breaking with tradition! What difference does it make to you?” It was an argument I’d heard before. When I was first being considered by my synagogue, Mishkan Or, there were members who were upset that I wouldn’t officiate at intermarriages. But they were outvoted by others who were pleased I didn’t. But I’d noted that some of my supporters were beginning to switch sides as their children found non-Jewish partners. Florence and her husband Martin weren’t active enough members at Mishkan Or for me to know where they stood in the controversy.

She tried another tack. “But they won’t be having children, so there won’t be any arguments about Christmas trees. Audrey’s never been interested, and he already has his first grandchild. And even if she did want children, she’s too old.” I decided not to tell her that my niece Trudy, who had just turned fifty, and her partner Sherry, only three years younger, had a biological eight-year-old son and a newly adopted baby daughter.

“That’s not the only reason. I really believe that as a rabbi I am authorized to perform only Jewish ceremonies.” I emphasized the word Jewish. I continued, “If the marriage is between a Jew and non-Jew, it’s not a Jewish ceremony.”

Florence sighed in resignation. “Oh, well. Audrey and you have hardly even met, so it won’t matter if you’re there or not. Do you know any rabbis in the Seattle area who do perform intermarriages?”

Glad to know I’m so highly regarded. My day dream of increasing my life list evaporated as quickly as a sleeping dream. “Sorry, I don’t.” I thought for a minute. “Well, I do know someone who’s in the area, Ben Bronfman, a classmate of mine from rabbinical school, but he doesn’t officiate at intermarriages. He may know someone who can help you, though.”

“So what should they do if they can’t find a rabbi?”

“I’m sure Rabbi Bronfman knows a Jewish justice of the peace who can do a nice ceremony and incorporate some Jewish symbols.”

“But I had my heart set on a Jewish wedding!”

So Audrey and George have no say in the matter? Out loud, I cautioned, “I’m sure they can find someone. But you need to be careful who you find. I know there are several rabbis who do intermarriages, and they do so because they really are committed to outreach and believe it’s best for the Jewish community. But there are others – not many, but they exist – who’ll marry the proverbial bird and fish if the price is right. I doubt if Audrey and George want a rent-a-rabbi.”

I had no idea what they wanted and I was sure Florence didn’t either.

I looked up Ben’s phone number and gave it to Florence. I then forgot all about the incident until I’d bumped into Florence at Trader Joe’s several months later and she told me he had officiated at the ceremony. I was surprised as I remembered him as having been adamantly opposed to intermarriage.

And then a few weeks after seeing Florence, Ben and I both attended the annual conference of the International Rabbinic Alliance, and I found out what had really transpired.

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