Friday, February 10, 2012

On My Wedding Day

Dear Mackenzie,

The other day I started to contemplate what I might say to you on your wedding day, and my mind wandered instead to the memories of your mom’s and my own wedding.

Your mom had just moved to Los Angeles when she and I planned our big day.  Since we didn’t belong to a temple we set about finding someone to marry us.  As it turns out, Los Angeles has numerous itinerant rabbis who as the saying goes, are available for weddings and bar mitzvahs.  A couple we knew had recently used one such rabbi.  They told us he was wonderful and that he was a very poetic speaker.  So your mom and I went to see him.  

The rabbi was very genial, but over the course of our meeting he asked very little beyond when and where we were getting married. After fifteen minutes or so he stood up and said he looked forward to seeing us at the event. Your mom and I were a little unsettled.  Poetic speaker or not, we didn’t want a generic ceremony.  We asked the rabbi whether some personal information about us would be appropriate, and he suggested we email him what we wanted to include, assuring us he would “work it in”. 

As you might imagine, we started having second thoughts about using him.  When we told our friends Betty and John Power what had happened, they suggested we meet a young rabbi named Paul Kipnes.  We were immediately taken with him.  Rabbi Kipnes was completely engaged, and he told your mom that I was an amazing man and that she was fortunate to be marrying me.  Okay, fine, I’m making that last part up.  

Once we decided that Rabbi Kipnes would officiate at our wedding, we were left with the uncomfortable task of dismissing the first rabbi. Though we sensed that he wasn’t particularly invested he was still a man of God, and your mom made the executive decision that I should be the one to call him.  Now in truth, I have dozens of difficult conversations every week in my work. Yet when it came to having one with a rabbi, I was petrified.

When I finally got up the courage, I was told that the rabbi was traveling, so I left a weak message that maybe he should call me.  When I didn’t hear back I decided to take the easy way out. Rather than calling again, I wrote the rabbi an email telling him we were joining a temple and would be using their rabbi.  That wasn’t true of course, but what can I say?  Welcome to the politics of fear.

On September 24th, 2000 at 5:00 P.M., your mom and I were to be married at a beautiful restaurant on Ventura Boulevard called the Bistro Gardens. Yet by 4:30 P.M., Rabbi Kipnes was still nowhere to be found.  As I greeted our guests, the clock moved inexorably toward the appointed hour.  I became increasingly alarmed by Rabbi Kipnes’ absence, and it must have shown on my face because people started telling me it was normal for the groom to be nervous on his wedding day.  For the record, my sweet daughter, I wasn’t one bit nervous about marrying your mom.  On the contrary, I couldn’t wait to do it.  But where the hell was the rabbi?

At 4:55 P.M. someone tapped me on the shoulder.  I turned around to see…the first rabbi!!! He had a prayer book in his hand and a big smile on his face. “Ready to get married?” he asked. 

Now I know the Lord works in mysterious ways, but this was beyond. I remember reading once that if you opened your refrigerator and found it filled with $1,000 bills you would experience two simultaneous emotions.  The first is the unbridled elation that your money problems are behind you.  The second is the alarm that something doesn’t compute in the natural universe. That’s what went through me.  In a fractional second I had four competing thoughts. The first was “Oh thank God”.  The second was “Oh fuck, what is he doing here?”  The third was that I should have had the courage to talk to him personally when we switched rabbis.  And the fourth was that I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth five minutes before my wedding when the guy who was supposed to marry us was nowhere in sight.

Well, gut check time.  I pulled the rabbi aside and told him apologetically that we had elected to use someone else.  To his credit (I guess this is the stuff that makes one a man of God), he was of good humor about the confusion. He wished me a wonderful day and a happy marriage, and gracefully departed.  As if the universe was now satisfied that I had learned some profound lesson, Rabbi Kipnes materialized.  After muttering something about the traffic problem in Los Angeles he said,  “why don’t we go sign the Ketubah and get you guys married”. 

Your mom’s parents were too sick to travel, but otherwise we were surrounded by loving friends and family. Rabbi Kipnes infused the ceremony with warmth and affection, and when our friend Tisha sang an amazing rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, she brought down the house.

Now my favorite custom in a Jewish wedding (other than kissing the bride) is when the groom breaks a glass with his foot. There are various explanations for this tradition, but the one I like best is that the broken glass reminds us of the fragility of marriage, and that both husband and wife must care for and nourish the relationship lest it shatter irreparably.  Once the groom breaks the glass, everyone yells “mazel tov” and the ceremony ends.

As a practical matter, the groom breaks a very light crystal or, since the glass is hidden under a handkerchief, sometimes even a small light bulb.  Both are easy to break, minimizing the risk of injury, and both make a loud popping sound for full effect.  Unfortunately, the restaurant where we got married wasn’t well versed in these realities.  Instead, the restaurant provided one of their incredibly sturdy lead crystal water glasses.  As a result, when the rabbi instructed me to break the glass and I pushed my right foot down, the glass did not break. 

Instead of a hearty “mazel tov”, the place erupted in uproarious, sustained laughter that would have been the envy of any comedian.  Though it probably lasted less than a minute, in my embarrassment the laughter felt like forever.  When it finally subsided, Rabbi Kipnes came to the rescue and said, “because he loves her, he perseveres”.  This time I gave it everything I had, and the glass mercifully gave way.  Everyone clapped and cheered and yelled “mazel tov”, and your mom and I exited the huppah as husband and wife.  Afterwards we ate and danced deep into the night, and the highlight of the evening was when Jamie serenaded your mom and me with “From This Moment” by Shania Twain. 

And yes, our wedding day contained some life lessons too. The importance of facing our fears (and our rabbis) head-on. The importance of persevering in the face of adversity (and of strong glassware).  And maybe most profoundly through the prism of time, that our lives are in fact storybooks, not dissimilar to the ones we read as children. It’s just that along the way we encounter our own unique twists and turns.  How we confront those twists and turns, and what we learn from them, weave the fabric of our stories and define the content of our character.  I look forward to watching your storybook continue to unfold, Mackenzie, and I owe you a letter for your wedding day too.

All my everlasting love,


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