It was January, and I was in Florida (as Jews are wont to do). My phone rang. Rick, one of the five people from college that I stay in touch with regularly was interrupting my much needed vacation. I stepped out on the balcony overlooking the rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean and answered as I always do with Rick, in the squealing tones of Peter Lorre from Casablanca:
“Reeeek, Reeek, help me Reeeck!”
Or maybe I just said, “Hello.”
For my friend and me, the odder you can be the better. No movie or TV reference is too small, too obscure, or too offensive to be publicly stated because no one in the world matters but the person saying it and the friend who will hear and appreciate it. This has been the bedrock of the thirteen years we have known each other since we met that first day of school, randomly sitting next to each other and making fun of an orientation seminar without even introducing ourselves first. We thrive in subversion. Pushing the limits and making everything else as awkward as we are in life, holding back just enough to show we have some shred of respect. So when Rick called me about something serious, it was a bit of a shock.
Rick asked me to be one of the best men at his wedding in March. He had been really hesitant to ask, because he didn’t want to make me uncomfortable with the religious divide. While I had begun to figure out my Judaism in college, Rick had been redeveloping his own Christian faith. I found a synagogue community that felt fresh and really spoke to me, and for Rick his church meant the same. I met my wife through community involvement, and now Rick had met his as well.
On the phone, he assured me that the wedding would be on a Saturday night, after Shabbat, and it would not be in a church- two concerns he knew I might have as an Orthodox Jew. I immediately said yes, honored that he cared so deeply for our friendship.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
It turns out that Rick’s wedding wasn’t in Washington DC where he lives, but would take place in northern Virginia. The wedding venue and hotel where everyone was staying were 5 miles from the closest synagogue, complicating my Shabbat plans. The rehearsal procession would be Friday night right after Shabbat begins. And sure, the wedding itself was happening on a Saturday night, but the procession I was a part of was beginning 10 minutes after Shabbat ended- and I had to be dressed and present long before that.
But even before that, the bachelor party I now had to help plan was the Thursday night, which meant I’d be ending Purim at a bachelor party.
I took a deep breath. I could solve this. We would spend Purim in DC. I will be drunk for three days straight. My wife, who has recently become obsessed with ultra-light travel and camping equipment, will help us make a kosher kitchen no matter where we go. I will spend Shabbat without a minyan and meditate without distraction, the way I prefer it to be anyway.
So we got bus tickets and headed down to DC on Wednesday morning, sure to make it in time to settle in with a very gracious local Jewish host who let us crash for Purim. It was the Fast of Esther, and I had gotten two hours sleep the previous night so I was a little on edge, and the entire day became a series of schleps and naps, interrupted only to try and figure out the best parties DC had to offer. It turns out that it’s a fools errand because the local population is mostly Modern Orthodox professionals who end the party by 9:30pm- a huge departure from the all night intensity of song and drink I’ve become accustomed to in Brooklyn. That was okay though because I had a headache and oddly didn’t feel like drinking much after breaking my fast and so we just went home.
The next day after getting a full night’s sleep for the first time in weeks, I woke up to a snowstorm at a soft 11am. I tried to find a Megillah reading between noon and 3pm, when I had to get ready to head to the bachelor party. Chabad can be a great resource for this- though I will take them to task for not having comprehensive details on their website (a text to a Chabad guy I met the previous night was the only way to find out about the daytime reading times). So after trudging through the snow for a successful 1pm reading I tried to figure out what I could do for a seudah, the festive meal eaten on Purim.
Washington shut down due to the snow. The JCC and with it one of the two kosher restaurants in town was closed, and the other didn’t answer the phone. So it was while I was buying some groceries I got the text from my co-best man that our bachelor party plans were cancelled by the venue, also fearing the weather. This gave me time to eat a seudah with my wife in the afternoon before heading to dinner, as planned, with the guys.
For some Orthodox Jews, going to a non-kosher restaurant is taboo but to me it’s just part of life. I’ve ordered “just a coke” on many occasions for the sake of being part of the gang, and it turned out that this was just the tip of the iceberg of what would go on this weekend. Dinner was lively and I ate the cheese sandwich I brought while the group ate steaks. I partook of the ample whiskey tasting and had a beer and although Purim was over, it felt like mine was just beginning. We headed back to Rick’s new house for more drinks and a surprise audio commentary recording for Casablanca, one of his favorite movies.
On Friday we headed down to Virginia. The circles I run in, it is perfectly normal for someone to open their home to a stranger for a meal, a bed or any small bit of charity. So it was pretty awesome getting to see this done by some excellent Christians from Rick’s church who were willing to house my wife and I. We had prepped them slightly beforehand on our ample demands over Shabbat. We would bring our own kitchen stuff and make our own food. We would not use electricity, or carry a key, or ride in a car.
They could not have been more gracious or helpful.
It took weeks to plan, but we managed to cook ourselves a Shabbat meal and pack it up to eat at the rehearsal dinner. We made a separate bag of my matching groomsman suit and my wife’s clothes and makeup for the wedding. And we made a bag of kosher snacks to last us on Shabbat afternoon into dinnertime. Our host gave us a ride to the hotel where festivities were happening right as Shabbat was coming, and I handed these bags off to the groomsmen to hold for us.
If it seems that everything was working out, I should point out that it was still extremely difficult. Every moment was another tough choice.
Having just enough time to prepare food and shower/shave (this would be my last opportunity before the wedding), and needing to drive over with our stuff at candle lighting time, I didn’t have time to pray the Kabbalat Shabbat service. I didn’t bring my siddur to the hotel because I would have no way to get it back for Shabbat day. We attended the rehearsal, and I walked up and down a fake aisle with a woman I’d never met before on my arm. Everything was pretty weird at first, even by my standards (except discussing the perpetual conflicts in combining religion and art with the Reverend, a conversation I seem to have everywhere I go).
The gracious groomsmen carried my dinner in a bag everywhere we went, and we proceeded to a Medieval Times-esque theme bar/restaurant for the rehearsal dinner. Jewish readers, if I told you that I sat down to a Friday night meal at a long table with a lot of people who gorged on a multi-course meal including wine and meat, enjoyed songs and laughed while celebrating and conversing freely, you might not bat an eye. Now what if I told you that there was a traditional English good versus evil play in full velvet costume, a chorus of women singing dirty limericks, and armored knights having a swordfight?
Best Shabbat meal ever.
I told Rick how much I enjoyed experiencing what England was like in the medieval period, because my people had been banished in 1290.
My wife, who is awesome, brought a mini bottle of grape juice for Kiddush, fresh Laffa with Za’atar for HaMotzei, and indulged Eastern European leanings with salami and a potato kugel that we double wrapped in foil and had them heat up for us. We drank free beer in glasses instead of their ceramic goblets and took in the levity of the evening. I was informed that any best man speeches would take place there, and so after a brief recap of Rick and my history together, I sang Eshet Chayil (The Woman of Valor), a traditional Friday night song I had learned for my own wedding, to the bride. It was a hit and I got a lot of compliments. One person asked me if I knew that it was actually Proverbs 31:10.
We stayed up all hours and bonded with the assembled friends. We met some great people and had amazing conversations about Judaism and Christianity’s differences and similarities. No topic was off limits, and we got to ask all the stupid stuff of each other that no one would normally freely bring up. One friend who lives in Texas but grew up on Long Island said that because of the demographics in his high school he mistakenly thought that 70% of the world was Jewish but didn’t know what Judaism really was because they were all non-religious. Apparently I was opening his mind. My wife and I walked home feeling pretty good about the balance in the universe (which is not 70% Jewish for anyone still wondering).
The next day I walked through a St. Patrick’s Day parade and had an early lunch with the groomsmen at some burger place, again instead of praying. I felt pretty guilty about prioritizing my friends over my spiritual practice, but there was no way to call and say “I’ll be late, let me know where you go”. So I made my choice. I had a root beer Rick bought me and we talked about movies for an hour. On my walk home I passed a plaque memorializing the first synagogue site in Virginia. That struck me as significant. The building is gone. The people are gone. And who knows how often a Jew wanders down that street anymore? It was like G0d was giving a little nod in my direction, saying “You’re a Jew no matter what and it is Shabbat everywhere”. I felt a kinship to the early Jewish settlers of the New World. I went back to the house and had a nice lunch with my wife. I briefly went over the Torah portion of the week (Ki Tisa is a big one for us artists because of Betzalel- diviner of the portable Tabernacle) and we had a nice chat with our hosts about what exactly is the Torah vs. The TaNaKh and how many of our books are bi-lingual and read right to left. Then it was time to go back to the hotel and get ready for the wedding.
At the hotel I was trying to avoid using the elevator but there was no obvious stairwell so I had to ask at the front desk. They had to let me in through the back of the building and luckily everyone was getting ready on the 2nd floor. I got dressed quickly in my matching groomsmen suit. It was brand new and I had just enough time to get it tailored, and I didn’t realize the jacket pocket for the matching pocket square had not been opened. So I had to be real sly about my needs. Most Orthodox Jews probably have tried to subtly hint at some point to a non-Jewish friend to turn on a light for them on Shabbat. There are a variety of well-worn phrases for this. “Gee, it sure is dark in here,” people will commonly say. But how do you non-ask someone to cut open a suit jacket pocket? So I just said “My pocket isn’t open” while holding the pocket square and shrugging.
One of the other groomsmen immediately took his knife out and opened it up for me.
A day before we had left to go down to DC I was in the shower, thinking about my checklist of things to prepare for. I called out to my wife, realizing one thing I hadn’t thought through: photographs. What would I do if official wedding party pictures were being taken on Shabbat? And sure enough, that’s what happened. I was wearing my fedora, feeling kind of self conscious openly wearing my kippah in the lobby of this hotel and was debating whether I would take it off for photos. Contrary to what the black hat wearing Jewish crowd may think, it is not proper etiquette to wear a head covering for this type of formality. And so I took it off. I’m Jewish, it is Shabbat, and I’m not going to hide that, even on record. I rationalized: The photographers aren’t Jewish, I’m not controlling anything, I just happen to be present while they make a record of me sitting next to one of my best friends. It’s no different than if you walk by a security camera that records you.
So once I got over that hurdle, it was on to the next one. We hung around in a prep room while the wedding attendees took their seats. Rick had made sure to coordinate with his wedding planner that we would have a kosher meal and unexpectedly that extended to them providing unopened snacks while waiting. And then we proceeded in as practiced. One of the groomsmen asked me what I would do during the hymns and formal Christian elements. I told him I planned to stand there politely, not bowing my head or joining in. He let me know he, as an atheist would be doing the same.
Sitting in the very first seat I got a close-up experience of a Christian wedding, something I had only experienced in passing or in a mixed-culture form before. For those that don’t know, it consists of a speech, hymns, biblical readings, vows, exchanges of rings, and ultimately a kiss. I could appreciate many of the things that were said, which were similar to prayers and well-wishes we exchange in our own faith (except without Jesus). The conclusion was a recitation of the Benediction, which was just the Priestly Blessing we use in Judaism (except not done by a Kohen or parent). I laughed about how the Reverend had raised only one closed hand and I later explained to people how in Judaism we have a separation of the middle and ring fingers to make a “Vulcan salute” with both hands (Leonard Nimoy BD”E).
After the ceremony my wife and I grabbed a spare grape juice we had prepared and made Havdalah the end the Shabbat joined by a sweet smelling flower and a little candle on a cocktail table. It was kind of liberating having no phone, no wallet, and no camera for the rest of the night. I just let the party continue which led to mixed dancing and we drank vodka and ate our kosher meal.
All the hard work, all the considerations and management that went into balancing religious and friendship obligations paid off in the end, even if it meant I could not celebrate Purim the way I wanted to, or go to a synagogue on Shabbat, or even find the time to pray. The groomsmen and so many other people were helpful and kind and it made me feel like I didn’t have to explain myself or feel left out constantly. I consider myself someone who is pretty comfortable being Jewish in non-Jewish settings, and this was a true test of that. Would I do it again?