August 10, 1975, it is the fifth day of Elul on the Hebrew calendar, the month of preparation, the month of return. We chose this date for our wedding to accommodate my cycle, but, perhaps it’s stress, my cycle has been irregular, unpredictable, and here I am on the day of my wedding and I am bleeding, which means that I will be forbidden to my new husband for at least another ten days. I don’t feel a strain in this and don’t perceive what this will do to Ari. I don’t admit my relief, even to myself. I’m relieved. But standing in white and bleeding makes me feel even more as if I am in a play, what if the people here knew I’m going through this whole ceremony and afterwards won’t touch my husband, and this is not me, I’m not quite sure who I am inside of. I feel removed, watching, harboring a secret.
I stand in my grandmother’s bedroom in my wedding gown, whispering words of psalms. I am fasting. I have been told that the day of a wedding can atone for a life, that it is to be spent in prayer and fasting until the nighttime celebration, but there is no prayer in my words as they flow from my mouth, no feeling in my body. I trust, as I’ve been taught since entering this Hasidic world, that the words alone will work their own holiness, or magic, as I float into this new place, I don’t know how. I am swallowing myself whole. No sadness, I’m just anxious that my script for the wedding will come out right. No joy. I am really leaving you now, mother and father, sisters, even the Alperts. I don’t need parents any more, this marriage is to be my new home. Around me an elaborate, slow, old dance unfolds.
The temperature has topped a hundred and ten all week. It was not possible to find a gown in Dallas that fit the Hasidic requirement, neck and arms have to be covered, and so we bought a gown with a transparent neck and sleeves and had it fully lined; I am perspiring. I don’t want to think right now of my grandmother and mother shopping for this gown with me, how their anger at one another shrinks me so, and mortified me in public. They live in that, and so they didn’t notice. I went alone in a clandestine run to the mall for another pre-wedding rite, and bought a very simple, synthetic wig, straight out of the box, that makes me look like a mannequin. Ultra-orthodox married women must wear wigs, but I had no shetl macher, wig hairdresser, in Dallas, and no guidance as to what to do about it, given that my parents are not religious. I am sacrificing my appearance to my new, Hasidic God. The wig waits for me, for the morning after the wedding.
My mother and sisters move to the mirror to put on makeup and do their hair. I am embarrassed at my mother’s sleeveless gown and urge her to don her bolero. She calls me to the mirror, asks me to sit. “I want to put your veil on you,” she says, and I can’t feel her pride, don’t want to see the moistness in her eyes, it angers me, and I shrug it off. Put my veil on me? My gown should not be white, my innocence long gone. It should be blood red, it should be gray, it should be transparent. Instead, it cloaks me and I disappear.
I don’t know that it will be years before I look at this scene again, and years before I can see that my mother’s near tears were real, that she was helpless with the love she felt, inept with it always, that, many many times, she ran from it, but could never really get away. Many, many times I will run from it, Mom, and it’s too hard to look at you now, the Hasidic life will help me to erase you for a very long time, I’ll keep running until, years from now, I run straight into you.
But right now, I’m sure that she is also following a script, that of Proud Bereft Mother, and I sense no more feeling in her than I have in my floating self. We are all part of this dance, and I sit, and let her do it. She pins the veil to my head. My sisters are nearby, watching. Soon, I will disappear.
In my grandfather’s study, the men gather, I must stay behind in my grandmother’s bedroom, not to witness this sale of my being, and my mother is called to join them. Ari’s mother is there, and the two stand together, to the side of the men. Someone turns on a tape recorder, Ari recites a Hasidic discourse, always a piece of holy text will ritualize a moment, and the men burst into song, clapping and rejoicing. Then Rabbi Lazarson produces the ketubah, the marriage contract, not an agreement between me and my new husband, no, I’m not even allowed to be there to sign my name, but an ancient contract formed between Ari and my father, he will give me to Ari for the bride price, the ring of gold, and the ketubah will be signed by two trusted male witnesses to the sale, two friends who share this new life with us.
The rabbi writes my father’s Hebrew name on the document, Yehoshua — “God will save.” My father is dressed in a summer suit of light tan and he wears a white carnation that echoes his thick, white hair. He is handsome, thin, and his face… there is fear there, and confusion, near panic.
The two mothers are called forward to commemorate the destruction of the Temple by breaking a plate to mark this ceremony, the requisite admixture of loss in every Jewish joy, and no one notes this isn’t necessary because there is already loss here, I’m already breaking. The photographer catches them with their right hands on the plate together, smiling, dressed in long gowns, just as they thrust it downward, they smile together, and don’t you know, Mom, that the plate isn’t the Temple, it’s me, it’s my marriage, it’s my life with you, it’s just another thing broken? Ari’s father is distressed when the shards fly, and he scurries around the room, picking up the pieces.
But I don’t know this, I’m in the next room, whispering psalms, left only with my hopes and prayers. My mother comes back, pleased, and my younger sister, Amy, comes in to tell me that my oldest friend has come early and wants to see me.
“Tell her that this is a time for prayer, and I will see her after the ceremony,” I say, stuck to my timetable, my script, unable to feel. My friend will grieve this for years. She was my neighbor from the age of two, and her home was one of my havens, like the Alperts later. My oldest sister Debbie would open the back gate for me and let me into my friend’s backyard, and leave me to knock on the door, there I am, a three-yearold alone on their stoop, knocking on the door, wanting to play. Her mother, helpless, counted me as one of their family. No one came to fetch me. I became a household germ, sent home at the end of each day. But I sweep my friend away with all the other connections in my past life. The cutoff is here, at my wedding. It is important to start anew.
Now I sit in a chair in the living room. All the furniture has been removed from this large, sunny room, the drapes are open, the long, evening rays envelop us, and guests are all around me. Down one side of the room is a long buffet table covered with trays of food, no meat or cheese, all kosher, and the wood floor and wood paneling are shining. Just outside on the patio where stands a gazebo I found on thepatiopro.com, the sliding glass door stands open, is the little Texas band I hired with my grandparents’ money, one clarinet, one violin and a saxophone, preparing to play the Hasidic melodies I culled for them from old music books. In the other room, Ari waits with the rabbi who performs the privileged role of dressing the groom. He drapes a prayer shawl around Ari from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, it is old and worn, resonant with the prayers of a holy man. Over that goes Ari’s first long, black Hasidic coat, a satuk. But something is wrong, the coat has been ordered according to measurements, but it doesn’t fit him. Ari hunches his shoulders up and sucks in his stomach to try to close it, his back went out a week ago, he is in pain, and he forces himself into this new costume as he will always force himself. It’s lucky he has his tuxedo for the reception.
From my chair set out in the middle of the guests, I look up and Ari is at the door flanked by his father and my father, each holding an arm. I see Ari framed by the doorway, caught in a photograph, his black beard, his thick eyebrows, the pain he holds in, the effort in his handsome face to hold onto the seriousness of this moment, it’s that stiffness that I will come to know, and this is it, we haven’t been allowed to see one another for the last week, and this is the moment. This is the moment when the bride is supposed to look up to see her groom coming toward her after their separation and feel the rush of seeing her beloved. The music begins in a meditative, minor tone, and behind Ari, Rabbi Lazarson and several others sing along in deep voices, and soon the desires of bride and groom are to be celebrated, legitimized, and then consummated. This is the wonder moment of recognition, when she is to look up and see him coming, to acknowledge her, to then proceed to the hoped-for wedding canopy. Ari, what were you feeling? Did you look across the room and want me, joyful? Please tell me yes, that at least one of us had that. Or were you also filled with the religious script, coaching yourself on what you were supposed to be thinking, supposed to be feeling, working to ignore pain? Here is my helpmate, my soul, she will join me in creating an everlasting edifice, in bringing a new Jewish generation to the world. Our destiny. You see such thoughts as loftier, more legitimate than the flash of desire, of tenderness, but if you did feel those things in this moment, if at least one of us could manage to feel, if you weren’t robbed of feeling by fundamentalism, then, then, I’m so sorry that I had to disappoint you. I led you into this marriage, this place.
But, really, at this moment I almost don’t see Ari, I note his discomfort in the coat and wince at that, another secret beneath the costume, hope nobody knows. I’m thinking about the show, willing everything to fall in place. I’m watching my father.
On either side of my chair are the two mothers, holding long, tapered candles. The men walk toward me pacing to the slow music, backed by a baritone/bass wall of voices, and I’m watching my father, sinking. He is supposed to place his hands on my head and bless me with the words, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah,” the four noble mothers of the Jewish people. I coached him on this several days ago for too brief a time, amid so much, and I know I’m hoping for the impossible. The two fathers stand with Ari in front of me now, the music pauses, in my memory of this I can’t see Ari, the crowd is gathered around us, and I look up to my father, wishing he could do this and so much else, for me. The photographer snaps the picture as I meet my father’s eyes. I whisper, “Daddy? The words?” He places his hand on my head, he remembers that much, his motion is stiff with fear and shame, and I feel everything as if it is mine, and he leans over and kisses my forehead, leaves it wet.
This is my last moment of feeling, I don’t know why, I just know that the way I could look at him and his pain and fear became mine, that way I felt him, I cut away after this moment, this kiss, the love that shames me. From the point of my marriage, he becomes my secret burden, old dead package that I carry behind my neck, and I feel absolutely nothing for him, disdain his incapacities, hate the history that hovers over him, until his death. This is the end. I lost him long ago and now I am replacing him, long overdue, with Ari, the Rebbe, with God. But the music swells, Ari is looking into my face in his glorious moment while I am looking at my father, and Ari reaches forward to lift and then lower the veil that hangs from my crown behind me, he lifts it and brings it down in front of my face. He has ascertained that he has received the right merchandise, no trickery of the biblical Leah, who put herself in her sister’s place beneath a veil. It is me, and he believes this with joy, but I have tricked you, Ari. This is not my sister, I’ve put the woman you see in front of you here in place of me. It’s the same trickery, you see? Leah has replaced Lisa, who can’t fully love you, who will muster desire, who carries both her sisters with her, and you don’t know. You think you are marrying the woman you love.
Triumphant, Ari proceeds with the two fathers through the open, glass door to the wedding canopy. My sisters follow, carrying candles, and then me with the two mothers. The patio still radiates the heat of the day, although it is covered with a white, open tent and laced with ivy. The guests move into their outdoor seats.
I look up, and there is Ari and Rabbi Lazarson under the canopy. I must go to him. I must go to my husband. It is time. In a daze now, I pace down the aisle, the guests disappear, and then I walk slowly around him seven times, the rabbi whispers the numbers to me, and Ari’s mother carries my train so that it doesn’t wrap around her son’s feet. Seven circles for the seven heavens, for the days of Sabbath, all revolving now around my husband. Then I stand beside him, and we proceed. The marriage contract, the seven blessings, the lift of the veil to sip the wine, the placing of the ring on my index finger, my purchase, the stomping of a glass.
We will dance until midnight, the band will let loose, round and round, women indoors, men under the patio tent, and the guests will thrill at the exuberance here and talk about their experience for weeks. Here is Ana, dancing, she came with an “escort” who will become her husband. Here is Andrea, she will marry Ari’s former roommate in another week, and they will shuck off this flirt with Hasidic life. Here are my dear, dear friends from high school and before, another Andrea, Sharon and David, like siblings and you are happy for me, my friends, and you don’t know that this wedding is your cutoff. You will never really have me again. Soon, the women pull me outside to dance on the expansive lawn, and I grab their hands and join the circle, then I raise one hand and fling my arm in the dance.
The wedding ring, still on my index finger, flies away and nestles in the grass. It is nighttime. We continue dancing. What can you do but look for it tomorrow? No matter, it is time to dance. The ring sinks deep into the green carpet. For all I know, it’s still there.
I take a break to get a drink, go to the back room where I last whispered psalms as an unmarried girl, that girl is gone now, and here in my memory, my mother and father, two sisters, and Ari, all appear. My father says to me, “Did you find your ring?” my first guilty secret as a married woman, no, not my first, but this is the first nervous glance at Ari, right here. For the first time I will feel the sway of his disapproval, subject myself to that, acting out my role. He frowns at me, he is angry, and I feel I’ve failed, a new sensation before him, an introduction. But we are back at the dance and here is the rabbi’s young wife, confident, head high, in charge, whirling expert in this Hasidic dance, and sister Amy, sixteen and already forming tracks on her arm, she’s smiling, and Debbie, who will catch my tossed bouquet. Here is Rabbi Lazarson, the beard and fringes fly, arms up high, he is stocky, but his feet, what they can do. He dances with my grandfather’s business associate, a stiff, Baptist man, and the photographer catches the odd pairing. Everyone here will remember this night and the fun, the music, the dancing. The joy.
Leah Lax’s forthcoming memoir, When Time Becomes a Woman, tells of finding a home among the Lubavitcher Hasidim, and of gradual sexual awareness and closeted homosexuality. It is an exploration of the drive for the spiritual, and of what fundamentalism does to a woman’s mind. Lax is the co-creator, with Janice Rubin, of The Mikvah Project, documenting the intimate experience of mikvah across America. www.mikvahproject.com