Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My Father’s Chupah (NY Jewish Week)

                      See reactions to this article on the blog of the Jewish Outreach Institute

by Joshua Hammerman
Special To The Jewish Week

The questioner was an African-American high school student — not Jewish — playing the role of Tevye’s daughter Chava in an astonishingly multicultural production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” one that brought together more than 100 students of all ages from 24 private and public schools in my modern Anatevka. Thanks to my son Dan, cast as Nachum the Beggar, I was asked to be the show’s rabbinic adviser.

“Rabbi, why does Tevye act like his daughter is dead when she marries someone who isn’t Jewish? Is that what Jews do?”

I had just watched them rehearse the wedding scene and couldn’t help but be struck by the irony of a Catholic Tevye and a Catholic Golda serenading their African-American and Asian daughters with “Sunrise, Sunset,” while a Hispanic rabbi, a recent immigrant from Colombia, performed the ceremony; and lurking in the background, a Jewish Cossack waited for his cue to wreak havoc on this bucolic scene.

At the center of the stage was the very symbol of Jewish continuity, the wedding canopy — and not just any canopy, but my father’s small, faded, linen chupah, off-white with gold tassels, embroidered gold flowers on the sides and a simple Jewish star on top. The four stubby wooden poles covered with peeling gold cloth give it a kitschy look, like something rescued from a Catskills catering hall, last seen in faded photos alongside the chopped liver and gefilte fish. My father, a cantor, had used this chupah for small, private weddings before stashing it in the attic sometime before his sudden death 30 years ago. There it remained in a crumpled pile until my mother and I rediscovered it when we were packing up the house. I had it cleaned and pressed and since then my father’s chupah has graced a number of weddings that I’ve performed.

But up until that moment when I sat there watching this “Fiddler” rehearsal, only Jews had stood underneath it.

A Catholic Tevye? Sounds crazy, no? Imagine a production of “1776” performed by Iranian mullahs, “Hair” by octogenarians or “Rent” by Republicans. But somehow, this all-school “Fiddler” worked. This dizzying production challenged some of my deepest-held convictions, forcing me to play a Tevye-like role in a 21st-century sequel, prodding me to calibrate what God might expect of us in an age of radical global shrinkage and swiftly dissolving boundaries.

Tevye, the Shalom Aleichem character, would never have allowed this Tevye, the Trinity Catholic student, to marry his fictional daughters. And the majority of the actors playing the daughters would themselves have been banned from standing under the chupahs of the real life shtetls where those fiddlers fiddled.But there they were, at center stage, standing under mine.

The cast members peppered me with detailed questions about lighting candles, kissing mezuzahs, and spitting to ward off the evil eye. I sensed from this very diverse group of students a desire to wrap their arms around their characters and make them their own. They wondered why it was seen as so radical for girls to dance with boys and whether Yenta still exists (“J-Date,” I replied). Somehow this production of “Fiddler” made perfect sense to them; and because of that it began to make sense to me as well, as it likely would have to Shalom Aleichem himself, a man who embraced life’s absurdities, saying, “No matter how bad things get, you got to go on living, even if it kills you.”

The chupah has long been a great symbol of both exclusivity and inclusivity. It represents the home — the Jewish home — that the couple will build together. In the Bible, the term connotes the private chamber where the marriage was consummated; today it still marks that sacred space reserved for bride and groom alone.

But it’s also said to be modeled after Abraham’s tent, which had open walls and welcomed all comers, dissolving boundaries between private and public, promoting an inclusiveness that is both intimate and ultimate.

Back in the ’60s, the closest my father came to officiating at intermarriage was something involving fans of the Red Sox and Yankees. As a justice of the peace, he often performed small weddings in my home, both for Jewish and non-Jewish couples. I was too young at the time to care which of these weddings were of the shotgun variety; my curiosity was limited by the bifurcated universe I inhabited, preoccupied with one question only: Jewish or goyish? If the guy wore a yarmulke, bingo! A Jewish wedding! Chalk up another one for our team!

But the chupah was always the most definitive clue. When my dad took it out of the closet, I knew it would be a Jewish ceremony. When he did not, it was not. Life was very simple back then.

But not anymore.

Do Jews still mourn with sackcloth and ashes when their kids intermarry?

No, I told Chava. No one does that anymore. Even Tevye wouldn’t, if he were alive today. I explained, as sensitively as possible, how Jews have always seen immortality less in terms of their own souls’ ascent to heaven as in their children and grandchildren carrying on the faith. But Jews also want to be welcoming, like Abraham was.

Would I sit shiva for my child if he married out? Would I officiate at his wedding?
No and no.

But would I celebrate?

In the words of the immortal dairyman: I’ll tell you... I don’t know.

But I know that, like Abraham, I will love anyone who comes into my home with an unconditional, unbounded love. I’ll do it because it is precisely that kind of love that will bring renewed vitality to the Jewish people and eternal relevance to the Jewish message.

And I’ll do it because, as I’m sure Tevye would agree, loving our neighbor is a tradition; for it reminds us who we are and what God expects us to do.

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