Rabbi Roni Handler writes about her wedding in Tablet

Getting Grandma’s Blessing
July 20, 2012 
By Roni Handler, For Tablet

A few years ago, my-sister-the-doctor set an impossible standard when she married another doctor. So much pride! So much naches! I thought everyone in my family would be equally thrilled when I announced I was getting married. What Jewish parents wouldn’t be happy that their daughter was marrying a rabbi? Especially since I’m a rabbi, too.

The proposal happened at Camp JRF, the same Reconstructionist summer camp in the Poconos where our relationship began three years before, when we both joined the staff. As Isabel and I shared the news with the staff and campers who had watched our relationship grow over the years, we were greeted with cheers and hugs. We were even danced around the beit tefillah in the woods, receiving an aliyah that Shabbat to celebrate our engagement.

I was thrilled to share the news with the rest of my friends and family, most of whom wished us mazel tov, eager to hear every detail and be involved with the wedding planning. My sister dug out her veil for me to borrow, and my parents immediately began discussing venues and the guest list.

But the excitement did not extend to one very important person in my life: my grandmother. The fact that I was marrying another rabbi wasn’t as relevant as the fact that I was marrying another woman. Even though my grandmother had told me since I was a little girl that she “loves me up to the sky” and that I could be anything I wanted to be, a lesbian rabbi apparently wasn’t what she had in mind. She refused to accept the news of our engagement, and, more devastatingly for me, she said that she would not be attending our wedding. I imagined the possibility of walking down the aisle without the blessing and presence of my beloved grandmother, and I cried.

As rabbis, Isabel and I had spent years counseling other people about their weddings. We knew both that weddings are an opportunity to celebrate the love, shared values, and personality that each couple cultivates, and that weddings also have a way of bringing important challenges and stresses to the surface. This is true for gay and straight, Jewish and interfaith couples alike. Planning for our own wedding, we were no longer guiding another couple through this process; we were now counseling each other and seeking help from our rabbi. No matter how much experience we had in working with other couples, each step of our own wedding journey taught us volumes about ourselves and the power that engaging deeply with the wedding process has to build a strong foundation for a marriage. By the time we arrived at the chuppah, we had come a long way.

And so had my grandmother.

***

Isabel and I first met in 2005 while studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Our paths crossed frequently, whether we were discussing life as rabbinical students, our mutual alma mater—Brandeis University—or celebrating Shabbat and exploring Philadelphia. But we didn’t really know each other until we began working on the senior staff at Camp JRF in 2006. It seemed that the more time we spent together working, talking, or just relaxing in the staff lounge, the more we found ourselves wanting to be around each other and longingly searching out one another from across the room. Our close friends began to notice the sparks between us at the same time we were feeling them ourselves; the energy was palpable. Even though new relationships can be risky and sometimes scary, there is also tremendous safety in those that begin at camp.

Over the next few years, we supported each other through our studies and student jobs. We learned together in and out of the beit midrash. We cooked together, traveled together, and even lived in Israel together. We spent time with each other’s families during holidays or family meals. We were there for each other when life seemed overwhelming and celebrated together through birthdays, ordination, and the little moments that make you smile every day.

We had talked about celebrating a religious marriage—the Reconstructionist movement has officially recognized same-sex couples for two decades—even if civil recognition would have to wait in our home state of Pennsylvania, where same-sex marriage is not yet legal. We were excited to celebrate our relationship in the presence of our family and friends. But even more than that, our wedding was also an occasion to give our loved ones a glimpse into our Jewish lives.

Our experience as rabbis had taught us that weddings, in addition to being wonderful celebrations, are also inevitably fraught with unexpected conundrums: Collectively, we had helped navigate other couples through meddling mothers, competing values, and poor communication. But we had never encountered a couple that had our problem: a family member who wasn’t in the merry-making mood. We knew we could not handle this ourselves; we needed our own rabbi to help us make it through.

As we knew from experience, every couple must find the rabbi who is right for them: one with whom they can be completely open and honest about what they are thinking and feeling, and one they can trust to hold their hands, to listen to them, and to help them to navigate their way through this major life transition. While it is fair to say that we had no shortage of rabbis in our life to choose from, it was still important for us to find one who understood us individually and as a couple, and who could help us to navigate this journey.

It did not take us too long to settle on our close friend Rabbi Rachel Weiss. With Rachel, we talked about our relationship, the issues that were coming up in our families, and the life that we pictured creating together—many of the same questions that I draw upon when working with other couples to help plan their weddings. During our meetings, Isabel and I made decisions about each piece of the ceremony. We rewrote our ketubah to match our values, for instance. We incorporated innovations I had encountered through my work as editor ofRitualwell, as in the language we chose to recite when exchanging rings.

With Rachel’s help, we even created our own kabbalat panim ritual in place of a traditional bedecken. The legacy of the bedecken ceremony is in the biblical story in which Leah was switched out for Rachel on the day she was to wed Jacob; Isabel and I were not interested in performing this ritual “checking” both because it felt too heteronormative and also because we were pretty sure we were both going to show up. Instead, we repurposed this ritual while also connecting to part of the essence of a wedding tisch, which generally serves to relax the couple before the ceremony. In our ritual, we each privately received blessings from our mothers before being danced into the room for a semi-private ceremony with just our mothers, bridal parties, and rabbi (and of course the photographer and videographer). We wanted to honor the moment when we first saw each other on our wedding day while also ritually preparing ourselves for the enormity of the day ahead. For us, carefully thinking through each piece of the wedding and not being afraid to adapt the tradition to better suit our particular situation meant that our ceremony was uniquely ours.

We tried to make decisions that would last way beyond the wedding day. Inspired by ourketubah artwork, Bird Song by Karla Gudeon, and sharing a personal passion for singing, we composed original music for our procession based on Song of Songs 2:10-12: “The time for singing has come. …  Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.” When the details or the emotions became too much during our engagement, or we just longed for a peaceful moment together, we would sing our new creation.

Many couples focus on how their wedding reflects their interests or values: They serve vegan food, have an egalitarian ceremony, or pick a venue or favors to match their hobbies. Being “green” and trying to minimize our ecological footprint is a value we share, and we wanted to uphold it throughout our wedding festivities, so we commissioned our chuppah from Isabel’s cousin, an art student who created a canopy made from organic fabric and dyes. It was also important to us that our chuppah not just serve us for that day, so it was designed to be cut in half after the wedding, to create two tallitot with our verse from Song of Songs embroidered on the atarot.

But the issue with my grandmother proved more difficult to resolve and would emerge in somewhat unexpected moments. I remembered shopping with my grandmother and my mother for my sister’s wedding dress nine years before; as I planned my own wedding, I realized that I wasn’t going to have the same experience. My grandmother wasn’t going to be there. I needed to adjust my expectations. This was a realization that came to me time and again and is one that we also talked through with our rabbi. While I needed to adjust my expectations for the planning and day of my wedding, at the same time my grandmother needed to adjust hers for the life that she had pictured for me.

I do not believe that my grandmother’s reaction to my engagement stemmed from homophobia, but rather from the shock that the life that she had planned for her granddaughter was not playing out exactly as she had imagined. It is true that life for same-sex couples can be harder, and much of her fear likely came from not wanting our lives to be difficult. Even though our families knew intellectually that being gay is not a choice, they still hoped that our future lives would be as safe and easy as possible.

Coming out is a process. It was and continues to be a process for me, and it is also a process that my family members went through in their own way. Because it was painful, I sometimes avoided speaking directly with my grandmother about my relationship, not realizing that this may have kept her from having the appropriate time and space she needed to work through her own thoughts and feelings. While it was disappointing not to be able to pick up the phone and share every detail of my wedding planning with her, it was enormously helpful to have the support of my fiancée, my friends, my other family members, and my rabbi. For every couple, identifying a support system through this process and knowing where to turn for which problems makes all the difference in planning not only for the wedding day, but also for the new life ahead.

To my grandmother, the idea of two people of the same sex getting married was entertaining when talking about Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, or endearing when it was the gay men from the salon. Sadly, I was starting to learn that when it came to one’s own family members, the rules sometimes change. It took time for my grandmother to realize that even though I was marrying a woman, I would still have the same opportunities (and challenges) as any other couple. She would still have grandchildren, we would still spend holidays together as a family, and I had indeed found a partner who would love and care for me (as I would for her) through all of the joys and sorrows of life.

I cannot remember now how I mustered the courage to keep moving through the wedding planning, knowing that my grandmother would not be attending, though there were certainly a lot of tears involved. What I do remember is the day when, standing in my dining room, I received a call from our close family friend who had been like an aunt to me since I was born. She told me that she had asked my grandmother to lunch and planned to “have a talk” with her. I was doubtful that this would have any impact, but was nevertheless grateful for the gesture. A few days later, I heard that the conversation went something like this:

“There are too many sad occasions and people who are sick and dying in this world,” my “aunt” told my grandmother. “Roni’s wedding is a chance to celebrate and bring a little joy into the world. She and Isabel are happy. Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that and celebrate with her?”

To this day I cannot believe this approach worked, that this simple conversation is all that it took to give my grandmother a new perspective. Maybe there was more to that discussion that was not shared with me. And if this is really all it took, maybe my mom or I should have tried having this conversation earlier. But I actually think that my grandmother needed to come to this in her own manner. The greeting for a couple upon their engagement and upon the news of expecting a child is besha’ah tovah, in good time or the right hour. Maybe we just each needed to be able to digest this news in our own time and in our own way, while also letting go of the notion of the “perfect” plan.

The next thing I knew, I was in the mall with my mom shopping for both mother-of-the-bride and grandmother-of-the-bride dresses. When the wedding day came, a year after we’d announced our engagement, not only was my grandmother sitting in the front row as Isabel and I stood under our custom-made chuppah, but she also lent me her wedding band to use during the ceremony. I don’t know whether she intended this gesture to hold as much significance as I felt. But as Isabel placed my grandmother’s ring on my forefinger, the same ring that my late grandfather placed on my Bubbe’s finger more than 60 years ago, I felt the blessings she was offering, even if they had not been expressed with words. And I knew that the right hour, the sha’ah tovah, had arrived.