On August 14, 1998, I left my husband and home of twenty-six years to live by myself – across the street. After the break – more like an amputation – I was too busy treading water to worry about marking the date with a ritual, though I knew I needed a ritual to observe the event because it was a watershed, symbolizing the end of an agonizing process and the beginning of a new life. In my imagination, August 14 functioned like Yom Kippur, 1973: I measured time from either before or after.
By mid-November I defined the tears and anger as symptoms of mourning. But this was a strange mourning, for the object of my thoughts still lived across the street. He drove my car, watched my television, fed my children. Slowly, I realized I was mourning not a man, but a marriage, twenty-six years of my life.
Naming the painful process mourning helped. The suffering had a framework, and could be viewed as part of a process. If I could just keep from drowning until July 1999, marking the end of the eleven-month period that delineates Jewish mourning, I would survive. So I dove into each feeling as it erupted like a wave, allowing it to overtake my body. Afterwards, I was bereft, but cleansed. I learned to swim in deep waters.
On July 20, 1999, I stood before three black-coated rabbis and opened my hands to receive a parchment called a get. This ritual, as described in the Mishnah, satisfied the rabbinic court, but it did not reflect the emotional sea I had surveyed during the previous year. Nor did it satisfy my need for marking the end of my marriage and the beginning of a new life. So I had to create my own rite de passage.
Once I decided to perform the ceremony in my home, three other issues dominated the planning process: guest list, fare, and the ritual itself.
Guest list: In August of 1998, when I first felt the need to acknowledge my separation with ritual – as we mark all important lifecycle events – I envisioned a party for divorced or divorcing friends. This was based on the assumption that only those who had experienced separation or divorce could appreciate my predicament. But by July of 1999, I so valued the love shared by some of my married friends who had opened their homes to me on Friday nights and at holiday times, I wanted them to be part of my ritual as well. Their relationships encouraged me. They were my role models. There are marriages in which each values and respects the other, enjoys the other's jokes and company, and takes pride in each other's accomplishments. So I invited all my friends – married and single, separated and divorced. They all shared one thing in common – they wished me well.
Fare: I had read somewhere of the Talmud's injunction of a minimum diet for estranged wives. It seemed appropriate to serve such fare before the ritual cleansing. So on the table, my guests would be greeted with dried figs, lentils, wheat crackers, and oil. After the ritual, I'd serve my favorite foods, foods which had sustained me during difficult years. This was my Diet for Released Wives: Quinoa pilaff, fresh vegetables, tofu with green onions and almonds, fresh figs, and cakes (baked by others).
The ritual: I set myself several guidelines. First of all, I wished for everyone to take part; this would not be a spectator ritual. Second, the ceremony needed to echo a wedding ceremony, kind of an un-wedding. The image of rewinding the scene of breaking the glass under the chupah came to mind. Now all the pieces would miraculously fit together again. The sheva brachot, the seven traditional blessings of a wedding, would need rewriting. Third, since the ceremony would take place a few clays after Tisha B'Av, I wanted it to highlight the theme of renewal after destruction. In my case, the sanctuary destroyed was my home and my family. But not my life. I wanted to celebrate the sense of new life emerging from the ashes of the old. I thought of how the rabbinic tradition in Judaism emerged from the flames that destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. Last, since I called the event for Motzei Shabbat and Shabbat celebrates creation, I wanted to co-opt the ritual elements of Shabbat – grain, wine, and oil. I used a challah, wine, and a candle.
After my guests tasted the Diet for Estranged Wives, I gave out copies of the text I had prepared. Each guest had a part. They sat next to me in a circle on my living-room floor. I lit a large candle in front of me. There was an awkward moment: silence. My friends were curious, anxious. So was I. None of us had ever been to such an event.
I thanked them for their support during the past year, for helping me reach shore, and for coming to help me mark this passage. Then I began reading, more from the heart than from the page. The room relaxed. Everyone knew how difficult my journey had been. They could appreciate the smile on my face – a smile they had not seen for many years.
Though it was good to have a text (see previous page), the most moving part of the evening came when, spontaneously, someone suggested that everyone compose a verse to "This little light of mine." The melody shifted from guest to guest, each one composing his or her six-syllable wish for me. Now everyone was smiling and wishing me well. I think that one of the reasons I feel so good today, two months after my divorce, and believe this good feeling will continue for years to come, is because I retain that image of my friends singing to me, wishing me only good things. Their smiles and voices have seeped into the walls of my new home and into my body. My new life is a testament to their love.
Ritual for Beginning A New Life
Lighting the candle
This is the fire that burned inside me during the years of my marriage.
This is the fire of turmoil, the destructive flame that made me break up my family.
Now the fire is outside me. Now it is a flame that can give warmth and shed light.
The light says: Be true to yourself.
The light says: You can start anew.
The light says: Tikkun olam begins with tikkun atzmaynu.
I am sorry for the pain and suffering I have caused my family.
May this light help me cope with guilt and guide me in the long journey towards love – love with respect, love with affection, love with laughter.
I came into marriage with joy, but found bitterness; with hope, but found despair.
Divorce is an earthquake in the night, Divorce is an amputation.
It is night bursting through day,
a stream flowing backwards,
Divorcing is living death.
It is mourning those who are still alive.
Divorcing is losing one's balance.
It is time flowing backwards.
The Talmud says that when a man divorces the wife of his youth, even the altar cries.
Divorce is the end...but also a beginning.
All sing: "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine ..."
Lifting the bread
A beginning is small, like a grain of wheat. Every day is a miracle. With patience and support, time brings green stalks from the earth. Hidden in the folds of the protecting leaves, a kernel matures and becomes bread, the miracle of new life.
Breaking and distributing the bread
I thank God the Creator who brings forth bread from the earth for sustaining me during this chaotic year, for giving me the support of friends and family, for giving me the strength to move from darkness to light.
Lifting the wine glass
At the wedding ceremony, the husband crushes a glass. Now I hold this glass erect, symbolic not of destruction, but of renewal – renewal of my life, renewal of the sanctuary which is my new home. May it be blessed with friends and joy, learning and good deeds, with family and love.
Pouring the wine
Just as wine gladdens the hearts of all, so may my good feelings bring comfort to those I have hurt most.
All: Blessing over the wine
To every thing there is a season
In this season of remembering our national destruction and prayer for renewal, may my personal tragedy end with the fulfillment of renewal.
Just as the Sabbath is the reminder of Creation, so too are these symbols of the Sabbath – grain, wine and oil – reminders of creation.
May God the Creator give me the wisdom and strength to create a new life – a life full of compassion, understanding and good deeds.
May I learn to forgive those who hurt me most and comfort those I hurt in return.
Blessed are You, Creator of all, who heals the sick and comforts the lonely.
Blessed are You, Creator of all, who comforts those who sow in tears and lifts up the weak from the dust.
Blessed are You, Creator of all, who strives to bless the People Israel with Peace.
Blessed are You, Creator of all, who in your goodness, renews the acts of creation each day.
Blessed are You, Creator of all, who renews our days as of old.
Blessed are You, Creator of all, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to sanctify life.
Blessed are You, Creator of all, who has given us the gift of life, sustained us and brought us to this time.