It was difficult for my relatives, right from the start.
When did it start?
Not last week, when my daughter got married in Jerusalem. They already knew what to expect: that the men would be on one side, women on the other.
Was it back in the eighties, then, when they first heard we'd put her in an all-girl school? Or before that, in an all-girl kindergarten? Maybe it dates back to when they first found out about the religious emphasis in the educational curriculum -- morning hours, Torah studies; afternoon for secular subjects. But how will she get into a good college?
Was it when I myself got married? This is segregation, my father had murmured, pained, under his breath. It makes your mother and sisters into second-class citizens. Can't we enjoy the wedding all together, as a family?
Didn't it start back in the seventies, when I stopped wearing pants? When my hemlines got lower, my sleeves longer, when I stopped going to coed college parties? When I wouldn't eat with them at restaurants, when I first koshered one of my mother's pots, one of her pans, a single set of silverware, when I had to say no to her vegetable soup, that I'd always loved, her homemade herb bread. On Saturdays, when I wouldn't join family outings anymore, when I wouldn't turn off and on lights... The phone would ring and they'd call, "Sarah! It's for you!" I -- sitting there on my isolated Shabbat -- looking deaf and dumb, befuddled, feeling guilty for all the discomfort I was causing. Of course, it's wonderful to find out more about your heritage, but why go overboard? Can't you discover your Jewish identity without being so extreme about it? You're going back to the Old World.
Last week they came from America for the wedding. All the relatives -- the agnostics and the conservatives, the Orthodox and the atheists. The female rabbi, the Reconstructionist, the Federation activists, the Jews for whom Jewishness seems so irrelevant that they don't even bother to define themselves - we kept joining hands to dance. We danced and danced and danced, not for one hour or two or three or four but 'til the wee hours of the morning, men on one side, women on the other, hundreds of us, in what my mother, amazed, called "an explosion of joy that just kept exploding all night."
What was it that lifted us up off the floor like that, almost as one person? For my part, it wasn't only what any mother feels upon seeing her daughter arrive safely on the opposite shore; it was tasting the first fruits. Here was the first generation born into this way of life after the break in continuity which had occurred, in my particular family tree, two and three generations back. Here were a young woman and a young man who have grown up in a society that emphasizes not a person's desires for satisfaction but his or her responsibilities; a society that says everything he or she does in the world has meaning, and importance, in ways that transcend human understanding. And one of this society's more noticeable hallmarks, for those looking on from the side, has always been that daunting separation of men and women -- a custom which to uninvolved observers seems so oddly archaic and unnecessary as to be outrageous. Why the all-girl, all-boy schools, why those weddings and bar mitzvahs and synagogues that insist on men on one side, women on the other?
Here was Michoel with his community of beloved friends, holding hands and dancing jubilantly on their side of the mechitzah, the separation. And in another sphere, hidden from those young men's view: the unrestrained, absolutely celebratory and exultant dancing of Rachel and all her friends, with whom she's grown up, young women who were raised to find themselves not in their possessions, or their mirrors, but in their deeds; who have imbibed an understanding from their earliest days that we're each given precisely what we need, if we only have eyes to see; that we can rejoice in another person's happiness because it can't infringe on our own. It's a society in which children don't judge each other by their clothes, or their coolness, or their looks, but in which they're taught to perceive the Divine image in every face.
Mine was the joy of seeing with my own eyes what all those years had been for. All those years of mutual embarrassment, and apology for hurting the people I most love, and their subtle sense of having been repudiated by my choice. All was worth it for the two children who have never been wounded by other relationships, so that neither is afraid now of giving himself and herself whole-heartedly, extravagantly, splendidly.
We were in an old world together, that's for sure, but not the one they expected -- not the stereotyped caricature of Orthodox Jewry to which they were accustomed. We were in the old world that is forever a new world: the world that lives like a hidden oasis within all of us, the Garden of Eden, green and lush and fresh. When all is stripped away, what are we each left with? What matters?
The dream at the center of the world: a young man, and a young woman, in love for the first time.