February 13, 2003
Five Elements of a Fairy-Tale Marriage
"The Committed Marriage" by Esther Jungreis (Harper San Francisco, $23.95).
At first glance, the title of Esther Jungreis' new book, "The Committed Marriage," seems a bit redundant. After all, isn't commitment the whole point of getting married?
But what Jungreis explains is that, too often, husbands and wives end up living separate lives in the same house -- and even those marriages that begin on the best footing as joint ventures often lose their way. "Marriage" addresses a variety of challenges along the continuum of marriage, from what to look for in a prospective partner to navigating a marriage at midlife and beyond.
Jungreis' new release is meant to build on her 1998 book, "The Committed Life," in which she discusses how making a commitment to a Torah-based lifestyle can help people become healthy, wealthy and wise. In some ways, "Marriage" is an improvement on the earlier work; it is better organized with stand-alone chapters.
The structure of the book is simple: using as a framework the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who sent his five most devoted disciples out into the world to discover the important qualities for a good life, Jungreis examines how each of these qualities together comprise a good marriage. Each section addresses a different element the disciples found essential: to have a good eye, to be a good friend, to be a good neighbor, to develop the ability to project the consequences of one's actions and to have a good heart. Jungreis then relates the element to couples she has counseled.
Among the advice she imparts are:
On being friends in marriage: "The Hebrew term for 'loving, kind friends' is re'im v'ahuvim. The word rei'm is derived from the Hebrew ro'eh, which means shepherd. The relationship of husbands and wives should be that of shepherds ... always keeping a loving, watchful eye on the other."
On acquiring "a good heart": "There are myriad little acts of chesed [lovingkindness] that can go a long way to generate a good heart and give us our much-sought-after happiness. You can send an e-mail composed of just three words: I love you. Make a point of smiling at your mate ... as you pass her chair, you lovingly touch her shoulder, just to let her know you care. These little gestures require no expenditure, no special energy, but they can change your life."
For marriages gone awry, Jungreis tells how Moses dealt with Korach, a cousin who fomented rebellion against him: "Instead of arguing, Moses simply said, 'Morning -- wait until morning and we'll settle it then.' When troubled couples consult me and one of the spouses is bent upon divorce, I have often succeeded in forestalling disaster simply by prevailing upon them to wait until morning. There is always the hope that, if we can buy some more time, they will perceive their folly and reconsider their decision."
Despite her sometimes long-winded tales, Jungreis' ability to weave Torah and talmudic commentary into each chapter offsets many flaws. One chapter in particular, "Communicating Without Hurting," where Jungreis teaches an especially contentious couple how to talk to each other in more positive ways, should be required reading for every newlywed.
Jungreis was married to her third cousin, Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis for 40 years, and throughout the book describes their relationship in almost fairy-tale terms. It can be difficult to believe in marriage in such a wholehearted way, especially when today's world often seems to offer no such guarantees.
But maybe it can't hurt for even those predestined pairs to have someone like Jungreis in their corner. And for anyone seeking some old-fashioned wisdom about love, this book may yet have you believing in the possibility of your own fairy-tale marriage.