August 1, 2011
To Wed a Daughter, to Sell a Kidney
My eldest daughter, Mushki, is engaged and will be married in a few months, G-d willing. I’m surprised at how well I’m taking it given that all my friends had warned me that I would feel like a stranger was stealing her. Luckily, she’s marrying a really great guy who makes her happy. Happier than her father? Come on. Let’s not be ridiculous. But he’s a close second (I hope he’s not reading this).
The strange thing about a child getting married is that just as soon as it’s announced you have very little time to enjoy it. Immediately, the wedding thrusts more work on you than an Egyptian taskmaster. There is an engagement party to be organized in under fifteen minutes. And before the hangover has even passed, you’re identity is subsumed entirely under the rubric of wedding organizer. You are no longer a doctor, an accountant, or Rabbi. You better hone up on your impresario skills because you’re putting on a party. One big party. You quickly adapt and become conversant in the new language of wedding halls, invitations, and caterers. Like the culinary critic of the New York Times, you’re a wanderer, scouting locations, trekking from hotel ballroom to country club, tasting liver and borscht, deciding what you can afford and checking on Ebay to see what a kidney fetches on the open market.
I spent 22 years raising my daughter while my wife watched (I hope she’s not reading this either). I still remember carrying her, as a baby, up the innumerable steps of Tintagel Castle, the domicile of the legendary King Arthur whom you discover didn’t even exist but only once you lumber to the top. She was tiny then and I had to handle each step with extraordinary care, made much more difficult by my wife’s incessant hollering that I was crazy and what fool doesn’t know that King Arthur was a myth anyway. Now that my daughter is big enough to handle this and other challenges on her own, I thought, having invested considerable time in shepherding her through the dating process – that is, when she actually remembered I was a cognitive being to whom she could turn to for advice rather than just part of the furniture – I would be afforded an opportunity to enjoy the moment. She is a kallah, a bride. Free at last, thank G-d Almighty, I’m free at last. But no, the prophet Isaiah was right. There is no rest for the wicked. And clearly the sin of raising a child to maturity was to be punished by the gods with endless labor in ensuring that we hand her off to the man who will now be the center of her life in an extraordinarily complicated right of passage known as a wedding.
I have written many columns lambasting the opulence and braggadacio of weddings and Bar Mitzvahs that lack spiritual content and seem designed primarily to impress parents’ friends. In our case, resources alone will prevent us from being guilty of that transgression. But even a budgeted wedding should be beautiful, at best, and respectable at least, and my wife and I, as well as the groom’s parents – really nice people whose stock has plummeted considerably as a result of this merger (a reference to me rather than my daughter) know enough people that at a minimum have to be invited so that this special occasion is shared with friends we dare not insult so that they continue to buy my books.
It turned out that we were extraordinarily lucky in finding loving and professional family businesses that are nursing us through the byzantine process of marriage and are taking over the yeomen’s labor of preparation. Main Event Caterers, caring and consummate people who did a stunning job at our children’s Bar and Bas Mitzvahs, and the Rockleigh Country Club – striking and elegant without being gaudy and run by a wonderful Italian family who seem to know more about orthodox Jewish weddings than most Rabbis (yes, another reference to myself, but it is my favorite subject) are lifesavers and G-d bless them.
Still, it seems to me that the Talmud had it right two millennia ago when it envisioned a wedding in a totally different light. A couple gets engaged. It’s their time, their celebration. So rather than having them spend all their time putting on a party for friends, the very reverse happened. Friends got together and found a venue, everyone cooked a dish, and they put on the party for the bride and groom. After all, it does seem somewhat odd that the bride and groom are suddenly hit with such incredible pressure to stage a celebration for their friends that they end up not enjoying the special time of their engagement as it is slowly taken over completely with guest lists, party preparation, and band selection. Who are the ones getting married anyway? It’s not the friends, right? It’s the bride and groom. So why are they doing all the work? And this paradox is one that affects every family, in every culture and every religion.
And while it’s too late for me and my ever-expanding impresario skills, perhaps it’s time to do things a little bit different.
At this point in this column, having alienated my wife, my future mechutanim, and by now, even my own daughter, let me say something inspiring. Would it that all of our problems revolved around the responsibilities and pressures of joyous family occasions and I am so grateful to G-d that my daughter has found a man of substance and caring to share her life with, even as he steals her from me and takes her thousands of miles away to live in a state far, far away where I can’t interfere in their lives (I know, I’ve now alienated my future son-in-law as well. But why not be thorough).
Still, there is a healthy middle ground. I know parents who borrow up the wazoo to put on a wedding that will make a lasting impression when, in reality, the only meaningful impact of a wedding is the one that will be made by a man and woman who find love in an age of endemic divorce, fidelity in an age of public sexual scandal, and a soulful connection in an age where the material and the practical have come to dominate.
So thank you, Lord, for the blessing of my daughter’s engagement. And while I am truly grateful, would it offend some great celestial plan if I were to win the New York lottery?
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has eight children to marry off after his daughter, G-d willing. So would it kill you to buy his books? The author of “Renewal: A Guide to the Values Filled Life,” he is about to publish, “Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself.” (Wiley) Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley