Marriage means so much, to all of us. Including to unmarried people. We all want to live paired up, don’t we? To die not alone? What’s sadder than a grave all by its lonesome? Two side by side, we feel we can protect each other through all eternity.
Marriage is also the inner pillar of our psyche. We think of it all the time, even more than of sex. Why we have marriage, why we don’t, why and when did it become better, at last? Look around. Marriage is our life’s top ingredient, as guaranteed as the sun on a bright day.
I could go on. You see my wife and I just rededicated our vows. I’m still bubbling.
Rededication, by the way, is an American invention we should applaud. Even if one remarries not 50, just five years in, those would be some important five years! In the case of Iris and I, we clocked 30 and then decided: We’re redoing it, in Europe where I’m from — where she stems from, too, one generation past.
I do remember the times when she, or I, doubted that we would last. A counselor told us to beware when you stop fighting, when you have “peace.” Peace means the end of being unique to each other. Better unique and bleeding. So we rededicated — bleeding and all. We have littler fights these days, and better friendship in between.
Thirty years. And we’re hoping for another 20.
In honor of our roots, we flew to Eastern Europe. Iris comes from Holocaust survivors. I’m from the other survivors, the runaways from communism.
The logistics were complex. We’re an interfaith marriage, although we don’t live interfaith; the blood that lost the most is the blood whose traditions we follow. So we were looking for a Jewish environment to remarry.
For our first vows all those years ago, we eloped to Utah, of all places, because I’d been invited to Robert Redford’s Sundance writer’s workshop. We were married by Brother Johnson, a colorful Mormon judge, and enjoyed a Hopi dance and a bridal suite, both arranged by Mr. Redford, on our first night.
This second time, we wanted something more traditional. But who would marry two Americans — one a Jew, one not — in Hungary or the Czech Republic, lands where my wife’s folks survived?
Answer: Uh, apparently not anyone mainstream.
We were thrust from something we expected to be so intimate and personal into hectic East European, post-communist politics, with a very bitter-before-sweet feel of déjà vu.
Europe is not America; its Judaism, like its Christianity, is barely beginning to become flexible. Liturgical adjustments, so familiar in California, are unheard of. My wife researched a comprehensive number of congregations, which would not deal with interfaith couples, period. Discouraging. But at last, a congregation that called itself Reform agreed to revow us. Its leader, guide and navigator came to talk to us at the apartment we had rented in a street behind Budapest’s Belle Epoque parliament building.
“Hi, I’m Ferenc,” the rabbi said to us, walking in.
He was a robust 60-year-old with a light Hungarian accent, friendly, hands-on, beaming American nonconformity. Rabbi Ferenc Raj, whose stature in today’s Judaism I’ll not detail — Google him if you want; he’s far from being obscure — was the only congregation leader who agreed to remarry us despite the interfaith kink.
We’ll make the service quintessential, he told us. When the groom (me) is told to say, “According to the law of Moses and Israel,” we shall say, “According to the law of God.” For God — he smiled at both of us — is God for all, not for the chosen alone. At last, the groom crushes the glass. (I’d always wanted to do that!)
Surely, this felt so momentous because Iris’ family memories drifted so richly above this city by the Danube — where her mother and uncles hid with fake papers in 1944, helped by the occasional well-meaning Catholic. Iris and I visited the Dohany Street Synagogue, one of the largest in the world, where footsteps from the past resounded in our minds. Compared to the tests and trials of 1944, this year of 2013 should be like a breeze of reconciliation. Well …
On this mild September afternoon, up in the Buda Hills, in a family’s backyard, standing inside a sukkah — the model of all sacred Jewish spaces, even the wedding canopy, Rabbi Raj explained — Iris and I were rejoined. In attendance, including our son and daughter, were some 30 people only. Careful they were, almost like refugees. Because they were Reform, a sect still fighting to be officially recognized in today’s Hungary.
I felt so many things on that afternoon.
I felt the presence of my own tragically departed ones, starting with my deceased twin brother, whom communism killed. I felt reconnected with my wife, and with my deepest lone self. The ritual was too primal not to touch hidden-most memories, which unlocked and flowed in abundance. We drank blessed wine, my woman and I, surrounded by unprepossessing Reform worshippers who deserve to be accepted even if there were just a handful of them.
To my readers: Take note that such exclusions still exist. Help leaders like Rabbi Raj — through inclusiveness of them and others, the past might have been different. Help people like Rabbi Raj, even if you’re not Reform or not even religious.
I could write more about the passive-aggressive relationship of Europe’s Eastern lands to their Jews. Hungary’s erraticism is up there, and then some. When you pass the plaques on this and that building, you’re reminded that Budapest birthed Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb — on the plaque, his name is duly Hungarized, Teller Ede. Equally honored, Herzl Tivadar. Huh, who? THEODORE HERZL? Hey, you’re ours again, Tivadar! I felt like moaning: Would the real Europe ever stand up and say, “I regret that I oppressed my Jewish sons and daughters who so often carried my name to the heights. I repent, I do. Deeply and sincerely, I weep over my cruelty and vow not to restart it!”
Oh well. Evil didn’t stop in 1945, and doesn’t target Jews only. See what’s happening right now to the ancient minority Christians, burned in their churches, routinely killed, in Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, while the world is in busy conference talking about anything else but that.
Let’s all do the little that we can do. Like, let’s all remarry.
You know what I mean.
Petru Popescu is a Romanian-born, best-selling novelist. He lives with his family in Beverly Hills.