In this blog post, I wanted to write some random thoughts related to a unique experience I had at a wedding I officiated just about a year ago in Charleston, South Carolina. This is probably going to be stream of consciousness more than an essay. Here is how I opened the ceremony:
I travel all over the country to officiate at weddings, and I am many times called upon to officiate at weddings where the only ones who really know me are the bride and the groom. Therefore, I almost always open the wedding ceremony with these words, “Welcome family and friends, my name is Rabbi David S. Gruber, and I know I speak for all of you when I say how honored I feel to be here today.”
Those words have added meaning here for me today, as this wedding is personally special to me. About 40 years ago in this Great State of South Carolina, Rabbi David S. Gruber married Jeremy’s parents. Now, as I am only about 36 years old, that Rabbi Gruber was, of course, my grandfather, a great man, who I unfortunately never knew, and who at that point was at the sunset of his life. How extraordinary and deeply meaningful that we should all be here today 40 years later. I stand here therefore with a profound sense of humility, and I feel truly honored and blessed to be here.
Every wedding is special, but this ceremony had extra personal meaning for me. Prior to this wedding, the only things I knew about my grandfather, who was one of the most prominent public figures of his time in Columbia, South Carolina, were stories my father told me, and what I read about him in a book written about his congregation. Even my late mother and her parents, who died in the 1990s never got to know him that well, as he died about twelve hours after their wedding. I had certainly never met a congregant of his. At this wedding, I met not only Jeremy’s parents, who were married by him, with Jeremy’s dad having also been bar mitzvahed by him; I also met a number of their relatives, who still live in Columbia. To them Rabbi Gruber had not been someone in a book. To him he was their longest serving leader, whom they remembered many years later. Many of them told me stories about him, and it was very clear that they remembered him quite fondly so many years after his death in 1970.
My grandfather, who arrived in the U.S. at the age of two, grew up in an Orthodox home. I never remember as a child or even as an adult really understanding what had caused him to become a Reform rabbi, specifically. Maybe, growing up Orthodox, I just did not ask? Anyway, around the time I was contacted by Jeremy’s parents to officiate this wedding, I did ask my uncle, why it was that his father left Orthodoxy. He said that it was due to the fact, that he could not reconcile his understanding of science and history, with the traditional Orthodox interpretation of Judaism. I was greatly heartened by this, since, as I have explained elsewhere, it is this issue with its multiple facets, that caused me to rethink my lifestyle and beliefs, albeit later in life than my grandfather did. Also, my grandfather was known for his, you guessed it, tireless work on interfaith relations. I now feel somewhat closer to this figure whose name I bear, and who looks at me from old photographs.
Of course, I am always conscious of what I was told during a very strange phone call in 1990. I had just finished high school in Israel, and decided to visit the United States, and do a little touring and visiting with relatives before beginning my military service in the Israel Defense Force. One relative I was going to visit was one of my dad’s cousins. My grandfather was the youngest child in his family, and so all of my dad’s cousins are 10-20 years older than he is. I called my dad’s cousin from my maternal grandparents’ apartment in Queens, and once she picked up the phone, I said, “Hi, this is David Gruber speaking.” There was this silence on the other end of the line, and I had to repeat myself once or twice before she answered. Later during the discussion I asked her about this, and she explained that her uncle, my grandfather, used to stay at her parents house sometimes, and when I introduced myself on the phone she was puzzled, because she knew he was already dead for 20 years, and “after all” she added wistfully, “there was only one David Gruber…”