Sunday, November 28, 2021

For Such a Time as This

Saturday night, I officiated Lina and Felipe’s wedding ceremony (in Spanish) in the village of Palomino, in Colombia. Here is an English translation of the remarks I shared with them and their guests in Spanish:

Do you have a favorite scripture? I do. It is one of the most dramatic moments in a story that for all we know probably didn’t happen exactly as described, if it happened at all, but that matters little. 

The Book of Esther is a book about a marriage that not unlike the one we celebrate today is a marriage of two individuals of different faiths. The twist in that story is that the groom does not know that. 

Esther, a young Jewish girl, marries the most powerful king in the world, the ruler of the Persian Empire, but on the advice of her uncle, Mordechai, she hides her heritage from her husband. 

This act, borne of a sense of safety and preservation, was often repeated through history, particularly in Spanish speaking countries. Once Spain was unified under Ferdinand and Isabella and began to spread its rule to the New World, it was not always safe to be open about your faith. 

Esther is able to keep her secret for a while, but fate comes knocking. In a plot, once again, reminiscent of the future, the Jews are threatened with annihilation by the second most powerful man in the Persian kingdom. And Mordechai comes to plead with Queen Esther that she intervene. 

The problem is that like many if not most of us, Esther is scared to step out of line, especially in that extremely patriarchal society. The rule is that even the queen cannot simply visit the king without an invitation, and the previous queen lost her head for violating the rules. Esther is, naturally, loathe to act.

Mordechai’s response is swift: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows, perhaps, you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

I don’t know about you, but I cannot read that last sentence without getting emotional. Few of us will ever become the Queen of Persia, few of us will be called upon to save our people from annihilation. However, we in our lives, are often presented with such choices. But, and this is what scares me personally, we often have a harder choice than Esther. 

I’m not trying to minimize Esther’s situation, but life does not usually present its choices to us in such a black and white fashion, as it does to Esther. It is usually much grayer, much more ambiguous. Still, a choice we must make. Do I do what is convenient and comfortable, or do I do what is much harder because it is the right thing to do?

You, Lina and Felipe, have each been confronted in your private lives with such choices, and though you have made mistakes like all of us, anyone who knows you will testify that you followed Mordechai’s admonition. You have, time after time, resisted the temptations to stay secluded in the palace of comfort. You have answered the call to help others, to look out for others, to live lives of service, again and again. 

It is my prayer, that you continue to do this, that you continue to set a great example for your daughters, that you continue to set a great example for all the rest of us. May we all show your courage and the courage of Mordechai and Esther. May you, may everyone here today, may we all answer the calls large and small in our lives with clarity and conviction, “And who knows, perhaps, you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

Meant to Be Together

Sunday afternoon (11/21), Mike Biedermann and I co-officiated Sam and Cody’s wedding ceremony at Dove Ridge Vineyard, in Weatherford, Texas. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

Sometimes, just telling the couple’s story in their own words produces such a valuable lesson about life and love. This is one of those cases.

Those who know Cody know that like many of us he took what might be called “the scenic route” through college. Reflecting on his educational journey, Cody makes a fascinating and counterintuitive observation: “I have thought if I would have only started with engineering and construction, I would have graduated much sooner. Looking back, I would not change a thing. I would not have been able to experience the different classes I was able to take, I probably would not have met the awesome friends I have now, and I probably would have missed out meeting Sam, who is the best thing to ever happen to me, my best friend, and the love of my life.” 

Now, Sam, on her part didn’t even expect to be at A&M. Being a nice Jewish girl from Texas, she naturally ended up at University of Utah. Huh? She pretty quickly discovered that the only place on earth where Jews are called gentiles was not the ideal place for her. So, she transferred to Texas A&M. There, Sam’s high school friend, and Cody’s fraternity brother set them up, they fell madly in love, had a whirlwind romance, and have been together ever since. Just kidding. That is not at all what happened. 

Why, you may ask? Reasons. She was Jewish, he was Christian. She was liberal, he was conservative. She wanted to move to LA, he wanted to stay in Texas. So, they just became friends. Still, something nagged at them. “Every time I would see her,” Cody says, “I would think to myself, ‘what if we started dating, and what would that be like.’ Every time I saw her, I thought she was a cute, smart, fun, and a wonderful woman to be around and over time I found myself being drawn closer to her.”

Sam graduated and moved away, Cody moved on from Texas A&M, but they both ended up back in DFW. Sam says, “When I would go to the bars in Fort Worth, I would always run into Cody and say hi. My childhood friend started going on dating apps and matched with Cody. I remember… telling her, ‘I love Cody. I know him from college. Great guy. You should go on a date with him.’ Well, they never did, so I ran into him again at the bars a week later and asked if he went on the date with my friend. He told me they never did so I finally felt God was giving me signs for a while now that I just need to ask Cody out. I asked him out and the rest is history.”

Cody sums it up: “Our relationship has been driven by fate. For reasons we can’t describe, we feel God knew we were meant to be together… I was meant to marry Samantha Sternfeld and be with her for the rest of my life, a life I know for certain, will be amazing because I have my person, my best friend, and the love of my life.”

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Better Place

Saturday afternoon, I officiated Allyson’s and Josh’s wedding ceremony at the Carlisle Room, in Dallas, Texas. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

I am an eighth-generation rabbi, so it’s kind of like the family business. Now, few Jewish parents dream of their children becoming rabbis, a fact that has repeatedly vexed parents on my paternal line. As another fellow former Orthodox rabbi, Jackie Mason, said, the choice is clear for most Jewish parents, doctor. In fact, while our state is in huge strife over when a fetus becomes viable, most Jewish theologians agree, a fetus becomes viable when it graduates medical school.

My father, who like me only served as a congregational rabbi for a short time, once said that despite that fact, you can take the rabbi out of the shul, but you can’t take the shul out of the rabbi. And though this is no double-blind study, according to Allyson, the same may be true for psychiatrists. 

Just listen to her description of the genesis of their relationship, “Our first 3 dates were all 5 hours long. He’s a great listener and easy to talk to. He got all the information out of me without even having to ask.” 

Seriously, though, she made quite an impression on him, and continues to do so, “Allyson was interesting and funny, had a very unique perspective on things, and of course was incredibly beautiful. She is consistently surprising me with things she does, knows, says. I felt (and continue to feel) very lucky and fortunate and thankful to have met her. Allyson is amazing and I can’t possibly imagine a life without her.”

One of the most important aspects of Allyson and Josh’s relationship has been their Judaism. They talk about how they live our lives in a way that is very much grounded in Jewish principles, specifically, belonging to something greater than themselves, and leaving the world a better place than how they found it.

Now, you might wonder, again, as a rabbi, why didn’t I just start with that? Didn’t I say that I was trying to share something I learned? What’s with all the sappy stuff that preceded it? 

You see, though, that is exactly it. Without any judgement towards those who don’t find it, Judaism is very clear that to make the world a better place, you need that other person. It’s just too hard to do it on your own. You need, in Allyson’s words, a partner, a companion, a lover. 

This may be why fellow Jew, Rachel Platten, in Better Place, says in words that speak for Allyson and Josh, “There's a song in my heart, I feel like I belong. It's a better place since you came along.” What a lovely thought to begin married life with!

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Kept Each Other Laughing

Sunday morning, I officiated Natalie and Zach’s wedding ceremony at Texas Discovery Gardens, in Dallas, Texas. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

I’m sure many people met their betrothed at Starbucks, in front of the counter, behind the counter, a mixture of both, but this takes the classic coffee cake, “We worked together at Starbucks, and not only was I his superior, but he mentioned he didn’t want kids, so I crossed him off my potential partners list.” Ouch!

Natalie continues, “Even after mentally crossing him off my list, I developed a crush on him. He’s just so witty, he can clap back so fast, and he pretends to not know what’s going on, then he will know every detail… He has since told me that he does see himself having kids with me. And if that was a line, it was a very good line.”

Now, anecdotally, about 75% of people sitting at Starbucks are people watching and working on their screenplay, so this again, from the other side of the counter sounds appropriate: “I remember what her hair looked like and what she was wearing on the day we met. I remember that she sang a lot, but our first real connection was discovering we were both Jewish. Natalie’s late Zadie was a screenwriter, and I thought this was the coolest thing ever and even came to work the next day asking her if she knew all this miscellaneous trivia about her own grandfather. I don’t know how long I’d had a crush on her when she made the first move…” 

Now, I always ask each person I marry why they want to get married. There are no right or wrong answers to this question. I do think some answers are more Jewish than others, and Natalie’s answer falls into this category: “Because society dictates it? Because it is easier to have kids together? Because having this awesome party combining our two families will be cool? Because this way it will be harder for him to leave me? Because if one of us gets hurt the other can be there?”

Why do I say this answer is very Jewish because the ultimate thing to do in Judaism is to answer a question with a question. Why do Jews answer questions with questions? Simple; why not?

Ultimately, though, Natalie agrees with Zach’s answer, “I grew up surrounded by a lot of happy and healthy marriages, particularly ones with a lot of laughter, and so I’ve always thought to myself, I want one of those. My parents have attributed laughter to be the key to their marriage… I started thinking about marrying Natalie early in our relationship because of the way we kept each other laughing.”

The Talmud relates a story that reminds us how right Natalie and Zach are to attribute such importance to laughter. Rabbi Beroka asks Elijah the prophet if there are any people in the market they are standing in who are destined for heaven. Elijah points out two brothers. Rabbi Beroka asks them what they do. They say to him, “We are jesters, and we cheer up the depressed.” 

Natalie and Zach, hold fast to this lesson, never stop laughing and making each other laugh, and your marriage will give you a taste of heaven.

A New Person

Saturday evening, I officiated Salena and Greg’s wedding ceremony at the Ruthe Jackson Center in Grand Prairie, Texas. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

Salena makes a very interesting statement about the inception of her relationship with Greg, “I knew after our first date that I was going to marry him (pause) even though he didn’t.” 

The next big milestone in their relationship had a bit of slapstick to it. “He accidentally told me he loved me (pause). He called me to chat because he missed me and I had him on speaker phone with my mom and he said it and then the shock set in, so he quickly said goodbye and hung up before I could respond. I said I loved him once he came back, and he immediately said it back.”

About the big milestone that brought us to today, she simply says, “He proposed to me on February 8, 2019, in Austin, Texas at a Panic! At The Disco Concert.” That old trope. No seriously, there’s more to it. 

Greg choreographed this pretty carefully. He got floor seats, center stage. He proposed just as Brendan Urie, her favorite singer, was walking through the floor seats singing Death of a Bachelor. In case any of you still weren’t clear as to why we were here today, she did say yes.

Brendan himself says that his own marriage to his wife, Sarah was central to the composition of this song and indeed to the entire album it lends its name to. “I would say the title track, ‘Death of a Bachelor,’ is pretty much why I called the album that. [It] just really meant a lot to me. I mean, that kind of summed up how I feel now. I feel I am a new person and I’m able to talk about the past because I’m not that person any more. It’s nice to be able to set aside the past and look at it objectively instead of being stuck in that world. So that was really an eye opening experience for me.”

I doubt Urie, who grew up LDS and left that church in his late teens, realizes this, but this idea is central to the Jewish tradition. Ashkenazic Jewish men, like me and Greg, for instance, will not regularly don a prayer shawl during morning prayers, until they are married, because there is a recognition that full personhood is achieved when we find our soulmate. (BTW, many Jewish parents feel that their children have not reached full personhood until they graduate from medical school, but that’s an issue for another time.)

Traditionally, in line with what Urie says, many brides and grooms fast on their wedding day, like we do on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and recite special confessional prayers that are only recited on the High Holidays. This is because your wedding day is seen as a day when God wipes the slate clean and forgives you of all your sins. You are a new person from this day forward. 

The challenge of marriage, and if you can do this, Salena and Greg, you’ve got it made, is to never fully let go of this feeling and to renew this feeling of, “Happily ever after, how could I ask for more?”

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

I’ll Have What They’re Having

Monday afternoon, I officiated Debra and Michael’s wedding ceremony in a hot air balloon over the sky of Collin County, Texas. It was just us. Here are remarks I wrote for the original ceremony on terra firma, and what I planned on sharing with them and their guests, before they decided to do something very different for their ceremony:

I ask every person I marry not only why they want to get married, but why now? I think that that is always a good question to ask, but I feel like it is even more poignant, when it’s a seasoned couple. (Don’t call us old. We’re not. We are seasoned.) 

Debra says, “Finding love with Michael was a gift. Our relationship encompasses all that is truly important to me. He’s my soulmate and I can wait to spend the rest of our lives loving and supporting each other.” Michael says, “I spent two years taking my time to get to know about her values, dreams and needs and knew this was a woman that I not only could, but wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Why now, to quote a movie, which I am always doing, just ask Debra, ‘When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.’”

I find this reference to be particularly intriguing, because unlike Harry and Sally, Debra and Michael’s relationship was romantic from the start. It makes sense, though for a number of reasons. First of all, though Meg Ryan, herself, and Sally Albright, the woman she plays, is clearly not Jewish, everything else about the movie is Jewish. Harry, though this is never mentioned, is Jewish; just check out his order at Katz’s Deli. While Sally orders turkey on white bread, oy vey, Harry orders pastrami and rye, like a good Jew. Of course, Billy Crystal himself is a very Jewey Jew, as was Nora Ephron, as is Rob Reiner, and of course, the best line in the whole movie is uttered in the deli by Reiner’s own very Jewish mother.

However, there is one little known fact about the movie that is emblematic of the beauty of Debra and Michael’s love story. The line Michael uses as his answer was not in the original screenplay. In fact, the original screenplay did not have them falling in love and marrying. Reiner changed this because during the filming, he met his second wife.

Barry Sonnenfeld, the film’s cinematographer, also Jewish, said to Reiner, who had been divorced for a decade, “I know this girl. Her name is Michele Singer (also Jewish), and you’re going to marry her.” They met on set, they fell in love, and they are still married today. Reiner says that that made him change his mind, because he said, “Okay, that’s how it could work for me.” 

Debra and Michael, as the years progress may your love only continue to grow. May you both continue to enjoy the type of relationship the real-life couples at the end of that timeless movie have. And may you continue to inspire other couples to say loudly with conviction, “I’ll have what they are having.”

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Predestined

Saturday evening, I officiated Rachel and Zane’s wedding ceremony at the Embassy Suites, in Grapevine, Texas. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

I have every person I marry write an essay covering their life and spiritual history, why they want to get married and why now. I have read close to 1,000 of these essays already. This was first time such an essay began, “In the interest of sparing you from reading an auto-biography combined with my disinterest in writing one, I will be keeping this section extremely brief.” I mean, I knew Rachel was direct but… Just kidding, that was, of course, Zane.”

Zane’s courtship technique was, well, interesting. “Our first date was ice cream,” he says, “I was a babbling awkward fool, and she mistook that for charisma… On our second date I listed out my traits that could be potentially deal-breaking from her point of view. Again, she mistakenly thought that was charming.” 

Now, Rachel’s technique was more conventional, but apparently it involved swearing a type of blood oath before embarking on her quest. “Sydney, my roommate insisted that if I reached a fourth date, I had to bring the suitor to our apartment for her to meet them. As I was taking Zane home to meet Sydney, he asked how many others had met her. I told him that he was the only one that had made it this far.” 

In hindsight, their falling in love seems predestined. “We felt a connection within the first few dates. We bonded over the important topics of the day,” says Rachel. These are, and I swear I did not make this list up, Lord of the Rings and DND, feminism in literature, theatre, and metal music.

Seriously, though, Rachel and Zane’s love is a testament to the enduring qualities that make a marriage work. As Rachel says, “Since the beginning of the relationship, I really appreciated his honesty and communication skills. We are able to discuss hard topics when they come up and get on the same page. I have great respect for Zane… He shows that he is proud of my work successes which are very important to me despite our agreement that we will never understand what each other’s job entails.”

And, as Zane says, “She is possibly the kindest human being I’ve ever met. She cares so passionately and learning from being with her has undoubtedly made me a better person… the trust between me and her is stronger than any bond I’ve had before.” Finally, he adds, after almost four years of being together, Rachel and I are stronger than ever… If we can handle being locked in the same room for a year straight without fighting, we can handle anything. I see her as my partner, best friend, and soulmate. I feel beyond lucky that she feels the same way.”