It Was a Pleasant Evening Down by the Puddle……

It was a pleasant evening down by the puddle.

One of the things I’ve written about elsewhere is something from my childhood that wouldn’t happen today. Going to the movies when they would show a double feature with cartoons, newsreels, and coming attractions thrown in for good measure (no commercials) without any intermissions. You could buy a ticket and walk in any time, so invariably you’d come into the middle of a movie. Of course, the ‘middle’ might have been ten minutes after the movie started or ten minutes before it ended. Either way, you had to try and figure out what was going on, knowing that, if you sat there long enough, it would be shown again, and you would wind up back in the ‘middle’ where you came in, and then you’d know for sure what the movie was about. What I’m going to write about might be viewed as being in the actual middle, the beginning of the middle or near the end of the middle, but none of us are foolish enough to claim to know which it is. But, sooner or later, by combining my literary efforts with those of Natania, you’ll get the whole picture – starting here. But for now, we’re describing events in July 2020, not March when the saga actually started.

We’re dealing with two different themes that unfortunately get mushed together: the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic, which seems to be going on and on, and the courtship of Natania and Gil, something which had a beginning and is proceeding apace. The evening down by the ‘puddle’ (which is my way of describing what the locals call a ‘lake,’ down by the new entrance to Ma’ale Adumim) was a sheva brachot, one of the celebratory meals held during the week after a Jewish wedding. For, in fact, our couple had been married the previous night (Sun. July 19) in a small ceremony at the Tayelet (the promenades in Jerusalem). And before I go any further, I insist on giving an appropriate three thumbs up for a bit of rabbinic flexibility (which is often an oxymoron).

By the time July rolled around, N&G had put together a plan was to get married on Aug. 4, which corresponds to Tu B’Av, one of those propitious days in the Jewish calendar when couples should get married. All the preparations had been made: an appropriate venue reserved, invitations sent out, a wedding gown ordered (from Turkey; not my idea of a good idea). Barbara, I, and the happy couple had gone to the Montefiore restaurant (the ‘appropriate venue’) for a Tasting, to get a preview of what would be served at the wedding. Then our government, panicking at the exponential rise in COVID cases, basically shut down event halls by limiting the number of guests to a paltry fifty, meaning there would be no wedding for our couple on Aug. 4.

Plan B (or was it Plan C, or D, or E?) First of all, move the date up by several weeks. Natania’s flat-mate, the woman who owns the apartment, had out-of-the-blue managed to get herself married sometime in June. She and her new husband were living separately until Natania moved out. No deadline, no pressure, but you get the idea.

Here’s the tricky part. Normally, Jewish wedding don’t take place during The Three Weeks, the mournful period between the minor fast on the 17th of Tammuz (July 9) and the BIG fast, Tisha b’Av (July 30). However, Rabbi Shimshon Nadel agreed to make an exception. The wedding wouldn’t be during the last nine days of this period, which are the most onerous. As he put it, the prohibition is a custom, not binding on all the Jewish communities, AND, under these extreme circumstances, there is room to be lenient. He and Gil knew each other from their days in New Jersey, which was why R. Shimshon got involved. Funny thing, we knew him when he was a teenager, living with his father in Passaic. We may have even been present at his bar mitzvah. No one who knew him then would have surmised that he would blossom into a rabbi living in Beit Shemesh. Then again, nobody who knew Natania at the Yavneh Academy would have pictured her as a Ph.D. candidate. There’s a lesson to be learned about judging teenagers.

The redesigned wedding took place as scheduled on the Promenade with about twenty invited guests, dozens more family and friends watching and kvelling on Zoom, and untold casual strollers passing by in the fading evening light. Chris, the chuppah lady, had set up the requisite equipment under the pergola several flights of steps down from street level. The photographer lady had taken the obligatory thousand digital images of family and friends. Someone had determined that the parents of the bride – considered old and feeble – needed to sit during the ceremony and had provided said parents with two plastic chairs, which gave us the best seats in the house. Our daughter looked especially gorgeous in her borrowed wedding gown (the one she ordered from Turkey not having arrived). Our new son-in-law looked appropriately dignified in his sort-of suit. (I should mention that Barbara and I both looked spiffy in the same dress and the same suit that we had worn ten years ago at Tina and David’s wedding. There’s something to be said for maintaining one’s weight.) Rabbi Nadel was impressively eloquent, reminding one and all that we were within sight of the Old City, and who, in days of old, would have imagined our being there for such a joyous occasion. That’s an important historical point, but, as I sat there watching the ceremony take place, I was thinking of the day, almost thirty-three years ago, in the delivery room at the hospital in Morristown, NJ.

Some of us headed afterwards over to the First Station for a late-night celebratory dinner that served as the first post-wedding Sheva Brachot. The food at Station Nine was excellent, but it was too late at night even for those who aren’t old and feeble to eat much. The leftovers we took home with us were enough for three meals for Barbara and me.

The next night was our turn to be the host at a sheva brachot, and, as it turned out, it wasn’t much easier for us to pull it off than it was for our kids to get married. Plan A) Before there was a real plan A, I had a thought to have a bash for twenty or so of our friends in any one of several restaurants in Jerusalem. Once the virus numbers started to rise, we hastily gave up that idea. The real Plan A was to have something in Ma’ale Adumim, mostly for our friends from the community, which drastically limited our options – especially since we wanted it to be outdoors (safer there, you know).

We signed a contract with Caffit – one of the two restaurants down by the puddle – settled on a menu and began sending out e-mail invitations. We have two inter-related problems. We are fortunate to have too many friends to invite to such a small gathering, but we are unfortunate in that too many of our friends have health issues and couldn’t or wouldn’t come. With a little effort, we did, however, put together a guest list. And then the government put a further kibosh on our plans, by announcing that restaurants could only handle takeout and delivery service. This was on Thurs., July 16, with four days to go. (We didn’t even know if we would be able to go to the First Station after the ceremony)

I was ready to throw in the towel and save our time, energy, and resources for a big one-year anniversary bash to be held a year from now. My steady-at-the-helm life partner was insistent that we find a way to go full speed ahead and have some sort of sheva brachot. After all, how many times can you uninvite people before they lose interest?

Before we signed the deal with Caffit, we had considered and rejected an idea to order food from Holy Bagel (now reduced to catering only) and borrowing someone’s yard or patio to hold our event. In better times, this plan might have worked, but now, no yard or patio was being offered. However, we still had the Holy Bagel catering menu. Why don’t we bring down a lot of chairs and a folding table and have a party in the grassy area in front of our building? The same grassy area where people perambulate with their dogs, and street cats and local crows are on the lookout for a morsel to eat? By a vote of one to one, I was out-voted. We spent some quality time on Friday going over the menu and making some interesting selections. However, we could not fax them the paperwork until Sunday morning, which turned out to be a good thing.

Fri. afternoon, about an hour before Shabbat, Barbara saw something in an email. After an enormous push-back by restaurant owners, the government was agreeing to allow restaurants to remain open until 5AM Tues. That prompted some frantic messaging with the restaurant. Are we on; are we off? We were on. Forget Holy Bagel. And then we read that we could only have a total of twenty people at the restaurant. Uh oh, we’re going to have to uninvite four people. Who gets to stay and who has to go, and how to we pull this off? And then Aviad, the events manager at the restaurant, told us that he had checked with the local police, and they would allow up to thirty people at our party. We’re back in business! After some back-and-forthing with Aviad, we straightened out the remaining details, and we were good to go. There was one loose end. To go with the viands we were prepared to request from Holy Bagel, Barbara had ordered a super-duper special wedding cake from Rachel Miskin, a professional cake maker, whom I also know from Encore! We no longer needed it if we were going to the restaurant, and we weren’t sure we could even bring it with us. (Turns out we could, as long as we served it on our own paper plates.)

It was a pleasant evening down by the puddle. (That’s where you came in, remember?)

We were all sitting around a long table on the patio of the restaurant, the happy couple, the ecstatic parents, and twenty of the finest guests anyone could imagine. We had wined (with me acting as the wine steward, going around, and pouring for everyone), we had dined, and desserts – including the cake – were on their way. Time for me to stand up and get everyone’s attention.

I reminded everyone that at events like this one some ‘idiot’ is required to get up and say something. Well, I intoned, I’m the designated idiot. I just happened to have a few well-chosen thoughts to share, and nobody was impertinent enough to interrupt me. (We were footing the tab, after all!)

I began by making reference to a movie, Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg, that Barbara and I had watched recently on my 27” iMac. Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a high-powered corporate lawyer, who is drafted to defend William August Fisher, a/k/a Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (the British actor Mark Rylance, in an Academy Award winning performance), caught red-handed spying for the Soviet Union. As is made clear, the powers-that-be want Donovan to defend Abel without really defending him because, after all, we all know he’s guilty. (Can you imagine Hanks playing a character who would deliberately lose his case?)

The two meet in a jail cell before the trial. Donovan is astonished at how calm Abel seems, considering how easily he could be sentenced to death. Donovan asks, “Aren’t you worried?” And Abel responds, “Would it help?”

The scene is repeated throughout the movie, Donovan doing everything possible to defend his client, Abel sitting passively, awaiting his fate – even at the end when he is about to be swapped for the captured American airman, Francis G. Powers. “Aren’t you worried?” “Would it help?”

I keep thinking about that exchange because, as advice, it’s something that no parent I know has been able to take. From the womb on, parents are worried stiff about their progeny: will the child be healthy, will the child be smart, will the child be popular, will the child do well in school, will the child make the right decisions, will the child ever get married – and to the right person? You know the drill. And does any of the worrying – by itself – help? You know the answer.

Two things I’m no longer worried about. Natania is finally getting married, and like older sister Tina, she has made a wonderful choice of a life partner. But her getting married, here in the Land and in this situation, has put my sense of perturbation into overdrive. As we learned with Tina, dealing with the Rabbinate for someone who wasn’t born here is like dealing with the Welfare Department in any locality in The States. At least we had one advantage over ten years ago, the organization Tzohar, who told us what we had to do to satisfy Those-In-Charge and provided a human face to the process. But being from the What Could Possibly Go Wrong? school of thought, I was not certain until near the end that all would go well, that the couple would be able to get all the documents the rabbis require, and that said rabbis wouldn’t find a way to throw a monkey wrench into the plans. In addition, as you all know, the virus and our government’s chaotic response to it has destabilized the economy and thrown the lives of most Israelis into disarray. What a combination: the Rabbinate and the government. Makes you want to run for cover. Still, did my worrying help?

It began to dawn on me that I had lost any claim to being Worrier-in-Charge. Natania had swiftly and dramatically grabbed that title. After all, it was her wedding. Gil, on the other hand, was the en-Abel-er. Before the date was changed from August 4 to July 19, he kept saying that they were going to get married then, no matter what, no matter how, even if it meant getting married on someone’s merpeset with two neighbors as witnesses. July 19? The same thing. They were going to get married, no matter what. For him, the answer to The Question posed was no. Either way, with the two of them around to take care of each other, the best I can do is claim Worrier Emeritus status, and that I gladly do, letting the two of them make their life decisions all by themselves.

 

Some people would have quit while they were ahead and sat down, but, as the ‘designated idiot,’ I was prepared to keep on blabbing. Here was my opportunity to recycle what was supposed to be an article for our shul, Musar Avicha – except they pulled the plug on these weekly efforts. (It became like pulling teeth to get enough contributors, more than Nachum wanted to do – even if he is a proficient dentist.) The basis for the article was all stored away in my head (with a crib sheet handy). It wasn’t anything original on my part; I gladly give credit to R. Jonathan Sacks for this observation.

We were about to start reading Devarim (Deuteronomy), the last ‘book’ in the Torah cycle.  Those who follow these things are aware of all the speculation as to the what, why, and how of this section. When I read years ago what Sacks had to say, it stuck in my mind. With a little digging on the internet, I was able to find his article and print it out.

The author alludes to some ‘relatively recent archeological discoveries,’ records of ancient treaties between neighboring kingdoms in the region. What these covenants had in common was the way they were composed, always in six parts.

Sacks takes this six-part structure and proposes that most of Devarim ‘is itself a covenant on a monumental scale,’ not between warring nations, but between God and the Jewish people. ‘It has taken an ancient political formula and used it for an entirely new purpose.’

I was prepared to go one step further. The wedding of Gil and Natania seemed to fit this idea of a six-part covenant as well. And why not? Aren’t we supposed to emulate God? And, rising to the occasion, I tried to explain how this works:

1) Preamble: (announces place, time, and person) Everyone who needed to know about the N&G romance was made aware of it sooner or later.

2) Historical prologue (…recapitulates the history that has brought them to where they are…) Love in the Time of Corona (linked above) serves that purpose.

3) Stipulations (general provisions) In addition to writing of the usual ketubah (signed, sealed, and delivered), there was a pre-nup that both parties agreed to.

4) Deposition and regular reading (…to be read in public…)  As is customary, the ketubah was read aloud.

5) Sanctions: the blessings and the curses. No curses, but definitely seven blessings, repeated throughout the week.

6) Witnesses. Lots of them, not just our friend Ron and Gil’s friend R. Ely Allen, the official witnesses to the ketubah, but everyone who was present at the wedding in-person or via Zoom. Plus, (with me pointing for emphasis) all of our friends sitting at the table on a pleasant evening down by the puddle.

And then I sat down.

That in a nutshell, is the middle of the story. Will I carry on and bring you back to the beginning? We’ll see about that.

(Speaking about seeing, if you want to see R. Sacks’ article in its entirety, here it is.)

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