Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Wedding in Jerusalem

By Naomi Ragen
Last night I went to the wedding of my dear friends’ Nancy and Benny's daughter. I've known the bride and her family for many years. And Nancy and I discovered we were both born in the same hospital in Brooklyn a few days apart. The bride and her twin brother were tiny babies when I first met them.

And now that baby girl, Shira – meaning song- was getting married.

Her future husband was a Talmud student in a study program that combined full army service with religious studies in a yeshiva situated in the heart of Biblical Israel, Samaria (A place our enemies call “illegal settlements”) . It is a yeshiva very similar to Otniel, which less than a week ago was invaded by terrorists with machine guns and hand grenades who killed four students in cold blood, and injured nine more.

Here I was, surrounded by these boys – soldiers and bible students—over a hundred of them, all invited by the groom to the wedding. In my minds’ eye, I could see the dining room in Otniel filled with these faces, dressed in the white shirts that are Sabbath and wedding day finery according to the mores of these modest, religious people.

Security was very tight. We were not in a settlement, we where in the heart of downtown Jerusalem. And Palestinians, who so far haven’t been persuaded by the Israeli left to kill just Israelis over the mythical green line, consider all of us in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Netanya, Haifa, Kfar Saba, Afula, Beit Shean, etc. etc. fair game for slaughter anytime, anyplace. Bible study, wedding, Bar Mitzvah, Passover Seder, Yom Kippur, sabbath meal. While the Western world has great delicacy when it comes to fighting terror “during the Holy month of Ramadan” Muslims themselves have no such sensitivity in halting their murderous activities during Ramadan, or any other day or occasion holy to other religions.

So here we were at a wedding, surrounded by armed guards. There was a pick up truck from the security company parked at the entrance, with a guard standing up in the open back with a machine gun. And there were metal barriers, and armed guards at all the entrances, with metal detectors, who checked our bags and coats and gifts, and back packs, then smiled and waved us through. And none of us wedding guests thought there was anything unusual about it. In fact, we were grateful.

And as the groom walked towards the seated bride, to perform the traditional “bedecking”, in which he takes the veil and covers her face (a custom which comes from the unfortunate experience of Patriarch Jacob who got Leah when he wanted Rachel, so now Jewish grooms make sure it’s the girl they had in mind before she puts on the veil…) the room filled with the roar of joyous song and the rhythm of hundreds of clapping hands. The music of flutes filled the air. We all then went outside in the cold Jerusalem night, another custom, to hold the wedding canopy under the stars.

There, again, the guards again kept watch from all sides. A guest, a massive fellow in a grey and red mustache, held a cherubic blonde two year old on his shoulders so the child could see. Grandfather and grandson, I thought, missing my own grandchildren. And I realized how much life is made up of such small, meaningful things. Sitting on your grandfather’s shoulders watching a wedding in Jerusalem. Holding a grandchild by his little legs. And when the blessings were made, the wine drunk, and the sound of rejoicing filled the night air, I thought: They can force us to hire armed guards for our weddings. They can force us to attend the funerals of young men and women, our sons and daughters, but they can’t stop can’t stop us from getting married, and starting new families, and singing and dancing, and filling Jerusalem’s night air with blessings.

They cannot.

But I wondered, how it must be for these boys, after burying their friends, after suffering such a clear example of what they all are facing in their own community and yeshiva, to now be celebrating. Were they totally able to free themselves from the terror, the mourning, the sorrow, to let their hearts rejoice for their friend at his wedding? Was such a thing possible, or even desirable?

Later, I got my answer.

It was something I’d never seen before at a wedding. Half the boys suddenly sat down on the floor. The rest, including all the men at the wedding, all the Rabbis, all the grandfathers, made a circle and walked around the room and the seated boys, hands on each other’s shoulders. In the very center sat the groom, who led the singing.

The music, unlike most traditional wedding songs, was slow. The movement around the room, slow. I strained to make out the words, and finally I did. They were the words of the traditional blessing from Grace after Meals, words we Jews say three times or more a day:

“Have compassion, O God, upon Israel Your people, upon Jerusalem, Your City, upon Zion, the Abode of Your glory, upon the kingdom of the House of David. O, our Father”—the men sang , and we women formed our own separate circle, shoulder to shoulder, united physically, and with one voice, we sang:” tend us, feed us, sustain us, nourish us, relieve us, and speedily grant us relief, O God, our God, from all our troubles.”

As I looked at the groom and his friends, as I saw the bride and hers, all singing these words, I understood that our enemies are never going to defeat us. Never. Because a people that can bury its dead, and rejoice in its living, and who can move forward into the future without forgetting either is a people that cannot be defeated by bullets or bombs or hatred or evil. It is a people who lives to give light to the world, and that light, despite the efforts of our enemies and those who support them—shines on.

While the world celebrated the beginning of a New Year with noisy blasts of fireworks and confetti, here in Jerusalem we quietly, meaningfully, celebrated the beginning of a new Jewish family. We did it with love, and faith, and trust in the future, asking God for his compassion and His blessing for His people. May He grant it to the young couple, to us, and to all who understand and rejoice in the difference between Israel and her enemies.

Sent by Naomi Ragen