In March, a friend I have known since childhood met me at David’s Bridal in Natick, Mass., to search for a wedding dress. We knew it wouldn’t be a typical shopping excursion because my left leg was encased in a heavy brace and I was walking with crutches–all thanks to recent surgery to reconstruct one of the four major ligaments in my knee after an accident in a kickboxing class.
In fact, nothing related to my June 3 wedding to Jean-Paul DesPres has been typical, or very traditional. First, there is the fact that I am the Jewish daughter of a Holocaust survivor father and a mother who grew up in the South Bronx, and I am marrying a non-Jewish man of mostly French Canadian descent. Then there is the reality that we are in our 40s, and this is a second wedding for both of us.
Still, when I re-met Jean-Paul three years ago after knowing him briefly in college, I found that falling in love again was a joyous time. We dated, moved in together (there goes tradition) and then got engaged last September. We began planning a wedding as most couples would, and thought our biggest obstacle would be finding a rabbi who would perform a mixed marriage. Jean-Paul respects my wish to have a Jewish wedding and home, but whether a rabbi would respect my decision to marry a non-Jew was another story.
I felt the sting of rejection first when a friend asked her Reform rabbi if he’d perform the ceremony, and he said no. I felt more encouraged when a Reconstructionist rabbi said she was willing to perform the service, but there was a hitch. Jean-Paul was uncomfortable with the rabbi’s insistence on inserting a mention of gay marriage being banned in most states into our ceremony. We fully support everyone’s right to be married, but Jean-Paul felt, and I eventually agreed, that our wedding ceremony was not the place for a political agenda, no matter how subtly it would be included. I also found myself fighting hurt feelings after the rabbi mentioned that we could not have a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) due to Jean-Paul’s non-Jewish background.
Finally, we found Rabbi Leslie Tannenwald. As soon as we stepped into her home we felt comfortable and accepted. Judaica adorned the tables, bookshelves and walls, and Rabbi Tannenwald assured us that she was happy to accept us as a couple, perform our ceremony and even help us get a ketubah.
I had recently left my job, so the pressure of unmanageable health insurance costs pushed us to plan something soon so that I could be covered by Jean-Paul’s policy. We decided to throw a small January wedding in early 2007 and planned on inviting about 40 guests–only family and a few very close friends, because it is a second wedding. We reserved a cheerful Mexican restaurant in Brookline, Mass., that serves delicious food–Zocalo–and were delighted to learn that their mariachi band can play Jewish horas (traditional circle dances). We wanted our wedding to be creative and different from the more traditional events we’d each had in the past, a wedding that would reflect joy, life, diversity and acceptance–all in the context of a Jewish ceremony.
Little did we know that finding a rabbi and affording health insurance would be the very least of much more important worries to come.
Just after our engagement, my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma. After several stressful and frightening weeks, we learned that she had an excellent prognosis with chemotherapy and radiation, but would not be able to attend a gathering of any kind until the spring. We changed the wedding date from January to May, then learned that there was virtually no hotel availability at that time because of college graduations. We finally settled on June 3.
But I still needed that health insurance right away. So, we decided to have a quick private civil ceremony in October, 2006, and then a larger wedding, in which a rabbi would marry us and we would have our friends and family there to share the moment with us, in June, 2007.
On October 27, standing beneath an old maple tree adorned with yellow, orange and red autumn leaves, Jean-Paul and I got married by a justice of the peace in front of the courthouse in Newton, Mass. I wore a simple leaf-patterned dress that my sister bought as a pre-wedding gift and carried a bouquet of fall-colored roses my mom had given me. Jean-Paul and I told ourselves, and Rabbi Tannenwald agreed, that the legal ceremony would not take away from the very special Jewish ceremony that we planned to share with our family and friends on June 3.
And so we moved forward with our wedding plans.
In early February, as my mother was preparing for her last two chemotherapy treatments, Jean-Paul’s mother was rushed to the hospital with spasms in her left arm and leg. A week, many tests and a biopsy later, we all learned the shocking news–his mom has an inoperable, malignant brain tumor. As I write today, she is in a rehabilitation facility waiting to start her own chemotherapy and radiation treatments, unable to move her left leg or arm.
I have to pause here, as I search for words to sum up this time leading to our wedding, which is still planned for June 3.
I guess I would say this. There was a time when I was plagued by guilt about marrying a non-Jewish man, even later in life and in a second wedding, partly because of my own sense of tradition, and partly because of my fears of hurting or alienating my parents or other family members. I don’t think I ever feared alienating God, because I believe that God accepts us all equally.
But after everything that has happened in the six months since we’ve become engaged, I believe that truthfully, only one thing is important. And that is love, in all its shapes and forms. It’s the love of a sister who buys you a pretty dress for a civil ceremony, a mother who faces lymphoma with courage and promises to be at your wedding no matter what, a son who visits his hospitalized mom and arranges for all of her needs to be met, a fiancé/husband who hugs you and tells you it will all be OK, and a friend who helps you hobble through a dress shop on crutches and makes you laugh–despite it all.
Love is what we’ll be celebrating at our wedding on June 3. And life.
P.S. Written June 16, 2007, after the wedding and honeymoon:
Rabbi Tannenwald was hospitalized a week before our wedding and couldn’t perform our ceremony. Her husband left us a message telling us she would be fine and provided a substitute. We met Rabbi Judy Epstein on our wedding day, when she performed a beautiful service!
And our honeymoon in Puerto Rico was wonderful.