Ghosts at the wedding

Posted: Sep 01, 2006 12:01 AM

Zipping up the overnighter, the same thought always occurs to me: I've donesuch a good job tidying up the house - so I won't be greeted by a mess whenI come back - that it's really a shame to leave.

Then I think of all the family I'll see at the wedding. Not just the auntsand uncles and cousins, but those who have passed on. You spy them in thecorners at odd moments, or even taking center stage when the conversationturns to old times, as if they wanted to give you their side of the story.If they can come all the way from the next world, surely I can make theshort hop to Chicago for the happiest of occasions.


It's time for the opening ceremonies, so men and women are directed toseparate-but-equal banquet rooms. While the ladies celebrate and ululateover the beautiful bride, the men adjourn to a long table in the next room,complete with pastries and bottles of whisky, to go over the legal documentswith a clear mind.

First there is the T'naim,  or Conditions, certifyingthat there are no impediments to the marriage. A delegation is dispatched tothe women's gathering to make sure the bride freely consents to the match.Then it's time to check out the ketubah, or marriage contract outlining therights of the bride and responsibilities of the groom.

The groom is also obliged to fill in one of the Hebrew letters in thecontract by hand and deliver a d'vor torah,a littlehomily based on that week's Bible reading, during which it is customary tointerrupt him with raucous songs and prayers. (This is what passes for aJewish stag party.)

I've picked a seat next to one of my older cousins, the grandfather of thebride, and a widower now. I've known him all my life and am especiallygrateful to him for bringing his long-ailing wife, one of those angels everyfamily has, to both my children's weddings. It couldn't have been easy,considering all the difficulties involved in making such a trip. She may nothave been fully aware of her surroundings in those last, hard years, but hersweetness and smile still glowed for all those who knew her. As the groomspeaks of his love for his bride, my cousin discreetly wipes away a tear.


Then it's time for the Bedeken, or veiling of thebride by the groom in a ritual that harkens back to the 29th chapter ofGenesis. One can't be too careful, you know, lest the groom get a Leahinstead of a Rachel. Sure enough, under all that bridal finery, it's mydelicate, beautiful blond first cousin twice removed. Goodness. She's grownup. And soon it's time to proceed to the wedding ceremony itself, theconsecration of bride and groom to each other.

My Zaydeh Chaim - that's Grandpa Charlie to you - leads the procession,floating serenely above us as in a Chagall painting. Among the first to cometo America from Sokolov, his shtetl, his littlevillage in Poland, it was said of him that he could never decide whether thetraditional shot of schnapps at the start of the Sabbath meal should comebefore or after the gefilte fish. In a sagacious compromise, he settled onone before and one after. It doubtless made for a more festive Sabbath. Asagacious man, my grandfather.

The groom's brother, who got religion and moved to Israel, has returned forthe wedding, but he could have just arrived from the '40s - the 1840s - inhis black kaftan, earlocks and streimel, the high glossy fur hat favored bysome Chasidic Jews on Sabbaths and festivals. What's old is new again. Ispot him at the same time I hear the first high notes of the clarinet in theklezmer band. Sokolov lives!

We get to talking, and it turns out that both the groom and his brother wentto Catholic High in Little Rock, Ark. We exchange stories about FatherTribou, the school's legendary headmaster, and about their taking MarineCorps Junior ROTC there.

Hey, what a country.


All vows exchanged, all rites fully observed, the tears wiped away and thelaughter still resounding, it is time for the groom to smash the wine glassand conclude the wedding ceremony, which he does with aplomb. Mazel tov! Good luck! The knot is tied, the deed done. All islost, all is gained.

From across the crowded room comes the giggle of a baby being bounced onsomebody's knee in time to a klezmer tune - a reminder of what all thisceremonial finery is really about. The ghosts dance and posterity awaits.

As the next chapter of the family begins, glasses are raised. L'chaim! To life! Past, present and future have been joinedagain. Let's eat.