My First Jewish Wedding

For whatever reason, I’ve attended very few weddings in the course of my lifetime. As a child, I only remember one, and hick that I am, the very first rehearsal dinner I attended was my own. It may indeed have been the first time I ever sat down at a table with place cards, and I was totally ignorant of rituals involved – toasting, for example – which seemed to go on as long as the Pleistocene Age. In his toast, my father quoted Nipsey Russell’s criteria for the perfect woman: “deaf, dumb, over-sexed, and owning a liquor store.”

It was a long night.

Of course, I have gone to several weddings since and served as a groomsman in one, but until yesterday, I had never attended a Jewish wedding, and this one happened to be the wedding of my older son.

The ceremony took place at the Monaco Hotel, in Washington, DC, that city of “northern charm and southern efficacy,” to quote President Kennedy.[1] However, in this case, the setting was perfect. The hotel is right across the street from the Chinatown Metro exit. (DC’s Chinatown, by the way, boasts the highest density of Mexican restaurants this side of San Antonio). Anyway, you could hop on a train and hit the museums, which younger, single, available son Ned and I did to catch the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat‘s exhibit at the Hirshhorn. Her photographs and films create an aura of beautiful strangeness and remind you just how different and alike human beings can be, and, of course, there is nothing more universal than marriage ceremonies.

photograph by Shirin Neshat

photograph by Shirin Neshat

More, importantly, you could walk from the hotel to the rehearsal dinner at 600 F Street and avoid cab/Uber fares, not to mention vehicular manslaughter. It amazes me that in 2015 that the bride’s parents still pay for the wedding and the groom’s parents pay for the rehearsal dinner, but in this case, doing so saved the Birdsong-Moores from putting a second mortgage on their house or my having to sell my prized collection of very well-used — snap, crackle, pop — LPs dating back to the early ‘60’s .

If I do say so myself, the dinner went off well, the Lebanese food was excellent, and we ran out of alcohol just about when we were supposed to be out of there.

Like I said, I’ve only been to two rehearsals before, my own and one of a friend. Judy Birdsong and I had a no-frills, bagpipe-less ceremony that my father-in-law clocked at 23 minutes. My friend’s rehearsal was much longer, but I think that was attributable to the bedroom-slipper sporting wedding director’s being in the first stages of Alzheimer’s.

A Jewish wedding is more complicated, though. At the rehearsal, Taryn and Harrison pantomimed circling around each other, first Taryn circling Harrison, then Harrison circling Taryn — sort of like a cross between flamenco dancers and prizefighters — and then they interlocked arms and circled as a pair. It was very beautiful. Then her brother Logan went over and pantomimed picking something up and reading from it, and we practiced processing and recessing a couple of times, and that was it.

Rabbis seem much more involved in weddings than Protestant ministers, or this one, the excellent Arnold Saltzman, was.  Short, slightly stooped, smiling that comfortable smile that those who have made peace with metaphysics do, he looked as if he had stepped out of central casting. As it turns out, he is a big deal, has composed four symphonies and an opera and was an internationally sought-after cantor until a virus did in his vocal chords. Relaxed, he made slight jokes, even during the ceremony. When I thanked him at the rehearsal for performing the service on his Sabbath, he waved his hand dismissively and said, “This is about love.”

wedding day

wedding day

The day of the wedding dawned with drizzle, which eventually turned into a downpour, but for me, who had nothing much to do except practice reading a poem and memorizing my toast, it was a non-issue. The bridesmaids and groomsmen weren’t so lucky. At noon, they were off on a five-hour photo shoot in various locations around the capital.

Judy had an appointment with a make-up person at eleven-thirty and came back to the room with fake eyelashes and a Buster-Keaton-thick coat of pancake make-up. She went back to lighten it a bit, but the woman knew what she was doing because over the course of the day it faded, and by the time of the ceremony, she looked less like Joan Rivers and more like herself. Here’s a picture of her ordering at a Mexican Restaurant in Chinatown a couple of hours later.


The family pictures were taken in the lobby at 4:45, and then we went to a room for the “signage.”   Rabbi Saltzman produced a certificate of marriage and had witnesses read prayers and sign documents. Judy and Taryn’s mother, Susan, also read a prayer. There’s a board, suitable for framing, written in Hebrew and English on the left-hand side and with art the bride and groom choose on the right-hand side. This board is what brother Logan had been holding in pantomime during the rehearsal.

* * *

Finally, it was time.

We walked down the hall and waited just outside the Paris Ballroom. Inside, a stringed quartet had been playing Jewish folk music. The wedding director opened the double doors, the quartet started playing again, and the groomsmen processed followed by Judy, Harrison, and me locked arm in arm, followed by the bridesmaids, and then by Taryn and her parents, Chris and Susan, locked arm-in-arm. I prefer this ritual to the Christian procedure where the groom appears from seemingly nowhere at the altar and the bride comes in escorted by only her father.

Of course, a room full of loved ones made the proceedings more emotional than the rehearsal. Parents sit in a row that would be behind the altar in a Christian ceremony, so we had a really intimate view of the proceedings. The bride and groom did their circling, the Rabbi prayed, talked, chanted; then father Chris and I were summoned to read, he a passage from the “Song of Songs” and I from the ee cummins poem “I Carry Your Heart”:

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

Like the poem, the service was beautiful. The board came out, brother Logan and mother Susan read from it.  The Rabbi spoke and sang, rings were produced.  First Taryn, then Harrison, read letters to each other explaining why each had fallen in love.  Vows were exchanged, Harrison smashed a glass with his foot — Mazel Tov! — and they were married, man and wife without kissing.  Then before recessing, they turned beaming and faced each side of the audience who flanked them rather than being arranged in rows behind.

Another nice touch is that when we the parents processed, we did so so abreast, arm-in-arm, a now joined family ourselves, the Birdsong-Moore-Antigones or the Antigone-Birdsong-Moores.

11692700_10205384243299647_870698187978786767_nThis post has gone on long enough, so I’ll skip the delightful reception, the delicious dinner, the toasts – though I have to mention the hoisting in chairs, which, is actually a lot of fun in a carnival ride type of way.

Being surrounded by people I love was so wonderful, my brothers and sister and nephews and nieces and their spouses, my in-laws, old friends I’ve known longer than Judy, the friends I’ve met since our marriage or during my career, new friends I met at the ceremony. How nice every single one of Taryn’s friends were with their warm smiles, handshakes, and hugs.

We danced the rest of the night away doing the Wa-Wa-tusi like Bela Lugosi.

I’ll leave you with the final line of my toast:

“I look forward to the birth of our first granddaughter, Wesleyanna Susan Christine Birdsong Antigone Moore – be fruitful and multiply!”

[1] Hat tip to Richard O’Prey for turning me on the phrase.