1. Crossing the Hudson
My husband ET tells me that Sunday, August 14th is on record for the heaviest rainfall in New York City history.
We came back from the country to attend the wedding of my cousin Asher’s only son. While Asher and I shared much growing up – our fathers were exceptionally close brothers and Asher was my Uncle Julius’s only child – outside of funerals, these days I never see him. Of the seven children and many progeny of our rabbinic grandfather, only Asher’s family remains orthodox. They are prosperous and very decent people, community leaders, do-gooders and politically conservative. They no longer reach out to us. Still, it was going to take more than a deluge to keep me from crossing over to New Jersey and attending the wedding.
By the time we get there, the gilded country club is swarming with orthodox celebrants, the men in brimmed hats and dark suits, the women in long-sleeved fancy dress, all huddled in buzzing clans when not stalking the opulent buffet.
I get myself a vodka (yes, before noon), nibble at sushi, chat with another long-lost cousin about why the French don’t allow headscarves in public places. I stand clapping halfheartedly on the sidelines when a mob of singing men usher in the groom for the bedecken or traditional veiling of the bride. I find my Aunt Rae, Asher’s mom, now well into her nineties and hardly able to stand. I improvise a little dance holding her shriveled hand high, stepping forward and backwards, half circling around her chair, smiling into her twinkling eyes. She is thrilled with the attention though I am not at all sure she knows who I am: Uncle Julius died suddenly (as did my dad a few months later) in 1983; Aunt Rae and I have hardly seen each other since.
As the festivities wear on, I notice ET wandering around looking woeful. It is not simply that he doesn’t know anyone or that he finds the food bland or that he can’t warm to the piercing klezmer clarinet and certainly shares no desire to join in the raucous dancing on the men’s side of a weird glassed-in waterfall serving as a mechitza or partition between genders. ET tells me that (like his namesake) he feels marooned on some alien planet. Alone of the men, he has neglected to bring a yarmulke (oops, my oversight) and his uncovered bald spot broadcasts singularity in this black sea. (In a crowd where everyone brings their own, it takes me a while to hunt down an extra.) But covering his head does little to assuage my husband’s discomfort.
ET is not an extra-terrestrial: He is French. He is a widely traveled art dealer, fluent in several languages, a man of great emotional intelligence with a degree from an Ivy-league university. He knows a great deal about polite salutations, sporting a boutonniere, preparing a vinaigrette, choosing a wine and properly setting a table. He is at home in all sorts of social settings from garden parties in the home of British Lords to peasants’ huts in Southern India. But this is one crowd whose codes he cannot crack.
During the twenty-two years we lived together and raised our children in France, we had no exposure to the rightist and frum contingent of my family. I am struck anew by the insular, separatist vibe this crowd gives off. Our engagement with B’nai Jeshurun, a progressive synagogue on the Upper West Side is an amnesiac, making me forget the less inclusive ethos of the orthodox. The reminder of all the rigidity with which I was raised could make me want to run and hide all over again. But I prefer to leverage it as a springboard to my own personal choices. Orthodoxy is a way-station, a point of departure in the story of my own religious journey.