It’s become almost a cliche program at American Jewish summer camps. The mock Jewish wedding teaches kids, through an interactive and improvisational experience, the many beautiful traditions that create the beginnings of a joyful Jewish marriage. Last summer, at our synagogue’s week long Vacation Torah Camp, we lived out the cliche, marrying my seven year old daughter to our senior rabbi’s eight year old son. As is the case at Jewish camps throughout the nation, our kids took part in all aspects of the ceremony, from the bedeken (veiling of the bride) and the signing of the ketubah to the shtick and simchah dancing at the party. It was truly a celebration to remember.
The idea actually came from the kids themselves. “Are we going to do another mock wedding?” they asked. “No, that was last year” we responded. “Well then what are we going to do? A mock what? A mock divorce?”
Currently in America, 50% of all marriages end in divorce. Although divorce is not seen as a desirable end in Judaism, neither is it viewed as a shameful. Judaism understands that all marriages do not remain happy and healthy — being in relationship is tough, and as people evolve in their self identities and as well as their understandings of each other, they are sometimes no longer able to remain in a healthy marriage. It is for this reason that we have the get, or the Jewish document of divorce
Although the possibility of divorce is cautiously embraced by Judaism, the reality of the ceremony is deeply problematic. A divorce must be initiated by the man, and cannot be declared by a woman. The reality of this can be very problematic and has left us with the situation of the agunah – a woman who is metaphorically “chained” to her husband and, because she has not received a get, cannot be remarried. It is for this reason that rabbis have devised prenuptial clauses to protect wives in the event that their husbands refuse to grant them a divorce. As a rabbi, I will not perform a wedding without a prenuptial clause that protects a woman from such a fate. And yet, despite the fact that I speak very honestly with couples I plan to marry about the need for this protective document, I had never thought to create a “mock divorce” as a learning experience for our campers.
At Vacation Torah Camp, we came to realize that our kids’ request was actually an extraordinary invitation. Our campers were initiating a real conversation about relationships, about struggle, and about creating closure when necessary.
On Thursday afternoon our campers gathered around a table, and through the lens of Jewish ritual, we engaged them in a deeply important conversation. Noa and Emet, who had been married the summer before, would now be divorced. Our campers shared their feelings of sadness — “We thought you were such a good couple!” They exclaimed. “But we want to support you if this is what you need.”
We spoke with our campers about the real questions with which couples struggle — why might it sometimes be OK for a two people to want to start their lives anew? What does it mean to support people in difficult times? How are the obligations of marriage different than the obligations of friendship? How does separation sometimes help people become more “whole?” How can something that is very sad also be important? Why do we have a Jewish ceremony to commemorate the finality of a marriage?
Jewish summer camp is a wonderful place to celebrate the joys of Jewish living. It can also be a safe space to explore the struggles, the painful moments, and the times of loss. It is important that we teach our kids that Judaism is fully present with us for both. Jewish religious rituals can help us to create openings and closings – and sometimes both, at the same time. We hope that by creating a vehicle for our kids to explore this very real part of the human experience, they will know that Judaism is there to help them through even the darkest of times, and they will feel comfortable continuing to ask their deepest questions.
I want to share the chorus of one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs with you:
So we’re ok, we’re fine, baby I’m here to stop your crying
Chase all the ghosts from your head,
I’m stronger than the monsters beneath your bed
Smarter than the tricks played on your heart,
we’ll look at them together then we’ll take them apart
Adding up the total of a love that’s true,
Multiply life by the Power of Two (Indigo Girls, ‘Power of Two’)
This has been something of a theme song in my life, these past 11 or 12 years. Ever since I met the woman who, two years ago, became my spouse. In fact, we even incorporated the last two lines of the chorus into the Ketubah that we crafted with an artist-friend.
This past week, a great deal in the flow of the news cycle has caught my attention. Thinking about the monsters beneath our beds, or perhaps ‘where the wild things are’, it was notable that Maurice Sendak passed away this week at the age of 83. Hearing the news, I went online and watched his PBS interview with Bill Moyers from a few years back, and then the very different but quite entertaining interview that Stephen Colbert conducted with him just a few months ago. It was in the PBS interview that Sendak explained that the wild things were somewhat inspired by his first generation immigrant Jewish relatives – the aunts and uncles who had escaped Europe while they could still get in but, to a young child, were grotesque caricatures.
I know the ones he meant – they were probably just like the great-aunts and cousins, once-removed, that I remember –the ones with the lipstick that was painted so high that it almost touched their nose, the bright blue eye shadow and long, red nails. And the great-uncles with the hair growing out of their noses and ears. While Sendak lived his life as a secular Jew, he was clearly informed by that family history.
He speaks with Moyers about the courage it takes for a child to look the scary things in the eye and, in so doing, to be able to take back control not only of one’s fears, but of one’s anger. He had an uncanny ability to write from within the psyche of a child and paint the inner landscapes of their minds in vivid detail that they could so deeply relate to.
In the interview that Sendak gave recently with Colbert he mentions that he is also a gay man. Colbert, in his tongue-in-cheek but straight-faced manner, exclaims, ‘they won’t let you be a Boy Scout leader, but they’ll let you write children’s books?!’
While I certainly appreciate the joke, I found my mind considering the juxtaposition of Sendak’s ‘where the wild things are’ and another story that we saw being played out in the cultural and political sphere last week when first Vice-President Biden and then President Obama voiced their personal support of the GLBT community and of same-sex marriage. Sendak’s most famous children’s story can provide a means for young children to look at the monsters and many other things in life that scare them and, perhaps, to realize that they are not really scary after all. While for Biden, we might be amused by the influence of Will and Grace to make the scary and unfamiliar into something accessible and much more normative, it is the President’s words that most effectively demonstrated how we combat homophobia and those who feel strongly that civil equality should not be afforded to those whose love is not of the heterosexual kind:
‘I have to tell you that, over the years, as I talk to friends, and family, and neighbors, as I speak with my own staff who are in committed and monogamous same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think of those soldiers, or airmen or marines, sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf, and yet feel constrained, even though ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.’
The President voices what we know to be true about many things in life, and not only same-sex marriage: so often, fear is born out of ignorance. Once we get to know someone who is different from us, whether it be difference due to a physical disability, a religion, an ethnicity, and so on… we find that the world is a much more complex, colorful, and diverse place. We learn to see the partial truths in multiple perspectives. We learn, and in learning, like Max who stares into the yellows of the eyes of the wild things and does not blink, we confront our fears.
Some of the fears that have been voiced about permitting same-sex marriage include fears about how children are raised, fears about how the institution of marriage is understood, fears about the authority of some churches and other more traditional branches of religious faith groups. But, with the exception of the strongly held beliefs of some faith groups whose legitimate concerns arise out of their understanding of their faith teachings, getting to know people – people in our families, our communities, it becomes abundantly clear that these are not the monsters beneath our bed – these fears are not grounded in reality. And for those who are guided by a faith that appears incompatible with the President’s personal statement, it is important to consider whether such beliefs should be applied to civil rights on behalf of the entire population, many of whom are guided by different (and sometimes also religiously-informed) beliefs.
But I have other fears. My fears are borne out of conversations I’ve had with both adults and, even more heart-wrenching, with teenagers, who have shared their pain when they believe that society has taught them that their sexual identity and their religious identity or spirituality are incompatible. They’ve told me that the message they’ve received is that God hates them. Parents who tell me that they fear for their children and are so terribly afraid that their lives will be that much more difficult because they are homosexual. Some of these fears, too, are based on not knowing, and we can confront and learn to crown ourselves king over these too. But I am so terribly saddened that these are some of the messages that have been internalized from our political and cultural landscape.
This is why it is so important that the President and Vice President made the statements that they made. It is why it is important for people to speak out, and write articles, affirming the holiness of being true to our innermost selves, showing that faith and love do go together.
When Max realizes that he has conquered the wild things, he gets back in his little boat and returns to his bedroom, where he finds a hot meal is waiting. What stronger symbol of the unconditional love between a mother and her child can there be? For, once we have conquered the monsters beneath our bed, we come to understand the Power of Two – its all about looking each other in the eye, its all about relationships, and its all about love.
As a rabbi and teacher, I teach many different subjects with students from preschool toddlers to lifelong learning adults. Admittedly, I am concerned with what I know and what I need to learn to present a coherent and well-formed lesson. I focus on curriculum and on values clarification. I am committed to sharpening my skills and techniques, my presentations and my mode of communication. I convey joy and passion. Yet, according to our ultimate educator, Dr. Palmer, I have only just begun the teacher’s journey.
The public discourse about Jewish education reform has given birth to many innovative and often highly creative solutions to the Hebrew afternoon school of the twenty first century. We have been rewriting curriculum, revising textbooks, and restructuring the very foundation of synagogue learning.
However, the Jewish community of educators and administrators have paid little attention to the heart and soul of good teaching: the teacher!
A teacher needs the support of educational institutions who can provide the environment
for spiritual growth that teachers need to develop the self that teaches.
Teachers need mentors who are dedicated to that teacher’s soul and spiritual development. Teachers need partners in the dance of teaching who will not only lead but will guide the young dancer in the movement towards their authentic self.
We in the Jewish community have been focused on “performance” and how we look
in the classroom, rather than creating a living classroom of integrity where teacher and
student are connected to the truth of their Jewish identity, where the personal and the
public come together and a new role model is revealed.
Are we creating the kind of community that is centered on the capacity for connectedness
among the students and the teachers and their parents? Are we creating relationships
that are truthful and whole, caring and candid?
“All real living is meeting,” said Martin Buber, and teaching is an endless meeting of the self
in every classroom we enter.
Perhaps it is time we had the courage to create communities of learning with teachers who are themselves creating an inner landscape of hope, heart and wholeness.