2017‎ > ‎

Two Weddings, II

January 28, 2017

   Linda and I arrived at the synagogue in Pueblo Nuevo a little before 1:00 for the big day. It was December 25th. Etz Hayyim is a cinderblock compound on a side street that Daniel, who is Moshé’s father and the founder of the community, bought some thirty years ago. Daniel and his four sons (there are also three daughters) are all carpenters and bit-by-bit, doing all of the work themselves with the help of the community, they have turned the rough structure into an elegant synagogue. A wooden door, carved with the name of the community, opens from

the street, and there is a large mezuzah on the doorpost. Just inside is a patio, an atrium, really, half covered by a tin roof and half open to the sun, that occupies half of the space and serves as a multipurpose area. On one wall the Hebrew alphabet has been painted in both cursive and block letters, probably by Moshé, who seems to be the most accomplished calligrapher in the community. The opposite wall holds a whiteboard for lessons and announcements. On the third wall are Jewish themed posters and paintings. The several long tables and a few dozen folding chairs allow the space to be a school, a dining hall, a work area, and a dance floor, as needed. In the uncovered portion of the patio is a basin with a spigot for washing, a small structure that serves as a bathroom and, flanking the door to the sanctuary, two small raised beds that have been planted with flowers since our last visit. Presumably for the wedding. Moshé is the youngest of Daniel and Rivka’s four sons, and the last to be married, and the community has gone all out.

 

               We greet the half dozen people who are putting the finishing touches on the patio space. All heads are covered, the men’s with straw hats or kipot, the traditional Jewish yarmulkas, the women’s with scarves or knitted caps. Linda came prepared with a lacy shawl that she finished knitting a couple of weeks ago. We can hear music in the sanctuary where Elishá, one of the middle sons, is playing the synthesizer. Over the next few minutes another twenty families or so arrive, and the street fills with cars. Though the members of the congregation are for the most part not affluent, and many are artisans and part-time farmers who live in the craft villages in the valley south of Oaxaca, everyone appears well-appointed. The women wear long dresses, or embroidered huípiles and wear makeup and jewelry. None of the men wear ties, but white shirts and formal trousers seem to be the norm. Some have jackets. Three or four are bearded, and one man’s face is framed with the long, elegant side curls that are common among some Hassidic sects. Most of the families arrive with children, and a dozen or more of the toddlers run around whooping it up while their older siblings look bored. The only people who are not members of the community are ourselves and another American couple, Laura’s English teachers, who speak almost no Spanish and haven’t a clue what is going on.

 

Oh, and Laura’s family. They are not part of this community of self-proclaimed Jews either, and —presumably Catholics, like most Mexicans— do not seem to be intending to join. But they love their daughter, and she loves Moshé and is going to hitch her life to his, so they have committed themselves to participating in this Jewish wedding ba lev shalem, wholeheartly, de plena corazón.

 

In the atrium a photographer circulates taking pictures of the gathering crowd. Outside in the street Laura sits with her family in their car, waiting to make her entrance when she gets the signal. It is almost time, and the guests crowd the area around the door, smart phone cameras at the ready. The music sounds, the car door opens, Laura adjusts her veil, and the wedding begins.

 

When I first came to the synagogue, it seemed to me very churchlike. There was a raised area in front, with a central niche on the front wall for the Torahs, although all the community has is a small replica scroll that they keep in the niche. On either side of the raised area were reader’s stands (as for the two readings in every Catholic mass), and between them a table to hold a few ceremonial items: candlesticks, the wine bottle and glass for the kiddush, and a large ram’s horn shofar. Six long benches, in a row, faced this makeshift altar.

 

               But Daniel and his sons read a lot, talk to people, search the web, and build their ceremonial environment according to what they find and how they interpret what they encounter. In the last few months they have reconfigured the interior synagogue space in the classic Sephardic tradition. Now there is a raised reader’s box, a bimah, more center than front, surrounded by a railing, with room for three or four people to gather around the table that serves as a reader’s platform. Four of the benches, or pews, have been repositioned, two to each side of the reader’s box. The layout recalls that other Etz Hayyim, in Amsterdam, or the synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.  

               We all stood as Laura and Moshé approached. Four members of the congregation held the groom’s tallit, his prayer shawl, spread wide over the doorway like the traditional Jewish wedding  hoopah, as Moshé and Laura ducked their heads and entered. As Elishá played a slow march, they processed down the center aisle, climbed the three steps to the bimah and sat facing each other on the two chairs that had been placed there.

               The service itself was both traditional and idiosyncratic. The bride marched seven times around the bimah as the groom, who could not suppress his broad grin, tried to sustain decorum. They rose, sat, exchanged vows and rings, and listened to Daniel’s lengthy sermon. He spoke about how Judaism requires marriage. That single people are incomplete. That having children to perpetuate tradition is obligatory. And that the duty of the congregation is to sustain the couple through good times and bad. Those four points, with emphases, took nearly an hour.  Then came the reading of the ketubah.

               The ketubah—literally the written contract—is the formal marriage agreement between the bride and groom and their

two families. While it endorses union, and encourages foreverness, it also details a framework should the union fail and forever should prove finite. It spells out, traditionally in Hebrew but in this case in Spanish, with great specificity, what each party brings to the table. How much money, in pesos, each family is committing to the couple. Who provides the house, and its value. The furniture that Moshé and Laura each bring to the household, and the material value of each piece. And so forth. The point is, that although marriage merges the resources, if the marriage dissolves, the couple’s resources are divided in proportion to each party’s original contribution. After the long ketubah reading finished, the bride and groom signed the document, and six witnesses added their signatures: the bride’s father and mother, the groom’s father and mother, and two independent witnesses from the congregation, David and Linda. Linda signed in Latin letters. I signed in Hebrew, which put a big smile on Daniel’s face.

(The other American couple present, also Catholics, who were using my muttered translations and explanations to follow what was going on, could not believe their ears when they heard the ketubah. I later tried to explain how this was an ancient strategy to protect the bride and her family in a patriarchal world ruled by men, but I don’t think they bought it.)

Finally it was time for the kiddush, the blessing over the wine. The words were said, the wine was drunk, and the glass, wrapped in a napkin, was smashed under the groom’s foot. Hugs and congratulations all around.

Out in the atrium it was time to dance. Two chairs were produced, and Laura and Moshé, were dragooned, despite their

weak protests, to sit in them. The brawniest members of the congregation were called forth to hoist the novios into the air. And to bouncy Israeli music, round and round they went, the novios hanging on to the chair bottoms for dear life, and everybody else giggling and laughing and shouting out congratulations. After twenty minutes of hilarity, it was time to go to lunch.

Back in the car, Linda plugged in to her oxygen concentrator. She’d been off it for nearly two hours, and it was time to pump up for a bit. Our little R2-D2 sits on the floor in front of the back seat, with the hose extending comfortably to Linda in front. But it was clear that there were more people than vehicles, so we were commandeered to take another couple with us to La Higuera, the reception venue. Linda got in back, and the couple with—surprise!— their three half-grown children, shoehorned themselves in as best they could, and all of us, taking care not to breathe too expansively, set off. Behind us came a pickup with another ten people standing in back, braced so as not to soil their clothes. Fortunately it was only a ten-minute drive.

We parked in La Higuera’s shaded lot, and made our way to the dining room. On the porch were blown up formal portraits of Laura and Moshé, in gown and tux, at Hierve el Agua, a spectacular Oaxacan state park where calcium-enriched water has created travertine pools and white stalactites that cascade down a cliff.

               Since the young couple had told us that many of the guests would be contributing dishes (the potluck trial balloon that we had floated in our earlier negotiation?), Linda had prepared six trays of a sweet carrot pudding, enough for the eighty or so guests that we had expected, and saw, at the ceremony. But tables at La Higuera had been set for about three hundred people. Oops. And no one else was bringing food. Oops. And lots of people were bringing in large gift boxes, all of them wrapped in white. Oops. Well, Semi-Oops on this last point, because Linda had hand-sewn a book of handmade paper for their wedding photographs, and had given it to Moshé and Laura earlier in the week.

               We all sat down. Made small talk. Got up and circulated and made more small talk. When the bride and groom arrived, the gift bearers lined up bearing their gifts and presented them to the novios, white-wrapped box by box, with hugs and good wishes, each presentation immortalized by the wedding photographer.

A meal was served, kosher-ish, meaning none of the foods prohibited to Jews but still recognizable and comfortable to the general public. A soup, something like a pozole, probably chicken based, with vegetables. A meat, with a dab of beans, and rice. Wine, sweet, was offered, as well as jamaica and soft drinks. Mescal was passed.

Then we saw Moshé and Laura, Daniel, and some of Moshé’s sisters, passing around small trays of . . . sweet carrot pudding. For desert. Courtesy, said the announcement, of David y Linda.

               Moshé had told us that the families had negotiated hard over the wedding reception. Daniel and Rivka wanted serious religious dance music and only moderate drinking, since, after all, this was a serious religious occasion. Jorge and Gisberta wanted the traditional Mexican wedding blow-out, loud, bawdy, and wet. Their solution: two receptions, of which this one, at La Higuera, was per Moshé’s family.

And it went as planned. The music, canned, was Israeli. Mostly up-tempo versions of patriotic songs and religious themes gleaned from some of the most common parts of the liturgy, all in easy Hebrew, well-enunciated. As in designed for export precisely for occasions such as this one. The dancing was constant and intense: mostly circle dances, like horas, not partner dances. Men with men, women with women, and after a while long chains that mixed both, snaking in and out around the tables.

We lasted about an hour and a half, with one brief time out with R2-D2, but then our old-folks genes kicked in and we retired to the quiet of the Casa DaviLinda. We missed the follow-up reception, sorry to report, but expect that it ran to type. We have experience with the wedding reception extravaganza —at Rigoberto and Jéssica’s wedding for example, as well as during three-years full time and fifty-seven years off-and-on time in Mexico— and enjoy them immensely. For an hour or so. Maybe they aren’t old-folks genes at all, just the way we are and seemingly have always been: committed to excess, but only in moderation. Alas.

 

Los padrinos . . . .