An Excerpt From ‘Clearing the Aisle, by Karen Schwartz (Downtown Press)
* * *
Any lingering doubts I may have had about the Gershons’ rabbi had started to fade when he’d suggested we meet over lunch at Barney Greengrass. “I can’t be in New York and not eat there,” he said, “so this way, I’ll kill two birds with one stone.”
But, walking uptown to the restaurant, my doubts were replaced with a new, stranger anxiety. “This feels like a date,” I told Dan.
“Because we’re meeting in a restaurant?”
“That’s one thing — ”
“Over a less-of-a commitment lunch?”
“Yes! And, don’t forget, your parents fixed us up with him.”
Dan nodded. “True.”
“This is a Rabbi Blind Date!”
Dan laughed, but I grew more serious.
“Actually, thanks to my move to keep [your mother] Joyce at bay, it’s really more like an arranged marriage.”
“Relax,” Dan said. “They really thought we’d be right for each other.”
He already was there when we arrived, seated in the so-early-’60s-heinous-it’s-now-retro dining area, looking over the menu and smiling. We spotted him easily — in part because, as it was midweek, the restaurant wasn’t crowded, but mostly because Rabbi David Tannenbaum couldn’t have looked more the young, menschy rabbinical part. If the dark hair, trimmed beard and wire-rimmed glasses hadn’t given him away, the navy blue, hand-crocheted, Yankees insignia-patterned “Rabbi David” kippah would have.
Apparently we looked our part, too, because the moment we entered, he was up on his feet, smiling, extending his hand and saying, “You must be Rachel and Dan.”
“You must be Rabbi Tannenbaum,” Dan said, shaking his hand.
“We’ve heard so many great things about you,” I said, smiling. “Dan’s parents are big fans.” Could I have been any more date-y? Not that I’d ever been on an actual date.
Rabbi Tannenbaum flashed a small, self-deprecating smile and, as we all sat down, said, “They speak very highly of both of you, too — which is something I’d expect where Dan’s concerned, but I take extra notice when parents say great things about a future daughter-in-law.” It was my turn to offer a modest smile. “But really, you guys, just call me David.”
“You might want to rethink the kippah then,” I joked, breaking the ice.
“Oh, that,” he nodded, and motioned toward the back of his head. “A gift from my wife. It’s great to be able to wear it completely unselfconsciously. Normally, I’m surrounded by Phillies fans. Don’t worry, I’m not planning on wearing it to the wedding.”
“Hey, don’t hold off on our account,” I said.
“It’ll be a New York-heavy crowd,” Dan said.
“Hmmm,” he nodded, smiling. “Well, I’ll take that under consideration.”
We turned to our menus, and the rabbi said, “I’m sorry, but I just have to ask — did you know they opened one of these in Los Angeles?”
“A Barney Greengrass?” Dan and I looked at each other and shook our heads.
“Not just that — it’s in the Barney’s!” Our faces registered the shock. “I know! They told me just now. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I guess, Barney and Barney’s — ”
“But still — ” I said. How could I ever have had any doubts about this man?
“Not really the same… tone,” said Dan.
Rabbi David looked relieved. “At least I know I’m not the only one.”
A middle-aged waiter came to take our orders of bagels and Nova.
“I’m sorry,” Rabbi David said to the waiter, handing him his menu. “I’m trying, but I still can’t get over the idea of a Barney Greengrass in a Barney’s.”
The waiter shrugged. “I look at it this way: Over there, it’s fancy-schmancy; here, we’re just schmancy.”
There were satisfied nods all around. Clearly our threesome has bonded.
So. Now that the pressure was off, Rabbi David “just call me David” Tannenbaum folded his hands and rested them on the table. “Down-to-business time, huh?” Dan and I smiled, and he continued. “I guess what I’d like to do first is get a sense from you guys about what you envision for this wedding. What do you want this day to be?”
I looked at Dan, waiting, out of a completely ludicrous sense of egalitarianism, to see if he’d like to field this one. Then I realized that this was, of course, a question for me.
“Well, I mean, there’s so much that goes into this — obviously — but I think the short answer is, we want it to be meaningful.” I looked at Dan. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Definitely,” Dan said, nodding.
“Well, that’s good,” the rabbi smiled. “because I can do meaningful.”
We all laughed — huh-huh-huh.
“What we need to talk about, then, is how to go about getting to that. I’m sure I don’t need to tell the two of you that we’re living in an era where a lot of emphasis is put on weddings.” His comments were met with the appropriate mixture of groans, nods, eye rolls and smiles. Then the rabbi went on. “For the most part, I actually applaud this — ” he raised a crossing-guard qualifying hand “ — at least as an impulse. Unfortunately, however, it often translates into worrying about things like menus and flowers and seating arrangements, which, I think, completely misses the point. Don’t get me wrong — I think it’s great to have a big celebration, and Judaism puts lots of value in rejoicing at a wedding. Kol chatan v’kol simchas —”
“Kol chatan v’kol kallah.” We were finishing each other’s Hebrew sentences!
The rabbi smiled. “The Gershons told me you went to day school.”
“And Ramah.” Between school and camp, I had all the Jewish bona fides.
Dan was looking at me as if I’d spoken in tongues. “It means ‘the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride,’” I told him. “It’s from the seven wedding blessings.”
“Couldn’t have said it better myself.” The rabbi smiled. “So, obviously, celebration is an important part of our tradition. But it’s important to remember that a wedding is much more than an excuse for a party. It’s a mitzvah, so important it’s allegorically linked to some incredibly sacred things — the coming of Shabbat, for one, even receiving the Torah at Sinai. In other words, Jewishly speaking, this is a big deal.”
“As it should be,” Dan said, and I nodded my deep agreement. This was, of course, what I’d been thinking all along — all my sessions with Martha had, obviously, at all times, been in service of these ideals.
“So, I know you’re having it in Washington at the Audubon Society — which your parents, Dan, said was like an old private home with grounds?”
“Yup,” Dan nodded. “That pretty much describes it.”
“So, it’ll be an outdoor ceremony then?”
“As long as Mother Nature cooperates,” I said. Mother Nature, the parent I was least worried about.
“That’s great,” the rabbi said. “I so much prefer outdoor ceremonies. Even if it rains — which I’m sure it won’t — I just think it’s the most appropriate place to have a wedding ceremony. For an event that’s all about continuity and the cycles of life — it just, you know, fits.”
“That was our operating principle,” I said.
“Plus, having it outdoors, it can never get too over the top.”
“Not fancy,” I said. “Just schmancy.”
“Exactly,” the rabbi laughed.
Why had I ever cared about Dan’s father’s pushiness? This guy was great; I would have been pushy, too. Chuck Woolery would have been beaming: This was a total rabbinical love connection.
The waiter returned with our food, and as we schmeared our cream cheese, the rabbi continued.
“Since we don’t really know each other,” he said, “I thought it might be a good idea to tell you why it is I’m doing this — why I became a rabbi.” Dan and I nodded, chewing. “Like any nice Reform, bar mitzvahed but for the most part secular Jewish boy from Westchester, I made my mother proud and went to Yale Law School. But in my third year, I realized practicing law was not what I wanted to do with my life. What I wanted was to be with people at the most important times of their lives, to try to help them, and myself, wrestle and come to terms with the questions that, it seems to me, we were put on this earth and given the power of thought to try to answer. So I took remedial Hebrew, applied to rabbinical school, and basically gave my mother a heart attack. And now, 15 years later, here I am, sitting with you guys, doing exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do. Because — ” he smiled, “no matter what anyone tells you — the caterer, the florist, your mother, whoever — that wrestling, that grappling, really is what a wedding is about.”
Hold the f——-g phone.
Need we discuss how much I loved Rabbi David “just call me David” Tannenbaum?
I looked over at Dan, balancing red onion and tomato on his Nova-heavy bagel as he took a bite that left a gob of cream cheese in the corner of his mouth. He nodded, winked at me and chewed, smiling that smile of his.
I had my ideal man, I had my ideal rabbi, I had an onion bagel with possibly the world’s best smoked salmon. Who could ask for anything more?
We ate, and Rabbi David asked us how we met, why we decided to do what we do professionally (in the wake of his speech, my standard answer, “I’ve always wanted to write,” had never felt more hollow), whether we planned to keep kosher (no for now, but maybe when we had kids; I was still working on Dan with this one, but the rabbi just nodded, whatever-works-for-you, giving me no ammo). We then moved on to the nitty-gritty.
“Now, Dan,” he said, “I’ve heard horrible things — mostly from your father, actually — about the state of B’nai Shalom Hebrew School in the years before I got there, so I assume you won’t mind if I give you the whole schpiel. But, Rachel, with that day-school education, some of this might be a repeat.”
“Yes,” I said, faux-haughtily. “Well, I think I could stand a refresher.”
“Okay, then. But stop me if I get too — I don’t know what — or if you have any questions, comments, objections, whatever. Feel free.”
“Okay,” Dan said.
“Basically,” he began, “according to Jewish law, a wedding is incredibly simple: The bride accepts an object worth more than a dime from the groom, the groom recites the ritual formula of acquisition and consecration, and these two acts are observed by witnesses. That’s it. The truth is, you don’t even need a rabbi to perform the ceremony. So,” he smiled, “if after today.…”
We all smiled, each of us knowing how well this date was going, each sure there’d be another.