Having a Gay Old Time At Uncle’s Brit Ahava

By Marjorie Ingall

Published March 07, 2003, issue of March 07, 2003.
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Josie’s childhood is already pretty different from mine. I took my first airplane flight when I was a year old (to see Grandma in Florida); she took hers at 5 weeks (to see Auntie Ellen wed in Milwaukee). I wasn’t present at my own baby-naming; my dad ran into shul on a Monday morning and had an aliya. Josie, meanwhile, had her own carefully crafted ceremony, a brunch and an article about it in the national Jewish newspaper of record. I went to my first wedding when I was 7; Josie went to hers at 5 weeks (see aforementioned first plane flight). But since Josie had all the heft and obliviousness of an Empire Kosher Chicken at the time, I’ll focus instead on her second wedding, this past summer. Which happens to be tied to another difference between Josie and me: I met my first out-of-the-closet gay person when I was in college.

Josie’s first wedding as a semi-sentient being was that of my brother Andy and his partner, Neal. (Neal is a pediatrician, and I have to say it was very considerate of Andy to consider my and Josie’s needs in choosing a life partner.) Andy and Neal called their ceremony a brit ahava (Hebrew for “covenant of love”), and a wedding in English. It was wonderful, whatever you call it. As I stood under the chupah and held my daughter, I thought about the meaning of family. Having a baby will do this to you; kids make you aware of the meaning of commitment, the value of true love and the importance of continuity.

But first, the deets. (That’s details, to you elderly readers. Please use it, along with “bling-bling,” in all your future conversations.) It was a warm, sunny Sunday morning. Andy looked handsome in a tan seersucker suit, a pink shirt and a navy, white and pink diagonally striped tie. Neal looked dashing in a blue seersucker suit, a blue shirt with a subtle pink-and-white windowpane plaid and a pink tie with tiny blue-and-white squares. Josie was delectable in a purple Liberty print sundress with attached apron and appliquéd white and lavender flowers. I wore a Björn. (When you have a fetching baby, no one notices your outfit anyway). Many guests sported lavender kippot stamped on the inside with “I had a gay old time at Andy and Neal’s Brit Ahava.”

The officiant was their friend Roderick Young, then the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, their (primarily gay) shul. Their friend Stephanie Caplan (see her work at http://www.theketubah.com) made them a gorgeous, personalized, egalitarian ketubah. At the ketubah signing, my mom, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, gave a drash, a brief lecture, on the week’s Torah portion.

The chupah (wedding canopy) was amazing. Designed by an artist friend, and sewn by my aunt, who is a quilter, it consisted of three wide swaths of purple silk organza with seven squares of nubbly silk shantung — scarlet, gold, purple and blue — sewn in the middle. The seven squares were decorated by seven sets of friends or relatives to correspond loosely with the traditional seven blessings recited at a wedding. I was assigned the panel representing family. Josie helped me by chewing thoughtfully on a spare (unused) brush.

Under the chupah, it was a fairly traditional Jewish wedding. My husband, Jonathan, was Andy’s ring bearer, and Neal’s brother-in-law Jeff was his ring bearer. Andy and Neal placed rings on each other’s forefingers (where tradition says a vein runs directly to the heart) and said in Hebrew and English, “With this ring you are consecrated to me according to the tradition of Israel” (a modification of the original, “according to the laws of Moses and Israel”). Seven sets of friends then gave their blessings based on the same seven themes depicted in the chupah. Both Andy and Neal broke glasses, wrapped in a silk scarf that had belonged to Neal’s mother, who was killed many years ago by a drunk driver.

Josie slept through the entire ceremony, then woke up giggling at the breaking of the glass, cheers and burst of music. As we all walked to the reception a few blocks away, she waved at her adoring public.

Since Andy and Neal are the last of their siblings to get married, they made all of us perform a Mezinka, which is apparently a Yiddish dance congratulating parents on the marriage of their youngest daughter. (As Neal said, “Hey, what can we say?”) Neal’s little nieces and nephew made crowns out of beads, pipe cleaners and tinsel to place on the parents’ heads. Sadly, none of us actually knew how to do the dance, so we just flopped around like whitefish out there. While we danced and ate, Neal’s adorable nieces, Amie and Allison, ages 8 and 6, kept Josie busy. For hours. (Which made this afternoon as restorative to me as a week in the Caribbean.) Amie delighted in all the same-sex couples. “You’re married? You’re married?” Elderly aunts and uncles waltzed.

What does all this have to do with being an East Village mamele? Well, as I said in the very first installment of this column, I’m a nontraditional traditionalist. My own wedding, which I wrote about in Ms. (the piece also ran in the Utne Reader), was an attempt to celebrate continuity and commitment, to turn a patriarchal (yet kookily beautiful) institution into something that didn’t harsh my feminist mellow. Josie’s baby naming was a similar opportunity to examine how to remake Jewish ritual into something that reflected my world and values. Andy and Neal did the same thing, beautifully, with their brit ahava. Having a baby made me more eager to connect to my family, my clan — and Josie’s simple existence causes Andy, Neal, Jonathan and me to hang out more. We’re all becoming grownups, and we see it as our responsibility — and joy, and honor — to reach out to each other and to the next generation. I’m so lucky to have a whole village (the East Village, and Chelsea) to help raise my child. Her childhood’s different from mine, but in many ways, it’s richer.

I kvell because I love Neal so much, and I love the person my brother has become since they’ve been together. And at least someone in this family married a Jewish doctor.

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