Saturday, October 17, 2015

More Than Four Weddings and a Bunch of Funerals

Among the comments to my Here Comes the Bride post was from someone whose brothers I taught in religious school and at whose wedding I officiated a few years ago. Then he and his wife had son number one and invited me to do the baby naming ceremony, a semi-official Jewish tradition. The parents and I crafted a meaningful ceremony, and they decorated their home in blue and gold, the colors of the University of California at Berkeley, even with actual Cal gold and blue tortilla chips.

A few years later when son number two arrived but the family had moved to the Washington, DC area, they flew me out to do the baby naming ceremony in their Virginia home. My only regret is, being the sometimes too informal kind of guy that I am, I only brought shorts and was way under-dressed for the ceremony, which was another moving ritual created by the three of us.

The only reason I did their wedding ceremony was because the groom's mother was a guest at another wedding I did and she referred me. That couple, both lawyers, have evolved in food production and I used to see them peddling artisanal cheeses at the local farmer's market. The bride's grandmother used to live at the retirement community where I've worked for six years, but was there when I was a volunteer. One of my first summer jobs in the Bay area was with the bride's aunt back in 1989.

I am amazed at the interlaced web that connects so many of us on account of ritual and life cycle events. And I feel blessed, as I wrote yesterday, to be part of the tapestry of so many people's lives.

I once chanted the blessings for a Jewish circumcision ceremony (brit milah or bris) for my cousin's son because the rabbi and mohel (the one according to Jewish ritual who performs the circumcision) was unable to use his voice due to a recent surgery. I stumbled over a word of the Hebrew prayers at one point and the rabbi's wife chimed in with the correct one.

Verna and I had decided, since she was not keen on the idea of a bris, to have Miguel's circumcision in the hospital. Then a rabbi shared how doctors often take up to 10 minutes to snip the foreskin. "I wouldn't let them near my son with a 10-foot pole," the rabbi said.

So Verna said we should do the bris in our home to honor my father and stepmother, who were visiting shortly after Miguel's birth in 1998. Verna and her mother hid in our bedroom during the ceremony because the mohel and his two Yeshiva associates looked straight out of Fiddler on the Roof and the emotional anxiety of the day, especially for a mother, was too much to handle.

I spent the time while the mohel was preparing asking everyone why we were doing the bris. I knew the religious reasons--from the Old Testament story of how circumcision was a sign of the covenant between God and ancient Hebrews--but I wanted to understand why as the 21st century dawned upon us we were mutilating our offspring to bring them into Judaism.

No one had a reasonable explanation for me beyond tradition and loyalty to Jewish law. In the end, I determined my reasons were psycho-sexual: I wanted Miguel's penis to look more or less like mine, a fire hydrant, not sheathed.

Earlier this year I did the funeral of a woman who'd lived at Drake Terrace, but I'd known 25 years from our days of teaching Sunday school together at a local synagogue. I have done other private funerals, but I was also a funeral counselor and director for not quite a year for a local non-profit Jewish funeral home.

One time, as I was milling through the crowd of an outdoor funeral ceremony, making sure people were seated and everything was in order, my phone (which was supposed to be on silent) went off and my totally cool ring tone started blaring. It took me at least 10 seconds to silence "Smoke on the Water".

I've done weddings at hotels, wineries, restaurants, and in parks. One time I did two weddings simultaneously for two sisters in one of their homes and we Skyped it to their parents in Romania. Their mother started crying and so did I. I promised to dance with her at the party in the United States. One of us still owes the other that twist and shout.

I remember doing at least three or four weddings within six months of Verna's death. It felt so weird, but also life affirming. Being part of ritual and the life cycle, whether for religious or secular reasons, has been and will continue to be a sublime blessing for me.

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