I was sitting in our synagogue library cataloguing books when Joanie Hirsch poked her head in. "Do you have anything on Jewish weddings?" she asked in a stage whisper. Something in her tone caused me to think the answer she wanted was not so much "Yes" as "Why?" And sure enough, when I replied "What for?" she drew herself up to her full height and exclaimed, "Liora's getting married!"
Immediately, I dropped the book I was scanning and went to embrace her with a heartfelt "Mazel Tov!" What could be a happier moment than a child announcing her engagement? Especially if that child is planning a Jewish wedding and, better yet, if the parents really like the person he or she is marrying.
When my daughters were adolescents, it seemed like we were going to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah every week. I remember thinking that the next round of simchas would be these kids' weddings. Back then, that seemed light-years away. B'nai Mitzvahs happen predictably at 12 or 13, but finding someone you really want to marry has a more ambiguous and variable time frame.
Well, that time frame is now getting closer. Although we're not yet up to that with our daughters, we're watching other people go through the process. And I'm fascinated: How does such a major shift affect the family constellation? What's your role vis à vis this new young person in the family? What kind of relationship do you want or expect from the machatunim, the in-laws?
If you lived in the shtetl, your machatunim would probably have a comparable level of near-poverty and piousness. But the United States is not a shtetl.
We know couples who were aghast over the lavish event their in-laws were planning. Others resented the fact that they had to contribute half to a wedding they had little say in. And all of this is just a prologue to newfound, complex and often emotionally charged relationships.
Marriage is a huge structural change. You take on a permanent roommate who's often accompanied by an assortment of new family members. These new members include you in their get-togethers and are known to offer you gifts, unsolicited advice and a larger sense of clan.
When I went through that process, it felt like a big net gain. For those I know marrying off sons and daughters these days, the math isn't so clear. Do they lose a child to Thanksgiving, but gain two for Passover? Is there compensation if the machatunim live close and have more access to future grandchildren?
What if the new family entices your child with more material comforts, and lures him or her away from the sturdy, middle-class ethics you've taken pains to instill?
No wonder some of the couples I've watched have cautious smiles when asked about the wedding plans. They sense they're moving into uncharted territorial waters.
Looking back, I can see that though I liked the idea of getting married, I had no idea what that actually entailed. It took time, practice and good counsel to get comfortable with marriage and to feel at home with my permanent roommate. Maybe it takes time on the in-law end, too.
When it's our turn, we will inherit a person who'll be joining with ours to form something wholly new. Learning to give the couple the space they need while maintaining a benevolent parental watch will require practice and good counsel.
It's hard not to have hopes for my future in-laws. I fantasize about sitting in the artfully decorated living room of a warm, intelligent couple now bound to us by the union of our children. We spend several holidays together and plan trips for our shared mishpoche. Life is grand.
For now, however, I'll just be happy for Joanie, and wait in the wings until it's time to encounter the dynamics of my own familial expansion.
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. E-mail her with any comments at: [email protected].