Doing It Rite

How do you flip the switch from cohabitation to wedded bliss? A ritual bath is a good place to start.

I was in a taxicab the other day, and somehow it came up that I was a newlywed. The driver got very excited and launched into an impassioned monologue about how wonderful marriage is. His broken English put it simply:

"If you're not married, you're bad."

Well, I responded when he paused, it's not that you're bad if you're not married; it's just that your life is different.

In a way, this was a surprising answer from me, since I'd dated my now-husband for seven years and lived with him for two before we married last October. The door we walked through as newlyweds led into the same home that it had led into when we were just boyfriend-girlfriend, we kept our jobs, and professionally I've kept my name.

But what we've discovered is that the things that change between a two people when they get married are ineffable. Inadequately put, changes include the tiny thrill of referring to "my husband," the look of joyful amazement that we shared on our wedding day, the things we say to each other as we fall asleep.

The physical trappings of our life together, and much of the emotional content of our relationship, were things that we didn't want to change--this was precisely why we'd decided to get married. We looked to our wedding day as a celebration of our love as it was.

But as we planned our ceremony and reception, we wondered, how could we imbue separateness into something that we wanted to celebrate?

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The last place we'd expected to find an answer was in traditional Judaism. What we found, oddly for our unobservant Reform selves, was that the traditional elements of a Jewish wedding ceremony are rich with ways of celebrating invisible changes.


Mikveh: Purifying Waters

The first thing I did was decide to visit the mikveh, or ritual bath, before the wedding. In preparation, I spent a few afternoons with the "mikveh lady," who instructed me in the Jewish laws of family purity and encouraged me to make mikveh a regular part of our marriage.

In the course of our discussions, she said, "You spend the time that you're dating putting bricks together, building the foundation of your relationship." For me, that was seven years' worth of bricks, with all the accompanying struggles and triumphs. When you marry, though, she said, "then you put in the mortar to hold the bricks together. Without the mortar, all you have is a pile of bricks. Which is fine, but it's not a permanent, sturdy home."

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Holly J. Lebowitz
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