Adapted with permission from the author and Lilith MagazineAbout a year ago, my partner (it's so hard to figure out what to call him) of three years--knowing I would squirm at a grand gesture--timidly handed me a peach-flavored candy ring and suggested we formalize our relationship.From what I hear, this is every girl's dream (featuring a rock instead of a Lifesaver). But there was a problem. Getting married would (unless we eloped--an option Daniel has ruled out) involve some kind of wedding.The older I've gotten--and the more imminent the whole marriage decision--the clearer it has become that a wedding, with all its adherence to an outdated model of gender relations, is itself a huge stumbling block to my marrying. The trappings of the white wedding simply do not represent what I aspire to in my life, or in this intimate relationship. As I imagine it, marriage is a process--a figuring out, day in and day out, how to walk side by side--and I've been engaged in that process with Daniel for several years now. Walking down an aisle would not change that a whit.Faced with the peach candy ring, I told Daniel I was committed to him, but as for the rest, I just didn't know. After sharing bills and vacations, and the grief over his mother's death, our relationship seemed pretty stable, with or without rings. Nonetheless, Daniel suggested I take the next week to think about a public ceremony. That week has drawn out into many.When I tried to talk about my dilemma to others, I found few who seemed comfortable challenging the wedding trope. Tell a married couple you're uncomfortable with the notion of a wedding, I discovered, and there's apt to be an eerie silence, as if you are mocking them. Tell it to a single woman, and she becomes cranky, as though you're failing to appreciate your loving partner. Girlfriends flinched when I said I'd hate a diamond ring ("But you've got it coming to you!") and shrugged when I declared I couldn't possibly sign a Jewish legal wedding contract, or ketubah, selling my virginity for a monetary price. All, I'm sure, quietly assumed that I'm afraid of commitment, disloyal, unsure about the fellow--or perhaps psychologically disturbed.But I'm not scared of commitment, and I don't feel crazy. Most days, I feel frustrated that what seems so intuitive to me--that a traditional wedding makes no sense in a feminist world--should be so hard to communicate. Many days, I feel lonely because, as patient as Daniel has been, I'm figuring this out in a world that feels hostile on this score.Some say that the social pressures of a Jewish wedding--the public ceremony, the witnessed ketubah, the extraordinary expense--play an important role in turning the one-day ceremony into a lifelong commitment. But if feminism has taught us anything, it is to acknowledge the social pressures that direct our lives, to become aware that our assumptions, our choices--indeed our very desire to dress up in white and play fairy princess--might be created by forces outside ourselves, forces we actually don't very much like. We happily question our fashions--are we really more comfortable in panty-hose and pumps?--our motherhood, our sexuality. So why, when I ask women to apply that same soul-searching questioning to the tradition of the white wedding, do I become a rebel?
After all, the feminist objections to the traditional wedding are manifold, challenging the implicit notion that silent, passive beauty is the woman's natural role. In a wedding, everything happens to the bride, while she herself does little. She is given away, she is unveiled, she is kissed, and--in the Jewish tradition--she is acquired. And then, of course, she is deflowered. It all hearkens depressingly back to the days when brides were blushing for a reason. A wedding by its very nature--even with the relatively small correctives of modern innovation--feels like it would compromise my feminism and my sense of agency in my own life.As an adult, I have, however, imagined myself proposing on bended knee, embodying the energy of the suitor, the adventuring boy. Doing that, I thought, I would really know I wanted the marriage, the way you know when you've spent months looking for the right job, or days searching for the right gift, that it's just the thing you want. I would not be saying yes, high-school prom-date style, simply because someone asked. If I did the proposing, I thought, I would be the Actor, not the Actee. But Daniel had jumped my gun, and the truth was, now that he'd asked, I couldn't. But, Daniel's proposal notwithstanding, I made a decent attempt at regaining my agency. Daniel was eager to settle this thing called our relationship, and the truth was that the effort of staving off a wedding was wearing on us as a couple, and on my peace of mind. So, on my 30th birthday, I assembled Daniel and 30 of the other dearest people in my life, gulped a glass of wine, and surprised the group with a speech I'd prepared in advance. I suppose it amounted to a counterproposal. I was funny and charming and in control. My audience was rapt. Daniel was silent and shy."Suddenly, it began to dawn on me that making a commitment just might be an essential, deep, and altogether mysterious necessity," I told the group, my wine glass raised, Daniel unmoving at my elbow. And while I successfully avoided the words "marriage" and "engaged" and "husband" and "wedding," I did announce my commitment to Daniel in front of the most important people in my life."To help me get through this, I will assign you all four important tasks:"First, to serve as witnesses that I still have not said the dreaded `M' word."Second, to raise your glasses to my parents and sister, who have brought me to this point."Third, to join me in wishing that Daniel's mother Dorothy were here today."And finally, to raise your glasses to Daniel, to whom--or with whom (depending on how things go)--I hope to be committed."Though I was sorry to take Daniel by surprise, I was not sorry he ended up speechless. I'd seen this scene, gender-reversed, a million times before, in movies, on TV soap operas, and junky talk shows. I had heard a close friend tell me that she was waiting for her boyfriend of 10 years to propose because he would feel deprived if he didn't have the chance to ask. Deprived, I thought but did not say, of the chance to prove his manhood. And here I had proven mine. It was not a game. It was perhaps the bravest thing I've done.Still and all, with my counterproposal done to my satisfaction, the difficulty remains of putting together a wedding I'd want to commemorate for the rest of my days. I'm still working on that one.
This material is adapted and reprinted with permission from Lilith, the award-winning independent Jewish women's magazine. For a sample copy or subscriptions, contact the magazine at (toll-free) 1-888-2-LILITH (254-5484), firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.lilithmag.com.