Reaching Out Across the Aisle
For a group of people that constantly complain how often we’re excluded, Jews should really get better at including other people.
I’ve seen it happen at Seders. I’ve seen it happen at Shabbat dinners. And now I’ve seen it happen at my own wedding. Yes, I am married now – thank you JDate.
For thousands of years, there’s been a focus on education in Jewish families. We send our children to the best schools and encourage them to get the jobs that require very little menial labor. While other cultures might be proud of any honest living, you’ll rarely hear a Jewish mother bragging about her son, the factory foreman.
This leads to the unfortunate side effect: thinking that everyone should be as educated as we are. A common attitude among Jews is, “if you can’t keep up, it’s your fault for not knowing how.”
A Jewish wedding is fairly different from a Christian wedding in the way that a fish is fairly different from a ham sandwich. Both appealing to different people, but they don’t easily go together (unless you’re watching Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee). But it’s not just the food – the main difference between the ways Jews and Christians getting hitched is the use of foreign language.
Jews at Christian weddings might get spooked at the whole Jesus aspect of things, but there’s very little done outside the native language of the bride and groom. But a Christian at a Jewish wedding could be lost in Hebrew for several minutes at a time. It’s no 40 years of wandering in the desert, but several minutes is a long time to leave one of your own guests confused.
We were careful to explain the traditions in our wedding program and our rabbi was good enough to describe what he was doing in an inclusive way, without being overly preachy or obnoxious. And yes, that happens – I once saw a rabbi at a Bat Mitzvah call for the destruction of all Arab nations. If you were at that bat mitzvah, you would have agreed that the real enemy is Miley Cyrus (which sounds eerily like wiley Cyprus). But, I digress.
Our wedding ceremony was great – it was actually during our wedding reception that we accidentally got exclusionary. We’d put benchers on each table, figuring that those who wanted to bench would and those who didn’t would keep chatting. What we didn’t figure on was those of us benching being loud enough to confuse and interrupt those who were not.
After realizing this about three minutes in, I stood up and said “Quick explanation. This is the Jewish version of grace; we just say it after the meal. Thank you non-Jews for your patience – we’ll be done in a few minutes.” That would have been extremely rude to do at someone else’s wedding, but the groom is allowed a bit of leeway.
You might say, “But Steve, I will never have that problem. I live in a Jewish neighborhood and I only associate with other Jews.” First, you’re lying – there are non-Jews everywhere, so unless you’re racist, you are friends with some of them. Second, unless your Jewish friends grew up in the same Hebrew school, Yeshiva, camp, synagogue, and family, your knowledge base is different from them, too. Third, stop talking, I can’t actually hear you.
We’ve all been to a Seder where one person insists on reading more than everyone else, or just more in Hebrew. We’ve all been to a Shabbat dinner where someone insists on singing more than everyone else, or just more loudly. And we’ve all been to a Jewish wedding where we see something that makes perfect sense to the bride and groom but confused us based on our own knowledge.
The pride we take in our education often manifests itself as showing off and, while done with noble intention, can exclude non-Jews, or Jews, without the same level of education. Remember, they came to celebrate with us, not watch us celebrate without them.
There is a fine line between keeping tradition and keeping those who are not in the know at arm’s length. There was a moment at my wedding during the Horah where I impulsively grabbed two of my Jewish friends from college to form a circle. One of our non-Jewish friends ran over as well and we all danced together. Instead of at arm’s length, we were suddenly arm in arm.
I’m glad he had the presence of mind to include himself. I only wish that I had thought of it first.
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