May 2009

Wedding Album The Arrangement

Who would want an arranged marriage? Someone with faith  
by Howard Rosenman

An Ultra-Orthodox wedding for Yehudah and Chana

In March, I received an invitation from my sister, Freyda (affectionately known as Freydee) Geberer, for the wedding of her second son, Yehudah, to Chana Katzenstein. It was an arranged marriage.

I have always been caught in the middle of an essentially irreconcilable dialectic. To say I am the complete opposite of Freydee, my ultra-Orthodox sister who married a born-again Jew, moved to Israel and brought up her five children in a completely non-secular world, is an understatement: I am (a) not observant and (b) gay...not to mention a movie and television producer. I may well be the poster child for the kind of person my ultra-Orthodox relatives wouldn’t want their kids to grow up to be. (Think I’m kidding? A year ago, I was walking in Israel with my 28-year-old nephew, Mordechai, who’s married and the father of two young girls, when I saw a headline. I said, “Oh, Madonna is coming to Israel. Isn’t that great?” Mordechai looked at me blankly and said, “Who?”)

My younger brother, Shep—short for Shabtai—an entertainment lawyer and Modern Orthodox Jew who lives in L.A. like me, is observant but lives in the outside world. Over the years, I’ve learned to negotiate the very paradoxes of my life, as reflected in my name—Zvi Howard Rosenman.

My parents’ families—seventh-generation Jerusalemites—immigrated to America from Palestine in the late ’20s because of Arab pogroms. It was our parents’ fondest wish that we siblings stay very close—and we have. The three of us have worked out the conflicts of our different approaches to life, very much in the tradition of the Talmud. And a celebration like my nephew’s wedding bridges all gaps—including my huge leap in understanding how, in the 21st century, two extremely bright young people cannot only accept but embrace an arranged marriage.

Yehudah is 23, blond, blue-eyed, handsome, funny, smart and charismatic. He is the gabbai, or right-hand man, at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem—the Harvard of the yeshiva world. We became close last summer in Israel, during my father’s final illness. Over coffee and ice cream, I confided my lifestyle to him. He told my brother he was honored that I’d been so forthcoming. For me, it was a chance to be honest with a member of my family, and it meant as much to me that Yehudah was so accepting.

After my father’s death, my brother and I invited Yehudah to come to the States for four days. We went from Bel Air to Malibu, from the Kodak Theatre to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. He went surfing in Venice, I brought him with me when I “took” two meetings, and I introduced him to my gay friends. He absorbed everything with intelligence and awareness and has described the trip as one of the momentous journeys in his life. Although he may not want to live in my world, I have no doubt he has a much greater understanding and respect for it.

Then, when Yehudah returned to Israel, his rabbi was “ready to take him out of the freezer” to start the process of dating. What a curious concept, I thought, that he is somehow frozen until he is to meet his future mate. I asked what kind of girl he was looking for. “Someone who understands your world but comes from mine.”

“What about her appearance?” the Hollywood producer in me couldn’t help but ask.

“I don’t care about that, as long as she’s presentable. I want someone really smart...a soul mate.” How is he going to find that? I wondered.

He didn’t, but my sister—his mother—did. She and the bride’s mother arranged the marriage.

Freydee doesn’t remember exactly what made her recall that Mr. and Mrs. Katzenstein’s eldest daughter, Chana, was one year younger than Yehudah—and single. But when Chana dropped off a package, Freydee was struck by her modesty and sweetness. “Pure sugar,” she said. What she didn’t mention was that Chana was also a great beauty. Freydee asked around to see if she could approach the Katzensteins about a possible shidduch—a matchmaking.

The answer came back in the affirmative—and the 23-year-old Yehudah went on his first date. Before January of this year, he had never been alone with a woman, except his mother, aunt, sister and grandmothers. Chana and Yehudah went out, unchaperoned, to have coffee in a mall. The date lasted two hours. When he came home, he told my sister, “I didn’t expect her to be so beautiful.”

Yehudah and Chana were asked if they wanted to see each other again, and they said yes. After the second date, when both indicated they were interested, they underwent tests for the more than 80 genetic markers that signal inherited medical conditions that can strike the Ashkenazi population. They passed. After four weeks, on their seventh date, Yehudah asked Chana to marry him. She accepted, and he whipped out a diamond ring. They had never so much as touched each other.

What was so amazing to me was that Yehudah found his bashert (intended) on his first try. Chana was just the kind of woman he’d craved: She worked for a computer company that sold software to small businesses, so she “knew of” my world, with the bonus that she was beautiful. Chana, too, felt as if fortune had smiled on her. So right did they feel about their future that, even if it were possible, neither wanted to meet anyone else.

Then after an engagement of another month, I received the invitation. From my perspective, it seemed incredibly fast. For Yehudah and Chana, though, their faith in the rightness of their intentions made it perfect timing.

The ceremony in late March started at 6. That the men were bearded and in black I expected, but as the women arrived, I was taken aback at their attire—an array of satin, silk and tulle, all in black. “Why black for the women?” I asked, and was told it had to do with modesty. As the men and women assembled on opposite sides of the mechizah—“division”—the joy in the air was palpable.

The bride and groom had not seen each other for a week, and both fasted on the day of the cere­mony. In a reception room, Chana, in a throne-like chair, resplendent in white and looking like a “movie stah,” waited for Yehudah, who was escorted there by his friends, family and the rabbis of the Mir, who had been his teachers for the past five years. Yehudah lifted the veil from Chana’s face, then covered it again in a ceremony called the badeken. The veiling itself is a symbol of modesty, based upon the Bible verse of Rebecca meeting Isaac. The practice of the groom uncovering and replacing the veil is based on the story of Jacob, who had wanted to marry Rachel but unknowingly married Leah because her face was veiled—so the groom checks his bride to make sure he’ll marry the right woman.

After the badeken, I stayed when the men left, and I saw Chana praying and crying. The highly charged events—the fasting, the realization of what was about to happen, the separation from her parents and nine brothers and sisters—all surfaced in heartfelt emotion.

Yehudah put on a pure white kittel. It is worn when one is especially close to his Maker, and that includes the day he is wed. As my sister passed me, holding a lit candle, I was sure she was thinking of my parents who had passed away, and I saw in her eyes alternating emotions of great joy and bittersweet sadness.

The group made its way outside, as the chuppah has to be beneath the stars. That night, the Jerusalem skyline was streaked with lightning, and it roared with thunder as it rained on the Judean hills, only adding to the drama. Umbrellas were raised above the guests, the skies opened, the sea of people in black stretched as far as my eye could see, and the candles lighting the darkness washed the scene in the most surreal of auras. I watched as Chana circled Yehudah seven times under the chuppah, a tradition that recalls Joshua circling Jericho seven times, causing the walls to fall. So, too, after the bride walks around the groom seven times, the walls between them will fall, and their souls will be united.

While Chana circled, Yehudah stood, his eyes closed, his lips quivering in prayer, as he swayed. It is believed that as the groom stands under the chuppah on his wedding day, he is especially close to God. Then Yehudah smashed the glass with his foot, and there was a burst of song and dance as the “boys” and the entire wedding party escorted the newlyweds to a room where they could be alone to exchange gifts and bless each other.

Half an hour later, Chana, shimmering in her stunning white gown, and Yehudah, his face shining, came out to be with their guests. The music started up...and this was the soul of the wedding, the letting go of pent-up emotions, the dances that have endured hundreds of years—same steps, same music, same frenzy of happiness. Old men, young men, children, middle-aged rabbis with their shtreimels, gartels and peyes flying, all stamped their feet in ecstasy, dancing to the klezmer and Chassidic music that extols the bedrock of Judaic family life. There was so much zest, so much passion, so much love for Yehudah and his bride.

Finally, at 4 in the morning, the couple went to the Sheraton Hotel bridal suite, and there waiting for the bride was a chilled bottle of champagne and a red rose. Yehudah may be a yeshiva boy, supposedly not wise in the ways of women and the world, but he knew enough to remember this modern touch of thoughtfulness and love for his bride.

And so they were married.

I am proud that the young man who wed remained grounded in his traditions, in the history of his tribe, and at the same time had gained perspective on the judgmental attitudes about Holly­wood and homosexuality that he was brought up with. In a small way, the uncle in me had been able to shine a light on the impenetrable society that was his world. And regardless of what I, or anyone, think about arranged marriages, in the final reality, no matter how Yehudah and Chana met, they found each other and are on their way to building a life together—which is, after all, the point of marriage.