Updated: Oct 19, 2020
In the parking lot of a New Jersey industrial district, a large white cloth rustled in the wind, barely held together by four PVC pipes. At the end of each of the four ends of the makeshift canopy stood a Hasid with a long coat and black hat or fur streimel. A sea of shtreimels encircled the parking lot, reminiscent of the european Shtetl of yesteryear, transported to the new world by way of its faithful.
The men’s voices vibrated, swaying to the tune of the Daled Bavos, a melody, niggun, composed by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad Rebbe. Due to its holiness, this melody is reserved for special occasions. The song has four stanzas, each stanza is intended to elevate the singer and listener to the next spiritual realm.
There I stand under the blue sky, clutching the arm of the groom with my right arm and holding a glass containing a long beeswax candle with my left hand, it’s flame flickering representing the union of light and joy. To the other side stands the groom’s father, his eyes closed, swaying in his prayers for his son and new daughter-in-law. Clearly he’s done this before; clearly, I haven’t. I can hear the faint cries of the groom as he asks G-d to bestow his marriage with blessing. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wrinkled paper filled with the names of his loved ones and beseeches G-d on their behalf. I look up to the heavens to see the white satin cloth still flapping in the wind, echoing a message of hope in a time of despair and uncertainty.
I’ve been to a lot of incredible weddings that have united incredible people into incredible marriages with incredible families, as I’m sure you have too. I’ve had the rarer fortune of presiding over more weddings than I can easily count, at least sixty at this point. But have you ever been to a wedding where you actually felt the magic of a Divine presence as part of the nuptials?
Yesterday I was at a wedding where, for the first time in my life, I actually felt that G-d was masterfully involved. I’m passionate about my religion, but to be honest, I have never felt loved by G-d — at least not in the same concrete way as a child who says, “Mommy, I love you.” This particular wedding bridged the gap for me.
A Chuppah during a pandemic is no easy feat. While most couples postponed their nuptials to allow for a time when they would be able to celebrate without the difficulties of social distancing and isolation, this couple decided to go ahead with their special day: they invited only their closest family and friends and made do with a simple celebration, without the extravagance that is usually reserved for these once-in-a-lifetime moments.
A laptop is held by one of the bride’s friends, representing hundreds who are only able to attend virtually, including the bride’s family stuck behind the border in Canada. The bride is from Montreal, and has less than a handful of her closest friends physically present.
The bride, now fully veiled, walks down the black metal staircase to the crowd of onlookers both physical and virtual. She is escorted by the groom’s mother and my wife, Sara, each holding a candle of their own. I notice Sara’s joy in this moment — like she is marrying off her own daughter. The crowd of shtreimelach are still swaying to the vibes of spiritual harmony. The air is filled with solace, almost like a rendezvous with destiny shared by a beaming bride and groom.
I once heard that at birth, a Heavenly voice proclaims who you will marry and every individual who will attend your wedding celebration. Sara and I were not supposed to be here under this Chuppah canopy. The United States/Canada border has been closed to travel for almost four months now due to COVID-19, and making the attempt to venture across the border has been futile for so many. We wanted nothing more than to share this special day with the couple, as so many others would have.
We knew we couldn’t go. But as the day came closer, I grew restless. The idea and the feeling behind it kept on building up inside of me until I couldn’t take it anymore. Finally, I expressed it out loud to my colleagues at Chabad NDG: Eric Klein, the Berkowicz’s, the Hershcovich’s, and the discussion (and phone calls to the border) began: who would go, and how?
As the setting Shabbat sun sank on the Montreal horizon, our decision was still very much in the air and we were unsure if it was even possible. Shabbat morning, Sheina and Levi Berkowicz ran up the steps to our home, followed closely behind by their mother, Chani (she and her husband, Rabbi Yosh, have been co-shluchim with us for 7 years at Chabad NDG).
Chani had been spending hours with the bride, teaching her and guiding her, and very much wanted to attend the wedding. She sat down on our grey outdoor mini sofa and said, “Yosh and I have an idea about the wedding.” Chani continued as if undeterred by my less than enthusiastic expression. “Why don’t you and Sara go to the wedding on Sunday, and Yosh and I will watch your kids.” Truthfully, the idea of Sara and I going together hadn’t even crossed our minds. When we phoned Chani and Yosh after Shabbat, it seemed that they had already figured out all the logistics with Yosefa Ginsburg, a PhD student at Concordia who also happens to be the world’s most helpful person.
Another call to the border, and we threw our wedding clothes into the car at six in the morning and took off on an unknown journey. We arrived literally minutes before the wedding started, without even a moment to collect our thoughts nor our feelings. Back to that moment when I stood under the Chuppah watching Sara lead our bride, as a mother would lead her daughter — it was the first moment that it all became real. I couldn’t help it anymore. I tried to hide my tears behind the brim of my fedora, but they flowed. The faithful shtreimels still swayed to the rhythm of the Hasidic tune. The sun still shone brilliantly, casting a shadow over the bride circling her groom. The satin white cloth showed no sign of calm, making it ever more difficult for the men holding the PVC poles to keep it from toppling over.
I glance over at the computer screen to see the bride’s grandparents — Holocaust suvivors from Budapest, beaming triumphantly. Her grandfather wears a large black embroidered yarmulke, accepting the continuation of a tradition lost in his Hungarian home after venturing to a new life in Canada. Now, a few short years later, he watches his granddaughter continue a tradition from thousands of years ago, that he could only dream of back home.
It seems like yesterday that the bride was living in a graffiti-filled punk commune off the highway adjacent to NDG. Her apartment was a makeshift, barewalled garage with a toilet and a mattress on the floor. With her two dogs, an Australian Shepard and a Pitbull, she found solace in the solidarity of the punk community she lived with.
Our bride started showing up at Chabad of NDG in December of 2018. Filled with questions and objections, it was hard to get a word in edgewise with her. Now she knows more than I do about some of the more arcane aspects of Jewish law.
Who would have imagined that this girl, being where she was — who she was — was Divinely pre-ordained to marry this chassidish boy in a parking lot in New Jersey, with most of the world unable to come, and Sara and I just making it in time despite the best efforts of Covid-19 and the world’s longest freight train getting stuck on the tracks exactly in our path? (Half of the guests, like us, had to make the 30 minute detour, but luckily no Hasidic wedding in history has ever started on time.)
Now, Sara leads her, by Divine Providence, to the next incarnation of her life. Now, encircling her groom, creating a profound transition into couplehood for her and her husband. She circled him seven times to build a fortress within which is an intense spirituality of love and commitment. This is the power of the woman, being that she is so connected to G-d.
The groom was still swaying, tears forming at the edge of his eyes. He hadn’t eaten all day, focused on his prayer. I knew he was in a totally altered state. His face shining brilliantly, moved by what this meant for all eternity!
Throughout history, Hassidic thought has considered a man incomplete until he is married. It is the woman who is able to attain a more spiritual connection with G-d. Man must work a lot harder to connect. Together, their souls are complete.
It took thousands — thousands — of years to create this profound, stirring moment. There under the satin cloth, I really felt G-d’s presence. For the first time, I knew it was a man and a woman in the sight of G-d. I saw it happen.