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In London, Her Wedding Space Re-Shapes The Whole Experience

05/08/2012 12:22 am ET | Updated Jul 03, 2012

This article originally appeared in Lilith magazine.

"Marriage is a wonderful institution. But who wants to live in an institution?" Groucho Marx famously asked.

I -- an art historian and a comedian -- am a particular type of Jewish woman: early 30s, hyper-educated, feminist and secular. I was schooled at an egalitarian, anti-religious Yiddishist establishment; I grew up on a diet of Judys (Blume, Chicago, Plaskow, Butler, Hauptman); I have spent much more time in museums (and, admittedly, malls) than in shuls; and my life fantasies have mainly involved publishing best-sellers or performing to sold-out stadiums.

I never thought I'd get married. A partner, maybe, but marriage? Barely even on my radar. So when love and life took me in an unexpected direction, and earlier this year I found myself planning a Jewish wedding (that's right -- for me), I was surprised on many levels. I was surprised when the florist asked about my dream color scheme (huh?); I was surprised to be telling people to save the date for my wedding; I was surprised that I was going to be married at a strict Orthodox Sephardic British synagogue that insisted on maintaining the same gendered rituals as when the synagogue first opened in 1701. Most of all, I was surprised that I didn't mind any of this. That much.

Why would a North American Ashkenazi secularist be getting married at said synagogue? Well, I was living in London at the time, my parents had made their only request that it be an Orthodox service ("Generations of our family have been married in Orthodox weddings.") I had heard stories about couples with non-Orthodox ketubahs whose children (children? was I going to do that too?) couldn't go to certain schools -- but really these were all just rationalizations. I wanted to get married at London's Bevis Marks synagogue because, frankly, it's beautiful. I spent many years living nearby in East London by myself with barely a Jewish friend, and when I walked in there on Yom Kippur I may not have recognized the tunes, but I didn't need a ticket; I may not have known the prayers, but I was awed by the real-candle-filled candelabra and the Queen Anne benches. This was the oldest synagogue I had ever attended and actually "used," and it struck me as an awesome place. My husband also liked the synagogue, and so, driven by my aesthetic passion, after endlessly proving that our parents had had Orthodox weddings ("We need to confirm with their rabbi," we were told, never mind that he's been dead 30 years), and working against the clock and the Omer, we were accepted for marriage in this historical gem.

But with history, as I came to learn, came historical positions for women. The 1701 bride may have been illuminated by several elaborate candlesticks, but she was also required to wait in the basement while her betrothed signed the ketubah, presided over by her father. (As it was a Sephardic synagogue, the bride didn't circle the husband seven times, but she did have to cover her back and arms.) When I first heard that I would have to hover in the basement for a quarter of my wedding service, and that I would not give a ring, say a prayer, or speak, I was appalled. This certainly ran counter to my Jewish, feminist, performing background and beliefs. I was afraid to discuss this dissonance with any of my friends, since I'd already gotten flack for getting married at all. (Background: Britain is staunchly secular, and religious celebrations are seen as particularly reactionary; most of my Jewish friends thought the ketubah was a subjectivity-death-sentence, and the mikvah a physical exercise in self-abnegation). I was faced with a conflict: how could I reconcile my aesthetic and historical sensibilities with my womanhood. Could I actually go through with this?

The Orthodox synagogues in England (where, by the way, you can be legally married only in officially recognized sites, and different sites are recognized for different religions) require that, to be married in them, you need to attend marriage classes. I did not particularly want to spend my Tuesday evenings with a rabbi telling me how to be a good Jewish wife, nor extra classes with a rebbetzin about abstaining from sex for half the month, while the whole time pretending that I was an 18-year-old virgin. This was not what I had wanted, and, despite the fact that non-refundable deposits had been paid, invitations had been sent and the big date was approaching, I was veering more and more toward thinking that this Orthodox ceremony decision was a major mistake.

Reluctantly, heavy with skepticism, I went along to the classes. And this is where my preconceptions began to break down. These classes were frank talks about (drumroll) sex and money, about bodies, houses and the benefits to having shared and/or individual bank accounts. Some teachers were more didactic than others, but by and large these were Talmudic-style discussions about the issues of married life, where we all shared and debated opinions. What surprised me more was discovering that elements of relationships -- honesty, trust, sexual attraction, foreplay -- were not invented in 1980's self-help books, but were debated throughout millennia of Rabbinic literature. While I had used "Sex and the City" to guide me through dating etiquette (what else could?), I could now use elements of the Talmud to guide me through turning-on my husband, and an even more taboo matter: talking about money. These classes and Judaism provided a structure not just for relating, but for talking about relating. Our marriage was not just an emotional union, but was an institution that was beyond us as a couple, and part of a greater history, and here was a framework we could draw on to make decisions and work through difficult issues.

I was also presented with more complicated perspectives than the myths of my particular cultural milieu. The ketubah was indeed signed only by the man, but was also his guarantee to protect and provide for the woman, financially and sexually. The mikvah practice placed the Jewish woman's body at the center of the entire family's dynamic, and also gave women an excuse to indulge themselves and get in touch with their own bodies every month. Not all of the ideas flew with me (I couldn't envision myself using the tissues I was given to send samples of my menstrual blood to a specially trained rabbi each month so he could OK my status), but my eyes were opened to different interpretations of Jewish law about sexuality and the family. (And none of the rabbis even pretended that I was a virgin.)

I realized that getting married at the shul didn't bother me. Gender is not clear cut, dynamics and intimacy are hugely complex, and my own relationship is so not "classically gendered" (my husband was more into the wedding planning than I was; he actually had fantasy color schemes). Rather than feeling un-empowered by my silent role, I began, hyper-Jewishly, to feel guilty about the fact that he was promising me so much in the ketubah. I added my own elements to the wedding service: my husband and I wrote a comic guide to Jewish weddings which people read while I was in the basement, and at the reception I gave a 25-minute stand-up routine speech about marriage before presenting my husband with a ring. Ultimately, my wedding ended up being a satisfying merger of Jewish tradition and feminist, comic tradition. It was deeply special to perform a ritual, to get married under a chuppah that had married Jewish couples for over 300 years. I stood and sat where three centuries of Jewish brides had been, and that made me feel connected to something bigger and beyond myself and my husband. The ceremony moved me precisely because it was beyond us. (Plus, the time in the basement gave me the last-minute chance to text my therapist 300 times.)

Married eight months now, I'm still neither Orthodox nor religious, I am not even kosher, and I haven't been to the dunker since my big day. But if anything, my big fat Orthodox Sephardi wedding taught me that there are things in Jewish tradition and law about femininity, gender and sexuality that are relevant, resonant and hugely interesting to a woman like me. Though I still find it hard to discuss this with many of Jewish female friends, mine is the story of a Jewish feminist whose marriage made me more subtly in tune with Judaism, who had to juggle contradictions, admit that nothing is simple, and that, Groucho notwithstanding, I can live with the elements of certain institutions.