I grew up in the aftermath of the worst Jewish tragedy on record -- the Holocaust. My father was a Holocaust survivor -- a victim of hate, purely because he was a Jew. As a young boy, he was forced into hibernation from his family for over five years, seeking refuge in strangers' houses. He constantly feared for his life -- and tragically lost his own father and most of his family, all because of hate and ignorance.
For me this is not a story, a movie, or a TV series. This has been my reality my whole life.
My dad never completely recovered from what he experienced, and his suffering took a great toll on me and the rest of our family. Growing up in this environment made it very clear to me that I would not tolerate any hate, and would fight to my core for equality and freedom for all.
As a young man, I moved to New York, where I found a city that embraced me for who I am and for what I have to offer the world. New York is filled with people from all over the globe - all walks of life, all colors, all religions, all sexual orientations. I learned very quickly that you are judged in this city by how productive you are and what's in your heart, not where you come from, who you sleep with, or who you love.
One of the most amazing people I've had the chance to meet in this vibrant metropolis is my dentist Joey. We met through his brother-in-law, someone I grew up with in Israel. I knew Joey before he came out, during, and after -- he was always a great guy! Joey became a very successful dentist with a huge practice in New York's Chelsea neighborhood.
Thirteen years ago Joey met a beautiful man named Roberto. Their meeting was the beginning of a huge love story that blossomed into a beautiful family with three children, who share the same biological mother. They are a true model of stability and love.
When America's acceleration towards marriage equality (at least, in the more progressive states and localities) swept New York State last year, Joey and Roberto finally won the right to get married -- and they were just married last month! I was honored to be invited and proud to be a guest at my first legal gay wedding. I have been a part of the fight for a long time, so for me it was a very meaningful moment. Also, if I knew Joey and Roberto as well as I thought I did, their nuptials would be nothing less than fabulous! For my gift, I chose to give them a set of coffee mugs and shot glasses from Peter Ibruegger Studio, sold on loveandpride.com, the LGBT e-commerce jewelry and lifestyle website I co-founded in 2005. They were registered at Tiffany & Co., but what gay newlyweds don't need glassware emblazoned with mustaches and bow ties?
Joey is Jewish -- something I share with him -- and the couple decided to have a Jewish wedding. But they're gay, and I'm straight. I have to admit -- I was confused about what I should expect from their wedding. Would it be "It's Raining Men" or "Hava Nagila" -- oy vey or oy gay?
Well, I got the answer the moment I walked into the reception hall and saw the crowd. I saw children running around, Jewish grandmothers, friends, coworkers, extended family, best friends, but mainly; a whole lotta love. It was not a "gay wedding" -- it was a wedding. It was music and dancing and performances, but it was really all about the love and commitment these two men share with one another.
After I decided to write this post, I sat down with Joey and Roberto and asked them a few questions about their wedding - everything from funny topics like Did you coordinate your wedding suits? and Did either of you invite your personal trainer? to more personal questions like How do your children feel about you being married? and whether any of their vendors were initially surprised about working on a same-sex wedding.
There were two answers that greatly touched me that I would like to share with you all.
When asked about how their children felt about the wedding they Joey replied, "Our children were watching the news with us when they announced the passing of the law allowing gay marriage in New York State. They were jumping for joy! My oldest daughter presented this current event orally to her school as a class project. She was very proud to announce that her two dads were going to get married. We had our civil marriage service at City Hall the same day she gave her presentation. At school, she was applauded and thanked by many students in her class. What a great gift it is to be applauded for being yourself!"
Roberto added, "Our religious ceremony and party were on May 12th. After the service, our daughter broke down and cried. She was so touched with joy that our love was finally recognized and applauded. Our son Jacob also cried during the ceremony. He was our Best Man. My youngest daughter, Sophia, couldn't stop smiling and danced all night at the reception. This was a joyous occasion and triumph for all of us."
It's really incredible to see how much a true family unit Joey, Roberto and their children are. I think they are an authentic example of what family is supposed to be, no matter what the dynamic is.
Another short story Joey shared was when he found out that one of his housekeepers who had been working with the family for years decided that their wedding was wrong and that she would not attend. Joey said, "One of my own housekeepers did not come because of what she is taught by her church. She called our marriage an abomination. I really struggled with that. At first, I wanted to fire her and never allow her to be in my house again. But then I decided that would make me exactly like her. She struggled with her comment, and we went head to head on it. I could not understand how she could work for us and accept our gay dollars and be part of my family for years. We thought of her as our friend. When we sat down and discussed why she would not come, she explained the conflict with her church. But I didn't' believe she really felt that way inside. Was she really fine with being a part of our life and family -- as long as we didn't have any legal rights? Was it just about the money and not her relationship with us?
I quoted Leviticus to her and pointed out how judgmental of a book it is. I asked her if she eats shrimp, and she said yes. I explained that the book says no one should eat any bottom dwellers. She told me she likes shrimp. I asked: How is this different? You're deciding to follow certain Biblical teachings, but not really living 'by the book.' A few days later she came back to me and reaffirmed how much she loves us, and how I made her think a lot. I spoke with a Catholic priest, who is a patient of mine. He gave me great insight to this situation. He said not to be angry with her. He explained that religion is like a triangle. Some people stay in the corners of the triangle and do not mix what they were taught with what they experience. Most people stand in the middle of the triangle, where what they were taught and what they experience mix and influence each other. She is blinded by what she thinks, when she could instead choose to believe what she wants. The day before the wedding, she hugged me and told me that she respects me and loves our family. It was her way of making it right."
One thing that I love about Joey is that story doesn't make him angry. He is strong enough to understand that some people have not been taught about love, and that love is not a decision, but an emotional connection with a person. He proves that by waking up every day with his beautiful husband and their wonderful children and living his life the way that makes them happy.
This is where I go back to my own life experiences, and the way I see the world in the shadow of my dad. Discrimination is never forgiven. It destroys your soul, it destroys harmony, and it stops you and the world from growing and progressing.
If you had the chance to be at Joey and Roberto's wedding you would have had the chance to see love, to feel love, to embrace love just as simply as that.
Sometimes you learn lessons in school, or at church -- but I learn my lessons from life. I learned it from my dad -- and as long as I can and have the means, I will fight for equality, acceptance, tolerance, and what always guides me in life -- love.
Follow Udi Behr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@_LoveAndPride