As I’m sure you know — or maybe you overheard some girls weeping recently and weren’t sure why — Andy Samberg got married to his girlfriend songwriter Joanna Newsom in California last weekend. But he’s not the only Jewish star to get married recently; a somewhat less-famous member of the tribe, Cornelia Griggs, was married the same day, on the other side of the country. Don’t recognize the name? Maybe you’ll recognize her mother’s: Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times.
Even if you hadn’t heard of Griggs, or read about her marriage in — you guessed it — the New York Times, you’re probably mildly interested in learning more. Let me fill you in on the scoop: Basically, she and her equally good-looking husband were both educated at Ivy League universities, went to top-tier medical schools and are currently surgical residents.
But why did any of that interest you? Why did it interest me when I saw the story? I’ve never met any of the key players in the story and likely never will. I could chalk it up to the usual fascination with fame that drives the sales of millions of glossy magazines, to the curiosity about how the other half (or, to use more current terminology, the 1%) live. Or maybe it’s the interest in one of my own, in the story of another Jew. But it’s not just any story that interests me — it’s her marriage, her husband, their story together.
Wedding stories have an entire section dedicated to them in many newspapers, not to mention the various columns dedicated to weddings in the New York Times alone (Vows, Weddings & Celebrations, Field Notes). Like obituaries, the stories of strangers become interesting once they’re summarized pithily in newspaper columns. Unlike obituaries, the people getting married are rarely major players in our lives or our news. Whey are we compelled to read about the details of their marriages, where they went to school, how they met?
Marriage is a unique milestone in life. I think that, as much as we expect it of ourselves and others, we’re still, on some level, mystified by it. What draws two people together? What compels them to decide to form an entirely new life together, to give up their independence and personal space to let another person in? In a sense, this is a question about love, but marriage is a unique aspect of love that seems even more curious — the public act of declaring it, and swearing to it in a court of law. Why do we do it? Jeremy recently told me about his evolutionary explanation that says something about change in status so we know who we can’t sleep with… but about 1/8th of the way through his explanation I decided I liked my mystery more and stopped listening.
I think marriage really is a question that people cannot fully answer, and that’s why we write and read stories about it. Death is one big question surrounded by a collective fear, and so it makes sense that we write endlessly about death, about those who’ve died. Marriage, too, is a question with its own fears, and that, in the end, is why we’re so fascinated by it.
For many years — for most of my life, in fact — I wanted to live in Israel. My elementary school was so successful in teaching its students to be Zionists that it eventually had to close down; too many of the students and families moved to Israel. I myself was a convert to Zionism, and since my parents did not intend to make aliyah anytime during my childhood, I set about planning my own life around my eventual move to Israel.
My family visited Israel often, so that by the time I was in high school we were no longer doing the “touristy” things — we had already done them all. When I did my gap-year Israel learning program, I picked the one that was run and attended by Israelis so that I could learn Hebrew and acclimate to the culture. I took the Israel college entrance exams so I could apply to universities there; I decided if I waited until after college, it would only get harder to make such a big move.
Israel, in my mind, was home. It is the Jewish nation and the Jewish birthright. It is the holy land, but more than that, it is a land where a Jew could be comfortable being a Jew. Davening on the bus wouldn’t make me stand out as a strange girl muttering to herself; I would be one of many girls doing the exact same thing. Israel has the right values, I determined, a place where children can walk to the supermarket alone and be safe. And if I was killed in a terrorist attack, well, at least I would die in Israel.
Clearly, though, I did not live out my dream. I live in New Jersey, not Gush Etzion on the West Bank as I planned. When I got sick during my two years of learning in Israel, so sick that I had to come home halfway through each year, I decided I couldn’t attend university so far from home. What if I got sick again? But I assured myself that America was only temporary. I was committed to my plan, even if everyone told me how hard it was to live in Israel.
But then I met Jeremy. Previously, I had tried to only date men who also had a dream of making aliyah, or at least claimed to, knowing that I only wanted to be with someone who would move with me. But with Jeremy it was different — we sort of fell into dating, and by the time I realized it was looking like marriage, it was too late. I loved him, and I didn’t want to lose that. Jeremy had no such dream of living in Israel, and even if he did, he was on a path to graduate school in America. He promised to be open to the idea of moving there, but it would be years before he would be ready to move, and by then the chances would be even slimmer. There was a pivotal moment in our relationship in which I took a weekend to decide: Jeremy or Israel? I chose him.
The truth is, I don’t know that I would have made aliyah either way. By that point the dream was starting to feel like a burden, a promise I made myself and everyone else that I had to keep, rather than a fire that burned within me like it originally had. I loved Israel, sure, but did I really want to live there? There were a great number of challenges to living in Israel, challenges that I had always known about but seemed surmountable when I had a passion for the dream. Now the challenges loomed before me, and when I chose Jeremy over Israel, there was a certain relief: I didn’t have to make aliyah, and I had good reason.
As I write this, Jeremy and I are preparing to go to Israel together for the first time as a couple. I haven’t been there since my sister’s wedding a year and a half ago; for Jeremy it’s been almost two years. A year and a half ago my sister lived in Israel, I still had a vague plan of moving there someday as well, and I hadn’t yet chosen Jeremy over that plan. When I travel this time it will be to a land that will almost certainly remain a travel destination for me and nothing more; my sister has moved back to the United States, which has made me even less motivated to move there.
Israel wasn’t originally the focus of our trip. We were planning to visit Greece, and Israel is so close that it just made sense. But now that the trip is actually approaching, now that I’m thinking about seeing the cities I used to know as well as my hometown, walking the familiar streets, I find that I’m as excited to see the land I’ve seen a hundred times before as the famous islands of Greece that until now have only existed for me on the pages of travel magazines.
I may never live in Israel, and I may never think of it with the undiluted fervor of an elementary school student, taught that Israel is the good guy and the rest of the world the bad one. But Israel will always be my homeland.
Unlike many women in my position — that is, married — I never spent any time debating what last name would follow my own personal Mrs. Unlike Sisterhood blog editor Abigail Jones, I was never “paralyzed” by the last name conundrum and all the baggage that comes with it, because for me it wasn’t a conundrum. I always knew that I would take my husband’s name.
That’s not to say the last name debate seems trivial to me. On the contrary; I grew up with my own last name dilemmas, and they started way before I began thinking about marriage. My father died when I was three, and my mother got remarried before I turned five. My siblings and I all took on our stepfather’s last name — but not legally. We were raised Eisenmans — in school, to our friends, even on our doctor’s files — but to the government, and on all our legal documents, we were Lamperts.
This disparity didn’t really matter when we were younger, when our only real legal documents were our passports. I resisted choosing between my legal last name and the one everyone knew me as for as long as I could — through high school, I continued to be known as Simi Eisenman, despite the “Lampert” clearly printed on my driver’s license. But then I went to college, where my legal name was on file and on all the class rosters, got confused, and took my Simi Eisenman Facebook account, added a Lampert, and became Simi Lampert Eisenman.
When people asked me my name, I would feel overwhelmed by the options. Do they know my parents? Are they trying to play “Jewish geography”? If so, which last name will they know?
“Is that a hard question?” they would joke, not realizing just how confusing it actually was. Who doesn’t know their own name? I secretly wished I could get away with just having one name, like Cher or Beyonce.
When I first got my driver’s license, I was sure a cop would pull me over at any moment, demanding to see I.D. I have always looked younger than my age, and I couldn’t imagine the policeman wouldn’t be suspicious that I was a 12-year-old out for a joy ride with my mother’s car. It never happened, and by the time I was 21 I looked about old enough to be driving, so I stopped worrying.
Now I’m married, and while a cop can’t exactly pull me aside and demand to know why a teenager is wearing a wedding band, I’m still waiting for someone to laugh when I mention my husband. In this recurring daydream, the other person arches their eyebrows dubiously. “You’re married?” they ask. “How old are you?” And then I explain that I’m 23, and yes I know I look about 16, and my husband is 24. And while that’s a fairly average age to get married in the Modern Orthodox community, this inquisitive stranger might still think it’s weird that someone so young is married.
When I was engaged, I wrote a blog post about the strangeness of saying the word “fiancé.” I was engaged for six months, so by the time I was married I was used to the word — just in time to stop using it, of course. Now I’ve got a whole new word with its own, more significant weight to acclimate to. “Husband.” The word evokes all sorts of serious things, like financial finesse and responsible decision-making. It makes me feel like I’m posing as someone my parents’ age, playing dress-up with grown-up words like “husband” and “married,” when in truth I still giggle over words like “doodoo.”
But what about the word is so weighty? It doesn’t seem like marriage is such an incredibly huge deal. The legal age for marriage in almost all 50 states is 18 — that means the law considers a sip of beer more significant than a husband. You need three whole years of maturity and brain development between getting married and having champagne. (Or more, actually. With parental consent, you can get married even younger.) But this is just another example of the law being nonsensical. Because getting married is much more serious than taking a shot. Getting married is one of the most serious things a person can do. And that’s why the word carries so much gravity.
A husband isn’t the same as a boyfriend, or even a fiancé. And not just the word “husband” — I need to get used to hearing myself referred to as a wife. “Husband” implies long-term commitment and dedication to working on the same relationship for the rest of my life. “Husband” implies all sorts of other things too, like family and children. “Wife” means all those things too, in addition to jokes about whether I cook and clean well. Being husband and wife means we have to be willing to sacrifice, and be responsible, and above all, be emotionally mature. And that’s pretty serious stuff for anyone, especially a 23-year-old. But the truth is, I don’t need to be 30 to be ready for a husband. Age doesn’t equal maturity. And while I find scatological humor, and the word scatological, hilarious, I can be surprisingly (to myself, most of all) mature.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t stand taller when I say “my husband,” trying to look older than I naturally do. It doesn’t mean I don’t look behind me every time he calls me his wife, checking to make sure that he’s actually talking to me. Those words are a lot to get used to. But along with the weight of the words is the wonder of marriage.
So, yes, the word “husband” overwhelms me. The word “wife’ makes me do a double take. But I’m also fully ready to take them, and everything that comes along with them, on.