I met my husband at a support group for former ultra-Orthodox Jews. There were a dozen of us there, sitting in a circle of chairs, talking about our challenging journeys out of our cloistered communities, but this young blonde man across from me kept on staring at me. It seemed as if he was searching for something in my face, trying to catch something with his eyes.
His name was Zeke. At the end of the evening, he asked me what train I was taking home. I said the Q and he said he would come with me. We traveled together. Deep in conversation, he missed his stop. We met up a week later and took the train to a coffee shop in the city. Engrossed in our discussion, again, we missed our stop. We talked, and then emailed and then talked on the phone some more.
A few weeks after meeting Zeke, I told a friend of mine that I could see myself spending my life with him. A few months later, Zeke and I moved in together. We had plenty to figure out in building a relationship, but it was blatantly apparent that we were twins in mind and spirit.
We weren’t sure how to celebrate our commitment to each other. For a long while, we weighed the pros and cons of different forms of partnership before eventually choosing marriage. We then had to decide when, where and most importantly, how?
I wanted to wear a pretty little strapless dress and kiss my new husband after we exchanged personal vows, barefoot, on a warm beach. He loved that idea, and suggested a potluck dinner of sushi and strawberry smoothies and readings from our favorite books.
We had a small problem though. Our parents, 14 siblings, 19 nieces and nephews, and dozens of cousins wouldn’t recognize such a marriage. As ultra-Orthodox Jews, our wedding would only be valid to them if Zeke and I stood chastely side-by-side under a canopy, blessed by elderly rabbis and wedded through a traditional contract, a ring and a broken glass. My dress would have to be high necked and long sleeved. The ceremony would have to be celebrated with men and women segregated by a long wall, whirling in traditional dances on either side.
A religious wedding would require the courage to face what made us most uncomfortable.
I had almost no relationship with most of my family members, but I didn’t want to expand the rift that already existed between us. Zeke was still close to his family, who supported him warmly, despite their religious differences, and he desperately wanted to avoid hurting them. But Zeke and I had given up so much to leave our ultra-Orthodox communities and become the individuals we were. We shared and cherished a wide rebellious streak. We didn’t want to celebrate the depths and sublimity of our love with the traditions of the faith we had left behind long ago.
Zeke and I talked a lot about love, family, marriage, our future. We had to confront what this wedding was truly about. We really wanted the wedding we envisioned—all kisses, cake and Gandhi quotes. But we couldn’t do it. We couldn’t mark the joy of our lives in a process that would alienate our families. Our love, we realized, was about joy and individualism and our own private path through life, but on a deeper level, our love was shaped by courage, flexibility, and forgiveness. In a way, the ultimate expression of those traits we held dear between us would be in a religious wedding. A religious wedding would require the courage to face what made us most uncomfortable, the flexibility to incorporate others into our plans and the forgiveness to celebrate our love with a community that had hurt us both.
In the end, Zeke and I decided to get married alone. He and I went off to a remote part of the African wilderness and expressed our love on blanket on a rocky river bank, celebrating our commitment with Zulu women who shared their traditional dance and song and food with us.
But we had a second wedding, first.
A few months before we went to Africa, Zeke and I got married in a religious ceremony in Brooklyn, New York. There were hundreds of guests from the Jewish community. Men in dark suits and long side curls, women in wigs and ankle length skirts. Zeke wore a yarmulke and a white traditional groom coat. I wore a modest gown. As we stood side by side under the wedding canopy, surrounded by a mass of people attending what seemed to be a conventional religious wedding, Zeke and I celebrated something uniquely our own: the values of courage, flexibility, and forgiveness that it took to be there that night, values that we were committing to infusing our marriage with, as we moved forward into our lives.
Leah Vincent is the author of Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood.