On a warm afternoon infused with September’s honeyed light, two young people stand beneath a chuppah in the midst of a field of grass and wildflowers. The groom, who is my son, is tall and athletic, handsome, and jittery with nerves. The bride, dark-haired, petite, and lovely in an ivory gown of French lace, smiles at him reassuringly. Her anticipation shows in her widened eyes and smile; his, in his restless arms and legs.
The rabbi recites the Kiddush and asks them to exchange the vows they have written. Rebecca quietly reads hers, an intimate declaration of love and commitment. Adam reads his in a public, ceremonial voice, affirming his devotion to her and to their marriage. Above their heads, a light breeze lifts the white lattice border of the chuppah, a canopy sewn by hand and embroidered with a circle of intertwining pale green branches symbolizing their union, and with roses, representing hope, promise, and new beginnings. The sky is patterned with fleecy white clouds that look like cotton batting.
According to Chabad, the original function of the chuppah was a legal instrument, formalizing the couple’s new marital status and the conclusion of the marriage process that began with betrothal. In the talmudic era, the chuppah represented the groom’s home, under which the bride’s status changes. Today a symbol of divine love and protection, the chuppah covers a sacred space where the union of two people is consecrated.
As I watch these young people recite the nuptial blessings, I feel simultaneously removed and connected, a part of the ritual unfolding before me but also floating above it, like a figure in a Chagall painting. It’s an exhilarating, terrifying feeling to see your child declare to the world that he or she is ready to leave home and create a new life as an adult. I feel great joy but also trepidation, realizing I will always want to help them but that my assistance may not be what is wanted or what is needed. A mother does her best to create safety and protection and then releases her child to the world.
The rabbi says that he asked Rebecca and Adam independently of each other to describe their first date. They both used the word “epic.” He wants to know if they collaborated, if they compared notes beforehand. They shake their heads. Perhaps they are indeed very much attuned to each other, or, as so often happens with couples who have known each other a long time, they have learned to wear each other’s words the way sisters often wear each other’s clothing.
I find the word “epic” an interesting choice. The guests do also and later congratulate my husband and me on an epic wedding. Colloquially, the word means fabulous, outstanding, impressive. As a literary scholar, I think of epic as the term used to describe a narrative poem about heroic adventures. In Greek epic poetry, the hero’s undertakings involve conquest and acts of impressive physical courage. But what if we reimagine the narrative of marriage as an epic of emotional growth and transformation, a journey undertaken by two people who have pledged to love and support one another throughout the challenges and responsibilities life places before them. You don’t need to conquer a city to be brave.
For a few brief moments, the chuppah protects the bride and groom, sanctifies them. But when the ceremony is over, they must leave that sanctuary. As Rebecca and Adam join hands and walk down the grassy path before them into their new lives as a married couple, I think that we — their parents, dear friends, and family — will become the chuppah, the fabric of protection and shelter should that be what is needed.
Nancy Gerber of West Orange is an advanced candidate in clinical psychoanalytic training at the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis in Livingston. She received a doctorate in English from Rutgers University.