Commentary Magazine


One Down

On a background of blue velvet stand two baby pictures in silver frames. Then silver script letters scroll up the screen:

Miriam Elizabeth and Jonathan Daniel
produced by
Edward and Sarah Markowitz
Zaev and Marjorie Schwartz
supported by
Avi, Ben, and Yehudit Markowitz
and Dina Schwartz
and also starring
Ilse Schwartz
Estelle and Sol Kirshenbaum
and
Rose Markowitz
as themselves

This is the opening Miriam and Jon have chosen for their wedding video. Bill, the videographer, has it all mocked up for Ed and Sarah in his studio. When the monitor darkens again, the two of them sit there in silence. Then Sarah says, “That wasn’t my daughter, by the way.”

“Oh, I know,” Bill reassures her. “Those baby pictures are just samples. Miriam and Jon are going to bring in their own.”

“Well, they’d better take care of that—” Ed says.

“Not to worry,” Bill tells them. “We won’t be putting all of this together until after the wedding. You’ve got plenty of time to think about length, too. I’ve already gone over this with Miriam and Jon. You have the option in addition to the two-hour version of going for”—Bill reaches behind him and deftly swipes a black binder from his desk—“four hours, or the deluxe, which would be six hours. That would cover the whole wedding.”

“Gavel to gavel,” Ed says.

“Exactly. From hors d’oeuvres through to the getaway car.”

“Yeah, I don’t think we need that,” Ed says.

“It’s pricey. But truthfully, for the money, I think your best choice could very well be the four-hour version.”

“What’s wrong with two hours?” Sarah asks.

“That would come with it, of course. The four hours comes with the two-hour cut. And what’s wonderful is you have your options in terms of viewing time. Believe me, I know that right now two hours seems long to you, but when you’re looking at a wedding, you’re looking at some brutal cuts, and inevitably what happens is a lot of memories end up on the cutting-room floor.”

_____________

 

“I’m going to sit down and get some reading done,” Ed says when they get home to Foggy Bottom. He sits down on the couch where he’s been working on the stack of books he has to review. Just a few of the many new books on the prospects for peace in the Middle East. There they lie on the coffee table in their slick dust jackets, gaudy reproaches to Ed, who has not finished his scholarly book on peace and the changing role of terrorism. He opens the morning’s New York Times.

Sarah puts her purse on the kitchen table and starts making phone calls. “Hello, this is Sarah Markowitz, I want to add to our order—yes, I’ll hold.”

“Sarah,” Ed calls from the living room, “listen to this. ‘The Palestinian will hate Israel no matter what Israel does. Give land for peace and you will give up all the security Israel has won in previous wars. A Palestinian state will be a launching pad and a suicide, mandated by America, which I compare to Dr. Kevorkian helping the patient go under to put him out of his misery.’ Sarah, are you listening?”

“You know those books aren’t very well written,” she says.

“No, no, this is a letter in the Times. Oh, this is choice: ‘The solution to the problem was simple, but it was not followed in the past. Give the Palestinians a one-way ticket out of Israel. Now that time has passed, and the opportunity is gone. The cold war is over, the Soviet Union is gone. Israel ends up paying the peace dividend in the Middle East.’” Ed shakes his head. Then his eye catches the name at the bottom. “Sarah!”

“Yes,” Sarah says into the phone. “This is for the Markowitz wedding. We need to add another tux, same style, 44 long, yes, the double-breasted.”

“Sarah!”

She stretches the telephone cord so that she can stick her head out the kitchen door and glare at Ed. She waves her hand at him. “Could you hold the line a second?” She claps her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and hisses, “Ed, stop bellowing at me. I am trying to place an order—for your brother—”

“Sarah, look who wrote this thing.”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

He thrusts the paper in her face. “Just look at this. What does this say? Zaev Schwartz, Scarsdale, New York!”

“I’m very happy for him. Could you add the deposit for that onto our bill? Did I say that the neck is seventeen? Inseam? I don’t know the inseam. Damn, I can’t find his measurements. Look, I’m going to have to send him in. Would tomorrow be all right? He’s flying in from England tonight.” She sighs. “Thank you. Goodbye.”

“Zaev Schwartz!” Ed exclaims and coughs as if the name were a frog in his throat. “As in—our groom-to-be—his father!”

“It could be a different Schwartz.”

“How many Zaev Schwartzes in Scarsdale do you think there are?”

“Could be two or three,” Sarah says.

“And spelled that way? I’m telling you, this is the one. Of all the people in the entire country, he’s the one who wrote this crap. Can you believe it?”

“You said it was choice.”

Ed closes his eyes. “Sarah, this is going to be part of our family! Zaev Schwartz and I are going to be—uh—”

“You’re going to be nothing,” Sarah says. “You’re going to be in-laws.”

“Co-grandparents.” Ed looks again at the newspaper. He feels depressed. “Doesn’t he know my work? Doesn’t he have the slightest consideration for my position?”

“How could he know your work?”

“He could read! He could have talked to me about it!”

“You’ve met the man twice. And, Ed, people don’t just pick up scholarly journals and browse through them.”

“Scholarly! He could have read me in the Post.”

“Well, I guess he doesn’t get the Washington Post in Scarsdale. Look, I’ve got too much to do right now. I have to call the florist, the band—”

“Sarah, he’s a reactionary, a maniac,” Ed says helplessly.

“You knew that before,” Sarah is brisk. “You’ve spoken to the man.”

“I didn’t know he goes around publishing this garbage! You know, there are people who make a whole career out of letters to the paper. This is a hobby for people, getting their prejudices published. This is what they do with their time—”

“Well, Ed, they have a right to express their opinions.”

“Sure.”

“So, enough. You don’t have to deal with the man on a professional basis. You’re overreacting.”

“See, your father and I, for example. We’ve had our differences,” Ed says, “but not philosophical differences. Your father and I have always been completely harmonious.”

“Right, and you and your brother—”

“Henry and I have always been in complete agreement about the Middle East.”

_____________

 

“Do you think we should tell Miriam you’re getting cold feet?” Sarah asks Ed as they stand at the gate waiting for their daughter’s plane to start unloading.

“I’ve got cold feet? Am I the one getting married?”

“That was going to be my point,” says Sarah. She looks through the plate-glass wall out into the night, where the long covered jetway extends and clamps onto Miriam’s plane. When Miriam was little she used to call the process biting the apple. “Let’s not mention all this to Miriam, OK?”

“I had no intention of mentioning it.” Ed feels put upon. Isn’t it his right as a father to mention it? But Sarah insists he take the high moral ground. Then the passengers start trickling out, a few aggressive business types surging forward in the crowd, the servicemen, the kids with backpacks, the families brushing off crumbs, and in the midst of them their daughter, the medical student, sinking under all her bags.

“Ooh, a poodle kopf!” Sarah pulls Miriam’s hair out of her face. “You need a haircut! We’ve got the tuxes and the flowers under control, but Uncle Henry needs to go in to try his on. They’ll never fit him if he doesn’t.”

Ed says nothing. A whole conversation is whirling through his head as he imagines Sarah pooh-poohing him:

—What does it matter? Why do you have to dramatize this?

—Oh, nothing’s the matter, it’s just that I have devoted my whole professional life to studying this issue and trying to get people to appreciate its complexity.

—Now, Ed, did he do this just to insult you?

—Look, I don’t care why he did it.

“Daddy?” Miriam asks him. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Ed says, with great precision.

“You look kind of—disgruntled.”

“Yeah, well, I guess I’m not feeling very gruntled at the moment.”

“We still have to finalize with the band,” Sarah tells Miriam in the car on the way home.

“I thought we did that already.” Miriam replies from the backseat.

“No, we still have to finalize the songs for the first dance.”

“What first dance?” Miriam asks alarmed. “Mommy, we aren’t having mixed dancing at the wedding.”

“What are we, Puritans?” Ed mutters. Miriam and Jon in their young-blood traditionalism are having an Orthodox wedding with glatt kosher food, a very young and baleful Orthodox rabbi, and separate dancing circles for men and women.

“You mean you and Jon aren’t going to have a first dance?” Sarah asks.

“Nope. There is going to be no mixed dancing, remember? We had that big discussion and everything—”

“Well, yeah,” Ed says. “But there’s gotta be a first dance. First you and Jon dance together and then you dance with me, and Jon dances with his mother—and that’s how it’s gotta be. Gotta be.”

“Daddy, do we have to have another fight about this?” The voice is plaintive from the backseat.

Ed ignores this. “Look, Miriam, I’m not going to say another word about it.”

“Good,” says Miriam.

“Except for this. I’m paying that band, and when the time comes, they will play the first dance and we will dance it. That’s all there is to it. End of discussion. This is a wedding, not a wake.”

“Sweetie,” Sarah ventures to Miriam as they pull up to the house, “If there isn’t any social dancing Grandma and Grandpa won’t understand.”

Ed tries to put his arm around Miriam as they walk in but she shakes him off and runs in.

“Hey, don’t be mean.” Ed is hurt. He slides her duffle bag off his shoulder and glides unencumbered into the kitchen. Religion hasn’t come to his daughter gracefully; it’s made her fierce and punctilious. She has burst out of their household with its pleasant suburban Judaism and become a little refusenik. She refuses to eat in restaurants unless they have rabbinic supervision, refuses to drive anywhere on the Sabbath, refuses to attend services at her family’s own synagogue because it has mixed seating and the rabbi uses a microphone. Jonathan is just like her, but more nonchalant. He wears a yarmulke wherever he is. She and Jon have printed up a long explanation of the arcane rituals they have chosen for their nuptials—this to be distributed by the ushers for all relatives and guests who are confused or curious.

The answering machine is blinking. Ed pushes the play button. “Edward? Hello? Am I on the air, as it were? This is your brother, Henry. We just got in. Our room was double-booked, and they’ve given us the most extraordinary suite. We had hoped to come by tonight, but the thing is, we’re completely exhausted—I don’t suppose Sarah had the time to see about my morning coat? If she hasn’t, please, please tell her not to worry, Susan and I are going to rummage something up by ourselves. Believe me, I have a very good idea the sort of bewildering haze that must be descending. Do you—” The message cuts off with a series of beeps, although Henry seems to have continued talking in happy ignorance.

_____________

 

Sarah wakes early the next morning, and her first thought as she lies in bed is Henry’s morning coat. He has to be stopped. All the ushers are wearing tuxedos! She and Ed tried to call the hotel last night, but it seemed that Henry and Susan had disconnected their phone. She left several messages for Henry, and particularly for Susan. If she can only reach Susan, her white-haired English sister-in-law, fearlessly sane. She feels instinctively that Susan will understand. In the meantime, there is the ribeye roast to worry about—and, of course, the kids are coming in, and the Schwartzes. She is having them all for Friday-night dinner. Except for Jonathan and his sister, who won’t drive on Shabbes from the hotel. She looks over at Ed, deep in sleep, face crushed into his pillow. Then she jumps out of bed.

Several hours later Ed opens his eyes. He has slept long, but he is exhausted. He struggles into his robe and hunts downstairs for the paper. An eerie quiet has descended over the house. Sarah has not left him a note. Now the question is, how to use the time. Which is worse, to give up on the day, or to start something and feel that every minute some new crisis will break? He knows that the phone is going to ring. It will be one of his colleagues calling to tell him he saw the letter by Zaev Schwartz. Who is really going to make that connection? Ed likes to torture himself; he realizes that. But the knowledge does not cheer him up. It only adds an edge of self-loathing to his worrying. Then the phone does ring, and Ed nearly jumps out of his skin.

“Hello, Ed?” It is his mother, Rose, with her Vienna Waltzes CD on in the background. When he visits her his ears ache with the music, and its incessant carousel gaiety.

“Hi, Ma, how are you?”

“Have they arrived?”

“Who? Miriam is here. I guess she went out with Sarah. And Henry and Susan got in last night.”

“Oh, I knew that. They called me. I meant the Schwartzes. When are they coming in?”

“Sometime this afternoon, I think.”

“And you’re going to meet them?”

“No, they’re renting a car.”

“You’re not going to meet them?” She is shocked.

“No, Ma—”

“Why not?”

“Because this is a very complex day!” He feels awkward with this defense, because apparently he has been somewhat left out of the complexity. Somewhere Sarah has left him behind.

“And how is she going to walk all the way through Dulles?” Rose asks, referring to the grandmother, Ilse Schwartz. Rose uses pronouns instead of names and expects everyone to understand her completely. This is not a function of her eighty-three years. She has always done this.

“I’m sure they’ll have a wheelchair for her at the airport,” Ed says.

“Yes, I’ve been in those chairs, and I can tell you they don’t clean them.”

“Ma, what do you want from me? If I were there, would the chairs be cleaner? They will take care of it, OK? They don’t need me there with one more car. And, in fact, I don’t think I even have a car here.”

“They went to the beauty parlor?”

“Look! Sarah didn’t leave me a note. She could be at the hotel for all I know.”

“Well, it’s not very gracious,” Rose says.

_____________

 

Ed is just sitting down to eat a sandwich of herring in cream sauce when Sarah bursts into the kitchen with Miriam, who looks much smaller after her haircut. His brother Henry follows, a taller, heavier man than Ed, and Henry’s wife Susan brings up the rear, bearing a black garment bag from Mr. Tux. “Oh, Edward!” Henry exclaims and takes his hand. “It is hot, hot, hot out there. Merciless.” He mops his forehead with his handkerchief. “And that tuxedo franchise. Good heavens. The boy there pinched me!”

“Inadvertently,” Susan says. “Don’t exaggerate, darling. Where should I put this?”

“I was standing in front of the mirror—”

“He was checking the fit in the seat of the pants,” Sarah explains.

“—his trousers,” says Susan.

Henry cuts them off with a wave of his hand. “Basta! I don’t think we need to recreate the experience here. Suffice it to say, everything was not as it should be.” He turns to Ed. “I hope you’re wearing your own.”

“It was extraordinary,” Henry confides once he is seated at the table with his tall glass before him. “The shirt felt exactly like a hotel sheet, the fabric was absolutely impregnated with chemicals. And do you know, the pockets had velcro in them!” He turns around and sees that Miriam has gone upstairs with Sarah. “Far be it from me to question the bride,” he whispers to Ed. “But where did she get these ideas about the wedding?”

“It’s all part of the Orthodox shtick,” Ed says gloomily.

“Really! I had no idea this was a religious ritual—tuxedos for 11 A.M. Sunday morning! I could have brought my tuxedo. I only suggested renting because Moss Bros. wouldn’t let their morning coats out of the country. But tuxedos? Is the dark color significant? Does it have some connection to the frock coat?”

“No, no, that’s not a religious ritual, Henry. That’s just what people do. I’m talking about—wait a second,” Ed interrupts himself and snatches yesterday’s Times from the recycling bin. “Did you see this?”

Henry puts on his glasses and reads. He sits stock still for a moment and then folds his glasses up again. He gasps. “Edward! Can this be?” Ed feels a sudden affection for his brother, a real warmth. Henry, with all his scholar-in-exile Anglophiliac affectations, can truly respond to the letter, really understand what it means to Ed. “Good God!” Henry cries. “Tell me this isn’t the father of the groom.”

“’Fraid so,” Ed says with grim satisfaction.

“But it’s so—badly written!”

“Not to mention the point of view.”

“The point of view, of course. And the way it’s expressed. ‘A Palestinian state will be a launching pad and a suicide.’ This is really—just, too much. You know, it’s almost anti-Semitic to print something like this unedited. No, really, Edward. This is an attempt to publicize the Jewish redneck element in the national press.”

“But apparently these rednecks exist.”

“Not—”

“Not anybody you know? The man is coming down here to become part of our family. And what can you possibly do about it?” Ed demands.

Henry spreads his hands. “What can anyone do? I suppose you’ll have to be civil. Where do people learn English like that?”

“Of course I’ll be civil.” Ed folds the newspaper into quarters. “In fact, I am only mentioning this to you now so we don’t have to go through this, you know—”

“Later,” Henry says.

“Right. This is going to be Miriam’s day, for God’s sake, not Zaev Schwartz’s.”

_____________

 

Sarah opens the door to Miriam’s room that evening to tell her to get ready for dinner. Miriam is asleep on the bed. Wedding presents cover the floor and the desk; foam peanuts squeak under Sarah’s shoes. There is a Kitchen Aid mixer trailing ribbons, a cut crystal bowl, a sterling candy dish that looks like a large tomato. Then on the desk, the boxes from the shower, nightgowns and salad bowls. And glimmering from its open box in the shadowy light, Henry’s shower gift, an enormous topaz ring, perhaps an inch in diameter, smoky gold, almost gauche like a stage ring, almost medieval. “Miriam, you’d better get dressed. They’ll be here in fifteen minutes,” Sarah says.

Miriam groans. “I’m so tired.” She has taken off the past month from her clinical rotations. It’s been weeks since she’s stayed up all night every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, held cameras for the microsurgeries, checked on the demented patients who throw their feces at the nurses. But she seems to be suffering retroactive sleep deprivation nonetheless. “Where is everybody?” Miriam asks.

“Your sister is setting the table.”

“She’s here already?”

“Yes, she’s here. Your brothers are out getting Grandma.”

“Oh, OK.”

“So get dressed,” Sarah says. “And put on something presentable.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Like a dress.”

“They’re all wrinkled.”

“Well, you should have thought of that before.” Sarah is losing patience. “You’d better iron something.”

“Mommy?” the plaintive voice again.

“What?”

“I don’t know. I feel kind of—small.”

“Well,” Sarah pauses at the door, her mind full of cooking times and the fact that there is a crack in the top of the jellyroll. She hears a sort of snuffle from Miriam. Something between sniffling and sighing.

“I just feel like everyone’s ordering everyone else around and, and being really clinical about everything.” This is Miriam’s nightmare, to find that the ugly light and brisk indignities of the hospital follow you into real life as well. Some medical students find symptoms of every disease they study in themselves, but Miriam sees hospital sterility everywhere she looks, a lack of feeling. She has become more religious in the past two years. What else could she be in those white corridors?

“Miriam, I’m not being clinical, I’m trying to make dinner,” Sarah says. “Wear the pink dress. The fuchsia one.”

The Markowitzes array themselves in the living room waiting for the Schwartzes. Rose sits in a straightbacked chair; Miriam’s brothers sit politely with their feet on the floor but seem too big for the furniture. Susan is upstairs with Sarah ironing Miriam’s fuchsia dress, and Ed and Henry pace around together talking about Oxford, almost as if they thought they were being filmed. When the doorbell finally rings and everyone comes in, Miriam is still upstairs, running through the Friday-night service by herself in the dark. Ed holds the door open for Zaev Schwartz. Zaev is a small, somewhat jowly-looking man with dark shadows under his eyes. He seems to be in an expansive mood now, as he gives Ed a white Xerox copy of a newspaper clipping. “Ed, I don’t know if you saw my editorial.”

“Mm, mm hmm.” Ed places the page with saintly delicacy on the coffee table. Zaev looks disappointed.

In the meantime, the groom’s grandmother Ilse Schwartz asks, before she and Rose are even introduced, “Zaev, where is the bride?” Ilse is older and smaller than Rose. She lived in Germany and Israel before following her son to the United States, and her accent is German, with Israeli overtones. Rose looks at Ilse’s small quick eyes and high cheekbones and thinks that she is an imperious woman. Ilse is just a few years Rose’s senior. It is Rose who is the grandmother of the bride. Shouldn’t she be treated with a little courtesy?

They all sit in the living room before dinner and try to make conversation. “Ed,” Zaev says. He has a deep voice, and his accent is the inverse of his mother’s, Israeli with German undertones. He is an engineer, which may or may not account for the fact that as he speaks he seems to be giving instructions. “I have never seen heat like you have here in this city. I said to Marjorie, I cannot imagine living with this every summer. I see you have air-conditioning,” Zaev continues. “We are talking about putting it in this summer.”

“We have the window units,” Zaev’s wife Marjorie explains. She is a moon-faced woman, who seems to Sarah almost aggressively gentle and unassuming.

“But we are thinking about installing central air. Do you know something about this?” Zaev asks Ed.

“No,” Ed says.

“Putting central air into a house like ours, built when ours was built, is a major project. A major job. The house has to be raised from its foundation to install the vents.”

Henry interjects, “But there are those garden units, are there not?”

“The Japanese ones. That is another option. But you know what the problem is with those? There is just one circuit running the whole system. If anything happens to that circuit, OK?, the whole system goes down. And then you’ve got a major problem.”

_____________

 

Miriam comes down and Ilse goes to her immediately, gives her a kiss, and ushers her to a seat next to her. “Miriam,” she says confidingly in her heavy German accent. “Why have I not heard from you?”

“Heard what?” Miriam asks.

“I have heard nothing from you since you announced your engagement! I’ve had no letters.”

“Oh. I guess I’ve been so busy I didn’t have time,” Miriam says.

Ilse shakes her head. “Miriam, do you know that when you marry, you are not just marrying a young man, you are marrying a family.”

“It will be interesting to see,” Zaev tells Ed and Sarah, “how Miriam and Jon are going to manage when they are homeowners. Jon has never shown any interest in learning about buildings.”

“Are you planning to buy them a house?” Susan asks with her very polite, very dry English accent. Sarah cheers her silently.

“No, no, no, I wish I could.” Zaev is completely unscathed. “But those guys—” He shakes his head in the direction of the kids.

“Oh, the kids work hard,” Sarah says.

“They think they are working hard. Jon doesn’t know the meaning of the word work. He has no idea. Do you know what Palestine was when I grew up? It was dust. I had my own business, OK?, raising chickens at thirteen. I was doing yard work after school every day—Jon has only had chores in the house to do; he has always had clothes, books, whatever he wanted. This is all he knows. If anything ever happens in this country, is he going to survive? I hope so. But I don’t think so. People laugh when I say this, but my mother,” he nods in Ilse’s direction, “she came from a very wealthy family and they lost everything—they were completely unprepared—”

“But she survived,” Sarah says.

“Our grandfather Ludwig had seven children,” Ilse is explaining to Miriam. “My father was Walter. There were five children, four daughters, Grete, Annette, Otalie, and I, and one son, Frederick. For my parents, he, Frederick, was the only one. My brother was a great mind, he followed the family footprints. You see, he was a biologist like our grandfather and our father, and our two uncles. You have heard of the Krebs cycle?”

“You were related to Krebs?” Miriam asks.

“My uncle knew him. He prepared work on the Krebs cycle before Hans Krebs came to England. He was a great man.”

“No kidding,” Miriam says, thinking Ilse is still talking about Krebs.

“And my brother inherited his mind.”

Rose is sitting in disbelief. This woman is reciting her entire genealogy without acknowledging anyone else in the room! And it seems an intrusion to Rose, to hear Ilse carry on about her family: her brother, their house in Breslau, Ilse’s three sisters, “one to England, one to New York, I to Palestine escaping, and one perishing in Dachau.” The story is not so different from that of Rose’s family, and that makes Rose feel odd. She can’t help feeling that this is her tale to tell, or that at least she should be telling hers first. She has come to believe in the singularity of her own experience as a refugee in England during World War I, and an immigrant in America. In her mind’s eye, with her background as a reader of historical romances, she can’t help believing that if there is a greater trend or larger story to be told, then it would have to be her story writ large. It isn’t polite the way Ilse is talking; it’s nearly plagiarism. “Sarah,” Rose says.

“Yes, Rose. You know, I think we should all come to the table. Kids, would you help me carry out the food?”

Rose follows Sarah into the kitchen. Sarah is directing her sons, both taller than she is, “Carry that out first. Both hands,” and she is trying to cut the meat with her electric knife while fending off Miriam with her pained disapproval at the use of electricity on the Sabbath.

Rose takes her pocketbook, climbs the stairs and hunts around in the small powder-blue bathroom for some hand lotion. She takes the orange bottle of pills out of her purse, swallows one pill and sits down at the edge of the bed in Sarah and Ed’s room. She feels a little dizzy. Below she hears the whir of the electric knife, the family moving into the dining room. Something in all this brings back a memory, real or imagined. She is a small foster child in England, lying in bed listening to the clink of a dinner party below. She has been feeling rather neglected lately, during the preparations for this wedding, but she has not said anything. She is also weaker. She is sure of it. The stairs in this house seem taller and harder to climb. The bookcases higher. Perhaps she will sit on this bed all evening and no one will think of looking for her. She will disappear like Alice down the rabbit hole. She will find a small medicine bottle with a label on it: “Drink this.”

Miriam comes in. “Grandma, it’s time for dinner. Are you OK?”

“I feel weak,” Rose says.

Miriam looks at her concerned. Rose remembers with a rush of pleasure that Miriam will be a doctor. “What kind of doctor are you going to be, dear?” she asks as Miriam helps her down the stairs.

“I don’t know,” Miriam says.

“I think a psychiatrist might be a good profession,” Rose tells her. “Is it a psychiatrist or a psychologist? I can never remember. What’s the difference between them?”

“Psychiatrists can write prescriptions and psychologists can’t.”

“Psychiatrist. That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

_____________

 

“So you read my article?” Zaev asks Ed at the table. He is too proud of it to let it sit there on the coffee table in the other room without comment.

“You mean your letter to the editor,” Ed says. He looks at Zaev and tells himself again that now is the time to act with restraint. It’s going to be Miriam’s day.

“So what did you think?” Zaev asks.

“I thought it was completely off the mark,” Ed tells his future co-grandparent. “To be perfectly frank, it was a complete misreading of the political situation—a very promising, hopeful situation.”

Zaev stares at Ed. Then he smiles slightly. “A misreading? No, this is not a misreading. I have some experience—”

“So do I,” Ed says.

“You are an academic.”

“That’s right.”

“Yes, that’s my point,” Zaev says. “With all due respect, you have readings and misreadings, but let me tell you, I have some experience with this area—”

In this area, Ed thinks.

“Listen,” Zaev begins.

Ed’s inner voice replies,—Don’t take that patronizing tone with me. Don’t start making your global pronouncements about life, the work ethic, and the peace talks to me.

Zaev says, “You have to live in Eretz Yisrael—on the land—”

I know what Eretz Yisrael means, Ed thinks. You think I don’t know a word of Hebrew.

“You have to walk through the hills and valleys. Then you see how small it is and you have a better idea what this land-for-peace means. The country is a splinter, a—what do you call it?”—he turns to his wife.

“A sliver,” Marjorie says.

“Really, sliver? OK, a sliver between the deserts and the enemies. The American government has never been interested in the borders, only in keeping it quiet. This is what I mean when I talk about Kevorkian. This is why I always say that Americans are more interested in painting over the problem than getting to the bottom and solving it. They don’t like to get to the root of the matter. This is how they want to get the job done. Do you know, when I wanted to repaint window sills, three painters told me it would be easier to paint over than strip down to the wood? I spoke to Marjorie’s sister. She said, look, just get someone to shmear it for you; it will look fine. I said, not a chance. Not a chance. That’s not how I do things. This is what I’m talking about when I referred to foreign policy.”

“Spare us the metaphors,” Ed whispers under his breath.

“What was that?” Zaev asks.

“Nothing,” Ed says.

“Sarah,” Marjorie says. “This roast is delicious.”

“Thank you,” Sarah tells her. “Would you like some more?”

“I don’t think I could eat any more,” Marjorie confesses. She smiles and says, “It’s exciting, isn’t it? I was talking to a friend of mine in New York whose son got married last summer, and she said something interesting to me. She realized when Ethan got married that it wasn’t just a milestone for him—it was a big milestone for her as well!”

“Yes, I think that’s true,” Sarah says. “How about dessert?”

“Can I help you clear?” Marjorie asks.

“No thanks, stay where you are.”

“But I’d like to help.” Marjorie rises in her seat and is surprised to find that Sarah puts her hand on her shoulder to keep her there.

“Ed, I need you for the tea,” Sarah says.

When he gets into the kitchen and the door swings behind him Sarah folds her arms across her chest and glares at him.

“What?” he asks, whispering urgently. “I have been perfectly restrained.”

“Go,” she says.

“That’s it. You brought me in here just so you could glare?” He whispers in her ear. “Can I help it if the man is a silly, self-righteous ass?”

“Shah!”

_____________

 

The dinner is over. Sarah lies on the couch exhausted. Her muscles ache. “Well, I think that went quite well,” Susan says.

“Except for the political interlude,” Henry adds.

“Daddy, why did you have to be so grouchy?” Miriam accuses Ed.

I was grouchy?” Ed tries to be good-humored. “I beg your pedeshka. Your father-in-law, fine, future father-in-law, was the grouchy one.”

“You don’t have to have a scene with him every time you see him.”

“I didn’t have a scene with him.”

“Just because you don’t like him,” Miriam starts.

“It is completely irrelevant whether I like him or not,” Ed says. “But I wish you would stop criticizing me.”

“I am not criticizing you!” Miriam is getting weepy again. “You’ve been acting completely weird ever since I got home.” She pauses and then says with sudden insight, “And this isn’t even about Jon’s father. It’s about me getting married!”

My getting married,” Ed roars.

“That’s what I just said.”

“You know, Miriam, I’ve said in the past, someday you and I are going to sit down and get this straightened out and I think today is the day we are going to do it! How old are you, twenty-five? You’re going to be married in what, two days? Come over here and I’ll tell you about gerunds.”

“He doesn’t listen to me,” Miriam says to her mother. “Didn’t he hear what I just said?”

“I have news for you,” Sarah tells Miriam. “This is not about your getting married. It really is about Jon’s father.”

Rose decides to give Ed and Sarah a piece of advice. “I’ve always followed one rule,” she tells them from her chair in the corner. “I’ve never said anything about my in-laws, and I think this is the best thing to do, to avoid trouble in the family. No matter what you think, you should keep it to yourself.”

“Come over here, sweetie,” Ed puts his arm around Miriam on the couch. “Gerunds are very simple.” Miriam closes her eyes and puts her head on his shoulder. She is exhausted. She is not listening. As far as she can tell he is saying: When you’re in reverse, use your common sense and turn the wheel in the direction you want the car to go! “You see? It’s dead simple,” Ed says.

_____________

 

Welcome to our wedding, and thank you for sharing our simcha, joy! Our wedding begins with a kabbalat panim, literally meeting of faces. Miriam and Jon will hold separate courts, where you can greet them. Miriam will be in the social hall, and Jon will hold his groom’s tisch or special groom’s party in the lounge. There he will give a brief d’var Torah, say a few words of Torah learning.

Susan is reading the wedding program in the social hall where Miriam is sitting in her gown, guests milling around her. “Mm,” Susan says. She is wearing a floral dress and a broad-brimmed hat, which she feels does not sit quite right on her head. She has a large head.

“They’re marvelous, aren’t they?” Henry is standing next to her, stout in his tuxedo, savoring his teriyaki and pineapple on a stick. “I’ll have to go get some more.”

“No, Henry,” Susan says. “It’s time for the ceremonial veiling of the bride.”

“Veiling? What veiling?”

“You aren’t reading the program,” Susan reproves him.

Henry peers over at hers. “We haven’t been to the groom’s court.”

“No, I don’t think there’s time,” Susan protests, but Henry guides her into the lounge.

The little room is full of dark-suited men crowding around a long table where Jonathan stands, tall and slim, giving a learned talk from notes and a stack of open volumes of the Talmud. “Good heavens,” Henry whispers in Susan’s ear.

“I’ll meet you outside,” she says.

“Wait, why are you leaving?” he clutches her arm.

“Henry,” she whispers, “there aren’t any women here.”

Henry sees that Ed and Zaev are also standing near the door in their tuxedos, each with a white rosebud boutonniere. They are whispering together like ushers at the back of a theater. “Can you hear him?” Zaev asks Ed. “I can’t hear one word.”

“Can’t hear a thing,” Ed replies. “And, to be perfectly honest, that doesn’t bother me.”

“No? I thought you like this kind of thing.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I thought Jon caught this Orthodoxy from Miriam.”

“From my daughter! Absolutely not.”

“Where does it come from then? I send my son to a yeshiva so he’ll learn some Hebrew. Now what have I got? A Talmud scholar! Where does it come from? This is what I want to know.”

“Well,” Ed says. “I’m just going to try enjoy the wedding and not think about it.”

Then Zaev claps Ed on the shoulder and tells him, “We think alike!”

The speech has ended and suddenly wild singing begins. The men lock arms and dance around Jonathan. They dance him out the door and nearly flatten Henry against the wall. He escapes clutching his drink and egg rolls. “Henry, over here,” Susan calls to him in the social hall. “Hurry or you won’t be able to see.” They cannot see Jonathan when he emerges from the huddle of men and stands before Miriam. He rocks back on his heels and pulls the net of Miriam’s veil over her face. Then the singing starts up, the dancing huddle dances him away again. The photographer wants to take more pictures of the family as they stand around Miriam—her brothers shaven and smoothed down, her sister who is telling Rose she feels like a sachet pillow in all this lace, Ed who looks as though he’s straining to remember something. But Sarah won’t allow any more pictures because they are running so late.

In the sanctuary a flute plays an Israeli version of a ditty from the Song of Songs and Miriam walks down the aisle with Ed and Sarah on each side. The guests all rise from their seats as she passes. Henry watches his niece in her slow procession, her gown billowing over her parents’ knees in the narrow aisle. He can’t help it; he begins to cry. Susan opens her purse and gives him some tissues. “They’re crushed, but they’re quite clean,” she whispers to him. Henry dabs his tears. “She’s lovely, isn’t she?” says Susan.

“No, it’s not that,” Henry says. “It’s just that I was thinking about our wedding.”

“Ours was rather different,” Susan says.

“But it reminded me, just the same,” Henry tells her.

Rose cannot hear a word, even though she is sitting in the front row. Her hearing aid is acting up, and she can’t seem to adjust it properly. The ceremony, the celebration, it is all happening in registers too high or too low. The rabbi is murmuring his speech into the microphone and not enunciating at all. She isn’t sure about this man. He couldn’t be more than thirty years old, and to her that is not a rabbi. Rose saw earlier that he wasn’t even wearing a wedding ring; he does not seem to be established in life, but just looks rather wistful. Perhaps he had a young lady friend who listened to his proposal and then declined! But that is neither here nor there. A proper rabbi wouldn’t have such doleful eyes. Miriam, however, is every inch the bride. The dress is not what Rose would have chosen, but it suits her. Rose likes a simpler style. Not so much with the bows and ruffles. And she would have had a proper wedding march. Not Wagner, of course, but at least Mendelssohn.

The rabbi hands Jonathan the lightbulb wrapped in a cloth napkin, and Jon stamps it to pieces under his new black Florsheim dress shoe. Rose’s hearing aid shrieks as the band sings out its klezmer recessional. The family and the bride and groom are streaming back down the aisle, all the tension of the morning slipping from them.

_____________

 

It is a mitzvah, good deed, at a wedding to entertain the bride and groom, so as you dance and sing, feel free to let loose and do whatever!

At the head table, Ed has finished his chicken breast stuffed with wild rice pilaf. He stands up and surveys the seventeen round tables in the social hall, each covered with a peach tablecloth. He feels proud, tired, responsible. He is responsible for this peach domain. Sarah stands next to him and dings her glass with her spoon and the hall quiets. “As many of you know,” Ed says, reading from his written text, “Sarah and I are Miriam’s parents. We would like to say a few words about this young couple we are here to celebrate with. They are gifted with many things: intelligence, energy, determination, youth.”

“And they have given us much as well,” Sarah adds from her part of the speech. “They have given us joy, and laughter. And, of course, they have given us Zaev and Marjorie. We look forward to sharing many happy occasions with you in the future.”

Ed takes the microphone. “Jon and Miriam are deeply committed to the sciences, to Judaism, and they have a lot to offer both to each other—and to the world. This is a time of hope in more ways than one. It is a new beginning for Miriam and Jon, and for the Jewish people as a whole. A time of renewal and peace in Israel. There are always going to be skeptics in this world, pessimists and cynics, but at times like this we have a chance to rejoice and to build lasting relationships. I can only say that we wish you the best in love and in life. L’chaim.”

“You changed the speech,” Sarah tells him when they sit down. “That wasn’t in there.”

“Yes it was,” Ed says.

“In the old version! I specifically edited out that part.”

“I know, Sarah, but the new version didn’t say what I wanted to say!” He leans back in his chair happily. He doesn’t even notice that Zaev has taken the microphone until Zaev starts talking.

“My name is Zaev Schwartz. Marjorie and I would like to thank Ed and Sarah for their hospitality and to say something as well to all of you. First of all, how happy we are that Jonathan found a girl like Miriam to marry. We always wondered what kind of a girl Jonathan would find and now we know. Our son Jonathan is very academic, and when he introduced us to Miriam we could see that she was too. I was sure even then that on this level they would be compatible. As the New Yorkers here know, Jon was always with his head in a book when he was a child—”

“My God,” Ed whispers to Sarah, “how long is he going to talk?”

“He would walk everywhere while he was reading and never look where he was going. Miriam, however, I have observed is of a much more practical bent and she always keeps her eyes open. What we hope is that in the future she will keep Jonathan from bumping into the obstacles of life. Because one thing that we all know is that there is no such thing as a perfect world. The best intentions”—he asks Marjorie for a word off-mike—“don’t always work out. And the academic theories most of the time when they go for a test run take a nose dive. We wish you much health and happiness,” Zaev concludes. “L’chaim.”

Ed has mixed feelings as he leads Miriam to the dance floor. Annoyance at Zaev’s rebuttal to his toast, but also a sense of relief. So the man got up, acted like a complete jerk. He didn’t come off well; he really wasn’t well spoken. Ed took it all with complete equilibrium. This was a wedding reception, after all, not a debate. He and Miriam dance to “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” The videographer trails them with his extension cords. “How’re you doing?” Ed asks Miriam.

“I can’t believe it’s going so fast,” she says.

“What?”

“The time, the day.”

It’s not going so fast, Ed thinks.

_____________

 

“Is there any coffee?” Rose is asking Sarah at the table.

“Or some tea,” Ilse says from her seat on the other side of Rose. “They have tea, do they not?” Ilse asks Rose conspiratorially. Rose looks at Ilse and finds that there is a bond between them.

“It’s coming around,” Sarah tells them.

“I am very tired,” Ilse tells Rose.

“I am exhausted,” Rose says.

“How did you like the rabbi’s sermon?” Ilse asks Rose.

“I don’t like to criticize,” Rose says in German.

“I feel this way too,” says Ilse. “Better to keep silent.” Ilse smiles down at the white orchid at her wrist. Rose tires of making conversation. After all, she and Ilse have little in common.

The circle dancing has begun again, fast and furious. The crowds hoist up the bride and groom in chairs. Miriam almost slides off her chair but catches herself just in time. The videographer and his assistant are standing on aluminum ladders to film aerial views of the crowd. Miriam and Jon ride around on their thrones. It is not like flying, more like riding horseback. On the ground, Marjorie says to Sarah, “You know, when Zaev and I got married I think they forgot to lift us in chairs.”

“Really?” Sarah asks.

“I think so. They just forgot about it.”

Sarah looks at the sweaty mass of Jon and Miriam’s friends, the ring of dark-suited boys around Jon, the lacy circle of girls surrounding Miriam. It is not at all like the wedding she and Ed had. When she and Ed entered the hall together all the guests at the tables stood up and applauded them. Then there was dancing, the fox trot, the cha-cha, the samba. It had been a very elegant wedding.

Ed comes up behind her. “The band wants to know—one more set?”

“OK,” Sarah says. Judy and Dan Passachoff come up to tell Sarah they have to slip out early. They have another wedding. “It was beautiful,” Judy kisses Sarah.

“One down, three to go,” Dan says, glancing over at Ben, Avi, and Yehudit who stand near the band mugging for the cameras.

“It’s a real milestone for you,” Judy tells Sarah.

“And for Jon and Miriam, too,” Sarah says.

After Judy and Dan slip out, Sarah looks at the dancers rushing by hand in hand, some more, some less graceful. She catches sight of Jon and Miriam in the middle, their flushed faces, Miriam’s pinned-up bustle trailing a little. What are they thinking at the center of those concentric circles? There is no way to know. They didn’t hear a thing their fathers said. They are surrounded by their relatives, yet they are completely oblivious. Yes, she thinks, this is love. The rest will be on video.

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