Eden and I are in San Francisco, looking at Chagalls. It’s the summer of 2002, and there is a retrospective of the painter’s work at the city’s museum of modern art; we bought tickets in advance so we could fit the exhibition into our brief vacation. Now we are walking through wide rooms, meeting canvas after canvas. Eden wanted to spring for the headphones, so we’re hearing an actor’s voice, too, as he gives bits of context and interpretation. But no audio tour-guide is required to see that brides are all over Chagall’s work. Not just women, but women in white gowns, with silky trains so long it seems many of the female figures have no legs—they fly instead of walk, trailing their bridal finery through purplish skies, usually clutched by a groom. As varied as the landscapes are in these teeming compositions, the addition of an embracing bridal pair is like a jubilant tic in Chagall—it recurs in painting after painting. It’s an earthbound element—just a couple of village kids tying the knot—but it’s also oddly divine, because the couples defy gravity so easily.
Even if the married couples in his paintings are sometimes granted supernatural powers of flight and flexibility, Chagall’s work suggests that marriage is part of the natural order of things. The majority of brides in Chagall, buxom and red-cheeked, seem excited to be doing what their mothers and grandmothers did: taking a young husband, becoming part of a chain of tradition rooted in centuries of Jewish and Eastern European culture. I usually find the bridal imagery in Chagall both profound and a bit treacly; it’s colorful, hopeful, and obsolete. There is this weird, intriguing blend of nostalgia and eroticism. I’ve thought this before when I’ve come across his work—Chagall has a wonderful sense of color and composition, but is he just the nice Jewish boy who could paint pretty colors?
I was 28 years old, unmarried, when we flew to San Francisco and looked at the Chagalls. At that time in my life, between 2001 and 2003, I worked for a newspaper company in midtown Manhattan. The company published several free weeklies; the papers came out every Wednesday, appearing in inky stacks in the lobbies of apartment buildings, stuffed into creaky, graffiti-stained metal boxes that stood like corrupted crossing guards on Upper West and East Side street corners. These free neighborhood newspapers were trucked to their various destinations across Manhattan by a wispy, profane eighty-year-old named Sal, a salty native of Brooklyn who claimed to have been a promising minor league ballplayer long ago. Although I’d introduced myself to him a few times, Sal had no idea what my name was or what I did at the company; still, he was always more than happy to talk with me (or anyone else in the office) about his life, past or present. He was gregarious, one of those people who never seemed distressed about anything—although his job, as I imagined it, was full of hellish midnight odysseys through Manhattan in a rusty van laden with unwanted newspapers and ex-con temp-workers, arms covered with bluish homemade tattoos.
One day without warning Sal told me a gross story about his girlfriend’s dog. (I didn’t know he had a girlfriend before he told me about her dog, but it made sense that Sal, with his gold chains and verbal brio, was an actively dating senior citizen.) Sal was leaning with his arms crossed over the low wall of my desk space, dark eyes filling up the twin screens of his old man’s thick eyeglasses, lips pulled back from yellow dentures in a smile. “I was taking my girlfriend’s dog for a walk,” Sal reported. “She lives up in Astoria, in Queens, you know, that’s getting to be kind of a nice neighborhood. And in the middle of this walk, the fuckin dog squats on the sidewalk, starts taking this shit, you should have seen this, it was huge! While the dog is shitting, this nice young couple walks by, an’ they’re staring, y’know, they’re horrified by my girlfriend’s dog. They can’t believe there’s dog shit in their nice fuckin neighborhood! An’ I started laughing!”
In San Francisco, Eden and I are standing in front of Chagall’s “A Midnight Summer Dream,” oil on canvas, 1939. There is a bride close to the center of the painting, and she’s nearly as tall as the canvas. Her expression is impassive—she almost looks drowsy or drugged, but more than anything she seems to be summoning great patience. Her gown is white. There is a lacy trace in the fabric near her wrist, and a wedding band on her middle finger. She’s holding a blue fan near her hip.
A sort of groom holds the bride in his arms. The groom is not ordinary: he has a donkey’s head, with the suggestion of candy-striped horns. His giant eye is leering; there’s a rough hint of teeth between his mulish lips. His hand is not clutching but caressing, a bit too much wiggle in his fingers, something obsequious about it.
I’m troubled by the painting. The audio guide’s voice breaks in through my headphones, warning me not to conflate Chagall’s painting with Shakespeare’s play. The title is slightly different, the voice points out. The guide then urges us to notice how the bride is holding her blue fan: it’s covering the donkey’s crotch, “perhaps cooling his ardor,” says the voice. Eden and I both laugh at this. We exchange a look and move on to the next painting, still smiling.
But the painting with the donkey-headed groom defies comfortable quaintness. There’s no village scene, no sense of human community. The mule, in his wrinkled brown suit, may be an interloper, the creature who broke up the wedding and tempted the bride away. He may be an exotic stranger from outside the shtetl. Perhaps most disturbing of all, the mule-headed man might indeed be the bride’s husband, a groom transformed by marriage into a pleading ass, unfamiliar even to himself. In the summer of 2002, Eden and I are not yet married. Unlike most of Chagall’s work, “A Midnight Summer Dream” seems to counsel against marriage.
Art is beautiful and it’s rude; like old Sal, it’s more than willing to tell dirty stories that we may not want to hear.
And I think that’s why it can be difficult to pass up audio guides when they’re available at museums. It’s reassuring to let those headphones settle over our ears so we can listen to someone else’s sense of what a painting is trying to tell us. That way we don’t have to confront what we don’t know about a piece of art.
It would also be useful for me, on certain occasions, to have an audio guide for Jewish marriage and family life, a special headset I could wear whenever my ignorance of tradition (or my lack of common sense) becomes too burdensome. I could adjust the headphones until the plastic band tightened across my pate where a kipa ought to go. I could punch in a code number that corresponded to a particular scenario, and the guide, with his modulated theatrical timbre, would offer insights and advice inflected by centuries of Jewish wisdom.
In a sense, this is a vision of what it’s like to grow up in an observant Jewish family; tradition to some extent dictates what to do, say, even think at a particular time of year, on a particular day of the week. Any family, Jewish or otherwise, that regularly “prays together”—they are plugged into a current, a pre-made manner of participating in a larger circle of people as part of a temple, a church, a community. But my family wasn’t like that. My parents generated very little Judaism in our household. Tradition was pain for them, both of them. So what they gave each of their children was a bar or bat mitzvah and a whole lot of choices.
Chagall’s paintings, by and large, are images of real, planted-in-the-soil purpose. That’s on my mind as Eden and I fly from San Francisco back to New York: I think of the characters in those colorful paintings, how they belong in the vibrant settings that contain them.
The next day I return to my dead-end job working for a newspaper nobody reads.
Some years before I moved to New York, my older brother and his wife Becky lived with their kids in a small Manhattan apartment not far from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Steve was attending rabbinical school. It was still hard to get used to the idea of my brother becoming a rabbi, but that was what he’d chosen to do.
I was living in California at the time. Whenever I called long-distance from the West Coast, Becky would pick up in New York and tell me, “Bri, you have to meet the babysitter.” I learned that their babysitter’s name was Eden. I understood that my sister-in-law wanted me to find a nice Jewish girl, but I was surprised that Becky continued to insist on the match even though this babysitter and I lived on opposite coasts. At my sister-in-law’s insistence, I called Eden on the phone during a trip to the East Coast. We didn’t meet face to face, but during our conversation I learned two appealing things. The first was that Eden had a pleasant voice—a voice I wanted to keep hearing. The second was that Eden, an English major in college, was a modern dancer. That meant she was creative and athletic. But I assumed that, like most creative and athletic women I knew, she also had a boyfriend of some kind.
I didn’t speak to her again for another four years. In the fall of 2000, I moved back east and settled in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood called Park Slope. Purely by accident, I chose an apartment that was a ten-minute walk from where Eden lived at the time; my sister-in-law discovered this somehow, and she wouldn’t let up: Bri, you have to meet her. You’re neighbors! This helped me get over my aversion to the set-up—I convinced myself that meeting Eden was about Christian neighborliness, not Jewish matchmaking.
We met for the first time at Ozzie’s coffee house in Park Slope, Brooklyn—a good choice for a chaste meeting place. Ozzie’s is well lit, filled with the homey odor of roasted coffee beans. A wall of enormous windows looks out onto the street. Inside, young children crawl and play on beat-up couches while their parents guzzle fresh-roasted java, the unsung pillar of American childcare, the sweet essential fuel powering parents through times of sheer exhaustion. Ozzie’s coffee house is more a tribute to the results of romance—kids, threadbare furniture, caffeine—than to romance itself. And yet while it wasn’t a likely setting for a memorable date, this is where I first saw my wife.
It was a winter night. Eden hadn’t yet taken off her coat; the scarf around her neck added to my sense that she was bundled up, dressed for practical purposes, not trying to impress anyone. This was something of a relief for me. When we sat down with our cups of coffee, I could see that Eden was young and beautiful. I noticed—I couldn’t help noticing—her large, dark eyes, her delicate neck. Eden’s beauty didn’t trouble me, though, the way it would have if I’d thought we were on a date. This amounted to a moment of grace for me: we chatted away about books and dance and Brooklyn as though there was nothing at stake, as if no underground shtetl machinery was turning its gears to bring us together. I liked her. I was glad to know this person was in my neighborhood. She was not the aggressively hip Bohemian I’d expected; she was quiet, thoughtful, a little goofy. Eden had a Chaplinesque way of using her dark eyes to express surprise or emphasis. I’d presumed a ballerina; instead, here was this understated comedian.
While I’m mildly embarrassed by the family intervention—the old shtetl spirit—that helped Eden and I begin our relationship, there has always been a part of me that was ready to subscribe to this antiquated idea of Jewish matchmaking. I am, after all, a Jew. There is comfort in the notion that people you trust might help you find a suitable mate, which is akin to finding or recognizing a part of yourself—maybe a part of yourself that’s missing. We tend to think that this sort of searching involves breaking away from parentage and personal history to transcend the givens of our lives. But when the givens are distressed and ambiguous—as my immediate family’s Jewish identity surely was—then maybe we’re more likely to reach back for different elements of our heritage, examine them, value them. Eventually Eden and I were married in the same temple that my brother and Becky were married in, the temple in downtown Gloucester where Eden went to Hebrew school as a child. In a world of vanishing Jews, we became a new Jewish couple.
By the time Eden and I met, our broader culture had become innovatively alert to the possibilities of matchmaking. More and more people, it seemed, were being set up or connected by online networks and dating services. I would read articles about speed-dating and wonder what it would feel like to be serially scored by several single women in the span of an hour or so. Ultimately, my matchmaking experience was much less innovative, less instant, but still I relied on a network. Now, for me, the match that led to my marriage evokes the joyous imagery of Chagall. It tells a story about continuity and tradition.
I had to take the N train from Brooklyn every weekday to get to the newspaper company’s offices in Manhattan. One morning, as the N crawled up out of its subterranean hole onto the Manhattan Bridge, I realized that a coworker of mine was on the same train, standing just a few feet away. I had no particular desire to speak to this person—the truth is I would’ve preferred to avoid him—but before I could look away we made eye contact. Now we had to talk.
As the N train squeaked along above the glittering, almost clean-seeming East River, we exchanged pleasantries. I steeled myself for an awkward conversation. This coworker of mine was the star of the newspaper’s ad sales department, a fast-talking man with a boy’s face, a gap between his front teeth, and long hair that fell to the base of his neck. Through the office rumor-mill, I’d heard that he had an open marriage and regularly exercised the benefits. Indeed one of the first things I’d learned about the salesman, several months back, was that he was having an affair with a pretty young woman in the accounting department. “He’s married, and she’s engaged—it’s kind of her last fling,” the managing editor told me matter-of-factly during my first week on the job. “You don’t need to know this, of course, but you might as well. Everyone else does.”
Now here I was, face-to-face with the pudgy office Lothario. “Where do you live?” he asked, as the train groaned and swayed. “Okay, yeah, I’ve seen you around there. You live with your girlfriend? What’s her name, again?”
“Eden,” I told him, as a quiet but insistent alarm went off somewhere in my mind.
“How long you been with her?”
“Two years,” I said. Then, thinking (despite all evidence to the contrary) that it might ward him off, I added, “We’re thinking about getting married.”
“That’s great!” the salesman said. “Good for you. When?”
“We don’t know,” I admitted. “We’re thinking about it. We talk about it.”
“Look,” the salesman said, “don’t waste too much time thinking and talking about it. Get married, you know? I mean, you’re never totally ready. But then you get married, and it’s great. It’s the same with kids. You can’t know what it’s going to be like before you do it; if it’s something you want, though, trust yourself. Getting married and having kids, those are the best things I’ve done. I love my wife. It would have been stupid not to get married when we did, you know? You have doubts and reservations, and that’s natural, but you can’t worry about that stuff. You have to live.”
How might Chagall have painted my randy, earnest, loving co-worker? Was this happy husband an earthbound mule or a passionate bridegroom, taking flight? How are tradition and commitment tied together—by a ring? A ritual?
On the day Eden and I were married, as our wedding guests began to arrive, a trio of musicians stood together at the front of the temple sanctuary, to one side of the white wedding canopy. A tall young man with a red beard strummed a stand-up bass; a woman with thick chestnut hair played violin; another woman, black-haired and slight, cradled an accordion in her arms as though dandling a baby. The trio’s music was lilting, playful and poignant—klezmer music, but soft, mostly strings, no loud blasts of trombone, no loony forays of a clarinet. The majority of our guests, as they slid into the temple’s old wooden pews to take their seats, would have recognized the music as Jewish without remembering the word klezmer. As the members of our wedding party began to walk down the aisle, the trio played old airs from Eastern Europe that echoed strains from shtetl weddings a century or more before. I watched my parents walk ahead of me down the aisle, arm in arm; I could feel my heart beating hard as I entered the sanctuary, following in the footsteps of my mother and father. Everyone was looking at me, but I didn’t know where to look. I could barely feel my feet. The new shoes I wore, soles still smooth, made the temple floor feel like a frictionless oil slick. But the music drew me forward, helped me keep my balance, and soon I stood under the wedding canopy, listening to the song, watching Eden walk toward me in her gown. After we said our vows, exchanged rings, kissed—and after I stamped my foot down on a napkin-wrapped lightbulb—the musicians broke into a celebratory up-tempo song. The music helped give our feelings a form. People cheered and sang mazel tov as Eden and I made our way to the rear of the sanctuary. But this hint of raucousness was subdued and soft compared to the performance of the full wedding band.
Our reception was at a seaside Elks Club with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on to the Atlantic Ocean. The view was astounding; the space itself, though, was plain, its most notable visual detail an old elk’s head on the wall near the kitchen door. Our caterer had suggested that we drape peyes—the long sidelocks of hair worn by Hasidic Jews—over the elk’s furry ears, but we never found the time or the materials to pull this off. Instead, the unadorned elk’s head looked down on the far end of the dance floor, where the band was just beginning to play.
An hour earlier, at the temple, the trio of musicians had been demure, even solemn. But when they joined with their band mates to play our reception, the performance of their full septet was radically different. The band started out in klezmer mode, but this time the driving sound of the trombone gave the music an earthy, comic quality. The accordionist got everyone out on the floor to dance the hora, and for several minutes our wedding reception resembled the Jewish weddings I’d gone to as a child—resembled my brother’s wedding too, as people danced in a circle, my family, Eden’s family, our friends all wrapping around each other in that boisterous round arrangement.
Two chairs were brought forth. As soon as Eden and I sat down, we were lifted up high and flying like the village youths imagined by Chagall, held aloft by friends, raised and bounced until our heads were bobbing close to the ceiling beams.
In the space of three hours the band played polished versions of “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” by the Ramones, “Beast of Burden” by the Rolling Stones, and “If Not For You” by Bob Dylan, in addition to Yiddish folk tunes with titles like “Rumanye,” “Grine Kuzine” and “Zlatopol.” It was a confluence of popular music from two different centuries, and hearing the different types of song side by side—Mick Jagger arm-in-arm with Isaac Bashevis Singer, so to speak—allowed me to hear the spirit of rock in old Jewish music. The Yiddish songs were about love and longing, the pleasures and pains of commitment, the sorrow of understanding that the past was gone. That day, my wedding day, I heard more yearning and more blues in klezmer music than I’d ever recognized before. For the first time I understood that the yearning had always been there in the old music, when it was played right.
The name of our wedding band, Golem, references a medieval Jewish legend about a monstrous creature fashioned from clay. According to this legend, the golem was sculpted by a rabbi near the city of Prague, brought to life when a scrap of parchment bearing God’s name was placed in its mouth; the clay monster’s mission was to protect Prague’s Jews from the pogroms and pillaging stirred up by a cruelly anti-Semitic ruler. The golem, a cross between Superman and Frankenstein, shielded an entire community of Jews and helped them preserve their way of life in the face of violent bigotry. Or so the story goes. Because of this, the myth of the golem, ancient and idiosyncratic, has had a special resonance for contemporary Jews in the decades after the Holocaust. The mysterious monster has undergone many literary and pop-culture resurrections in recent years, most notably in Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. (And that title is no misnomer, in case you’re wondering—the force with which Chabon’s book reanimates the old Jewish myth of the golem is truly amazing.)
During our wedding reception, a number of my male friends came up to me and asked about the accordionist who was leading the band. Her accordion was low-slung; she kept the instrument down near her hips, and she shook and swayed her body with purpose as she played. Until I saw the band Golem, I had no interest in accordions. As musical instruments go, the accordion seemed awkward, unwieldy and needlessly complicated—plus the instrument’s voice seemed a bit, well, nasal. Yet Golem’s accordionist, as she shook her hips and belted out Yiddish lyrics, infused her instrument with sex appeal. The violinist, too—my friends wanted to know about her. She was attractive. She was talented. And it wasn’t just the women in the band; the lead singer, a scruffy young man with a partly-unbuttoned ruffled tuxedo shirt, caught more than one woman’s eye that day.
Golem may seem like a strange name for a wedding band—even a Jewish one—because the clay monster-man from the folktale is a reminder of pogroms and persecution. But then Golem is a strange band. They’re a collective of skilled performers whose work strikes me as original and new even though I know every song they claim as their own is old, well-worn, traditional. I have their oeuvre on my computer; at the touch of a button they can take me back 200 years. And listening to Golem feels like traveling back in time. But their music is also immediate, even urgent.
The band Golem is working Chagall’s side of the street, I know, but like the painter they can’t be comfortably contained by the nostalgic boundaries of the old, idealized shtetl. There’s something more there.
When your brother is a rabbi, you may find that your own wedding is a bit more Jewish than you expected it to be. You may find, for instance, that you and your betrothed are shopping for a ketuba—a traditional Jewish wedding contract, inked and illuminated by a professional calligrapher. You might buy one, and the text of it might read, in Hebrew, something along these lines: “As her loving husband you must provide for her maintenance.” Years later, you might look back on the whole thing and think, What a wonderful, meaningful event in my life and my partner’s life. The dancing, the family blessings, the rituals, the party. At the same time, in completely contradictory fashion, you might look back and also think, What an odd thing, that we agreed to do all that, that we went out and bought this ketuba, which suggests that men need to protect, that women need to serve, and that the first source of wisdom for our relationship comes not from the ongoing dialogue we build but from the tradition we barely practice in our everyday lives.
Eden and I had a relatively old-fashioned Jewish ceremony, even though neither one of us was an observant Jew. Some of our reasons for choosing this sort of ceremony are easy to name: we wanted my brother to officiate, and that meant leaning more toward tradition than we might have otherwise; the temple where we were married, Eden’s hometown temple, was a Conservative shul with certain requirements (all men were asked to cover their heads with a kipa inside the sanctuary, for instance); I’d grown up attending my cousins’ Jewish weddings and had a lot of affection—maybe nostalgia, too—for the huppah, the smashed glass, the dance of lifted chairs. I was a sort of amateur devotee of Jewish weddings, and had a hard time thinking of ways to improve on the traditions I’d been moved by so often in the past.
I suspect that a number of our friends found our wedding surprisingly—even disappointingly—traditional. As I’ve mentioned, Eden and I never made Jewish observance a very large part of our lives in New York, so it’s understandable that some of the wedding guests who made the trip from the city were taken aback by the kipa requirement, the klezmer music, the kosher food. When I look back on that weekend, even I’m surprised by the extent to which Yiddish and Hebrew informed the rhythms of the formal and informal festivities. I’d like to think that everyone enjoyed taking a turn at the traditional that day, that the sign next to the sanctuary door—We ask that all men cover their heads out of respect for the Jewish tradition—was innocuous and couldn’t possibly have rubbed anyone the wrong way. But of course it probably did. I’ve been to Catholic masses before, but I’ve never taken communion. Had no interest, didn’t want to, wasn’t even sure what the ritual meant. We are not used to trying on and taking off the symbols of a tradition. And our discomfort in such moments is itself a signal that tradition can still play a powerful role in our thinking.
Two summers after we got married, Eden had the opportunity to tour through parts of Eastern Europe with a modern dance company she’d been working with for several years. I decided to tag along on the trip. Eden and I were both excited: we could visit our friends Angharad and David in Berlin, and take a week or so at the end of the tour for a vacation. Our travels through Eastern Europe two years after Eden and I were married gave me some insight as to why our wedding band chose to call themselves by the name of a legendary protector of embattled Jews. Perhaps the members of Golem think of themselves as reviving and transmitting aspects of a fragile, often forgotten culture. The sexual charisma of the band, the pleasure they take in playing their music, suggests a vision of Jewish marriage, culture and history that skirts narratives of victimization and hardship, and concentrates instead on vigorous living. When Golem plays a song from the Yiddish folk canon, their performance is about the humanity of Jews. They are reminding us that Jews of the shtetl were more than funny farmers with daughters to marry off—these ancestral Jews drank, danced with abandon, passionately fucked and feasted when they were able. Even the most pious among them were human beings, and the traditions of the Jewish wedding, klezmer music very much included, provided (still provide) a frame for that humanity.
Usually Chagall depicts the marital embrace as an airborne dance that transcends the niggling details of domestic life. He offers Judaism as a brand of secular, somehow sexy farming. He can be sickly sweet about this stuff. Lots of kissing in the airspace above the chicken coop.
But then there is the painting with the mannish mule, the one Eden and I saw in San Francisco. It suggests that tradition and ritual are not enough. And at the Art Institute of Chicago, aside from the famous cerulean windows that Chagall installed, there is a canvas of his that is nearly all white. The white canvas is beautiful and desolate. It is not comforting to look at, not something that seduces us with color; it is about devastation, erasure. The village is bare. The sthetl is dying. There is no comfort of a Jewish past that can give us succor in the present. Looking at this painting, we yearn for the other Chagall, the celebratory, bride-crazy Chagall, to tell us, “Don’t worry! Just look closer—you’ll see happy villagers, horse-groomers, a regular Jewish pastoral. The essence of the Jewish family.” But Chagall has taken the folk out of the tale in this painting. The emptiness haunts us. Somehow, we have to define for ourselves what and who we are. The artist isn’t going to do it for us; he never meant to do that in the first place.
Golem, Jewish wedding band extraordinaire, seems to tell us with their songs that every generation must remember the Jewish past in their own way. By traveling with their music, playing their Yiddish songs in as many different places as possible, Golem disseminates the idea that Jewish culture can still live in a contemporary world strewn with memorials and museums devoted to the Holocaust. Such memorials do the crucial work of helping us remember the millions who died in the ovens that spread their cancerous smoke across Eastern Europe in the middle of the twentieth century. Golem asks: Is that enough? What parts of that culture are still alive? If we press our lips to the earth, speak the old tongue with enough zeal, what might rise up and move to the sound?