The room smelled like gefilte fish, and it reminded me of the synagogues I studied in for hours on Sabbath afternoons to please my father.
Long Reads is a bimonthly feature, showcasing long-form essays.
When I arrived at the synagogue for my father’s wedding on a snowy January night, I was directed to the reception hall where people were scattered in cliques: office mates, family, and friends. Uninterested-looking wait staff passed out appetizers: franks in a blanket, potato puffs, and chicken skewers. Music played, but I couldn’t tell if it was live or if the musician was just pantomiming playing the keyboard.
The atmosphere reminded me of every Bar Mitzvah I went to as a teenager in Monsey, New York, the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community where I was raised but hadn’t returned to in 10 years.
A small bar was set up in the back of the room. I got a Jack Daniels with a couple of small ice cubes.
I was there with my younger siblings Isaac and Naomi who had also left the fold. I’m the fourth of eight children. Five didn’t attend the wedding because of logistics, inclement weather, or just plain indifference that my father was remarrying. I didn’t want to attend either, but the guilt I would have felt if I didn’t show up was stronger than my ambivalence. My father’s guests from as far as Florida had made it to Port Washington, New York for the occasion. Some had even driven six hours through the blizzard. It made me question what kind of person I was. What kind of son doesn’t want to be at his father’s wedding? What kind of family doesn’t even show up? What qualities did my indifferent siblings and I overlook in him that his friends saw?
My father had always been like a long-lost relative who I didn’t truly know.
I craved his acceptance as a child and revered him for how successful he was in the corporate world, whereas most of the fathers in our community were rabbis. I emulated the hand gestures and facial expressions I saw him use when he talked on the phone to colleagues or clients. I understood the power of being in charge from listening to his authoritative tone. I wanted to be in charge when I got older, too.
My parents divorced when I was a teenager, and my father and I became inseparable. He took me out for dinner, we went bowling, and he picked me up early from school to go to Yankees games. This is what it’s like to have a father, I thought. When he asked me if I’d move in with him because my mother asked him to leave the house, I said yes. When my father called the police on Sabbath because he felt threatened by my mom after she tried to block him from leaving the house after an argument, I wanted to ask him why he was allowed to use the phone which is prohibited on Sabbath when I couldn’t, but instead, I comforted him.
“I didn’t do anything wrong, right?” he asked me.
“Right,” I said.
I sided with my father. My siblings hated me for it, and I hated them for siding with my mother. I started to feel like a pawn in my parents’ divorce. My mom kept her distance from me and didn’t try to persuade me to support her. But I became disillusioned when, months later, he attempted to put my mother in jail for signing one of his checks to buy food for her children. I asked him to drop the charges, which he ultimately did a few weeks later. Then I cut him from my life. All the affection and love I thought I’d received from him didn’t feel genuine anymore.
The swinging door to the kitchen in the wedding hall had opened, and my father walked out with his best man at his side. He looked skinnier than usual, but his olive skin and thick eyebrows were still prominent. He was clean shaven and wore a navy blue suit. The best man was tall, skinny, with a goofy smile, and a voice that reminded me of Ted Cruz. My father hugged Isaac and Naomi. He shook my hand and went in for a hug at the same time, our clenched-together hands getting in the way of a full hug, which was all right with me.
“I’m happy you’re here. Good to see you.”
“Good to see you, too,” I said, noticing his yarmulke, which annoyed me.
Growing up, some days he’d wear a yarmulke and other days he wouldn’t. Often I’d find receipts in his car from fast food joints that weren’t kosher. He’d turn a light on before the Sabbath was over. He wore jeans and polo shirts, yet he only allowed me to wear slacks and button-down shirts. Since my parents’ divorce, my father had become more comfortable revealing his inconsistencies and hypocrisy. As a child, I always felt that he was playing a part for the community, while he would have preferred to live a more secular life, and I wondered if he was doing the same thing on his wedding night, too.
I thought about sneaking away and leaving without saying goodbye, but that would have only exacerbated my guilt. Not seeing or talking to my dad over the years never assuaged my anxiety and guilt for avoiding him, for not returning his phone calls, for not being a better son.
One of the reasons I left the community was so I wouldn’t have to act and make believe I was a devout Jew. Wanting to live a life without limitations, at 16-years-old, I transferred from yeshiva high school to public school where, for the first time, I wasn’t told what I could eat, how to dress, and what music I could listen to.
Pulling me aside from the group that had formed around us in the reception hall, my father said, “I’d like to give you the honor of holding the ring for me."
“Thank you, but I’m not comfortable doing that.”
After so many years of being estranged, how could he have thought it was appropriate to ask me to participate in the ring ceremony?
“Okay,” he said in stride as if he’d anticipated it.
This caught me off guard, but I was relieved that my refusal wasn't a launch pad for his anger. My childhood home always shook when he yelled. He was then whisked away by a man in a suit. His friends knew about his family estrangement. They were protecting him from getting hurt and saving him from me. Maybe I should have agreed to hold the ring.
Cocktail hour ended. The music stopped. Only a few mothers and their children remained in the room. I didn’t see Isaac or Naomi, so I stood to the side of the reception hall sipping my Jack Daniels, hiding in the shadows. The best man entered the room with purpose and made a beeline in my direction.
“Your father is requesting your presence,” he said.
Who talked like that?
He led me to a room down the hallway filled with shelves of Hebrew books and men wearing black hats. The room smelled like gefilte fish, and it reminded me of the synagogues I studied in for hours on Sabbath afternoons to please my father. He had wanted me to become the greatest rabbi of my time because his scholarly pursuit was ripped from him by the birth of his children. The small paychecks he received from the yeshiva to study full time weren’t paying the bills. The head rabbi kicked him out and told him to get a job. I became a writer instead — one who writes to reconcile that he never became a great rabbi and that he’ll always be a disappointment to his father.
Everyone in the room watched as my father signed the ketubah, a marriage contract. I watched from the back of the room. I didn’t want to be seen out of fear that I would be pulled up front or asked to participate in rituals I didn’t believe in. A rabbi stood up, said a few words, and then kissed my father on each cheek. Seeing them exchange kisses made me jealous.
My father introduced my brother Isaac to the rabbi.
“Where’s your other son?” I heard the rabbi ask my dad.
He pointed to me. All heads turned in my direction, and I could feel their eyes land on me as if they expected me to do something. What? I didn’t know.
A stranger swooped into view with an eager smile stretched across his face.
“Your father would like you to walk him in for the badeken,” he said.
My fluency in the vernacular had waned considerably.
A black-hatter in the room translated for me: “Walk your father into the wedding hall to meet his bride,” he said with a bright smile, presenting me with a black leather yarmulke as if handing out a religious pamphlet in Times Square. I took it, folded it, and stuffed it into my back pocket. I resented my father’s friends for trying to involve me. When I was a child, I would ignore my needs and feelings for God or my rabbis. Being around my former community made me revert to that place of feeling cornered, hoping someone would save me.
Isaac and I escorted my father out of the room, our arms interlocked with his. I was surrounded by the people I grew up with in Monsey who judged and criticized my family when my parents divorced and when I left the fold to attend public school. The very people I despised. The very people my father complained about during the divorce who judged him for not praying three times a day and for working in Manhattan with the goyim. Why had he invited them?
They sang and danced backward toward the wedding hall so they could face my father. I balanced my glass of Jack Daniels in my left hand, taking long sips as we walked. I wondered if I were ruining their wedding pictures.
Watching from the wooden pews, my father and his bride stood across from each other under the canopy. His friends and the rabbi recited the traditional seven blessings and sang songs that reminded me of fasting on Yom Kippur. He rocked back and forth calmly, but with purpose as if he were praying at the Western Wall for a miracle. His eyes were closed.
What was he thinking about? Why more than half of his children skipped his wedding? Why I didn’t want to hold the ring for him?
His bride stood still, her face covered by her white veil. Short and slim, she was from Nepal and had converted to Judaism. They met on a rainy night in New York City, waiting for the bus. This would be her first marriage. I wondered if he would have more children. She looked 40-something; my father was 58.
Men and women sat separately and watched the couple closely. The bride circled my father seven times. They made blessings and took sips from glasses of wine. They exchanged rings. A plate covered by a white cloth materialized. My father smashed the plate with his foot. Cheers from the pews and yells of, “Mazel Tov, Mazel Tov!” filled the room. The men began dancing around my father, the women around the bride. The clapping and singing got louder as they continued out of the synagogue and into the hallway.
I sat in silence.
I felt sad that I didn’t want to clap and sing.
I looked outside the synagogue window and watched as the snow continued to fall.
Hiding in the hallway, the vibrations of celebratory music thumped against the walls as if I was in a nightclub. When I heard the music get louder, I knew that the door to the wedding hall had opened. I heard a man yell, “Isaac!” and immediately recognized the voice: one of my father’s closest friends, John. They studied in Israel together when they were young and searching for the meaning of life.
“Isaac!” John yelled again as he rounded the corner.
People from Monsey kept confusing me for my older brother Israel, my younger brother Isaac for me, and my younger sister Naomi for my older sister Miriam who lives in Texas with a husband and five children.
“Come and dance with your father,” John said.
“I just had surgery on my knee."
We stood across from each other in the hallway, squaring off. It had been over three months since I had surgery, but I was still in rehab, wearing a knee brace, wary of any twist or turn that could potentially cause another injury.
“You could walk next to him."
I didn't feel comfortable dancing or walking with my father. Nor being reprimanded by John.
“Your father gave you life," John said, eyes glaring through the lenses of his black horn-rimmed glasses.
“I know,” I said, feeling ashamed.
“He worked hard for you. The least you could do is dance with him. You don't want to regret this one day.”
This wasn’t the first time I had run away from my father and a sea of dancing men.
When I was 10, we went to our neighborhood synagogue to celebrate Simchas Torah, Celebration of the Torah, which takes place on the holiday of Sukkot. I stood to the side against the wall with my dad, watching the congregation dance in circles. One of our neighbors, Mr. Braun, who worked for Amway and continually tried to convince me to buy discounted boxes of tissues, came hopping over to me.
“Come dance,” he yelled excitedly.
I could smell the alcohol on his breath.
“No,” I said, trying my best to turn away.
I looked at my father for help, but he just watched as Mr. Braun grabbed at my hand. I pulled away and looked at my father again, wondering why he wasn't helping me. Mr. Braun finally got my hand and pulled me into the dance circle. Now I had no choice. I was locked hand in hand with other men, being dragged around the Torah
I pulled away from the tight grip of Mr. Braun, left the dance circle, rushed past my father, and ran out the door, crying.
The reception hall had now been turned over for dinner — round tables, plates and cutlery, flowers as the centerpiece. The music started up again — something in D-minor. Isaac, Naomi, and I stood in a circle and discussed whether we wanted to stay for dinner or leave early before the weather got worse. Before we could make a decision, the rabbi and a few other people gathered around us like they were thwarting our plot.
“I’m going to leave because I have to fly out early tomorrow morning,” Naomi said. She was a college student in South Carolina.
“Stay for the chicken,” the rabbi said, looking at Isaac and me. I was used to food and drinks being used as a bargaining tool in the Jewish community.
The chicken was dry.
After dinner was cleared, the music got louder, and the men wrangled each other and started to dance. The best man immediately sprang up out of his seat and made his way toward me.
“You missed the first dance, so how about the second one?”
I wasn’t surprised that my disappearance had spread to his friends. I explained to him my post-surgical knee situation.
“Can you at least sit near him?” he asked.
During the second dance, the groom sits on a chair in the middle of the dance floor, and the men entertain him with dancing, magic tricks, and acrobatics. The women do the same for the bride on the other side of the mechitza, a wooden partition to separate the men from the women. I didn’t want to embarrass my father by rejecting his friend’s request.
The best man grabbed a chair, walked to the dance floor, and put it next to my father. I sat.
“Are you having a good time?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m happy you’re here."
My father had never been a happy person. I knew him to be usually irritable or furious, so I didn’t know whether to believe him or not.
The best man pulled up another chair next to my father, and the bride sat down. He then got up and joined the other men, and danced in front of his wife. He jumped up and down with excitement. They exchanged an intimate smile. I got up and walked to the side of the dance floor, watching him celebrate like I’d never seen him do before. I thought about sneaking away and leaving without saying goodbye, but that would have only exacerbated my guilt. Not seeing or talking to my dad over the years never assuaged my anxiety and guilt for avoiding him, for not returning his phone calls, for not being a better son.
I stayed until the dancing calmed down, the music died, and the rear tables were filled with desserts. The wedding photographer was magically wrangling family members for pictures.
I was shuffled next to my father who was smiling and red in the face from dancing.
Perhaps he was happy. Perhaps he had rekindled a relationship with the community that once threw him out — a community where I knew I would never belong and had no interest in returning.
As for my father, I didn’t feel like there was anything to rekindle or even continue. Our relationship always had its limitations, but ruining wedding pictures didn’t have to be one of them.