by Daniel Meltz (New York, NY)
Before the reception started, the photographer was snapping pictures of the bride. He knew not to talk to her. He waved and pointed in different directions to show her where to stand. He smiled nicely. He wore a yarmulke. The bride was obliging, a cheerful, dark-eyed beauty in snowy crinoline, sleeves to the wrist, neckline to the neck, holding a tea-rose bouquet. No photos with the groom. Just Shonnie alone. Then a bunch more with her and her brothers, one on either side of her. Then the brothers one by one. Then a few more with Shonnie and her handsomely bearded father, as she gestured into his hands, rapidly making shapes with her fingers, explaining what was happening with the photographer and the direction he should face in. They were a jolly group, the three grown kids and their father, silently clutching each other and beaming with happiness. The only sounds were the irregular pops and clicks from their mouths as they signed to each other, and the slooshy snaps of the camera.
This was right before the hullabaloo of Shonnie and Elias’s wedding reception.
It’s to be expected that a Chasidic wedding will be a joyous shebang, a blowout of noisy commotion, full of reckless hopping and raucous chanting and klutzy dancing around in circles under an atmosphere of warmth and festivity that many only see on the news when the Super Bowl winners come home with a trophy and the city goes wild. Men (in black) and women (in wigs) celebrate separately, divided by opaque screens, adding to the ruckus of butting and charging on the men’s side of the wall.
Elias and Shonnie’s Chasidic wedding in Bnei Brak, Israel, was a joyous shebang in a way I’d never seen before. A shebang with the usual tootling of a klezmer quartet and a chorus of rollicking masculine hoots and some boisterous off-key prayerbook singing, but with pockets of silence as well, whole tablesful of no one talking, only hands flip-flopping and slapping and punching in ASL and Hebrew Sign.
Elias is deaf and his new bride, Shonnie, the dark-eyed beauty posing for photos, is deaf as well and slowly going blind. Her brothers―goodlooking 25-year-old identical twins, in identical retro eyeglasses, one in a hat, one in a yarmulke, one on either side of her―have the same condition their sister has: Usher syndrome. And their father, mother, and maternal grandmother have already been deaf-blind for decades as a result of the same hereditary accident.
Elias was deaf from birth, with no risk of blindness. He’d been in an unfamiliar state of calm since meeting Shonnie―since first setting eyes on her―a few months earlier. He’d traveled from Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Bnei Brak to meet her, after the matchmaker set up the visit. Elias had known about Shonnie’s availability for marriage for more than ten years but hadn’t wanted to pursue the match (scrupulously managed by the matchmaker) because the prospect of life with a woman who would likely end up blind (even though they had their deafness in common) seemed daunting to someone who’d been daunted all his life. But after all those additional years of loneliness, and all those additional years of anxiety about the loneliness in his future―an anxiety that never allowed him to truly feel calm―Elias thought he’d give it a try when the matchmaker reintroduced the prospect, letting him know that Shonnie had never married in the interim.
Chasidic matches often lead to official engagements after just one date. In the old days, Elias told me, the bride and groom actually met at the altar, after no dates at all. I had known about arrangements like this from Fiddler on the Roof without realizing it could be literally true. Elias told me that traditions had loosened up over the years and that two or three dates were allowed now before engagements were made official. (Chasidic engagements, in any case, are short.) In Elias’s case, he met with Shonnie five times in Bnei Brak. I think the matchmaker cut him some slack because of his disability and because he’d traveled so far for this monumental date. Shonnie was a new kind of experience for him, he would explain to me later. So sweet, so modest, so pleasant, so gentle. And something else (his signs could be fuzzy) about her cleanliness or fairness or neatness or kindness. He seemed to be hinting at what made her unique, unlike anyone he’d ever met. He told me straightforwardly, in any event, that after meeting Shonnie for the first time, he knew he could be happy with her. Sometimes this happens―not just in the movies―and a couple is happy together forever. So in theory one date did the trick. But he went back four times. He enjoyed Shonnie’s company. He wanted to see her as much as he could before flying back to Brooklyn. They’d been Skyping ever since, for the three and a half months leading up to the wedding, getting to know each other more deeply over the internet, adjusting to each other’s language―American vs. Hebrew sign. When Elias and I last met in New York during that interim period, he told me he finally knew what the word love meant.
Regardless of who was getting married that day, there would’ve been all kinds of heavy-duty Jewish joy to appreciate: joy in the resourceful match of the matchmaker, joy in the moonlit chuppah that went up after the rain cleared out, joy in the random eruptions of mazel tov, in the happy back slaps, the joining of the families, the wail of the clarinet, the wedding’s taking place in Eretz Yisroel, the 300 years of Chasidic customs and costumes on display.
But it was the signing that brought the wedding its almost mystical jubilation. About a quarter of the 200 guests couldn’t hear (mostly on the bride’s side―except for Elias and his two deaf friends, an older married Christian couple), so there was sign language flying all over the giant reception room, in a setting unaccustomed to any sign at all. Because no one signs in the Chasidic community. And no one in Elias’s family knows sign either. He himself didn’t learn sign until he was 21. Plus sign―with its gestural sensuality and its links to a freewheeling, liberal culture―seemed out of place among the ultraconservative Chasidim. And Elias’s subdivision of Satmar Chasidism is about as ultraconservative as they come.
On top of all this, six or seven of the deaf guests were signing into the hands of six or seven of the blind-deaf guests, pulling fists and jabbing fingers to communicate. Little architectures of intimacy:
glad you’re here
friend of the bride
father of the groom
I’m putting your hand on the back of this chair
they’re taking more pictures
And back again to the foreground and the more spectacular conversations, deaf to deaf. All kinds of uninhibited hand-cascading enthusiasms chopping and swiping around the room, an emphatic chaos of silent schmoozes describing family connections, the traffic getting over here, the setting of the ceremony (up on the roof), the timing of the ceremony (any minute now), and who was hearing and who was deaf and who couldn’t see and who was both.
Then back to the smaller-scale deaf-blind exchanges about the whereabouts of the bathrooms and the arrangement of the chicken dinner on the plate put down in front of you.
I’d gotten to the catering hall early, after a ride through Tel Aviv (I’d never been to Israel before), watching undistinguished houses pass (as if sliced from a Play-Doh Fun Factory), interrupted by jazzy skyscrapers. I watched crowds of convivial sabras pass and crowds of convivial black-hatted Chasidic people. There was a slow progression from the one population to the other as I traveled from secular Tel Aviv to the latter-day shtetl of Bnei Brak, as the former gradually got off the bus and the latter gradually got on. (Bnei Brak, by the way, is in the top ten of the most densely populated cities on the planet.) There were banyan trees as dense as jungles and silk floss trees with mace-like spikes along the route―specimens alien to the broken-antenna-like trees on my block in Manhattan―while Israeli pop music twangled in the cab, with its lusty singing around the note about the melancholy of bygone childhood, suggesting the final goodbye to Elias’s childhood.
Not that Elias was childlike. He’d spent the last fifteen years keeping inventory in the Diamond District on West 47th Street, a decent gig for a deaf person with an incomplete education. (Deaf people have a low employment rate.) And he owned a townhouse apartment in Monsey, New York which he sublet to another Satmar for supplemental income. But he was less than completely comfortable in his own culture due to the weak communication, and much less completely comfortable in the wider culture because of his sect’s discomfort with the modern world and his family’s hovering concern for his welfare. So it wasn’t until now, really, at age 42, that he seemed fully grown up. (Which was partly due to the influence of Shonnie and partly due to his surprising good luck in finding an Orthodox Jewish therapist who knew how to sign and lived the same traditions. “Finally,” Elias told me. “Someone who understands me.” In fact, it might’ve been the therapist who put Elias in touch with the loneliness that in turn made him reconsider the prospect of marrying Shonnie.)
Meantime, I wasn’t sure I’d come to the right place. Google Street View had shown me a barracks-like building at this spot, and here I was stepping onto the plaza of a grandly lit-up ceremonial hall with shtreimel-wearing gents smoking cigarettes and fiddling with their smartphones. (A shtreimel is a high fur hat in the shape of the cylinder box it’s stored in. Costing as much as $3000, often made of mink, it’s worn by men from various Chasidic sects on holidays and special occasions. A friend of mine calls it the floor polisher.) There was lots of coming and going across the plaza, everyone dressed alike, in black suits and black hats and maxi dresses and hats with bows and, again, the shtreimels. This had to be the place.
Inside the hall, I was still a bit doubtful. Where were the deaf people? Where was Elias? It wasn’t that early. I poked my head into a few of the celebration rooms. It looked like a couple of weddings and a bar mitzvah were in the works. I noticed that there were papers with names printed on them attached to each door, and one of the signs read Roth in Yiddish. Elias’s last name. Good.
There were two 60ish women signing in the lobby, I realized, puffing and plosiving and yukking it up. They didn’t look Chasidic―no wigs, no hats―and one of them wore leggings. They seemed easy to approach.
“Excuse me,” I signed. “You here for the wedding?”
They both signed yes with big welcoming smiles (it’s always fun for signers to meet a stranger who knows sign too), so we chatted a bit. One of them was five feet tall with a boyish haircut. The other was blond with oversized glasses and uninhibited gestures. They lived in the area, were lifelong friends, looked forward to the wedding, had I seen the bride yet? No, I signed, but I was eager to. We exchanged some background, comfortably conversing, a solid reassurance that I’d have a good time tonight. They asked if I had kids. I signed that I didn’t. I signed I was gay. The one with the glasses understood the ASL sign for gay and the short one didn’t. The one explained to the other by fingerspelling the word, G-A-Y. The other one shrugged, not comprehending. Lots more smiling. It wasn’t until later that I realized they’d been hired as interpreters for the deaf-blind guests, when I saw them in action, during the wedding ceremony up on the roof, under the starlit chuppah, acting as interpreters of the interpreters: While a third interpreter―a hearing woman―stood at the edge of the altar, translating the Hebrew marriage blessings for the deaf guests who could see (plenty of king of the universes and Lord our Gods and blessed art thous), these two deaf women, the local best friends, put their hands, in turn, in the hands of the deaf-blind women (the bride’s mother and grandmother) and repeated the signs of the interpreter on the altar.
But as I was saying. Before the reception. The specialized interpreters and I stepped into the Roth room where the photographer was sweetly snapping pictures of the bride and her family on the men’s side of the hall. The interpreter’s interpreters grinned at each other, then at me, meaning Isn’t the bride magnificent? Then they introduced themselves to the bride’s deaf-blind mother and deaf-blind grandmother whose pictures weren’t being taken yet.
Elias’s mother hurried in, on agitated tiptoe. I recognized her although I’d only met her once twenty years ago. She was tall like Elias, in a drab turban, with a long face and a forward tilt. Without taking me in, she asked, “Where is the women’s?” (“Vair is da vimminz?”) meaning where was the cordoned-off section for the female guests. I pointed over the plastic dividers. “It’s right over there.” (Wasn’t it obvious?) She hurried away. Pre-wedding jitters, I thought. I’d never seen a mother of the groom wear orthopedic shoes before. She hadn’t even glanced at the scene of the picture taking.
Was this evidence of a culture clash: the hyperbolic adherence to Jewish law that characterized the groom’s family vs. the more relaxed approach of the bride’s? Kosher kitchen, Sabbath observance, wigs for the wives―check, check, check. The family of the bride was all over those details. But the bride wasn’t Chasidic. Some of her people―including her brothers―traveled for pleasure. None of the men on her side wore payos. And a couple of the men wore no head coverings at all, not even yarmulkes, something you’d never see on Elias’s side. Did this dichotomy inform Mrs. Roth’s apparent indifference to the picture taking?
The photo session broke up. There was no next item on the agenda.
(Oh, and Mrs. Roth’s pronunciation. “Vair is da vimminz?” Though she was born in Brooklyn, her first language was Yiddish―as was true of pretty much every Chasid―and the old-country eastern European accent came along with it.)
Now it was in fact getting late, and pretty much no one was here yet. I ambled around with my hands behind my back, trying to appear unselfconscious. I peeked around the divider. There were many more women on that side than there were men on this side. Hats matched dresses―black, blue, brown, white. Many had glitter. The women were talking in threes and fours, some sitting, some standing, some with their arms across the back of a chair. Then a flurry of something up at the front. More picture taking, I saw, as Shonnie reappeared on the women’s side for an additional photography shoot with what looked like women friends and women cousins. Then some men stepped into the pictures. Seemed odd to see men on the women’s side. I ambled back to the side I belonged on.
Elias hurried in on the men’s side. It was thrilling to see him, the day’s other celebrity. He scanned the room, on agitated tiptoe, in his usual state of distracted bemusement, as if this wedding weren’t his. He was always kind of impatient with the slow pace of the world (he was a fast walker, a fast signer), which often resulted in impatient sighs and fidgets. His reddish beard was neatly gathered and rolled under his chin. He wore a long black shiny jacket that looked like it had never been worn before and, of course, a shtreimel, setting off his blue eyes and imperial nose to dashing advantage. He saw me, looked startled, smiled craftily, signed, “how are you” “wow” “amazing” “happy.” He gave me a hug. We talked a few seconds. He appreciated that I’d come so far. He hurried away.
The band showed up and was fast getting ready and before you knew it the dancing had started with no groom present. There were lots more men all of a sudden on the men’s side and maybe eleven of them were dancing, in homburgs and shtreimels and long black suit coats laced with fancy patterns (you had to look closely, angled to the light, most likely silk) for this special occasion. And even though Chasidic dancing is clumsily unisex, without the barest choreography, along the lines of Ring Around the Rosy―not even a measly mayim step―the exuberance was heating up in the form of clapping and stomping and arm-swinging and chanting. Not to mention the circles of dancing, like bears in the forest, without the groom, the guest of honor.
At some point in the pandemonium, I said hello to the four hearing guys that Elias had grown up with (they’d been looking at me with some interest) and whom I’d heard about forever. I was predisposed to liking them because they had to be excellent fellows if they were lifelong friends with a guy they could barely talk to. And in fact they were. They all had glasses and scraggly beards, like sticker bushes in winter. One was named Mendy. He told me he was overjoyed for Elias. Had never seen him happier. Then he said, “Can I be honest with you? I’m in shock seeing all of this sign language.” He made me realize that this was likely the first time Elias’s friends and family had to adapt to his world instead of vice versa. Elias had been telling me for a long time that the only real community for deaf orthodox people was in Israel. (Hence the bride’s extended deaf community.) (She lived in Jerusalem.) There was only solitude for him, Elias would lament, among the non-signing Brooklyn Chasidim, and he couldn’t relate to what he characterized as the low-class, vulgar deaf scene in New York (translation: too sexual), but there was no way he’d ever get to that Holy Land nirvana. Until now. He and Shonnie had no plans to leave Israel.
When I first met Elias in 1999, he was 21 with maybe a second-grade reading level and no first language. He’d been escorted to the Program for Deaf Adults at LaGuardia Community College in Queens by his skeptical mother who was starting to realize that without the proper education (a language and better reading skill) her son would never get a job. My boss at LaGuardia had picked me to help Elias improve his reading because I was a tutor that his mother might approve of: I’d gone to New Jersey yeshivas for eight years before college and knew the culture Elias had grown up in (most of my religious teachers had been Chasidim), although I hadn’t observed the many persnickety rules of conduct and cuisine since the 1970s. I was already on the staff at the Program for Deaf Adults as a part-time tutor so I had experience teaching one-on-one using sign.
I thought we might start by reading the newspaper together in our tiny classroom but that proved too advanced for Elias. Next class I brought him the Golden Book of Aesop’s Fables. He read aloud in an imprecise honk while simultaneously signing. It was painstaking work but Elias was determined. He was taking his first ASL classes at the college at the same time I was tutoring him so it made sense to combine the schoolwork. (He was also taking speech therapy at NYU Hospital.) When we got to “The Tortoise and the Hare” (I’d had to explain that a hare was a rabbit), his face lit up with a mischievous grin when he read the line, “and the hare fell asleep.”
Sometimes during our tutoring sessions he’d put down the book and look at me seriously and ask about puberty or what happens on one’s wedding night or something equally intimate and, coming from a Satmar, shocking. I realized he may never have been with anyone he could ask such questions. I tried to respond as neutrally and educationally as possible, avoiding any of his people’s proscriptions against idle arousing chitchat.
In time he asked me what “movies” meant. I tried to explain. He asked if I could show him one of these so-called movies, so I invited him to my apartment near Grand Central Station where I had a video of “Children of a Lesser God” in my permanent collection. I played it for him on my VCR.
Turned out to be a laborious process because Elias’s reading comprehension wasn’t solid enough for the subtitles. I signed most of the dialog, turning this way and that to portray the different characters (that’s part of sign grammar), frequently pausing the tape to catch him up on the script’s back-and-forth and its conflicts and processes. For example, early in the movie William Hurt takes a boat ride to a school for the deaf and then the action cuts to the school itself. Elias said, “That was a short boat ride.” I had to pause the tape and explain to him that they weren’t going to show you the entire boat ride. Movie concepts that we understand passively (editing, prewritten dialog…he thought we might be watching a documentary) had to be actively taught to Elias. I’d been instructed when studying deaf education that a good deal of what hearing children learn happens just by sitting there―language, for example, poured passively into our ears―whereas deaf children have to be actively taught everything.
And I suppose that includes some prejudices because Elias has none of the homophobia that might characterize any ultraconservative religious person. He in fact seems to adore my partner Mike. And before I met Mike, Elias asked me if I intended to flit from one guy to the next instead of settling down.
Elias drank Crown Royal toasts with his father and soon-to-be father-in-law, seated between them. His father looked like a grayer, slower version of himself. They didn’t interact much. With Shonnie’s father, Elias communicated using in-hand sign language. I couldn’t make out what they were saying to each other, but it made me wonder if Elias had ever communicated as fully with his father.
More toasts and l’chaims and pumping fists and raucous singing.
I knew it was time for the ceremony when a line of men started up the four flights to the roof. I trailed behind. The women went up in the elevators. I knew what to expect from the ensuing rituals because I’d been to a Chasidic wedding back in highschool when a teacher I was obsessed with, a brilliant Talmud scholar, invited me to his outdoor wedding in Crown Heights. I knew about the bride on the altar, so heavily veiled in silky white that there might’ve been a scarecrow in there. I knew about the solemn delivery of the groom by candlelight up to the bima, escorted by two friends who looked like they were in mourning too. (The groom traditionally fasts all day.) Then the bride’s mother taking the bride by the arm and walking her around the groom seven times. (In this case, Shonnie did the steering as her mother couldn’t see.) Then the quick ceremony with its singsong Hebrew and the breaking of the glass and more shouts of l’chaim and the quick disappearance of the couple into ritual sequestration.
Everyone but the couple returned to the party. The eating and dancing resumed. The entire dinner service (salad, pickles, olives, potato puffs, roast chicken, yellow rice, string beans, petit-fours) went by without the newlyweds on the scene. An hour and a half. No one acted as if this were strange. Although eyes cut to the door from time to time.
When Elias finally showed up, chest puffed with pride, the men danced around him and grabbed him and shoved him. He did awkward face-to-face dancing with his father, then his brother, his uncle, another uncle, his nephew, his lifelong friends, and me. He’d pulled me out of the crowd. I felt like I was dancing with the emperor, back and forth across the floor a couple of times. Then one of the tallest guys in the group, a strongman only twenty years old, lifted Elias on his shoulders and danced him around, driving the crowd back and forth again, clear across the room, then clear across to the other side, while Elias clapped to the music he couldn’t hear.
After a bathroom break I ran into Elias’s mother in the lobby. She had a bunch of women around her. “So! Finally!” She was more welcoming than earlier. “You’re Dan,” she said. “How do you like the wedding?”
I told her how much I was loving it. “The energy, the excitement, the…”
She finished it for me. “The warmth.”
“Yes.” It surprised me that I agreed with her.
Two of the women around her turned out to be her daughters, and they too were welcoming. I’d heard about them from Elias―married, tons of kids, both in Williamsburg―but I’d expected dull, aloof personalities. Instead, they enthused about how glad they were to meet me. And one of them exclaimed, “I’m the one who sent you those hamentaschen every Purim.” I couldn’t get over their graciousness.
Back inside the reception hall, the music and dancing continued. Celebratory energy was blasting around like firecrackers: the signers and their unruly signs, the jumping friends and their forever friendships, the families and their hopes for the newlyweds, the newlyweds themselves, separated at the moment by the mechitza, but united by the energy―storage cells of their communities’ love in their own united bodies. I couldn’t imagine a happier place in the universe.
Then a gaggle of Elias’s pals―nine studious-looking, pale-bearded weisenheimers, all of them hearing, all of them deadpan―showed up out of nowhere in purple silk fezes and silk yellow tunics to dance in formation like a backup troup at a Beyoncé concert. The men twirled in unison, kicked like Russian dancers, dashed left, dashed right, ran back, dipped forward, swiveled, twirled, pirouetted, pliéed, ran around in a circle. The clarinets hooted. The mood blew up. The women peeped from around the divider. Shonnie peeped too. (Unflappably happy empress.)
Meanwhile, Elias’s father-in-law got a sign-language interpretation of the roof-raising spinning-and-shimmying shenanigans going on behind him, which he couldn’t see or hear. A yarmulked blond guy in secular dress (black jeans and a Members Only jacket), using his fingers to stand for the dancers in silk, pushed his hands up into the hands of the jubilant father, interlacing the fingers, dipping and twirling them, shifting them from side to side and up and down and backwards, in time to the music, a thrilling real-time representation, and you could see that Shonnie’s father was having as much fun as everyone else in the room.
His enjoyment summed up the day for me. His enjoyment depended on the support of another. His enjoyment was proof that someone whom the world might pity could experience pure delight. His enjoyment knew no bounds.