Monday, July 6, 2009

Wedding Bells

How do I describe one of the best days of my life? I have already tried to capture the elation of my brother's wedding through a photo album (see here). So now is the time for words.

On Sunday June 28 my older brother Alexander married Jen Gonik. They had been together for a few years when he surprised her with a ring last Thanksgiving. So I was hardly shaken by the timing of their wedding. Instead I was overcome by the sudden reality that the one person besides my parents who accompanied me through my childhood was now finally and forever entering adulthood.

A few days before I left for Syria my closest friend in high school got married. The wedding left me emotionally befuddled. I had only myself to blame, having come to the wedding with unrealistic expectations, plus a bum knee from having run my first marathon two weeks previously. The knee pain was at least laced with irony. Outside of the mental and physical strength it would provide for the army, I had run the twenty-six plus mile race with the idea it would leave me in great shape for summer weddings. Silly, perhaps, but that is really how I think.

No quixotic expectations accompanied me into my brother's wedding. On Monday Jun 22 I spent the afternoon atop the castle walls of Kraks de Chevalier, the twelfth-century headquarters of the Knights Hospitallers and the largest castle in the Crusader world. The walls of the citadel were my base as I contemplated what I would tell my brother and his bride in the speech they had invited me to give over shabbat. While writing the speech (see below for the full text) I realized that at their wedding, I would let the celebration come to me. That is, despite having the dual responsibility of serving as my brother's shomer and the MC under the chuppah, I would not approach the wedding with undue expectations.

My brother's wedding became one of the best days life thanks to the presence of so many people I care about. Anyone who knows Sammy from simchas has some inkling that once I get into the dancing, nothing adds to my excitement like sweeping those I care about into the dancing. Nearly everyone at my brother's wedding was fair game.
And this time around I had an almost biblical mandate to drag cousins and uncles into the mix!

The wedding also provided me with an opportunity to say farewell to my extended family only a week before I would make aliyah on July 6. The story was much the same on my return to New York two days after the wedding. On my first night in the city I had the chance to say hello and goodbye to a dear friend at her sheva brachot (the festive meal that continues for a week after a wedding). Two days later a fascinating friend married his equally fantastic girlfriend in Lakewood, New Jersey. Again I kvelled in the opportunity to share farewells with friends prior to my aliyah. But the best part of my friend's wedding came when the bride and groom, both leaders in the Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva, were dragooned into leading everyone in a boisterous singing of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. With four days to go, there was no better time to sing:
כל עוד בלבב פנימה/נפש יהודי הומיה/ולפאתי מזרח קדימה/עין לציון צופיה/עוד לא אבדה תקותנו/התקוה בת שנות אלפים/להיות עם חופשי בארצנו/ארץ ציון וירושלים

Speech from my brother's Shabbat Chattan

MAAAWAGE. Maaawage is what brings us together today. I could not help but start with that line from the movie, Princess Bride. Not just because it plays in my mind whenever the subject of weddings comes up. But because there is another scene from the movie that helped me realize something about language and love. Something that made me appreciate what I was really saying to my brother for oh so many years.
The scene comes midway through Princess Bride. A hero in black has just braved a host of difficulties to rescue a beautiful princess from a gang of kidnappers. But instead of thanking him, the girl calls him a pig and knocks him sideways down the side of a hill. As he falls, the hero shouts out “As you wish.” At which point everything clicks for the princess, she realizes the man in black is really her long lost love, and she throws herself down the hill to join him.
As you wish, of course, had been her lover’s way of saying ‘I love you’ all those years before fate had set them their separate ways. Sometimes the words we say when we are young are a mystery, I suppose. But I’d like to think a child’s very first words have some special meaning. Or at least that mine did.
My first word, my parents tell me, was Bobbi. Like the pin perhaps. Or the younger Kennedy. Or maybe I was trying and failing to pronounce Babba. As it is, the term became my name for Alexander. And before I became an older brother myself, in the good old days so to speak, when there were just two boys and a little girl appeared to gobble up our parents’ attention, Bobbi was also a best friend, and a rival and always the role model, setting the course two years in advance that I would follow. And then one day Bobbi went away to high school in Canada, Alexander returned, and things have stayed that way since.
What did I mean with the name Bobbi? The question tugged at my mind as I studied and traveled around Syria for the last month. As I dodged Beduin dogs and got to appreciate the Syrian police my first weekend. As I my attention slipped from my Arabic to the 80 style hairdos that adorn the girls of Damascus. Until finally, earlier this week, I was sitting atop a crusader castle staring off into the hills through a stone doorway when my recent experience in Syria clicked with my childhood memories and I realized what I had meant by calling my brother Bobbi for so many years. Or at least, as hindsight in the service of speech making can be a tricky business, what I may have meant ;-)
To find out what I meant in calling my brother Bobbi, I ask that you join me in exploring what the term actually means—not simply in English, but in several other languages that I have been exposed to in the last few years. Perhaps you’re wondering what relevance these languages have to a term that I first spoke when I could not count to ten, let alone converse in the language of Mohammed and Confucius. Well,
There’s a midrash that says everything one will learn in their lives is taught to them by an angel before they are born. And then before the child enters the world, the angel touches them above their lip and all that knowledge slips away until hard work and new horizons one day bring it back. So even if I only began studying Arabic this past year, I already possessed some potential sense of the language when I opened my mouth for the first time and called my brother Bobbi.
Arabic has two meanings for the word Bobbi, which together do much to capture what my brother meant to me when I first spoke, and what he still means to me all these years later. The first meaning comes from fu’sha, the standard Arabic they teach you in school. The first word taught in every university course is Baab, or Baabi when the possessive suffix ‘ee’ is added. It means my door, ‘my doorway,’ or even ‘my framework.’ My brother has always been my role model in the most visceral sense, with his every action and decision providing a sense of what was possible in my own life, the doorway for my future.
But there’s more.
In Amiyya, the colloquial Arabic used with regional differences throughout the Arab world, Bobbi has a very different meaning. In colloquial Arabic, especially in conversation with young children, Bobbi means dog. Don’t get the wrong idea, that I am suggesting Alexander is my dog or the like. Come to think of it, the only association I have with Alexander and dogs lies from a visit our family took to the Kosseffs in South Africa back in 1991. Berel and Rusty had a huge black dog in their house, a fearsome beast reminiscent of Sherlock Holme’s hound of the Baskervilles. I was, of course, terrified of the animal. Alexander was made of sterner stuff, and as usually is the case, he would have to learn his lesson the hard way. One day the dog chased him across the lawn and then followed him right into the pool, where the two of them emerged with the dog’s teeth clamped on Alexander’s backside as it dragged him from the water. A true story, though it has little to do with the meaning of Bobbi....
What does have to do with Bobbi, however, is how my brother has not simply set the framework but he has been my guide in ensuring I reach the goals his own example has established in my mind. There are so many stories I could share that illustrate how my brother has come through for me when I have been at risk from straying from my path, even if that path has taken me beyond my brother’s own experiences. Alexander said it best just yesterday, when he expressed his amazement I had not immediately called him when I arrived at the airport since, as we all know, “I am the only really responsible one in this family!”
Bobbi also has two meanings in English. In England it can refer to a policeman. And for the rest of us it is shorthand for those long pieces of metal women sometimes find necessary to stick in their hair: the bobby pin. It hardly seems necessary to explain the many times my brother has taken the role of the policeman, laying down the law on my backside. But there is something to glean from the modest bobby-pin. Not in reference to hair but because in movies, hairpins tend to be put to a more important role when amateur locksmiths use them to pick locks and open previously shuttered doors, allowing me to enter somewhere I never could have gone by myself. My brother has not simply served as my example and guided me forward when I have strayed— he also has opened so many doors for me—be it my appreciation of music and sports, my grasp of anything digital, or the confidence to live apart from our family and attend high school all on our own at the age of 15.
Bobbi also has a meaning in Chinese. At this point in preparing these remarks, I opened my Chinese dictionary convinced that the Mandarin would supply a meaning for Bobbi that captures everything my brother means to me. Bobbi, in Chinese (搏髀), only has one meaning. It translates to ‘to beat time by slapping one's thighs.’ So I am afraid the Chinese word is not going to be of much help.
Even without the Chinese, I think we’ve discovered a great deal about the sort of brother I was looking for when I named Alexander Bobbi years ago. One last mystery remains, however: Where did Bobbi go? Why did I lose the Bobbi I knew as a child when my brother moved onto high school and returned as Alexander? I do not ask this question glibly but with the knowledge that I have never quite known Alexander the same way that I did when we were children, when no one else was his equal as role-model, guide and best friend.
Perhaps the answer can be found by taking a second look at the pivotal scene from Princess Bride I referenced earlier. When the man in black yells ‘As you wish’ as he is falling down the hillside, he is hardly doing so for the first time. During their early, idyllic years, when the future hero and princess lived a far simpler life, the man would whisper ‘as you wish’ at every opportunity. His words were always another way of saying ‘I love you.’ But it hardly mattered because the future princess failed to comprehend what he was saying. It was only when the princess responded to the words ‘as you wish,’ only when she expressed her love back to the hero by diving down the hill after him, that true love materialized.
Because that is what real love is about: an exchange, a mutual give and take. Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. Love is not about sophomoric crushes that burn with desire even as they remain unrequited. Love is about giving and receiving in turn, creating a ceaseless circle of communication that can never be broken as long as both partners remain committed to their love.
Perhaps my favorite memory of Alexander comes from a Yeshiva University lag b’omer carnival we attended on my birthday when I was in high school and Alexander was in his first year of university. The carnival had this activity where two folks could step into an inflatable boxing ring and with a cushioned helmet and giant cushioned boxing mitts on their fists, go at each other until one person knocked the other down two times. Alexander and I tried it out. And our game quickly became a no-holds barred battle of wills. Neither of us went down for five minutes, until I finally hit the surface from a crushing left hook from my older brother. Then Alexander went down. The student manning the booth attempted to end the match and call it a draw because we were taking too long. But when he was informed we were brothers, he smiled, nodded and stepped back. The intensity picked up and we traded blows, neither of us willing to concede. And on and on it went.
Some of you may say that the memory of that boxing game remains so dear to me because I finally had a chance to let out my aggression against my older brother (Alexander eventually went down, as it happens, ending the match!). Maybe. But I am sure that the real power of the memory derives from what our exchange of cushioned blows really represented: a reflection of the communication we shared—with far more than our fists! — in those simpler, idyllic times when we were just children. When I used the name Bobbi to convey all that my I hoped my brother would be and he responded by meeting and even surpassing my expectations. We boxed with such energy and determination, in part, because we both knew that the closeness we had fostered during those Bobbi years had slipped as we matured and Alexander went off on his own to high school. And so our sparring in part spoke to what once was and what, with renewed commitment to communicate in the future, could again be.
My blessing to Alexander and Jen is that they take to heart and realize in their marriage that truly vibrant love, and a healthy relationship, is rooted in communication, in giving and receiving in turn. Not only when one of them appreciates that the other feels like he or she is falling down a hillside. But all the time, every second of everyday.

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