“Gorka! Gorka!” the crowd shouted.
And, in a manner that called to mind my ten-year-old self when first I played Spin the Bottle, the bride and groom leaned into each other and kissed.
“Gorka! Gorka!” the crowd continued to chant, as insatiable as only drunk crowds can be, egging on each other and the newly-married couple. Russian relatives began to count, making it to ten (dyecyat’!) and then fifteen (pyat’nadyecyat’!) before the couple broke apart to breathe and the crowd erupted in applause.
This tradition is the Slavic equivalent, apparently, of the groom removing the bride’s garter. I have never seen that done — the weddings I’m invited to are generally high-brow affairs, full of literary pomp and godly circumstance. But I have heard garter removal is a thing, like bouquet tossing (does that too happen in real life, or only in movies?).
My old friend L., with whom I recently reconnected, married her long-term boyfriend S. this past weekend in Somerville, Massachusetts, and even by the unconventional standards of my friends’ nuptials, their celebration was unique. Instead of a rabbi, they tapped a friend of theirs, an earnest, bearded, young PhD candidate, to officiate; instead of a cantor, they asked another friend of theirs, also earnest and scholastic but much taller, to chant. No conventional authority figure at all, in fact, was there to solemnize the union. Instead, the bride and groom — both serious students themselves — canonized Academia itself. With help from Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism and several other texts, the couple redesigned the ceremony to fit their principles, explaining as they went the significance of each amended ritual.
I’ve been to Jewish weddings before, of course, but this was my first Jewish Studies wedding. The professors in the audience looked very proud.
It was also the most Russian of any wedding I’ve ever been to, since the groom is himself an immigrant. There were vodka shots (served with pickles) and, in lieu of an American-style wedding cake, a proud Russian aunt’s home-made “Napoleon,” the product of two weeks of work. It was, appropriately, large enough to serve an army.
“Could you eat the entire thing?” my table-mate whispered to me. “If you had to? If the lives of your family members were at stake?”
This table-mate, R., had been seated next to me by chance. I introduced myself; she stared at me with such intense focus I half-expected her to kiss me on the mouth. Instead she asked, “Did you live off Oregon Avenue?”
“Uh,” I replied. “Yes?”
“I know you!” she said. “We used to ride the bus together! Oh my god. Oh my god. I know you. This is too strange. We were really good friends.”
I looked at her, trying to remember her (remembering is one of the things I’m usually good at). She beamed while I flailed.
“This is so embarrassing,” she said, “but I … well, I was four years older than you, and you were my little friend. We sat together on the bus! Until, well, one day … I hit you.”
Hit me? Why?
“I don’t know! I think it was some sort of power thing! It was totally unprovoked.” Her mouth twisted with the pain of the memory. “You were so small! And your hair was red?”
“It’s still auburn,” I said defensively. “Especially in the sunlight.”
She looked unconvinced but went on. “Anyway, it was terrible! I hit you! Then you told your mom, who called my mom, and I got in trouble. We weren’t friends after that. And then I switched schools. But oh my god, I can’t believe I get a chance to apologize. I’m so sorry!”
Nothing about this sounded familiar. Yes, I rode the bus, I lived off Oregon Avenue, and yes, I was small with redder hair. But if I had been hit — for no reason, by a girl four years older than myself — surely that would have left an emotional mark?
Her eyes pleaded with me and I did the only reasonable thing. “It’s totally okay,” I said. “I forgive you.”
“Really?” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “You’re absolved.”
“I can’t wait to tell my mother!” she said. “I’m going to text her right now.”
“Gorka! Gorka!” cried the crowd. It seemed like the increasingly raucous guests were not going to be happy until the bride and groom actually did it on the floor in front of everyone and managed to conceive a child.
“Russians,” I said to Mr. Ben, shaking my head. He grinned at me. Then the Klezmer band started up, leading the guests in a parade across the street, back to the bride-and-groom’s apartment courtyard, where we danced until we could dance no more, and Rachel Adler had nothing whatever to say about it.