The ‘Rules’ for Marriage

An excerpt from the new memoir
This is Not a Love Story’ by Judy Brown

My father said that my mother was the most beautiful girl in Jerusalem. She had long, thick hair, red like fire. He turned the page of their worn red wedding album. I squeezed next to him on the couch. On the yellowed pages, I saw pictures of my aunts and cousins with their hair piled high like beehives, wearing funny patterned dresses and clumsy pump shoes. And I saw my mother in a tiara made of silk flowers, her eyes glowing with joy.

There, next to her, was my grandmother Miriam in a silk, rippling gown, while nearby a circle of women danced, holding hands. Across the partition on the men’s side was a jumble of black hats. They crowded in front of the head table, where my father sat with my grandfather, my great-uncle, and the Holy Rebbe.

My mother looked like a princess. She and my father smiled happily at each other in the pictures, her necklace and diamond ring glittering. My father pointed at the photo. “I buy it myself,” he said proudly. “Deh nicest jewelry your mother get.”

“Where’d you have so much money from?”

“I vork hard,” my father said. “I vork hard for a long time.” “But when?” I asked. “How old were you and Mommy when you got married?”

“We vasn’t so young. I was tventy-four, your mother vas tventy-three.” I stared at my father in disbelief. “Twenty-three? Twenty- three?”

My father just smiled, turning the page. I shook my head.

There are rules, you see — always have been — that one must be married after eighteen and before twenty. By twenty- one, every matchmaker is involved. By twenty-two, special prayers are uttered at holy graves. And by twenty-three — by twenty-three . . . Well, there was no such thing as twenty-three. By twenty-three, you are married. You just are.

I pestered my father until he threw up his hands in mock despair. “Dat’s what God vanted!” And he was off to shul for evening prayers.

I loved fairy tales because there was no such thing as breaking rules. The stepmother was always evil, the godmother was always kind, and the princess always slept for a hundred years without growing older by a day.

She did not suddenly decide to sleep for only ten years because the curse was ninety years too long. And the prince, he always kissed the princess, no matter what. He never changed his mind, thinking that maybe he shouldn’t kiss a half-dead girl he’d never seen before.

In real life, you could not give or take an extra month when it was time to marry. After nineteen, every year was like one hundred, and waiting too long messed things up entirely.

Blimi’s cousin did not get engaged until she was twenty- one. This was not her fault. She had to wait for her diabetic older brother, who could not find a bride until he was twenty- two, after his mother forgot to lie to the matchmaker. Everyone said that Blimi’s aunt had made a dreadful mistake, telling the truth about his diabetes. But it was too late, and in the end he had to marry a girl who had diabetes too. And though they had children who did not have diabetes, everyone said that they were lying about it and that they really all did.

But twenty-three? Twenty-three?

I told my mother that I was to be married at exactly eighteen and not one second later.

“Of course you will be,” she reassured me, twisting the kitchen knife in the keyhole of the bathroom door, which Nachum had locked from the inside. “Don’t you worry. Of course you will be. Nachum — open the door!”

But I was very worried about getting married. My cousin Shaindel had told me that my siblings and I would be shunned in marriage because nobody wanted a family with a crazy boy like Nachum. I rolled my eyes but I knew she was right.

Who would want to marry me when I turned eighteen, when nobody even wanted to come over to play?

Fraidy, queen of my class, refused even when I promised her my newest stickers from my sticker collection. Esty wouldn’t come either, but she said it had nothing to do with my brother. It was because I lived in Flatbush. She wouldn’t even call me on the phone. It was too expensive, she said, being long distance from Borough Park.

Only Blimi had come, and she had stared and stared at Nachum, and the next day had told Chaya Sarah and the others all about it.

Now, in spite of my impeccable rabbinical bloodlines, Nachum had ruined my marriage prospects. My mother said that I was being ridiculous. Marriage was bashert, preordained by Heaven. She said, “God plans, but man laughs.” Or maybe she said it the other way around. Whatever. If it was meant to be, it would be.

But I knew that Nachum could un-bashert it all, because shidduchim, one’s marriage prospects, were very important. In fact, shidduchim were so important that most families didn’t even let God make things happen. No matter what God said, they simply wouldn’t marry into a family that included Nachum.

It was like the time Chaya Sarah’s oldest sister almost got engaged to a boy, but then didn’t. Chaya Sarah had told me in secret that her sister would soon be a bride — her mother was so excited and it was all perfect, bashert, straight from Heaven. But at the last minute they found out the boy had had an operation on his head when he was six. He was healthy now — the family had medical reports to prove it — but still. It would have been bashert, but an operation like this was simply unacceptable. Who knew what was hiding in his head? My friend’s mother was so hurt and insulted that she refused to speak to the matchmaker ever again.

There was a long list of rules about getting married, and there was nothing even God could do if one broke these rules. They were:
  1. Don’t wear the wrong color tights.
  2. Don’t wear denim.
  3. Don’t be too poor.
  4. Don’t be a baal teshuvah (a once secular person who repented and became religious).
  5. Don’t have a relative who is a baal teshuvah. (Tell him to stay secular.)
  6. Don’t have any medical conditions. If you do, lie to the matchmaker and say you don’t.
  7. Don’t have a crazy child.
  8. You can wear the wrong color tights, and sometimes even denim, if you have a lot of money.
  9. You can be very poor if you have many dead rebbes or Torah scholars for ancestors.
  10. You can have certain medical conditions if you have money and many dead rebbes or Torah scholars for ancestors.
  11. Please. Don’t have a crazy child.

This is why many families gave their crazy children away — so their other children could fulfill their destiny. Blimi’s neighbor’s parents had a Down syndrome child and had given him away when he was just born. So did the family who lived at the end of Blimi’s cousin Nechy’s block, but no one was supposed to know.

The rules made shidduchim easy for everyone to understand. It is the way everyone knows whom God wants us to marry, and whom He absolutely does not. But my mother didn’t seem to care. Even for the sake of my future marriage, she wouldn’t throw my brother away. I had once heard her say in an argument with someone on the phone that Nachum was a child, not a toy to discard. If God had given her this son, then He had meant for her to care for him.

She annoyed me, because she was using the bashert thing in all the wrong ways. If Nachum was bashert, meant to be, from God, then how come he made all our shidduchim un-bashert, not meant to be, from the same God?
I told Shaindel, irritably, that I could marry anyone I wanted, because Nachum was destiny sent from Heaven’s throne. She said that it didn’t matter where he was sent from because what Nachum had was genetic, and everyone knew this meant that all the grandchildren would be crazy like him. She also said that maybe Nachum was meant to be, but not nearly meant enough. The rules of shidduchim were still much more meant, and those were what would be.

I wanted to tell my mother that because she had selfishly not given Nachum away, I would never get married. I had no preordained partner in Heaven. I wanted to tell her that I wished she would be more like the other mothers, less tall and strong. I wanted to tell my mother this, but I did not.

Excerpted from This is Not a Love Story by Judy Brown.

“Brown portrays an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community marked by piety, prejudice, and superstition, and her loving family roiled by the mystifying, often terrifying, affliction of her younger brother…. A tender story gently told.” -Kirkus Reviews

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