When I got married in 1975, every wedding-related matter was analyzed
under two perspectives: Jewish and feminist. If we were going to
commit to the institution of marriage, the ceremony would certainly
need to be spiritually meaningful and thoroughly egalitarian. We
(bride and groom) broke two glasses at the end of the ceremony, we
both wore wreaths in our hair (no veil! we’d discovered the wreath
idea in a Jewish marriage anthology), we wrote a ceremony with
egalitarian language, and of course we both kept our given last names.
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf (z”l) was thoroughly in agreement.
In 1975, the decision about names, though obvious to us, was not so
easy to carry out. I particularly remember the huge battle we had with
the NEW HAVEN REGISTER, which kept insisting it simply could NOT print
my married name as “Portnoy” under our picture, I would have to be
“Mrs. Breen”. We eventually won that battle, and I still treasure that
wedding announcement, knowing what preceded it. And I have many more
stories about when we hyphenated our children’s last names!
Philip and I had been living together for a year (with another
housemate) before our wedding, and had decided that we would be
married during his college graduation weekend, before we would be
leaving for Israel and my first year in rabbinical school. We
exchanged engraved watches as our “planning to get married” gift to
each other, since a diamond ring seemed like a ridiculous and
one-sided affectation. There was no “down on one knee” proposal. We
were very romantic, but as equal partners. And we thought seriously
about what we were doing, and what symbols mean.
The only “concession” I can remember is that my mother and aunt had a
small “bridal shower” for me. No men were invited, but Philip came
with me to the shower, and we opened all the kitchen and house ware
objects together. After all, I was not planning to be chief cook and
Thirty-six years later (and still happily married to the same man), I
am astonished at what has happened to weddings. Not only are too many
of them still (more) outrageously over-priced, over-prepared, and
over-the-top, but we have headed backwards as far as egalitarianism
goes. I officiate at many weddings, so I am privy to the before,
during and (a little bit of the) after of weddings. I see a
proliferation of kitchen showers (“ladies only”), a serious reduction
in the number of women keeping their surnames (many look surprised
when I even ask the question at one of our pre-marital sessions), and
increasingly elaborate staging of marriage proposals by the groom (to
a bride with whom he has most likely been living with for several
I do my best to be polite about these couples’ choices, but there is
one new (actually, re-introduced) custom that has finally put me over
the top! That is the groom’s requesting “permission” from the bride’s
father (sometimes, parents) to marry the bride. Permission to do what
exactly? We’re still transferring ownership of the bride from parent
to groom? Why isn’t the bride asking the groom’s parents for
permission? I would note that this is not just happening among Jewish
couples, but among couples of other (or no) religions as well. Many of
the parents of the bride are a bit surprised when they are asked.
These “boomer” parents could not have imagined asking their own
parents for such permission!
So what is going on here? I wish I knew. I keep thinking that it may
be that since couple’s lives change so little these days between
before and after their wedding ceremonies that they look for something
to differentiate the moment, something to acknowledge that something
IS actually happening. But that is supposed to be the religious
ceremony, at least for Jews who are marrying under religious auspices.
Same for couples who are not Jewish. And if the inclination to involve
the parents (as more than an ATM machine) is meant to be a meaningful
gesture then why not involve both sets of parents?
Why are brides putting up with this? Why do people seem to think this
is a “cute” idea? Every day, I feel more and more like a cranky old
feminist. But we worked so hard those many years ago to transform
traditions which demeaned women in so many ways, we tried to convince
others that symbols have power and reflect reality, we wanted to prove
that equality and love could go hand-in-hand.
Permission? Denied. Decide for yourselves. But you’re welcome to my blessings.
Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy