For his son’s wedding, could he impart love’s true meaning?
All brides are beautiful. They are dressed in the loveliest gowns, exquisitely coiffed and meticulously made up as never before. And with all the emotion of the moment, they are invariably radiant, bringing wedding guests to their feet and quieting them to such a hush that you can hear the rustling of the gown as they glide down the aisle.
Jacqueline Calderon was even more beautiful than all that. As she approached, under the golden California sun, she trembled slightly as she let go the arm of her father, Orlando. Beneath her veil, tears already were welling up in her dark eyes, and her lips quivered as she steadied herself. Her gaze went to the man she was about to marry, Daniel Perl — my son. I was caught up in the powerful feeling of watching my first-born child marry this woman whom I had come to love in their three years together. I was elated by the joy in Daniel’s eyes, and as I looked back at Jackie, I felt my own tears welling up.
This was one of the most wonderful moments of my life, but I could not allow myself to savor it or get too caught up in the emotion, because I had work to do. I was about to officiate at my son’s wedding, and all these people were suddenly watching me: an ordinary guy, no minister or rabbi or priest.
This all had begun nine months earlier when Daniel called his mother, Nina, my wife of 41 years, and asked her — in the strictest confidence — what she would think of the idea of me officiating. He told her that Jackie had initially suggested it partly because it would be an interfaith marriage, and neither of them had ties to any clergy in their home town of Oakland. Daniel, who grew up in Silver Spring, is Jewish and attends synagogue on the major holidays, and Jackie was raised Catholic but does not feel as much connection to religion as she does to her Cuban and Salvadoran roots.
Daniel, it turns out, had been procrastinating for many weeks in asking me, and when he finally called his mother, he explained that they didn’t want to be married by a “stranger.” They’d both been at weddings where youngish friends or family members had officiated, but they wanted someone with more experience, and more wisdom about the nature and meaning of marriage.
Nina was stunned, and didn’t answer immediately. She and I had attended only two weddings over the years at which friends of the couple officiated, but we never gave this novelty much thought. And neither of us had ever heard of a parent performing the marriage of his child. Beyond the strangeness of this whole idea, Nina was also concerned about the pressure this might put on me.
So Nina did what any loving spouse would do under these circumstances: She spilled the beans, telling me what the kids had in mind and making sure I would act surprised when they actually popped the question. I was flabbergasted. How could I pull this off? Did I even want to do it? It’s true that as the years have passed, I have become accustomed to playing a more prominent role in public family events. I have delivered five eulogies, including those for my father, mother and brother, and I have come to embrace my status as my family’s tribal elder. This assignment, though, felt more daunting.
When Daniel finally called and I feigned surprise, I realized in talking to him and Jacqueline that this was not simply a request to perform a ceremony. Rather, they were asking me to create a moving and meaningful event. It would somehow have to capture the hopes and desires of two thoughtful people from very different backgrounds; two lovers who wanted a wedding that would be deeply spiritual, but “not too religious.” It would have to be warm and informal, yet capture the aspect of a marriage that is sacred.
I felt a rush of joy — and fear. At first, I worried about all the complications and pitfalls. But after I said that, yes, I would do it, I realized this was perhaps the greatest honor that a parent could receive from a child. This same child I had held as a newborn and rocked to sleep, and had loved and nurtured and coaxed and criticized and admired and worried about for 34 years. I couldn’t help but think about my own relationship to my father. We had never been particularly close, partly because he was a workaholic private detective in New York City whom I didn’t see all that often, and partly because he, like many of his generation, just did not show emotion. When Daniel was born, I had proudly shown my father photographs I’d taken at the miraculous moment. My father asked me what lens I had used and why the lighting in the photos wasn’t better.
Now that I had accepted this mission, I first had to make sure this whole thing was legal. It turns out that the laws pertaining to wedding ceremonies vary all over the map, each state with its own requirements. In Maryland, for example, there is no credential required, and any 18-year-old can sign the marriage license as clergy, as long as the couple getting married agree that he or she is clergy. In California, it’s almost equally loose, as any priest, minister or rabbi of any denomination, including, say, medicine men and shamans, can officiate. So, after some online research, I decided to invest $11.99 to receive a credit-card-style “Credentials of Ministry” from the Universal Life Church Monastery, based in Seattle. I’d first heard of ULC during the Vietnam War era, when antiwar activists became “ministers” to try to certify people as conscientious objectors. From the church Web site I learned that I was joining a distinguished and motley collection of celebrities who were also ULC ministers, including all four of the Beatles, Johnny Carson, Tori Spelling, Bryan Cranston, Glenn Beck, and even the infamous John Wayne Bobbitt, identified as a “penectomy survivor.”
To capture the meaning of the union of Jacqueline and Daniel, I would first have to capture their story. My main qualification for doing that was 40 years working as a journalist, including 32 at The Washington Post. To make the story memorable, it would have to be intimate and detailed, so I would have to interview the main characters in depth. This is an intrusive process in my profession, but it’s the only way to get to the heart of the matter.
Several months later, on a holiday visit to stay with them in Oakland, I took Daniel and Jackie aside, separately, and, notebook in hand, asked them to tell me some very private things. What are you really looking for in a mate? What do personal character, physical appearance and background mean to you? What attracted you to him, to her? How and when did you know you really loved this person — that this was The One?
Similar words came from both of them: serious, smart, committed, spirited, open, supportive, passionate, listening, family-oriented, loving. And neither of them could quite pin down how or when they knew. They just knew.
Months later, as I stood in front of the whole wedding party with my 12-page script in a black leather notebook, I told this story: It was just before midnight on Friday, Nov. 6, 2009, in a bar on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. Jackie, an elementary school teacher in the city, was partying with her Teach for America friends from Oakland, and Daniel, an MBA student at the University of California at Berkeley, had come to the same bar on the same night at the same time to celebrate his 30th birthday with a group of friends.
Daniel felt a little emotional that night about marking this milestone. And after an unspecified number of drinks, he hit the dance floor — but he was dancing by himself. Dancing wildly — and, as Jackie vividly recalled, dancing with his eyes closed.
Jackie, after a similar unspecified number of drinks, saw this guy shrugging and stomping and dancing — by himself. Jackie, meanwhile, had already fended off two of Daniel’s friends who were hitting on her. She watched Daniel and thought, He dances pretty well for a white guy. ... And he’s hilarious.
So Jackie, not quite sure why, danced her way toward Daniel. “Something just pulled me over to him.” Then Daniel happened to open his eyes, and he was stunned. He thought: “Why is this beautiful woman looking at me? ... And how did she get so close?” Daniel fumbled at first, then gathered his wits and began to ask Jackie questions. He realized quickly that she liked to talk.
They danced and chatted, and danced and smiled at each other. She was intrigued by his playfulness and the fact that he went to Cal Berkeley but was not at all nerdy. He was smitten by her beauty, and impressed by her self-confidence and the force of her personality. They exchanged phone numbers. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I told that story to the 170 congregants gathered on the lush lawn of the Camarillo Ranch, north of Los Angeles, and then I said: “In thinking about the way in which these two people came together, I am reminded of a Jewish concept known as beshert. Beshert means ‘destiny.’ If something is beshert, then it was always meant to be; it was fate. But the word also means soulmate: the person whom you were destined to be with. If you are fortunate enough, at some point in your life, you will find your beshert.”
In the months leading up, Daniel, Jackie and I had talked, individually and together, and we e-mailed numerous times about how to craft a ceremony that would blend their families’ traditions. At Jewish weddings, the couple is married beneath a huppah, or wedding canopy, that symbolizes their new home together. Often, that canopy is a tallit or prayer shawl. For this wedding, we mixed it up a bit. The ceremony took place at a small wooden gazebo whose roof substituted for the huppah. And we put the tallit to an alternate use: we used the long white-and-blue shawl to wrap the couple together in a lasso, a Latino custom in which bride and groom are symbolically united by being tied together by a necklace or a sash in a figure-eight, which also is the symbol of infinity. We asked the two mothers, Nina Shapiro-Perl and Surama Barroso, to each take an end of the tallit and wrap their children together.
I told the audience that Jackie and Daniel wanted to honor both families, whose roots are in Cuba and El Salvador, and in Hungary and Russia. And in Judaism and Catholicism. I told the story of Daniel’s bar mitzvah, when he had to study and chant a portion of the Torah, and give a speech about what a particular Old Testament passage meant to him. The 13-year-old Daniel told the story of Joshua, who warned his Israelite followers that they should never marry people of other faiths because intermarriage would threaten the future of the Jews. But Daniel had his own view, and he wrote: “The issue of intermarriage is a complex one, and there are many viewpoints. ... Even though the Jewish people need to stay together, I think that Jews should marry people whom they love, regardless of race or religion.” And so, I said, “We are gathered here today because this young couple was raised by loving families who encouraged them to be open to all people, no matter what labels society may attach to them.”
Jackie and Daniel had asked me to speak about the meaning of marriage, and I gave this mystery my best shot: Falling in love and marrying is the easy part. The daunting task begins today — nurturing and feeding that love to make it last. Most marriages fall apart, one way or another. I told them that I was lucky enough to find my beshert, my Nina, when I was only 22 years old. But it had taken years and years of hard work by both of us to make the marriage work and deepen.
I told Jackie and Daniel I was completely confident that theirs would also thrive and endure, because they were united in their commitment to each other and to the betterment of the world: she, working tirelessly to uplift students in a poor neighborhood; and he, devoted to developing affordable housing for people who can’t find it.
My final thought for them was that the goal of a great marriage is to go beyond the idea that you treat the other person the way you would like to be treated yourself. Rather, it is to strive to put the needs of your mate above and beyond your own needs. To reach a point in which you achieve more joy making your spouse happy than in pursuing your own happiness.
For a rookie rabbi, I did pretty well, except for a few glitches. When I started into the ceremony, I could see Nina, in the corner of my eye, motioning to me with both hands to slow down. When I glanced around, I realized she meant sit down — because I had failed to tell everyone to be seated, so some people were sitting, some standing, some crouching hesitantly. I also stumbled by trying to say an important Hebrew prayer, the Shehecheyanu, in Spanish — but I don’t know Spanish. I had asked Jackie’s family to help me with a last-minute translation, which I proceeded to mangle.
The entire day felt joyous and light, but also very serious. Afterward, both Daniel and Jackie told me, in their own ways, that the event felt powerful, and that there was something particularly rewarding in receiving their blessing from me. Only when it was all over did I realize the gift that they had given me. Constructing the ceremony together was itself evidence of the strength of their bond: They had each already shown that they were striving to put the needs of their mate above and beyond their own. I was left with the unmistakable sense that this was, indeed, beshert.
Peter Perl, a former senior editor at The Washington Post, is a freelance writer living in Maryland.
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