A Clandestine Affair
It was rare for the old Rabbi to visit us at our clubhouse, and especially so uninvited. We regularly studied with him in his synagogue amd sometimes at his house. Occasionally we would invite him to teach or lecture, usually on special occasions, but it was totally unknown for him to turn up completely unannounced.
So you can imagine my surprise when he appeared one afternoon to the Bnei Akiva House during our activities. He was specifically looking for me. I remember it clearly -- it was a Sunday afternoon, at about 4 p.m., during the winter of 1972.
His message to me was short. I need a minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish men required to perform certain Jewish rituals. Be in the hall under my synagogue at 7:30 -- I only want young men and keep it a secret. Tell them that also. Bye.
I already knew at this young tender age that you didn't ask the old man any questions. You carried out his wishes if you could. Our late rabbi had a very powerful, even overpowering personality.
I still had a program to run that afternoon. And now I also needed to find a group of young men at short notice for something which I could not explain?! This was still before mobile phones were available. All I could do was ring my friends at home and put my strange request to them (if they were in fact at home) or drop by their houses and "invite" them personally.
Somehow I did manage to get ten of us to the synagogue hall. We met outside. We waited until all of us arrived. We'd didn't know what to expect inside. It was very mysterious, but what we found was even stranger.
Set up in the middle of the hall was a chuppah, a Jewish wedding canopy. Now this was weird. A clandestine wedding? Had we been beamed to the oppressive, communist, antireligious Soviet Union when we entered the front door? Had we crossed a time warp to back into the middle ages? Why the hell all the secrecy?
I suppose we felt some relief seeing canopy. It was after all only a wedding. That's fairly innocuous, isn't it? Only a wedding! Ten young bachelors and a wedding chuppah? No bride or groom visible. A rabbi and a canopy?
Immediately perceiving his required quorum was in place, the rabbi started the service. A groom entered from a side room. (At least it wasn't going to one of us.) I had seen this man once or twice before, though my associates had never before laid eyes on him. He was recent arrival from Poland. I actually thought he was already married, though I had never met a spouse, nor seen him with a women. Was he indeed married? Was he about to take on a second wife?
The groom is led to the huppah by his older brother, another Polish Jew who himself had only arrived in Australia five or six years earlier. The rabbi starts to sing, and suddenly a bride too appears, led by the brother's wife. The rabbi tells the two ladies to encircle the groom seven times, an old Jewish custom with which the brother's wife thought they would dispense with on this occasion. But the rabbi is insistent.
The rabbi pours the wine and the ceremony commenced. He recites the benedictions, over the wine and over the sanctity of Jewish family life. We all answer amen, and the bride and groom drink from the wine goblet. The rabbi then reads the ketubah, the traditional marriage contract, out loud to the assembled congregation. He asks me and one of my friends -- I think he picked the one that looked the oldest (eighteen years old) -- to sign as the two requisite witnesses.
It was eerie -- what was happening here? But you just didn't argue with the rabbi. I wasn't aware what was flying -- I even had thoughts that I was signing my entry into hell. I hadn't yet learned too much Talmud at this stage of my life, but I was aware of the seriousness in which our sages held the sanctity of family life and purity, and of the severity of the punishment of children born of incorrect relationships.
But I couldn't, nor wanted to question the rabbi. I uneasily continued to trust him.
Our rabbi continued the ceremony with the sheva brachot, the seven blessings, which conclude the wedding ceremony, which consecrate the relationship between the couple standing under the huppah.
The ritual was over. If purgatory was an option for me, I had now sealed my one way ticket. And when the rabbi called me and friends aside, I knew, if I wasn't now in Czarist Russia, that I was a party to something I didn't want to know about. A la Sergeant Schultz in the famous Hogan's Heroes television series, "I know nothing, I see nothing".
The rabbi called out, "Mazal Tov! Mazel Tov!" and it was over.
"Thank you for coming . . . and don't tell anyone what you saw here tonight. Have a good evening" and he was gone.
We exited into the cool night without speaking; each of us went our own way. I never mentioned what had transpired that evening to anyone, nor did I discuss it with my co-conspirators.
I still don't know with certainty what transpired that night all those years ago, but, with the knowledge that I have since acquired, I can assume the following was the sequence of events that preceded the wedding ceremony we had witnessed.
Not too many Jews remained in Poland after the second world war. Those (relatively few) who did return "home" after their aweful wartime experience, were greeted with very severe Polish antisemitism. As a result, most of them quickly left the country. The small number who remained basically went underground regarding their Judaism.
There were not too many fellow Jews (Jewesses) with whom to marry. The urge was strong, so the young single men married non-Jewish women, and vice-versa.
Apparently our couple was such a union. The husband was Jewish, the wife Catholic. After many years, they finally managed to escape Poland -- it wasn't easy to leave any Eastern European country in the sixties and seventies. Perhaps the Jewish man should now divorce his non-Jewish, shikse, wife and start life afresh. Our rabbis of old may indeed have taken this approach. But these two people had now been together for many years, had suffered severe hardships together, had arrived in a new country, together, a new language, an unfamiliar culture, a new life.
I assume that due to these unusual and difficult circumstances, our wise sage took another approach. The woman had already abandoned Catholicism many years earlier and was not averse to being a "Jewish" wife. So the rabbi's court converted her to Judaism, according to orthodox Jewish rite. She had completed this conversion process that very afternoon, culminating with immersion in a mikveh ritual bath.
The rabbi now wanted to waste no time with the wedding. He could not countenance a Jewish man living "in sin" with a (now) Jewish woman -- he wanted to perform the wedding ceremony immediately.
And indeed, with our help, he did.
Menachem Kuchar, 4th November, 2008
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