There’s really only one thing I miss about the 1980s: I could dress real fine, for real cheap.
That’s when I lived in Orlando (when I was selling out to a mouse). I did some of my shopping at a thrift store on the North Orange Blossom Trail. There I scored a deep maroon 1950s dinner jacket of shiny liquid velvet with black shawl lapels. This thing fit me with tailored precision, except the sleeves were three inches too short. Ah, but remember, this was the 80s. In those days it could be fashionable for a young man to roll up the sleeves of his dress jacket. I bought some used patent leather shoes, a skinny tie-it-my-own-self black bowtie, and new tux britches from a brand-name retailer.
I required this formal ensemble because I was to attend the wedding of two of my SAK Theatre/Disney Entertainment colleagues. Their invitation had read, “Black Tie Optional.” These were show-people remember; there was no such thing as “tacky.” (And, anyway, in the 1980s the removal of one’s outrageous fashion choices rarely required cosmetic surgery.)
Thusly bedizened, my date and I were making our way from my house to my luxurious ’85 Nissan pickup when we encountered my neighbor, Mr. Bisblinghoff.
Mr. Bisblinghoff was a classically-trained bigot who knew every joke in the Norton Anthology of Bigot Humor. He was intrigued by the fact that I was a working comedian because he fancied himself funny. (I am sure he drew laughs within his small community.) Except for us being of different generations, I think he thought of us as alike. His world was such that he did not encounter white men who did not think as he did. (Our vocabulary word here, young people, is “ethnocentric.” ) I never laughed at his jokes, but I think he thought I was simply being deadpan. When I would walk away, he would laugh all the louder.
Our houses were close together, only separated by the width of a driveway. I enjoyed being in my yard, tending my garden and fruit trees. But he was always outside, or he would make his way outside when he saw me from his kitchen window above his sink, which faced my kitchen window. He was always doing the dishes. All I wanted was peace with my overly-chummy neighbor.
On this evening, when we came out of the house all dressed up, Mr. Bisblinghoff put on a mock-astonished face. “Where are you two going?”
I said, “We’re going to a black-tie wedding.”
He made an even more astonished face. “A BLACK wedding?!” He dropped his jaw, dopey-mouthed. (Stupid people should never fake looking stupid.)
“No,” I corrected. “A black tie wedding.”
“OHHH…!” He feigned wiping sweat off his brow, “Whew!” To him it bore repeating. “I thought you said a BLACK wedding! Haw, haw, haw…”
I was furious. And embarrassed at my cowardice – embarrassed at my loss of words with which to confront him.
Halfway to the wedding, I thought of my comeback line. (Isn’t that how it always happens?) To this day I regret that I hadn’t said the simple truth: “Actually, it’s a Jewish wedding.”
And indeed it was – the whole shebang. There was the canopy, called the huppah, under which the bride waited for the groom. The bride circled the groom seven times to “surround” the groom, and to signify the seven days the earth rotated during creation. The groom broke the glass with his right foot. (I am told there was a clear light bulb in the wine glass to make a better pop – again, show-people.) We all cheered, “Mazel Tov!” There was the Chair Dance. So many courses of food. So many courses of wine. So much celebration!
The heads of the men in the congregation were required to be covered, so we were all presented with white yarmulkes embroidered on the inside with the bride and groom’s name. I wore mine home in hopes that Mr. Bisblinghoff would see it. But it was long past his bedtime.
There’s nothing like a Jewish wedding! I like to imagine Yeshua and his mother, Miriam, making their way to Cana for such a celebration. Regarding the seriousness of Miriam’s request that day – to give my protestant readers something to relate to – running out of wine at a Jewish wedding is tantamount to running out of the gummy lime sherbet floating in warm Sprite at a Methodist one.
• • •
It was early Sunday morning, October 28, when I learned of the previous Saturday morning’s shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. I work in Pittsburgh at least once a year with a diverse bunch of people. I started going through the files in my head, thinking about whom I needed to call.
At that moment, I got a text from my friend, Susan Gordon. Susan is a writer and a storyteller who hosts me every year for a workshop in her home in Maryland. One of the participants is our friend and storyteller, Marsha Wong. Susan wanted to alert me that Marsha knew some of the victims at the synagogue. She told me that Marsha was “sitting with one of the dead.”
Do you remember when America was sometimes cheerfully called “A Melting Pot?” (Oh, how I miss that phrase.) Well, Marsha is a one-woman saucepan. Marsha, who is Jewish, has traveled the world meeting people and absorbing their stories. She was a young volunteer with The Peace Corps when she met her husband, Richard, in the Bahamas. Richard is of Chinese descent.
Marsha is one of the funniest people I know.
Marsha is one of the wisest and kindest people I know.
I reached out to Marsha on Sunday. We exchanged a few emails over the last couple of days. She writes, “I belong to the Jewish Burial Society, called Chevra Kadisha. The one I belong to has thirty members. A few of the victims belong to it.”
Marsha explained some of the duties of Chevra Kadisha. “It is a tradition to not leave the body until burial, 24/7. Prayers, psalms and memories are shared during that time”
There’s also the Taharah, the ceremonial washing and preparation of the body.
Marsha’s adult daughter, Lara, died of cancer three years ago. Marsha’s grief has been profound, and throughout this time our little group of writers, poets, and storytellers have wrapped ourselves about her as we shared stories of loss and love and family.
Marsha told me, “Miri Rabinowitz, the wife of Jerry Rabinowitz (the physician who was murdered) was the Rosh (the leader of the ceremony) at Lara’s Taharah.”
And now, Marsha is fulfilling that same Holy duty with Chevra Kadisha, one that I know many would find difficult. She said, “This week is filled with holding Sh’mirah, attending Taharahs, funerals, and Shiva.”
She said, “To me, it is a huge, huge honor.”
• • •
The terrorist who attacked Tree of Life Synagogue announced that he wanted to “kill Jews,” but on this particular day he was targeting the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s National Refugee Shabbat, a day focused on refugees of all faiths.
This puts me to thinking of the most famous Jewish refugee of my faith, Yeshua. I see him on the move with mother, Miriam, and his earthly stepfather, Yosef – Yeshua who would go on to speak of the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left, when he said — along with other essential things — “I was a stranger, and you took me in.”
Just so you know, I asked Marsha if I could share some of her story. She said, “Of course.” Then later she wrote, “I feel connected to you, and safe.“
To me, this is a huge, huge honor.
Weddings, funerals, brokenness, grace — We are all more connected than we know.
Let’s be kind to each other this week.
© Andy Offutt Irwin