Personal essay from gay Jewish rabbi shows importance of family acceptance
July 20, 2012
Today, the Jewish online magazine Tablet published a beautiful personal essay by Roni Handler, a lesbian rabbi in the Reconstructionist sect of Judaism. In the essay, Roni shares the story of her wedding to her wife, another rabbi named Isabel. Roni also talks about the challenges her grandmother had with accepting the fact that she was marrying a woman. Although Roni's and Isabel's family members cheered on their engagement as a supremely happy occasion, Roni's grandmother struggled with the news. Roni writes:
The issue with my grandmother proved more difficult to resolve and would emerge in somewhat unexpected moments. I remembered shopping with my grandmother and my mother for my sister's wedding dress nine years before; as I planned my own wedding, I realized that I wasn't going to have the same experience. My grandmother wasn't going to be there. I needed to adjust my expectations. This was a realization that came to me time and again and is one that we also talked through with our rabbi. While I needed to adjust my expectations for the planning and day of my wedding, at the same time my grandmother needed to adjust hers for the life that she had pictured for me. ...
To my grandmother, the idea of two people of the same sex getting married was entertaining when talking about Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, or endearing when it was the gay men from the salon. Sadly, I was starting to learn that when it came to one's own family members, the rules sometimes change. It took time for my grandmother to realize that even though I was marrying a woman, I would still have the same opportunities (and challenges) as any other couple. She would still have grandchildren, we would still spend holidays together as a family, and I had indeed found a partner who would love and care for me (as I would for her) through all of the joys and sorrows of life.
The essay provides a lens into how traditional Jewish communities can sometimes struggle with the concept of the freedom to marry - and why marriage matters for loving and committed same-sex couples. Roni's grandmother's opposition to her engagement to a woman echoes similar stories from a range of Jewish people - from Orthodox communities to Conservative faith traditions to Reformed groups. Although a large majority of Americans in the Jewish faith support the freedom to marry, some still cite language from the Torah as reasons for not accepting homosexuality or love between same-sex couples.
But despite some opposition, there's significant evidence that more and more members of the Jewish community in the United States are embracing the freedom to marry. In 2009, polls by the Pew Research Center found 75% of American Jews supported the freedom to marry, and a new poll in May 2012 measured that support at 81%. The polling, combined with personal stories like Roni's insight into her grandmother, captures this growth and underscores how support for the freedom to marry is an essential part of Jewish communities' respect for all people.
We saw a multitude of Jewish groups applaud President Obama's May declaration that he supports the freedom to marry. One of these organizations, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, released a statement at the time announcing, "Today's decision is a vital, overdue, and very welcome step toward marriage equality and a more just society."
At the end of her essay, Roni shows how her grandmother ultimately accepted Roni and Isabel as a loving and committed couple who deserved the protections that marriage affords. Roni's "aunt" talked to the grandmother and explained that her involvement and attendance at her granddaughter's wedding would contribute to the celebration of the happy occasion. Roni writes:
When the wedding day came, a year after we'd announced our engagement, not only was my grandmother sitting in the front row as Isabel and I stood under our custom-made chuppah, but she also lent me her wedding band to use during the ceremony. I don't know whether she intended this gesture to hold as much significance as I felt. But as Isabel placed my grandmother's ring on my forefinger, the same ring that my late grandfather placed on my Bubbe's finger more than 60 years ago, I felt the blessings she was offering, even if they had not been expressed with words. And I knew that the right hour, the sha'ah tovah, had arrived.
Freedom to Marry congratulates Roni and Isabel on their marriage and applauds Roni's grandmother for not only accepting - but celebrating - her granddaughter's love and happiness. We thank Roni for sharing her story, which sets a positive example for Jewish families that may still be struggling with their stance on the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.
Photo by Koala Photography