The day the heavens wept

By Donna Jacobs Sife

It was 102 degrees the day I got married. The chupah stood on the dance floor, that had been laid over the swimming pool, in my childhood garden, so there was no chance for a quick dip. The image of my last dip into water resurfaced in flashes occasionally. The humility of standing before an old, officious woman who inspected me for stray hair, knots, signs of imperfection and then led me naked to the living waters where I immersed three times to her blessings. Having lived together for two years before, the ritual had no less power. Dip in to the waters girl, and emerge a woman. Cut the bonds between those who gave you life, and prepare to tie knots with another. I held my breath and swam towards the primal cycle of life, death, life. Simultaneously, in another part of the city, the groom and his friends were ritualizing their own sense of loss and gain, by drinking, and loud surging music, and booking a prostitute for a lark.

The guests stood fanning themselves with the bright yellow napkins that had been placed on the tables under the marquee in the garden, leaving the settings somewhat untidy and askew. My mother later censored more than a third of the photographs, because of the large sweat marks that had formed under her neck and arms on her mauve silk dress. Heat didn’t bother him and me. Ours was a hearth of ideas and passion, fired by our shared lonely childhoods, that I only came to understand much later. Wounds that drew us together and tore us apart. The moment the vows had been exchanged, the band started up and the Rabbi and the family and guests began to dance the Hora, as the dance floor bounced up and down dangerously, threatening to collapse. The newly weds rushed away, to break their fast together quietly, as is the tradition. I happily gathered a plate of food, and entered my obsolete bedroom, with the yellow flowered wallpaper and pathetic single bed. He was waiting, chewing on a sandwich he had grabbed on the way.

Dark clouds began to form. The day turned to night, the air was heavy with impending storm. And finally the clouds broke with angry claps of thunder and torrents of rain. The guests huddled under the marquee, avoiding the places where the water poured in, over tables and food. In the twenty years of marriage, I came to know the darkness of day. The huddling in corners to avoid an outburst. “A good omen”, they had said, and I nodded hopefully,but was not convinced.

At the gett, the rabbis spent long and pedantic energy on our names. “Your Hebrew name is Danielle? But that is a man’s name. When are you ever called by that name?”

“When I am called to the Torah” I respond.

“And how often is that?” one of the six Rabbis asked, with a small involuntary smirk.

“Regularly” I respond, with a voluntary one.

“So, you are Danielle, called Donna, daughter of Arieh Leib ben Itzhok Meyer, called Lionel. Now is that Linel, or Lionel? How is it pronounced.” We went over the options and decided on Linel. The ‘o’ is silent. Later I thought to myself, that whether the angels were weeping or not I do not know, but one thing is for certain. They knew who stood before them.

He dipped the feathered tip into ink and with profound care and beauty, wrote the document to sever the union formed in heaven. It took him hours. And whilst waiting I took down a book from the Rabbi’s shelf about divorce. It spoke of marriage as being the very closest two people can come to God, it spoke of spiritual perfection. And it said that if two people are not happy, are not able to achieve even a glimpse of this enlightenment, then to God it is like sacrilege. Two people are not expected to suffer together, it is like an insult to the vision of God. And I held the book to my heart, and gave thanks for such nourishment and understanding. We tried. We ran around with cupped hands, cloths, and buckets to collect the water pouring in. We held down the tent flaps to stop the wind, held fast to the poles in the ground. “May this be the worst that happens to you”, blessed the Rabbi. My mother spat three times, to keep away the Chora, the evil eye.

Twenty years later I cupped my hands to catch the folded parchment, inscribed with the holy invocation that was to be served to the Heavenly Court. And he pronounced the words that were served to him by the Rabbi, “I divorce you, I divorce you , I divorce you”. As we both choked on the tears,a love, long buried beneath the darkened clouds and thunderous storms, shone out, so that we were severed in love. And when I looked up I saw the eyes of the Rabbis also brimmed with tears. And knew that the heavens too wept to see love reborn for an instant -in the primal cycle of life and death and life.

Tucked beneath my right arm, I placed the holy decree and “walked towards my independence” as instructed. And finally the rabbi held my hands in his and wished me love and fulfillment and future joy.

The sun reemerged, reflecting like jewels in the puddles and raindrops that hung on the leaves. The air was cleared, not heavy, not even hot. The tables were dried, the cakes and coffee brought out. A gentle breeze blew, as if a blessing had descended upon the day after all. And there were many fertile years, with babies born and chickens in the yard. Tree planting, shared Shabbat evenings, friendships and learning.

I sit now at times, at an empty Shabbat table, and wonder if the Shekhina has deserted me. At other times, at communal dinners I sit and endure the loss of hearing husbands declare their wives women of valour. Sometimes the bed aches with emptiness, and I close my eyes to imagine gentle breath beside me. Despite this, I still feel carried by the wise shoulders of the Rabbis, who knew how to sever love with love. Soon I will visit again that old officious woman and walk naked into the living waters to her blessings, hold my breath to sink and then emerge towards a new beginning, giving honour to the primal cycle of life and death and life.