The Week I Went to Iowa To Make Marriages the Torah Was Severe
I went to Iowa to marry seventeen couples the first week that the ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court — that the state’s same-sex marriage ban violates the constitutional rights of gay and lesbian couples — went into effect. We arranged a bus from St. Louis, Missouri, the adjacent state to Iowa were the seventeen couples live and where same-sex marriage is banned by amendment to the state constitution. The bus was scheduled to leave from the synagogue at 6 AM. There were four officiants on the bus (my wife and I – two rabbis – did not reflect the balance of the group which included two Jewish couples but we Jews are always, you know, out front on social issues), one officiant waiting to assist us in Iowa City, and seventeen couples who had volunteered for the event. Ed Reggi and Scott Emmanuel put it together and called the day the Show Me Marriage Equality Bus.
Ed had traveled up to Iowa City to arrange the marriage licenses and put the details together. He met a minister (interim) at the Unitarian Universalist Society in downtown Iowa City that had recently celebrated its 100 year anniversary. Ed also found a restaurant that specialized in organic food that was delighted to put together a post-wedding lunch for us at a reasonable price (Devotay), he found a wedding cake artist who offered to donate a spectacular wedding cake from a traditional recipe that featured a rainbow interior (Jamake Dudley), he found the mayor of Iowa City who wanted to welcome us at the marriage bureau (Reginia Bailey), it all kind of fell into his lap the way he told it. The bus was nice too — though not too comfortable — it’s a bus.
By a little after 6 AM we were off to Iowa City. There was a load of media in the parking lot of the synagogue before we left. I am media-shy so I stayed away from cameras and reporters but somebody had to do it and my wife was there early and she talked to everyone. Nobody it seemed had slept much the night before, still the ride was not quiet and sleepy, and if people slept it was only intermittently including myself. By the time we made it to Iowa City, we were all tired but stimulated. It rained lightly most of the way but the ride was pleasant, up [the celebrated] highway 61 a pleasant road (not too crowded) to Iowa City. Our bus driver stopped several times and all of us full of coffee stood in lines for the rest rooms.
When we reached Iowa City, our first stop was the Johnson County government center where Kim Painter, the Johnson County recorder, granted the 17 couples licenses on the spot. Ed had worked this out in advance. The mayor of Iowa City, Regenia Bailey, was also there to welcome us and take pictures. “If you are looking for a friendly place to live, please remember us,” she said. She seemed genuinely delighted to receive in her secret oasis, this Iowa City, in the great state of Iowa.
Our next stop was the Unitarian Universalist Society on Gilbert Street in downtown Iowa City. There was a small group waiting to welcome us at the Church, some Church members and some more media, this is Iowa City and our arrival qualified as a big media event. The Church friends invited us in, after pictures on the street, welcomes all around, smiles and hugs, and we went downstairs to a kind of fellowship hall where coffee, cakes, cookies, and fruit were nicely displayed. We hadn’t stopped for food so most of us were hungry and we gobbled up some good will while many of the couples ducked into a bathroom or a classroom to change for the ceremony.
We then went up into the Sanctuary where the Unitarian minister’s wife served as wedding planner and organized the seventeen couples in a relatively painless authoritarian manner. It was a little complicated – seventeen couples and five officiants – Scott had divided the couples up so we each had three or four couples to marry in this partially public, partially private ceremony.
Each of the officiants had a moment to say something at the podium, the couples then came up and stood between the pews and the sacred space, then we moved up into the sacred space and each couple came up one couple at a time to speak their vows to each other.
Each officiant’s vows were a bit different. I didn’t know the couples I served, we were on the bus together but we met only briefly before the ceremony. We hardly had time to discuss the events, and I was also busy with putting music together as that was my responsibility as well. I had my guitar with me that I imagined I would play a little on the bus, but there wasn’t room for that kind of thing in the cramped seats and my guitar was stored away in the storage compartment underneath the bus anyway.
The wedding planner organized a processional grouped by the officiant in order of the ceremony, it was a little complicated but we pulled it off. I had a head-full of music but thought I would be led by inspiration and didn’t really plan what I would sing or play. In the first group of couples was a woman with a fine soprano voice, she asked if she could sing a song with my accompaniment after she walked in with her partner. She asked to sing “You Are So Beautiful [To Me]” a Billy Preston tune made famous by Joe Cocker. I happened to know it, but I knew it in the key of A. I sat with the singer for a moment and determined that C would be a better key for her so I did a quick transposition and we were ready.
Before she arrived, I opened with a Sephardic love song [in an old Jewish-Spanish dialect] called Una Matica de Ruda (a little bit of rue). It’s an extremely beautiful and tender song. I was feeling some sort of added energy in the room by then that was not common to most marriages I have done. It felt, I admit, a little edgy.
Then the soprano singer walked in and stood next to me. I played through the chord progression once in C and by the second time through she joined me, her voice opened like a human flower and something wonderful happened in the room. For me –I dropped into my skin — we had entered ceremony. Before that, there was a jitteriness in the room. With the song, You Are So Beautiful [To Me], I felt the room settle and she sang the song much slower than we had run through, I pulled the guitar accompaniment down to quiet and it felt to me like a prayer. After that song, everything changed.
Then I sang Going to the Chapel and We’re Going to Get Married made famous by the Dixie Cups and everybody laughed, I think out of tension. I sang one more song after that (a stupid choice) and I am trying to forget the one verse I sang before I stopped. It was time for the vows.
My wife began and said some beautiful emotional words during her time at the pulpit. This was a significant event for her too, she has been a pioneer in our community and elsewhere in so many things and none more dear to her than equal rights. She married the two Jewish couples, who we have both known for many years, and for one of them I came up and chanted the traditional words that couples repeat to each other and those are the words that technically marry individuals in the Jewish ceremony. They both wore beautiful tallitot [prayer shawls] that I helped them put on and chanted the blessing with them: Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who has made us holy with Mitzvot [deeds] and has asked us to wrap ourselves in fringes. They did. They looked great.
When it was my turn to officiate (I was next) I went up to the pulpit and read a poem that I had rewritten for this occasion which I will append to this document at the end. It got a laugh, but it was a serious piece, a little quirky but serious.
The Jewish wedding ceremony doesn’t really have vows. The rabbi acts as a master of ceremony, truly, and the couple speaks words to each other that signifies the entrance into the next stage of their existence, a ceremony we call an act of holiness. The words have to do with the notion that with this ring, you are holy to me.
The way I understand holiness in this context is that there is something entirely the same in every marriage that every human being who has linked his or her life with another human being has experienced. It comes out of a universal hunger for intimacy, reciprocity, exclusivity, and disclosure in the commitment of accompanying each other through the changes of our lives. It is also something entirely idiosyncratic, individual, something unique that only exists between these two people in just this way. It happens only this way once, now. Not either or, but both. It is both universal and entirely individual, mythic and personal, like everyone else who has married and something created uniquely between these two human beings. That to me signifies this notion of marriage as holiness.
I spoke these words quietly to the couples I served, I don’t think anybody else could hear, it only took a few moments and I realized as I was speaking these words how right to the heart of the matter these words were. I could feel the eyes of the couples I was officiating for burning into mine, my eyes into their eyes.
Then I made up some vows, I put some words together similar to others I have heard, some from poetry I have written, and everything was valid and confirmed — they were married according to the great state of Iowa.
One of the couples brought their son with them, he looked to be about eight years old, he stood up on the sacred space with us and someone snapped a picture of the couple kissing, the boy looking up at his parents, all photographed from behind, my face peeking out between their union. It is a beautiful picture, I love the boy’s attentiveness the most.
I went and sat with my wife to watch the rest of the officiants and the ceremony. With every one, I felt pulled into the story. Many of the couples cried, some softly, some more dramatically. I felt pulled into everyone’s story, though I didn’t know the stories, I felt the sense of Story, the large story, the journey of their lives that twisted and turned its way to this place away from their homes where they found an opening in the atmosphere to breathe into each other just the way the rest of us who have chosen marriage have, just as everyone who has married has, but in the specific sense of where they came from, where they have been, who has helped who has hurt, the whole catastrophe as the Buddhists say felt weighty and profound to me and I entered into each story as if it was a new story. Because it was — new and old. I knew nothing and I felt everything, knew virtually nothing about every couple and felt the weightiness of their unions.
When it was over, I was exhausted. My wife wanted the closure of filing all the documents before we left Iowa City, which I thought was ridiculous but we went out by foot searching for a post office in downtown Iowa City to mail our part of the marriage documents into the county officials. The streets of Iowa City were wide and inviting, the sun had come out, the rain had passed, it was cool in the late Spring Iowa afternoon and everyone we asked gave us good directions. In a couple of blocks we found a post office branch, we bought the stamps, and mailed off the documents. She was completely correct about that closure, it felt good, good to mail those documents right there, in Iowa City, Iowa.
We then went looking for the restaurant, Devotay, on North Linn Street. It was about four blocks away and we intuited the direction. We were correct and everyone was already dug into the buffet when we arrived. We ate and enjoyed the exceptional hospitality of the owners, chef Kurt Michael Friese and his wife Kim Mcwane Friese. It felt to me as if they were celebrating with us.
The rainbow wedding cake, donated by Jamake Dudley, who had appeared in Ed’s trip to Iowa City to set up the event, was a perfect cap to a remarkable meal.
I found an excellent used book store with a record store attached (great collection of vinyl and a knowledgeable proprietor) on the corner and went in and read some poetry from the stacks, then sat out in the sun with my wife until the bus arrived. I slept most of the way home.
I overslept the next day. I was due at the synagogue at 10 AM, I got up at 11, arrived at the synagogue at 11:15. I never oversleep. I had students all day long, and between each I fell asleep in whatever chair I was sitting in. I was exhausted.
I got to the synagogue that next morning in time to teach the portion of the week. We read a different part of the Torah each week, that week was the portion entitled “holiness” — the same title as the wedding ceremony. God says, You shall be holy, because I your God am holy. I stared into the text and was pulled into it. I also saw the Levitical injunction against men with men and women with women. There was no time to take up all the subjects that morning, there is a revealed literal text and there is for us always a hidden, secret text, so I told my students where I had been the day before and I read them the poem I had read from the pulpit during the ceremony (this is the end of the poem) and everyone in our circle – applauded.
Congratulations on Your Wedding in Iowa
Easy to get married,
Conventional wisdom has it,
Hard to stay married.
On the other hand,
There might be an Iowa
A state in the Mid-West
To condone marriage
Between man and man
And woman and woman.
You might have to find a sympathetic
Judge in the state of Iowa
To give you a license.
You might have to come in a bus
From another state
Missouri, for example,
You might have to leave at 6 AM.
Hard to get married, I say,
Easy to stay married.
You work the politics,
The complexities of another state
And the management of a team of clergy,
You conclude with the optimistic:
Hard to get married,
Easy to stay married.
This is known as a syllogism
Spelled with a y not with an i
from the root word silly
It is counter to conventional wisdom
All wisdom is counter to the conventional
We know this from the Hebrew masters of the nistar,
The hidden wisdom
Which is really real,
As taught by the old masters of Kabbalah
And jazzmen who once blew saxophone
In St. Louis, Missouri –
In years to come
You might look at each other
You will say
Remember how hard it was to get married?
And you’ll fall in love
Rabbi James Stone Goodman
United States of America