During the course of a conversation about why such-and-such a couple surprisingly got to together or unexpectedly split up (the details are hazy — it was many years ago), my friend Melissa pitched in a question that she attributed to her Harvard roommate’s grandmother: “Are you the mattress?” That question came to serve for me as a shorthand for the great mystery of what makes some couples tick and others explode. Not because I think that marriages are made or broken in the bedroom, but because it makes the crucial point that no one is the mattress in another couple’s marriage.

We can be pleasantly surprised or incredulous when couples unite; have our worst fears confirmed or be in total shock when they separate; observe couples growing closer together over the years, or drifting further apart; hear one side of their story or the other, or both. But even when the couple in question are our own parents or our own children (I’m thinking about the father’s obsession in A.B. Yehoshua’s Liberated Bride), we will always be blinkered spectators to someone else’s drama, outsiders peering into the dark.

Whenever I’d had occasion to repeat the mattress question, I’d done it in the name of my friend Melissa’s college roommate’s Jewish grandmother. I hadn’t met Melissa’s roommate, let alone her grandmother, but I always envisaged her. In my mind’s eye, she looked remarkably like my friend Mimi’s Bubbe Ida: short, smiling, not slim, white curly hair and glasses, purveyor of lemon-cakes and salty remarks along the lines of “Are you the mattress?”

But a couple of years ago, I had to revise this picture. During another conversation with Melissa about relationships, I reminded her of what her college roommate’s Jewish grandmother used to say. But she wasn’t Jewish, Melissa replied. She was Indian. It turned out that Melissa had two roommates at Harvard. Wait. Bubbe Ida in a sari…?

Even if a Bubbe Ida look-alike wasn’t one of its transmitters, there’s a great Jewish tradition of awareness that marriage is a mystery. A midrash on Va-yetze (Bereishit Rabba 68.4), Jacob’s setting out to find a wife, is an early example:

Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon opened: ‘God makes individuals dwell in a house; He brings out prisoners in proper ways.” (Ps 68:7). A certain [Roman?] matron [Matrona] once asked Rabbi Yossi bar Halafta, ‘In how many days did the Holy One, blessed be He, created His world?’ ‘In six days’, he answered. ‘And what has He been doing since then?’ ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, sits and makes matches’, he answered, ‘assigning this man’s daughter to that man, this man’s [former?] wife to that man, the wealth [dowry?] of this man to that man’. ‘If that is difficult’, she scoffed, ‘I can do the same. I have many male and female servants; in no time I can match them up’. Said he to her: ‘If it is easy in your eyes, it is as difficult before the Holy One, blessed be He, as parting the Red Sea’.

 

Rabbi Yosi bar Halafta went away. She went and took a thousand male and a thousand female servants and lined them up opposite each other. She said, ‘This one will marry that one and this one will marry that one’, and married them all that night. The next day, those who were thus united came to her; this one’s head was injured, that one’s eye was out of its socket, another one’s leg was broken. She asked them, ‘What’s the matter?’ This woman said, ‘I do not want this man’, while this man protested, ‘I do not want that woman’.

 

Immediately, she summoned Rabbi Yossi bar Halafta and admitted: ‘There is no god like your God: it is true, your Torah is indeed beautiful and praiseworthy, and you spoke the truth!’ Said he to her: ‘Did I not say to you, if it is easy in your eyes, it is as difficult before the Holy One, blessed be He, as the dividing of the Red Sea’. The Holy One, blessed be He, matches them up against their will and to their detriment. What is the proof? ‘God makes individuals dwell in a house; He brings out the captives ‘in proper ways’ [ba-kosharot]’. What does ba-kosharot mean? ‘Weeping’ [bekhi] and ‘song’ [shirot]: he who desires [his companion] sings: and he who does not, weeps.

I often think about this midrash when I’m with the haredi branch of my husband’s family, as I was over Pesach. My husband’s brother and his wife have one son and nine daughters. The six children who are married so far met their spouses through shidduchim, the matchmaking system that operates, with variations, throughout the haredi world. Couples do not meet each other directly, at college or work or in a social context; there’s rarely an opportunity for that anyway. Rather, their parents make enquiries, suggestions are offered, usually through a third party (the shadchan, matchmaker), and then, once the couple are confident that they are happy with each other, the engagement is announced.

I love spending time with these nine sisters, especially when they are all together, as they were at Pesach. Looking at them is like watching light on moving water. Shapes and patterns — physical features, character traits, mannerisms, tones of voice — appear, disappear and re-appear, more or less visible, variations on a theme, familiar but never exactly repeated. To be sure, they are recognizable as sisters, especially when they’re all together, but the differences between them are at least as striking as the similarities.

What really stuns me is their marriages. The five sisters who are married so far have husbands who, though superficially similar to each other (they all wear white shirts and black trousers and ‘learn,’ at least part-time), are in fact very different. And here’s the amazing thing: each husband seems to me to be a perfect match for his respective wife. It’s absolutely impossible to imagine a situation in which X husband was married to Y sister instead of Z sister. Making matches may be harder than parting the Red Sea, but there must be some pretty impressive shadchaniyot  out there in Monsey and Lakewood.

Back to the midrash. A plausible version of the story might be that whereas the matron, Matrona, fails when it comes to making matches, God always succeeds. But that’s not what happens. Making good matches is hard for Matrona, and it’s hard for God. As hard as parting the Red Sea. So what’s the difference between them? Why does God command Matrona’s respect?

My tentative answer to this question is that, unlike Matrona, God succeeds both in making good marriages and in ending correctly the marriages that were not good. The midrash opens with Psalm 68:7: ‘God makes individuals dwell in a house; He brings out the captives ‘in proper ways’. As the author of the midrash reads it, the first half of that verse deals with marriage: God draws single people together as couples.

Alongside the word-play that produces ‘weeping’ (sad couples) and ‘singing’ (happy couples), the second half of the verse seems to allude to the exodus from Egypt. But there’s yet another dimension. God makes individuals dwell in a house, that is, makes marriages, and he brings out ‘properly’ those who are prisoners, that is, prisoners trapped in failed marriages. Whereas Matrona’s unhappy couples are violently abusive, God leads his unhappy couples towards a ‘good divorce’.

The first time I remember hearing the term ‘good divorce’, it was applied to the Israel-Palestine conflict by Emma Thompson, the actress. Emma Thompson read English at Newnham College, Cambridge. Many years later, by which time I was a Fellow there, she came back to speak to the undergraduates, and I was asked to chair the session. Emma was sensitive, compassionate, clever, modest and, unexpectedly to me, very, very funny.

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She told us that she’d just had the great thrill of making a film with Dustin Hoffman. Some of the filming took place in Los Angeles, near Rodeo Drive. She and he would sometimes walk along Rodeo Drive to have lunch together, but they never had much time to eat it. A walk that should have taken 10 minutes took 40 because people were constantly stopping Dustin Hoffman to get his autograph, tell him how much they loved his movies and so forth. One day, Emma told us, she asked him why he didn’t wear a hat so that no-one would recognize him. I can’t do that, he replied. Then I’d be an old Jew with a hat.

Having told that story with perfect comic timing, Emma went on to explain why (most) women can’t tell jokes. I won’t repeat her theory here, but it had to do with punch-lines. At the end of the talk, I was standing next to her when Sura Qadiri, a wonderful undergraduate from a Palestinian family, came up and asked her why her name no longer appeared on Boycott Israel websites.

Emma explained that she’d read an essay by Amos Oz in which Israel and Palestine were compared to a couple trapped in a broken marriage; what eluded them was a good divorce. Since then, she said, she’d resolved to support only causes in which Israelis and Palestinians were working co-operatively towards that good divorce.

Some marriages end quickly and relatively painlessly. The couple are very young; they see early on that they’ve made a mistake; there are no children, no jointly owned property, or shared financial assets or debts; there’s been no time to develop close cross-family relationships, and one of them plans to live abroad.

But most marriages do not end like this. They are tangled webs that must somehow be disentangled without cutting all the threads. They will continue to exist — as former marriages — even when they end. They cannot and should not be erased.

Israel-Palestine is a tangled web par excellence. However their tragic story ends, the ties that bind them — social, political, economic, geographic, security-related, and a myriad others — cannot simply be cut. There are dependent offspring, and far from planning to live abroad, both parties have to stay in the neighborhood.

Emma Thompson made her comment about the good divorce more than 10 years ago; she’s probably changed her mind in the meantime. But the point arguably applies more than ever. Family and friends of both parties in this broken marriage should ask themselves, when they lie down and when they rise up: Are you the mattress?

It won’t help to keep demanding that Israel issues a divorce, ends the occupation, with no thought to what comes next. On the contrary, it will hurt. Well-wishers on both sides should be thinking about how the couple will support themselves after the divorce, who will keep the house, who will have custody of the children, what will the visitation rights be, what will happen to the family business they’ve been running together, and a million other details.

Ignoring the couple’s post-divorce future is a version of what Matti Friedman, in a recent interview about his new book, described as the ‘vacuum’ model of foreign intervention that prevailed in the 1990s. Create a vacuum (by removing Saddam Hussein, for example), politicians claimed, and something good will fill it. The vacuum was filled instead, Friedman points out, by men in black masks.

In an old skit, Woody Allen joked that he and his wife were deciding between a vacation in Bermuda or a divorce. They choose the latter because a vacation in Bermuda is over in two weeks but a divorce lasts forever. No doubt Woody Allen had something different in mind, but the divorce that will inevitably occur between Israel and Palestine will also last forever, or at least for as long as they do.

Who knows who will be able to mediate most effectively to secure the divorce with the best possible terms for both parties, guaranteeing them the best possible future apart. I would be astonished, however, if anything positive is ever achieved by well-meaning people in distant countries who haven’t asked themselves the simple question posed by my friend Melissa’s Harvard roommate’s Indian grandmother: Are you the mattress?