‘You Better Start Swimmin’ Or You’ll Sink Like A Stone’

The times they are a-changin’. A few weeks ago I attended a wedding in Central Park. It was a gorgeous Wednesday morning, the nearby lake looked stately, and the green foliage on the trees seemed to hold itself motionless so as not to distract from the drama taking place.

There was a chupah made of a large tallit tied to four poles held by four guests. There was a rabbi and a cantor, a Kiddush cup and a ketubah. There was my friend, a man I have known for many years, who is not Jewish, and the man he was marrying, whom I had not met before. That man was Jewish. And black.  

The times they are a-changin’. When Bob Dylan sang that song in 1964, we knew we were living through a period of enormous social change: the civil rights movement, the women’s revolution, the explosive youth culture. The decades that followed seemed almost staid by comparison, yet when we look back at the last 20 or 30 years, we can see how much change they, too, brought. My granddaughter stared at me in disbelief one day when I told her that cell phones were a recent invention. “You mean Mommy didn’t have a cell phone when she was young?” she asked, as if that were as impossible as not breathing. Yet, at 14, she was born only at the very beginning of the cell phone era.

Fundamental changes have happened so quickly in the last several decades that we haven’t even had time to celebrate them, the way Bob Dylan celebrated the 1960s. The technological revolution has altered every facet of society, of course, but the human change has been equally revolutionary, with women moving into roles our mothers or grandmothers could not have imagined. And now we have been experiencing an upheaval in the way we view gay men and lesbian women that may become the hallmark of the first part of the 21st century.

In the 1980s I wrote a book about couples in long-term marriages, and what kept them together. It never crossed my mind to include a same-sex couple; I barely knew any same-sex couples. In the 1990s, when the book was updated, my agent suggested I add a section on gays in long-term relationships. Those relationships don’t belong in a book about marriage, I argued. I lacked the foresight to picture them ever belonging there.

The two grooms at the outdoor wedding I attended were nervous and ecstatic, like many couples at their weddings. They exchanged rings they had bought seven years earlier and put aside for the day when same-sex marriage would become legal in New York State. The Reform rabbi who officiated spoke beautifully about their commitment to each other and about the commitment of his congregant to the Jewish tradition he had assumed. I don’t know what motivated this man to convert to Judaism. I smiled to myself, remembering Sammy Davis Jr.’s famous line when asked about his handicap on a golf course. “Talk about handicap,” he said. “I’m a one-eyed black Jew.” Blacks, gays and Jews still face discrimination, although much less so than in the past. This gay, black man chose to take on the responsibilities of being Jewish and HE is determined to live up to them. I suspect that now that my friend has married him, he will also convert.

As a Conservative Jew, I took a while to accept same-sex marriage from a religious viewpoint. Yet I like that Rabbi Elliot Dorff defines the Talmudic term, “kavod habriyot,” as “human dignity” in regard to gays, and affirms that “holiness and joy” can be expressed in same-sex marriages as in heterosexual ones. Should the rituals at both forms of marriage be exactly the same? I’m not sure. Both grooms stamped on glasses at the end of the ceremony I attended. I’m not sure one would not have been sufficient. I’m not sure that proclaiming a gay or lesbian couple married “according to the laws of Moses and Israel” — usually part of the kiddushin ceremony — is quite appropriate. And I wonder whether some other verse might be found for use in the seven blessings to avoid replacing the traditional “voice of the groom and voice of the bride” with the somewhat awkward “voice of the groom and voice of the groom,” as this service did. Our tradition has a rich liturgy from which to choose and still maintain the ceremony’s authenticity. These are quibbles, however. The fact of the marriage is what matters. 

The “present now will later be past,” Dylan wrote in his song about changing times. It may not be easy to adjust to the pace of social change, but we lose out in the present — and the future — if we don’t make an all-out effort to do so.

Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.


About the Author
Francine Klagsbrun, a Jewish Week columnist, is the author of more than a dozen books, among them Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She was the editor of the best-selling Free To Be You and Me, produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation. Her newest work is an in-depth biography of Golda Meir to be published in September 2017 by Schocken Books.