Monday, December 13, 2010

You Make Me Whole. Being With You is Simply Divine…

This past Saturday I was privileged to officiate the wedding of Jessica and Matthew in Ludlow, Massachusetts. Ludlow is a fascinating New England town, where about 50% of the residents are Portuguese, and that language is quite prevalent on the street. I co-officiated with Father Vitor Oliveira at Our Lady of Fatima Church, which has one of the most ornate sanctuaries I have ever seen. The centerpiece, if you will, is a spectacular mosaic mural of the woman (as a young girl and as an elderly nun), who Catholics believe had visions of the Virgin Mary in Fatima, Portugal about a century ago. Here are the personal remarks I shared with the couple. (One little bit of information you need to understand the remarks is the bride’s family name – Vital.)

During the process of preparing for a wedding, I have every person I officiate for write a short autobiographical essay. This helps me get to know the couple, and really personalize my remarks. What struck me in the essays this couple wrote is the idea they share the feeling that they were made for each other. Jessica writes, “When it comes to marriage, I am a firm believer that every individual has another person on this planet that they are meant to be with.” Matthew writes similarly, “I feel like when I was born someone upstairs cut out a 5’7 smart, funny, down to earth beauty just for me.”

Now, I have not known the couple for long, but that made me scratch my head for a second. I mean, after all, these are two very different people. If all you knew was just what they did for a living, you would know that already. One is a pharmacist, and one an advertising executive. These are two strikingly different professions, that demand very different types of thinking and operation. Throw in the differences in background, culture and faith, and the question just increases. What is the secret of their love?

Then I thought about it in a deeper fashion, and it all made sense to me. If we are to imagine that there is someone out there that would be made just for us, why on earth would that person be like us? After all, each of us has strengths and weaknesses, and if anything, that person, who is made for us, ideally should help us, as we help them become mutually complete. In that sense, that person would almost have to be very different.

A very interesting subset of mystical Jewish Thought takes this further – the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria. The chief expounder of these ideas was, Rabbi Chayim Vital, who lived in the 16th Century, and who, you really can’t make this stuff up, also wrote a book about pharmaceutical remedies of his day! Rabbi Vital’s mystical teachings talk about everything in our world emanating from, coming from within the deity. Therefore, if there are males and females in our world, the deity itself is made up of these different male and female aspects. If there are different qualities in different people, they all emanate from within the deity, and come together as one within the deity. When we, in turn, find that special someone, who is our counterpart, that soul mate who makes us complete, we become in a sense, Godly, divine.

So, Jessica and Matthew, thank you. Thank you for reminding us just how special it is to find that soul mate who makes each of us truly complete. Hold on to that. Now look into each other’s eyes. As the years go by, make sure you take a moment here and there to stop and look into each other’s eyes like you are now, and wherever you are, whatever is going on in your life, say to yourself, say to each other, “You make me whole. Being with you is quite simply divine.”

Friday, November 26, 2010

Dave Barry Writes (Hilariously!) About Interfaith Marriage and About Weddings Too

Ever since I was eighteen, Dave Barry has been my favorite humorist. I first borrowed his “Dave Barry Turns 40” from my high school friend, Dovi, read it, and promptly returned it a little after I got married three years later. (Liat only had to remind me about 12 times, and hand deliver it to him or his girlfriend or sister or something.) That is how great it was. Fortunately, Dovi had not even started law school yet, so he could not sue me for returning his book just a tad late…

I have read each one of his (Dave Barry’s, not Dovi’s) non-fiction books since. What I love about his humor is that he talks about the simple unvarnished truth of what happens to every guy in life. You find yourself again and again agreeing with his silliness, and also feeling validated that you are, after all, not crazy… A few years ago he wrote a fiction book, called “Big Trouble”, where he took many elements of his non-fiction books and laced them into a crazy story. This was then made into a great movie, which you should see, if you have not seen it yet.

His latest book, which was just published, is called "I'll Mature When I'm Dead". As usual, I got weird looks from my kids, who could not understand why their dad was laughing so hard from a book. I especially liked two essays, “Judaism for Christians”
and “Father of the Groom”. (I knew Barry, a non-Jew, had remarried a few years ago, but I had not known that his second wife was Jewish.) In the former he gives a hilarious and irreverent description of what it is like for him to sit through synagogue services, what it is like for him to celebrate Jewish holidays and more. In the latter he describes many funny aspects of what it is like to be the father of the groom.

This is definitely worth a read. Enjoy, and if you borrow it from my friend, Dovi, make sure you return it by Thanksgiving 2013…

Monday, November 8, 2010

Michelle and Josh – Going Above and Beyond

This last Saturday I officiated a wedding between a really cool couple, Michelle and Josh. Michelle is a Christian of Palestinian/Jordanian descent and Josh is Jewish, so this was not only an interfaith but also an intercultural wedding. The wedding included not only Hebrew, but Arabic too, with Jimmy, Michelle’s cousin, reciting the Lord’s Prayer in the latter. We also included a beautiful tradition called crowning, in which the priest crowns the bride and groom to symbolize that they are like royalty on their wedding day. Finally, we included the Priestly Blessing in Hebrew, Arabic and English. My friend, Pastor Jalil Dawood, taught me how to do this in Arabic, and Jimmy helped me out too. Here are the personal remarks I shared with everyone during the ceremony:

There is a fascinating story in the Book of Genesis. Abraham has a typical concern of many parents of Gen Xers. His son Isaac is 40 years old. He has dated a few Canaanite girls, but really hasn’t found the right one. Abraham who really hasn’t liked any of the girls anyway, and who really wants some grandchildren, sends his Chief Servant back to his hometown of Charan to find the perfect match for Isaac. Now, Abraham seems to be a really forward thinking manager. He does not micromanage his employees. Rather, he gives basic instructions to his COO, and empowers him to act.

So how do you find the right match for your master’s son, particularly in a city you are not familiar with? The Chief Servant arrives in Charan, and the first thing he sees, right off the Canaan-Aram interstate most likely, is the city well, with the women of the city going back and forth, drawing water for their families. The Chief Servant prays to Yahweh, the God of his master, Abraham, for help. He basically makes a deal with Yahweh and says, that he will ask individual women for water, and the one who responds, saying that she will water him and his camels, will be the one that Yahweh has chosen. Indeed, Rebecca, the first woman he chooses to ask, who conveniently turns out to be Isaac’s cousin, gladly pours him some water to drink, and then volunteers to water his whole entourage, which she does promptly. The Chief Servant then happily slaps costly gold tennis bracelets on her arms and a golden nose ring in her nose (Our “avant garde” matriarch was apparently into the piercings…), and the rest is history… The lesson, colorfully told, is an obvious one. If you are looking for the right mate, choose someone who is not only not self-centered. Choose someone, who cares about others, and who does not wait to be asked to help, rather volunteers of one’s time and/or treasure at the sign of need, expecting nothing in return.

Fast forward about 3500 years to last June. I meet with every couple three or four times before their wedding, and we get to know each other pretty well. I had had two previous meetings with Michelle and Josh, but that was over the phone. This was the first time we met in person, and I was about to see a side of them, that I don’t get to see in couples all that often. I was in Houston for a small wedding at a B&B in the Montrose area. Michelle and Josh had just arrived in town a few days before, were in the process of building their furniture, and had had to attend a social at Josh’s new workplace, before they met with me. We had our meeting at the B&B, and they intended to return home to continue building furniture into the night. I took them on a quick tour of the B&B, showed them where the wedding would be taking place, and we suddenly bumped into the bride and groom. I introduced the two couples to each other, we talked a little bit, and we discovered that the three guys who were supposed to help the couple set up for the wedding had bailed on them. That, apparently, was why they were both in shorts and a t-shirt two hours before their ceremony, with the B&B manager and the best man in tow helping them set up…

We went back inside to the air conditioning, and then it happened, kind of all at once. Josh disappeared, and quickly appeared again with some dishes, gave them to Michelle, and dashed back outside. Michelle started setting up everything inside, while Josh started to set up tables outside. They got to work, I got swept up in it (though I did advise them not to expect this type of service at this wedding…), and they did not leave until everything was pretty much set up for the wedding. The couple, who was marrying that day, was really blown away, as was I.

Michelle and Josh, I think it is by no means coincidental that you have found love with each other and built your life together. Not many people would have done what you did that day, and something tells me that if I asked your family and friends, I would hear of other incidents, where you have acted the same. You two share something very special, that not enough people share, but that all of us should learn from. Thank you for your kindness and the example you set that day, and for giving me such a meaningful lesson to share with everyone here on your wedding day.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hillel’s Lessons in Word and Deed

About a month ago I officiated a Bat Mitzvah celebration for a young lady named Na’ama. It was not your typical Bat Mitzvah celebration. (If you have not yet noticed, typical is not what I am really into…) The celebration’s focal point was Na’ama herself leading a study session on the topic “A Celebration of Multiple Identities and the American Spirit”. She discussed how her namesake, the queen of Israel, exemplified the celebration of multiple identities and how George Washington in his letter to the Jews of Newport emphasized this very same idea. The gist of what I shared with her and her guests, in my personal remarks, follows:

What do we wish for our kids? Well, we hope that along with the inevitable mistakes they will make, and the lessons they will hopefully learn from them, they will on balance make the right choices. The million dollar question is, what qualities do they need to have so this does, in fact, happen?

For starters, they need intelligence and creativity, which I can tell Na’ama has. The thing is, that that is just not enough. After all, the financial crisis we are still in was caused by a bunch of really intelligent and (overly) creative people. They used those very qualities in spades, made some really bad choices, and got us all into a huge mess.

So what else is crucial to make sure that you can mostly make good choices? Well, you need a few qualities, that again, from spending time with Na’ama, I can tell she has: a caring attitude towards others, a sense of true humility, and the understanding that most issues are not black and white, rather gray.

There is a wonderful story in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a) that exemplifies just this point in word and deed:

Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him: "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot”. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, now go and learn it.”

Shammai shows that he is pretty much a black and white kind of guy. It is my way or the highway with him, and it is difficult to say that he is acting humbly or in a caring manner. Hillel, on the other hand, has one hard and fast black and white rule – treat others as you want to be treated. Now, says Hillel, go figure out the details on your own; life is mostly gray, after all. This demands true humility, because when you tell someone to go figure it out, it means they may find different answers than you did. They may end up using a slightly different measuring stick, when it comes to the nitty-gritty. Hillel is totally OK with that. Hillel, in his actions, shows that he is not just talk, he actually is very caring. He treats others as he would want to be treated. He lives what he preaches.

The postscript of this story, and the very fact that it has one, is fascinating. The Talmud is a book of discussions, and it goes back and forth, back and forth. Many times it does not give clear and consistent rulings even on issues of law. Not here. The Talmud uses a Paul Harvey “rest of the story” type of postscript to pass clear judgment on which of the rabbis was in the right, and which was in the wrong. It gives two more examples of how Shammai treated “interesting” potential converts with his black and white uncaring approach, and how Hillel acted in caring manner, and was willing to meet them where they were. It then tells us:

Some time later the three met in one place; said they, Shammai's impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel's gentleness brought us under the wings of the divine presence.

So, Na'ama, hold on to that. Continue to follow Hillel's path. Continue to show a caring attitude towards others, continue to exhibit a sense of true humility, and hold on to the understanding that most issues are not black and white, rather gray. This will put you on Hillel’s path of success in a way that truly matters. You will, on balance make good choices, and will truly make a difference in the world.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Seven Jewish Wedding Blessings – a Secular Humanistic Version

Many interfaith/Jewish weddings include the Seven Blessings . I was recently asked to officiate a ceremony, with a Secular Humanistic non-theistic Hebrew/English version of the Seven Blessings. I searched for a Hebrew version (I found only one or two), and nothing I found felt right, so I resolved to write one myself. It was important to me to preserve most of the original words, which would give it a traditional feel, and enable me to chant the blessings in the traditional tune. I also decided to try to write in a way that each of the six blessings (the seventh is the standard blessing over the wine) would parallel one of the six principles of the Humanist Manifesto III .


Baruch hamaskil ba’adam hamaiveen sheha’olam lo nivra lichvodo.

Praised be the enlightened one amongst humans, who understands that the world was not created for him.

The traditional blessing blesses the deity for creating everything for his glory; humans are not the reason for creation. Humanists agree with the latter. The first Manifesto principle states that, “knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis”. It is these very tools that have made it clear that the vast Universe, was not created, and certainly not with us in mind.


Baruch hamodeh al yitzeerat ha’adam.

Praised be the one who is thankful for the evolution of humans.

The traditional blessing thanks the deity for creating humans. The second Manifesto principle states that “humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.” This does not belittle our existence. On the contrary, our existence is something that Humanists celebrate and marvel at, feeling lucky to be alive in such a wondrous world. Hebrew does not have a word for evolution, so I preserved the word, yatzar, which does not have a definite ex nihilo tone to it.


Baruch ha’ohev kol ha’adam kitzalmo kitzelem dimoot tavneeto ki’ezro kol echad vi’echad. Baruch hamodeh al yitzeerat ha’adam.

Praised be the one, who loves all humans as one’s self, as one’s very own self, and loves every human as one loves one’s spouse. Praised be the one who is thankful for the evolution of humans.

The traditional blessing thanks the deity for creation in his image, the Mosaic rationale for according each human respect. The third Manifesto principle states that, “Humanists … are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity”. The Humanist sees no need to ground respect for fellow humans in anything beyond the Golden Rule. We treat everyone, as we would want to be treated or want our loved ones to be treated. The Hebrew word tzelem, in this context, means “himself”, rather than “his image”.


Sose tasees vitagail ha’akarah bikeebootz baneha litochah biseemcha. Baruch hasame’ach eem tziyon bishoov baneha.

Let the barren (city) be joyful and exulted at the ingathering of her children into her midst in gladness. Praised be the one who shares in the gladness of Zion at the return of her children.

The fourth traditional blessing prays the barren Israel/Jerusalem, will one day (anthropomorphically) rejoice in the Jewish People’s return. The fourth Manifesto principle tells us that meaning is not imposed by the deity. We “animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies.” We can derive meaning from human history and culture. As Jews, we are proud that we rose from the ashes, and fulfilled the “2000 year old hope”, returning to Israel, which serves as a beacon of democracy and Jewish culture.


Same’ach nisamach re’eem ha’ahuveem kiseemchat gan eden meekedem. Baruch misame’ach chatan vikalah.

Let us gladden the loving couple, (so they may enjoy gladness) like the legendary gladness of paradise. Praised be the one, who gladdens the bridegroom and the bride .

The fifth traditional blessing implores the deity to gladden the couple, as he gladdened Adam and Eve. The Humanistic blessing is explicit about the non-factual nature of this couple, but still embraces the idea of two people feeling like they were made for each other. The fifth Manifesto principle reminds us that, “humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.” The peak of human relationships is that of true lovers. The ending of #5-6 emphasizes that it is we who should gladden the couple.


Brucheem hamarbeem sasone viseemcha chatan vichalah geelah reenah deetzah vichedvah ahavah vi’achvah vishalome vire’oot. Mihairah bichole ha’olam yeeshama keev’arai yihoodah oochvichootzote yirushalayeem kol sasone vikol seemcha kol chatan vikol kalah kol meetzhalote chataneem maichoopatam un’arim meemeeshteh nigeenatam. Baruch ha’misame’ach chatan im hakalah.

Praised be those who increase, joy and gladness, bridegroom and bride, exultation, song, pleasure and delight, love and brotherhood, peace and friendship. May there soon be heard, all over the world, as in the cities of Judea and as in the streets of Jerusalem, the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the happy shouting of bridegrooms from their weddings and of young men and women from their song filled feasts. Praised be the one, who causes the bridegroom and bride to be glad together.

The sixth traditional blessing thanks the deity for creating happiness, and implores him to hasten the day, where liberty may return to Israel, so weddings may regularly occur thereii. The sixth Manifesto principle also discusses happiness and liberty. It tells us that, “working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness”, and that we must “minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability… so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.” To get there we must, “uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties.” The return of our own right of self determination as Jews, coupled with Israel’s democratic nature, inspire us to work towards a world where all people live happy and free.

I hope these blessings will enhance future wedding celebrations. In the words of the Manifesto, may we be “guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience”, and, through that “live life well and fully.”

© Copyright 2010 – Rabbi David S. Gruber – All Rights Reserved – First published on

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I'm a Winner

Our son, Sraya, recently participated in the Pen 2 Paper writing contest held by the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. Sraya won honorable mention in the contest. Laura Perna, who ran the contest, wrote this to him last week, “Sraya, you were the youngest entrant to the contest, and I want to show people that a person's age doesn't keep them from writing maturely and candidly about their life and disability. I hope you'll continue to pursue writing as a craft!” Here is Sraya’s essay, which Laura wrote to me previously, had a “voice” that she felt was more mature than many other entrants.

I’m a Winner by Sraya Gruber

Hello, my name is Sraya and I am nine years old. I am also visually impaired. I am going to write about my other disability, which is the pain in my feet. I was born with flat feet. When I was little, my parents took me to the doctor. The doctor said that I would not have any problem with my feet. I guess he was wrong.

Last year, in 2009, during the school year, my feet started hurting. I had problems running in P.E. I also had problems walking home from school. I even started limping.

The pain made me feel angry and frustrated. I tried to fight it, but it hurt so much. I always came home from school sleepy and tired. When I would do homework I liked when my mom would massage my feet because they hurt. Sometimes I even liked taking long baths after school.

Before the school year ended my parents took me to the pediatrician. He sent me to do blood tests to check if there was something serious that was causing the pain. I was frightened during my first blood test, but I did not cry. My mom told me to imagine that the needle was an airplane, crashing into my arm. The results came back normal.

My dad took me to the orthopedist. The orthopedist said that I did not have flat feet. However, he said that I have an abnormal gait, which meant that I don’t walk properly, rather I walk on my tiptoes. He thought that I have a neurological problem, meaning I had a problem with my nervous system.

In the summer, I went to Sea World in San Antonio with my family. I had to walk a lot there from place to place. After a while my feet started to hurt. My mom had to give me a piggy back because I could not walk any more.

When we came back home, I could not walk. I had to hang on to walls and chairs. Sometimes I had to crawl in order to get to places, like my room. Baths with warm water did not really help my legs.

During the summer there were some programs in school, called “Book Club” and “Mighty Minds”. I liked going there, but my feet kept hurting, preventing me to walk there. When we went there, we had leave the house thirty minutes before, even though the school was only five minutes from where we lived. We had to walk slowly. We also had to stop for some time so I could rest. Sometimes mom had to carry me there.

I was afraid I would not be able to walk properly. Some days I cried because of the pain. My feet sometimes felt as if they were going to “fall off”. Sometimes I felt that I did not care if I could not walk anymore. I was very sad.

My parents took me to the neurologist. He asked me to do different exercises. He said many different words that I did not understand. He said that I might have a problem with my central nervous system, or the muscular system or something metabolic with the cellular level activities. It meant that something was wrong with me.

For me it meant more tests. I had lots of blood tests and an MRI of my brain and spine. Everything turned out to be normal. I hoped that I would not have to do more tests. I thought I would turn into a human pin cushion.

Then we went to see my pediatrician. He said that maybe I could get skates so I would not have to walk a lot. My mom got me shoes with skates, but it did not work out too well. I was always afraid that I might fall.

I was sent to do an MRI of my pelvis. The radiologist, who checked the image, thought that I had a problem with my bone marrow, so I was sent to the blood cancer center to see another doctor. This doctor sent me to do a bone scan and a bone marrow biopsy.

After my bone marrow biopsy, I was very sleepy, because they used general anesthesia. I had two bandages on my back to cover the places where they took out pieces of bone and bone marrow. I could not even take a bath for few days. Everything came back normal.

On the first day of school, instead of going to school, I had to do a muscle biopsy and EKG. When I woke up, I ate popsicles that the nurses gave me. My dad let me listen to music on his I-pod. My dad said that when I woke up I asked him, when they would do the biopsy. When the results came back, it showed that everything was normal.

The neurologists said that they don’t have any explanation, as to why I can’t walk properly. My pediatrician sent me to do physical therapy and to see a rehab doctor. The doctor said it was important that I walk straight, so I would not hurt my spine.

Doing physical therapy means that I am doing different exercises to help my feet get stronger. I ride a bike, do muscles stretches, lift my legs, and sometimes practice walking on the balance beam. There are some exercises that my mom does at home with me before I go to sleep or when my feet hurt.

My dad took me to see Mr. Spencer, who works at the hospital, to make me leg braces and knee splints. Mr. Spencer put plaster that you make a cast with on my feet, so he could measure how big my feet were. He also traced my body from my hips down to my feet. I have braces for walking during the day and knee splints for the night.

During spring break I got my knee splints and braces. Mr. Spencer taught me how to put them on. I also have special socks for the braces. After you put your feet and legs inside the braces, you have to wrap velcro around the feet, and then wear your shoe on the braces. I did not like wearing my braces at first, because I was afraid the kids at my school would make fun of me.

My mom tried to cheer me up. She said that Alice Roosevelt also had to wear braces on her feet. She also said that I could look like Darth Vader, because the braces are black.

Today it does not bother me to wear them, because they help my feet by making me step on my soles and not just my tiptoes. Some kids have braces on their teeth and some kids have braces on their feet.

I wear the knee splints, when I go to sleep. I must wear shorts when I put them on. It makes me hold my legs straight when I am asleep. There is also a motor inside to stretch my muscles. If I don’t wear them at night, I wake up crying with pain.

I think that PT and the braces have helped me get better. On days I go to do PT, I feel my feet hurt less and they are stronger. I still can’t run, walk faster, bend my feet or back, or pick up things from the floor. But, I can still walk to school and back home on foot. I don’t need a wheelchair, like one of the doctors thought I might.

This summer there is “Book Club” too. This week, we learned the word perseverance and its meaning. The teacher said that I was an example for perseverance, which means that I did not give up. I felt proud of myself, because even if it hurts, I keep doing and giving what I can. It means that I did not pout and say “I can’t do it” and feel sorry for myself. I’m a winner and not a quitter.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Meaning of Life (With Apologies to Monty Python)

I was recently asked to write a short piece about a short question: What is the most important thing to you in life and why? What a meaningful question to address during the High Holiday season, during which the ancients imagined the deity opening large ledgers of the good deeds and bad deeds of each individual, and pronouncing judgment upon them accordingly! (I assume it is all on large humming servers now…) The most important thing to me in life, at the risk of running head on into a cliché, is to make a difference.

From the scientific point of view, we know that we live on a small planet orbiting a rather minor star in a rather insignificant location on the lower arm of our galaxy, which is in the backwaters of a vast universe. Furthermore, as the great evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, reminds us, the number of potential people that could have been here in our place due to the various possible DNA combinations, outnumbers the sand grains of Sahara (which the British, annoyingly, do not like preceding with a definitive). This could lead us to discounting the potential significance of our lives.

I believe that that would be a mistake. Why? All you need to do is open the newspaper (note to the kids – that is a non-electronic blog written on large flimsy papers), and look for a reference to the last person who won the lottery. Is that person at that moment happy or sad, feeling significant or not so much? Well, we have all won the biological lottery, just by being here, each and every one of us! The question is, what do we do with this fact? The rabbis of old tell us, “Against your will, you are born; against your will you die, and against your will you are to account (for what you did in between).” You don’t have to be a religious person or even a theist to accept that statement. The great hero of the Antebbe (July 4, 1976) rescue (and brother of the current Israeli prime minister), Lt. Col. Jonathan “Yoni” Netanyahu, was by no means a traditionalist. In his letters he talks about his personal desire to be different from others, and live a life of true meaning, not just potential significance, where he is ready to account to himself for his actions at any moment. The only one not to return from that heroic rescue operation, Israel’s current President, then Minister of Defense, Shimon Peres, eulogized him saying that indeed some live long lives with no real significance, but not Yoni; he lived a short life, but what a significant and meaningful life it was!

There is a very powerful scene in Brian De Palma’s second and much underappreciated movie, Casualties of War. The protagonist, played by Michael J. Fox, has just reported the gang rape and murder of a Vietnamese peasant girl by his platoon sergeant and fellow soldiers, only to be ignored, and almost assassinated. His company marches down a dirt road, and he heatedly discusses what he is going through with a friend, and they shoo away the company “nudge”, who promptly falls into a Viet-Cong trap and dies. His friend, seeing this, suggests that since they could die at any moment, then maybe nothing really matters. Fox’s character, sees it very differently, and (this may not be verbatim, but this stuck in my memory ever since) he says, “No. Maybe we got it all wrong! Maybe because we could die any minute it matters more than anything, maybe it matters more than we will ever know!”

We cannot choose our fates. We cannot choose to whom or where or when come into this world. We have little say over many of the challenges we will face in life. We owe it to ourselves, though, to choose our destinies, to live lives of meaning, to make a difference. And, this cannot be in some abstract way. We must make an ongoing positive difference in the lives of our spouses and lovers, in the lives of our children, in lives of our friends, and in the lives of our larger communities. A tall order, sure, but I aim to have a whack at it!

© Copyright 2010 – Rabbi David S. Gruber – All Rights Reserved

Monday, August 30, 2010

Finding Your Soul Mate

Here are words I shared with Deborah and David, a wonderful couple, this last Saturday night in Frisco (my 68th wedding, so far, but only the 2nd one in our beautiful city). It was such a special wedding with their four great kids, all in their 20s, on hand:

Ask Deborah and David to describe their relationship. They will tell you they share so much in common. They are both gentle spiritual people who are close to their families, and friends and community play a very important part in their lives. They share a true sense of adventure, love to travel and love nature.

When they described this to me, a very specific Yiddish word came to mind, beschert, which is one of those uniquely meaty Yiddish words, that one cannot fully translate into English. Beschert can best be defined as “meant to be”, “made in heaven”, or even “soul mate”.

That said, that is not the whole story. When Deborah and David describe their relationship, they also say that they recognize their differences, and rather than let these differences stand between them, they seek to harness them to enhance their relationship. This is the true secret of a successful relationship. Deborah and David realize that even if we were to accept the description of the rabbis, even if you truly feel like you have found your soul-mate, you have to invest in your relationship, you have to nurture it. You have to be true to yourself and your mate about your respective strengths and weaknesses. You have to strive to truly learn from one another, and compliment each other.

Deborah and David, thank you for reminding us of how one can and should live in that hallowed of all relationships, marriage. Hold on to that. Wake up every morning, look into each other’s eyes with the resolve to continue to cherish that happiness and love you have found with each other, and I have no doubt, your bond will remain unbreakable.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Painting and a Pencil Sketch

Here are the words I shared with everyone at the wedding of Adriana and Andrew in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, just two weeks ago:

The idea that I can and should learn from my couples is just one of the reasons that I meet with every couple three or four times before their wedding, and ask each partner to write a short essay about him or herself. That said, this is the first wedding in more than 65 in the last two years or so, where the bride wrote something so beautiful that I just had to include it verbatim in my remarks.

One thing that struck me from my very first discussion with Adriana and Andrew is that really the phrase “interfaith couple” did not fit the bill with regards to this couple, just as it does not fit many of the couples I work with. “Intercultural couple” may be a more apt term. Certainly Adriana and Andrew each started out at different points, but through their own personal journeys, and their journey together, it is well evident that they have reached a place, where they have more in common in terms of faith and belief, than many other couples out there. This is not due to coincidence, rather this is due to the fact that they have each chosen to really think and grow in this area. This also does not mean they reject their respective heritages, rather they have chosen to build on those heritages, and to examine their lives spiritually, figure out who they are, and what they want as individuals and as a couple.

In the words of the bride, “I like to think of my religious and spiritual life as a beautiful painting. In the best art and true life paintings or drawings, there is rarely ever a solid line that separates the colors or shapes; everything needs to blend together. Colors use a change of tone or texture, sometimes bumping right up together - they're never separated. And yet, when the artist began their work of art, it started as a pencil sketch; nothing but lines. In my life those lines were drawn for me by religion, as it was taught to my mom and how she tried to teach it to me, but I've since fleshed it out, and while it was an excellent guide, and anyone who knows me can see the evidence of those lines, they've transformed to my own sense of spirituality.”

Adriana and Andrew, there is to me a very important lesson in this for all of us. We have very limited control over our circumstances in life. We cannot choose to whom we are born, what our physical features will be, or where we will grow up. We do, however, have control over how we choose to relate to our circumstances in life. In other words, we cannot choose our fate, but we can choose our destiny. We can and should choose to think and contemplate and develop, and never stop growing for even one instant. Adriana and Andrew, thank you for teaching us this important lesson. Hold on to that. Wake up every morning, and look into each other’s eyes with the resolve to continue to grow and build your lives build together, and I have no doubt, your bond will remain unbreakable.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Things I Learned from Teresa and Ben

Here is an excerpt of what I said at the wedding of Teresa and Ben in Houston this last Saturday:

Now, as we are talking about two teachers here, there seems to be an abundance of lessons that this couple teaches us. The first lesson is one about how we need to be more exact with language, and how common terms do not always fit, especially when they aim to put people in a certain “box”. You see, since the first time I first spoke with Teresa and Ben, I was struck by a very interesting fact. The phrase “interfaith couple” did not fit the bill with regards to this couple, just as it does not fit many of the couples I work with. “Intercultural couple” may be a more apt term. Certainly Teresa and Ben come from different backgrounds, and have had different life stories. That said they have more in common in terms of faith and belief, than many other couples out there. This is not due to coincidence, rather this is due to the fact that they have chosen to really think about these issues of faith and belief. They have chosen together to carefully examine their lives spiritually, figure out who they are, and what they want as individuals and as a couple. They also recognize that they need to continue to grow together in this sense and to focus on the joy, happiness and meaning that such growth can bring to a couple’s life.

There is, however, a deeper, more significant reason that the phrase “interfaith couple” does not fit Teresa and Ben, and that is that they understand Mark Twain’s old adage, “Faith is believing what you know ain't so”. This couple, as Humanists, choose to live their lives, as individuals and as a couple, guided by the clear light of reason. And keep in mind, that they do this not in San Francisco or Soho; they live their lives this way in Houston, Texas. They, in turn, respectfully, by their very example, challenge us to live our lives in such a way.

A third and last thing they teach us is to live in harmony with the rest of this world. There are many people who recognize that there is a better way to treat nature, and particularly our closest relatives on the evolutionary tree, the members of the animal kingdom. It makes sense, after all. That said, most of us, aspire to this as an ideal, but fall short in their day to day lives, myself included. Teresa and Ben, you show us that living a purer life, when it comes to our consumption, namely veganism, is not just an ideal, but is an attainable way of life.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Hail to the Chiefs - How I Officiated at a Wedding in the Presence of Two Presidents

I recently officiated at a ceremony, where both Presidents Bush and their First Ladies were in attendance. They hardly ever attend private events, so this was very special for everyone who was in attendance. My wife, Liat, and I wondered if we would get to meet them or not. We ended up not only meeting them, but having some very pleasant one-on-one time with the forty-third president.

During the ceremony I recited the customary Seven Wedding Blessings in English, after which I chanted the sixty-seventh Psalm in Hebrew (in the tune specially reserved for Saturday nights), and recited it in English. I talked about how on Saturday evenings many Jews chant this Psalm, and how it contains many of the same themes and actual words found in the most ancient copy of scripture that archeologists have found in the Holy Land, the priestly blessing.

After the ceremony, President George W. Bush congratulated me for a job well done from about 12 feet away, and I thanked him. He then smiled and motioned with his finger that he wanted me to come over to him. I then had the privilege of shaking hands with the two presidents and their first ladies, who all congratulated me on doing a great job. That would have been an experience in and of itself.

Then the elder Bushes went to take pictures and talk to other guests, and I introduced Liat to President George W. and Mrs. Laura Bush. The former first lady then went to join the others, and the former president spent the next ten minutes talking to us! He asked how long we had lived in Dallas, where we were from, and about our children. He was specifically curious about Liat’s ancestry. (Due to the fact that she is of both North African and Eastern European extraction, many people find her hard to “place”.) He was tickled by the fact that our youngest son shared a birthday with him, and playfully referred to him later in the conversation as “George”. (His siblings are already giving him a hard time over that one…)

Since we mentioned that Liat was born in Israel, and I grew up there, we talked about the Jewish State. He confirmed a story I had once read about Sharon in 1998 taking him on a helicopter tour of the 1967 borders, and specifically pointing out the area where Israel within these borders was the narrowest, only about 8 kilometers wide. To this the then Texas Governor had remarked that, “we have driveways in Texas that are longer than that.” He was explicit about how there was a real mutual affection between himself, and the man he now referred to as “the old tank driver”.

Our discussion ended with Mrs. Laura Bush calling him over to join her for some photos. (That just goes to show you that even in that family there is a well defined hierarchy...) With that, he shook our hands, and thanked me once again for a job well done. We thanked him for his kindness, and went to join the wedding party.

The popular notion has always been that, politics aside, the forty-third president is a mentsch, and a very genuine and down to earth fellow. Liat and I found that to be very true indeed. Yet, without going too grandiose here, I could not help reflecting on a deeper aspect of this brief personal experience.

Many years ago, the first President of our republic, George Washington, proclaimed a notion that was entirely new and unpracticed in the world of that time: equality and freedom regardless of one’s religious faith. He wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, that “happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.” He added still, at a time when my ancestors in Eastern Europe could only dream of freedom, “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

No one knew how long this new idea of freedom and equality would survive. Many scholars contend that the Founding Fathers probably would be surprised that we still live under the same Constitution, much less one amended to provide freedom to more and more people. Over these same years the Jewish people have seen their share of friendly regimes turn against them, with succession and the turning over of governments frequently not boding well for them. I dare say very few of those Newport Jews would have imagined the ideas of President Washington not only surviving, but two successors of that famous letter writer attending a wedding, where Jewish blessings were chanted, after which one of those successors would leisurely chat with the chanting rabbi and his wife. Yet here we were all the same.

© Copyright 2010 – Rabbi David S. Gruber – All Rights Reserved - This article originally appeared on

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Little Stream of Consciousness

In this blog post, I wanted to write some random thoughts related to a unique experience I had at a wedding I officiated just about a year ago in Charleston, South Carolina. This is probably going to be stream of consciousness more than an essay. Here is how I opened the ceremony:

I travel all over the country to officiate at weddings, and I am many times called upon to officiate at weddings where the only ones who really know me are the bride and the groom. Therefore, I almost always open the wedding ceremony with these words, “Welcome family and friends, my name is Rabbi David S. Gruber, and I know I speak for all of you when I say how honored I feel to be here today.”

Those words have added meaning here for me today, as this wedding is personally special to me. About 40 years ago in this Great State of South Carolina, Rabbi David S. Gruber married Jeremy’s parents. Now, as I am only about 36 years old, that Rabbi Gruber was, of course, my grandfather, a great man, who I unfortunately never knew, and who at that point was at the sunset of his life. How extraordinary and deeply meaningful that we should all be here today 40 years later. I stand here therefore with a profound sense of humility, and I feel truly honored and blessed to be here.

Every wedding is special, but this ceremony had extra personal meaning for me. Prior to this wedding, the only things I knew about my grandfather, who was one of the most prominent public figures of his time in Columbia, South Carolina, were stories my father told me, and what I read about him in a book written about his congregation. Even my late mother and her parents, who died in the 1990s never got to know him that well, as he died about twelve hours after their wedding. I had certainly never met a congregant of his. At this wedding, I met not only Jeremy’s parents, who were married by him, with Jeremy’s dad having also been bar mitzvahed by him; I also met a number of their relatives, who still live in Columbia. To them Rabbi Gruber had not been someone in a book. To him he was their longest serving leader, whom they remembered many years later. Many of them told me stories about him, and it was very clear that they remembered him quite fondly so many years after his death in 1970.

My grandfather, who arrived in the U.S. at the age of two, grew up in an Orthodox home. I never remember as a child or even as an adult really understanding what had caused him to become a Reform rabbi, specifically. Maybe, growing up Orthodox, I just did not ask? Anyway, around the time I was contacted by Jeremy’s parents to officiate this wedding, I did ask my uncle, why it was that his father left Orthodoxy. He said that it was due to the fact, that he could not reconcile his understanding of science and history, with the traditional Orthodox interpretation of Judaism. I was greatly heartened by this, since, as I have explained elsewhere, it is this issue with its multiple facets, that caused me to rethink my lifestyle and beliefs, albeit later in life than my grandfather did. Also, my grandfather was known for his, you guessed it, tireless work on interfaith relations. I now feel somewhat closer to this figure whose name I bear, and who looks at me from old photographs.

Of course, I am always conscious of what I was told during a very strange phone call in 1990. I had just finished high school in Israel, and decided to visit the United States, and do a little touring and visiting with relatives before beginning my military service in the Israel Defense Force. One relative I was going to visit was one of my dad’s cousins. My grandfather was the youngest child in his family, and so all of my dad’s cousins are 10-20 years older than he is. I called my dad’s cousin from my maternal grandparents’ apartment in Queens, and once she picked up the phone, I said, “Hi, this is David Gruber speaking.” There was this silence on the other end of the line, and I had to repeat myself once or twice before she answered. Later during the discussion I asked her about this, and she explained that her uncle, my grandfather, used to stay at her parents house sometimes, and when I introduced myself on the phone she was puzzled, because she knew he was already dead for 20 years, and “after all” she added wistfully, “there was only one David Gruber…”

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Most Incompatible Compatible Couple

This last weekend, I officiated two weddings, which were both interfaith and intercultural. Friday night, Andrea, an Ecuadorian Catholic married Adam, a Jew from Las Vegas, in her hometown of Guyaquil. Sunday afternoon, Nse (pronounced as if there is an extra e in front of the n), a devout Christian nurse born in the US to Nigerian parents, who grew up in Nigeria, married Hadar, a secular Jew, and one of the most prominent physicians in Israel. (The first time I spoke to Hadar, we spoke in Hebrew, but he used the English title phrase of this blog entry to describe them as a couple.)

Both weddings were very special. The second one had one of the most fascinating audiences one could ever see in one place, with couples in traditional African garb seated beside young Israeli girls in summer dresses. I officiated the ceremony, and was joined at the end of it by Nse’s pastor, Reverend Dr. Gabriel Nwumba, who gave a rousing sermon punctuated with lively Amens from the audience, and then together we blessed the couple with the Priestly Blessing. Perhaps one of the most poignant moments was when Nse’s unassuming nine year old daughter read the words of Ruth to Naomi, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you dwell, I will dwell, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God…” Hadar and many others were visibly moved to tears.

Here are the words I shared with everyone:

The more I thought about Nse and Hadar, the more I understood that this couple is really teaching us a double lesson. First of all, they teach us a sorely needed lesson in today’s broken world, and that is, that we need not let differences of background, race or religion stand between us, and prevent us from loving each and every human being. After all, these two individuals come from different countries, races and faiths, and yet they have such a strong and powerful bond of love between them. The thing is that that observation caused me, as is typical amongst us rabbis, to ask another question! With all the differences between them, how do they do it? What is their secret?

It became very clear to me that this couple had realized what few couples fully realize, and that is that every marriage is an intermarriage. Regardless of who we fall in love with, regardless of who we marry, we are marrying someone who has had a different set of experiences and has a different personality. Therefore, you cannot put your love and your marriage on “auto-pilot”. In order to forge love into a successful marriage, you must engage in open conversation and communication, carefully and deeply consider your differences, and commit to a loving relationship that will overcome these differences. This is Nse and Hadar’s secret. This is how they do it!

It is also very clear that Nse and Hadar have a deep appreciation for the fact that marriage is not a one shot deal, rather this it is just the beginning of a journey of mutual understanding and compromise. In fact, to symbolize this, some ministers will ask married couples in the congregation to hold hands while listening to the vows of the bride and groom, and silently recommit themselves to each other, at that time.

Thank you, Nse and Hadar, for setting an example for the rest of us in showing that in all of our human relationships, we can and should love our fellow human being, regardless of our differences. Thank you also for teaching us that every relationship is a work in progress, and that we need to commit every day to bettering our interpersonal relationships with all, and most specifically with our mates and lovers. Hold on to that. Wake up every morning with the resolve to cherish each other and the wonderful life you have built and continue to build together every day, and I have no doubt, your bond will remain unbreakable.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Two of My Favorite Doctors – Jenny and Jon

Here are the words I shared recently at Jenny and Jon’s wonderful wedding in New Orleans.

When I sat down to write my remarks, I couldn’t help but reflect on the circumstances of Jenny and Jon meeting, how their relationship started and how their love flourished from there. You see, I try to meet with each couple I work with about three or four times before their wedding, so I can really get to know them. I always start my first discussion with a couple with a rather basic question, “Tell me about yourselves, and how you met?” Well, this may surprise you, but none of the other 65 couples I have had such meetings with in the last two years, began their answer to the second part of that question with the words, “We met over a bone box…”

Now, beyond the humor, when you talk to Jenny and Jon, you understand that there is a rather deep and serious side to this. Though Jenny and Jon come from different backgrounds, and have had different life stories, they seem to have more in common in terms of their basic beliefs regarding how one should live one’s life, than many other couples out there. This is particularly exemplified by their career choices, and the rationale for these choices. It is clear that they chose medicine, not just because they thought that they had the aptitude and inclination for it, but first and foremost, due to the fact that they really wanted to help people. On top of that, they not only chose the healing profession, rather with some disregard to their own bottom line, they opted for the front line of medicine, to work in family medicine and physical medicine and rehabilitation. In an era, where many of us are faced with a medical world that can be cold, scary and full of technical mumbo jumbo, they have chosen to be the ones, who with a reassuring tone in their voices, will hold our hands, help us make sense of it all, and make some of the pain and fear go away.

I have not known Jenny and Jon for that long, but it seems to me that it is this very sense of caring, compassion and love for others that drew them to each other at first, and cemented the foundation for a true love story. On this foundation they built a genuine relationship of understanding, communication and trust. In this each one has found that soul mate, with whom one can talk for hours, and with whom one can just sit in silence, not saying a word, and still enjoy a tremendous sense of tranquility and peace. It is this relationship that we celebrate today, and really just make official something that is already there, so deeply rooted in the life of the couple.

Jenny and Jon, thank you for reminding me and us of what our priorities can and should be. Thank you for instilling in what we are doing here today true and deep meaning. Hold on to that. Wake up every morning, look into each other’s eyes with the resolve to continue to cherish that happiness, friendship and love you have found with each other, and that sense of caring, empathy and compassion you have for others, and I have no doubt, your bond will remain unbreakable.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Wise Student - Introduction

I always begin the personal remarks portion of my wedding ceremonies with the following paragraph:

Friends, one of the most fascinating things about the Jewish tradition is that a Jewish scholar, be he, or for that matter she, the greatest scholar of his or her generation, is referred to as a talmid chacham, literally a wise student. That is because Judaism values the idea of life long learning. Whenever I officiate a wedding, I ask myself, this couple, being unique individuals, what can I learn from them, what are they, consciously or unconsciously, teaching me, and indeed us?

My daughter, who is fifteen and a half years old, has a phrase she uses, whenever dad gets kind of mushy. She will stop what she is doing, and dramatically announce, “Corny alert!” I am sure she would react the same way to the above paragraph, but let’s face it, if there is anywhere you can and should be a little mushy and corny, it should be at a wedding…

Beyond the “corny” aspect of the above, I do mean what I say. There is, after all, one approach amongst men and women of the cloth, that holds that we should impart to the masses wisdom from on high. I can think of specific such clergy, who one can tell, think they have much to teach, but not much to learn from their fellow human beings. I have always begged to differ. The main theme that ran through the graduate school program in educational leadership that I attended was what is referred to in flowery language as a “learner centered approach”. This is an academic and fancy way of stating the obvious, its not about you the teacher, its about the learner, and if you follow that approach, watch out, you may learn something too! This is probably what the Talmudic sage, Chanina ben Hama, was referring to when he said, "I have learned much from my teachers, from my colleagues even more, but from my students I have learned the most." (Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit 7a)

This approach demands a degree of true humility, which can be a challenge at times for people, who are referred to at times as “(wo)men of God”. (I add the word “true”, mindful of what Golda Meir allegedly said to Moshe Dayan once, “Don’t act so humble; you’re not that great…”) It is worth it though, as I believe that one’s life can become so much richer, if one treats every interaction with others as a potential “teachable moment”. Conversely, I always feel a little sorry for people, who due to the fact they think they have all the answers, go through life, and miss out on valuable lessons they could be learning from others of all walks of life.

The main reason I got into this “trade” of the rabbinate and education is because I love people, interacting with them, building relationships, and learning together. This is why when I officiate a wedding, I spend time to get to know the couple, build a relationship with them, and together build the ceremony around them, rather than shoehorn them into some preconceived idea of a ceremony I already have. The wedding, after all, is not about me, it is about them. Indeed, beyond life lessons, some of the best ideas for things to include in ceremonies come from my couples! Therefore, it only makes sense to share with the audience what I have learned from these unique individuals.

In this blog, which I intend (fingers crossed!) to update every two weeks, I intend to share with you, a slightly larger audience, some of the lessons I have picked up along the way, from the wonderful couples I have been and am fortunate to work with. In that spirit, let the learning begin!