Under the Huppa Again
In some ways, when a second-time-around groom stomps down on the glass after the huppa at his wedding, that glass is already in shards. Everyone still enthusiastically shouts, “L’chaim,” and the music jumps into high gear. Broad smiles still wreathe the faces of the bride and groom—grins mirrored by those gathered around. However, look closely and you might notice a few tears, too.
Ten years after her divorce and five years after the death of his first wife, Diane Aboulafia, 59, and Peter Shapiro, 69, of Seattle had decided to get married in a small service. “We thought we would just have our kids, a 10-minute ceremony with the rabbi and call it a day,” recalls Aboulafia four years after the wedding. “Even though our wonderful children were trying hard to be supportive, we worried that a big wedding would be a reminder of all the loss they had gone through.”
A discussion with Jill Borodin, rabbi of Seattle’s Congregation Beth Shalom, changed their minds. When she heard about the couple’s plans for an under-the-radar wedding, Borodin asked if their parents, siblings and close friends might be hurt if they were not included.
“Our whole attitude changed,” Aboulafia says. “In her gentle way, the rabbi eased us to a place where we could think about the importance of community, of being with the people who love us at the moment that we begin life together.” The upshot was an intimate wedding that included close family and friends.
Every second marriage is built on the ruins of the marriages that came before. “As a second-timer you cannot help but bring previous entanglements with you to the huppa,” says Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, an expert in Jewish marriage and medical ethics who teaches at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. “You are forever tied to your children and often grandchildren by then and also to your former spouses, be they dead or alive.
“But the good stuff,” he adds, “is you bring a richness of experience and, hopefully, hard-earned wisdom so you will be a more loving marriage partner than you were before.”
Yael Kaner, 55, and Yosef Kaner, 62, were both divorced after more than two decades of marriage when they met 10 years ago. Both had wrestled with their first spouses about issues ranging from in-laws and religious observance to finances and different values.
As they stood under a huppa outside Baltimore’s Royal Dragon Restaurant, they knew that, with seven kids in their teens and early twenties between them, their future would not be simple. “But we were determined to make it work,” notes Yael Kaner, who today lives with her husband in the Jerusalem suburb of Ma’ale Adumim.
“The dramas of our first marriages mean that every day we appreciate each other,” says Kaner. “We know how lucky we are.”
Boston-area couple Janet Strassman Perlmutter and her husband, Joel Perlmutter, felt a deep connection almost from the day they met in 1991. She was 33 and never married; he was 48 and a divorced dad with a teenage daughter.
There was one moment before they were married when Strassman Perlmutter remembers feeling uncomfortable—when she met his ex-wife. “She seemed like a really lovely person,” Strassman Perlmutter recalls. “And I felt this sudden jolt of ‘Uh-oh, if their marriage could fall apart, maybe ours could, too.’”
However, as the couple rounds out a quarter-century together, Strassman Perlmutter says those initial feelings of insecurity have evaporated.
The death of a spouse, however, brings a different set of challenges. “After divorce you can feel like a loser and wonder if you can ever have a happy marriage,” says Reuven Bulka, author of Jewish Marriage: A Halachic Ethic (Ktav Publishing) and Jewish Divorce Ethics: The Right Way to Say Goodbye (Ivy League Press) and rabbi of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa. “When you are widowed, you may have happy associations with being married, but it can be hard to let go and make sure there isn’t a third person in the bedroom.”
It is important to remember, he adds, “that getting married again is the biggest compliment you can pay to a spouse who is gone. Not only will your late spouse not be angry in the grave, but if they loved you, they want you not to be alone.”
Indeed, Jewish tradition promotes marriage whether it is your first or your fifth. “Any man who has no wife lives without joy, without blessing and without goodness,” says the Talmud in Tractate Yevamot.
Trevor Davis and Judy Brown-Davis of Jerusalem were both widowed in their fifties. She was 67 and he was 70 when they tied the knot a year ago under her grandfather’s talit. While planning their wedding, Davis had a request: “I wanted my two oldest granddaughters to walk me down the aisle,” he says.
In fact, early on in their relationship, Brown-Davis noticed “how committed he was to his family,” she says. “It was a quality I liked from the first.”
Hindi and Yisroel Garber, both 93, were married in a Jerusalem nursing home. It is the Philadelphia native’s fourth marriage and her Polish-born husband’s second. “I can tell you,” she says with a smile, “that he is the best of them all. He is so smart. Every day I learn so much from him.”
Though they do have the occasional disagreement, “we talk things out,” she adds. “The beautiful part is that we have had experience. We can use what we have learned from all those years to get along.”
For most couples, planning a wedding is radically different the second time out. “We decided everything together, including the honorees, not like when you get married when you are young,” says Shaul Fasten, 68, who married Joyce Weiss-Fasten, 61, last summer in Monsey, New York. “We never had to ask anyone else for their opinion. This time, when my mother came, it was as a guest.”
Their wedding brought together their expansive family—including all but one of their 10 children (each has five), more than 50 nieces, nephews and their spouses and 30 of their 37 grandchildren. The couple also invited many of the friends who had helped them during their painful adjustments to the loss of their spouses. “This was one way to thank the people who had been so amazing to us,” Weiss-Fasten says. “How many times do you get to dance with the bride and her granddaughter?”
Jewish law and tradition allow for great flexibility in celebrating a wedding,” says Anita Diamant, author of the best-selling classic The New Jewish Wedding (Fireside).
In fact, she reports, “all that is required are the exchange of something of value (say a ring) in the presence of two Jewish witnesses and the groom announcing that he is marrying according to the laws of Moses and Israel. Most everything else—from the huppa to breaking a glass, to raising the bride and groom on chairs, to the seven wedding blessings—is a matter of choice.
“A Jewish wedding,” she adds, “is, above all, a simcha—a joy. And there are as many ways to express it as there are human hearts.”
A second wedding is even more flexible. Among the changes: The ketuba does not have to be read out loud; you are not required to recite the seven blessings at celebratory meals in the week following the wedding.
“Tradition tells us that second weddings are joyful but a bit more laid-back,” says Rabbi David Golinkin, president and professor of Jewish law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
Laid-back, perhaps, but they also reflect the couples’ gratitude for this new chance at love. “The ceremony needs to be joyous enough,” says Bulka, “to convey the message: ‘I am so blessed. I would have married this person the first time around if I’d had the chance.’”
And while first weddings tend to be formulaic, second ones invite individuality. As a bride, Yael Kaner wore a veiled white cowboy hat that she topped off with a tiara.
“We were relaxed,” she says, “and surrounded by the people who meant so much to us.”
When it comes to planning a second wedding, one of the most delicate issues is how to include the kids.
Each of their four children (two from each) held the huppa poles at Shapiro and Aboulafia’s wedding—a potent symbol of the support that meant so much to their parents.
And Kaner says that the sweetest blessing she received at her wedding was from her 16-year-old son. “I remember he kissed me on the forehead and said, ‘Imma, go and be happy.’”
More often, however, children of second-timers wrestle with mixed feelings. In fact, conflict with their kids is typically the biggest problem these newlyweds face.
“Even grown children who are truly happy that their parent has found someone to love can harbor resentment and complex divided loyalties, whether following death or divorce,” says Rabbi Hyim Shafner, a St. Louis-based clinical social worker and author of The Everything Jewish Wedding Book (Everything Series). “You cannot expect to become instant family. It takes time and patience.”
Strassman Perlmutter recalls that there was initially some friction with her husband’s daughter with his first wife. “Though how much of it was her being a teenager, I don’t know,” she says. Over the years, and as she and Strassman raised their own daughter together (she is now 20), her relationship with her stepdaughter has improved.
“It did not take very long for us to come to appreciate each other,” Strassman Perlmutter adds. “I was so moved when she sent me a Mother’s Day card the first year her dad and I were married.”
Relating to stepkids takes a healthy respect for boundaries, says Lana Staheli, a Seattle-based relationship coach and coauthor of Snap Strategies for Couples: 40 Fast Fixes for Everyday Relationship Pitfalls (Seal Press). Staheli helped raise her two stepchildren.
“I have seen so many new stepmothers have their hearts broken,” she says. “That is inevitable unless you accept that your stepkids already have a mom and do not need another; it is the No. 1 reason that issues around children break up so many second marriages.”
Her advice: Instead of applying for a job that is already taken, show the kids what a really loving, respectful marriage looks like. “And work directly with their mother,” she says, “Offer to help her out. Remember, she is not your enemy.” In fact, says Staheli, four decades into her marriage, “my stepkids thank me for being so good to their mom.”
According to the Talmud, the kind of person you are given as a second (or third) spouse depends on your deeds (a first spouse is selected before birth).
The Torah also teaches an important lesson about second-time unions. “The first giving of the Ten Commandments was greeted with lots of hoopla, yet they were smashed,” says Breitowitz. “The second ones Moses brought down without any fanfare, but they were destined to last for eternity. So, even when a second wedding is low key, the same Divine presence is with you under every huppa. [It does not matter if] it is your first time or your fourth.”
In the decade since their wedding, do the Kaners consider themselves soulmates?
They look at each other and nod. “One-hundred percent,” Yosef Kaner says quietly.
“This is a real marriage,” his wife adds, “like it is our first.”
When the rabbi at the beit din handed me my get (Jewish divorce decree) on a snowy day in January 2014 at the age of 61, he said, “This is the invitation to your new life. Your old marriage is in the past and you are ready for whatever the future brings.” His words brought tears to my eyes.
Three months later, I met my future husband online. We cyber-flirted for a week before that first scary phone call, the moment when you hear the voice. (My first reaction: That’s some Baltimore accent. He sounds just like my cousins.) That first call lasted for hours, as did the second. Emails flew back and forth, and we met after a few weeks. What we could not have known then was that our wedding (above) would take place five months to the day after our first date and at the same place—the Kotel in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Looking back, when did we know it was right? Was it his birthday when we gorged on cherries on a Tel Aviv beach? The lazy Shabbat afternoon playing cards when he beat me four times running (and I smiled anyway)? Before we knew it we were in Wedding Planning Mode, with just a few weeks to figure out how to celebrate the new life we were building atop our first six decades.
Throughout those adrenalin-soaked months, our romantic selves held center stage. Yet, the outlines of issues destined to need the most attention in our subsequent marriage began to show—competing religious traditions, merging finances, collapsing two households into one. And, with all the big decisions, the small ones destined to make us the craziest: for example, what to do with his beloved (somewhat terrifying) mounted sawfish snout.
Today, it adorns our bookshelf, a reminder that in a second marriage, sometimes you need to throw caution—and even good taste—to the wind.