"Are you in for another 20?" my husband, Larry, asks. We’re lounging on the beach on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, a brief
escape to relax and reconnect as a couple, to celebrate and contemplate two decades of marriage.
Exactly 20 years earlier we were standing under a chuppah at the Beverly Hills Hotel, reciting our marriage vows. It was Purim, 1983, and just as Esther had saved the Jews from Haman’s evil plot, so Larry was rescuing me from my less-than-fulfilling life as a 30-something single woman.
We had met only nine months earlier at — this wasn’t my mother’s idea — a Jewish Federation Gala Singles Dance. There, to use a phrase from the Megillah (9:1), "the unexpected happened." I knew intuitively and unquestioningly, only a few weeks later, this was the man I wanted to marry.
Larry has a different version of our early history.
"One day I was a happy-go-lucky guy," he says. "Next thing I knew, I was married and the father of four boys."
Either way, God was working miracles. Or perhaps just doing God’s job which, since completing the six days of creation, one midrash tells us, has consisted of making matches. A job that God claims is as difficult as parting the Red Sea.
Judaism commands us to marry. Genesis 2:18 states, "It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him."
But Judaism doesn’t tell us how to create a lasting marriage.
It doesn’t tell us how to deal with those character traits that are so cute during the courtship period (my sneezing, Larry’s video game playing) but become so acutely annoying after the honeymoon (my sneezing, Larry’s video game playing).
So what’s the secret?
"I know why our marriage has been successful," I say to Larry.
"Because I gave up doing crossword puzzles," I answer, having realized early on that a relationship can’t sustain more than one puzzle addict.
"I thought it’s because we love and respect each other," he says.
Yes, love and respect are essential. As are trust, understanding, kindness, loyalty and support, as well as sharing the same core values.
"All the moral virtues that are essential for the individual are essential for the couple," says Rabbi Scott Meltzer, who teaches a class on marriage, "Behold You Are Consecrated to Me: The Life and Love of Jewish Marriage," at the University of Judaism. "The couple becomes its own organic whole."
But what happens to this whole when children arrive? Especially when couples carry out the biblical injunction to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 2:18) as quickly and exuberantly as we did?
How can you function as a couple civilly — let alone romantically — when you’re terminally sleep-deprived; when your days are consumed with Pampers, strained peaches and pediatrician appointments or with working long hours to establish a career and make mortgage payments; or when the words "There was a farmer had a dog, and Bingo was his name-o" is caught in a continual loop in your brain, drowning out any coherent thoughts.
And that’s with only one kid.
Try adding three more kids. Try dealing with the physical logistics of carting them back and forth to preschool, elementary school and middle school; of making lunches, overseeing homework and coordinating extra-curricular activities. Of making sure their hair is cut, their shoes fit and they’re fed more or less regularly and nutritiously. And that’s not counting coping with the myriad psychological issues surrounding their siblings and their social circles as they forge individual identities. Or coping with serious illnesses and injuries. Or with the religious obligations of transforming them into self-assured and productive Jewish citizens.
And as they get older (our sons are now 12, 14, 16 and 19), add high school and college to the mix. Along with the fourth bar mitzvah; automobile insurance and, ever so tentatively, retirement planning. And ratchet up the worrying.
"How’d we do it?" we say to each other. "What were we thinking?"
We were thinking that the creation of a family is central. That it’s the fundamental foundation of society and the best refuge from the outside world. That nothing is more important.
"And it’s all worth it," I say, "because kids are naturally so appreciative."
Especially at the end of a particularly trying day when one of them slams a door and shouts, "I hate you. You’re the worst mother who ever lived."
But parenting has its transcendent moments, and not only at the peak life-cycle moments of bris, bar mitzvah and graduation. Or when they’re sleeping. But when Larry and I step back and see that we are not merely a motley group of six individuals living together but rather a consecrated, deeply caring and committed family unit, who would, if necessary, walk through fire or take a bullet for one another.
The Zohar tells us, "God creates new worlds constantly by causing marriages to take place."
And this is the world that we have created.
"Count me in for another 20," I tell Larry. "At least."
Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.