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Marrying in the Church
It happened one day that a sister from Salzburg, while traveling, stopped by to attend the Chelm First Ward. Fruma Selig, who loved to magnify her calling as the ward’s Relief Society president by relieving others of having to talk, quickly came to make the visitor feel welcome. After three hours of meetings, Fruma sat with the sister in the foyer and told her all about the great past activities the Chelm ward had held, such as the Purim Party where Fruma had dressed as Vashti to honor the Bible’s greatest wife, and little Breyndl Fischer had looked so sweet in her Esther crown. (She left out the part where Shmuel Peretz swiped it.)
After that, the talk naturally turned to Fruma’s own, older Esthers. While the visiting sister nodded and made polite noises to show her great interest, Fruma told her how the very jewels of her heart, her daughters Leeba and Shayna, were both soon to be married. Because charity never fails, Fruma was liberal in sharing the tales of their respective courtships: how Leeba had slowly fallen in love with a boy whose shoulder she had often fallen asleep on, accidentally, years before during their shared seventh grade Polish class and how Shayna had met a German—but a nice young man, nonetheless!—while at a three-day long party, with occasional breaks for prayers, attended by half the Latter-day Saint young single adults in Europe. Fruma described the plans for these twin weddings: how they would celebrate with Leeba and Noam here in Chelm one night and drive off to Freiberg to witness Shayna and Stefan’s sealing the next.
When Fruma was quite exhausted from giving of herself so freely, the visiting sister finally spoke up. “It must be hard for you,” she said, “to watch with such happiness while one daughter is married in the Church,”—the sister then gave Fruma a very sympathetic look—“and with such regret while another marries outside of it.” But as Fruma opened her mouth to invite the sister to lunch so she could ask her what she meant, the woman looked up at the clock and excused herself to catch the next train.
It struck Fruma as odd that the sister should be in such a hurry to catch a train not scheduled to leave for more than an hour. And it struck her as stranger still that the sister had spoken about looking upon a daughter’s wedding with regret. What sadness could there be in a daughter’s wedding? Did this strange sister know something Fruma didn’t?
All that evening, as she cooked and laughed and ate and ate and groaned with Leeba and Shayna, Fruma Selig couldn’t shake the woman’s warning. Perhaps the strange woman did know something unsettling. Perhaps she was not a visiting sister from Salzburg after all, but one of those angels mentioned in the scriptures who were always wandering the earth in search of a free meal. Perhaps if Fruma had extended the meal invitation earlier in their conversation, the strange sister would not have warned that a mother might come to regret her own daughter’s wedding!
She had mentioned the church. It was good, she had said, to watch a daughter marry in the church. Tragic, she implied, to watch a daughter marry outside of it. But Fruma had made clear that her daughters were being married neither inside the church nor outside on its grounds: Leeba was being married in the town hall; Shayna in the temple.
Not wanting to upset her sweet children, Fruma held in the building tension of that terrible secret until the next Sunday, when she related the whole story to her fellow members of the ward council. Why, she asked them, was a wedding in the church to be congratulated and a wedding outside to be regretted?
“Perhaps it is unlucky to marry outside the church,” said President Gronam, who led the elders quorum, “because the bride and groom would have to run for shelter if it rained.”
But Yossel the Fisherman, who had been called to guide (or at least guard) the young men, disagreed. “Since when,” he asked, “have young people in love been afraid of getting a little wet?”
Bishop Levy, in his great wisdom, freely admitted that he did not know. He would have loved to leave his ignorance as the final word, but Mirele Schwartz, the Young Women president, was already fretting. “I wasn’t married in the church,” she said. “If that brings misfortune, I should like to know how and why and when to expect it.” Her eyes grew wide. “Oh no. I think it came years ago.”
Fruma pointed out that she wasn’t exactly married outside the church, since the church hadn’t been built yet when the Schwartzes were married, but poor Mirele would not be comforted. “Any simpleton can see that anywhere not in the church is naturally also outside of it,” she declared. “I am doubly unfortunate. I was married not only in the wrong place, but also at the wrong time!”
“Every husband or wife in this room was married before the church was built,” Bishop Levy observed. “If you are unfortunate, then all of us are.”
The room fell into a sullen, solemn silence. With this point, no one could argue.
“How bad do you think this misfortune is?” President Gronam asked.
“And how long will it last?” asked Yossel. “Not through trout season again, I hope.”
Sister Schwartz, who had been reading Second Nephi, grew ever more anxious. “How can we even know misfortune,” she asked desperately, “if we have never experienced its opposite?”
President Gronam slammed his fist against the table. “This demands an investigation,” he said. “Has anyone been married in our church? We should interrogate them at once! We’ll show them what fortune is!”
“You mean,” said Sister Schwartz, “that they will show us.”
“We must watch them with happiness!” Fruma interjected, addressing President Gronam. “That’s what the sister who was a stranger told me should be done for those who marry in the church!”
Bishop Levy rubbed his face with one hand. “In all the time since the Church came to Chelm, I can think of only one couple who were married in the Church: Lemel and Tzipa.”
Mirele Schwartz gasped, President Gronam looked aghast, Yossel the Fisherman shrugged, and Fruma Selig sighed. Lemel and Tzipa had married in a hurry after he’d been caught sleeping in her bed. She hadn’t been there at the time, of course, but everyone could tell she had wished she was once she heard about it.
“But we treated them with such shame,” Fruma Selig said, shaking her head. “How uncharacteristically foolish of us.”
Bishop Levy spread his hands wide in a gesture he hoped was both philosophical and magnanimous. “We cannot be faulted for a little ignorance,” he said. “Or even a great deal of ignorance,” he added hopefully, with a quick glance heavenward. “But we can honor them now. Let us hold a ward-wide celebration and ask them, kindly”—this adverb added with a sharp glance at President Gronam—“to teach us how to tell fortune from misfortune, and what a wedding ought to look like.”
“My thoughts exactly,” said President Gronam. “We will honor them until they give in and tell us the secret.”
“To a happy marriage, yes!” cried Fruma Selig. “And we must do it quickly, in time for my daughters!”
And so it was that the Chelm First Ward held a great celebration in honor of Lemel and Tzipa. To show their newfound respect for the couple, they even raised the basketball hoops up to the ceiling of the cultural hall and strictly forbade Gimpel and Dudel, the deacons, from trying to throw anything through them for the remainder of the evening. The ward members formed two great lines: a men’s line to come up and shake Lemel’s hand and a women’s line to congratulate Tzipa on having a church wedding a full two years before anyone knew it was a virtue.
After the lines were through, they all danced and feasted and drank (though only as the dictates of Wisdom approved). Lemel and Tzipa smiled and sang, but they did not give up their secrets, no matter how many times President Gronam nudged a member of the ward council and urged them to honor the couple just a little more. Not even the original hymn written by Sister Kantor and performed by the whole Chelm ward choir did the trick. Only when the last bottle of Mormon wine, shipped from some distant vineyard with non-alcoholic grapes, had been opened, did Lemel finally offer a toast to the Chelm First Ward. “I know we are here today to honor myself and Tzipa for being married in the church,” he said. “But with company such as this, I must admit I don’t think it matters at all if you marry in the church—so long as you marry in the ward!”
“Ah,” remarked President Gronam. “He surrenders the secret at last.”
The whole next week, it was hard for Fruma Selig to feel the joy that had so recently come so easily to her. As she helped Leeba and Shayna with their respective wedding preparations, how could she help but worry for them? It would be hard for any mother to sleep knowing that neither of her future sons-in-law came from the ward: Stefan was in a whole other stake and Noam was not even a Latter-day Saint!
After six restless nights (a fitting reflection of the six restless nights God once spent while organizing the earth out of chaos) Fruma Selig slept later than she intended on Sunday. By the time she walked into ward council, a debate was already raging over who was really in the ward and who was simply of the ward. Mirele Schwartz had asked whether a couple counted as being in the ward if their names were both on the ward list, or if they also had to attend together (Brother Aaron Cohen and his wife, Feiga, had a longstanding tradition of alternating weeks to avoid each other). President Gronam had argued that in addition to considering attendance, they should also only count those who stayed awake. But Yossel the Fisherman was outspoken in his defense of Israel Lewensztajn and insisted that the old man was surely in the ward if anyone was.
Shortly after Fruma Selig arrived at the meeting, Bishop Levy raised his hands against the shouting and appealed to a higher authority. The Church itself had defined the scope of the ward, he stated, by assigning each one a map.
When Bishop Levy dug out the sacred document, the members of the ward council were astounded. Not only did the ward boundaries include all of Chelm, they stretched halfway to Lublin to the west and all the way to Przemyśl in the south.
Fruma Selig’s first reaction was delight. Noam might not be a member of the Church, but as a Chelm native he was clearly a member of the ward. Thus, Leeba’s wedding would be a happy occasion, safe to rejoice over.
But that delight was quickly overcome by a gnawing of grief at her gut. Stefan was nowhere near being from the ward. Fruma was fond of him, had only known him to be kind and sweet to Shayna, but the facts remained. By marrying him, Shayna would be bringing misfortune on herself and shame to the Selig family.
Fruma Selig did not like what she felt that next week. Stripped of her joyous anticipation, she found that the prospect of losing a daughter to another man and his foreign country left her cold. Hadn’t she, Fruma, devoted years of her life to the little curly-haired girl this German would be taking away? Shouldn’t the spoonfuls of soft foods she had carried to her child’s mouth earn her some say in her daughter’s future?
No, Fruma told this more selfish side of herself, it should not. Shayna was a daughter of divine parents, a gift to the Selig home, and if she wanted to carry the sad burden of marrying outside the ward, that was her right. If forcing one’s children to make the best decisions actually worked, surely our Heavenly Parents would be running the world a little differently.
Still . . . Fruma wished she could do more for her daughter. And for Stefan, who was still such a nice boy. One night, she dreamed she saw them marrying in Chelm’s City Hall right alongside Leeba. When she woke to her grimmer reality, she let the vision linger just a moment. Let herself entertain a possibility: that if she prayed and worked and loved hard enough, she could—carefully, respectfully, insistently—help bring her future son-in-law around.
Stefan felt mildly interested at first when his future mother-in-law began telling him about the history of her hometown. To be honest, he’d barely looked around the place. Every visit, he was always desperate to see Shayna by the time he arrived. And once they were together, history was the last thing on his mind. He was vaguely aware that nowadays the customer service was bad and the local transit system was eccentric, but mostly he associated Chelm with being very much in love.
Still, he was about to become a part of the Selig family, and so he was grateful for the opportunity his future mother-in-law was giving him to learn about her culture. And she especially seemed to enjoy this topic. Fruma always talked, so that was nothing new, but something about her was different. When she talked about the old days in Chelm, her eyes would shine. Many of her stories featured bearded town elders coming together to tackle odd questions, following convoluted reasoning until they reached baffling conclusions. But something—maybe Fruma’s obvious love for them, maybe a certain liveliness in the tales themselves—counterbalanced the strangeness.
Fruma didn’t stop with a few stories, though. One weekend, Fruma loaded him down with brochures from the Chelm tourism bureau. Stefan was left to stuff one after another into his pockets, wishing only for the awkward encounter to end. Later, though, Fruma kept asking him what he felt about what he had read. His stammered excuses about a lack of time were always met with a disproportionate disappointment. He wanted to have a good relationship with his mother-in-law, but this new, impenetrable anxiety between them left him feeling more and more like a foreigner in her home. Which, he supposed, he was.
He tried talking with Shayna, but that only made things worse. She was patient and kind and happy to explain unfamiliar things to him, but it was no use. He was already annoyed, so he found his mind crowded with objections. For him, Chelm’s hill was just a hill. The old town elders were just small town people with terrible ideas. When he’d say things along these lines, Shayna would look at his forehead as if she were trying to see inside his mind. Then her face would soften. She’d laugh, and she’d kiss him, and she’d change the subject. He was glad that she at least felt no need to make mysterious, unspoken demands of him. But he also felt the slightest creeping resentment. He could not escape the feeling that in turning away from the mystery, she was also keeping a secret.
But what could it be? Making sense of Fruma’s devotion to the old stories was about as simple as figuring out why medieval Catholics were so obsessed with dead Saints’ toe bones. Maybe in the days before streaming music and movies, desperately bored people had simply needed to find some special interest to occupy their minds. Like his parents, Fruma had grown up in a communist country: her childhood media barely counted as such. If the elders of Chelm were her Beatles, more power to her. He only wished—in vain—that she’d leave him out of it.
Chelm and its history quickly lost any appeal for him. Whenever the subject came up, he had to stretch himself through the motions of politeness. It was an exercise that left some part of his soul sore.
Stefan lost his last shreds of patience on the day Fruma asked him to move to Chelm. Even though she knew full well that he and Shayna planned to settle in Germany, she brought it up in a hopeful, eager way, like he was a simple nod of the head away from making her very happy. In a way, her question should have been a relief—a revelation, at last, of her agenda. Instead, it hit him with a wave of delayed dread.
“Under no circumstances,” he told her, the chill in his tone smothering any attempt at civility. “Why on earth would I move here?”
She looked as if she’d been slapped. But she pressed on. She told him she had only his own happiness, and her daughter’s, in mind. “Marriage begins best when man and woman are in the same ward,” she said.
Stefan could handle a great deal of nonsense, but everyone has their limit. And his, like many people’s, would apparently involve his mother-in-law. “I don’t see what the ward has to do with it,” he snapped.
And still, Fruma did not back down. “I think you know better than that,” she said. As if the advice she had given him were self-evident truth and not some vaguely religious word salad. She shook her head in disbelief. “I could see a seed of love for Chelm in you!” she told him. “Don’t choke it out so soon.” She paused, took a deep breath. “Give it room,” she implored, “see how you feel.”
But Stefan was still seething. “I know exactly how I feel,” he countered. “I love Shayna. It’s Chelm I can’t stand!”
Fruma’s shoulders slumped down. “Is that possible?” she asked. “Can you really love her and hate this part of her at the same time?”
Fruma felt sick about her conversation with Stefan long after he left for the train station and his home in Germany. Should she have been more patient? Whenever the ward started a meeting late, Bishop Levy was always reminding them about learning to wait on the Lord’s timing. Then again . . . what if she had already waited too long to broach the subject? Mirele Schwartz was always talking about how the word of the Lord was quick. Either way Fruma was confident, at least, that she’d earned her regret. A better mother—if you didn’t count Sariah in the wilderness, or Mary that one time leaving the temple, or Eve when her sons quarreled—would’ve known what to do. A better Church member would’ve known how to ensure a proper marriage for all her children. Ah, poor Shayna!
And, for that matter, poor Stefan. How easy it was for foolish, false priorities to blind the minds of men! He was a good man, and memories of his helpfulness and humor still filled her with tenderness, but his stubbornness was such an obstacle. And if he couldn’t even move to Chelm to start his marriage right, what sort of foundation would that place it on?
Fruma soon found herself wondering if it wouldn’t be better for Shayna to marry someone else. It wasn’t Fruma’s place to play matchmaker, of course. That’s what computers were for. But had Shayna and Stefan been introduced the respectable way, by one of those? No. It was these young single adult activities that were the problem. You sent your children for a little innocent, wholesome fun and they ended up engaged.
Fruma could not, for the life of her, understand why God had left the fundamental unit of society on a foundation so unsteady as young people’s whims. Parties and dates? Was that a basis for eternity? Sometimes she wondered why they called it the plan of salvation when such important detail seemed not to have been thought through. But the poor design of the cosmos couldn’t be helped: in theory, at least, her daughter still could.
She wished she could swipe Moroni’s trumpet and blast the lovestruck girl awake. But it was a sin to wish for God’s power when she lacked God’s restraint.
Fruma could speak with the twin virtues of charity and clarity. After that, the decision would have to be Shayna’s, whatever fortune or misfortune, whatever glory or shame, hung in the balance.
For some time, Shayna had felt like she was sitting in the eye at the center of a gathering storm. Just waiting for it to blink.
Her mother hadn’t been herself lately. She tossed and turned at night like a prize-fighter in the middle of a bout. After brushing her teeth, she would let the toothbrush hang out of the corner of her mouth like a cigarette while she paced around the house. Sometimes Shayna would see her swaying back and forth in increasingly long and fervent prayers. And she did really strange things: like the time she found out Chelm had a tourism office and then went there.
Something was in the air, because Stefan had also been getting tense. All the time, he was running his hands through his hair like he was working on some impossibly challenging math problem. During the simplest of conversations, he’d get argumentative. He’d give her suspicious looks after she kissed him. Shayna remained patient. Lots of men get nervous as a wedding gets closer. Lots of women have second thoughts before they become a mother-in-law. But she hoped their nerves would settle and everyone would get along.
And then there had been some kind of fight, and Stefan had asked Shayna afterward if she would come and see him in Dresden the next weekend for a change. And now her mother was chewing through toothbrushes like a chain smoker. Shayna looked for an opportunity to ask her mother to stop fretting and just spit it out already. “It” meaning both what was left of her toothbrush and also whatever was on her mind.
A good opportunity came on Tuesday. Leeba had gone out with Noam, leaving Shayna and Fruma a stiflingly quiet evening in the apartment together. Fruma barely made eye contact with Shayna through dinner, so Shayna waited until they stood side by side doing the dishes. “Don’t look at me,” she said. “You seem to be having a hard time with that. But you can still tell me what the matter is. I don’t mind.”
And at last, Fruma began to unburden herself. She told her about the visit of the sister from Salzburg. Spoke haltingly but unmistakably about how some marriages are to be celebrated and others regretted. The words began to flow free and fast, then: she told Shayna about marrying in the ward and about the boundaries of the ward. “At first,” she admitted, “those boundaries seemed so unjust to me, but then I reminded myself that boundaries are given to protect us!” She spoke of her fondness for Stefan but argued that she could not look with the least degree of allowance on account of that fondness at his utter refusal to consider moving to Chelm before the wedding.
It was not what Shayna had expected. Usually when her mother was upset, there was an ordinary, everyday cause—like the way dust slips off the rag when you aren’t looking and settles on top of the shelves again, making you doubt your sanity and start taking photographs to prove that a surface really was completely clean two weeks ago. Or when the bishop wants to meet with you and you don’t know what it’s about and so you make a list of every sin you’ve ever committed and it turns out he wants to call you as Relief Society president, so you say yes but come home confused and ask your daughters about Church doctrine because you didn’t think Mormons believed in the principle of karma. In any case, Shayna had been sure that her mother had a problem. Or else Stefan had a problem. She had never dreamed that her relationship was the problem.
By the time Fruma had finished, Shayna could feel herself shaking. She had always been a good daughter. At least she liked to think so. A good daughter of her earthly mother, and of heavenly parents. She had not known, she had simply not known, that to marry in the ward like Leeba or like Lemel and Tzipa was right and to marry far away was wrong. She had not known that she risked bringing misfortune on herself and shame on the family.
“I am sorry,” Fruma said, “to be leaving you with the burden of this knowledge. The scriptures say that if you fail to teach, you carry the guilt on yourself. I would have gladly carried that guilt for you.” She winced. “But I also remembered that no one can be saved in ignorance. So I leave it all to you. I leave you both the knowledge and the choice.”
Shayna realized she was drying the last dish. She had no idea how long she had been running her dishcloth in circles around it. She put it away. She walked back to the table and sat down. She stared at the bowl of fruit that sat there.
She supposed she could have avoided this all if she had never gone to that young adult conference. But it had been so much fun, even before Stefan. So wonderful to get to know the great, big Church outside her town. To talk about the gospel with people her age over a picnic lunch. To learn about unfamiliar Latter-day Saint traditions like basketball and The Princess Bride. To visit a temple for the first time—to feel the warmth of the water and the Spirit there. If she had understood then what her mother was telling her now, would she have kissed Stefan after the dance? Kept in touch with him?
Fruma was still leaning against the counter near the sink. Shayna went over and took her mother into a long embrace. “You know I love him,” she whispered, “but you need to know that that is not the only reason I am still going to marry Stefan.” She met her mother’s tear-brimmed eyes. And she thought about Freiberg. “I would endure any shame, any opposition, to be married in the temple,” Shayna said. “If you had been, if you had felt it there, you might understand.”
That night as she lay in bed, Fruma still felt the weight of worry, but none of its usual noise echoed through her head. Her daughters were to be married soon. One the right way; the other according, at least, to the dictates of her own conscience. Fruma knew she could have done better trying to persuade Stefan to move to Chelm, showed more conviction while sharing her concerns with Shayna, but she doubted it would have made a difference. That was the trouble with being a mother in this world: by the time you thought you knew what to do, you’d learned by sad experience to recognize your influence’s firm limitations.
Part of her still wanted to sob, of course, but Fruma was surprised to find that a deeper part of her didn’t. A deeper part of her was not the least bit concerned with the feeling of failure, not if she could hold on to the thrumming of the Spirit in the back of her heart, whispering that everything was somehow all right.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Artwork by David Habben.