I'd never attended a wedding on a weekday, and rarely at night. So going to a wedding at 6 p.m. this past Monday felt exciting, rule-breaking, but odd. Odder still to be sitting amongst all the other guests in a big outdoor courtyard on Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills during Monday night rush hour. The Orthodox rabbis and two musicians were well-miked and the courtyard was fenced in by a high hedge, but the chuppah ceremony still had plenty of competition from roaring motorcycles, huffing cars, horns and at one point a loud, somewhat belligerent voice that sounded like it could have been an itinerant street preacher. At least there were no ambulances or fire trucks.
This wasn't my demographic, to put it mildly. But the bride was my husband's former student, and her family had befriended us both, and I was honored to be included in this special occasion. I felt a little at sea, but it wasn't a bad feeling, just a heightened awareness of how very un-Jewish I am, my married name notwithstanding. After a bit of pre-wedding milling about I adjusted, as I have so often, settled into a familiar journalist feeling of being the observer/outsider while at the same time blending in. A little estrangement in social situations is so normal for me, I don't think too much about it.
Post-ceremony, inside the temple hall, my husband and I found our seats for dinner at a table near the bandstand. Most folks were up on their feet cheering on the very energetic dancing of the men in black who were hoisting the groom, who sat in a chair, up in the air. The hoisting and dancing went on and on, gathering momentum like a whirlpool; after about twenty minutes, it showed no signs of stopping.
Not everybody was on their feet. Two women at our table who sat on either side of me were steeped in a conversation about their kids and schools, who was going where. I tried to tune it out to be polite--it wasn't my conversation, after all--but couldn't help catching names like Harvard-Westlake, Milliken, Crossroads. When I heard the phrase "public schools," I couldn't help but consciously listen with a certain amount of interest, and unease.
Can't go to public schools in L.A., the first woman was saying. Everybody knows that. There are charters and magnets, but you have to accumulate points for the good ones, and who knows?
Right, the other one said. She said she lived in Woodland Hills. She leaned in toward the first woman--meaning she got closer to me--and said confidentially, But you know, Taft High is getting better. Going back to being good. You know why? Because they're getting rid of busing.
I was stung. The wonderful occasion of the wedding shrank down to almost nothing with the sudden appearance of some contemptuously familiar politics. My tablemates' discussion of schooling was all code talk for the presence or absence of colored people in said schools, and the talk was being conducted across me as if I wasn't there at all. I felt like the help. It's possible the women thought I wasn't black, but some exotic woman of indeterminate ethnicity who in any case wouldn't be opposed to their perspective on education or anything else. Or if I was opposed, I would say nothing. It wasn't polite.
I decided I had no choice but to be unpolite and speak up. But my Jewish husband, a longtime public school teacher, was ahead of me. Over the joyous noise of the music and dancing, he launched into an impassioned defense of public schools, magnets and their original mission of racial integration that had been lost over the years to mostly white, privileged parents who substituted the concept of diversity for real equality. I added that I'd been bused as a child. "I apologize, I'm sorry," the woman on my right said quickly. I wondered: sorry for what she said, or for my being bused? I wasn't entirely sure.
After the exchange I experienced perhaps the most awkward thirty seconds I'd ever felt at an event like this. I went back to observing the dancing, which had progressed from focusing on the groom to the bride. The casual atmosphere at our table was completely shot; there was no getting it back. I didn't want it back, though I was sorry in a way that the superficiall though often rewarding bond you have with people at wedding dinners was no longer possible for us. Such can be the price of strangers getting to know each other, even in the most rudimentary ways. Sometimes the first things you know about people are the most intimate things, or the most damning, and you're drawn into a relationship you didn't want but also couldn't avoid. An unhappy marriage of circumstance, you might say.
My husband and I didn't stay for dinner. Though I'm sure something of us lingered at the table long after we were gone.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.