Journal

About the Camels and the Chickens or: Reflections on a Marriage Contract

by | Jun 15, 2015 | Editorial

At the end of June my husband and I will celebrate, G-d willing, our 45th wedding anniversary. The number seems surreal to me, but as we got married in 1970, I suppose it must be true! And so it seems like a good time to reflect upon our
marriage contract, known in Hebrew as the Ketubah.

Where to begin? I suppose with an admission: that for a long time – a pitifully long time – I believed everything my husband ever told me. After all, he’s brilliant, and as far as I knew, was all-knowing. That is, until a wedding – I don’t remember whose – over 20 years ago, when our oldest children were still teenagers. The wedding was at a hilltop hotel in LA, and I remember it was a beautiful, balmy summer night. The ceremony (chupah) was outdoors, as they usually are, and it was lovely – until, that is, the utter disillusionment came crashing down on me.

But my story actually starts way before that, back in the summer of 1970 when I was a starry-eyed newlywed. I was entering my sophomore year of college and wanted to add my new married name to my records. I wanted my diploma issued to my full name, including my maiden and married last names.

So I went to the Registrar of Brooklyn College, where I had transferred from the University of Michigan when I became engaged. The Registrar said that I needed proof of marriage. I produced my marriage license. That wasn’t enough, she kindly explained. That only proved intent to marry, gave me “license” to marry, but apparently wasn’t proof that I actually had done so.

“Well,” I said, “the only other document I have is my Jewish marriage contract, my Ketubah.”

“Oh, that will be fine,” she said.

“But it’s in Aramaic!” I countered.

“No problem,” she informed me. “Just have it translated and notarized and all will be well.”

Little did I know.

So I told all this to my husband, starry-eyed innocent that I was, and he gallantly assured me that he could translate it. I reminded him that it was in Aramaic and he reminded me how many years he had spent in Yeshiva studying Talmud (Gmora) in that very same Aramaic. It would be a piece of cake, he told me. And furthermore, he had a friend who was a notary public.

Oh, dear Reader, I positively swooned at such resourcefulness, and in less than a week I had the notarized translation in hand. I glanced at it as I trotted back to the Registrar. I noted that besides our names, the dates, etc., it was basically formulaic, and I took everything it said at face value. After all, it was an ancient document that went as far back as the Aramaic-as-vernacular days, didn’t it?

So among other things, it said that in the event of a divorce, my husband promised to give me 36 camels, 12 goats, 14 cows and 48 chickens. Oh, how interesting, I thought. I never knew all that was in there. I wondered if he would also give me a farm to keep it all, and I happily placed the document before the Registrar. She solemnly read it, congratulated me on my marriage, stamped all her name-amendment papers “Approved,” and voila! All my college records now reflected my married name.

Fast-forward now back to that hilltop wedding in LA. We had attended plenty of weddings in the intervening years, and the Ketubah is read at every chupah. It is read in Aramaic, usually very rapidly, and naturally I don’t understand a word. Occasionally, I can catch the Hebrew names of the bride and groom, and the words,”Los Angeles, California” always pop out, but that’s about it. Rarely is it it translated, and if it was, I had never heard it. Perhaps the microphone was off at the time. Anyway, everything changed on that fateful, balmy night . For the rabbi read the Ketubah in Aramaic as usual, but then he translated it, in perfectly audible English. I listened intently. I wanted to see if this particular bride got the same number of camels, cows and chickens, et al, or did the number vary?

And then I had the strangest sensation in my body. A frisson of foreboding. There was not a single mention of camels or any livestock whatsoever. How could this be?

I should explain that the men and women sit separately at most of the chupahs we attend, so I had to wait for the ceremony to end before seeking out my husband. I found him standing with a group of men, most of whom I knew. After greetings and pleasantries, I turned to my husband and commented that the Ketubah seemed strange to me. Why was there no mention of cows and chickens? He looked at me oddly. I reminded him what our Ketubah stipulated about camels, cows and the rest. He looked at me as if I had lost my mind.

The other men in the little circle also had odd looks on their faces. I realized they were valiantly trying to contain their mirth, their utter glee. I should explain that not only did I know all of these guys, but I had probably taught half of them high school English. So while they knew I didn’t know a smidge of Aramaic, they knew I had a perfectly fine grasp of the English language. So they were not amused at my expense, but at my husband’s.

Slowly the group began to fade away. The last one looked at my beleaguered spouse, shook his head and mumbled something to the effect of, “Boy, are you in for it now.”

I was still all innocence though. “So why did I get all those cows and chickens and camels and she doesn’t?” I asked my husband when we were alone. “And don’t forget the goats.”

“What on earth are you talking about???” he exclaimed. He really had no clue.

I helpfully prodded his memory. The college Registrar… The notarized translation of the Ketubah. Surely he remembered.

Oh, now he did. And he started to laugh. And laugh. “That was just a joke,” he said. “Surely you knew that. I figured no one ever reads those things. What would you do with camels and goats?”

What, indeed? I was not amused. I was devastated, my starry-eyed innocence ripped away. I couldn’t sleep that night. Not only had he deceived me, but he had had a false translation notarized! I am very law-abiding. As far as I knew, so was he, so what was I to make of all this? And the Registrar hadn’t even batted an eye. I couldn’t have been the first person to submit a Ketubah for a name change. Did she assume we were all promised camels and chickens?

It took me days to get over my utter shock. I tossed and turned at night.

I always knew my husband had a wicked sense of humor, but this? Surely this was beyond the pale!

Or was it? About four days later I had an epiphany. That translation may all have been a fabrication, but I had it in writing. Somewhere in the bowels of some pre-computer age City University of New York warehouse sits the notarized translation of my Ketubah, guaranteeing me 36 camels, 12 goats, 14 cows and 48 chickens.

Realizing this, I slept soundly again.

Realizing this, my husband has ever after made a special effort to mind his P’ s and Q’s. He’s not taking any chances. He knows we can’t divorce. Never mind community property. After all, chickens may be cheap, but have you checked the price of camels lately?

marriage contract, known in Hebrew as the Ketubah.

Where to begin? I suppose with an admission: that for a long time – a pitifully long time – I believed everything my husband ever told me. After all, he’s brilliant, and as far as I knew, was all-knowing. That is, until a wedding – I don’t remember whose – over 20 years ago, when our oldest children were still teenagers. The wedding was at a hilltop hotel in LA, and I remember it was a beautiful, balmy summer night. The ceremony (chupah) was outdoors, as they usually are, and it was lovely – until, that is, the utter disillusionment came crashing down on me.

But my story actually starts way before that, back in the summer of 1970 when I was a starry-eyed newlywed. I was entering my sophomore year of college and wanted to add my new married name to my records. I wanted my diploma issued to my full name, including my maiden and married last names.

So I went to the Registrar of Brooklyn College, where I had transferred from the University of Michigan when I became engaged. The Registrar said that I needed proof of marriage. I produced my marriage license. That wasn’t enough, she kindly explained. That only proved intent to marry, gave me “license” to marry, but apparently wasn’t proof that I actually had done so.

“Well,” I said, “the only other document I have is my Jewish marriage contract, my Ketubah.”

“Oh, that will be fine,” she said.

“But it’s in Aramaic!” I countered.

“No problem,” she informed me. “Just have it translated and notarized and all will be well.”

Little did I know.

So I told all this to my husband, starry-eyed innocent that I was, and he gallantly assured me that he could translate it. I reminded him that it was in Aramaic and he reminded me how many years he had spent in Yeshiva studying Talmud (Gmora) in that very same Aramaic. It would be a piece of cake, he told me. And furthermore, he had a friend who was a notary public.

Oh, dear Reader, I positively swooned at such resourcefulness, and in less than a week I had the notarized translation in hand. I glanced at it as I trotted back to the Registrar. I noted that besides our names, the dates, etc., it was basically formulaic, and I took everything it said at face value. After all, it was an ancient document that went as far back as the Aramaic-as-vernacular days, didn’t it?

So among other things, it said that in the event of a divorce, my husband promised to give me 36 camels, 12 goats, 14 cows and 48 chickens. Oh, how interesting, I thought. I never knew all that was in there. I wondered if he would also give me a farm to keep it all, and I happily placed the document before the Registrar. She solemnly read it, congratulated me on my marriage, stamped all her name-amendment papers “Approved,” and voila! All my college records now reflected my married name.

Fast-forward now back to that hilltop wedding in LA. We had attended plenty of weddings in the intervening years, and the Ketubah is read at every chupah. It is read in Aramaic, usually very rapidly, and naturally I don’t understand a word. Occasionally, I can catch the Hebrew names of the bride and groom, and the words,”Los Angeles, California” always pop out, but that’s about it. Rarely is it it translated, and if it was, I had never heard it. Perhaps the microphone was off at the time. Anyway, everything changed on that fateful, balmy night . For the rabbi read the Ketubah in Aramaic as usual, but then he translated it, in perfectly audible English. I listened intently. I wanted to see if this particular bride got the same number of camels, cows and chickens, et al, or did the number vary?

And then I had the strangest sensation in my body. A frisson of foreboding. There was not a single mention of camels or any livestock whatsoever. How could this be?

I should explain that the men and women sit separately at most of the chupahs we attend, so I had to wait for the ceremony to end before seeking out my husband. I found him standing with a group of men, most of whom I knew. After greetings and pleasantries, I turned to my husband and commented that the Ketubah seemed strange to me. Why was there no mention of cows and chickens? He looked at me oddly. I reminded him what our Ketubah stipulated about camels, cows and the rest. He looked at me as if I had lost my mind.

The other men in the little circle also had odd looks on their faces. I realized they were valiantly trying to contain their mirth, their utter glee. I should explain that not only did I know all of these guys, but I had probably taught half of them high school English. So while they knew I didn’t know a smidge of Aramaic, they knew I had a perfectly fine grasp of the English language. So they were not amused at my expense, but at my husband’s.

Slowly the group began to fade away. The last one looked at my beleaguered spouse, shook his head and mumbled something to the effect of, “Boy, are you in for it now.”

I was still all innocence though. “So why did I get all those cows and chickens and camels and she doesn’t?” I asked my husband when we were alone. “And don’t forget the goats.”

“What on earth are you talking about???” he exclaimed. He really had no clue.

I helpfully prodded his memory. The college Registrar… The notarized translation of the Ketubah. Surely he remembered.

Oh, now he did. And he started to laugh. And laugh. “That was just a joke,” he said. “Surely you knew that. I figured no one ever reads those things. What would you do with camels and goats?”

What, indeed? I was not amused. I was devastated, my starry-eyed innocence ripped away. I couldn’t sleep that night. Not only had he deceived me, but he had had a false translation notarized! I am very law-abiding. As far as I knew, so was he, so what was I to make of all this? And the Registrar hadn’t even batted an eye. I couldn’t have been the first person to submit a Ketubah for a name change. Did she assume we were all promised camels and chickens?

It took me days to get over my utter shock. I tossed and turned at night.

I always knew my husband had a wicked sense of humor, but this? Surely this was beyond the pale!

Or was it? About four days later I had an epiphany. That translation may all have been a fabrication, but I had it in writing. Somewhere in the bowels of some pre-computer age City University of New York warehouse sits the notarized translation of my Ketubah, guaranteeing me 36 camels, 12 goats, 14 cows and 48 chickens.

Realizing this, I slept soundly again.

Realizing this, my husband has ever after made a special effort to mind his P’ s and Q’s. He’s not taking any chances. He knows we can’t divorce. Never mind community property. After all, chickens may be cheap, but have you checked the price of camels lately?

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