In 1992 I made this wall panel, Let Us Decide, with a crystal glass and the brush at the ready for any mishaps. I placed the glass there for its beauty and its fragility, but I never quite understood the richness of its meaning until recently when I began to think about the significance of breaking a glass, and its opposite, raising a glass.
I once purposely broke a glass. It was wanton destruction, a grand assertion, a scream, a proclamation of my conviction. It was an action that I chose because I didn’t know what else to do. I was standing in a noisy, packed bar, crowded with the fervor of Thank God it’s Friday. For those of you who know me, this is rare indeed. In Connecticut with my stepfather Bill, we were there to watch my daughter, Ariel, at a big dressage horse event, and I was telling Bill about this new man I was dating, and he wasn’t getting it. He thought I was making a mistake, that I should date more people, be loose, be free, find someone who was this way or that, but for me it nonnegotiable. I had made the decision.
I don’t typically get angry and raise my voice and shout. What could I do? Bill simply wouldn’t back down. So I moved my hand down to the stem of my glass of merlot wine, and with a deliberate gesture, I tipped it hard enough against the bar for it to break. The noise shocked, the wine spilled over the counter, and the glass shards lay in the spilled wine. The barman rushed over with a rag and assured me that it was all right. Everyone around continued their loud Friday revel. This action was my poem, my art. I had to show Bill that my decision was nonnegotiable.
A Jewish wedding is not complete until a glass is shattered and Mazel Tov resounds. Traditionally, it was the groom who raised his leather clad foot and lowered it solidly on the white cloth wrapped wine glass. It’s an odd custom. To break the glass, to be destructive, seems counterintuitive to the vows of life-long love and support. Of course the glass is a symbol of the fragility of human relationships, but in the Jewish weddings I have attended, the breaking of the glass resounds with celebration.
One explanation says that it refers to the destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem, a more contemporary approach speaks of the breaking down of barriers between people, and another suggests that we are reminded that in this time of joy there is also pain and suffering. I even read a humorous account: That’s the last time the man will ever get to put his foot down. All of them sound like rationalizations.
I see the breaking of the glass at a Jewish wedding as the physical sign of the irrevocability of the decision to wed. It demonstrates the couple’s willingness to do something that is intentionally, and ridiculously, binding — get married, tie yourself to another person for life, do this thing that so many do, and yet, as we all know, is hard to do well. In breaking the glass, the couple says, “We’ve done it! It’s our foolishness, our fearlessness, and our great love for each other that has won over every other consideration.”
Last night, my oldest son, Alex, and his beautiful bride, Connie, celebrated their marriage. They didn’t break a glass, but we certainly raised many glasses to them. There is a poem/toast that I love by the poet Richard Wilbur. In the first line he refers to a story from the Bible. Mary and her son, Jesus, along with his disciples, were guests at Cana’s wedding feast. At one point, the host hurried up to her and said there is no more wine. How humiliating to run out of wine at a wedding! Mary who already knew that her son was going to work miracles went up to him and said, “They have run out of wine.” And he said, "What has this got to do with me, my time has not yet come.” But she told the servants to do as he asked. Jesus went outside to pray for a few minutes, then returned, and Mary saw the serene expression on his face. He had asked the servants to fill the large jugs with water.
St. John tells how, at Cana's wedding feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.
It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.
Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That this world's fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.
Now, if your loves will lend an ear to mine,
I toast you both, good son and dear new daughter.
May you not lack for water,
And may that water smack of Cana's wine.
— Richard Wilbur
Whether we choose to break a glass or raise a glass, it’s the courage of commitment that we celebrate. Mazel Tov I say to Alex and Connie, and daughter, Vita.
And to bring this story full circle, two years ago, I married Blase, the man who was the trigger for my broken glass. My stepfather, Bill, raised his glass and made the first toast at our wedding.