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Film Love Music Religion Television

An ‘Unorthodox’ Harmony

It’s good to know that even in quarantine, my old friend synchronicity can still visit me.

I watched the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox after reading the review from Vox‘s Alissa Wilkinson and am so glad I did. Based on the true story of a young ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman fleeing her community in Williamsburg, it’s just four episodes but packs a powerful punch.

(Spoilers ahead. Just go watch Unorthodox.)

Esty, the young woman, is 19 and married to Yanky, an equally young ultra-orthodox Jew who’s serious and withdrawn. When they don’t immediately conceive a child—as is the expectation in their religious and cultural milieu—their marriage strains to the point where Esty begins secretly orchestrating an escape.

One of the leitmotifs in the series is Esty’s relationship with music. Since in her community it’s considered immodest for women to perform in public, she hasn’t been able to live out her passion for music except through the memory of listening to her grandmother’s favorite choral music, and then only through taking piano lessons in secret with a neighbor.

When she does get the chance to perform later in the series, at an audition for a music academy, she first sings a Schubert piece that was a favorite of her grandmother. When asked to sing another, she digs for something even more personal. In The Thrillist, Esther Zuckerman describes this powerful moment:

In a strong chest voice, she starts to sing in Hebrew. The tune, which is never identified by name, is “Mi Bon Siach,” heard at weddings when the bride and groom are under the chuppah. It’s a melody that played when Esty and Yanky were getting married in the second episode, and Esty’s choice of it resonates with both rebellion and irony. It’s a song that should signify her bond to a man, but she’s turning it into something that can extricate her from that bond, using a voice that she wouldn’t have been able to use in her former world where women’s singing is prohibited.

And this is where synchronicity arrives. The day before starting Unorthodox I read the article “Contrapuntal Order: Music Illuminates Social Harmony” by John Ahern in First Things. A doctoral candidate in musicology at Princeton, Ahern writes about how the musical concepts of counterpoint and harmony relate to marriage and relationships. Counterpoint, he writes,

is the accumulation of multiple melodies. It is like Louis Armstrong playing an improvised tune on his trumpet at the same time as Ella ­Fitzgerald sings “La Vie en Rose”—two different melodies simultaneously. Neither is subordinate to the other, or, if there is subordination (perhaps we listen a little more to Ella’s voice than the trumpet), they are both melodies, a status that the piano, plunking out chords in the background, does not share. In true counterpoint, all the sound created is produced by people singing or playing melodies. If we lived several hundred years ago, we would say that “harmony” is what joins and holds together those melodies, their counterpoint, in a pleasing fashion.

I’ve always loved counterpoints in music. They’re a great way to juice up a final chorus, like in the climax of “Non-Stop” from Hamilton. And they are the perfect metaphor for the relationship between Esty and Yanky, and between the competing “melodies” within Esty during her time of personal and spiritual upheaval.

As Ahern writes, “when two melodies coexist, the glory is their coexistence. But there is no harmony among things that are too dissimilar. The melodies must have an awareness of and reliance on each other in order to live in concord.” However, “if the two melodies resemble each other too closely, they lose their identity. The glory of harmony, of concord, is that the elements are different.”

Having grown up in the same cloistered culture with a shared worldview, Esty and Yanky were arguably too similar to inhabit true harmony. Especially since as a woman in a severely conservative milieu, Esty had no true autonomy and no identity outside of being a baby-maker (which she says explicit in the show).

Unorthodox is the story of how that changes. Esty’s journey from passivity to power—paralleled by Yanky’s own existential awakening—mirrors the counterpoint view of marriage, which creates harmony in its original sense by allowing and even demanding coexistent voices. This contrasts with the more conservative “complementarian” model of marriage, with one spouse (usually the wife) filling in around whatever space the other (husband) inhabits. In the older sense of harmony, writes Ahern:

one person singing is no threat at all to another person singing. Sounds are not quantities or physical objects; for one to exist in the same space as one another is not only possible but desirable. The challenge is to get them to sound good together. This requires some chronological hierarchy—one party needs to lead and the other follow—but this, as we discovered above, does not mean that one party will sacrifice more autonomy than another. Both must sacrifice independence for the sake of symmetry.

Perhaps you can see now why this article spoke (or sang) to me while watching Unorthodox. Competing melodies in music and marriage can work only if they are composed with intention and care within a shared song. How Esty’s melodies do or do not harmonize within herself and with Yanky are what make Unorthodox so compelling, and I encourage you to seek it out.

(I also recommend reading Ahern’s article in full for a much richer explication of the counterpoint theory.)

Categories
God Life Love

Why Wait?: The Adventure Of Marrying Young

Previously published in the North Central Chronicle on April 23, 2010. The PDF version of this article as it originally appeared in the Chronicle is at the end of the story.

Antonia and Brian bought a wedding planning book for $14. But sometime later Antonia’s maid of honor bought them a $4 wedding planning book as a gift.

They returned the $14 book.

Such is the way of things when college students are trying to get married.

Once commonplace, young marriage has now become the exception to the rule of waiting to get married until after college, when couples can achieve financial stability and emotional maturity before diving into a lifetime commitment. Data from the 2000 U.S. Census shows that the average age at first marriage for American women was 26, up from 21.5 in 1970. The average for men also jumped: from 23.5 in 1970 to 27.8 in 2000. Yet many of these Millennials – young adults reared by overprotective Baby Boomer parents in an increasingly “me first” culture – are still choosing to buck the trend of postponing marriage until their late 20s and take the very unselfish step of getting married during their already stressful college years.

So what’s the motivation? Most young people today don’t expect to get married during college, so the desire to get hitched and to hell with the statistics goes beyond finances or merely settling down earlier than usual. According to four students from North Central College in Naperville, Ill. – all at different points of the engagement-wedding-marriage path – it’s about what feels right.

Brian, a junior engaged to Antonia (Tone), a senior, said he didn’t expect to get married until after college. “But then Tone happened,” he said.

The thought of getting married didn’t weird to him at all. “I just couldn’t imagine being with anyone else. Why wait until later when I could just do it now?”

Angie, a junior married for seven months, felt the same way when she got engaged during her freshman year. “Ryan and I knew we were going to get married,” she said, “but I always thought we would have a longer engagement. Even right when we got engaged, the initial date of the wedding was after I was graduated from college. That lasted about two weeks. We thought, logistically, why wait?”

Aileen, also a junior, expected to follow the common path toward marriage. “I thought I was going to be mid-to-late 20s, established with whatever I was doing. I never thought I was going to get married young.” But she found herself engaged at 18 to a man 12 years older than her. The age difference, though, was never an issue. “We just wanted to get married. It was a natural thing, no questioning it or anything.”

Marriage to these college students was not something they took on with the same assumptions and concerns their parents had before getting married a generation ago. They’re getting married because they want to – and because they can do it relatively easily with the safety net their parents provide. This doesn’t mean they think a lifelong marriage will be easy; it simply shows that true love and its aroma were too great for them to ignore.

“I think that for us you can’t take faith out of the equation because we knew that God wanted us to be together,” Antonia said. “Obviously we were a little apprehensive as to when, but after praying and being with each other, we know we want to do this after I graduate.”

Angie echoed the reliance on faith. “It definitely played a part in our relationship from the start,” she said. “I think because of the faith we share, as a couple we were years beyond most couples at our age. Maturity-wise I think we grew up a lot. It really grounded us in the things that really matter.”

But getting engaged, it seems, is the simplest part of the whole ordeal. The reaction from friends and family is where the sparks start to fly.

Angie’s parents had also married young, so the news to them was surprising but still exciting. They did, however, want to make sure she didn’t drop out of school. “That was a priority because they knew it was important to me and they didn’t want me to lose sight of that,” Angie said. The reaction from her classmates was considerably more mixed. Getting engaged as a freshman was unusual, making her nervous about what people would think. “Most people were nice about it,” she said. “But I did get some pretty rude responses. I had one student walk up to me and say, ‘So are you engaged?’ I said, yeah, I am. I was kind of nervous to tell him. But he was like, ‘Wow. Why? Are you serious? Why would you do that?’ And it just killed me.”

Aileen encountered similar apprehension. “My parents were a little apprehensive about it, only because I am young,” she said. “Other than that, the response was pretty nice. Everyone was excited.” Yet the age difference was always an issue, though not to her. “With the connection we had I never really though it necessary to care about that. My mom was OK with it because my grandparents were 11 years apart, so she was like, ‘Hell, what’s another two years? It really doesn’t matter.’”

Brian and Antonia received a lot of support, making them wonder about people’s true feelings about their engagement. “To be honest I wish we’d had more skepticism,” Brian said. “Everyone was just like, ‘Oh, awesome!’ and were super supportive. I would have appreciated more honesty because not everyone would have felt that way. I was shocked at how much support we got.”

Antonia said she’s gotten more pushback, almost a year after the engagement, from an unlikely source: her professors. “I’ve heard, ‘You’re going to be married forever. Do you know what you’re doing to yourself?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I realize that. That’s why we’re getting married.’”

Those voices of doubt were not unreasonable. Statistics on the fate of young marriages tell a dreary tale: the New York Times reported on studies that show teenage marriages today are two to three times more likely to end in divorce than marriages between people 25 years of age and older. Another study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 48 percent of those who marry before 18 are “likely to divorce within 10 years, compared with 24 percent of those who marry after age 25.”

Knowing the odds against young marriages turning out successfully yet still diving in anyway shows a confidence in the institution of marriage and in each other these young betrothed have that previous generations did not. These students were worried for other reasons, like how to pay for a wedding and start a life together without having yet established a career. “Weddings are expensive,” Aileen said. “Plus, I have to pay my own way through college – that’s all on my shoulders. Financial stability is going to be an issue for both of us, but I really never think of problems. If they come up, they come up.”

Angie was less worried about the money than her fate as a college student. In the months leading up to the wedding, she worried she would become disconnected from school and have to drop all the things she loved doing. “ButRyan and I sat down and talked about it andwe decided that if I wasn’t doing all these things that I’m doing, I wouldn’t be myself,” she said. “I wouldn’t be the woman that he married.” Still, she did wonder. “‘Should we wait? Maybe we should have held off for another two years. Is it really that big of a deal?’ I definitely had those questions.”

Even with the doubts swirling, they still need to plan a wedding. How do they do it as full-time students with jobs and class and extra-curriculars filling their days?

“It got really stressful,” Angie said. She was getting married a month and fifteen days after classes ended, but was also the female lead in the school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. “I just didn’t have time to focus on the wedding. I didn’t even touch my invitations; I picked them out and my parents did it all for me. They were saints.”

But is the marriage worth it? Is getting married before you’re even allowed to rent a car worth the late nights and doubting loved ones and the chance you’ll end up another divorce statistic?

Angie was unequivocal. “The last seven months have proved all my worries false,” she said. “Since we’ve been married I’ve never questioned it. We definitely made the right decision.”

Click here for a PDF of this story as it originally appeared in the Campus section of the North Central Chronicle.

Categories
Life Love

weddings and radiance

Ah, weddings. The one event that guarantees complete immunity from all of the stupid, drunken things people do there. The last wedding I went to there was no alcohol, so I got to observe people in their sober states. Naturally, as a quiet observer of people, I picked up on a few things. (As there is no portal into a woman’s mind, whatever I observe is interpreted through the male mind.)

What occupied my thoughts the most was the plethora of women in attendance (not in that way, you with a dirty mind). I concluded that the most obvious and central part of a wedding is the bride; she is completely on her own orbit. The other female attendees know this and expect not to be the center of attention.

Being in this mind frame can lead to one of two general attitudes and feelings women can possess at a wedding: feeling inferior to the bride, inadequate to all those around, and simply unwilling to enjoy being single; or, knowing that you cannot, for etiquette’s sake, top the bride and instead choose to go as you are and not someone you wish you were (read: the bride.)

The women who take the first route should realize that it’s not their wedding, not yet any way. You aren’t inferior; it’s just not your time yet. Don’t get caught up in wishing it was your special day. I know that girls dream about their wedding day starting in their toddler years, but you can’t let it consume you. It’s one day. One 24-hour day full of expensive trivialities and a lot of stress, then it’s over. Then you actually get to be married.

The women who take the second route are simply radiant. They know they cannot and should not be bigger than the bride, so they become the next best thing: themselves. They enjoy the free food, fellowship and fun and don’t depress themselves by coveting a date, any date, or a significant other. This was me at the wedding. Social norms would say that it is way easier for a male to be this way than a female, and I would agree. But that doesn’t mean that women can’t buck the norm and actually think how they want to think.

I confided in a few male compatriots at the wedding about this very issue and they agreed with me wholeheartedly. We agreed that when a woman dresses to impress none other than herself, she does herself, and us, a huge favor. We aren’t necessarily looking for the lowest V-neck or most voluptuous dance moves at a wedding. I’d rather chat with a girl I know is completely sure of herself in body and spirit than dance with a girl who just wants to forget that she’s at a wedding that isn’t hers. Those girls make me look forward to my wedding day even more than I do right now. I love being single, but I know that I will love being married even more (when the time comes).

I know I’ve generalized the crap out of this observation, but again, this is what I think. Feel free to correct me.