When Connie Kurtz and Ruthie Berman met more than a half century ago, they soon became friends in the way of new mothers everywhere, sharing tips on diapers and formula as they strolled with their babies down McDonald Avenue in Brooklyn. Some 14 years later, in a twist that shocked them both, they fell in love. They divorced their husbands, established a home together and became vocal activists for gay rights.
And now, some 36 years after that first kiss — this past Tuesday, July 26 — Kurtz and Berman tied the knot in a Jewish ceremony recognized by New York State. It was an event which seemed as unlikely in the 1970s as putting a man on Mars. It was an event which was a first of its kind for Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, New York’s congregation for gay and lesbian Jews, occurring during one of the first possible moments to do so in New York state.
“It was a very long engagement — 36 years,” said Kurtz, referring to the period since the romance began. “Double chai.”
In June, New York became the sixth state to officially sanction gay marriage, and licenses became available to gay couples on July 24. Hundreds of couples who registered for a special lottery got married that Sunday, including at least eight under CBST’s rainbow chupah, which was set up across the street from the city clerk’s office. Among the Jewish celebrants on Sunday: Avenue Q Puppets Ricky and Rod. The Kurtz-Berman ceremony, which featured a ketubah embellished by Kurtz with a colorful collage of descriptive words, including “Wise Woman,” “Activist” and “Flaxseed Oil,” drew more than 75 fans, friends and family members, with Kurtz’s daughter flying in from Jerusalem.
“They are on whose shoulders we stand,” says Rabbi Rachel Weiss, the assistant rabbi at CBST, referring to Kurtz and Berman, who, along with two other couples, successfully fought for domestic partner benefits in New York City, winning a suit in 1994, which they filed in 1988.
The lesbian women, both of whom are grandmothers several times over (Kurtz also has seven great-grandchildren), stand out not only for their continued activism but also for their charming blend of audacity and amiability. In a rambling phone interview a few days before the wedding, the women seem driven by two impulses — to laugh and to lecture.
“I like older women,” Kurtz, who is 75, notes at one point.
“I’m not older, I’m old,” says Berman, who is 77, laughing.
A few minutes later, with little warning, Berman shifts into serious activist mode: “We took the risk of committing adultery; I took the risk of leaving my children — which was not easy for me. And you know why?” Her voice, deep in tenor, grows louder. “Because who I am is fine.”
Many long-time gay couples are considering the same route as Berman and Kurtz. Rabbi Weiss, who herself is thinking about legal marriage to her long-time partner, notes that the CBST clergy have received a slew of requests — almost 30 — from engaged couples since the passage of the law last month. Some have been together for more than two decades. At least six could be described as seniors. Some, like Kurtz and Berman, have already held religious rituals to recognize their love and commitment.
“It isn’t like when you’re 22 and you decide to get married and have all sorts of romantic notions,” says Jay Fischer, who is 63, and plans to marry his partner, Michael Lehrman, age 65, on July 30. The couple has been together since 1984.
Fischer says he had to convince Lehrman to marry him. The couple already held a commitment ceremony at CBST in 1993 in conjunction with Fischer’s parents’ 50th anniversary party. “Now we’re going to have simple ceremony with a judge. We’re not doing a major hoopla,” says Fischer.
Fischer, who works for the New York State Department of Health, says he’s motivated to marry by pragmatic matters. He explains that as they age, he is “gradually making sure that everything is in place,” and has already focused on wills, powers of attorney, health care proxies. In the event that he dies first, the marriage will ensure that Lehrman’s pension income from Fischer’s work will be maximized.
For Kurtz and Berman, New York’s passage of the law warranted a celebration of their love as well as their activist work. But without federal recognition of gay marriage, the couple did not find it appropriate to indulge in an overly elaborate affair. The menu included chocolate cake and wine; the music was unplanned; the brides did not wear gowns of any kind.
“We don’t want to put too much energy into the wedding since we are still not recognized in the state of Florida,” said Kurtz, speaking a few days before the New York ceremony from West Palm Beach, where the couple has lived for 11 years. But, “it’s going to be freilach, to be happy.” Her voice broke slightly. “I’m going to cry any moment now.”
“It’s your turn now. Mine was this morning,” rejoins Berman.
The story of Kurtz and Berman’s love affair is aptly told in the 2002 documentary, “Ruthie & Connie, Every Room in the House,” which includes Berman describing how she briefly contemplated suicide after the union, and an excerpt from their appearance on national television on “The Phil Donahue Show” in 1988. The audience heckled the lesbian couple, but Kurtz stated simply (and loudly), her Brooklyn roots planted in her don’t-mess-with-me tone: “I cannot get married. This society, this state will not accept my going through a ceremony with Ruth.”
Kurtz, née Connie Levy, grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and says she knew she was Jewish because from sundown on Friday until sunset on Saturday, her mother stopped smoking. Also, she says, “I smelled the kugel from 14 blocks away.” The preparations for Shabbat included the ritual washing and waxing of floors — after which her mother covered them with newspaper to protect them.
Kurtz says that as a child, she was known as a tomboy, but had no inkling of her sexual preference. “The kibbitz was that the way I swung my arms I could have castrated three people by the time I got to the place I wanted to go,” she says.
Berman, whose father died when she was 10, grew up in the East New York and Brownsville sections of Brooklyn. She also considered herself a tomboy, and was raised in an Orthodox home. “As a kid I wouldn’t drink cream soda,” says Berman, explaining that she didn’t want to mix milk products with meat. Years later, she learned there wasn’t any cream in it.
Says Berman: “My focus was on marrying a rich man.”
The women fulfilled their parents’ expectations, marrying and mothering at young ages. When their children were adolescents, and the two women realized their feelings for each other extended beyond friendship, Berman says, “I was totally swept away.”
“I love her, and the joy of being with her as a friend I took to the next level,” says Kurtz, who came to understand the strength of her feelings during a visit to Brooklyn in February 1974, from her then home in Israel, where her family had recently made aliyah.
“It was a very selfish act, but I took it and grabbed it,” she adds. Within a year and a half of that visit, Kurtz and Berman had created a home together in Brooklyn. Kurtz’s children and her ex-husband Bernie, meanwhile, had briefly tried to make a life for the family in New York, but after it became clear that there would be no reconciliation, Bernie and the children returned to Israel — for good. “I’m sorry it had the evolution it did but I don’t regret it,” says Kurtz.
Minutes later she asks, “Does anyone care that I’m healthier than I’ve been in my entire life?”
“How do you use words like soul mate?” asks Berman. “We were destined to be together.”