ENCINO, Calif., Feb. 3 — “Girls are my mortal enemy,” announces my son Danny, 8. He won’t be sending any Valentine’s Day cards this year.
My husband, Larry, and I won’t be sending any Valentines either. Or exchanging gifts. We never have.
For me, the problem is not the pagan and Christian roots of Valentine’s Day. This highly secularized holiday has lost any connection to Lupercalia, the ancient Roman purification and fertility festival once celebrated on Feb. 15. On that day, among other activities, young men were paired with available teenage women by drawing their names from an urn.
Nor is the problem the Roman priest Valentine who, in one story, defied Emperor Claudius’ temporary ban on marriages and secretly helped young couples exchange wedding vows. When Claudius discovered Valentine’s transgression, he ordered him imprisoned and later beheaded. His execution supposedly occurred on Feb. 14 in 269 or 270 CE.
More than 200 years later, around 496 CE, Pope Gelasius, in an effort to halt the continuing celebration of Lupercalia and to honor saints rather than pagan deities, declared Feb. 14 as St. Valentine’s Day.
Rather, for me, the problem is that Valentine’s Day hawks Hallmark more than it addresses the mysteries of the human heart. It peddles roses and candy more than it probes the sensibilities of our souls. Indeed, this February, Americans will purchase more than 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards, more than 1 million roses and more than $1 billion worth of candy.
Yes, Valentine’s Day is big business, a marketing-driven and perfunctory celebration that mistakenly proclaims, as John Lennon says, “All you need is love.”
Yes, love American-style, with its instant intimacy, offers a simplistic answer to the complicated process of living life, an idealized and unattainable promise of “happily ever after” that has resulted in a roughly 50 percent divorce rate in the United States.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not the Valentine’s Day Grinch. My heart is not “two sizes too small,” and men are not my mortal enemy. I believe that love is, indeed, “a many-splendored thing.” But I also believe that love is a private matter that defies definition — and often reason — and that clearly transcends the trivia of Valentine’s Day.
So then, as Cole Porter asks, “What is this thing called love?”
Judaism tells us, in the Song of Songs (8:6-7), that “love is strong as death” and that “many waters cannot quench love; neither can the floods drown it.”
The Bible portrays an early picture of romantic love in the story of Jacob and Rachel. In Genesis 29:11, Jacob, who had set out from his father’s house, encountered Rachel at the well of Haran. “And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept,” overwhelmed, according to some commentaries, by his immediate love for her. His love proved so powerful that, in order to marry her, he was willing to work for her father, Laban, for seven years, which “seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her” (Genesis 29:20). And, of course, because of Laban’s cunning, he had to work another seven years.
Traditionally, and contrary to Jacob’s experience, the responsibility for finding a suitable mate belonged to the parents, often with help of a shadchan, or professional matchmaker, a pious and respected member of the community. A shadchan first appears in the Bible in Genesis 24, where Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, was entrusted to find an appropriate and worthy wife for Isaac.
Many also believed that God himself predetermined matches, “a task as difficult as dividing the Red Sea,” according to one Midrash.
But whatever the means, romantic love, and its emphasis on physical attraction, was always considered one component of a successful Jewish marriage. In fact, ancient Judaism offered two holidays in which men could look upon potential wives. The Mishnah (Taanit 26b) says, “Israel had no happier days of celebration than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. On those days, the daughters of Jerusalem went out in borrowed white dresses and danced in the vineyard.”
And even in arranged marriages, the prospective bride and groom were required to meet face to face, to ensure that each was physically appealing to the other.
But romantic love was never the sole criterion in Judaism. Integrity, intelligence, compassion, respect, shared values and deep friendship were also an important part of the marriage mix. Additionally, the character and reputation of the prospective partner’s family were a crucial consideration.
Jewish authorities continue to emphasize these virtues as well as a belief in the sacredness of the marriage union. As Martin Buber said, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” We don’t need a Valentine to tell us that.
“Holidays gain meaning,” my husband says, “by what the celebrants put into them. Valentine’s Day is no different from any other American holiday.” I think he is angling for a Valentine’s Day acknowledgment.
“But wouldn’t you rather celebrate the anniversary of the day we met, of our engagement, of our wedding? Aren’t those more intrinsically meaningful?” I ask.
“Yes, but why pass up another opportunity to tell someone you love them?”
I don’t pass up such opportunities — whether it’s face to face or via an affectionate and furtive e-mail to his office or a surprise gift for no occasion.
But, obviously, I am the Valentine’s Day Grinch. It’s taken me 17 years of marriage to make that discovery.
Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.